Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Misty Isles of the Eld Take Shape

With Fever-Dreaming Marlinko mostly done and in the rewrite phase, I have moved over to the next of the big stretch goal adventures, the Misty Isles of the Eld.

Where as the Dunes was mythic wilderness presented with the elements of an outdoors pointcrawl, the Isles are shaping up to be an extra-planar (in this case the alkaline wastes of the Cold Hell/Anti-Cantons) adventure wrapped up in an 18-point pointcrawl spread over three islands. Pinning it all down are two dungeon sites (the body-horror Vat Complex and the stage-facade Pagoda City) that are larger and weirder then the two tent-pole dungeons of the Dunes.

My writing enthusiasm level has gone from “tired but still feeling it” to “amped up, get out of my way motherf*cka.” What's helped is seeing the art develop on both projects: Jeremy Duncan's inspired grottiness (really a perfect fit for Marlinko) and Luka Rejec's irrepressibly charming and darkly funny work. Seriously on the Hydra team page I will no sooner finish praising a piece only to find another piece posted. And I find myself answering Luka's questions about "do the Isles have such and such?" with “they do now.”

Again with the showing and not telling...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Four Contradas of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

I've been really feeling the wind in my hoary-cliched sails this week.Not only did it feel good to get the Slumbering Ursine Dunes pdf out early to backers last week (and on sale at DriveThru), it felt even better to put the last touches on the draft of the Marlinko city adventure that was the first stretch goal of the Kickstarter. We had originally imagined it to be a smallish thing 20 pages as opposed to the 66 pages of the Dunes but it's already taken on a life of its own and is hitting around 40 digest-sized pages already.

What's invigorating about the writing I am finding is that in a long sandbox campaign you end up with a lot of dead ends or partially-developed material when the party veers off one way or the other. Having the excuse and motivation to really dig down into half-baked, left-behind ideas and places thus feels like a real treat. I never got a chance to really dig into the city adventures and high weirdness of Marlinko after it slipped from its place of prominence as the party's home-base roughly two and change years ago. And now I do. 

Anywho here's a sample of some of what the new material is looking like...

The Four Contradas of Marlinko
Marlinko was built around the squat, black bulk of the Tomb of the Town Gods, a structure that predates the rest of the city by an interminably long period of time. The ominous edifice sitting in its wide, cobblestoned, circular plaza has retained its position as the dead center of the city. Four wide avenues radiate from it at the cardinal points and divide the city into four contradas or quarters.

The four contradas do not reflect merely a geographic or class division but have deeply embedded cultural and psycho-geographical lives of their own. Each contrada organizes its own festivals, keeps its own histories, and pays fearful homage to the abstract-featured idol of its own unique “town god.”

Each contrada also maintains its own contrada hall (a large, well-maintained, ceremonial gathering place) where it keeps a collection of its own unique banners, ceremonial regalia, historical tapestries, mummies, and most importantly, the various trophies it has won in the single most important bi-annual event: the great chariot race that headlines the Ebon Horse Fair. Throughout the year, contrada trainers keep their chosen condemned convict-jockey revved up and ready for the Black Race. It is well that they do for the losers are hanged and the winner takes a trophy and his freedom!

Včelař (Sullen Apiarian) Contrada
The Northwestern Quarter with its great yellow-and-black beehive and mopey deodand emblazoned banner contains the greatest concentration of affluence and easy living in the city. The great painted-plastered town-manses of the wealthy dominate the coveted plaza and avenue fronts in this part of town.

Despite its wealthy cast, the contrada has a deeply-ingrained inferiority complex--due in large part to its century-long losing streak in the Black Race. The loss has become a self-fulfilling prophesy in recent years with the rash of suicides of convicts who consider being drafted into service as a SA jockey to be a death sentence anyway. Roving gangs of youths from respected families are quick to draw rapiers against any slight as to compensate for the wound to their civic honor.

Sullen Apiarian “worships” or placates Anfolf, the vaguely bee-headed town god said to be a rainmaker and bringer of both wealth and anxiety. When Anfolf in his glowing golden nimbus walked the streets of early Marlinko impressing the bearded Pahr immigrants just getting used to lives not spent on horseback, He was said to literally shower them with the sweetest of honey--and the swiftest of kicks...

Though it shouts “conspicuous consumption,” the yellow-limestone and quartz facade of the Sullen Apiarian contrada hall with its amber and lapis lazuli-encrusted honeycombed frescoes stands handsomely over its small, tight square. The contrada society itself is a broad one with a large burgeoning hierarchy of ceremonial officers arrayed in 27 ranks. Incongruously the higher, more labor-intensive (and not un-powerful) positions are held traditionally by the less affluent members of the contrada (or “temporally-embarrassed grandees” as they like to call themselves).

From here each contrada has a key focusing on the interesting and adventurable sites. Each ward description also has their own unique encounter and random building charts—many of which have triggers and hooks embedded in the escalating random event system of the Chaos Index. Encounter charts that have entries like this...
Maus. A wild-eyed  paranoid dressed in the long-robed, woolen hat finery of a rustic boyar. Maus rants and raves at the characters about the “Axis of Tindrthurn,” a secret postal and matchmaking service that he claims is trying to kill him. If the Chaos Level is 6 and over he is correct on all counts.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Pirate Utopias, Pacification and Promotion

And Now the News...
Traders are bringing back news from the Persimmon Sea that the bizarre gender-eschewing corsair-sect that captured and sacked the isolated Himyari isle of Old Szalé last year has officially declared itself to be the so-called Maraboutic Republic of Szalé-Byeff. The self-styled “pirate utopia” has opened its doors to heretics, escaped slaves, and “greys” (mixed caste rejects from black/white divided Himyar) that swear to its Triple Code: 1. thou shalt not talk in the coarse dialect of otherworld cliches; 2. thou shalt not hold to any gender or its social constructs;and 3. do as thou wilt as long as what thou wilt isn't the other two things and another vague and ill-defined that even pirates would find abhorrent.

