Tuesday 30 August 2016

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 11: Zilant, The Dragon of Kazan

This is the flag of the city of Kazan, in the Republic of Tartarstan.

Image result for kazan flag

That crowned snake with the red wings and the chicken legs is Zilant, the famous Dragon of Kazan. According to legend, the hill on which Kazan now stands was originally infested with giant, poisonous serpents, the king of which was a monstrous dragon-serpent. The Khan of the Tatars was able to get rid of the snakes by covering the hill with straw, waiting for the snakes to slither into it, and then setting fire to it, burning them alive; but Zilant escaped into the Qaban Lakes, and then...

...well, then it depends which version of the legend you prefer. Some say it preyed on the people, and they worshipped it out of fear. Others say it became the ruler of a magical underwater kingdom beneath the surface of the lakes. Or that it had a change of heart and became the benevolent protector of the people, the White Serpent, defender of Kazan and adviser to heroes. Or that a great hero killed it with a poisoned spear. For gaming purposes it doesn't really matter. The first part of the legend provides quite enough to work with.

Image result for zilant statue
Statue of Zilant, in Kazan, Russia.

In ATWC, the more magical roles of the Kazan Dragon are already covered by spirits, which can choose to look like snakes or dragons if they feel like it; so dragons proper can play a more physical role. They resemble snakes rather than lizards; huge, coiling beasts, a hundred feet long or more, big enough to swallow a grown man whole. Some have wings, or multiple heads, or claws. They are kings among the serpents; all normal snakes will serve and obey them, and the longer that such snakes spend in their service, the larger and more poisonous they will grow. Eventually the land around a dragon's lair will become an uninhabitable nightmare of venomous, slithering death. 

The dragons mostly dwell in remote parts of the wilderness, beneath the trees of the deep taiga or by the sides of near-bottomless lakes out on the steppe. Their appetites are formidable, and anything sheep-sized or larger that comes near their territory is likely to be devoured, humans very much included. They are intelligent, and able to talk the languages of both snakes and men, but they are seldom interested in anything that humans have to say. People give them a very wide berth; and those that must travel close to a Zilant lair bring ample livestock with them, offering the luckless beasts up as sacrifices in order to distract the dragon while they make their escape. 

Image result for zilant

For the most part, such dragons are simple obstacles to be evaded. (If you have to fight them, fight dirty. Even an army won't bring down a hundred-foot serpent backed up by several thousand giant poisonous snakes.) Being immortal, however, they often acquire a surprising range of knowledge; they may not be very interested in talking to humans, but they do talk to snakes, and their scaly heads store all the secrets that generations of serpents have whispered to them over the centuries. It's enormously difficult for them to see humans as anything other than food, but a fast-talking serpent man might be able to persuade a Zilant to treat it as an honourary snake, and brass men are so obviously inedible that they should be safe unless they do something to rouse the dragon's ire. Talking to a Zilant is never going to be anything other than a terrifying experience, but for the seeker of truly esoteric knowledge, sometimes there may be no other way...

Ivashko too walked and walked, and met the three-headed dragon; The Three Kingdoms - Myths and Legends of Russia by Aleksandr Afana’ev, 2009:

  • Zilant: AC 18 (iron-hard hide), 20 HD, AB +10, bite (4d6 damage + poison), FORT 3, REF 10, WILL 8, morale 10. Anyone bitten by a Zilant must pass a FORT save or die from poison 1d6 hours later. They may command normal and giant serpents at will; such snakes serve them with perfect loyalty, and will fight fearlessly (morale 12) upon their behalf if ordered to do so. (Serpent folk given an order by a Zilant may resist by passing a WILL save.) If the Zilant has extra heads, it gains that many additional attacks each round.

