Friday, 19 January 2018

Lost Sepulchers of Venus: The Basics

As I said last post, I've been cooking up yet another new setting for use with my own "hack" of White Box OD&D. Tentatively titled Lost Sepulchers of Venus, it takes place, as you may have guessed, on Venus. Prior to the first probe encounter with the planet, science fiction writers had a lot of leeway with depicting the topography of Venus, since the only thing we can tell about it from Earth is that its surface is covered in clouds. According to Wikipedia, most tried to account for what a planet covered in thick layers of cloud would be like, and thus depicted it as either one big ocean, an arid desert, or a humid ball of swamp and jungle something like prehistoric Earth. I'm going with that last one.

It's a science-fantasy setting, obviously. At this point in time, the Venusian populace is sparse, spread amongst a few meagre kingdoms, all around the technological and societal level of 14th century Europe. At the edges of these kingdoms lie a great frontier, once the territory of an enormous Empire, technologically advanced and sorcerously powerful. These very sorceries brought about its downfall, some centuries ago, and now the ruins of its cities, outposts and machines lie scattered all throughout the vast wilderness. Only recently have some shaken off the powerful superstition about the place, and begun to venture into these ruins, to see what marvels might lie waiting to be unearthed.

At this point, I'm thinking three races: green-skinned native Venusians, red-skinned Martians, and pink-and-black-and-whatever-else-skinned Earthlings. How the Martians and Earthlings got there, I have no idea yet. Subject for another post.

Class-wise, I'm thinking: Fighting-man, Thief, maybe some variation on the Cleric but I'll have to think about this, and then the Witch I mentioned last post in place of the Magic-user. I've already got some ideas about who (or make that what) Witches make their dark bargains with. More on that another time.

Speaking of magic, I may also incorporate something like Carcosa's rituals (minus the ickier stuff) that any class can perform if they really want to Fuck With Things That Shouldn't Be Fucked With. The one thing I really like about the rituals is many of them require specific items and/or need to be cast in specific locations. It really adds an extra layer of meaning and impetus to exploration.

Play-wise, I'm conceiving of this as something of a hex crawl with small to mid-sized dungeons scattered throughout the ruins, and probably one legendary megadungeon, the location of which wouldn't be known at the outset.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Thoughts on Hacking OD&D

I picked up PDFs of the original (well, 2013 reprint) of the White Box "little brown books" and Supplement I: Greyhawk off of Drivethru RPG the other day; this is the first I've heard of their existence, but it turns out WotC released them over a year ago now.

Just from my first flip-through it became clear I was never going to be able to run anything with these unless I spent some time reorganizing them for myself and house-ruling away the many ambiguities and a few things I just don't like, but my understanding is this is in keeping with the received wisdom about OD&D: no two OD&D campaigns are going to be the same, because every DM is essentially forced to house-rule and interpret them. So I've been essentially writing my own personal "clone" of the rules, for my own use and for distribution to whatever players I could rope into playing this thing with me. That accomplished, I also plan to make a version that incorporates the various changes and additions from Supplment I, for an "AD&D Light." I may or may not incorporate the rest of the supplements, because it seems like the more you add the more you might as well just be playing 1st Edition AD&D.

But working through the rules in this fashion has made me realize in a tangible way what I've always read in regard to OD&D: that it's the most "hackable" version of the game, i.e. the easiest one to turn into whatever sort of broadly D&D-descended game you want. It's the most barest-bones version with the most room for moving into various different directions thanks to the aforementioned ambiguities.

So now I've been thinking about what my ideal version of D&D would look like. Here are some scattered thoughts on what I'd retain/add/change if I was building my own version of D&D out of the OD&D core:
  • XP for gold would absolutely have to stay. More and more, I've been thinking that this and this alone is the most essential thing for the "old-school" D&D feel.
  • No elves, dwarves, or halflings, i.e. no Tolkienisms. Whether or not these might be replaced by other races, and whether that would be in the form of race-as-class, would probably depend on the setting/feel/flavour I wanted to capture. Which leads me to my next point:
  • Setting baked into the rules. If I'm hacking the rules for myself anyway, there's no point in keeping them generic. It's not like I'm trying to be the umpteenth person to market their own version of D&D that anyone can use for whatever settings, I'd want something perfectly tailored to whatever I was trying to do. So monsters, races, spells, items and all that jazz would probably all be cooked up from scratches, or at least heavily tailored.
  • Speaking of spells, I really want to make magic seem fucked-up, dangerous and otherworldly, and I think one of the easiest way to do that is to ditch Vancian magic. Not that it isn't weird and otherworldly, because as I've written elsewhere, I think it is, but as I also wrote there I think a lot of effort is required on the DM's part to really shake off the veneer of banal acceptance that's glommed onto that system after decades of ubiquity. To that end, I think something like Palladium's Witch (or, for that matter, 3rd edition D&D's Witch) would be the main spellcasting class, i.e. magic is a matter of making bargains with one or more dark powers. As such, it's inherently Chaotic, and doing it in public will probably get you burned at the stake.
  • Not sure whether I'd want to keep Clerics/Divine magic; if "regular" magic is the result of making bargains with otherworldly entities, then Divine magic would seem to be the same thing. I guess I really depends if I want there to be any "good" gods or not.
  • I'd make the combat rules a little more codified, which is mostly a concession to some of the people I regularly play with who found OD&D combat unsatisfying. Something like what Lamentations of the Flame Princess does for explicitly formalizing the kinds of actions you can take in combat, or maybe even something as complex as AD&D.
That's all my thoughts so far. If it sounds like this is probably leading me into thinking up yet another setting to work on, you are correct.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Church of the Holy Scale


