Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"What do you smell? Man-Flesh!" Scent, Wind Direction, and a Curious Gap in Encounter Procedures

Critics still remember the 1985 Schwarzenegger film Commando for its artful cinematography, its understated acting, and its profound interrogation of the human condition. Wait, sorry, they don’t. Not at all. What *I* remember from that movie is the scene when Ah-nuld tells off a soldier assigned to protect him during an ambush:

Ah-nuld: Remember, you’re downwind. The air current may tip them off.
Soldier: Downwind? You think I can smell them coming?
Ah-nuld: I did. 

Smelling the enemy is not just a Hollywood idea; scent discipline is a real feature in modern warfare (though, if my understanding is correct, it tends to be most important in the close conditions of jungle fighting; since contact may occur with hidden enemies at very, very close range, human smells and especially detergents, tobacco, etc. could alert a concealed threat). 

Detecting an enemy (or a predator, or prey) is far more important in the Animal Kingdom. Although I’m not a hunter, I’ve spent much of my life near wilderness and/or around hunters. I learned one of the fundamentals as a kid: if you want to have any chance at stalking an animal, you must pay attention to the direction of the wind. Approach from upwind, and you have no chance. But again, I’m not a hunter - so don’t take my word for it. Take these folks’ instead. 

“Nothing gets past a deer’s nose … And it’s easy to forget about scent. Sure you notice obvious odors, but you simply don’t realize how much you smell like a human being when you’re in the bush. You may think you’re scent-free, but to any downwind wild critter - save a skunk - you smell big and bad. … Remember, if there’s one golden rule of deer hunting, it’s never to get caught upwind.” 

Also from Outdoor Canada
“So, if you want a guaranteed way to foil your [moose] hunt, ignore the wind and call from an upwind position. Even worse, wear hunting clothes that reek like smoke, bacon, and other camp smells. In either case, you can say adios to your moose roasts.” 

From RealTree:
“Researchers at Mississippi State University found that a deer’s sense of smell, like a dog’s, can be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 times more acute than a human’s. Furthermore, scientists say that whitetails have thousands of sensitive receptors in their nostrils, which they use to sort out up to six smells at one time. For more than 50 years Leonard Lee Rue III … has done more to educate the American public on the ways of whitetail than anyone. Rue observes that [on a day with] ideal scenting conditions for a buck … ‘a deer could detect a human’s scent from at least one half-mile, or more.’ … How do you defeat the whitetail’s awesome nose? You can’t. You can only stay in the game by playing the wind and practicing good scent control on every hunt.”

To be clear, it’s not just prey animals that can find you a long way away with their noses. Not all predators are whiz-bang sniffers; tigers, for example, don’t particularly rely on scent for hunting. Bears, however, can smell 2,100 times more effectively than you can; they can “detect a carcass that is about 20 miles away, and polar bears can follow a sexually receptive sow’s scent over 100 miles.” Stacked up against the competition, then, human sense of smell is pretty measly. They can smell us a looooooooong way away. 

Ok, now let’s translate this to the fantasy-gaming table. You have a party of footloose adventurers crossing, say, the Isle of Dread, or some other wilderness area. They smell strongly of human, not to mention every campfire they’ve sat around on this journey...not to mention the seasonings in the food they’ve been munching on the journey...not to mention any other unpleasant things that have spattered on them in recent combat encounters. And they are traversing a wilderness that is full, our Monster Manuals assure us, of things much, much scarier than whitetail deer and even grizzly bears. Nightmare creatures that want to find them and eat them.

Sniff sniff ... where are you, PCs? (Source)

One might rightly expect, therefore, that scent control and wind direction would be very important at the gaming table. 

Indeed, scent and wind direction play a prominent role in OSR discussions of encounter design. For example:


Oh wait, scent and wind direction don’t play much of a role in our conversations, at least as far as I can tell. Ok, to be fair, it’s not the case that there isn’t any consideration of it; for example, my B/X Essentials Monsters entry for Cave Bear notes that such creatures have poor eyesight but a good sense of smell, and elaborates that ‘when hungry’ they will follow a blood trail by smell. Contrast that with the entry for tigers; surprise, on a 1-4, in woodland, due to camouflage. But there is little sense here that scent detection, dependent to some extent on wind direction, is going to play a major role in shaping the likelihood of an overland encounter with a bear (let alone something much worse), the likelihood that the party may be surprised by that encounter, and even the direction from which a creature’s attack comes. And honestly, after doing some poking around, I don’t see much discussion about scent within the OSR at all.  

A quick aside: please do not interpret anything here as a criticism of B/X Essentials (not to mention the original B/X) or the wonderful work that Gavin is putting out these days. Nor am I trying to attack anyone else. Rather, I’ve just stumbled on something that I think is a noteworthy gap in our conversations as a gaming community, and I’m hoping either that you will all school me in the comments and show me that this is already taken care of or doesn't need addressed because it's not worth gaming out - or, instead, maybe we can think together about how to harness monstrous sniffers in helpful, fun ways…

If we move beyond the OSR specifically, we see a little more engagement with scent and wind direction, though not (IMHO) to full advantage. Some random examples: 

+ a 3.5-era entry on playable Minotaurs granted them keen scent which would allow them - upon reaching 4th level - to detect creatures by smell up to 10 feet away, or - oh, the power! - up to 20 feet away if the creature was upwind. That’s massively underwhelming compared to ‘run of the mill’ animals in the real world. 

