Thursday, 17 May 2018

B/X class: the Rake

Not the one from Creepypasta. That would make for an extremely odd D&D game. ('Leave the ogre to me, guys! I'll sneak into his house and spend three months whispering subliminal messages to him in his sleep!')

I've always thought it was a pity that D&D lacked a proper 'socialite' class. (Bards don't count. Everyone hates bards. Even you.) Having spent the last week marking essays on Restoration-era literature, it occurred to me that the classic 'stage rake' of the period might actually be a pretty good fit: after all, these are people with no meaningful attachments who go wandering around the world, getting into stupid adventures, and then talking (and, if necessary, fighting) their way out of them. They imply a seventeeth- or eighteenth-century-style setting rather than a strictly medieval one, but it's not as though D&D isn't super-anachronistic already.

The trick of modelling all this is to find a way of doing it that doesn't involve any kind of social skill system or 'social combat', as either of those would be powerfully antithetical to the OSR principle of primarily representing talking to people by talking to people rather than rolling dice. So here's my attempt, which is built on the assumption that what makes a good social specialist isn't bonuses to numbers, but talents that let you get into situations where you can use those social solutions in the first place...

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From the inimitable Kate Beaton.

The Rake

To-Hit, Hit Dice, Saves, Experience Per Level, Weapons and Armour: All as per Thief.

Silver Tongue: You get +1 to reaction rolls from anyone who you can talk to in a language that they can understand. 

Ways of the World: Starting at level 1, pick one talent from the following list. Pick an additional talent each time you advance a level. The talents you can choose from are as follows:

Actor: You have a talent for performance and impersonation. If you can present yourself in some kind of plausible disguise within a situation where it makes sense - dressed as a priest within a temple, dressed as a servant in a large house, etc - then people will always assume that you are who you appear to be unless and until you give them a strong reason not to. If you take an injury which reduces you to less than half your maximum hit points, you can attempt to 'play dead' by rolling 1d20: if the result is equal to or less than your Charisma + your level, then you will appear to be dead until you move or are closely inspected, which can be handy for setting up getaways or sneak attacks.

Connected: You know a guy who knows a guy. If you want something (items, information, invites to parties, etc) which could possibly be obtained in your location for the right price, then you know someone who can obtain it for you. (Of course, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to afford it!) Even if you find yourself in a completely alien environment, you will somehow manage to establish a network of guys who know other guys within 1d6 days of your arrival.

Disguise Artist: With the aid of a box of makeup and a bag of props, you can quickly and effectively disguise yourself as belonging to a gender, ethnicity, or medium-sized humanoid species other than your own. Your disguise won't pass close inspection, but it will pass muster in any casual encounter unless the people you meet already have reason to be very suspicious of you. Can be used in conjuction with 'Actor' to get into places you really shouldn't be.

Drunkard: You have a phenomenal ability to consume alcohol, and do so constantly. You suffer no ill-effects for being drunk, and once per day you can heal yourself (1d6+1/level) HP by taking a drink 'for medicinal purposes'. You are also a wonderful drinking companion, and anyone who you spend a few hours drinking with will regard you as a friend unless and until you give them a strong reason not to.

Duellist: All those fencing lessons paid off after all! Whenever you're in a one-on-one battle with a single opponent, you get +1 to hit and damage: this bonus ends as soon as either of you attacks or is attacked by anyone else. Anyone who sees you fight a formal duel (whether to first blood or to the death) will regard you as a person of courage and honour unless and until you give them a strong reason not to.

Expensive Education: You know one first-level magic-user spell, which you can cast once per day. You also have a head full of famous quotations and random bits of vocabulary in old languages. By dropping a few learned remarks, you can give the impression of being an expert on any given subject, which will last until you do something to make it obvious that you are not. (A real expert, however, will see through your charade as soon as they put it to the test.)

Fast Talk: Through dazzling use of wit and word-play, you can persuade people of all kinds of crazy shit... briefly. Listeners get a saving throw: if they fail, they will believe your lies and excuses unless it is obviously impossible for them to be true. 1d6 minutes later they will realise that it's all nonsense, at which point they'll be very angry with you, and will be immune to subsequent uses of your fast-talk ability. Make every second count!

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Fop: You have such beautiful clothes... and you wear them so very, very well. If you are wearing something awe-inspiringly fashionable and impractical (which precludes the wearing of armour), you will always automatically be the centre of attention wherever you go, and cannot be upstaged by anything short of actual disaster or attack. 

Hauteur: You behave with such natural authority that everyone will always assume you're in charge unless it's really obvious that you're not. In any kind of emergency situation, people will naturally look to you to tell them what to do, and will usually go along with your plans unless they're obviously terrible. Your hirelings and followers gain +1 morale.

