Monday, 23 October 2017

[REVIEW] RPGPundit Presents #1-3

RPGPundit Presents #1-3 (2017)
by RPGPundit
Published by Precis Intermedia

The best part
A recently launched series of mini-supplements, each focused on a single gaming-relevant subject, sold as PDFs. While three issues have been published so far, they are fairly tricky to review due to their brevity: the longest has 19 pages of content, one has ten, while the shortest has a mere six (and they are clearly meant for digest-sized printing, with generous font sizes). The result is less like a zine and more like buying a series of zine articles one piece at a time. Issue #1 (Dungeon Chef) covers a topic lovingly explored in Nethack, and more recently in a manga, eating monsters and general flora/fauna you find in a dungeon. Issue #2 (The Goetia) presents brief but useful demon summoning rules and a list of 72 demons taken from the Ars Goetia. Issue #3 (High-Tech Weapons) presents general old-school statistics for modern and futuristic firearms. There is some art here and there, and the cover is very cool, showing a ghostly outline of a pipe-smoking RPGpundit in his Hunter J. Thompson getup.

What makes a zine work is the variety of its content and the personal touch the different articles bring. What makes a supplement work is the in-depth treatment of a subject matter (or an even bigger, broader collection of cool stuff). Unfortunately, this series delivers neither in its current form. All three subjects are treated on the surface level, without offering added value to the game. The most original issue is Dungeon Chef, but unlike Nethack (where corpses may give you neat special abilities like telepathy, or cause food poisoning, random teleporting, or polymorphisation – and you can turn them into tins with a tinning kit), the consequences of scarfing down subterranean bushmeat are mostly handled via uninteresting random tables. There is no interesting pattern to learn, beyond elementary ideas like “eating mummies cause mummy rot”; you would be better off just reading a Nethack wiki. The most useful of the three is The Goetia. The demon-summoning rules are one of many, but they are sensible and flavourful, and if you want a list of high-ranking demons to go with them, Pundit’s familiarity with occult traditions makes this a safe bet (or you can just consult Wikipedia and/or your favourite occult tome). High-Tech Weapons is too short and basic to bring anything to the table; the weapons it describes, and the things it has to say are elementary (e.g. a shotgun can be loaded with either two bullets or buckshot; ion weapons affect robots but have no effect on humans; grenades may miss their target and explode elsewhere). This was pretty cool in the days of Arduin, but today, most of us need more to be wowed.

Altogether, it is hard to see what this series wants to bring to the table. It would work better as a series of blog posts, or perhaps in a collection, but even then, it doesn’t rise above the level of shovelware.

No playtesters were credited in these supplements.

Currently smoking: random tables


Rating: ** / *****

Thursday, 5 October 2017

[CAMPAIGN JOURNAL] The Inheritance #13: The Seeing Cat

With Armand the Scumbag cooped up within a wardrobe in the safe room of The Murk, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung and Drusus the Historian guarded his life from the side of the bay, and Lafadriel Hundertwasser from the side of the streets. There was considerable boat traffic that night, but after a while, Drolhaf spotted a skiff that didn’t move much, and kept an exact distance from their position. Drolhaf yawned, stretched, sauntered over to Drusus, who confirmed the vessel was immobile, and while someone in the back was paddling to keep position, something that at first looked like a piece of tarp was in fact a man lying prone, looking their way. Half an hour passed uneasily, and at last the skiff turned back towards the other side of the harbour.
This is our chance,” whispered the Northman. “They are not suspecting us. Call down Armand and let’s follow them fast.

Hopping into one of the boats moored to the pier, they rowed in quiet determination, Drolhaf trusting his Northman instincts to keep their direction. It was at this point that they realised the boat was leaking, and while this was negligible with one person inside, it was taking water considerably faster with the three of them on board. Just then, there was a *whoosh* as a crossbow bolt flew by them.
Damnit!” Armand cursed silently as a second projectile missed them. Drolhaf cranked up his own weapon, fired, and missed. The enemy skiff was getting out of range, and their own boat was caught in a treacherous current drifting towards the open sea. They decided to return to shore while they could, but the boat was sinking faster, and went down a stone’s throw from the Fish Market. Drusus cast a spell, levitating straight up into the air. Drolhaf and Armand both jumped to make a grab, pulling down poor Drusus into the water. They swam out to shore, spitting water and coughing. Drolhaf had to cut off his suit of armour to avoid sinking, while Drusus got his spellbook wet, erasing two spells. Tired and in a foul mood, they returned to the Murk.

***

The next day, with Armand in disguise as Yil the Mysterious, they returned to The Inn. The common room was mostly empty; the bull-necked man they had interrogated yesterday calmly eating his soup at a corner table.
He is either a spymaster or we were chasing a big fucking shadow yesterday” noted Drolhaf as they asked Redragon for breakfast – after he tasted it before them, of course. Things seemed much more pleasant in a short while, and they got better when Hector the Peddler came in to pay a visit.
I have something new for you, great sirs, but it is not in your hands yet...” the ragged fellow whispered. “It is called The Seeing Cat, and it would be a shame if it got lost in all this confusion. I thought you might appreciate it more than the others.
What is this ‘Seeing Cat’ you speak of?
Oh, it is another statuette, Sirs, but even more precious than the last one.
Precious, eh?” Drolhaf slipped him five gold pieces.
As I just said... It was the property of the Bard Tomurgen, the gods rest his soul, and indeed, I saw it during my visits, for he was always kind to a poor peddler. There he kept it in his room, and the cat, it is said, would see and remember. Wouldn’t it be a shame if it was lost when poor Tomurgen’s room is emptied and his things sold off?

