Sunday, December 22, 2019

Big thumbs up from Tavern Chat for Brazen Backgrounds


I recently offered the prolific Erik Tenkar of the Tenkar’s Tavern blog/podcast a review copy of my Brazen Backgrounds: Character Backgrounds for Bronze Age Settings. He talked about it in a recent Tavern Chat episode, and I’m delighted to say that he gave it a smashingly positive mini-review, calling Brazen Backgrounds “an excellent tool for inspiring PC backgrounds.” 

Brazen Backgrounds is available at DriveThruRPG, right here (affiliate link). 

Some more from his Tavern Chat:

There are story hooks that can be grabbed out of here for your campaign … Something like this gives your players something to latch onto at the beginning of the game … and enough to feed off of. … This is nice! These are adventure seeds. This has a lot of potential.

His bottom line?

Seriously. A very, very worthwhile product … Go to DriveThru, give it a peek, you’ll like it. 

Don’t forget that although Brazen Backgrounds is Bronze Age-themed, it also works quite well with minimal tweaking for more conventional sword & sorcery settings (I used it effectively for my current campaign, set in an Iron Age/S&S-styled setting). As the Tavern Chat podcast notes, even if that's not your preferred sub-genre, "A product like this should be inspirational for the rest of us..." 

Earlier this year, Arlen Walker of the Pellam's Wasteland podcast gave a similar overview and kindly linked his review onto my DriveThru product page.

Thanks, gents! I'm honored and grateful. Happy gaming!






Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Logic of Feudalism

Feudalism. It's in many - most? - fantasy RPGs, sometimes just taken for granted as part of the default setting. Even its absence often reflects a conscious reaction to D&D's perceived saturation with medieval European trappings. That being said...good ol' feudalism is often misunderstood. Mixed in with a lot of good conversations are online discussions that misrepresent feudalism - or, perhaps more importantly, fail to exploit what feudalism can and should say about a game setting. This may be old hat to some of you, but if not...please read on.

Feudalism, in its myriad forms, arose out of a specific historical context across western Eurasia. What we may call feudal political structures responded to particular conditions and reflected both the coherent logic and the inherent vulnerabilities of that context. Once the context changed, feudal structures made less sense, and additional problems emerged. I'm not going to do anything ground-breaking here, but I want to articulate the following: "feudalism" is most effectively [read: I'm finding a polite way to say 'best'] used in fantasy settings that somehow share the real-world context in which "feudalisms" emerged. This does not mean it must be limited to fantasy-Europe-clones. I'm not arguing about slavish obedience to canonical details...I'm talking about the underlying logic of social dynamics for which forms of 'feudalism' provided a coherent response. I'll also suggest that feudalism came pre-packaged with its own problems, which savvy world-builders and GMs can exploit. Finally, I'll talk about how evolution away from feudal forms involved other dynamics and other (exploitable) problems, and I'll close with some adventure seeds tailored to these various social problems.

This post is not intended as a finger-pointing exercise, but to say "hey, GMs, make sure you understand feudalism's contextual basis before you dismiss it as just vanilla; and if this is new to you, consider some fun ways to make your setting feel more coherent - and troubled..."

OH DEAR, NOT ANOTHER -ISM...

A long, long time ago, in an undergraduate program far, far away, I started down the road to professional pre-modern Nerd status at a time when "feudalism" itself was in doubt. Susan Reynolds' scholarship had deconstructed the authority of feudalism as a meaningful concept, and scholars/students playfully (or was that anger/despair?) had a new definition for "the F word." The field has moved on, a little; by the time I was a PhD student, the basic utility of "feudalism" was, again, ok, but now with the essential caveat that what we may call feudalism was incredibly diverse, differed in form and function from place to place, and should not really be thought of as "the" feudal system, or perhaps not until quite late in the process of development, and only in certain places. Whew!

Recognizing that diversity, I'm going to ignore discussion of manorialism and some specifics of land-management across Europe; let's move our scope out from just western Europe, and note that somewhat parallel social-political structures (with a lot of internal difference) emerged from the Atlantic into central Asia during the early Middle Ages. This isn't about copying medieval Europe; it's about how powerful people responded when the ancient governing institutions of the Roman and Persian empires largely fell apart in late antiquity.

The Romans, for example, maintained something of a bureaucratic "state" (to use that word apart from its modern connotations). To be clear, this was nothing like a modern bureaucracy. In 2016, Canada had 259,000 federal service employees, not counting the RCMP and military. That year, the United States, global hegemon that it is (was?), employed 2.1 million civilian federal civil servants.

At its height, under the Principate, the corresponding number for the Roman Empire would be "a few thousand." Maybe three-thousand civilian 'bureaucrats.' In the late empire, when Roman imperial government grew and grew and grew, the number mushroomed to around ten times that - still pitifully small in comparison to any modern Western nation's civil service. Rome could pull it off because the empire delegated so much day-to-day governance to local, community-level elites, but, still, the emperors found it useful to maintain a corps of some thousands of skilled clerk-administrators, with whose help they (more or less) governed the entire Mediterranean world.

Now, think about how ludicrously low those numbers seem to our modern eyes...and then ponder this: by the early Middle Ages, especially in the West, only tattered shreds of that imperial bureaucracy remained available for exploitation by political leaders. Then (in the West) the Carolingians try to rebuild...only to fall apart again in the mess of the 9th-10th centuries.

