Thursday 13 July 2017


The summer conference season is a kind of passive-aggressive ritual in which the academics within a specific discipline stalk around the world in rotation, keeping an eye on what the competition is up to. The next few weeks of my life will be a blur of interchangeable hotel rooms, interminable keynote addresses, and jetlagged exhaustion kept in check by endless cups of cheap black coffee. As a result, I probably won't be posting anything to this blog until early / mid August.

Here's some random inspirational images for ATWC to tide you over until then.

Landscapes | Steve McCurry (Kandahar, Afghanistan)

"Tang Dynasty" oil on canvas portrait - by Dongmin Lai.

Nubra Valley Ladakh India

Study of the moon and stars.  Ottoman miniature from 17th century.   Istanbul.


Manuscript-Metaliʿü'l-saadet ve yenabiʿü-l-siyadet Seyyid Mohammed ibn Emir Hasan el-Suʿudî, 1582, Gallica,BnF

Bedouins preparing a raiding party

Gennady Pavlishin, Tales of the Amur

Melchior Lorck.

Köl Gölü'nde Türk Mezar Taşı- Turkic tombstone on Song-Köl lake

This is the old City of Yazd. Old brick and mud houses and arches taking their natural light from the opening in the Arches. A desert city on the silk Route.

Photograph by Tim Walker for Vogue December 2011 In northern Mongolia, reindeer territory, 13-year-old Puje fearlessly explores the wild landscape.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

In the shadow of the Great Machine: a hexcrawl

Image result for sacred 2 temple guardian

I'm not quite sure when I acquired a copy of Sacred 2. I think I picked it up for a couple of dollars during a Steam sale or something. A few months ago I installed it and started playing it, more or less on a whim, and I finally finished the main questline the other night.

Sacred 2 is not a good game. Combat is simply a matter of clicking on things and waiting for them to die. The mechanics are the kind of overcomplicated mess which expect you to constantly evaluate whether a hat which grants +3 Strength, +2 Sword Lore, and +5% attack speed is better or worse than one which grants +8 Attack, -10% Combat Art Regeneration Time and +7% physical damage. The quests are mostly of the 'kill six dudes' variety, and the female character designs are an embarrassing exercise in fan service. But the game world is enormous; and while the ratio of content to space drops sharply about halfway through, the sheer amount of stuff which you can chance across is genuinely impressive. In tabletop terms, it's a hexcrawl rather than a railroad, one that really rewards the kind of players who think: 'sure, there's some kind of urgent crisis going on in the next town, but I wonder where this little trail in the woods leads to?' In Diablo 2, which was obviously the main inspiration for Sacred 2, completing the main questline requires you to run through almost all the game's content. In Sacred 2, just doing the main questline would mean missing something like 90% of what the game contains.

Sacred 2 also makes heavy use of science fantasy and magitech elements, which are another thing I'm rather fond of. In particular, a very large chunk of its content revolves around 'The Great Machine', an enormous magical engine whose pipes, control rooms, and substations can be found throughout the game world. Many of its side-quests feature the different ways in which the presence of the Great Machine has impacted upon the world around it, and these are often its most interesting elements. As I played, I made notes of some of the scenes and ideas I might want to borrow for use in one of my own games someday; and by the time I'd completed the game, I realised that I had so many of these notes that they would suffice to stock a medium-sized hexcrawl in their own right. So I wrote one.

What follows is basically just my 'steal this idea' notes from Sacred 2, distributed across a small hexmap. All the content here is adapted from material in the game, but I don't think many people ever played it, so you should be alright - and in any case, I've modified the details enough that even someone who's played the game might take a while to spot the source. Feel free to steal anything you like for use in your own games!

(NB: Hexes are 10 miles across.)

0000: Here, high in the mountains, stands the Great Machine, built many ages past by some vanished precursor race. Its purpose is to siphon magical energy from the world, and to this end its collection pipes run for hundreds of miles in every direction, soaking up ambient magical power from the earth and air and channelling it back to the machine. The builders of the machine are long gone, and with them died the knowledge of how to truly use it, but its working have just enough in common with the crude alchemy and spellcraft practised in the surrounding lands that many groups and individuals have found ways to siphon of some of its power for their own purposes.

