Tuesday 30 June 2015

On not having a skill system

I thought about it. I really did. I got as far as drafting a list of skills and some basic rules and everything. But then I said fuck it and threw them all away.

As I've mentioned, I've not always been a rules-light player. Far from it. I learned D&D 3.5. I learned GURPS, for Christ's sake. But now I'm old and impatient. I don't get to game as often as I used to, and I don't want to waste precious time on needless dice-rolling, let alone on figuring out the level of your skill level in Abacus Use. (Yes, GURPS had an Abacus Use skill.) So I'm ditching it. It's gone.

Instead, I will be using the following key principles:

1: You are assumed to be a competent adventurer.

Can you climb the wall? Can you ride the horse? Can you swim across the river? Can you sneak up on the guards while they're distracted? Can you spot the clue you need to continue with the adventure?

The answers are yes, yes, yes, yes, and fuck yes. If it's something a brave, capable adult who's grown up in a fairly rough-and-tumble society should be able to do, then you just succeed. No rolls needed.

I don't assume that my PCs are bumbling incompetents. I assume that they're pretty cool, pretty tough, and pretty clever. Anything a bunch of cool, tough, clever people should probably be able to accomplish doesn't even deserve a dice roll.

2: You are assumed to be pretty damn awesome at things related to your class

You know all that cool 'wilderness lore' stuff that scouts and rangers and hunters do in movies all the time? Knowing which berries are poisonous, spotting which way people have gone from broken twigs, finding the one source of water in the middle of the desert? If you're playing a traveller, that guy is you. No rolls needed. You just do it. You're just that good.

Same goes for fighters with tough-guy stuff (of course you can kick the door down), scholars with knowledge stuff (of course you can read the inscriptions), and tricksters with tricksy stuff (of course you can sneak up on the guards). Only really big, impactful stuff even deserves a roll. The rest can just be taken for granted.

3: You are assumed to be able to do the other stuff you should logically be able to do

If it's been established that your character grew up in a fishing village, then you can catch fish, operate fishing boats, and so on. If they were a blacksmith's apprentice, they know basic metalwork. These kinds of 'assumed knowledges' aren't nearly as 'strong' as class abilities - growing up in a fishing village is no guarantee you're any kind of master angler, after all - but they do carry weight.

I am perfectly happy with asking my players things like: 'So, did any of your characters grow up in the mountains?', and incorporating their responses into the scene. That then becomes a new fact about their character. Anyone attempting to string together some nonsensical backstory to justify their possession of a whole range of such background skills will just be politely told to stop.

4: If you attempt something really challenging not covered by your class, roll a dice

The trickster can sneak past those watchful guards. She's just that tricksy! But what about everyone else?

Pick a relevant ability score. If you can roll equal to or under it on 1d20, you succeed. The GM can assign bonuses or penalties as they see fit.

There. That was painless, wasn't it?

5: If you attempt something super-challenging covered by your class, roll a dice

Class abilities have limits. The fighter can kick down the door, but can she bend the bars of the prison window? The trickster can filch a pie from the pie-shop, but can she steal the key to the dungeons from the jailer's belt?

Whenever someone tries something that's within the domain of their class abilities but is also really challenging and impactful, the kind of thing that has the players on the edge of their seats waiting to see if they succeed or fail, then they make an ability score roll, as above. The GM can assign bonuses or penalties if necessary.

* * *

This is all you need. I promise you. If you want more then that's fine, that's great, there are loads of games out there that will give you a million-and-one ways to exactly quantify what your characters can and cannot do. But this is all you need. It gets people away from thinking about numbers on character sheets, and towards thinking about characters as people. 

Can your scholar cook? Can she sing? Does she have a passion for flower-arranging? Is she any good at calligraphy?

You tell me.

Monday 29 June 2015

Wearing other people's skulls for fun and profit

Image by zerogenius.
(Inspired by the Skull gang from City of Heroes. Man, I miss that game...)

In the first wars fought between the earliest human kingdoms, warrior-cults grew up which practised various forms of ritual cannibalism in order to absorb the life-force of their enemies. Some ate the flesh of the vanquished; some drank their blood, and some made talismans from their bones. Through years of gruesome trial and error, a fairly reliable methodology for stealing the power of the dead was developed. First, one must kill an adult human, eat their heart, and drink their heart's blood; this conveys their strength to their killer, albeit briefly. Then, as soon as possible after doing this, one must cleanse the flesh from some of their bones and attach them to one's body, either by wearing them as clothing or by actually sewing or nailing them to one's flesh; this will hold the stolen life-force in. The most magically efficient bone to take is the face of the skull, and thus the practitioners of this horrible rite are generally known as Skull-Wearers, for they either wear the skulls of their victims as masks, or else stitch their skulls to their own faces; but other variants are possible, although a much greater quantity of bone is required if something other than the skull is used. Regardless of the variant, if the bones ever cease to be in contact with the flesh, the stolen life-force is lost, and the entire ritual must be repeated.

Today, skull-wearing is practised by a few isolated cannibal bands, and a few particularly brutal warlords insist that the warriors who serve them must prove themselves by undergoing the rite. (In the long term this is a terrible idea, as the warriors who perform the rite soon become so hateful and vicious as to be totally untrustworthy, but in the short term they make great shock troops.) In most lands, however, the practise is regarded with utter abhorrence, and those found to have performed it are ritually burned in order to remove the spiritual stain of them from the land.

