Thursday, 13 July 2017


The summer conference season is a kind of passive-aggressive ritual in which the academics within a specific discipline stalk around the world in rotation, keeping an eye on what the competition is up to. The next few weeks of my life will be a blur of interchangeable hotel rooms, interminable keynote addresses, and jetlagged exhaustion kept in check by endless cups of cheap black coffee. As a result, I probably won't be posting anything to this blog until early / mid August.

Here's some random inspirational images for ATWC to tide you over until then.

Landscapes | Steve McCurry (Kandahar, Afghanistan)

"Tang Dynasty" oil on canvas portrait - by Dongmin Lai.

Nubra Valley Ladakh India

Study of the moon and stars.  Ottoman miniature from 17th century.   Istanbul.


Manuscript-Metaliʿü'l-saadet ve yenabiʿü-l-siyadet Seyyid Mohammed ibn Emir Hasan el-Suʿudî, 1582, Gallica,BnF

Bedouins preparing a raiding party

Gennady Pavlishin, Tales of the Amur

Melchior Lorck.

Köl Gölü'nde Türk Mezar Taşı- Turkic tombstone on Song-Köl lake

This is the old City of Yazd. Old brick and mud houses and arches taking their natural light from the opening in the Arches. A desert city on the silk Route.

Photograph by Tim Walker for Vogue December 2011 In northern Mongolia, reindeer territory, 13-year-old Puje fearlessly explores the wild landscape.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

In the shadow of the Great Machine: a hexcrawl

Image result for sacred 2 temple guardian

I'm not quite sure when I acquired a copy of Sacred 2. I think I picked it up for a couple of dollars during a Steam sale or something. A few months ago I installed it and started playing it, more or less on a whim, and I finally finished the main questline the other night.

Sacred 2 is not a good game. Combat is simply a matter of clicking on things and waiting for them to die. The mechanics are the kind of overcomplicated mess which expect you to constantly evaluate whether a hat which grants +3 Strength, +2 Sword Lore, and +5% attack speed is better or worse than one which grants +8 Attack, -10% Combat Art Regeneration Time and +7% physical damage. The quests are mostly of the 'kill six dudes' variety, and the female character designs are an embarrassing exercise in fan service. But the game world is enormous; and while the ratio of content to space drops sharply about halfway through, the sheer amount of stuff which you can chance across is genuinely impressive. In tabletop terms, it's a hexcrawl rather than a railroad, one that really rewards the kind of players who think: 'sure, there's some kind of urgent crisis going on in the next town, but I wonder where this little trail in the woods leads to?' In Diablo 2, which was obviously the main inspiration for Sacred 2, completing the main questline requires you to run through almost all the game's content. In Sacred 2, just doing the main questline would mean missing something like 90% of what the game contains.

Sacred 2 also makes heavy use of science fantasy and magitech elements, which are another thing I'm rather fond of. In particular, a very large chunk of its content revolves around 'The Great Machine', an enormous magical engine whose pipes, control rooms, and substations can be found throughout the game world. Many of its side-quests feature the different ways in which the presence of the Great Machine has impacted upon the world around it, and these are often its most interesting elements. As I played, I made notes of some of the scenes and ideas I might want to borrow for use in one of my own games someday; and by the time I'd completed the game, I realised that I had so many of these notes that they would suffice to stock a medium-sized hexcrawl in their own right. So I wrote one.

What follows is basically just my 'steal this idea' notes from Sacred 2, distributed across a small hexmap. All the content here is adapted from material in the game, but I don't think many people ever played it, so you should be alright - and in any case, I've modified the details enough that even someone who's played the game might take a while to spot the source. Feel free to steal anything you like for use in your own games!

(NB: Hexes are 10 miles across.)

0000: Here, high in the mountains, stands the Great Machine, built many ages past by some vanished precursor race. Its purpose is to siphon magical energy from the world, and to this end its collection pipes run for hundreds of miles in every direction, soaking up ambient magical power from the earth and air and channelling it back to the machine. The builders of the machine are long gone, and with them died the knowledge of how to truly use it, but its working have just enough in common with the crude alchemy and spellcraft practised in the surrounding lands that many groups and individuals have found ways to siphon of some of its power for their own purposes.

The hidden bunker which contains the Great Machine is currently under the control of the High Priests (see 0204), who guard it heavily and do not allow anyone else to visit it, claiming that it is a site too holy for profane eyes. The heart of the machine remains inaccessible even to them, locked away behind ancient barriers and near-indestructible mechanical guardians who will yield only if given the right command codes. (See 0903.) If the machine was destroyed then the power of the High Priests would be broken, but the side-effects of such an event would probably also destabilise the entire region, as many other groups and communities also draw upon its power for many different purposes.

0002: Somewhere in these woods hides an ancient robot, sent out into the world by the artificial intelligence that controls the Great Machine in order to gather data about the world outside. Gradually realising that the process of having that data harvested from its mind would involve the erasure of its accumulated memory and personality, it went on the run, hiding as far from the substations of the Great Machine as possible. A squad of hunter-killer robots roams the area at random, seeking to find their errant comrade and bring it in for forcible debriefing.

0003: These hills are home to ragged bands of escaped slaves from the city at 0305, who hide their encampments within the rugged terrain and occasionally engage in opportunistic banditry. They know this land better than anyone, but they are extremely suspicious of outsiders.

0004: In this wood a dark cult has taken root, worshipping the cruel spirits of the forest, and revering a terrible beast who dwells in a cave in the forest's heart as their earthly messenger. To these spirits and their beast they offer bloody sacrifice, both within its cavern and on the crude stone altars scattered through the woods. All the people in the region live in fear of them, and most either support or turn a blind eye to their activities, for fear of ending up as sacrifices on one of their horrible altars. The cult's base is a half-ruined chapel deep in the forest, which is protected by a primitive energy field projected from a nearby control substation of the Great Machine. If the substation was disabled then a swift enough attack could destroy the cult's leadership in a single strike.

