Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Weirdcrawl: Geographical Considerations

In my previous post I talked about how making players outsiders, strangers in a strange land, can do much for evoking a sense of the weird. Having the player character not be local to the region servers as a strong logical reason why they find it so weird.

In this post I would like to examine the geography of the region they find themselves in to see how it can be convey a sense of the Weird. The two main guidelines from my introductory post that I will keep in mind are: The Players should venture from the normal into the weird and The Weird should evoke a sense of awe

The first I think is easy to convey. The players should have to go from more civilized area's full of 'normality' to area's that are are full of wilderness where they encounter weird things.

The second is a bit more complicated. If the Weird elements exist in a civilized area, or an area that was easy to settle, then they would probably have been investigated, experimented upon, commercialized, exploited, and in general not evoke much of a sense of awe. For example, if there existed a weird place where gravity was reversed and water flowed up a cliff in a reverse waterfall, even if it couldn't somehow be commercialized directly, such as by putting a watermill there and trying to create some kind of perpetual motion water mill loop, the tourist industry that would invariably spring into being would probably greatly reduce all sense of awe. To this end one for the Weird elements to remain awe evoking they needs to be isolated. Otherwise they become normalized or 'civilized'.


Isolating The Weird

Isolating The Weird is a tricky thing. Having the players randomly explore a remote wilderness map and randomly stumble across weird things is generally not the best way to run a table top RPG. Things tend to work a bit better when the players have various leads (rumours, clue's, suggestions) to follow up on. It helps them decide what is relevant to their character and keeps the game interesting as the players can pursue what seems most interesting to them.

While having undiscovered, unexplored wilderness, like remote Siberia, may work well for explaining why the weird elements are isolated  I don't think it creates the most enjoyable hexcrawl. Additionally if the land were truly unexplored and undeveloped it really limits the weird stuff to more natural things.

So in order for the players to receive leads about the Weird things isolated in the wilderness, there needs to have been someone who experienced them and came back to tell the tale. The easiest way to do this is to have knowledge about the Weird encountered as general myth and rumour. Someone, probably not recently, encountered something weird and brought back a strange, probably not wholly accurate story of it that has become embellished over time or they are of questionable bias.

In this manner the Weird element is isolated not purely in a geographical sense (although that helps), but is isolated because it is really dangerous to travel too. Despite its distance to civilization, few manage to reach it without dying and it hasn't been exploited by humankind.

Journey to the Weird!

Getting to the Weird shouldn't just be a matter of travel, like spending four weeks or four months in the wilderness bushwhacking your way to where it is. It should be a journey! A physically dangerous, psychological testing journey! One that breaks the spirit of lesser men! Getting to it should be a quest in a classic sense.

Where the bulk of the adventure is what happens on the way and there is no guarantee it will be reached or when reached, will be what the party thinks it is, and getting there requires an almost obsessional desire to see things through no matter the cost.

Starting City

So far we have determined that the geography of the region, or some part of it, needs to be civilized in order for people to find out about the existence of the Weird elements. This place is also logically a good place to start off our adventuring party in. Where they are strangers to the area and have come to this bastion of civilization in order to venture out into the wilderness to seek out and explore something Weird they heard a rumour or tale about.  It should also be somewhat pedestrian in nature so that the emphasis is not on exploring it but seeking to explore the wilderness.

While a good idea for this type of locale may be a frontier town, and it is a common trope in RPGs. I think it doesn't work well in creating a Weirdcrawl. If it's a frontier city, it means there's a frontier that's slowly being expanded into by the civilization and settled. This tends to create a sense that the land beyond can be 'normalized' and isn't inherently inhospitable and isolating. This runs counter to needing the geography to provide logical reasons why the Weird elements haven't been explored or exploited.

To this end I think the city should be more of a 'port' city or gateway city. Kind of like the last city of the civilization or empire before some form of inhospitable terrain where the geography changes.

Natural Barriers and Inhospitable Zones

If you examine the geography of earth and its history one interesting thing that arises with landscapes with natural barriers and inhospitable terrain is the emergence of trading cultures and great trade routes. This is more fully detailed in A Magical Society: Silk Road but which I will summarize.

You begin with a geographical barrier like a mountain range. However, instead of simply having the terrain on either side of the geographic barrier be good or passable terrain you make it inhospitable. Like a desert or steppe or swamp or thick jungle or tundra etc. Whatever it is, the inhospitable terrain makes it so geographic barrier won't simply serve as a natural border between two agrarian civilizations but will create a large buffer zone. This buffer zone may have nothing on the other side, but more interestingly, could have another such civilization on the other side. Because the civilization on the one side likely wants trade goods they don't have from the other and vice versa, naturally you get trade routes forming through the inhospitable terrain. 

This creates an interesting situation where you have people traveling from a civilized place through an inhospitable and somewhat hostile area, probably not staying to long or exploring to much, but perhaps encountering something weird and bringing stories of it back to civilization. Furthermore, because the two civilized area's on either side of the barrier may have expanded outward into the inhospitable terrain beyond trying to claim and control it as their own (as Empires are won't to do) before retreating or collapsing back, the inhospitable zone may be littered with the remnants and ruins of these previous attempts or even previous empires or civilizations.

