Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Yep, Definitely Mermaids!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why do I Love the OSR?

Ok, yeah, partly because, as Zak S. says, we're the only folks who'd have him. ;) Sometimes, I think he ain't the only one.

But more seriously, Evan of In Places Deep asked for recommendations for a post-apocalyptic game, something "where society hasn't collapsed as much. Think Thunderdome with more mutants, or maybe Fallout."

He's got seven comments on that post, hitting the usual suspects. However, three of those, nearly half, are talking about games the commenter has made. Simply awesome!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What if 4chan Made a Movie?

I’m almost kinda-sorta serious here. If 4chan made a movie, what would it be? How about hot, slinky prostitutes in outrageous, sexy outfits take on a world where every man is a slimeball, wuss, or asshole by fighting their way through the trenches of steampunk WWI, Moria’s orcs, and a bunch of robo-terrorists. Swipe your themes and characters from early Mercedes Lackey books, your visual style from computer games, and your (barely there) plot beats from Joss Whedon, and you’re good to go.

If that’s what you want, “Sucker Punch” delivers. It is exactly what you saw in the trailers, with hot remixes of classic ass-kicking tunes, crazy action set-ups (mecha vs. Fokker tri-planes, dragon vs. B-17 flying fortress), and barely enough plot to string them together. This is not a movie about girls stuck in a mental institution with brief flights-of-fantasy snippets a la “Brazil.” This is an action flick, with barely enough plot to justify the crazy visuals.

All that said, the film does feel like a near-miss. Frankly, I think it tries too hard, and tries to have it both ways. Its sexualization of the girls is enough to make certain folks’ heads explode, and it rubs in that point by making every male character in the entire movie (with the exception of the mentor, who basically serves as that guy in WoW with the gleaming exclamation mark over his head and little more) a tool, scumbag, or monster. It’s almost as if the movie is saying to the audience, “You should be ashamed, ashamed of yourself for enjoying this. But ain’t it fun?!?”

The movie also wants to have heft it never earns. It tries really hard to be a movie about something, not just over-the-top action sequences. It tries speaking directly to you to inspire you, it tries killing characters (and, after “Serenity,” killing just one character brutally won’t cut it, so now the go-to play is to kill multiple characters), it tries to have a heart-warming message about family.

Unfortunately, the central question of the plot (I won’t say what it is here, but you’ll know it when you see it, because they directly ask it a handful of times in the last half of the flick) is, ultimately, the sort of question that only makes sense in a story. In the end, the deaths, the triumphs, the terror, all feel hollow because this film never lets you forget you’re watching a movie. The failure here isn’t that you’re never clear what is and isn’t reality in this movie; the failure here is that even the movie’s “reality” feels fake because the sucker punch of the title is built around a notion that can only make sense within the confines of a story; it makes no sense to ask this question in reality, because reality isn’t plotted like a story, and doesn’t have the mechanics of a story.

And so the audience just goes along for the ride. Luckily, it’s a fun ride, a veritable summer blockbuster of a roller-coaster. Be sure to sit through the credits for additional over-the-top WTFness. Enjoy it for the light popcorn fare that it is. You won’t be talking about this film years from now, and it doesn’t seem to have the right balance of camp-to-earnestness to become a cult favorite. But, if you liked what you saw in the trailer, you’ll have fun watching this film.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Minimalist Setting: Timeline Example

So, riffing off my last post, and comments by Stuart over at his Strange Magic blog, here’s an example of something that’s not a rule, but is probably useful to include.  The following is a timeline for my Doom & Tea Parties game:

79,881: First Lizardfolk Empire 
81,756: Coming of the elves. 
91,772: First War Against the Monsters: gods vs. offspring of the Tiamat, allied with Lizardfolk.  More a massive hunt than an actual war. 
92,119: Tiamat sues for peace to save her children, Land of the Monsters carved off from the rest of the world to serve as preserve for her children. 
Lizardfolk refuse to turn away from titans and worship the gods exclusively.  Gods turn their backs on Lizardfolk and their empire goes into decline. 
98,674-116,540: War of the Elders as titans and gods go to war.  Lizardfolk try to stay out of the fray, but their empire is shattered anyway. 
Tiamat secretly breeds the orcs into being, other monsters. 
116,540-116,620: Second War Against the Monsters as orcs, other monsters strike out, invade.  Monsters finally rebuffed as their hordes scatter to pillage and plunder.  What started as a war turns into a hunt as gods, some titans organize resistance.

