Tuesday 31 March 2015

A brief painting update.

It's been a while since I did a painting update, but that maaaaay be because it's been a while since I did much painting. I have had some clever ideas for both my D&D game and an upcoming Strange Aeons scenario, so look for more stuff -- on the SA front at least -- later this week. For now, here are a few models I have been painting.

I chose this Reaper Bones nun because a) I liked the model, and b) I thought the black and white colour scheme would be an easy "win" to help restore my momentum. I think she looks not bad.

Similarly, this private eye started out with a base of brown primer spray, which made the final paint scheme pretty simple! He's a Copplestone Castings figure I picked up on sale at Games of Berkeley.

I got this and another Inquisitorial henchman for 50p each at a car boot sale; although I am usually not a big fan of modern GW models, those Inquisitors are great. Sadly I think I made a bit of a botch of the scroll. I would repaint it but I can't be arsed.

And this Reaper Bones shark-man is one of my favourite models from the line. The mould lines, as with all Bones figures, were tricky, but he's just so pleasingly huge and hefty that I really like him even though I can see some flaws in the paint scheme.

Sunday 29 March 2015

Yoon-Suin Part 2: putting it into practice!

OK, so in my previous post I talked about Yoon-Suin, which I think is a cool resource for generating exciting gaming settings. So on Friday I took it for a test drive, rolling up a random campaign setting within the Yellow City, the ancient metropolis at the heart of Yoon-Suin. I created the names for the groups, but everything else is pretty much random. First, I rolled the groups within the PCs' social circle.

The House of Imperishable Pronouncements is an archive. I rolled "ambition" as the source of conflict. For NPCs, I rolled Sri Ja, a bookish neophyte, and Luhagala (I am not doing a good job with the capitalisation and accents, because I jotted these down in all caps), the archive's wealthy benefactor. Meanwhile, another archivist, Chan Chal, is sabotaging the archive by destroying ancient records on behalf of a mysterious patron.

The Fane of the Coral-Hued Devourer is a shrine. I rolled "love" as their source of conflict. They worship a chaotic crocodile god which rules the concepts of death and pain. It demands sacrifices of birds, which I envision as being like the little birds that clean a crocodile's teeth. The NPCs for the shrine are Ven Dan e, a hardass traditionalist priest. Rumour has it that he has miraculous gifts. Meanwhile, Gun Jit a is a pissed-off reformer who opposes Ven. One of the randomly-generated NPCs was Dar shak, a dyer who is a dandy with dusty and ragged clothes. I decided that his dapper appearance was because he was trying to impress a girl, and so I made him be in love with Gun. 

The Lower Green Temple District Mob are a cockroach-herding clan, which is about as low as you can get in the Yellow City's hierarchy if you're a human. Their conflict source is "folly." The first NPC I rolled was Ga Gan, husband of the head of the clan. Kala, a former challenger for leadership of the clan, grumbles and plots in the shadows. They are also harbouring an outcast from a noble house, although I forgot to generate this guy. I didn't have a good sense of how these guys collected to the larger plot, although they might have something to do with the missing explorer under the next item.

The Society for Cartographic Rectification are an association of explorers. Their source of conflict is "treachery." Their chief guide is a Lamarakhi headhunter named Ha Rij, and the Society has a contact named Pa Nit A, a crooked fence who buys the artefacts they find. But they have a problem: their wealth was all being held by one of their members -- and that member is missing. I pondered having the body found by the cockroach clan, but haven't decided yet.

After that, I rolled up some random NPCs. I've already mentioned Dar Shak, the lovestruck dyer. I also rolled:

A jit, a legless fakir with a burning desire for knowledge.

Chi dat ma, a hunchbacked, skeletally thin goldsmith afflicted with jealousy for the possessions of others.

Polaha vo, a slugman botanist who carries a cane. He has a rival he seeks to outdo.

Wu U, a hedonistic narcissist slugman who is an apprentice mathematician. He lives only for pleasure.

I also rolled some random rumours:

  • A tea shop owner is trying to intimidate the proprietor of an opium den. 
  • Whisperings and moanings are coming from the catacombs of a long-forgotten sect. 
  • A mine in the Topaz Isles has discovered a new type of gemstone with strange effects. 
I think that's plenty to be starting with. This isn't meant to be a full suite of plots, so not everything has to be interconnected. It's meant to be the backdrop for a starting campaign. But it's definitely full of adventure potential, whether the possibility for conflict among the characters or the different groups sending the characters off to retrieve or explore the things they want. I have a notion that Polaha vo may be involved in developing new and exotic types of tea, which would be a fun thing to do: send the PCs all over the shop looking for rare blooms. 

Thursday 26 March 2015

Yoon-Suin! It's pretty good. (Part One)

One of the things I was most excited about on returning from holiday was that my copy of Yoon-Suin would be waiting for me. In fact, it was too big to fit through the door, but my wife kindly picked it up from the post office for me and I've been devouring it all week. The version I have is the print edition from Lulu, which sells for £12.50 plus shipping, but you can also get the PDF, which sells for a mere £6, and even then it's only because of the crappy exchange rate at the moment.

I cannot put my finger on what this cover reminds me of,
except that I'm sure it was something in high school. 
Yoon-Suin is the work of David "noisms" McGrogan of Monsters and Manuals, and it is a campaign setting for old-school fantasy RPGs (although I think it would be simple enough to use it for more recent games; that's certainly what I intend to do). It's somewhere between a sandbox creation tool like you'd find in a Sine Nomine game and a more detailed setting guide.

Ooh, it's even got a trailer: 

It has an absolute crapload of tables, which if you know me will tell you that I am inclined to like it. Here, have a look: 

Note the unconventional sideways-digest format (or whatever you call it). Some people don't like this because it makes it hard to shelve the book, but it does mean that it lies flat relatively well (relatively) and that the tables fit neatly and readably on one page. I bet it displays well on laptop screens, too.