Common natural barriers and inhospitable zones can be summarized in a random chart:

1d6 Barrier Inhospitable Zone
1 Rocky coastline Dense forest/jungle
2 Mountains Desert
3 River Swamp
4 Mountains Plateau
5 Mountains Steppe
6 Canyons/Hills Badlands

The Cultures of Inhospitable Zones

While the name 'inhospitable' may seem to suggest that no groups of people can survive in an inhospitable zone, there are very, very few places on earth that are truly inhospitable for human life or habitation. However, the cultures of the people that tend to live in these zones which are inhospitable to an agrarian civilization tend to share some common traits. These are detailed more in A Magical Society: Silk Road and once again I will summarize here:

  1. Life is hard: it is generally harder than living in the agrarian zones on the other side of the barriers. Populations are smaller and people tend to live around or close by sources of water/food etc or migrate between them. They tend to be very sensitive to geographic changes such as a river drying up or an oasis being filled.
  2. Adaptation through mobility: cultures in inhospitable zones tend to be mobile. They may live totally nomadic lifestyles, constantly moving with their horses and animals, or more semi-nomadic lifestyles where they move several times a year depending on the season or are ready to pack up and adapt to changing circumstances. Additionally their mobility may be motivated by things like displacement from internecine fighting.
  3. Culture Exchange: while it may seem strange that the peoples in an isolating landscape are used to outsiders and cultural exchange, very often due to their mobility and interaction, forced or otherwise, with the peoples of the agrarian cultures on the sides of them, they are often used to exchanging goods and ideas from these peoples.
  4. Trading: to try and improve their lives the cultures of inhospitable zones tend to turn to trade as a means of gaining goods they could not otherwise. They tend to specializing in trading and highly skilled at it and serve as great disseminators and often create demand for exotic goods from the surrounding agrarian cultures. 

Putting Things Together

Using the above I've created the following regional map. It's not complete enough yet to be a hexcrawl but gives a good idea of the region. I rolled a 3 and got River/Swamp. I've decided to base it off of Vasyugan Swamp in Russia as I like the idea of a Slavic themed cold climate swampland in the middle of the continent rather than near a coast.

The Black Basin


To the east along the Vorba river lay the Free Cities of the White Sea along the northern coast. To the south through forest thick, lay the open plains of the Red Czar. In between lies the Black Basin. Miles and miles of cold swamps and mist shrouded mires where it is said two great armies of ancient cities fought long ago in dread cataclysm. It is where the Peaters dwell, so named for the peat they trade in. Small villages of ramshackle peoples said to be descended from the fallen cities, they travel the labyrinthine waterways in narrow boats bringing trade from east to south, making what life they can amid the dancing lights of the swamp and cold moonless nights when the black water laps at their boats.








Thursday, 5 September 2019

Weirdcrawl: Outsiders

In my previous post about making a Weirdcrawl I posted guidelines I had derived from H.P Lovecrafts notes on writing weird fiction about creating or evoking a sense of the weird. One of them was The players should venture from the weird into the normal.

One such way I think this could manifest, and help convey the tone of a setting, is through having the Player Characters be outsiders to the societies they find themselves in. Partially because if they weren't outsiders, they'd probably be content just remaining in normal society and never venturing into the weird. Their outsider status serves as motivation for them to adventure and adventuring marks them as an outsider as they have less and less to relate to in normal society. While they are not exceptional ability compared to your average person, they are a bit exceptional in motivation being Outsiders.

I think there are two ways they can be Outsiders.

The first is in an external manner such as being from a foreign place where through their appearance, customs, and lack of social connections, they don't belong to the society they find themselves in. This is a fairly common trope in a lot of TTRPGs, especially those that focus on exploration. By having the players come from a far away, generally more civilized place, it makes it easier to explain why they know so little of the new lands around them and why everything is strange and full of wilderness when they explore.

The second way I think player characters can be Outsiders is internally. This is something that is seen in fiction a lot where the character feels alienated to their own nature and feels driven by some part of themselves that they don't completely understand. Internal motivation is typically represented in TTRPGs as some kind of drive.

Furthermore, these two things, external and internal alienation could feed into each other. Where the characters could come from societies that tend to engender people who feel alienated from the time/place they are living in or societies that are undergoing massive change and some form of collapse where everything feels like it's falling apart socially and spiritually.

At first I was thinking of making the setting a bit more generic fantasy but then thought that the whole idea of a campaign centered around exploring the weird, combined with the PCs as outsiders got me thinking of H.P Lovecrafts Dreamland stories where people come from the real world. But instead of coming from 1920's America, come from different historical times, from socities as described above. Where the characters feel trapped, where the external and internal alienation feed into each other and the person seeks to escape, and so does into a Dreamlands like setting that is full of exploration and weird things.

In any case, in accordance with general OSR philosophy I believe that the simpler these two things, internal and external alienation, can determined the better and that a random generation chart can be used for each during character creation.

What society are you from?

Roll 1d4


  1. Japan: The Floating World (Ukiyo) (1615-1868): For a long time there was peace. So long that the noble Samurai trained less and less for war, taking up more artistic or meditative pursuits in their leisure. More and more ceremonial they idealized a warrior past they could never participate in. As the cities grew larger, as the streets filled with people, the lowly merchants grew rich and yet, eyes downcast, only ever selling the goods of others, could never hope to attain the honor the listless Samurai has. All the while the whores and entertainers watch from the doorways and windows like silent beggars. Beads upon a string, each exists in a stratified society that claims all those no matter their position. Yet when the night is dark and the moon full, in the entertainment districts they can all be found, all coming together: the angst-ridden Samurai, the lowly merchants, the artisans, entertainers, and prostitutes. All of them mingling freely where they can like nowhere else, all feeling their lives meaningless and unchanging underneath the light of the moon; all partaking in earthly pleasures while waiting to pass onto the next. It is Ukiyo, The Floating World. 
  2. Rome: The Fall of Rome (375 - 476) From the fog of antiquity arose the City of Seven Hills, the seat of an Empire that stretches the known world from Africa in the south to Britain in the north to Spain in the west and Armenia in the east. From the four corners of the earth come all peoples and all the riches to fill its markets like flocks of birds their calls echo in the squares.  It lies in ruins now, sacked by the very barbarians who once served in its army. Wealthy patricians fleeing to the countryside protecting their grand estates filled with slaves and soldiers. Roman civic virtue slowly strangulated by the entangling Christian vine. Corruption reigns as the skies darken and black storm looms. Egomaniac emperors haunt hallowed halls as the slide to ruin begins, as the golden eagle of Rome lies tarnished. The center cannot hold, the giant falters, soon an age of ignorance and darkness begins. 
  3. Europe: End of the Century (Fin de si├Ęcle) (1880-1890): Streets lined with electric lights instead of gas lamps, noiseless carriages in a multitude of fashionable forms, the telegraph bringing the world closer together; poised on the edge of a new century, Europe sits decadent, eyes-wide. The bourgeois, filled with ever more pathological self-absorption, are delighted only by the perverse, hedonistic pleasure hidden behind a refined air. While, lost amid incoherent mysticism, unable to tell imbecility from genius, artists and thinkers pursue beauty for beauty's sake as they drown in their own reflection. Disillusioned by the truth offered by natural world, rational thought, and ordinary society, the working class who are neither aristocrats nor bored bourgeoisie toil in factories. They are the urban poor living in decrepit neighborhoods far from the rich. The world explored, all frontiers extinguished, the slow march of regression begins, society slowly destroying all its prior achievements, sinking into degenerate crisis finding pleasure only in it's apathy, it's self disgust, its wanton self-destruction. 
  4. Mayan: Collapse of the Classic Mayan Civilization (800-900): for years the altars of the gods have run red with the blood of sacrifices but now they remain dry. The rains refuse to come and the land lies locked in drought. Long have the lands been hacked and burnt to grow beans and maize, wood used to boil the lime plaster from which the pyramids grow high. From the jungle arose many mighty cities with tall step-pyramids, elaborately carved stela telling their history. Soon they shall be empty for the astronomer priests have no answers and the stone gods remain silent. Abandoned to the jungle which slowly swallows them the roar of the jaguar is heard. To it soon all will return. 



