Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ryan Dancey Thinks the Kids are All Right

Ryan Dancey did his second pod-cast interview with "Fear the Boot" and, as always, he has some interesting stuff to talk about. Probably the most interesting thing is the younger, more gender-balanced demographic seen at GenCon '11. (They really get into this around minute 44.)

The idea of gaming being more a cultural thing than a pastime thing is fascinating. I can see it, though; there is gaming music and gaming fashion and all of that now, in a way there's never been before, even when TSR was trying to sell official D&D wood-burning kits.

On the face of it, that would appear to be a good thing from the viewpoint of the pen-and-paper RPG hobby. However, as Dancey points out, the new generation doesn't play like we used to. There is no strong commitment to one game for years of time. They're interested in playing a wide range of games for brief periods, hopping from game to game not in a sort of gamer ADD, but rather in a more planned manner: "Ok, Jen will run Traveller over the summer, and then in fall we'll start Dave's Pathfinder Game, and Mike can run his Kobold's Stole My Baby one-shot over the Labor Day weekend."

This seems to fit very well with what I've seen from the 20-somethings I've been playing with. They like my games because it's a change of pace from these short-term games that seem to dominate their usual play. Long-term commitment doesn't seem to happen much. Getting people to commit to even four hours weekly seems to be a challenge. Gaming is part of the air they breath, but there doesn't seem to be a strong need to make it happen, if that makes sense?

Ok, no, it doesn't to me, either, but that seems to be what I see happening in a lot of groups.

Of course, we're all talking from personal experience, and the plural of "anecdote" ain't "data," so YMMV and all of that. Still, it does appear to be what I'm seeing. And that kinda implies that the future of RPGs is the FUDGE model, where you have simple-to-learn rule set that can be picked up quickly, but then ported to all sorts of different genres and styles. A core mechanic that bridges many different games is good because it means you don't have to teach a brand-new game to everyone when you want to play something different, but these core rules need to be extremely simple and bare-bones because you want to be able to run everything from traditional dungeon-delving to fantastical western to space opera to angsty-teenagers-dealing-with-mutant-powers-and-typical-highschool-drama. True20 or Savage Worlds might really flourish in this sort of environment, but my gut suspicion is that even these games are too complex to be portable to the variety of games the new generation will be eager to play.

What is Best in Life?


This troll spent the last week and a bit moving to a new cave. Eventually, a troll's cave gets so funky all you can do is set it on fire and move to a new one. Now that it's done, I should be getting back to the hex mapping articles soon. Maybe by Friday, but certainly by Wednesday.

In the meantime, to celebrate having moved all my loot to a better cave, I treated myself to the new Conan movie. It's not bad, and I can understand why some folks might even compare it favorably to the Schwarzenegger film from the 80s. I'm not quite willing to go that far just yet, but it wasn't horrible. It was much better than "Sucker Punch" for instance.

What follows isn't a review of the movie. Frankly you probably already know if you're going to see it and reviews are unlikely to sway you one way or the other. You know if you are this movie's audience. And after you see it, you'll know whether or not you liked it. I did, however, want to point out a few interesting things I noticed.

(Spoilers follow, so if you don't want to know too much before seeing the flick, stop here.)

First, something silly that amused me: adult Conan does not wear pants. It's a sartorial choice he shares with John Carter when the latter is on Mars. So let the ladies have their pants! The look of today's masculine fantasy hero is a layered kilt and boots.

There were a lot of missed opportunities in this film, and I suspect most of them are the fault of the writers. There are three writers listed, and I suspect it was a matter of rewriting rather than collaboration. Toss in the cutting-and-editing process, and who knows what was originally intended?

Early in the second act, we are treated to a scene of the bad-guy army dragging a boat through a forest. It's a neat visual and immediately makes you wonder why they're doing that. It's intriguing. Unfortunately, it's also never explained. The ship on wheels is never used in the water, it's never demonstrated to have magical powers, and ends up just seeming kinda silly.

The villain's sorceress daughter (apparently rewritten from an original male version) has a neat look and a creepy vibe. We get one brief interaction between her and her father with Electral undertones. It makes both of them a lot more interesting. Dad has a goal that isn't just the typical take-over-the-world, and Daughter is a little conflicted about bringing Mom back from the grave. Again, this is set up in the second act and nothing is ever done with it. I was kind of hoping that these issues would explode into some really interesting dynamics in the final confrontation. That never happens. Instead, we get a fairly bog-standard mano-y-mano fight at the end.

If you get inspired to throw in little twists in the story or adventure, be sure to do some follow-through. Make it matter! This is at the heart of old-school improvisation. You just rolled hobgoblins on the wandering monster table. Sure, you could just have a randomly generated band of hobgoblins sitting in the middle of the road waiting for the PCs to arrive so they can fight.