GOVERNING A POINTS-OF-LIGHT SETTING - WITH "FEUDALISM"

So. You live in a world where large-scale political units have collapsed, or might collapse at any moment. Violence and disorder are rampant. Literacy rates are low. "The economy" is or has recently been on life support. No modern communications technology exists; transport infrastructure is in shambles, and whenever we fix it, it also helps diseases spread. Oh, and - by the way - you're in charge. Please fix this mess and build us a new stable realm, or we'll ignore/insult/stab you and give the job to somebody else. Cheers!

This is the kind of setting in which something like "feudalism" makes sense.


Ooh, Borderlands! Let's add a keep...but who will hold it for me?
(Art credit: my wife!)

It's how you govern and exploit a large territorial claim when you don't have a sophisticated-enough bureaucracy to administer lands directly: you delegate the job to local managers. It's also how you ensure that you get the violent men on your side, and harness their pool of violence when you need it. The local conditions varied considerably, but something like this response explains everything from the iqta system in Muslim polities to some power-relations in Byzantium to, of course, the lord-and-vassal bonds of western Europe. Whether what was delegated remained within a tax-proceeds system (as in the Islamic iqta arrangements) or dealt more with rights to agricultural lands (as in the west), the core logic is this: look, I'm pretending to be in charge of ALL THIS but I can't actually administer it. If you promise to fight for me faithfully and send me goodies, I'll let you take charge of a chunk of "my territory," and enjoy its fruits in peaceful legitimacy. Once this deal is arranged, the vassal discovers that his own slice of the pie is still too big to administer directly, and beside he needs some way to feed and motivate his troops, so he makes a parallel deal, carving up "his territory" for his own vassals. On and on it goes, like a giant game of sub-leasing to biker gangs, until the whole territory is delegated to violent men or those able to feed and command violent men. The system allows those at the top to govern, indirectly, what they never could administer on their own. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course, since the system only works if people keep their promises. If one vassal rebels, the others can be called upon to squash him. If they all rebel...the lord at the top is out of options. This problem ripped apart 10th-century France, and it continually destabilized the iqta systems in the Middle East. One attempted solution was to surround the personal bond between lord-vassal in as much ritual and spiritual weight as possible - and this had real effect; the body-posture that a vassal adopted when entering into this relationship, in the ritual of commendatio, became the assumed default position for prayer in western Europe for centuries, as believers approached a Creator they had come to see as the ultimate feudal lord (the underlying social relations also shaped Anselm of Canterbury's highly influential reframing of Christian atonement theory). Germany's savvy rulers understood that giving away land-rights to would-be dynasts was dangerous, so they avoided France's anarchy by designating heir-free churchmen as feudal lords. An elegant solution...but it raised its own problems when bishops' dual loyalties to crown and church inevitably clashed (see: the investiture contest). "Feudalism" was a logical response to desperately inadequate governing infrastructures, but it contained within itself the seeds of further political crisis and decentralization.

If you have a setting suffering from these social tensions, then what one might call "feudalism" makes a very coherent in-setting response - though it might take a million different forms, and appear in many different cultures. The Imperium of Warhammer 40k, for example, bloated anachronistic pastiche that it is, makes sense as a feudal or semi-feudal society - not because the Emperor has no bureaucracy, but because even that advanced bureaucracy can't grapple with the galaxy-spanning scope of their dominion. In the same way, it makes contextual sense that a 'feudal' response in a space empire eventually would threaten that polity's stability as much as it upholds it.

If your setting does not or has not suffered from these dynamics, then feudalism honestly makes a poor choice, an implausible choice, for how the locals have taken to managing themselves. Or perhaps your society once turned to these forms but now is humming along after rebuilding. In that case, different problems emerge.

LATE-FEUDAL PROBLEMS

By the time society is stable enough for most scraps of land to be delegated, developed, and exploited, and for a "feudal" arrangement to really come into its own, then ironically those feudal arrangements stop providing the most efficient way to manage society...yet now they are locked in as part of the culture's expected social order. Along with the medieval story of recovery from ancient collapse is the other side: building something new. By the high and late Middle Ages, kings were raising up new, increasingly sophisticated bureaucratic structures which were more and more capable of administering lands directly. Free towns, granted autonomy and a place outside the "feudal" ordering of the landscape, hosted both notable militias and bustling, productive market economies. Early stirrings of new industries like finance made those developing economies even more interesting. And warfare...well, to be frank, powerful kings were no longer interested in part-time vassal armies that needed to head back home soon to look after the crops. No, they wanted professional, seasoned, full-time soldiers who would follow orders and kill efficiently and stay in the field as long as they were paid. Mercenaries, in other words.

Enter "grasping" kings (like England's John) who push their feudal vassals "too far" to fund ongoing wars against distant enemies. Kings like John tried to exploit and squeeze old feudal ties, but their royal ambitions now looked beyond what earlier kings had been capable of. Parliaments arose (and grew) because kings wanted cold cash, fast, now, and more next year, and they increasingly felt willing to make concessions at the expense of old feudal ties in order to maintain new kinds of armies. In the late 15th century, the king of France went so far as to create new units consciously modeled on Roman legions. To boost recruitment, he promised to excuse his feudal vassals from all their feudal obligations if, instead, they would hire into his new army as professional soldiers. In a stable, settled, late-feudal context, monarchs should be feeling frustrated with the limits of "feudalism," and they should be looking for creative ways to twist or even manipulate it to fund things they're now capable of. Likewise, vassals should be complaining that their feudal vows don't include whatever XYZ is being demanded of them, etc., etc., and they should be looking for creative ways to twist out of new obligations. Yet again, many vassals may feel that the new order of things threatens their once-secure status as "nobles," and they may busily look for new ways to signal their own dignities despite "people these days."