Libertine: You pride yourself on your mastery of sex and seduction. If an NPC might plausibly be interested in a casual sexual encounter with someone like you, then you can seduce them in 1d6 hours. (They get a saving throw if they want to but know they really shouldn't.) If you then spend another 1d6 hours showing them a good time, they will be very positively disposed towards you for as long as you continue to shower them with attention, affection, and sex, and will grant any reasonable requests or favours you might ask of them. Their attitude towards you will reverse as soon as they become aware that you have taken another lover (unless they're into that sort of thing, of course), or as soon as you begin to neglect them. 

Mohock: Your misspent youth was spent as an aristocratic street thug and hellraiser, terrorising the city streets by night. You gain +1 to-hit and damage with clubs and knives, and take no penalties for fighting in poor light, although full darkness blinds you just like anyone else. Once in your life you may call in a single favour from the Emperor of the Mohocks, a shadowy and near-mythical figure who is said to wield great influence in aristocratic and criminal circles. 

Raconteur: You are a master story-teller, capable of holding an audience spellbound (and thus distracted) for up to 1d6 hours. Any vaguely plausible stories you tell about your own exploits will always be believed unless and until evidence is presented to the contrary. 

Rover: You've been everywhere, and you are very, very good at fitting in. Even if you have no language in common, you can always establish basic communication with any intelligent creatures through a combination of gesture and pidgin speech. If a group or a population is negatively disposed towards you because of your ethnicity, religion, species, etc, then after 1d6 hours of non-violent interaction with them you'll have picked up so many of their mannerisms that they'll regard you like one of their own. (They still might not like you, of course, but it'll be because of what you've done rather than because of who you are!) 


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Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 14: Divs of the Desert

In Zoroastrian tradition, Divs are spirits of evil, the children of the Druj, or cosmic lie. In Persian folk-tales, they often lurk around in wild and dangerous regions, looking for victims to deceive and devour - and, as a result, they're just the kind of creatures you might run into if you leave the relative safety of the Iranian plateau for the deserts of Central Asia. My take on them here is heavily informed by their appearance in the twelfth century Persian poem Haft Peykar, where - in C.E. Wilson's 1924 translation - they are described as follows:
Innumerable demons seated there, exchanging shouts through valley and through plain.
All of them, like the wind, were scattering dust; rather, they were like leeches black and long.
Till it got so, that from the left and right the mirthful clamour rose up to the sky.
A tumult rose from clapping and the dance; it made the brain ferment in (every) head.
At every instant did the noise increase, moment by moment greater it became.
When a short time had gone by, from afar a thousand torches (all) aflame appeared;
(And) suddenly some persons came to view, forms cast in tall and formidable mould.
All of them “ghūls” like blackest Ethiops; pitchlike the dress of all, like tar their caps.
All with the trunks of elephants and horned, combining ox and elephant in one.
Each of them bearing fire upon his hand, (each) ugly, evil one like drunken fiend.
Fire (also) from their throats was casting flames; reciting verse, they clashed the horn and blade.

So: tall, black, fire-breathing, desert-dwelling monsters, with trunks like elephants, horns like oxen, and fires and blades in their hands, who go around laughing, and clapping, and dancing, and reciting poetry. Like you do.

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Here's a fifteenth-century illustration of the scene.
My suspicion is that these particular divs are basically anthropomorphic representations of the perils of the desert. They're associated with heat: thus the fires that they carry in their hands and breathe forth from their mouths. They create sandstorms; indeed, in some sense, they may actually be sandstorms, which would explain why they dance around in circles filling the landscape with clouds of dust. They create mirages - thus the recoil of the guy in the picture as his horse suddenly turns into a seven-headed dragon beneath him - and they themselves, with their monstrous beast-faces, resemble the kind of hallucinations someone might experience while stumbling around a desert half-dead of sunstroke and dehydration. But at the same time, they seem to possess art, language, even culture. They aren't just whooping and gibbering: they're reciting verse. It's that combination of primal destructiveness with apparent knowledge and intelligence that interests me.

So - if you go too deep into the desert, if you are lost and dying and desperate, then you may meet the divs. The base daily chance of a group encountering them is 0%, modified as follows:

  • Group has only the vaguest idea where they are: +10%
  • Group is completely lost: +20%
  • Group has no food: +10%
  • Group has no water: +20%
  • Many people in the group are sick: +10%
  • Many people in the group are wounded: +10%
  • Many people in the group are suffering from sunstroke: +10%

When encountered, they come whirling over the horizon, leaping and dancing and singing, clashing cymbals and horns and blades. They breathe out gouts of fire. They kick up great clouds of dust. They conjure up frightful illusions of people and animals turning into monsters. What they're looking for is a terror reaction: they want to see people flee in panic, abandoning the supplies and the pack animals that they need to survive in the desert in their desperate scramble for safety. The divs think that kind of thing is hilarious. They'll be laughing about it for weeks.