What is your drive?

1d20
Trait
1
Reckless: they feel they have no limits, always pushing, impulsively getting into dangerous situations. They enjoy the adrenaline rush, momentary feeling of being truly alive. To bad it is gone in a flash.
2
Refined: above the toils of the world and its oh so common folk they see themselves. Not of this world, of refined tastes, seeking only beauty in the outre they long to live a decadent life, entombing themselves in bejeweled sarcophagus.
3
Curious: upon the advances of the past we unfurl the future. Knowledge, always comes with a price, a price they are always willing to pay for it is the only true eternal.
4
Addicted: be it hashish, opium, or alcohol, or some far stranger drug they are addicted. They had a life, long ago, remembered now only through the haze. Their sober hours have become the dream and their hallucinations the truer reality.
5
Arrogant: feels special or important, feels they are predestined for greater glory. They have always known it, others don't understand what they have seen. Others always miss what they see.
6
Misanthropic: has an intense disinterest in people, the world is filled with only the very worst. They are a well, water still but running deep. The only beauty to be found is in nature, in solitude.
7
Unyielding: all their life they have fought them, time and time again. Every one of them seeking to just enforce another set of rules, brave only while they have the authority. The universe is full of either masters or slaves and they are determined to be the true master of themselves.
8
Weary: they have had a long life and are tired beyond measure. Going through the motions, they live out each day as it all winds down. They feel their best years are behind them but subconsciously seek to give it one last hurrah, to go out in a blaze!
9
 Romantic: all their life they have wished to be swept away, to be carried off by the unreal, the fantastic. By the things they dream in the dead of night and longer days. The real world is but a dull purgatory, but a shadow of the real world they yearn to slip into. 
10
Faithless: they have always followed some religion or mysticism. It gave their life community and ritual. But it became broken, rod snapped in two. Now they don't know what to do with their life, drifting aimlessly, they seek to find something greater.
11
Suspicious: for as long as humanity has lived, the truth has been hidden from them. Layers upon layers, there is always a deeper truth, a deeper understanding, a deeper revelation, as mask to pull, a face to reveal.
12
Spurned: be it attempts at love or entrance into high society, they have been repeatedly spurned and rejected. Now they hold an inner bitterness that never fades. One day they shall prove them all wrong!
13
Mournful: someone very close to them has died, a friend, a lover. It cast a black pall over their life. All love has left the world. Unable to take their own life, they know not why they continue to live. To honor the memory of the deceased? To bring them back? To die in some unknown way?
14
Reaver: there exist real monsters, they know, for they are one. Never had a problem with casual violence. Preying upon weakness, they have always drifted from one place to another, taking what they wanted with a smirk, leaving when things get too hot.
15
Survivor: they were the lone survivor. It haunts them still. They feel guilty, can't sleep, can't return to normal life. They view themselves as responsible. They will right some wrong or...perhaps...die trying.
16
Guilty: in injustice after injustice, in insult after insult, it grew within them. The grudge. Slowly but surely, they planned it out, they took their time, they thought they could commit the perfect crime. They were clever, so clever they got away with it. They don't think it eats away at them, day by day, but it does.
17
Dishonored: they have brought down great shame upon their family be it because of love, money, or failed ambition. Cast out, no home, no kin, no company, no friend, they are but a ghost, no worst than a ghost, for they still live.
18
Sensitive: they have always had an artists sensitivity. In the dead of night as the moon hangs high, in the middle of day as the sun dapples the sand, on the windy ocean and in forest glen. To the most beautiful, to the most faraway, they find themselves called. 
19
Obsessive: it began as a hobby but over the years soon became something else. They obsessively collect the great things of the past. No one understands their interest, no one understands their need.  
20
Nostalgic:days filled with endless imaginings of life long ago, of a society and culture that is dead and all but vanished but calls to them stronger than their own. They long for the glory of an ancient past that they can never join. 






Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Weirdcrawl: Introduction

Introduction


In my RPG games, both as a player and a GM I have always been drawn to adventure hooks and campaigns that tend to be focused on exploration and discovery, generally exploration and discovery of the weird. I find this the most enjoyable and engaging part of interacting with the setting. Where you hear some rumor or get hint of some far off weird thing, a place with stone altars that drip blood, a great blue gorilla in the heart of the jungle, a lost tomb of a forgotten scion, and head off to investigate. Why? Well, cause it's there and it's weird.

This is in contrast to interacting with the setting in other ways like building relationships with NPCs, intrigue and dealing with different factions, or more realistic domain level play where you're building a base of power and having a large impact on the setting as a player as you grow in level.