ADVENTURE SEEDS

In closing, here are some adventure seeds meant to exploit the logic and limits of "early" and "late" feudalism.

EARLY (d3):

1. Karl, third Baron Dunguildenschwann, has claimed yet again that the wagon full of his feudal tithes for the king was seized by inhuman bandits along the King's Highway, and that he can't possibly be held to account for a second assessment this year if the crown won't keep the roads open. Somewhat suspicious, the king sends the PCs to explore along the highway, determine just how dangerous it has actually become, and - if possible - find that blasted wagon...

2. Vulkarot Dross, half-hobgoblin warlord, has sworn fealty to the king, promising to end his decade-long campaign of destruction along the borderland in exchange for control of the prosperous Glimmer Valley. Though their own strength is uncertain, the other barons refuse to believe that the vile Dross will accept terms of peace, but the king insists that they welcome the humanoid chieftain as a fellow-vassal. The lords are grumbling and there is even talk of rebellion on the king's own behalf. Facing a no-win situation, one of the lords quietly sends the PCs to assassinate Dross - but make it look like a fellow brigand did it...

3. One outmoded stricture of the Paladin's sacred oath is to respect the property and commands of the King. This is usually not very relevant, frankly, as the king and his messengers rarely operate more than a day's ride from the court-city anymore, given the lawless anarchy into which rebellious lords have plunged the countryside. Somewhat awkwardly, however, the party has gained custody of a powerful artifact that belongs by right to the crown, and standing law dictates that it must be returned to the king if found. Unless they are willing to dissolve their Paladin's oath, PC paladins must escort the object 100 miles to the court-city and return it to His Majesty. Rumors about the artifact are already spreading, and multiple feudal lords en route will fight bitterly to wrest it from the party.

LATE (d3):

1. The PCs have learned that the tomb of a senior bureaucrat from the Old Empire, probably loaded with unimaginable treasures, is hidden on property X. The king desperately needs $$$ for his pending war against Uppguildenstern; he is happy to sell the feudal rights for Property X to a player character, with no questions asked, in exchange for 10,000 gp next week. How can the players put together the down-payment for their investment?

2. The resentful, old-fashioned Karl, eleventh Baron Dunguildenschwann, is encouraging his retainers to beat up merchants heading to the market-fair at a nearby free town. The town council hires the PCs to make sure something happens to the feudal retainers; the town will pay well, and then offer free sanctuary within the city walls for one year, after which prosecution attempts by the Baron will be legally void (the town has paid good $$ to the king for its sanctuary status). After this mission, of course, the PCs will discover that the town is home to a murderous cult of were-toads, but if they flee too soon, they will resume legal peril.

3. Sir Rufus "Blood-Eye" is not only heir-designate to the prosperous Duchy of Vimplat in a neighboring kingdom; he is also the vicious, highly competent mercenary condottiere currently winning Uppguildenstern's border war against our beloved king. The king has just learned that Rufus technically holds status as sub-vassal of one of the barons on our side, though Rufus abandoned any pretense of feudal management here long ago. The king sends the player characters to press charges before a sympathetic episcopal court, asking the Church to reassign land-rights to Vimplat unless Rufus returns "home" to meet his oath-sworn feudal obligations. In the unlikely event that Rufus appears in court personally to defend his financial inheritance at Vimplat, the players are (naturally) expected to kidnap the mercenary captain.

Happy gaming!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

If It's Thursday, We Can't Fight the Evil Baron: Regulating Times of Medieval Violence / Cultural Performance of Character Alignment

So you're running a sandbox, the PCs are closing in on an evil baron, and then they blow a Pursuit roll and can't catch him by Wednesday night. Oh well, they can try again in a few days; no combat allowed until Monday.

Huh?

Bear with me for some foolishness - a thought experiment. How might PCs respond to cycles of time treated as sacred by society, in ways that evoke real Medieval Europe more than the Modern/Wild-West-American-frontier-with-knights-vs-hobgoblins pastiche that D&D often ends up presenting, whether consciously or otherwise?

[EDIT: I had only just drafted this post this morning and left it to stew for a bit, and then later in the day saw that B/X Blackrazor's post today explores some very similar stuff. We're talking about completely different subjects, but both posts raise the issue of character alignment in light of pre-modern cultural sensibilities. Worth a read in tandem, if this interests you.]