In Keep on the Borderlands, at least as I read it, it's strongly implied that the official religion of the land is more or less an analogue for Medieval Christianity. When I ran my own take on B2, I made them snake handlers, pretty much on a whim. Here's a (slightly) more sketched-out version of that idea.

The Church of the Holy Scale, like its real-life inspiration, is devoted to the worship of a god with neither a definite name (they too just go with "God") nor definite characteristics. He/she/it is most often depicted as a great serpent encircling the world, though this is to be interpreted more or less literally depending on whom you ask. Metaphorically or not, God is associated with snakes over and over in the sacred texts. Like a snake, God is understood to be coldly indifferent to anything but its own affairs, despite having created the world and man for its own inscrutable reasons - though it appears to have a general affinity for order and stability (i.e. the Lawful side of the alignment spectrum).

On the other hand, God also has the hunger of the snake, in this case the hunger for worship and adulation. Thus it offers those who pledge themselves to it a chance at eternal life and (for some) a share of its power in the form of clerical magic. Worship services take the form of handling venomous snakes, specially blessed and maintained by the priesthood, who will never bite those with the true allegiance to God in their hearts. Priests are forbidden to use any but blunt weapons because sharp points and edges, like the snake's fangs, are instruments of God's punishment not to be taken up by mere men.

Structure and organization of the Church is a matter of specific campaign needs. For my B2 game, I assumed it was more or less the only (Lawful) religion in town, and that there was some central Vatican-like seat somewhere, but that such things were generally irrelevant to the sort of hinterland places that B2 is supposed to take place in (the Pope isn't stopping by to inspect some random parish on the edge of the Blasted Wastes or wherever, and most folks just take the lead of their local priests and clerics). But it could just as easily be only one religion among many, maybe an offshoot of some Cult of Yig, or something.

Friday, 12 January 2018

It's Me Snitches



Alright, let's try this again.

My tentative strategy for not completely shitting the bed this time in terms of keeping this thing updated regularly is: (1) to significantly lower my standards for what counts as a complete post; and (2) just accept that I'm never going to be satisfied working on or talking about just one project and just let this thing be a jumble of shit.

To that end, let's briefly recap all the projects I've got on the go, from oldest (which, broadly speaking, also means most developed) to most recent:
  • Ionian Nights. I never posted about it on here, but it was my first attempt at an OSR-style megadungeon, set in Asia Minor under Persian occupation in the 6th century BC or so. The dungeon was supposed to be the entrance/descent into Hades, because for the Greeks hell was literally just a place underground that you could get to if a cave went deep enough, which is how living people always used to get there. It turned out, later, that this had literally already been done, so while I do occasionally jot down new ideas and things, I'd have to figure out a way to put my own spin on it if I wanted to post about it on here. Or not, who cares.
  • The Crater of Termination / Xish. Weird pulp fantasy megadungeon in a dying earth setting reminiscent of Vance's Dying Earth stories (obviously) and Clark Ashton Smith's Xothique stories, with a bunch of Lovecraft-flavoured gods and cults thrown in. It's more or less my own version of the standard OSR Appendix N worship. 
  •  Mictlan. Hex/wave-crawl where players set off from a fantasy version of the Aztec empire to sail a sea of blood and explore islands of terrifying whatevers. The idea here is to push more toward dark fantasy/horror, low-magic, etc.
  •  Silfurfall / Dregypth. A Norse-flavoured city-on-top-of-a-megadungeon. This is supposed to be a way of running standard elves and dwarves Tolkienesque fantasy in a way that doesn't make me want to just flip the table mid-session and scream "Oh, who gives a fuck about another one of these?!!" It's also kind of an experiment with figuring out a city using Vornheim.
  • Maze of the Mad Magus. Some shit I threw together at the last minute to actually run, which was basically Keep on the Borderlands with my own Castle Greyhawk-inspired megadungeon nearby instead of the Caves of Chaos. The idea was to try and take a lot of cues from what seems to be the implied setting of B2 (and just B2, considered in isolation from other modules).
  • Something for the next One Page Dungeon contest, which obviously I'm going to keep under wraps for now.
Okay, that's it for now. Talk to you soon (maybe).

