Monday, July 24, 2017

Setting: The Great Discape

While bored at work the other day, the following thoughts came into my head in quick succession.

“I sure do love Planescape.”

“Oh hey, the Outlands are a big disc.”

“I sure do love worlds that are also discs.”

“What if all the planes were mashed into the Outlands which was also being carried around on something’s back.”

“The turtle is traditional but what about whales? Bahamut needs love.”

“Also I need to do something different with alignments. Humours are good. Can work out the outer planes later.”

“I should make this a setting.”

So I made it a setting.

Perfect.

The City in the Center

A mobius torus of alabaster and samite, with streets of marble and pillars of oldest basalt. The homes of the gods are built here, tumbled together and layered atop each other. The passing of Time is marked by the ringing of the city’s twelve mighty bells, each a cathedral of its own. The one hundred and eight forms of Death maintain order between the gods and watch over the Great Discape below. Vast flocks of winged servants carry prayers and pilgrims to and from the city. The gods debate and feast and fight and fuck in the City’s plazas and pools and parks. The hymns of the angelic legions are never ceasing, and the air is redolent with incense and heavy with prayers.

Floating in the center of the city, above the very peak of the mountain Vüngelbraeskilnük, is MANA YOOD SHUSHAI – the creator of the gods, the creator of the Great Discape, the First and Only, he who is worshiped by the gods alone, who slumbers forever in the center of all things.

Vüngelbraeskilnük

The mountain in the center of the world, reaching up all the way to the City in the Center. Its slopes are pocked with the caves of the night-gaunts, studded with the palaces of the ice giants, engraved with switchback pilgrimage paths. Vast-winged eagles that never land to nest fly cry keening songs in the crystalline air.

In the temple at the mountain’s ice-capped peak lives Skarl the Drummer, whose heart-shaped drum and its constant beat keep MANA YOOD SUSHAI lulled in his slumber. Were Skarl ever to stop, the world would cease to be.

The City Below the Center

A ring-shaped metropolis around the base of Vüngelbraeskilnük, where peoples from all over the Great Discape come together in chaos and argumentation. It is a city of streets like broken fingers, of canals coughing up technicolor sludge, of buildings built like tumors.

The City Below is ruled by 36 Arcarchs, each ruling over a ten-degree slice of the city. Theirs is a restless life, attempting to balance the machinations of both the criminal guilds and the other 35 Arcarchs. But there is progress being made: the days before the abolition of slavery are fading memories in the minds of the grandfolk, there are more schools and hospitals opening up, the city guard has been mostly cleaned out, and one can occasionally find a legitimate business with only a little bit of effort. For all the chaos within the City Below, the atmosphere is one of optimism.

Environment Types of the Central Humorous Low-Land

Sanguine Savanna

Blood-and-gold grasses appear as waves of fire under the wind sunlight. Clusters of acacia trees and baobabs break the horizon. When the rainy season comes, the storms bark with laughter and the newborn lightninglings leap between the thunderheads. The inhabitants follow the rains and the herds of cup-headed russeceroses in an eternal cycle. Territory is marked by stamping down patterns in the grass, to be seen from above by tribal balloonsmen.

Choleric Desert

A cracked expanse of off-yellow grit and salt crust. Everything smells faintly of urine, and any moisture has long since been baked away. Anything living that finds itself in these lands will find itself dead in short order, and shortly thereafter animated by whatever sparks of hate that might still jump between its desiccated neurons. The deserts are rich grounds for mining salt and antiwater (it looks something like bismuth), drawing the crazy or desperate from afar. The local inhabitants, mummified ages ago, sit in their spiteful spires and bicker. The hateful dead have nothing better to do.

Phlegmatic Forest

Temperate rainforests, perpetually shrouded by mists. The wildlife is placid and lonesome – the larger beasts stride through the silvery mists with moss growing out of their fur and birds nesting in their antlers, while the smaller creatures scurry in the ferns beneath. The trees are like towers, their thick bark carved by growth and elements into a story of the years. It is a place for meditation on the bank of a mirror-pool. The inhabitants live in seclusion, their settlements hidden in the mists. They have emptied themselves of noise and bother and worry, and might offer a clay bottle of it to those who come to them

Melancholic Bog

Black, cadaverous swampland. Half-rotted trees, peat pits, ghost-fires, brackish water, clammy cold. Chemical vents belch smoke and haze skywards to be trapped by the bordering hills. It is the domain of bugs, slimy things, and misshapen creatures. Things sink into the bogs – slowly, ever slowly. Everything sinks and does not rise again. In the pits that the peat miners dig they find the past in layers. Bog Cake, they call it. The inhabitants of this place have hunched backs and downward-cast eyes. Their pale skin oozes black ichor, sucked up from the guts of the blind catfish fish they eat.