  • Zilant Serpents: AC 13 (thick scales), 2 HD, AB +2, bite (1d6 damage + poison), FORT 12, REF 12, WILL 15, morale 7 (12 while obeying a Zilant's commands). This is what ordinary snakes will turn into after serving a Zilant for a few years. They possess near-human intelligence, but cannot speak (except to the Zilant and to each other). Anyone bitten by a Zilant serpent must pass a FORT save or take an additional 2d6 damage after 1d6 minutes.
  • Tuesday 23 August 2016

    The Devil Strahd

    No posts for a while because I've been on holiday in Devon. In Teignmouth you can still touch the cannon-balls embedded in the walls from when the French burned the place in 1690. Sadly the whole incident comes a bit too late for me to use it in The Coach of Bones...

    Anyway. My employer has given me a bunch of Amazon vouchers in lieu of some actual money (presumably as part of some complicated tax dodge), so after reading Bryce's surprisingly positive review of the D&D5 adventure book Curse of Strahd I decided to buy a copy. It's tediously overwritten, terribly organised, and weirdly obsessed with treating every location like a dungeon even when there's no reason why it would be used like that in actual play: if I was a D&D5 NPC, my write-up would consist of a single short paragraph about me, followed by a three-page room-by-room description of my house. ('The understairs cupboard contains a vacuum cleaner, a broom, and a stepladder. They have no value as treasure.') But among all the pointless read-aloud text and mind-numbing descriptions of empty rooms there really is a lot of good material in this book, even if it can never quite decide how far into horror-fantasy it's actually prepared to go. Vampire spawn crawling along the ceilings. Animated scarecrows with rusty knife-blades for fingers and heaps of dead ravens stuffed inside their chests. The vestiges of the dead gods of hate entombed in slabs of enchanted amber, watched over by a senile lich so ancient that he has forgotten his own name. There's something there, y'know?

    For me personally, though, the biggest weakness of the book is Strahd himself. I get that they're trying to evoke the classics, and that the whole thing is supposed to feel like a Hammer Horror movie in D&D, but it's all played so straight that I have trouble imagining many players being able to take the whole thing seriously. Frightened villagers. Looming castles. Wolves and bats and undead brides. An evil vampire lord wearing an evil vampire cape while sitting on an evil vampire throne. How much of that would your players sit through before they started doing crappy Bela Lugosi impressions? Twenty minutes? Ten? Five? I absolutely loved the mad druids worshipping Strahd as a dark spirit of the land, but come on... a giant wicker man with fangs and a cape? How is anyone supposed to find something like that scary instead of comic?

    I think there's a simple alternative, though, and it's one that's hinted at within the book itself. The people of Strahd's domain don't really know what his deal is: they just know that 'the devil Strahd' has been up in his castle for pretty much forever, and believe that he had been placed in their land as punishment for some forgotten sin committed by their ancestors. So instead of making him a straightforward Dracula knock-off, why not draw on all that? Embrace the strangeness and the indeterminacy of it all. Give him his mystery back again.

    How's this for an alternative set-up: instead of having Strahd openly riding around Barovia in a big vampire coach that looks it was stolen from Christopher Lee in 1968, make him a dark legend, something that people whisper about but never actually see. What lives in Castle Ravenloft? No-one knows. Something horrible. Something that creeps out by night to prey upon the people of the land. Vampires and zombies and wolves and witches do its bidding, but it is not any of these; it is something older and stranger, the embodiment of the land's collective damnation crammed into a human shape. How was the land damned? No-one knows. It coincided with the deaths of the Von Zarovich family - but correlation is not causation, is it? Various NPCs can still have theories about it - that the thing in Castle Ravenloft is their old lord, that he's become a demon, that he's become a vampire, that he's a black magician, that he could be redeemed if only he was united with his one true love, whatever - but there doesn't need to be any rush to confirm any of them. Even Strahd himself may not really understand what he now is, or how his powers work, or what (if anything) may ultimately be able to kill him. All that the adventure actually needs to function is some kind of brooding evil at Castle Ravenloft's heart; and given that Strahd is, frankly, kind of a loser, I'm inclined to think that the more his mystery is kept intact, the better.

    I mean look at this guy. Honestly. This is your arch-villain?