The Overking himself is said to be “almost alarmed and concerned” by the disappearance of His Surveyor-Lord of Canton Departments Both Hilly and Forested, Ropucha Ragygtzenacht, in the second week of his official tour of the borderlands. A large detachment of lancers and war wagons from the Black Army has been sent into Marlinko in a “pacification” mission against local peasants whose base ways are surely to blame for the besmirching of the Royal Name.

Despite the official ruckus, the Hill Cantons and Marlinko city itself seem to be on the economic rebound following the otherwordly reappearance of most of its major trade partner, Kezmarok. Marlinko Rada has approved the publication of a new promotional gazetteer to coincide with its new, somewhat opaque tourist slogan “come dream ye dreams that die unheard in dear old Marlinka.”

[Yes that means this thing is done and this thing is now on sale.]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Pointcrawl Series Index

One of the enduring thought experiments of this blog has been the pointcrawl, a concept which has passed into my brain by way of point-to-point wargames and Zork. Though I pose it as an alternative to hexcrawling in truth at the table for me it's more of a supplement, filling in and enhancing certain ways of running large spaces (hey there's probably a post in there).  This is the second edition of my own-going annotated index project for the blog. 
It's worth clicking on this. 
The meditation that kicked off the ongoing thread. An introduction and counter-position to hexcrawling.

My first concrete attempt to adapt the pointcrawl concept to something other than wilderness. The post presents the known areas of Planescape's Sigil as a single pointcrawl map. This experiment helped me gel further non-hypothetical explorations in using pointcrawls to run undercities, megadungeons and city ruins.

An attempt to break down the horizontal hugeness of an undercity into a manageable form. Should be read in conjunction with this post

In which I admit to having a difficulty in running city ruins and start to wrap my brain about how to do so. The comments are interesting and not surprisingly start pointing to pointcrawls.

Real needs in the Hill Cantons campaigns lead me to put into practice the stuff above. Some methods and guidelines for putting it all into practice.

Second part to the above post with a crowdsourced unique structures table and other practical bits.

Not only are undercities and megadungeons monsters of the horizontal dimension they can often become quite complicated with vertical connections. Here is an attempt to untangle that (and an experiment that only half-worked at the table).

An example of how I use hexcrawl and pointcrawl maps in tandem, in this case how I often break out the contents of a single hex into a small area pointcrawl.

Win a Wargame Contest Results
Despite the unlikely title relevant as concrete examples of how to describe and present a point on a pointcrawl. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Interview Series Index

When you run a blog for several years--and spend too many years abusing your head as a young man--a terrible thing starts to occur: you start losing touch with the things you wrote about. It comes way too often these days but long into gaming-related conversation in a strike of blindingly internal light I will suddenly find myself thinking “waitttt, didn't I write a whole mother-flippin' series of blog posts about that three years back?”

To stave off that “all that is solid melts into air” feeling, I've finally started on my long-procrastinated annotated blog index. As I do each chunk—and they are pretty much going to follow in the order of what I consider the best or most useful of the posts here—I will post about them and add them to a larger index page. Likely next is the long index of pointcrawl and wilderness posts. 

First up is one of my favorite (and neglected) groups of posts: the on-again/off-again interview series. A series which under pretext of presenting ideas, recollections, and analysis to a broader audience, selfishly allowed me to dig into the brains of people I have found interesting or critical to our hobby.

The Interview Series (in Chronological Order)

Jeff Berry
The first interviews on the HC where with Jeff Berry aka Chirine Ba Kal, a longtime player in M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel campaign and for a time a mover and shaker in its business end. I had originally reached out to him with the intention of doing a one-shot little piece on what the early Tekumel games were actually like. The ongoing conversation was so incredibly rich with insight and Jeff's memory so exact in the amounts of detail that it spilled over into several encores, all of which I still enjoy reading today.

David Dunham
If you pressed me for all my all-time favorite computer game it would have to be King of Dragon Pass. Not only was it a near-perfect blend of handpainted art, strategy, roleplaying and big ticket mythic themes it was set against the worldbuilding of Glorantha that I love (mostly from afar) so well. A huge treat to interview David Dunham, creator of the game, and pick his brain about the connections to KoDP to tabletop roleplaying.

Digging into the altnerative paths that roleplaying could have taken in the 1960s and 1970s led me to places I had never known about notably such great “world games” as that of Magira in Germany. An interview with one of its participants.

Jeff Dee
Looking back at this interview three years ago which focuses on Jeff Dee's then beginning drive to get his Tekumel rpg published, it makes to happy to see that it is not only sitting on my shelf right now but is helping re-raise the flag of Tekumel after Barker's passing.

Kyrinn Eis
Kyrinn Eis talks about her fascinating worldbuilding and quirky attendant game.

Robert Kuntz
One of the more controversial outings of the blog but one I am still proud of running. The interview sprawls over great length but there are fascinating bits spread through out. While one may like or dislike the man, his recollections are important to our understanding of the early days of the hobby.

Dan Boggs
A look at Champion of Zed and its creator before it became another casualty of the rpg crowd-funding bubble. 

Trey Causey
One of my favorite interviews with one of my favorite people from our side of the hobby. Trey on his post-Weird Adventures victory lap. You better believe I will be banging on his door again when his 70s space opera book Strange Stars sees the light of published day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reader Query: Random Solo Wilderness Generation?