The Rim Lands

Towards the edge of the Great Discape, past the Lands-In Balance, the land takes different shapes and the people different forms, breaking away from the trends of the Humorous Low-Lands. They will not be elucidated upon at this time.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Old School


You walk now on sacred ground. Go lightly, and do not speak.
There’s magic out there older than books, older than bricks, older than bread. Magic so old it’s hardly magic anymore. Magic woven of golden savanna mornings when the apes looked up to the sky and named the sunlight itself. It is the magic of a master’s hands, the burning breast of the journeyman before his test, the tottering steps of the infant.

When you’re four years old and step into your grandmother’s kitchen, it is the old magic you feel.

Wizards hate talking about it: the old magic strips them of their star-spangled hats and gold-leaf diplomas and forces them to admit that there was a time before wizards, and that those poor unenlightened souls of the past weren’t so ignorant and superstitious after all, and that when wizards and all their universities have passed from the world the old magic will remain.

The old magic breathes and lives and burns in mankind – there is no one among Mother’s children, no matter how wretched or ignorant, who could not learn these arts. The wizards sneer and the moralizers wring their hands and the hateful spit bile, but the old magic lives.

The spells listed below are the most common expressions of the Humble Art. The majority of practitioners are ordinary common folk (making the old magic fairly unpopular with kings and tyrants), and they can be found in all but the most remote pickets of the world. Those who make a profession of the old magic go on to become hedge mages and witches.

Several of the following spells are less common or less popular in the modern era, and several more have been co-opted by mainstream magical traditions, but all are still known.

It is important to note that the old magic is significantly more hands-on than academic magic, and the lines between magic art and mundane craft can become blurred.


by Zdenek Burian


Spells of the Old Magic

Call upon the Folk

The Folk are always out there in the wild places: watching, waiting, listening. A man who shows the proper respect can call upon them for aid through the old magic, and they will answer.

Detection

The mind opens up, and there is a moment of awareness beyond what the senses can normally grasp. The spell can be amended to nearly any specialized end, but the old forms tend towards animals, evil, the Folk, people, place, poison and disease, time, and weather.

Identify

A spell to reveal enchantments and hidden names. In the basic form, it might reveal the components of a simple spell, or the common name of an unknown thing. If performed by a master, or by the aid of sympathetic components, it may reveal hidden identities or even true names.

Hunter’s Mark

Each hunter has a sign, used to mark a beast as sacrosanct. No hunter will touch a creature bearing another hunter’s Mark, for fear of a curse falling upon their interference. It is reserved for beasts deemed worthy adversaries, and is not to be wasted on simpler game.

Locate

The position of an item, person, place, or beast is burned into the mind as long as the spell remains. This art is dependent upon maintaining sympathy, and will not work at all without the appropriate components.

Manhood

A boy is charged with a task and sent out. If he succeeds, his geas is fulfilled and his father welcomes him home. If he fails, a boy he remains. Some die before their task is done, and the mantle of manhood remains unclaimed.

Mending

One of the three most common spells in the world (the others being Produce Flame and Women’s Work), and friend to housewives, craftsmen, and busybodies. But, be warned: Mend a thing too much and it will stop mending right. Consequences are not meant to be dodged, no matter how well one can recover from an accident.

Purify Food and Water

Wizards love to decry this spell as simply boiling water and cooking meat. They are correct to a point: beyond that point the practitioner might draw out disease and poison, even rot and heavy metals. Doing so will result in dry meat, limp vegetables, and rotball sprites that must be dealt with, but the food is safe.

Produce Flame

Mother stole fire from the dragons and led us through the snows by its light. All it takes is a snap of the fingers or a soft breath into cupped hands.