Tiamat, furious at the slaughter of her children, secretly breeds the nagpa.

119,982: Rise of the Elven Empire.  While the gods actively oppose the elves, they fail to build an alliance against them.  With strong support of key titans and wizardry, elves build a strong empire.

126,196: Third War Against the Monsters: led by nagpa, the monsters strike out to create their own empire.  The gods at first sit it out, and things go poorly for the elves.  Nagpa carve out their own empire, but it falls when the elves join in alliance with the lizardfolk.

126,281: After nearly a century of warfare, the Nagpa Empire collapses.  Enraged, the Tiamat strikes directly at the elven cities, shattering many of them and destroying their empire.  The gods and titans, terrified that the powers the Tiamat is unleashing might either slay or free Earth, join against her and imprison her in the Red Moon
126,356: Coming of the gnomes, who claim they seek to heal the land. 
126,372: Rise of the Second Lizardfolk Empire
126,491: Coming of the Necromancer – creates an alliance of human tribes in the far north, raid and plunder the northern portions of the Lizardfolk Empire.

126,505: Coming of the Ice, as the world begins to cool.  Most blame the Necromancer for this.

126,766: Necromancer slain by elven and lizardfolk heroes.  Alliance of human tribes collapses.   
Ice begins to retreat. 
The gods begin to court the humans, turn their backs on the recalcitrant lizardfolk. 
126,902 to 126,915: Time of the Great Plague
126,800 to 126,984: Second Lizardfolk Empire goes into decline.  Led by the gods, the humans begin to build a loose network of allied city-states.  Skirmishes between the fey and humans frequent. <= Present day.

So yeah, something like forty-seven thousand years in two pages.  The entirety of American history could fit inside many of these lines.  Not much here.  In fact, the last significant event, the Time of the Great Plague, was so long ago (69 years) that no human character is likely to remember it.  And this is the first time I think any of my players have actually seen this, so for them, this is a peek behind the curtain.

So what good is this timeline?  It basically serves one purpose, and one purpose only: it tells me who made the dungeons, and the treasures and magic items found therein.  That being the case, there’s absolutely no need for me to go into great detail on this, and little need for the players to see this (though they’ve been told the basic outline during in-game conversations). 

If I decide I need a magic orc-slaying sword, it most likely came from one of the Wars Against the Monsters.  If I really need the name of a great hero who did amazing things with said sword, that’s easy enough to drop in without too much excitement.  Otherwise, it’s probably not worth my time to delve into that much detail.  I’m not going to remember the guy’s name, or why he fought or how he died.  And if I’m not going to remember, why should I expect my players to remember?

And  most of why I want this at all is to help me decide what the dungeons look like, or why they have this or that sort of treasure in them.  They are cheats, starting points, and outlines I can flesh out to make a place sensible in my own head, and hopefully to the players as well.  With this, I can build Zakian random tables of treasure, or architectural features, or things like that

Random Fortress of the Elven Empire Constructed During the Third War Against the Monsters (roll 2d10) to be Used with Geomorphs

2) Alchemical Lab: The walls are lined with counters topped with marble or lead.  If this part of the complex has not been looted, it will still contain 1d3 x 1,000 gp worth of alchemical equipment (though most will be delicate glassware that won’t survive usual dungeon delving; every combat will destroy 10d10 gp worth of any such equipment being carried by the PCs and their henchmen).  There’s also a 1-in-6 chance that the room contains 1d4 random potions, plus 0-4 (1d6 -2) fertility potions potent enough to overcome whatever birth control a character might be using for up to a week’s time, while also healing 2d12 points of damage when drunk and curing any non-magical disease.