Why are they here? Are they part of the larger tribe? Is it nearby? Are they renegades? Survivors of genocide? Scouts looking for a good target for a raid? Heroes seeking some lost hobgoblin relic? Even if all you want is a brief little battle, you can at least have them ambush the party.

On the other hand, if the players really are not that terribly interested in your hobgoblins, there's no reason to beat them over the heads with whatever clever idea came up with. Not everything needs to be explained or make sense. But if your players do seem intrigued you should absolutely take advantage of that.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Works For Me

...and may not work for thee, but hey, I can't make it down to the South Texas mini-Con and there's a good chance I won't be posting much next week as I slay a few Real Life hydra that have been creeping up on me for a few weeks now. So, three "best practices" and how they work, etc.

1) Play Every Week.

We play (almost) every week. Every Thursday is game day, and my group game plays. Yes, I make that commitment to the game up-front, and I ask it of my players as well. We'll move stuff around on rare occasions when necessary, and cancel for holidays, but otherwise, we play every week.

This keeps the game fresh in everyone's minds. There's less fumbling around for what we were doing last time, and what everyone's goals are. There are also fewer cancellations or arguments about scheduling; everyone knows that Thursday is not open. We play, we play regularly, and we play for years.

Sometimes I can't play with great folks because they can't make that kind of commitment. That sucks, but I think it's worth it. Besides, I have a huge pool of players to pick from because...

2) I play online, via text-chat.

The entire world is my hobby shop. I've had players from as far away as Japan in my game. And no matter if I'm at home in Texas or visiting family in New Jersey, if I can find access to the intrawebs, we can play.

More than that, however, is the depth of play you get in text chat. Verisimilitude is heightened not only by the engrained habits of life-long readers, but also by access to everything that was said and done in character from the log files of previous games. Players also find it a lot easier to speak and act in-character via text. It's not at all rare for players to banter back-and-forth in-character in my text-chat games. Players interact with the world and the characters far more than they do at the table. It's just easier to suspend disbelief.

Understand that you also lose a lot playing this way. You lose body language and non-verbal ques and the way suddenly rolling the dice behind your DM screen focuses everyone's attention. The game is also slower, which is why it's vital that we play every week.

But it's absolutely worth it, because it really allows me to leverage my writing skills. Descriptive passages, characterization, mood and atmosphere are all much easier for me to conjure via text than I could at the table.

3) I play with topics that interest me.

In junior high and starting in high school, I was obsessed with the Arthurian legends and kept trying to invest my D&D games with that feel. I failed miserably.

But I never lacked for players or for ideas.

If you do it right, you'll be playing your new campaign for a long time, so it best be what you want to play, not what you think (for whatever reason) you ought to play. Enthusiasm is infectious, it builds quickly under reinforcement, and can weather criticism (especially of the constructive sort). "Ought-to" and "should" will just make the thankless task of GMing an unmitigated burden.

These days, I'm most interested in pre-Roman ancient civilizations. Apparently, including terror birds was one of the aspects that attracted Oddysey to my game. Be honest about your passions, and you'll be far more likely to find folks who share them.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 12: Workin’ in a Coal Mine, Workin’ Downtown...

Last weekend somebody asked me, "do you really do this much work before starting a campaign?"

My reply: oh, heck no!

What I have posted so far would be the work of a lazy afternoon. Over the span of 2 to 3 hours I would have scribbled out a map with pencil and paper and jotted down maybe a page or two of notes. I could have just shown you that, but would you have been able to make any sense out of "orcs" and "mind flayers" with an arrow pointing between them?

So I downloaded Hexographer and wrote up fairly detailed descriptions, or, at least, much more detailed than I would have written for just myself. If you've been at this for any period of time, you certainly have already developed a shorthand for describing places and monsters and situations your players are likely to encounter.

Evan at In Places Deep touches on this when discussing this picture of Gygax at the gaming table. You also see a lot of this in the Zak's Vornheim. We don't really need to be that detailed. Hex crawls are primarily powered by improvisation. What we've done so far is just give ourselves enough of a framework to build on as the players explore our island. We'll be hitting this point a lot. Most of the tools that we're going to develop are aids to improvisation. This includes the map I've been talking about for the past two weeks, the random encounter tables we’ll be tackling in the future and any other bits and bobs that invoke randomness (like random weather tables) or terrain details.

Unlike a West Marches game, classic hex crawls are not about going over the land with a fine-toothed comb. It's more on par with the Lewis and Clark expedition, exploring the terrain at a land-eating pace where one of the primary motivations is discovering what cool things the DM has hidden just beyond the horizon. The double-sided purpose of the map we have made is to both inspire and leave room for cool things to tantalize and dazzle our players with.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 11: Tyger! Tyger! Burning Bright

“Oh,” say those who have played in my campaigns before, “here’s where he’s putting in the rakshasa.”