Yoon-Suin is a fantasy setting that borrows influences from a sort of south/southeast Asian milieu, a world where everyone is drinking tea and smoking opium and the sun is beating down except when it isn't. The heart of this thing is the Yellow City, a metropolis ruled by an aristocratic caste of slug-men, with hapless crab-man slaves at the bottom and humans on most of the rungs in between. Temples and observatories pursue arcane secrets, hereditary clans of cockroach wranglers scrape for a living in dusty alleys, noble houses pursue convoluted intrigues, all that sort of thing. Meanwhile, out in the wilderness, explorers hack through trackless jungle, tribes of grasshopper-men herd their giant caterpillars across the plains, and umpty-bazillion (well, OK, "one hundred") little kingdoms and city-states endlessly plot and war, sometimes with the aid of giant crayfish.

The author has described Yoon-Suin as:

"Fantasy Tibet by somebody who has never been to Tibet and knows nothing about it, but likes the idea of yak-folk and self-mummifying monks".

Tibet, yak ghosts, ogre magi, mangroves, Nepal, Arabian Nights, Sorcery!, Bengal, invertebrates, topaz, squid men, slug people, opiates, slavery, human sacrifice, dark gods, malaise, magic.

OK, so it's sort of a weird fantasy world based on a different source than your typical European-style one. But what does the actual book give you to run this world with? The answer is a lot.  In addition to the description of the setting (in the form of a traveller's journal), we get a whole Yoon-Suin bestiary. And I'm not talking about the usual setting-specific update to the Monster Manual you get in most setting books, I mean 78 new critters (although some of them are Yoon-Suin-ified versions of D&D standbys). For each region of Yoon-Suin, we get not only lots of tools for generating hex content, but lots of mini-plot-generating tables. I don't know how to describe these better than "like in Stars Without Number, y'know," but basically they're little random tables that create not only locations and their inhabitants but the interactions between them.Here, for example, is the table for generating a band of revolutionaries hiding out in one of the ruins of Big Rubble the Old City that surrounds the Yellow City: 

You'll probably need to enlarge that to read it, I guess. 
So basically there isn't a huge map of each region with every piddling little thing detailed; instead, what there is is a method of generating the region quickly -- and not just generating the stuff but also the tensions and relationships (and therefore the game hooks) that go with it. I'm particularly fond of this method because it makes it very easy to generate the kinds of things that will fit well with how my group likes to play (and how I like to run). I described this thing in an older post as "like Traveller but if its world-generation system focused on the kinds of things I care about," and the same principle applies here. It's much more interesting to me to know that this village has been swept by a craze for a new kind of tea rather than that it has 900 inhabitants and they mainly grow sorghum. 

There are loads of these kinds of tables, basically one each per thing that you might find in that region, with more detailed sections on the more important characteristic features. And a bunch of stuff on monster lairs. But just in case you want something a little more fleshed-out, there's a big section in the back of each region with sample locations appropriate to be dropped into that area. 

Now, I've been reading Yoon-Suin on the assumption that it is the kind of place that my players (who, as you can see in earlier posts, are sailing for adventure on the big blue wet thing) are going to rock up to and start meddling with, meddling being pretty much their thing. And that's all well and good. But what if you want to start a campaign in Yoon-Suin? This is where I think the book really shines. 

Basically, there's a whole system for generating the social groups that the PCs have starting connections to, as well as what problems those groups have (i.e. what they might need the PCs to go out and do for them). For me, it's the perfect middle point between being richly complex and being usefully simple, and I wish a tool like it existed for, say, Dragon Pass. (Adds "create simple campaign-start generators for Dragon Pass" to list of crap to do, around item a million.) 

I like this subsystem so much that I think I will roll one of these up and do a second post on it, just for fun. 

So is there anything I didn't like about Yoon-Suin? Not much. There are a few minor points I noticed: 

  • I like the scribbly art by Matthew Adams, but more of it would have been even better. Graphically, this is a pretty bare-bones presentation compared to some of the other things I've been reviewing lately (on the other hand, £12.50 isn't much for an RPG book these days. I can't remember what Red and Pleasant Land cost, but I suspect it was about double that). There are also a few cases where the reproduction of the art isn't perfect. 
  • It could have used another going-over by an editor; there are a few minor errors in the text. 
  • I am not familiar enough with old-timey rules to know whether the monsters are useful mechanically. I'm just going to do it with 5e anyway. 
The next thing I need to figure out is where the border is between Yoon-Suin and Qelong on the map.

Right then: in my next post, I put some of the Yoon-Suin random table love into practice, creating a setting for a theoretical campaign. With my current schedule, though, this might not happen until the weekend or even later. 

Monday 23 March 2015

Yet More Vikings

As you may recall from my posts about SagaMythic Iceland and Sagas of the Icelanders, I tend to acquire games that deal with the early medieval period. Greenland Saga is sort of an outlier, since it's not actually set in the Viking age, but rather in the 1450s. This is quite an early third-party third-ed scenario, if I remember correctly, released in 2001. It was written by Michael Bennighof and published by Avalanche Press. AP are still around, but they're not making RPG products any more

That damn cover

Controversy over the covers of Avalanche Press's RPG supplements was one of the ongoing arguments of the early d20 era, and I don't want to rehash it here. In principle I agree that there's nothing wrong with any given sexualised image of a female character -- the problem is simply that there are too few non-sexualised images of female characters, a lack of equivalent images of male characters, etc. However, despite the cheesecakey model and pose, my problem with this cover is not that. It is this: this cover illustration sucks. For two reasons!

First, quite apart from the outfit, what the hell is she doing? Her pose looks awkward and unnatural; look at how loose her hand is on the hilt of the sword. She's standing slightly on tippy-toe (or something; the line between whatever's behind her and the floor is really mushy) while either drawing a sword backward from her belt or stabbing herself in the hand. If she's drawing the sword, why is it covered in blood (and where's its scabbard?); if she's sheathing it, why is she doing that considering she seems to be surrounded by enemies? What is the blurry sort of dragony thing in the right of the image? What is the thing in the foreground, partly obscured by the AP logo? In short, what in the hell is going on in this illustration? 

But the fact that the image isn't good is only the lesser part of the problem. The more important point is that the cover gives you a very misleading idea of what kind of scenario this is. Greenland Saga is. In a sort of what-the-hell, high-fantasy romp, this chainmail-singleted Valkyrie would be a fine (if clumsily executed) cover image. But that's not what this is; Greenland Saga is a heavily historically-inspired scenario with lots of references to the sagas, particularly Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða. The Valkyrie appears as a suggested character on one page of this scenario; this is the only image of any character in the entire thing (there's almost no interior art).

