Friday, 19 January 2018

The functions of distance: some reflections on Tomb of Annihilation

I've now read the latest WotC campaign-in-a-book, Tomb of Annihilation. The premise is that PCs have to slog through a massive jungle to get to a lost city (a reimagined version of the 1981 Dwellers in the Forbidden City), beneath which is a massive dungeon (a reimagined version of the 1975/1978 Tomb of Horrors). If you want a full review of it from an OSR perspective, Gus L has a very thorough one here.

Like Gus, I thought that TOA was one of WotC's better offerings. I've written before about how trap dungeons strain my credulity - if the traps represent a serious attempt to kill intruders, why do almost all of them have built-in escape systems which are accessible from within the traps themselves? Are we supposed to believe that Acererak cares about playing fair? - but if you want a dungeon full of traps, there's plenty here to borrow ideas from. The ruined city isn't as good as the 1981 original, being marred by a silly CRPG-style collect-all-the-magic-keys quest, but the yuan-ti temple is pretty well-done. My favourite bit of the book is actually the jungle section, which features a bunch of good locations and random encounters: I liked the sheltered princess being raised in isolation by bird-men, the delusional medusa living in her ruined garden, and the floating rock inhabited by an elf who claims to be a normal wizard but is actually a lich with cupboards crammed full of animated corpses, while the undead tyrannosaurus which vomits up zombie warriors in battle looks like it would make for an especially memorable encounter. But the jungle? That jungle is just too fucking big.

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I know I've written a lot on this blog about the potential advantages of long distances. I am totally on board with the idea of making a party of PCs slog for weeks or months through the jungle in order to reach the Forbidden City. What I can't see the point of is having hundreds of miles of monster-infested jungle between the main adventure sites. Putting two hundred miles between the starting city and the bird-men is fine: but the bird-men live fifty miles from the medusa, who lives seventy miles from the floating rock, which is almost two hundred miles from the ruined city itself, all in an environment where the standard movement speed is ten miles per day, and where you'll have an average of two random encounter every three days. I haven't counted the exact number of ten-mile hexes in area covered by the adventure, but it can't be less than two thousand, across which are scattered thirty-odd adventure locations.What's the point of that? Quite apart from the sheer drudgery of playing through an interminable jungle trek every time the PCs leave one location for another, it makes it much harder to get the inhabitants of these various areas involved in one another's lives: instead, each of them functions almost like an isolated little world. (Compare and contrast Curse of Strahd, where the whole campaign takes place in an area that would fit into just two hexes in Tomb of Annihilation, meaning that everyone is constantly up in one another's faces and events from one area can easily cascade into another.)

If you're going to do a hexcrawl, especially one which covers a huge area and involves long journeys from place to place, I really think that the percentage of hexes with stuff in them needs to be quite high - that, or you need a random encounter generator robust enough to fill all those blank spaces on your map with genuinely memorable encounters. The locations in TOA are good, and the random encounters are pretty good as well, but there's just not enough of either of them to prevent the journey through this two-thousand-hex map from dissolving into either tedium or abstraction. (And once you reach the stage where the GM just starts saying 'OK, after twenty days in the jungle you reach the ruined city', why are you even running a hexcrawl?) I find it very hard to believe the module was actually run as written by the playtesters. No group would tolerate forty random encounters with wandering monsters on their way to the actual adventure.

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Tomb of Annihilation campaign map. Imagine trekking through all that with a 66% chance of a random encounter every single hex.

If I was going to run TOA, I think I'd split it into three: the 'home base' city on the coast, a month-long but largely-abstracted journey through hundreds of miles of jungle, and then a single 'adventure zone' for hexcrawling, with all those thirty-odd adventure sites packed into a grid of, say, forty-nine ten-mile hexes. That's still a huge amount of territory - over three thousand square miles of jungle! - but it means that every time the PCs explore a new hex, they have a better than 50% chance of finding something interesting in it, and that it's much easier to get all those interesting things to interact with one another. Rally the bird-men against the goblins. Get the lich to adopt the princess. Trick the medusa into making a surprise visit to the yuan-ti temple. It's much easier to make all those things happen when all those groups are living quite close together, rather than being separated by an entire Amazon Basin's worth of impenetrable jungle. The large distances still matter, because safety and resupply are a month's travel away and the PCs have to plan accordingly, but they no longer get in the way of entertaining play.

Otherwise, even encounters with zombie-vomiting undead dinosaurs are going to get boring pretty fast...

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Monday, 15 January 2018

Condesation in Action 5: Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms

This installment of 'Condensation in Action' is going to be different to the last four, because this time the Pathfinder adventure path I'm condensing isn't actually one of the official ones from Paizo. Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms is from Frog God Games, and I got it bundled in with a whole bunch of other stuff in the recent Humble Bundle they did with Kobold Press. It started life as a bunch of different modules that Frog God released for D&D 3rd edition, which were then repackaged along with some information on their setting (the titular Sundered Kingdoms) and nailed together into an adventure path for Pathfinder. The adventures have a good fantasy-horror vibe to them, but the level of bloat is unbelievable. We're talking about an adventure path which manages to turn a sequence of six straightforward 'find the cult, smash the cult' adventures into a book that is four hundred and thirty-seven pages long. 

Given that virtually all of these adventures revolve around the kind of one-dimensional fantasy cultists I've recently been complaining about, there's not a lot of scope for the kind of socially-focused, nonviolent-solution-oriented adventures that I usually try to turn adventure paths into. Some of the material in it appeals to the horror fan in me, though, so I'm going to do what I always do. I'm going to rewrite it, de-railroad it, and then cut it to the bone. There's got to be a serviceable short horror-fantasy hexcrawl in there somewhere...

Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms: Condensed Edition



(NB: Hexes are 6 miles across.)

Setting: This adventure takes place in a distant province that no-one cares about: a region of damp, misty hills, right on the edge of the wilderness. There are only three things that most people know about the area:
  1. It's got a port town which should, by rights, be a backwater, but the local merchant's guild somehow manage to wring a real profit out of the place.
  2. The main exports are wine and precious metals, though in recent years the wine's been pretty substandard.
  3. It has a horrible reputation for monsters, hauntings, and heresies. Seriously, man, don't even go there. All the locals are probably cultists or something.

Everyone Hates Backstory: Thousands of years ago, a prehistoric warlord invaded this region. Unable to defeat him in battle, the holy men of the indigenous inhabitants called upon forbidden powers, sacrificing themselves to empower six obelisks with dark magic that would allow their clans to defeat the invaders. (They are located at 01010104010803020501, and 0805.) It worked, but the obelisks have remained magically tainted ever since, broadcasting a low-level hum of demonic power into the surrounding area. The region has been plagued with cult activity of one kind or another ever since.

About a century ago, Lord Wynston Mathen, a crusading knight notorious for both his piety and his brutality, was granted a fief in the region in recognition of his services in some far-off holy war. Unbeknownst to him, his wife, Madrana, was secretly a witch, who bathed herself in the power of the obelisks and bore her husband not-quite human children as a result. When the knight discovered this, he killed first her, then his children, and then himself. But one child escaped the purge, hidden from his murderous father by servants loyal to his mother's coven; and their descendants still live in their old manor house today, nurturing the awful thing in the pit that their ancestress first brought there in its larval form.