+ I've seen some discussions about characters with keen senses being able to detect invisible foes by smell, e.g. gaining Advantage on rolls to perceive such enemies. I also found a reddit post discussing what a dog-as-player-character would be able to smell. 

+ Lots of attention to wind intensity as part of the weather, mainly for traveling by sea or for its effect on part endurance. Notably, just going off what I've found myself online, the RPG hobby appears to have invested more ink in the random likelihood of a tornado hitting the party - and the Fort save DC should that occur - than the likelihood that a monster would stalk them from downwind. Surely I must be missing something? 

+ Even…yes…personal fragrances (as in cologne and perfume, yo) matched with the classic character classes, or scents-as-special-effects. 

What I don’t see - and again, please do point it out if I’m just not seeing what’s already there - is any prominent, useful generalized treatment of how and when to include wind direction as a normal part of the wilderness encounter process. So - step 1, tell me in the comments if I’m wrong; step 2 - assuming I’m not wrong; what might we do about it? 

Personally, I have no interest in creating mechanical complexity just for the sake of verisimilitude alone. Hyper-simulation isn’t my preferred cup of tea. I’m interested in harnessing scent and wind direction where they increase fun and especially where they increase meaningful tension and player choice.

To that end, here are a few possible approaches; I invite readers to add other ideas in the comments. 

IDEA ONE: develop a perfectly tuned, hypercrunchy simulation of wind direction, scent, monster scent-gland sizes, etc. Nope, not for me, for reasons stated above. Maybe someone else would like this. 

IDEA TWO: Hand-wave it. Turn scent and wind direction into flavor text. The party managed to evade a random encounter? Tell them it was because the Ranger stealthily led them downwind from the thing she’d tracked. The party gets hit by a surprise encounter? Mention the wind blowing in their faces right before you describe them getting jumped from behind. This would work, but it doesn’t add meaningful choices.  

IDEA THREE: Incorporate scent and wind direction only where you know its effect on player choice, mainly as a tactical puzzle in fixed encounters. For example, your players are rushing to rescue a local official abducted by hungry humanoid foes. You tell them that they’ve tracked the baddies to a camp on a bluff overlooking a river. The wind is blowing up the gentler slope into the enemy camp; any direct assault or incursion from that direction will face a steep chance of detection by keen humanoid noses. If the players want, they could try to sneak around and climb up the steep riverbank bluff instead, which would be risky but would put them in the camp from downwind. Or, they can wait and roll every hour to see if the wind direction changes - but hope the captors don’t eat the prisoner before the rescue can happen ("What about their legs? They don't need those, do they?"). That’s 3 different and meaningful tactical choices all dictated by the fact that their humanoid enemies can smell “man-flesh.”

[Side-Note: I used exactly this method last time I ran a game, although I simply rolled a d12 as a clock face to find the wind direction. But I was GM’ing for kids and they got distracted by an argument over whether or not to shoot flaming arrows into the woods, hoping that a forest fire would flush out the hobgoblin bandits waiting to ambush them. :-) ]

IDEA FOUR: Make scent and wind direction a key component in random encounter rolls and overland travel procedures, but without loading it down with crunchy simulationism. I am not yet quite sure how I’d want to do this, and I should give all of you a chance to shout me down before I invest too much thought into it. Maybe your random encounter table for a given landscape should note which creatures on the list have particularly keen smell. If you roll an encounter with such a creature, immediately roll 1d12; “1” is the direction in which the PCs are currently traveling. If the d12 shows a wind direction coming from anywhere behind the PCs, past them into the land they’re moving into, then the encountered creature automatically knows they are coming, and the very best the PCs can achieve is to not be surprised themselves. But how to introduce some tactical choice here? 

Maybe this calls for something in between the "spoor/sign" encounter result and the actual encounter - a little minigame that gives the party a chance to outmaneuver the wind and a suspected monster - or to spend a resource, like time, to hide in a cave until the wind changes, or pick a longer alternate path that is less exposed to the wind. Or to just bull through, and fight the owlbear that's looking for lunch when it inevitably catches them. 

Hmmm. Let me know what you think; good ideas here, or does it all just smell? 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Moving Experience for Dead PCs

I’d like to comment on a conversation that recently caught my interest, but happened while I was busy working on Brazen Backgrounds and didn’t want to divert to comment at much length. The key idea under discussion has evidently been around for quite a while in a variety of forms - namely, that you can redeem back a good chunk of your deceased character’s XP if you recover their body and throw a suitably expensive funeral for them. The In Places Deep blog discussed a variant of this idea a few months ago; I’m pretty sure that there also was even more discussion recently that (arghh!) I thought I’d bookmarked but now can’t find, even with some Google-Fu. 

