Monday, January 31, 2011


Inspired by Dyson Logos, I've started creating geomorphs. Here's the first sheet (click for a print-quality TIFF):

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Quite a map

Behold: a map of New York's Central Park, accurate down to every tree. The videos are worth watching too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Realms of Crawling Chaos

I've been reading the newly released Realms of Crawling Chaos all morning.

Dan did a tremendous job on this book. I love that he paid little attention to the existing RPG material, and instead went back to exhaustively mine the original Lovecraft stories. There's no artificial sanity mechanic, but the weird details in the book give referees plenty of ammunition to genuinely creep-out players. Check this:

This ritual requires previously prepared essential saltes. The magic-user calls on the attention of Yog-Sothoth, and harnesses properties of time and space to bring back the dead from their essential saltes. The success of the revivification is completely dependent on the state of the body from which the saltes were prepared. If saltes are prepared from less than 51% of a body, the ritual will bring up an unidentifiable mass of flesh that only lives for moments.

Or this:

[...] it should be noted that anytime an Outer One tank is found, the occupant will have no brain. The body is surgically altered to allow it to survive without the brain, but the brain may be in an altogether different galaxy or dimension.

There are some books that I admire but never use in play. Realms of Crawling Chaos isn't one of them. It's packed full of goodness that's easy to drop into any campaign. And the PDF is under $5. Go buy it!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Do We Need Another Retro-Clone? (A Postmortem)

TLDNR: yes, but not from me.

Some bemoan the burgeoning number of clone rules. It's not something I worry about. The OSR isn't susceptible to damage from market fragmentation or brand diffusion or whatever. Until recently, in fact, I was writing my own near clone of the 1974 books (more on that later).

Whatever your opinion about the proper number of retro-clones, none of the existing ones closely replicate the original three booklets. Labyrinth Lord OEC and S&W Whitebox are great, but they're still mashups of the LBB's, the Supplements, Moldvay Basic, and other ingredients. That's fine. I could be happy playing LL. However, a true clone of the LBB's needs to embrace the following:

  1. Constraints: stick to only the monsters and spells found in the three booklets, for example.
  2. Omissions: the LBB's implicitly or explicitly reference rules found in Chainmail, for example, while other topics are nowhere to be found. (I'm looking at you, Initiative.) The authors of a close clone would need to decide whether to leave those things out, include the Chainmail material (which isn't always an exact fit), or to suggest solutions from later editions as sidebars or appendices.
  3. Ambiguities: must be preserved. Let individual referees rule on when elves can swap classes.
  4. Obsolescences: a number of rules didn't survive edition zero, and don't appear in the existing retro-clones. Many are minor. Some of them deserve to be forgotten, others are interesting. For example, I haven't seen cloned anywhere the rules for stocking guards/retainers into the "castles" marked on the Outdoor Survival board.

Those were some of the considerations I had in mind when I started work on my clone of the 1974 rules. I never thought my clone would be profitable, or even see wide use. I took on the project as a way to enrich my games by getting back to the roots of the hobby, and to satisfy my curiosity. I also wanted to give people who had never seen them access to the first rules, particularly since WotC stopped selling the PDF's.

I finished writing a rough draft of the rules from the first two volumes, and made notes on the third. Last night, I decided to abandon the project.

There are several reasons.* I pushed hard to finish volume 2 over the holidays, so I'm a little burned-out. The recent shouts of too many retroclones made me less motivated to release something that would be received with hostility rather than indifference. Finally, although I learned a lot about the early rules, I realize I'll never be able to resist tinkering with the rules long enough to get an authentic early gameplay experience (particularly in light of my growing fondness for the LoFP rules).

