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Thursday 24 June 2021

"A Hole in the World" (scenario)

You’d think multiple successful careers as an inspiring writer, captivating speaker and entertaining & informative broadcaster would be enough for Tim Harford. On top of that he’s a devoted husband and father, a steadfast friend, and one of the very nicest people you could ever hope to meet. But we, his gaming chums, know that he was really put on this world to run great RPG sessions just for us. Readers of the blog look forward to his enchanting Christmas specials for Legend. He created the Immortal Spartans and Company of Bronze campaigns that I’ve written about here from time to time, and another of his casually executed acts of genius was to conceive the Conclave game, loosely based on Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories.

After Tim’s Conclave campaign wound up, I ran a two-part session to fill in for the fact that my planned Yellow King campaign had been aborted. This adventure is set in Tim’s archipelago world which I assume is a lot like Earthsea (I still haven’t read the books) but you could port it across to another game world, with or without lots of water. Central to the concept, though, is that the players are mostly great wizards, and this is a world where magic really is powerful. It doesn’t matter how skilled a swordsman or thief you are, any of the wizard characters can ningauble you without working up a sweat.

There are several magical disciplines. Most wizards specialize in three or four of these, but all learn the art of Naming because that is a prerequisite for many other enchantments. Knowing the true name of a thing means that your magic will automatically work on it. For example, if you use Change magic on a rabbit and you know its true name then your statement has the full force of reality; the rabbit becomes whatever you say it is. Most of the time, though, you won’t know the full name of something. The rabbit can’t tell you, so you’d need to infer as much of its true name as you can, using the root name class for animals and then mammals and then leporids – I’m guessing here. The point is that you roll your Name skill first, and your degree of success in that modifies your roll for Find or Mend or Change or whatever. If you fail the Name roll, forget it; you can’t derive the name you need so your magic won’t work.

Tim came up with a very elegant rule system. I won’t recount it here as he might one day want to expand it and publish it (when those multiple other careers don’t get in the way) but you can soon whip up your own. All you need to know in what follows is that Vigour stands for stamina and strength; Skill is imagination, dexterity and intelligence; Wisdom is knowledge, fortitude and judgement. If like me you’re too lazy to read the books, the Isolate Tower has a handy glossary of magical terms, of which the main categories seem to be as follows:
  • Change - turn a thing into something else (major) 
  • Find - locate a lost item or person 
  • Gate - opens and seals paths and portals
  • Healing 
  • Illusion
  • Mend - fix a broken object
  • Naming – the key to most of the other magical disciplines
  • Pattern - scrying and discerning hidden connections (major)
  • Send - project your image; the image can speak and sense, but not physically or magically act on its surroundings; cannot cross water, but otherwise has no limit on distance.
  • Summon - bring an object or person (living or dead) to you (major)
  • Weather – control wind, rain, fog, and so on
So, to summon a wind you would first try to intuit its name (Naming roll) then make a Weather roll. If somebody is trusting enough to tell you their true name, your magic will always work on them.

Wizards are not supposed to profligately make use of magic. In Le Guin’s stories, a "good" wizard would sail a boat from island to island and sit becalmed for days rather than conjure a wind. "Bad" wizards seem to be those who actually apply what they know. (So, pretty much the way Jedi and Sith operate in Star Wars.) In the game, lacking a specific mechanic or even a logical explanation for why we should restrict our use of magic, the player-characters were soon flinging spells about without a qualm. If you want your game to play out more like a Le Guin story, I suggest something like:
  • Use of magic depletes the local mana, making further magic progressively harder 
  • Every use of magic has a reaction – good winds one day will mean dead calm the next, etc.
  • Unrestricted use of magic affects the wizard’s health. 
  • The College of Hythe polices magic – use it too freely and they will discipline you.
Another point about this world: magic is dominated by the wizards’ college on the island of Hythe, which is said to lie at the heart of the archipelago. The college is all-male, making it difficult for women to study magic openly. Any female PCs will probably conceal their gender as Golpas does in this scenario.

At the Tip of the World
The player-characters are all wizards. One of them has his home on the island of Skryp, the easternmost of the known isles. He has noticed that several local lads (Flintoy, Ratch, and Witkin) who went off to sea last year have returned from their voyages with much greater wealth than anyone expected. Some might suspect them of having turned to piracy, explaining the silks and pearls they gave their wives, but the player-character knows they are honest men.