The hidden bunker which contains the Great Machine is currently under the control of the High Priests (see 0204), who guard it heavily and do not allow anyone else to visit it, claiming that it is a site too holy for profane eyes. The heart of the machine remains inaccessible even to them, locked away behind ancient barriers and near-indestructible mechanical guardians who will yield only if given the right command codes. (See 0903.) If the machine was destroyed then the power of the High Priests would be broken, but the side-effects of such an event would probably also destabilise the entire region, as many other groups and communities also draw upon its power for many different purposes.

0002: Somewhere in these woods hides an ancient robot, sent out into the world by the artificial intelligence that controls the Great Machine in order to gather data about the world outside. Gradually realising that the process of having that data harvested from its mind would involve the erasure of its accumulated memory and personality, it went on the run, hiding as far from the substations of the Great Machine as possible. A squad of hunter-killer robots roams the area at random, seeking to find their errant comrade and bring it in for forcible debriefing.

0003: These hills are home to ragged bands of escaped slaves from the city at 0305, who hide their encampments within the rugged terrain and occasionally engage in opportunistic banditry. They know this land better than anyone, but they are extremely suspicious of outsiders.

0004: In this wood a dark cult has taken root, worshipping the cruel spirits of the forest, and revering a terrible beast who dwells in a cave in the forest's heart as their earthly messenger. To these spirits and their beast they offer bloody sacrifice, both within its cavern and on the crude stone altars scattered through the woods. All the people in the region live in fear of them, and most either support or turn a blind eye to their activities, for fear of ending up as sacrifices on one of their horrible altars. The cult's base is a half-ruined chapel deep in the forest, which is protected by a primitive energy field projected from a nearby control substation of the Great Machine. If the substation was disabled then a swift enough attack could destroy the cult's leadership in a single strike.

0005: This lonely little village is the current hiding-place of a nobleman, who was sent by his masters in the city at 0305 to bring order to the cult-ravaged forests of the west. Swiftly concluding that the task was impossible, and that any attempt to subdue the cult would just end up with him being stretched out on one of their altars, he stuffed the province's entire budget into his saddlebags and ran for it; he's now hiding here with a band of hired mercenaries, trying to decide what to do next. He is unaware that his own men are plotting how best to kill him for his stolen gold. 

0007: A band of pirates terrorise this lonely coastline, extorting protection money from the locals. Their ostentatiously swashbuckling leader is in fact simply a flamboyant actor with a gift for swagger, whom they press-ganged years back. Their real leader poses as a retired merchant, living quietly by the sea, and regularly visited in secret by the local priest who is, in fact, actively complicit in the exploitation of his own flock.

0102: The staff and students of this isolated magical academy are currently living in fear. Infusing the body of a clay golem with energy siphoned from a nearby conduit of the Great Machine seemed like a good idea at the time... until it started growing. They tried to imprison it for further study, but it grew so huge it was able to smash its way out. Now it roams the forests at random, growing ever-larger and more destructive, while its creators try to think of some way to kill it before the outside world discovers what they've done...

0104: In this remote cemetery, a band of clerics sent by the High Priests at 0204 have been experimenting with siphoning energy from the Great Machine and channelling it into specially-prepared sarcophagi, as a crude means of raising the dead. Most of the undead thus created are near-mindless creatures, but a few have retained their intelligence and have fled into the surrounding forests, trying to make sense of their new condition and plotting revenge against their creators.

0106: This lonely inn is clearly built on much older foundations; but what none of its current residents know is that it stands right on top of the tomb of an ancient king, which is accessible through a secret door hidden in the basement. There, statues of the king and his knights stand watch over their still-sealed tombs. Their grave goods are worth a small fortune, but disturbing the graves will cause the corpses of the knights to animate in order to fight one last time in their liege's defence.

0107: Under pressure from the aggressively expansionistic men of 0209, the people of this region have banded together under the leadership of a minor noblewoman, who has formed them into a local militia. Their enemies are more numerous and better-equipped than they are, however, and she fears that they are only delaying the inevitable. She would like to hire the pirates at 0007 to fight for her, but lacks sufficient gold to tempt them. To these ends, she is trying to locate the king's tomb at 0106, hoping that it might contain enough wealth to buy her people the allies they so desperately need.