Thursday, 13 July 2017

I'm the Worst Part 2


Apologies for the missed post, whoever's reading this. Despite my apparent resolve in the last post, I spent the whole weekend fretting about what to run for my new group and how. I stopped and started a bunch of notes that didn't go anywhere. I drew an entire dungeon level and keyed half of it before scrapping both. Finally, on the way over to the game I decided on just straight up running Keep on the Borderlands, and then changed my mind again literally while the players were rolling up characters.

What I ended up going with, and am now committed to (thank God), is Keep of the Borderland with my own megadungeon, The Maze of the Mad Magus, in place of the Caves of Chaos. I came up with the name that morning; I had Castle Greyhawk on my mind, having almost decided to run Greyhawk Ruins of all fucking things (and I still might have if the maps weren't so goddamn terrible). I was going to just use the first level of Stonehell and then start drawing my own maps for the subsequent levels, but the duo never even left the Keep because they immediately got suspicious of everyone's favourite Friendly Priest Who Is Actually an Evil Cultist and spent the session spying on, and avoiding being assassinated by, him. That's given me a chance to work on the first level, which is actually looking pretty good, but we'll see if I get enough done in time for it to be useful.

For the purposes of that first session. I gave my players the thinnest of back stories: Xilbog, the eponymous Mad Magus, built the Maze some three hundred years prior, disappeared about two hundred years after that, and the place has since become a popular adventuring locale; the Keep (which I'm still calling Castle Goatmass, though I've dropped the additional village) was built to keep an eye on the place and to facilitate adventurers moving in and out and contributing to the local economy.

For next session, I hope to have an elaborate rumour table completed (more on this, and why I love rumour tables, next time), but the first thing I've had to establish are some basic facts about the Maze and its history; these are the things the PCs probably already know, or can easily find out from pretty much anyone in the area. Let's call them "non-rumours":

 

MAZE OF THE MAD MAGUS Non-Rumours


  1. The Maze was built some 300 years ago (when the Kingdom of Elisbury was still fractured into the warring territories of various barbarian tribes) by a magic user named Xilbog, who would later come to be known as “the Mad Magus.”
  2. With the Maze as his base of operations, Xilbog wreaked havoc on the barbarians, and later on the Kingdom, for a century. A truce was finally drawn: Xilbog was to leave Elisbury alone in exchange for being granted sovereign control of the land around the Maze; this is why Elisbury never expanded into the unclaimed wilderness to the south (a similar treaty was struck with the Dwarf Kingdom which lies underneath Elisbury). A custom was established of the Truce being formally re-affirmed every ten years.
  3. On the eleventh reaffirmation day (i.e. on the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Truce), Xilbog did not arrive at the customary meeting point. He failed to show up again ten years later. A small expeditionary force was sent to the Maze, and found it overrun by goblins, orcs, and other monsters. It was learned (through questioning some of these creatures) that Xilbog hadn’t been seen nor heard from in twenty years, and that creatures he had employed to guard the Maze or for other tasks had opted to just take over the first few levels of the complex for themselves. Other creatures had subsequently moved in, including whole tribes. That first expeditionary force returned with considerable quantities of gold and magic items, which began to attract adventurers to the area.
  4. After learning of the Magus’ disappearance, Elisbury tentatively established Castle Goatmass at the southern border not far from the Maze, both to guard against creatures emerging from the place and to attempt to begin the southward expansion which was so long denied it. Having a civilized outpost nearby increased adventurer traffic, which in turn began to boost the local economy. A small township grew up within the walls of the Castle, to cater to the needs of adventurers and those doing business with adventurers. 
  5. There were initially disputes between Elisbury and the Dwarf Kingdom which lies underneath it (the two have long been strong allies) over whether human adventurers have any rights to enter the Maze and take its riches, given that it is underground and thus arguably belongs to the dwarves. The counter-argument goes that it never belonged to anyone but Xilbog and it should thus not be taken for granted that ownership should now pass to the dwarves just because it happens to be beneath the earth. After heated negotiations the consensus was finally reached that the Maze formally belongs to both kingdoms, who each have the right to tax half of the total revenue any adventuring party brings out (regardless of whether said adventuring party consists of humans, dwarves, or for that matter elves or halflings).
  6. It is not known how large or how deep the Maze is. Only the first few levels have been extensively explored, and even these have unknown corners.
  7.  Adventurers have established a permanent settlement of sorts in the rooms closest to the entrance, replete with places to sleep, buy supplies, and get a drink.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Fuck Dragonborn


Which is to say: I've changed my mind once again, but at least only about system this time. My new game is next week, and I decided to push for B/X instead of 5th edition, which everyone else was fine with (most are new to D&D and have no real preferences, except for one person who actively dislikes 5th, so).