I'm a big fan of rakshasa, whether you're talking about the tiger-headed sorcerers of D&D or the shape-shifters of Hindu and Buddhist lore. There are a handful of monsters I just really love using, and I try to include them in every campaign. I doubt I'm unique in this, so when building your own hex crawl be sure to keep your favorites in mind.

In this case, I'm putting them in a city in the hills where the river bifurcates. It was originally built hundreds of years ago by the elves, and was one of the last abandoned by them. (Note that this also gives us an excuse to cover the countryside with abandoned elven ruins.) It's ruled by a family (or perhaps feuding families) of rakshasa. Most of the inhabitants, however, are less dangerous humanoid monsters, probably gnolls (another favorite monster), minotaurs, and maybe unusual merochi families.

Along the river exist small communities and individual freeholds of thri-kreen. These were left behind by the elves when they abandoned this area. South of the city, in the swamps along the coastline of the delta, are hidden villages of turtlefolk. Both avoid the city as much as possible.

In the plains on either side of the river wander clans of wemic. In the hills to the north and east are small clans of hill giants. Both of these prey upon the thri-kreen to keep as slaves for themselves or to sell in the rakshasas' city. Moon beasts may also be involved in this trade.

The broken lands to the west and north are a veritable maze of shattered stones, defiles, ravines, small canyons, and lava tubes. This territory is claimed by a number of minotaur clans. Successfully navigating this maze will lead you to the active volcano at the southernmost tip of our secret plateau. Here, a fortress inhabited by fire giants guards the entrance to the plateau.

What's in the plateau? No idea just yet. But there's still no rush to fill that in. On Friday, will back up, survey what we've done, and discussed how I would actually accomplish this much for normal game I was planning to run.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 10: Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

We’re now to the southern end of our island, the sections furthest from the human lands and our PCs’ starting zone. These should be the most challenging sections as well as the most fantastical, just as you’d expect at the deepest parts of a dungeon.

In the southwest we have our corridor of active volcanoes, grey ash, and giant fungus forests. The smoldering (or even actively erupting volcanoes) constantly belch smoke and ash into the sky, and the prevailing winds and shape of the valley cause it to blanket the area between the mountains. It’s not unusual for the sky to rain flakes of ash or dustings of very fine grey-black powder from the sky. Drifts can be as deep as four feet, and speeds will likely be reduced to a mere third of normal. Just walking through this landscape can be dangerous.

Even breathing can be a challenge, because the dust is shot through with magical particles (perhaps the magma pushes up through a vein of mithril or some other magical mineral). Breathing this dust without some sort of protection or filter will result in strange magical effects or even mutations. For every half-day the PCs spend traveling through this terrain without the proper protections, roll a 2d6 and consult the following table.

2-3: the character’s skin sprouts (roll a d4): 1 - iridescent scales (+2 to AC), 2- golden feathers, 3 - porcupine quills (+1 damage in melee) 4 - a glistening lair of slime (+1 to AC, -1 to reaction rolls, +2 on saves vs. poison or to resist fire or magical fire).

4-5: the character acquires (roll a d4): 1 - nictating membranes over the eyes (+1 to saves vs. blinding or gaze-attacks), 2 - a prehensile trunk (may be used to wield an additional weapon at -4 to hit), 3 - a forked tongue, 4 - a prehensile tail.

6-8: the character develops a hacking cough. So long as they are exposed to the dust, they get a -1 to all dice rolls.

9: character behaves as if under the influence of a confusion spell for 1d2 hours.

10: roll for a random insanity. Only a lengthy clerical purification ritual will remove it.

11: character gains ESP for six hours. At the end of that time, roll a save vs. spells to see if the character acquires a random insanity due to the thoughts of others intruding upon their mind.

12: character gains the ability to cast a single, randomly determined first-level magic-user spell at will so long as it is cast in the next 24 hours.

The western line of mountain and the broken lands at the northern point of the territory are inhabited by wandering tribes of nomadic gnolls. They wear complicated masks with filters to catch most of the dust, but incidents of mutation are still fairly common among them.

In the fungus forests along the river live myconids and similar critters. These have no need to protect themselves from the ash and soot falling from the sky. In fact, their lives may very well depend on the stuff.

At the river’s end, where it flows sluggish and silty into the sea, is a large elven city. These are Melnibonean-style elves, wicked and cruel and wracked by ennui and caprice. They are most assuredly not likely to be allies of the PCs, and any alliance they do make will last only long enough to allow the elves to betray the PCs at the worst possible moment. It’s rare to meet any of these elves outside their city, but occasionally their sleek corsairs are sent out to raid along the coast or seek out merchant ships for plundering.

Over half of the city’s population are slaves. This far out, they don’t need to worry about the effects of the ash (though nobody drinks the water if they can avoid it), but the elves themselves delight in “improving” their slaves. Most of the slaves are thri-kreen, imported to the island because they appear to be largely immune to the worst of the ash-fall’s effects. However, members of nearly ever population on the island, including some humans, are represented among the city’s enslaved.