Behind The Mask: Performing the Skull-Wearer rite immediately raises the ritualist's Strength and Constitution to 16, or to 18 if that stat was already 16 or higher. (For NPCs, give them a +2 bonus on to-hit and damage rolls in melee, and +2 HP per hit dice.) In the first hours after donning their skull, the ritualist feels fearless and invincible; but over the days that follow, they slide further and further into a black emotional morass, unable to feel anything except hate, resentment, pain, and rage. This makes them very difficult to get along with, and often leads them to make very bad decisions, as they assume that everything is always out to get them and that the appropriate way to respond is always with vindictive and disproportionate violence. Their Wisdom and Charisma each drop by 1 point per week until they reach 5; after this they drop by one per year until they reach 1, by which point the skull-wearer is little more than a murderous cannibal beast. Remember, however, that no matter how long they wear the skull, they retain their full normal Intelligence score.

Removing the skull causes immediate loss of the Strength and Constitution increases, which may cause instant death if the skull-wearer was relying on their extra HP to keep them alive; it also causes massive emotional trauma, as the ritualist's old personality comes flooding back and they suddenly have to cope with everything they've done since donning the skull. The ex-skull wearer will regain one point each of Wisdom and Charisma per day until they each return to their old score minus 1; the loss of this last point in each is permanent. Most ex-skull-wearers spend these days rocking back and forth, weeping uncontrollably. In extreme cases, they may carry on doing this for the rest of their lives.  

Skull-wearers potentially present their enemies with a moral dilemma: if they are subdued, there could be a perfectly salvageable human being in there, under the mask. Admittedly, no matter who they were before, these are people who at some point killed and ate another human being; but what if they were forced into it, or have been led to re-evaluate their life choices by their time as a skull-wearing ghoul? Of course, the easy option is just to kill them all and let the gods sort it out, but capturing them and ripping their masks off instead could be an easy way to get some grateful new allies. Then again, it could also be an easy way of trapping yourself in the company of a manipulative psychopath who will gush on and on about how glad he is to be free of that horrible skull, all while planning which of you would make the best 'donor' for his new mask...

Sunday 28 June 2015

Nomad clans of the Deep Taiga

Reindeer clan girl. Photo by Jeroen Toirkens.
So: there's the Road. The Road runs from the unimaginable east to the unimaginable west, carrying goods and knowledge and riches back and forth. The Road is the artery of civilization. Nations hang from it, pendant, like baubles on a string.

Go north.

North of the road are the steppes: empty, illimitable, the wind's highway. Quarreling peoples flow back and forth across them like tides. To live is to ride, here. Every tribe has its horse god. To them, a man without horses barely qualifies as human at all.

Go north.

North of the steppes is the taiga: the cold forests, the kingdoms of the spruce, the pine, and the larch. They are vast and pathless. No nation can prosper here. An army would march in circles until it perished from exhaustion. An empire would vanish beneath the trees with barely a sound. The land is boggy.  The frost grips the earth almost all year round.

Along the southern edges, the taiga peoples ride horses and hunt reindeer, and live almost like the steppe people; but further in, in the Deep Taiga, the people have found stranger ways to survive. They must ride, of course - but what they ride becomes an increasingly open question. The beasts of the Deep Taiga are huge and intelligent, half-way to being spirits rather than mere animals; each clan, if it is to survive, must find one such breed of beasts and strike a symbiotic bargain with them, allowing them into their camps and into their souls. Neither humans nor animals emerge from the process unchanged.

Here, then, are twenty possible clans that you might encounter out in the Deep Taiga. If some of them sound ecologically improbable - in a 'but what would they all eat?' sort of way - then remember that these animals are as much emanations of the landscape as they are flesh and blood. Maybe they don't eat. Maybe they eat dreams, or fears, or regrets. Maybe they eat ritual offerings of dirt and snow, which are as nutritious as meat to them provided the ceremonies have been properly performed. Then again, maybe they eat lost travelers from the southlands who stand around asking silly questions. Try not to look too tasty...

