Thursday, 30 April 2015

Campaign Journal: AS&SH The Anthropophagi of Xamboola (Session 3)

SPOILER ALERT: This journal is extracted from an unpublished and upcoming Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea adventure I am currently completing. This account eventuates from the playtest. You have been warned!

Visitors to the desert-city of Xamboola beware! Demoniacal cachinnations and dull totemic drumbeats sound nocturnal from the outskirts of the city. Too, vile shrieks echo in response to the nightmarish noises, making even those of heroic aspect shudder in repulsion. Residents do not tarry to lock themselves in their homes at night, for something sinister lingers in the fringes of the black of night. Whisperings and warnings intimate that foreign guests residing at the inn of one Aramis D’athak oft disappear at night, never to be seen or heard from again. Where they disappear is not known, nor do the people of Xamboola speak of the hellish noises that darken their oasis city in the gloom of night.

Session 3: An Unholy Feasting

The Party

Sint the Pict Ranger (Level 1)
Heron the Kimmerian Druid (Level 1)
Moloch the Male Ixian Witch (Level 1)
Grimnear Hothgar the Viking Berserker (Level 1)
Estorane the Ixian Thief (Level 2; Hireling)

Part I: Of Fire & Blood

Outside the tall, iron-bound doors stood the wanderers. With some caution they approached the door testing it. It was locked. Although the thief and witchy locksmith tested their mettle against it, there was no prevail. Deliberating the best course of action a consensus was reached to scout the outside of the building. Teaming up, Heron and Grimnear found a hidden tunnel in the side of the sand-covered palace ruin.

After digging away at the shifting desert sands, and wriggling within a strangely wormy tunnel, the intruders followed the passage for twenty feet to a seeming dead-end. Using muscular force a stone block was pushed out of the dead-end, falling into a corridor within the palace. It did not appear as anyone within (whoever that may be) had heard the noise (though it was loud), and the wary adventurers climbed out of the tunnel and into the palace.

No sooner had they leapt from the tunnel than horrid and unspeakable noises emanated from behind a nearby door. Shrieks and pleas could be discerned, it was the sound of human suffering. Without much pause the huge Viking shoved open the door, lunging into a large room. The others followed without hesitation. The sight was abhorrent to all sensibilities of morality and goodness. Two men were trussed up as pigs, being spit roasted, while four enthralled cannibals, lustful for the taste of mankind tore greedily at their skin, shoving bits of the still-alive men into their mouths as the victims screamed and writhed upon the burning flame. Two women and a girl were also trussed up, though they had not yet been set afire. The walls and floor of the room were slick with blood and blasphemous symbols drawn in red. A large table on one end of the room held a human carcass, gnawed at by vermin and flies. Two priestly characters watched the uncouth and uninhibited anthropophagi scoff their morsels with gusto.

Bewildered, the cannibals did not initially notice the intruders as magic was woven, and naked iron drew blood. One priest fell prey to the Ixian's occult magic while another was dashed to pieces by the Viking's relentless blows. Estorane and Sint released a hail of arrows, while Heron's weapon clove at the feasting and naked savages. When it was all over, Heron had fallen, though was not yet dead. The poor trussed-up men were dead, burnt alive in the flames.The women and child thankfully remained unhurt albeit traumatised. After the rescue and after wiping the blood from their feet, the group returned to Xamboola.

Part II: Xamboolan Intrigue & Purple Death

Back in Xamboola Heron slept. The Eel was hired that night and the following day for the princely sum of 1 gold piece. This enabled the rescued females to sleep, and Heron to recuperate from the trauma of mortal combat. Meanwhile it was ascertained a sum of 50 gold pieces was owed the Thieves Grotto for their help in the temple ordeal. Destitute, that sort of sum was far too hefty for the collective adventurers to pay, and Estorane refused to pay a single copper, blaming the party for the foolish temple slaughter.