So what we actually have is a D&D adventure for history nerds, while what the cover depicts is an 80s trash-fantasy throwdown.

Which is a shame, because it's an OK scenario

The gist of the scenario is that a Papal agent in Norway recruits the PCs (who may have worked for the church in a previous adventure) to go and find out what's going on in Greenland, which has been out of official contact for some time. When the PCs get there, they find that Greenland's Norse population is dwindling and that the locals are reacting to this fact in different ways.

The interesting thing that Greeland Saga does is that it doesn't provide a single explanation for the disappearances. It gives some mundane explanations (the colonists are getting ready to abandon Greenland for a more welcoming North America, the colonists have been enslaved by unscrupulous Portuguese cod fishermen) and a supernatural one (the colonists are under attack from unipeds, legendary creatures mentioned in the saga).

Most of the scenario is actually focused on travelling around the different parts of the Norse colony on Greenland, talking to different people and figuring out what's going on. It's possible that there will be a lot of combat, but there are few scenes where it's absolutely called for -- it's more a byproduct of travel in a harsh environment than anything else.

There are two main problems with the scenario: the first and most significant is the rules system. Historical scenarios test the limits of the D20 system's adaptability. Here, for instance, we're told that the party should include a cleric, but that clerics shouldn't be able to a) cast spells, or b) be proficient with weapons or armour. While this is a pretty accurate description of actual 15th-century priests, it does make playing the party cleric a suicide mission, considering that clerics also don't get a lot of skill points. Similarly, every who-gives-a-crap sailor, beggar and merchant in this scenario gets a full D20 write-up, complete with Forgery skill or whatever, just in case ... something. There is nearly nothing that couldn't be achieved just by saying "Level 1 Commoner." You see the same problem with something like Skull & Bones -- the writer is fighting with the rules a bit to fit them to the history. The difference is that S&B made up for it by providing a ton of new historically-inspired rules.

The second problem is with the historical content itself. There are a few editing glitches -- for instance, some of the Old Norse words have rendered incorrectly, presumably because the special characters needed went missing at some point in the production process. There are also a few simple goofs -- for instance, that valkyrie on the cover? Her name is Sigurd. Not Sigrid; Sigurd. Which is a man's name. I mean, I guess people can be called anything, but it's as weird as if she were called William.

But the thing that keeps jarring me is the inconsistency in terms of how historical we're meant to be. So there are, no fooling, rules for getting dysentery from drinking the water, which you're supposed to roll every time you drink. There are stat penalties for female characters, because "life is not fair. Deal with it." But then one of the first people the characters meet is this like beautiful but deadly Italian merchant princess assassin -- in fucking Bergen -- with like a fancy gown filled with throwing daggers. So which is it? Is it James Bond in the 15th century, or is it a game where you have to constantly roll to see whether you get the death shits from drinking water?

There's a sentence I did not anticipate writing before I bought this thing.

Anyway, it's got a few useful bits (unipeds, I guess, although again Skull & Bones has better monsters-from-medieval maps) but overall it's more interesting as an example of the kinds of things people were experimenting with in the early days of the D20 boom than as a scenario. It does have a few useful maps, and the idea of the different explanations (and a section discussing how to combine them) was a good one.

So: concept OK, execution flawed, I am a weird completist who has bookstore credit he seldom gets to use.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Maritime month: The lookout hails the deck

Swiped from dozens of sources or made up, a long list of things that happen at sea. Assuming there is already a weather table, a random sea-monster encounter table, etc. 

Ship Ahoy!

  1. Paranoid merchants carrying valuable cargo.
  2. Desperate survivors of shipwreck clinging to wreckage.
  3. Two ships locked in battle. Roll twice: 1 – pirate, 2 – naval, 3 – merchant, 4 – sea monster, 5 – enemy nation or monsters, 6 – roll again twice.
  4. Merchant ship desperately low on needed supplies. Not above cutting throats to avoid starvation.
  5. Drifting merchant vessel ravaged by monster still lurking aboard.
  6. Naval vessel hurrying (or fleeing) somewhere urgently.
  7. Bizarre vessel from non-human culture. 1-2: peaceable, 3-4: hostile, 5-6: curious.
  8. Ship run aground on treacherous reef. D6+1 survivors call for aid.
  9. Whaler types hunting area for colossal sea monster full of valuable meat and oil. 1-5: It's not around. 6: it is.
  10. Ostensibly neutral merchant ship acting as spy for pirates. Ask a few too many questions.
  11. Opportunistic, cowardly pirates. Big on surprise attacks and waiting for a ship to be wounded. Will follow for d4+1 days.
  12. Bold, aggressive pirates.
  13. Temple ship full of pilgrims carrying out bizarre rites to 1-2: Dagon, 3-4: Nodens, 5: Indigenous deity, 6: Horrible monster known to inhabit this region of sea.
  14. Suspiciously clean merchant ship conceals VIP disguised as humble commercial traveller.
  15. Quarantined ship affected by mysterious illness.
  16. Naval vessel hunting pirates; ruled by quota and nearing deadline.
  17. Apparent castaways in lifeboat, secretly ship's officers seeking to hunt down and destroy mutineers who abandoned them.
  18. A vast hulk drifts on the waves, the remnant of some unknowable long-ago conflict.
  19. A ship full of old knights pursuing a quest they no longer even remember.
  20. This ship has no crew, but it moves seemingly by itself. What controls it?

Thar She Blows!

  1. The beautiful singing of sirens lures sailors, possibly including the characters, toward deadly rocks.
  2. A fog-shrouded island is actually the back of a massive sea creature. It is harmless, but the swarm of predators pursuing it aren't.
  3. Dangerous but highly valuable sea creatures are sighted.
  4. Flying monster spotted at high altitude returning to nest with kill.
  5. Hunting pod of sahuagin (or whatever) begin to tail the ship. Will follow for d3 days.
  6. Two sea monsters are locked in battle, like a giant squid fighting a sperm whale.
  7. A ghost ship full of spectral mariners passes by, scaring the hell out of the crew.
  8. A harmless but huge creature threatens the vessel with its enthusiastic friendliness.
  9. A school of stinging jellyfish leap across the ship's path, becoming tangled in the rigging.
  10. A single massive shark or other predator tails the ship with single-minded intensity.