At any rate…paying treasure to redeem a dead PC’s experience points offers a number of advantages (which others have already noted before me): it can mitigate that feeling of being the one Level 1 character in a pack of Level 6’ers; it can benefit the party as a whole, since they don’t lose as much competence per PC death; it can give absolutely loaded characters something to actually do with all that loot; it can help players transition emotionally and mentally between characters, and highlight meaningful connections with new characters (maybe a long-lost cousin - your new character - is the one throwing the massive funeral); and it can change play in meaningful ways by incentivizing new behaviors, like risking death or dismemberment just to get back the body of a fallen comrade and transport it to civilization (I’m not going to drop spoilers, but a recent Netflix Original action movie revolved around exactly this kind of abrupt mission-adjustment, and struck me as analogous to a dungeon crawl gone wrong). Someone mentioned that you could require a funeral on consecrated ground, or at least incentivize such a location. Doing so, worth noting, would automatically flag certain places/things as more important in your setting.

It’s that last piece that I’d like to unpack a little in this post. Reading about this “PC funeral for XP” idea immediately reminded me of a somewhat recent academic study addressing the return of bodies to ancestral homes from overseas in the Roman and Greek world. The point I want to stress is how this funeral concept also lets one highlight cultural values that run very deep in your setting (well, if you want them to, that is) - in a way that signals that even your murderhobo PC runabouts, as footloose and isolated as they may appear, actually belong somewhere - and at the end of the day (err, life), someone is looking for them to come home. 

Perhaps he was a Level 5 Fighter. (Source)

For the two and a half of you who will care about the precise details, the study is:

Rolf E. Tybout. “Dead Men Walking: The Repatriation of Mortal Remains” in Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire, edited by Luuk de Ligt and Laurens Ernst Tacoma, 390-437. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 

Ok, I’m going to let Tybout speak for himself with some direct quotes, then I’ll comment briefly on using this idea at the game table. 

“The repatriation of corpses appears to have been more widely spread, both geographically and socially, than has generally been acknowledged … in archaeological reports.” (391)

“Dying abroad was a grievous matter in itself; although it could cause relatives excessive sorrow, this might be mitigated somewhat by being able to grant the deceased his last journey home … To be left to lie in alien soil, far away from family and native community, is a frequent source of lamentation [in funerary inscriptions] … If it was impossible to retrieve the body, the next best option open to the bereaved family was to erect a cenotaph in a graveyard in the deceased’s hometown, so that its members would at least have a tangible and lasting focus for commemoration…” (394-5)

“Obviously, the considerable time span involved in the whole process meant that the bodies could not be brought home intact … it is clear that some form of preservation of the corpse was required for long-distance repatriation. … Cremation would have been necessary to strip the flesh and reduce the body to ashes or bones … bones are likely to survive intact when heated for a relatively short duration and not subjected to the very high maximum temperature of the funeral pyre. … Two [Greek] poems certainly describe the transportation of bones …” (398)

“Needless to say, the operation was complex and must have involved considerable trouble and all sorts of expenses. In the ideal situation … relatives already present at the place of death accompanied the body on its way to the homeland. But in most cases companions or colleagues will have taken care of a traveller’s or migrant’s funeral. Days, even weeks must have passed before relatives even received notice of the death of their loved one; they would have had to travel, perhaps after deliberations in the family circle, to destinations often beyond their horizons, where they would have had to find out how the body has been dealt with so far and where the remains were located. They would have found either an urn or another receptacle containing the ashes or bones or a grave in which the bones or the intact body had been interred. In the latter case, they would have had to obtain permission to disinter the remains. If time had not already dissolved the flesh, cremation would have been inevitable after disentombment. Finally they would have had to organize transport home. In all its variants, the whole procedure of repatriation might have taken months rather than weeks. … That at least twenty-three of the 142 epigrams considered in this study attest to repatriation post mortem, implying that about one-sixth of the relatives opted to spare no effort to achieve this end and accomplished their objective, is indicative of its vital role and ritual function in the contemporary ways of coping with grief and bereavement.” (400)

[Tybout notes that some sources indicate that dead travelers were embalmed prior to transport] “However, the people concerned are all Egyptians, for whom the unity of body and spirit expressed by this most thorough variant of embalmment was of vital importance. Greeks and Romans, who shared in the age-old belief that the spirit should be set free by the decay of the body, did not consider the latter’s perpetual conservation an appropriate treatment. We have seen that cremation, with the ashes and bones remaining, was the normal way for Greeks and Romans to evade the problem of putrefaction during transport.” (408) [But, Tybout notes, in some cases even Greeks and Romans would resort to the temporary preservation of whole remains using wax, salt, or honey, but only for transport]. 

“All this puts the picture of widespread, largely voluntary mobility arising from sundry sources into a somewhat different perspective. Perhaps it would have been unlikely for migrants to encounter physical or legal boundaries, but many of them will have had mental barriers to overcome as they set out on their journeys. Numerous … sources testify in one way or another to the extremely strong bonds of affection which connected them to their ancestral home and native soil, the trusted communities in which they had grown up in the bosom of the loving families they had left behind. These bonds were to last a lifetime, and beyond: repatriation post mortem was, in a sense, an act of reparation - of restoring the natural order disturbed by migration. … [For] most Greeks or Romans, no matter how much they chose to wander in a world whose open frontiers allowed them to travel or migrate as often as they wishes … whatever fruits ‘foreign earth’ might have yielded to its immigrants, the outside world remained second rate compared to their homeland.” (415). 



