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Friday 25 September 2020

Let me be ruled by laws, not by men

"It is the spirit of the game, not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rule book upon you, if it goes against the obvious intent of the game. As you hew the line with respect to conformity to major systems and uniformity of play in general, also be certain the game is mastered by you and not your players. Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are the creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, your campaign next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be. May you find as much pleasure in so doing as the rest of us do!"
That's Gary Gygax's idea of roleplaying. I'm in the opposite camp. Like John Adams, I want to be ruled by laws, not by men, and I don't like autocrats. The "story" of a roleplaying game is there to be discovered by the players. It might well be different for each player. Roleplaying is not is one person telling everybody else a story. You want to do that, go write a novel. If a player points out that the rules contradict the story you'd got planned, don't throw your toys out of the pram. Embrace it. There's another story waiting to emerge, and probably a better one than your not-even-a-novel.

When Gazza grumbles about barrack-room lawyers, I'm guessing a player called him on his own rules. I don't mind that. I'm glad of any group that includes a rules maven, as I can never remember the rules even when I wrote them myself. The ideal rules are capable of covering any eventuality and might only rarely get looked at. You can have a great game (and usually a better game) when there are hardly any dice rolls. The rules are only needed when they're needed, an impartial court of appeal that any player can turn to so that the referee at the end of the table doesn't get too big for his or her boots.

"But I want to be told a story!" What are you, five? Still, OK, that's fine. À chacun son goût. Personally I would always rather have an outcome delivered by my own choices and by dice rolls than one prearranged by the referee to fit a plot, but you don't have to invoke the rules at any point. If you're happy to jump through the referee's story hoops, sit back and enjoy it. Seems like you'd be Gary's ideal player.

An honest cop doesn't carp about a guy knowing his rights. Running with that analogy, we all hope to live our lives without recourse to the law, and most of the time we can. But it's good to know, if you're innocent but on the spot, that laws exist that ensure you're treated without fear or favour. And even if you're not innocent, in fact; only a brute or a twit dreams of a world where cops mete out their own justice without deferring to the law.

We don't live our lives accepting government by somebody who says, "Never mind the rules, I know what's best." So why would we play games that way?

Friday 18 September 2020

Don't call him Chun!

Before you read a word of this scenario, written by Oliver Johnson and originally published in White Dwarf 58, for goodness’ sake read Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. If you’ve already read it, read it again. Imprint it on your mind, because this is the literary equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to a Fabergé egg collection. I don’t know what Oliver was thinking (he admires Vance as much as I do) but we were young and we had to pay the rent.

To minimize the vandalism and to preserve the mystery and wonder of the original stories, I’ve changed the names. Chun the Unavoidable (never described in the story, and therefore all the scarier) becomes Papu the Ineluctable here, and so on. I’ve left archveults and IOUN stones because D&D already laid its sticky fingerprints all over those. Why am I even publishing it, then, you ask? Because Games Workshop didn’t buy the copyright, it’s Oliver’s scenario, and completists may want to see it. But those are excuses, of course, not explanations.

All right, don't say you haven't been warned…


a Dying Earth scenario by Oliver Johnson

The following short adventure is based on “Liane the Wayfarer”, one of Jack Vance's excellent fantasy stories from the first Dying Earth collection. It provides a basis for introducing some of Vance's creatures to the campaign – particularly appropriate because Vance was one of Gary Gygax's prime sources of inspiration.

Lith the Weaver has entered into an infernal agreement with Papu the Ineluctable, a supernatural being who is custodian of the Tapestry of Ariventa in the Palace of Whispers. In exchange for the human eyeballs with which his cloak is embroidered, Papu gives Lith a thread or two of the tapestry. Lith is gradually reweaving the tapestry in her cottage. When it is complete, the tapestry forms a gateway to the magical world of Ariventa, where the process of ageing is arrested and all the fields and orchards are perpetually golden with harvest. The tapestry is now, after many years' work and grisly payment on Lith's part, almost half restored.

As the characters are travelling across moorland close to the Forest of Illimitable Green, which is on their left, strange blue scaled and crested humanoids burst from the bushes — an ambush!

No Appearing: 1-20
Armour Class: As worn, usually 5
Movement: 12"
Hit Dice: 1+1
Treasure: Individuals N, S,T
Attack: By weapon type or galvanic impulse
Alignment: Any Intelligence: Average and up

Archveults are an intelligent species from another world. They have shimmering blue scales, a large black crest over the domed skull, and a hooked beak/snout, but otherwise essentially humanoid in form. Archveults can reach 12th level as fighters and 9th level as assassins or thieves, but are not restricted at all as to level of magic-use. There are no archveult clerics.