0005: This lonely little village is the current hiding-place of a nobleman, who was sent by his masters in the city at 0305 to bring order to the cult-ravaged forests of the west. Swiftly concluding that the task was impossible, and that any attempt to subdue the cult would just end up with him being stretched out on one of their altars, he stuffed the province's entire budget into his saddlebags and ran for it; he's now hiding here with a band of hired mercenaries, trying to decide what to do next. He is unaware that his own men are plotting how best to kill him for his stolen gold. 

0007: A band of pirates terrorise this lonely coastline, extorting protection money from the locals. Their ostentatiously swashbuckling leader is in fact simply a flamboyant actor with a gift for swagger, whom they press-ganged years back. Their real leader poses as a retired merchant, living quietly by the sea, and regularly visited in secret by the local priest who is, in fact, actively complicit in the exploitation of his own flock.

0102: The staff and students of this isolated magical academy are currently living in fear. Infusing the body of a clay golem with energy siphoned from a nearby conduit of the Great Machine seemed like a good idea at the time... until it started growing. They tried to imprison it for further study, but it grew so huge it was able to smash its way out. Now it roams the forests at random, growing ever-larger and more destructive, while its creators try to think of some way to kill it before the outside world discovers what they've done...

0104: In this remote cemetery, a band of clerics sent by the High Priests at 0204 have been experimenting with siphoning energy from the Great Machine and channelling it into specially-prepared sarcophagi, as a crude means of raising the dead. Most of the undead thus created are near-mindless creatures, but a few have retained their intelligence and have fled into the surrounding forests, trying to make sense of their new condition and plotting revenge against their creators.

0106: This lonely inn is clearly built on much older foundations; but what none of its current residents know is that it stands right on top of the tomb of an ancient king, which is accessible through a secret door hidden in the basement. There, statues of the king and his knights stand watch over their still-sealed tombs. Their grave goods are worth a small fortune, but disturbing the graves will cause the corpses of the knights to animate in order to fight one last time in their liege's defence.

0107: Under pressure from the aggressively expansionistic men of 0209, the people of this region have banded together under the leadership of a minor noblewoman, who has formed them into a local militia. Their enemies are more numerous and better-equipped than they are, however, and she fears that they are only delaying the inevitable. She would like to hire the pirates at 0007 to fight for her, but lacks sufficient gold to tempt them. To these ends, she is trying to locate the king's tomb at 0106, hoping that it might contain enough wealth to buy her people the allies they so desperately need.

0200: The ruins of a fallen castle cling to the side of this mountain. Harpies nest amidst its broken walls. In one corner stands a still-intact shrine to a many-armed goddess of chaos, who will grant boons to any sufficiently free-spirited individual who makes offerings at her altar. 

0204: This fortified temple is the stronghold of the High Priests, who control both the Great Machine and the local religious hierarchy. They dress in bulky robes and hoods, partly to make themselves more intimidating and harder to identify, but mostly to conceal the arrays of Machine-powered technological augmentations which allow them to perform their 'miracles'. Their stronghold stands in the centre of an immense walled compound, which no-one is permitted to enter or leave without permission. New initiates are coaxed in with promises of power or enlightenment, and then imprisoned within the compound until they have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the fatalistic and authoritarian teachings of their masters.

0209: In this town the people have converted a substation of the Great Machine into a crude necroscope, capable of communicating with the spirits of their ancestors. To accomplish this, it must be constantly networked with a crude 'brain web', the components of which need to be replaced regularly; to these ends they have taken to breeding domesticated kobolds, whose brains they harvest whenever the brain web needs repairing. The ancestors seem to be a bloodthirsty bunch, always calling upon their descendants to claim more land and glory. The kobolds labour in the fields around the town; they have resigned themselves to lives of forced labour, but would revolt at once if they learned what was really happening to all the kobolds who were chosen to 'work in the big house'.

0301: In these hills stand ancient burial vaults, now the lair of a fearsome corpse-eating minotaur - although even it shuns the deeper vaults, which are guarded by automated gun emplacements powered by ancient magic. Great treasures are rumored to lie hidden in their depths.

0302: The people of this area attempted to tap the power of a nearby control substation of the Great Machine. Unfortunately, their crude efforts to manipulate its mechanisms caused it to develop a power leak, and the resultant magical radiation has turned them into crazed cannibal mutants, lurking in the control tunnels during the day and creeping forth at night in search of prey.

0305: This city sits astride a major conduit of the Great Machine, which the local artificers and magicians have tapped in a thousand places, providing a ready source of power for its workshops and industries. The competitive advantage granted by this almost-free supply of energy has allowed the city to become wealthy and powerful, and the increased rates of madness and mutation caused by energy leakage into the water supply is seen as an acceptable price to pay for its prosperity. In theory the city is ruled by an elective monarchy, but in practise power rests in the hands of the High Priests.

0308: Deep in these swamps lies a hidden temple, in which a mummified lizard man priest kneels in eternal contemplation, the last remnant of a now-vanished civilisation destroyed by the builders of the Great Machine. He possesses considerable arcane powers, but the only thing which could stir him to action now would be the possibility of avenging himself upon them by destroying the Great Machine in turn.

0309: In this enormous pit, energy from a ruptured Great Machine pipe spills out into the soil and water, warping the animals and even the insects within it into huge and fearsome beasts. Warriors from the town at 0209 sometimes come here to prove their skill and valour in battle with the beasts of the pit.

0402: This is the site of a catastrophic spillage of energy from the Great Machine, caused by a botched attempt to tap one of its conduits by the people who once lived here. The escaped energies have turned the entire area into a no-go zone of mad, feral mutants, in which humans and animals alike grow huge and mad due to exposure to the uncontrolled energies pouring into the air, water, and soil. In a fortified ruin in the very heart of the zone live a crazed band of outcasts, who plan to turn themselves into supermen through controlled exposure to the magical energies outside. Their progress so far could be charitably described as very mixed. 