As the Thing in the Pit has squirmed its way towards full maturity, its psychic emanations have harmonised with those of the obelisks, increasing their power. Cult activity in the region is on the rise. The Mathen family is getting bolder, making pacts with the ancient monsters of the forest, carrying out murders and abductions almost at will. The authorities are getting worried: social order seems to be breaking down across the region, and they don't know why. Perhaps, for a suitable fee, the PCs would be willing to investigate...?

A Quick Note on Cults: Even though the villagers at 0101, the Mathen family at 0105, the monks at 0108, the cultists at 0703, and the bandits at 0805 all serve the same dark powers, the influence of the obelisks has led each of them to do this independently. They are not aware of one another's activites, and will not regard each other as natural allies if they encounter one another.

The Hexcrawl

0101: Deep in these woods, in a hidden valley, an isolationist clan live in a fortified village, with one of the six obelisks standing proudly at its heart. They are descended from the original inhabitants of the region: only they still remember that the obelisks were originally enchanted in order to drive invaders from their lands, and they regard them as sacred sites. Unfortunately, countless generations spent living in the tainted magical aura of their obelisk has rendered them fearful, violent, and paranoid, suspicious and terrified of the world outside. They are currently convinced that the soldiers they killed at 0202 were just the advance forces of an invading army, and are preparing for a battle to the death.

The clan have preserved their language and culture through a brutally-enforced culture of xenophobic insularity, and will frantically resist any attempted contact from the outside world. Any outsider who does stumble across them is assumed to be a spy and executed at the foot of a great tree which stands just outside their village: the corpse is then devoured by the gigantic three-headed rook that lives in its highest branches, which the villagers regard with reverence. So total is their isolationism that the other inhabitants of the region don't even know they're here, attributing their occasional victims to bandits or spiteful fairies. Anyone caught in the traps at 0102 or 0201 will be brought here for questioning and execution. If the tribe's elders feel their world is ending - either because they're threatened with annihilation or because someone might actually bring them into contact with the outside world, which they regard as pretty much the same thing - they will awaken the toad-dragon at 0301.

0102: These densely-forested hills are littered with pits, snares, and deadfall traps, built by the villagers at 0101 both to supply them with game and to keep intruders away from their hidden village. Hunters from the tribe check the traps regularly to see who or what has fallen into them.

0103: These misty hills are home to a wretched band of mutants, abandoned by their creators. Formerly local miners or farmers, they were abducted by minions of the Mathen family, dragged down to their hidden laboratory at 0203, surgically altered, and then released into the hills when the results proved disappointing. Driven quite mad by a combination of trauma, dark magic, and brain damage, they now lope across the hillsides, alternately raging and weeping. They react to outsiders with fear and hostility, and are quick to resort to violence; but with time and care at least some of them could probably be restored to something like their old selves, albeit with more insect parts than they used to have. They will react with hysterical fear if brought anywhere near the mine at 0203.

0104: In a remote, mist-shrouded valley lies a hidden cave; in the depths of that cave lies a deep, dark pit, and at the bottom of that pit stands an obelisk, which was dragged in there during some now-forgotten time of trouble centuries ago. When Madrana first came to these lands with her oblivious husband, she recognised this obelisk's power, and placed within the pit a larval horror that she had brought from her far-off homeland; now, nourished by the obelisk's dark energies and a century's worth of sacrifices, the Thing in the Pit has become a huge, gibbering monster, covered in innumerable eyes, mouths, and bladed tendrils. It is the true 'father' of Miya and Marko (see 0105), and the Mathen family come to the cave regularly to worship the dark powers in secret and make offerings to the Thing in the Pit. It is the psychic emanations of the Thing, vibrating through the magical harmonies of the obelisk network, which has amplified their evil influence upon the region. If the Thing was killed, then the effects of the remaining obelisks would be greatly reduced.

0105: In this isolated hilltop manor-house live the Mathen family: Milo, his wife Mimi, his sister Mildridge, and Mimi's children Miya and Marko. (They are not Milo's children, though he pretends they are: their true father was the Thing in the Pit.) On the surface, they look like harmless minor nobility; their children seem sweet and innocent, and their servants are very good at pretending to be dim and amiable yokels. In fact, none of this is true. Milo, Mimi, and Mildridge are all accomplished dark magicians, the servants are murderously-committed cultists, and Miya and Marko aren't even properly human: their small bodies are inhumanly resilient, they are capable of singing songs which warp the minds of those who hear them, and they are unnervingly capable wielders of carving knives and meat cleavers. (Milo also conceals a squirming mass of six paralysing tentacles beneath his clothes.) Family and servants alike have been born and raised within the witch-cult Madrana founded, and are extremely hardened to violence.

The Mathens believe that this is their big moment: the Thing in the Pit is growing to epic proportions, Mimi's horde of carrion moths (see 0302) is multiplying rapidly, and the magical vibrations from the obelisks are getting stronger than ever. Emboldened by the social breakdown across the region, they have made an alliance with the giants at 0402 and seized the mine at 0203, planning to turn it into a monster-factory. Their problem is that they're making all this up as they go along: when Wynston Mathen killed Madrana and her children, the knowledge of her original plan for the Thing and the obelisks died with her, and now they're just guessing that 'kill lots of people and make lots of monsters' is the kind of thing she'd approve of. They dream of ruling the land as terrible kings and queens, but have only vague and impractical ideas about how to bring this about.

The Mathen mansion is extremely dangerous, with mutated humans and animals locked in the outbuildings, and several generations worth of undead ancestors thumping around in the attic. There's also a network of secret passages hidden within the walls, complete with concealed peepholes for surreptitious spying: for most people these narrow crawlways can only be moved through slowly, but Miya and Marko delight in running through them at high speed, and have rigged up spring-loaded blade traps at strategic points in case anyone tries to follow them. The laboratories at the top of the house contain some unfinished mutants who the family are currently 'improving' in their spare time. These pitiful creatures are half-mad with trauma, but will happily aid any attempt to destroy their tormentors.

0106: On a lonely hillside stands a crumbling stone mausoleum containing the remains of Wynston Mathen, who was interred here after his suicide. Its doors are firmly locked, barred, and chained, supposedly to keep thieves out, but actually to keep the ghost of Wynston in: he is furious at the survival of his tainted family, and still hungers for their destruction. If the mausoleum is opened, his spirit will howl curses upon his descendants, and demand that the PCs swear a sacred oath to exterminate them: if they agree, then he will permit them to borrow the enchanted sword and armour he bore when crusading (which were buried with him), but if they refuse then he will resort to spirit possession. He is potentially a powerful ally, but he is just as violent and intolerant as he was in life, and insists that all problems can be solved with sufficient amounts of prayer, fire, and mass murder.

0108: In this desolate moorland stands an ancient abbey, the only manmade structure for miles around. For centuries it has been home to a contemplative religious order, who cast down the ancient pagan stones on this site and then built the abbey on top of them as a sign of the victory of their faith. As the psychic emanations of the Thing in the Pit have intensified, the order has been corrupted by the magical vibrations of the obelisk which now lies at the bottom of their well, and have degenerated into an awful parody of their previous selves. Now they enforce their vows of silence by sewing shut the lips of their novices, and kidnap travellers on the moors, either for forcible initiation or for ritual drowning within the well. Some of the victims thus drowned rise again as ever-dripping zombies, with purple lips and bluish, shivering skin: the monks conceal them beneath hooded robes and use them for manual labour.