Mutinous Dogs!

  1. A recently-hired crew member turns out to be a creature such as a doppelganger or hag in disguise and preys on the other crew members.
  2. A fire breaks out as inexperienced sailors knock over a candle during a drunken card game.
  3. The sailors perceive a nearby sea creature as an omen of good luck.
  4. Superstitious sailors mistakenly identify a perfectly harmless phenomenon as an omen of doom.
  5. Hungry sailors fishing catch dangerous or sentient sea creature.
  6. A vital supply turns out to be defective, tainted or missing. D4: 1 – food, 2 – water, 3 – ammo, 4 – other.
  7. A resentful sailor begins to plot a mutiny, bringing d4 x 10% of the crew with her. Adjust as necessary if the captain is a son of a bitch.
  8. A gambling craze on the lower decks sees the crew members hurting for money.
  9. A lovestruck sailor has smuggled a new spouse or sweetheart on board.
  10. An officer or crew member starts to develop a crackpot theory and steer the ship accordingly.

Land Ho!

  1. The upper levels of a tower protrude above the waves, the water lapping gently below its windows. The tower seems to stretch down and down into the deep. Cold lights burn within.
  2. A fog-shrouded island is home to a mysterious old man; some say he can tell the future.
  3. A pirate market has sprung up on a small island; these short-lived bazaars sell anything and everything, but guard your purse carefully.
  4. A shore raid is taking place; cannibal longships are drawn up on the beach as their crews attack a small fishing village.
  5. A light gleams on the rocky shore – a trap set by wreckers for unwary vessels.
  6. The sound of axes and saws comes across the water as a party of engineers build a fort to defend an island from an upcoming assault.
  7. Another ship's crew uses this uncharted island as a source of fresh water and vegetables. They have left pitfalls and traps to protect their precious investments.
  8. Weird Brigadoon island appears only when the moon is in certain phases; its dungeons are heaped with treasure, but if the crew emerges at the wrong time they may find themselves in quite another place.
  9. A floating village consists of ships of all ages and cultures lashed together. Its inhabitants have food and supplies to sell, but it's not like all of those vessels were donated.
  10. A volcano belches fire and smoke, sending the ocean for miles around into an uproar.

What the--?!

  1. An unnatural effect stills the wind. The effect is centred on: 1- island, 2 – becalmed vessel, 3 – unlucky crewman, 4 – mischievous sea creature.
  2. Eerie lights shine around the ship's figurehead; it comes to life (see my upcoming bit on figureheads).
  3. A sudden calm and a clear sky lead to a mirror-like sea. But when the wind returns, the ship's reflection sails off in another direction. (If Eyvind is on board he has no reflection).
  4. The water becomes cloudy and filled with silt, as if something were burrowing up from the sea floor. But when it clears, there's nothing. Nothing visible, anyway.
  5. The sea sparkles a strange colour. Nothing happens at first, but gradually memories start to slip away. Fish caught in the area may contain missing memories of other sailors.
  6. Floating wreckage drifts by. When examined, it seems to have come from the ship the characters are sailing on.
  7. A wind blows that brings strange music with it. If the sailors follow the instructions of the song, the wind keeps carrying them with unnatural speed. But if they deviate, the breeze becomes a storm.
  8. Dead sea creatures rise to the surface of the water; there appears to be nothing actually wrong with them, but they're dead all the same. Wherever the ship goes, it literally leaves death in its wake. What's clinging to the underside of the hull?
  9. Bilge goblins.
  10. A massive whirlpool drags passing ships to their doom. Within the gullet of the waterspout, survivors have built a crude civilisation, relying on what they can steal from other doomed ships to prosper. But what lies at the bottom of the pool? Or is there a way out concealed in the craggy cliff that juts from the spout's side?   

Monday 16 March 2015

Maritime Month: The island-hopping campaign

So, as I plan the maritime campaign, I need to find myself an at-sea setting. I've already decided that there is an island-rich part of the map, more or less analogous to our world's Caribbean or Polynesia, just off the existing map to the east, so it's time to map that. But I don't want to make it too defined.

The advantage of the island setup is that it's good for the kind of quasi-episodic structure my campaign basically follows -- any given island is good for a little self-contained session or three, and I can include the larger archipelago in the ongoing political development of the campaign.

I think I have three options:

  • Make even the position of islands on the map random until they're discovered. I think this might be too random for me; I would not like the players to feel like they were wandering entirely at whim. 
  • Plan the position of the islands, but determine what's on them randomly as players get within their rumour-radius. By rumour radius, I mean that each island shouldn't exist in some kind of fog -- if it has contact with neighbouring islands, the people there will have heard of it. Not that what they have heard will necessarily be very accurate. Consider this excerpt from a letter by Christopher Columbus (although of course Columbus might in turn be garbling what his people heard): 

Thus I have found no monsters, nor had a report of any, except in an island "Carib," which is the second at the coming into the Indies, and which is inhabited by people who are regarded in all the islands as very fierce and who eat human flesh. They have many canoes with which they range through all the islands of India and pillage and take whatever they can. They are no more malformed than are the others, except that they have the custom of wearing their hair long like women, and they use bows and arrows of the same cane stems, with a small piece of wood at end, owing to their lack of iron which they do not possess. They are ferocious among these other people who are cowardly to an excessive degree, but I make no more account of them than of the rest. These are they who have intercourse with the women of "Matini-no," which is the first island met on the way from Spain to the Indies, in which there is not a man. These women engage in no feminine occupation, but use bows and arrows of cane, like those already mentioned, and they arm and protect themselves with plates of copper, of which they have much.
In another island, which they assure me is larger than Espanola, the people have no hair. In it there is incalculable gold, and from it and from the other islands I bring with me Indians as evidence.

  •  (In the above case, I suspect I will develop a tag system a la Stars Without Number and its related games and use that to generate basic island stuff. Should be no problem.)
  • The final option is to generate everything in advance, and I'm way too lazy for that option. 
So I guess that comes down on the side of creating a tag system. I can almost certainly swipe the hell out of the combined Sine Nomine games to create the randomiser, because I'm that lazy. 