0400: Up in these mountains lies the lonely grave of a cruel judge from a previous era, now rumoured to be haunted by his ghost and the ghosts of his victims. Beyond it a reclusive alchemist lives in a hidden valley, relying upon the stories to keep unwanted visitors away. He is said to be a master of his craft, and understands much about the weird energies of the Great Machine, but he takes a very dim view of those who would interrupt his work.

0403: Near this prosperous agricultural town is a small control substation of the Great Machine. Decades ago, one of the locals figured out a way of jury-rigging its systems into a crude mind control device; now the people abduct passing travellers, drag them to the substation, and use the machines to turn them into docile slave labour for the fields. Breaking the machine would restore their free will, but this will be fiercely resisted by the locals, as the local economy depends upon their access to a supply of slave labour.

0407: These farmlands are plagued by the Warriors of the Dark Temple, who issue from their dripping subterranean shrine-vault at the behest of cowled priests, grimly burning crops and houses with their flaming swords. The people look to their lady for protection, but she cares little for their troubles; her lover has just been assigned to govern a distant province, and she spends her days pining for him, waiting for a letter to arrive. (He's currently at 0005.) The blood-stained ritual chambers concealed beneath her manor house suggest that at least some members of her household are secretly working with the Warriors in any case.

0408: A great battle was once fought in this desolate swampland, after which, grief-stricken by the extent of their losses, the winners attempted to use the powers of the Great Machine to raise their fallen comrades from the dead. The result was a plague of quasi-living mutant corpse-monsters which infest the marshes to this day. 

0501: Beneath this ruined tower, a cruel undead mage keeps his victims in a state of undead thralldom amidst rivers of lava and ancient tombs. His latest victim is a young man taken from a nearby village, and his betrothed is camped out nearby, desperately seeking some way to rescue him from his nightmarish underworld captivity.

0504: When the town at 0705 rebelled against the city at 0305, these woods became the main battlegrounds. They saw appalling amounts of death and suffering, and remain horribly haunted to this day. Now crudely-carved statues in memory of the glorious rebel dead stand overgrown and unvisited among ruined villages and mass graves visited only by the spectres of the slain.

0507: The owners of this remote inn are secretly a family of werewolves, who habitually murder and eat travellers who they believe are unlikely to be missed. They are currently haunted by the ghosts of some of their previous victims; they find this extremely inconvenient, and are in the market for a good exorcist. (They will not, of course, tell anyone why they are being haunted!) 

0508: In this ruined fort stand an ancient regiment of skeleton warriors. Long ago, they refused to march forth and aid their comrades in the battle at 0408, and their priests cursed them for their cowardice; ever since they have been unable to abandon their posts, even in death, rattling endlessly around the halls of the fort they were once too afraid to leave. Their commander believes (correctly) that the gods would forgive them if only he could lead his men out to fight in one last battle glorious enough to wipe away their ancient shame. 

0600: When the barony in this hidden valley was overrun by its enemies, the baron's magicians drew, in desperation, upon the powers of the Great Machine, a substation of which stands in the hills. The result was a magical miasma which killed everyone in the valley, natives and invaders alike, so quickly that they didn't have time to realise they were dead. Now their bewildered ghosts continually refight the same old battles, under a sky still darkened by the magical miasma unleashed so many years ago. Turning off the machine would end this effect, and probably the haunting with it, but the substation is guarded by the ghosts of the magicians who activated it, all convinced that they are the last hope of their people and must thus defend it with their (un)lives.

0601: This narrow mountain pass provides the only access to the hidden valley beyond, once an isolated barony which kept the outside world at arm's length. Today it is guarded by the ghosts of the men who died defending it; they are unaware that they are dead (see 0600), and refuse to admit anyone without authorisation from their long-dead baron. The baron himself died in battle, and is buried in a stone tomb nearby. Someone wearing his armour, or carrying his signet ring, might be able to persuade the ghostly guards to finally stand down.

0603: This small town is built around a temple, whose priests were once famous for their deeds of healing and charity. Recently, however, its clergy have been infiltrated by agents of the High Priests at 0204, who are working to pervert its teachings and align it with their spiritual agenda. They have even sold the temple's sacred chalice to an ambitious magician, who now lurks in a cave nearby, trying to find a way to claim its powers for himself. The people of the town are distressed by the disappearance of the chalice, but do not yet suspect that it is an inside job; and while the town's mayor suspects that something strange is happening in the temple, he is keen to avoid bringing its holiness into disrepute, as the town's prosperity is heavily dependent upon it.

0604: A gang of bandits under the leadership of a robber knight lair here, in the ruins of an abandoned church. The ghost of one of their victims haunts the place on moonlit nights, much to their discomposure. 

0705: This town was once a vassal of the city at 0305, until its people rose up and won their freedom in a long and bloody rebellion. Today they are enormously suspicious of all forms of high technology, which they associate with their hated oppressors. They live by farming, hunting, and wood-carving, and scatter into the surrounding forests if threatened by outside forces.

0707: This monastery is the base of a holy order of warriors, charged with protecting the land using their stock of 'holy relics' (i.e. leftover magitech devices created by the builders of the Great Machine). Contact with their superiors at the Great Tower (see 0901) is haphazard and infrequent, with messages often going unanswered for decades; as a result, the warriors are left very much to their own devices. Some continue to attempt to maintain order and protect the innocent, while others are content to grow fat and idle upon the tithes traditionally delivered to them by the people of the region in exchange for their 'protection'.

0800: In the lava tubes beneath this mostly-extinct volcano live a clan of degenerate elves, warped by inbreeding and life underground. They regard the dragon who slumbers beneath the volcano as their god, and whenever it wakes they creep out into the surrounding countryside in search of animal and human prey to assuage its terrible hunger.

0804: At the end of a steep ravine in these woods is a pool, guarded by enormous bears, and sacred to a primal goddess of soil and blood. The local people drown animals - and the occasional human - in her honour, there, and the bottom of the pool is choked with bones. 