Ok, time for a few ideas to elaborate on how all this can be put to use at the gaming table:

+ first: there’s nothing wrong with the idea of paying gold to harvest a dead PC’s experience points - in fact, although this idea probably arises out of gamers’ very pragmatic concerns, it perfectly reflects the kinds of psychological and cultural factors that would have shaped end-of-life rituals in some prominent ancient societies. This is a huge win-win in my book, as it allows something that is mechanically helpful just for the purpose of playing a game, and also makes that game even deeper and more expressive of historical realities. 

+ as Tybout notes, different adjacent cultures might handle these practices in different ways; Greeks and Romans preferred to transport charred dry bones; Egyptians preferred embalmment; and, as Tybout goes on to note, the Christinaization of the Roman world led in some cases to less concern about one’s final resting place, as the deceased awaited resurrecting life from a single God present in every corner of Creation. If your game has several different cultures existing cheek-by-jowl, it could be interesting to determine in advance how each prefers to handle their dead - and in particular how they handle their dead when far from home. This can even be relevant for PCs all of the same culture, if they wander into foreign territory…for example, if your culture mandates embalmment but the locals consider that some weird heathen superstition, good luck finding an embalmer (or at least a trustworthy one - maybe the only choice has about a 35% chance of actually turning your friend into an undead horror for purposes of his own…mwuahahah…). Finding a really large clay jar, and a LOT of honey or salt, may be next on your remaining PCs’ agenda…

+ these cultural practices allow for a hierarchy of preferred funerary-transport methods which can fit seamlessly into a hierarchy of XP gains in different circumstances. Could’t recover that PC’s body at all? Maybe you still get a fraction of the XP for setting up a funerary cenotaph on home turf. Is transport overseas unsafe or otherwise impossible? Set up a proper burial in a less-desired spot for more XP than just a cenotaph, but less XP than a proper tomb back home with the ancestors. 

+ Ok, now how to define “home” turf? In many campaigns, this should be easy to do. But there may be some campaigns where this is more complicated; maybe characters are from all over the place, but the frame of play itself is within a more narrowly defined sandbox far from home (which I think is actually a better more manageably game-able idea in most cases than a giant continent-spanning epic). Or maybe most of your characters are locals but one player is running a barbarian from far away; do you want to penalize the barbarian player because of a distant point of origin? Here are a few possible work-arounds:

+ designate some place that is familiar and within reach in your campaign ‘frame’ as home turf for each PC. This may be their literal point of origin or, for more footloose characters, it may be a kind of new home away from home where they’ve found meaningful connections. So maybe your barbarian from a distant land has fallen in with a group of fellow tribes members living in exile or as mercenaries far from home, and they band together for common identity. Burial among them counts as ‘home.’ 

+ handle travel for burial with an epic montage. The character was able to get here, so they should be able (in most circumstances) to get back there. But that doesn’t mean we should necessarily derail this campaign for a seven-session narration of the long voyage back to the Republic of Thneed. Instead, if the players have clearly been able to recover the body and get it into shape for transport (embalmed, partially cremated, fully cremated, pickled, salted, etc.) then whenever they have extended downtime between sessions they can pay the requisite GP-for-XP so long as they provide a stirring, brief narration of how the other PCs and/or extended family members took the body home to its resting place.

+ or you just go full tilt and you have to game out every step of the way. Good luck. 

What a morbid but interesting topic. Cheers all!

By the way - I want to close with a very hearty THANK YOU to those who’ve purchased my rpg supplement BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS: Character Backgrounds for Bronze Age Settings. I really appreciate the patronage from all who’ve picked it up, and I’d love to hear how you use it. If you’re interested, you can check it out here (affiliate link). 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Now PUBLISHED! Brazen Backgrounds: Character Backgrounds for Bronze Age Settings is LIVE!!!

I am very excited to announce that my Bronze Age character background generator is now published and available right HERE at DriveThruRPG.com!!! (affiliate link) From the DriveThru page:

"Welcome to BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS, a character-background generator written specifically for role-playing games in Bronze Age fantasy settings - and written by a professional scholar, with a doctorate in the study of ancient history and archaeology. System-neutral, this resource can also breathe life into characters for any low magic, low fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery campaign.

From the moment of character generation, these backgrounds will ease players into a setting that many find less familiar than the faux-medieval worlds more common in fantasy games. While some character background products offer a one-word or one-sentence description of each career, BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS describes twenty-four period-appropriate backgrounds, and then expands each background with small random tables for further detail. Many backgrounds add a piece of appropriate equipment to character inventories, or suggest character motivations and personalities. With this guide and a handful of dice, you can easily generate thousands of medium-detail backstories for Bronze Age characters who lived a little before becoming adventurers.

Reflecting the writer’s own background as an ancient historian, the introduction also briefly discusses tips on gaming in a Bronze Age-inspired setting, and provides a short list of suggested titles for those wanting to learn more about Bronze Age history, archaeology, religion, equipment, and fighting techniques."

Tell us more! Can we have examples? 

Why yes, of course.

A 1-page background description.