Long ago, the elven empire laid claim to the entire island. As their numbers dwindled, they’ve been forced to abandon all but this last bastion. Still, they consider the island to be theirs and theirs alone, and treat humans or other recent arrivals (and by “recent” they mean anyone who’s landed in the last 600 years) as interlopers. Luckily for everyone else, those elves who don’t spend most of their time indulging their depraved vices are too busy squabbling among themselves for lordship of the city.

Still, the city and the fungal forests to the north are rich in magical resources. Characters interested in rare herbs, psychedelic fungi, and exotic flora will find a veritable cornucopia of varied species along the river’s banks. Ever hour spent exploring beneath the towering mushroom caps will reveal one of the following (roll a d8):

1: random lotus type

2: tangerine smut: grows on other fungus. Horribly toxic to touch, causing nerve damage on contact with bare skin, resulting in the loss of 1d4 points of Dexterity. (Powerful clerical magic can undo this damage.) If the smut is dried, it will produce a bright orange powder with anesthetic properties (heals +2 hit points per level of the wounded when used in bandages on open wounds; each found collection of the smut results in 1d6 such uses when dried).

3-4: cleric’s wort: a small plant with silvery fuzzy leaves. If these leaves are dried and added to 100 gp worth of incense which is inhaled by a cleric who is meditating or praying to prepare spells, the cleric will be able to prepare one additional spell of their highest level available that day. However, there’s also a 1 in 12 chance that the cleric will also permanently lose one point of Constitution. Each plant found gives enough leaves for only two such uses.

5-6: berserker pods: red and green puff-balls that grow in wet, sheltered spots. If a pod is crushed under someone’s nose so that they inhale the spores, they will be filled with amazing strength, (treat as a 19 strength or a +4 to hit and damage bonus) for 2d3 rounds. However, every round they are under the influence of the spores, there is a 1 in 10 chance of the character behaving as if subject to a confusion spell. Harvesting results in the collection of 2d4 viable pods, but they lose their potency after a week.

7: Tartarus’ slime: a blackish-purple slime mold. If coated on a blade it will render anyone even scratched by the weapon catatonic for 1d4 hours if a save vs. poison is failed. Each crop found will be enough to coat 2 swords, six daggers, or eight arrows. Tartarus’ slime loses its potency 2d6 days after being harvested.

8: A shrieker: roll on the wandering monster table.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 9: Valley of the Avians

Hopping back to the eastern side of the mountain, we’ll next populate the broad, long valley south of the jungles. Starting in the far east, there’s a tower built by the orcs. It’s not as necessary as it used to be, but its primary purpose remains to guard against large forces moving through the gap between the mountains and the sea. I suppose the hidden lair of the mind flayers could be below it as well, but I haven’t really decided just where I want that to be, and it would make more sense if it was further north and west in the range, I think. At this point, there’s no need to force the issue.

Moving west up the valley, we see a village marked on the southern range. This is actually an ancient monastery that’s fallen partially into ruin. The current inhabitants are a community of kenku. Assuming the PCs can put up with their antics, they could serve as potential allies for the PCs, but knowing the way most players deal with thieving kenku, this is likely to turn into the target of a vengeful raid. ;p

Moving up (to the west in) the valley, we find a village in the plain between the mountains, alongside the river. These are orcs, captured from across the mountains and enslaved to toil here by the batfolk who live in deep caves where the town is marked on the map to the north and east of the village. (What are batfolk? Not entirely sure just yet. I’ll probably throw up stats and such next week.)

Finally, all the way up the valley is a castle. It was built by cloud giants in ancient times, but the current inhabitants are stone giants. In a massive aviary on one side of the castle they keep rocs, and they use them to raid all across the island. Most of their slaves are ankeri from the eastern side of the island, though they also have gnollish mamluks and a few hill giants among their menials.

Most of these creatures are neutral (or under the thumb of neutral monsters) and so any could conceivably serve as allies to the PCs. At the same time, none are obvious allies for the PCs. The players could easily end up antagonizing all of them which will make life very difficult, especially if they’re moving clockwise around the mountains. This is their last best chance to make powerful friends for a while.

Finally, there’s that one, single mountain south and west of the dead volcano. That was an oops on my part when I way plopping down mountains, but I left it, and I’m still tempted to do something with it. Perhaps it’s the home of reclusive, xenophobic dwarves? Again, there’s no rush to drop something in there now, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind for later.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Hamsterish Bestiary

I mentioned Taichara's Hamsterish Hoard of D&D yesterday. She's got a great assortment of imaginative, original critters for BECMI (which means you can pretty much use any of them as-is for any TSR edition of D&D). Going through it, I made this annotated and incomplete list of monsters that might make an appearance on my example hex-map island.