0901: This tower is the home of a small group of ancient men and women, the founders of the militant order which now has its base at 0707. They kept the most powerful of their salvaged relics for themselves, and used them to tap weird energies from the Great Machine to make themselves ageless and physically perfect; they then withdrew from the world, supposedly for the purposes of study and meditation. In fact they have long since fallen into decadence; they care very little about the world outside, passing their time with relic-driven entertainments, and often allowing years, decades, or even centuries to pass before they get around to answering the requests and messages sent to them. They regard normal humans as little more than mayflies, too short-lived to be worth paying any real attention to; their human servants, for their part, serve them with sycophantic loyalty, regarding them as little less than gods. Their tower is ringed by the ruins of their once-great achievements - temples, libraries, museums, and so on - which none of them have bothered to maintain in centuries.

0902: This was once a village until the decadent elders of the Great Tower (see 0901) decided to landscape the whole area into a hunting park for their specially bred and mutated game animals, exterminating all the villagers in the process. Now their vengeful ghosts haunt the land; and while the elders themselves are far too well protected by their relic technology to be harmed by any mere ghost, they delight in causing catastrophic hunting accidents among their servants. The animals themselves are huge and strange and savage, and far too dangerous to be hunted for sport by anyone not armed with relic weapons.

0903: In these dense forests stands an overgrown temple complex, at the heart of which stands a huge step pyramid. Beneath it are ancient control chambers, guarded by magical automata, from which the operations of the Great Machine were once controlled by its now-vanished builders. A cautious explorer with the right knowledge of ancient languages could potentially learn much from its corroded robots and flickering holograms, including the command codes which would grant access to the heart of the Great Machine at 0000 itself; but the ruin is patrolled by 'flying demons' (jet-powered security robots that look like winged piranhas with laser-beam eyes) which respond to intrusions with overwhelming force. 

0904: Centuries ago two powerful magicians, once lovers, lived together in a castle in this wood. A spectacular falling-out between them led to a magical conflict in which the land was left poisoned and cursed forever: the water in the streams is red and bitter, and webs of weird, fleshy growths grow like ivy across tree trunks and ruined walls, blinking with innumerable eyes and waving blood-coloured tendrils in the air. Bizarre, warped, skinless creatures, some of which might once have been human, scuttle through the cursed woods and suck the blood from unwary travellers. The magicians themselves still live on in the depths of the forest, their lives sustained by the power of their mutual hatred. If they could be killed or reconciled then the land might begin to heal. 

0906: This forest is home to the Blood Dryads, a pale, reclusive tribe of elves who sacrifice intruders so that their blood might fertilize the soil. They practise dark magic which allows them to bind the souls of their victims within their own severed heads, enabling them to command their spirits for as long as they hold the head in which it is bound. Smashing a head allows the trapped spirit to escape.

0907: Beneath this wood is an immense network of burial chambers, built by a long-vanished civilisation to house their dead. Within, great bridges arch over vast pits filled with broken sarcophagi and crumbled bones. A weird cult has taken up residence within these halls, but the bizarre atmosphere of the place has taken its toll upon them, and they have split into rival factions: their warleader roams the entrance halls, setting her pet cave tigers upon 'intruders', while their chief interrogator conducts bizarre experiments upon his prisoners and their head magician meditates in a weird subterranean garden he has discovered deep underground. The high priest of the cult transformed himself into a flying serpent and hasn't been seen for months. They've collectively unearthed much of the ancient magic of the place, however, and they could become a real threat if they were ever reunited.

0909: This rocky wasteland is inhabited by cruel nomadic elves, who ride immense scarab beetles which they breed in distant oases, whose waters have been tainted by the energies of the Great Machine. They worship an ancient god of science, and detest all other faiths. Crumbling ruins in the wastes suggest that their ancestors once revered some kind of scorpion-god instead, and a gargantuan scorpion-monster still lurks beneath the remains of their most ancient temple.

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Sunday, 2 July 2017

Tunnels and tunnel fighting

This week, I had the opportunity to walk (and, at some points, crawl) through the medieval tunnels under Exeter.

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Me in a tunnel, as photographed by the person behind me.

The tunnels were dug in the 14th century, so that plumbers could access and repair the lead pipes which carried water to Exeter cathedral without having to dig up the road every time they needed to patch a leak. Visiting them thus gave me an enlightening insight into what medieval Europeans considered to be an adequate amount of space for people to move around in underground.

It turns out the answer is 'not very much'.

In those parts of the tunnels which weren't expanded during later centuries, they averaged about five feet high and two to three feet wide. In a few places they sank to about three feet by three feet - crawling room only. If you'd had to fight down there, there's no way you could have used axes or crossbows, let alone longbows or two-handed swords; knives and maybe shortswords would have been much more appropriate. You couldn't have used big shields or bulky armour, although a small shield would have been incredibly valuable, as there would have been no room for your enemy to strike around it. You couldn't have run, or even walked quickly - there were too many places where you'd have to edge your way sideways or crawl instead. And everyone would have been hitting their heads on the ceilings every few seconds.

It made me think about those standard low-level D&D enemies, goblins and kobolds and giant rats, and how terrifying it would be to have to fight them in an environment like that. How they could move quickly and easily through spaces where adult humans could only inch back and forth. How vulnerable you'd be while edging through a narrow space, and how easy it would be for something small and vicious to run up and slice through your tendons while you were basically incapable of defending yourself. I'd much rather have fought an orc than a goblin in those tunnels. Orcs would have had the same problems we did. Goblins would be stabby death on legs.

Tunnel passage
'Just go down there and kill ten giant rats, he said...'

The standard Gygaxian 10' square dungeon corridor isn't historically realistic - in fact, my experience this week suggests it's about eight times as wide as real medieval tunnels - but it endures partly for this precise reason: it gives the 6' 8" half-orc with a greataxe enough space to fight side-by-side with the 4' halfling with a dagger. You'd never want to make 5' x 2' the standard size of a dungeon passageway, partly because it would enormously disadvantage anyone who wanted to play a big (or even normal-size) character with a big (or even normal-size) weapon, and partly because it would turn the game into a tedious exercise in dealing with the same set of practical problems over and over again. But once in a while, sending a party into a warren of tunnels like the ones under Exeter could make for a very tactically interesting scenario, especially if it pitted them against under-sized enemies like kobolds. It creates a whole bunch of asymmetries: you're strong but slow, they're fast but weak. You want the fighting to happen where the tunnels are widest; they want it to happen where the tunnels are narrowest. If one of them gets injured or killed, you can probably step over it; if one of you gets injured or killed, then that person will block the entire tunnel. Your most powerful weapons and armour are also the ones which are hardest to use effectively. 'Do I use a knife or a longsword?' becomes an actual choice for once.