This is one hallmark of the general OSR scene (or whatever you want to call it, apparently it's dead), that I think it's what also separates OSR stuff from it's roots. In more oldschool D&D there was much more of an emphasis on simulating a world. On Gygaxian naturalism. The whole 'domain' level play where the characters begin to build strongholds and the like I think reflects this. Where as you grow in level you're expected to gain further social/political power in the world and become part of it. To essentially move from exploring it and it's weirdness to managing or running it, to helping normalize it in a way.

It's a personal preference of mine, but I have never enjoyed that style of play as much as the lower level exploration style. Something that seems to be much more prominent in OSR stuff than oldschool D&D.

I have come to term this exploratory style of play a 'weirdcrawl' mostly because I can't think of any better name, where basically there is a focus on meandering exploration, hence the crawl part, and you're exploring weird things, hence the weird part. The exact method or place, hexcrawl, pointcrawl, dungeon crawl, wilderness exploration, I don't think really matters.

What matters is the Weird. Not the 'weird' but the 'Weird'!

What is the Weird?


So what is the Weird?  I find this a very hard question to answer. Yes, it's rooted in Weird Fiction and weird fiction authors. Some people tend to think it's all about atmosphere and that Weird Fiction is more of an aesthetic then a genre ; others think it's a genre in itself, or a blending of the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres; some definitions tend to claim it to be anti-realist, often surreal or dreamlike in nature, while others talk about it's realistic tone and muted characters. The one commonality that most definitions and people agree upon is that H.P Lovecraft was the first to really try to define the genre and the cornerstone of it.
It is H.PLovecrafts own notes on weird fiction that I always tend to turn back to in order to figure out how to evoke it in my own adventures. In it he offers what I think it is is probably the best and most concise definition of the weird and how to achieve it:
In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan–fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional “build-up”—else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel.
It is from this one block of text that I like to derive my following rules of the weird:

1. If everything is weird, nothing is weird.

If you are running a game where the setting or adventure has lots of odd, outlandish, strange, or wacky things, or as Lovecraft puts it -- impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena--then you usually don't get the weird. What you have what I feel is more commonly termed Gonzo, I've blogged about the differences between the weird and the gonzo a bit before.
A world in which dual suns circle in the sky overhead and the players explore a desert of green sand ruled by feathered bird aliens with ray guns; or a dying world with mysterious space technology that is one giant decrepit swampy graveyard with shades of spacemen; these worlds while being weird, I would not really label as being part of The Weird.

I would say these examples lean more towards Gonzo because there tends to be not be a lot of separation between what is weird and fantastic and what is normal. There are varying genre elements  and tone side by side. With the Gonzo the world tends to be a mosaic of craziness. Don't get me wrong. I love the Gonzo. Gonzo adventures tend to be pulpy and be full of action and adventure and have an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach which tends to make they very exciting as there is always something new happening. But because they tend to form such mosaics, they aren't the weird to me.

2. The Players should venture from the normal into the weird

For my second rule of the weird, I think to create an atmosphere of the weird you need to have the players adventure from a world of normality into the weird. I find a lot of weird adventures or settings are good at evoking an atmosphere of the weird, but if the adventure or setting tries to maintain the atmosphere of the weird for too long, it all begins to get less weird, especially so if there is a strong undercurrent of weirdness to the entire world.

No matter how random or alien it seems, I find there slowly builds up an underlying system of rules, intuitions, and relationships between the weird things. I tend to call these types of adventures or settings Kafkaesque. Like city of magic doors or mirrors ruled over by a Tyrant of the Glass, or a land of red capped gnomes who are obsessed with the linage of things, most of all gems which they think contain secrets of the earth.
Things are a little less like a chaotic genre mosaic as in Gonzo games. There tends to be more of a low level mix the normal and the weird. Kafkaesque adventures and settings can be very strange and evoke an atmosphere of the weird in a labyrinthine manner but there is a certain sense of underlying order. The players may not understand that underlying order in the beginning, and a fun part of the game is trying to figure out that underlying order, but eventually the players will figure it out.

They'll work through the inner circles of the Tyrant of Glass, exploring his mirror realms, and learning the machinations of his court until they are able to more adeptly navigate to the Tyrant himself and choose to defeat him or not. This would be a very fun campaign, but at it's heart you're slowly understanding a hidden system and once you do the weird is no longer as weird.

The best example of a "Kafkesque" OSR thing that I can think of is Emmy Allen's The Gardens of Ynn and Patrick Stuarts thoughts on it:

"Ynn is a Tea-box, a name I just made up. A sandbox or procedurally generated setting in which you are equally likely to be offered tea as to be attacked. I was also going to call it a Civil-box or Mannerbox.

So instead of it being Points of Light where civilisation is encroaching on, or receding from, the wilderness, its a world where the products and structures of high civilisation exist in a degraded, twisted or transformed state. You might have a fight, you might have a polite conversation."
Where the setting is weird but there's a sense of underlying civilization and order, of protocol and civility that can be learned over time.

To achieve a true sense of weirdness, I think there should be a very clear separation between the world of the normal and the world of the weird and the players venture from the normal into the weird, be exposed to it for a short while, before venturing out (usually to avoid some kind of nasty death). Otherwise, normality begins to creep into the weird and the weird into normality until they reach an equilibrium and you end up with the Kafkaesque.

3. The Weird should evoke a sense of awe

If you ask people what Lovecraft's most famous for they'd probably say his horror stories. I find it very interesting that in the above quote he refers to the supernatural event as not a horror but a marvel. I think to Lovecraft, the Weird wasn't always necessarily horrifying. Instead it would evoke a sense of awe (def. a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder).
I think the weird should be truly irrational at heart. I don't mean irrational in the sense that it's not rational or without reason. I mean it in the sense that the weird should not provide a rationale for its existence. Like the wind or the rain or the mountains, it simply is. You can climb it, you can venture into it, explore what it is, but the why, the from whence it came and where it is going, should always seem beyond reach. Something you kind of impose after the fact to try and make sense of and aren't sure if you're actually right or wrong.