Alraune - carniverous mandrake (plant)

Ankeri - gazelle-men (humanoid)

Brass Jackal - clockwork jackal (clockwork guardian)

Briarbones - aggressive vine wrapped around skeleton (plant)

Cepes - fungus-men (plant)

Cricipter - flying hamsters! (cute)

Dreamsnake - memory-stealing serpent (snake, reptile)

Greenfang - carniverous cabbage (plant)

Heartbriar - carniverous, ambulatory plant (plant)

Iaret (Cobra Lord) - snake-man (snake, reptile, humanoid)

K'kithil - sapient scarabs (insect, humanoid)

K'sshir (Nightmist) - carniverous cloud (phenomena)

Lithira (Pearl Gazelle) - magical gazelle (herd animal)

Lurru - large locust (insect)

Marrowlight - carniverous pumpkin (plant)

Raintiger - magical, stormcalling feline (elemental, water, feline)

Sau'inpu - necrophagic humanoid jackals (canine humanoid)

Sshian - snake-men (snake, reptile, overlord)

Thief-of-Hues - color (and emotion) stealing snake (snake, reptile)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 8: Go For the Eyes, Boo. Go For the Eyes!

If you’ve been reading my blog (or many others in the OSR) for any length of time, you’ve likely seen praise heaped on Taichara’s Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons & Dragons. Taichara doesn’t post often (the site is on hiatus right now) but when she does, it’s amazing stuff. Even better, if your players don’t read blogs much, they’ve likely missed out on all the hamsterish goodness. So they’ll have no idea what hit them after you unleash the hoard’s hordes upon them. Muah-ha-haaa...

I’ll be returning to the Hamsterish Hoard repeatedly for inspiration and monsters. Today, I’m going to use one of my personal favorites, the ankeri.

South and west of that northern V of mountains that cradle the human settlements, a pair of rivers wind out of the mountains, through some hilly terrain, and then join before continuing down to a swampy delta and then into the sea. Nestled along these waterways are the handful of villages and towns of the ankeri. Their homes are made of kiln-baked bricks and thatched with the grasses and reeds of the rivers. In addition to chickpeas and grains, the ankeri also farm papyrus (for they are a highly literate society) and various breeds of hamsters from which they weave an especially fine and water-resistant wool. Cricipters, especially albino ones, can also be found in grand aviaries in some of their temples, as they are seen as the messengers of the gods and the bringers of love and fertility.

The ankeri nation is a loose confederacy woven together by a shared faith. The supreme position of their priests makes their nation technically a theocracy, but it is a tolerant one that primarily wields influence though judicial means. Most personal matters and conflicts between clans are settled through an ornate and festive dueling culture. Matters that touch on the larger community are brought before a council of priests to adjudicate.

The ankeri are likely to serve as another group that might prove friendly to the PCs, or at least willing to deal with them as commercial customers. Trusted PCs may be able to buy maps of the lands surrounding the river communities of the ankeri. Even the best maps, however, won’t show anything beyond the mountains. So far as the ankeri are concerned, that’s terra incognita.

Cohesion among the ankeri is reinforced by their neighbors: two nations of merochi which live on opposite sides of the river, bracketing the ankeri civilization between them. (Hey, it’s my blog, I’m gonna pimp my critters too!) Each nation has its own ceremonial center, a broad plaza surrounded by stone-walled, curve-roofed barracks for visitors, the small complex where the priestesses who tend the site dwell, and a ziggurat temple. Few merochi can be found here, however; most dwell in scattered settlements where the males raise the young and supervise the slaves who tend their fields (many of whom are ankeri or gelded males) while the females hunt.

There’s a lot of interaction between the ankeri and merochi. The ankeri sell the merochi most of their pottery, clothing, and jewelry. In return, the merochi sell the ankeri leather, feathers, captured animals, and their services as mercenaries. Unattached merochi males frequently serve as guards in the homes of wealthy ankeri, or in the clan caravans of the sau'inpu merchants who travel between the settlements of both ankeri and merochi.

Among the slaves of the southern-most merochi are gnolls and thri-kreen. They can tell the NPCs something of the bizarre lands that lie further south, where the volcanoes still rumble with angry life, and fill the skies with clouds of strange ash.

And now a musical interlude: But-kicking For Goodness!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Book Review: Den of Thieves

David Chandler offered me the chance to read the first novel in his upcoming fantasy trilogy, “The Ancient Blades.” Den of Thieves is Mr. Chandler’s first fantasy novel, but not his first professionally published novel, having written horror novels previously.

Den of Thieves is an interesting book. Firstly, it is the most medieval fantasy novel I have ever read. By this I mean that Mr. Chandler has done his homework and his Free City of Ness looks and feels like a medieval city, and not a Ren-fair city. You see this a lot in the little details: the tanners shops reek, magic swords weep “vitriol,” and children drink small beer. This gives the book a very different flavor from most fantasy novels. The closest comparison I can make is maybe to David Drake's “Thieves World” stories (you know, like the one where the protagonist finds a secret door by peeing on the floor). There are a few spots where certain details feel off (Ness is one of those cities that somehow thrive even though they actively work to keep a lot of people from entering) but for the most part just reading about the city was fun, and it really feels like a place the protagonists live in.

