Friday, April 3, 2020

Downtime Activities: Spiritual Exercises

A young Jedi descends into an evil hollow to learn about his dark side. A paladin has broken a vow of her order, and wishes to regain her purity by embarking on a quest. A priest devotes himself to the study of a perilous branch of the holy law to draw new miracles from his faith. A monk has come upon a place of the ancients and wishes to meditate there to understand its nature.This is an open-ended system for engaging in spiritual exercises like this. It is part of a system of downtime actions, the other members of which are available here. The idea is that when in a safe place--a home base, a haven, secure camp, etc.--between adventures, a character may perform up to one downtime action, whatever else they do.

I have one player in particular who likes spiritual exercises. Here are two real examples from play. His earlier character was a heretical priest of Nepthylys, who at a certain point wanted to found his own pantheistic splinter sect by fashioning a holy eidolon of a perfect being. His more recent character, a former NPC with a mystical bent, encountered the (undead) shade of a brilliant former painter, who could not rest until he finished the self-portrait of himself that had thwarted him in life. The character wanted to meditate with the artist and provide spiritual counsel to overcome the block that had stymied him for more than a century. I think more players would do things like this if they were given a scaffolding that let them imagine it as a possibility. This is the system I wish I had had when he made those proposals to me.

A character of any class may pursue a spiritual exercise. To do so, the player must specify their goal. T'his will be the result if the spiritual exercise is successful. It can be vague, i.e. "receive guidance from my deity in this hour of need", "come to better understand my origin", or quite specific, "I wish to acquire the following mechanical benefit." They must also say through what spiritual exercise their character will be pursuing this goal. The goal and method of pursuit must be spiritual or mystical in a broad sense, although they need not be narrowly religious.

The dungeon master will first decide if the goal is feasible and the proposals makes sense given the character and the situation, informing the player if the goal is unachievable, or if it seems somehow implausible. There are obvious ways this could get out of control, for example by allowing a character to pray for a miracle that would mimic a very powerful spell far outside the reach of the character, like restoring the dead to life or healing the lame--especially if the character is not even a spell-caster to begin with! This downtime action thus requires a sensible DM and player, and  trust to work, so that the DM has the space (and confidence) to redirect proposals that are inappropriate. (As always, the dungeon master should try to be "yes and", offering possible feasible substitutes where the player strikes the DM as overreaching.)

Once a goal has been settled on, the dungeon master will next decide how big the tracker is that must be completed to achieve the goal using the guidelines below, telling the player how many steps it will take to complete their spiritual exercise. Only then will the player will then decide whether they wish to proceed. To advance the tracker, the player rolls 2d6, adding their wisdom modifier to the roll. On a 10+ the tracker advances one step. On a 7-9 the tracker advances one step, but the DM should introduce a complication. A complication may be a blockage in the spiritual exercise that requires some action to address, or the DM can ask the player to propose an inconvenient vow, or some disadvantageous condition during the next session. 

Here are some rules of thumb and examples for the size of trackers:

1 step: a result that is purely color, or a mechanically minor or ephemeral spiritual goal.  Example: a paladin prays to the Saint of her order to give her mastery over her fear when facing the spirits of the night, demonic beings that infest a broken tower to which her party plans to return next session. If successfully completed, this spiritual exercise allows her to re-roll a failed saving throw vs. fear against this specific foe for 1 session.

3 steps: a slight campaign goal, or a mechanically basic advantage. I would use this number of ticks for the player character spiritually counseling the artistically blocked shade; by meditating and advising a major NPC in a dungeon, the character can help them overcome their artistic block, and so release them to achieve final rest. (Were the NPC a throwaway or merely a bit of color then I would make the clock 1 tick.)

5 steps: a minor campaign goal, or mechanically moderate advantage. Example: a fighter with an alignment opposed to a magical sword wishes to struggle with the blade on the spiritual plane where it dwells. A successful completion of the spiritual exercise means that each will change their nature so as to become compatible with the other.

10 steps: a medium campaign goal, or mechanically significant advantage. Having proven his worthiness through service to the forest, the Old Man of the Wood, an ancient Ent, offers a gift in return. The druid proposes a spiritual exercise, asking him to instruct the druid in the secret language of bees. Upon successful completion of the spiritual exercise, the character may speak with bees at will and they will be favorably disposed towards him, considering him a true friend of their kind. (Note that to propose a 10 step spiritual exercise or higher, given that it grants a permanent power, there must be a strong reason in the game world why this makes sense, as for example, like the offer from the Old Man of the forest.)