I see your point. It is a very interesting story. But we also have another question.” Drolhaf extended another gold coin across the table. “Suppose we were looking for someone. An old man, probably a wizard. Conical hat, grey beard --
That describes half the wizards out there” grumbled Hector.
This man, though, also smells of mint.
Mint? That’s...” the peddler’s eyes lit up. “Of course! I have seen him. Your man is named Filodont. He smokes that mint-flavoured tobacco he always buys at the Masters’ Guild, and he is a familiar face in town, along with the others.
Others?
Yes, there are others – his companions. Let’s see… there was Lizadorn, a tiny little lass--"
A hobbit?
You could say so. Anyways, Lizadorn was last seen with one Boffo Badgervest, sailing out of town. Then: Brondur the Dwarf, a pretty violent sort; Zelmaron, who is someone from the wilderness – quiet, wears leather clothes – a barbarian maybe... and Raglak. Raglak the Voracious [Raglak, a Beles], half orc and half man. He’s from town.
Do you know him?
A little. He usually drank at the Skinned Cur, where the other orcs gather. Last time, he was bragging he would soon be rich, something about an abandoned villa. Come to think of it, it’s been a while. Definitely been a while.
Two more gold pieces changed hands, and Hector left, happy with the money he has just earned, while the company was left to ponder the conundrums he has left for them.

***

Day 35 in Baklin
Ortrag’s Tobacco Box was a tiny little store under the arches of the decaying Masters’ Guild. A shield with a green water goblin hung from a hook, and an official-looking sign identified the place as a city-wide monopoly [q.v. “Városi Dohánybolt”]. While the others waited otherside, Drusus the Historian entered to ask a few questions. Ortrag, the hobbit proprietor was barely taller than the counter, but he explained his wares from the top of a stool with animated enthusiasm.
Filodont? He is a good friend, and what a good customer!” he exclaimed when Drusus casually mentioned him. “I have sold many pipes to him, many pipes! He is prone to lose them wherever he goes.
I heard him mention he travels a lot. Just last time, he told me he was going... hm, I just can’t recall it.
The Singing Caverns!” came Ortrag’s cheery response. “And before that, the coast, and now he is gone again!
That’s what I just meant to say! Anyway, if you meet him, tell him that Rowen the Kassadian sends his greetings to the great Filodont. Rowen would be me.
Certainly! He has his own blend, you know – I create the perfect combination for every customer to suit their tastes and temperaments. Would you like one for yourself? Perhaps a pipe to go with it?”
Ortrag showed multiple pipes to Drusus, including a specially carved, exclusive piece with a carved bowl shaped like a goblin’s head for 15 gp, but Drusus – who barely had a few coins – opted for a simple travelling model. Armand was more ready to spend money in his predicament, and after Drusus left, he bought the pipe and ordered a coffee-flavoured blend for the time he would return.

***

It was early afternoon, and since the place was nearby, they visited the dog pound to see how things have developed. This time, the dogs were tied and the hole in the ground was guarded by a glum contingent of guards. Drolhaf Haffnarskørung entered to ask Tarbus Rolf about the newcomers.
There is a regular army down there! This morning, the knights came and told me to tie me dogs; then they went down there while they left those fellows” the massive brute shook his head.
How many?
Six armoured knights, five more guards, and there was a bald man wearing a robe.
Didn’t that last one have a minty smell?
Damned if I know... mighty ominous fellow, though.
One of the guards noticed the conversation and stepped closer.
Move along now! This is no place for you. Move along!
Excuse me, Sir--" Drolhaf interjected. “I am the person who will pay for the building to be erected on his site. I would like to inspect the grounds if I may.
You may not. This place is now under the supervision of Sir Boron of the Cliffs, and only he may allow anyone entrance. Please depart, Sir.
Just one moment – where would Sir Boron be if I wanted to speak to him?
Can’t do – he’s the one leading the men down there.
Without further options, Drolhaf returned to his companions.

“­Dooom! Dooom! Dooom!” cried a dishevelled, crazy-looking man on the street corner as they were returning through the streets. “Undead! The undead are coming! I know it – the time of Brazak Bragoth is at hand! Orcs! The orcs are at the walls! The faerie princes...
We should stop for a moment,” suggested Armand. “The Skinned Cur. It is right here nearby, and we could learn more about this Raglak the Voracious... and I might just hit up an old contact or two.
The pub was quiet in the afternoon, and only the sounds of snoring orcs sleeping on the wooden benches and the buzzing of lazy flies broke the silence. Armand looked around and gestured silently as his eyes scanned the place, pointing at a suspicious section of the floor before the bar, and a concealed lever on a beam behind it.
Hey Gulmag, you gots guests!” someone bellowed upstairs, and down came a pair of shuffling feet, followed by an enormous potbelly, and a porcine face. Gulmag the Gab looked over the company with suspicion. Some of the orcs shifted in their sleep, and a dirty, unkempt old man joined Gulmag with an incredulous look on his face. Gulmag spat.
A pointy-ear. Well I never!
I am not drinking anything!” Lafadriel declared.
Armand quickly produced a gold piece for the orc, taking care to avoid the suspicious floor section. “So this is where they don’t bark anymore.
Gulmag shrugged. “No, not here they don’t. Try the soup? Or want to hear about our specials? We ain’t got any.” He smiled triumphantly.
Maybe later. Roglag’s gone missing. Do you know him?
Hope he’s okay. He still owes me money.
Well, let’s hope this settles the bill.” Armand drew another gold piece from his purse. “Have you seen someone from Kassadia? Say, someone who has had a black mark on his honour?
Kassadians? There are a lot of ‘em if you’re asking. Why, the...
Where do you think you are going, miscreant?!” Armand hissed, and lunged for the old man, who was trying to sneak out of the pub. “Get him!
Lafadriel and Drolhaf started for the old codger, and tackled him outside the Skinned Cur. Armand grinned darkly.
“Later, Gulmag. I think we will meet again.”