3-4) Room with Well: well is (roll d6):
1: dry
2-3: still serviceable, though minerals heavily flavor the water
4: the lair of a monster
5: poisoned (save vs. poison or suffer stomach cramps and a -1 to all dice rolls for 1 day)
6: magical, and any who drink from it (roll d4)
                                1-3: can see in the dark as an elf for 24 hours
                                4: turn into a frog.

5-6) Guardroom: with working portcullis (50% chance it’s down, combined strength score of 40 or greater needed to lift it).

7) Council Chamber:  with magically shaped stone furniture.  Every round spent searching this room has a 1-in-12 chance of turning up an adamantium key that will open one of the doors, chests, or locked gates of this place.

8) Torture Chamber and Prison Cells: for holding prisoners, though all that’s held in them now will be bones.  A trap door in the floor will open to a sheer, 18’ shaft that drops into an oubliette.  There’s a 1-in-4 chance that it holds a random undead with the usual treasure associated with it.

9-10) Officers Office: the furniture has long since rotted to a pile of mold and dust, unless more recent residents have replaced it.  If the players search for secret doors and find one, they’ll discover a loose stone in the wall or floor that hides an adamantium key that will open one of the adamantium doors in this place.  Only one such key will exist in any office, and if the first round of attempts fails, then there is no key hidden in this particular office.

11) Habitat Warren: collection of rooms (cluster of 2 to 6) primarily used to house refugees, but might also be military barracks.

12) Dining Hall: with one adjoining room being a kitchen.  The chimney has a 50% chance of not having collapsed.  Gnomes, elves, and similarly small or slight creatures can use it to climb to the surface.

13-14) Granary: has a dozen wells sunk into the earth in which grain was stored.  Each well currently contains (roll d6):
         1-3: nothing.  The grain was eaten in the distant past.
4: well-preserved grain, but the lid is enchanted.  Any non-elf who touches it takes 2d4 points of electrical damage.
5: full of yellow mold!
6: full of grain that has fermented.  Anyone drinking the thick brew will enjoy a one-hour boost of any random stat to 18, but will also behave as if under the effects of a confusion spell, to be rerolled every 15 minutes.

15 )Armoury: the door to this room will be adamantium, will require 300 points of damage before it can be battered in, with a superior lock.  If it remains unopened (1-in-8 if this part of the complex has been inhabited or looted) it will contain carefully preserved weapons of bronze (2d12 swords, spears, and daggers, plus 2d12 long bows and 2d100 arrows), 1d6 suits of elf-sized chain mail, 1d6 elf-sized bronze helmets, plus uniforms.  There’s a 1-in-20 chance of their being 1d4 orichalcum swords (treat as silvered for purposes of harming lycanthropes and others that require special, non-magical weapons to harm them) and 1d6 rowan shields (can be “shattered” to prevent one spell that specifically targets the wielder).  There’s a 1-in-100 chance of there being an elvish cloak among the uniforms.

16-17) Killing Ground: this room has arrow-loops on both sides and murder holes above.  If humanoids have come to inhabit this place, they’ve almost certainly set up guards here to attack intruders.  If the alarm has been raised, they’ll probably have boiling oil set to dump through the murder holes. 

18) Pleasure Dome: hemispherical room piled with pillows of silk and fur that have been enchanted to resist the effects of time.  If this part of the dungeon hasn’t been plundered before, it’ll hold 2d4 x 100 gp worth of furnishings, crystal, drugs, and jewelry lost under the pillows.  There’s also a 1-in-4 chance that the room also contains flowering plants whose perfume induces altered states of consciousness.  For every turn the PCs remain in this room (searching, etc.) they should all roll a save vs. poison.  Each who fail will be stoned for 2d6 turns (-2 to all dice rolls, inhibitions removed, and may become completely obsessed with some simple feature of the dungeon) after which they will sleep for 1d6 hours.  When they awake, they will be ravenously hungry and will need to eat an entire day’s worth of rations or continue to suffer a -1 to all dice rolls.