Spare the Dying

One cannot delay death, but the pain of the dying might be lessened by a measure. The pain must go somewhere, however. Without release it becomes a poison worse than death.

Women’s Work

A collection of skills, spells, medicines, and clever tricks that form the basis of witchcraft. There are many parts to women’s work, but the four central pillars are easing birth, menstrual maintenance, contraceptives, and proconceptives.


by E. Irving Couse

Rituals 

Augury

Omens are notoriously difficult to wrangle at the best of times. Haruspicy and nephomancy are the most reliable methods (+10% chance of a relevant answer for every HD of the creature sacrificed or hour spent watching the sky)

Contact other Plane

There are worlds besides our own, invisible and overlapping like grease on water or a smell on the air. Like children tapping on the aquarium glass, we are, attempting to glean the fish in the dark water beyond.

Control Weather

A misnamed spell. Even with magic, weather can only be guided. This ritual requires at least a dozen practitioners and a ritual taking up at least a full day. Wizards have generally taken over most of modern meteorology, but the rain dances continue. It's a good excuse for a party, if nothing else.

Magic Circle

Runes traced in dirt, written in salt, or carved into mighty standing stones – boundaries are laid out, blocking who may enter and who may leave. Most common as a defense against evil spirits and malicious Folk, most useful around the places where the space between planes is rubbed thin. Some circles are never broken, and what remains inside them has lasted to this day.

Passing the Torch

A ritual a lifetime in making. This is the greatest power of mankind: not even the dragon lords considered that they might pass on their fire.

Skywrite

There are several languages still spoken and read whose alphabets had their beginnings in cloud-hieroglyphs. It is an essential skill for those living on the plains. Settlements will often have permanent cloud-signs above them, offering hospitality or warning.

Speak with Dead

The dead we have loved cannot speak, but for a few moments, they can listen. There is time left.

Weave Tale / Weave Song

The translation of reality into fiction into reality again. The creation of that which fills the mead halls, of what muses sing and bards dream. Old stories grow heavy, grow strong, pull life along in their wake. What is history, but a story? What is life, but a song?

Artist unknown

The Oldest Trick in the Book

For those wondering, the oldest trick in the Book is Gassy Lass, a cantrip that makes the target fart. The second oldest is Agharan’s Copper Spike, which is a method of keeping someone alive for several days after impaling them from anus-to-mouth on a copper spike.

The Book itself is doing quite well for itself, though it is about ready to outgrow its second library. It might have also recently eaten a graduate student.
 


  

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The HAUL Reviews: Blood in the Chocolate


This review is a bit of a throwback to something that I bought back in January, Keil Chenier’s Blood in the Chocolate. I suppose it’s an appropriate time for it as any, since the adventure has been nominated for an Ennie Award. Get ready for some HOT TAKES™.

Blood in the Chocolate is an excellent example of that odd sort of mental fracture that can occur when presented with the difference between concept and expected / realized execution – the gut says “but the concept is X! I thought it was going to be more execution Y, because that makes sense for X!”, while the brain says “No, see, there’s also some sense in it being execution Z, that also works with X” and the gut says “but I wanted Y!”

You know how it is.

Let’s start with the conceptBlood in the Chocolate is a horrible Wonka factory dungeon-crawl. I am down with this concept. There isn’t a thing in that statement I don’t love the sound of. But the translation of that concept into the reality of the product is where what I want to see and what Kiel wanted to see went completely different ways.

Blood in the Chocolate is a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module, which means that it is going to take place in the early modern Europe, with magic. You’re hired by the French to investigate a factory in Friesland, run by a woman who brought magical cocoa back from Peru. Intellectually, I’ve got no issue with this.

Gutwise, I think “why is it so boring?

A thought neither fair nor rational, but unshaken even after reading it and Kiel’s design posts multiple times. I see what he was going for, with the low magic, real world, human greed and human evil above the supernatural motif. He succeeded at it. There was thought and care put into this adventure and I just cannot find it within myself to be enthusiastic.

Blood in the Chocolate is less fantastic than the book it was based on. It lacks the Dahl part of the equation, and if there was anything I would consider absolutely necessary for a horrible Wonka factory dungeon-crawl, it is the Dahl part of the equation. The language, the Quentin Blake illustrations, the silly names and clever comeuppances – it’s not here. It is not a flaw on the module’s part, that must be crystalline. It is silly to pan something for missing pieces when those pieces were not in the plan to begin with.

