Archive for the 'writing' Category

13
Nov
09

inns and taverns: the summer swan

The Summer Swan is a narrow boat that works the river, providing ale and wine to the thirsty while avoiding many of the taxes most innkeeps pay. When it moors, a marquee and rough benches are set up and people are invited to sup the ale that is traded and brewed aboard.  On fair weather days, the marquee is sometimes dispensed with and the ale flows freely to farmhands and fishermen alike.

This has led to some antagonism with local inns, lords and sheriffs but this is smoothed over by trading small kegs of high-quality and potent pale ale and when it’s needed, some coin.  Word of the Summer Swan’s destinations travel swiftly with travellers and ne’er-do-wells, it is a welcome haven for tinkers, journeymen, gypsies, minstrels and runaways and these folk watch out for the boat and it’s captain.

The captain and landlord is a slight, wiry man of indeterminate age and gleaming eyes.  He plays chess and fiddle exceptionally well and his genial manner barely hides a tireless enthusiasm for life, high tolerance for his own wares and low tolerance for boredom.  He keeps three calico cats that only he can tell apart and these fuss over anyone except the disagreeable, the diseased and those with an air of wrongness about them.

In the stern of the boat is a remarkably lifelike wooden figurehead of a barmaid; buxom, blonde-haired and clad in brown.  The captain claims it is his wife and will jokingly tell her to stop nagging to the amusement of his customers.  On the rare times he gets drunk (late at night during certain festivals), he talks to the figurehead and even hugs it, weeping softly as if lost to something or someone.

The pale ale he brews is light, refreshing and strong.  He keeps small barrels of dark stout and heather ale as well as brown bottles of fiery whiskey, apple brandy, elderflower wine and damson spirit.  He doesn’t serve food, scarcely having enough to feed himself and his friends.  “You want food, you bring it!” is often laughingly shouted by those in the know at those the worse for wear by drinking on an empty stomach.

The Summer Swan will always move on after seven days anywhere, even with ideal conditions for trade and large crowds of customers.  Travellers and merchants are aware of the boat’s passage and sometimes form spontaneous free markets to the consternation of nearby towns.  The question is not if the captain is a smuggler, the question is of what.  Yet until now, nobody has found anything that wasn’t meant to be there…

05
Nov
09

pretender to the throne

Regaining my armour is the beginning.  My banner shall fly anew and our fortunes will be restored. What was sundered can be made whole and our throne is within reach again.
— Simkin Lanternon, exile and pretender to the throne.

Born of a lampmaker and a disgraced lady-in-waiting Simkin Lanternon grew up in a land where noble blood assured power.  His ambition was pricked and he turned to deception.  From this Simkin learned the seeming of nobility with the blessing of his embittered mother and ambitious friends looking for a fast path to power and court.  His intellect and semblance to a former king set him on a collision course with the nobles of his homeland who spurned this newcomer and his grasping friends.

The king was newly crowned, resented by his subjects for heavy taxation and hated abroad for overthrowing the former monarch, a practice the foreign kings hoped to quash.  Lanternon travelled to their courts as a knight errant who decried the tyranny afflicting his homeland.  Nobles in exile confirmed his lineage with divinations (Simkin was a bastard of the former king’s uncle) and began to groom him for greater things while Simkin bought legitimacy with his treason and flourished as he toured.

A certain king had come to possess a demon-ridden helmet that whispered dark thoughts to it’s wearer, he presented it in a set of armour for Simkin. He knew Simkin would fail as he was skilled in tourney but not battle. Giving away the helmet removed a burden and left a trap for Simkin’s slayer. Mnemesyx and Simkin fed off the other’s incitations and the growing cruelty in Simkin was heralded as ‘the will to conquer’ by those courts who sheltered him and his exiled supporters.

Convinced he was ready, the exiles hired mercenaries and a seasoned captain eager for war. Simkin would lead a popular revolt and usurp the usurper.  When Simkin landed, he was joined by friends and disaffected nobles.  Mnemesyx saw it’s chance and rallied the forces.  The mercenaries took a coastal town loyal to the king and ravaged it then sailed up the coast to a new attack. This attack failed as Simkin resisted Mnemesyx’s influence and the resulting bad tactical decisions allowed the enemy to regroup.

Changing plan, Simkin chose to attack a town further inland at the behest of Mnemesyx. After three days of fighting, the town fell yet the conquerors were besieged as the king’s general came with a greater force who slaughtered the mercenaries and punished the treasonous.  Simkin was captured alive by a knight errant who claimed his armour as a prize and ransomed Simkin to the exiles.  The exiles plot with Simkin again for the pretender is now a scheming demagogue. Mnemesyx has taught him well.