The thieves suggested the party could eradicate their debt by completing a simple task for them: murdering the high priest of Helios. The rivalry between the Grotto and the Temple was at its pinnacle; after the recent temple slaughter the final barrier to harmony was the removal of the arrogant high priest. "We'll think about it" was the reply offered to the thieves. The general consensus was pillaging the ruined palace should yield the required fortune to clear all debts. They did not wish to run afoul of the law again!

Returning via the secret route the party returned to the palace. This time it was decided to investigate the other portion of the palace left unexplored in the previous venture. Happening upon an open courtyard exposed to the elements the party spread out. They examined a ruinous stable, finding nothing but a rotted trunk and shattered pottery. In the courtyard were strange and eerie mosaics upon the walls. Heron listened at a closed door while the others examined a staircase and the mosaics. Creepers and vines partially engulfed the north-western wall. Searching through these vines Grimnear awoke a florid-purple mushrooming creature. It's three tentacles dripped a rotting and deathly substance and Grimnear fought to dodge from it. The other rushed in to assist him.The Ixian Witch again wove his slumberous threads. The Viking gods smiled upon Grimnear as he dodged and parried. It was over almost as soon as it begun, the perplexing creature destroyed. The lethal creature had been expeditiously bested. Both Moloch and Grimnear clawed through the vines again discovering two skeletal figures within the undergrowth. Grimnear pried a bow and quiver from one, while Moloch fingered through the other corpse's vest finding a ring and a plain stone. He pocketed the stone and adorned the ring, feeling unusually lucky. 

Part III: The Glass Pane

Hearing nothing at the door in the corridor Heron called the rest of the group to explore it. Walking the hall they determined it to be ominously quiet. Pushing open a door, six hungry cannibals set upon them without warning, wildly slashing at the explorers, attempting to slaughter them without abandon and desperate to feast upon them. Moloch attempted to invoke his magic but alas, the rushing cannibals avoided the full effects, with only three of their number dropping. The others hacked and bit and spat at the adventurers, while the adventurers loosed all their resources destroying them. The fighting was in close quarters and the unrelenting violence of two cannibals brought Heron again to unconsciousness. Moloch slaughtered those bewitched by his magic, slashing their throats as they slept. The rest of the party butchered the remainder.

When back in town Moloch had wisely purchased some desert spirits, and when the battle had subsided he poured the fiery liquid into Heron's throat startling him into consciousness. The room was searched and underneath two Grecian recliners Sint discovered an intricate and breathtakingly beautiful glass pane, chased in bronze. Magic, he succumbed to its affects, yearning for his homeland as he gazed nostalgically at the piece. He began weeping softly, entirely uncharacteristic for the usually emotionless Ranger. The fierce Viking snatched the glass from Sint's fingers, but as he caught sight of the beauty he began to weep too, only more fiercely. It was thereafter decided the damn thing was cursed. "Let's sell it and pay our debts!"

Unlucky Heron returned again to Xamboola to recover from his grievous wounds, while Sint, Moloch and Grimnear sought the wisdom of the desert theosophist who looked so much like a fish-man. Paying him a sagely fee he examined their plunder for esoteric properties, determining the bow, arrows and the strange stone held such things. Back in Xamboola the thieves were paid 50 gp from the palace plunder, cancelling all debts. From their legendary exploits the adventurers were even able to pocket some jangling coins in their purses. Studious, Moloch read the theosophist's scrawling parchment, gaining an unfathomable insight into the incomprehensible realms beyond Hyperborea. Giggling with slight otherworldly lunacy, he had learnt a new spell from his arcane delving...

Adventure Rewards

500 xp for saving the victims
240 xp for defeating 10 cannibals
240 xp for defeating two snake-like priests
101 xp for defeating Violet Fungi
100 xp for exquisite glass treasure
90 xp for jadestone ring

254 xp each

Previous Post - Session #2 The Wrath Of Helios 
Next Post - Session #4 The Warlord's Mirror

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Black Ruins

Today signifies the release of my second adventure: The Black Ruins. It is FREE to download from Lulu or can obtained from my downloads page too. 