It's not really because of dragonborn, it's because of the inevitable logistical nightmare of playing 5th when none of us have physical copies of the books and none of us really know the system that well. I know B/X pretty well now, the essential rules are simple enough you could put them on an index card, and there are no fiddly abilities and a gazillion customization options for character creation; for 5th, as for most later incarnations of D&D (probably even including 1st), you really need a book in hand to make a character, but that's not the case here. I like that. And yes, I'm moving from Labyrinth Lord to the source, but it's not really that big of a leap; funnily enough, I actually like the way Moldvay's Basic book is laid out better than the LL book, although the advantage of the latter is obviously that the contents of the Expert book are also worked in and don't have to be separately consulted. Still, like with all new gaming groups it's unclear if this one will even make it past the first session, so Basic is good enough for my purposes right now.

But, also, fuck dragonborn. They're easily the worst idea in the history of the game. You take this iconic, eponymous monster that has always signified "we're into the real shit now," since basically The Hobbit, and then go, "Oh yeah, you can basically play one." By the time you fight a real dragon, it's not a big deal if your party is already half dragonborn. It takes away the mystery, the awe, the sense of sheer terror, that the dragon can and should evoke.

Really, it's a problem that has its roots in 3rd edition, when suddenly a whole bunch of monster races had rules for turning them into player characters. I mean, I think the half-dragon, which is basically the dragonborn, is from 3rd. It's not a problem which stems from Council of Wyrms, the 2nd Edition setting where you play actual dragons, because I thought it retained a lot of what made dragons mysterious and interesting - and in any case I'm not even sure it's fair to call it a D&D setting, since it makes so many changes to both mechanics and fundamental premise.

But ANYway. I'm still standing my ground as far as setting goes. I've got my village: Goatmass, in the Kingdom of Elisbury (thanks, Judges Guild random name tables!). It stands on the edge of a swamp that used to be the home of a sinister cult which was subsequently wiped out, but which it is rumoured is on the rise again. The whole setup is, obviously, heavily informed by The Village of Hommlet, but I want to develop a vibe of "sinister backwoods England" that I don't think is quite there.

The main dungeon will be accessible through a crumbling manor house that used to be a cult headquarters. I also think I'll be dropping in the Keep from Keep on the Borderlands as "Castle Goatmass," and I'll probably include the Caves of Chaos as well. My thinking at this point is that both the Caves and the basement of the manor house will connect to an elaborate cavern/dungeon system to which the Cult retreated and in which it is currently rebuilding itself.

But more on this next time!

Monday, 3 July 2017

I'm the Worst


Hey, it's next time, and I have in fact changed my mind about what I'm running again.

Sort of. To be more precise: I've changed my mind about the scale I should be working at. It's fun to try and figure out the general thread and theme of a whole campaign setting and to draw a big world map, but at the end of the day that's just not really the level at which the game is actually played. Published campaign settings are expansive and large-scale because that's what makes them worth buying: a bunch of background work has been done for you and you can drill down into the specifics of whatever particular region or adventure hook catches your fancy.

When it comes to doing it yourself though, that kind of work often turns out to have been superfluous. Campaigns often spend multiple real-life years in a relatively small in-game space. Yes, having done a bunch of background work beforehand can help make thing seem richer, but so can taking the time you took to do that to design a small area and make it cohesive and interesting. Background can emerge organically; that's how it's going to happen for the players, in any case. Those big infodumpy speeches you give at the beginnings of campaigns to explain how the setting works? Nobody's listening, dude. I know this from the experience of attempting to run various published settings, for both D&D and other games, including settings like Planescape that seem to demand that players have a bunch of extra information up front. In pretty much every case, as far as I can tell, if players don't already know the setting, they absorb it through play, and they understand it primarily in the context of what happened in play. So if having a bunch of information up front doesn't really do the players any good, it doesn't seem like it does the DM any good either.

I know all of this, intuitively, but I still seem to have gotten caught up in big grand world-building. Even going "I'm going to set this in the Wilderlands" got me into all kinds of trouble as I started expanding and tweaking things that would take months for my players to actually experience, if they ever did.