(Zombies would be another good option: having to run away from a bunch of Romero-style shamblers in an environment like that would be a nightmare, especially as they, unlike you, won't care how often they whack their heads on the ceiling. And yes, sure, you can use fire: but then what about smoke inhalation? You need to breathe and they don't...)

Anyway. Medieval tunnels. Really fucking narrow. You might want to leave the battleaxe at home. 

Monday, 26 June 2017

Almost a review: Mutant Crawl Classics

Mutant Crawl Classics is here!

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All images in this post are taken from the MCC book, and copyright their respective artists, who all did an amazing job. I mean, just look at that cockroach-guy right there!

I've read a few Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure modules, but I've never read or bought the actual DCC system; I feel I already have enough OSR-style systems for running fantasy dungeon crawls to last me a lifetime. Mutant Crawl Classics, however, was another matter. I mostly backed the kickstarter because of the number of free adventure modules they promised to throw in, but I was also intrigued by some of what was promised for the game itself: a post-apocalyptic RPG which offered the chance to play as a mutant, or an animal-person, or a plant-person, or a shaman who reveres a pantheon of ancient artificial intelligences as divinities. Anyone who's read much of this blog will know that unconventional PC races and post-apocalyptic science fantasy settings are two of my very favourite things in RPGs, so I backed MCC in order to see what its authors would come up with.

MCC is a stand-alone RPG whose core system is very similar to the one in DCC, which is to say that it's basically a variant of TSR-era D&D: 3d6 for stats, classes and levels, d20 vs. AC to hit, and so on. Wisdom is replaced by Luck, which can be spent to gain bonuses on rolls, and your level 1 hit points are added to your level 0 hit points, which makes characters a bit tougher than their TSR D&D counterparts. Magic items are replaced with scavenged items of high technology (complete with rules for figuring out how to use them without killing yourself), while magic itself is replaced by mutations (including psychic powers) and prayers to the aforementioned pantheon of AIs, which may heed your entreaties enough to lob the occasional orbital laser blast in the direction of your enemies. Classes are Sentinel (=fighter), Rover (=thief), Shaman (=cleric or magic user), Healer (=the one that no-one wants to play because all they can do is heal other people's injuries), and three others which have no direct equivalents in standard D&D: Mutant, Manimal, and Plantient. The game's overall vibe is very Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with nods to other sources such as Blade Runner and Red Dwarf, replicants and hard-light holograms being among the artificial lifeforms that the now-vanished ancients left behind them. Hard science fiction this is not.

There's a very lightly sketched-in setting, which casts the PCs as members of a primitive tribe scavenging among the ruins of a fallen high-tech civilisation, complete with an in-setting justification for the 0-level character funnels which DCC is famous for: to become full members of their tribe, young adults must undertake a rite of passage in which they travel out into the ruins and retrieve an item of lost technology. Their status in the tribe will depend upon the value of the item that they bring back: so all you need to do is gather together a bunch of ambitious adolescents willing to risk their lives for an impressive score, and bam, instant excuse for sending a whole bunch of level 0 characters into some meatgrinder of a post-apocalyptic dungeon complex. Those of them that make it back with valuable relics of the ancient world will be promoted to Seekers, whose task it is to procure more such items for their tribe, meaning that sneaking around ancient ruins in search of Sufficiently Advanced Technology is now their actual day job. The whole set-up is designed to provide an excuse for moving the PCs from one post-apocalyptic dungeon crawl to the next with an absolute minimum of fuss. You could run other sorts of adventures with it, but you'd have to do pretty much all the work yourself.

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The mutants are pretty much what you'd expect: they get a random number of random abilities at random power-levels. The manimals and the plantients are a bit disappointing, in that their randomly-assigned plant or animal features are almost entirerly cosmetic: they basically use the same rules as mutants, except they get less mutations and get a few generic animal or plant-based powers to make up for it. The rules don't distinguish between tree-people and vine-people, or between dog-people and beetle-people, which I found a bit of a let-down. Still, all those random rolls will leave you with some memorably bizarre characters, as I discovered when I rolled up one of each as a test:

  • Mary the mutant ended up as a short, squat, heavily-built woman with heightened strength and telekinetic powers. She could also fire electricity bolts from her three-fingered hands, and generate illusions by touching her fingers to her forehead.
  • The dice turned Mike the manimal into a salamander-man with the psychic ability to conjure orange forcefields around himself - which is handy, as he also had a mental block about combat, which forces him to hesitate before engaging in any kind of violence.
  • Polly the plantient turned out to be a human-shaped lump of granite-hard ivy, with red eyes (in her leaves?) that were capable of infravision, and the ability to grow or shrink at will.

This is all good fun, although of the three of them, poor Manimal Mike clearly drew the short straw; but post-apocalyptic RPGs which let you generate weird mutant PCs are nothing new, and the robots-and-mutants-and-animal-people setting implied by MCC is pretty much the default average for the genre. There are some nice ideas in the monsters chapter - I'll probably steal the Beast Things, degenerate humans who remained in their doomed blue cities until they devolved into ape-like beasts with telepathic mastery over rats, and the Gopher-Men, semi-sentient mutants with steel claws who hoard shiny objects within their subterranean burrows - but, again, it's all fairly traditional post-apocalyptic gonzo stuff. (Its take on the ubiquitous radiation zombies is pretty good, though.) It's all solidly done, but it's probably not going to blow the mind of anyone who's already familiar with Metamorphosis Alpha, Gamma World or Mutant Future.