I have created a colour print copy which is also available on Lulu for purchase via print-on-demand.

Blackened esoteric obelisks, henceforth known among most folk as ‘The Yore Standing Stones’, dot a strangely unnatural hill. The runes are inscribed with runic scripting, but it is what looms below the forlorn hill that should chill any good serf to the bone.

Maintaining compatibility with any old school fantasy role-playing game or retro-clone, this is an adventure for 4-6 players arrayed around levels 1-3. This work can be made compatible with newer editions with minimal effort.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Wacom Bamboo Pad USB - Review of Mapping

Company: Wacom
Compatibility: Windows & OSX
Price: $39.95 (Out of Stock)

Mapping is generally an enjoyable pursuit. I enjoy the tangibility of sitting with a piece of paper and imagining various geographies, whether that is a town, a city, a dungeon or a continent. With a bit of spare birthday cash I purchased the Wacom Bamboo Pad, hoping to emulate this process in a digital format.

The Good
I opted for the USB version because I hate replacing batteries. I have a cordless optical mouse which depletes batteries rapaciously. Therefore something I could plug-and-play was desirable. Wacom does produce a wireless version of this product, so if you have the patience for rechargeable batteries that may be an attractive option for some. Luckily the Bamboo Pad enjoys compatibility with both PC and Mac. While initially my computer did not recognise the device it was very easy to find drivers. I'm running 'Mavericks' and thus far it has been working perfectly. I have only tried it with my MacBook Pro so cannot comment on whether there is much difference on my iMac.

Before getting into the meaty stuff let me first describe my typical mapping workflow, hopefully providing some context for this review. I typically begin with a blank piece of white paper. Preferring to work with pencil I generally sketch my maps, before scanning them as PDFs then editing them in either Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop (sometimes both). My purpose in purchasing the Bamboo was to eliminate two steps of this workflow - drafting straight into Photoshop before tidying up.

With that in mind I found there to be a slight learning curve with this tool. The pen itself is pleasing to touch and easy to grip, however the surface of the pad is rather sensitive. I'll discuss this more shortly. I was surprised how easy it was to pick up however, and after some initial trial and error, I really enjoyed messing around with different brush types. I could get a nice variation in effects, similar to watercolour, pencil or paint brush. For the price I feel like it provides a great tool in comparison to the sometimes cumbersome nature of a mouse. It successfully eliminated the two prior steps of my workflow so for that reason I was satisfied. 

The Bad
The sensitivity of the pad will be a deterrent to some. At times I accidentally bumped it, or produced a wild line or shape for seemingly no reason. Because the surface works like a touchpad I would sometimes flit between windows or minimise Photoshop when I didn't mean to. This could be frustrating and made me wonder whether a mouse could be faster for some things. Spending a reasonable amount of time getting used to its nuances should help, though I suspect this will be a recurrent complaint.

Final Thoughts
For the price point, and overall usability I feel like the Bamboo Pad is a worthwhile purchase. I would certainly recommend it as an alternate to a mouse, which can be infinitely infuriating for some specific mapping techniques. There are some general annoyances, though with a bit of patience I feel like it's a good alternative for sketched or illustrated pieces. In around an hour I produced the piece below. I'm considering including this in a mini adventure I'm in the process of writing. 

Monday, 27 April 2015

On Artwork And Inspiration: The Works of Nicholas Roerich

Delving into the work of H.P Lovecraft revealed to me the work of Nicholas Roerich. It would appear Lovecraft had fondness for his work, or at least considered it somewhat evocative in the creation of his own works. He cites it at least twice in his sprawling tale At the Mountains of Madness, referencing the likeness between Roerich's paintings and his own 'Cyclopean' cities. That Lovecraft was an important literary inspiration to Gygax and Arneson should also not be overlooked*.