Cornered in a back alley, the scrawny old fool’s resolve crumbled in an instant.
Release me! Release me, I didn’t do you any harm!
Speak! What do you know?” Armand grabbed him by the clothes and shook him.
I am in grave danger just by speaking to you! I am being watched!
If you don’t speak, you will be dead right here and right now.
Oh... oh my... I don’t know what is what anymore. The whole combination has been betrayed. It is all gone.
Betrayed, huh? By you, perhaps?
No, I swear! I really didn’t mean it! It was all covered by the Amiable Pact – we operate here in a limited matter, they operate in Kassadia, do the basic business. Then it all went wrong!
Who were the others? Does Harrgon Torsk control this?
Oh no! He is just a mid-level guy.
Who then? Speak!
Hyacintho! It is Hyacintho Eskumar the Fisherman! In this city, you see – there were two other parties to the Pact, one in Gont and one to the west.
Hm. And what is this about the others? Your companions. What happened to them?
Oh, they were all – first, Dark Elsa [Sötét Elza] was found, having taken her own poisons. Then, Rogold the Billygoat Beater [Rogold, a Zergeverő] – he went to investigate in Tirwas to the west after he discovered something real dark over there, and he never came back. All gone, like Korgan the Rummaging Death [Korgan, a Matató Halál]. It was me and little Boffo Badgervest, and he just got up and left on a ship with one of his kind – he’s an ‘obbit, you see.

Armand looked carefully at the shaking wretch and finally said “Very well. You have said enough. You are free to go.
The man fell to his knees, sobbing. “Why don’t you just kill me? I will not walk two corners alive! Please! Take me with you, get me out of here!
All right, old man. I’ll do you one better.” Armand held up the ticket to the Sea Puffs. “This is your ticket out of this place. We’ll bring you to the docks and you can go home to Kassadia safe and sound, with this --” he showed a handful of gold pieces. “Just remember to tell anyone who will ask that it was Arianus who has saved you.
The old man was beside himself with joy, kissing Armand’s hands in relief. “I will be happy to leave behind this cursed city. So small, yet it is the worst I’ve been to. I can go die in Kassadia, and that’s all I want from life now. Listen... I must leave behind my things, but you may find them useful. There is a hiding place in a courtyard below the southern tower, a walled up niche and a protruding brick. Remember this.

They got going through Baklin’s alleyways and plazas, towards the harbour, and it was as if a hundred eyes were following every step. The coast was clear; but then, in the dark, windowless street between the Lockhouse and the Nine Doors Tavern, the trap was sprung.
Hand over the old man! We got no quarrel with you” snarled one of the burly man who had emerged to hastily block both ends of the alley with pushcarts.
Come and get him!
A dozen burly men came running, but the melee was brutal and one-sided, and weapons were drawn. Soon, four of the assailants were lying dead in a pool of their own blood, four were knocked out, and the remaining four had fled for their lives. But there was no time to enjoy victory, as guards poured into the street, demanding all to drop their weapons and put their hands up.
The Captains’ Council will deal with you, troublemakers!” the sergeant spit, his face red from the exertion of running. “Most of you will be in the sack soon, you can bet on that!

***

It all went surprisingly easy” someone mused on the steps outside the gaudy council building.
Yeah, and they accepted our defence without further questioning.
Perhaps it was a good idea to mention we were under the patronage of both Fantagor and Lady Callodric. Not to mention my spirited defence of you lot” considered Drolhaf.
Couldn’t it be that we were just innocent?
Don’t be an idiot.
At least that old guy is on his way.
Yes! Let’s not forget his treasures. The southern tower? We have to go pay it a visit.
And at night, it is Tomurgen’s place – and the Seeing Cat!

***

The southern tower, located in the south-eastern corner of the city, rose high above the old houses that clustered around it. The way in was through a gate, but for some reason, it seemed to be too suspicious.
Drusus hazarded a guess: “What if we go around on the city wall?
After what we just did? That’s daft!
They probably don’t know a thing. And besides – we will give them money.
So it happened that soon, a delegation of three knocked on a wooden door, and when a guard checked to see the racket, offered a generous ten gold pieces to see the sights.
This is a very special piece of architecture” explained Armand. “In Kassadia, it is considered one of the supreme examples of military architecture, a reference to all architects like my companions.
The guard seemed doubtful, but the gold pieces were real, and there were ten of them.
I guess you – you can come in. Just stick with me, and don’t go off on your own.
They checked out the arches and vaults amidst a lot of oohs and aahs, until the guard was bored.
This – this is my favourite column!” enthused Lafadriel. “See the weight. The proportions. The exquisite segmentation.
Finally, the bored fellow let them descend into the courtyard at the base of the tower, and asked them to call if they needed anything. Seeing that the coast was clear, Armand removed the brick from the wall niche they were looking for, and retrieved a small package.
Let’s get going” nodded Armand, hiding the contents under his clothes before they called for the guard to let them out.