    I guess this ties back to a more general point about information management in horror games. Keeping your players completely in the dark is frustrating for everyone; but the more you reveal, the more you risk an 'oh, is that all?' reaction from the players. To these ends, it's probably worth distinguishing between functional information (what is going on and what can be done about it) and explanatory information (the reason these things are happening, the process by which this situation originally came to occur). The former needs to be something that the PCs can figure out; but the latter will often benefit from being left partly (although not completelyundefined, because the more thoroughly it's explained, the more its power will be diminished. This is especially true of things like zombies and vampires, which have experienced so much pop-culture over-exposure that they have lost almost all the symbolic power which they might once have possessed. ('He's just some stupid vampire? And to think I was worried he might be something scary!') There is a lot to like in Curse of Strahd, and I'm sure I'll be raiding it for my own use at some point. But for a horror story, it does rather over-explain things; and I think Strahd's nature, history, and motivations could all benefit from being made just a bit more shadowy. 

    Wednesday 10 August 2016

    James Raggi Should Totally Hire Me...

    ...because I have a brilliant idea for a Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure.

    Lamentations has done a whole series of adventures set in seventeenth-century England: No Salvation for Witches, Death Love Doom, Forgive Us, England Upturn'd, and The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man. I've not read them all, but I think I'm right in saying that they are all set in the eastern part of England, which is over-populated and flat and boring. Everyone knows that D&D adventures should be set in hills and forests and mineshafts instead.


    The setting is Devon in the autumn of 1685. The Duke of Monmouth's rebellion against King James II has just ended in bloody ruin at the Battle of Sedgemoor; in reprisal, Judge Jeffreys is riding from town to town with his judicial murder roadshow, the Bloody Assizes, and mass executions of actual and suspected rebels follow in his wake. The Second Tangier Regiment has been unleashed upon the civilian population. The hacked-off limbs of quartered traitors, painted with tar to preserve them, now stand impaled on pikes in the market squares of miserable Devonshire villages. Corpses dangle from the trees and hang in clusters from the gibbets, their chains clinking in the wind.

    Into this chaotic situation stumble the PCs, lured by stories of ancient treasure hidden in the Devon hills. From the Doone Gate in Exmoor, where a clan of cannibal bandits guard the entrance to a hidden valley, to the wilds of Dartmoor, where the ghost of Lady Howard rides over the hillsides in her coach of bones, they will hunt among Druidic megaliths and the secret stashes of Sir Francis Drake while trying very hard not to get executed for being in the wrong place at totally the wrong time. But they're not the only ones looking for the treasure, and the infamous commander of the Tangier Regiment, Colonel Kirke, has send a team of his most merciless minions out to follow the trail on his behalf. Will the PCs find gold and power among the hills of Devonshire? Or will they, like the Duke of Monmouth, end their careers under Jack Ketch's axeblade up on Tower Hill?

    The Coach of Bones: coming probably-never from Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Pirates, witches, ghosts, cannibals, magic, treasure, standing stones, large-scale violence, lame 'Captain Kirk' jokes... this one's got it all!

    Monday 8 August 2016

    Denizens of the Wicked City 10: Clockwork beasts (AKA 'My new character will be DOCTOR CLOCKTOPUS!')

    Clockwork frog by ClockworkFrog.

    I have a clockwork robot character class. I have a talking animal character class. The next step seems pretty damn obvious.

    Not all of the Brass Folk are built in humanoid shape, although most are. But sometimes someone installs a Brass Man brain in a different body: the body of a Bronze Horse, for example, or the body of a Mechanical Messenger Monkey, creating a clockwork robot with human-level intelligence housed inside a non-human body. Even weirder custom jobs are possible: mechanical dogs, mechanical octopi, mechanical insects... whatever you can tinker up, really. The more conservative Brass Folk disapprove of such experimentation, insisting that the Cogwheel Sage gave them human shapes for a reason, and that each new generation should imitate her prototypes as closely as possible; but many others, especially those whose association with the Steel Aspirants has given them a rather freewheeling approach to radical body modification, take a more liberal attitude. If a given Brass Man or Woman decides they wants their 'child' to be a giant mechanical frog, what business is that of anyone else?

