Monday, 24 April 2017

Notes Toward an Aztec/Mythos Horror Hex Crawl

 So I was flipping through Carcosa and thinking about ways to put my own spin on the traditional hex crawl, then I had a conversation with HDA about how to do horror in old-school D&D, then I took one of those kind-of-sort-of naps where you're oscillating between consciousness and unconsciousness, during which I had a nightmare, which I then thought about while listening to this album. The following disordered notes are the result of that sequence of events.

  • Player-characters hail from one of several crumbling city-states on a peninsula which thrusts into an ocean of blood, said to be fed by the slowly-emptying veins of a dying god. 
  • The main idea, setting-wise, is to indiscriminately combine the Cthulhu Mythos and Mesoamerican  mythology in an original fantasy locale/
  • Rules-wise, I'll just keep using Labyrinth Lord, for hassle-free cribbing from Realms of Crawling Chaos.
  • Gameplay-wise, it's your standard sandbox hex crawl, the idea being that the PCs are fortune-seekers from one of the peninsula cities, leaving behind the squalor of their homeland in the hopes of finding riches and secret power in the unexplored reaches of the bloody ocean. The players will command a ship and a crew of henchmen. There will be ship-to-ship combat and piracy, as well as weird islands to explore, replete with strange civilizations and dungeons, at least one of which will be based on this guy's paintings.
  • This will be an attempt to run D&D as, at least in part, a horror game. Some of what this might mean in practice: fighters and thieves only (to keep magic and non-humans as something alien and terrifying), relatively sparing use of truly monstrous monsters, strong emphasis on atmosphere over combat (which seems doable in old-school D&D, where most of your experience comes from treasure and not monsters), probably some sort of sanity system, etc. Basically everything listed here.
  • Speaking of magic, I think I'll eschew the traditional Vancian route, and make all magic more like the ritual magic that Realms of Crawling Chaos gives rules for (meaning, I'll just use those rules, unless I come up with something I like better). I might also borrow a page from Call of Cthulhu, and let anyone learn a ritual/spell if they have the right book and can pass a few INT rolls, but also have this be a quick ticket to permanent insanity. Non-PC magic-users will, in traditional Lovecraft fashion, either be insane and corrupted humans/humanoids, or alien monstrosities. 
I'm tentatively calling this project "Mictlan," after the Aztec underworld. Expect more posts on whatever the fuck is going on here in addition to more stuff on the Crater of Termination.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Alignment in the Crater

I'll level with you guys: I've never read Elric.

I know, I know.

I do know that it's what the alignment system, in its initial Law/Neutral/Chaos form, was drawn from, and I know that the conception of Chaos, at least, was an inspiration for the Warhammer universe, but I don't know much about it apart from that.

I will read this, obviously. I mean,
look at that cover.

But I've kind of already got some thoughts about a way to frame OD&D-style alignment, in a way appropriate for a heavily Lovecraft-inspired setting like mine. I get the impression that it's pretty close to how Moorcock does it anyway, but my own angle on has to do with that classic Lovecraft dichotomy of "things that make sense in terms of our limited ability to make sense of the universe" vs. "things that make clear we have no fucking idea what the universe is actually like and couldn't deal with it even if we did." You know, like this in this old sawhorse, the opening lines of "The Call of Cthulhu":
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piercing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or fee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
See where I'm going with this? "Law" designates stuff that belongs to, and makes sense within the bounds of the "placid island of ignorance" that most humanoids live in, "Chaos" is the stuff that belongs to the "terrifying vistas of reality," and "Neutral" represents some precarious navigation of the two. I like this because it shifts alignment's job from the relatively subjective realm of "ethics" or "world view" (I gather this is already true of the Moorcock-inspired original, at least compared to what happens when you add "Good" and "Evil" to the mix) to a simple objective classification.

Most humans and humanoids in Xish are going to be Lawful or at least Neutral (outside of Xish, goat-men are for sure Chaotic, and anyone from the barbarian tribes, who often live in close proximity to goatman tribes, are more likely to be as well). Adventurers who've seen a lot of shit are more likely to be Neutral, and in extreme cases Chaotic - the exception being clerics, who are always Chaotic, since they get their powers from the gods, which are obviously Chaotic as fuck. Magic is chaotic by nature but wizards aren't, necessarily; they can be, and then you get the classic Lovecraft/Smith/Howard wizard or witch who might be able to manage themselves day to day but who nonetheless, in some deep and fundamental way, see the world differently. But other wizards will take precautions against going too far down that rabbit hole, and maintain themselves, with effort, at Neutral.

