Monday, 10 May 2021

Impressions: Neoclassical Greek Revival

Sometimes when reading some OSR related something I'm more interested in skimming it or reading it fairly quickly to get a sense of what it's about, what I can use it for, and possibly most of all, what ideas I can steal from it. Then as something I intend to use wholesale. Instead of writing up a full objective review I type up my impressionistic, often opinionated thoughts on it. This entry is one such rambling.

Neoclassical Greek Revival 

Overall it's a roll high + add modifiers d20 type OSR game with your basic stats, although named slightly different. 

It feels like a home-brew rule set in both a good and bad way. Good in that there are some ideas in it that I've never seen anywhere else before. Bad in that it has the sense that it was developed over years, choices and crunch piling higher and higher in a bloat that is a bit more crunchy than I prefer in my OSR game. It also seems a bit more combat rule orientated than I prefer. Still I will give it kudos for:

  • Very flavorful traditional fantasy racial classes that actually make them interesting beyond the 5edition type stereotypes

  • Uses a funnel to generate characters (it's not unique to NGR but any system which uses a funnel gains +1 respect).

  • The easiest and most sensible multi-classing system that I have ever seen.

  • Trademark item that can become signature magic item as the character levels and adventures

  • Bard character who is actually socially focused

  • A system that encompasses things like stealth and trying to influence someone in a robust manner

  • Weapons have tags that define how they act

  • Robust inventory system where you have containers like sacks and 'slot' based inventory.

  • Cool use of grimoires

  • Several different ways of gaining XP that go beyond gold for XP. Things like milestones and exploration/travelling.

For the amount of ideas in it, the rule book is surprisingly short at about 100 pages, which is good in my books. I'd rather read a short 100 page rule book than a 500 page overwritten behemoth. The rules do feel a bit terse in the sense that I had to read things a few times before understanding them and you'd definitely have to have played RPGs a bit to probably not get lost. 

Still, I'd probably recommend it. It's something I'm probably going to loot the ideas from more than actually run as is, but oh boy is there a lot to loot and a lot to think about. Overall it does seems like a well thought out system, if a bit different from most of what is out there, and slightly overburdened. I feel like another edition of this book with better explanations and examples of some things would go a long way.

You can tell it began as a home brew rule set developed over years of play. You get a sense of what playing at that table would be like and what has really worked for the GM.  I wish more people would publish their home brew sets like this. It makes the hobby stronger and kind of gives insight into what actually works at the table, even if it's not exactly the type of table you'd run. 

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Creating monster behavior instead of monster abilities

 In my last post I talked a bit about in the past I've often tried to include more complex combat rules to make OSR combat more interesting, but players rarely engage with them.

One of the biggest reasons for this I felt was because combat in OSR is inherently reactionary. Players don't really plan to get into combat and I find don't plan extensively for it. Most times monsters are obstacles and you never know what you're going to run across. Getting into direct combat with them tends to be the worst solution to getting around the obstacle they represent because combat uses up a lot of resources and is often high risk.

As a result, if they do get into direct combat, I find most players are just content to spend a few turns slogging away at the monster, preforming attack rolls back and forth, trying to do as much damage and kill it as quickly as possible in hope they can get lucky with the dice rolls. Either defeating it, or deciding after a few turns to cut their losses and run away to come up with a better plan. Or well, this is often how combat goes if what they are presented with is kind of your average combat encounter. Fighting some bandits or a troll or something.

There is nothing wrong with this at heart, but I do think it is good, every once and a while, to try and do more to make combat interactions interesting. Previous editions of D&D have sought to make combat more interesting primarily by giving monsters more unique and interesting abilities. This tended to end up with bigger and bigger stat blocks with 4th edition being the worst:

Where it basically turned D&D into a miniature game (and a pretty decent one if that's what you're into but I am not).

5th edition has toned it down somewhat:

But it still kind of remains that in both cases the are both describing monster abilities. Little special attacks and actions the monster can do.

While I do think this adds some variety to combat, I find it also tends to lead to strategic bloat. Where combat is thought about in a purely strategic abstracted terms. Like, if monster does X, then I need to do Y. If I'm at position in Z in the imagined space and want to react in Y manner I need to do B. You begin to move further away from imagined narrative elements to miniature or board game like elements. 

The best way I think to counter this is to not think about monster abilities but think about monster behaviour. Abilities are things they can do. Behaviour is more holistic, concerned with why they are doing the things they do, their motivation. This may seem like I'm making monster design into a amateur theater class but I find the following method works very well.

Creating Monster Behaviour

First we start off with a basic monster name, description and stat block. I'll use a goblin from OSE for illustrative purposes:

Now, to begin, it's not too bad. It's kind of got some behaviour encoded into it through having them attack dwarves on sight and hating the sun. However, it's kind of all mixed up in other information about it including abilities, the composition of the encounters you'll have with them, and how they can differ from combat encounter to combat encounter . What I try to do to really define a monsters behaviour is pull from a list of different key words.
I try to make these keywords very action orientated, where they describe behaviour. I try to use more verbs, adverbs, than adjectives. I'll then use these keywords to describe monster behaviour in a short sentence. So:

Small grotesque humanoid with pallid earth coloured skin and glowing eyes.
AC 13
3 HP
1 attack 1d6
SV 14

ALWAYS attacks dwarves.
AVOIDS the sun at all costs.
COMPASSIONATE towards creatures smaller than it. 
NEVER attacks alone, even if you can't see the other goblins.

Right away I find this presents a much stronger sense of how the monster actually behaves and gets the GM thinking about how it would strategize and attack in battle. 

Like maybe it has the bravest among it attack first halfheartedly, and when everyone is focused on it, the others attack from behind or slink out of hidden holes.

Or maybe it attacks with it's pet rats scampering all over, nipping at the characters toes. Or they simply throw spiders they breed at the players. 

