Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Overking Needs You

Excerpt from the interview with Three-Eyed Pavol, headman and sole survivor of the border colony of Trnova. As recounted by the scribe of Bohdan, under-senschal to Raugraf Androj Animachus the Younger.

Bohdan: Again from the beginning of the attack, itself. Surely, man, you can't still be drunk? It's been over a day since you've received the hospitality of my most puissant and gracious master.

Pavol: Dzzeruphenated.

[Bohdan slaps the hollow-eyed beet-red headman soundly across the face with the handle of his horse-whip.]

Pavol: Sweet jabberin' black goat of the thousand hills, you overshtufed popinjay! I tolds you what I knows.

Bohdan: Again or I shall reapply the supplications of my whip.

Pavol: It twas earl in the morn and I was sounding out the sturdiness of my tuber-cellar.

Bohdan [impatiently cuts in]: yes, yes you were inebriated and passed out from the debauched rites of your borderlands pagan rites of the night before. [Shudders and makes a two-fingered counter-swirling sign of the Sun Lord as practiced by the Reformed Orthodox Seventh Lodge.] Just what happened man.

Pavol: There was a screamin' and a yellin' something fierce. I armed myself fir battle with an over-large chleb-root and bravely strode out to meet the enemy.

But them was a quick buggers—and furry. A pack of wolves I tell you but like men. They were up on two legs and all a hollerin' and a hootin' between their big wolf fangs. And they were making a right bloody mess o' the colony village. Killin' and a hackin' away. If it hadn't been for that Svat-cursed malplaced cellar beam, I would have whip 'em a-plenty.

Bohdan: yes, yes, you craven drunken imbecile, you knocked yourself senseless running into it. But how do you account for a complete massacre of every inhabitant? And the failure of them to lift away the pay coffers and other valuables from Trnova? Are the Brazonians that daft and bloodthirsty?
[End excerpt]

Such, such is horrific nature of the adversaries we face in the coming war. Who are you to refuse pushing a pike to defend our stalwart border cantons?

Wanted: bellicose men and women to command bands of men in this war beyond measure. Your every wit will be put to test by the play to come.

Interested parties should inquire over the ether at kutalik dot gmail com. An appropriate recruitment bounty of 200 gold suns and higher will be released to you upon the swearing of your oath of service to the Overking in the presence of our Most Puissant and Resplendent Sun Lord.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Rashomon Effect of our Very Own

Nestled somewhere in the misty reaches of the ether there is a chart so nefarious, so utterly corrupting in its influence that I shudder at its mention.

How many souls—and livers—were gutted by a seemingly frivolous lark amongst its random probabilities? How many buildings burnt and fleckless innocents beaten to feed its soulless agenda? I write, of course, of Jeff Rient's infamous Carousing Mishaps, the table that launched a thousand FLAILSNAILS tall tales.

This is such a story.
Back up to a little over a month ago when one of several new additions to the player cast of the Hill Cantons, a mountebank by the name of Manzafrain the Mirthful (pictured above as drawn by that scamp Jeremy Duncan), is making a bid to gather those wee few extra experience points to push him over the next level hump. He doubles down and decides to put the maximum he can—all of the hard-earned swag he has minus a hobbit-carried sedan chair—and naturally just as promptly blows the roll.

Amusingly, the table dictates that he has found himself in a shotgun marriage in his binge haze. I promptly up the ante by explaining to him that his new bride, the eldest daughter of a local guild master, is an utter terror and nag.

Marzapan, an aspiring Flashman on psycho-tunes steroids, calls my hand and instantly embarks on a crazed and anti-social plan to kidnap his wife and ransom her back to his father-in-law. He then precedes to bug me for five weeks straight on running this escapade as a session.
Jeremy Duncan's own HC mountebank, "The Colonel"
Truth be told, dear reader, I was artfully avoiding the reality of actually running said session for the simple fact that it sounded boring as all get out to me as a GM.

Yeah, yeah I know I am one of those player-driven campaign preachers--and, yes, my big break from the West Marches model came when town adventures could be explored—but it's just that it clashed with one of my other foundational principles for the campaign. That is that most normal NPCs inside the bounds of civilization are...well...utterly normal unless there is a plausible and established connection to the Weird. In other words the affair smelled of dull little cake-walk.

But then it dawned on me, why not break the fourth wall and just ask the player outright? Fortunately Robert's desire to make good on his obsession trumped any objections to “sexing this session up”.

Poof, the faceless random entry spouse becomes Elishka, the closet sadist with a fondness for sharp cutting tools. Poof comes Drogo, her half-ogre manservant. Poof comes the scheming and Machiavellian father-in-law. And poof this menacingly letter is sent to Robert's inbox:
My Dearest Vagrant-in-Law Marzapan,
It has come to attention by my dear sweet daughter that you have not paid attention to your filial duties throughout the month of the Black Goat—indeed it is nearly Dapper Demagogues month and we have seen neither hide nor hair of you around our town home. I must take you to task, sir, for such negligence.

And it has come to my august attention that you are still seen gallivanting around town with a band of otherworldly ruffians. This simply will not do. 
I urge you to reconsider my offer for employment as an underscribe at my guild offices and to return to the matter of your familial responsibilities.

Or simply I will be forced to take matters into my more than capable hands. I will be meeting with my good friend and dearest boon companion, Jahoda the Sweetly-Scented. You might know him in his capacity as a journeyman in the Brotherhood of Slayers.

In Stern Disdain,
Hurloj  Kladivo
Master of the Guild of Accipitraries, Ankle Beaters, and Drovers
The session did not disappoint. In fact, it perhaps was the most crazed (and thus wonderful) in my three year run. But don't take my word for it, embrace the full Rashomon effect of the experience here, here, here and here. (It really is worth taking the time to read each, trust me.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Three Years of Madness and Mayhem

I almost missed it. Yesterday compiling all my old campaign notebooks I chanced on the notes from the first session of the Hill Cantons campaign. Turns out today is the three year anniversary for the campaign proper (it predates the blog).

