Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Returning to the Wicked City

Bardaree Bryant's drawing of the Wicked City. Used with permission. Good luck with the game, Bardaree!

Man, did this blog ever wander off-topic. In the last six months I've only made five posts related to the ATWC setting itself: three new monsters, one post on the Siberian fur trade, and one post on the Three Thieves of the Triple Crown. Somewhere along the line it's very much become a space for general-purpose D&D rambling rather than what the blog header says it should be about, which is romantic clockpunk fantasy in a setting based on early modern Central Asia. I should probably get around to correcting that.

There's no mystery about why the switch happened. I wrote the ATWC setting to give me an outlet for RPG-related writing at a time when my work and childcare responsibilities were preventing me from actually gaming; once I had a regular group again, my focus shifted to actual play and the kind of issues and questions that were generated by my ongoing campaign. I'd also reached a point where the ATWC setting was, if not finished, then at least sufficiently complete to be useable, making it less obvious what form any future expansion should take. I'm wary of cluttering it up with information for information's sake: I've seen too many published settings which just bloat themselves out in order to fill the page count, often losing what was most interesting and distinctive about themselves in the process. So now that I've covered what I see as the important stuff, I wouldn't want to write much more without a fairly clear idea of what, exactly, the setting would gain from me doing so.

That said, I do have a few ideas, and I'm going to list them here, in the hope that doing so might shame me into actually writing them:

  • More specific places in the ATWC setting, drawing on different bits of Central Asian history and geography, in order to make the world outside the Wicked City a bit more concrete. This is a bit of a balancing act, because I do want to preserve the sense of the sheer scale of the Great Road and the steppe and the taiga, and nothing will kill that quicker than carving them up into a set of clearly defined polities. But I think they're probably a bit too vague at present.
  • In a similar vein, some tables to create random steppe khanates and oasis kingdoms, to fill in whatever blank bits of the map the PCs might happen to wander into. (I already have these for cities of the Great Road.) 
  • Some random religion generation tables, to reflect the sheer diversity of faiths, traditions, and heresies which proliferate along the Great Road. 
  • A short adventure: something like The Tower of Broken Gears, but actually set within the Wicked City itself, illustrating how it might be used in play. 
  • Another short adventure set out in the wilderness, illustrating how the ATWC spirit world might actually be used in a game. 
So that - along with making some actual progress on 'The Coach of Bones' and maybe rewriting some more Pathfinder adventure paths - is my blog objective for the next six months or so. Whether I actually manage to get there, of course, is an entirely separate matter. But at least I have a destination...

Photo: Courtesy Land Art Mongolia:

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Sophie the Muscle Wizard and the joys of random character generation

The Team Tsathogga group finished playing through Death Frost Doom this week, and one PC didn't make it out alive. The session ended with the party heading for a nearby magical academy in the hope of selling the wizards some of the creepy magical junk they'd found during the adventure, so the dead PC's player quickly rolled up a replacement character, reasoning that there might be someone at the academy whom the party could recruit to bring them back up to full strength. Rolling 3d6 in order, she got:

Strength 16
Dexterity 13
Constitution 4
Intelligence 10
Wisdom 4
Charisma 7

She considered these stats for a few moments, and then said:

'My new character is called Sophie. She was a student at the magical academy, but she wasn't really clever enough to keep up and kept getting disappointing grades. (Int 10) Thrown into depression by a failed exam, she tried to make herself feel better by pumping iron at the college gymnasium. (Str 16) Unwisely (Wis 4) she devoted herself to extreme workout routines which ended up completely wrecking her health. (Con 4) After trying and failing to justify her powerlifting obsession to her tutors (Cha 7), she was thrown out of the academy, and is now looking for adventure!'

And thus Sophie the Muscle Wizard was unleashed upon the world.

I imagine her as looking kinda like this.

One of her fellow PCs is an equally extreme case. With Strength 5, Dexterity 8, Constitution 9, Intelligence 6, Wisdom 10, and Charisma 18, Jack the Fighter seemed doomed to an early and ignominious death; but sixteen sessions after his player's eyes first widened in horror at the stats he'd just rolled for his new character, he's still going strong. (As strong as one can with Strength 5, anyway.) Weak, clumsy, unfit, and amazingly stupid, Jack is just so damn pretty that he seems to be able to get away with almost anything, and he's more than once provided vital contributions by sweet-talking guards, traders, and other NPCs into doing things that they know they shouldn't, simply because they couldn't resist the power of his innocent, dopey smile. We mostly play him as Derek Zoolander in D&D-land.

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Jack the Fighter descends into yet another dungeon...