The increasingly-crazed abbot has invited two special guests into the abbey. One appears to be a woman, but is in fact some kind of horrible flayed thing wearing a woman's skin: it handles all the tailoring work, including the sewing shut of novices' lips. The other are a family of pale, dwarfish creatures who perpetually mutter to themselves as they cook for the brothers (mostly thin gruel, suitable for pouring into the corners of stitched-shut mouths): their muttering clouds the minds of those who hear it, making coherent thought virtually impossible whenever three or more of them are in the same place, and they carry cruel concealed blades. If the obelisk was destroyed then the well would lose its power to reanimate the dead.

0201: More traps laid by the villagers at 0101 - see 0102.

0202: A battlefield. When stories of monsters in the hills reached the town at 0703, the local authorities sent out a column of soldiers to investigate: they got this far before being ambushed and slaughtered by the villagers from 0101. Now most are moldering in shallow graves: the survivors were dragged off for interrogation and execution at the village. Faint trails lead away to the north.

0203: This mine was a crucial part of the local economy until recently, when the increasingly emboldened Mathen family decided to seize it for themselves. Their mutant monsters swiftly killed or captured the miners, and Mildridge Mathen has set up a hidden laboratory in the depths of the mine, where she is experimenting with transforming her captives into monstrous minions using a combination of surgery and black magic. (The rejected cast-offs from this process can be found at 0103.) Now the mine appears empty and abandoned, but in fact creeping, black-skinned monsters loyal to Mildridge crawl silently along the ceilings, reaching down with their long, long arms to strangle intruders in the dark. Mildridge herself can usually be found working in the laboratory, grafting tentacles onto her luckless victims.

0204: The people of this mining village are in a state of panic: monsters have been sighted in the hills, people have been disappearing from the outlying farms, all the workers from the mine at 0203 have vanished, and the the soldiers who marched off into the mists to deal with the problem were never heard from again. (They were slaughtered at 0202.) Many of the residents have already fled. People speculate wildly that the ghost of Mad Lord Wyston, who slaughtered his family so many years ago, has escaped from his tomb at 0106 and brought an army of devils from hell to destroy them all. If the giants at 0402 are not stopped, it is only a matter of time before they stomp down to the village and level the place, eating all the people and livestock they can catch in the process.

0207: A funeral procession of hooded monks walk along the road towards the abbey at 0108, singing dolefully and carrying a chained coffin. The monk at the head of the procession carries a bell, whose mournful tolling can be heard from a great distance: he is the only one who will speak, informing anyone who asks that his brothers are under vows of silence, and that the coffin contains the corpse of a pious man whose last request was to be buried in the abbey churchyard. Attentive PCs will notice the coffin keeps moving slightly, as the (live, but bound and gagged) man inside it struggles to escape. The monks plan to carry the man to the abbey, where they will lower the coffin into the well, drowning its occupant and potentially raising him as an undead servitor.

0208: These pathless moors are inhabited by a few wandering lunatics in threadbare robes, escapees from the abbey at 0108. Their scarred lips bear witness to their status as ex-initiates, and if questioned they moan and whimper about needles, locked coffins, and something dreadful in the well.

0301: In a half-flooded cave in these wooded hills lives an ancient bat-winged toad-dragon, slumbering the centuries away in a pool of mud and slime. The only people who know of its existence are the villagers at 0101, who regard it as the last line of defence between themselves and the outside world, to be awoken only in times of dire emergency. If disturbed, it will ravage the surrounding countryside in a grumpy croaking rage before retreating to its cavern to sleep once more.

0302: Another of the obelisks once stood here, but it toppled centuries ago and has been overgrown and forgotten by the world. It was recently rediscovered by the Mathen family, and Mimi Mathen has been deliberately channeling its power into a nearby cave system in order to mutate the large moths that live there into huge, carrion-eating horrors whose wings emit a mesmeric drone that reduce all who hear it to imbecility. These moths now infest the hills around the obelisk, and Mimi, who regards them as her pets, visits them regularly.

0306: This impoverished moorland village is mostly devoted to sheep-farming. Its people are a superstitious breed, who mutter darkly about strange and evil goings-on out on the moors at night. They know there's something odd about the monks at 0108, but selling supplies to the abbey is an important part of the local economy, so they don't do much about it except warning people to be careful when travelling over the moors.

0402: A gang of mutant giants camping in a valley. These brutish creatures, their minds and bodies warped by the influence of the dark powers they worship, usually dwell much deeper in the wilderness, but the Mathen family has enlisted them as allies and now they are raiding the surrounding countryside. They're bold enough when terrorising peasants, but have no intention of risking their lives and will flee from serious opposition. They're currently waiting for one of their number to return from his foraging expedition to 0403.

0403: This farmhouse is currently under attack from one of the mutant giants from 0402, who is trying to steal livestock for their dinner. If the PCs try to intervene he will throw living sheep, goats, and members of the farmer's family at them as improvised missile weapons in an attempt to scare them away. If this proves ineffectual he will flee towards the camp at 0402.

0407: Formerly the best vineyards in the province, these fields have been warped by the effects of the cursed water from 0408. Now the grapes grow huge and disturbingly blood-coloured, and anyone eating too many of them will experience first rages, then madness, then mutations, just like the unfortunate guests at 0408. (Drinking wine made from them would be even worse.) Monstrous mutant rats infest the fields, gorging themselves on the tainted grapes and anything else unfortunate enough to wander into their territory.

0408: This large and luxurious manor house was built by Arvath Morrick, a winemaker and amateur alchemist, who grew rich on the profits of his vineyards at 0407. Five years ago, he held a grand feast to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, Larissa - but when he failed to invite his long-term rival Kyran Eldoran, who had once hoped to marry Larissa himself, the embittered man decided to curse the whole wedding party. A dabbler in the arcane arts in his youth, Kynan hacked a large chunk off the obelisk at 0805 many years ago, planning to study it further when he got the time. When he heard about the wedding, he decided to amplify its rage-inducing powers and then bribe a servant to throw it into the fountain which provided the manor with its drinking water, hoping that it would cause so much fighting and aggression that the wedding would be ruined (and maybe even called off).

Unfortunately for Arvath and his guests, what Kynan had actually achieved was less a controlled amplification than a drastic short-circuit, which simply resulted in the entire store of magical energy within the rock being transferred into the water. The food and drink at the wedding feast turned most of the guests into mindless, feral beasts, who began attacking people and animals at random. Arvath barricaded himself and Larissa into his study, gave her a dose of a potion to place her in an alchemically-induced state of suspended animation to delay the effects of the water she'd already drunk, and then killed himself before the madness seized him. Ever since, the Morrick manor and its grounds have been roamed by feral monsters that were once the wedding guests, who hunt in howling packs and live off grapes and rat-meat from the vineyards at 0407.

If the rock was removed from the fountain, then the curse would end - but the fountain is dangerous to approach, as the clouds of water vapour it emits contain so much magical energy that they gather into animate, semi-sentient clouds of poisonous mist, and try to pour themselves down the noses and throats of any who approach, thus perpetuating the curse. The manor house is full of valuable objects (albeit mostly thoroughly vandalised by the now-feral guests), and if Larissa was removed and restored from her alchemical sleep, her surviving relatives in the town at 0703 would pay a handsome reward for her recovery.

0501: Deep in these woods stands an ancient tower of bone, the home of the demon revered by the cultists at 0703. Its doors have remained shut ever since its master was summoned away, and only powerful magic will now permit entry. Within, undead guardians and servitors wait endlessly for his return, empowered by the obelisk which stands in the tower's basement. If the demon's binding is broken (by breaking the crystal skull at 0703), then it will return here at once: the tower's doors will fly open, and it will begin preying once more upon the people of the surrounding area.