The concept cries out to me as brimming with potential for a fantastic funhouse dungeon, filled with all manner of outrageous monsters and oodles of imaginative, bizarre candies. But it was not to be. Blood in the Chocolate is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with every molecule of joy and wonder and fun stripped out and it, and this was done with competence and skill in service of a well-articulated design philosophy. It a grimy meatgrinder of candy-coated misery, where any surviving party members will come out looking like a Deviantart gallery. And this was precisely what it set out to do.

It’s a good module. I don’t like it.

(ADDENDUM: I left this part out due to lacking a good segue, so it's getting dropped right here at the end. The one criticism I think I have a leg to stand on is the lack of trap variety. While the book contains d12 random chocolate effects and d8 poisons and diseases, non-random applications lean towards the blueberry curse, which strikes me as a bit of overkill on the "hey, remember that part of the movie?")

(ADDENDUM 2: Also let it be known that if you are the kind of person who prefers to keep sexual violence away from your table, you will have to make a few executive edits to this module. It's successful at being shock horror, but once the shock wore off my thoughts were more "oh, more blueberries again. I thought this was supposed to be a chocolate factory.")

Friday, July 7, 2017

Easy Family Trees

+Skerples asked me to do this.

Simply roll a d2 to determine which table you’re on, and then a d12 for your family circumstances.

A note: the family trees presented do not include everyone in your character’s entire extended family (I'm not writing out all of those cousins!), just the ones that are immediately important. You might also notice a few that you recognize, and you could obviously tweak whichever elements you see fit.

Click on the pictures to expand them. They are a bit huge, so as to make printing and making family tree cards to hand out to players easy.

Table 1



Table 2

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The HAUL Reviews: Coriolis




I’m taking a momentary break from the OSR offerings to review Coriolis. For those unfamiliar, it is a  sci-fi RPG developed by the Swedish group Modiphus Entertainment, who were behind Mutant Year Zero. I managed to pick up my copy on Free RPG Day; my local shop went and had the hardcover core book sitting right there on the table next to VAM! I actually asked the guy at the counter if it had been misplaced. It wasn’t.

I should have gone for the Dungeon Crawl Classics hardcover instead.

Coriolis is not a good game. There are individual pieces of it that are good, but the game as a whole is put together atop feet of clay. I couldn’t see myself ever using it, outside of maybe taking a few examples of its positives and utilizing that in another game.

The primary positive I will give Coriolis is the following: It’s a game about flying around space having adventures with a crew of colorful characters, and so the ship and crew as a whole are the first things in setting up a game. Before anyone gets to character generation, the group decides what kind of crew they are going to be (merchants, explorers, pilgrims, mercenaries, etc), settles on the group’s patron and nemesis, and chooses a group talent. 

Then comes the spaceship, and thankfully Modiphus did the spaceship part pretty okay.

The game provides a small selection of pre-made ships, but the fun is in the construction. Basic ship types are expanded with modules and additional features of the builders’ choosing, with things like mechanical quirks and shipyard of origin coming into account. This all determines how much debt the party owes on the ship when the game starts (50% of total cost)

While I do like the idea of debt as the driving, over-arching motivator and long-range goal, this is about where the good ideas stop. The rest of the book has essentially no support for the act of actually making money – no tables of bulk-good prices, no tables for discoveries or artifacts and reward costs.

(This is as good a time as any to say that the book does an awful job of providing DM tools. There are tables, but they aren't incredibly helpful.)

The central die mechanic of the game is simple and I’ve got no issues with it. Attribute + Skill Rating = # of dice you have to roll. Success is on 6, more than one 6 is a great success. Characters are easy to build, though customization options are on the lower end.

I do give a sideways glance at the system of DM intrusions (“Darkness Points”) that the game gives the DM as determined by actions of the players, but it’s not a deal breaker. It’s just a bit silly to me that the thing with the horrible gangrenous mouth can only infect you if you used a specific talent or flew through space without using the stasis tanks.