I thought that the best bit of the book was the chapter on the AI 'gods'. 'The god of the post-apocalyptic tribe turns out to be an ancient computer' is a well-worn cliche at this point, but I don't think I've ever seen it used with as much thoroughness as it is here: so their god of war is an ancient military computer which controls a variety of space-based superweapons, their nature goddess is a sentient weather control satellite, their god of travel is the AI which once ran a worldwide maglev transport and delivery network, and so on. A shaman bonds with their 'deity' by connecting the relevant cyberware to their brain, receiving seemingly-supernatural assistance (and increasingly extensive physical modifications) from their patrons in exchange for serving the agendas of these various crazy machines. The chapter really takes the whole 'your magic is just highly advanced technology' idea and runs with it: the supernatural warriors you 'summon' are warbots teleported in from ancient subterranean storage facilities, your 'divinations' are information downloads from an extraterrestrial computer, the impossible knowledge you find yourself possessing is due to your patron AI using your brain as backup data storage space, the image of your god who appears before you is actually being projected through your retina by a holographic projector embedded inside your brain, and so on. My single favourite example of this was the bit about their goddess of dreams and madness actually being a leftover VR entertainment system, who keeps trying to encourage her adherents to try out her 3D holo-games - experiences which they, understandably, interpret as baffling vision-quests and visits to the spirit world. For players really willing to get into the spirit of the whole 'low-tech observer of high-tech phenomena' set-up, I think this could be really good fun.

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Overall, I'd say that if you're in the market for an OSR-adjacent post-apocalyptic RPG, then this is a pretty good one. If, like me, you're primarily looking for stuff to swipe for other games rather than a whole new system, then you I'd suggest just reading the gods and monsters chapters, and then flicking through the rest of the book for the sake of the art.

Because the art is fabulous. I mean, who wouldn't want their RPG party to look like this?

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Friday, 23 June 2017

The Language of the Fans: Ruby Fan Murder Harlots revisited

Zayasaikhan Sambuu (better known as Zaya), Mongolian artist, born in 1975

The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, oh my chevalier!

- Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'The Windhover'

'If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.' - Isadora Duncan.

On the face of it, it seems bizarre that a bunch of dancers with complicated fans should have risen to become major players in the criminal ecology of the Wicked City. Anyone with a gun or a dagger or a rope can be a murderer, and anyone with a body can be a prostitute, yet to become a Ruby Fan Murder Harlot requires exceptional natural athleticism and years of ruthlessly demanding training in a balletic art form that almost no-one even understands how to interpret any more, all so that they can graduate to a life of running brothels or cutting people up with bladed fans. It all seems so excessive. Wouldn't it be simpler just to recruit a bunch of ruthless kids with knives and forget about all the fancy dancing?

Such questions, while understandable, get the situation entirely backwards. Hard though it may be for their victims to believe, the arts of the Murder Harlots are not cultivated to assist them in the execution of their crimes. Instead, their criminal endeavours exist primarily so that they can safeguard the continuation of their art.

This is their secret: that for all their nihilistic bravado, the Murder Harlots really care about the art form of which they are the Wicked City's last remaining practitioners. No-one who wasn't genuinely in love with the expressive possibilities of dance and motion would ever put up with their gruelling training regimen, or the years of practise needed to mould a human body into something that makes the most extraordinary acrobatic feats look effortless, leaping and spinning through the air as though gravity was merely a suggestion. In their own slightly crazy way, the Murder Harlots are actually much more purely committed to their art than the Jewelled Fan Dancers from which they inherited their traditions. For the Jewelled Fan Dancers, their dances were valuable because they were understood to embody and communicate all kinds of high-minded philosophical and spiritual ideals about Order and Balance and Harmony and Self-Control. For the Murder Harlots, the dance is just the dance. It doesn't mean anything, or at least not anything so paltry that it can be put into words. It means itself. The clean and perfectly-executed snap of the body through space contains its own meanings and its own rewards. 

It says a very great deal about the cultural state of the Wicked City that the only way the Ruby Fan dancers have been able to survive as an institution is by reinventing themselves as high-class courtesans and contract killers; but then again, if their art didn't have the side-effect of making them potentially appealing as sexual partners and hired assassins, it probably wouldn't have survived at all, or at least not in anything resembling its original sophistication. The other fine arts within the city are in a sad condition: poetry has been censored into oblivion for all purposes other than propaganda, architecture is now used chiefly to create ever-more vulgar and ostentatious monuments for the rich and powerful, and aside from the bawdy folk-songs of the very poor, music is now chiefly heard accompanying the liturgy of the city's corrupt and oppressive state religion. Under such conditions, genuine creativity finds few outlets. On balance, the Ruby Fan gang have probably done better than most.

They perform for themselves, mostly. They'll take paid engagements if the price is right, but among the city's elite, the knowledge to truly appreciate their artistry was lost when the Wicked King purged the old aristocracy; when they're hired now, it's usually by some lecherous bureaucrat who wants them to 'send a bunch of good-looking boys to do one of those twirly dances', or something similarly crass. Or they will put on public shows for paying audiences, trading on some combination of the athleticisim, obscenity, and black humour for which they are famous; morbid pornographic farces which also happen to involve an awful lot of backflips. The audience usually thinks that the most important scene is the one where the main performer jumps up and down a lot and then pretends to have sex with a camel. Only the dancers are likely to recognise that the real heart of the show, the point of it, comes in some seemingly incidental fan-fluttering passage whose sheer virtuousic complexity will not even be noticed, let alone understood, by anyone other than themselves.

It takes seven years to master the Language of the Fans; a language which, they say, contains more subtlety of nuance and vigour of expression than any spoken tongue. You think they do that just so they can pass each other secret messages in crowded rooms?