Yesterday I got a compelling piece of post-necromancy, this time on my kickoff pointcrawl post. Zack asks:
“I happen to be interested in the hex crawl sort of gaming, particularly in a sandbox fashion. I also happen to be totally blind, so hex paper and so on isn't super helpful for me. In fact, maps in general are kind of a pain in the neck, because I can't read them easily, and I always feel like I'm missing setting info of one sort or another.
So I'm wondering if anybody has ideas for combining the point crawl approach, or one which avoids maps, with randomized terrain generation? I'd love to run something solo, like Scarlet Heroes from Sine Nomine, for instance, but they all seem to presume hexes. Another way to look at it would be an experience kind of like the Elder Scrolls video games, which I can't play. It could be a lot of work doing something like that solo, but…”
My first impulse was to rustle up some online and published terrain generators, but scanning through my own links I remembered my own frustrations trying to build such systems last decade when I was primarily a solo minis wargamer. The key problem for me being that many of them are too flatly random that is they generate incoherently terrain without much rhyme or reason and are boring as hell. Here is a dull little desert next to a bland forest next to some “open.”

So where to start?

Fortunately I can think of two good starting points: the ever-useful trainwreck that is the first edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and an old Avalon Hill Game, Source of the Nile. Since my time is limited (the Dunes call) I will concentrate on the first.

Appendix B: Random Wilderness Terrain (page 173) has a nice framework, a relatively easy and elegant system of charts. Promisingly these charts take into account the terrain you are just leaving (and really this will work even better with a pointcrawl or mapless system). So if you are leaving a hilly area you are way more likely to hit more hills or mountains than you are a swamp.
Click to Enlarge
D&D is chalked full of random monster encounters by terrain (hard to get past the first edition DMG again) so no need to go there but it would be handy and nice to have some places to generate random color. Fortunately there boat loads of handy online generators that can cover that in an interesting way. Take this page on Abulafia alone (especially this one and this one which you can just keep regenerating when you need interesting places).

Before shoving off this is perhaps an ideal question to extend to the collective brain trust: what random terrain generators do you know about that fit this bill (and please read the specific query)?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Running Underwater Adventures

Above its domes the gulfs accumulate.
Far up, the sea-gales blare their bitter screed:
But here the buried waters take no heed—
Deaf, and with welded lips pressed down by weight
Of the upper ocean. Dim, interminate,
In cities over-webbed with somber weed,
Where galleons crumble and the krakens breed,
The slow tide coils through sunken court and gate.
- Clark Ashton Smith, “Atlantis”

Several months back I had, thanks to the actions of a player in picking up a very-obviously cursed goddess statue, the chance to finally run a full-on underwater adventure. In my many years of running D&D this was the first time I have designed and run an underwater adventure and I found it challenging and interesting in equal measure.

Having thrown the idol into a specific spot under the urging of fever dreams (and yes the heavy hand of geas), the party returned 40 days later as commanded to the site. A massive black pylon had--naturally it's D&D--risen from the sea. A long-drowned city with wide avenues and step pyramids leading up to a large glowing central dome could be vaguely made out in the depths below. Sweet water seeping from the naughty bits of  a now gigantic (and lewd enough to make me still feel awkward) idol inside the pylon allowed them to breathe sea water and away they went.

The party made it through a couple sessions and then some of their own character-driven goals called them away (such is sandbox life). This morning I randomly refound my notes for running the adventure and thought they might be of interest to a broader audience. So with some clean-up and context here they are. 

Sources for D&D Underwater Adventures
Blackmoor OD&D supplement, pages 48-49. Some rules and guidelines for running aquatic adventures. Best line: “To entice the players into the water is the easy part: simply leave maps, create legends, or sprinkle in clues in the form of bizarre artifacts. Adventurers are notoriously gullible and easily duped or led astray.”
Dungeon Masters Guide 1st edition, pages 55-57. Nice comprehensive set of guidelines, I used this as my starting point.
“Watery Words to the Wise”, Dragon magazine #48. Interesting overview of what an aquatic civilization of Mer-people would be like, but more useful for its thoughts on using a hex map for 3D tactical affairs.

Dealing with the 3D Environment
One of the hardest things to remember and plan for is the 3D environment. I found that it was helpful to keep two sheets of graph paper handy to help keep track of the relative positions of things:
1. A blank sheet that shows the relative “marching” order of positions vertically. This especially became necessary as the party had some encumbered players lumbering over the ocean floor (see sinking rules below) and others “flying” around at varying depths over and around these characters. This also especially handy when encounters are met in open water. Using clock descriptions is helpful (“the sharks are coming in at “two o'clock high”) when describing those positions.

2. A rough cross section of whatever static sites you have. Sites can be approached from a wider set of directions and it's fun (and challenging) to play this freedom up with multiple vertical entry points and elements. I had a little step-pyramid with a top entry, chimney and a bottom floor entry. Having an overall sense of where everything is vertically is very important to staying oriented.
Characters encumbered with more than 20 pounds of gear and/or metal-armored characters sink to the bottom. Characters with high STR or CON (13 and over) are able to swim up 10 feet for two rounds every other turn (and will naturally sink again if there is nothing solid below their feet). Others will need to shed their weight before being able to swim or float upwards. (Bundles of gear can be pulled upwards by ropes if the character is out of the water.)

Unencumbered characters swim at their indoor, dungeon movement rates horizontally or vertically. Encumbered (as above) characters move at 60 feet per round.

Fly, Levitate, Free Action, Spider Climb (when on a surface) spells and abilities will allow the user to move at their normal land speeds without sinking for the length of the effect.

Water Pressure
Having blown out an ear drum on an overly-quick descent on a dive in Cozumel I am painfully aware of the effects of pressure on the human anatomy. At depths lower than 100 feet (30 meters or so) nitrogen narcosis becomes a real thing for humans without protective gear.