There's a robust .pdf preview available on the DriveThru page, but I'll unpack a bit more here too.

For example, here's just one sub-category within the "Performer" background:

"You were a puppeteer. Several times each year, the great cities hold puppet-shows reenacting the oldest legends and deepest tales. New cults also hire puppeteers to help spread their counter-narratives. You are adept at crafting and using puppets, at ventriloquism, and at copying funny voices. Add “medium humanoid puppet” to your equipment inventory."

As you can see, a few lines of added detail for this background flesh out what a character might be good at, imply the setting in which adventures take place, and add a swank piece of gear to play around with (I imagine there are a million ways characters could get in or out of trouble in a dungeon with ventriloquism and a medium humanoid puppet...). Then, you can roll to see why this character left the profession. To give two examples, there is a world of difference between two reasons a "Priest/Priestess" might have left:

"You couldn't bring yourself to carry out your first human sacrifice"


"You couldn't bring yourself to carry out your seventh human sacrifice."

Yikes! Not all are quite so gnarly, of course. Whether grim or not, many of these will open up room for those players who want to explore character personalities and motivations. Add two or three backgrounds together and you'll get a character with a very mixed, unique backstory, only requiring a few dice-rolls to set up [Can you imagine a character with the Performer-Puppeteer background AND the Executioner background? A sinister creep carrying a big axe - and a puppet? Just gives me the willies thinking about it].

Anything else? 

The .pdf is fully bookmarked for easy navigation.

One of the things I really aimed at here was more than just loading this thing up with trivia. I tried to evoke some big themes, particularly the ways in which Late Bronze Age Mediterranean societies seem to have struggled with social tensions between the controlling palaces and those living outside the system (see my "Burning Palaces" post for more on that). The backstories here are very diverse, but many reflect a world of oppressive control that is also teetering just on the brink of anarchy. Many characters generated using this tool have had experiences, or have made choices, that reflect that difficult reality. This is not to say that this is a very grimdark product; it isn't. But Brazen Backgrounds implies a setting with a lot of antiheroes - as well as champions seeking some kind of redemption for themselves and the ones suffering around them.

Ok then!
Folks, I'm delighted to make this available. Please check it out. If you grab a copy, I'd love to hear your feedback, either here or on the DriveThru site. Thanks, and very happy gaming!


Friday, May 24, 2019

A little more progress...

Oh man! I've been quiet on here since I've been working on Brazen Backgrounds, a detailed character-background generator written specifically for Bronze Age campaigns (but also useful for most sword-and-sorcery settings). I finally just finished the pre-layout draft, and the thing is 30 pages.

Next up - adventures in layout...I'm hoping to have this thing available on DriveThru within the next few weeks. Please stay tuned if this sounds like your kind of thing.

Monday, May 13, 2019

WIP: Character Background Generator for the Bronze Age (or any Sword and Sorcery setting)

Tables, they said, illuminate a setting by giving us random tables!

First, multiple people suggested different kinds of random tables for my Brazen Princes Bronze Age setting; then Jorunkun mentioned lifepath tables, and d4 Caltrops posted a very nice character background d100 table, which got me thinking. I've been a big fan of character backgrounds in lieu of a formal skill system ever since I first laid eyes on Barbarians of Lemuria, and I have enjoyed using them in various other systems/settings. Done well, a background system is quick, efficient, setting-suggestive, and capable of breathing life into stale old "Brogdab, Human Fighter, level 1." On the other hand, many background tables, awesome as they are, just give you a one-word or one-line description of a career or vocation, which means they lean on ideas or knowledge already at the table to flesh things out.

So I thought about beginning with a more-detailed background generator as a first tool for my Brazen Princes project, and I now find myself elbow-deep in exactly that [To be clear, however, this thing would probably work really well for many low-magic sword-and-sorcery settings].

I expect that new characters should each have 2, or in some cases 3, backgrounds apiece (I have my own character generation hack for Into the Odd that these can fit into, in which a player can choose a 3rd background in exchange for a different benefit). I'm finding that this backgrounds project is taking quite a bit more time than I'd hoped, partly because I'm aiming for conceptual density and away from redundancy, and because I've bitten off somewhere between 30-40 backgrounds. I thought I'd come up for some air and show anyone who cares what this thing is capable of.

It starts, naturally, with a die-table and those one-line descriptions of background types. You roll for a background category and then for individual backgrounds within that category. So, for example, the first category of possible backgrounds is:

d10 Killers:
1-2 Charioteer
3-5 Foot soldier
6-7 Brigand / Counter-brigand
8  Street Tough 
9 Executioner / Palace Torturer
10 Pirate / Raider

...but each of those results has its own further entry with a few sentences of description, then two d4 tables: "Tell us something about this background" and "Why did you leave?" Here's a sample entry from another background category, "Outsiders & Rogues":


Poisoner / Taster
Skilled in the detection - and application - of poisons, these specialists serve in the shadows or stand unobtrusively at the side of great lords, sniffing and sampling food and drink meant for the lips of the very great (and very paranoid). Poison-tasters likely have built up tolerances to low levels of common toxins. They are, of course, quite adept at poisoning others, too. 