An Internet search demonstrated what Lovecraft was discussing with promptness, and in no small way helped me to visualise the megalithic black cities he referred to. While I personally find a good piece of artwork quintessential in the formulation or muse of my own writing, I feel the linkage is ephemeral rather than concreted in any discrete permanency. That is, I often find myself becoming inspired by a piece, but what begins as a visual appetite may continue in an imagined context, becoming more than the original image alone. The new piece of writing (hopefully) transcends the original piece of artwork that inspired it, becoming its own thing. The pieces I have included in this article may all contain hints as to what Lovecraft spoke of, yet no singular image mirrors exactly what I see in my mind's eye. And I think this exact distinction is important: namely that imagery and writing should assist one another, yet neither should be relied upon.

The work of Roerich in particular amasses a brilliant use of colour that I may call vivid or bold. Were these same paintings reproduced as sketches I doubt they would hold the gravitational pull I currently feel towards them. It is the uncanny representation of reality through colour and shape that I admire, in many respects mirroring a similar relationship between 'reality' and the gamed fantasies we indulge in. Our gaming worlds are somehow more vibrant or outrageous than those we may otherwise occupy, yet evocative of something strangely substantial, though often difficult to quantify.

Whether a painting of a natural cave networks conspires to amount in the creation of the 'Old Ones', or simply becomes the lair of a purple worm I see a epiphytic relationship between the two creative forms of art and writing. Most of my favourite fantasy role-playing games have artwork that somehow transports me from here to there ('there' being that other place where one thinks to themselves 'Yes! I want to travel there. But how?').The same goes for a particularly potent piece of literature. The imagery can be so sharp, and the atmosphere so poignant that I indeed travel to 'there'. Likewise fantasy role-playing games are nothing without the atmosphere they conjure, and quite frankly without sincere atmosphere I'd rather not play. 

Life is too short to play in games where the atmosphere is anything but electric. A game, I feel, should inspire you to some kind of vicarious experience. It's not really up to me to determine what that is, or what that may look like, but if I'm playing a game I want to experience something! One reason I particularly like Roerich's work is that each piece hints at a cosmic greatness or peculiarity just outside of reach. Lovecraft's work hints at this too, and is probably why he elected to specifically name Roerich's artwork in his tale. Again, I think a good game will reflect this metaphysical tale: it may be a struggle with self or others, a struggle with the seeming futility or ambivalence of the world, or even the relationship between mortal 'man' and a greater being. Or you may just want to hack some monster to death (maybe on some level that monster stands in the place of something else, or maybe it doesn't). 

That lucid and liminal space between a boring old tale and something that truly inspires is a worthy pursuit, and luckily there are many excellent gaming companies that attempt to tell a 'new' tale. I for one do not want to play the same game everyone else is playing - I want to play the sort of game that me and my friends want to play. The idea of someone else writing my adventures has always been a discomforting thought, and I think it's because the creation of a tale is such a sacrosanct act. I don't mean that in a weird way, I just mean it's pretty damn cool I can sit down with my friends each week, pull out some whacky-looking dice and create literally endless tales with a few rulebooks and some imagination. The best part? We're creating these narratives communally, but in our individual minds they look distinctly different to each person playing. At least I think they do...

So then, let artwork inspire you, but let it be a springboard towards something different or more rarely, something greater.

* Check out Jon Peterson's Playing At The World (2012).

Friday, 24 April 2015

Secondary Skills: A Chandler's Gotta Eat!

Note: If you want a PDF copy head to my Downloads page or directly from DropBox.

Secondary skills within earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons and their more recent retro-clones are a commonly debated inclusion. While many who implement such systems use these ‘skills’ merely as a role-playing device, or to flesh out their character to a greater extent, I would suggest considering a system whereby these professionals are benefitted in some small way.

I: Earning Some Coin
The two tables below may be used in times of non-adventuring when adventurers wish to earn some extra coin. First, determine the character’s background or secondary skill (pg. 12 AD&D DMG). Next, roll on Table I: Locating Paid Work. In my campaigns I would roll on Table I for each week paid work is sought. This presumes the adventure is located within a substantially sized town or city. But you, fellow DM, may change this period to a daily rate or even a monthly rate depending on the value of coinage in your campaign.

