Monday, July 8, 2019

Spicing Up Dark Sun

DARK SUN & I

Back in the day, I ran a few games of Dark Sun using D&D 2E. The books were mind-bending to read way back in 1991, both for the hard turn away from Tolkien tropes, as well as the escalation of attribute levels and abilities that, in hindsight, seemed to foretell a lot of the slap happy kewl powers of 4e.

I've heard that Dark Sun is being rereleased for 5e, and I see only one problem with that.

It is a boring setting, for me. Yes, there are lots of interesting ideas and bibs and bobs, but there is something lacking in the over-arching narrative.

Now, I'm not going to do an exhaustive rereading of all Dark Sun (TM) materials. I am just going to float an idea that should kick your Dark Sun game into overdrive. Use or ignore as you will, but if I ever run DS again, this is how it is going down.

(Note: Yes, I have only read the original boxed set and missed all the novels because I was done with it by then. If you like canon, knock yourself out, but keep reading for stealable inspiration)

PART ONE: DARK SUN = MAD MAX

You heard me, Dark Sun is the Mad Max of D&D worlds. Post apocalypse? Check. Marauding leather-clad freaks? Check. The only thing that is missing is high speed vehicle chases.

Or are they already there? I dimly recall a brief mention of large wheeled vehicles dwarves on Athas use to cross quicksand seas. What if these are not slow-moving barges like the Jawa sand crawler from Star Wars, but instead high octane, high speed trucks and cars? The only way not to sink into the sands is to go fast enough to escape their grip.

What if the magical apocalypse that killed off nature and magic in Athas instead created a reserve of oil used by dwarves to power their machines? Now things get interesting! The magical apocalypse has drained the world of mystical energy, and created the fuel that is unknowingly exacerbating the environmental collapse.

And it all starts with the dwarves:

DWARVES

Dwarves are the ones who keep the machines running. They have innate knowledge of mechanics, and can build or repair anything from a cistern well to a V8 engine, so they are valued and always captured in combat, never killed. They aren't hairy, because who needs that in a desert?




ELVES

I always thought the running elves in sweatbands image was possibly the lamest part of Dark Sun, and possibly just a holdover from 80s health conscious culture. Instead, Athasian elves look like this:



Also this:


Whereas dwarves fix technology, elves fly it. They prefer to live on top of mesas or in eyries away from the desert riffraff, wearing archaic clothes, indulging in long forgotten vices, watching from afar through binoculars.

BARD

If I recall, there were no bards on Athas, as life had gotten too short and brutish.

See this guy?





THAT is your Athas bard.


HALFLINGS

See this kid? That's actually a halfling.




Halflings in Dark Sun use weapons they make out of desert glass. They act as vorpal swords, but can be easily shattered. Glass boomerang that cuts off your fingers? That is a staple Athas halfling weapon.

HALF GIANTS

Half giants weren't created in magical experiments. Instead, the Defiler magic that sucked the juice out of the world also siphoned power away from magical creatures. Big and stupid, these guys are excellent bodyguards for dwarven mechanics, like this guy:



This means there will also be other misshapen, twisted versions of old Tolkien or fairytale animals out there. A unicorn that is more elasmotherium than the Last Unicorn, harpies that are more the sex witch from Conan than the flying busts of Harryhausen, all are par for the course on Athas.

MULS

Tough but impotent, these guys and girls are the elite troops of armies, as well as avowed hedonists. They'll cut off heads all morning then go to an Eyes Wide Shut party at night. Get along surprisingly well with elves.





DEFILERS & PRESERVERS

These people hide their mystical abilities and instead accrue power through political means, aided with a judicious charm spell or saxophone solo.




PART TWO: WEIRD ATHAS = MOEBIUS


But there are weird corners of Athas that do not map onto Mad Max so well, you might say. In that case, other inspirations can be drawn upon.

THRI-KREEN

Giant insect warriors do not fit so neatly with Mad Max, on the surface. But Athas is a desert setting, and thus can easily incorporate other desert-set fantasy worlds. French manga legend Moebius created a setting called The Airtight Garage, a huge desert world filled with all kinds of weirdness that could easily spill out into Athas.