Maybe they attack the players at twilight outside in overwhelming numbers and if the players can figure out they avoid the rays of the sun they can learn to escape them.

It also tends to create a variety of monster abilities so the players don't just see goblins and automatically assume they're going to have daggers and attack in a group or something, maybe one has a poisoned dagger. There are many ways a goblin might fulfill it's behaviour of always wanting to attack a dwarf.  Maybe it hates dwarves so much it runs at the nearest one and jumps on him trying to bite him (bites which carry infection) in a suicide charge. Maybe it waits until the party is sleeping before trying to stab the dwarf to death in his bed. Maybe it hides in the shadows and tries to drive the dwarf to fury by mocking them continually. 

In all these cases I find it pretty easy to riff off of the monsters behaviour when described this way. I think this is because when you understand how a monster relates to the things in the world around it, you understand what it's likely to leverage in combat. Just like you kind of know if the players discover they have a cheap supplier of vials of oil they're ALWAYS going to carry them and leverage them in combat via oily moltov cocktails, creating a slippery floor, creating fire arrows, etc. 

Monday, 3 May 2021

My players never use combat rules

If there is one section of the rules that I see a lot of OSR authors blogging about and trying to find new ideas or solutions for it's combat rules. I think generally for the following two reasons: 

  1.  The fighter in most OSR rulesets seems lackluster. Wizards have spells. Thieves skills. Fighters, just are good at well, fighting. 
  2.  Combat in OSR rulesets tends to be abstracted. It can turn into a slog fest where both sides just trade blows until one side dies. 

 I know I've spent more than my fair share of time coming up or tweaking combat rules. In general most tweaks to combat rules tend to take two different approaches: 

  1.  Improve the fighter: give the fighter the ability to preform signature moves that change what is being done beyond just trading blows. This could be something very specific like a fighter who has some kind of ability to trip enemies with their spear. To a more freeform 'maneuver' ability like Dungeon Crawl Classics mighty deeds where the player rolls a deed dice and if comes up a certain number they get to perform some kind of special maneuver in addition to their attack. 
  2.  Improve the tools of the trade: grant special maneuvers to the weapons themselves where the fighter is an expert at using the tools of his trade and to make the weapons themselves more interesting. For example a pole-axe can attack from farther away, a mace reduces an enemies armour. 

While I do think these two ideas are not bad solutions. I find players still don't engage with them much. And you can absolutely forget about players using various 'modes' of combat. Such as fighting defensively where you get some kind of bonus to your defense at cost of your attack. I have played several editions of DnD and can maybe think of 1 or 2 occurrences where someone actually remembered these modes of combat, or specific combat maneuvers from the rulebook and used them. I'm glad that OSR seems to have largely done away with them. 

As for the solutions OSR rulesets tend to provide. For solution 1 I find players will use combat maneuvers only if the combat situation really prompts them. They tend to not think of them as signature moves and more just a response to the situation they are being presented. So, if you present them with a fight against a bandit they won't think of using a trip attack. However, if you present them with a situation where they are fighting a lumbering troll with long spindly legs, they are maybe more likely to think, hey if we trip this guy, the fight will go better. 

As for solution 2, I find players rarely engage in micromanaging their inventory or combat 'builds'. They tend to just pick a weapon and armour type, and stick with it. I think this is partly because most times you don't know what kind of things a dungeon is going to contain. Yes a mace may be better against armoured opponents, but if you don't know if your next combat encounter is going to contain heavily armoured opponents why bother bringing along the mace? I find players hate micromanaging their inventory. I know I hate it. Even if I have room for multiple weapons, I'm very unlikely to bring along extra ones just in case I come across that one enemy type it's good against. 

 I find the commonality between these two things is that combat in OSR style games tends to be very reactive. The players are simply reacting to what kind of combat encounter they are presented. If you don't present them with an interesting one they'll simply just default to trading blows until hopefully, as quickly as possible, one side is dead. If things go bad for them, then they'll just try to run away.

 Now, I do think it's very valuable to have some kind of general rule for combat maneuvers where the players know that yeah, they don't just have to attack, they can jump on the giants back or throw sand in the knights eyes or something. That there is an easy way to resolve such things. In my games I tend to use ability checks. 

 I also think it can be valuable to give a fighter some kind of defined combat 'theme'. Like, hey, your guy is from the mountains up north, he's really good at fighting giants, tripping them and jumping on them. Or your guy used to be a gladiator, he's good at fighting dirty. These kind of backgrounds or themes get players thinking about their characters and I think go further for them actually making up or using some kind of signature move than just giving them a mighty deed ability. 

 Additionally, I think one of the things about the fighter class that only really becomes apparent in play, is that if all the other characters are shit in combat by having low attack scores (as is the case in most OSR rulesets) the fighter really does stand out and feel empowering even if most of what their class is about is simply that their attack bonus increases +1 every level. IT doesn't seem flashy on paper, but I find in practice when the players do get into combat the fighters really shine and are the ones who are actually taking down enemies. I've gone back and forth on combat rules over my years of playing, adding, removing, tweaking, revising. In conclusion the only things I find that have really stuck are: 

  1.  Make the fighter actually good at combat and the other classes shit. This is most commonly done by having the fighter be the only class whose attack bonus increases every level. If nothing else do this.
  2.  Make sure everyone knows that they can respond to a combat situation in ways other than trading blows. Want to swing off a chandelier? Cool, you can. Want to jump on the giants back? Cool, you can do that too. 
  3. Give the fighter a theme. Your fighter was a gladiator? Cool, He's really good at fighting dirty and throwing sand in people's eyes. Your fighter was a legionary? Cool, he's really good at using his tower sheild to protect others who fight alongside him. 
  4. And probably most forgotten thing of all. If you want your combat to be interesting. Don't make more combat rules. Make your monsters and the combat situations your players find themselves in more interesting instead.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Weirdcrawl: Investigating the Weird and Wondrous

This post is a part in a series on creating a weirdcrawl campaign where the focus is on seeking out and exploring strange wonders in the wilderness far from civilization. For the full series click here.