Because this is a fantasy game (and it it's fun to be able to run adventures with a wider tolerance of depths) I assume that Water Breathing and similar magics at least double the depth that pressure can be withstood. Compression/decompression issues are totally handwaved.

Characters dropping below the depth can withstand the pressure for a round. After that they will suffer the same effects as being seriously intoxicated for 1d4 rounds and then start to take 1d4 hp damage each round after.

Light, refraction, physiology, etc conspire against us seeing far underwater unaided. While I didn't want to totally handwave this, the rules given in AD&D are way too restrictive (100 feet up to a depth of the same). A DM especially with a large area like my underwater ruined city is hard pressed to be able to signal interesting sites and thus reduces meaningful exploration choices. My handwave was similar to that of the depth considerations and I made a simple chart to give a wider range:
Effective Visibility
0-100 feet
200 feet
101-150 feet
100 feet
150-200 feet
50 feet

Naturally lighting will reduce this especially inside structures, caves, crevasses, kelp forests etc. In that case I limited visibility to the normal effects of artificial lighting (light spells mostly) or

Aquatic critters auto-win initiative against the land-born.

Most missile, bashing, and slashing weapons are useless in this environment. Piercing weapons such as spears, tridents, daggers are highly effective however and will deal out normal damage. Reduce swords to 1d4 damage to represent them being limited to stabbing.


The vocal component of spell-casting is assumed to come with the ability to breathe water. Page 57 of the DMG has a relatively complete run down of restrictions and changes to spells. Significant changes in my own were to increase the damage of electricity-based (150%) spells.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tiger Wrestling Mini-Game for Labyrinth Lord or B/X

They say that it takes putting out a food 8-10 times for a toddler before they will eat foods they are reluctant to try. Though my own lived experience with Stormchild has me doubting that as bullshit from time to time I find myself floating the same adventure hooks again and again in the campaign until the players take a stab at them.

One of the most outstanding hooks is an offer from Marlinko bon vivant and philosopher Jarek the Nagsmen to come wrestle tigers in his tiger pit for cash prizes. With Pickle the half ogre finally showing some interest—and a whole Marlinko city supplement coming into being—I finally got to dust off and expand a mini-game. (And yes this will appear in a playtested and polished form in the published adventure).

Tiger Wrestling Mini-Game
Jarek fields three tigers of varying strength. The tigers claws and teeth are filed down and blunted to give the wrestler a sporting chance though the tiger is still quite deadly. Jarek will have his beast-handlers step in and prevent the tiger from eating (over much) a dead contestant.

Contestants are barred from the use of magic (Detect Magic spells will be cast by Jarek's valet-mage). They are allowed to take leather jack (AC: 8) into the ring with them.

The Tigers
Old Slinky Panc (Hit Dice: 4, AC: 6, Hp: 13), Bounty for Win 300 gold.
Simka (Hit Dice: 5, AC: 6, Hp: 20), Bounty for Win 600 gold.
Pan Meow-Meow (Hit Dice: 6, AC: 6, Hp: 25), Bounty for Win 1000 gold.

Each round the contestant can pick a maneuver from the list below. The GM selects (or rolls a d4) a maneuver for the tiger. Both maneuvers are crossed indexed for attack modifiers for the round: the contestant modifiers are on the left and the tiger on the right. Attack rolls are on the standard LL combat tables and are considered to be simultaneous during the round. A successful hits sends either party to the results table below the matrix.

Rear Claw Rake

Contestant Results
Dodge = contestant +2 to attack in next round if the contestant is not hit successfully this round.

Punch= 1d3 (plus STR modifier) stun damage on the tiger.

Kick = 1d3 (plus STR modifier) stun damage on the tiger.

Grapple = Tiger is in a hold and may not make a move in the next round other than to break free. The tiger must roll a d10 under its hit points to break out. If the tiger is successfully grappled for 2 additional rounds the contestant wins.

Tiger Results
Pounce = knocks contestant down, pinning him. He may not take an action until he breaks free on a roll of 4d6 under his STR. The tiger will attempt to bite him at +4 to hit for 1d4 damage each round he is pinned. (If the tiger successfully pins on a round that the contestant successfully grapples the two maneuvers cancel each other for no effect.)

Bat= contestant takes 1d3 damage from paws.

Bite = contestant takes 1d4+1 damage.

Rear Claw Rake = contestant takes 1d6 damage. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Hill Cantons Bestiary: the Wereworm

The write up for the unique Slumbering Ursine Dunes pointcrawl nodes for the high-roller Kickstarter backers is finally finished. Since the regular main adventure is functionally laid-out and ready go that spells an end to all my work on the main project. Yip-f*ckin'-iee.

To celebrate here is a free critter for you; the subject of the last “Full Brad” encounter and special session macguffin, the dreaded wereworm.

"Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert."
― Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit

No. Enc.: 1d4 (1d4)
Alignment: Chaotic (Evil)
Movement: 120’ (above land), 60' (burrowing)
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 4
Attacks: 1 (bite)
Damage: 2d6
Save: F5
Morale: 8
Hoard Class: XX
XP: 550
Thought only to be myth even by the most rigorous of borderlands sages, Wereworms do--sadly for humankind--eke out a twisted (no pun intended) existence on the edges of human civilization. In human form they appear to be perfectly normal human specimens with the notable exceptions of their mouths which seem uncomfortably circular and matched with a fetid, corrupted smell and look.

In worm form the creatures will appear to be 7-8 foot long miniature versions of the dreaded Mauve Worm (a mutation of the more common and equally dreadful Purple Worm). There gaping mouths cause considerable damage. In such form they will frequently be found burrowing underground in hopes of setting up an ambush.