Simkin plots to steal the armour and helm from the now-titled knight who took and keeps them as trophies, being ignorant of the demon within.  He presents himself as the unfortunate victim of a melee in which he was robbed yet ‘enemies at court’ would see him dead were he to return home to his friends.  Once the armour is restored, he will recommence his plans for usurping the king.  This time he intends to give Mnemesyx full rein in his ambitions. Adventurers may find themselves on either side of this plot.

This post is inspired by Mnemesyx, The Twice Fallen  by Nevermet Press  and Perkin Warbeck.

30
Oct
09

inns and taverns: the zaros road taverna

At the foot of the Zaros hills, the Zaros Road is known for it’s sinister nature and as harvest shadows lengthen, the gods are placated for bright spring and gentle winter.  These sacrifices are not always heeded and the gods have seen fit to shelter brigands and worse in the hills.  As a result, the Zaros Road Taverna was built over a freshwater spring within reach of the town and used as a waystation by merchants and travellers. 

This taverna and it’s yard is enclosed within a whitewashed stone wall and painted gate.  Close to the taverna is an extensive frame holding up a trellis laden with vines and a creeping white rose at each post.  The result is a shelter thick with vines and in summer, grapes and roses.  A pair of large yet intelligent warhounds owned by the landlord lie here, keep vigil over the yard and occasionally beg food from the gullible and easily scared.

The taverna itself is a 40′ square two-storey structure made of quarried stone and geometric tiles laid out in patterns around the bar and hexagonal hearth burning pine cones and birch or pinewood.  A collection of wooden benches and tables can hold up to forty people, typically there are fifty people jostling for space and additional service; with up to another six musicians, entertainers and dancing girls working them.

The walls are decorated with icons of local gods and artifacts of hunting and shepherding.  There are eight  cell-like rooms upstairs behind the bar which command a high price – most locals sleep in the courtyard anytime but winter or curl up in the corners.  Occasionally a merchant will visit, risking the road for profit, and complain to the grim amusement of the landlord who asks if they want to camp outside.  They never do so.

The landlord is a grizzled former archer who runs his place like a barracks, his staff and family are fiercely loyal despite his appalling behaviour to them.  The locals respect him, his skill has kept them safe from the brigands and his taverna is pleasant and often drink small beer or wine (a little rough about the edges) while enjoying the skill of the cook, whose craft is considerable. 

The locals enjoy roasted goat and mutton, freshwater mussels boiled in butter and rich lamb stew packed with garlic and olives with occasional boar and blood sausages.  The prices are reasonable.  Shepherds who live near the taverna may offer one of their flock for a tab reckoned by the landlord.  The locals are a friendly bunch yet mentioning what is in the hills makes them taciturn and they suggest taking the road during the day.

The taverna is cooled by an underground cistern where ale and wine are kept.  This cistern collects water from the fresh spring, it’s design allows the water to flow away while giving enough to keep the taverna well stocked.  Food is kept in an adjacent cellar – in theory, the taverna could last for a week if it ever came under siege from whatever lives in the hills.

The stables are made of the same whitewashed stone as the wall and support up to eight horses.  Two of the stalls are permanently taken – one with the landlord’s own horse, the other holds a horse for local messengers to use.  The local town council willingly waive the price of the stables and feed from their local taxes since the taverna is a waystation and often shelters those who cannot return to the town before nightfall.

25
Oct
09

something wicked this way comes

Review: Kobold Quarterly 11 by Open Design.  There’s a lot of content and I have to fit in reminiscences.  As it’s Kobold Quarterly, I’m using kobolds as my metric – one bad, five awesome.  Now the disclaimer as interests need to be declared.

Disclaimer: This review is of a free PDF copy provided by Wolfgang Baur of Open Design for review purposes.  Articles considered on merit and judgement, not actual play.  Games masters may vary depending on ability, confidence and your willingness to participate.  Be excellent and party on.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s get moving.  Back in the day, I used to buy Dragon avidly.  I admire what Open Design have done as Kobold Quarterly (KQ) recaptures that feel without quite being the house organ Dragon used to be.  Including the kick-ass Hallowe’en issues, which this assuredly is. 

Art: 3 kobolds (a little more interior colour will go a long way.)
Consistently strong and supportive of theme.  Love the art for Ecology of the Vampire, Howling Werebeasts, Monstrous Paragons and Spell-Less ranger.  My only caveat is writing over cover art lessens it’s impact.  I’m impressed by the roll call of Mearls, Bulmahn, Perkins (I never knew More was an RPG designer) but the text makes the cover cluttered. Interior art is good if less colourful and the use of woodcut plates for some articles lends charm. Cartoons by Stan! provide levity.