All archveults have the special ability to generate an electrical discharge through their bodies which will cause a character touched to pass out for 2-12 rounds if a saving throw vs paralysis is not made. Whether or not the save is successful, the character will take 1-4 points of damage. Once the galvanic impulse has been used, an archveult will take 10-60 minutes to build up the electrical charge for a second such attack.

Archveults mine IOUN stones (see Dungeon Master’s Guide), and any archveult magic-user of 4th level or higher has a 10% chance of having 1-10 Stones.

Archveults are only encountered on this world in small adventuring groups of 1-20 individuals. This particular group of bandit archveults consists of:
  • Xexamedes: 5th level archveult magic-user; AC9; HP15; Move: 12"; Spells: friends, jump, magic missile, shield, strength, web, lightning bolt; six IOUN stones (types 2, 4, 6, 6, 7, 14); 6 platinum pieces.
  • Xexamedes' bodyguard — Three 2nd level archveult fighters; AC4; HP11, 9, 10; one attack at 1-8 (longsword); each has 1 platinum piece, one has a Potion of Healing.
If Xexamedes is searched, a small map will be found, showing a clearing in the Forest of Illimitable Green. It also mentions the Tapestry of Ariventa, apparently a gateway to another world.

As the characters are passing through the forest they eventually come across a cottage in a picturesque clearing. All is not well, however, for a muffled sobbing can be heard within. On closer investigation they find a beautiful woman lying on the floor before a tapestry stretched on a frame. It appears to have been torn in half, the remaining. section showing a pleasing panorama of golden fields and meadows where happy folk cavort and play.

Looking up, the woman blurts out, 'I am Lith. The tapestry you see before you is the last artistic representation of the paradise of Ariventa. It has been rent by the monster Papu the Ineluctable, who but half an hour ago burst in and ravished me before tearing my cherished tapestry in a spirit of gleeful malice. Track him down to his haunt and bring back the half of the tapestry he has taken — he cannot be far hence — and my gratitude will be forever yours.'

Any ranger, and any thief or assassin above 3rd level, will spot the inhuman tracks leading from Lith's cottage. (A ranger of greater than 3rd level will also notice that the tracks have been made on more than one occasion in the last week or so.) Lith will not accompany the party. If anyone attempts to coerce her, she will call on the magical defence which protects her within her cottage: daggers which materialize out of the air. She can call on up to twenty daggers. Each strikes as a 6th level fighter. After striking once, a dagger will disappear forever, so Lith will be sparing in their use.

Lith: 3rd level MU; AC10; HP6; Chaotic Neutral. Spells — friends, dancing lights, pyrotechnics.

The tracks lead out of the woods onto a barren moor. An ancient city must once have stood here; as far as the eye can see are ruined plazas, shattered columns and low, crumbling walls. High above in the sky, the characters notice what at first seem to be half a dozen hawks or large bats. They swoop down from an immense height, nearly blacking out the sun with their enormous wings. More closely, the characters can see the possibility of many antecedents combined in a single nightmarish hybrid—each has a globular belly covered with silvery fur, claw-like hands on dingy leather wings, a horny snout like that of a stag beetle, an array of white fangs like knife blades... They emit almost human cries of pleasure as they swoop to attack.

No Appearing: 1-12
Armour Class: 6
Movement: 6"/24"
Hit Dice: 2d8+ 1
Treasure: None
Attack: 1 bite/claw for 1-8
Intelligence: Average

They are about five feet long and have a fifteen foot wingspan. Vicious predators, they will attack anything that appears vaguely edible. They are not stupid, however, and will break off any combat if necessary.

Passing further into the ruins, the characters discover a partially ruined grotto. Standing in a recess is a beautiful black statue of a strange being. It is draped with creepers and blotched with patches of moss.

This is not a statue but a creature called a teostalt. It will wait until the characters pass before leaping to attack them from the rear. If they do pass, characters should be automatically surprised.

No Appearing: 1
Armour Class: 3
Movement: 15"
Hit Dice: 6d8+ 1
Treasure: 30% chance of 1-3 pieces of jewellery
Attack: Two claws for 2-9 each
Alignment: Chaotic Evil
Intelligence: Average to high
Notes: Surprises a party on 1-5; is never itself surprised

Perhaps created by some ancient magician, teostalts have the form of a handsomely muscled man with dull sable skin, and slit golden eyes like a cat's. Teostalts are able to remain motionless for many hours at a time in order to catch their victims unawares. Their only food is human flesh, which they desire with a constant and terrible craving. They will often taunt people they are pursuing, or implore them to surrender in tones mockingly plaintive. Teostalts are about human sized on average.