Friday 13 March 2015

Swag Roundup: Ravening Hordes

I mentioned earlier that my vacation has involved a certain amount of game-product shopping, largely at the gaming flea market at Game Kastle in Santa Clara but also at local used bookshops and gaming stores. Here are just a few of the things I acquired:

Technically, I bought the Bones miniatures back in 2013. And there's more that isn't on here!
Today I want to talk about one of these acquisition's, 1987's Ravening Hordes.

This supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Battle (second edition) is sort of the birth of the modern fantasy wargame, in the sense that it is a big pile of army lists, with lots of different characters and war machines and creatures with special rules -- up to that point, it was very much the case that you just put whatever the heck you liked in your Warhammer army. Here we see the movement toward the competitive game, even the tournament. Obviously that formula would be even more refined in 3rd edition with Warhammer Armies, but at least to my untrained eye Ravening Hordes looks very much like the bridge between 2nd and 3rd editions.

Others, I'm sure, have said better things about Ravening Hordes, so I won't go into too much detail here, but I did want to draw attention to a few things:

The differences between this edition and the Warhammer I played (4th-6th editions) are interesting, as are the similarities. A lot of the iconic troop types are present: Fanatics, Flagellants, Witch Elves, Knights Panther, and what have you. But there are also a lot of things that are clearly sort of left over from Warhammer's D&D and Tolkien roots, like half-orcs. The Empire is clearly much more medieval than it would wind up being (although it does have a lot of gunpowder weapons), the whole Ulthuan/Khaine mythology doesn't exist yet, but the Skaven are almost exactly the Skaven of later editions, right down to the names of the clans and the many and weird special weapons.

The Beastmen are showing their roots, too. Check out this illustration from the Chaos army list:

Look at the glyphs on the rock the Beastman is standing on: those are the Gloranthan runes for Somethingorother (it looks like an Earth glyph with a missing lower bar? Someone want to help me out?), Storm and Harmony. If it is an Earth glyph, it seems like "the wedding of Orlanth and Ernalda," a sadly ironic image to juxtapose with what this creature obviously is, a Broo. 

The book also came with a flier advertising packaged armies in conformity with the rules in the book. The cheapest one is a Dark Elf army -- that's 123 models for £55.00. According to this site, that's approximately £141 in today's money, which is still a pretty good deal for 123 figures. The most expensive is 274 models for £120, or £307 in today's money. I think that's probably feasible, possibly feasible even in metal, but not perhaps feasible from GW. I may try to do this as an exercise at some point in the future. 

It was fun reading Ravening Hordes, but I doubt I'll hold onto it -- I have a copy of 3rd edition, so if I'm going to play the game I should probably hold out for Warhammer Armies

Frugal Notes: Cheap Terrain Spotted

A quick note: seen today at a Michael's craft store here in California, this bird house. My thumb shown for scale. The balcony is, sadly, not big enough to accommodate a figure's base, but there is room on the roof for models. If I didn't already have a giant castle waiting to be sorted out in my shed, I would have got this, laid on some textured paint, hit it with some car primer, drybrushed up, stuck on a door and maybe a flagpole and had a cool little tower for £3. 

Thursday 12 March 2015

Campaign lore: the Old Gods

Eight in number are the primal gods, left to govern the world in its youth. They are still worshipped by simple folk, but the upper classes of the Empire turned away from them long ago. Today, no follower of such a quaint and primitive religion would find favour at court.

The gods have many names and faces, and are worshipped across the human world in many guises. Most cultures recognise this fact -- even the angriest of the Free Nornrik rebels understand that their god Perkunas and the Imperial god Tiniaz are the same figure. There are also many lesser gods, said to be aspects or emanations of the Old Gods.

The Old Gods represent primal forces; as a result they are all Neutral on the moral scale, although their clerics may have any moral alignment.

Valla, goddess of life. Mother to all that lives, Valla does not play favourites among her young. Chaotic. She hates the undead and some constructs; life is for the living. Her shrines are often mobile, springing up wherever one of her clerics rests for a time. More permanent shrines tend to be in agricultural regions or deep in the forests, both because these places are sacred to the goddess and because the authorities make life difficult for her worshippers in cities.

Rhadamanthus, god of death. Rhadamanthus welcomes the dead into the underworld; his priesthood maintain funerary shrines and see that burial rites are carried out properly. He hates all who attempt to cheat death, from the alchemy-maddened immortals of the Imperial court to liches and vampires. He is brother to Valla, and the two priesthoods share a deep mutual respect. Lawful.

Fjorgyn, goddess of the earth. Lawful. Fjorgyn stands for all that is ancient and permanent. She is a greedy goddess, who will give the gifts of fruitful crops or glittering gems only when the proper offerings are made. Her temples are dark and ominous places, and even the cults of the Abyss have not rooted her priests -- who are said to command the earthquake and the rockslide -- from their mountain fastnesses. In Nornrik, Fjorgyn is said to have been the mother of the legendary heroes known as the Eight Cold Kings, and to have turned them into mountains when their reigns ended.

Tiniaz, god of the sky. Chaotic. Stormy and wrathful, Tiniaz sees all the evil that men do beneath him, and yet he hurls his thunderbolts not at the wicked but seemingly at random. In the Old Alliance, they say that he loves Fjorgyn and that storms are his rage at being separated from her. His temples are festooned with banners that snap and flutter in the wind, and his long-haired, rune-tattooed priests read mystical secrets in the dance of these totems. Those struck by lightning are said to be the god's chosen.

Nodens, lord of the deep. Chaotic. The god of the deep sea, Lord Nodens presides over a watery realm, welcoming into his drowned halls those who lived and died on the waves. In the Empire, the cult of Nodens has been almost entirely exterminated by the insurgent cults of the Abyssal sea-gods, and only a few shrines hang on where fishermen and sailors would rather dare the wrath of the Abyssal cults than of the cold deep. In Nornrik, his cult is strongest in the coastal south, but the recent conquest of this area by the Empire may soon change things.