A Mul giving a Thrill-Kreen (jouk) larva attached to a person the old ultra violence.


In Moebius' world, the Jouk is a humanoid insect race of fierce warriors who impregnate people with their larva, take over their minds, and use these pawns to enslave or destroy whole communities. PC Thri-Kreen could be eunuchs, or in a dormant state, waiting for the time or a whiff of pheromone to turn against the party and impregnate them all.

In fact, there is tons of desert weirdness that could easily be ported over from Moebius. The warrior Arzach on his giant pigeon steed. Major Gruber roaming the desert in search of adventure. You can ever go down the rabbithole of Jordorowsky's Dune.

PTERRANS

With all the cool shit I just gave you, you want to play a weak-ass kite dude? Seriously?

Sigh. OK.

Pterrans are these guys:




Brownie points if you know what film these flying terrors are from.



Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Go read Goblin Punch

Just want to say that Goblin Punch is writing some fantastically evocative posts, adding lots of atmospheric flesh to OD&D bones.

Check him out here.

My inferior posts will have to wait until the new semester settles.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Gumshoeing up Call of Cthulhu

The Need for Reread


So I am rereading the Swords of the Serpentine playlets materials and seeing all the mistakes I and players made. Although I have always added story flesh onto the bones of the rules, when I run older games, incorporating the rules encouraging story in Gumshoe games take some getting used to.

To help me conceptualize all this, I'm going to give a stab at making some simple story rules for Call of Cthulhu, probably my most played and run game, based on the Gumshoe concept of Investigative Abilities.


Investigative Abilities for Call of Cthulhu


First, the Occupation of each player character serves to define their Investigative Ability (IA).  An IA lets you get free clues and leads if reasonable for your character to do so, and by using attribute ratings as a pool of points, you can buy special, story effects. Note that using a pool point does NOT reduce the attribute, just how many pool points can be used. Points replenish when the adventure ends, or a major menace is defeated.

Players must give reasonable or interesting rationales for their pool spends. The strength of effects depends on how many points are spent. Here is a rule of thumb (something which I thought SotS sorely needed):

1 point spend: affects the scene
2 points spend: affects the character
3 points spend: affects the setting or NPCs
4 points spend: affects the game world

For instance, two characters, Paul the Policeman and Anne the Antiquarian, are on an adventure together trying to infiltrate a cult of Dagon worshippers.

Paul will automatically know that a homeless person found dead in the street was killed by cultists when he sees the corpse.

Additionally, he can spend 1 point of Intelligence, Education, Power, Appearance or to know common criminal lingo to be allowed in the door when he wants to bluff his way into their hideout.
He may spend 2 points of Power of Appearance to have an incredible resemblance to the cult leader (which the Keeper may use against him later in a reveal of family connection).
During the climatic battle when they are outnumbered, he can spend 3 points of Power or Appearance to establish a rival group of monster-hunters exist to help them fight.
Finally, he can spend 4 points of Power or Appearance to make all fishermen automatically have knowledge of the cult and ways to defeat their magics.

Similarly, Anne will automatically what tome a certain spell is from, and what language a book is written in, even if she cannot read it herself.

She can spend a point of Intelligence to remember the tunnelled over entrance into the back of a building they wish to enter secretly.
She can spend 2 points of Power to know a spell summoning a magical mist that lets them sneak away when in a pinch.
She can spend 3 points of Appearance to know a bookseller who lets them access his collection for important research.
Finally, with 4 points in Power she can insist that Poseidon exists and is an Elder God who opposes Dagon and helps those who do so when in peril.


Finally, players can also use their character descriptions to get bonuses to rolls. For every point spent, characters can get +1d6 to damage, 1d6 armour to soak damage, or +20% to a skill roll, or an automatic success for a roll.

Note that these IA may seem overpowered at first glance. However, when you recall that the Keeper has endless resources to throw at PCs, incorporating Investigative Abilities and their story effects constitute a type of false hope that fits well with Lovecraftean cosmic horror, while allowing the sometimes stead mechanics of CoC to better replicate the weirdness and coincidence of the fiction that inspired it.


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Swords of the Serpentine, rules bloat, and storyfying D&D

I just finished my Swords of the Serpentine (SotS) playtest! The designer, Kevin Kulp, tweeted out the blurb I sent to Pelgrane. Good stuff!