The real deal breaker, though, is the setting. My stance on setting in RPGs is simple – if you are going to bother publishing a setting along with your rules, make sure your setting is worth using. It’s got to have something that catches my eye and imagination so that I want to use it, instead of just using the general ruleset for a world of my own devising.

The setting of Coriolis is practically a case study in how to waste space: it provides nothing that a decent DM could not do better with elbow grease and the Stars without Number planet generation tables. The creators of the game have described it as “Arabian Nights in space” (as one can see on the blurb on the back cover), and I have significant difficulty finding any legitimacy in that statement.

1001 Nights is built upon the frame story of a woman using her wits and storytelling skill to avoid getting murdered by her husband. This format could be used (and absolutely should have been used) for this core rule book (the mechanics section would be a bit difficult, but I’m sure someone could do it), but the setting chapters have absolutely no excuse. Illustrating a setting through hearsay, tall tales, spacer superstitions, news from foreign ports, folklore, and lies that might have something beneath them, all told by a single narrator? I adore the idea. It doesn’t happen here.

What does happen is twofold: we are introduced to a great number of ideas that don’t get fleshed out enough to even be evocative, and it is revealed that “Arabian Nights in space” translates to “there are some Arabic names, and a page about clothing, and one of the enemies is called a djinn.”

Coriolis is Middle Eastern flavored about as much as Firefly was Chinese flavored: not in the slightest substance beyond the superficial. It does not evoke, it pays lip service.

<Aside> Somewhere in the ocean of unused ideas there exists a wuxia-western space opera that sits right at the juncture of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Cowboy Bebop and my heart aches for its absence from our cruel, merciless world. </Aside>

It’s boring, terribly boring.  And most of it is just that, save what I would mark as outright creative cowardice: the primary religion of the Horizon.

Now, I find religion in space to be a terribly interesting thing to wrestle with, especially when dealing with the technological and cultural developments that will put pressure on faith systems to adapt or die out. Here we have an ostensibly Mideast–inspired setting that not only conveniently lacks Mideast religion(s), but replaces it with something far less interesting.

We are treated to the Church of the Icons, a religion with a strong central hierarchy that worships a nine-aspect god and has female leadership. It’s the Church of the East + Faith of the Seven, except with nine of them, and also in space.

There’s no form of Islam to be found, or even anything that seems to be its descendant. Jews are right out. Christianity only gets its knock-off brand. Zoroastrians are nowhere to be seen. Yazidi? What's a Yazidi?

Any sort of meaningful conflict, discussion, or exploration of real-world religion and culture through a fantastic lens is thrown right out the window and they don’t even have the decency to replace it with the fun kind of space gods.

It’s boring, it’s lazy, and it is pushed every chance it can be. If there is a focus in Coriolis, it is the Icons.

But even then the game can’t seem to focus on an element of its setting long enough to actually do it justice. On top of the Icons, we have the following to deal with:
  • The ancient, vanished Portal Builders who leave vague, undefined ruins – nothing would be lost if the interstellar portals were naturally occurring.
  • The Emissaries rising up from the depths of their gas giant to do vague, undefined things. (They get four paragraphs in the entire book, which mostly re-state each other and provide no gameable material)
  • Four other intelligent alien races (who get a paragraph each, buried in the bestiary chapter, despite being character options)
  • Artificial human clades (they are listed as character options, but there are only three of them, and they are barely mentioned again after that  first sidebar)
  • Factions with generic names (The Legion, the Foundation, the Syndicate, etc)
  • At least two wars and a major culture clash between colony waves (sounds way better than it is)
  • Interstellar space is apparently both magical and actively malevolent and monsters live there, and apparently the Icons protect against it.
I make these seem significantly more interesting than they are. If the game could focus even a slight bit on any of these, start using more evocative language, perhaps start tying things together into a cohesive whole, and present the information in a gameable way, there would at least be steps toward being a good setting.  We could have gotten that feeling of infinite fantastic adventures in fantastic worlds, never knowing what tale will be told the next night.

But we didn’t. The game even flat out says that the mystical parts could just be kept as spacer stories – it is that unimportant to the game as a whole. Coriolis is sci-fi that is neither hard nor soft enough to maintain interest. It is gummy oatmeal.

With such a weak setting, there’s really nothing to recommend this game for. Just having a passable system doesn't cut it with the price of entry.