0200: The ruins of a fallen castle cling to the side of this mountain. Harpies nest amidst its broken walls. In one corner stands a still-intact shrine to a many-armed goddess of chaos, who will grant boons to any sufficiently free-spirited individual who makes offerings at her altar. 

0204: This fortified temple is the stronghold of the High Priests, who control both the Great Machine and the local religious hierarchy. They dress in bulky robes and hoods, partly to make themselves more intimidating and harder to identify, but mostly to conceal the arrays of Machine-powered technological augmentations which allow them to perform their 'miracles'. Their stronghold stands in the centre of an immense walled compound, which no-one is permitted to enter or leave without permission. New initiates are coaxed in with promises of power or enlightenment, and then imprisoned within the compound until they have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the fatalistic and authoritarian teachings of their masters.

0209: In this town the people have converted a substation of the Great Machine into a crude necroscope, capable of communicating with the spirits of their ancestors. To accomplish this, it must be constantly networked with a crude 'brain web', the components of which need to be replaced regularly; to these ends they have taken to breeding domesticated kobolds, whose brains they harvest whenever the brain web needs repairing. The ancestors seem to be a bloodthirsty bunch, always calling upon their descendants to claim more land and glory. The kobolds labour in the fields around the town; they have resigned themselves to lives of forced labour, but would revolt at once if they learned what was really happening to all the kobolds who were chosen to 'work in the big house'.

0301: In these hills stand ancient burial vaults, now the lair of a fearsome corpse-eating minotaur - although even it shuns the deeper vaults, which are guarded by automated gun emplacements powered by ancient magic. Great treasures are rumored to lie hidden in their depths.

0302: The people of this area attempted to tap the power of a nearby control substation of the Great Machine. Unfortunately, their crude efforts to manipulate its mechanisms caused it to develop a power leak, and the resultant magical radiation has turned them into crazed cannibal mutants, lurking in the control tunnels during the day and creeping forth at night in search of prey.

0305: This city sits astride a major conduit of the Great Machine, which the local artificers and magicians have tapped in a thousand places, providing a ready source of power for its workshops and industries. The competitive advantage granted by this almost-free supply of energy has allowed the city to become wealthy and powerful, and the increased rates of madness and mutation caused by energy leakage into the water supply is seen as an acceptable price to pay for its prosperity. In theory the city is ruled by an elective monarchy, but in practise power rests in the hands of the High Priests.

0308: Deep in these swamps lies a hidden temple, in which a mummified lizard man priest kneels in eternal contemplation, the last remnant of a now-vanished civilisation destroyed by the builders of the Great Machine. He possesses considerable arcane powers, but the only thing which could stir him to action now would be the possibility of avenging himself upon them by destroying the Great Machine in turn.

0309: In this enormous pit, energy from a ruptured Great Machine pipe spills out into the soil and water, warping the animals and even the insects within it into huge and fearsome beasts. Warriors from the town at 0209 sometimes come here to prove their skill and valour in battle with the beasts of the pit.

0402: This is the site of a catastrophic spillage of energy from the Great Machine, caused by a botched attempt to tap one of its conduits by the people who once lived here. The escaped energies have turned the entire area into a no-go zone of mad, feral mutants, in which humans and animals alike grow huge and mad due to exposure to the uncontrolled energies pouring into the air, water, and soil. In a fortified ruin in the very heart of the zone live a crazed band of outcasts, who plan to turn themselves into supermen through controlled exposure to the magical energies outside. Their progress so far could be charitably described as very mixed. 

0400: Up in these mountains lies the lonely grave of a cruel judge from a previous era, now rumoured to be haunted by his ghost and the ghosts of his victims. Beyond it a reclusive alchemist lives in a hidden valley, relying upon the stories to keep unwanted visitors away. He is said to be a master of his craft, and understands much about the weird energies of the Great Machine, but he takes a very dim view of those who would interrupt his work.

0403: Near this prosperous agricultural town is a small control substation of the Great Machine. Decades ago, one of the locals figured out a way of jury-rigging its systems into a crude mind control device; now the people abduct passing travellers, drag them to the substation, and use the machines to turn them into docile slave labour for the fields. Breaking the machine would restore their free will, but this will be fiercely resisted by the locals, as the local economy depends upon their access to a supply of slave labour.