Tell us about this background (1d4):
1 You once saved a dozen lives by detecting the aftertaste of a common poison in a particularly fine, expensive wine. Because you had built up a tolerance to that particular poison, you finished off the rest of the wine with great contentment. They’re still telling that story in the palace. 

2 You perfected a method for masking the nutty aftertaste of a common liquid poison. Apparently, one of your associates sold the secret, because the technique is now being used by other specialists around the Inner Sea. 

3 By adding a lethal ‘special ingredient’ to the ritual cakes at a controversial royal wedding, you once prevented a civil war. 

4 In many cases, the only difference between a poison and a drug is the dosage. You were a drug-maker for a famous physician, until the local lord snapped you up and made you his pre-banquet taster.

Why did you leave (d4)? 
1 Whoever poisoned the frontier lord’s drink was very good. They concocted a mixture that was subtle enough to escape your keen nose, mild enough to slip under your own tolerance threshold, and dangerous enough that repeated doses over several weeks killed off your employer, whose sons turned on you. You barely escaped with your life. 

2 After a few near-misses, you decided that you need greater familiarity with foreign toxins. You set out across the Inner Sea, seeking new information on drugs and poisons wherever you go. 

3 The local governor was cruel, brutal, and debauched. You were all too happy to sell a vial of poison to coat the assassin’s blade…but the assassin was betrayed by a lover, your part in the plot was revealed, and you fled. 

4 Really, you have to ask? You just got tired of sipping possibly-poisoned wine and went looking for other work.  


Putting these tables together means that with the clatter of some dice you end up with characters like the following (all this info is generated from dice results):

Foot Soldier and Physician: You were a chariot runner, a skirmisher paired with the chariot corps, so you know a foreign noble lord well. You were badly wounded in battle, and left behind with some peasants. You recovered, but your comrades were long gone. You then studied to become a Physician; the treatment of wounds on the battlefield was your specialty. Eventually, you became convinced that medical lore from the Old Empire has much to teach you, so you sought out the company of the sort of adventurers who might help you find undiscovered ancient texts. 

Royal Official and Pirate: You were a very senior scribal official in one of the smallest, least significant palace-states. You miss the feeling of being respected, but you also know how limited your real influence was. Eventually, however, a rival accused you of treason and you were driven away. With few options, you became a crew member on a merchant vessel, but the violent captain turned to piracy and threatened to kill any crew who wouldn’t help. You were only able to leave the pirate’s life when the ship sank in a storm and you washed up on a nearby beach. 

Street Tough and Tomb Robber/Burglar: You were a semi-enslaved pit fighter. The well-to-do made and lost fortunes gambling on your fighting skills, but you gained little more than scars. You finally stole enough to buy passage on a ship or caravan heading elsewhere. After falling in among a gang of burglars and tomb-robbers, you had a brief, intense love affair with a noble’s ward, who had caught you in their chambers during a burglary. Later, after breaking into a remote tomb, you encountered something in the burial chamber that whispered your name as it crawled forward into the torchlight. You didn’t stop running for hours, and then you went looking for a different way to pay for food. But you haven’t had the nightmare in several years, and now maybe you’re bold enough to raid the darkness again. 

These should give a lot of room to express difference among brand-new characters.

What do you think? Would a dozen or so pages of these background descriptions help at your table?

- 'Gundobad'

Monday, May 6, 2019

Brazen Princes: Looking for Feedback on a Bronze Age Setting Idea

So, in recent weeks some of you here or on MeWe have responded to blog posts by encouraging me to write up a setting guide for a Late Bronze Age-inspired campaign. 

Gulp. I, uh, kinda took the bait. 

Today's post, then, is not a general discussion about ancient history and roleplaying, but rather a sneak peek of my Bronze Age setting project (working title = Brazen Princes). To be clear, I'm really fishing for early feedback here; I'm hoping to hear some honest impressions of what I lay out below. Does this sound like the kind of setting you'd want to play or run? Would you be happy to throw some market-level $$$ at a setting guide that made adventures in this world easy to run? I'm quite willing to accept negative or critical or even just apathetic feedback, as I'd far rather hear that now than later :-). 

I have a lot more to say about my vision for the structure of a play-focused, highly-usable setting guide itself, but for now, let me know what you think of this world. The world of Brazen Princes is a land of ancient kingdoms slowly losing their grip, of old, necessary trade-routes severed by angry elemental spirits, and of peasant hordes enslaved by an undead amphibian hive-mind; a world in which amber or lapis lazuli inlays in a blade's hilt offer sympathetic resonance with sun and sky, making the weapon proof against dark elemental monsters. A world where a merchant-ship may carry luxury goods, vital bronze, or strategic astronomical intelligence from wise women who forecast the fluctuating strength of humanity's enemies. It is a realm of arrogant sorcerer-kings nursing old grievances, and of long-oppressed minorities who suddenly find themselves the most essential demographic in the world. Their choices will bring order to the world ahead, or leave it a mess of burning palaces

The Powers

Possibly obvious, but the cosmological worldview here comes from asking "what would it look like for animism to be true, but also a coherent part of a Hebraic monotheistic worldview?" The approach is also slightly flavored, probably too slightly to be noticed, by aspects of medieval Byzantine theology (sorry, I know, I am a serious nerd). The intent is to offer a (to me) refreshing alternative to the usual sword-and-sorcery cosmologies, while still allowing for pretty much everything present in most S&S - and also being subtle enough to just get out of the way if you want to plug in something more to your taste. 