In a previous post I came up with a weird wonder along with six different facts about it based upon answering a series of questions. I'm going to revise things slightly so I have one answer per question:

The Moon Pool

  • Who guards it? The Moon Pool is a haunted place, a place where strange creatures called the Forgotten dwell. They are the watery dead, empty hollow men and women who walk about. Some recently dead, some having died many years or even eons ago. They forever walk about lost amid the endless pools of the swamp, forever seeking to remember who they once were, what they have forgotten. Strange tales abound about encounters with them.
  • What is it physically? Few know about it, but deep within the Black Basin lies a pool of silver water so bright and luminous it looks like a sliver of the moon. It is known as the Moon Pool. It is said to have been sacred long ago and was worshiped when the moon was young and the swamp a forest. Many who venture to it do not return.
  • When was it forgotten? Once long ago there were people who dwelt in the forests before the swamp. They worshiped a sacred pool. They used to make offerings of silver to it and every so often one of the strange necklaces of the old swamp folk turn up, dredged up from the bottom. Every so often one of their crumbling moon markers can be found in the swamp. No one knows why they abandoned the swamp.
  • Where is it located? It is said the Moon Pool lies westward beyond the last bend of the river Olb but can only be found on nights of a full moon and that one can only be lead there by the urging of a tormented soul.
  • Why was it forgotten?  Long ago, in funeral rite, the people from before the swamp would place their tormented dead within the waters of their sacred pool to grant them a peaceful rest as it's waters cause forgetting. The flesh of the corpse would sink from it's bones which would would arise as shimmering moonlight and their skeleton would arise to dance amid the stars. It is not known why but to keep it secret they all drank from the pool to forget it's existence. From then on it has become a lost place, only the Forgotten knowing the way to it's shore. 
  • How do you interact with it? The howling of lost and vengeful spirits can be heard above the waters of the Moon Pool. They howl for they know the awful bargain of the pool. From spirit to flesh, and flesh to spirit the pool can transform. And so the vengeful spirits swirl about the pool desperately wanting to clothe themselves in flesh again to wreak their vengeance, but unwilling to forget the awful grudge that drives them. Desperation mounting, at last, unable to bear it no more, they enter the waters of the Moon Pool. When they arise from it they arise clothed in flesh seeking to remember the grudge they have forgotten.

I have done my best to keep the answers to these questions terse and with little overlap between them. These six paragraphs is the entirety of the lore I would create for the moon pool and what I would relay to the players. However, I would not present this information to the players all at once. Their journey is to the Moon Pool is to be a quest! I would present them in a more investigative format.

Investigative Adventure

As the primary activity in my campaign is the players seeking out weird wonders deep in the wilderness, an investigative structure fits well this goal. While investigative adventures tend to be common in other RPGs they tend to be relatively rare in OSR games.

OSR games, especially D&D orientated ones, tend to emphasize freedom of player choice. Investigative adventures are hard because if structured too rigidly then the players are pulled from location to location looking for clues, unable to advance to the next location until they have found the crucial clue. If structured to loosely the players might be confused as to what direction to take, unsure or unable to piece together all the clues, and overall feel lost as to what they are supposed to do or how to measure their progress or form goals.

The first thing that must be realized when structuring a investigative adventure is that it is information that is the real reward and measure of progress, not gold collected, not rooms explored, not monsters killed. It is information that allows the players to form goals about what they want their characters to do and what their next step is, and to see how much progress they have made.

In this manner the above six bits of information about the Moon Pool serve as the real rewards for the players investigations. As they seek out and learn more about the moon pool they will be better able to formulate further ideas and plans.

The six clues outlined above form a 'flat' hierarchy of information where each clue is not more important than any other and each can sought out and learned in any order. This is intentional to try and maximize player choice. It's also intentional that players can choose, if they wish, to seek out he wonder after discovering the 'where' clue (or even find some even more clever way of doing so). It is up to them to decide when they feel they have learned enough to make the journey worthwhile, and probably more importantly, feel they can survive it.

If they seek out the wonder knowing too little about it then they will likely remain confused about what exactly it is and how it works and return with more questions than answers. The possibility of an unsatisfactory conclusion to their journey is once again purposeful. Knowledge is it's own reward.


In order to help facilitate adventure, it is best that the six clues be embodied in objects or people in the game world that the player characters can seek out and interact with. I think this goes well with D&D based OSR games as in them there is an emphasis on loot and items and it's much easier to quest after something tangible.

I am calling these things artifacts. Not in the traditional D&D sense, but more in the archaeological sense. They represent physical things that are found that tell us something about the past.

Creating an Artifact

There are four ways the fragment of lore can be transmitted each with a different challenge associated with it based on it's method of transmission. 

1d4 Method Challenge
1 Pictorial Seeing the visual display, which is probably immovable, and making sense of what it's trying to depict.
2 Written Obtaining the written object and deciphering it.
3 Verbal Getting someone to tell you the information and recording it.
4 Magic Conducting a ritual to gain the information through extra-sensory or magical means.