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Review: Frostbitten and Mutliated



EDIT: In light of the allegations of abusive behavior that Zak Smith, the author of his book, has been said to exhibit to people around him. I would like to say that I believe Mandy and the others who have come forward. I have never interacted with Zak personally but think it is important that anyone reading this review inform themselves on the situation and make an informed decision as to whether they feel comfortable buying the book.

This review was written before the allegations were made and I have chosen not to delete it as there seems to not be a ton of reviews on it and I would rather a person read my review and make an informed decision than be oblivious.

For more information read the following:

http://falsemachine.blogspot.com/2019/02/you-should-read-this.html









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This is an in depth review or analysis of Frostbitten and Mutilated. I am writing this after having read the book. I have yet to use it but am planning on using it sometime soon.

Initial Impressions

To be honest I wasn't super pumped about it when I heard it was coming out or even when I heard it was Norse/viking themed and based off of heavy metal stuff. It made me roll my eyes a bit.

I don't listen to heavy metal, I have nothing against it, it's just not to my particular taste. I do kind of like the imagery of it, the music videos and themes the music embodies etc. but I'm just not a fan of the actual music even though I've tried. While I'm not into heavy metal, I am into Norse mythology and viking history. I've read the Norse myths, the Eddas, stuff about the history of the vikings. etc.

Going into Frostbitten and Mutilated I had two main fears about how it might be:

  1. Full of low hanging fruit: I feared that it would contain the usual basic references that most Norse/Viking based stuff does: a section about the Norse gods, a section about runic magic and some kind of rune magic-user character class, maybe giant wolves as character mounts, a section about the socio-political structure of Scandinavia at the time, several different types of giants, like fire and ice ones. Basically all the stuff you could pretty much copy-paste from a bunch of historical and mythology books and slap together into a shitty sourcebook that there already exist dozens of.
  2. FUCKING METAL!!@#$!@#: you know, the kind of heavy metal aesthetic that is not just a bare chested warrior riding across the tundra but one riding across the tundra with the heads of his slain enemy tied to his horse, and the heads have spikes in the eyes, and those spikes are made of coffin nails. Cause you know, METAL!!! Don't get me wrong. I don't mind the aesthetic of heavy metal but I find it a bit derivative at times where it just keeps on throwing on 'metal' imagery instead of developing it's ideas and creating nuance. It's one thing to have a 5min song be mainly full of a single type of imagery/emotion, but a book, even a gaming one, is a different medium. You can only have so much of the same before it begins to fall flat and feels repetitive.
Anyways, I am really glad to report that my fears and assumptions regarding Frostbitten and Mutilated were false. That it has none of the above problems. That it really won me over and I found myself enjoying it and quite impressed.

I think it also shows Zak's caliber as creative type. I find a lot of creative types, especially when beginning, their work is full of references. This isn't necessarily bad, more just leads to something a bit more predictable and average. They don't take time to mix and match, to throw contrasting things together, to balance developing elements and ideas vs adding more of the same. 

I find creativity is like cooking. You're making something for consumption by other people. First you learn by following a recipe. You produce something average. Then as you get better you learn to cook without a recipe and really find your own unique style and voice. Zak is a skilled cook.

Anyways, I'll stop rambling about creativity. I think overall one of the things that impressed me the most about Frostbitten and Mutilated is that Zak managed to preserve and explore the themes  of Norse mythology and vikings without actually referencing a lot of  Norse Mythology and Viking stuff. This made it seem really fresh, but deliver on what it promises.

In this way Frostbitten feels almost more like a work of Norse mythology than some of the gaming stuff that actually has Odin and Thor in it because it feels like you're not just reading about things from a Norse myth, in some kind of dry fashion, you're experiencing it.

And the best part is that you're players probably won't realize this at first. That they're in a Norse myth, they just don't know it yet.

What You Get

Overall Frostbitten and Mutilated is a thin book. It packs a lot in at 144 pages. It's probably the most play-ready RPG book that I've ever read where it feels like anything that wasn't immediately interesting or usable was discarded. It doesn't feel like something that was written and then play-tested, but more like someone had an evolving campaign, created stuff for the players as they went along, and then took the notes, edited them, and complied them into a book. I'm actually curious if this was the case.

The book is divided into a few main sections:

Inhabitants: an A-Z listing of peoples, monsters, and things you can encounter in the Devoured Lands. They are all laid out in very easy to use encounter style.You could flip to any page in this section mid-game, quickly scan it, and use it in play. This is probably the most interesting and engaging section of the book. It's also the longest.

Most of the inhabitants can be loosely grouped into the following:

Amazons: basically heavy mental themed tribes of warrior women. A nice way to have vikings/barbarians but without them being your stereotypical Conan types.

 Animals: yes, animals. Like foxes, wolves, crows, worms, etc. They can all talk. Most of them think they're above you. They all behave in certain ways, like crows like to sneak upon sleeping characters and try to peck out their eyes. Wolves never flee until they have at least one kill, etc. Despite being seemingly 'ordinary' animals, your characters will probably be more afraid of them then most monsters they'd encounter in more generic adventures. Zak really knows how to make even ordinary animals interesting, to grant them a personality, a sense of character. I also find the use of animals as a primary monster type ingenious in the sense that it really strikes home the theme that the very land is against you. That you're in the north, the devoured lands. What is domesticated elsewhere, subdued by man, is wild here, more than wild; crafty, haughty, and more dangerous than you. You can tell Zak has been gaming for many, many years and really understands the medium of pen-and-paper RPGs. Where you can't just 'tell' your players things like themes, character, it needs to emerge through play.

Witches and folkloric creatures: these are also interesting. Includes some pretty original takes on classics like trolls and drowing demons. You can tell Zak probably read some actual folk tales and things and thought hard about how to create interesting mechanics for them that embodied these tales so they keep the weird folkloric vibe. Where puzzling out exactly what they are and how they work will keep adventurers on their toes.

Overall I think the most impressive part of this section is how Zak managed to combine three elements that are pretty different on the surface: animals, amazons, and witches, and yet, combined them in a way that they complement each other nicely and help approach the themes of the book in a different way. Like the Amazons contain your themes of violent bloodshed, your animals a harsh nobility, and the witches and folkloric creatures a sinister weirdness. Things that are all kinds of themes loosely associated with Norse mythology.