Wereworms are subject to the same advantages (magic/silver weapons can only effect them, disease etc) and disadvantages (wolvesbane, lingering doubt about body image, etc) as other lycanthropes in Labyrinth Lord.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Art for the Misty Isles of the Eld

More than once already through the whole production of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes I have made a happy dance (not literally, because dignity) over the artwork. It's deeply gratifying about working with others who have immensely more talent in the visual arts than you to bring something appealing to life out of the word jumble madness in your head.

And by mad jumble I don't think I exaggerate, art direction especially at the has been at the highwater marks of work a strange free association. Describing the Eld to David Lewis Johnson and Luka Rejec at one moment I think the phrase “oh they bulb-headed Melniboneans in Geiger-like stormtrooper armor plus Bowie in his cocaine-fascist Thin White Duke/Man Who Fell to Earth period" passed someone's lips.

Strangely that not only seemed to make sense at the time but was something both of them could riff off of. I was pleasantly surprised to see where Luka went with his imagination with the early concept art for the Dunes stretch goal adventure, the Misty Isles of the Eld (an expansion that covers the pocket dimension with vat complex and “pagoda” city). Even the early work (keep in mind that these are quick photo sketches not the finished works) hit all the right tones, the dark fairy tale plus acid science fantasy vibe.

But let me show you and not tell.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

News as Campaign Glue

For some time I have been putting together a laundry list post of “best practices” for running long campaigns online. (The current weekly Google Plus game is rolling into its fourth year—about half the life of the whole Hill Cantons campaign.)

One of the biggest hurdles of running games online is social cohesion. There is just something about the lack of direct human contact that ratchets up the flake factor beyond the usual range of adult scheduling issues: players drop out of games within minutes of kickoff; gamemasters cancel sessions with wild abandon, campaigns fizzle after a single game; the video hangout freezes/drops/freaks the fuck out etc.

One coping mechanism is that you have to be a lot more conscious and deliberate about engaging players between sessions. Creating a campaign rhythm and rapport because vital. At the low end of the effort poll is creating a community page or other discussion and information hub, but I have found that it helps for a gamemaster to be proactive and create certain regular entry points for the players to be able to plug into and feel the dynamism of a campaign.

Beyond the weekly “take,” a combined After Action Report and loot/exp haul, I have churned out with on again/off again regularity a weekly news report as a “campaign cohesion linchpin.” Mirroring the exact style of 50-word news briefs I had to churn out each and every day for a while as a news editor, the reports invariably feature 3-4 points (that rarely go over three sentences) and an image. You can see examples here and here.

My campaign news briefs come in at least several recognizable stripes (often combining two or more):
Obvious Adventure Hook. The incredibly not-subtle, bang-you-over-the-head “here be adventure” hook. Usually involving a discernible mission, macguffin and/or defined bounty. This is always either an announcement that I have designed a new area or to a tease a site they may have missed in their sandbox explorations (hate wasting material).

Example: For five long centuries the sleepy Kezmaroki-ruled island of Ptuj has tolerated with a resigned shrug its sister isle, Tolmin, lost to the Weird. Last year alas Smok, a youngish offspring of the great wyrm Zirnitra herself, descended on great wings onto the House of the Axe, a shunned temple of the cthonic goddess called the Mistress of the Mountains. Terrified Ptujians, whose rural residents have become the favored snack of the great beast, are offering a substantive bounty for the slaying of the dragon: gender-appropriate nubile concubines, a small mountain of the island's vintage corn liquor, a local latifundia estate, and 10,000 suns of cold hard cash.

The Subtle Hook. Perhaps only subtle relative to the above is a mixed item (from the list below) that may contain a line signifying that an actionable adventure or geographic place may be interesting enough to warrant in-session exploration. The actual site or mission will often be obscured.

Example: Vatek son of Vatek, is claiming to have unearthed a 500-stone beet from his tenant farmer's field in the hamlet of Ctyri Ctvrt. Most strange of all is the twisted face-like blemish near the giant beet's crown. A local shepherd claims to have heard a booming voice emanate from the storage hut where it is currently housed two nights ago. 

Oblique Background. The Hill Cantons has developed firmly in the bottom-up worldbuilding camp, accreting levels of detail as the campaign rolls on (really starting just as a wilderness map of a very small bounded area). I have a strong preference for presenting small interesting little bites than dumping large reams of setting info.

Example: The Blood Rains have swept into Kezmarok leaving syrupy, sticky puddles and residues throughout the city. The Patriarch has declared the ritual sympathetic mourning period to commiserate with our most holy Sun Lord as he suffers his silver-chained beating from his spurned former wife, the Celestial Lady. On pain of a hefty fine, all residents of the city must wear the customary mustard yellow through this period.

The Big Ticket Event. Most all long campaigns start to generate dramatic large-scale events; the bloody wars and earth-shattering cataclysms that make our world so lovable. Some of these truly huge events sculpt the world the players have to negotiate, others are significant and dramatic but may be actionable of the party (the latter here).

Example: Two weeks of inexplicable, furious flurry of activity in the Turko-Fey siege camps have been followed by an even more ominous development--a fusillade of shelling by the dreaded dragonne-cannons. While bonders have braced pikes-awaiting for the usual half-hearted sortie following the bombardment, the guns seem to have not abated in their fury. In the first time in the five centuries of the Kezmarok siege the outer of the three massive wall seems dangerously close to a breach.

The Whimsy. Quite often the last news item is an example of “I write whatever the fuck I want.” These on self-indulgent ocassion run over long from my usual “keep it quick” format. Shockingly also often these tend to morph into Subtle Adventure Hooks.

