Friday 14 June 2019

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: d100 encounters with onrushing modernity

'We have fallen upon strange times', wrote Dickens in 1839, 'and live in days of constant shifting and changes.'

Most fantasy worlds get by without ever really changing, apart from the odd cataclysm every couple of thousand years. It's all just kings and guys with swords, forever and ever and ever. Even if steampunk or clockpunk technology does exist, it's usually as a known quantity, something that's been around for long enough to be thoroughly integrated into the fabric of society.

My current interest in the 1830s and 1840s emerges from their status as crisis decades, in which everything was changing very fast, and no-one really knew how to cope with it. They worked it out in the end, of course, for better and for worse. But for a couple of decades there, everyone from the paupers to the prime ministers were totally making everything up as they went along.

Here's an Elfmaids and Octopi-style d100 encounter table suitable for any rapidly-industrialising city, mostly based on things that really happened in Britain between 1830 and 1850. Environments like this are full of rich pickings for chancers and opportunists. Your PCs should do just fine.

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  1. First meeting of newly-founded learned association. Members are arriving from all over the country: they've been in correspondence for years, but most have never met each other face to face. Rich pickings for impostors.
  2. Labour dispute. Workers on strike outside newly-built factory. Industrialist haranguing them from a balcony, threatening to import starving labourers to replace them. No-one on either side knows how far to push their luck.
  3. Secret nocturnal trade union meeting. New members swear terrible oaths of loyalty amid flaming torches and grim icons of death and revolution. 
  4. Creaking carriages importing new machinery for use in manufactures. Working men look on balefully and mutter darkly about the consequences.
  5. Luddite riot. Unemployed and starving workers on the rampage, disguised with masks, blackened faces, and/or women's clothing, trying to smash as many machines as they can in order to raise the demand for labour.
  6. Enclosure act. Common lands are being fenced off and parcelled out to private owners in order to raise agricultural productivity. Local smallholders watch the fences rise with a mixture of anger and despair. 
  7. Monster meeting. Huge crowds of people assembled in fields to hear speeches by popular orators, rousing them to action. Armed yeomanry look on nervously and finger their sabres.
  8. Ragged band of rural labourers, deprived of their land by the enclosure acts, stumbling resentfully towards the city to join the ranks of the industrial proletariat.
  9. New police force splendid in shiny new uniforms, marching the streets with truncheons in hand, ready to keep the scum in line.
  10. Old police force, obsolete but not yet disbanded, shivering in their old watch-houses and predicting ruin to the state.
  11. Clandestine meeting of criminals thrown into panic by the operations of the new police force. All suspect one another of being police informers.
  12. Detective from newly-formed police detective unit following a trail of clues relating to a recent murder.
  13. Crowd gathered around a body that has recently washed ashore, with a gash on its head and bricks shoved into its pockets.
  14. Public execution by hanging. Swells watching from nearby windows through opera glasses. Pickpockets working crowds. 
  15. Quarantined city district hit by exotic new disease from foreign parts, now filled with death and misery.
  16. Land torn open for construction of exiting new sewer network, miles of tunnels being constructed, an entire subterranean world being born beneath the city streets.
  17. Gangs of sweating navvies cutting the way for a canal or railway, demolishing everything in their path.
  18. Furious legal dispute between railway proprietor and a property owner whose inconveniently-placed house is blocking the path of progress. Pickaxe-wielding navvies look on menacingly.
  19. Crowd of speculators trying to work out exactly how long to back the current railway boom for.
  20. Wild-eyed men roving the streets, selling shares in mostly-imaginary railway companies.
  21. Clanking parade of convicts stumbling off for transportation to the colonies.
  22. Band of escaped convicts returned illegally from transportation, furtive and terrified of being recognised.
  23. Band of government inspectors scornfully criticising an old prison, where chained prisoners languish in chaos and darkness and filth.
  24. Band of government inspectors rapturously praising a new prison, where masked prisoners are kept in total silence and solitude.
  25. Coach-load of hopelessly crazed inmates being transported from new prison to local asylum.
  26. Travelling mesmerist attracts crowds with his amazing displays of mind control and mesmeric healing.
  27. Ragged street preacher howls predictions of national woe to a receptive crowd.
  28. Gigantic new asylum under construction. Lead engineer fretting over the spiralling costs. Lead doctor worried that there still might not be enough beds.
  29. Drunken gentry out on the town, smashing lamps and beating up policemen.
  30. Team of mechanics installing new gas lighting on the streets.
  31. Shivering part-time prostitutes, ashamed but desperate, nervously propositioning passers-by.
  32. Sweatshop tailors, diseased and naked, one coat between ten, working frantically to fulfil the latest order for military uniforms.
  33. Huge new gin palace, just opened, all flaring gas lamps and shining mirrors, an instant hit with the locals.
  34. Impromptu penny theatre performing blood-and-thunder melodramas to a delighted crowd of small children. 
  35. Travelling freak show advertises dwarves, giants, and human skeletons.