19) Library: walls are lined with niches and shelves for scrolls and books.  If this room hasn’t been looted, there’s a 25% chance the books have been ensorcelled to prevent decay.  In this case, every turn they spend searching the shelves has a 1-in-20 chance of turning up a spell book containing 2-6 random 1st level spells, 1-3 random 2nd level spells, and 0 to 2 (1d4 -2) random 3rd level spells.  Books will be (roll a d6) written in (1-3) Low Fey, (4-5) High Fey, or more rarely (6) some other, random language.  Typical subjects (roll another d6) are (1-2) magic or alchemical theory, (3) history, (4) erotic poetry (1-in-4 will include pornographic images), (5) using Earth elementals in construction, and (6) military theory.

20) Vault: will also have an adamantium door that will resist up to 350 points of damage before falling.  Inside will be sacks containing 300-600 (1d4 + 2) silver pieces and 100-400 gold pieces.  If the current residents have the keys to this vault, also add in whatever additional wealth in coins and jewelry is appropriate for them.

21) Magical Lab: the floor will be inset with an orichalcum symbol used for summoning or containing magical effects.  Magic spells will not cross into or out of the symbol.  There’s a 1-in-20 chance that the symbol holds (roll a d6) a (1-2) red slaad, (3) blue slaad, (4) invisible green slaad, (5) earth elemental, (6) invisible air elemental.  Any object physically crossing the symbol will break it and free whatever it imprisons. 

22 )Alchemical Lab: The walls are lined with counters topped with marble or lead.  If this part of the complex has not been looted, it will still contain 1d3 x 1,000 gp worth of alchemical equipment (though most will be delicate glassware that won’t survive usual dungeon delving; every combat will destroy 10d10 gp worth of any such equipment being carried by the PCs and their henchmen).  There’s also a 1-in-6 chance that the room contains 1d4 random potions, plus 0-4 (1d6 -2) fertility potions potent enough to overcome whatever birth control a character might be using for up to a week’s time, while also healing 2d12 points of damage when drunk and curing any non-magical disease.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Zak Offers Up Another Plate of Sacred-cow Burger

It’s not so much that Zak is a deep thinker in RPG circles, if by “deep” one implies burrowing down through the layers of the games and their communities, synthesizing all towards some new insight into things we already know. That honor, I think, goes chiefly to Mr. Maliszewski.

What makes Zak such a blessing is how easily, effortlessly, he thinks outside the hobby.
His latest stab at the hobby’s sacred cows is a good case in point. Yes, I’m a writer. Yes, I love me some good, evocative prose. And yes, I’m a glutton for rich, cultural detail. But at the end of the day, even I have to admit, I’m not going to play your setting.

Sure, I may snag a few interesting bits here and there, but… It won’t be right. It may be close. It may be tantalizingly close. But as a GM, I have a style. And I’m going to tweak the living daylights out of your setting to make it fit.

This is not good for traditional RPG companies, who live and die by the book. The reason RPG settings look the way they do is because it allows for the sale of big, glossy, coffee-table books chock-full o’ setting detail. Throw in gazetteers that drill in to provide more focused detail, and the shifting political and cultural landscape that comes from a galloping megaplot, and you have a recipe for a long string of expensive book sales.

But not a recipe for game-playing.

As Zak says, who has time to read all that? Way back when, I knew folks who’d read everything about the Forgotten Realms and knew the setting in intimate detail. I wasn’t among them, though the Realms did have a warm place in my heart. It wasn’t, however, based on the grey box or the novels or any of that. Instead, what I really cherished were the little snippets of detail gleaned from Mr. Greenwood’s articles in DRAGON magazine. Those literally changed the way I organized and played my own campaigns.

Ditto for Greyhawk, Middle Earth, the historical medieval Europe, the 1,001 Nights, and so on. And I took all that, made it mine, and played the heck out of it.