Example: Of the many family-dominated usury guilds to escape the collapse of last decade, the Frazas were among the most infamous in deftly transferring their massive debts back to the public treasuries of the cantonal councils. But long before this, they had accrued notoriety far and wide for another feat: the weaving of the Tapestry of Xvikz. A full two centuries ago, then Frazas family head, Franzoht Fair-Breeched, called on his dark powers to summon and bind the Xvikz, a demon from the darkest, deepest hell of high finance.

A great lover of petty humiliation Franzoht tormented the creature by refusing to put the dreaded demon's powers to appropriate use instead compelling him to weave a great commemorative tapestry from the velvety firmament of the domed heavens. That the required scene was both cloying and derivative only added to the sulk of the demon who plodded away needle point in hand. Years stretched into decades as the demon passively-aggressively refused to finish in a timely manner—and each successive generation of bull-headed Frazas refusing to release the demon in turn led to impasse.

Inexplicably fourteen years ago, Xvikz declared his last stitch sewn. Though the resulting tapestry was horrifically underwhelming, its unveiling was heralded as a major cultural achievement in Overkingdom aesthete circles and became a much-sought fixture of upper crust soirees in the borderlands.

Well that's it for today folks. Tomorrow if I have time/energy I may lay out some tips and tricks for both writing these suckers and generating the kinds of campaign events that motivate them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bull Ride

The Texas folk-country singer Robert Earl Keen once said about his abortive bull-riding career:
“I don't know how many of you have ever ridden a bull. But it's like getting in your car and riding down the freeway at 70 miles an hour--and then chucking the steering wheel out of the window.”

Well my bull ride with the Slumbering Ursine Dunes Kickstarter is over. It wasn't quite as dramatic as Keen's 15 seconds in the rodeo, but I definitely had a few wild moments. They don't tell you in crowdfunding basic training just how emotionally up and down and work the campaign itself can be. I'm both simultaneously both exhausted and exhilarated.

Though tired I am fired up to do more writing—and more gaming. Through all this madness--even up to the profoundly weird and wonderful session last night in which Tazrun the wolf-raised thief rescued his twin brother from his “kept man” status in Brazona—the weekly Hill Cantons game has steamed on.

Over the next several weeks I will be running some open games for backers both as a thank you and a playtest of some of the new material we are busy tacking on the mini-sandbox. The games will mostly be online on Google Plus but hopefully we will also squeeze in a face to face game or two down here in Texas. Drop me a line if you are interested.

[The rest of this post is a modified excerpt from this afternoon's Kickstarter update, posted for killing proverbial two birds with one stone purposes]
Early this morning the project crew and a sizable number of backers and players counted down to the end in an impromptu Google Plus video hangout. Though I would have been happy and content to have merely funded, coming in at 543% funding, $8,152, and thus hitting every single stretch goal frankly floored me.

Touching way beyond the money was the earnest support of many of you in the broader DIY and old school gaming communities. The sharing and encouragement that helps one feel like all the struggle and effort was worth it. Kickstarter has an interesting, backend array of ways to track where money is coming in and one can tell more or less accurately where pledges are coming in from. Seeing hundreds coming in from the efforts of fellow bloggers, gaming forum goers and Google Plus regulars (almost $2,000 alone there) was a tangibly heart-warming experience.

Thank you.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Win a Wargame Contest Results

Although I almost always say this about the design contests I run, it bears repeating as it just happens to be true once again: the entries in the Win a Wargame Contest where an absolute pain to pass judgment on. (You know due to how richly imagined and executed they were on the whole.) Fortunately, this time around I had the sense to recruit two other judges with better sense and talent then me, Jason Sholtis and Anthony Picaro, to help smash through my usual hemming and hawing.

We had 15 entries and used a reverse weighted point system to come up with the results. The top three winners (really four due to a tie) will receive a wargame from my collection (email with pics coming) and free shipping. You have truly earned the kudos.

Also with the permission of the entrants we are planning to use the entries in two ways in the final product bundle of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes:
1. Depending on space 2-4 of the top selections will be used as points on the pointcrawl in the final version of the sandbox adventure with accreditation and a freebie (though I think all the eligible winners are already backers).
2. A PDF compilation of all the entries for backers (and with accreditation) to use as optional expansion points.

Following are the winning places with some excerpted selections (naturally don't read if you plan on playing in the adventure):
First Place
Doyle Tavener with Tree of Hanging Rusalkas. 
(At night.) A large willow tree looms over a small lake or pond. A weird, disharmonious crooning can be softly heard coming from the boughs of the tree above you. (At day.)  A large willow tree looms over a small lake or pond. There is a small stone altar at the base of the tree, from which hang three moppets (small cloth puppets). There are remnants of small cakes on the altar.

A huge willow tree stands here before a small lake, which is itself obscured by a willow grove. Three Rusalkas... hang here on the boughs of the tree at night, while during the day they 'sleep' in the lake bed below the tree.

Humza K. with Vodník Pool
Coming around a curve, a large pond comes into view. Two petrified trees overhang the water, swamp moss drooping down. A half-sunken hut juts out from the middle of the pond, with occasional glints of radiance peeking out.

Zoltán the vodník...can be found here, lounging on a rock and puffing away at a long-stemmed pipe. In contrast to most of his vodník brethren, he appears in mostly human form: long moustaches, once splendid but now waterlogged coat and hat, webbed hands and flapping gills at the sides of his neck.
Second Place
Anne Hunter with Diluvian Reservoir.
A millennia-old dam complex here holds a reservoir of the last floodwaters of the Deluge. The reservoir sits in the low point of a deep ravine. The birch forest here grows thick and ancient; the eldest trees stand like watchtowers around the dam. The floodwaters contain the last undying pairs of extinct prehistoric fauna. Antediluvian treasures lie buried beneath the mud in a ruined Nephilim village. The valley can only be entered from the southwest and northeast. The paths are steeply sloped and choked with seedling birches; ascending out of the ravine takes twice as long as entering.