Nomad Clans of the Deep Taiga (roll 1d20)
  1. Wolf clan. Ride huge wolves the size of ponies. Great hunters and savage warriors. Strongly hierarchical and fiercely territorial.
  2. Arachnid clan. Ride enormous spiders, allowing them to scuttle through the canopy from tree to tree. Great trap-makers. Weave their tents out of spiders-silk.
  3. Wildcat clan. Ride gigantic wildcats. Communicate in a weird, yowling language. Smell overpoweringly of musk. Enjoy toying with their prey.
  4. Bear clan. Ride enormous bears; whole families can travel on the backs of the largest ones. Build villages for the winter while their mounts hibernate. Tend to be big, burly, and hairy. Drink more mead than is good for them.
  5. Elk clan. A lanky and rather smelly tribe. They ride elk, whom they also herd before them, eating their meat and making clothes and tents from their hides. Male clansmen are polygamous, and often grow antlers.
  6. Boar clan. Ride huge boars the size of small horses. Aggressive and bad-tempered. Spectacularly omnivorous. Eat their own dead.
  7. Hawk clan. A proud and distant people. Ride gigantic hawks, ranging far across the taiga in search of prey, which their mounts snatch up in their enormous talons.
  8. Reindeer clan. Tundra dwellers. Ride reindeer. Survive in environments so harsh that life would seem to be impossible, licking the lichen from rocks and trees, and never seeming to feel the cold. Males and females alike sometimes grow antlers. Their knees click when they walk.
  9. Owl clan. Ride enormous snowy owls across the forest canopy. Huge-eyed and silent. Can see in the dark.
  10. Raven clan. Scavengers. Ride huge ravens, flapping just above the canopy, their beady eyes scanning the forest floor for their next meal. 
  11. Woolly mammoth clan. Whole families ride on the back of each woolly mammoth, in hide tents tied to their backs. The clansfolk are amazingly loud and hairy and have a genetic tendency towards gigantism. Tusks are not unknown among them.
  12. Sabertooth clan. Ride around on goddamn sabertooth tigers. No-one messes with them because they are the baddest dudes in the entire taiga.
  13. Woolly rhino clan. Each woolly rhino carries two or three riders. Clansfolk are big and thick-skinned and easily annoyed. Perennial rivals of the woolly mammoth clans.
  14. Yeti clan. Adults ride around on a tribe of domesticated yetis, in 'saddles' attached to their backs; children are carried on the front, in slings. Clansfolk are small and lightly-built, forming a striking contrast to their lumbering companions. Yetis are (slightly) intelligent, have their own primitive language, and sing mournfully to one another as they walk, but this doesn't stop the clan from butchering them for food during bad winters.
  15. Tree clan. This clan has domesticated a grove of walking trees. They live in treehouses high in the branches, which the trees carry from place to place; each evening, the trees put down roots, and the people swarm down the trunks to look for food. Clansfolk are amazing climbers.
  16. Goat clan. Mountain-dwellers; ride huge, sure-footed mountain goats, capable of carrying them up the most inaccessible mountain trails. Make their homes in hidden valleys no-one else could possibly find or reach. They have a reputation for lustful behaviour.
  17. Corpse clan. This clan has domesticated the corpses of its own ancestors. The living ride the dead; other corpses stagger along behind, carrying their baggage. The corpses are slow but tireless. Other clans avoid them, mostly because of the smell.
  18. Shadow clan. This clan has domesticated their own shadows. Each member uses an enchanted bridle to subdue their shadow, which they then drag down onto all fours and ride, using carefully positioned light sources to keep their limbs suitably long. The shadows resent this bitterly, but can communicate their outrage only by pulling faces, as they have no voices with which to speak.
  19. Reflection clan. This clan uses magical reins to bind their own reflections; they lean over still pools until they can see themselves, then they dip the reigns into the water and pull their reflections out, shimmering and dripping, to use as steeds or beasts of burden. The reflections look rather bewildered by the whole experience, but do their work without complaint.
  20. Cloud clan. This clan has learned the trick of lassoing low-hanging clouds, which they then pull down onto the ground and ride around on, hovering a foot or two above the floor. The clouds aren't very fast, but they move at the same speed over all terrain, no matter how rugged. In hot, clear weather they shrink and eventually vanish, requiring the clan's cloud-hunters to make another trip up into the hills to catch a new herd.

Friday 26 June 2015

Denizens of the Wicked City 5: The Blood Men (you can play one if you really want to)

They look kinda like this except they wear armour because they're not half as stupid as they pretend to be.
The foot-soldiers of the magician's wars were the Blood Men. Impatient for reinforcements, the sorcerer-kings soon tired of waiting for fresh armies to be raised and trained, and took to simply brewing them in great batches, in enormous cauldrons of mixed human and animal blood. With the aid of the proper ingredients and incantations, the blood knitted together to form Blood Men: lumpen, snaggle-toothed brutes with red, ape-like bodies, covered in short, coarse ruddy hair. The Blood Men - for they were all male, albeit sterile - had a love of battle, an instinctive knack for violence, huge appetites for food and drink, and very little interest in anything else. Most of them died in the wars, their bodies collapsing back into gallons of stale blood upon death; but some of them survived, and while they were incapable of sexual reproduction, many of them had been entrusted with the knowledge of how to make new Blood Men in order to allow them to reinforce themselves in the field. Today, gangs of Blood Men rove from land to land, serving as mercenary soldiers for whoever can promise them a good fight at dawn and a good meal at night; each gang keeps an enchanted cauldron in which to brew up new recruits, and  when times are good they save up their wages to pay for the ingredients they need to make more of their own kind. Occasionally an ambitious ruler will try to brew up whole armies of them; but without the logistical support of the ancient empires the cost of making and maintaining such forces is prohibitively high, and they always end up splitting into roving mercenary gangs before long.

Rules information for Blood Men is as follows:
  • Must have strength and constitution 13 or higher. (For NPCs, give them +1 HP per hit die and +1 to hit and damage in melee.)
  • Can use any weapons and armour, but prefer big, crude ones that make a real mess of whatever they hit.
  • Gain 1d8 HP per level.
  • Gain a bonus to all to-hit rolls (ranged and melee) equal to their level.
  • When they smell blood in combat - which will normally happen as soon as a flesh-and-blood combatant on either side is wounded nearby - they enter into a frothing battle-rage in which they inflict +1 damage with each melee attack; some Blood Men deliberately cut themselves at the start of a battle (losing 1 HP in the process) in order to trigger this effect. 
  • Eating the heart of a freshly-slain enemy (or comrade!) heals them for 1 HP per level or hit dice of the creature it came from. The heart must be eaten immediately, while still warm and if at all possible while still beating; a heart eaten more than an hour after its owner's death loses all power to heal. Note that cutting out and eating someone's heart takes at least a few minutes, even for a Blood Man, and thus isn't normally something than can be done in the middle of a fight. 
  • Have no real interest in anything other than eating, drinking, and fighting. Cheerfully ignorant, usually illiterate, always fail technology rolls. With enough patience, they can be taught to use and maintain clockwork weapons and war machines if their intelligence score permits.
  • Cannot have any followers or henchmen except other Blood Men; they were made to follow, not to lead. 
  • When killed, Blood Men collapse into gallons and gallons of stale, sticky blood. 
Starting equipment: Helm and breastplate (AC +5), two-handed sword (1d10 damage), blunderbuss (1d12 damage, point-blank range only, 3 rounds to reload), 1d3 dried human hearts (for snacking), 1d6x10 sp.