***

Day 35 at night
In the waning hours of the day, Drolhaf went to visit the small plaza just below Hightowne to case Tomurgen’s house. There he found a cheerful two-story house with a peaked roof. A cobbler’s shop, Vilmor’s Boots occupied the lower floor, and two guards barred the way leading to the upper one. Drolhaf entered the store, greeting the cobbler.
I wasn’t looking for boots right now, my good man, although I plan to buy a pair some day. I left something at Tomurgen’s, and can’t retrieve it due to the guards.
Vilmor shook his head. “You are out of luck. Since Tomurgen died without a known heir, his place has been sealed up until further notice. His belongings will be moved to the palace, and there you may requisition your property if it can be proven to be yours.
That’s horrible! It was a precious object, the statuette of a cat.
A cat? That’s strange; I remember it well, but I remember when it was already in Tomurgen’s possession when I was a tot, and just learning the first things about boots.
Oh... that’s right. It was my father’s gift to the gentle soul, before he was slain by Skarlog Thane.
The cobbler studied Drolhaf with a look of suspicion. “Still, it can’t be helped – you will have to wait your turn and ask at the palace.
The Northman left the dim shop deep in thought, taking a good look at the guards’ position and the building’s layout before he turned and made for the Inn where the rest of the company was waiting.

Meanwhile, Armand laid out the tools found in the package. There was a good pouchful of coarse dust, multiple sawblades, and a strong, neatly coiled leather string. They discussed a few plans for breaking into Tomurgen’s, considering whether they should involve Harrgon Torsk or not. In the end, they chose to go their separate ways and meet at the appointed hour after midnight.

***

The marketplace was mostly empty this time of the night, except for the beggars huddled around the column with the statue. As Lafadriel Hundertwasser sat down to play a slow tune, and act as a lookout, Drolhaf Haffnarskørung, Drusus the Historian and Armand the Scumbag converged on the house from three directions. They stopped in the shadows, looking around to see if anyone was following them. They could hear drunken singing, and they withdrew, only Armand staying in sight. It was the cobbler, obviously wasted, pointing at the silent figure before him.
H-heeeyyy! Wh-what’s with you there, in the shadows? What are ya tailing me for? Cat got your tongue? Come out, come out, whoever you are!
Armand pretended to stumble forward, and greeted the man jovially: “Oh, it is you! I’m going back down for a little more of the fun – care to come? Ah, going to sleep already? This is your house, can’t miss it. Ask the guards.

When Vilmor was gone, and had finished quarrelling with the sentries before the house and slamming the lower door behind himself, Armand looked around and gestured. Drolhaf stepped close to the wall while Drusus spoke magical words, and soon, the Northman noiselessly levitated up on the roof. He slowly crept over the shingles, finding the hatch he was looking for. Carefully, he lifted it, and noiselessly hopped inside an attic filled with junk and bales of dusty old cloth. He looked around, and quickly found a trapdoor further down. Descending slowly, he heard a wooden board creak noisily before his feet, and he froze in cold sweat.
Did you hear something?” the guard’s noise in the street was as if it had come from right next to him.
Nah... musta been the cobbler, tossing in his sleep.
If I could have a good stiff drink...
Me too, mee too.
Drolhaf exhaled sharply, and went to work on Tomurgen’s door. He snapped off the seal impressed with the prince’s crown, opened up the lock with a few twists of his tools, and took a step into the lonely room that had been the bard’s apartment. A collection of musical instruments next to a mirror, a heart-shaped silver box, a wardrobe, and the brass statuette of a cat, sitting on a mantelpiece across Tomurgen’s cushioned chair. Drolhaf quickly checked the writing desk, finding no papers, just an open inkwell with dry ink in it, and a quill tossed to the side. The wardrobe held old-fashioned clothes, some male and some female, while there was nothing under the bed. The Northman thought for a while. Was he missing something? Unable to think of anything else, he grabbed the Seeing Cat, and left very, very carefully, avoiding every suspicious board and step.

***

Back in their rented room, the Seeing Cat was laid on a table, a heavy brass statuette whose making betrayed origins in the southern lands beyond Kassadia and its empire.
How do we make it speak?” asked Armand. “What if... Cat! Show us what we have to see, show us your master’s demise!
The statuette remained silent. They looked it, and finally, without a clue, they ventured out into the night again, to visit Zaloxen’s store of curiosities, hoping he’d be of help.

The Seeing Cat
Zaloxen, stooped and seemingly irritated by their intrusion, finally agreed to examine the piece for 200 gold pieces. He bid them wait while he carried it off to a curtained-off room, but soon returned smiling, suspiciously quickly.
Your donation is very much appreciated. You have to look into the statuette’s eyes. You are welcome.
As Zaloxen shuffled off to work on one of his nightly experiments, they could at last dig into the secrets of the strange witness. They looked deep into the crystalline orbs, seeing a scene unfold in complete silence within the old bard’s rented room. Tomurgen was sitting in his cushioned chair, listening intently to a man before him.
Filodont!” Armand hissed as the wizard straightened his weather-worn hat. “And that’s Zelmaron next to him?
Looks like the description. And look – Lizadorn the hobbitess.
Tomurgen’s silent lips said something, and his gestures indicated something he didn’t know, or didn’t want to tell. Filodont drew back in an accusatory manner. There was a sudden movement in the room, barely possible to make out what exactly happened, and another figure stepped forward from behind the plush chair as Tomurgen’s body slumped forward, bleeding profusely with a stab wound. A crazed-looking dwarf wiped his sword on one of the curtains.
And that – that’s Brondur the Dwarf.
No mistaking him.