Now, I'm not one for the self-congratulatory post about this or that silly blog achievement, but I am so proud of reaching that milestone that I believe—as we say here in Tejas--the sun came up this morning just to hear me crow.

Because, see, in the first page of that dog-eared spiral notebook is a list of goals and point one is: “Go for the long game. Keep focused, don't dump it at the first distraction and let it evolve from the bottom-up bit by bit.” Having successfully (if narrowly) avoided death by distraction—I did manage to run a host of other side campaigns from Tekumel to Hyboria to both phases of the Domain Game—I feel a certain amount of victory and vindication.

The campaign also managed to survive through a number of big real life changes and its own evolutionary jumps. It went from its first year in Austin as an unholy marriage between 15th-17th century Central Europe and a radical plotless West Marches-like experiment (running Castles and Crusades) in Austin to the stranger beast (running LL and a large heap of its own homebrewed variants) it is today. Currently the campaign balances inter-connectedly between a tight (if infrequently-meeting) San Antonio home group and a wild and wooly weekly Google-plus crew, the so-called Nefarious Nine.

Here's the snapshot “Harper's Index” of campaign factoids:
Number of sessions: 58
Number of adventure site maps designed: 141
Large-scale “dungeons” explored (6-8 levels): 2
Medium-scale “dungeons” explored (2-5 levels): 11
Mini-dungeons and lairs explored: 25
"Squares" in the pointcrawl map explored: 128
Furthest distance from the center of the map traveled: 62 miles
Number of other dimensions visited: 3
Total number of people who have played in the HC: 35
Countries of players (thanks G+): 5
Number of children that have played: 8
First-time players that have played: 9
Most players at a single session: 12
Number of PC deaths: 5
Times that PCs have rolled on the Death and Dismemberment table: 13
Hireling deaths: 27
Longest living NPC follower: Demetrios the Silent
Longest surviving PC: Mandamus
Most successful first-time player: Uma the Thief
Highest level achieved: 6th
Most potent enemy bested: Qvix, Demon of the Anti-Ziggurat
Biggest haul from a single session: gold bars worth 6,000 suns (gp)
Most potent magical item obtained: the Terminaxe (+3 vs. giant insects) and/or four pieces of the Rod of Seven Parts
Least exp per player awarded in a full session: 10
Least amount of swag per player lifted in a session: 1 sun
Most popular PC class: Thief
Least popular PC class: Paladin
Most popular HC-unique class: Mountebank
Least popular HC-unique class: Lankhmarian White Wizard
Worst-acting participant: me

I raise a glass of slivovice—it's five o'clock somewhere—to all the players. Without you it would all be a Billy Idol song.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Hill Cantons are at War

A Message from Our Overking:
“In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in the history of the Overkingdom, I send to every household of my underlings, both at home and in other pocket universes, this message, spoken with the same lack of regard for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and commander the services of your spouse.
For the forty-third time in the lives of most of us, we are [dramatic pause] at war. 
The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the end of a landsknecht's pike, but we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to the Sun Lord Invictus. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then with the World Turtle’s help, we shall prevail.”
The playtest gauntlet has been tossed and all able-bodied men of lead in the Cantons are mustering to the deafening rhythmic beat of the drums of war. You might remember that I have been working on sections of the humbly-titled CompleteGuide to Fantasy War.

The fine (if deranged and sybaritic) Emperor Don of our northern neighbors, the Brazos Evil Empire,  has mobilized his forces for a couple months of fighting out a border war with my fledgling abstract mass combat rules and campaign rules. The expected grand finale will possibly be a face-to-face battle royale at the second New Braunfels mini con we are chit-chatting about for late April or May.

To commemorate the war we have jointly see up this new blog to chronicle our machinations.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

There is Religion in Them Thar Hills

A slow news day here in the hills (though a busy one in the self-styled real world), so how about another portion of campaign setting dress.

The Supernal Orthodox Temple of the Puissant Sun Lord
The Sun Lord (his true name is banned from mention) drives the Chariot of the Heavens along the Dome of the Sky daily. The god spends the winter months dining with the luminaries of Hyperborea. Some savants believe that the god is in reality a godhead of 313 “Rays” (former deities co-opted into aspects). Many old gods have been said to be usurped and absorbed this way .

A monotheistic (if syncretistic) religion, the Temple ostensibly dominates the Overkingdom spiritually. The Temple itself holds a tight monopoly on the manufacture and distribution of the Seed of the Sun (gunpowder), which does not work in the Weird.

The faith is currently divided into 31 Houses of Orthodoxy over seemingly absurd doctrinal differences (whether sign of the sun is clockwise or counter, how many fingers used, the number of wheels on the Sun Chariot, etc.)

Clerics (the spell-casting class) are a tiny minority of the clergy and are only found in the Borderlands where their magic functions. Temple clerics are bog-standard D&D clerics down to the restriction of only using blunt weapons. They are mostly considered dangerous armed zealots by their cloistered brethren.

The Celestial Lady
A spurned female deity (also called the Sun's Bride or just the Goddess) whose now-heretical followers seek to restore her place in the Divine Family.

Her followers are divided among three bickering secret societies: the Evening Star, the Morning Star, and the Starry Void lodges. The first two societies are mostly moderate and socially egalitarian factions with a strong base artisans and denizens of the Borderlands. The Starry Void is a zealous, secretive, and lotus-addled crew who are rumored to dabble with the Mysteries of the Outer Void.

Evening and Morning Star clerics of the Lady are generally considered under the same proscriptions as those of the Sun Lord, though they are advised to be cagey about the source of their powers when among the unwashed. Mystics of the Starry Void are disallowed from wearing armor heavier than studded leather, but are granted the ability to choose a select group of (secret, naturally) unique spells.