The dam is maintained by a family of 6 giant beaver engineers... They are an unbroken lineage from the megafauna shipwrights...

Third Place
Robert Parker with the Chaos Monastery
A grueling climb up a switchback trail leads to the top of a massive dune which gently slopes down into a secluded valley at the edge of the Persimmon Sea...In the valley are a rough circle of battered, rusting silver huts. At this distance a pit in the center of the huts can be vaguely made out...

In the valley itself is the Chaos Monastery, the secret training ground of a bizarre collection of martial arts aficionados, social misfits, and lovers of all things awesome. Unlike traditional monasteries, the Chaos Monastery is a place not of quiet contemplation and self-mastery, but rather an occasional gathering place for whooping bands of hooligans to guzzle plum brandy and to establish their pecking order through good-natured bullying and displays of “badass” skill.

Fourth Place
Fane of Grooze, the Grey God by Mike Davison
In a small, hidden vale, there lies a strange stone pillar. This pillar is home to a grey ooze, known as Grooze. He is the god of a small tribe of Feral Dwarves.
[The entry had a fantastic map and nice little mini-dungeon attached.]

Fifth Place
Obsidian by Jonathan Black
Towering spire of twisted obsidian rises up out of a narrow valley of variegated sandstone worn smooth by years of sandstorms and wind. A well-traveled path leads south towards a small oasis, ringed with shrubs and a few fig trees. At the bottom of the spire, someone has built scaffolding around the towering rock to hold it in place as they excavate the sand and stone from around the base. Hidden by  the wood and stonework supporting the spire is a dank hole in the ground, leading to fetid caverns beneath the spire.

Honorable Mentions
Koshchey Bessmertny
Czernobog's Well

Friday, October 3, 2014

Oh Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

The Slumbering Ursine Dunes is lumbering along to its fourth stretch goal, this time putting the ball back into my court to get some more heavy lifting done on the writing front. In this case we turn to the local “home base” of the Dunes region, the eccentric little borderlands city of Marlinko.

In the last KS update I told backers what NOT to expect. Namely that the supplement wouldn't be take "kind of deadly dull keyed map approach that tells you the utterly mundane potter at Building 21 has 3 hp."

In general I plan it less on focusing on that micro-detail of site based descriptions that often bog down fantasy city products (a different tack that makes Vornheim, Weird Adventures and Midkemia's Cities products so refreshingly different and useful). Instead of rehashing that detail you can check it out here on the Kickstarter update.

To get myself back in the mood of this place, the current party continues to disappoint me by stubbornly going everywhere but back to this city, I rustled up old notes from the campaign. Here are some abridged excerpts from the notes (expect cuts and revisions to fit with the focus mentioned above).
The original crappy player's map (to be redrawn professionally, naturally)

Marlinko is a bustling, smallish city of about 6,000 and governing seat of Marlinko Canton. It is the southernmost town-sized settlement in the Overkingdom before it peters off into pure howling wilderness. Though prosperous, Marlinko is deeply infected by it's relative isolation and closeness to the Weird. Life there as such takes on a strange fever-dream cast even by the standards of the rest of the borderlands.

Around Town
The Manse of the Lady Szara. The notoriously-erratic, allegedly -undead lady abruptly moved away three years ago “to visit relatives back in the Corelands” and her town-manse was overtaken by the also-seemingly-undead, thief-hero Kugel the Lucky. Rumors abound about underground excava...cough...cough mini-dungeon.

Catacombs of St. Jack's Church of the Blood Jesus. After three weeks of backbreaking work—under the expert supervision of the Termex the Robodwarf--by devotees of this imported, alien and utterly syncretistic cult, a catacomb space has been excavated by nun-maeneds under the city. The new sparagamos fane and exquiste ossuary-like sculptures are "things of beauty" report cult leader Vatek son of Vatek.

Tomb of the Town Gods. Located in the central plaza is the squat polished basalt bulk of this mausoleum of the sleeping divine founders of the city. The local Sun Lord followers have made a lifetime of quietly ignore the obvious blasphemy of such a thing existing. It is whispered that extradimensional gates lie inside but what fool dares to explore the terrifying silence of that space?

The Guild of Condotierre, Linkboys, Roustabouts and Stevedores's Dome of Supernal Dealings. Marlinko is a “union town” and even the hirelings have lasting organization. The hiring of “scab” henchmen is intolerable.

The Guild of Accipitraries, Drovers, and Ankle-Beaters. Run by the supreme hard-ass, Hurloj Kladivo, a good place for the sale or training of animals. Be wary of kidnapping his daughter.

The Serene Guild of Seers, Augurs, Runescasters and Wainwrights.  For 4000 gold suns answers are given in clear, parseable language. 1000 suns will buy answers in cant with an occasional admit of ambiguity. 500 suns will buy you a parable based on the life and work of our dear Sun Lord to be interpreted as you will and 100 suns will buy you babble in an unknown tongue.

The Drunken Troll. An upmarket inn located just south of the Tomb-Plaza of the City Gods. The inn's silent owner is said to be by local gossips the infamous Yadis, an anonymous, foul-mouthed satirist. The inn is also noted as the home of local second-fiddle mage (and man of letters) Mandamus the Erudite and his companions Uma, Barbarella, and “Martin the Fighter”.

Brothers of the Other Mother chapterhouse. Local chapterhouse of an Orthodox Sun Lord monastic order that promotes the veneration of a less divine “Marian” like mother-figure to the Celestial Lady. These guys are assholes.

Fraza's Brokerhouse. Fraza the freakishly-honest dealer in curios has his showroom here, a good place to experience the novel situation of selling without being robbed.