I have created four charts to further define the artifact. Roll a d20 and cross reference to determine its form:

1d20 Pictoral Written Verbal Magic
1 Paintings Scrolls Poem Scrying
2 Sacred architecture Tablets Ballad Speaking with the dead
3 Metalwork Book or Tome Legend Speaking with a demon
4 Sculptures Engraving Recounting Speaking with a spirit
5 Ceramics and Pottery Fragments and scraps Insane ramblings Viewing past events
6 Jewelry Letters Oral history Viewing future events
7 Tapestry Chronicle Speech Using astronomical events to find location
8 Fresco Last will and testament Riddle Dowsing
9 Mosaic Map Eulogy Mind Reading
10 Illuminated illustration Travelogue Rant Summoning, Binding, and Torturing
11 Hieroglyph Philosophical/Metaphysical treatise Lecture Speaking with Monsters
12 Petroglyph Encyclopedia Conversation Dimensional traveling
13 Altarpiece Encoded Document Debate Unearthly visions
14 Bas-relief Religious or Occult text Play or performance Time travel
15 Carving Scientific Observations Audio recording Contacting the Outer Spheres
16 Graffiti Official missive Chant Speaking with Animals
17 Model or maquete Compendium Coded language Mind-meld
18 Globe Leaflet Echo Magical illusion
19 Embroidery Suicide note Sound Summoning a guide
20 Etching Schematic Recitation Magically locate

Fragments of Lore for the Moon Pool

Taking the above information I can apply it to the above 6 clues. I will roll randomly for each and from it create a description of the main challenge the players will face and the hook. A hook is an inciting incident that doesn't tells them a bit about how they may find the fragment of lore. Kind of, oh, I don't know that, but I know who may know that. It points them in the direction of the fragment. 

1. Who guards it?

Hook: a party of travelers enters the gates of Vorba bearing the slain bodies of their comrades. Hungry, wounded, and miserable, they beg for help and tell tales of being attacked by strange cold skinned dead things in the night, deep in the swamp.

Fragment (Verbal: Recounting): the man who was on watch at the time knows best what these things are. Unfortunately, he has slunk away from his fellow travelers to drown himself in drink. If found and convinced to talk he will recount details of the attack. A host of tallow skinned strange men and women came upon him when he was on watch that night. Their skin was cold, their eyes a milky white and they muttered continually, one of them calling him brother, accusing him or murdering it, although he swears he has no brothers or sisters.

Clue: The Moon Pool is a haunted place, a place where strange creatures called the Forgotten dwell. They are the watery dead, empty hollow men and women who walk about. Some recently dead, some having died many years or even eons ago. They forever walk about lost amid the endless pools of the swamp, forever seeking to remember who they once were, what they have forgotten. Strange tales abound about encounters with them.

2. What is it physically?

Hook: In a tavern smelling of old ale frequented by students, a priest in a frumpled frock drinks with celibate monks. He is about to be fully ordained and they all sing old ditty's and hymns in celebration. He remarks how he is going to be baptized in the baptismal fount of the grand cathedral of Vorba, Our Lady Victorious. To any who listens, he lets slip that the baptismal font in the cathedral is said to be older than the city itself and is made from a strange metal. 

Fragment (Pictoral: Metalwork): underneath the grand cathedral in a grotto few but those the Bishop allows to visit, lies a large metal basin made of a strange silver metal. It is perfectly round and has been set into the bedrock like a pool. It appears to predate the church. The water gleams brightly, dappled with light, no matter the darkness. Strange etchings of an auroch trampling a serpent adorn its rim. 

Clue: Few know about it, but deep within the Black Basin lies a pool of silver water so bright and luminous it looks like a sliver of the moon. It is known as the Moon Pool. It is said to have been sacred long ago and was worshiped when the moon was young and the swamp a forest. Many who venture to it do not return.

3. When was it forgotten?

Hook: in the market place, amid the finely woven carpets from the east and the black briarwood of the north an old jewelry vendor with a crippled back sells a strange necklace. Primitive, made of large links of a silver metal with the image of an auroch dangling from it's end it is like no other. Rubbing his chapped hands he drives a hard bargain. If any shows interest in his tale, with a craven grin he tells them he will tell them more about it if they buy it.

Fragment (Verbal: Poem): the jewelry vendor once attended the halls of storytellers in the north. He is acquainted with the poem of the god Islador, an ancient creation myth of the ancient forest people and the pool they worshiped. He will recite it to the players if they buy the necklace. However, he knows the necklace is the centerpiece of his collection and draws much attention to his stall. He will only let it go for an exorbitantly high price or in trade for a similarly unique item.

Clue: Once long ago there were people who dwelt in the forests before the swamp. They worshiped a sacred pool. They used to make offerings of gold to it and every so often one of the strange necklaces of the old swamp folk turn up, dredged up from the bottom. Every so often one of their crumbling moon markers can be found in the swamp. No one knows why they abandoned the swamp.

4. Why was it forgotten?

Hook: the maidens of the Peatsmen are said to be the keepers of the history of the roaming boat clans for it is they who embroider the old stories onto their wedding dresses. Each dress contains the history and legends of the clan depicted in colourful thread. Yur Zhdanov, a scholar, is seeking out several well experienced travelers to help him collect several such dresses to study.

Fragment (Pictoral: Embroidery): the wedding dresses of the maidens of the Peatsmen are treasured. They are not made to be given away or traded and each is specific to the recently married maiden who made it. Only they can decode the full story of what the embroidery conveys, stories that are passed down from mother to daughter in secret. If several such dresses are collected they show the reoccurring symbol of the Moon Pool and starry skeletons. If decoded by the maidens who made the dresses, the full tale can be learned.

Clue: Long ago, in funeral rite, the people from before the swamp would place their tormented dead within the waters of their sacred pool. It would grant them a peaceful rest as it's waters cause forgetting. The flesh of the corpse would sink from it's bones. It's skeleton would arise as shimmering moonlight to dance amid the stars. It is not known why but to keep it secret they all drank from the pool to forget it's existence. From then on it has become a lost place, only the Forgotten knowing the way to it's shore. 