20 steps: an epic campaign goal. A psionic character has learned through play that the ancestors of all with his gifts were invaders from the stars. He attempts to use his powers to access the shared genetic memory of his inhuman ancestors. If successful, he will learn the location and the method to open the generation vessel in which his ancestors arrived eons ago--the ultimate super secret dungeon of the campaign world for which every adventurer worth their salt is searching!

Friday, March 6, 2020

Downtime Activities: Martial Training

In war as in peace, practice makes perfect. There is the ordinary matter of staying in form through sword play with a dueling partner or fencing dummy, or through sweaty knife work alone in a darkened barn, or shooting a bow on a range or at pigeons in flight. To remain at the height of ones combat powers, one must practice. Then there is serious martial training, which is not a matter of keeping ones skills sharp, but rather about learning secrets of the crafts of war from masters of the art. This post provides rules for such practice and mastery of techniques . It is another entry in my growing system of downtime actions--you can see the other entries here. The idea is that during each downtime session you can perform one such action. Here are some ways to spend that precious action on the arts of war.

Keeping in Form

Anyone may spend a downtime practicing at arms, either alone, or with a suitable partner. The player must choose a weapon type (sword, knife, longbow, etc) with which their character practices. Only weapons open to their class may be selected. They roll 2d6, adding their level if a fighter (or fighter sub-class). On a 7+ the player may choose one: all rolls with that weapon type are +1 to hit or all rolls with that weapon type are +1 to damage until the next downtime. On a 6- there is no benefit. Note that snake eyes is always a failure, regardless of the bonuses received.

Mastering Martial Techniques

But one may also work over time to learn more sophisticated fighting styles. These are special abilities that, having mastered them, one may use freely in combat. Modern editions of D&D have developed baroque feat trees to model such things in the name of customizing and building a character. While there's probably a lot that could be extracted from those serious efforts for retro-gaming play, for B/X or AD&D lite, with its simpler combat rules and lack of skill trees, the general approach feels wrong. But luckily the OSR has produced many house rules presenting options for combat. My idea here is to simply make these house rules into learnable skills that provide combat tricks and options.

In order to attempt to master a martial techniques, one must first find a teacher who knows the relevant art and is willing to instruct you. The DM may require you to pay a fee, or to develop a relationship with the individual. PCs can always teach other PCs, but this counts as their downtime action. For each such martial technique, there is a tracker to show progress towards mastery. For each downtime action spent attempting to move a step forward on the tracker, the player rolls 2d6, adding their level if they are a fighter. On a 7+ they move forward a step. On a 6- there is no benefit. Note that snake eyes is always a failure, regardless of the bonus received.

Each of the martial techniques listed below requires 3 successes to master. You could introduce less effective techniques available for fewer ticks, or more effective techniques for more ticks. If you include more effective techniques, my advice would be to treat acquiring them as major campaign goals, on a par with having a splendid artifacts crafted. They should be secret arts known only to a few masters, who must be sought after in game, and who will likely only teach their art to fighters who prove themselves worthy. Once again, this is delightful opportunity for worldbuilding as you place the masters of secret martial techniques in your sandbox. (I may try my hand at some of these in a later post.)

Martial Techniques 

(3 Step Tracks Each)

Shields Will Be Splintered (Originally from this amazing post by trollysmith!)
If you take melee damage when using a shield, you may opt to negate the damage at the cost of splintering (destroying) your shield. You may only employ this ability once per session.

Wall of Strokes
Each round, you may forgo attacking, focusing solely on warding off your enemy's blows with a wall of deft strokes.  Your AC improves by 4 for the round. The use of this power must be declared before you roll initiative.

Due Caution
Each round you may opt to fight cautiously, giving greater care to your defense. For the duration of this round, your AC improves by 2 but you receive a -2 penalty to hit. The use of this power must be declared before you roll initiative.

Wild Abandon
Each round you may opt to fight with wild abandon, ignoring your screaming sense of danger to press the attack without concern for safety. For the duration of this round, worsen your AC by 4, but receive a +2 to hit. The use of this power must be declared before you roll initiative.

You are trained in the arts of dynamic fighting in the most dashing Hollywood style. If you are lightly armored (studded leather, leather, or padded armor), or unarmored, improve your AC by 1 as you swing from chandeliers and roll under tables like Jack Sparrow. Fighting classes (fighters, paladins, and rangers) may complete this track twice for a total AC bonus of up to 2.