0507: This village is devoted to grape growing and wine-making, although its fortunes have been in decline ever since the loss of the best vineyards to the curse of Morrick Manor. (See 0407 and 0408.) Many of the village's leading citizens were guests at the Larissa Morrick's wedding when the curse took effect: their relatives are desperate to find a way of rescuing them from the cursed manor and restoring them from their beast-like state, but everyone who's tried to retrieve them has ended up falling victim to either the guests or the mists. Kynan Eldoran, the man responsible for the curse, lives in a large house just outside the village: horrified by the consequences of his deed, he has burned all his magical books and now lives on as a wretched, broken man. If he learned that Larissa was still alive, he would do everything in his power to save her. If the villagers discovered he was responsible for the curse, they would lynch him on the spot.

0604: The bandits from 0805 attacked some travelling traders here, murdering them and stealing their horses and wagons. Now a pack of wolves (actually transformed bandits) are busy devouring the half-eaten corpses scattered across the road, and will react with uncharacteristic savagery if disturbed. Cart tracks lead away into the woods to the south-east.

0703: This town is a surprisingly prosperous-looking place, with many fine public buildings and a quay and harbour which would not look out of place in a city twice its size. Almost all the wealth of the community is concentrated in the monopolistic hands of the local trade guild, the Merchant Venturers, who defuse resentment at their success by making regular lavish donations to the public good. In fact, the upper ranks of the Venturers are all part of a secret cult, which summoned and bound the demon from 0501 generations ago using an enchanted crystal skull: now they keep it locked in a shrine / prison beneath their guildhouse, and force it to grant them skill in persuasion and success in business in exchange for annual human sacrifices. When attending cult meetings, they wear plain white masks and deep purple robes. The time for their annual offering is approaching fast, and they're eagerly looking around for people who probably won't be missed - the more of them the better!

The demon (which looks like a gigantic blue-furred apeman with a snaggle-toothed mouth too wide for its head) deeply resents its captivity, and longs to return to its tower of bone. If anyone breaks into its shrine, it will start melodramatically declaiming things like 'Stop them, you fools, before they have a chance to break the crystal skull!', in the hope that the intruders will do just that. If the skull is broken it will instantly abandon its cultists and teleport back to 0501. Without its assistance, the Merchant Venturers will swiftly decline to just being a minor-league provincial trade association, taking most of the local economy with them in the process.

0805: An overgrown obelisk stands in a clearing in these dense woodlands. As the psychic vibrations of the Thing in the Pit have intensified, a handful of woodland-dwelling outlaws, vagrants, and charcoal-burners have found themselves drawn to this site, its power gradually making them ever-more bloodthirsty and bestial. Now they have become a bloodthirsty bandit gang, who prey upon the travellers on the road to the west; the longer they spend in proximity to the obelisk, the more feral they become, and many of them can now actually transform themselves into monstrous wolves. Their leaders have devolved (evolved?) into grotesque beastmen, and only leave the forest to rob and kill.

Concluding the Adventure: Killing the Thing in the Pit will cause the psychic emanations of the obelisks to gradually decline to their normal levels; the people who live near them will still tend to be strange, paranoid, and violent, but not to their current monstrous levels. Damaging the obelisks will reduce their effects further, but not end them - even if smashed to rubble, they will continue to broadcast low-level psychic emanations. Grinding them to gravel and scattering them across large areas would probably reduce their effects to barely-noticeable levels, though.

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Monday, 8 January 2018

Horse-hair and pine-needles spill from their frozen hearts

The other thing I managed to do over the Christmas vacation, aside from playing intermittently-disturbing games with my three-year-old son, was visiting the Scythians exhibition at the British Museum. Most of the items on display barely ever leave Russia, so it was an opportunity I really didn't want to miss.

One thing I learned from the exhibition was that many of the most famous examples of Scythian art were found in what was essentially a tomb-robbing gold rush in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Buried in the frozen earth of the Altai mountains, many Scythian kings and chieftains had been preserved by the ice, along with all their grave goods, for millennia - until the locals discovered, by chance, that there were hauls of ancient gold buried up in the hills, some of which found its way back to the court of Peter the Great. Believing that the only proper place for such rarities was in his new cabinet of curiosities (which would one day form the basis of the original Hermitage collection), the tsar sent out archaeological expeditions to search for more of these ancient tombs, along with decrees that anyone finding Scythian gold would be richly rewarded if they handed it over to the tsar, and harshly punished if they attempted to keep it for themselves. Soon the golden treasures of the long-dead kings of Scythia were flowing north to St Petersburg, where they have largely remained ever since.

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Lost tombs in the wilderness... preserved corpses... ancient treasures from forgotten civilisations... the whole set-up is absurdly D&D-friendly. The fact that it began at almost the exact historical moment that the ATWC setting is pegged to is just a gratuitous bonus.

So: for the last few years, there's been a new rumour travelling up and down the Great Road. They say that the distant Western Emperor, the ruler of all those hairy foreigners with guns who are currently carving up the taiga, has gone mad: that someone brought him a beautiful gold carving from some long-lost tomb, and he fell in love with it, and swore that he would not rest until he had gathered together all such treasures that still exist upon the earth. They say that he thinks of little else, now; that he sits all night long in his treasury, caressing the ancient faces of his golden stags and tigers and monsters, and dreaming of what new acquisitions his messengers may even now be carrying back to him across the endless steppe. Anyone who owns such items and is willing to sell them to the Western Emperor's agents can make a quick fortune. Anyone who owns such items and refuses to sell them is likely to suffer either a very precisely-targeted robbery or a premature death.

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Who were they, these ancient goldsmiths, whose skillful workmanship has so bewitched the mind of the emperor, thousands of years after their own deaths? No-one knows: the steppe has devoured them, along with their name and their language and their history, just as it has so many peoples before and since. They lived long before the Wolf Khans, and left no script to be decoded: only scratched pictures of horses and chariots, and carved stone men standing in endless vigils on hillsides, with three diagonal lines cut where their faces should have been. Those who have seen the bodies which lie within their icy tombs call them the Frozen Ones, or the Tattooed Folk, or the Pale Riders. But there are few who can truthfully claim to have seen such sights - and fewer still who like to talk about it.

They built their tombs in the frozen earth, high up in the mountains; and there the ice has preserved them, age after age. Imagine a row of sturdy log cabins, lowered into pits, covered with mounds of earth, and left to freeze: that's what their royal tombs are like. Within lie the bodies of men, women, and horses, their skin dried and frozen into icy leather, their weapons and clothes and harness still intact despite the passage of so many centuries - but cold, all of it, so deathly, deathly cold. Sometimes the corpses are just corpses, and any daring hand can loot them, plundering all their valuables - their golden buckles and armbands, their bowls and brooches and earrings, and all those other precious things of which the Western Emperor dreams. Sometimes even their beautiful beaded clothes can be stripped from them, revealing the fantastical tattoos on their bare and frozen limbs, and their long-dead wearers will simply loll, and crack, and not resist. Sometimes a fortune in old gold can be pulled from the earth with almost no risk at all.

Sometimes. But sometimes not.