These examples are comic, which isn't accidental - incongruity is one of the basic elements of comedy - but I'm confident that you could take the same stats and come up serious, and even bleak, interpretations of the characters they represented. And you would almost never get characters like this using point-buy methods - not because they're impossible to build (although under some systems they might be), but because you'd probably never come up with them in the first place. With a whimsical enough player, and a sufficient lack of emphasis on powergaming, you might get as far as 'bodybuilder wizard' or 'dim-witted prettyboy'; but in each case there are other elements (like Jack's physical weakness or Sophie's catastrophic lack of wisdom) which result purely from the whim of the dice. But the odd combinations of traits that sometimes arise from random character generation create characters who won't fit neatly into their predefined niches, and whose mere existence thus forces the game to unfold in less predictable ways.

Much though I love the sight of people rolling 3d6 in order, I don't think it's inherently superior to other ways of generating characters. If you're keen on power balance, or heroic characters, or just on giving players control over what kind of PCs they end up playing, then completely random character generation is obviously a terrible idea. (This is part of the reason why, in my current group each player has two PCs: it ensures that having one weaker or less serious character isn't such a big deal.) But random chargen does have a charm of its own, a charm which is rooted in the very things which probably led most groups to abandon it in the first place: the danger that the dice might give you a weird, weak, flawed character rather than the awesome Conan or Gandalf knock-off you'd been building up in your imagination, and consequently force you to go off-script.

To put it another way, I already know how Conan will approach being dropped into D&D-land: the kind of adventures he's likely to have, the ways he's likely to deal with problems, and so on. I've been gaming for a long time now, and there's not a lot of mental stimulation left for me in watching another Mighty Warrior do Mighty Warrior Stuff. Sophie the Muscle Wizard, by contrast, represents a combination of traits which I've never seen before, and in consequence I find I have no idea how she's likely to respond to her upcoming adventures. I'm very much looking forward to finding out, though!

Sunday, 12 February 2017

New B/X class: the faerie

One thing I rather liked about Mazes and Minotaurs was the idea of having 'nymph' as one of the core character classes. If you're aiming to evoke Greek mythology, then this makes pretty good sense: nymphs turn up everywhere in those stories, to the point where there might be almost as many nymphs in Greek myths as there are actual human women. (Take a look at the sheer length of the list here, for example.) At the same time, though, as a character concept it comes with a lot of limitations: you have to be female, you have to be beautiful, you're probably going to spend a lot of time swimming around naked, and so on. It made me wonder: what might a less restrictive version of the 'sexy nature spirit' concept look like as a character class? And then I got thinking about how the D&D elf really has very little in common with the elfin knights and fae ladies of medieval literature and folklore, and I came up with this...

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The Faerie

To-hit and hit dice: As per cleric.

Saves: As per elf.

Weapons and armour: Faeries can use any weapons, but are too frail to fight effectively in metal armour.

XP per level: As per elf.

Fae Traits: All faeries bear some physical marks of their inhuman heritage, marks which become more pronouced as they increase in power. Roll 1d20 on the following table at level one, and again at each subsequent level. If you roll the same trait more than once, it becomes much more pronounced (e.g. green-tinted skin becomes leaf green, hip-length hair becomes ankle length, and so on). High level faeries tend to look both freaky and fabulous. 

  1. Inhuman hair colour (e.g. blue, green, violet).
  2. Inhuman skin tone (e.g. tinted green, blue, or purple). 
  3. Flowers grow naturally in your hair in all seasons.
  4. Songbirds and butterflies follow you around whenever possible.
  5. You eyes resemble those of a cat, brilliant green with a vertical slit pupil. 
  6. Your body has a pleasant but distinctive floral aroma, noticeable whenever you walk into a room.
  7. You are extremely androgynous, and could easily pass as male or female unless completely naked.
  8. You have extremely long hair (hip-length or longer) - if cut it grows back at 1d6 inches per day.
  9. Your smile literally lights up the room. (Illumination equivalent to a candle, although it's uncomfortable to maintain it for too long.)
  10. You are very, very tall. 
  11. You are very, very thin.
  12. You appear slightly translucent when seen in moonlight or starlight.
  13. You have extremely long fingernails, which oddly do not interfere with your manual dexterity.
  14. Instead of tears, you weep tiny, transparent crystals, which shatter when they hit the floor.
  15. Your shadow takes the shape of different wild animals, depending on your current mood.
  16. When happy, you start to levitate several inches off the ground.
  17. Your limbs are extraordinarily flexible, as though they had several additional joints.
  18. Your ears are long and sharply pointed.
  19. Your teeth are long and sharply pointed.
  20. Whenever your blood falls upon the earth, stands of beautiful, vivid-red flowers spring up 1d6 minutes later.
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Night Vision: Even the faintest moonlight or starlight allow you to see as well as full sunlight, although complete darkness will still blind you.