Fight Like an Argive
If you have a spear readied, you may throw it and charge into melee combat in the same round.

Choose a missile weapon type, e.g. bows, slings, throwing weapons, etc. Spend one round taking aim with your chosen missile weapon at a visible target. On the next round receive +4 to hit. You may take this technique multiple times for different classes of missile weapons.

Eagle Eye
Choose a missile weapon type: bows, slings, or thrown weapons, etc.. Increase short, medium, and long-range ranges of your chosen missile weapon type by 10 feet. You may take this technique multiple times for different classes of missile weapons.

If you have ideas for more martial techniques, please post them in the comments below--or better yet, on your own blog!

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Downtime Activities: Building an Institution

David Macauley

It feels good to have built something. If your players are anything like mine, then a big part of the agendas they form have to do with building, bolstering, or creating institutions. I use the term institution loosely here to mean any kind of ongoing enterprise, the fortunes of which could rise or fall over time. Examples would include a bar, teahouse, or shop, a theater troupe, garrison, or mercenary outfit, a gang, guild, or orphanage, and so on. Since a large part of open world retro-gaming play revolves around factions, and since factions are often associated with institutions, players often develop a keen interest in helping along the enterprises of some and hindering those of others. As play evolves, of course, players often wish to found their own institutions, and this is one way that "domain level play" can start even in the early or mid-level game.

Here are some examples from my home games. One party worked to enhance the fortunes of one of the lowlier hanging merchants of the White Jungle, lifting his fortunes against his overweening rivals. Another party cooked up the more ambitious long-term scheme, yet to be acted on, of restoring the hanging pagodas to their former grandeur as a carnivalesque tourist attraction for the jaded Zyanese. For a little while one group was running a printshop (yes, that one) and employing a gang of street urchins, a la the Baker Street Irregulars. One of the longest running characters, who is a dancer, recently started up a dancing troupe with growing renown, another started a heretical new religion before departing on a vessel sailing the Oneiric Seas, and a third is currently in the process of building a monastery to MANA-YOOD SUSHAI, the Slumbering God.

This is a rough system for handling things like this. It fits with my developing system of downtime activities--check out the other posts here. (Someday, when I've finished the system, I'll put them all together in a free PDF.) Building an institution is a downtime action, of which each PC can only perform one each downtime. For inspiration with this downtime action I considered the very structured systems in Blades in the Dark, by John Harper, and the looser system in The Nightmares Underneath, by Johnstone Metzger. You should check those out, they're great on this very point.

Like my other downtime actions, the basic mechanic involves a reaction roll (2d6) and a tracker (or "clock" in Apocalypse World jargon). In order to make the roll the player must describe how their PC is attempting to build the institution which will usually (but not always) involve a cash expenditure. They cannot simply say, "I spend X GP and roll". They must tell the DM how, in the game, they intend to bolster the institution. The DM must agree that this makes sense, that the activities being described are within the power of the PC, and that they would indeed plausibly strengthen the institution. In some cases, the PC may spend extra gold in order to receive a bonus on their roll. They may receive further bonuses or penalties for situational advantages or disadvantages the PC has with respect to building the institution, given the "fictional positioning" of the PC (another bit of storygame jargon, meaning the advantages or disadvantages the PC has given the fictional situation).

If the player get a 10+ on the roll then the institution advances one step on the track. If the player rolls a 7-9 the institution advances one step on the track but the PCs also incur a complication, some kind of problem for either the bolstering PC or the institution. Ideally, the complication will call for problem solving and might point towards further adventuring possibilities. Often the complication will present a problem that must be addressed if the institution is to hold on to its fragile gains.

You can calibrate the size of the institution tracker to the possibilities for growth. If you want to become the top gang in Chicago, that's going to be a long road to hoe, with many possible kinks along the way. On the other hand, if you're trying to support a small town inn that has fallen on hard times, that's a modest proposition with a smaller track: since there's less room for growth and fewer looming complications. I present a generic track below that you can use as a default and a basis for modification either upwards or downwards. I also include a generic table for complications. The DM needn't roll on that table if they have some complication which fits even better in mind.