0407: These farmlands are plagued by the Warriors of the Dark Temple, who issue from their dripping subterranean shrine-vault at the behest of cowled priests, grimly burning crops and houses with their flaming swords. The people look to their lady for protection, but she cares little for their troubles; her lover has just been assigned to govern a distant province, and she spends her days pining for him, waiting for a letter to arrive. (He's currently at 0005.) The blood-stained ritual chambers concealed beneath her manor house suggest that at least some members of her household are secretly working with the Warriors in any case.

0408: A great battle was once fought in this desolate swampland, after which, grief-stricken by the extent of their losses, the winners attempted to use the powers of the Great Machine to raise their fallen comrades from the dead. The result was a plague of quasi-living mutant corpse-monsters which infest the marshes to this day. 

0501: Beneath this ruined tower, a cruel undead mage keeps his victims in a state of undead thralldom amidst rivers of lava and ancient tombs. His latest victim is a young man taken from a nearby village, and his betrothed is camped out nearby, desperately seeking some way to rescue him from his nightmarish underworld captivity.

0504: When the town at 0705 rebelled against the city at 0305, these woods became the main battlegrounds. They saw appalling amounts of death and suffering, and remain horribly haunted to this day. Now crudely-carved statues in memory of the glorious rebel dead stand overgrown and unvisited among ruined villages and mass graves visited only by the spectres of the slain.

0507: The owners of this remote inn are secretly a family of werewolves, who habitually murder and eat travellers who they believe are unlikely to be missed. They are currently haunted by the ghosts of some of their previous victims; they find this extremely inconvenient, and are in the market for a good exorcist. (They will not, of course, tell anyone why they are being haunted!) 

0508: In this ruined fort stand an ancient regiment of skeleton warriors. Long ago, they refused to march forth and aid their comrades in the battle at 0408, and their priests cursed them for their cowardice; ever since they have been unable to abandon their posts, even in death, rattling endlessly around the halls of the fort they were once too afraid to leave. Their commander believes (correctly) that the gods would forgive them if only he could lead his men out to fight in one last battle glorious enough to wipe away their ancient shame. 

0600: When the barony in this hidden valley was overrun by its enemies, the baron's magicians drew, in desperation, upon the powers of the Great Machine, a substation of which stands in the hills. The result was a magical miasma which killed everyone in the valley, natives and invaders alike, so quickly that they didn't have time to realise they were dead. Now their bewildered ghosts continually refight the same old battles, under a sky still darkened by the magical miasma unleashed so many years ago. Turning off the machine would end this effect, and probably the haunting with it, but the substation is guarded by the ghosts of the magicians who activated it, all convinced that they are the last hope of their people and must thus defend it with their (un)lives.

0601: This narrow mountain pass provides the only access to the hidden valley beyond, once an isolated barony which kept the outside world at arm's length. Today it is guarded by the ghosts of the men who died defending it; they are unaware that they are dead (see 0600), and refuse to admit anyone without authorisation from their long-dead baron. The baron himself died in battle, and is buried in a stone tomb nearby. Someone wearing his armour, or carrying his signet ring, might be able to persuade the ghostly guards to finally stand down.

0603: This small town is built around a temple, whose priests were once famous for their deeds of healing and charity. Recently, however, its clergy have been infiltrated by agents of the High Priests at 0204, who are working to pervert its teachings and align it with their spiritual agenda. They have even sold the temple's sacred chalice to an ambitious magician, who now lurks in a cave nearby, trying to find a way to claim its powers for himself. The people of the town are distressed by the disappearance of the chalice, but do not yet suspect that it is an inside job; and while the town's mayor suspects that something strange is happening in the temple, he is keen to avoid bringing its holiness into disrepute, as the town's prosperity is heavily dependent upon it.

0604: A gang of bandits under the leadership of a robber knight lair here, in the ruins of an abandoned church. The ghost of one of their victims haunts the place on moonlit nights, much to their discomposure. 