Gaming in fantasy Central Asia: the Silk Road

So here's the deal: far to the west are a nest of squabbling kingdoms, vicious, vigorous, fratricidal. From them come inexplicable wars, new technologies, sturdy manufactured goods, and a flood of gold and silver, which they claim to have mined from another, newer world. The game isn't really about them.

Far to the east are the ancient empires, serene, cruel, and implacable. From them come strange religions, silk and spices, drugs and porcelain, lacquer and tea. The game isn't really about them, either.

Between them lie about three thousand miles of desert, steppe, taiga, hills, mountains, and tundra. And through that landscape runs a road.

In reality, by the later seventeenth century - which is the closest thing that ATWC has to a historical reference point - the great days of the silk road were over. But never mind that. This is a silk road of the mind, endlessly unfolding across wilderness after wilderness, kingdom after kingdom; it will carry you from oasis to oasis, caravanserai to caravanserai, and your companions on the journey will be wild-eyed mystics and scholarly ascetics and wary gold-toothed traders and the endless clinking of the camel's bells. If you set off in spring, you might reach the road's end before winter. You will not be the same person who set out. The wind on the high plateaus will have purified you. The desert will have burned all that is not essential from your soul. In the freezing nights, under enormous skies mad with wheeling constellations, you will have experienced strange moments of clarity. You will never be quite the same again.

The road winds through lands which are otherwise pathless. Step off it and you are lost; the landscape will eat you; a million square miles of emptiness will yawn open like a single immense mouth and you will be devoured. Possibly literally: there are monsters out there, and beasts of prey, and wild and savage cannibal tribes whose hooting incantations can turn the day to night. Keep to the road. Many holy men walk on the road, alongside the merchant caravans. The gods will protect their own.

For the gods seem very close, out here, in the wild places; and while you might not know who to side with when the holy men sit down at night to begin one of their interminable disputations about the nature of divinity, you know that something is out there, looking down at you from the orb of the sun by day and the curve of the moon by night. You can almost hear it, on the wind, in the chattering of the unfamiliar birds; a voice, a voice calling out of the landscape, a voice that is not like the voices of men. No wonder religions flourish along the road; and in each of the golden oasis-cities, each one more spectacular than the last, you can find the shrines and temples of all the world's great religions, their saints and imams and bodhisattvas beckoning with ivory hands, lapis lazuli eyes raised towards the vault of heaven...

Religions flourish along the road, yes: but empires die. Armies stumble and starve out here, far from their rice paddies and wheat fields; and whenever some horse-lord with aspirations to civilisation rides in off the steppes and sets up a kingdom of his own, it only seems to be a matter of time before some even more savage horde sweeps in and brings it all crashing down. Each day, as you ride, you see the graves and the ruins, scattered to either side of the road: the fallen towers, the broken arches, the temples and palaces sinking into the sands. Sometimes the young men rush off to scavenge in the ruins, hoping to find old treasures. Sometimes they do not come back.

It is high time you set out to travel the road. It is high time you saw the great temples of the oasis-cities for yourself. You can sign on as a caravan guard, perhaps, or maybe scrape together a little money with which to buy silk and tea and opium, in the hope of selling them for a small fortune in the west. You might get lucky in the old ruins. Yours might be one of the caravans that the wild folk and the monsters leave unmolested. It might.

But beware: for at the very heart of the road, a once-great city has fallen into wickedness. Pay your tolls without complaining. Camp far from its ruinous walls. Keep your musket clean and your long knives handy. Do not set foot within its gates.

Travel with as many holy men as possible. Their company will protect you in those evil days when you must walk beneath the shadows of the towers of the Wicked City.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Before the Wicked City 1: The Age of Wonders

(Every D&D setting needs a lost age of wonders. Otherwise, where would all the dungeons come from?)

As humans spread across the world, they learned many arts, and many secrets. They studied with the sages of the Silver Folk; they plundered the ruins of the Old Ones, and learned magic and astrology from the Children of the Stars. Some secrets they bought, and some they stole, and some they took by force; some they learned by patient study, and some they discovered hidden in the far places of the world. And soon great magicians arose amongst them, and in their hands were all wonders and all terrors, and the world trembled beneath their steps.

The power of these sorcerer-kings grew beyond all measure. Many declared themselves gods, and demanded that the people bow down before them. They raised enormous temple-palaces, whose ruins can still be seen in many lands. They clashed, and they squabbled, and they quarrelled, and they feuded; and, at last, they fell to war.

These wars were not like any wars before them. The magicians raised up great beasts to fight for them, and they built great clockwork warriors of metal and stone, and their battles tore the land itself asunder. Cities burned, and nations perished, and many wonders were lost forever from the world. Many of the great magicians of those days were slain in those wars; others vanished from the world, assuring their still-faithful worshippers that they had achieved new and unheard-of levels of enlightenment and had ascended onto higher planes. A few survived, lurking in hidden strongholds, clinging to the remnants of their power; but their laboratories were rubble and their libraries were ashes, and they would never attain the same levels of power again. When the fighting was over, it was clear to all who survived that the age of wonders was ended forever.

In many lands, the witch-queens and sorcerer-kings of old are still revered as gods. The sites of their births and deaths, and the places where they performed their great deeds, have become centres of pilgrimage; their temples have been rebuilt and restored, albeit often on a considerably smaller scale, and people pray to them for aid and guidance, sometimes claiming that these ancient magicians visit them in visions and in dreams. Many of these cults are mere historical remnants, serving as little more than a source of regional pride and colourful local customs. Others are built around something more concrete: priesthoods which hand down wonder-working relics from generation to generation, or enchanted places - healing springs, valleys full of beautiful illusions, pools whose waters reveal far-off scenes - whose magic has still not faded even after all these years. Some cults harbour even stranger things in their secret inner sanctums: magical monsters of the ancient world, the servants and guardians of their long-vanished makers, which they revere as holy creatures, and resort to for omens. And who knows? Maybe some of those ancient magicians really did attain godhood...