The truth, which the characters will have to ascertain (they only need to ask, but will probably complicate it), is that the three men came by this wealth when their captain, Haspool, claimed the contents of a drifting merchantman as salvage. His ship is the Hazard and it sails out of Port Pressen on the island of Vaygra.

(“Where was the abandoned ship found drifting?” “Couldn’t tell you. We’re not navigators. You’d have to ask Captain Haspool.”)

At Port Pressen
The characters must get Captain Haspool or his navigator (Tully) to tell them where the ships were found drifting. Yes, ships plural. He has salvaged two, both crewless. (“The Bunch of Grapes was not so rich pickings as that first one, the Woven Band, but both were claimed legally.”)

The complication is that pirates have got wind of the drifting hulks and are patrolling the area. If they see the characters' ship, they may just decide to raid it. The pirate ship is the Good Work.
  • Pirate captain: Korak
  • His wizard: Golpas
Golpas is a female sorcerer who passes herself off as a man. She is not powerful (stats 10) but has +1 in Name and +2 in Gate, Illusion, Healing, Send, Weather.

The Zone
A Sargasso-like area of mists and incessant rain; visibility is very poor. The periphery of the zone is a region of cold mist seething like smoke off the incessant rain. Sailing into it is like going into a waterfall.

Make a Vigour +Name roll on entering the Zone. If you fail, you’re starting to get rewritten. You might lose your sense of smell/taste, become increasingly drained of colour, find your shadow keeps slipping away, you cease to leave footprints, start to dissolve into vapour, etc. This is an ongoing effect to be used as a ticking clock to spur the characters later on.

Any attempt to make a Name roll in the Zone is at a penalty of -5 (at the periphery) up to -8 (centre of the zone) as names here fluctuate so fast.

They see a ship drifting without crew (the ironically named Fine Weather). It is listing to one side owing to the water that is filling its bilges. Aboard:
  • Gulls with blind human faces. Their shrieking sounds like men poorly imitating the cry of sea birds.
  • Outlines in the rain of people – the crew – but they are the absence of people.
  • Eyes that can be seen staring out of the timbers.
  • Scuttling shapes that seem to be a hybrid of rats and human hands.
  • The log book is sodden with rainwater – unreadable.
  • The hold is full of crates of spices and furs, mostly ruined.
In the zone, true names are being reconfigured. A name might be cut in half and recombined with another – for example, splitting shape from identity left the outlines in the rain (shape component) and the identity-component was then spliced to the identity of seagulls.

As they quit the Fine Weather, some of their own crew, in the process of having their true names rewritten, start to change. They become like cobweb shells that blow apart on the wind, leaving pale dancing sparks that flit about the rigging. (Have the bosun point out that men in the rigging haven’t moved for several minutes. Those are already husks, who will become dislodged and blow away when anyone is sent up to investigate.)

In the centre of the zone (they’ll need Pattern to locate it as the rain obscures everything) is a missing piece of reality: a rift in the air like a break in a pane of glass. They hear a keening sound of wind as they approach it. Anyone with Name skill (ie any wizard) can visibly see reality warping around the edges.

They cannot approach, but see the hole in reality at a distance. Intermittent pulses of light emit from it, accompanied by a shockwave that they can feel rather than hear. In each pounding shockwave it’s as if for a moment everything ceases to exist.

As they get within forty feet, the effect starts to strip away the substance of the ship. They must turn back, as it’s only possible to get closer once they have the missing piece.

To fix it they must recover the missing piece. It was taken by a wizard, who was transformed by the fragment and fled. But they must turn back now, for almost all the crew are already lost and the rest are panicking.

Possible episode to insert on the voyage if the players need a hint:
They spot an island with a wide bay. No wind is allowed here for it is the home of the sorcerer Jutle. The moment they enter the bay, the sails go slack and no weather can be induced to enter. Jutle is a middle-aged man hauling driftwood on the beach who asks if they are here to see the master. If they recognize him he’ll reveal that he is the master here and will help them, but he is a true ‘softly softly’ wizard and won’t have any truck with using magic flamboyantly.