So, the only goal I haven't accomplished with this project is to share what I learned. I have a few ideas about how to repurpose and distribute the work. It might be a series of monographs, things like Initiative Through the Ages or The Evolution of the Cleric. I can even imagine a web app and database that would let referees select the rules they want, then spit out a custom PDF. (That's something I have the expertise to make, but probably not the time.) Whatever form this stuff eventually takes, I'll allow myself more editorial creativity than the "strict preservationism" of my abortive clone attempt. I'll also make sure that it's easy to loot for kitbashing.

I hope someone releases a close clone of the 1974 rules. I also recommend attempting to write a clone as an educational experience for anyone with some curiosity about it. It taught me more about he game than I would have suspected—historical rules trivia, sure, but also how damn elegant the thing is under the hood. As an experience, it made me realize what an enormous amount of work people like Dan Proctor put into their projects; there's a hell of a lot more involved that simply paraphrasing someone else's text.

* I should also add that it's really, really hard to resist clarifying or filling lacunae when trying to recreate these rules. If you want something that's faithful to the LBB's as historical documents and is also a playable game, you must trust referees to make their own rulings.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Another one hour dungeon map

Here's another one hour dungeon map I did last night.

(I drew it in under an hour, then spent another hour inking it.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

One hour dungeon map

I was admiring the one-hour-dungeon-maps at Aeons & Augauries, and decided to do one of my own (click for a print quality TIFF version):
That got me thinking about how I draw dungeon maps. The method I've been using lately is to think of a dungeon level as 4-6 clusters of 8-16 rooms each:
What's your thought process or strategy when you sit down to draw a map?

Monday, January 17, 2011

NPC: The Wyrd

Use the Wyrd either as an NPC character class (or conceivably even a PC class) or as a unique individual. The Wyrd will likely already suffer from several Repercussions (see below) at the time you introduce her into your game.

Although widely known for her divinations and soothsaying, the Wyrd is able to cast any magic-user spell.

At minimum, it takes the Wyrd 1 turn per spell level to cast a spell. Unlike a magic-user, she does not memorize daily spells. For each spell the Wyrd casts, roll 1d6. A result equal to or lower than the spell level causes a roll on the Repercussions table.

The Wyrd may reduce the repercussion risk to 1 in 6 by spending 1 day per spell level on the casting instead of 1 turn per level. Spending additional days on the casting does not reduce the risk of repercussions below 1 in 6.

If the Wyrd gives a favor (and it must be a favor which someone else owes her) to the eldritch forces in exchange for completing the spell, any repercussion that would have affected the Wyrd instead affects the one who owes her a favor. This is not widely known.

Those who can't or won't pay in gold (or some other thing the Wyrd particularly desires), the Wyrd asks to pay with a favor. She keeps such favors for future use. The Wyrd never works for free.