The Old Gods
A handful of “pagan” gods still survive in the HC (though their worship is limited to country folk and tight-lipped cabals):
Radegast the Lord of Hosts, the god of fermented drinks, generosity, hospitality and magister ludis. He is still widely revered during Harvest rituals throughout the cantons as a folklore symbol.

Svat the Four-Faced, former ruler of the Pahr gods. Unpainted four faced wooden pillars are associated with his back hills worship sites.

The Silent God is rumored to be the Father of the Sun Lord, though the increasing tight-lippedness of his dwindling congregants makes the true nature of this god and his doctrine a head-scratcher for most. His symbol is nine-pointed star. Complicated esoteric equations and schematics are often associated with savants that follow him.

Also Ran” Gods
The White God, Wodan, the World Turtle, Sorcha the Witch-Bitch, Storm-Child, and Xhom the Ur-Dwarf, all can muster a few die-hards in the HC.

Clerics of the Old and “Also Ran” Gods can use any weapon that deals out a d6 in damage or less. They are also granted special spells and powers associated with the particular nature of their deity.

Elder Gods and the Anti-World
Beyond the Veil Between the Worlds, lies the mirror image of this world borne on the back of the Anti-World Turtle. Strange alien “gods” work their powers there dictating all of the activities of the plane's denizens in heavily-plotted “adventure paths”.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Campaign Flotsam and Jetsom

I have been busy collecting all the miscellanea of our eponymous campaign recently into the compiled Rough Guide of the HC. I thought I'd share a few more items of possible interest to players and readers.

Unique Spells
Kazimir's Resplendent Couture
Level: 1
Duration: hour/level
Range: touch

The renowned popinjay and mage of Ostrovo, Kazimir the Hair-Handed, was never at a loss for being on the edge of foppish fashion no matter what the occasion or time. Local gossips whispered of eldrith magicks and unholy compacts. They were correct for once.

Touching a piece of otherwise dull apparel, the mage will create raiments of daring refinement instantly outdazzlingly any other garment in the room in it's audacity. For the length of the spell it will be the new black and the clothing will add 1d6 Charisma (max 18) to the bearer if among civilized folk. Any ruining of the garment, a stain or tear, will negate the enchantment.

Crappy Players Maps
The original Austin campaign map 2009.

Recent map drawn for the Nefarious Nine (the G+ core players) by a mad beggar.

The Guild of Condotierre, Linkboys,Roustabouts and Stevedores
Joining the Guild 
What the Guild expects:
1. The guild sets all prices and wages for related activity. No member shall work for less or more than what the local lodge sets as the prevailing wage.

2. The guild shall not abide a rival nor a scab. Members will work to “their utmost” to co-opt, silence or exterminate with extreme prejudice any unlicensed hirelings or organizations operating in the guild's sphere.

3. While the guild's business is that of danger, no member shall be placed in harm's way in a “frivolous” or “callous” manner. Contractors who are found in violation of this rule will be subject to a progressive discipline system beginning with a temporary boycott and ending with defenestration.

4. Members give their “due respect” to more-senior members.

5. All guild members shall field equipment appropriate to their “station” when under contract.

What the Guild provides:
1. Members shall be allowed to train with masters at the guild hall. If said training was to be quantified in an abstract evaluative system each sun in pursuit of this activity shall award one and half points of “experience”.

2. Apprentice and Jack member must provide a 3 sun discount to senior members on contracts. They are not allowed to refuse a contract offer by a senior member when presenting their labor at the Dome of Supernal Dealings—unless that member is facing a proscription from the Lodge Rada (governing council).

3. Guild members will be afforded a set “fair” price on equipment from Guild-approved vendors in the town market.

4. The Guild will provide training of 1 exp per 2 suns spent. Up to 100 suns per level can be spent this way in a weekly period.
Our beloved founder. 
Guild Ranks:
Apprentice: Non-combatant hireling (torchbearer, porter, bagman, etc). 20 suns/month contract

Jack: 0-level Man-at-Arms. 30 suns/month contract

Knave: Characters, levels 1-2. 50 suns/month contract and 1/3 share.

Master: Characters, levels 3 and over.

Grand Master: Political position reserved only for members of the lodge rada.

Monthly Dues Rates for the Marlinko and Ostrovo Lodges:
Apprentice 3 suns and a two-fer
Jack 5 suns, a two-fer, and 3 sags
Knave 10 suns
Master 20 suns
Grand Master none

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Corelands, Borderlands, and the Weird

Every campaign has some kind of logic, tone, or theme to it, even if unwitting to its designer. The longer you play the more this dynamic entrenches itself, creating through happy accident some kind of larger coherence behind it all. The various disparate mysteries start to have underlying and connected causes and overtime it's impossible for both players and GM not to build a sense of meaning behind it.

Both the Austin and San Antonio attempts at this campaign were very much a return to the sharply-bounded sandbox that was the height of fashion in old school circles 2-3 years ago. In that first year there really was no overarching plot, no real machinations by NPCs, nothing but pure wilderness and dungeon exploration and what the players brought to it through their own projection and co-creation.

But month after month that interplay built that famous onion-layering of mystery. I have joked (perhaps only halfway come to think of it) about the “cosmic” secrets of the HC before.

At any rate, here is one of the “outer mysteries”, the setting logic that makes for the day in day out arena that players walk around the HC in. That is in a player-driven world it produces the signposts of where exploration (adventure) are most likely to produce something fruitful. It's a campaign logic that hangs on a more literal, deeper-running meaning of the old D&D designation of geographic zones of civilization, borderlands, and wilderness areas.

The Corelands are human civilization. Though wars, political machinations, plagues, and the rest of the human drama play out here, from the perspective of Cantoners these lands are something of a movie facade. There is no whiff of the “Weird” here, magic doesn't function. Monsters and adventure has no real place here. Like a fantasy Oakland there is no there there.