The Missing Piece
Remember that characters who failed Vigour +Name are now at phase 2 (losing their shadow)

The fragment of reality was taken by a wizard named Agios. He held his name together with his magic but was transformed into a monster. Pattern will reveal his likely routes, Find will take them to him.

As they approach the missing piece it’s night; they sense they will come to it by dawn. It’s overcast, but they see they’re approaching a column some sixty feet across that stands directly up from the ocean. It seems to be of mottled pink and grey marble. Water steams off its side in the early heat of day (unless approaching by night).

This is no marmoreal column but the monster that Agios has become. Out of the haze above comes its giant distorted face. To protect the ship from this initial attack will require defences equalling 50 points – reduce damage from total wreck at 0 defence to protected at 50 defence. (More efficient if they find clever ways to fend it off, eg a mast spears its eye rather than a shield of force in the air. Note that direct attacks are very hard – see below.)

The monster resembles a huge sea-worm with a distorted face like something moulded from clay.

Direct-attack spells are hard to use against this creature:
  • Name attempt at -10 (due to continual fluctuations), then
  • Spell must succeed by 5 or more to be effective
It can smash masts & hulls, snap up several men at once (make a Skill roll to avoid unless you have a magical defence), etc.

The missing fragment is inside the monster’s stomach. Transforming Agios back to normal won’t last long even if the spell takes. The most effective thing is to get inside the monster somehow. They will need illumination, and must protect themselves against noxious fumes and acid.

The fragment of reality is shaped like two trapezoids and is about the size of a book. To transport it safely (the edges cut through literally anything) they will need to use Change to solidify the air around it or something like that.

Fixing a Hole
Remember that characters who failed Vigour +Name are now at phase 3 (dissolving)

It’s not just a case of slotting the missing fragment of reality back in place. You need to Name it (no modifier) and then cast Change -- but that must be done on the other side of the hole at the same time as in this reality.

To pass through the gap in reality to the alternate world requires Gate. The alternate world is a plain of sand with ripples surrounding the hole in reality, and a ring of greenery (savanna) in the distance. They immediately notice the dead calm. No weather at all works in the affected zone, though there are winds blowing across the steppes. This zone is analogous to how the archipelago world is being changed around the hole in reality there.

To cast spells here:
  1. Skill + Name (to read)
  2. Then Wisdom + Name (to transform into a usable form)
  3. Then cast the spell
The characters are greeted by primitive tribesmen who blame them for breaking the world. This is a world of open grassland in which the only wizards are female – the mirror image of the characters’ own world.

The natives’ shaman (Ma’ada) is reasonably powerful (stats 11) with Name +5 and Change +4. She must make her Name rolls at -5 here just as the PCs had to in their world.

Of course, the natives of this universe do not speak the same language. The characters must find a way to communicate – perhaps through use of Illusion magic, causing images to appear in a campfire.

Remember that somebody needs to fix the piece in place from this side: either one of the characters, or Ma’ada if they can explain to her what is needed, or Agios if he isn’t dead.

Tuesday 15 June 2021

A Dragon Warriors character

When James Wallis brought Dragon Warriors back from the ivied catafalque on which it lay sleeping through the '90s and '00s, one of the all-new books he released was Friends or Foes, a collection of interesting NPCs who can be used as adversaries or allies for the player-characters.

Why not throw it open to the whole DW community? Players could upload their characters for others to use or be inspired by. Characters in significant positions -- Baron Aldred's ostler, say -- could be even made semi-official.

Ah, you spotted the flaw. Somebody would actually have to do all the work. And there are always the Dragon Warriors Wiki, The Great Library of Hiabuor, The Cobwebbed Forest, and others, all with several campaigns' worth of resources free to use.

But just in case you are looking for a quick NPC, I came across a character I played briefly in Tim Harford's Legend game when Tim first came to London. (That was just before we began the still-running Iron Men campaign mentioned from time to time on this blog.) Valentine of Braying Cross was the loyal servant Sir Eustace, a vassal of Lord Montombre, so he could make a useful and dangerous foe. Incidentally, he's a 100-point character under GURPS 3e rules, which is what we played back then. I wonder what he'd look like in D&D 5th edition?