Gackt-Shellfish Barrel Pattern Tomosode (formal kimono)

Among some of the Ruby Fan Murder Harlots, the nihilistic amorality for which the gang is famous verges on antinomian mysticism. Words are lies; categories are traps; moral judgements are laughable oversimplifications which should be held up to ridicule at every opportunity. The divisions between good and evil, sacred and profane, are meaningless: there is only action, and every action is purely and radiantly itself, and the only true meaning is that which inheres in the action perfectly executed, the curve of the arm through its arc, the smooth slice of hand or fan or blade through air or flesh. They wouldn't use those words, though. They'd say: 'The world's fucked, and you might as well laugh at it. But that's no excuse for not appreciating really good footwork.'

It would be easy, and dangerous, to romanticise the Murder Harlots. To focus on their outlaw glamour, and forget their causal cruelty: the weeping boys and girls exploited by their brothels, the innocent victims hacked down by their hired assassins, the unfortunate visitors to the city dragged off by the Secret Police after being tricked into making seditious statements for their amusement, the passers-by subjected to random bladed-fan-based mutilation just because a nearby Murder Harlot happened to be bored that afternoon. Many of them are very deeply damaged people, not least because of the gang's frankly abusive training methods; and their collective culture tolerates and encourages the expression of this damage in highly destructive ways, ensuring that they retain their reputation as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. They just also happen to encourage its expression through some rather wonderful fan-dancing. 

PCs whose first contact with the Murder Harlots comes through encounters with their victims are likely to write them off as depraved and irredeemable. A lot of them probably are. But any perceptive PC who gets a chance to witness one of their private performances, full of expressive motion and yearning gestures and eloquent, fluttering fans 'speaking' faster than the untrained eye can follow, may glimpse another part of the truth: that their violence and callousness exists mostly as a protective carapace, and that for at least some of them the things they dance aren't just the things they can't express in words, but the things that they don't dare to, even to each other. Even to themselves.

Help me.

Love me.

Fix me.

Forgive me.

So the question it comes down to is this: how well can you interpret the Language of the Fans?

Jeff Sun, Shen Yun lead dancer and silver medalist of this year's adult male division, portraying the loyal general from Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Foes of the Wicked City 7: The Bog Folk

If most people think of the endless bogs of the north-west at all, it is in relation to the most famous things to be found in them, the bronze gods of the frog men: immense clockwork Wisdom Engines built by a now-vanished civilisation, which are revered as divinities by the amphibious humanoids who now live in the region. But something else inhabits the vast wetlands: and the few travellers who visit the region sometimes speak of weird encounters with bizarre, squelching creatures that seem to be composed entirely of freezing mud. They call them the Bog Folk, or the Mud Men.

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The Bog Folk were born from the ruins of the same ancient culture which built the Wisdom Engines. Among the wonders that they created was an enchanted fountain, whose waters were capable of healing injuries and curing disease; and while long ages have passed since the fountain fell into ruin, its magical waters still trickle through the rubble which once formed its basin, soaking into the surrounding mud and peat. Its power has dwindled over the centuries, and the waters now possess only minor healing properties; but the slow infusion of their life-giving energies into the earth has gradually charged the surrounding bogland with a kind of dim, instinctive life. Today, the marshes around the ruin in which the fountain once stood are filled with a weird vitality; they move, they quake, they sprout waving limbs, they form crude half-faces which attempt to speak in gurgling voices. And it is from this weird half-alive morass that the Bog Folk are born.

They are a magical accident, arising from the vain attempts of the fountain's magic to 'heal' the surrounding peat bog back into a human form that it never possessed in the first place. They look like roughly humanoid figures made of icy peat; the kind of thing a child might sculpt, with crude pits for their mouths and eyes. They don't so much walk as shamble, and their voices are horrible gurgles which sound as though they're drowning in mud. The frog men fear and avoid them, as do the very occasional human visitors to their lands; but despite their disturbing appearance, the Bog Folk are not a violent race. If anything, they tend towards a phlegmatic stoicism, as though rather bemused by the fact of their own existence. They feel no pain, or cold, or lust, or hunger, so they have nothing much to drive them into action. Most of them just doze their lives away, vaguely contemplating the passage of the seasons across the marsh, mostly mistaken for simple lumps of peat by passers-by.

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Thus they would have remained, little more than a local curiosity, until an expedition arrived in their territory from a far-off land. Its original aim had been to locate the Wisdom Engines, but an encounter with the murder machines built by the Mad King's worshippers forced them into a change of plans; and now all that the demoralised and desperate survivors were looking for was to escape the bogs with something to show for all their suffering. Mud men seemed as good a prize as any; so they scooped a group of them up into the sealed crates in which they had once hoped to bring back components of a Wisdom Engine, before fleeing the marshes with dozens more of the creatures on their heels.

The stolen Bog Folk were traded from hand to hand; first as oddities and then, after the healing properties of their mud were discovered, as a source of medicines and cosmetics. It was for this purpose that they were ultimately sold to a group of alchemists in the Wicked City, who keep them locked in a sealed lab, and regularly harvest their mud for use as a rejuvenating skin cream popular among the city's elite. By then they had gone through so many owners that no-one was really sure where they had originally come from; and while the competitors of the alchemists who owned them would very much have liked to undermine their monopoly, they had no idea where to start looking for mud men of their own.

But the Bog Folk were more persistent. Hiding their faces of frozen peat in filthy rags stolen from the settlements on the edge of the swamp, they stumbled from village to village, town to town, asking after their lost brethren in their horrible, gurgling voices. It took years for them to pick up the trail, but they had no shortage of time. They learned. They travelled. Gradually, they became more skilled in imitating the humans among whom they moved. From the swamps to the taiga they went, and from the taiga to the steppe, and from the steppe to the desert - until finally, after many years and many, many miles, they came to the gates of the Wicked City.

They will find their stolen kin. And they will bring them home.