Pele, goddess of fire. Chaotic. Pele is the warrior of the gods, who fought alongside Fjorgyn to bind the Old Devils behind walls of stone and flame. Her clerics see life as a forge, a trial by fire in which the goddess judges the strength of the faithful. Those who fail are consumed, but not damned; the goddess welcomes them to her fiery heart. Surprisingly, her temples are not at all warm -- only a single flame burns deep in the inner sanctum, except on certain festival days. Those with burn scars are beloved of Pele.

Shamash, god of the day. Lawful. Shamash is one of the least personal of the Old Gods, venerated as a god of time and truth. He is said to be the second-oldest of the eight deities, born only shortly after the creation. His clerics are serene and impartial; in remote communities they often serve as judges or magistrates.

Nephthys, goddess of the night. Lawful. The goddess of the night is the oldest of the Old Gods and has even less of an identifiable personality than Shamash. She provides arcane wisdom in the form of dreams, and her devotees spend half of their time in temples heavy with the smoke of hallucinogenic incense, waiting for their mistress to give them prophetic visions.

Other cultures acknowledge the existence of the Old Gods; in Elven theology they are believed to be emanations or aspects of the God, reduced and simplified so that the feeble minds of humans can grasp them. Those who worship the Gods of the Abyss recognise the existence of the Old Gods, but consider them weak and outdated -- and some even scheme to eliminate them all together and free up their space within the cosmology.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Campaign lore: legions of the Empire

So in this post and those that follow I am going to talk about developing the setting of my D&D campaign! This post is about the Empire's government.

Five are the legions of the Empire, and five there have always been ... although not always the same five.

The Immortal Buffalo General
The Crimson Buffalo Legion serves the whims of the Immortal Buffalo General. It is a potent military machine, most famous for having conquered southern Nornrik in the last war. Now, the Bufalo's fanatical devotees prepare for the coming of summer and the "big push" that will take them to the very foot of the Eight Cold Kings.

Junior officer of the
Dawn Scorpion Battalion
The Azure Scorpion Legionis of equal antiquity to the Crimson Buffalo, although lately it has no glorious victories to equal the Buffalo's. The Masked Scorpion General feels the waning of her influence at court as the Buffalo's power grows. Will some hapless neighbouring kingdom be the next casualty of the General's ambition?

The White Dragon Legion is the youngest of the Imperial legions. Led by the Invincible Dragon General, this force of sailors and marines patrols the Empire's coasts. The White Dragon jealously guards its role as the Empire's naval force. This role was previously held by the Iron Hawk Legion; when Grand Admiral Alzeth and his flagship disappeared on an expedition to the east.
Rumours of an actual dragon are unconfirmed.
The Night-Black Cenacle is not technically a legion in the military sense; instead, it is a cabal of the Empire's most powerful magic-users. The leaders of the Cenacle are warlocks who derive their powers from the Abyss. In addition to lending its magical skill to the Empire's campaigns, the Cenacle spends much of its time rooting out and destroying groups of unlicensed  magic-users.

I don't know where this image
is from; if it's you, let me know.
Plus, you're a baller.
The Bronze Jackal Legion was originally a band of mercenaries from the
Syndicate, and the Merciless Jackal General's power base remains primarily in that region. The Jackals were promoted to full legion status to fill the gap left after the destruction of Zothul and his Old Bone Legion by the combined forces of the Crimson Bufalo and the Night-Black Cenacle.

The Imperial generals are more like kings than military commanders, each of them with vast power and influence even in areas outside the war zones. They are among the most influential voices at court, competing with the Empresses Regent and the functionaries of the Permanent Establishment to direct the fate of the Empire. The Generals must balance the requirements of command with those of politics, often choosing to allow their subordinates to speak at court in their place while they command their legions in person. For instance, the Immortal Buffalo General usually speaks through his most trusted aide, Crimson Buffalo One, or through the Brides, his elite cadre of personal agents.

Monday 9 March 2015

Dark Druids by Robert J. Kuntz

One of the pieces of gaming swag that I've picked up on this holiday is a copy of Dark Druids, written by Robert J. Kuntz and published by Chaotic Henchmen Productions, a little RPG microbrewery run by a pal of mine. You can order it here. The proprietor hooked me up with a copy, which I read eagerly over the past few days. So let's take a look at the scenario. This review contains spoilers, so if you think you're going to be playing this you should probably stop reading now. 

Dark Druids is an updated version of an older scenario by Robert J. Kuntz, one of the earliest D&D players and longtime designer. It's designed for quite a powerful group, either a small team of 12th level characters or a somewhat larger group of slightly lower level. 

This is the print copy, which costs, I believe, $24 (about £16 at the moment, though hopefully the exchange rate will sort itself out). I don't think a PDF is available, although Chaotic Henchmen's earlier scenarios, The Fane of Poisoned Prophecies and Many Gates of the Gann are available in PDF for $6 (£4) each. I haven't read them, but now I kind of want to!

You gotcher basic colour cover, which ... 
... has maps of the larger dungeon areas on the inside. In classic module style,
the cover is a separate piece from the adventure booklet itself.
Interior layout is a simple two-column setup with black and white illos,
text boxes and more maps and diagrams. 
So what's it about? 

The basic premise is that your party are recruited by a conclave of local good cleric types to find out what a bunch of weirdo evil druids are up to. There's a side quest of "find out what happened to the last bunch of guys we sent to find out what the weirdos are up to." The lair of the bad guys is deep within Fang Forest. 

What the good taskmasters don't know is that there are not one but two sects of evil druids. The main group (called the Black Hats, which is mandatory change number two, right after "conclave of good religious leaders who shout Steel and Spell! in unison") is under attack by a radical splinter faction called the Umber Eyes, who are sick and tired of just worshiping evil and want to actually summon their demon lord. I guess the fact that the Black Hats are the (relative) goodies is pretty funny. 

So when the PCs arrive, the Umber Eyes are just mounting their final assault on the three-level dungeon that serves the Black Hats for a base. This means that everyone's attention is distracted, and no one is really looking out for threats from outside, giving the PCs a chance to sneak in and accomplish their mission. This also makes the situation inside the dungeon extremely fluid, something that's going to be particularly important once the PCs get down to the lower levels and start upsetting the balance. 

What did I like about it? 