Brother Valentine

Valentine was born 964 AS, the younger son of Constantine, esquire of the parish of Braying Cross. He was entered at the Monastery of St Apollonius at the age of seven. At twelve he was abducted by slavers from Outer Thuland, where he spent the next four years until he was helped to escape by a wandering friar of the Frestonian Order. Valentine by now had an abiding dislike of heathens and wished to join the Knights Capellars, but was excluded by reason of birth and therefore entered the Frestonian Order instead.

After four years as a wandering friar he began to come to the notice of Montombre's men. At first they dismissed the over-earnest youth but gradually they came to respect his determination and iron-hard faith. Friars had by now come into fashion as confessors because the harsh rules they lived by gave them a greater air of piety than any rich priest could muster. Valentine became Sir Eustace's confessor and clerk, and gradually took on other duties as well. He relishes the insulting names his enemies know him by. Regarding himself as Sir Eustace's "sin eater", he takes all the old man's unsavoury tasks onto his own shoulders -- interrogating spies with icy efficiency, alert to heresy among his master's entourage, sniffing out malcontents in the town gutters and doing what is needful.

Valentine's learned skills fall into three categories: the academic studies of his youth, the physical abilities gained in service to Lord Egil of Thuland, and the talents he has taught himself in order to better serve Sir Eustace, Earl Montombre and the Church.

He is tall and somewhat lanky with honey-coloured hair and blue-grey eyes. He might appear handsome but for his zealous scowl and unrelenting stare. His humour is liable to be bleak. He smiles most readily when in a position to do harm to an unrepentant foe.

His vows, in common with all the Orders of friar, constrain him to poverty, chastity and obedience. He can personally own only his clothing, religious accoutrements and (if need be) a humble place of abode. His arms and armour he holds from his lord and has no private title to them. He uses only such money as is entrusted to him for specific purposes, since as a friar he can always secure a simple meal and a place to sleep in return for a blessing. His chastity was once sorely tested by a succubus that visited him in the wildwood. He repulsed it after a dire struggle and thereafter sealed himself in his cell for forty days and nights, fasting until he gained renewed strength to resist such evil. This is the source of his resistance to magic. The vow of obedience means that he must do whatever is required of him by the lawfully appointed officials of the Faith and (more importantly, perhaps, to Valentine) by his temporal lord, Montombre.

Valentine has one redeeming quality. He is fond of animals (especially cats) perhaps because they, unlike man, are a part of God's design untouched by sin. He has a quotation from the Scriptures that he likes to recite when he's about to mete out justice:

"For thus saith the Lord God: Because thou hast clapped thine hands, and stamped with thy feet, and rejoiced with all thy despite against the land of believers; behold, therefore I will stretch out mine hand upon thee, and will deliver thee for a spoil to the heathen; and I will cut thee off from the people, and I will cause thee to perish out of the countries; I will destroy thee; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord."

And while we're talking about Legend, don't miss the latest fine offerings from Red Ruin Publishing, a couple of Dragon Warriors gamebooks: Green Water, Crimson Stag and Meryon Woods -- both free on DriveThruRPG. And if those whet your appetite for DW solo adventures, you'll want to grab Village of the Damned and The Village of Frogton too.

Monday 14 June 2021

Move over MCU

This will send a tingle up your spine. It's the dramatic trailer video for the launch of the Blood Sword 5e Kickstarter, which goes live tomorrow. There's going to be a live interview with the team at 17:00 CET and I plan to jump in on that. Those images really convey the sense of doom you should feel as you approach the shores of Wyrd -- and there's even a glimpse of a faltyn. Don't miss out!

Wednesday 9 June 2021

The acute, persistent, unquenchable craving to know

This might just be my favourite of the H P Lovecraft letters read on the Voluminous podcast. HPL shows how it's possible to hold very different opinions from someone else and still remain friends (we shouldn't need to be reminded of that) while having a robust argument with them (we all ought to be taught that).

Tuesday 8 June 2021

Everything must go

It's always a wrench having to chuck stuff out. Well, it is for me as I'm a bit of a hoarder. But lately I've had to take an "exterminate all the brutes" attitude to clearing out, so I've given a couple of boxes of gaming treasures to my wife to flog on Ebay. It's that or take them to the tip, and with classics like these that would be a crime. 

There's sets of Imagine, Adventurer, Red Giant (with Brymstone by Robert Dale), and Fantasy Chronicles - including the issue above with Steve Foster's superb Christmas adventure which I still remember us playing in his house on Western Lane.