I loved SotS's focus on simple mechanics that allow player choices to shape the story. A lot of the advice on getting players to provide setting details are practices that I have already used for years, such as having players create atmosphere by having them recount travails of long journeys. It is just nice to see these techniques as an official part of a game. These narrative practices are backed up by mechanics, such as attributes that represent both a value, as well as a pool that can be spent to affect rolls or buy story effects.

In SotS, you use a handful of Investigative and General abilities to shape the world, and thus the story. This allows the game to retain a lot of the simple magic of fantasy roleplaying, which I found dwindling away when I played 3E and 4E briefly. The feel of freedom created by exchanging long lists of KEWL POWURZ for simple narrative mechanics replicates well what Dr Bargle called the Pathetic Aesthetic of the (original, pre 5E) OSR.

I think SotS will be a great antidote to the rules bloat seen in the progression of D&D over editions. With the inclusion of Proficiencies, then Feats & Abilities, D&D killed lots of the magic of play for me by trying to mechanically codify all actions with new rule subsystems. 4e went too far with rules for my taste, while 5e seems a step back to the rulings over rules mode of the original, pre 5E OSR movement.

That said, old D&D and other FRPGS were far from perfect. The OSR added lots of much needed shot of improvisational freedom to gaming, a thing which was lacking when I started playing back in the 80s, when a cult of TSR 'sanctioned' rules defined how many played and ran the game. So instead of going into SotS here, I'd like to think about ways retroclones can be storified in SotS style to promote improvisational DMing and emergent play.

BETTER PRIME REQUISITES

First, the Prime Requisite (PR) of each class serves as 1) an indication of free actions, for which no roll is needed 2) a value for difficult skill tests, and 3) a pool of points to be spent for story effects.

For fighters, Strength is the PR, thus any minor action involving Strength does not require a roll but succeeds naturally. For instance, climbing a rope, lifting a barrel, or doing anything a strong person could requires no roll to succeed for a Fighter, whereas other classes would have to make a simple roll. Also, any Strength based action requiring a difficult test for other classes would only require a simple one for Fighters. For example, breaking down an iron door, holding onto a dragon's back, etc. Note that I use d20 resolution for simple tests and d100 for difficult ones, but other DMs are free to use their own system.

Finally, a Fighter player can spend a point of Strength to earn a story effect. Note that this spending doesn't reduce the Strength value for tests, but instead is a limited pool of points that only regenerates after the adventure ends, even if it runs over several sessions, forcing players to spend points wisely. Players are encouraged to creatively narrate the effect, and DMs should refuse boring or unimaginative uses. For instance, a buy of 1 point  could allow an unarmed fighter to bend farming tool into a sword for one encounter, or intimidate 1 NPC / monster, or hold onto a ceiling and stay out of sight as a too powerful foe passes.

Other classes can do the same with their PRs. Dexterity for Thieves, Intelligence for Magic Users, and Wisdom for Clerics would offer similar benefits and opportunities to shape the story for players of these classes. Doing so uses the pre-existing attribute system without bloating the rules with ultimately limiting Feats or other subsystems, and instead offering players the chance to use their imagination to shape the story in ways that will surprise and entertain all at the gaming table.

PS: If anyone wants to hear how running SotS went, drop me a line!


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

In Over Their Heads Game Starters

There's nothing worse than playing a game that starts off with kid gloves. The book cover may have demons or dragons on it, but you'll never see them because you give up after 3 sessions of killing goblins.

I say bollocks to that. Here instead are some adventure starters that throw the PCs in way over their heads, and give them seeds that can grow into long running background adventure arcs. Each seed requires PCs to have special knowledge, either the dying words of a VIP NPC, a treasure map, or perhaps ancient prophecy. Each also has the possibility of the PCs dying if they try a head on confrontation with a superior foe.

1) The Lich Queen crashes elven spring festival, decimating the revellers and taking over the elven community. The PCs have to fight their way out a side entrance past her skeletal minions, and make their way to the mound where she slept to find a way of defeating her.