  36. Grave robbers stealthily excavating the grave of a recently deceased freak on a special commission from a local doctor.
  37. Sauntering dandies with perfumed curls and exquisite swallow-tail coats, serenely ignoring the clamouring debt-collectors who pursue them from street to street.
  38. Wretched beggars wave amputated limbs, telling miserable tales of industrial accidents.
  39. Train-load of blood-spitting consumptives setting off to convalesce at the seaside. 
  40. Street stricken by strange new water-bourne diseases, probably nothing to do with the new factory that just opened upstream.
  41. Band of ex-officials, holders of ancient civic offices just dissolved by modernising government decree, sit around mournfully in their obsolete regalia, swapping tales of the epic civic banquets of the past.
  42. Popular novelist mobbed by admirers, all trying to persuade her to include their brilliant idea in her latest story.
  43. Cabmen competing to drive their fares the fastest, hurtling recklessly through the streets, people scattering in panic before them.
  44. Steamship of day-trippers setting off downriver with hampers of sandwiches and bottled ale, band playing on-deck, queasy passengers vomiting copiously over the sides. 
  45. Firework display over illuminated pleasure gardens by night. Lots of furtive assignations in the bushes.
  46. Crowds gathering to watch hot air balloon race between rival aerialists. 
  47. Recently-returned explorer delivering a public lecture, telling blood-curdling tales of his adventures among the savages.
  48. Recruiting sergeant looking out for likely lads to join the regiment, handing out drinks freely and telling mouth-watering stories about all the food and loot and women that a young soldier can get his hands on overseas. 
  49. Soldiers setting out for distant colonial war, resplendent in their shiny new uniforms.
  50. Soldiers returning from distant colonial war, sunburned and traumatised and ravaged by tropical diseases, twitching nervously at loud noises and looking around for something to kill out of force of habit.
  51. Celebrity criminal being carried to the gallows, surrounded by adoring crowds begging for locks of hair and straining to hear their last words.
  52. Menagerie of exotic animals, caged and miserable, on display to paying customers.
  53. Panic - an elephant, driven mad in captivity, has burst its bars and is now on the rampage. A band of men waving muskets follow in hot pursuit.
  54. In a low tavern, thieves plot a break-in on a nearby warehouse.
  55. Street vendor selling penny books with lurid woodcut illustrations to semi-literature customers.
  56. Newsboys hawk newspapers full of verbatim witness testimony from the latest aristocratic sex scandal. 
  57. 'Lion-hunting' society hostess on the lookout for celebrities to invite to her next soiree. She's got no-one lined up for next week yet and is getting frantic.
  58. The 'black guard': soot-covered street children, drunken and half-feral, roaming the street in mobs.
  59. A meeting between rival benevolent societies to discuss the best means of distributing charitable relief to the poor. The mood is growing less benevolent by the minute.
  60. Crowds mobbing a doctor's coach attempting to carry a man to the asylum, while the patient within screams that he is sane and being carried off against his will.
  61. Band of city traders on shooting excursion to the countryside, nervously eyeing their shotguns and hoping they don't shoot each other by accident.
  62. Seconds making secret preparations for a duel on an isolated patch of wasteland, checking the pistols, waiting for the surgeon, and keeping an eye out for the police. The principals will arrive any minute, horribly hung-over and desperately regretting their drunken challenges the previous night.
  63. Opium eaters stumbling around in a blissed-out haze, smiling meaninglessly at everyone.
  64. Meeting of a band of armchair detectives, determined to solve the latest crimes described in the daily newspapers.
  65. A man being dragged off to a debtor's prison while bailiffs carry off the furniture and possessions from his home, to be sold at auction. His wife and children sit, stunned with misery, in the street outside.
  66. A local election. Both candidates have spent lavishly on free beer for the electors, and everyone permitted to vote is now very, very drunk. Agents of one candidate are now circulating with the aim of tricking the befuddled voters into voting for the wrong man, or, failing that, of drinking themselves into unconsciousness and thus not being able to vote at all.
  67. Chimney-sweeps adorned with green branches, dancing and begging money for beer. 
  68. Bands of emigrants dragging their meagre possessions down to the docks, hoping to try their luck elsewhere. 
  69. A group of literary reviewers sit in the corner of a pub, whispering like conspirators, plotting how best to destroy a writer they have taken a dislike to in their review of her next book. 
  70. A group of actual conspirators sit in another corner, making grand but impractical plans for uprisings, rebellions, and assassinations.
  71. A hired carriage rolls by, on its way to present a grand petition to parliament. Watching crowds, sullen and mutinous, mutter about rioting if their demands are not met.
  72. Screaming match in the streets between legislators beholden to the agricultural and industrial interests. Each faction accused the other of bringing utter ruin to the nation. The mood is tense and a crowd is gathering fast.
  73. Huge new church under construction to spiritually regenerate the working classes. Already looms over the entire district like an omen of doom and the spire's still only half finished. The locals are terrified of it.
  74. Grand opening of new museum to display the treasures of empire, houses sacred art looted from five different continents, rumours of curses and hauntings probably nothing to worry about. 