For sometimes they rise, these old ones, these pale riders. Sometimes they lift their ancient war-picks in anger against the intruders in their tombs. Sometimes would-be looters will find themselves impaled by volleys of millennia-old arrows, launched out of the subterranean darkness by icy fingers which have forgotten how to miss. Sometimes the adventurer who reaches down to take a golden buckle from some withered corpse will find their arms suddenly grasped by a dead man's hand. They never speak, these frozen guardians. If their bodies are cut open, horse-hair and pine-needles spill from their wounds instead of blood.

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Here is a secret that no-one knows yet: the bizarre creatures depicted in the gold jewellery of the Pale Riders were not mythical or imaginary, but real monsters of the ancient steppe and taiga, which their heroes hunted to extinction in the dim and distant past. The preserved and frozen corpses of a few of them still stand in certain undiscovered tombs, buried as trophies with the great hunters who slew them. Such a specimen would be worth a fortune to any scholar or collector; but their mighty spirits do not rest easy, and if taken from the tombs of the mighty men and women who defeated them in life, their bodies are liable to reanimate as soon as they feel the wind and sun once more upon their faces.

Here is a another secret which no-one knows yet: although the Western Emperor isn't nearly as mad as the rumours claim, he is becoming increasingly obsessed with his collection, and his obsession is not an accident. The gold really is calling to him, calling in a voice that feels like snow and smells like hemp and horses. The more of these ancient treasures he brings together, the louder the voice becomes. He feels he can almost understand it, now. He can almost make out the words.

Surely, surely, just a few more pieces will suffice...

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  • Animated Pale Rider Corpse: AC 13 (frozen, leathery skin), 3 HD, AB +3, damage 1d6+1 (war pick) or 1d4+1 (claw), FORT 10, REF 13, WILL 10, morale 12. Each round, roll 1d3: on a 1, the corpse exhales a cloud of ice crystals onto any one target within melee range, who must then make a FORT save or take 1d6 cold damage and be at -1 to all rolls until properly warmed up. (Penalties from multiple freezings stack.) Take only 1 damage per hit from piercing attacks such as daggers, arrows, or bullets.
Leathery, pale-skinned corpses with tattooed limbs, these ancient warriors defend their tombs using the antique war-picks they were buried with: these weapons are fragile with age, however, and will break on an attack roll of 1 or 2. In life they were expert archers, but there is simply no way to preserve a compound bow for two thousand years in a useable state, so they have to rely on melee weapons instead. If anyone intrudes into their tomb carrying a bow, their first priority will be to kill that person and take it. A Pale Rider corpse with a functional bow shoots with AB +5 and +2 damage.

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  • Monsters of the Ancient Taiga: AC 14 (agility and tough skin), 6 HD, AB +6, damage 1d8, 3 attacks per round (a combination of goring, biting, kicking, clawing, and trampling), FORT 8, REF 8, WILL 10, morale 8. 
These bizarre creatures resemble odd combinations of features from elk, wolves, lions, tigers, and predatory birds. One might have a lion's body, an eagle's head, and feet ending in hooves; another might have the body of a tiger, a wolf's muzzle, spreading many-tined antlers, and a lashing tail that ends in a snapping bird's head. All are huge and savage. They de-animate at once if the corpse of the hunter who originally killed them is brought into their presence, or if they can no longer feel the sun and wind on their skin.

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  • The Ice Maiden, Witch-Queen of the Steppes: AC 15 (semi-corporeal body), 5/10 HD, AB +4, damage 1d10 (freezing touch), FORT 10, REF 10, WILL 8, morale 10. Each round, she can exhale a cloud of ice crystals onto any one target within melee range, who must then make a FORT save or take 1d6 cold damage and be at -1 to all rolls until properly warmed up. (Penalties from multiple freezings stack.) Takes half damage from non-magical attacks.
The Ice Maiden loved worked gold more than anything else, so much so that when she died a fraction of her spirit passed into each of the golden treasures that she loved the most, which were then divided among the various kings and chieftains of the Tattooed Folk. Once more than three of these are gathered together in any one place, their owner will begin to feel a nagging desire to own more; this desire will grow stronger the more such treasures are brought together, gradually reaching the level of an obsession. Once half of them have been collected, she will be able to manifest herself at will as an 5 HD spirit. Once all of them have been assembled, she can manifest at 10 HD, instead.

The Ice Maiden manifests as the ghostly figure of a woman in a high conical hat, her arms and legs covered in fantastical tattoos of taiga animals being devoured by predatory beasts and monsters. If she wills it these beasts can spring to life, uncoiling themselves from her limbs and dilating into full-size predators within seconds: each round, in lieu of attacking, she can summon one such creature, up to a maximum of four. These have the statistics of the Monsters of the Ancient Taiga, above, but they cannot act in the round in which they are summoned. They vanish instantly if she is defeated.

Once manifested, her first objective will be to regather all her original treasures, and her second will be to start hoarding together as much gold as possible. She will find modern cities extremely confusing, however, and if she manifests in such a city - the capital of the Western Emperor, for example - she will venture forth only at night, when it's quiet and there aren't too many people around. She speaks only her own long-extinct language, but is capable of basic telepathic communication with whoever owns her treasures, and can also be contacted like any other spirit through the use of shamanic trance rituals.

Killing the Ice Maiden banishes her for 1d100 days, but she will always return as long as her treasure collection is intact. The only ways to permanently get rid of her are to break up the collection, destroy more than half the treasures, or get every surviving treasure blessed by a man or woman of great holiness (which sends her spirit on to the afterlife). Alternatively, if all her treasures were taken to one place and buried, she would become a spirit of the land, who could be contacted and bargained with by shamans like any other. Her favour would bestow skill in metalwork, prowess in hunting, and resistance to cold, but - unsurprisingly - she would demand offerings of gold in return.

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Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Gaming with toddlers revisited: Motay Motay and the Jail Sisters

Goya wrote that it was the sleep of reason that created monsters. He should have spent more time with three year olds.

Over the holidays, I've been spending a lot of time playing with my three-year-old son, whose favourite pastime is a kind of continuous freeform imaginative play that is exhausting, anarchic, unpredictable, sometimes hilarious, and often extremely violent. It's a good thing the Playmobil fairies are always on-hand, like high-level D&D clerics, to magically resurrect everyone at the end, because the death tolls in his improvised narratives are often staggering. (On one occasion an unstoppable evil triceratops depopulated the entire toybox.) The most ordinary situations - a frog and a dinosaur meeting up to eat pancakes, for example - can collapse into scenes of murder and mayhem with startling speed.

Here are some of the monsters he has invented along the way. I cannot claim any credit for any of them. I wish I could come up with something even half as deranged and horrible as some of these guys on my own.

From left to right: Drill Robot, Pomking, Vampire, Doctor Cat, Fire Dinosaur, and Skeleton Pirate. The Jail Sisters, the Lava Tigers, Mega-Dog, and Motay Motay are thankfully purely imaginary.


The Jail Sisters: Never described. Possibly not even human. They capture people and lock them in prison, sometimes behind sentient talking doors who refuse to let anyone out. On other occasions they use slime to glue people to the walls of their cells. They have swords, which they use to cut people open to see if they have dust inside. It is possible to escape from their prisons while they are distracted, but the Sisters themselves cannot be harmed or vanquished. Sooner or later, the Jail Sisters will always return.

Motay Motay: An animated freight train full of angry bees. He attacks by hurtling up to people and opening all his carriage doors: his bees then pour out and sting everyone until they flee the area. For unclear reasons, the sting of Motay Motay's bees also cause nearby fires to go out. He triumphed over the combined might of Thomas and the Tank Engines in a pitched battle which left him the sole remaining resident of the Island of Sodor. The Fat Controller was driven into the sea by bees.