My only nitpick with this section is that a lot of the inhabitants are enemies of each other and I kind of lost track of who didn't like who. There was no overall diagram or map keeping track of how they related to each other and it would have been nice to have had one.


Calendar and Map: a hexcrawl coupled with a sequence of events that is the 'plot'. The hexcrawl wasn't bad. It uses square 'hexes' and has the description of what you encounter in them, actually written out in them. I thought this was a cool innovation.

I know there is some logic as why to use hexagonal hexes, that it's because the distance to the center of each side is the same so if the players are in the middle and the hex is 6 miles or whatever then it represents the line of sight in all directions, the horizon.

But honestly after having used hex maps for several years I find them a pain. I find determining the X and Y location in hex maps is just harder to do at a glance when compared to an actual grid. Furthermore, we tend to think of directions as being in East, West, North, and South, it's hard to correlate this to the hex map. In one direction the hexes never line up in a nice row and you always end up moving in a zig-zag like pattern that is annoying.

I also feel like most RPG products aren't as 'simulation' based as they used to be. Most hex maps are abstracted maps and don't have a real scale. Or at least when I use them that's how I play them where I'll just make each hex equal to a days or half a days worth of travel. There really is no need to use hexes.

I feel like having the map a grid accomplishes what it needs to do and overall makes it more readable. More RPG stuff should do this.

The Calendar was basically a bullet list of what the major NPCs are doing on each day of a month that repeats cause the lands are stuck in a time loop. Overall I found the Calendar to be a good idea cause it adds a sense of dynamism to the world. The major NPCs aren't just standing around waiting for your players to come across them. They are actively doing things in the world and interacting with each other. It's kind of like the idea behind Adventure Fronts in Dungeon World (Yes I am referencing a 'story' game in an OSR review).

Here is an example of an adventure front that I stole off of reddit:
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Frog People of Izun-Druk
Impulse: to be taken seriously
Cast: Frog King Bleggeleg, Captured dark dwarf overseer Gazdrik
Doom: Usurpation
Grim Portents:
  •         Bleggeleg begins to rule frogmen in secret, still sending slaves to dark dwarves
  •         B learns to eat magic from magical items
  •         Frogmen begin raiding humans and dark dwarves for magic artifacts
  •        B. achieves massive size and power
  •         frogmen actually throw off dark dwarf rule and establish their own city
  •         begin nighttime raids into Leudik (from city below) looking for wealth, magic, sacrifices


Stakes: Why is Bleggeleg's cache of magic items so volatile? How big can Bleggeleg actually get?
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Even if you know nothing about how adventure fronts work or are supposed to work. I could probably give someone the above and they'd be able to figure it out and referee the NPCs involved in  a dynamic way.

This is probably going to be my biggest, and one of my only, criticisms of Frostbitten and Mutilated. After reading the Calendar section three times, I still don't really understand who the NPCs are and what they are doing. Like I'd have to take the info, slowly parse it, make notes and diagrams and shit to really understand it.

Overall I like the Calendar section and what it's trying to do, I just think the execution was a bit poor. It's also something I'm a little bit surprised at as it's executed in a very text heavy manner and Zak is usually pretty good at displaying information in a visual manner.

Like something like this would have helped tremendously in terms of remembering which NPC is which and who hates who:


Or even just having the different physical paths of the NPCs, as described in the calendar, labelled on the map via different coloured lines or something.

Overall the map and Calendar feel like two separate things and the Calendar is very text heavy. I feel like the information in both could have been presented a little bit better. It's still usable, I'm just lazy as fuck and hate re-reading and parsing stuff like a textbook to figure it out.


The Dim Fortress and Sevenfold Tower: two short dungeons. The Sevenfold Tower was kind of a neat high concept dungeon. I really don't have any complaints with it. It seems like it'd be fun and interesting to run.

The Dim Fortress, which is supposed to be the final dungeon in the whole 'calendar' was kind of short. It was filled with interesting NPC monsters but if I were to run it I'd probably expand upon it. What's there feels like the highlights of an ordinary dungeon with a lot of the 'inbetween' removed. If I were to run it I'd add more 'inbetween'. Overall it's not bad where it's pretty easy to expand and customize to your campaign.

Though it would have also been cool to have some kind of rumour table or something for it to build up suspense. Like if it's the secret 'final' dungeon that most of the big NPCs are interested in and which the players can discover if they're smart, it would be nice to foreshadow it more in some way.

Character classes, spells, substances, and survival skills and How to make a wilderness sandbox and Random Tables: basically all alternative rules and systems that you can add to your game in a modular fashion. It's a bit of a grab bag, but a very useful one that allows you to pick and choose what you want to use and how you want to flavour your game. I'm not going to go though this section too much. Don't really have any complaints or criticisms about it. It all seems very useful and a lot of nice to have extras and overall is pretty awesome.


Art

I always feel a bit out of my element critiquing art. I'm not an artist and lack a fine eye. Overall the art in Frostbitten and Mutilated, all done by Zak Smith, fits the heavy metal themes of it very well. It's all black and white and looks to be in a variety of mediums from ink pen to like paintings or something, I dunno, not an artist.

My only criticism is that it can be hard to discern details at times in some of the artwork. I just feel like it kind of sacrifices information for style a little bit although I also can see how it's look is part of the overall punk/heavy metal aesthetic. This is more just a minor nitpick. If you really like the the style you probably won't have an issue with it.

Luka Rejec is credited with the design. I'm not sure if this is referring to the layout or not. Overall I really like the layout, the use of fonts, the black and white text/background at times, and other things like this in the book. It keeps it really visually interesting, is readable, and really heightens the style.