If you hold your ground, then they'll come stalking up to you, waving swords and snorting flame. They'll try to intimidate you, uttering blood-curdling threats, and demanding all the food and goods and water you have in exchange for letting you live. They don't need those things: they just think it's funny to send people staggering away to die of thirst and starvation. They'll probably burn it all as soon as you're out of sight.

Faced with sturdy opposition, however, the divs will waver. They admire bravery, and for all their threats and bravado they will be reluctant to strike the first blows, although they will fight back fiercely if attacked. They hate showing weakness, and will curse and bluster to the very end, but travellers who demonstrate both courage and respect may be allowed to pass in exchange for a mere token payment of tribute. (The divs are incapable of telling direct truths, though, and will come up with all sorts of absurd lies about why they are letting you live.) If they are particularly impressed with you they might even drop some broad hints about the way to the next oasis, although if questioned about it they will of course deny doing anything of the sort. 

Despite their ruffianly ways, the divs are great lovers of music and poetry. They will immediately warm to anyone who can answer them quotation for quotation, and prefer gifts of song and verse above all others. They know many old secrets, and the locations of all kinds of ancient ruins, and sorcerers and scholars sometimes deliberately seek them out with the hope of bargaining with them - although this usually involves deliberately getting lost in the desert first. They also have considerable respect for Dahākans, who they regard almost as their kinsmen. They view the Cruel Ones with utter contempt.

  • Div: AC 15 (super-tough skin), 4 HD, AB +5, two attacks, damage blade (1d8+1) and flame (1d6), FORT 10, REF 12, WILL 12, morale 9. 
Divs resemble large, brutish humanoids with elephant faces and the horns of oxen. They carry swords and flames, which they can call forth from their hands at will, and wield like lashes: they can also breathe forth gouts of fire once per round, causing 1d6 points of fire damage per round to one target within melee range unless they pass a REF save. While leaping and dancing around the desert, the dust clouds they kick up are so thick that all ranged attacks against them are at -2 to hit. They can conjure threatening illusions, which last for as long as the div creating them maintains concentration. These illusions are visual-only, and can only take the form of monsters, distortions, fires, sandstorms, and other intimidating sights. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Gaming with toddlers: the sixfold snare

My son turned four recently, so I guess he's not really a toddler anymore. Anyway, the other day I took him to a swimming pool, and he was playing around in the water when he suddenly announced: 'I'm in a trap!'

(He wasn't in a trap. He was standing shoulder-deep in a warm swimming pool. But ever since he started watching Pokemon cartoons, traps have become a big part of his imaginative play.)

'Who put you in the trap?' I asked.

'Team Rocket!' he replied, predictably.

'Can you get out?' I asked.

'No!' he wailed in mock-despair. 'It's made of walls and water and memory and glue and strongness and leopards!'

Well, a few seconds later he 'escaped' with the help of an imaginary burst of electricity. (Pikachu has much to answer for.) But that trap has stayed in my mind ever since.

Walls.
Water.
Memory.
Glue.
Strongness.
Leopards.

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It's a traaaaap!

I think the reason it's stuck with me is because we expect the transition from concrete to abstract to be one-way. Sometimes it goes from abstract to concrete, like when you have to pass a test to show that you are brave and pure of heart in order to enter the castle of evil, or whatever. More often it goes from concrete to abstract, so it turns out that all the business with fighting skeletons and climbing out of pits was just the warm-up, and the real challenge was to see if you were able to forgive the memory of your dead brother or something. But this trap - this sixfold snare - does both. Twice.

From the outside, I imagine it looks like a castle, obviously built to protect something important. No doors, no windows: just circular curtain walls. Climb them and you'll be faced with the bridge-less moat inside. In the middle of the moat is an island, and the island is full of memories: memories of everything you've ever missed, everything you've ever lost, everything you ever wanted to see again. Only the sternest of souls can avoid standing for hours, lost in bittersweet rapture - which is unfortunate, as the island is also covered in fast-drying glue, and the longer you stand there the more firmly you'll stick to it. Consider bringing an amnesiac.

If you make it past the glue and the memories you'll get to the inner keep, which is made of Strongness. Its stones seethe with barely-contained power, and no human tools can force its gates or breach its walls. Push a wall and it will punch you back. Strike one and it will lash out and hit you twice as hard. The trick, naturally, is to turn the keep against itself: to strike one wall in such a way that the inevitable counter-attack ends up hitting another wall, which strikes back twice as hard at the first one, and so on and so forth until they've punched massive holes in each other and the way forwards lies clear.

And then, when you're inside and your eyes are adjusting to the dark and you're congratulating yourself on your cleverness, you get jumped on and eaten by a bunch of leopards.

It is a trap, after all...