Whole areas exist in the hills were the Veil Between the Worlds has ripped asunder filling the areas with the flotsam and jetsom of many worlds and times. This is the Weird. Here be monsters and golden, onion-domed barges and great cyclopean halls filling mountain-tops. Geography is exaggerated and uncoupled from the expectations of other lands.

The rising tide of such cosmic strangeness produces a startling density of these so-called sites of adventure. It's not uncommon to walk a few hours from one only to uncover another and then another a short jaunt away.

The Borderlands is the contested zone between. Magic functions here, yet civilization exists here too even if sparsely and tentatively. The entirety of human settlement in the Hill Cantons (the political/regional entity not the campaign) is found here and it is rippled like a marble cake with pockets of the Weird. As such adventure can be found here, but it involves neither the big-ticket risks nor the rewards of exploring the otherworldly regions.

Life here for humanity is tainted by the contact with the Weird, indeed literally many who return back to the core from here die quietly and strangely of maladies in the night. Though a rough frontier, fashion is extravagant and quick to change. Doctrines of the mind are extravagant and quick to heated dispute in their over-elaboration. 

While desperate, life here also carries with it the freedom from the dull routine. Heretics, runaway servants, poets, and the sociopaths and picaros calling themselves adventurers flock here as a result.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Petal Throne Manuscript Released Into the Wild

The pre-publication Empire of the Petal Throne is now officially available to the public for the first time. Only 50 copies of this mimeoed playtest version were produced. 

If you are interested in buying this and are familiar with TSR's EPT, you should be warned that according to Victor Raymond in “many ways is substantively similar to the later TSR publication, and is being produced more as a historical document than as a different product.”

In a conversation last week with Raymond last week he noted that the mechanical differences are pretty sparse, but there are some interesting differences with closer “textual analysis.” There are some interesting differences such as the lack of a Charisma/Comeliness attribute and the existence of playtest notes at the end of the document that show the evolution of EPT as an organic game. 

The final version is 230 pages, with the original mimeo version on the lefthand side and a clean OCR copy on the right. You can find it on RPGnow and on DriveThru as a PDF for $15. A print-on-demand version is coming next. 

My complete interview with Raymond that discusses the deep mysteries of Tekumel, the manuscript and other upcoming projects that will be released such as the much awaited Jakallan Underworld will be coming here this week.  

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Paladin's Warhorse and the Magical Realism of the DMG

You crack open the black covers of the Dungeon Masters Guide (first ed. natch). You are looking up a half-forgotten section that your brain is foggy on. Inexplicably, out in the page next to it, in cramped tiny sans serif font a section forms in the seemingly random jumble of the book.

You don't remember ever have never noticed before. How could I have missed an entire subsection, I have read this umpteenth times? You read it, here there is a mysterious new subsystem. There is High Gygaxian quirk. All of it is strange and good. How could we never have played with that?

Tonight riding out of the mist of page 18 came...

The Paladin's Warhorse
When the paladin reaches 4th or higher level, he or she will eventually call for a warhorse...It will magically appear, but not in actual physical form. The paladin will magically “see” his or her faithful destrier in whatever locale it is currently in, and it is thereafter up to the paladin to journey to the place and gain the steed. As a rule of thumb, this journey will not be beyond 7 days ride, and gaining the mount will not be an impossible task. The creature might be wild and necessitate capturing, or it might be guarded by an evil fighter of the same level as the paladin, and the latter will then have to overcome the former in mortal combat in order to win the warhorse. In short, the gaining of the destrier is a task of some small difficulty which will take a number of days, possibly 2 or more weeks, and will certainly test the mettle of the paladin. Once captured or won, the warhorse knows its role and relationship to the paladin, and it will faithfully serve thereafter for 10 years.

(You have been here yourself?)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Robo-Dwarf as Monster

No. Enc.: 1d6 (3d4)
Alignment: Neutral or Chaotic (Evil)
Movement: 60’ (20’)
Armor Class: 3 (or 8 buck naked)
Hit Dice: 1+1
Attacks: 1 (weapon)
Damage: Weapon
Save: D1
Morale: 10
XP: 25

Rogue Robo-Dwarves will on occasion be encountered as NPC monsters in the wild and underground. Robo-Dwarf war cries of binary numbers and smell of dusty primrose strike fear into the organic heart chambers of humans and other bipedal life-forms. When encountered in groups over five, a 2 HD leader possessing a one-charge Baton of Poison Gas (20-foot radius, Robo-Dwarves immune) will be present.  

The Robo-Dwarf, a LL and B/X Variant Class

With the bad taste of classic idiot mistake hanging in my mouth from this morning--canceling a save on an untitled OpenOffice doc containing my longish post of the day—I am officially giving myself leave to pursue my dead-serious idea for a variant class that sprung from my skull like a robo-Athena last night as I adventured in Castle Nicodemus.


Requirements: CON 9
Prime Requisite: CON
Hit Dice: 1d8
Maximum Level: 12

Strange tales are told in these hills of the appearance of squat adventurer-constructs from beyond the weird. Said to be made of equal parts living animate stone, whirling mechanical gears, and living tissue, these so-called Robo-Dwarves are the freakish creation of an irresponsible higher power. Some blame the baleful White God, others an extra-dimensional ur-dwarf called Xhom. It matters little.

Though fleshy in feel, their skin is composed of a dull greyish-silver matter (natural armor of AC 8 if not wearing any other armor) and their eyes an unsettling black with no iris. There hair is always a greasy, lanky black and exudes an odor vaguely reminiscent of fresh primrose. Beards are always on the patchy short side with pencil-thin mustaches.

Robo-dwarves always speak in a halting monotone that makes vague references to “The Future”. They can speak their own tongue (Xho), common, dwarvish, and a halting pidgin tongue with living statues, gelatinous cubes, lurkers above, piercers, gas spores, rot grubs, rust monsters and other “dick” monsters. When angered in conversation, small black wisps of brimstone-smelling smoke issue from their ears.