In the beginning, Creator made the heavens and the earth. To make Creator’s presence manifest to the cosmos, Creator made human beings as Image-bearing viceroys, called to rule with power, balance, and humility. Alas, we had other ideas. . . 

Our ancestral Fall into sin is now only a dim legend, but its tragic effects still shape the world. Yet the oldest prophecies promise that Creator has abandoned neither the world nor us. Our tale, however, is not of the coming age of redemption, but of an older time – an age of silence and waiting, when violence and deceit are everywhere, and goodness seems only a lamp-wick flickering against the darkness. 

The Elementals

The Earth itself teems with life-force. Meant to aid us in the world’s governance, creation’s elemental energies longed for the coming of Image-bearing men and women. We came, but we Fell – and creation learned from us more than it had sought. From our lips, creation heard new concepts: love, cultivation, and music; also falsehood, theft, and murder. 

Some elementals shrank back from us in horror and confusion. Others, though groaning for the unsullied Image, still submitted to broken humanity. Eager to do their part in the world’s ordering, many such elementals took the form of useful objects, artifacts endowed with elemental power and ready for human use. Some few elementals, however, drank too deeply of human darkness…and made it their own. Drunk on our failings, dark elementals wander as murdering fiends, or cruelly dominate those foolish and desperate enough to revere them as gods.

The Flesh-Lords

The weird, necromantic beings we name Flesh-Lords first appeared some seven centuries ago, around the time of the Old Empire’s collapse. Not even the wisest sages truly understand them, though astute scribes do guess at aspects of their origin. They came from a place beyond the world-wall of sky-bearing mountains. It was not their intent to reach our lands; hateful of all fleshly embodiment, they sought to cast themselves as pure conscious spirit among the lights beyond the firmament. Instead, they found themselves among us, still trapped in flesh.

Convinced that their attempts to escape embodiment should have succeeded, these beings assumed that the fault lay not in their goal but in their methods. They tried again and again, casting their collective minds into ever-newer forms. At last they concluded that spirit must be adequately prepared to separate from flesh, and that flesh must be suitably modified to aid that process. Ever since, they have become crafters of flesh, dabbling in the arts of transmutation and necromancy, experimenting wantonly on themselves and upon all whom they enslave.

Whether they were ever individuals, or always shared collective hive-minds, is unclear. They are at least three beings. Thinking as a single mind, an entire army of embalmed humanoid frogs now rules most of the Land of the Lotus. The Amber Route in the far west is menaced by undead fish-men, and the Catacomb Lords in the mountains north of Gharit share both leather-winged lizard forms and a single consciousness. With each new defiling mutation, those who set out to escape the gift of embodiment become only more what we call them: Flesh-Lords.  Their inhuman tyranny is a stench in the land.

The Blockade

A century ago, the elemental energies of the Inner Sea assembled in council. The Old Empire that had ordered both human society and elemental cooperation was long gone, but the sea’s surface still crawled with human ships: vessels full of slaves, of pirates, of merchants’ wares sold using false weights, of darts and blades that ate lives in the name of one kingdom after another. Men on ships offered worship to the sea, pushing it away in disgust, while others bent to serve dark elementals or even the necromantic Flesh-Lords.

At last, the sea could take no more.  The sea-spirit council pronounced Blockade against human shipping, threatening to sink any human vessel. They suffered only one exception. All across the Inner Sea, around the edges of human empires, the sea had observed small flotillas of boat-people, desperate refugees pushed out by war or oppression and left without even a patch of land to call their own. These floating bands the sea-spirits marked, placing the sign of the wave on their bodies. To the Wave-Marked and their descendants the sea granted passage-right; any ship with one Wave-Marked human aboard would remain safe. Any other ship, to this day, is attacked and destroyed within an hour of its setting sail. Thus human shipping was quieted, but not stilled.

The Blockade and the unexpected prominence of the Wave-Marked have transformed the politics of the Inner Sea. This is now an age of crisis and of falling thrones, but also an age of new dreams for those once oppressed.

The Nations

The default assumption is that Player Characters belong to one of the Wave-Marked bands, but their adventures may take them to many exotic lands.

The Death-Land of the Frog and the Free Nomes

Animated by a single hive-mind, an undead frogman army has gained control of most of the Lotus-Realm, an ancient land of fertile fields under brooding, bejeweled tower-tombs. To fuel its arcane Flesh-Lord engines, the Frog sucks even the sun’s warmth away, leaving much of the Death-Land sunk in a perpetual night lit only by stars. Beyond the Frog’s rule, a few human Nomarchs still refuse to bow the knee. Can the Free Nomes unite to hold back the undead Flesh-Lords, or will their own squabbles and ambitions prove their ruin?