5. Where is it located?

Hook: a clan of Peatsmen in the swamp is in disarray over their disgraced prince who recently died in a duel with another clan. The entire clan is in mourning and the funeral rites last many weeks. The matriarch refuses to bury her son until his soul can be laid to rest.

Fragment (Magic: Mind-meld): in order to find out why the princes soul is tormented the party must conduct a ritual to mind meld with the recently deceased prince. They must gather black saw-grass, the eye of a blue eel, and a powder of fragrant glass the traders bring far from the south. In the darkness of a new moon they must sing the ancient incantations and place their palm upon the Prince's head in which their minds and his, pulled from the afterlife become conjoined. They receive visions of the Moon Pool and feel his urging for it.

Clue: It is said the Moon Pool lies westward beyond the last bend of the river Olb but can only be found on nights of a full moon and that one can only be lead there by the urging of a tormented soul.

6. How do you interact with it?

Hook: Grigory "The Great" Ivankov is a wizard of ill repute has created a machine to record and play the voices of restless undead spirits. He seeks a brave group of individuals to travel deep within the swamp to one of the crumbling 'moon markers' within the swamp. These are haunted obelisks with holes that line up with the moon. No one knows who built them but the whispering of evil spirits is heard about them. He wishes to record their voices there.

Fragment (Verbal: Audio recording)If recorded, the spirits, in insane howling voices, obsessively speak of the temptation of the Moon Pool. Recording them, of course, draws them like a loadstone and they will be loath to simply return to their aimless roaming of the swamp. 

Clue: The howling of lost and vengeful spirits can be heard above the waters of the Moon Pool. They howl for they know the awful bargain of the pool. From spirit to flesh, and flesh to spirit the pool can transform. And so the vengeful spirits swirl about the pool desperately wanting to clothe themselves in flesh again to wreak their vengeance, but unwilling to forget the awful grudge that drives them. Desperation mounting, at last, unable to bear it no more they enter the waters of the Moon Pool. When they arise from it they arise clothed in flesh seeking to remember the grudge they have forgotten.

Following the Trail of Information

In the above one weird wonder is outlined with six different trails to clues. A campaign would have multiple wonders in the wilderness, each with six different hooks. The players would run across them primarily in civilized areas and have to decide which they wish to pursue and more importantly which they feel are connected to each other.

There are some repeating motifs across the six hooks. These serve let the GM riff on things and help them help the players make connections as they narrow in on what weird wonder they are pursuing. The GM might tell the players that the baptismal fount and the strange necklace seem to be made of the same metal connecting those leads for the players. They might even to go so far as once the players have managed to overcome the challenge of the fragment, to summarize the clue in it's entirety to the players. In investigative games, the real interesting fun come not from finding information. It comes out of what the players decide to do with the information they find. Do they trust all of it? How will they leverage it? How will it effect their current relationships? Their future plans? At what cost did the information come?

Civilization holds the Clues

Overall the hooks for each clue are meant to be random type encounters that the players can have in civilized locations or not to far outside civilization. I place them mostly in civilized locations as the easiest way to get information about something is from another person, so civilized locations have a greater chance of someone knowing something about something, if not the final clue, then something that will help them towards the clue. 

Civilized locations tend to also create small quickly resolved situations that are easy to role play and help expand the setting and characters detail by detail through play. I also find these sorts of situations at the beginning of an adventure help build suspense and interest in the end goal. 

A natural turning point is when the players decide to actually set out into the harsh wilderness to find the weird wonder. Before, they are still safe in civilized lands. After they set out, the journey will be long and arduous, there is no easy turning back. Once they set off, what they find lacking will test them in body and soul. 

In my next post I will detail this second half further.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Weirdcrawl: The Power of Quests

There is a power in Quests. 

Frodo and Sam's journey into darkest Mordor, the only thing sustaining them, their friendship. Tiny amidst the darkness that surrounds them.

Doomed Captain Ahab after his white whale, driven by the madness that is only calm when it contemplates itself.

Indiana Jones chasing a trail of adventure, seeking the rumored relic, stumbling across the dangerous and exotic in equal measure. 

Captain Willard heading down the river in a lonesome boat in the midst of the Vietnam war, heading into the heart of darkness to find the mysterious Colonel Kurtz.

There is a power in quests.

I am using the term quest loosely here. Quests tend to be most associated with the fantasy genre. I tend to define quest focused stories as those that involve an protagonist traveling into unknown physical terrain (although also often psychological) after a singular obsessive goal.

I find stories involving quests compelling. I find they can also be great tools for helping focus a campaign giving it direction and purpose.

So far in my series about creating a Weirdcrawl I have created this basic setup:

You have civilization at one end.

And a strange wonder at the other end.

Before continuing, I'd like to take a step back now because I don't want a weirdcrawl to just be traveling to a wonder. I want it to be a quest. While there is lore and setting information about the wonder, the real story is not the wonder, it's the one that emerges during the journey to it.

Atmosphere in RPGS

Most RPGs don't talk much about atmosphere. I think because most of the time because it feels like something that belongs in the realm of traditional storytelling. Atmosphere in literature is commonly defined as being formed through an authors choice of descriptive language. If applied to RPGs in this manner it tends to lead to a lot of boring read out loud text and a GMing style that tends to restrict player choice or comes across as hamfisted in trying to set a tone.

However, I think it's important to talk about atmosphere in RPGs because a thematic and emotional atmosphere is going to be created at the table no matter what a GM does. I think atmosphere in RPGs can be defined in the following manner:

The emotional sum of player reactions to things they encounter and interact with in the setting. 
If a game is to be interesting, most things the players encounter won't be of neutral emotion. Encountering an ordinary peasant on the way to market isn't a very interesting or engaging encounter. Encountering one who is acting suspiciously and is hiding something horrific, or a very earnest with a family of seven in tow who is begging for your help, is much more engaging.