Robo-dwarves consume no organic food, no water or distilled spirits—with the inexplicable exception of herd-animal milk which seems to have an intoxicating effect on their constitution. Indeed organic food and water consumption is so toxic to their system that if forced to do so they must save vs. poison in order to prevent themselves from imploding. For sustenance they must consume one flask of lamp oil every third day and are fond of snacking on gravel and small bits of rusted metal.

Robo-dwarves have a deep set and perhaps unwholesome attachment to metal armor, especially that with outlandishly fluted and raised flourishes. They are banned from wearing leather or other armor composed mostly of organic matter and will prefer to go buck naked (they have no naughties) if they can not find and use metal armor. Though they greatly prefer helmets with large protruding spikes they will make do with unadorned helms in a pinch.

Robo-dwarves share the same special abilities and disadvantages as their full-fleshed counterparts. They see in the dark with their Robotronic eyes at 60 feet and have a 2 in 6 chance of noticing weak spots in stone work, traps, false walls, hidden construction, or subtle slopes. The Robo-dwarf must lay his hands on stonework in the general vicinity and use his special stonepathy mental powers to “commune with the rock” for this to happen.

Robo-Dwarf Level Progression
Hit Dice (1d8)
+3 hp only *
+6 hp only *
+9 hp only *
*Hit point modifiers from constitution are ignored

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pre-TSR Petal Throne Releasing Shortly

Big breaking news for Tekumel lovers: the eminent publication of the original Empire of the Petal Throne (the playtest version before the TSR-mandated publication changes) ain't just a sexy rumor. It's being released by the Tekumel Foundation in PDF on RPGNow and DriveThruRPG shortly.

According to Victor Raymond of the Foundation "there are some subtle and some not-so-subtle differences between it and the published version from TSR." The price is not yet set, but should be "under $20."

Above is "Mimeo EPT" pictured with one of M.A.R. Barker's original campaign maps. Click to enlarge and check out the Tsolyani map inscriptions. The Foundation is discussing how best to release the maps to the public.

Color me excited and expect more news shortly.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Beyond the Weird: an Interview with Trey Causey

One of the most hackneyed of interview cliches is to introduce someone as a “man that perhaps needs no introduction.” If you are reading this blog, though, my gut says you've already encountered Trey Causey and his blog From the Sorcerer's Scroll.

If you haven't, boogie over to that link above, poke around a bit and then come back here before you read the interview. My second hunch of the day tells me you are likely to have a similar experience to what I did when bumping into his blog more than a year ago.

At that first sitting, I read through blog posts for hours immediately developing a strong appreciation for its pulpy thematic unity; the quirky (and quite funny) setting write-ups; the achingly appropriate photos; and the underlying sense that fantasy is something truly weird and unbounded—something other than a stock genre.

At the tail end of last year, Trey finally made good on his threats to publish Weird Adventures, a setting sourcebook detailing the City and matching world his fantasy Pulp-era setting. I make no pretense at an objective review. I'm generally not much of a “buyer” or “joiner” when it comes to new rpg products, but seeing bound it together in a hardcover was exciting enough to make me want to play something riffing off it again

Curious readers can find it here for themselves in PDF, softcover, and hardcover form.

So with no introduction, ahem...

Hill Cantons: Tell the readers a bit how you got into all this. What led you to make the leap from being just a gamer to someone creating content for gaming? Where did the vision for the City begin and how did it take off? What broke in your head?

Trey Causey: It’s the fault of my friend and sometimes collaborator, Jim Shelley. We’d email back and forth during the workday as time permitted about comics, movies, or whatever. At times, I’d want to discuss setting ideas and what not better suited for gaming than anything else. Jim wasn’t (at that time) a gamer. He suggested I start a blog, at least partially so he could get out of having to listen my gaming ideas! I had also started reading Grognardia, Monsters and Manuals, and some other blogs around the same time, so they were an inspiration, too.

The kernel of the idea that would become the City predates the blog. I don’t remember when it began to come together, but it was born of consideration of China Mieville’s comment about “lancing the boil” of Tolkien’s influence of on fantasy. What he may have meant in a more antagonistic way, I viewed as just the expression of the need to open things up a bit, to expand the boundaries. Still, setting-wise, Mieville’s solution was basically to move from the Medieval to the Victorian. I felt like Steampunk had been done, too.

I wanted a fantasy setting that was going to be based on distinctly American tropes, because that we haven’t seen much of. We’ve got our own legends and fairy tales: tall-tale characters, Oz, Forteana, superheroes. I wanted to go something with those sorts of ingredients. The two eras of American history most mythologized in pop culture are probably the Old West and the “Pulp Era”—the Great Depression, mainly. To my mind, it was this latter era that encompassed more of the elements I wanted to work with.

Anyway, this was just an idea that I didn’t do anything with for some time. After starting the blog, I gave some thought to the D&D influences on Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. There are some nice quotes about adventurers in it, which somehow I missed when I first read it. The idea of making use of D&D tropes collided with the older idea of a Pulp era fantasy in my brain, and the City was born.

The main aesthetic was to be the "mean streets" of the hard-boiled detective novel.  If we ignore the Western (at least for a minute), Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and their fellows, are the American equivalent to the Arthurian knights.  Of course, the streets of the City aren’t just mean—they’re weird.  Movies like Dark City and City of Lost Children had some of that feel.  The fiction of Lovecraft, Leiber and Clark Ashton Smith played a part.  So did Golden Age comics (particularly Captain Marvel and the Spirit) and more recent comics like The Goon, Sandman, and The Invisibles

HC: What other literary/aesthetic/gaming influences went into the mix?