THE "PEACE OF GOD"

Let's start with the "Peace of God/Truce of God" movements that grew up across western Europe (primarily France) during the central Middle Ages, especially during the 11th century. In a nutshell, the late Carolingian empire had fragmented, feudal society was becoming particularly chaotic, violent, and unruly, and various social groups (centered around the church but also reflecting popular initiatives) started pushing for controls on the violence tearing apart what was supposed to be a unified Christian society. This process led to things like local militias supported by "clerics" cracking down on feuding nobles; voluntary oaths by which aristocratic warriors pledged to restrain their intra-Christian killing; and calendrical restrictions, whereby fighting was prohibited from Thursday through Sunday, and only allowed Monday-Wednesday. These comments only scrape the tippy-tip of the iceberg; Pax Dei scholar Richard Landes offers a deep dive here if you're interested. A key point I want to stress is that the Peace of God aimed, at least, not only to reduce violent incidents, but to introduce multiple days-per-week as a kind of Sabbath from violence, the institution of a millenarian 'peaceable kingdom' through the manipulation of social time, reinforced by social peer pressure or even (when necessary) by the 'legitimate' violence of popular militias.

[AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT: these movements also ended up contributing to genuine awfulness, as violent people agreed to less killing of Christians and then transferred those energies onto non-Christian populations - leading both to pogroms and crusades. To be explicitly clear, I am neither endorsing nor equivocating about such horrors, nor am I calling for their inclusion at the gaming table. I mean only to ponder the game-effects of ritual constraints on violence for groups like NPC-fighting PCs. In fact, this idea only has gaming utility to the extent the PCs' society recognizes the innate value of NPC lives].

SACRED TIME AT THE GAMES TABLE

So you've got a sandbox setting chock full of those 'points of light' surrounded by villains and brigands in a chaotic wilderness (this works best, of course, if humans/humanoids with valuable lives have a key role as potential antagonists). Ponder seriously for a moment a social response that severely restricts WHEN "good guys" are supposed to draw swords and have at their enemies. Implementing some kind of ritual, social regulation of violence in a fantasy setting could have nuanced effects on gameplay. Let me elaborate.

+ If the PCs are the kind of people who are expected to honor "days off" from fighting for the good of society, this would introduce an interesting periodicity to campaign play. Well, I suppose this could become a boring periodicity, but if handled well it would interweave opportunities for exploration, intrigue, diplomacy, and other non-violent options (not to mention 'domain management' in general) among high-intensity days suited for bashing enemy heads. It also would force multi-tasking and creative problem-solving - or require players to accept the consequences; all good OSR principles.

+ Ponder cycles of sacred time in a campaign setting. At most RPG tables, I suspect, DMs and players alike think of TIME in wholly modern ways. Gary Gygax had his famous dictum about how essential proper time-tracking is; for most RPG heroes or knaves, we may play at roles we think evoke the "days of yore," but we (and by extension our characters) consider time a neutral, impersonal commodity entirely at our disposal in a game of 'resource management' - an attitude grounded in our modern Western context and very, very alien from many pre-modern settings (not the least, Medieval Europe). If we are content that way, then great - but what might it do to start inhabiting a more pre-modern view of time through our role-playing, a view in which time is ordered and highly ritual-bound, not a commodity purely at our disposal but a sacred process into which we are invited; something with its own rules and patterns and proper seasons that we can ignore only at our peril, and which we can follow to find our proper place in a 'timeless' scheme of things...

Pettie, The Vigil (Public Domain)

It would be a different psychological experience, I think, to play characters capable of as much murderhobo-ing as any group, but who regularly face social/cultural constraints that demand that the characters fit into the setting rather than always remaking the setting in their own image. I'm not talking about railroading player choice, but presenting clear, setting-appropriate constraints within which player choice can operate. By using constraints of time to influence PC behavior, one still allows the shenanigans typical of RPG 'heroes,' but forces players to think critically about those behaviors and adapt them to social or even supernatural responses. Imagine how these would affect a campaign:

+ canon law clearly states that dungeon-crawling is acceptable any day of the week, but fighting humanoids is off-limits on weekends. Deep within a dungeon, PCs suddenly face a moral-practical dilemma - clear out these Duergar, or risk that old rope-bridge to go around them for now and come back if needed? Of course, violating the Peace has its own risk, because...

+ Imagine that paladins lose their powers if they break the Peace by fighting on the wrong day. Clerics lose access to offensive powers on specific days of the week (but perhaps they can use those powers more frequently than usual on the 'ok days'). More extremely, Peace-breakers are supernaturally branded, visibly marked as agents of Chaos.

+ Beyond such supernatural measures (or responding to them), social consequences abound. Those known as Peace-breakers are ostracized or even hunted by the forces of law and order, but also sought after by highly unsavory types. Much as "alignment languages" once offered a (rather weird) social collective for alignments, the basic question of alignment/non-alignment with the Peace becomes a defining factor for PCs' social relations. This leads to many further dilemmas. Does self-defense violate the Peace? If not, can canny PCs provoke a villain to attack them at the wrong time? If the enemy base absolutely, positively must be infiltrated today, are PCs willing to accept the long-term consequences of branding themselves as Peace-breakers to provide 'undercover' legitimacy that gets them inside the base? On and on.

As something of a sweeping generalization, pre-modern Mediterranean and European religious life tended to emphasize practice over intellectual belief (much more so for the ancient period, but even much of Medieval Europe looks this way compared to modern society). This principle offers food for thought about alignment systems; in a practice-oriented society attuned to questions of honor and shame, what are the social consequences of Lawful or Chaotic behavior? How do social expectations fundamentally constrain the types of actions - or at least the timing of actions - that PCs can get away with?