If your game features a lot of horrific and disturbing things, it's likely to have an atmosphere of horror. If your game is more upbeat and full of fanciful creatures it's more likely to be one of wonder and curiosity.

In this manner I think an atmosphere can be created in RPGs through paying attention to what kind emotions surround the content that players are presented with in the setting. I think trying to cultivate an atmosphere is beneficial as it helps connect sessions together emotionally and thematically. If they are exploring a war ravaged land with lots of poor and starving people, there's likely to be themes of the horrors and futility of war arising. This can add depth and context to each session.

As players explore a setting, I think they shouldn't just learn more and more about it, they should feel more and more strongly about it.

A Variety of Wonders

In the weirdcrawl I am constructing I think the setting should contain a variety of wonders that evoke a variety of atmospheres. Playing a game with the same emotional content and atmosphere gets boring after a while. The first time you venture into an evil swamp full of horrific things might be fun, but the tenth time going somewhere dark and nasty, not so much.

Additionally, by having wonders with a different sense of atmosphere, it also allows for the player to select what kind of game they are comfortable with and enjoy the most. If they don't like horror, they don't have to journey to the Obsidian Statue of the Forgotten Leper King in the swamp. They can decide to journey to the Graveyard of the Porcelain Elephants instead.

In either case the structure of the journey would stay largely the same: the party has a wonder, an end goal that they are traveling too and are going to encounter all kinds of obstacles along the way and have to make decisions about how to best get there and at what cost. But just like how just like how each example movie or book I listed above has a different atmosphere, so too can each wonder.

Creating an Atmosphere in a Weirdcrawl

There are two dichotomies that I think are useful to consider when trying to create an atmosphere for a weird wonder:

Beauty/Revulsion: beauty being the pleasing aesthetic qualities of a thing and revulsion being the unpleasant aesthetic qualities of a thing. A typical example of this would be our appreciation of the finely proportioned human body and our revulsion towards dead or rotting flesh. Beauty and revulsion can be used to create an immediate visceral reaction to something.

Whimsy/Dread: whimsy being a pleasurable curiosity and wonderment to something, while dread being apprehension or anxiety to something. Whimsy and dread can be used to create a more long term emotional reaction to something. A typical example of this would be our interest or longing to try and catch sight of a colorful toucan in the wild, and our dread in knowing that we are being stalked by a tiger.

Together these four different emotions can be mixed to create four different atmospheres defined by a immediate visceral reaction and a long term emotional reaction. I think selecting one of these four atmospheres goes along way when thinking about what kind of obstacles and things you want to have in front of the players on their journey to the wonder.

Atmosphere of The Eire


These quests contain a strange unearthly wonder and beauty at first. The clockwork ornery that models all the celestial bodies that ever were and will be, in wonderous motion. The village around a looming black tower with no windows were the villagers are helpful. A marble clad lighthouse carved by the gods on a strange isle off the coast whose circling light never falters.

There is a sense of other-worldliness to these quests. Nothing really appears that dangerous, not at first. Things appear fine, maybe even friendly. But there is something off about things. You can't quite put your finger on it, but something is behaving strangely. It all begins to evoke a sense of dread.

Maybe the villagers are a little too helpful. Maybe the midnight lighthouse is inhabited by a living immortal marble statue who sees mortals as but curiosities. Maybe the orrery is now worshiped by an insane madman who uses it to predict all the parties actions.

In these quests the guardians are often like wolves in a sheep's clothing. They may seem friendly and rational at first but at heart are not. The party is subject to their often powerful whims and will have to find some means of either outwitting them or navigating their byzantine logic if they wish to reach the wonder.

Atmosphere of The Odd


These quests appear gruesome and dangerous, perhaps even sinister at first. Ruined temples in dark shadow, a deep hole with a descending spiral staircase, a graveyard of rotting elephants, but amid it all there is a sense of the mysterious, a sense of curiosity, a sense of even the whimsical at times.

Maybe the ruined temple is full of friendly ghosts. Maybe at the bottom of the deep hole lies a race of strange dwarves who speak in riddles. Maybe the graveyard of rotting elephants contains a highly intelligent undead variety who are misunderstood.

In these quests the guardians often a bit like a sheep in wolfs clothing. They seem dangerous or repulsive at first but contain a hidden life and often humour. They make for an interesting twist and play at the party's expectations. They may aid the party on their quest to the wonder, if you are able to earn their trust and respect.

Atmosphere of The Marvelous


These quests appear fanciful and strange. A great green rolling ocean that lies across a desert where people have lived so long in the sand they think the ocean, that much wondrous water, is but a myth. A staircase that leads to the moon where silver dragons stream across its surface and fight the nightgaunts. A whirlpool in which mermaids swim and which leads to their underwater kingdom.

These quests tend to be full of unabashed whimsy. There is danger yes, but a sense of curiosity of playful risk to the journey. A sense of both youthfulness and wisdom, of dangerous folly and gracious humility.

In these quests the guardians guard the wonder because it is truly a precious and innocent thing. A thing of true wonder that should scare exist in the world. That like a shimmering bubble, it could be extinguished in a heartbeat. So much so that the guardians often worship the wonder or hold it in high regard. They will harm and prevent the party from reaching the wonder if they deem them unworthy or a risk to it.

Atmosphere of The Blighted


These quests appear doomed. The cursed swamp that lies over a great battle long ago where the dead now do dwell, the barrow mound that houses the nameless king of iron who harbours endless hate, the nest of the reaping locusts who will one day eat the flesh of all men as death itself awakes.

There are some places one should just not go. Places were a malign evil saturates the very land. These quests tend to be into the heart of darkness itself. Journeys done for great reasons or for great rewards, preferably both. Journey's where the weak will falter, where only the hardened will survive.