Articles: 4 kobolds (consistently good concepts, minor rough edges)
A Broken Mind by Scott Gable is a neat take on 4E sanity mechanics and lends a Call of Cthulhu feel to that system.  It gives punch to encountering aberrants and undead and provides roleplaying hooks while mitigating the blasé attitude many players display to horrific monsters and situations. It will shock 4E purists expecting empowered heroism so warn your players first, eh?

Uvandir: The Pride of Craftsmen by John Wick and Jess Heinig hammers dwarves into proud, genderless, relentless inhumans with buckets of attitude while keeping core dwarven qualities intact and offers crunch love to back it up.  I like this a lot and would use as a PC option for a stable player group.  For more dynamic or less confident groups they’d make great NPCs.  Scott Gable provides a faithful 4E conversion. 

Howling Werebeasts by John E. Ling Jr. presents the lycanthrope as player character and considers what consequences occur.  It presents balanced 3.xE level progressions in rat, wolf and bear and inspired me to outline a Les Miserables style campaign involving pursuit of a fugitive lycanthrope. It makes having an infected monster in the party much more palatable. Enjoyed this very much indeed.

The Ecology of the Vampire by Tim & Eileen Connors offers nice flavourful content then spoils it with faux White Wolf trim.  Exquisite fluff about vampiric transformation, feeding and motives with good crunch to stop the vampires going on siring orgies, player and NPC tactics and hints at variant powers. Yet it also drones on and on about heaven and hell, ending with vampires of legend sired by Lucian Twice-Fallen.  Without irony. 

Running Across The Screen is a round table of GM tips from a veritable rollcall of cool game designers who provide advice.  With dense amounts of good, practical advice this is a firehose of fresh spring water to dip into when running a game or event grinds you down.  Kudos to Robin Laws and Greg Stafford for less than corporate photos.   Killer content.

Book Reviews – Balanced and fair.  Guillermo del Toro has co-authored a modern day vampire bio-thriller? And a new Harry Dresden novel?  And a Silver John collection?  And the other books look cool too – this only happens once a quarter.  Good ideas for the primary gifting period for that gamer friend of yours…

Haunted by the Spirit of the Rules by Monte Cook is a warning to players to drop the type A dork act and for games masters to consider consistency by precedent.  It highlights roleplaying is about collaboration, entering into the spirit of the game and focussing on what makes a good time at the table rather than seeking self-validation by trying to be the Oscar Wilde of tabletop gaming.  Thought-provoking stuff.

Wishing Well by Garrett Baumgartner brings wish spells into 4E by applying a framework to the wish effect and codifies potential by tier. It also offers the Wishmaster monster template (neat) and some slightly gamebreaky items especially a ring of three wishes that recharges at every milestone!  Ditch the items and you’ve got a nice take on the Arabian Nights.

Whack Jacks and Harpy Nets by Daigle, Happ, Hitchcock and Kortes brings monster weaponry for 4E to our attention.  They remind us monsters have technology at their disposal.  While the necksnapper, gouters and giant’s arbalest and others make me smile, I would actually use the nailbiter, razornet and warcage in games.  The ideas are strong in this article and can be innovated on.  Maybe in later posts? :o)

Torture and Fear on the Tabletop by Hank Woon looks like a Pathfinder table for every occasion article yet it’s real strengths lies in core concepts.  Torture does ability and regular damage; emphasise description to get inside player minds.  The only thing missing is a reminder players can ask for a cut scene and may want to resolve breaking points mechanically (Will or Fortitude saves) rather than listen to the GM get… medieval.

Same Rules, Different Treasure by Ken Marable takes the concept of skinning stuff with a new look to provide a distinctive image and applies it to treasure.  The result is a strong article on how making an item distinctive can yield thematic information and make a game unique – a real example of campaign branding in action.  The examples show the kind of innovation that can make a good games master great.

Monstrous Paragons by Phillip Larwood offers 4E paragon paths for monsters that builds on the conceit of monsters as player characters or levelling NPCs rather than defined entities tweaked to fit using pages 42, 174 and 184 of the 4E DMG.  An 11th-level kobold anything should fill people’s hearts with fear.  Tucker would be proud.

Mysteries of the Philosopher’s Stone by Mario Podeschi provides a 4E take on the Philosopher’s Stone and provides an artifact book, a ritual to make the stone and two takes on it. Nice touches on lending wizards a scholarly rumour mill air.  Tacked on at the end is a treatment for White Wolf’s Mage: The Awakening.