The story looks like heist fiction but is really a mystery spanning two capers. It even wraps up with a standard full explanation/confession from the villain. Other than that, the book is full of little surprises. Similar to "Babylon 5" and the stories of Joss Wheadon, certain familiar tropes are set up to confound your expectations. If you pick this book up and read the prologue, you're likely to think you've read this story before and that the characters feel a little flat. Some of them are a touch pat, and there's at least one relationship in the book that doesn't work for me (two characters never get around to killing one another as the situation they find themselves in would seem to dictate; instead they develop an almost friendly business relationship). I also have a few nitpicky issues with the book, like the map not being entirely accurate in a few important details, but these are easy to ignore and won’t spoil the fun.

And there is a lot to like here. If you're a fan of the Middle Ages, you'll enjoy the historical touches. If you like your fantasy dark and gritty, you'll enjoy the down-in-the-gutters focus. GMs will find a trove of neat ideas, from unusual magic swords to bizarre demons to fiendish traps and clever ways to get around them. This book is full of the fun lateral thinking we OSR types are always crowing about. And if you are a big fan of thieves, you'll really enjoy both the glimpse we get of Ness’ thieves guild and the two heists.

If you do enjoy Den of Thieves, you’ll be happy to hear that the two following books of the trilogy are slated to be released this October and December. Thankfully, while Mr. Chandler's books follow the current fantasy trend of being a touch on the thick side, he hasn't embraced the notion that readers should have to wait years between installments. Mr. Chandler is also an old-schooler himself, so be sure to check out the Russ Nicholson illustrations on the trilogy's web page and offer him your congratulations on his getting published by HarperCollins.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 7: Tradition! (Dai-dai-dai-dai-dai...)

Generally speaking, a hex map should work very much like a dungeon map: the “deeper” you go, the more dangerous the critters should be. The caveat on that is, in the wilderness, the PCs have a lot more flexibility when it comes which encounters they tackle with combat and which they avoid entirely. There’s just a lot more mobility in the wilderness, and if the PCs ever come across a population they don’t want to fight, they can generally get around them somehow.

So we’ll start with a fairly traditional low-level monster: goblins. The eastern jungles below the V of the mountains and north of the first river is peppered with small goblin tribes. Most are probably nomadic hunter-gatherers, but some will be organized into actual static villages. The further south you go, the more organized the tribes are and the more they’re likely to have domesticated giant spiders. I could even see some of these guys dressing up in spider-inspired war costumes.

Those living close to the southern river are in a constant state of low-level conflict with their neighbors. There are raids across the river going both ways. In the jungles between the two rivers live lizardfolk. While less numerous than the goblins, they are a lot more organized, and possess an actual city along the edge of the mountains. It’s an ancient ruin built in their prouder days (or possibly by another race entirely?) where their immortal king (who is actually the green dragon who disguises himself with magic) lives and rules over them.

While the goblins are almost certainly to turn out to be foes of the PCs (though playing one tribe off against another certainly is a possibility) the lizardfolk might turn out to be fairly friendly to the PCs. Having groups that are potential allies is important, especially if you use advancement rules like Jeff’s Carousing rules or LotFPWFRP’s insistence that only treasures returned to civilization count. The deeper the PCs travel into the wilderness, the harder it’s going to be for them to return to Home Base between missions. You need to give them some way to replenish their expendable supplies and level up. Allies can do that for you. We’ll be revisiting this topic later.

The goblins are little more than an annoyance to the lizardfolk and their wyrm-king. Their other two neighbors are far more threatening. To the east are the bullywugs that live in the massive swamp that spans the shoreline between the two rivers. The swamp is a spooky, eldritch place, teeming with carnivorous plants, strange creatures, and mysterious phenomena. The rocky hills in the center of the swamp are holy places to the bullywug, where their living ancestors dwell.

Relations between the bullywugs and the lizardfolk are fairly quiet most of the time. Every generation or so, however, the bullywugs swarm out of the swamps in great numbers, bent on pillage and destruction. The lizardfolk have erected a few forts, mostly of earth and wood, to guard against these occasional invasions.

Of greater concern to the lizardfolk are the orcs that live south of the river. Raids and skirmishes across the river are common in both directions. The orcs have matched the forts of the lizardfolk with tall stone towers of their own. While the jungle claimed by the orcs is vast and includes many different tribes, the orcs seem capable of banding together quickly, and even engaging in long-term projects such at the building and garrisoning of the towers. An alliance between the lizardfolk and the fey living in the southern river (a clan of potent nixies) is one of the reasons the lizardfolk haven’t simply been overwhelmed yet by the orcs.