Conclusion

Innovations:
  • Making ordinary animals actually interesting. Also having a lot of 'named' monsters with unique mechanics. Like seriously every monster has something really unique about them that really gives them a good sense of character and would make for really interesting moments in game. They really, really embody the themes of the setting.
  • Being super usable. It's probably one of the most immediately usable gaming books that I've ever read. It fundamentally treats everything like an encounter and most things about the world is learned through encounters. More RPG books should be designed this way.
  • Squares instead of hexes. This is an innovation I never knew I wanted but now I don't know if I could go back to hexes.
Buy if....
  • You like vikings and Norse mythology and northern landscapes but, like me, fucking hate most products on the market that try to embody these things.
  • You want something that is very easy to run with no prep.

Downsides:
  • If you intend to use the Calendar and 'plot' you're probably going to have to read it all pretty closely and  make notes to get full use out of it.
  • I really can't think of any other downsides. I have criticisms, but overall I'd suggest it to anyone who has an interest in RPGs.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Coven, available now!



I am happy to announce that my first RPG product, The Coven, is now available on drivethroughrpg for the price of $2.99 USD. It is 45 pages long PDF. You can view a 10 page preview of it there. Here is a description of the game:


The Destitute Widow, the Unmarried Spinster, the Bookish Waif, the Crippled Hag—you are women from all walks of life who have become bonded through helplessness and injustice. Stuck in your horrid village and the medieval society it embodies, you have sold your souls to your dark Sovereign and become a coven of witches. Salvation lies forever beyond you! But Fear not! In seven months time your Sovereign shall come.

But first you must prepare the way. Upon the full moon of each of the seventh months you must hold unholy Sabbath. Upon the seventh, in final rite, your Sovereign will emerge upon the earth!

In The Coven players create a group of level-1 female magic-users who are all part of the same coven of witches. The Coven must attempt to hold Sabbath every month while avoiding the other villagers and authorities who would seek to stop or destroy them. A wise Coven knows that fear and subterfuge are far more powerful than a raw display of magical power. They must carefully balance trying to achieve their goals with the attraction it garners. Whether they ultimately seek to wreak bloody vengeance or simply the power to correct suffered injustices is up to them.


The Coven requires the rules presented in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess core rulebook and Vaginas are Magic (also by Lamentations of the Flame Princess) to play.


The Coven includes:

  • 12 Character backgrounds
  • 6 different Dark Sovereigns to worship
  • Randomly generated unholy Sabbaths
  • 12 Tables to randomly generate a village and its surrounding lands.
  • 7 tables to randomly generate virtues and 7 tables to randomly generate vices for each villager.
  • 2 new VAM spells.
  • Information on the structure of the game and how to run it.
This product is an independent production by Luminescent Lich Publishing and is not affiliated with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a registered trademark owned by James Edward Raggi IV.

Screenshots:








Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Coven coming soon!


Ever wish the worlds most favourite roleplaying game had more satanic references?

Ever wish you could actually embody the paranoid fear of the Christan right?

Ever wish you could pretend to be a witch who has occult powers and who is trying to hold unholy sabbath to summon their dark Sovereign upon the earth in a few months time?

Ever wish you could play such an RPG with other players where you are all witches in the same coven and the GM plays the authorities, The Church, The Law, the Guilds, and the Learn'd Men, who are trying to stop you and make sure that, as a women, learn your place?

Ever wish you could roleplay a Coven of witches as it seeks to fight back to get revenge on the oppressive authorities in your awful medieval village?

Then watch this blog!

As my first rpg product, The Coven will be coming to a drivethroughrpg near you very soon! Here is a sneak peek:






The Coven is based on the rules found within Lamentations of the Flame Princess core book and Vaginas are Magic and requires them to play. The Coven is an independent production by Luminescent Lich Publishing and is not affiliated with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a registered trademark owned by James Edward Raggi IV.




Monday, 9 July 2018

The Structure of a Session

Structure is talked a lot about in RPGs. Most often in the form of how to structure a good encounter, how to structure a campaign, or adventure, etc.

What is not often talked about, and which is something I think is one of the most important forms of structure, is how to structure a session. I define a session as the time between players sit down to play and the time they get up to leave. It could be one hour, or several. It is during this time that the players and GM engage in play. Some groups have a session every week, some every two weeks, some less frequently. What is accomplished during a session can vary, same with the relationship between sessions. A bunch of sessions could be part of a year long campaign, a small multi-session adventure, or even just a one-shot adventure.

I think it is important to talk about the structure of a session because OSR games tend to traditionally have a strict structure to their sessions and I think this is one of the things that makes the OSR different from more modern styles of play. The classic example would be a megadungeon. Traditionally, no matter how the previous session ended, the player characters start in the small town outside the mega-dungeon, their goal to recoup and recover if needed, interacting with the townspeople as they do so, and then venture back into the megadungeon. There they will risk life and limb for treasure, all before deciding to stop, hopefully in a empty room or safe haven, and then play will resume next time outside of the megadungeon as the current session started. Traditionally you're supposed to also have the PCs make their way out of the dungeon before the session ends but I know at least for myself, I've largely hand-waved this, they just start the next session in town.

I don't think it's by chance that the megadungeon style of play is so popular or has lasted so long. It sets a strict structure to a session which does two important things which I view as ideal:
  1. It allows players to retread the same ground and become familiar with it's location and peoples. They can try to take advantage of this familiarity so their character can progress further in the world.
  2. It allows for a regular mixed style of play.
This second point I think is more important than a lot of people realize. Most RPG games aren't a singular game, but groupings of rules that are designed to adjudicate certain commonly occurring activities of play. Such as combat, social situations, puzzle-solving, exploration, etc. Most players have a few of these activities that they enjoy more than others. Some players like combat, some like social role-playing, some like exploration. What I find, almost all players do not like, is doing the same activity all session. 

Having a structure to the session seems artificial on the surface: couldn't the player simply begin and end each session in the dungeon? Couldn't they spend an entire session shopping in town or an entire session convincing the local Lord to gather an army for them to command?

Yes, you can, and I find modern play tends to be much more forgiving in this manner. In modern play the evolving narrative takes you where it will. The player characters very often are considered more important than normal humans much the same way that the characters in works of high or epic fantasy tend to be always at the center of world changing events and tend to have a high degree of influence and control in shaping them. 