  75. Scientific expedition just returned from distant shores, now being unloaded by crews of porters, disgorging an apparently endless stream of pickled marvels and monsters from its hold.
  76. Ambitious young doctor seeks volunteers for his latest experiments in surgery and anaesthesia, promises they're only sometimes mostly fatal and his technique is improving all the time.
  77. Band of ragged paupers seriously discussing whether they should spend the winter in the workhouse, or whether they'd be better off getting drunk and breaking some windows in the hope of getting sent to prison instead.
  78. Tombs of the famous dead being systematically broken open under the supervision of a noted phrenologist, who has received permission to carry out a comparative scientific study of their skulls.
  79. Travelling lecturer in chemistry amazes his audience with displays of electricity, explosions, blue flames, and similar wonders.
  80. Band of postmen from newly-instituted postage system roaming the city, attempting heroically to match the directions on the letters with the completely unsystematic geography of the city itself, which has never been mapped and lacks any agreed-upon system of street names or house numbers.
  81. Factory in a state of great upheaval, with everything being cleaned and all the most obviously sick and crippled workers being shoved out of sight in preparation for the first visit of a newly-formed government inspectorate on a fact-finding mission.
  82. Reclaimed drunkards addressing a temperance meeting with lurid stories of their previous debasement. Lots of hymn-singing and tea-drinking. Gangs of drunken roughs jeer and heckle from the sidelines.
  83. Grand opening of chapel founded by new religious movement. Much impassioned preaching, prophesying, and speaking in tongues. Fevered speculation among the faithful regarding the miraculous powers supposedly possessed by the sect's founder. Dark rumours that a plot is afoot to have her committed as a lunatic.
  84. Coachload of miserable children, unwanted or illegitimate, being carried off to a distant boarding school where they can be safely forgotten about. The more desperate among them are planning an escape.
  85. Gang of criminals planning to sabotage the new electric telegraph system, on the grounds that crime will be impossible once news of a crime can travel faster than the criminal who commits it.
  86. Giant new intercontinental steamship lying in drydock, in preparation for epoch-making intercontinental voyage. Lounging spectators make bets on how far it will get before sinking.
  87. Ashen-faced bankers stumbling from the exchange. There has been a crash, and ruin now awaits them and all who have banked with them unless some desperate expedient can be found. 
  88. Stage production of the life and death of a famous celebrity criminal, watched each night with rapt attention by a huge and adoring crowd, to the consternation of the authorities.
  89. Circle of spiritualists advertise weekly communions with the spirits of the dead, with much table-turning, spirit-rapping, apportation, and masses of ectoplasm. A glowering sceptic seeks volunteers to help him unmask their surely-fraudulent activities.
  90. Self-proclaimed genius preening himself in a salon, surrounded by female admirers, holding forth at length on how all true art must be produced without any consideration of profit or commerce. He writes a book a year for the popular press, the most recent of which came out last month and is already a bestseller. 
  91. Half-mad demagogue stirring up a crowd. He claims to be a nobleman deprived of his rightful heritage, who will lead the people to reclaim their rights and bring about a new age of justice. He's clearly a little unhinged, but there are plenty of people around who are desperate enough to listen.
  92. Formal but increasingly heated debate between two cliques of political economists about how best to reform the taxation system to reflect the realities of the new economy. Some important people are in the audience and the stakes are getting worryingly high.
  93. Swindler mercilessly fleecing middle-class snobs at a party by making spurious claims about his aristocratic connections. Some of the sharper ones suspect they're being played but don't have enough to prove anything... yet.
  94. Famous engineer surveying the city, making plans for grand new bridges, tunnels, streets, squares, embankments...
  95. Rookery of slums endlessly subdivided into smaller and smaller apartments, linked by an incomprehensible warren of back-alleys, a breeding-ground of filth, crime, and disease. 
  96. Surgeon holding public demonstration of 'bio-galvanic energy' by running electrical currents through the corpses of executed criminals in front of a paying audience. There is no way this can go wrong. 
  97. Street brawl between local workers and recent immigrants, who are widely blamed for pushing down the price of labour by inconsiderately being desperate enough to work for starvation wages.
  98. A dazzling display of the latest visual technologies: magic lantern shows, stage apparitions, transparencies, panoramas, and mechanical theatres. Some particularly gruesome ghost projections are sending small children into hysterics. 
  99. Well-meaning philosopher wearily explaining to a hostile crowd that giving charity to the poor is actively harmful, as it holds down the price of labour by preserving the surplus population.
  100. Girlish young queen on her way to her own coronation, watched by a sceptical crowd of loafing sandwich-eaters convinced that she'll never amount to anything and will be swiftly forgotten.
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  1. I think every other comment I leave on a blog lately is me saying this, but I'd really like to see an RPG where built into its core is the idea of societal advancement.