Part of the problem is that I've become too enamored of the idea of  the "sandbox hex crawl," or at least with a certain idea of one typified by the Wilderlands and by modern incarnations like Carcosa. The truth is, I just don't need to detail that much real estate right off the bat. The classic beginning-of-campaign paradigm is "Everyone starts in a tavern and then goes and explores a nearby dungeon" for a reason. A single village or town and its surroundings are more than enough for a good sandbox - certainly for its early stages, and probably enough for an entire campaign. The entirety of Skyrim fits into a single six mile hex. In terms of what you directly need to start a campaign and even to maintain it long-term, the Wilderlands paradigm is perhaps a bad example to follow.

So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to design a village or small town, probably with the help of the many random tables in Judges' Guilds Villages 1, and probably kinda-sorta based on The Village of Hommlet. I'm not going to worry about what the continent it's in looks like or what the nation it's in is like or what the larger geopolitical situation is or whether elves and dwarves get along or any of that shit. I'm going to take the time I would have spent worrying about that shit and apply it to fleshing it out the village and its inhabitants in reasonable detail and designing the first couple levels of a large-ish dungeon that will be nearby and to giving some thought to a usefully vague and malleable "vibe" for the kind of game I want to run. There will also be some other dungeons nearby, that I'll probably take from classic modules. I'll come up with a rumour table full of adventure hooks that may or may not hint at broader things going on in the world at large. I may even work out a single six-mile hex's worth of map, probably at a half-mile-per-sub-hex scale. And then I'll just let shit develop from there.

So that's my plan. Join me next week when I really sincerely fucking hope to God I haven't changed my mind again.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Thoughts on 5th Edition, or: Yes, I Know This Thing Came Out in 2014


Just some scattered musings this time around.

I've more or less decided to use 5e in running my new game, because I've been curious about how it plays - especially in relation to the more "old-school" style of campaign that its designers supposedly had at least partly in mind. Starting up with a brand new set of players, at least a few of which are new to the game, seems as good an opportunity to try it out as any. I haven't even really looked at it up to this point, so some quick preliminary thoughts in relation to the kind of game I want to run (which is heavily influenced by my experiences with running a firmly old-school style game with Labyrinth Lord):

  • I hate character creation/the approach to characters in general. I honestly almost gave up before I got through the section. 5th edition characters are basically just 3rd edition characters with all their fiddly powers and random bonuses, and then a bunch of extra layers of stuff thrown on for good measure, and by "good measure" I mean "no good reason." I mean, okay, things like backgrounds are probably okay, especially for newer players, but I hate hate HATE that every class has to choose one of two "paths" (or "bardic colleges" or "druid circles" or whatever). That mechanic bakes so much setting stuff into your game by default: what if I want my world to be one without bardic colleges, or where druids are lone weirdos like Radagast who don't organize into circles? I have similar, though not quite as vehement, reservations about formally accounting for different "sub-races": again, what if I don't want a world where there's a division between high elves and wood elves, and even if I do, do they really need to be formally and mechanically accounted for?  ALSO I hate dragonborn, and I don't like the idea of tieflings as a player character race outside of the Planescape setting (which, as a friend pointed out, is technically every D&D setting, but you know what I mean). Now, I know most of this is a matter of just dropping those aspects out, but I don't like the presumption on the part of the system; D&D has never quite been a "generic fantasy game," but it always seemed to strike a vague middle ground which it edges annoyingly away from here.
  • All that said, I want to see how the game plays out of the box, so I'm not going to be dropping any of that stuff. Maybe I'll change my mind when I see how it works in practice, or players will really like it, or whatever. A consequence of that, though, is that I can't really set my game in the specifically Tolkienesque Norse milieu that I was planning on: there's no room for dragonborn, Bardic colleges, etc. etc. in that sort of setting. So I've opted to take the megadungeon idea I had and move it into Judges Guild Wilderlands, the approach of which (in its original form, anyway) is both vague and kitchen sink enough that all the assumed setting stuff of 5th edition fits right in (but more about how I'm approaching the Wilderlands in another post).
  • Wilderlands is a hex crawl setting, and as such it gives a decent built-in framework for wilderness exploration. And I might need it too, because I'm not convinced 5e is going to be able to do dungeons very well - certainly not megadungeons (some of the issues with this are explored here), but maybe not even just regular dungeons. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it's not going to be able to do an old-school approach to dungeons very well, which as I understand it is where dungeons are something you go into because they're there and you want the XP and treasure contained within: "story" develops out of your adventures and exploration, it's not the reason you go into a dungeon. This approach doesn't really seem to work in 5e because there's no real mechanical incentive to go into a dungeon, specifically, to do this: all your XP comes from encounters, and you also level quite quickly, so it makes more sense to just wander around the wilderness triggering random encounters. You don't really need either the treasure of a dungeon or the relative "encounter density" that made dungeon-crawling attractive from a purely mechanical standpoint in earlier editions. Now, I recognize that there hasn't been a really explicitly mechanical incentive to dungeon-crawl since the game stopped giving XP for treasure, but I feel like 5th ed more or less formally adopts the approach that dungeons should be story-based, i.e. that there needs to be some reasons that the characters, not just the players, want to go into the dungeon. I don't know, maybe this isn't as much of a problem as I think it is.
  • 5th edition is, pretty explicitly, a game of epic heroic fantasy. The quick advancement rate and the pretty much superhuman healing rate work to make this a game of cinematic high fantasy; I read somewhere that if earlier D&D had roots in Tolkien, then 5th edition represents the Peter Jackson version, and that seems like a pretty good description. This isn't a complaint I have about the rules, per se; D&D hasn't exactly been a game of gritty sword and sorcery since 2nd Edition (and arguably since 1st), but it does require me to shift the headspace I've been in when designing adventures and running the game using Labyrinth Lord.
  • I love the main resolution and combat mechanics. Love them. We'll see how things work in play, but on paper at least this seems to me to be the best version of the game as far as this aspect of things goes.