Anyway. Thought experiment.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

My Highlights from the Big DriveThruRPG Sale


For any Americans out there, Happy Thanksgiving! 

DriveThruRPG.com is now running their big annual Thanksgiving sale, with deep discounts and even deeper ones hinted at for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The Web has responded with various calls for good sale links or recommended sale items. Looking over my DriveThru pages, here are a variety of items that I've either picked up recently and would recommend now that they're on sale, or items that I’m strongly thinking of buying now while they’re cheaper. [Please note that the URLs here are affiliate links]. Some are big-ticket items and some are fun little things that pack a whallop but cost a few bucks. 

FIRST - I’d be silly not to plug my own product on sale! BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS: Character Backgrounds for Bronze-Age Settings is on sale for a bit over 3 bucks. Released earlier this year, it’s already gone Copper seller (thanks so much folks…tbh, this is why I’m able to think seriously about paying for a number of other gaming products this Fall ;-). It is suitable not only for Bronze Age settings but (with minimal tweaking) for many sword-&-sorcery or low-magic settings. The DriveThru publisher page tells me that over 80 people have it a wishlist; if it looks appealing, please consider snagging it while it’s even cheaper than usual. The product page includes a customer's link to a very postive and quite informative review podcast. 

Enough about my stuff - other things that have caught my eye are: 

Useful Supplements:

GAZ1 - The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. This was on my shelf years ago as a teen, so there’s a nostalgia factor here, but I’m also currently running an old TSR module set in Karameikos and I think a bit more background would help (though I’m very much ripping and cutting to make things my own - our Karameikos is an ancient, Iron Age land closer to Scythia than the medieval Slavic land imagined here). I remember this being lots of fun in years past and look forward to ransacking it for ideas again. 

An Echo, Resounding from Sine Nomine: Ok, this one is apparently not part of the big sale, but I’ve been hankering after it for awhile. This "sourcebook for lordship and war" contains the eminent Kevin Crawford’s methods for simple, abstract domain-level play including domain management, mass combat, and heroic abilities suited to those activities. 

What IS on sale and possibly entering my shopping cart is Crawford’s Sixteen Sorrows: A Handbook of Calamities, apparently a set of random tables for quickly generating problems, threats, and plots. I hear very positive things about it from the few voices talking about this one online. Although I’m fairly comfortable coming up with things like problems, threats, conspiracies, etc. when I have time to reflect, I find that for pickup games or when responding to players going off-map, it helps to have some nice material to joggle the brain into action like this. 

Of course, another way to do so is with pre-written adventures. I like having things laid out for me when I’m in a rush, but I also don’t want to waste time with the chaff on the market, so I tend to want some pretty good stuff from a module. Here’s what I’m thinking of this time around: 

Adventures:

Two possible candidates currently on sale from the Advanced Adventures line particularly catch my eye: Stonesky Delve & Shrine of the Sightless Sisters. There are many others, but these are both quite well-reviewed and look to fit a useful niche in my modules stable. 

Moving over to old TSR modules, I recently bought and am currently running in play-by-post the sprawling, quite good B10, Night’s Dark Terror. Part sandbox, part plot-driven module, this turns out to be really enjoyable if one is willing to make a few personal modifications and make the structure serve YOU instead of the other way ‘round. With that caveat, this is highly recommended. It has lots of room for making its Karameikan sandbox your own and weaving in other content, or taking out bits you don’t want to run. 

XI - The Isle of Dread. No intro needed, I imagine…this was in my Mentzer Expert-level Blue Box back in the day, so nostalgia is a huge pull here. Do I plan to run it soon? Probably not…though I can see GMing as my kids run all over the Isle someday. Who am I kidding? This is mainly a nostalgia purchase, which makes ‘wait until a big sale’ the right answer.  

Megadungeons by Greg Gillespie: Barrowmaze Complete and Forbidden Caverns of Archaia. (Note separate OSR and 5e versions exist). Two huge, sprawling, themed, very well-produced, gorgeously illustrated, fairly expensive megadungeons. If you want to run a megadungeon, either one should be a great buy. If you don’t want to or don’t have time/group space to run a megadungeon, these are still useful because of their structure - instead of one giant sprawling complex, each is broken up into smaller segments that are geographically nearby or connected (a field of burial mounds with connected tunnels beneath in one case, a series of canyons with a ruined city and separate dungeons in the cliffs in the other). This means that even though I have no serious megadungeon plans, these offer a library of lairs, dungeons, barrows and other individual sites I can pilfer for one-shots and side-missions even if we never use the megadungeons strictly as written. I splurged and bought .pdfs of these both in recent months. While I don’t regret the purchase, it would have been really nice to pick both useful long-term resources up at the deep sale price now available…hint hint. :-) 

Game Systems: 

Old School Essentials Rules Tome: I don’t plan to run it anytime soon, as I’m currently working with OD&D/Swords & Wizardry variants or oddball, small, delightful games like Knave or Into the Odd. But the odds are really good that at some point I’ll want an up-to-date B/X text to run. In that case, this one seems like the obvious choice. 