In these quests the guardians will oppose the party at every turn and seek only their destruction. For they guard a great prize, the wonder is the source of their evil and malign power. They will be loath to be parted from it. They and the wonder can only be destroyed, never bargained with, and if the party seizes it as their own they may find themselves slowly becoming monsters themselves.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Weirdcrawl: Generating a Weird Wonder

In my previous post I talked a bit about what I thought were some baseline qualities for a weird wonder. These weird wonders would serve as the object of quests in a campaign based around venturing into the wilderness to seek out and explore places of weird wonder. Kind of like Indiana Jones combined with the Dreamlands of H. P. Lovecraft.

Click here for the index.

The Paradoxical Duality of the Weird

There are many ways to think about 'weird' things, what they are, and how to define them. I have done so already in my blog, mostly in service of how to create a creeping or gradual sense of the weird where if you have some weird wonder as the object of a quest, the focus of the campaign and play should not just be the final encounter with the weird thing but the journey itself. A journey that has a sense of rising weirdness and tension as the players venture deeper and deeper into the unknown wilderness and away from normalized civilization. So far I have yet to attempt to really define what makes a weird wonder weird and how to go about creating or generating that. I will attempt to do so now.

At heart, I think weird or unsettling things are paradoxical in nature. They exist and yet everything we know about the world, our knowledge, our past experiences, our primordial instincts, tell us they should not exist. This creates a cognitive confusion, a cognitive dissonance that causes emotional reactions that tend to range from awe, to fear, to anger. (I don't have a background in psychology so am probably lacking in the correct terminology but if anyone has any ideas please leave a comment! It's something I'd love to read up on more but have a hard time finding good sources.)

To this end I think the best way to achieve a sense of the weird is to have some object straddle two different containers in our mind about what is known or real.

For example, ghosts. We know that people live and what living people are like. We know what dead people are like also. In our brain we have formed two containers for these two concepts. A ghost straddles these two containers because it is a person who appears both dead and alive at the same time. Our brain doesn't know what to do about it and so we tend to react in an emotional manner.  In the moment we tend to be terrified and repelled, outside the moment curious and attracted.

The mental overload and cognitive dissonance resulting from a very close straddling of two different containers is also why I think there tends to be a limit of believability to weird things and what separates the weird from other things. Ghosts are believable because they paradoxically combine the categories of life and death, things which seem to form an opposition or duality. When something tends to straddle multiple categories it tends to come across more unbelievable than believable and weird. Like the idea of a ghost, something dead yet living is believable, but the idea of a ghost who is dead which has leathery batwings seems a bit more silly even though it's all equally unreal and impossible.

Furthermore, I think the strangest things tend to be those which combine the paradoxical. A river flowing uphill defying gravity, that is odd. However, I think something that is far more strange and interesting is a river of flowing liquid fire. It flows like water and feels like water, yet glows and wavers like flame and even though it feels cold to the touch things soaked in it too long seem to turn to ash. When you combine things of apposing or opposite qualities, you don't just create something that is behaving in an odd fashion, you create something that our brains think fundamentally shouldn't exist. And yet does.

Weird Wonder Generation

The following is a large table that helps create the basic weird wonder. There are three columns.

Feature: this is the actual physical thing that comprises the wonder, constructed or natural. They are things of a singular nature that would lend themselves to a smaller adventuring site rather than something sprawling.

Duality:  the source of the weird, the duality. It will take some imagination and abstract thought in this column are listed two opposites. The wonder should in some way or another embody these two opposites.

Guardian: the guardian of the wonder presented as a list of archetypes. As mentioned before, I am using the term guardian very loosely. They may be a single individual, group of people, monster, etc. They serve to create player interaction and a probable reason why the wonder has remained isolated and hidden.  Their motivations and intent when interacting with the party may vary.

The Fool
Standing stone
The Mother
The Father
The Magician
The Scribe
The Warrior
The Specter
The Priestess
The Abomination
The Emperor
The Land
The Lover
Burial grounds
The Prophet
The Hermit
The Devil
The Leper
The Messenger
The Knight
The Bishop
Collectivism/ Individualism
The Captain
The Gardner
The Artist
The Soldier
The Smith
Sand Dune
The Giant
The Dead
Dry Lake
The Forgotten
The Lady
The Monk
The Executioner
The Seer
The Conqueror
Mountain Summit
The Conquered
The Angel
The Peddler
The Templar
The Herald
Lava lake
The Betrayer
The Scapegoat
The Sacrifice
The Leviathan
The Trickster
The Torturer
The Nymph
The Wild
The Thief
The Warlord
The Ferryman
The Hero
The Witch
The Dog
The Scholar
The Killer
The Healer
The Collector
The Siren
The Starved
The Watcher
River source
The Awakened
Salt flat
The Revenant
The Mentor
The Omniscient
The Sisters
The Order
Rough statues
The Master
The cowardly
The Betrayer
The Betrayed
The Nurse
The Shepherd
The Automaton
The Sacrifice
The Saccharine
Migratory grounds
The Unborn
The Brute
The Miser
The Architect
Tar pit
The Wanderer

The Invisible
The Reaper
Burial Mound
The Ravenous
The Undertaker
The Enslaved
Axis Mundi
The Slaver
The Fraternity
Spawning grounds
The Prisoner
The Fallen
The Cursed
The Forgetful
Ship wreck
The Forgiven
The Widow
The Warlock
The Withered
The Maiden
Stone Works
The Elder
The Tyrant
The Child
The Traveler
Bell Tower
The Undying
Hunting Grounds

Enigmatic History

After rolling on the above chart you should have the basics of a weird wonder. In some way the wonder should be momentous. It is a place where something happened. Something long ago.  It should have a sense of scale or of time, evoke a feeling of awe and mystery. It should have a past that the players will never be able to fully unravel as it's history is lost, but glimpses of that history, of its scale and timelessness, lay all about it.