2) A flight of dragons is burning all villages out of the hex, driving people from their homes. A dwarf king has a Helm of Dragon control, and can only be stopped by a strike force ready to sneak into the mountain kingdom he has carved out.


3) Sahaguin invade the coastal cities, sending waves of refugees inland. All adventurers are sent to push the water-breathers back into the depths, but only the PCs know they must first travel to the deep desert to find the lost holy city of Sahaguin and the relic that can force the invaders back underwater.

4) A demon stalks the streets of the city, mutilating citizens and desecrating holy sites. He's too powerful to tackle head on, but the PCs know that by tracking down the cult that summoned him, they can destroy the magic that keeps him in this realm.

Feel free to add your own!

Swords of the Serpentine Playtest

So I signed up to playtest Swords of the Serpentine from Pelgrane Press. I've got 5 players and we pull the trigger on February 25th!



It is a delicious, old school feeling story game that mashes Lankhmar, Conan, and the Discworld all into one glorious local gonzo setting.

Here is the sizzler blurb I wrote for my players:


Welcome to Eversink.

Except no one here ever calls it that. Eversink is the name written on maps and musty tomes. It's the name pronounced at ceremonies and in foreign courts.

You're likely to get your throat slit calling it that, here.

The newly-arrived call it Everstink, as their nose is assailed by the stench of mud, blood, and offal floating in the Serpentine RIver that runs through the city.

To sellswords & soldiers it is Bettershank, as in 'Better to shank first.' It is a policy that'll keep you alive in the backstreets of the southside, or the noble houses of the north.

The scouts, spies & sneakthieves have named it Shadowslink, the place where they feel safe to steal whatever secrets can bring them the most fortune.

The believers of Denare call it The Shining City. Everyone else jokes that is true if you count the oily skin on the lower half of the river.

Power hungry sorcerers call it the Whorl, for they see the maw of energy that swirls over the mundane streets as the turgid river flows between and under them.

The guard just call it 'here,' most likely used in the phrase 'What's going on here, then?' They have no time worrying about words when they are busting heads to keep the city from falling apart, or else keep food on their table.

The nobles and artisans avoid naming the place together, instead referring only to the district they are going to or coming from. They speak of the Estates where they live, the Works where goods are made and sold, the Farms on the outskirts that feed the city, and the Markets where everything has a price. Everything below that is Southside, where nobles only go when they want something ignoble done.

Now how's about a few coins in thanks for saving you a lot of trouble, gov?


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Cyberpunk - Combat Environment

So I am re-watching the original Ghost in the Shell. It is epic. A masterpiece.




I just finished the first fight between the Major and the ghost using high velocity bullets. So many concepts (brain-wiped goons, throngs of people, abandoned quarters of the city) are crammed into this one sequence. More than that, the environment is depicted as a major factor in the combat, as it should be.




To replicate this in my games, I've brainstormed a few tables. A good GM should make a few rolls and determine the combat environment and interpret it for the players. Feel free to disregard or preroll conflicting entries (ie school zone billowing smoke, unless this fits your dystopic future).




SETTING TYPE

1 Sewer. Endless tunnels below the city, huge architecture, deafening echoes and running water, startling vermin.
2 Public transport. A monorail or subway, cramped quarters, good for taking hostages, or blowing up.
3 The docks. Boats and ships to jump between, deep ocean to fall into, sandbars to kung fu on.
4 The factories. Chimneys to climb or jump from, gantries to clomp across, chemical tanks to walk around or shoot holes in, pipes to hurdle or rupture.
5 The canals. Little boats to overturn, footbridges, knee deep water, fish swimming among rusty bicycles and consumer society detritus.
6 A shopping arcade. Shoppers to shove aside, displays to overturn, noisy pachinko parlours to run through, spilling hundreds of little balls behind you.
8 A park. Green spaces and trees to hide behind, civilians to scare or take hostage, duck ponds to splash through, fountains to blow up.
9 A residential area. Houses to barge into, stop signs to chop down or blow past, chest high concrete walls to leap or plough through.
12 Rows of concrete apartments. Roofs to leap between, exterior stairwells to climb on, cramped apartments to blunder through.
13 Parking lots. 50% either cars to crash into or duck behind and fire back from, or else heavy industrial vehicles, cranes and trucks that you can shimmy under or hunker behind.
14 School zone. Uh oh, kids gawking, police boxes on the corner.
15 Highway. Cars and trucks to dodge, or carjack, ramps to jump up or down to, good to parasail off of.
16 Traditional temple, shrine, or palace. Quiet, moss covered, dripping water and clacking bamboo pipes, perfect for silent showdown.
17 Private grounds of a corporation or embassy. Hedge walls, sudden sprinkler systems, security drones with machine-guns.
18 High rise building. Plexiglass to shatter, elevators shafts to fall down, climb up, or throw people into, boardrooms and reception desks to shoot up.
19 Laboratory or computer server room. Climate controlled, needs enviro-suits, fills with deafening alarms and security bots during a disturbance, blast doors also clamp down. Everything that happens is recorded on security cameras.
20 Air strip or space port. Big metal vehicles to hide behind or jump onto as they taxi for takeoff. Security forces arrive quickly - no one wants a terrorist incident.