Table I: Locating Paid Work (Roll 1d6)
D6 Result
Failed to locate work
Located minimal paid work (roll once on Table II)
Located consistent paid work (roll twice on Table II)
Located ample paid work (roll thrice on Table II)

When it has been determined whether work has been located, and if so, how much work, roll on Table II: Earnings. Some results from Table I will necessitate multiple rolls on Table II. If so tally the results to determine the total earnings for that week.

Table II: Earnings (Roll 1d6)
D6 Result
Earned a wage of 1d4+2 copper pieces
Earned a wage of 1d8+2 silver pieces
Earned a wage of 1d4+2 gold pieces
Earned a wage of 1d8+2 gold pieces

Tuscott Irontooth has a background as a carpenter. He seeks work for two weeks between adventures. The DM (or optionally the player) rolls 1d6 per week on Table I. The result is 1 and 5. Consulting Table I, Tuscott fails to find work on the first week, but on the second locates some ‘consistent paid work’. Rolling twice on Table II, he earns a total of 4 gold pieces and 6 silver pieces. Tuscott then remembers why he took up adventuring in the first place: carpentry is not as lucrative as adventuring! Thereafter he locates another dungeon to plunder.

II: ‘I Am After All, Skilled’
Some professions such as a trader, a locksmith or a gambler may infer benefits within an adventuring context. The DM may wish to afford a small modifier to certain tasks based on the character’s profession. For example a trader may add an additional +1 modifier to reaction rolls based on his cheery disposition and experience when dealing with humans, a locksmith may possess additional skill with bypassing non-magical locks, while a chandler will be able to make candles rather than pay for them.

In these ways secondary skills provide some minor mechanical benefits, while retaining the broad role-playing possibilities traditionally associated with these ‘skills’. For those who wish a more granular system, everything herein can be modified to suit one’s personal sensitivities.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Jo Salvador's 'In the Moon Bog' - One Page Dungeon Entry

Author: Jo Salvador
Price: $0 (FREE here)
Format: PDF
Page count: 1
System: Raven God Games (OSR/OGL)

Year: 2015

The Good
For the record, this is my kind of adventure. It's straightforward, clear and concise. It's teeming with peculiarity and oddity, oh and it fits on one page. I believe the intention (and it certainly comes across in execution) was a mini wilderness crawl. There are plenty of adventure ideas packed into this diminutive one-pager. Basically a hairy, one-eyed spaceman's disabled spaceship is leaking radiation into the Moon Bog. The leakage has poisoned the area and created mutated 'man-frogs'. Also, the spaceman's name is Zark which is pretty perfect. I like the overall flavour - items such as 'marsh pearls' or a 'starmetal longsword' provide a nice deviation from normal treasure, and challenges the DM/Ref to define what these things are in their own campaign microcosm. There are plenty of good ideas herein, so much that you could run a mini campaign here with little effort. I can immediately imagine using this in my Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers campaign, alongside Yoon-Suin and Carcosa

Salvador has opted to omit any system-specific material, so the DM/Ref will need to do a bit of work to flesh out some of these encounters. I actually prefer it this way, it's very easy to grab a relevant monster manual and roll initiative. It also removes the necessities of 'ideal for levels 4-5' type of thing. 

The two maps present within the adventure are very decent. Unambiguous, they are greyscale and logical to follow and match with the adventure.

The Bad
I'm racking my brain here trying to flaw this, because really, for a one-page design this thing is perfect. I did notice one syntax error, but even mentioning that seems laughable and slightly petty.

Some DMs may wish the encounters and monsters had been given stats. If you are one of those DMs who would complain about this...please don't. Or find a system where you can readily adapt a systemless supplement to your game. Sorrynotsorry.

Final Thoughts
This thing is great. Download it immediately, and use it in your next gaming session.