    So here are the rules for playing them.

    All Clockwork Beasts have the following traits:
    • You gain a bonus to all your to-hit rolls equal to your level.
    • You gain 1d8 hit points per level (except large clockwork beasts - see below).
    • The whirring and clanking of your heavy brass body makes a hell of a lot of noise. Your enemies are never surprised, and you always fail any attempts to move silently.
    • You do not need to eat, drink, or sleep, and you are immune to poison and disease. 
    • You need winding up in order to function. All clockwork beasts have steam-powered auto-winders, normally built directly into their bodies at a point where they can easily reach it with their paws or mouths; when fed a supply of wood or coal, these auto-winders will spin rapidly, turning the beast's key in the process. They must sit still during the winding, or else they risk damaging their delicate internal machinery. One hour's auto-winding will power three hours of activity. If fuel for it is unavailable, the key may be turned by hand, but doing this takes six times as long, is amazingly boring, and risks causing strain injuries. For obvious reasons, they cannot wind themselves up.
    • When you have been wound for a number of hours equal to your Constitution score (thus permitting three times your Constitution score in hours of continuous activity), your main-spring is fully wound and further winding has no effect. If you reach the end of your 'powered' time without having a chance to rewind, you can stumble on for one extra hour, getting slower and slower: you have -4 Dexterity and Strength during this time. At the end of this extra hour, you shut down entirely until rewound. 
    • Your paws (or tentacles, or whatever) can be unscrewed and replaced with a pair of  human-like clockwork hands which you carry with you, allowing you to perform tasks requiring opposable thumbs. Unscrewing one paw and replacing it with a hand (or vice versa) takes five minutes. (This is to ensure that the clockwork beast can eventually build itself clockwork 'offspring', if it so desires. Building a beast without access to hands would be like deliberately sterilising your child at birth.) 
    • You do not feel pain. Normal healing does not help you, but as long as you have your hands on you can repair yourself when damaged, regaining 1 HP per day for field repairs carried out on the march, and 3 HP per day for a day spent doing nothing else. These numbers each rise by 1 if there is someone with a technology bonus of 3 or higher around to lend a hand. 
    • If you are reduced to 0 HP, you are too badly damaged to be repaired in the field, but with the right tools and expertise you can still be repaired in a well-equipped workshop, and will retain your memories and personality unless your clockwork brain has also been damaged or destroyed. 

    Large clockwork beasts (e.g. clockwork lions, clockwork bears, clockwork horses, etc) have the following additional traits:
    • You must have a strength and constitution of at least 12 to play a large clockwork beast.
    • You cannot use weapons or armour, but you have a natural AC of 15, and inflict 1d8 damage with your huge, heavy claws. (You can have a gun built into your body, but unless you have your hands on you'll need someone else to reload it.)
    • You gain 1d10 hit points per level instead of 1d8.
    • You are huge, heavy, and enormously strong: capable of smashing light wooden buildings and furniture to splinters, and doing serious damage to heavier ones. A man-sized character could ride you. A swivel gun could be mounted on your back. (You couldn't fire it, though.) You can smash anything that a large metal animal should be able to smash, with no roll required. 
    • You can carry four times as many objects as a human with the same strength score.
    • You gain a +1 bonus to technology rolls.
    Smaller clockwork beasts (e.g. clockwork wolves, giant clockwork rats or mice, etc) have the following additional traits:
    • You cannot use weapons or armour, but you have a natural AC of 14, and inflict 1d6 damage with your metal teeth and/or claws. (You can have a gun built into your body, but unless you have your hands on you'll need someone else to reload it.)
    • You can run twice as fast as a human, although doing this unwinds your spring at double normal speed. (If you are a clockwork frog or similar amphibious design, this is replaced by an ability to swim at double normal speed.)
    • You gain a +1 bonus to REF saves.
    • You gain a bonus to technology rolls equal to half your level, rounded up.