SOUND (match to above environment or else roll 3d6 for random effect)

3 Deafening roar from machinery, vehicles, or people. Forget listen rolls, easy to get surprised or surprise.
4-5 Loud area, can't hear for shit. Communication only through yelling, gives away your position.
6-8 Loud enough. Can hear if enemy makes a big ruckus, otherwise as pervious entry.
9-12 Normal background noise. You might hear them if you stop everything and listen, then get a lucky roll.
13-15 Quiet. Failed listen roll gives you general direction, a success lets you pinpoint it.
16-17 Very quiet. You can hear each other easily, and pinpoint location with a successful listen roll.
18 You can hear a pin drop. You play cat and mouse game of listening to each other's movement, skulking about, then re-adjusting position before striking.

VISIBILITY  (match to above environment or else roll 3d6 for random effect)

3 Blind after a few inches from smoke, industrial particulate in air, or weather. Irritates eyes, giving a 25% penalty to rolls unless eye protection worn or implanted. Rely on other senses if possible.
4-5 Blind after a few meters / yards from smoke, industrial particulate in air, or weather. Irritates eyes, giving a 10% penalty to rolls unless eye protection worn or implanted. Rely on other senses if possible.
6-8 Intermittent visibility. Can sneak easily, invisible with a good roll.
9-12 Normal urban visibility. Can sneak with a good roll.
13-15 Normal visibility. Can hide with a good roll, hard to sneak about.
16-17 Clear visibility. Can hide with a good roll, hard to sneak.
18 Pure clarity. Everyone gets a 5% bonus to hit each other,

BYSTANDERS

3 Jam packed, can only inch forward, bystanders going to die if shooting starts, easy to blend into though.
4-5 Highly populated, you need to yell or push people aside to advance, but slows you by half.
6-8 Clumps of people milling about. You can run between people if you make an agility roll, otherwise as above.
9-12 Normal, people are witnesses, but not in the way.
13-15 Quiet, 50% chance 1-4 people are around if shit goes down.
16-17 Silent streets. Only 10% chance of a single guard or wanderer on scene when action happens.
18 Abandoned or cordoned off area. No one but us and them.

COVER AVAILABILITY

3 Nothing. Guess you have to stand and juke the shots and hope you get lucky first.
4-5 Shit all. Cover only if you crawl on all fours and hide.
6-8 Kiddie cover. You have to hunker down to get any protection.
9-12 Decent. You can stand and shoot leaning around corners.
13-15 Great. Lots of strategic places to get a good shot from if you take a minute to set up.
16-17 Cover cover everywhere. Alternately, hard to get a clear shot at anyone. Everyone has half cover automatically.
18 Too many places to hide and hunker down. Better use your ears to find your foe and sneak up on them.

COVER DURABILITY

3 Like tissue paper. May hide you, but won't stop a fly.
4-5 Cardboard paper. Might reduce damage if you're lucky, 10% chance.
6-8 Plywood or plastic. May stop the first shot from low caliber weapons, that's about it.
9-12 Wooden or thin metal. May stop the first shot from medium caliber weapons, reduce explosive damage by 1/10.
13-15 Stone. May stop the first shot from high caliber weapons, reduce explosive damage by 1/2.
16-17 Concrete. Reduces damage from heavy weapons, but with a chance of shrapnel.
18 Steel girders, perfect cover to reload or think behind.