Now, maybe Zak and I are weird in this, but I imagine most folks want this as well. They want something to get them started, give them ideas they never would have had on their own, but that they can take and run with. They want something that belongs to them and their group, that grows from the playing at the table. I’m not as enamored of a rules-focused approach as Zak is (I can go whole sessions without touching the dice). In addition to what makes your setting unique, I’d like a little cultural flavor, some solid maps, a few political outlines, a description of where the cultural fault-lines fall, and some good, inspirational art will go a long way towards getting my own imaginative juices flowing. But I think he’s right in saying we need to forget most of what we’ve learned about what a good setting book “should” look like, and learn to focus more on actual gameable content. And that’s not to say we should abolish “fluff.” It is to say, however, that stuff that gets used at the table, whether it’s NPC lists, or descriptions of the food to be found in the marid padisha’s pleasure dome, should be front-and-center in any setting offering.

Art by Edwin Lord Weeks and Sidney H. Sime.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Waving to Saturn as We Fly Past

Simply beautiful, and the Adagio is the perfect compliment.

Be sure to watch through to the natural light and color (yes, that's exactly what you'd see out the window if you were flying past in a starship) images that start about a minute into the video.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Are They Promising Me Mermaids?

Because it sure looks like they're promising me mermaids in this poster.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Slaves: Interactions with the PCs

Telecanter has been wondering about slaves over at his Receding Rules blog:

Did players purchase and own slaves? Did they want to free all the slaves and get frustrated when they realized how impossible that would working against a whole culture? Or maybe that became the point of the campaign?
Slavery has been pretty common in my campaigns since I got out of college, as I’ve drifted towards a more Ancient World feel. As Migellito points out, slavery in the ancient world is often not what modern folks expect:

Slaves in Rome could own property and save up money to buy their own freedom, and many entered into it as a method of absolving debt.
Things get even stranger if you look at slavery as practiced by Muslims. In an attempt to build something like a modern standing army, the Abbasid caliphs bought slaves which they trained to be soldiers. The Ottoman Turks repeated this experiment about five centuries later. In both cases, the mamluk and Janissaries respectively became ways for those born in low social status to rise to great importance, wealth, and power through the seemingly backwards method of being “reduced” to slaves. The mamluks even became sultans, ruling such important territories at Egypt (where they stemmed the tide of the Mongol invasions) and the Janissaries found themselves in a position to dictate terms to their sultans, even to the point of extortion and palace coups.

That’s all a bit more advanced than my players will typically encounter in my current Doom & Tea Parties campaign. Outside of captives of the humanoid monsters, the most likely slaves for the PCs to encounter will be debtor and criminal slaves. On at least two occasions, such slaves have been purchased by the PCs to serve as henchmen on adventures. Their loyalty is commanded by magic (but it does have its limits) and generally if all you want is someone to hold a torch or spear, these folks are your best bet. A few successful adventures, however, will generally allow most to buy their freedom, assuming they’re allowed even a modest share of the treasure (the fines they are working to pay off rarely amount to more than a handful hundred pieces of gold).

Most of my players have been happy to take such cultural quirks in stride, assuming that their characters are from the same, or similar, backgrounds. On occasion, I’ve had players decide that their characters hated slavery (usually because they’d experienced it in the past, either personally or through a family member) and would work to subvert the system. But they always recognized that this was something that wouldn’t be accomplished overnight, and considered the task a long-term guerilla campaign, something akin to Joel Rosenberg’s “The Guardians of the Flame” series.

Art by Christian Meyer Ross and Georg Moritz Ebers.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Metals of Doom & Tea Parties

LEAD: Lead is a popular building material, especially in the borders of the Second Lizardfolk Empire. It’s used for plumbing, fittings and reinforcement, water-proofing, roofing, weights, ballast, kitchenware, and even as tablets for important legal inscriptions. (In baroque legal system of the lizardfolk, “Lead Laws” are those generally passed by an assembly, and are amendable by fiat of the Empress and her consorts, while “Golden Laws” kept on gold tablets are said to endure for all time.)