The eyes went dark, but just as they were ready to put them back in their equipment, another scene unfolded in the crystalline gaze. This time, the room was empty save for Tomurgen himself, light streaming through the gaps of the window shutters. The bard was lost in deep thought, pacing up and down in the room. He walked over to the writing desk, and quickly jotted down a few lines on a piece of paper. Suddenly, he spun around, peering in the door’s direction. He mouthed two words, and tiptoed over to the wall mirror, pushing it aside to reveal a hidden cavity. He placed the folded note inside, replaced the mirror where it was, and made for the door.
And what is this scene?
Under the Seeing Cat’s gaze, they could barely make out a darkened room. All was motionless for a while, then someone indistinct came into view, and carefully looked around the room before he started methodologically searching around.
Drolhaf was the first to break the silence: “We already know that story. The cat has told us what we need.
Go back there? That’s pushing it!” warned Lafadriel Hundertwasser.
But Drolhaf was adamant. “Nevertheless, something is in there, and it is important. They will remove the mirror, find the hiding place, and we will never know what’s on it. Come on. This is our one chance, and the night is still not over.

***

This time, the night was completely silent, even the guards before Tomurgen’s had run out of things to talk about. Now, it was Armand who climbed the rooftop (without a levitation spell), and silently tiptoed downstairs. He almost stepped into the dead minstrel’s room, but halted and listened. The door was open a little. Had Drolhaf left it that way to make less noise? No, no… Drolhaf was no idiot. He lifted his crossbow and pushed open the door, stepping forward to catch his invisible opponent by surprise. He felt a shove, and a tight string winding around his neck, a dark cloaked form struggling to suffocate him. He felt faint, and fought as he could, but the man was stronger, and slowly squeezing the air out of his lungs. He kicked in vain, but only managed to kick over a hooded lantern, lighting the carpets on fire. In desperation, Armand reached for the pouch of dust from the old man’s stash, and pushed it into his attacker’s face. There was coughing, spitting and cursing, while Armand used the element of surprise, and threw his attacker off balance, winding his own garrotte around the neck. They fought, Armand going for the kill and the man trying to escape, but Armand proved stronger, and the assassin’s struggles ceased.

The apartment was starting to burn now, and outside, the guards were fully alerted.
Something’s up there!
Guards! Guards!” Drolhaf called out from the side street. “Some people are fighting down in the marketplace!
The two guards, recognising the obvious lie, snarled and ran for Drolhaf, as Drusus the Historian stepped forward and spoke the syllables of a spell. A cone of rainbow colours shot from his fingers, hitting the guards and Drolhaf alike straight in the face and putting them to sleep. Meanwhile, in the house, taking advantage of the distraction, Armand swiftly retrieved the note from behind the mirror, quickly dropped a small harp for Lafadriel inside his sack, picked up the heart-shaped silver box on his way out, and finally pulled the string from around the dead man’s neck before stepping back out of the smoke-filled room.

***

Some harp you brought!” complained Lafadriel Hundertwasser. “It has the Prince’s dedication carved into it – ‘To my valued friend, Tomurgen: Lodovico’. If I start playing this one, I’ll soon be in prison.
You can go back if you like,” grumbled Armand, but he was much more interested in the piece of paper. It was a folded scrap. On one side, a simple phrase, written in obvious haste: “The black dog runs at night.” On the reverse, a short poem:
Mountains’ heart, forest-hidden light / Two stone peaks and a third will show its proper site / It lies in the dreamer’s lap, secret hiding place / A deceitful flame marks it, bygone mirage lays.”
“Mountains, huh?” Drolhaf pondered the text. “That cluster of peaks next to Sleepy Haven looks very suspicious on our map. But first, we should take this to Lady Callodric.”

In the dawn, the company was awakened by Grindragon’s knocking. The dwarf was panting, and visibly disturbed.
You must go at once. A house has been lit on fire and the guards are looking for you, Drolhaf. They will be here any minute. Get out while you still can.
Quick!” snapped Armand, asking for a pair of shears. He cut Drolhaf’s beard as quickly and neatly as he could under the circumstances, and asked Lafadriel Hundertwasser for his cloak. “Now, walk with a stoop, like an old man – like that!
They snuck down the stairs, slipping out through the kitchen just as a contingent of watchmen showed up at the Inn’s front door. The streets were still mostly empty in the early morning, but this did not make the way to Lady Callodric’s mansion any more pleasant. Were strangers watching them? Waiting for the chance to run for the guards and make a report? It was a relief when they got to the mansion door and Harkell the Butler let them in.

Day 36 - Leaving Baklin
The lady joined them in a minute, and listened intently as they described the developments.
We have brought you something important, but not the cargo you were looking for.
So the paintings on the wooden panels are still missing?
Armand nodded: “We are afraid so. It seems that Gamandor, the captain of the guard has them.
Gamandor?!
More than that. We have reason to believe he is controlling the assassins who have attacked us again and again in town. Last night, I had to kill one of them with his own strangling chord, after a dreadful struggle.
It was Drolhaf’s turn to speak, and he outlined the similarities between Tomurgen’s message and the cluster of mountains to the south. “Maybe we should go seek it out and see what we find. This could be the key to many mysteries.
Those mountains have a mysterious reputation” agreed Lady Callodric. “And it is better if you are gone from Baklin for a while. I will help you get out. But we will also have to figure a way to relay messages. Where can we make contact?
Send your messages to Haghill, addressed to The Friends of Gadur Yir, at the Dancing Basilisk. That will be the best.
Very well. I wish you good luck on your quest. Harkell will take you to the harbour now.

The way down to the piers was tortuous. Every fisherman and housewife looked like a lurking spy, every drunken sailor a snitch. Their best fears were confirmed when Drolhaf felt a tug on his pants, and saw a dirty little ragamuffin with his hand outstretched.
Uncle! Uncle! Give me two gold pieces!
I will give you something worse if you don’t scram.
If you give me two gold pieces, I won’t cry out, and won’t tell the other Uncles.
Drolhaf, white with rage at the nerve, reached into his pocket and handed the kid the gold pieces in humiliation.
“If only I’m going to meet him again, I’ll split him from the neck to the gullet!”
Relax, Drolhaf. He is just a kid with a good line.
If he wants to play the adults’ game, he should play the adults’ game.
They continued down to the dock, avoiding a group of guards strolling on the waterfront. Harkell pointed towards a large sailing boat, ready to sail out: “That is your vessel. Fresh horses will be waiting for you down the coast.