The source of the orcs’ inexplicable organizational abilities is not guessed at by even most of the orcs. In truth, their chieftains and shamans are all in thrall to a cabal of mind flayers who dwell deep beneath the mountain range that makes up the western boundaries of their domain. A complex system of potlatch and raiding between the orcs sends a steady stream of slaves and treasure to the mind flayers in their hidden caverns. The principle foe of the mind flayers is the living ancestors of the bullywugs. To date, however, attempts to invade the jungle with
massed orc hordes have failed to penetrate deeper than a dozen miles beyond the river.

So that’s the eastern quarter of the island. Next time, we’ll populate the western quarter with some less-traditional critters.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 6: Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

Finally, we’re ready to begin populating our island. This is probably my favorite part of world building.

First, an important note about hex-crawling. The bedrock assumption of the hex crawl is that the area the PCs will be exploring is mysterious and unknown to them. There are no maps existing already that show what they should expect to find. The point is for the PCs to fill in the blanks spaces.

Towards this end, the outposts of civilization (or, at least, the civilization the PCs belong to) should be few. On our map, there will be only a handful, and all clustered close together.

So, starting at the top, we put a large city where the northern-most river meets the sea. I want a fairly serious city so that the PCs can expect to buy anything they might need: triremes and mounts, porters or slaves, powerful healing magic, and someone who can remove curses or similar unfortunate magics for a price. You can fudge this a bit by making the city heavily focused; the Pitsh of my Doom & Tea Parties campaign is a theocratic community that grew up around a temple to Uban that itself was focused on exploring the island of Dreng Bdan and plundering its ruins. That means it is much richer in clerical resources than you’d normally expect from a city its size.

For our hex-map island's human city, I’m thinking it’s an outpost of the Sea Lords, a city-state that only recently won its independence from another such state. Possibly a brother or nephew of some other Sea Lord or some such. It’s a port-of-call for pirates and smugglers, but also an important shipyard for same. Up-river, in the jungle hexes, I’ll put one or two villages that are based on logging. They’ll float their lumber down river to the city where it’s transformed into new ships. I’ll also drop in a few villages in the clear hexes where farmers grow food to support the city and the loggers.

This part of the island is pretty well explored, and when I hand the PCs a map of the island, the part north of that V of mountains will be largely filled in. So will the coastline, but nothing else; due to the city-state’s battle for independence, they’ve not really had the chance to explore the interior yet. That’s where the PCs come in.

Some critters are so dangerous, they’re practically forces of nature in their own right. Dragons come to mind. I want three on this island. The youngest, a male red, lives in the extinct volcano just north of the mysterious plateau. The oldest, a female red and possibly the mother or grandmother of the young red, lives in the dead volcano just north of the grey volcanic ash wastes. And I’m thinking there’s a green somewhere in those jungles on the eastern side of the island. I could put a black in those hills surrounded by swamp along the eastern coast, but I’ve got other ideas for that part of the world.

I want to place the dragons now because they'll likely distort the social map. Few people want to live next-door to a dragon. Now that I've got a good idea of where there be dragons, I can start plopping down the more civilized, social monsters. And we'll get to that next week.

Art by Frederick Arthur Bridgman and Albert Bierstadt.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 5: Things That Grow

With the coastline, mountains, and rivers placed, we’re set to drop in everything else we want. And you probably want most other things. Granted, on an island this size, it’s probably not reasonable to include both arctic ice-sheets and tropical jungles. Still, snow-capped mountains surrounded by tropical jungle is certainly feasible, as are the sorts of rain forests you find on the coast of the Pacific northwest creeping up towards tundra. If you really want it, you can probably find a way to make it happen.

Why go to such extremes? It’s not really necessary, but you may want to be able to drop in things you pick up. Death Frost Doom kinda requires a frozen landscape to work in, though a good, tall mountain might work. N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God works best if you have a swamp. B4: The Lost City could be dropped in a jungle, but the feel is decidedly desert.

Besides, endless days of nothing but forest get dull. You want to keep things fresh and interesting. Varied terrain also makes picking a route more interesting. Traveling down the river is faster than cutting through the hills, but if you do that, you might miss something interesting. And maybe that river doesn’t go where you want to go.

Before we start plopping terrain, a word about climate. Right now, in the tropics, the prevailing winds, and the rains they push, move from east to west, and in the temperate regions they go the other way. This is what creates all the moisture in the Amazon as the rains that don’t fall over the jungle are forced to dump their moisture when they run into the Andes, while the Pacific coast of California is rich and fertile while the other side of the mountains is a desert.

But the world was not always as it is today. The Sahara was once a lush forest. Ferns once grew in the soils of Antarctica. If climate’s a useful tool for you, use it. Some people feel climate is a good framework to use when the blank hexes grow too daunting. Otherwise, feel free to chunk it.