    Numenera Destiny was ostensibly about this, but the settlement rules felt a little rough around the edges imo, and even the sample adventures they included in the book I don't think did a good enough job of demonstrating how to use those mechanics or run such a campaign.

    How cool would it be to be in an 1830's-40's setting, or a late 19th/early 20th century setting (like a weird west boom-town), or a fantasy setting just as the industrial revolution is happening, and actually play out that advancement in "real time"?!

    1. Well, what you're describing is literally Magical Industrial Revolution by Skerples. Here is the introductory post:

    2. The big issue with this sort of thing is that you need enough *time* for it all to happen in. Pendragon, for example, assumes that considerable social and technological change will occur over the course of a campaign, as the setting moves from Dark Ages awfulness to chivalric wonderland before collapsing back into ruin. But that's made possible by the game's '1 adventure = 1 year' setup, which gives the game enough time to make the changes semi-plausible.

      Once you've built in the timeskips, then social change becomes pretty easy to manage and include.

      See also this:

    3. This is entirely true, and something I've tried to bake into the MIR rules from day 1. I'm using a "Seasonal" setup. 1 adventure/dungeon/whatever always takes 1 Season. Everything advances in the time between seasons (the Off-Season, when all the fashionable people are in the country anyway). It's not perfect, but it helps.

  2. Great stuff. The one bad thing I can say of it is that it doesn't sound too OSR, at least in the "ye olde D&D" sense of it. 'Course it's bad only in a relative way, as in, folks playing games where this would be most useful might not know of your blog. But it's great stuff. Speaks a lot when like every other point in the list inspires the reader with yet further ideas.

    Also it would be a fun mental experiment to try to come up with ideas based on a different city of the period. Say, Paris. All of this mired in the political conflict between Legitimists, Orleanists, Bonapartists, Republicans, and Socialists (at this point still relatively unified). Or somewhere like Vienna, to replace the political mix with the ethnic mix.

    1. I dunno. Lots of people seem to run OSR games wholly or partly set in pseudo-Victorian cities. And the default D&D cityscape, with its inns and slums and sewers, is already more like Dickensian London than anything you'd find in medieval Europe.

      Other cities would be great - and even *more* tumultuous. 1830s Paris made 1830s London look positively calm and stable. And the sheer chaos of Europe in 1848-9 would make for a brilliant (if extremely demanding) RPG setting.

  3. Holy crap, well done. Good job, period. A d100 list of such quality is worth more than a shelf of campaign setting publications.

  4. I'm reading David Harvey's companion book to Capital at the moment and there's some good stuff about, like, Chartists and Corn Laws. The most immediately gameable thing I can think of at the moment is the tension between the landed aristocracy and the industrial bourgeoisie - the aristos setting themselves up as champions of the people and arguing for shorter work days and safer factories in order to depress the industrialists' rate of profit, the industrialists fighting against grain tariffs in order to cut off landowners' income and keep labour costs down, since you can pay your workers less when food is cheaper. And the proletariat forming their own movements to fight back against both these groups of people. Marx is gameable I think.

    1. Fascinating though I personally find the history of the Corn Laws, I think you'd have to be a very brave GM to run a game about corn subsidies and import tariffs. But the basic sense of all the previous social assumptions being upended by the new economic realities is, I think, eminently gameable.

      The old division of society into the first, second, and third estates just stops making sense as soon as organised labour and industrial capital explode onto the scene, and suddenly everyone has to scramble for new positions - forming some rather unlikely new alliances along the way, as the whole history of Victorian conservative radicalism demonstrates. It's that sense of instability that I think a game is most likely to be able to turn to its advantage.

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  5. These are great! They feel very thematic for the period, and I could see each of them spiraling into a whole session’s worth of fun, with players getting involved and possibly causing an even bigger mess!

  6. Great list... Marx as gameable; sure, all you need is an ironhanded despot and 10's of millions of people to kill.