Most monsters, especially anything living in the Crater, are going to be Chaotic - but, again, note that this doesn't say anything about behaviour or disposition. It's more like, anyone Lawful or Neutral who sees or interacts with one at best gets kind of a hinky feeling and at worst ends up having to throw up and lie down after it's all over (you can see that I could easily tie this into some kind of sanity mechanic, but I probably won't; I've thought about it, and unless I'm really committed to turning this into a straight-out horror game, which I'm not, it doesn't really seem worth it).

Obviously, the world of the Chain, even outside the Crater, is more Chaotic than not; the rise of apocalyptic death cults, and the brazenness with which cultists and wizards alike operate in the open are all signs that man's placid island of ignorance is as on the verge of just being swallowed up by the ocean as Xish itself. Because of that, just seeing a wizard perform a spell or watching something fucked up fly by isn't going to do much to even the average villager except give them the shivers. That said, someone trying to raise the dead, or even just parading around the corpse of something from one of the Crater's deeper levels, is going to find themselves on the wrong end of an angry/terrified mob right fucking quick.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Rules and Shit

So last post I spilled a lot of ink on setting details but didn't write anything about how I'm actually going to run the fucking thing. So, briefly then. I was initially considering just straight-up using OD&D, but I've since decided I want to move things up to Basic. Consequently, I've more or less settled on Labyrinth Lord, for a few reasons.

First, I like that it's pretty much just a more conveniently organized and better-looking version of Moldvay Basic, with a couple tweaks here and there. Because I actually do appreciate the better organization and presentation over the original books, but I'm also still new to this whole OSR thing, and I really just want to get a feel for how that old-school shit is supposed to play, more or less as-is. I've been developing the setting with that idea in mind. Something like Lamentations of the Flame Princess fucks around with the rules a little too much for where I'm at right now (though I am considering using its presentation of the combat rules; I like that it formalizes a few more options than just hitting things, casting spells or running away).

More practically, I've run a few sessions with it, and as such a couple of the guys I'm going to be playing with this summer are familiar with LL's rules and presentation, and actually own the book. No point in throwing another rules set at them.

Finally, LL has a lot of  resources that I want to use. Realms of Crawling Chaos, obviously, but there's also neat stuff I want to raid from Mutant Future and Apes Victorious. Probably some spells and items from the Advanced Edition Companion, as well. Chances are I'd end up using a bunch of this stuff regardless of which rules set I actually used, so going with LL saves me the hassle of having to convert anything.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Crater of Termination

Okay, here's the pitch. It's basically the same as the first one I did, but hopefully with slightly less "back of the paperback" delivery.

Genre-wise, it represents my attempt at that old weird fiction standby, the dying Earth fantasy. At this point, my two main touchstones of inspiration in this regard are Clark Ashton Smith's "Zothique" stories (for that end of the world decadence and Lovecraftian flavour), and, well, Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth (for a more gonzo vibe and some science-fantasy shenanigans). Gameplay-wise, it represents my attempt at that old OSR standby, the megadungeon. Here, inspiration is more nebulous. Old TSR and Judge's Guild modules, certainly, but as far as the current "megadungeon renaissance" goes, I've read a lot of blog articles but I haven't studied any actual examples in-depth. Anomalous Subsurface Environment and Maze of the Blue Medusa seem to encompass two somewhat disparate vibes that I want to bring together somehow, but I won't know until I dive into them. I have homework to do, obviously.

As per genre conventions, the setting is the later days of our own Earth, which has long since reverted to Medieval/feudal societies and technology, and seen the return of magic and monstrosity. The sun is old and red, and most of the old landmasses are underwater: only a handful of small to medium-sized islands remain, which inhabitants refer to collectively as The Chain.