Soulless: You cast no reflection in mirrors, and suffer a -1 penalty to all rolls while standing on ground consecrated to a Lawful deity. Beneficial cleric spells (including Cure spells) have only half their normal effect when cast upon you.

Glamour: Glamour is the illusion-magic of the fae. You have a number of Glamour points equal to your level: a Charisma of 13 or higher grants +1, and a Charisma of 16 or higher grants +2. You may spend one point of glamour to entrance someone with your otherworldly charisma, as per a Charm Person spell. Your glamour pool refreshes each day at sunset.
  • At level 2, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Sleep.
  • At level 3, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Phantasmal Force.
  • At level 4, you may spend 1 Glamour to cast Obscuring Mists.
  • At level 5, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Hold Person.
  • At level 6, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Invisibility.
  • At level 7, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Mirror Image or Suggestion.
  • At level 8, you may spend 2 Glamour to cast Confusion.
  • At level 9, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Hallucinatory Terrain.
  • At level 10, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Invisibility 10' Radius.
  • At level 11, you may spend 3 Glamour to cast Massmorph.
  • At level 12, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Geas.
  • At level 13, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Mass Invisibility.
  • At level 14, you may spend 4 Glamour to cast Polymorph Self or Polymorph Other.
  • At level 15, you may spend 5 Glamour to cast Mass Charm or Power Word Blind.

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The Old Speech: You gain the ability to speak to birds at level 2; at level 4 this extends to other animals, at level 6 to insects, and at level 8 to plants. Any creature you can talk to (including giant and magical versions) with hit dice equal to or less than your own also counts as a 'person' for the purposes of your Charm Person and Hold Person abilities. Suitably large charmed animals will usually consent to be used as mounts.

Weave Gossamer: At level 3, you gain the ability to weave flowers, leaves, and spiderwebs into fantastical garments that never tear, never get creased or muddy, and look amazing. Any time you wear gossamer garments instead of armour, you get +1 to reaction rolls from all intelligent creatures. If anyone other than you attempts to wear your gossamer clothes, they will instantly realise that they aren't nearly pretty enough to pull off your look successfully, and must save or be thrown into a deep depression for 1d6 hours. Making a set of gossamer clothes takes 12 hours.

Changeling: At level 5, you gain the ability to change your appearance to match someone else's. Spending 1 Glamour allows you to maintain this disguise for a number of hours equal to your level. Spending 1 additional Glamour also allows you to mimic their voice for the duration.

Makeshift Men: At level 7, you can spend one hour and 1 Glamour sculpting a heap of leaves, sticks, and mud into a roughly-humanoid shape, which then comes to life as an ugly, goblin-like being. Makeshift men have the same statistics as goblins, and maintaining their animation costs 1 Glamour per day. They're not very bright, but will obey you to the best of their ability, because they know that their continued existence depends upon your will. If killed or de-animated, they collapse back into twigs and dirt.

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Thursday, 9 February 2017

Monsters from improbable sources 3: conversations with a two-year-old

The other day, I was washing my two-year-old son in the bath when he suddenly said: 'You not a bahmu!'

'What's a bahmu?' I replied.

'Bahmu is big pet', he explained. 'In woods.'

'What colour is it?'

'Is red. Bahmu has legs. Is scary!'

'So the bahmu is a big, scary red pet with legs that lives in the woods. Is it furry?'

'No, is not. Bahmu have red teeth!'

'Is bahmu friendly?'

'No, is scary!'

'What does bahmu do?'

'Bahmu say RAAARH!'

I appreciated this conversation, because it gives me an excellent opportunity for finding out whether I am, in fact, living in a horror movie. All I need to do is take my son into the nearest forest, say the magic words 'So where does the bahmu live?', and then see whether I am horribly killed within the next five minutes by a giant red monster with teeth. My son, of course, would survive unscathed, because as the only witness it would be his job to tell the bemused detectives how bahmu ate daddy, bahmu is big red pet, bahmu live in woods...

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  • Bahmu: AC 15, 4 HD, +4 to hit, bite (1d12 damage), saves 10, morale 9, special attacks: roar. 

Bahmu are large, loping creatures, like a bald red ape crossed with a hairless wolf, whose almost-human faces are dominated by enormous mouths full of sharp red teeth. They normally move on all fours, although they can balance (slightly unsteadily) on their hind legs if they need to grab or bite at something that would otherwise be out of reach. They are superb burrowers and excellent climbers, their big clawed hands serving to dig through earth and grip onto trees with equal skill. Their preferred habitat is dense forests. 