Drill Robot: A robot with drills for arms and two pipes on his body, out of which pour milk and smoke. He drills holes in people, and if they object he drills their mouths off so they can't complain any more. His secret is that he is actually a man in a robot costume.

Doctor Cat: A small orange cat who has the thankless task of splinting people back together after Drill Robot's rampages. His catchphrase is: 'Doctor Cat.... IS BACK!'

Skeleton Pirate: A pirate skeleton who sails around in a pirate ship, looking for treasure. He has a giant pet centipede in his cabin, whom he feeds on nuts.

Pomking: A two-headed fire-breathing dragon who lives on an island, hoarding ice cream. His rulership of this island is bitterly contested by Andy Pig, a giant pig who gets over-excited when watching car races on TV.

Vampire: A vampire girl who flies around in a bright orange aeroplane pouring drinks on people. Lives in the same house as the fairies.

Lava Tigers: Tigers made of lava who live inside lava flows and subsist on a diet of red grass. They are wildly dangerous, but tend to fall asleep a lot.

Fire Dinosaur: A small red dinosaur covered in spikes, who lives inside a volcano. He heats up his spikes with lava and then tricks people into sitting on his back.

Melon: A vigilante squid who flies around in a biplane, hunting evil-doers. When he catches them he cuts them up with the shiny metal propeller on his plane. He's a bit like a gimmicky cephalopod version of the Punisher.

Eaty Branches: These look like ordinary bushes, but when you touch them the branches eat your hand. The locals deal with this by putting the resulting bleeding stumps into a hole in the side of a magic tree, which gives them new hands made of slime.

Mega-Dog: A giant dog. He is very good at fighting, but he will only fight against birds and/or vampires. No-one else. Ever.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Third Side of the Story

Recently I was looking at the world map for my current game, and wondering what to put into some blank areas near the Orc Territories, and I thought: 'Maybe I can steal something from World of Warcraft?' After all, back in the day, I played the damn game for the best part of a year. In that time, I played through something like fifty zones worth of content: well over a thousand quests, all told, taking in everything from science fantasy to Gothic horror. Surely I could find something worth using?

But I really struggled, and I found it was almost always for the same reason: the set-up for virtually every zone was 'this area is a [biome] where the [whatevers] are fighting the [whatevers]'. Orcs vs. humans. Zombies vs. werewolves. Dwarves vs. trolls. Druids vs. cultists. They barely even qualify as ideas. A random generator could spit them out by the hundred. 'In these mountains, the goblins must battle with the minotaurs!' 'In these jungles, the elves must battle with the centaurs!' And so on, and so forth, forever.

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Have you guys tried, like, not fighting? It's been twenty-four fucking years, now!

The trouble with this sort of straight-up warzone, in which you just pick a side and march off to beat up the dudes on the other team, is that there's so little scope for complexity. Unsurprising for an MMO that evolved from an RTS wargame, but disappointing from an RPG perspective: there's just nothing to get stuck into. The one area which felt like an exception was the plaguelands, where, for once, the situation was much more complicated. I'm no expert on Warcraft lore, but from what I recall from playing through the area about seven years ago, the set-up was something like this:
  • An evil necromancer king unleashed a zombie plague that depopulated his kingdom, turning it into a haunted, monster-filled wasteland.
  • But he's dead now, and many of the undead he created are now free-willed and trying to decide what to do with their unlives.
  • Except some of them are still loyal to his vision, and just want to kill everyone in his name.
  • And others are just mindless and feral, a danger to everyone around them.
  • Some humans survived the plague by holing up in fortified compounds governed by religious extremists, where they became violent isolationists, convinced that all undead were inherently evil, and desperately afraid of outsiders as potential plaguebearers.
  • There were some elves here, too, but the undead army killed most of them and wrecked half their city, so now the survivors live in the intact half while the other half collapses into ruins.
  • And many of the surviving elves have gone a bit crazy due to their out-of-control magic addictions and have been banished into the ruined districts.
  • But the ones who are still relatively sane have forged a cautious alliance with the free-willed undead.
  • Now that the necromancer is dead, humans from outside are starting to move into the area, tentatively beginning to resettle its edges.
  • Except the free-willed undead still think this is their land.
  • And the necromancer loyalists still want to kill all humans.
  • And the survivalist cultists no longer trust anyone else at all!
See? Complexity! Multiple factions, only one of which is obviously villainous. Goals which aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, unlike the tiresome turf wars which dominate most other areas, in which your gain is necessarily someone else's loss. A genuinely open situation, which could end up being resolved in any number of ways, rather than just having a single predetermined 'victory condition'. That's a setting worth playing in. (Of course, WOW turned it all into a series of tedious kill-the-baddies slogs, but that's MMOs for you.)

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You don't need this many factions... but I think almost any scenario is enhanced by having at least three, or two if the PCs are effectively a 'faction' of their own. (A straightforward warzone is fine if the objectives of the PCs are orthogonal to those of both warring sides.) If it's just us and them, red team vs. blue team, then it's much harder to create situations more interesting than... well, than those you'd find in the average MMO. Everything in World of Warcraft is built around providing excuses for you to kill things: everywhere you go you find populations who have been driven mad by pain, or rage, or spiritual corruption, or magical pollution, or brainwashing, or whatever, rendering all their previous affiliations meaningless, and transforming them all into interchangeable manifestations of The Enemy. I'd argue that this is the exact opposite of the approach a tabletop RPG should take: instead of looking for opportunities to assimilate different groups into 'the enemy', it should seek every opportunity to dis-aggregate 'the enemy' into multiple different groups, thus opening up spaces for stories and solutions other than us vs. them hackfests. Wargames and computer games are better at those anyway.

Three factions. That's the minimum you need. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The red team, the blue team, and the PCs. The Wicked City has thirty-one factions, many of them riven with internal subdivisions. You don't need that many. But I think that you do need at least three.

Otherwise you might as well be playing World of Warcraft...

Monday, 18 December 2017

We dance for the spirits and yet they are not appeased.

These are Tsam dancers.

Only in Tibet...  Tibet

War God, dancing daemon wearing a traditional Tibetan Buddhist dance mask for the Tsam ritual dance, Ulan Bator or Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Asia

Tsam Dance at Ulaan Baator, Mongolia, 1920s. (British Museum)

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The Tsam or Cham ceremony is a ritual of Tibetan origin, in which masked performers enact symbolic dances in order to spiritually purify themselves and the surrounding environment. Like much of Tibetan Buddhism, it bears a strong resemblance to the indigenous shamanic traditions which were incorporated into local Buddhist practise: and it may have been this shamanic heritage which helped it to catch on in Mongolia, where Buddhist monks began performing Tsam dances of their own in the eighteenth century. To a population familiar with Tegriist shamanism, with its use of ritual masks and dances, it probably seemed logical that Buddhist clergy might also achieve their spiritual objectives by putting on masks and dancing: and the Mongolian Tsam rituals quickly became even more elaborate than their Tibetan originals.