That's all for now. Join me next time when I'll probably have changed my mind about what I'm running again.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Dregypth

I've been doing a lot of thinking about Silfurfall, the city setting I sketched out in my last post. I'm possibly going to have another game going within the next couple weeks (in person this time), and this is probably what I'll run for them. At this point I'm still not totally satisfied with it - it's a bit too "generic D&D setting" for my tastes. But I think uniqueness might have to come out in the details; I sort of like that the general setting vibe is relatively accessible and explicable in terms of stuff most people would be familiar with, since I think at least a few of the new group are relatively new to D&D or even roleplaying games in general.

Speaking of "generic D&D," I've decided there's a megadungeon beneath the city. As much of a cliche as its become at this point (the classic example being Undermountain and Waterdeep), I really like the idea of big dungeons being directly underneath currently inhabited cities, as opposed to some ruins somewhere. There's something about having a vast underground world full of monsters, magic and treasure directly just a few miles (or whatever, I'm terrible with relative distances) below where your players' characters hang their hats, something that really emphasizes the weirdness of the dungeon as a concept. We're all comfortable with the idea of cities having a certain amount of their existence underground - just not that much; it makes the familiar strange, if I can put it in those overused terms. And the city itself becomes richer and deeper, because you have to account for why the fucking thing is there in the first place.

Obligatory

In my case, I'm pretty much just writing an Undermoutain fanfic and adding some Norse and Cthulhu Mythos flavour. Call me unoriginal, but there's something about Forgotten Realms and the Underdark that really speaks to my soul, so I want to strongly ape that vibe, with a sprinkling of some of my other influences. Think of it as some intermediate step between concocting a wholly original world and just straight-up running a Forgotten Realms campaign. You could argue that there's no real benefit to not just doing one or the other, and maybe you'd be right, but this is what's in my heart.

So: Silfurfall was built on top of the underground ruins of Dregypth, an ancient dwarf city. Once the capital of the Dwarven Empire, it was almost entirely destroyed during the thousand-year civil war which eventually split the Empire into the Five Kingdoms. The leaders of these new states opted to move their seats of power elsewhere and abandon the ruined Imperial capital, both out of the practical consideration that it just wasn't worth the effort to rebuild, and out of concern to leave a symbolic reminder of the high cost of war.

That was several thousand years ago. The Five Kingdoms have since semi-reunited to form a kind-of Empire again (they're still technically separate kingdoms, but are governed jointly by a council made up of all five kings), and the ruins of their ancient capital have gone through various changes as well. Shortly after it was abandoned, the lower sections were taken over and rebuilt by a kingdom of enigmatic Dark Dwarves, who ruled over it and warred with their "good" cousins for a few centuries before themselves abandoning the place, for unknown reasons. Before this, they managed to construct several levels' worth of dungeon complex beneath their repurposed home, which they used as a prison and a place to exile political enemies; it still contains ancestors of these (or in some cases the originals). Over the centuries, these levels were expanded and added to by various groups: dark elves, sinister cults, mad wizards, and some even stranger beings and races. Each of these areas or levels bears the mark of its original inhabitants, some of whom live there still.