    Clockwork insects (e.g. clockwork spiders, giant clockroaches, etc) have the following additional traits:
    • You cannot use weapons or armour, but you have a natural AC of 13, and inflict 1d4 damage with your metal fangs. (You can have a gun built into your body, but unless you have your hands on you'll need someone else to reload it.)
    • Your legs end in sharp metal hooks, allowing you to climb along walls or ceilings as easily as the floor. 
    • You gain a +2 bonus to REF saves.
    • Once per day per level, you can use your bite to inject a dose of corrosive venom, inflicting an extra 2d6 damage (FORT save for half).
    • You gain a bonus to technology rolls equal to half your level, rounded up.

    Clocktopus by Westfalia miniatures.

    Clockwork octopi have the following additional traits:
    • You cannot use armour, but you have a natural AC of 14, and inflict 1d6 damage with your metal tentacles. You can also use these tentacles to wield melee weapons and/or shields, but you cannot make a weapon attack and a tentacle attack in the same round.  (You can have a gun built into your body, but unless you have your hands on you'll need someone else to reload it.)
    • You can swim twice as fast as a human, although doing this unwinds your spring at double normal speed. You can also climb just about anything that will support your weight.
    • In an emergency you can just flip out and start thrashing your metal tentacles around randomly. Everyone within 5' of you must make a REF save or take 1d6 damage, and any fragile inanimate objects nearby will be smashed to pieces. 
    • You gain a +1 bonus to technology rolls.

    Friday 5 August 2016

    History and anachronism in RPGs

    Portrait Of A Safavid Nobleman, 17th c (agha khan museum):

    According to my original post on the setting, ATWC is based on 'early modern Central Asia'. I'm pretty bad at restricting myself to Central Asia proper, as posts based on places like Azerbaijan and Vaygach Island and Yakutia will demonstrate; but what about the early modern period? Exactly which period of Central Asia's history is ATWC supposed to be based on, anyway?

    This question has about three different answers. The overall technology level, clockwork robots and airships aside, is pegged to the end of the 17th century, but this doesn't match up with the implied political landscape: by 1700 Siberia and Mongolia had mostly been conquered by Russia and China, respectively, whereas ATWC presents the various steppe khans and taiga clans as still being independent. So the political setup is closer to Central Asia in 1600; but this, in turn, fails to match up with the fact that ATWC presents the Great Road as still being the primary artery of trade between the east and west, whereas by 1600 the real world Silk Road was in steep decline, rendered largely obsolete by the opening of direct maritime trade routes between Europe and Asia. The Great Road in ATWC is closer to the Silk Road in its late-medieval heyday, during the period of Mongol rule; but that doesn't match up with either the political or the technological contexts. In practise, then, ATWC is self-consciously and aggressively anachronistic in its use of Central Asian history. It's not as bad as a lot of D&D settings, which will happily place an ancient Celtic druid, a Viking warrior, and a swashbuckler from Renaissance Florence alongside one another as citizens of states which are described as medieval monarchies, but actually seem to function like eighteenth-century nation-states with twenty-first century moral norms. But it's not great, either.

    Of course, ATWC isn't set on Earth; it's set on an unnamed world whose history has been mangled by untold centuries of magical meddling and the unwise large-scale production of clockwork murder robots, so it's not exactly surprising that the details don't quite sync up. It's inhabited by talking bears and people made of solidified sunlight and people with clockwork computers stapled to their brains, so strict historical realism is obviously not its highest priority. At the same time, however, it is attempting to evoke a certain time and place, however vaguely defined; my descriptions of the setting as 'early modern' and 'Central Asian' may be imprecise, but they are not (I hope) completely meaningless. So where does one draw the line?