CRUSH the Rebellion: years ago I was into Dungeon World and the narrative games movement for a while, before reflections on that experience led me off into the mysterious land of old-school rules. For years, I’ve still had my eye on this narrative-influenced game, which looks wonderful to run for a little bit as a stand-alone. In a sinister space empire suited for Star Wars, 40K, or Dune, players are COMPETING as rival agents and officials of a dark galactic emperor. It just looks ridiculous and awesome and for a few bucks, I’m planning to pick it up at last in this sale. It looks like the kind of thing well-suited for one-offs and quick play; my understanding is that you construct the specifics of the setting as you play each time. Probably a great party game for uber-geeks. 

Happy gaming, all! 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Design Journal: Mercilessly Killing Words in the Dark

Two days ago,  I posted about a dungeon module project I'm working on, and included the adventure background and a sample room. Some intrepid allies on the r/osr subreddit were kind enough to offer critical, constructive feedback on the room description. As is so often the case in OSR-land, their feedback emphasized a real need to CUT WORDCOUNT FOR PETE'S SAKE to make the thing immediately more usable at the table.

Urk. I constantly badger my college students to trim needless prose from their History papers, making every word fight for its life...so it feels all too appropriate to get the same medicine advised on my own hobby writing! ;-) In my defense, this was just a very first-draft run at things, but their useful feedback should help me be more strategic about the way I write other room descriptions as I proceed. [My sincere thanks to  u/jacksonbenete and u/Alistair49 ]

At any rate, I did accept their challenge and - with their input, I should note - took the plunge and trimmed what were originally 789 words in a prose room description down into a lean, 345-word bullet-point room description. Here it is.


Room C1. Teleporting Chamber

GM Highlights: 

+ PCs in (C1) are attacked after 1 Turn by Crypt-Script from (C2), unless PCs have adequate light. 
+ Paired bronze teleportation tables connect levels A (A9) and C (C1). 
+ PCs teleporting from (A9) appear by the bronze table here. 
+ If a PC teleports here without a light source, omit visual cues from First Impressions.

First Impressions: 

+ Mid-room, solid bronze pedestal (with a finger-sized object floating above it) stands in a bronze circle on the floor.
+ Four massive creature long-bones form support pillars in the corners. 
+ Everything looks singed by fire.
+ Sound of running water through South doorway; any light shimmers off water there. Whispering sounds through doorways to North and East.

Looking Closer:

Teleportation Table: 
+ Identical to teleportation table at (A9).
+ 3’-high, 2’-wide bronze pedestal in 6’-wide bronze circle carved with geometric patterns. 
+ Table-top engraved with Third Empire glyphs: “Behind the Empire of Arms Stands an Empire of Knowledge.” 
+ Final glyph – “Knowledge” – hovers 6 inches above pedestal as separate, finger-length bronze piece. 
+ Hovering glyph will not move to side or higher than 6 inches, but is easily pushed down. If lowered to pedestal, anyone touching bronze circle immediately teleports to (A9). Knowledge glyph returns to levitating position.

Crypt-Script Attack: 
+ Appear as wraith-like human shapes formed from flowing, ink-like ribbons of written script. 
+ 1 Turn after PCs enter (C1), 1d4 Crypt-Script gather at each entrance from (C2) to North and East. 
+ If PCs do not have adequate light, Crypt-Script will attack.
+ Will not come closer than 5’ to light source as bright as a candle. 
+ Treat a group of 1d4 Crypt-Script as 1 amorphous group attacker. 
+ Attack by wrapping themselves around a PC. Their touch is deadly; PCs must Save vs. Death or perish.
+ Immune to damage, but can be turned as 3-HD undead. 
+ If cornered without room to retreat from light, are destroyed (50% chance) or attack despite the light (50% chance).
+ Will not enter or cross water.



I think this would work. Some part of me sighs internally, missing the classic flow of prose, though cutting wordcount was clearly, non-negotiably a good idea.

What do you think about the best format for this sort of description? Does the speed and utility of the bullet-point format outweigh the aesthetic appeal of traditional prose?

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Back to the Dungeon I Go


[EDIT: Please note that this post's content has been significantly improved through editing for concision, as discussed here]

I've been typing away on a dungeon adventure that I may try to self-publish.

Recently, I'm glad to say, I've had lots of productivity on the professional research and teaching fronts, and I've been enjoying GMing a new play-by-post campaign using the old B10 module, Night's Dark Terror. With the teaching semester buzzing etc., that all involves a good investment of energy, however, so I've decided that in terms of writing new gaming content in this season, what interests me most right now is revising a dungeon I created a while ago, and trying to make it even better. 

[Thanks to those who offered feedback recently on Settings with Strata, by the way; your experiences have helped me identify ways that the product doesn't need a ton of work in some areas, and does need more thought in others. That project remains firmly on my personal radar]


Meet Beneath the Burial Wells




This is just one level of the place, and it's the old version; the revised version has a bit more going on. Key design goals are to make something filling a niche like Tomb of the Serpent Kings, playable in a night or two with low-level characters; weird (but not gonzo) fantasy; interactive, rewarding exploration and interrogation of mysteries; non-linear and vertical, with 3D loops to navigate and even multiple possible goals within the dungeon; and deadly in select places, but not a hack-and-slash fest. 

I thought I'd offer a glimpse at some rough-draft content from this current free-time-project. Here's some background info and some recommended hooks for gold-grubbing heroic PCs. Feel free to leave some feedback - in fact, please do! I'd rather learn now if this sounds boring or lame. Everything is still drafty (especially the room description), nothing here is set in stone. At any rate, it's fun to work on. 