The dungeon isn't a secret or anything; everyone knows about it, though many probably don't suspect just how deep and extensive it is. It's just another thing that makes Silfurfall a thriving commercial centre: between the giant dungeon underneath and being the gateway to uncharted lands past the mountains, Silfurfall would probably have one of the biggest concentration of adventurers of anywhere in the world, if not the biggest. It's what this guy calls an "open dungeon": it's known, it's well-trafficked by adventurers, and as such contributes significantly to the local economy. The first few levels, then, will be significantly emptier of monsters and treasure than the lower ones, with the most interesting stuff around the fringes, away from the main entrance. Of course, these more trafficked areas will have their own interest: it would make sense for adventurers to have set up one or more semi-permanent camps, perhaps even officially sanctioned and protected by the city authorities and/or the dwarves.

One advantage of placing the dungeon right underneath a city is that it opens up a bunch of logical ways to have multiple entrances: there's the "official entrance," but then the city sewers connect up at some point as well, as do Castle Ormor's dungeons and the cellars of a secret temple of Tsathoggua. Other ways in include the dwarven mines, and probably several caves or dens out in the wilderness somewhere, to help explain how random monsters like orcs, goblins and dragons have managed to get in there. Some or most of these will hook up to levels other than the first; as they're discovered, it will be easier to skip lower-level explored areas and get right to the good stuff, as received wisdom suggests is essential for a good megadungeon.

Each level will be vaguely themed, with the first few being built right into the premise: 1st level is the ruined dwarf city, 2nd level is the abandoned dark dwarf city, and the next few are the dungeons the dark dwarves built. After that, we can have areas or even whole levels that are dark elf kingdoms, or mad wizard's laboratories: all that essential shit. The deeper levels will be weirder and more overtly Lovecraftian; I have a vague idea that one of the lower levels hooks up to Cthulhu's island-prison of R'lyeh somehow, though don't ask me how that works.

The other day I was reading about how Gary Gygax apparently designed a level of the Greyhawk dungeon every week, for a total of thirteen levels. I've been thinking of doing something similar: a week to map and key a 70-100 room dungeon level seems fairly reasonable, if I stick to relatively minimal keying (which seems to be what Gary and all those other old-school guys did, keeping most of the dungeon in their head and/or developing it during play). Eight or nine proper dungeon levels, plus sub-levels to get me up to Gary's thirteen (I may or may not count the alternate means of egress as sub-levels: the palace dungeons, the cult cellars, etc., which means I might end up shooting higher than thirteen, but we'll see).

So there you have it. I promise I'll go back to talking about slimes again soon. Oh, and as long as I have you here, check out my friend Jastrick's new blog, which is miniatures/wargaming focused but which he tells me will include thoughts about tabletop games in general. It's looking good so far! Jastrick is one of the players in my Roll20 game, which started out being about exploring the Crater of Termination but has turned into me running Tegel Manor... but that's a story for another post.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Silfurfall

Another setting idea, this one inspired by reading Vornheim. It's basically a skeleton on which to hang meat through play using Zak's city-adventuring rules and random tables, which I imagine is how most people use the book (although I quite like the city of Vornheim itself, and will be trying to ape the general weird vibe). The setting/milieu is basically a pseudo-Tolkienesque version of "Norse" + Cthulhu Mythos,because that gives me a firm set of cliches that I can keep in my head to develop and elaborate through brainstorming and actual play.

More specifically, the Tolkien/Norse thing is because: A) vikings are cool, and B) I want to have elves and dwarves and halflings and I'm at a point where I can't justify their inclusion in a fantasy setting unless it's either overtly Tolkienesque or overtly based on the folklore Tolkien ripped off (in this case I'll be trying, probably unsuccessfully, to navigate some vague line between both).*

Obligatory
The city of Silfurfall is nestled at the base of the Silfur Mountains, named for the Dwarvish word for the precious metal which lies under the mountains in abundance. Despite its location and namesake, Silfurfall is not, nor was it ever, a mining town: everything beneath the mountains is the sovereign territory of the Five Kingdoms of the Dwarves, and for a non-dwarf to so much as bring a pick into a cavern is considered an act of war.

The city is, rather, a trading centre, and was from its inception (around one hundred years ago), having initially been founded by the Wormfang Clan of Northmen as a means of facilitating easy exchange of plundered goods for Dwarvish silver. The Wormfangs are still masters of the city, having repeatedly bested attempts by other clans (not to mention orcs, goblins, and the enigmatic fugus-creatures which occupy the furthest peaks of the mountains) to take it by force. Such attempts have tapered off in the last few decades, ever since Jarl Steppen Thigh-crusher opened up the city to "all honourable peoples" (which includes all Northmen clans and most other men, as well as elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and the serpent-men of the Scorching Wastes, but excludes orcs, goblins, fungus-creatures, and most other monstrous-races). Conquering the city seems like a waste of time when it's main value is in the trade opportunities it affords, for which the doors are already open to most.