Lead is also a popular metal for use in magical labs, as it’s extremely inert. Some alchemical formula require certain ingredients to only be touched by lead, and so a completely stocked lab will include such oddments as lead knives. Lead will also stop magical scrying or attempts to pass through barriers, and so is used to secure rooms against such.

Lead bullets are stored in massive armories throughout the empire, and disbursed to peasant levies (largely human) as the sling is one of the few weapons not forbidden to “lesser races” inside the empire.

BRONZE: While iron is the preferred metal these days, bronze remains popular, in spite of generally being more expensive to produce (being an alloy of copper and tin) and not as strong. This is partly due to there being an existing infrastructure based around the metal. Also, due to the associations of iron with the Necromancer and the Coming of the Ice, the Second Lizarfolk Empire has been slow to adopt the newer metal.

Bronze is associated with the heyday of the Elven Empire and the Third War Against the Monsters. Elves say they taught the science to dwarves, and that the nagpa stole it from them. The monsters insist it was first invented by nagpa sorcerers, and that a sly and wicked elf stole the secret. When Tiamat attempted to find and kill the thief, the gods and titans became terrified of the destruction She unleashed, and joined forces to imprison Her in the Red Moon.

IRON: Iron is growing in popularity in the Human Kingdoms, and in some places has completely replaced bronze. Bronze weapons and implements, however, are still cheap and readily available, mostly as surplus from the shrinking Second Lizardfolk Empire.

The dwarves first learned the secrets of forging iron. It didn’t become a common metal outside dwarven strongholds until the Necromancer taught it to his human allies. The gods now favor the metal and promote its use wherever their influence extends.

ORICHALCUM: Red orichalcum is among the oldest alloys. Its use in magical implements, jewelry, and weapons is older than even the First Lizardfolk Empire.

Orichalcum’s claim to fame is how well it takes and holds magic. While orichalcum will, in fact corrode into a brownish powder, enchantments that prevent this are easy to cast and last a long time. While bronze is associated with the height of the Elven Empire, orichalcum is associated with the heroes of its beginnings. For a brief while, the Elven Empire stamped an orichalcum coin, generally worth about 3 times the equivalent weight of gold.

While not every orichalcum weapon or piece of jewelry is enchanted, most items that are enchanted have orichalcum in them. The Red Moon that imprisons Tiamat is popularly assumed to be orichalcum.

ADAMANTIUM: Also called by some “titan’s metal.” It is extremely rare. It requires magic to work it and is impervious to nearly anything. It does not corrode, resists the actions of all mundane acids and bases, and tends to exhibit exceptional hardness and temper characteristics in weapons and tools. However, it’s almost always too heavy for mortals to weild, hence the reference to its use by titans.

Typically, adamantium is an architectural metal. When you absolutely, positively don’t want it to ever corrode, warp, or stress, you use adamantium. It’s also, like lead, proof against most scryings or magical attempts pass through the metal, though unlike lead it can’t be defeated by simple, mundane heating. A vault sealed with an adamantium door is a great find for adventurers; while they probably can’t transport the door back to civilization as part of the loot, chances are good that whatever the door guards is still there for the taking, if only they can get past it.

The Second Lizardfolk Empire uses ingots of adamantium as a store for wealth. These heavy disks, marked with an official seal verifying weight and purity, are said to each be equivalent in worth to 6,000 gold pieces.

Standard adamantium has a golden, oily sheen to it. It does come in other colors, however. White adamantium is more conducive to enchantment, but can, under extreme stress, suddenly dissolve into a fine powder. Green adamantium is rumored to hold natural venoms if it’s soaked in them for a month, which it will then slowly sweat over the next century, making it popular in locks or vaults. Blue adamantium is considered to have special stabilizing properties and is popular in fortresses and palaces in the Lizardfolk Empire. Black adamantium has a purplish sheen to it, and will take enchantments like white without the risk of it dissolving, but has a sinister reputation.

Photos by vintagedept and bjortklingd.