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There is a Master of Mud: You can play one of the Bog Folk, if you want to, although you'll want to keep your true nature hidden under concealing clothing most of the time, lest you be carried off by profit-crazed alchemists and used to manufacture soothing, rejuvenating face creams for the very rich. Game information is as follows:
  • You are proficient with simple weapons, and with all forms of armour (although you will need to be careful about drying out - see below). You are not proficient with shields. 
  • You gain a bonus to all your to-hit rolls equal to half your level, rounded down.
  • You gain 1d10 HP per level.
  • You don't feel cold, hunger, pain, or exhaustion; you are immune to disease and poison, and you never need to breathe or sleep. Any cold damage you take is halved, rounding any fractions down.
  • You are vulnerable to drying out if you get too hot. Hot, wet conditions (e.g. a tropical monsoon) don't bother you, but hot, dry conditions will require you to constantly replace your lost moisture, at the rate of about a pint per hour. (Extremely hot and dry conditions, such as a shadeless desert under the summer sun, may require two or three times this much.) For every four pints of moisture lost and not replaced you take 1 HP of damage, which cannot be healed by any means until you get good and soggy again. You take double damage from heat and fire.
  • Being saturated with magical healing waters, your mud has soothing, healing properties. Anyone who rubs it onto their injuries will heal an extra 1 HP per day, in addition to any bonuses they may already be receiving from medical care. 
  • Your body is made of flowing, metamorphic mud and sodden peat. You are immune to damage from piercing weapons such as knives, spears, and normal-sized bullets (although a cannon or a blunderbuss will still splatter you). 
  • You can stretch out your arms and legs to double their normal length at the cost of halving their effective strength: so if you normally have strength 10 and a 2' reach, then you could stretch out your arm to reach something 4' away, but would only be able to grasp it with a strength of 5. By stretching out your legs to double their normal length you can massively increase your stride length, allowing you to keep pace with a jogging human - which is convenient, because you can't really run. Lost body parts can be regenerated given enough time and mud, but the magic animating you dissipates if you take enough damage to kill you. 
  • You can squeeze yourself through very small entrances, although doing so may involve leaving some or all of your equipment behind. By narrowing your head and body you can squish yourself through a gap just 3" across, although it will take some time to squeeze your whole body through. This ability means that you cannot be effectively restrained with normal ropes, chains, snares, straitjackets, etc.
Bog Folk Summary Table

Hit Points
To Hit Bonus
Fortitude save (FORT)
Reflex save (REF)
Willpower save (WILL)

Starting equipment: Thick, concealing robes (+1 AC), club (1d6 damage), stolen pistol (1d8 damage, 3 rounds to reload), extremely tolerant riding camel, 1d6x10 sp.

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

'The Heads of the Headless': Penny Dreadful titles as scenario seeds

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'Penny dreadfuls' - the cheap serial novels which were sold to children and the working poor in early Victorian Britain for one penny per installment - didn't acquire their name by accident. They featured plenty of blood and thunder, devious crimes, nonsensical plot twists, and authors who sometimes lost track of which century their stories were supposed to be set in, but the quality of the writing was... not high. Bombast, melodrama, and aggressive incoherence were pretty much the order of the day.

Their titles, however, were fabulous. 

Here are fifty, all of which I think would make fantastic titles for D&D scenarios. Roll 1d100, halve it, and use that as the title for your next adventure!
  1. Ada the Betrayed, or the Murder at the Old Smithy
  2. Adeline, or the Grave of the Forsaken
  3. Alice Home, or the Revenge of the Blighted One
  4. Alice Leighton, or the Murder at the Druid's Stones
  5. Almira's Curse, or the Black Tower of Bransdorf
  6. Angela the Orphan, or the Bandit Monk of Italy
  7. Anselmo the Accursed, or the Skeleton Hand!
  8. Bellgrove Castle, or the Hour of Retribution
  9. The Black Mantle, or the Murder at the Old Ferry
  10. The Black Monk, or the Secret of the Grey Turret
  11. The Black Pirate, or the Phantom Ship
  12. Captain Hawk, or the Shadow of Death
  13. Captain Kyd, or the Wizard of the Sea
  14. The Castle Fiend, or the Fate of the Loved and the Lost
  15. The Companions of Silence, or the Knights of the Iron Ring
  16. The Death Ship, or the Pirate's Bride and the Maniac of the Deep (This is probably one of the greatest titles in the history of publishing.)
  17. The Death Touch, or the Terrors of the Wilderness
  18. Deeds of Guilt! Or the Desolate House on the Waste
  19. The Demon Dwarf, or the Bond of Blood
  20. The Demon Huntsman; a Romance of Diablerie 
  21. The Destroyer, or the Sorcerers of the Domdaniel
  22. The Dice of Death
  23. The Fate of Gaspar, or the Mystic Caverns
  24. Fate, or the Avenger's Doom
  25. Geraldine, or the Secret Assassins of the Old Stone Cross
  26. Giralda, or the Invisible Husband
  27. The Goldsmith of Paris, or the Invisible Assassin
  28. Guy of Aulstone, or the Secret of the Iron Chamber
  29. The Heads of the Headless
  30. The House of Doom, or Love, Pride, and the Pest.
  31. Julian, or the Dead Man Come to Life Again.
  32. Kabaosa, or the Warriors of the West
  33. The Kinsmen, or the Black Riders of Congaree
  34. The Lady of the Fell House
  35. The Man With the Huge Umbrella
  36. The Mountain Fiend, or the Victim of Tyranny!
  37. The Mysterious Dagger, or the Avengers!
  38. The Mysterious Freebooters, or the Bride of Mystery (The more mystery the better, right?)
  39. The Oath, or the Buried Treasure
  40. One O'Clock, or the Knight and the Wood Demon
  41. The Phantom Voice, or the Doomed One of the Hulk
  42. The Ranger of the Tomb, or the Gypsy's Prophecy
  43. The Red Cross Warrior, or the Spirit of the Night
  44. The Rivals, or the Spectre of the Hall
  45. The Sea-Fiend, or the Abbot of St Mark's
  46. The Skeleton Lover 
  47. The Wild Witch of the Heath, or the Demon of the Glen
  48. The Witch of the Wave
  49. The Wood Devil, or the Vampire Pirate of the Deep Dell 
  50. Two Dead Bodies
(Many more can be found here, which is where I got all these from in the first place!)

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