The Spell-Less Ranger by Marc Radle looks at Pathfinder rangers and removes spells from them without taking out any of it’s magic; it’s a sensible and balanced approach that takes the core concept of the ranger as a wilderness warrior and gives it legs.  Certainly worthy of inclusion in any Pathfinder game.

Farragum, The Howling City by Dan Voyce describes a derro city in lavish detail while referring to other Open Design products. The article evokes eldritch secrets (gibbering steel!) and bizarre structures with monstrous ecology.  Old-school grognards will love this before converting it all to some retro-clone and there’s a very nice printable map ripe for plunder.

Road and River by Wolfgang Baur evokes the old-old school style of Minarian Legends and early Forgotten Realms by mentioning the day-to-day of mercantile travel towards Zobeck.  The map of Margau and Doresh is lush if a little tricky to read but prints out just fine.

Finally a supporting two-page sheet for the Spell-Less Ranger article.

Editorial and Letters: 3 kobolds.  (Meta stuff is meta.)
Open Design wins Ennies! I suspect because it gives tabletop gamers what they want.  Letters alternate between heady nostalgia myths of 3.x, how 4E shows it’s age and why nobody is listening due to Pathfinder’s awesomeness.  At least there’s none of that old-school renaissance going on. Now sports.

Advert/Content Ratio: 4 kobolds (13ish/85 pages (15%))
The adverts and promo boxes are not obtrusive with full-colour page ads offering things of interest. Format is professional in the vast majority of cases with artwork on a couple of ads being the only smudge but there’s minimal control over what kind of content an advertiser can put in.

Overall: 4 kobolds (“Carry on my wayward son…”)
KQ11 is excellent and the length of this review, written in one sitting shows how engaging it is. It scratches so many itches and delivers the horror theme with a subtlety that does it’s editors credit. KQ is faithful to the spirit of it’s draconic ancestor, displaying the same virtues and to a much lesser extent, the same flaws. For a magazine approaching it’s 3rd year it’s looking very good indeed and Wolfgang Baur and team can rightly be proud of their prodigal.

19
Oct
09

play vs. story

“My take on the ludology/narratology debate has always been that it’s a clever and completely false dichotomy.  If what you’re into is talking about interactive entertainment, then it’s endlessly fertile ground. If what you’re into is making interactive entertainment, it’s literarily meaningless.”
        — Mark Barrett, game designer

So which is more important – game or story?  Every instance of what is referred to in the quote as interactive entertainment has narrative elements – in some cases flapping like vestigial limbs while others have huge plot museums for you to wander through – all to provide an answer to why you are here.

The quote above raises an interesting point.  Is plot essential to play?  Does it matter if you’re having fun grinding a level or three that you skip the exposition? Nobody stopped a game of Tetris because it broke their immersion – yet if you need that information to complete the game, you’d best have it available!

The priority that an audience places on mechanical interaction or completing challenges against that of story that helps you suspend your disbelief is more likely driven by a designer than by audience. Yet different players demand different things from games and a cohesive, entertaining story is often used as one of them.

This presents a paradox for tabletop roleplaying games.  I’ve seen games fall flat when players reject the set up.  If an event is unexpected and inconsistent, even if it follows the rule of cool, some players hit disbelief and utter “That’s just silly” or engage their right to choose and engage in mayhem upon the local village.

Equally, an alternate reality game stands or falls on exposition.  If you lack a strong lead then something new and shiny will distract your audience promising hidden stories, special benefits or unique merch.  While the interaction and challenges may be brilliant, without exposition you’re going nowhere fast.
Interactive entertainments in the vein of RPGs or ARGs require a greater investment of attention over time.  Using a story linked to the game as a reward is common to video games, RPGs and ARGs.  Some games implement this reward exclusively while others use it in tandem with formal play using rule mechanisms.
Ultimately it comes down to the design objectives of the game.  If you’re looking at formalised play then story is a secondary concern.  If you’re more interested in free-form play then story is suited as a framework and reward to participation. Determining what the players want then becomes important.
17
Oct
09

weekend warrior: aisenblut orcs

In the frozen Aisenfell, hardiness and cruelty are survival traits.  It is no surprise the orcs there have changed in a land where dragons are hunted for food and where abominations roam the ice.  A breed apart from normal orcs, the Aisenblut are known for hostility and supernatural power.  Their pale, dappled grey skin, thick white hair and almost colourless blue eyes with catlike pupils mark them as different.  Many Aisenblut are known for living without fire, preferring to salt their kills or hanging them so they develop a game taste.