Bahmu are entirely unnatural, having been magically bred as pets and guard dogs by an ancient and thankfully long-vanished civilisation. Although long-since gone feral, they still cling to the regions once inhabited by their former masters, lurking in the ruins of their overgrown cities as though hoping that, if only they wait long enough, their original owners might finally return. They are long-lived and hardy, and while their highly territorial nature will lead them to eviscerate anyone they see as trespassing into their territory, their ancient genetic imperatives mean that they are mentally conditioned to behave in various pet-like ways that now seem oddly out of keeping with their ferocious nature: they will placidly allow themselves to be played with by cats, dogs, and small children, and are scrupulously cleanly in their habits. If you could catch and domesticate one at a young enough age it would make a brilliant housepet, provided you had a big enough garden and you didn't mind it occasionally eating your neighbours. 

Bahmu prefer to attack from ambush, either dropping down from the treetops or bursting up through the soil from one of their hidden underground burrows. (They see excellently in the dark.) If anything survives their initial assault they will emit a terrifying roar which induces supernatural terror in all non-bahmu who hear it, forcing them to save or flee in panic for 1d6 rounds. 

Bahmu is big pet.

Bahmu is scary.

Bahmu have red teeth.

Bahmu say 'RAAARH!'

Thursday, 2 February 2017

More Devonshire folklore for The Coach of Bones

Last August, I half-seriously suggested writing an adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess, set in Devon during the chaotic aftermath of Monmouth's 1685 rebellion and provisionally entitled The Coach of Bones. Since then, my work commitments have kept me from getting very far with it, but I do still keep an eye out for material I might want to use in it from time to time. In November I posted a list of 20 Dartmoor legends for potential incorporation into the module, and since then I've gathered a bunch of other Devonshire folktales and ghost stories which I feel could fit right into a spooky D&D adventure. If you used everything from both lists you'd have enough material to stock an entire hexcrawl set in seventeenth-century Devon - which is pretty much what I may end up writing, if The Coach of Bones ever gets beyond the drafting stage...

If anyone's interested, I mostly got these from Devon Ghosts (1982) by Theo Brown.

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Tavistock Abbey, circa 1784.

The Tunnels of Tavistock Abbey: According to local legend, there is a hidden network of vaults and tunnels beneath the ruins of Tavistock Abbey, stretching out beneath Tavistock itself. A local clergyman once found an entrance to these tunnels, and walked in them for some way before being surprised by the sudden appearance of a pair of monks, who bowed politely to him before disappearing back into the darkness. Spooked by this encounter, and deeply uncertain whether the 'monks' he had just met were ghosts or living men, he left the tunnels, and was never afterwards able to locate their entrance.

Squire Cabell: Wicked Squire Cabell of Brook Manor used to abduct local girls, whom he imprisoned in his house at Hawson, just across the valley; he was also rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil. When he lay dying in 1677, the demonic 'wish hounds' of Dewer the Huntsman gathered around his house, howling horribly; and they have howled for him ever since, calling him to join them in their hunts. The people buried him outside Buckfastleigh church, with a large stone slab over his grave to stop him climbing out of it, and a heavy stone tomb on top of the slab to weigh him down even further. In the side of the tomb is a solid oak door with a large keyhole, a door which is never opened or unlocked. The local children sometimes dare one another to place their fingers inside the keyhole, to see if Cabell will bite them off...

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William De Tracy and his comrades murder St Thomas Becket, 1170.

William De Tracy:
After the murder of St Thomas Becket, one of his killers, Sir William De Tracy, is said to have hidden himself in a cave near Ilfracombe, where he was sustained by the provisions that his daughter lowered down to him in a basket. He later died in the Holy Land; but his ghost is said to have returned to Ilfracombe in death, where on stormy nights he rides furiously back and forth across the Woolacombe Sands.

The Spreyton Haunting: In 1683, the residents of a house in Spreyton were tormented by a malicious spirit which appeared sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a horse, and sometimes as a monstrous, fire-breathing hound. Under its influence windows broke, objects moved, laces crawled across the ground like snakes, and a cravat attempted to strangle its wearer; once a man was even hurled bodily into the air, only to be found later hanging from the branches of a tree in a nearby bog, apparently in a state of trance. Finally, a bird flew in through a window carrying an odd brass object, with which it struck one of the household on the head. The people broke this brass object into pieces, and shortly afterwards the haunting apparently came to an end.