Random Relics Possessed By Weird Wizard-Cults Table (roll 1d10)

1: A pack of 2d6 immortal man-eating apes with teeth made of rusty metal. (AC 14, 4HD, to-hit +4, bite damage 1d6+2, morale 8). The apes do not age, and regenerate 1 HP per hour unless cut to pieces or burned to ashes. They live in a warren of tunnels around a great pit, into which the cultists throw blasphemers to be ritually devoured. The apes cannot speak, and are much smarter than they let on. 

2: A ancient, medium-sized stone house, magically animated: it uses its windows as eyes and its door as a mouth, and can slam the walls, floors, and ceilings of its rooms together with bone-shattering force. (Anyone just inside a room when it does this can make a REF save to throw themselves clear; otherwise they take 2d12 damage. For anyone right in the middle of a room, the damage is automatic.) If attacked from the outside it will thrust its stonework out to whack anyone trying to vandalise or demolish it (to-hit +2, 1d6 damage), but has no way of retaliating against anyone who is more than 5' away from its walls, although it will threaten to place terrible curses on anyone trying to demolish it. (These do nothing.) It will de-animate if demolished. The house can 'speak' using its hallway floor as a tongue, and demands to be fed human victims in exchange for bestowing blessings on the surrounding countryside. It knows a great deal about the ancient world, although it will not part with this knowledge unless it is fed one human for every question answered. Its blessings are totally ineffectual, but its cultists do not know this, and are constantly on the look-out for 'evil-doers' whom they can offer up as sacrificial victims. 

3:  A platinum owl which delivers a series of lectures on magical theory and moral philosophy in a peculiar whistling voice on an endless 264-hour loop, starting again from the beginning as soon as it reaches the end of the last lecture. Cultists compete with one another to commit as much of its course to memory as possible. 

4: A deep pool of water, fed by an underground spring. Anyone who washes in it will find that it stimulates hair growth to an extraordinary degree: for the next 1d6 hours, hair and beards grow by 1 foot per hour, and body hair by 1 inch per hour. There is also a 1-in-3 chance per bath that the bather's hair will permanently change colour as a result of this immersion, to some deeply unnatural shade. (Roll 1d6: 1 = bright red, 2 = electric blue, 3 = emerald green, 4 = hot pink, 5 = vivid purple, 6 = alternating streaks of two colours, roll twice.) Cultists read omens into the length and colour of hair thus bestowed, and compete with one another to spot the most bizarre and spectacular hairstyles. 

5: A large colony of giant spiders, with a leg-span of 5'. The spiders are not poisonous or aggressive, but are used by the cult to spin spider-silk and perform manual labour; the cultists live in fantastical homes woven out of spider-web, constantly attended by swarms of attentive arachnid butlers. The cultists believe that the spiders will only obey those who wear the regalia of the cult, out of loyalty to their long-dead wizard creator, but actually the spiders are so dim that they'll obey anyone who orders them around in an authoritative voice whilst wearing a suitably large and impressive hat.

6: A giant (3' wide) telepathic blue oyster, residing at the bottom of a shallow pool. The oyster claims to be a veteran of the secret Psychic Wars fought during the Age of Wonders, and will telepathically ramble on for hours about all the heroic things it apparently did in them; its cultists believe every word of this, and regard it as a world-saving hero. Anyone who fails to show sufficient respect for its war stories will be zapped with psychic jolts (WILL save or suffer 1 damage and be stunned for 1 round). If anyone actually tries to hurt it will lash out at all nearby minds in whom it senses hostile intent, and maybe a few others just to be sure: its targets must pass a WILL save each round or take 1d6 damage and be stunned for 1 round. Its pool is full of enormous blue pearls, which would be worth a fortune to a jeweller. It has AC 18 and 6 hit points.

7: A bush grown by an ancient sorcerer with literary ambitions. It is covered in heavy purple-blue fruit; anyone who eats one will be filled with overwhelming feelings of melancholy, and will spend the next 1d3 days sitting around sighing and weeping, too depressed to move. During this time they will ceaselessly compose dramatic monologues about the bittersweet futility of life; literate characters write them down, using their own blood if necessary, while illiterate characters simply recite them, even if no-one is around to listen. The cult has an enormous library of poems produced under the influence of this fruit, which they believe to constitute an important source of wisdom about the true nature of life.

8: An ordinary-looking girl of about fifteen, deep asleep. Every few minutes, tears of pure quicksilver trickle down her cheeks and are collected by her attendant. (These are sold to alchemists by the cult, for whom they form an important source of income.) On high holy days, the girl is woken up and brought to the temple, where the cultists beg her for oracles; she usually looks around miserably, offers some cryptic remarks, and then tells them that she's tired out from the effort of communing with eternity and really needs to go back to bed. Her favourite hobbies are baking and mountaineering, but the cultists do not know this because they have never bothered to ask her; if approached by a friendly soul who seems to take a genuine interest in her, and offers her the chance to spend a few days scrambling up cliffs and baking cakes, then she might force herself to stay awake long enough to share all kinds of information about the ancient world. Apart from her agelessness (which is due to her sleep - if she stayed awake she'd age normally) and her weird tears she is a normal human, and no harder to kill than any other teenage girl.