The setting of ATWC is mostly pegged to the seventeenth century, which is before the flowering of Mongolian Tsam traditions: and in any case, I'm extremely wary of turning real religious ceremonies into gaming fodder. Still, I like the idea of the having something similar to the Tsam ritual - let's call it the Great Spirit Dance - as an exciting new ceremonial technique, knowledge of which is just starting to filter into the steppe khanates from some half-legendary mountain kingdom in the south. For the steppe peoples, the Great Spirit Dance is still something daring and experimental and dangerously foreign, which many people have heard of but which very few actually know how to carry out. As such, the performance of such dances is only likely to be attempted by the truly adventurous - or the truly desperate.

Here's how it's supposed to work: through ritual supplications, powerful spirits are drawn down into the masks, which become their temporary homes. The ritualists then don the masks and perform their ceremonial dances, symbolically enacting the cosmic order of the universe. The spirits inhabiting the dancers are reminded of their place within the cosmic system, and at the end of the dance they depart from the bodies of the ritualists in a state of harmonious contentment, meaning that the chances of them deciding to unleash plagues and famines and other disasters upon the people will be drastically reduced in the year to come. They might still do those things, of course: but if they do, it's likely to be because they have a good reason for it, rather than just because they woke up feeling spiteful that day.

Stunning 1920’s images of a Tsam Dance at Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Here's the harmless way to get it wrong: if you mess up the construction of the masks, or the initial ritual preparations, the spirits won't be called down into the performers. You can still do the dances, and if your human audience is paying attention to the symbolism they might even learn some useful religious lessons - but the spirits won't be influenced, because the spirits won't have turned up. As a result, they'll be no more or less likely to send a murrain on your cattle than they would be in any other year.

Here's the really dangerous way to get it wrong: if you get the ritual masks and preparations right, but then mess up the dance, then the spirits will arrive... but they won't leave. You've called them here, into your masks and your bodies, and you're dancing for them... but the dance isn't telling them anything, or at least not anything that makes proper sense. They get confused. They get frustrated. They won't let you stop dancing. They won't let you take the mask off. They want you to do it right.

Thus it sometimes happens that travellers on the steppe chance across a ragged band of dancers, arrayed in the tattered remains of once-fantastical costumes, leaping and stomping their way across the empty lands. Their huge, heavy masks sway and nod to the beat of inaudible music, and through their open mouths can be glimpsed the wild eyes of the dancers, spirit-ridden, gleaming, and crazed. They move in great wheeling circles, their feet tracing intricate mandalas across the featureless grasslands of the steppe. They never eat. They never sleep. They never stop.

Cham Dancer, Tibet

It's best to avoid them, which is easily done on horseback: they move faster than any man, but never in straight lines, so a horse will always outdistance them over time. But if they come upon you by surprise - if they burst upon your camp during the night, for example, for their dance continues in darkness just as it does in light - then almost anything could happen. To determine the disposition of the spirits, roll 1d6:

  1. The spirits want you to join the dance. They will each grab one dance-partner and whirl them away, carrying them off over the steppe for 2d20 hours before releasing them and pirouetting off. If resisted they will become forcible, first grabbing and grappling, then escalating to actual violence. They'll dance with unconscious bodies or lifeless corpses if they have to. 
  2. The spirits want musical accompaniment. For 1d6 hours, they demand that you play for them, with whatever instruments you have available: if no-one has any musical instruments, then they'll accept beatboxing and drumming on nearby objects instead. They're not picky about performance quality, but will grow agitated and violent if you can't keep the beat.
  3. The spirits want new bodies: these ones are becoming quite worn out. They will try to grab victims and force their masks over their heads, using whatever degree of force is necessary to do so. Anyone who has such a spirit-mask forced over their head must pass a WILL save each round or suffer spirit possession. The mask's previous wearer will be freed from the spirit's influence once the new victim has been possessed, but they will be in a terrible physical condition, and will die in 1d6 hours unless they receive immediate care. 
  4. The spirits want an audience. You have to sit and watch them for 2d12 hours, cheering and applauding whenever any of them does anything especially athletic: after this time is up, they bow and dance away. They will use force, and if necessary violence, to compel continued attention. 
  5. The spirits have questions, and they want you to answer them. The imperfect symbolism of their dance has puzzled them rather than placated them, and now they surge towards you, roaring out theological queries like challenges: 'What is the nature of heaven? What is the purpose of suffering? Of what essence are the Men of Bone and Iron? What is the true homeland of the soul?' If your answers are good enough to give them something to think about, they'll whirl away and dance around contemplatively in a circle for a while, giving you a chance to leave. (For these purposes, clever-sounding wordplay is just as good as something genuinely profound.) If they receive obviously unsatisfactory answers, or no answers at all, they will become frustrated and attack.
  6. The spirits believe they are engaged in a ceremonial re-enactment of some primordial battle... and that you are the enemy. They attack furiously, yelling out the names of antique war-gods as battle-cries, and forcing their luckless hosts to fight until they have been hacked to twitching pieces.
PCs confronted with such possessed individuals may try to free them by pulling their masks off, but these unfortunates are not so easily saved: while the spirit rides them, the mask is effectively their actual head, and cannot be removed by any means short of amputation. (The exception is if the spirits themselves will it - see 3, above.) Aside from killing them, there is only one way to end their possession, which is to identify what is wrong with their dance and then demonstrate to them how it should actually be completed: if this is accomplished, then the spirits will be satisfied and depart, and their hosts may yet be saved with the aid of prompt medical attention. (They will remember their possession only as a blurred and interminable dream.) For anyone other than a Spirit Dance expert, understanding the flaw in the dance's symbolism requires a 1d6 x 10 minutes of close observation, a specialised religious education, and successful Intelligence check; demonstrating what the correct version should look like requires a great sense of rhythm, 3d6 minutes of dancing, and a successful Dexterity check. Both are likely to be challenging under combat conditions.

  • Possessed Dancer: AC 15 (superhuman agility), 3 HD, AB +3, damage 1d4+3 (inhumanly strong kicks and punches) or grapple, FORT 8, REF 8, WILL 8, morale 12.  Possessed dancers are immune to all mortal magic, as well as to fear, exhaustion, and pain. They can never stop dancing for any reason until they are either cut to pieces or freed from the spirits that drive them. 


Joseph Rock - Skeleton dancer, Choni (Jone, 卓尼), 1925

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

On the level: some thoughts on advancement

Recently, after eighty-odd hours of play spaced out over more than a year of real time, the Team Tsathogga PCs hit level 5. Partly because half the players were new to D&D when we started, I didn't use an experience point mechanic, going instead with a 'level when it makes sense' set-up; and, so far, it seems to have made sense approximately once every sixteen hours of actual play. (They started at level 0.) The time between level-ups has been getting longer, though, and I'm sure the average will increase the longer that the campaign continues.

Of all D&D's innovations, the levelling system is one of the oddest, and one of the most influential. Like most of the game's other features, its origins can be found in the historical wargames that D&D evolved from, which sometimes featured rules to model how a unit of troops might go from raw recruits to hardened veterans over the course of a long campaign: but D&D took this simple concept and stretched it so far that it became almost unrecognisable. A D&D character advancing from level 1 to level 20 isn't really like a wargame unit advancing from green to veteran: it's more like a unit starting out as a regular WWII infantryman and gradually evolving into a Sherman tank.

As far as I know, this advancement paradigm - in which characters begin as more-or-less ordinary people and gradually transform into mythic heroes - was a D&D innovation. It's since gone on to become deeply embedded in the structure of both fantasy RPGs and computer games, to the point where it's easy to overlook how utterly weird the idea actually is, especially in its more extreme implementations. It's clearly not rooted in any kind of realism, but it also doesn't appear in any of D&D's source material: Conan, Elric, Aragorn, et al are highly capable individuals right from the start of their respective careers, and become at best only slightly more powerful over the course of their adventures. Only with D&D does the idea arise that a character can effectively change genres, metamorphosing from a grubby desperado to Conan the Barbarian to Beowulf, if only they can manage to kill enough orcs and steal enough gold along the way.

