Thursday 24 April 2014

The swipe file: 1

As a charity-shop enthusiast, I buy a lot of 99p novels. I used to buy tons whenever I had a long coach or train or plane ride ahead of me, but not so many now that I have my Kindle. Anyway, many of them aren't very good, but if you view things with the right perspective there's always something to swipe from anything. Any book, comic, TV show, Youtube video, game you play ... whatever it is you're reading or watching should provide at least one idea worth stealing. You just have to enjoy them alertly.

The Swipe File is going to be a series where I jot down the ideas I've gleaned from things over the last week or so. It's mostly for my own reference.

  • A bunch of crazy people burning the clothes they were wearing to facilitate their own degeneration into primitive weirdos. 
  • The enemy is jamming our comms, but an area of clarity indicates the point they're searching for because they need their own comms in that area. 
  • An NPC shows up with a different distinctive hat, tie, or what have you in every session. It is later revealed that he has taken each one from a different murder victim. 
  • A PC has become so famous that a well-meaning but dim fighter decides he is the PC's arch-rival and goes looking to challenge him or her. 
  • An NPC's distinctive outfit is revealed to be a uniform shared by other NPCs.
  • After a war, generals of the losing side race to hide their ill-gotten gains before the victors reach the capital. 
  • Supporters of two sides in a trial by combat try a series of clever strategies to fix the fight. 
  • Alien invaders have their hands tied by the Galactic Empire's bizarrely complicated rules of engagement. 

Friday 18 April 2014


Reader Thea asks:
A G+ friend posted this link to an intriguing map, and that made me ponder other real or historical maps that could be stolen and repurposed for gaming:
Very cool! I am a big believer in repurposing maps for gaming, although it's important to be clear about what they're for. Take that cave map in the link, for instance. It's super impressive, but from a gaming perspective the map isn't terribly interesting. It doesn't provide a lot of challenges for the players -- most of it consists of a series of single tunnels, so there are few choices to be made in terms of where to go. You go forward or you go back. There absolutely would be tactical challenges fighting anything in there, and there would be big exploration challenges in terms of climbing, but they aren't really represented on the map, if you see what I mean. It does, however, give a great impression of how far deep underground you are at any point, which is useful, so that's cool.

This then prompts the question: what are we looking for in a map? Obviously, the question depends on what it's going to be used for in a game session. There are several functions a map can serve:

  • It can set the scene and give you an impression of what kind of place you're arriving in. This is what those big country maps in the endpapers of fantasy novels are for, I assume.
  • It can create tactical possibilities and challenges for things like combat and chase scenes. ("I duck behind this dumpster here!" "Quick, take a right on Grand and we'll cut him off!")
  • It can ground travel and investigation and make them feel more natural. ("Hey, the security camera factory is right across the road -- maybe they got a picture of the murderer?")
The particularly good thing about maps is that they produce these effects in ways that the players hadn't anticipated. And the great thing about stealing maps for other sources is that they produce these effects in ways the GM doesn't anticipate.

One of my favourite set of gaming maps are the foldout maps from the backs of the old "Arkham Country" books for Call of Cthulhu. Here's an example: this is the map from Escape from Innsmouth.

So it does two things: first, it tells you where everything is, which is important because one of the scenarios in the book ends with a big chase through the town. Second, it gives you a feel for what Innsmouth is like -- the style of the art, the curves of the streets, all suggest something bowing under great age, something rotting and turning in on itself. So it reinforces the Innsmouth atmosphere and also has this practical function. 

Historical maps are good like this as well: a friend once asked me for a map of a medieval town which was intended to be an Innsmouth-alike. In the end, I think we settled on Cork: 

When I wanted to add a port city to my game, I used Stettin: 

It's nicely complex, it's got features I wouldn't have added if I were drawing the map myself, and it shows the town in a nicely varied landscape context. Result. 

Note that neither of these towns are very big: most preindustrial cities weren't, but great big cities is a fantasy trope, so if you're looking to swipe a historical map you may be out of luck. 

The easiest way to find this kind of map is really just to pick a town somewhere or other in the world, put its name into Google image search, and see what you get. I searched for "Avignon medieval map" and this came up right away: 

Click here for a zoomable version. 
In a previous post I talked about castle maps, and even though the image didn't come out very well, I encourage you to click on the link to Estalia and check it out -- although the castles are not historical per se, they're very well researched and definitely worth taking a look at. 

You can find lots of historical house plans online, which is particularly good for more modern scenarios. Medieval house plans tend to be simpler than most fantasy games make them out to be, presumably because there are fewer secrets and fewer fun things to do in a house that's basically one big room and a few little ones. 

But the toughest map of all is the dungeon map properly so-called. The problem is that real-world structures other than homes don't often have the complexity that a real dungeon requires in order to be interesting. Still, there are some good ones. 

If you play in my Wednesday night D&D game, read no further.