9: A pair of copper armbands shaped like coiling snakes, with rubies for eyes. They are alive, intelligent, and sycophantically loyal to whoever wears them, with whom they are able to communicate telepathically; unfortunately they also hate one another, and will each insist that any advice or information offered by the other one must obviously be wrong. They can be ordered to fire beams of searing light from their eyes (treat as a ranged attack which ignores armour and inflicts 1d8 damage, or 2d8 if both are fired together), or to breathe forth clouds of poison gas (everyone within 10', or 15' if both breathe together, must make a FORT save or suffer 1d6 damage and be incapacitated for 1d6 hours, wearer is immune), but each armband can do each of these only once per day. They are worn by the cult's head enforcer, who usually lasts about five or six years before being totally unhinged by their constant telepathic sniping and jeering at one another, which continues ceaselessly, day and night.

10: An ancient sacrificial dagger, made of black iron, with a crude face carved onto its side. This face speaks in a harsh, grating voice, demanding offerings of blood and milk, which it somehow 'drinks'; when placed into a bowl of either, the level of the liquid will sink and sink until the bowl is entirely dry. If stabbed into a living creature, it will immediately suck whole pints of blood out of them, inflicting an extra 1d8 damage and requiring them to pass a FORT save or pass out from blood loss on the spot, waking up in 1d20 minutes; after doing this the dagger will be briefly sated, and unable to drink any more for the next hour. The dagger constantly demands more milk and more blood, making all kinds of grandiose promises and threats in order to get what it wants, all of which it is totally powerless to fulfil. The cult's leader uses it to ritually slaughter the enemies of the cult, whose bloodless bodies are left as a warning for others.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

'Gonnes. Lots of gonnes.'

Afghan Jezail, 19th century.

When, at the end of the seventeenth century, the French modernes put forward the unprecedented idea that maybe the modern era had actually surpassed the achievements of the Classical world, they held up three examples in particular: the magnetic compass, the printing press, and gunpowder. Guess which one most PCs are going to be most interested in?

Of all the technological innovations of the early modern period, none spread so far or so fast as the use of guns. In remote regions of Russia and Mongolia, still effectively medieval in most respects, guns were enthusiastically adopted by local populations for whom hunting was still an essential part of everyday life. ATWC assumes that guns are ubiquitous: cheap, easy to manufacture, the default weapon for both war and self-defence. However, they exist alongside swords and bows, which they certainly have not yet made obsolete: their slow reload time means that a skilled archer is at least as dangerous on the battlefield as a musketeer, and ensures that a group of swordsman charging at a formation of gunmen only has to endure one or two volleys of fire before they can be up in their faces and cutting them to bits.

All firearms in ATWC are flintlocks. They will not work if they get wet.

Misfires: Early modern firearms were not the most reliable of weapons. If you attack with a gun and roll a 1, the gun has misfired, and you'll need to spend 1d6 rounds (in addition to the normal reloading time) cleaning it out before it's ready to be used again. At the GMs option, characters who are inexperienced in the use of firearms may also suffer misfires on rolls of 2 or 3 until they've had enough practise to get into the habit of cleaning their guns properly.

Rifling: Rifling technology did exist in the early modern period, but most guns were smooth-bore, because rifling made guns more expensive to manufacture and harder to clean. A rifled weapon costs twice as much as a normal gun of its type, and takes 1 extra round to reload (due to the increased cleaning time), but grants a +1 bonus to hit due to improved accuracy.

Spicy-Handed Fists of Death: Yes, you can duel-wield flintlock pistols. Doing so allows you to fire twice in a single round, but imposes a -4 penalty to hit on both shots. And then you have to reload them both. 

Available firearms are as follows:
  • Pistol: 1d8 damage, 3 rounds to reload. Pistols are pretty bulky, and in a pinch they can be used as improvised clubs (1d3 damage). Note that it's perfectly in-keeping with history for a character to carry two, four, or even six loaded pistols with them into battle.
  • Musket: 1d10 damage, 3 rounds to reload. Two-handed weapon. Muskets aren't all that heavy, but they are bulky, counting as two items for encumbrance purposes. They can be used as clubs (1d4 damage), or fitted with bayonets, which effectively turns them into spears (1d6 damage).
  • Carbine: 1d10 damage, 3 rounds to reload. A short-barrelled musket, meant for use on horseback. The short barrel makes them less accurate, imposing a -1 to-hit penalty, but they're much less bulky than muskets and only count as one item for encumbrance purposes.
  • Jezail: 1d10 damage, 4 rounds to reload. These long-barrelled muskets were historically popular in central Asia. The extended barrel grants improved accuracy (+1 to hit), but means they take even longer to reload than regular muskets. 
  • Blunderbuss: 1d12 damage, 3 rounds to reload. A primitive shotgun: can be loaded with rocks, nails, bits of scrap metal, or whatever other junk you have lying around. Effective range is about fifteen feet, although a generous GM might permit half damage out to thirty.
That covers the basics. But you know what PCs are like: they always want a bigger gun. So:
  • Swivel Gun: 2d8 damage, 4 rounds to reload, -1 to hit, ignores 4 points of physical AC. Counts as three items for encumbrance purposes. Too large for a human gunman to use, although a larger-than-human character could use one as a two-handed weapon, and a big enough brass man (strength 15+) could probably just rely on his enormous mass to soak up the recoil. Usually affixed to boats, walls, etc. 
  • Small cannon: 2d10 damage, -6 to hit, 5 rounds to reload, ignores 10 points of physical AC. Not very accurate. Not remotely man-portable; usually dragged around by horses or built into the side of a ship or fort. Medium and large cannons do 3d10 and 4d10 damage, respectively. 
Then there are the explosives. PCs love explosives. Actually hitting with a thrown explosive device only requires a to-hit roll vs. AC 10 (plus any modifiers for range, etc, as normal) - after all, you only need the bomb to land in roughly the right area. If you miss, the explosive lands 1d10 feet from the target in a random direction.