The Five Houses of Hadd

Using chariot technology borrowed from the steppes, the House of Hadd once brought stability to much of the East. Since the Blockade, however, pressure from beastmen, Flesh-Lords, and Wave-Marked raiders has broken the region’s unity. Now, five successor ‘rump states’ – each claiming to represent the legitimate House of Hadd – alternate between bitter warfare and mutual defense through ever-shifting alliances. A few generations ago, the Frog almost crushed the Five Houses; only a fortuitous raid on the Death-Realm’s tombs by a large Wave-Marked band forced the undead legion to withdraw. The Houses of Hadd were spared, but another hammer-blow could come at any time.

The Port of Gharit

Through this city’s gates and across its docks flow all the riches of the world’s far corners. Since the Blockade, Gharit has remained one of the few wealthy ports safe from sacking by Wave-Marked bands – mainly because Gharit’s ruling elite recognized the new reality very quickly after the Blockade. For several generations, Gharit has invited prominent Wave-Marked princes and warlords to protect, and profit from, the city’s access to trade. Sooner or later, most Wave-Marked mariners will pass through Gharit. Some of these will ask why other men, and not they, profit more from the city’s trade – and whether such a glittering port really should remain protected…

The Catacomb-Lords / The Endless Steppe

High in the peaks north of Gharit, Flesh-Lords devising new forms plunder both the bones of ancient princes and the fossilized remains of archaic beasts. For all the terror their bone-and-leather wings inspire, these lizard-fiends are no closer to their escape into the stars above. Even further north, the mountains fall into seas of rolling grassland, where barrow-building chieftains master the arts of chariot warfare and trade prize horses for bronze and other goods from the south.

The Courtly Wilds

A southern and a northern peninsula protrude into the Inner Sea’s center, narrowing the sea to a strait. Those peninsulas once held the greatest court-cities of the Old Empire. Perversely, when that Empire collapsed, these lands also fell hardest into chaos and madness. As more and more of the Empire’s subjects gave themselves over to darkness, men fell into beastlike ways, slaughtering and even devouring one another. Today, burned, artifact-rich ruins of the old courts are haunted by deadly bands of centaurs and beastmen – whose forebears, some sages claim, were once human.

The Labyrinthine League

When the Old Empire fell centuries ago, some of its nobles escaped to the islands of the Thalassocracy. Their sorcerer-wanax kings long dominated the Inner Sea – until the Blockade reduced these princes to fuming, scheming prisoners in their own island palaces. But some powerful sorcerer-kings have maintained the ancient network of labyrinth-stations by which the skilled can travel from location to location. Linked by the maze-network and hungry for vengeance on usurping Wave-Marked, the sorcerers of the Labyrinthine League work in many lands to disrupt the new order and reclaim their lost power.

Sha-Utar and the Sage Mothers

Not all the Old Empire’s refugees fled to the islands, and not all dabbled in sorcerous arts. North of the Inner Sea, some escaped into the remote mountains of Sha-Utar, and found welcome there in that land’s quiet, matrilineal villages. Sha-Utar is a peaceful land where men tend sheep, work metal, hunt, and protect the borders, while women learn to farm terraces by hoe or teach the deep lore of stargazers. Using ancient stone observatories, it is the Sage Mothers of Sha-Utar who calculate, season by season, the forecasted celestial movements that will drive the waxing and waning strength of the Flesh-Lord armies. Only able to calculate these fluctuations precisely with a few years’ warning, the Sage Mothers routinely send emissaries to the lowlands, advising any queens or kings of goodwill as to times when the Flesh-Lords will be most dangerous and aggressive, or most vulnerable to human counter-attack.

The New Empire of Mednash

Somewhat isolated in the Inner Sea’s southwestern corner, Mednash is a land of broad rivers that flow down from copper- and ivory-rich mountains. Though Mednash teems with peasant hordes cultivating the river-plains, an oligarchic cabal of four great merchant families rules the country, passing the kingship from family to family in a jealously guarded rotation. Their claimed title – the ‘New Empire’ – is partly premature impertinence, but Mednash is expanding, contracting with Wave-Marked allies to project their wealth and influence abroad. The Mednashu maintain a colony across the sea to the north, from which they have attempted for several generations to gain control of the Amber Route.

The Amber Route

This region in the far west is dotted with old barrows and treasure-mounds, not all of which may be safe to plunderIf these lands were only full of probably-cursed treasures, barbarian tribes, and feuding princelings, no one would pay these lands the slightest notice. But through these lands runs the Amber Route, so they are important indeed. For centuries, luxury goods shipped from even beyond Gharit have passed north on the Amber Route for exchange with tin and amber, both essential for the survival of the civilized thrones back east. Mixed with copper, tin allows smiths to create the bronze weapons needed for royal wars. And sun-gold amber (like sky-blue lapis from the east) is also militarily significant; sympathetically bearing the warmth of the sun, amber inlays on a bronze blade allow that weapon to cut into the forms taken by elemental spirits. Where dark elementals prey upon humanity, a brave hand grasping an amber-and-lapis skyblade is an essential help. The Amber Route is therefore a region of key interest to the great rulers, and the barbarian princes along the route often receive "merchants" who are in fact agents of the various thrones scheming for control of the amber trade. 

Thanks for reading. I have LOTS more to say, but let me know whether it sounds worth saying. :-) 
- 'Gundobad'