d100 Repercussions Table
  1. Afflicted with a stooped spine
  2. Frequently suffer seizures
  3. Afflicted with bowed legs
  4. Fingers become webbed
  5. Age backwards
  6. Go deaf in one ear
  7. Go deaf in both ears
  8. Skin turns an unnatural color
  9. Over the course of a week, one finger blackens, then falls off
  10. Skin glows very faintly in the dark
  11. Grow a pelt of shaggy fur over entire body
  12. Loss of color vision
  13. Grow an extra eye
  14. Hair turns white, instantly and permanently 
  15. One limb twitches involuntarily, even when sleeping
  16. Boils
  17. Crops wither in the fields
  18. Ears become elongated and pointy
  19. Pupils change shape
  20. Grow a wart
  21. Grow a hairy wart
  22. All hair falls out (except on hairy warts)
  23. Relive the events of one (random) hour every day
  24. Always smells faintly of brimstone
  25. Hear (imaginary) constant, indistinct murmurings that others can't hear
  26. Grow a tail
  27. Uncontrollable drooling
  28. Patches of reptilian scales develop
  29. Trees bend slightly toward her. Those trees in the vicinity of her home grow in a way that points toward it.
  30. Grow extra toes
  31. Grow extra fingers
  32. Slowed (50%) in actions and speech
  33. Livestock sickens
  34. Vomit frogs 1d6 times per day
  35. Tongue splits down the middle
  36. Haunted by a mildly destructive poltergeist
  37. Artificial lights within 10' will not stay lit, and any she passes are extinguished
  38. Spontaneous pregnancy
  39. Spontaneous pregnancy with a small mammal or reptile
  40. Grow small goat horns
  41. Pottery does not harden when fired within ten miles of her
  42. Visual perception lags behind reality by 10 minutes
  43. Compulsion to look under every liftable rock she passes
  44. Grow fangs
  45. Bottomless sinkholes open in any spot she sleeps on for more than 3 nights
  46. Permanently levitated 1/4" off ground, making walking difficult
  47. Smoke emanates from mouth when speaking
  48. Nearby malleable things (oatmeal, tea leaves, mud) form into the shape of agonized faces
  49. Stigmata
  50. Grow an additional ear
  51. Skin become transparent
  52. Strange lights in the sky at night
  53. Any words spoken do not reach listeners' ears for 1d6 turns
  54. Animals no longer abide her presence
  55. Human beings are invisible to her
  56. Sleep for 101 days
  57. Feet fall off, cloven hooves grow
  58. 50-70 mph winds alway blow in vicinity
  59. Age at double rate
  60. Any words she writes change, and assume an ominous character
  61. The ground makes noises like cracking ice wherever she walks
  62. Flapping things flap on the roof at night
  63. No reflection
  64. Only sleep every seventh night
  65. Grow large antlers
  66. Speech comes out in reverse word order
  67. Hair becomes too strong to be cut by steel tools
  68. A new, unexplained bruise every morning
  69. Sweats blood
  70. Must concentrate to keep consciousness attached to body or be locked-out for 1d6 turns
  71. Risk of future Repercussions becomes 2 in 6 at minimum
  72. Weeping sores
  73. Weeping sore that whisper secrets
  74. Physically vanishes after falling asleep; reappears in the morning frostbitten
  75. Heart turns to stone and stops beating, yet she lives
  76. Roll 1d6 every morning. A result of 1 means that a random personal possession vanished during the night.
  77. No one believes (until it's too late)
  78. Skin nodules swell for days, then burst to release spiders
  79. Her bones creak loudly whenever she moves
  80. Animals speak to her, but only abusively
  81. Narcolepsy
  82. Burned for 1d3 damage whenever touched by another person
  83. Irises turn yellow like a wolf's
  84. The sky is always overcast within 25 miles
  85. Weekly rain of fish
  86. Teeth enlarge 2-3 times, deforming jaw and palette
  87. Leave footprints that smoulder
  88. Entire body shrinks or grows up 2% and 500% of original size every day
  89. Wood spurts blood when she chops it
  90. Any clothing donned begins to rot and smell of the grave after an hour
  91. Age 20 years instantly
  92. Sometimes, the third law of motion (equal and opposite reaction) doesn't work for her
  93. Learns she will die in exactly one year
  94. On a roll of 1 in 6, any dead thing she passes near rises as undead
  95. Hourly fits of involuntarily speaking dead languages
  96. Plague
  97. Blogger posts lose all paragraphing 
  98. Blindness
  99. Instant death
  100. Complete physical paralysis
All above are permanent effects, unless otherwise noted.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Damn, Blogger!

Blogger decided to strip the line breaks from my old posts. I'll fix them as I can. This is just to say that I do in fact know about paragraphs.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The weird is Fate

This is a slightly cleaned-up version of a comment I posted in response to Zak's philosophizing about the weird. I don't believe that my comment represents the only or best way to think about the weird, but it could usefully inform ideas about the weird in game terms.

The weird is Fate. Knowledge of the future is occult—in the sense of the hidden.

Zak is correct that it's not exactly unnatural, but it's frighteningly primal, in the way that the Greeks drew a distinction between the gods (who were powerful, but basically relatable in terms of human motivations) and older powers like the Furies or the Fate (who even the gods feared and found inscrutable).