As such, Silfurfall has become a rather cosmopolitan place. Most of the permanent residents are still Wormfang Northmen, but more than half of the population at any time is comprised of folks from elsewhere, including a significant number of non-humans (more than in any other human-controlled city). Many of these are merchants and craftsmen whose main aim is business with the Five Kingdoms, but given the constant influx of goods from all over the known world and beyond, there is always a steady stream of those looking primarily to buy, rather than sell. Moreover, the lands beyond the Silfur Mountains are reportedly littered with ancient ruins, so the city is a popular stopping point for adventurers on their way to search for lost treasures (travel over the mountains is certain death due to difficult conditions and the aforementioned fungus-creatures, but the Five Kingdoms allow passage through their mines - for a price, and only under heavy escort).

Silfurfall has also become a rather dangerous place: large numbers of wealth and goods moving through makes it an attractive haven for thieves, as does the relatively lax rule of law that's settled over the city ever since Jarl Steppen came into power. He's a warrior, not an administrator - he'd rather be off fighting orcs while a handful of his lieutenants oversee the day to day operations of the city. Unfortunately, Steppen has chosen for this task those lieutenants whom he doesn't particularly trust in battle - and for good reason, because they're generally corrupt and willing to overlook all kinds of law-breaking as long as they get their kickback. It's unclear whether Jarl Steppen is ignorant of these happenings, or whether he's aware and just doesn't care.

The city is divided into a number of rough neighbourhoods or districts. Each has an "official" name, but locals and regular visitors more commonly refer to them by a second set of names, which derive from the way people tend to die in that part of the city.

Beheading District (Old City). As its "official" title suggests, the buildings and streets of this central neighbourhood are some of the oldest in Silfurfall, around which the rest of the city grew over the decades. The central square is where public executions of criminals and prisoners take place. It's also where the city guard barracks are located, which makes this one of the safer districts - and as such, its inns are always full, and there are numerous shops and residences.

Poisoning District (Castle District). Right next to the Beheading District, this neighbourhood houses Castle Ormor, where the Jarl resides when he's in town, and where (both in and around) the city overseers and other nobles and elites of the Wormfang Clan make their homes as well. It is, unsurprisingly, also a very safe district, but everything here tends to cater to richer tastes.

Slit Throat District (Market District). There are numerous markets all throughout the city, but the biggest and most varied of them is located here. Correspondingly, it's a hotbed of crime, and the thieves' guild** has its headquarters here. It's also where serpent-men tend to stay when they're in town, as inns and taverns elsewhere are somewhat less tolerant of these most inhuman visitors.

Drowning District (Shipping District). The mighty river Drullavat (which falls from the Silfur Mountains and provides easy access to the ocean) runs through this neighbourhood, and as such it's mostly docks, shipyards, and warehouses, as well as the sort of inns and drinking establishments that cater to sailors and other low-lives.

Stabbing District (Wormfang District). The "official" name refers to the fact that this is where most of the city's permanent residents lie, most of whom are Wormfang Northmen. The unofficial title refers to the fact that these residents are famously prone to bouts of murderous rage at real or perceived slights.

Sacrifice District (Temple District). One of the few rules of which Jarl Steppen insists on strict enforcement is a ban on ritual sacrifice, even of orcs and goblins. As such, this neighbourhood isn't really appropriately titled anymore, but it was such a popular practice for so long that the name has stuck around. The reality is that such sacrifices still happen in many of the district's temples, they're just quieter now. It should also be noted that this isn't the only place to find temples in Silfurfall; they're just the most numerous here, with at least one devoted to each of the gods, and several devoted to the most popular (Thor, Odin, Loki). More than one is actually a front for the worship of what some call "the Oldest Gods," who are known by various names (like Cthulhu, Yog-sothoth, Nyarlathotep... you get the idea).

There should probably be a few more neighbourhoods (I want to do the thing from Vornheim where you write out the numbers of neighbourhoods haphazardly next to each other to get an abstract city map), but I can't think of any more types of city districts or types of death, so that's it for now.

*I've got Elves and Dwarves in Xish, my dying-earth setting, but there I've justified it by making dwarves and halflings Vancian vat-bred slave-races and elves your typical fey bullshit. I'm not super satisfied with this either, and I think subsequent iterations of the setting are just not going to have them at all.

**I'm actually not sure how I feel about that old fantasy roleplaying game standby, the Thieves' Guild, and I reserve the right to replace it with something fresher or just get rid of it altogether.