TC: There are a lot of influences as different parts are inspired by different things. The conception of God and the Heavens, and a bit of how the “planes beyond” work, is tonally informed by Cabell's Jurgen.  The misshapen, bootlegging Ogres were born of “Faces of Meth” scare posters and "yokel horror" like The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn. The City's tax collectors emerged from a stew composed of a Daffy Duck cartoon about a frighteningly persistent little man from the draft board, Brazil and the general British portrayal of civil servants, and the fact that the SRD had a monster called an "Inevitable" (as in “two things in life are..”) that they were misusing.

HC: Circling back to the blog, one of the most interesting and compelling things about Weird Adventures is that I feel like I have been watching it unfold one bit at a time over there for more than a year. Often you get content teasers from designers about what they are working on, your approach felt much more organic and engaging.

How did you get started down the road of using the blog in this manner? Did you have your eyes on doing it that way from the get go or did it just develop?

TC: When I started the blog there wasn’t any idea of Weird Adventures. The first four months or so of posts were devoted to my then-current setting, which was the latest iteration of my D&D world that had been constantly mutating since middle school. In April 2010, I wrote a post called “Toward A Hard-boiled Fantasy Sandbox,” and from there the idea grew a lot more quickly than I let on in the blog posts. Archeology of my Google docs show that, within a week of that post, I’d written a rough outline of what I was then calling “The City Guide.” Looking back at it, I’m surprised how many elements are already there that wouldn’t make it on to the blog for months to come.

As far as the content on the blog goes, I wasn’t trying to tease (at least, not primarily). At first, I wanted to drum up interest so that there would be a fanbase for a theoretical product. Later, I had the idea that blog content and book content would be mostly the same to cut down on the writing workload. A good idea, but it didn’t work out so well. There just wasn’t always a good blog post “angle” for a lot of the stuff the book needed. Plus, I wanted there to be enough original content so people felt like they got their money’s worth. Several of the sections in WA are mostly material that had appeared on the blog, but the vast majority of the City section was written expressly for the book (though a bit of it did appear on the blog before the book came out).

HC: Let's talk a little about the making of WA. How long were you expecting to get it over and one by? How long did it actually take? What was the most difficult thing you felt like you had to overcome?

TC: It took a lot longer than I thought! I’m afraid to look back at the blog; I know that--even though I tried to stay vague--I gave tentative release dates at various points that wound up being way off. Even though I had started planning it in April 2010, the oldest actual content files I have date from September. I don’t know what I was doing in the months in between. Still hoping just writing for the blog would do it, I guess. I did start commissioning artwork, though, which wound up being a bit of mistake. I think it’s hard to know what pieces of art you might need until you’ve got a good bit written.

The hardest thing was probably just doing all the damn writing. The City section went on forever! I was getting up on weekend days at 6am like they were week days and writing for an hour or so before doing anything else. It complicated dating as well, as I had a couple of distance relationships during the period I was working on it. It was sometimes tricky to explain how important it was to me to write this thing I wasn’t getting paid for about goblins and wizards. The fact that I tried might explain why I’m still single.

HC: What's next? Any plans for expanding WA? Moving on to other projects? And if so, what?

TC: I’m not sure yet. I think there are definitely more things in the City and the Strange New World left to explore. It doesn’t seem like any consensus has emerged yet as to what people would like to see more of, so crowdsourcing hasn’t really helped up to this point. The prospect of some sort of collaboration has been raised, so that might help me decide. That discussion is in the early stages, though, so it might not come to anything. I have some other projects that I’ve thought about (like my Pulp Space posts), but no firm plans yet. I’m open to suggestions.

For now, all I can say definitively is that I’m going to be continuing to explore the City’s world on the blog—and hopefully soon in games both in-person and online.

[Editor's Note: all the illustrations above are drawn from WA, with permission natch.]

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Alternatives to Metal: Plastic 28mm

There is a quiet revolution going in the world of wargaming miniatures. With the price of pewter figures continually skyrocketing, in the past couple years a surprising number of hard plastic ranges are starting to break out of their 1/72 scale ghetto (that's roughly 21-24 mm in scale) into the big boy ranges.

If you were wanting to start amassing your fantasy army in 28mm scale—a nice median large scale in which you can mix in your rpg tabletop models--there is no better time than now.

Let's take a look at a few of the offerings:

HaT Industries. This long-standing German model company is just starting to break into 28mm. It's mostly Napoleonics right now, but they have a great and potentially useful El-Cid era range out. (In a side note that totally slays me having accumulated three budget-whipping armies of Andalusians, Almovarids, and Spanish Feudals totaling about 700 metal figures seven years back.)

Pro: Dirt cheap and well sculpted to boot, a box will run about $12-14 for a whopping 32 figures which works out to be about $.40 a figure. The figures are very nicely sculpted and exotic enough to have a good feel for a fantasy army. In a pinch the Andalusians and Moors could stand in for elves or some other exotic humanoid.

Con: Again narrow choices from one specific historical era.

Mail order them here.

Wargames Factory. Not to be confused with the Wargames Foundry, this relatively new company specializes in hard plastic 28mms. A scant two years ago they only carried a few lines of ancient historicals, now they have a vibrant range of Orcs, Skeletons, Zombies, Vikings (both bondi and huscarls), Saxons, Romans, Ancient Celts, and Samurai that can be drafted for fantasy army duty.

You can order directly from their webstore here.

Pro: A wide useful range with nice sculpts. The price per figure is very affordable. Most boxes run $20 for 32 figures, that's about $.63/figure. Compare that to the normal $2-4/figure of metal.

Con: Some assembly required (a phrase that makes me cringe).

Zvezda. My favorite Russian plastic soldier manufacturer puts out a fantastic range of 1/72 well-sculpted figures for a range of eras. Luckily for our purposes they have a 28mm fantasy range of equal quality under the clunky derivative title, Ring of Rule.The range has a nice assortment of skeleton legionaries, GW-like Orks, Elves, necromancers, hero-types, etc.