Thanking Harkell, they walked down the pier, and greeted the fisherman and his son, who helped them onboard. Drolhaf sighed in relief as they pulled up the sails and uncoupled the rope.
Tell me,” he asked the older man, “What is down the coast? Here, on this map – next to this group of mountains.
That coast has a bad repute,” the fellow puffed on his pipe. “There be a lighthouse, but still many ships have been lost to the reefs.
A lighthouse, huh. A tower, that’s almost like a third stone peak. Very interesting. You look like a man who knows the sea. Will you take us down to this place?
I was told to put you on shore near the forests, not far from Baklin.
Never you mind that, the plans have changed. We will pay you handsomely.
As you’d like, Sir. The reefs are bad, but I’ll manage, during the day.
Baklin’s white walls and red rooftops receded, and Drolhaf leaned against the cabin to enjoy the sun, but he was rudely awakened by an unpleasant call.
Uncle! Uncle! Give me two more gold pieces!
Drolhaf’s eyes popped open, and he found himself face to face with the dirty kid, grinning ear to ear.
Why, you little-- “ he snarled. Phil the Terror of Turkeys bowed before Drolhaf.
Thank you for your gracious donation. I had to work hard to keep you safe on the way, so I’ll accept it with gratitude. I must say... you weren’t very stealthy at the old minstrel’s house. Not to mention that thing in the alley. Also...
Drolhaf just spat sourly, and returned to his rest.
Also, what about the heart-shaped box? Open it! Open it!
Armand opened his knapsack and retrieved the silver container. There was no key, but it opened to a little manipulation. Inside, it contained a lock of blond hair, a medallion depicting a smiling, middle-aged noblewoman and inscribed with the name “Arkella”, and a small bundle. Opening the package, Armand unfolded a pair of silk panties.
Arkella...
That must be Princess Arkella, Prince Lodovic’s wife!
Is Arkella a common name in this area?
There was no answer to the question.

***

Towards the mountains
A day passed, followed by a restless night on board the fishing boat. The next morning, they sailed into a maw-shaped bay surrounded by walls of natural rock. Waves broke on massive, teeth-shaped shoals. High above, a massive stone tower jutted out from above the escarpment.
Yup, I see a path up there... narrow and treacherous, but it leads up there all right. Put us ashore here.
The fisherman obeyed, and they said farewell before climbing up the steep path. The tower, a bare structure with a fortified out-building attached to it, rose lonely on the heath. They approached the metal door, and called for someone, then, when no answer came, banged on the entrance. At last, there were shuffling steps, and heavy bolts slid aside. Peering out of the doorway’s gap was a dishevelled-looking old man, all stubble and bloodshot eyes, with liquor on his breath.
Sorry for disturbing. We are looking for directions. Do you know this area?
Eh, I was just getting up. Come on in if you’d like,” the man gestured inside, showing a bare room with a cot, a table, a stove and some rough chairs. “My name be Skeg the Keeper, caretaker at this lighthouse.
Nice to meet you, Skeg.
I don’t have much to give ya. The supplies always be late, but I got some meat, beer and tobacco.
Try this,” Armand handed some of his tobacco to the man. “Straight from Baklin.

They lit a pipe, and Skeg, now a little less gloomy, told them about the tower, an old structure once used as a garrison, and now as a ships’ guide. He was retired here, not the best way of living, but better than many in Baklin. He had little knowledge of the mountains except that they had an ill reputation. He led them up to the beacon, passing by massive, locked iron doors that looked like they have not been opened since those garrison days, and let them around a small gallery.
Those to the south are the Hills of Sibirk. Strange fellows there, but they pass by here now and then when they go sell their furs in town. The Wulhaf homestead, they call themselves.
Have you seen anything interesting around here?
One time, I think I saw a rock move on that distant mountainside over there. But I could never make out any of it.
What about a deceitful flame?
Nah. ...are you talking about this here lighthouse? Now listen, just because some idiots sink when they come close to shore despite the warning light, that’s not the keeper’s fault! Sure, the catch is good, but what good is it if you go down with it into the drink?
We weren’t accusing you.
Skeg shrugged, and they went downstairs. Lacking food for the road, they gave him a generous ten gold pieces for ten food rations and some wine, parting to head towards the dense forests at the base of the mountains.

(Session date 27 August 2017).

***

Notable quotes:
Drusus the Historian, dripping with water: “The grand master of sailing found us a leaky boat.

Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “My whole wealth amounts to 25 gold pieces, but at least the light of the stars is mine.

Someone: “Have the mugs been cleaned?
Lafadriel Hundertwasser: “When the world was young...

My god is Erdogan... no, Edoran!

We could have at least found some treasure.
We have a pair of silk panties!
***

Referee’s notes:
This session (an extra-long one on the terrace of my weekend house) was pretty successful, all things considered. The characters were clearly running out of time and the net was slowly closing around them, which made for a choice between pursuing Lady Callodric’s lost cargo, or making a grab for the secrets in Tomurgen’s sealed apartment, which the characters got to, even if a little clumsily. (But silly mistakes are part and parcel in a game where everyone is talking simultaneously, and some clues inevitably fail to reach the players.)

Hector the Peddler’s appearance looks a feels a lot like a targeted info-dump, but actually, he appeared on a random 1:6 roll, and when the players grilled him, he just happened to meet that 1:6 chance of actually knowing a lot about Filodont and his companions. Sometimes, even real life feels like the GM is handing out plot hooks. Sometimes, you are lucky. And nothing proves that better than the trial before the Captain’s Council (jumped over here), which went surprisingly well. Or suspiciously well?