The levelling system persists largely because it satisfies what, for many players, is clearly a very basic desire: the desire to see your numbers increase, power grow, and options multiply, to have your progress and achievements measured and quantified and validated in clear numerical terms. Given that people enjoy levelling, though, it's still worth asking just how many 'experience levels' a game actually needs. Wargames usually got by with just two or three, but D&D's innovation was to add many, many more. Most D&D editions and variants assume a 20-level structure, but it's often been noted that the higher levels tend to get very little actual play: the original B/X rules provided no rules for characters over level 14, which I believe was also the highest level reached by any character in Gygax's original campaign. Early D&D 'endgame' adventure modules, like Queen of the Demonweb Pits, Tomb of Horrors, Dragons of Triumph, and Temple of the Frog, were written for PCs of levels 10-14, which further reinforces the impression that level 14 was the highest level that real PCs were actually expected to reach. (Interestingly, most modern Pathfinder adventure paths top out at level 15 as well, which suggests that the level 14-15 ceiling has held remarkably constant across different eras and editions, even though rules for going much higher have been around for decades.) TSR was publishing ultra-high-level modules as early as 1985 - M1 Into the Maelstrom was for characters of levels 25-30! - but no-one ever seems to have liked them very much, and the question of how to write good adventures for very high-level characters never seems to have been adequately solved. Look at the early adventures that people still talk about today, and you'll find they're all written for level 1-14.

So there are strong grounds for suspecting that the top quarter of the standard 20-level progression has never seen much real use. But I think one can go further: in practise, even going much higher than level 10 seems to be pretty rare. In the original game, 'name level' - the point at which your character had 'made it', and could settle down as a lord or a high priest or an archmage somewhere, was level 9, 10, or 11, depending on your class. The highest level a PC has ever reached in one of my games was level 12. The 5th edition campaign books which WotC has been bringing out over the last few years are mostly designed to take a party from level 1 to level 10, which makes them very similar to the old B-X module range of 1978-87, which theoretically covered levels 1-14 but in practise very seldom went higher than 10. Some recent D&D spin-offs, such as The Black Hack, Shadow of the Demon Lord and 13th Age (I think), even set level 10 as the maximum level achievable.

So there seems to be a second milestone, which has again remained surprisingly consistent across eras and editions, which sees level 10 as the end-point of a 'normal' campaign: levels 11-15 are for those rare campaigns which go the extra mile, and levels 16+ are barely used at all. There's clearly a third milestone around level 6-7: the original campaign-in-a-module, X1 Isle of Dread, topped out at level 7, and level 6 is used as the maximum level by several D&D spin-off systems, including Dungeon Crawl Classics, Hulks and Horrors, and the E6 hack of D&D 3.5. Levels 1-7 is where the majority of famous adventure modules tend to cluster, and it also accounts for the vast majority of my own gaming experience, in which campaigns going beyond level 7 have been a distinct minority. Not coincidentally, the 1-7 level range - especially the level 3-6 sub-range - are also the ones which are most likely to give you the 'classic D&D experience', before the easy availability of game-changing magic like Raise Dead and Teleport starts pushing the game away the default fantasy adventure paradigm. The games I ran for my level 10-12 AD&D 2nd edition group back in the 1990s were great - but they were also weird as fuck, and bore very little resemblance to traditional D&D adventure scenarios, simply because by that stage the PCs had so many tools available to them for bypassing or trivialising the kind of obstacles which form the building-blocks of lower-level adventures. I'm sure they'd have become even stranger if we'd gone higher still.

The boundaries, then, have remained fairly constant: levels 1-7 for fairly grounded fantasy adventure, levels 8-11 for high-powered heroic fantasy, levels 12-15 for fantasy superheroes, and levels 16+ for a largely theoretical end-game which very few people actually use. But what hasn't remained constant is the rate of advancement. TSR edition D&D assumed you'd need to play for years to reach name level, whereas I seem to recall that 3rd edition was built around the assumption that you'd level about once every ten hours of play - more than twice as fast as seems to have been common in 'the old days'. Shadow of the Demon Lord goes further still, recommending a structure in which one session = one adventure = one level, which would mean characters advancing twice as fast again. Personally, I find the rapid levelling of more recent editions strains my credulity: even Team Tsathogga's advancement from level 0 to level 5 over the course of two years of game time seems rather on the fast side to me. But many adventures are clearly written with the assumption that no-one will be surprised if a band of peasant irregulars transform themselves into mighty wizards and warriors after a few orc-stabbing excursions into the woods. That's what 'experience' does to people, right?

So there are two independent variables, here: both how high levels go (either in the form of a hard limit, or just a vague shared assumption that the levelling rules probably won't actually be used beyond a certain point), and how quick or easy it is to move up the scale. In conjunction, they can be used to generate four very different environments:
  • Low level cap, slow advancement: The most 'realistic' option. People get more powerful, but not that much more powerful, and it takes ages. Everyone is vulnerable - no-one is ever so strong that they can afford to simply ignore low-level characters - but tearing down the powerful is much easier than rising to their level yourselves. Suitable for gritty or tragic games, in which destroying things (and people) is much easier than replacing them. This is the Lamentations of the Flame Princess model.
  • Low level cap, fast advancement: The most dynamic option. The power available is limited, but it comes quickly to those who seek it. The power gap between the weak and the strong is never all that big, and can be rapidly closed by someone sufficiently determined, meaning that it's never safe to rest on your laurels: there's always the risk of some ambitious young punk bursting up out of nowhere and tearing down all your achievements. Suitable for short, fast-moving games which feature rapid shifts in the status quo, especially as surviving characters will rapidly hit the level cap. This is the Shadow of the Demon Lord model.
  • High level cap, slow advancement: The most hierarchical option. There are people out there who are much, much more powerful than you are, and you will probably never be able to rise to their level, so you'll probably be spending your whole life living in the shadow of their power. Could lend itself to a revolutionary narrative about underdogs banding together to defeat the powerful through intelligence and guile, but much more likely to turn into a nightmare of being the archmage's errand boys, forever. This is the AD&D Forgotten Realms model, and it's my least favourite combination.
  • High level cap, fast advancement: The weirdest option. There are enormously powerful people out there... but, with enough luck and determination, anyone can join their ranks, and do so fast. Likely to resemble a superhero setting more than a traditional fantasy world, with ultra-powerful individuals just bursting out of nowhere all the damn time. ('Last year, I was just a lowly farm boy... but now I am Darkaxe, Slayer of Gods!') Both Pathfinder and D&D 4th edition lean heavily in this direction, in practise if not necessarily in theory.
My instincts have always led me towards the first of these options, with characters levelling quite slowly, but with very few high level NPCs around to make them feel small by comparison. (In a world where almost everyone is level 0 or level 1, a 3rd level D&D PC is badass.) But I think any of them could potentially be fun - as long as the group knows, in advance, what they're getting into, and prepares their expectations accordingly. It's when there's a mismatch between system and expectations - and especially when the PCs seem to be weirdly out-of-kilter with the assumptions governing the rest of the setting - that problems are likely to occur...