Further on, the tracks are lost on the edge of a broad plaza bordered by broken pillars. Many long-dead corpses lie around — both of noble fighters and serfs, bound together only by death and the fact that their eyeballs have been gouged out. Ahead there is a ruinous temple, its inner recesses lost in shadow. A curious whispering noise seems to come softly from all around, but the characters cannot make out what is being said.

They approach the temple and enter its pillared hall. On the far wall, above an altar carved to represent thousands of tormented faces, they see the golden radiance of the other half of the tapestry. No sound can be heard now. The susurration they noticed outside has gone. They cannot see any other entrances to the building apart from the one they entered by, but the dust on the floor here has not been disturbed for some time.

By standing on the altar stone, characters can easily reach the tapestry. As they take it down, they uncover a dark recess in the wall behind it. From this leaps Papu the Ineluctable.

Papu the Ineluctable
No Appearing: 1
Armour Class: 1
Movement: 15"
Hit Points 36 (from 8 dice)
Treasure: G, H
Attack: Two claws for 2-16 each, surprises on a 1-6
Special Attacks: Surprised characters must save vs fear (at +1) or stand defenceless for 1-3 rounds.
Special Defences: Cannot be surprised.

Papu's face resembles that of a large baboon, the white face patch composed of bare bone, with empty sockets where the nose and eyes should be. The rest of his enormous body is covered with black, glistening fur and there is about him a noxious animal reek. He wears a cloak of human eyeballs laced on silk threads. Papu runs with ferocious speed on all fours after anyone who attempts to escape him. He tears the eyes from his victims and laces these onto his cloak. After slaying any group of adventurers whom Lith dupes into going after him, he detaches some threads from the tapestry and takes them to her cottage as repayment.

Papu is very large — he would stand some eighteen feet tall if upright. He takes his soubriquet from a special magic power. Once on a victim's trail, he can follow unerringly until the victim is caught. Even travelling to another dimensional plane will not shake off Papu's pursuit.

It may seem that Lith cannot lose out in this scenario — if the players defeat Papu, how will they ever know they've been suckered? In order to give them a chance to lay the blame where it belongs and exact revenge on Lith, have Papu speak to himself while he is fighting. 'Ah, Lith, you have sent fine sets of eyes for me this time!' That should give them enough of a clue. The players may take the tapestry back to Lith, and she will indeed be grateful (after her initial shock of seeing the players alive). Unfortunately, she doesn't actually have anything of value to give them as reward. The players may themselves engineer the situation so that they can use the tapestry. In this case, the referee will have to work out the results — perhaps a campaign set in the world of Ariventa?

Tuesday 15 September 2020

The fire-god's forge

If you listened to Jamie's interview on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, you might have been intrigued by the glancing reference to a project called Vulcanverse. I'll let Jamie explain it:
"The world itself is based on the premise that the god Vulcan is tired of mankind embracing virtual worlds and pushing the gods out of their lives, so instead of fading into the sunset, he embraces it by creating these four quadrants of land. The books will be a prequel to the virtual game, documenting the journey from technology and atheism taking over to the point when the old gods must choose either to fade into memory or to take things into their own hands."
In strictly game-terms it's a Second Life type virtual world in which players can own land and construct and trade their own assets. As this article explains, there are in-world creatures called vulcanites, virtual pets that I'm hoping could mean that something like my Mean Genes idea could finally get developed. (In a nutshell: players can breed and train a stable of nonhuman gladiators who then compete online, and others can watch the gladiatorial battles as a virtual sport whether or not they actually compete themselves.) I thought that one up at Eidos over twenty years ago but couldn't get anyone then to understand it. Now that e-sports are big business and Minecraft has shown the value of user-created content in virtual "playground worlds", maybe these guys will make it happen. Ian Livingstone, who was chairman of Eidos back then, is also involved in Vulcanverse so I'm keeping my fingers (and claws, and mandibles, and tentacles) crossed that we'll see a lot of gaming there.

Of course, in a freely configurable virtual world I could put Mean Genes together myself. That's the beauty of these virtual environments. They are (as I tried explaining to the Eidos execs in the original Mean Genes overview doc back in 1997) the equivalent of a playing field and a ball -- and lots of other things besides -- and you can use them to create games or theatre or tourist spots or sports or political rallies or discussion groups or whatever you like, just the way you can in the real world. I don't know what Vulcan would think of that, but Prometheus would surely approve.

CORRECTION (15/09/20): Ian Livingstone is not a partner in the Vulcanverse venture, at least not at the time of writing. I know it says so in the press release I linked to above, but it also says I'm a partner and in fact I only heard about it last week! So, well worth investing in (I hear they raised over a quarter of a million dollars from sales of plots on the first day) just don't expect a Fighting Fantasy connection.