    Turkish Warrior Woman:

    I've been gaming long enough to know that the number of players willing to absorb large quantities of information about campaign settings, whether historical or imaginary, is vanishingly (and probably mercifully) small. If much of the world of ATWC is rather vague, full of imprecise markers like 'the steppe khanates' rather than specific lists of polities, it's because, in my experience, that's all most players will ever want or need from a setting; they'll say 'Oh, yeah, those Mongol guys' and take it from there. Try to talk to them about Mongols and Oirats and Buryats and their eyes will glaze over, and at the end of it all they'll still just be thinking of them all as 'those Mongol guys'. At the same time, though, unless you're playing in a deliberately absurdist style, I think that most players want a world which at least feels as though it makes sense. Suspension of disbelief is a subtle thing, which operates largely at an intuitive level, and one advantage of drawing upon history is that it gives you a set-up which you know could exist, because it did exist. Maybe no-one at your gaming table has the kind of specialised historical knowledge to know why certain kinds of state formation accompanied certain forms of technological development: but they will know that knights and castles go together, and games can and should take advantage of that.

    Then there's the issue of player expectations: roleplaying is a collaborative exercise, and that means that the game-world which matters is always the one that develops, in play, through the shared understanding of all participants about the fictional world their characters inhabit, rather than the one that sits in the GM's notebooks. Very often different players will have slightly different interpretations of this shared world, and that's OK; but if they have very different interpretations about how the world around the PCs is likely to react to, say, casual acts of questionably-justified violence, then that's likely to cause problems in play. Having a stable historical reference point gives players and GM alike some kind of shared basis upon which to build their expectations. You don't have to be a professional historian to know that a setting modelled on Dark Ages Finland is going to place different restrictions on what PCs can get away with than a setting modelled on 1930s New York.

    I'd suggest, then, that unless you're group is actually serious about using RPGs as a way to explore historically accurate settings - which is something I've heard legends about, but never actually seen - then anachronism really only becomes an issue at the point where it generates confusion for the players. Put the PCs in an ancient Rome knock-off, and they pretty much know where they stand: there are legions, gladiators, slaves, orators in togas, temples to different gods, probably an emperor, and so on. Put them in a Victorian London knock-off, and they'll likewise have some idea what to expect: there are guns, policemen, factories, workhouses, newspapers, probably some kind of monarchy, etc. Tell them 'it's basically ancient Rome but with robots' and they'll deal with it, because they'll understand that the robot centurions, robot vestals, robot gladiators and so on are subsumed into the general ancient-Roman-ness of the setting, their presence not really disrupting the basic assumptions shared between players and GM about how the fictional world generally works. But a city which aggressively mixes up elements of Ancient Rome and Victorian London is going to leave them confused and off-balance, never sure how they should be responding to situations or how situations are likely to respond to them: and unless that confusion is something you're actually aiming for, that's probably not a good thing.

    Pun Lun - Two Chinese Soldiers:

    What does the early-modern-ness of ATWC actually mean? It means that PCs have flintlock weapons. It means they drink coffee when they're tired and gulp down laudanum when they're in pain. It means they read printed books and navigate with the aid of dry magnetic compasses and use spyglasses to check what's raising that distant dust-cloud out there on the steppe. All of those things create expectations in the minds of players. They might be fuzzy on the details, but they'll know that their musket-wielding, coffee-swigging PCs don't belong to the same world as Genghis Khan. Some of this knowledge will be explicit, but a lot of it will be implicit, a generalised sense of the kind of world which those things imply, and of the kind of lives their PCs are likely to be able to live within it. Anachronisms which don't interfere with that are probably fine; but anachronisms which do interfere with it really need to add something worth having to the setting in order to earn their keep.

    This is why I've tried to make sure that the more aggressively anachronistic parts of ATWC - the walking houses, the mecha, the Brass Men, and so on - are all subordinated to the general early-modern-ness of the setting. This world is not industrial: its clockpunk technology is all the work of individual artificers tinkering away in workshops, personal and artisanal rather than standardised and mass-produced. The walking houses get used in the same way as any other form of caravan. The mecha are simply ultra-heavy infantry in some despot's army somewhere. The Brass Men are basically just another ethnic minority who happen to be made of metal and gears. As a result, they hopefully add colour (and robots) without confusing the overall sense of what kind of world this is, and what kind of things tend to happen in it.

    That way, if and when you bring in real anachronism, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks style, it'll have the impact it deserves!