Only one human kingdom remains, the rest having crumbled to marauders, sorcery, civil war, sheer decadence, or some combination thereof. This is Xish, its borders nominally marked by those of one of the larger islands, also named Xish. I say "nominally" because this kingdom too is on its way out. King Antoine is a drug-besotted fool, whose forces can barely keep some semblance of law and order within his own royal capital, let alone in the kingdom at large. Travel outside the immediate vicinity of major population centres, which are few and far between, is a death sentence for all but the most powerful and/or vicious. With farmland under constant threat of banditry and monster attack, and most folks crammed together into cities, famine and plague are frequent occurrences. Xish won't last another decade, maybe not even another year.

Unsurprisingly, apocalyptic death cults have become very popular. The most popular by far is The Cult of Devouring Star, which worships Null, a star which glows with an unnatural green brightness, visible from anywhere in the Chain (depending on who you ask, Null either is this star, or else just lives in the vicinity). The Cult holds that the Earth spawned from Null, and that it and its servants were for untold aeons the planet's sole inhabitants. And while it left our planet, it never relinquished its ownership, and it has now seen fit to invoke the right of  all life to its Earth.

But first, for a brief time it offers the opportunity to voluntarily accept Null's dominion and cede one's life to the oblivion which is immanent and inevitable, and this is where the Crater of Termination comes in.

The Crater is, well, a crater, in the middle of a forest clearing a day's ride from Gilk, Xish's largest city and its sole operative port (such as it is). The hole drops into a massive underground complex, which has evidently been there for a very long time, but the Crater only appeared maybe eight years ago. The Cult of the Devouring Star claims that the complex has been lying dormant since the early days of the earth, built by Null's servants - many of whom, they say, still roam its halls. Null has opened it to the surface to offer all beings of Xish a chance to descend, accepting both their fate and a benevolent gift: a glimpse beyond the thin veil of what they take to be truth, onto the harsh uncaring blackness of ultimate reality.

This was the first Google image search hit
for "harsh uncaring blackness."

Very quickly after its discovery, the Cult bought up the land, built a temple right next to the Crater, and announced that all Cult members had the right to descend into the Crater, alone or in groups, taking whatever resources or precautions they saw fit. There were more takers than you might expect, but membership only really picked up when, about a year later, a small band of world-weary, shell-shocked soldiers who had gone into the Crater to die actually returned, laden with treasure and wondrous artifacts. They also returned with tales of mind-bending horrors and wound up hanging themselves a week later, but Cult membership boomed, as adventurers swore their lives to Null for a chance at that sweet, sweet booty.

Now, it's a regular cycle. Adventurers and fortune-seekers trickle into the Crater, mostly never to return. Occasionally some do, laden with enough gold and jewels to reinvigorate the local economy for awhile, and for a few months there's an upsurge of adventurer expeditions into the crater. As time goes on and few or none of these return, activity dwindles until the next big haul. The Cult doesn't begrudge any of these adventurers insincerely seeking Cult membership for a chance to plunder the Crater, nor even those adventurers that do manage to plunder the Crater, for one simple reason: most don't come back, and the ones that do invariably kill themselves, or go back in.

And no one has ever come out a second time.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017


The idea for this blog grew out of a few guest posts I wrote for my friend HDA, describing an old-school D&D megadungeon setting I'm working on. I have HDA to thank for hipping me to this Old School Revival stuff in the first place, for getting me to finally read Clark Ashton Smith and listen to black metal, and for inspiring me with his posts about his own really cool setting. If it seems sometimes like I'm ripping him off, that's because I am.

Anyway, I realized I liked writing about this shit, and it gives me an excuse to keep working on stuff in the piecemeal, haphazard fashion that's the only method I can manage. So this blog will mostly be about whatever setting or gaming project I happen to be working on, plus assorted musings about D&D, other games, and tabletop roleplaying in general.

Right now, the only project I really have going is the aforementioned setting, which in a nutshell is an attempt at a "classic" weird fantasy megadungeon, in a dying-earth type setting with a strong Lovecraftian vibe. It's something I need to do a lot of work on because I hope to start running it in the near future, so that's mostly what I'll be posting about for now.

You can check out my original posts about it over at HDA's blog, here. The idea has evolved a bit since then, so the first substantive post I make here is probably going to be an updated summary of the whole mess, but it's still more or less the same as what you see there.