There are some scenario books, Chaosium games such as Big Rubble, gems like Bushido and Champions, and some figurines. Take a look if you have space for them. I'd like to think they'll go to a good home.

Saturday 5 June 2021

Hard-as-nails heroes wanted

New news about Blood Sword 5e, the D&D-style RPG version of the Blood Sword gamebook saga. I've just been looking at the Quickstart and it's pretty impressive how this project is shaping up. The team is doing a stunning job, the chosen artists are top-notch and their styles mesh well with Russ' original illustrations. The 5e rules developed for the setting balance perfectly the Old School flavour of the series with a more fresh and modern RPG system, and as for the adventure -- well, I was expecting a simple adaptation or a sort of remake, and it would have been fine, but the authors have gone a lot further. “The Cursed Temple” isn't just a prequel of The Battlepits of Krarth, it rivisits the setting entirely with a brand-new plot and a truly grim, anti-heroic spirit that powerfully emerges from the story and from the characters' backgrounds. If you're into D&D-style roleplaying (90% of the gaming community these days) I think you're going to love it. 

The Quickstart is free with subscription to the project newsletter. You can also try it this weekend on Discord -- the one-shots are free to play (though with limited slots, so it's first-come, first-served) and you can also invite your friends. For once I'm leaving comments on to get your feedback. 

Friday 4 June 2021

Try harder, Trekkers

Looking back from a quarter century on, it's hard to believe I cared that much. I'd just seen Star Trek Generations and I decided to tell Rick Berman what was wrong with it. Audacious, you might think. Pompous, even. But I stand by what I said then. If they didn't want constructive criticism, they could have written a better script. If any reader of Mirabilis has a bone to pick with me about mistakes in the story, I'll listen.

And I was aiming to help. They wanted to write a story of tragic sacrifice, but all they'd done was describe a high-stakes gamble that didn't pan out. The climax wasn't "a far, far better thing"; it was just "oops!" The letter went on:
"Mr Zimmerman is right. Heroic figures like Kirk and Spock have so often been seen to take extreme life-threatening risks that the only way to have them die in a way that works in narrative terms is when they are faced with certain death. When Spock died in The Wrath of Khan he knew in advance that his action would be fatal. But that wasn't the case with Kirk's death. Scrambling about on the collapsing bridge is the kind of thing he's done hundreds of times before. He knew he was taking a risk, but at no point did we actually get to see him make that crucial decision to sacrifice himself. In real life you could say that this turned out to be the one time his luck ran out, but the rules of real life aren't after all the rules of fiction.

"In this sense I believe Kirk's death was wasted. Obviously it is time to move on with the Trek movies now, but when a character like Kirk has been built up to such a genuinely mythic level the way he leaves life should be on a par with the way he's lived it -- full of sound and fury, and signifying a very great deal.

"This touches on a secondary problem I think you could have with subsequent Trek movies. You have a large cast there, and the awkward subplot with Data showed that it is not so easy to give time to every character and still maintain the narrative momentum demanded by a feature film. People aren't going to come into the theatres every two years to see the latest developments in an outer-space soap, and the more cerebral and complex character-based issues for which the TV series is justly famous are too subtle to carry an action movie. The best Trek films haven't just been TV episodes on a bigger screen, but stories with a big canvas and big ideas to fit.

"Mumon said, 'Do not shoot another's bow, do not ride another's horse, do not criticize another's work.' My suggestions are meant as constructive ones and I hope they don't give the impression that the movie as a whole wasn't good. It's just that I think it could have been great."
I even went so far as to enclose a five-page treatment for a follow-on Trek movie, in which the bad guys were the Yu, a neotic offshoot of humanity in the far future. Earth is now known as Terra, feared throughout the galaxy as the nerve centre of a ruthless empire. I described our time-travelling heroes' first glimpse of what was once their homeworld:
"Terra is not the blue jewel that it was in their own time, but a sinister shadow against the heavens, mustard yellow with pollution and crisscrossed by myriad lights marking out vast continent-spanning metropolises. A grim testament to the Yu's implacable totalitarian society."
A year and a half later, Star Trek First Contact came out. This time I realized the futility of firing off a letter about the flaws in the story. It would have had to be a much longer letter anyway. But there was one bit in the movie that got my seal of approval... No blue jewel, this.