In any case, this was it in Baklin for a while. Next time, we will see what lies up those mountains.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

[BLOG] OSR Module O3: Good Vanilla

Tangent regarding [two well-regarded adventure modules]: it really reads well, but it strengthens my desire to GM so called "vanilla" fantasy to unknown heights. Not quite sure why that exactly is.” -- Settembrini

TL;DR:  This post makes the case for taking a new look at vanilla fantasy, and considers how we should go about it. It is, at this point, more a thought experiment than a practical guide.

***

Vanilla
Vanilla fantasy often has a bad reputation, and nothing makes this clearer than the fact that even its fans tend to make apologies for enjoying it. Although its definition is as vague as porn’s “I know it when I see it”, it is easy to find criticism directed at it. Vanilla is commonly derided as boring, “still locked in a post-Tolkienian mode with a fairly standard (and stagnant) array of racial/cultural types and environments”, so predictable “everyone knows the main tropes of the setting before you even tell them of the background”, heavily reliant on “stock fantasy features” and “done to death” (random snippets from a random forum topic discussing the subgenre).

Although much of the damage to vanilla was already done by countless bad novel trilogies in the 1970s and 1980s, TSR deserves special mention for turning bad fantasy into a fine art. They actually accomplished the impossible by taking a literary genre rooted in wonder and human imagination, and turned it into something safe, banal, and aggressively devoid of the otherworldly. It is not the only way of turning fantasy into the mundane (the gritty realism school has much to answer for), but it is a very potent one. Many of us still have an allergic reaction to the poncy bards, gnome illusionists and wise old wizards populating this peculiar corner of hell, and ever since, we have wanted one thing: out.

Also vanilla
Since much of old school gaming as we know it emerged in response to things old-schoolers didn’t like, vanilla fantasy was among the first to be viewed with suspicion. Did vanilla contaminate the more pure and more authentic Appendix N tradition? Were communists nefariously fluoridating the adventure supply? In the discussions that have formed the old school aesthetic as we know it, the rediscovery of sword&sorcery influences, Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism, and pulps on the boundary of science fiction and fantasy felt like finding precious treasures, nefariously locked away for decades. Newfound respect for (and the increased accessibility of) gaming relics like Dark Tower, Arduin, Empire of the Petal Throne and Wilderlands of High Fantasy, and the more out there TSR modules like Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and pre-Drizzt Vault of the Drow pointed towards further explorations of weird fantasy. The resulting old-school supplements have embraced these source materials, and built upon them in many useful and interesting ways. Yoon-Suin, Carcosa, Anomalous Subsurface Environment and Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom all come from this reappraisal, but it has also left its mark on smaller thing like the re-emergence of GP for XP as a valid game mechanic, or the interest in petty gods with base motivations and limited power. It has been good for a host of GMs and players, because there was now a generous amount of good new and rediscovered source material to serve as example and inspiration.

***

There are many who have accused old-school gaming of being essentially revisionistic, and while they inevitably miss the point about why people enjoy these games, they are not entirely wrong. Those old-school materials have a whole lot more vanilla in them than some would admit. Nowadays we tend to fixate on the more exotic parts of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, but at its heart, it is as much about castles, hobbits, dragons and nazgûls as it is about fallen starships and barbarous gods lording over isolated city states. Greyhawk is half the out there fantastic fantasy of White Plume Mountain and the GDQ series, and half a set of pseudo-mediaeval realms with the texture of The Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands.

Vanilla with extra sugar on the top
Not only was A/D&D deeply rooted in this tradition, it actively moved away from the rest as it shed much of its pulp and sword&sorcery heritage over the early 1980s. This came as much from a new generation of fans brought up on vanilla fantasy and wanting to make sense of a game that contained altogether too much off-colour weirdness for their comfort, as a publisher that was also interested in filing off those rougher edges – the naked woman on the ritual altar? That didn’t happen. (Actually, try putting that on your cover today and watch as your business is set on fire by a bunch of angry people with blue hair, and you become a nonperson on social media. Fun times.) In those years, A/D&D consolidated its self-image by focusing on its more harmless mediaevalisms and clearer good-versus-evil themes, and exchanged Erol Otus for the likes of Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley. That is, sword&sorcery and weird fantasy lost, and high fantasy won out. This was no mere TSR ploy, since many of the fans also wanted it that way – they wanted Dragonlance, Elminster and failed attempts at Tolkien, not half-forgotten pulp fiction from the 1920s or a sentient amoeba zapping away a bunch of adventurers with a blaster.

***

Is vanilla fantasy being done in old school gaming? Yes; actually, there is a fairly large quantity of it if you look at RPGNow releases, and there probably isn’t a week without a new goblin cave module coming out that fits the description. But the reason they get little attention is not just because of terrible hipsters who hate mom’s apple pie, the second amendment, and Gary Gygax (as the theory goes at the K&KA), but also because most of them are just plain bad or uninteresting. In addition to structural problems (like the “16 rooms in 24 pages” issue, the most reliable indicator of a disappointing adventure beside lengthy chunks of boxed text), they often work from an exhausted set of standard building blocks which have been overused to the point where they are bleached of their challenge, imagination and wonder. Their set of influences is often limited to two or three modules (but really, mostly just Keep on the Borderlands without the extra effort). Even today, the bad reputation of vanilla is not entirely undeserved.