SMELL

3 Sickening stench from abandoned garbage, or chemical smells from industrial process. Penalty of 10% to all rolls unless filtration (mask or internal) is available.
4-5 Fetid, penalty of 5% to all rolls unless filtration (mask or internal) is available.
6-8 Dirty city smells, but nothing you can't handle.
9-12 Normal city funk, you don't even notice it anymore.
13-15 Smells clean, like after a rain.
16-17 Pleasant aroma, cherry blossoms in spring or leaves in fall.
18 Clean air, a fresh day your nose will never forget. Small chance to sniff out something chemically, like machine oil or gunpowder.

ENEMY STRENGTH

3 Heavily armed and armoured. Power armour or mini-mech, military grade weapons do 1 shot kill damage. Need to use the terrain and your wits if you want to survive.
4-5 Cyber psycho, 2/3 or more cybernetic. Tough slog head-to-head, needs strategy and heavy weapons to bring down.
6-8 Cyberpunk, 1/3 or more cybernetic. Tough, but can be outwitted and outgunned.
9-12 Combat trained, one implant useful for combat, assault rifle or SMG. Typical guardsman or police officer.
13-15 Trained, fully human. Your gear and implants give you the advantage, but they might have numbers.
16-17 Fully human, but with minimal gear, bulletproof vest, 1-2 reloads. They come in numbers, can be sent packing with a show of force or brutality.
18 Puh-lease. Rent a cops or poser boys, low impact weapons with no reloads. Will run at the first sign of being outmatched.

RANDOM COLOUR

3 Mega passenger plane slides slowly overhead.
4 Giant billboards for old products stand rotting away.
5 Crowds of school kids in uniforms rush by.
6 Traditional festival parade marches by, people in loincloths chanting and lifting a portable shrine.
7 Robot vending machine starts its routine on PCs.
8 A 3 wheeled mini truck blares out advertisements for noodles, baked sweet potatoes, or recycling.
9 Motorcycle punks drive slowly by, revving engines, waving flags, and trying to make eye contact to start a brawl.
10 A politician on a speaker van drones on about his platform while commuters flash by unheeding.
11 A giant hologram Godzilla stomps by, bellowing out an ad for candy.
12 A crane stalks fish in a canal.
13 A line of taxis idles while drivers either sleep inside or chat while smoking.
14 Masked youth spray paint revolutionary slogans on the walls.
15 A riot police armoured bus drives by filled with cops in full gear.
16 Kids in VR helmets chase each other about shooting at each other with fingers and yelling ZAP! BEEYOW!
17 A homeless man with a cardboard sign sits staring at space.
18 A begging monk stands chanting, cup held out for donations, wicker hat obscuring his or her face.

2019 Plans & No Whiffs Houserule

Hi all!

(crickets chirping)

Well, in case anyone ever reads this blog, I am alive.

I've survived my first year as prof. One more day of classes then it is just meetings, research, and free time till April.

My Advanced Media students surprised me with this meme!
Best class I ever taught!


Whew! OK, hobby plans for the new year:

1) I hope to get my backlog of posts finished and out. Lots of aged fantasy stuff, but also newer Cyberpunk material. Maybe ever some Weird Japan or Chanbara support. Art?

2) Actual play reports (gasp!). I hope to run Swords of the Serpentine (by Pelgrane, whose play test I've signed up for), as well as Spirit of 77.

I actually sat in on a session of D&D 5E last week and had a blast. The character they assigned me didn't do much (he played the fiddle while others fought goblins, and no, not a bard), but it was fun just to be at a table.

It has inspired me to create the following house rule:

NO MORE WHIFFS HOUSERULE


In combats for D&D or similar one roll to hit games, when both sides of a combat miss each other (commonly called a whiff), the higher roll (after all modifications) is considered a hit and damage is rolled.

Note that players on the receiving end of damage under this rule might cry foul, so before implementing this change make sure 1) all players are onboard with it and the reasons for using the rule (ie to speed up combat), and 2) they are aware of and accept the fact that they are just as likely to get a hit as they are to give one