So, for instance, check out this lovely Polish salt mine: 

You should be able to click on those, particularly the top one, to enlarge them. Well worth it for that top one, although sadly I can't find a bigger version of the second image. 

Or check out this map of the catacombs of Rabat. 

I tend to chop maps up, relabel them, use parts of them, add things and so on. I have a huge hangup where I want things to look neat and professional, so in fact I am extra crude in my manipulations as a way of overcoming that. 

Here are some good places to find maps: 

If you're looking for a location in the UK, you want to go here. However, it's search-by-location. Good if you want to know what Braintree looked like in the mid 19th century, not good if you just want to find somewhere cool-looking. Also some good resource from the British Library

The New York Public Library has tens of thousands of maps (and other things) online -- and not just maps of New York, either. 

Old Maps Online has a map-based search which is pretty cool. 

There's some quite good stuff in the Old Maps tag on flickr, even. 

Sunday 13 April 2014

Palimpsests are cool in games that use books

So, lots of games have books that turn out to be important. Grimoires in Mage: the Awakening, spellbooks in Dungeons and Dragons, and of course Mythos tomes in good old Call of Cthulhu. But they can get a little repetitive from time to time, and it's nice to change them up a little.

With that in mind, let's take a look at palimpsests. A palimpsest is a product of (usually early) medieval economy. Vellum wasn't cheap, and sometimes monks or whoever couldn't lay their hands on what they needed to make new books. What they would do was take an old manuscript they didn't need (or couldn't read) and wash off the original text, then write over it. However, the washing process didn't work perfectly and the text would often reappear as a kind of "ghost" under the original one. This example is from a text called the Codex Nitriensis:

See how the original text is still faintly visible at right angles to the new writing? 

Now, in order to make the old text visible, they used to dose it with all kind of chemicals, but today they use various spectra of light to make the ink show up more strongly, photograph it, adjust them digitally ... it's much more effective and much less destructive. 

By the high middle ages, they were scrubbing that stuff off with pumice, so palimpsests from that era don't survive as well. 

It appears that monks may have been particularly interested in writing over pagan or heretical texts -- these things were supposed to be destroyed but the vellum couldn't go to waste. It might even be that they felt like they were somehow sanctifying them by writing over them? Alternatively, they may have just seen those texts as unimportant or irrelevant, but for gaming purposes the "purifying" thing is more appealing. 

I quite like the idea of making the detection important. Modern historians read palimpsests using clever new imaging technology. You could go all From Beyond style on it -- some scientist develops a new method which is the only one that can read this strange palimpsest.

The "Red Book of Darley" is not a palimpsest, but I couldn't resist this quote: "This booke was sumtime had in such reverence in darbieshire that it was comonlie beleved that whosoeuer should sweare vntruelie vppon this booke should run madd."

And, of course, if the tome was written in some kind of strange alien language that the monks couldn't read, they'd be more likely to scrub it off and write over it, which would explain why the remnants of evil prehuman civilisations would be found as part of a palimpsest. 

Anyway, here's a sample palimpsest text for Call of Cthulhu

The Beornwald Benedictional

Associated with the church of St Beornwald at Bampton in Oxfordshire, this benedictional (or prayer book) contains a series of prayers and blessings for different occasions, presumably to be used by a priest associated with the minster. It probably dates to around the very late 10th century or early 11th century. The text contains no Mythos-related content, but a successful Occult roll (or History at -20) will suggest that there are rather a lot of apotropaic blessings compared to other books of this type. 

Overwritten by the Benedictional is a document written in flawed Latin, the Annamoris Letters. These letters contain reports of a spiritual discussion between one Annamoris, a British priest from an isolated community somewhere in northern Britain, and a relative in London who had recently converted to Christianity. The two debate the differences between their religions. Annamoris describes a number of ritual practices, including a sacrifice to certain human-like creatures which live in the nearby hills. Annamoris specifically defends these grotesque and barbaric rites on the grounds that they work, unlike the rituals of most Romans. His nephew, Cunomoltus, angrily denies it, but in the later letters it's possible to see that his confidence is somewhat shaken. 

It should be possible, through dedicated historical research, to pinpoint the location of the rites Annamoris describes for contacting the degenerate serpent-beings who taught him his Mythos knowledge. 

The Annamoris Letters: -1d3/1d6 SAN, +3 Mythos; x2 spells; 4 weeks

Spells: Contact Serpent Folk, Shrivelling, Voorish Sign

Thursday 10 April 2014

Thrift shop roundup

I've been looking around for possible two-dollar monsters -- even if we haven't had many entries yet, I'm going to do a few more myself -- and I've made a few finds that don't quite fall within the rules of the contest but which I'm quite pleased with.

8 bugs from the old Starship Troopers minis game, found in
the toy section of a Goodwill for $2.49 (about £1.50). 