Damn fine vanilla
Furthermore, people who have a good eye for vanilla fantasy, and may have a thing or two to say about applying its lessons to gaming, have been asleep at the wheel. I have read many complaints about the lack of good, honest adventure modules you could import into Greyhawk or your homemade pseudo-mediaeval fantasy land, but much fewer active offers to step up and remedy the problem by writing and sharing a few actually good adventures along those lines. Complain about the hipsters all you want, but at least they are doing something – I could list numerous memorable old school products from the recent years which had some kind of hyper-exotic premise, but it is much harder to recall what vanilla fantasy has done for me lately (Secrets of the Wyrwoode was a good recent exception). For various reasons, the people who write good stuff tend to avoid vanilla; the people who could write good vanilla don’t; and without the creative tide that would lift all ships, the field is left to stagnate. (There is an enormous library of Pathfinder and 5e products I know very little about, and which may fit the bill, but frankly, nothing so far has made want to take a closer look.)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is nothing inherently wrong with vanilla. Unlike the imitations, dilutions and substitutes, real vanilla has a rich and complex flavour. A bite of vanilla ice cream is a small scoop of heaven, and vanilla goes a long way in a lot of recipes. There is a good reason people grew to like vanilla in the first place. If we realise this, we can make it right. We can make vanilla great again!

***

Damn fine vanilla with wizards in conical hats
To restore vanilla fantasy to its proper place, we have to go back to its origins, the pure ingredients which have established it as interesting and alluring. That’s where all things start, just like it did with the restoration of sword&sorcery to D&D’s heart. We have to know its sources, from the early 20th century writers who had given it form, to Tolkien, and perhaps particularly to those who have successfully reinvented it at a time when it was already undergoing stagnation. Vance’s Lyonesse, an outsider’s take on high fantasy, is an excellent example, with its take on myth and legend, the way it handles good and evil, its range from dynastic struggles to smaller adventures, and its enormous cast of characters from characteristic Vancian oddballs to others drawn from a more romantic sensibility (Lyonesse features a clash of widely different aesthetics, making for a very enjoyable dissonance).

We have to take a new look at the motifs vanilla fantasy builds from to appreciate their beauty and clarity – the landscapes, characters and plots which appeal to the imagination. We have to give them back their meaning, fill them with content. If we do, there is power in the tales of knights who try to do good and represent a heroic ideal even if (and perhaps especially if) it is not easy and not convenient. There is value in preserving bucolic rural lands if they embody a worthy way of living. There is nothing banal or trite about the wonders of natural beauty, or the mystery of a dense woodland landscape dotted by the ruins of a better age brought down by an evil empire. Imbued with their original allure, the faerie can be mysterious and creepy again, and we can similarly appreciate magic in its rightful place – as something whimsical, wondrous, but fundamentally unsafe. Beauty (although often dangerous and corrupted beauty) is one hallmark of this subgenre, just like inhospitable wastelands are the domain of sword&sorcery. The landscape itself often has a certain moral dimension – Tolkien’s points of light such as Beorn’s homestead or Lothlórien have healing power, while places corrupted by Sauron are actively hostile and degrading.

Damn fine vanilla with killer squirrel
We also need to rediscover a moral complexity which is usually missing in the second-rate imitations. Vanilla fantasy deals with relatively clean-cut concepts of good and evil, and this element can be the hardest to pull off without milquetoast moralising, Saturday morning cartoon villainy, or something where “good” just ends up corrupted and creepy. To leave a mark on the game, evil ought to be more than “looks evil” or “belongs to a group which is evil”, and be present on the level of “does evil things”. Vance (again) once gave an excellent definition: “What is an evil man? The man is evil who coerces obedience to his private ends, destroys beauty, produces pain, extinguishes life.” This is fine for a working definition. Likewise, good should not be a convenient label, nor a manifestation of Lawful Stupid, nor even a rubric which is satisfied by adventuring and defeating evil monsters. Good takes an effort – in acts of generosity, going out of the way to do the right thing, and resisting the lure of evil. Moral conundrums have a place in this kind of fantasy; in fact, similar dilemmas give a true meaning to good and evil (although teenage dickhead GMs who try their darnedest to make the virtuous fall through placing them in impossible situations is a fair warning about where not to go with this element).

There is one stumbling block where the task of running a properly heroic campaign is always going to be hard. D&D’s rules and assumed style of play do not make for a very heroic game, since the bold and the foolish tend to die quick, ignoble deaths in dank hellholes instead of going on to great things. This is probably one area where genre logic should take a backseat. Heroic destinies and characters fated to be heroes may not be entirely hopeless ideas, but these features need to be adapted to D&D’s specific style to avoid losing player agency and the thrill of risk. That is, we need to make it all work in a game, the spot where Dragonlance stumbled and never got up again, and where various narrative games pushing for genre emulation end up dissatisfying because the players are cushioned from the consequences of their actions. Ironically, the monomyth, that popular old chestnut trying to explain every epic from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars and Harry Potter, is precisely the thing we should be cautious about: not only does it tend to degrade the scope of heroic fantasy to one standard plotline, it is full of hidden pitfalls which make it hazardous to good gaming.

***


Of course, it need not all be dramatic to the extremes. A good vanilla fantasy campaign can simply be one which can find a way to present traditional fantasy motifs in a fresh way, where the pseudo-mediaeval background has a proper sense of wonder, and where the game has an interesting moral dimension. That’s what it takes, but it is probably much harder to do nowadays than even a proper “Appendix N” campaign – avoiding the corruption of the bad stuff (and some of it is pretty dire), or the temptation to drown the campaign in cynicism and post-modern irony (omnipresent, but on the wane in The Age of Earnestness). But how do we achieve this, and where do we go from there?

Damn fine vanilla with heroines and crystals and valkyries