The main problem with all early modern explosives is that they have fuses sticking out of them: get the fuse too short and it'll explode in your hand (or in mid-air), but get it too long and your target will just run off, stamp on the fuse, or (worst-case scenario) throw it back at you while waiting for the fuse to burn down. If you're a fighter, assume that your years of military experience have taught you exactly the right length of fuse to use, so that you only need to roll on the hilarious fuse length mistake table on an attack roll of 1. Everyone else has to roll on an attack roll of 1, 2, or 3:

1d4 Roll

Fuse much too short. Make a REF roll to realise your mistake and pinch it out before it goes off; otherwise it explodes in your hand for full damage, probably wrecking your hand in the process.
Fuse too short. Explodes in mid-air, half-way to the target.
Fuse too long. Won't explode until 1 round after impact, giving target time to stamp out the fuse, run off, take cover, etc.
Fuse much too long. Won't explode until 2 rounds after impact, giving target time to pick it up and throw it back!
  • Black powder grenade: 1d6 damage to everyone within 5' of impact (REF save for half damage). Anyone in heavy armour (half plate or better) takes half damage, as their armour soaks up most of the fragmentation. A bandoleer of six grenades counts as one item for encumbrance purposes.
  • Satchel full of gunpowder with a fuse sticking out of it: 2d6 damage to everyone within 10' of impact (REF save for half damage). How far do you reckon you can throw it?
  • Barrel full of gunpowder with a fuse sticking out of it: 4d6 damage to everyone within 15' of impact (REF save for half damage). Throwing something this heavy at all requires at least Strength 15. Throwing it more than 15' probably requires Strength 17. 
So there you have it: OSR rules for black-powder weaponry. Have fun blowing yourselves up!

Monday 22 June 2015

On romance in fantasy RPGs

Young Mongolian couple in traditional dress. Photo by Khoshutsuld.

Romance fiction, as a genre, comes in for a lot of criticism, especially from people who haven't actually read any of it. I feel that most of that criticism is inaccurate, based on vague assumptions about what 'everyone knows' the genre is like rather than any serious engagement with it or with the women who read and write it, but I'm not going to get into all that just now. What I want to call attention to is this: for almost eight hundred years, English used the same word for 'a fantastical tale of true love' and for 'a fantastical tale of magic and adventure', and that word was romance. The idea that stories about boys punching people belong over here, and that stories about girls kissing people belong over there, and that the two are polar opposites in every way, is a very recent historical development.

I understand that lots of groups, and lots of players, are uncomfortable role-playing out romantic scenes in play. That's OK! I completely understand how awkward it can be when, in the fiction, your swashbuckling hero(ine) is trying to put the moves on some comely lad or lass, but at the table this consists of a (male) player offering a series of lame chat-up lines to his (male) GM, desperately hoping that he'll relent and just let him make a Charisma roll already. But I think it's a shame to leave it out altogether, because it's a fantastic source of drama, and a rather important element of history, fiction, and, well, human life. People are drawn to one another, especially in the kind of high-stress situations which comprise most tabletop adventures. You don't need to roleplay out the flirtatious banter, let alone the sex scenes. But failing to include love, sex, and romance at all, with the possible exception of throw-away 'I spend my money on ale and whores!' remarks, seems rather a pity.

My assumption with ATWC is very much that, unless a player makes clear that they really want nothing to do with the whole subject, the PCs will rapidly become involved in various kinds of romantic entanglements. Why wouldn't they? PCs are the kinds of people who go to amazing places, do amazing things, perform feats of bravery and daring-do, and come home laden with cool stories and awesome loot. That's pretty damn sexy, no matter which way you happen to swing.

In running such relationships, I always try hard to make them assets. Another reasons why many gamers are so reluctant to involve their characters in romantic relationships is because they see them as liabilities: just so many things for the GM to exploit. Girlfriend? Kidnapped. Husband? Framed for murder. Kids? Murdered to generate extra pathos! No wonder so many PCs stick to casual liaisons with nameless and interchangeable prostitutes. I try not to do that. I also try to emphasise how useful it is to have someone out there who really cares about you: someone you can trust with your secrets, who can hide you when you need hiding, who can connect you to a larger community, who can potentially access information and resources that you could never get yourself. Your partner may not be your equal on the battlefield (although, then again, maybe they are), but they can still help you in all sorts of ways.

This all ties in with larger themes about how the Wicked City itself is an engine that runs on violence, and is thus unlikely to be defeated through violence; a capacity for empathy, the key value of most romance fiction, is going to be much more important in the long run, which is one reason why I'd describe ATWC as 'romantic fantasy' despite the proliferation of awful things in it. But that's a subject for another post.

Sunday 21 June 2015

Denizens of the Wicked City 4: The Steel Aspirants (playable character class)

'What do you call the voluntary amputation of your own hand and face and their replacement with metal? A good start!' Image by Bruno Camara

The Wars of Faith took a terrible toll upon the bodies of those who fought in them. Never before had the services of the Augmented been in such demand. Soon, almost every town had a veteran or two who had set out as men of flesh and blood and returned as men of flesh and brass, with arms and legs of clanking clockwork in place of the limbs they had lost on distant battlefields. In larger communities, they gathered together, assisting one another with the maintenance of their new mechanical bodies; and it was amongst such gatherings that the Steel Aspirants first arose.