0705: This town was once a vassal of the city at 0305, until its people rose up and won their freedom in a long and bloody rebellion. Today they are enormously suspicious of all forms of high technology, which they associate with their hated oppressors. They live by farming, hunting, and wood-carving, and scatter into the surrounding forests if threatened by outside forces.

0707: This monastery is the base of a holy order of warriors, charged with protecting the land using their stock of 'holy relics' (i.e. leftover magitech devices created by the builders of the Great Machine). Contact with their superiors at the Great Tower (see 0901) is haphazard and infrequent, with messages often going unanswered for decades; as a result, the warriors are left very much to their own devices. Some continue to attempt to maintain order and protect the innocent, while others are content to grow fat and idle upon the tithes traditionally delivered to them by the people of the region in exchange for their 'protection'.

0800: In the lava tubes beneath this mostly-extinct volcano live a clan of degenerate elves, warped by inbreeding and life underground. They regard the dragon who slumbers beneath the volcano as their god, and whenever it wakes they creep out into the surrounding countryside in search of animal and human prey to assuage its terrible hunger.

0804: At the end of a steep ravine in these woods is a pool, guarded by enormous bears, and sacred to a primal goddess of soil and blood. The local people drown animals - and the occasional human - in her honour, there, and the bottom of the pool is choked with bones. 

0901: This tower is the home of a small group of ancient men and women, the founders of the militant order which now has its base at 0707. They kept the most powerful of their salvaged relics for themselves, and used them to tap weird energies from the Great Machine to make themselves ageless and physically perfect; they then withdrew from the world, supposedly for the purposes of study and meditation. In fact they have long since fallen into decadence; they care very little about the world outside, passing their time with relic-driven entertainments, and often allowing years, decades, or even centuries to pass before they get around to answering the requests and messages sent to them. They regard normal humans as little more than mayflies, too short-lived to be worth paying any real attention to; their human servants, for their part, serve them with sycophantic loyalty, regarding them as little less than gods. Their tower is ringed by the ruins of their once-great achievements - temples, libraries, museums, and so on - which none of them have bothered to maintain in centuries.

0902: This was once a village until the decadent elders of the Great Tower (see 0901) decided to landscape the whole area into a hunting park for their specially bred and mutated game animals, exterminating all the villagers in the process. Now their vengeful ghosts haunt the land; and while the elders themselves are far too well protected by their relic technology to be harmed by any mere ghost, they delight in causing catastrophic hunting accidents among their servants. The animals themselves are huge and strange and savage, and far too dangerous to be hunted for sport by anyone not armed with relic weapons.

0903: In these dense forests stands an overgrown temple complex, at the heart of which stands a huge step pyramid. Beneath it are ancient control chambers, guarded by magical automata, from which the operations of the Great Machine were once controlled by its now-vanished builders. A cautious explorer with the right knowledge of ancient languages could potentially learn much from its corroded robots and flickering holograms, including the command codes which would grant access to the heart of the Great Machine at 0000 itself; but the ruin is patrolled by 'flying demons' (jet-powered security robots that look like winged piranhas with laser-beam eyes) which respond to intrusions with overwhelming force. 

0904: Centuries ago two powerful magicians, once lovers, lived together in a castle in this wood. A spectacular falling-out between them led to a magical conflict in which the land was left poisoned and cursed forever: the water in the streams is red and bitter, and webs of weird, fleshy growths grow like ivy across tree trunks and ruined walls, blinking with innumerable eyes and waving blood-coloured tendrils in the air. Bizarre, warped, skinless creatures, some of which might once have been human, scuttle through the cursed woods and suck the blood from unwary travellers. The magicians themselves still live on in the depths of the forest, their lives sustained by the power of their mutual hatred. If they could be killed or reconciled then the land might begin to heal. 

0906: This forest is home to the Blood Dryads, a pale, reclusive tribe of elves who sacrifice intruders so that their blood might fertilize the soil. They practise dark magic which allows them to bind the souls of their victims within their own severed heads, enabling them to command their spirits for as long as they hold the head in which it is bound. Smashing a head allows the trapped spirit to escape.