The News Around Town
The Rada of Marlank (ruling council), in an apparently arbitrary fit of borderlands pique and Pahr identity politics, has decreed that the southern cantonal city will heretofore not be referred to its Nemec exonym and may only be referred to as “Marlinko.”Official reasons remain mirky but one Rada councilmember anonymously stated that it “reminded them too much of Fritz.” Local residents continue to call the city whatever the Cold Hell they please.

Speaking of Marlan...err Marlinko, tiger-wrasslin' has come back in vogue thanks to a self-proclaimed “Master Beastmaster” newly immigrated from points South. Local characters willing to go toe to claw with a lovable furry orange killing machine should inquire with bon vivant Jarek the Nagsmen. A 500 gold sun bounty is offered for anyone who survives the match. 

While Kezmaroki fashion has been bending to the austere and plain of dress since the Turko Fey Anti-Rapture, haute fashion has been taking some risky new steps in the Hill Cantons proper. This week in Marlank, Chovo the Omniaesthete is expected to reveal his new line of fabulously sequined merkins (pubic wigs). Codpieces are definitely on the way out!

In other exotic cult news, the Church of the Blood Jesus has passed its sell-by date as the flavor of the month. Doctrinal arguments over virgin births, a shortage of animals suitable for the Sparagmos rites, and a growing annoyance to the Rada have withered the strange sect's recent growth spate. Despite the setbacks, Vatek son of Vatek, continues to preach the Good Word along with the most devout of the nun-maenads.

Guildsmen of the Illustrious Workers of Wood (commonly referred to as the “Totterers”) are celebrating the fifth century anniversary of their local lodge this week. A giant wickerman has been erected in the Plaza of the Horned Oracle for the festivities.

The scurrilous tribe of were-worms who migrated from the Weird into the Slumbering Ursine Dunes last month have stepped up their depredations in the area. The Rada has hotly debated a plan to introduce giant robins into the dunes to halt the menace. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Contest Extension and More Brazonia

So today is the day that the Win a Wargame Contest ends. Several people have asked about an extension--and though we already have 11 rock-star entries--your pleas have not fallen on deaf ears. The contest deadline has been officially extended to Saturday 7:00 in the pm Central US time.

To be fair to those who made early entries, those of you who have already submitted can take extra time to work on your entry as long as it makes the new deadline.

Since I have you all on the hook here is a map of Brazonia that wild and wonderful northern nation nestled on the World Canal mentioned yesterday. More details later.  
Click to Embiggen. Hex Scale: 5 miles

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Welcome to Hy-Brazos

In every long-running sandbox campaign there comes a time (really many times) that the players run full tilt toward the undefined edge of your known world. An adventurous GM who likes surprises runs with this even if it means having to call a timeout while you hastily change the reel. 

The Nefarious Nine made a break for the little-known land of Brazonia, a vestigial product of my attempt to run a wargames campaign with a great fine old wargamer/blogger. (This land, Himyar or the Scarlet Sultanate, came into focus the last time this happened.)

He says Hy-Brazos still runs muddy like she's run all along
There’s never been no cane to grind and the rye's all but gone.
-Dirt-Gnome Porch Ballad

What brought the loud-talking, tall-tale-loving, slate-skinned Sons and Daughters of Dahn, today's Brazonians, thundering across the World Canal from the Southeast Quarter three centuries ago no one alive today truly knows. Or perhaps it's just that no one really gives two ocular bat guano pellets about why, the Dahnii themselves included--a people so confused by the faulty mnemonic devices of their holy drunk-skalds that they seem only to care about the present and the mythic past-future.

What is know is that before their fearsome war-wagons rolled inexorably over the Trackless Wastes into the delicate civilized valley of the great Hy-Brasos River that the Dahnii lived grim horse warrior lives of not-quiet desperation in eternal conflict with the shadowy macronauts, star gliders, fell youngminds and other figures only hypothesized by men of science and reason.

At that time before the walked into the supernal light of our most Puissant Sun Lord, the Sons and Daughters worshiped in sweaty, mare milk-speckled yurts only the pagan Seven-Horse and their hero-founder Dahn. In that benighted time they were said to dwell on the fringes of the Forest of Copper never daring to enter having been chased by demons from the Forests of Gold and Silver respectively. On the edge of that dazzlingly-beautiful woodland, they swaggered and yelled and fought and loved and fought some more.

With their warlike ardor and an unholy love of obscure derivatives markets one could truly call them “barbarians” and not feel terribly behind the times. A point really only underscored by their crushing of the flourishing Hy-Brasos civilization, a secluded and achingly beautiful borderlands melange of cultures that tolerantly mixed glammer-slyphs, rose-cheeked dirt-gnomes, kuduk quarterlings, talking dogs and hardy Nemec missionary-pioneers of the Sun Lord.

In that timeless exchange of invigorating cultural exchange that marks History the Dahnii bestowed upon the valley inhabitants the gifts of death, peonage, horse-stew and junk bonds while the Hy-Brasosites gave them back religion and the clap. To this day the Dahnii-speaking Brazonian majority still feel cheated.

Today's Kingdom (or Empire to the locals) of Brazonia uneasily mixes features of what came before. The grays-skinned Dahnii have increasingly taken on the features of their subject peoples. Here a sturdy Dahnii burgomeister with balloon-nose and fondness for green peaked caps, there a fierce cavalry-leader with a penchant for glitter powder.

Local culture such as it is seems to have one foot in the refinements and baroque hierarchy of the Overkingdom, another still in the warlike horse nomad past. Thus in the city of Great Dahn grey-walled sundomes and townhouses that would be home in the Cantons vie across muddy avenues with bizarre Sunlord statutes lead by seven-headed horse teams, melancholic wee-people ghettos, and high-backed kurgans.