BENEATH THE BURIAL WELLS - BACKGROUND

For generations, mourners have carried their dead up to silent cliff-side ruins in the high hills above the town Olvad. There at the Burial Wells, where somber carved courts encircle well-like shafts, the dead are released into shafts, back to the earth.

Over those same generations, some in and near Olvad have succumbed to a weird illness, a chronic weakness and literal fading that ends in the near-transparency and then death of its victims. Terrified of this malady, Olvad’s council has banished the afflicted from the town. Today, a group of Fading occupy hovels beside the Burial Wells, as outcast as lepers but still feeding their nearly-invisible dead to the mountain.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

Centuries ago, a league of arcane scribes serving the Third Emperor built way-stations — protected libraries where traveling scribes could rest, research, and pass messages through magically secured means. These soon became conduits for secret lore from across the empire, firing the envy and suspicion of rival orders. It was not without satisfaction, then, that those rivals presented the Third Emperor with evidence of a great betrayal. A master of the league’s way-stations, over-steeped in ancient arts, had twisted language itself to create an unsanctioned weapon: a text that could spread like a disease, bind the wills of men, and bring down an Empire. The response was swift and brutal. The league was banned; fire and sorcery purged the way-stations; imperial archivists scrubbed all mention of the league from historical texts — or so they thought.

The Burial Wells above Olvad are actually the top level of a league way-station – the very site where an ambitious master brought down an empire’s wrath. After securing six reptilian fossil skulls which still bore the spark of keen wills older than humanity, the station-master used power forced from these artifacts to animate a written text capable of enslaving minds. Even as the Third Empire’s magical assassins brought retribution, the station-master hid his text on a secure message-wall. It still waits there today.

So do six reptilian skulls, brooding and bitter at their servitude to humanity. Too weak now to project much power, they can only force a few tendrils of spite through the rock around them – just enough to curse a few humans in the area with the fading sickness. Were the skulls ever brought back into the heat and energy of the daylight world, however, their capacity for vengeance would be terrible.

GETTING YOUR PLAYERS INVOLVED

Several different ‘hooks’ might draw your player characters (PCs) into adventure beneath the Burial Wells. Note that the options described below point to different goals within the dungeon; further, some hooks may work better for different play styles (one option may fit more heroic motivations, while another will suit a plunder-and-run expedition). For these reasons, GMs may want to familiarize themselves with the full adventure and consider their desired play style before choosing a preferred hook. If in a hurry, however, any of these hooks should lead to adventure, wealth, and probably trouble beneath the Burial Wells.

1. A rumor is flying: the Bloody Jacks mercenaries have learned the location of an abandoned Third Empire way-station, which may hold lost lore worth a small fortune. As it happens, the PCs are in Olvad when they encounter a drunk, talkative servant sent ahead of the Bloody Jacks to make logistical arrangements…who lets slip that the Burial Wells above Olvad are the way-station! The Bloody Jacks are only days away, but the PCs realize they could clear out the ruins first. This hook works even better if the PCs are heavily in debt to very unpleasant persons.

2. Dame Joran, matriarch of a prosperous merchant house in Olvad, has a secret: her grandson has come down with the fading sickness so feared by the town’s citizens. On pain of disinheritance, Joran has forbidden the family to reveal this situation. Keeping her grandson hidden, she has spent enormous sums investigating everything known about his weird malady. She has realized that known cases cluster more densely near the Burial Wells. On a hunch, she discreetly hires the PCs (paying very well for their silence) to investigate beneath the ruins and determine whether they have some connection to the fading disease. If the PCs can offer clear answers - or even neutralize the curse - they will be paid a small fortune.

3. The PCs are agents of a king or other important patron, who learns that a reptile-worshiping cult seeks the location of a specific Third Empire way-station. Since the patron’s library identifies that way-station as the ruins above Olvad, the patron deploys the player characters to the Burial Wells. They are to find out why the reptile-cult is interested and neutralize any threats.

4. Alternately (see Hook #3), the player characters’ influential patron learns that an enemy faction is sending a team to Olvad to recover an ancient “weapon word” lost beneath the Burial Wells. The players are to find and neutralize (or, perhaps, secure and exploit) this unknown weapon before the enemies find it (this is a similar hook to option #3, but the hooks will point to different goals within the dungeon itself).


Here's an example of what a relatively more complex room would be like: 

Room C1. Teleporting Chamber

GM Highlights: A teleportation table allows movement between levels A and C. PCs arriving by teleportation from A9 appear next to the teleportation table here. If PCs linger in C1, they will be attacked after 1 turn by Crypt-Script from C2, unless the PCs have adequate light; if a PC teleports into C1 without an active light source, they are in particular danger. If a PC teleports here without light, do not describe any visual cues from First Impressions; use the First Impressions In the Dark instead. This room has no treasure.

First Impressions: A solid bronze pedestal (with something finger-sized floating above it) stands in a bronze circle on the center of the floor. Four massive long-bones of some giant creature stand as support pillars toward the corners of the chamber. Everything visible has a slightly singed, burned look. Through a doorway to the south, PCs hear running, splashing water; any light source will shimmer off water in that direction. Through open doorway exits to north and east, PCs hear faint whispering sounds.