0907: Beneath this wood is an immense network of burial chambers, built by a long-vanished civilisation to house their dead. Within, great bridges arch over vast pits filled with broken sarcophagi and crumbled bones. A weird cult has taken up residence within these halls, but the bizarre atmosphere of the place has taken its toll upon them, and they have split into rival factions: their warleader roams the entrance halls, setting her pet cave tigers upon 'intruders', while their chief interrogator conducts bizarre experiments upon his prisoners and their head magician meditates in a weird subterranean garden he has discovered deep underground. The high priest of the cult transformed himself into a flying serpent and hasn't been seen for months. They've collectively unearthed much of the ancient magic of the place, however, and they could become a real threat if they were ever reunited.

0909: This rocky wasteland is inhabited by cruel nomadic elves, who ride immense scarab beetles which they breed in distant oases, whose waters have been tainted by the energies of the Great Machine. They worship an ancient god of science, and detest all other faiths. Crumbling ruins in the wastes suggest that their ancestors once revered some kind of scorpion-god instead, and a gargantuan scorpion-monster still lurks beneath the remains of their most ancient temple.

Image result for sacred 2 t-energy

Sunday 2 July 2017

Tunnels and tunnel fighting

This week, I had the opportunity to walk (and, at some points, crawl) through the medieval tunnels under Exeter.

Me in a tunnel, as photographed by the person behind me.

The tunnels were dug in the 14th century, so that plumbers could access and repair the lead pipes which carried water to Exeter cathedral without having to dig up the road every time they needed to patch a leak. Visiting them thus gave me an enlightening insight into what medieval Europeans considered to be an adequate amount of space for people to move around in underground.

It turns out the answer is 'not very much'.

In those parts of the tunnels which weren't expanded during later centuries, they averaged about five feet high and two to three feet wide. In a few places they sank to about three feet by three feet - crawling room only. If you'd had to fight down there, there's no way you could have used axes or crossbows, let alone longbows or two-handed swords; knives and maybe shortswords would have been much more appropriate. You couldn't have used big shields or bulky armour, although a small shield would have been incredibly valuable, as there would have been no room for your enemy to strike around it. You couldn't have run, or even walked quickly - there were too many places where you'd have to edge your way sideways or crawl instead. And everyone would have been hitting their heads on the ceilings every few seconds.

It made me think about those standard low-level D&D enemies, goblins and kobolds and giant rats, and how terrifying it would be to have to fight them in an environment like that. How they could move quickly and easily through spaces where adult humans could only inch back and forth. How vulnerable you'd be while edging through a narrow space, and how easy it would be for something small and vicious to run up and slice through your tendons while you were basically incapable of defending yourself. I'd much rather have fought an orc than a goblin in those tunnels. Orcs would have had the same problems we did. Goblins would be stabby death on legs.

Tunnel passage
'Just go down there and kill ten giant rats, he said...'

The standard Gygaxian 10' square dungeon corridor isn't historically realistic - in fact, my experience this week suggests it's about eight times as wide as real medieval tunnels - but it endures partly for this precise reason: it gives the 6' 8" half-orc with a greataxe enough space to fight side-by-side with the 4' halfling with a dagger. You'd never want to make 5' x 2' the standard size of a dungeon passageway, partly because it would enormously disadvantage anyone who wanted to play a big (or even normal-size) character with a big (or even normal-size) weapon, and partly because it would turn the game into a tedious exercise in dealing with the same set of practical problems over and over again. But once in a while, sending a party into a warren of tunnels like the ones under Exeter could make for a very tactically interesting scenario, especially if it pitted them against under-sized enemies like kobolds. It creates a whole bunch of asymmetries: you're strong but slow, they're fast but weak. You want the fighting to happen where the tunnels are widest; they want it to happen where the tunnels are narrowest. If one of them gets injured or killed, you can probably step over it; if one of you gets injured or killed, then that person will block the entire tunnel. Your most powerful weapons and armour are also the ones which are hardest to use effectively. 'Do I use a knife or a longsword?' becomes an actual choice for once.

(Zombies would be another good option: having to run away from a bunch of Romero-style shamblers in an environment like that would be a nightmare, especially as they, unlike you, won't care how often they whack their heads on the ceiling. And yes, sure, you can use fire: but then what about smoke inhalation? You need to breathe and they don't...)

Anyway. Medieval tunnels. Really fucking narrow. You might want to leave the battleaxe at home.