Some Dark Sun giths, produced by Ral Partha in 1991. Sculpted
by Sandra Garrity. I got these for $3 (£1.80) total from the
discount bin at a local games shop. So characterful!

An investigator from Grenadier's 1984 Call of Cthulhu
line. Likewise bought for $1 (60p) at that local shop.

So, as I said, these aren't toys for the challenge. They're just examples of me using cheap old figures for a variety of purposes again. In particular, I suspect those giths will turn up as something in my Wednesday night D&D game.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

New monster: Baboonbot

Today, as I recounted on my other blog, I went to the Rosicrucian Museum. It was pretty cool and I imagine I'll be writing about it for some time to come. But enjoyable as that was, it wasn't game-relevant per se. Except ...

... while looking through the funerary gallery, my wife took this photo of a mummified baboon:

Now, he is pretty cool. But do you want to know what's even better? He's fake. When the baboon was X-rayed, it was discovered that the torso is a pot, the head is carved ... no real baboon. In reality, this happened all the time. I assume that fake animals were just easier to source and less expensive than real ones, so the grieving widow would pay up for a gen-u-wine mummified crocodile and some unscrupulous funerary guy would give her a bunch of broken pottery in a crocodile-shaped mummy wrap.

But I got to thinking about the interpretation. What if it's not a fake mummified baboon? What if it's the mummy of a fake baboon? There are two routes you could go with this. Well, more than two, but I have done two: one for D20, one for CoC.

Zergathrax's Versatile Ape

This uncanny construct serves a wizard as a tireless, deathless companion, equal parts reagent-fetcher and face-ripper-offer. It is built around a clay pot which contains a number of volatile alchemical reagents (total cost (d4+1) x 1,000 GP) as well as the blood of a baboon. The ape is loyal and reliable, but surly, inefficient and frequently aggressive.

Wizardly opinion is divided about the apes. Some claim they are faithful companions, and it has even been known for particularly sentimental magi to have their constructs buried with them to serve them in the afterlife. Others feel that the baboon blood makes the ape simply too baboon-like to be a useful assistant, while given the high cost of reagents, hired goons are simply more economical as guards.

Medium Construct
Hit Dice: 2d10+21
Initiative: +2
Speed: 40 / Climb 30
AC: 16 (+2 Dex, +4 natural), Touch 12, FF 14
Base Attack: +2
Attack: Bite +4, d6+3 damage
Space/Reach: 5/5
Special Attacks: Baboom!
Special Qualities: Low-light vision, Darkvision, various construct abilities.
Skills: Climb +10, Listen +5, Spot +5

Etc., etc.

Baboom! The mixture of alchemical ingredients in the jar which powers the construct is highly volatile. When the ape has taken 22 damage, each subsequent hit has a 1-in-10 cumulative chance of rupturing the containment vessel and causing the jar to explode. The explosion does 2d8 fire damage to the baboon itself, and 1d8+1 fire damage to any adjacent creature. Reflex (DC 18) halves.

Ape mummy

This mummified baboon was sold to a European collector in the mid-1870s and has since passed through a series of owners. Although an interesting curio, the lack of information about the ape's provenance limits its usefulness to an Egyptologist. It is currently sitting unnoticed in the shop of a Northern California antiquities dealer, one William Hatler.

What Hatler knows -- indeed, what no one knows -- is that the baboon is not truly dead; it is simply inert. A hollow pot in the mummy's torso is primed with spells known only to initiates of Nyarlathotep (to whom, in his guise as the Egyptian god Tehuti, the baboon is sacred) to receive the spirit of a worshiper. If the baboon is brought into the presence of one of the god's devotees, the akh or magical intellect of the sorcerer will fill the pot. At this point, the baboon will lurch into a creaky semblance of life.

The baboon cannot speak, but it has the intellect of the sorcerer, including the knowledge of all spells. If the spell requires speech, the baboon cannot perform it, but could teach it to another worshiper. Devotees of Nyarlathotep tend to be highly intelligent, but it is likely that, having been dead for millennia, they will not by fluent in modern languages.

STR 18
CON 18
DEX 16
INT, POW, EDU: as human

HP 13
Armor 3
Damage bonus: +d4

Attacks: Bite 40% d8

Climb 75%, Dodge 25%, Jump 50%

As an artificial construct, the baboon is immune to impaling damage, poisons, strangling and what have you. The enchanted jar in its torso is immune to damage and can only be destroyed using the proper spell. The baboon does not apply its armour against fire damage, and takes an extra d4 damage from any fire attack.

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Aaaand we're back. Two-dollar monster contest deadline EXTENDED.

Right; the joint crisis of work and flat is now dealt with. Tomorrow I head off on holiday to the US, from where I hope to update this blog more regularly. Many thanks for your patience during the hiatus. 

Because I have been away and unable to do the Two-Dollar Monster Challenge, I have extended the deadline until the 22nd of April, which is when I get back to work! So let's get those entries in, one and all!