  • Once you're past the relatively linear opening, it's quite a large, open dungeon with plenty of different paths the players can follow. The upper levels are mainly open spaces with sub-areas or side rooms, leading to a third level with multiple access points, each differently defended, and a big battle raging in the middle. It rewards thinking about space, planning and intelligent -- but quick -- tactical thinking. 
  • Although the enemies on both sides are basically similar -- druids, y'know, who mainly fight via summoning -- the encounters are thematically and tactically different enough from each other that they don't feel repetitive. 
  • It is stuffed with new material -- a new variant class for AD&D 1st (the "dark druid"), four new monsters, 16 new magic items (some of 'em more or less variants on existing items, some of them scenario-unique, but many of them usable elsewhere), and a whopping 42 spells. 
  • It is mostly clear and easy to follow, with good explanation of NPC tactics (normally I don't care about this, but high-level spellcasters are quite complex and the explanations are useful). 
  • The little historical commentary section in one of the appendices is a fun look at where this scenario fits into the history of Greyhawk. 
  • It has a mixture of stand-up fights, sneaking, puzzle-solving and general mystery material. Thinking about the clues provided in the scenario -- and not just explicit clue clues but the information provided by the environment -- will really help the characters develop their tactical thinking. 
  • Several of the encounters are well-thought-out little vignettes that really make you feel like the bad guys need sortin' out. Early on, for instance, the PCs come across two of the Umber Eyes torturing some captives for information using a particularly nasty method (conceptually nasty rather than graphically described), and any party that tends toward the good-aligned side is going to want to give them what for after that. 
  • They're also creepy in a druidical way, which isn't always easy. 
  • It gives a lot of thought to the clues scattered around the place; evidence is important and it's been described in nice clear detail. 
  • Some of the art is cool and atmospheric. 
What didn't work for me? 

  • It could use another touch of the editor's pen. I don't mean that there are typos or errors -- although there are one or two, including an unfortunate one in the description of a puzzle -- but that it, like many old-school modules, is overwritten. The language is sometimes clumsy, and word choice is sometimes slightly off. If you're furiously battling to defend yourself, for instance, you're not "sequestered." Mind you, this is pure old school and some people like that kind of thing.
  • The intro is not engaging. Some unnamed clerics want you to go into the woods after the last pack of fools. I understand that these things are hard to write, because each party is different; I assume most people will throw this intro out and use one more suited to their own characters.
  • There is a certain amount of guff. For instance, to get into the dungeon, the PCs have to find a magical dingus hidden in a tree to activate the portal and then pass a puzzle-y initiation test. There's no useful info for solving the puzzle other than a clue scrawled by a previous initiate, the solution isn't interesting, there's no time pressure, failure is not an option (the penalty for failing is "you don't get to play the scenario") and each PC has to do it alone. It does help explain why the Umber Eyes have infiltrated an elite team of spellcasters into the complex rather than flooding it with mooks, but still
  • There is poetry. Again, that's old-school, so some people like it and other people don't. I like it in principle, but it has to be done particularly well. 
  • The scenario ends with a lead into a sequel that isn't out yet and quite possibly never will be. It does give you a little outline to work from, so that's cool, but it's not self-contained.
  • Some of the art is a bit rough. Again, some people like that in their old-school products, or at least don't care. 
  • There is boxed text.
What will I use? 

As you may know if you're reading this, I don't play an old-school game. I've read older editions of D&D and I've incorporated a lot of their good features into my campaign, I hope, but ruleswise I am a 5th ed. guy these days. Obviously, then, some of the things in this scenario aren't going to be a lot of use to me. What am I going to use? 

  • The scenario itself, in terms of its general outline and layout. My campaign world is rife with weirdo cults who want to summon their dark lords, and I've liked the idea of the split between two factions in one of them ever since I ran into it in an old Cthulhu Live supplement. 
  • The map, for sure. It's a nice map! So I'll keep the general plot outline and the physical structure, but rejig some of the antagonists to fit in a little more specifically with my campaign and my player group. 
  • Several of the monsters are going to turn up in other scenarios, especially the demon that takes the form of a big thorny hedge thing that evilly nourishes the bad guys within it. That's creepy. 
  • Several of the magic items are clever and complex enough that they could turn up again in other scenarios. 
So I'm definitely going to use the majority of it, and even the majority of the scenario itself in broad strokes. About the only thing that's no use to me is the spell list and variant class -- and, in fairness, that's because I don't play the game this thing is for, which is not exactly a criticism of the product itself.


Like I said, I don't really play AD&D 1st. It's possible that the spell list is broken or the class is incomplete or something -- I have no idea. I've read the rules and played once or twice, but I don't have good instincts for the rules. If you play the game and have questions you'd like me to answer, though, I'd be happy to!

Thursday 5 March 2015

Swipe File Special: Master Li and Number Ten Ox

I am, as I have mentioned, on holiday at the moment, and that means holiday reading. One of the things I've been reading, or more accurately rereading, is The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart. I first read the first of these novels, Bridge of Birds, in high school, where it was recommended to me by an English teacher. I read the others over the years, although I don't think that they're as good as the original (they're a bit predictable).

The setting is kind of a fantasy Tang Dynasty China, with its own weird history and all kinds of goofy exaggeration, much more the China that appears in kung fu movies than any actual part of Chinese history. Master Li is a goofy old Taoist sage who works as a detective, and Number Ten Ox, our narrator, is his good-hearted Watson. The books are good, but if you wanted to say there was a certain amount of corny Orientalism (or Chinoiserie) in them I wouldn't disagree. There are definitely some flaws there.

But what I wanted to talk about today is the number of dungeons there are in the first two books, Bridge of Birds and Story of the Stone.

In Bridge of Birds, we have a baddy who lives in a castle over an underground labyrinth, with secret instructions to find the cache of treasure in it. Once Li and Ox find the clue there, they head off to two other dungeons, one of them an island puzzle where they're being chased around by a sort of giant invisible monster and one of them a network of caves full of traps and evil monks. Then they go back to the first dungeon and attack it from a different perspective.