The first leaders of the Steel Aspirants were members of the Cogwheel Knights, devout worshippers of the Cogwheel Sage even before they joined the ranks of the Augmented. Rather than mourning their lost limbs, they celebrated their transformations, insisting that their new bodies were better than those they had been born with: stronger, tougher, not subject to age and decay. In the overheated cultural atmosphere of the Wars of Faith, what began as little more than an attempt to raise the morale of a group of maimed ex-soldiers rapidly took off into something much more extreme: an insistence that the replacement of flesh with metal was a form of devotion pleasing to the Cogwheel Sage, and that she would look with favour upon those who progressed furthest in their mechanical metamorphosis. Soon, the more devoted (and crazy) of the Steel Aspirants started to visit the Brass Folk and the Augmented, demanding that their healthy limbs be amputated and replaced with yet more metal and clockwork; most refused in horror, but a few were won over by threats and bribes, and from them the Aspirants soon learned enough to continue the work themselves. In reclusive foundry-temples, they subjected themselves to ever more extreme transformations. Some replaced their legs with wheeled chassis, or with quadruped bodies modelled on the bronze horses of the Brass Folk, or with six- or eight-limbed bodies like great metal spiders. Some built themselves arms with claws, or pincers, or spring-loaded spikes and blades. Some welded clockwork wings to their shoulders, and replaced their limbs with more delicate machineries to minimise the weight of their bodies, so that their wings could more easily bear them aloft. Every limb, every cog, every digit was carved with the image of the Cogwheel Sage, and etched with prayers to her, reminding the Aspirants that  theirs was a holy transformation. Outsiders regarded them as quite insane, and soon learned to leave them well alone.

The Steel Aspirants have dwindled since the end of the Wars of Faith. In the waning days of the Wars, some enclaves whipped themselves into a crusading frenzy and set out to smite those whom they had convinced themselves were the enemies of their goddess; they made formidable shock troops, but the losses amongst them were terrible, and few limped back to their foundry-temples alive. Others set out on quests to find the Cogwheel Sage herself, sure that she would smile upon those who had demonstrated such dedication to her, and were never heard from again. Most groups faded away through simple attrition: as the wars came to an end, they lost the steady stream of maimed, desperate young zealots who had constituted their primary recruiting ground. But they still persist, here and there: they recruit from amongst the Augmented and the more fanatical worshippers of the Cogwheel Sage, and in their isolated workshops they seek continuously for more ostentatious ways to demonstrate their devotion. There are rumours that some of the oldest of them don’t look human at all, now; that what little remains of their human bodies is now encased in layer upon layer of steel and bronze and clockwork, resembling giant mechanical spiders or crabs more than the men or women they once were. Most people regard them as dangerously unbalanced, and give them as wide a berth as possible: but to those with an interest in the most ambitious and audacious kinds of clockwork engineering sometimes seek them out, for offer skills which no-one else has ever been mad enough to want to learn.

The Flesh is Weak: You can play a Steel Aspirant, if you want. Playing one requires at least intelligence 12 to maintain all that complex clockwork machinery, and constitution 13 to survive repeated radical surgery. Game information is as follows:

  • You can only use simple weapons, but you can use any kind of armour or shields.
  • You get 1d8 HP per level.
  • You gain a bonus to melee and ranged attack rolls equal to one-half of your level, rounded down.
  • You have some kind of inbuilt weaponry: finger-blades, a crushing steel lobster claw, or perhaps just massive metal fists. You can make 'unarmed' attacks for 1d6 damage. At level 4 you may upgrade this into something even more destructive, like a buzzsaw, increasing your 'unarmed' damage to 1d8.
  • You have a gun-arm, because you're a fucking cyborg, so what else are you going to have? Treat it as a musket: 1d10 damage, 3 rounds to reload. At level 8 you can upgrade this into a small cannon, raising its damage to 1d12.
  • You are constantly replacing more and more of your body with metal. You gain +1 AC at level 1, and an additional +1 AC per level thereafter; however, your total AC bonus from this plus armour worn (not shields) cannot be greater than +10.
  • All this metal you keep nailing to your body is really goddamn heavy. You count as carrying a number of extra items equal to your level with you at all times for encumbrance purposes.
  • You gain a bonus to technology rolls equal to your level +1.
  • At level 6, you have replaced so much of yourself with metal that your legs can no longer bear the strain. Most Aspirants just replace them with massively reinforced robot legs at this point, but if you prefer you can opt for something weirder, like steel crab-legs, spider-legs, a metal centauroid body, or a wheeled chassis. This has no inherent bonuses or penalties, but may affect your ability to move across different forms of terrain, at GM's discretion.
  • You are very, very loud, and automatically fail any attempts to move quietly. 
Starting equipment: Half-plate armour (AC +6), heavy shield (AC +2), bag of tools, cogs, and gears, icon of the Cogwheel Sage, 1d6x10 sp.

Steel Aspirant Summary Table

Hit Points
To Hit Bonus
AC Bonus
Technology Bonus
Fortitude save (FORT)
Reflex save (REF)
Willpower save (WILL)

All this assumes that the character is following the standard 'human lobster' model of steel aspiration. If they're going for the rarer 'human fly' model instead, they use the following game information:

  • You can only use one-handed simple weapons, and cannot use any armour or shields.
  • You get 1d6 HP per level.
  • You gain a bonus to melee and ranged attack rolls equal to one-half of your level, rounded down.
  • You gain a bonus to technology rolls equal to your level +1.
  • You have clockwork wings, which allow you to fly as long as you are unburdened.
Use the same summary table as above: just replace the d8s with d6s, and ignore the bonus AC column.

Starting equipment: Light leather jacket (+1 AC), pistol (1d10 damage, 3 rounds to reload), goggles with flip-down magnifying lenses, bag of tools, cogs, and gears, icon of the Cogwheel Sage, 1d6x10 sp.