Friday 11 September 2020

A wizard prang

I never have managed to get a game of Ars Magica up and running, despite at least two concerted attempts. We even got as far as full character sheets. Why didn't it happen? Perhaps the degree of world-building needed looked too daunting -- though you wouldn't expect that to deter a group battle-hardened by Tekumel and Glorantha.

Mike and Roger were talking about it this month on their Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice podcast. I'll put money on their campaign happening before mine. (I'd even consider putting money on their campaign actually happening.) And I was reminded of one aspect of the Ars Magica rules that was certainly original but that never thrilled me. The troupe system.

I prefer to really steep myself in a character, which means one character at a time. In Ars Magica you play the magi and also their companions (non-wizardly adventuring friends) and sometimes the magi's servants ("grogs") -- the point being that the magi initiate things and formulate plans, but they don't all swan off adventuring together on a regular basis. For me, one of the line-up would feel like my real character and the other two would just be NPCs that I'd play for the sake of the campaign.

The reason for the troupe is that you typically have your group of players turning up each time, and nobody wants to sit out in the kitchen, so the magus/companion/grog arrangement ensures there's always a character for everybody to play. But hang on a tick. If you're playing online, you're no longer constrained by the need to physically assemble a limited number of players at the same time each week. Now you could have some players take the magi; they might be the ones who can't turn up regularly or who are living a long way off and couldn't travel to a physical session anyway. A different group of players could then take the companions. You can assemble a regular game around whoever can show up (usually the companions and one or two of the magi) and keep the grand planning between the magi for special sessions.

There must have been a point where somebody said, "What about if we got two different actors to play Cordelia and the Fool?" Playing over the internet is meant to shake things up. There are different and possibly better ways for your players to enjoy themselves. So I think it's worth considering, at least.

By-the-bye, I like the idea of some characters playing strategically while others get their hands dirty. You could use it for an SOE game -- any war-based campaign come to that. Or it could be a Star Trek style exploration game, with the regular weekly players comprising the away team and those who only have odd moments through the week playing the bridge crew.

Also it occurs to me Ars Magica would be a great system for a Wizards of Grand Motholam campaign. Now will I buckle down and run it? I guess we'll see.

Friday 4 September 2020

Hear ye! Hear ye!

"There are going to be at least twelve Dragon Warriors books, surely," said the chief sales rep at Transworld as he drove me and Oliver around the country to run demo games for the book buyers.

That was thirty-five years ago, before the distributors messed up (they sent all the copies of DW book 1 to one part of the country, all the copies of book 2 to another) and the foreign rights department turned down a gold-plated deal from Gallimard.

Well, stuff happens. Dragon Warriors stopped at book 6, The Lands of Legend, and one calamitous consequence of that was Robert Dale's brilliant campaign set around the town of Brymstone never reached the wider audience it deserved.

Actually, part of it did get published a few years later. Jamie and I were offered the editorship of a new RPG magazine to be called Red Giant. We turned the job down (the title was the sticking point) but we did recommend the publishers get in touch with Robert about serializing Brymstone.

Red Giant sadly only lasted two issues, but roleplayers had got a glimpse of Brymstone at least. Over the years, its reputation rightly grew. But it's been like finding the Finnesburg Fragment -- until now, because (fanfare please) Serpent King Games have done a deal with Robert Dale to release his complete, definitive, remastered Brymstone. Read about it here.

I gather it's going to be a big book but (continuing last week's theme) none of that is extraneous padding or overscripted acts and beats. It's a true sourcebook packed with everything you'll need to run freeform adventures with Brymstone as a base -- the NPCs, key locations, rivalries, alliances, grudges, folktales, customs, and adventure seeds -- whether or not your player-characters engage with the épine dorsale, namely Robert's compelling central plotline of gathering danger, dread and doom.

Talking of the central plot, the big bad of this book is the Brollachan, a mythical creature with no true form that's said to take the shape of what you most fear -- or those you most trust. I still feel a shudder when I remember our encounters with it in Robert's original campaign. Dragon Warriors players have a treat in store.

Thursday 3 September 2020

And the rest you discover...

"We love writing ourselves into a corner. We love it. Because then it activates all of those how-do-we-get-out-of-purgatory juices. And then you get the next bright idea."

That's Mr Robert Downey Jr summing up the creative approach of the Russo brothers. He says a bit about improvisation so there might be some springboard tips there for roleplayers.

Big news tomorrow for Dragon Warriors players. See you then.