Story of the Stone is much more centred on a single location, in this case a valley where a long-dead madman is believed to have returned to do all kind of evil stuff. And seriously like a quarter of the book is these guys exploring the dungeon -- going through it, hearing local legends about it from the people in the valley, entering it at different times through different entrances, finding how its various areas link up to each other, looking for clues, interpreting information, fighting, running like hell, discovering deeper areas, the whole bit. It is a really richly-described dungeon exploration in novel form, and if you like that sort of thing it's really worth checking out.

Quite apart from it being a pretty good book, of course.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Maritime Month: Naval Combat, No Cannon

In my last post, I talked about borrowing elements from different periods of history for the nautical section of my D&D game. Obviously, one of the largest influences is the golden age of piracy. From that era, or at least it's literary incarnation, I am gonna take all sorts of treasure maps and walking the plank and yarr-me-hearty stuff. But one thing I am not going to take is cannon.

I don't know why that is the sticking point, but it is. It is an aesthetic principle rather than a world building one. So given that there are no cannon and that we still want to make naval combat fun, let's establish some basic principles. 

Ships matter. Different ships need to have different strengths and weaknesses. We want our heroes to be scanning the horizon, trying to figure out what enemy vessels are so they can formulate an appropriate strategy.

Ships are valuable. So most combat will end with boarding, since the goal is to capture the enemy vessel. Only the navy -- the newly-formed and cocky White Dragon Legion -- really tries to sink or burn. Again, this is good; this is an adventure RPG, so we want our heroes swinging aboard on ropes at some point anyway. 

Ships have several target areas. You may want to sink a vessel, render it immobile or kill its crew. Broadly, then, we're going to have to divide ships into hull, propulsion and crew as targets.

So with those principles in mind, let's look at weapons. Another principle: wacky fantasy shit is a-ok.

So we need weapons that target hulls, rigging and crews, basically. Many fantasy games seem to use ballistas as the replacement for cannons, your primary hull-targeting weapon, and personally I feel like that's a mistake. You could shoot a hell of a lot of giant arrows into most ships' hulls before sinking them. 

Instead, we will say that there are two types of anti-hull weapons. The first and most important is the ram. You really need oars to use this effectively, and because it's mainly a ship-killer it's something you only find on naval vessels. In close quarters you'll find some vessels using hullcrushers, man-portable projectiles which are just a big-ass heavy weight you lob into the opponent's ship in hopes that it'll smash through the planking. You could shoot one of those out of a mangonel, I guess, so let's include catapults maybe mounted on the fighting platforms of some vessels? I feel like those would not be super accurate.

Anti-personnel weapons are easy. You've got archery, of course, or showers of javelins or whatever it is your sailors fight with. If you want ballistas or big multi-shot crossbows, this is a good role for them. I sort of want them to launch projectiles made of brick or even glass so that they smash into razor-sharp shards to slash up enemy crew. And of course PCs who are good at archery can go sniping helmsmen and enemy officers and stuff.

Anti-rigging weapons are the hardest. In the great age of fighting sail, you'd be aiming for the enemy's masts and rigging, sometimes using specialised projectiles like chain or bar shot. But we don't have cannon, so we're going to have to replace them with ... how about rivebows? In the Bas-Lag series of novels, cactacae, who have thick hides and tough limbs, use rivebows, weapons that fire sort of circular saw blades or chakrams capable of slicing off a limb. Great big sort of arbalest dealies that shoot giant shuriken. Yeah, OK. We'll have them.

Another category that you probably only find on military vessels would be incendiary weapons. Historically, the most common form of these, apart from just lobbing burning stuff at the target, is going to be some variation on Greek fire, which is basically a burning liquid that you squirt at the enemy through a nozzle. In a fantasy game, I think this is more likely to be fireballs and firebolts; firebolts specifically don't do very much damage but do set things on fire, so I'm going to assume that any ship that runs up against even a low-level wizard has fire-fighting crews standing by (since we don't have gunpowder and hull timbers aren't as flammable as all that, taking a flaming hit to the hull is less of a problem; it's the sails and rigging you've got to worry about).

And that's leaving out weird fantasy weapons, like flocks of trained dire bats or massive grappling claws or guns that shoot angry water elementals or what have you. I have a weird attitude about these -- I like them, but I don't like having them repeated. So having an individual enemy that's a sea-chariot pulled by sharks is great. "The Ruby Coast Corsairs use sea-chariots pulled by ferocious Monkey Sharks" is stupid. I can't explain why but there it is. 

Monday 2 March 2015

Maritime Month: In Praise of the Mishmash

Technically, only part of this post is maritime, but it's all thematically linked.

As a history dork -- as a particular kind of history dork -- I have a particular problem when I run my D&D game. I tend to swipe liberally from history, because why wouldn't you, but then I have this bad habit of assuming that one corner of the square implies the other three. So if I have, say, Viking-equivalents in my setting then that must necessarily imply all sorts of other things about the climate, ecology, technology, etc. of the setting such that Vikings or Viking-like cultures can exist reasonably.

And this is in a game where I have decided that I do not give the tenth part of a hang about reasonable. It's just a quirk. And it's not just my quirk either -- how many people are weirded out by the fact that the Song of Ice and Fire books take place in a setting that has a highly British/European culture but is environmentally much more like North America, with its redwood trees and icy north and alligator-infested swamps? Maybe none, hell, I don't know. But it's notable that D&D fantasy continents usually have wolves and bears but not, like, buffalo or elephants.

And that's OK -- some consistent grounding can be handy to avoid having to describe every damn thing. But at sea it is not going to fly.

See, when most people think of "sailing ships" they think of a particular period in maritime history, what you might call "the golden age of piracy," anywhere from the middle of the 17th century to the first quarter of the 18th. Or, failing that, the Hornblower/Aubrey era of the Napoleonic wars. But that's only one tiny part of the vast and bitchin' history of human sailing ingenuity, and honestly I think my game would be a lot less interesting if I didn't include some of these different vessels:

Polynesia = surprisingly unrobbed for D&D!

No cannons in my fantasy world. Ramming speed!

Wait until we get to the bit about ship-to-ship weapons.

I mean, the sailing ones look a bit nicer than this. 

Obviously the head contains some horrible weapon.

How do you solve a problem like Fireball?

Overheated scenario title: TREASURE SHIP OF THE PIRATE QUEEN!

Yet more galleys. 

Good old Zheng He.