Pro: One of the few explicitly fantasy ranges of the cheap manufacturers (I'm not counting Games Workshop here for obvious reasons). High level of customability, lots of different weapons, arms, and heads (this is again a con for me as I hate gluing at an irrationally high level).

Con: It's harder to get the full range days (they may have stopped manufacturing them) from mail order sites. The price for the individual sets is not at all worth it (in the $10 range), so it only qualifies affordable if you manage to score a larger game box set like Return of the Lost Legion or Siege of the Royal Castle (which comes handily with two armies, siege machines and an entire castle model in scale).

Best bet is a patient wait on Ebay or from a larger mail order distributor like Squadron.

[Editor's Note: portions of this post will appear in the Affordable Alternatives chapter of the Guide to Fantasy War.]

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tormenting Labyrinth Lord

I will be tying up some loose ends the next couple days before moving on to presenting design goals and playtest campaign for the so-called the Fantasy War Guide (working title mind you). Today we are finishing up our little two-week tour of UnderSigil.

Tacking on a possible Sigil undercity field trip(s) to the HC campaign just cries out for some new, setting-appropriate chrome to bolt unto my Labyrinth Lord chassis. The mini-campaign will likely include some untimely deaths—and a few new bloods from Google Plus—so I threw together some guidelines for new characters in that strange torus city in the sky.

In general, these house rules are also tailored more to reflect a tabletop version of Torment rather than the 2nd (and later edition) canon. Since the delving tone of the mini-campaign just seems to jive better with the play experience of the computer version better than 2e canon, why not take the opportunity to make them tilt more that way?

Rules for Hill Cagers:
Clerics aren't a playable class for Sigil natives. Blood charms and clot charms giving magic healing effects will be plentiful and relatively affordable topside.

Local magic users will have access to all spells found in Torment, both the special ones of the playable NPCs and the uniquely 2nd edition ones. Spell effects will be tailored to LL mechanics. Here's your chance to sex up your Magic Missile with a spell called Reign of Anger.

Weapons will also reflect the computer game, though not strictly. Axes, hammers/clubs, and daggers will be plentiful and cheap. Swords and missile weapons will be more rare and expensive as such (twice the price with a small percentage of availability modified by INT).

Armor will also be difficult to find and buy as per the game. Leather will be the norm, metal armors hard to find and generally more expensive (same chance as above). Again charms and other odd items to bolster AC temporarily will be reasonably easy to find.

Attributes will be 3d6 in order. However a player can draw from a pool of 6 dice when rolling each attribute. Regardless of how they are used only the 3 best results are counted for each stat.

An interesting variant mechanic in Torment is that high Wisdom gives you an Experience Point bonus. It makes a ton of sense, the ability to learn from our experiences seems to be a textbook definition of wisdom after all. In a Cleric-less world it further makes the attribute something other than a dump stat, so I'm going to run with. The chart below is taken directly from the game backend.

Exp Bonus
12 or less

In this Sigil, factions are for squares...err...NPCs (and in the deep background in this delving centered take on Sigil). There is only three-fold alignment, though like factions it won't be strongly emphasized. All native PCs start as Neutral can be moved into Lawful or Chaotic on a session by session basis.

Now for some race-classes: Githyanki sub out for the Elf race-class (fighter/magic-users); Tieflings as fighter/thief race class (maybe use a modded version of the White Ape one in Realms of Crawling Chaos an tack an ability to cast darkness at a certain level); and my favorite goat centaurs the Bariaur (use Halfling advancement table, 60' infravision, 15' movement, STR 13 min). Of the standard demihumans, we'll have dwarves, courtesy of their underground corner of Sigil, Guirncraag.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Complete Guide to Fantasy War?

Dreaming out loud and water-testing rears its ugly head again. Between the finished fantasy miniatures rules for By This Axe, I Rule and outtake material for the domain-play sourcebook Hill Cantons: Borderlands I feel like I have enough material for something I have been dreaming about as twin-souled roleplayer/wargamer for years.

Namely a comprehensive, modular supplement for incorporating war and military campaigning into an old school fantasy roleplaying game—a certain something that would scratch a lot of itches for me at the same time.

My idea for this synthetic beast would be something that would allow you to be able to conduct a war as a series of stand-alone or interlinked mini-games under the umbrella of a unified one-stop shopping product. With it you could, for instance, use the abstract mass combat rules to play out a large-scale battle with little PC investment in one session, seamlessly dial down to a small-scale miniatures battle the next with the players pushing around their lead equivalents; run a raid in the next as part of a traditional rpg session—all the while running the campaign overall as a free-form matrix game.

The Guide would be fully compatible with pre-third edition D&D iteration and their related clones and copy cats. (Conversion would also be provided for Runequest, Stormbringer, Legend and their BRP-ilk if there is sufficient interest). In other word you keep playing with the rules you already use. A quick and easy conversion guide based on the ones currently inside By this Axe would translate your existing PCs, NPCs, and forces into system compatibility—and re-translate in-game effects back into immediately useful terms for your tabletop rpg campaign.

Abstract Mass Combat Rules. Think the paper and pencil rules of Mentzer's Companion set, minus a layer of bean-counting and with more options for pre-battle strategic and tactical choice and stratagems. Play will be enhanced by optional use of simple card or hex and cardboard mini-games (templates and materials to be included with the book).

Skirmish and Small Battle Miniatures Rules. This is the current core of By this Axe. Fast and furious rules for running fantasy and medieval-era battles with one figure being the equivalent of either 5 or 20 in-game creatures. They were des

Big Battle Miniatures Rules. A larger scale system for running the truly epic battles at 1:50 and 1:200 scale.

Siege Rules. Comprehensive rules for storming castles and other strongholds for both miniatures and the abstract combat rules. Guidelines for both the long, slow wearing down of fortifications and the sudden sharp shock of an assault.