So, Cthulhu is weird in the sense that he is fated to rise from his eons of slumber in the misty and indeterminate future, beyond the ken of man. Like the Greek Fates, he is older than mankind, and alien. 

Weird themes are bound to emerge, as Zak observes, at times when the popular imagination fixates on the uncertainties of the future. The interwar years would qualify.

In game terms, an encounter with the weird would involve a perhaps hubristic attempt by man to engage with the earliest, amoral, alien powers of the universe. The referee should give characters reasons to feel atavistic dread at the prospect of any such effort.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Archeological inspiration

These links to archaeological articles may be of interest. Note that the crappy Flash interface takes a minute to load, but the information is worthwhile.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How it's supposed to be played

As a bookmark for myself: James Raggi's 2008 post Is this how D&D is supposed to be played? Quote:
  • Most adventures are located in a fixed location with an "end area" with a big bad enemy and the big treasure. You "win the adventure" by defeating that enemy and getting that treasure.
  • Some adventures are epic quests, that take you to many places, where you defeat the underling big bad enemies before getting to the grand finale where you defeat the really big bad enemy and take its treasure.
  • Activities involved between adventures involved such a variety of activities as healing up and traveling to the next location.
...the basic problems the old modules had, and they certainly didn't do anything to showcase the possibilities that we, as adults able to read the Dungeon Masters Guide and understand the implications and applications of all those rules, have when it comes to traditional, and proper, Dungeons and Dragons. Each is simply a self-contained location [...] with monsters to kill and problems to solve. [...] So if modules are these really evil things that grossly distorted the heart of true Dungeons and Dragons play... what then?

New LotFP adventure (no spoilers)

I played in James Raggi's new Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure last night with Zak, Mandy, Aberrant Hive Mind, and Higgipedia. I'm given to understand that this will be the new introductory adventure for the Grindhouse edition of LotFP. I think the adventure will be successful in that role because it:
  • starts gently, and invites the players to root their characters in the world
  • asks the players to think deeply about the situation by not providing them with an easy, obvious course of action
  • shows the players that their actions have significant ramifications in the broader game world (recalling a favorite Raggi theme, though without locking the referee into quite such a catastrophic outcome in this case)
While my impressions are from the perspective of a player, and this was not the final version, I can confidently say that, as much as I enjoyed Stargazer, this new adventure uses a similarly familiar trope to create far more engaging play situations for both the players and the referee.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Originality and the OSR

A flurry of recent posts complain about originality, or the lack thereof, in the OSR. I experienced mild anger reading those, and have now thought it through enough to articulate some of the reasons for that anger. I'm not trying to pick a fight with anyone; this is just a bit of catharsis.
  1. For me, the appeal of the OSR is substantially about exploring the roots of a hobby I enjoy. There's room within that goal for originality in the form of creative revisionism or imagining alternate histories of the hobby, but my enjoyment is not dependent upon those things.
  2. Copyright issues push my buttons. To say that retro-clones are stealing intellectual property by exploiting a loophole in the OGL shows a poor understanding of both the license and the concept of copyright as a public good. I find it in poor taste to blames dismal sales of a new fantasy game on thieving retro-clone authors. What does such a stance really mean—that classic D&D should go out of print, forcing everyone to play new games that otherwise can't compete with it? As much as many people are enured to its charms, D&D is a well designed game, and something new will not necessarily be better. Novelty is not in itself meritorious.
  3. That the OSR is adding to the existing mountain of adventure modules that involve going into a dungeon to kill humanoids does not prey upon my mind. Nor does it bother me that people charge money for such things. Even in a relatively small market like the OSR, the internet effectively separates the wheat from the chaff. Coming from content producers, this amounts to the charge that bad products are killing sales of good products. That's not how markets work. While innovation spurs further innovation, there's no reason to believe that sameness leads to more sameness. The non-innovators copy the innovators, not the other way around.
  4. In these complaints, I also detect a resentment of amateurism (amaeteurism in the best, Lovecraftian sense). How to compete with free is a problem that has occupied many industries in recent years, including the software industry and journalism. Cheap and free desktop publishing software will not go away. There are ways to compete with free, but smearing amateurs is not one of them. No one owes you a living.
  5. Finally, my anger was about being forced to recognize my dissatisfaction with my private campaign, which is really the heart of the matter, and something I'll post about tomorrow.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Weird motifs