Let’s start with hills. Hills often appear alongside mountains, the way big wrinkles in a blanket might be surrounded by smaller ones. They’re also a good excuse if you have a river that suddenly zigs or zags abruptly. Put some hills at that point, and the river is flowing around the higher terrain, always choosing to flow down and never up. If you put in any lakes, maybe a series of hills caused the water to back up until it could flow through a saddle in those hills.

Marshes and swamps usually occur alongside rivers. Basically, the land is low and you get what would be a lake if the depression was deeper. Or the river meets the sea and the separation between earth and water becomes muddled. If you put in one of those deltas we talked about last time, the land around it is probably pretty marshy.

Could you have marsh next to desert? Sure. It’s easy to imagine something like the salt marshes outside Lankhmar along the edge of a desert, or maybe even as the dividing line between desert and sea.

Since I’ve said my island is tropical, I’m going to put lots of thick jungle on the eastern half. I’m declaring the western half is mostly savanna. Putting the PCs’ base near the dividing line in the north gives them an interesting choice almost immediately: dense rain forest or open grasslands?

But this is a fantasy world, not just Hawaii writ large. Normal terrain is good and all, but if you can, you should absolutely drop in some really cool fantastical bits of terrain: rivers of lava, rocks that float in mid-air, columns of stone that have been hollowed out to be the homes of gnomes, landforms that are actually giant creatures, mammoths’ graveyards, magically warped terrains, groves of treants and dryads, burning hellscapes, great plains teeming with carnivorous plants, yellow brick roads, rainbow bridges, gumdrop mountains, towers that shift between different dimensions, tesseracts, enchanted forests, eternal storms, ancient standing stones, radioactive wastelands, crops of magnetic crystals, and other cool ideas I’ve never even dreamed of yet, but that I hope you’ll share with me.

In that spirit, the southwestern portion of the island is a strange landscape of poisonous ash coughed up by the volcanoes. Living there will be difficult without magic or specialized gear. In this strange dust and ash, giant mushrooms have sprung up into dense fungal forests. Perhaps colonies of myconids tend them, and sorcerers lurk in the shadows, collecting rare and potent reagents for their potions and spells.

I'm not touching the spot in the middle, our mysterious plateau, just yet. Still not sure what I want to put there, but there's no rush on that score. As rorschachhamster pointed out on Monday, that lake really is just crying out for an island in the middle, isn't it? But first, I think I want to decide what my major populations on this island are going to be. We'll tackle that on Friday, if all goes well.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Hex Mapping Part 4: Mountains and Subdivisions

As promised, today we’re talking about mountains. Now that we have our coastline defined, we can chop up our big, flat island into more digestible chunks. Mountains work really well for this purpose because they are both a physical boundary but also permeable. Mountain slow you down, but they don't stop you necessarily.

This makes them useful for the players as internal boundaries inside the island. And they work well for the DM because mountains have frequently served as cultural boundaries in the real world. The Alps marked the boundary between Italy and Gaul just as the Pyrenees mark the boundary between France and Spain. Mountains work better for this purpose than rivers because rivers are facilitators of mobility instead of inhibitors. Rivers encourage motion; mountains discourage it.

So the players will use our mountains to define geographic subdivisions of our island. We will encourage this behavior by using mountains to separate cultural and racial groups.

More about that later. Right now, we just need to chop up this big Island into more digestible bits. So I'll go ahead and slap down some chains of mountains radiating from the center of our island out towards some of the points.

(If you wanted to, you could extend these mountains out into the sea as islands. You can see this sort of thing in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. But keep in mind we want to encourage our players to stay on the island and not give them small, tempting distractions just offshore. So we’ll stop our mountain chains well short of the coast.)

As you can see, I've chopped my island into six sections. Some are a little big, especially the ones on the eastern side, so I'll probably want to vary the terrain a little bit over there. The northern section is the smallest, so I'll probably make that the "safe zone" of civilization. Finally, I put a ring of mountains in the center of the island. This is going to be our mysterious and difficult to reach plateau. It's perfect for a “lost world” teeming with dinosaurs, ancient lost civilizations, or crashed spaceships à la Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. I have no idea yet what I'm going to put there, but that's okay. We're still only just getting started.

Now that we have mountains and the coastline defining our highest and lowest spots, we can put in rivers. Assuming your world works under the same general principles as ours does, water will flow downhill. Find some likely spots, and draw some squiggly river lines heading towards the coast. Rivers tend to do one of two things when flowing from a mountain to the sea; they either separate into smaller rivers, or merge into bigger rivers. If you want some massive artery like the Mississippi or the Amazon, have lots of rivers flow into one. If you have a good fan-shaped piece of coastline your river can fan out into a delta like the Nile.

Don't go too crazy with the rivers. Not every nook and cranny of your coastline requires a river flowing into it. On a map this size, a handful should serve you well. If you've already located what you consider to be choice spots for civilization, go ahead and put a river by that. Communities love rivers. But we'll get to those later. We've still got to finish our geography first.