Most OSR games in contrast tend to embody swords and sorcery or other forms of fantasy that aren't high fantasy. Where if you, as a dirty commoner can manage to gain an audience with the King, he'll talk to you disdainfully for a bit, before largely ushering you away, and probably not consider your proposition unless you have some significant leverage. The narrative in OSR games doesn't have the yes...and approach that more modern games tend to. It tends to be always much more constrained by the verisimilitude of the game world, which in turn is often constrained by the structure of the session.

Part of the reason characters don't start where they left off in a megadungeon is to allow for time to progress, the megadungeon gets partially repopulated, stuff happens, NPCs storylines advance, etc. this creates a sense of verisimilitude for the players as they feel their characters are part of a living breathing world that will and does continue without them, that has agency and existence beyond them, much like the real world does. The narrative can't take them where it wills because, as like in the real world, things aren't that simple.

I think the structure imposed on a session is an artificial construct that is necessary. It helps move along play and keeps people from getting bored as it introduces a variety of play. I think the rules of OSR games are also written around this idea. Most of them tend to be rules light where there is not enough complexity, or depth to them to engage in the same activity all session. I also think it is better for this structure to be repetitive. Partially because, as already mentioned, it allows the players to become familiar with the game world, and partially because it allows them to see the consequences of their actions really play out. 

If the narrative of a story is wide ranging: a couple combat based sessions spent in the south seas fighting pirates, a session or two spent in Blackport, a session spent talking to the King, and a couple more sessions traveling along the coast, I find very often the consequences of actions tend to become very abstract and disconnected as the time and place in which they occurred and the time and place in which the players are now, become removed. If a player character stabs a beggar in Blackport, generally it's not a big deal. They'll never see them again and probably won't remember it after a session or two. If they piss off the King, it's probably also not be a big deal, the narrative continues. There are consequences of course, the players may be chased by the Kings men as they travel up the coast, instead of being helped by them. But I find these consequences tend to lack a certain weight as there is still a sense of forward momentum in the narrative. They will continue in their story and world events, as the primary agents of it, adventuring along, regardless of what they do. There isn't a sense of true loss, of finality, or world events or more consequential actions spiraling out of control.

In contrast, with the repetitive nature of a session's structure when playing a megadungeon, the players always begin and start in the same place, and often tread over the same ground. While this may seem like it is a recipe for boredom, I find it often leads to play where there is a greater sense of depth and consequence.

An RPG game is not like a high fantasy novel. The players haven't read chapters about a certain NPC character, been privy to their inner monologue or read a lot of backstory about them when they meet them. They get to know them through play and play only. By having the players talk to the same NPCs at the beginning of every session, they get to know them better and the NPCs begin to get fleshed out more. In my experience this causes them to care for them more. They are much more reluctant to annoy the local tribe of orcs in the megadungeon and have them rampage from it, slaughtering all the townsfolk they have befriended, espeically if they know that once killed those townspeople are not coming back and they won't have anyone to buy their stuff from in the village. In this manner things tend to have a greater sense of weight, as there has been more interaction and more investment.

Session structure is invariable tied into the world/game structure. This can make it hard for certain styles of game to embody the session structure and it's ideals that I have outlined above. However I think with a little alteration it's possible to have a more strict structure to your session and have outlined some common styles of play and how I would structure the session for them.

Megadungeon: 

This is probably the easiest. As I have already outlined the players start and end each session in a small village outside the megadungeon. The goal each session is to venture into the megadungon and find treasure. Starting in the village allows regular interaction with NPCs and the spontaneous creation of character relationships and evolving storylines.


Hex-Crawl:

This is a little more complex. I find the easiest solution is to take a hub and spoke approach. Where the players start off  in some city/town/village that serves as a hub. It has a number of points of interest equidistant around the main steading that serve as spokes. The players always start and end each session in the steading. Each session they can decide to venture out to a point of interest, explore, or re-explore it. The points of interest are often connected narratively on the fly by the GM and help reinforce a greater story. Once players have exhausted an area and explored everything around it, they can venture onto a new steading which serves as a new hub.

For example one spoke may be a necromancer lair. Another a strange pool of water with a meteorite in it. When the players explore the strange pool of water the GM may decide that the meteorite is unholy and the necromancers want it. And so the necromancers begin to spy on the players and infiltrate the town. Once the players have totally explored the area and wiped out the necromancer cult they may get ominous signs that the next town was the true base of the cult and so decide to move onto it to further pursue their goal. The next town thus becomes the new hub.


Wilderness Exploration:

Some hex-crawls are a bit different where they are mostly untamed wilderness or where the players find themselves strangers in a strange land that is largely unknown and alien. It's fairly easy to begin and each session in a camp. Where the players characters have decided to setup camp and rest for a few days. But I find in addition to this the best thing to do is structure the setting and game with the idea of A QUEST. 

Where they are not just exploring, they are on an important quest! Kind of like how in The Hobbit Bilbo and his gang weren't just exploring an interesting wilderness landscape that had a forest with giant spiders or goblin mountains. They were on a quest to get to Smaugs lair. The Quest gave them purpose and direction, something that is often sorely needed in wilderness type hex-crawls. This may seem like it's limiting player agency, but I find if you tell the players that they can just explore anywhere, they'll explore the goblin mountains a bit or the forest full of spiders but soon feel a bit directionless. However, if you tell them that at the other end of the map is the lair of a dragon and you have a magic key to break into his lair, it becomes immediately more interesting. In this manner the Quest has a way of giving the player characters immediate personal connection with what they are doing.

The Quest also creates a setup for re-occurring characters. Where they aren't just exploring the Desert of Death by themselves, they're part of a caravan lead by the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred who is determined to find the city of the Elder Gods lost in the sands. Each time they are in camp they'll have to talk to him and deal with negotiating his interests and their interests. Or the party isn't just trying to cross the Black Marshes, they're trying to bring the body of their slain comrade to his home village on the other side of them. And every step along the way they're being harassed and harried by Glothgar, the leader of the local gnoll tribe who killed their comrade and gets perverse pleasure from trying to steal and desecrate his body.