Special Note - First Impressions in the Dark: PCs who arrive by teleport with no light source active have different first impressions. Everything suddenly goes pitch black! You still feel the solid mass of the bronze pedestal before you, but you now hear the sound of running water somewhere in the dark ahead of you. Behind you and off to your left, you hear moaning and whispering…getting closer.

Looking Closer:

Bronze Teleportation Table: This table is identical to the one on Level A. In the middle of a 6’-wide bronze circle carved with geometric patterns stands a 3’-high, 2’-wide bronze pedestal. The pedestal has a flat top engraved with Third Empire glyphs in a circle, which say: “Behind the Empire of Arms Stands an Empire of Knowledge.” The final glyph – “Knowledge” – is a separate, finger-length piece of bronze hovering six inches above the pedestal. No amount of force will move it to the side or higher than six inches above the table, but it can easily be pushed down. If it is lowered to touch the surface, completing the sentence, any persons on or touching the bronze circle will immediately vanish and teleport to A9. 

Upon teleportation, the Knowledge glyph immediately rises back to its levitating position. A character arriving by teleportation from A9 will feel the pedestal to their front, but unless they have or produce a light source, they will have to feel around in the dark to find the floating glyph (if they tell you they are looking for it!). I suggest a 35% chance per round to find the glyph in the dark, or auto-success if a full turn is devoted to the search.

Crypt-Script Attack: By the end of one turn spent in this room, 1d4 Crypt-Script will have gathered at each of the entrances from C2 to North and East. They appear as wraith-like, black-cloaked human shapes formed from ink-like ribbons of written script, which flow and writhe in the air. They repetitively whisper hateful threats and random snatches of archival lore (1d6: 1-2, “flames took our tongues…give us yours…” 3-4: “flames took our breath, give us yours…” 5: “Lo’at, Court Huntsman begat Su-ripak, Second Emperor…” 6: “Su-ripak, Second Emperor begat Ris-Apan, Third Emperor…”

What happens next depends on whether the PCs have light.

With light: The Crypt-Script come no closer than a few feet to any light source as bright as a candle. If PCs cluster around their light(s), allow each single light source to keep up to 4 PCs safe. If kept at bay, the Crypt-Script will fall back to the shadows and continue whispering hatefully at the PCs.

Crypt-Script may be Turned as 3-HD undead. They are otherwise immune to damage, with one exception. If PCs advance on the creatures with light, they will retreat. If cornered with no room to retreat beyond 5’, Crypt-Script menaced by open light will be destroyed (50% chance) or attack despite the light (50% chance; see below).

Without light: If the PCs are not adequately protected by light, the Crypt-Script will attack. Grant PCs automatic initiative and make it clear that something horrifying is approaching, even if the PCs are visually blinded. If the Crypt-Script catch PCs in the chamber, treat each group of 1d4 creatures as a single, amorphous attacker. Each attack is an attempt to wrap ribbons of dark script around one PC. Their touch is deadly; PCs must Save vs. Death or perish.

Crypt-Script will not move onto water, so flight into the flooded hallway at C3 may save PCs without adequate light. Any PC rushing blindly toward the sound of water will fall down the steps to C3 and take 1d6 damage.

+++++

When I ran this dungeon a while ago, one player got himself teleported down into this room. Unfortunately, he had no light. What he did have, however, was ALL the party's rope and climbing gear, which was a bit unfortunate, since the folks with the light either needed to teleport after him or climb down two levels to come find him. But the hireling porter who saw him teleport was shrieking his head off, screaming "He just vanished! He just disintegrated!" So there was not an immediate rush to repeat the experiment. 

The PC did, in fact, rush off into the darkness, fall downstairs into the flooded corridor, and turned out ok in the end. Running this dungeon taught me that sometimes the really really silly thing that the PCs obviously won't do (like setting free a mysterious psychic reptile skull that promises to be nice to you and tell you where to find some treasure) is exactly what the PCs are going to do

 Thanks for reading, and happy gaming! 

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Looking for Feedback: Anybody Made a Setting Using My 'Settings with Strata' Method?

Hi folks!

A while ago, I introduced my 'Settings with Strata' approach for quickly designing a campaign sandbox (or sandbox-able) setting with historical depth and coherence. Since then, I've returned periodically to a series on how to flesh out the more complex background concepts one might bring to that straightforward approach. I have a number of ideas about ways to flesh this series out even more, including possibly releasing an inexpensive published tool laying out the method and offering various supports to make it even more effective.

But first, I would really love to get some more specific feedback on others' experiences actually using my method. It works really well for me, but that's no guarantee of how it fares for other designers. And I've had lots of positive feedback about the series (thanks!) but it's one thing to file away a cool technique, another to put it into use! (no worries of course - we've all got cool blog tips coming out our ears).

So - if any of you has direct experience putting my method into practice - if you've actually tried making a setting within an afternoon using my approach - could you please offer some quick feedback in the comments? Any success stories? Anything that turned out to be more challenging or vague than you'd hoped? Were you comfortable supplying rich concepts to get the process rolling? (As a professional historian, it's pretty easy for me to find good historical concepts to inspire something in a setting, so this is one of the things I think about as I ponder tools to add to the series).

Thanks! And of course, if anyone's just bored right now, you could always grab an hour and just create a brand-new setting right now! :-)