On Saturday, I posted about the deep weird—that dungeons should get progressively weirder and more unique the deeper the characters delve. I've been thinking about how I can implement that as a practical matter, especially in so far as giving the whole dungeon a unique flavor while giving each level a distinct but related flavor.

Leitmotifs seem like a natural device to accomplish that. In terms of dungeon design, the use of a recurring image, sound, smell, event, or map element would serve to immediately characterize the level and orient the player.

 For example, if the big bad at the bottom of a dungeon was a group of mind flayers, all levels might have elements suggestive of tentacles. On this first level, there might be widespread tentacle-like vines, and kobolds who wield wavy-bladed kris. That level is ruled by an ogre who plays the bagpipes (which look a bit like an octopus). Throughout the level, the characters hear the playing of the bagpipes, long before they find the ogre. Bagpipes suggest a music motif, so the kobolds also sing rude songs. Stick a musical puzzle in there somewhere, and drop in a musical instrument as a minor magic item. As a bit of weirdness, the bagpipes can sometimes still be heard even after the PC's kill the ogre, and upon close examination the vines can be seen to twitch in rhythm to the music; the party may only notice this after they return from a deeper level. By dungeon level three or four, the carvings framing most of the doors (which were too worn-away to be recognized on higher levels) are a pair of tentacles that intertwine above the top of the door. If the players smell the stone tentacles, the stone smells faintly but distinctly fishy. Level five or six could have a sea theme (with the sound of water audible in certain places on the level above). The entire level smells of salt and seaweed. Most of the passages are natural twisty caves that lead to an underground sea overgrown with brain coral. A giant octopus lives there. Perhaps a room on this level is only accessible if the party approaches it using a peculiarly circuitous route they found mapped on a wall two levels above.

So, the overall motif of the dungeon is twists and tentacles. The motif of the first level is music. Both motifs should trigger associations that orient the players in your dungeon. These are off-the-cuff examples, but hopefully you get the idea.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Thanks, Scott

It looks like Huge Ruined Pile will be going on semi-hiatus as Scott prepares for grad school. I want to publicly thank him for running Stonehell over these last few months. What Scott started as a pick-up game turned into a pretty good regular gaming group, and I'll miss our Wednesday night sessions.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The deep weird

I just had this (perhaps not completely novel) idea: the deeper the dungeon level, the less it conforms to the natural world known by the characters.

The first three dungeons levels might be quite naturalistic—vermin and low HD humanoids living sensibly (if violently) within the circle of life and whatnot. In one or two places, weirdness might peek through from the depths in the form of, for example, a magic well. Four to six levels down, weird elements become more common, and the relationships and behaviors of the inhabitants become less understandable. The dungeon, below level six, breaks down in terms of cause and effect. Fairy tale logic dominates the lives of inhabitants, and the structure itself sprawls in non-euclidean ways.

This could also differentiate one dungeon from another. Most dungeons, in the first few levels, would more or less resemble each other. The true and unique nature of a particular dungeon's weirdness would only be revealed within its depths.

Friday, January 7, 2011

How to Host a Dungeon

Dyson's Liche Lord map (man! I love Dyson's mapping style) lead me to How to Host a Dungeon, which is demonstrated in this video. How to Host a Dungeon is well worth the $5. It reminds me a bit of Dwarf Fortress (as amusingly illustrated here and here).