Free Form War. Guidelines for using a simple, free-form “matrix-game” resolution for military affairs.

Battles as Adventure Locales. A chapter on how a GM can use battles, sieges, raids, etc. directly in a more traditional rpg session.

Guide to Affordable Alternatives to Miniatures. There is more than one way to get the experience of a miniatures tabletop without breaking your pocketbook. A rundown on proven shortcuts will be explored here.

Simple Campaign. A simple, abstract way to run battles, skirmishes, and raids with little book-keeping. A simple system will handle recruitment, objectives, operational maneuvers, and logistics.

Grand Campaign. The down-and-dirty granular way to do the same above. Heavy emphasis on the detailed bits that grease the sinews of war.

What do you think? Something worth pursuing? Something you'd use? Should I cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Death and Dismemberment Redux

The last few Google Plus Hill Cantons games have been real meat grinders, especially when compared to the sessions of their more stable, wary, and experienced table-top cousins. The mortality rate for men-at-arms is hovering around 100 percent and two PCs had their numbers called—almost.

Instead of InstaDeath I have been using the much-vaunted Death and Dismemberment chart, a veritable old school D&D Texas tradition first brought to fame by Robert Fisher a couple years back (I first encountered it the hard way in Norm Harman's Caves of Chaos hack).

Longtime readers will notice that I have posted a couple versions here before—all increasingly less forgiving then the original—the following version is the one I have been actually using in the campaign in the last year and a half.

May you never have to consult it—unless you damn well deserve it.

Hill Cantons Death and Dismemberment Chart
Roll d10 if a PC reaches 0 to -10 hit points (anything lower is an automatic death). If hit again during the session, the player must make an additional roll at -1 (cumulative for each roll on the chart). The GM can also adjudicate positive or negative modifiers according to circumstance.

With any result the character is out for the session unless magical healing brings hit points into the positive range.

0 or lower Grisly Death. Body so spectacularly destroyed that only a resurrection or wish spell can bring it back to life.
1 to 3 Just Plain Dead. Dead as per the usual rules.
4 to 5

Fatal Wound. Character dies in 1d12 rounds unless magical healing is applied. Character is completely incapacitated and will remain an invalid for 3d6 weeks . Scarring makes for -2 to Charisma.
6 to 7

Severed or Mangled Limb or Digit. Roll randomly or GM pick for which limb or digit (can also be eyes, ears, or nose). Unconscious for 3d6 rounds. Character requires 3d4 weeks of healing before being able to adventure. -1 to Charisma.
8-9 Broken Bone. Roll randomly or GM picks limb. 3d4 weeks to heal bone. Also unconscious for 2d6 rounds.
10 or higher Concussion. Unconscious for 2d6 rounds. 3D6 if not wearing helmet.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Further Notes from Sigil Underground

This morning I compiled and synthesized more information cribbed from Planescape canon about the undercity. (Thanks to John and Chris W. for tips about where to look.)

Putting this together, I just couldn't resist the siren song anymore no matter how much candle wax I shoved into my ears. Following Micheal's lead, as of this morning two bright and shimmery gates were penciled into locales in the Hill Cantons for players to discover (or not) as a possible entry-point for field trips to that strange, cold place.

Features of UnderSigil:
The undercity definitely exhibits many of the reality-bending features of the Mythic Underworld, though of a more deliberately fabricated kind. Sigil's underground is not made of stone for example. The underground material is hard, you need a pick and shovel to tunnel through it but it crumbles like rice cake when removed from the underground. Since it's not really rock there are no natural caves or cavern systems.

Many of the passages are unstable, rare localized “cagequakes” will often bring down tunnels causing 3d4 damage (save vs. breath for only half) to anyone caught in such a collapse. Ventilation is bad, travellers can only take exerting themselves at half rate (presumably this is where the old school resting rules come in).

The complex is hundreds of square miles of tunnels and chambers, most of which are empty. The tunnels rarely get wider than 10 feet across with even narrower corridors common.

The upper levels are fairly close to the surface level and are mostly composed of sewers, crypts, and dungeons (the literal kind, the High Houses have deep and extensive ones for prisoners and slaves) . Dabus tunnels, were-rat passages, and vermin warrens connect all of these areas with passages extending to deeper levels. Darkers, mysterious exile communities living wholly without light, live in areas just off these branch-off tunnels.

There are many entrances to the Realm Below scattered through the city. The easiest entrance is through the sewers. You have to wade though the muck and filth for a few hours but you will find mysterious passages and doors leading off. These split-off passages lead downward at very steep angles (presumably long too).

Surface crypts will often lead down into the catacombs too. Cagers (Sigil dwellers) will often dig down underneath the crypts to bury their dead and will enlarge on existing catacombs when they find them. Ghouls who live in large numbers under the Hive and Lower Ward often dig up to the crypts too.

Many ruined surface structures, especially in the slums of the Hive, have entrances into the catacombs. The dwarven neighborhood, Gurincraag is rumored to have several entrances. A deep, 200-foot shaft (in the Lower Ward?) with filth-dripping walls leads straight down in the undercity. There is no visible means of descent but a maze of tunnels branches off in all directions at the base.

The rat-dominated realms have four separate—and vast—networks dominated by collective brain entities called the Four Great Minds. Sewer rats, cranium rats, and were-rats are part of these domains. Were-rat warrens are filled with traps—mostly of the sharp spikey, poisonous and blade persuasion. Entrances to these warrens mostly extend to the walls of the Ditch in the Lower Ward.

The Temple of Darkness is a major complex of sinister Eviiiil underground. It's a refuge for the scheming “yugoloths”, who have nothing to do with crappy Balkan-made cars but are a race of Neutral Evil planars we old schoolers knew and almost-loved as daemons. It's mapped in Faction War, making it one of the only major underground sites (to my knowledge) with a tabletop canonical map. But keep that under your hat this place is secret and hidden.