The Sokespitch Barrel: The Sokespitch family of Marsh Barton, who held the same land from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, were at some point granted a magical beer-barrel by the pixies, which was enchanted never to run dry. They kept this barrel for many generations, until one day a curious maidservant opened it up to look inside it. Within she found only masses of cobwebs, and beer never flowed from the barrel again.

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The ruins of Frithelstock Priory.

Our Lady of Frithelstock: In 1351, the monks of Frithelstock Priory were condemned by the Bishop of Exeter for their unauthorised erection of a stone chapel containing a statue of a woman, which had rapidly become an object of veneration among the surrounding population. The monks claimed that the statue was a representation of the Virgin Mary; the bishop, unconvinced, replied that it looked more like 'proud and disobedient Eve or unchaste Diana', and ordered the destruction of both statue and shrine. Odd psychic phenomena have occurred intermittently in the area ever since.

The Hairy Hands: The road across Dartmoor from Princeton to Moretonhampstead is haunted by something which manifests as a pair of huge, hairy hands. The hands grab travellers, throw people from carts and horses, and scrabble at windows after dark: all who see them are filled with instinctive horror, and feel intuitively that they are malevolent to human life. Some locals speculate that the area was once home to a race of hairy men, who inhabited the region before the humans came, and whose spirits still hold a grudge against the people who displaced them.

The Roborough Down Cannibal: A man was once travelling across Dartmoor with his two children in a severe snowstorm when he chanced across an isolated house, inhabited by a single old woman. He and his children sheltered with her for the night, and he then left his children in her care while he proceeded to Plymouth through the snow: but upon his return she claimed they had gone missing during the night. Subsequent investigations revealed that she had killed and eaten them, and that she had in fact been murdering and eating vulnerable travellers for some years. After her death, her house was allowed to fall into ruin, and is now said to be haunted.

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Beetor Cross.

Beetor Cross: Beetor Cross was once the site of a gibbet, posted to deter the highwaymen who used to lie in wait there for travellers. Presumably the ghost of one of them still lingers there, as travellers encounter an unseen presence which seizes hold of them as they pass, sometimes attempting to drag riders from their horses. Then again, the haunting may be much older, as local traditions claim that the area was once the site of a great battle between the Saxons and the Celts...

The Battle of Fenny Meadows: In 1549, the Prayerbook Rebels were massacred by the king's army on the banks of the River Otter, near Fenny Bridges. On moonlit nights the old battlefield can sometimes be seen to fill with phantom horsemen, wading knee-deep in human blood.

The Phantom Cottage: Near Buckfastleigh once stood a cottage inhabited by an elderly couple, who had a very evil reputation with the local people. After they died, the cottage decayed until only its foundations remained; but travellers at twilight sometimes see it still standing on its old site, with the old man and woman still sitting inside it, warming their wicked hands by the fire.

Tantrobobus: A gigantic ghost by this name is said to roam the North Devon coastline.

The Headless Goat: A headless goat wanders Dartmoor in the region of Sherril, blood dripping from its severed neck. Sometimes it leaps out of hedges to surprise passing travellers.

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Longaford Tor.

The Foxes of Longaford Tor: The foxes of Longaford Tor have a taste for human flesh, sometimes attacking lone travellers in the winter, tearing their bodies apart, and dragging their bones down into their holes. They are especially active around midwinter, when the locals are careful to avoid them for fear of being devoured.

The Dark Men of Dartmoor: Small, dark-skinned men dressed in animal skins are occasionally glimpsed on Dartmoor, sometimes in the act of climbing out of or disappearing into hidden holes. Locals disagree on whether these are the ghosts of the land's original inhabitants, or an actual lost race which has remained hidden underground ever since.

The Village of Changelings: In a village near Chudleigh, it was noticed that the villagers tended to be unusually small. The people of the surrounding region attributed this fact to a long-ago pixie raid in which all the children in the village were stolen away and replaced with changelings, whose fey blood and diminutive stature was naturally inherited by their descendants.

Cutty Dyer: This river-giant lives in the River Yeo. During the day, Cutty Dyer sleeps beneath the water, under the shadow of bridges; but at night he sometimes rises up and tries to pull passers-by into the water to drown them, or else grabs them from behind, cuts their throats, and drinks their blood before throwing their corpses into the water. It is said that he was once a miller named Christopher Dyer, although how he came to take on his current monstrous form is unclear. His grim exploits are remembered in a local children's song:

Dawn't'ee go down the riverzide:
Cutty Dyer du abide.
Cutty Dyer ain't no gude:
Cutty Dyer'll drink yer blood!

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