Roll on the following chart until you get something that makes sense for the weird wonder. You may have to do this several times. Remember, it's the wonder itself that is weird, not it's history, it's history should be simply unknown. 

1d50 Enigmatic History
1 Immense in size
2 Markings in a dead undecipherable language
3 Partially buried in the earth
4 Crumbling and derelict
5 Made of ultra-durable materials
6 Path to it is footsteps worn through stone
7 Choaking dust and debris
8 Rain eroded and wind worn
9 Sealed off and purposely blocked
10 Signs of long ago civilization collapse or disaster
11 Lots of art by unknown culture
12 Disrupted weather patterns due to site
13 Landscape shows signs of massive alteration
14 Everyday remains of ancient visitors fragile to touch
15 Carving and scripts so worn they are unreadable
16 Scale of steps, hallways, pathways, trails, is too large to be for a human.
17 Scale of steps, hallways, pathways, trails, is too small to be for a human.
18 Has reoccurring symbol of unknown or forgotten god
19 Layers and layers of bloodstains from sacrifices
20 Reoccurring name and history that has been defaced and scratched out
21 Ancient refuse pits dot the landscape around it
22 Mass graves with thousands of bones
23 Astrological alignment of site based on how stars were long ago
24 Construction breaks the laws of physics
25 ‘Grown’ from natural materials by the gods instead of built
26 Partially destroyed by some massive creature or god
27 Site seems to be built by advanced technology
28 Art from a proto-civilization or culture that is father to all civilizations
29 Covered in layers and layers of soot and grime
30 In a cold place buried underneath ice and snow
31 Previously looted many times over
32 Fossilized remains
33 Perfectly preserved remains frozen in time
34 Lots of strange jewelry from unknown cultures left as offerings
35 Graffiti in several different languages, some from long ago, some more recently
36 A written warning to all those who explore the site
37 Animals avoid the place
38 Animals of a certain type are attracted to the place
39 Covered in thick vegetation and greenery
40 Covered in moss and lichen
41 Covered in slime and mold
42 Full of broken religious symbols and iconography
43 Made with materials from far away lands
44 Area is expansive and empty, stripped to the bones
45 Nothing grows
46 Area is contained with some toxic material
47 Signs and leavings of visitors of many different times and cultures
48 Contains strange geometric features or motif that hints at advanced mathematics and intelligence
49 A written curse upon all those who explore the site
50 Made over oversized materials impossible for humans or even basic machinery to manipulate

Defining a Weird Wonder

To keep things simple and avoid creating too much lore or backstory weird wonders should seek to concisely answer the following questions. Some of them may not be applicable to all wonders. You also only really need to answer a handful, in creating a sense of the weird and unknown it's better to give out less information than more. Overall the questions help prompt thought and break down information about the wonders into tidbits that can be given the players as they decide to seek it out and investigate it.
  • Who
    • Who knows more about it's existence?
    • Who guards it?
    • Who else seeks it?
    • Who else has been there?
  • What: 
    • What is it physically?
    • What happened to it over the ages?
    • What strange qualities does it posses?
  • When
    • When was it forgotten? 
    • When was it last visited?
    • When is the best time to visit it?
  • Where
    • Where is it located?
    • Where are clues to its location?
  • Why
    • Why was it created?
    • Why was it destroyed?
    • Why was it forgotten?
  • How
    • How do you get to it? 
    • How do you survive the journey to it?
    • How do you interact with it?
    • How can you possibly exploit it?

Putting Everything Together!

Rolling, on the above charts I got the following:
  • Feature: Pool
  • Duality: Flesh/spirit
  • Guardian: The Forgetful
  • Enigmatic History: Lots of strange jewelry from unknown cultures left as offerings
Using the setting that I have been creating as I go in this blog series, I came up with the following:

The Moon Pool

What is it physically?

Few know about it, but deep within the Black Basin lies a pool of silver water so bright and luminous it looks like a sliver of the moon. In tales told by the drifting gypsies of the swamp, it is said to have been sacred long ago when the moon was young and the swamp a forest.

Who guards it?

Now it is a haunted place, a place where a race of strange creatures called the Forgotten dwell. Watery empty hollow men and women who walk about in strange legion forever seeking to remember who they once were. Strange tales abound about encounters with them.

Who strange qualities does it posses?

The howling of vengeful spirits can be heard all about the pool, heard in the day, in the night, under the soon and amid the stars. They howl for they know the awful bargain of the pool. From spirit to flesh, and flesh to spirit. Into the pool they dive and from it they arise, once again clothed in flesh. But with all memory of their awful grudge struck from them. As one of the Forgotten they are doomed to roam. And so the vengeful spirits swirl about the pool desperately wanting the flesh to wreak their vengeance, but unwilling to forget, until desperation mounting, they enter, hoping that as one of the Forsaken they will encounter something that reminds them of their grudge.

When was it last visited?

The eldest of the Peatsmen matriarchs visited it long ago. With her she brought the body of her disgraced son who died in a duel. When she placed his body into the waters of the Silver Pool his flesh sank away from his bones which turned to shimmering moonlight. From dead flesh to gentle spirit he arose, his burden lifted, his spirit freed to drift with his ancestors among the stars.

When was it forgotten?

Once long ago there were people who dwelt in the forests before the swamp. They worshiped the Moon Pool. Necklaces of gold with images of the bear and auroch they threw into the pool and waters around it in funeral rite as they placed their tormented dead within it's waters. Every so often their strange necklaces turn up, dredged up from the bottom. Every so often one of their crumbling moon markers can be found in the swamp.

When is the best time to visit it?

It is said the Moon Pool can only be found on lights of a full moon and that one can only be lead there by the urging of the tormented dead.