Aisenblut Parb
The parb are the weakest warriors of the Aisenblut orcs, analogous to the drudge.  Like drudges, their concept of honour is non-existent and they enjoy charging at enemies and swarming them.  Unlike them they learned clubs are useless for hacking and employ bone-bladed short swords that can cut blocks of ice out of a glacier.  Their sensitivity to fire is such they avoid it at all costs, preferring the chill of the glaciers and the small igloo-like dwellings they make.

Aisenblut Mestetul
The mestetel are fierce hunters analogous to the raider often harrying their foes and prey across ice sheet and glacier.  They dislike fire intensely and aim a javelin at torch bearers and other fire-making types.  They are wiry but as strong as a parb and often intimidate them. Their hunter’s eye ability makes them fearsome foes in a skirmish where a javelin can find people who mistake partial cover as insurance against pain.  Their ability to pick out a concealed target and strike it with a javelin makes them deadly hunters and feared opponents.  The mestetul is also feared for charging the enemy with great spears – their superior reach often carries them into a shield wall with devastating impact.  Mestetul are keen on skewering enemy leaders as trophies. 

Aisenblut Yrokh
The yrokh corresponds to the orc berserker and it at least keeps with ancestral tradition as a blow from it’s greataxe will crush the weak who it despises above all things.  The yrokh is a brutish mass of dappled grey orc muscle and sinew, it’s ice-blue eyes menace all they see.  The yrokh braids the fingerbones of their fallen foes into it’s hair and revel in senseless carnage. For them, there is only kill or be killed and death in battle is chosen over retreat.  This attitude leads to a short, brutish life filled with other people screaming – this pleases the yrokh well.  It will serve those who are stronger but an yrokh will test for weakness.

Aisenblut Glazazimoi

A shamanic leader of the Aisenblut orcs though it serves an aspect of Gruumsh fitting to it’s chill environment.  It’s skin is bone white, shaven and scarred and it’s single blue eye radiates a chill light that invigorates other Aisenblut in battle.
The glazazimoi will inspire other Aisenblut orcs to fierce charges and use it’s eye of winter to weaken a foe for allies to finish.  If it is close to a group it will use it’s freezing blast ability to weaken foes then keeping close to it’s allies for them to benefit from the relentless chill and incite blood fury.
The glazazimoi often forms the tactical nucleus of a group and works as a shamanic advisor to the orcs of it’s tribe.  Unlike the eye of Gruumsh, it is much more inclined to tactics and defensive fighting (for an orc anyway).
On death, the glazazimoi’s eye shines with an eerie blue chill that coats it’s spear and the flesh in frost, allowing one final attack before the glazazimoi finally falls over, heart shattering into ice. The cold revenge is a gift from the Elemental Chaos stolen by Gruumsh when the orc race was still in it’s infancy.

16
Oct
09

inns and taverns: the barrel

The Barrel has the distinction of being built by dwarves yet it’s location in a human slum makes it less than popular with visitors.  The dwarves did not mind the location and made the best of the local sandstone.  The result is a smooth-walled vault whose walls appear made from terracotta yet which are strong and warm enough to defy the worst winter.  Those who drink here are mostly labourers and slum-dwellers, the occasional dwarf comes to visit.

It’s underground location is found by a short flight of steps to a pulley-powered elevator.  This doubles as security (few drunks have patience and few fops manage the work) and entry.  The pulley is simple enough operation and about a minute’s exertion to raise and lower.  The common room has a number of carved stone seats and benches at the walls with three alcoves (the space for the fourth is the bar) and standing room for thirty at a push – The Barrel alternates between bustling and almost dead.

The Barrel makes it’s own beer (a sweet russet brew) and bakes it’s own fruit bread and meat pastries to consume here or elsewhere.  Prices are cheap and the quality is average so the clientele keep it a secret.  This is a source of alarm for the landlord who would rather more people and less loyalty.  Accommodation is not available yet those unable to work the pulley are allowed to sleep it off but the stone benches and tables aren’t comfortable so most people try to avoid getting that drunk alone.

Water is dispersed by carefully-grooved tiles and air vents covered by stone bas-reliefs of dwarven heroes with holes in their eyes and mouths to remove smoke and stale air yet a fine mist forms at the vault ceiling.  Occasionally in the depths of winter the mist condenses so drops of rain fall on the heads of patrons much to the amusement of the regulars.  The mist is a distinctive feature that some claim is magic but any dwarf worth their salt knows this is just a consequence of it’s construction.