The fictional and mechanical advantages for moving up the track will vary significantly depending on what the institution is and how much of a stake the PCs have in it. Generally, speaking, robust support for the institution gives one access to the goods and services available through the institution free of charge. It may also aid in the cultivation of relationships (another downtime activity). Theoretically speaking, the difference with building an institution and cultivating a relationship is that in cultivating a relationship one strengthens the bond between the PC and NPC, and the roll is affected by Charisma, whereas in building an institution the PC strengthens an institution, and the roll is affected by expenditures. But in cases where an institution is run by a single NPC, it may be that building an institution is one very good way of cultivating a relationship. That's OK! The system exists to facilitate and encourage dynamic engagement with the setting. It's meant to liberate your players, not imprison them.

Institutional Advancement Tracker

  1. Inconsequential: The institution is a small fry, a little known and bottom rung institution, barely hanging on, and in need of much love and care to develop. Examples might include a back room noodle shop, a rag-tag gang of hungry street hustlers, a dingy and dusty fortune teller's shop on a desolate street. To roll on the advancement clock, the PCs must invest 500 GP in the institution. For each additional 250 GP they may receive +1 to the roll, up to a maximum of +3. 
  2. Minor: The institution is a decidedly lesser quantity, easily forgotten. Examples might include a shrine to a dwindling faith or a new gang with a small and threatened turf. To roll on the advancement clock, the PCs must invest 1000 GP in the institution. For each additional 500 GP spent, they may receive +1 on the roll, up to a maximum of +3.
  3. Middling: The institution has carved out a place for itself as part of the scene. Examples might include a small but active temple or a lively neighborhood bar. To roll on the advancement track, the PCs must invest 2500 GP on the institution. For each additional 1250 GP spent, they may receive +1 on the roll up to a maximum of +3.
  4. Major: The institution is major part of the scene. It is generally known and a point of reference. Examples might include a gang that has cornered some racket, or a bustling steak house. To roll for advancement, the PCs must invest 5000 GP on the institution. For each additional 2500 GP spent, they may receive +1 on the roll up to a maximum of +3.
  5. Influential: The institution shapes the scene, setting the trends, and exercising major influence. Examples include the temple of a meteorically rising faith, or a theater troupe with an avid and enthusiastic following among the city's aesthetes. The PCs must invest 10000 GP on the institution. For each additional 5000 GP spent, they may receive +1 on the roll up to a maximum of +3.
  6. (In)Famous: The institution has great renown, and may be known outside the locale of its operation. It's the kind of institution that is an object of fear or fascination, and it likely attracts visitors. Examples would include the thieve's guild in Lankhmar, or a puppet theater known to all children and shaping the very fabric of childhood in a city. The PCs must invest 25000 GP on the institution. For each additional 12500 GP spent, they may receive +1 on the roll up to a maximum of +3. 
  7. Legendary: There is nowhere higher to go. The institution is known throughout the campaign setting. It is an extraordinary instituiton, one of a kind, the stuff of song or tales. 

Complications Table (1d10)

  1. Envy! Other rivals at the old level resent the newfound success of the institution. They begin circulating rumors (true if possible, false if not) about the unsavory past of the institution that threaten to undermine the whole operation. Something must be done to bolster the institution's reputation. 
  2. Competition! One or more rivals at the new level of institution step up the competition, ruthlessly cutting prices and stealing current patrons, in an effort to strangle the upstart in its cradle. 
  3. Sabotage! One or more rivals at the new level of institution engage in some act of sabotage to ruin their new competitor, e.g. arson, spoiling or poisoning of supplies, or something more creative, like a giant spider in the basement, or a curse to drive off customers, etc.
  4. Emulation! The sudden rise of the institution has led to rampant emulation. Whatever your institution's thing is, suddenly everyone is doing that thing, in the most aggravating way possible. Unless the institution somehow distinguishes itself by the next downtime, it will fall one rank on the track.
  5. A Dangerous Offer! An institution of one rank higher offers an alliance with the upstart. Accepting means accruing the even more powerful enemies of this institution who will react on the next downtime. Declining means that the higher ranked institution will seek revenge on the next downtime.  
  6. Unwanted Criminal Attention! A criminal outfit notices the success of the institution and decides to shake it down in some aggravating and ongoing way. The PCs must pay the current level x 100 GP per downtime or have the institution lose a rank until the criminal problem is dealt with. Perhaps the problem can be made to go away with a show of force...or by doing the criminals a favor.
  7. Unwanted Legal Attention! The growth of the institution attracts the attention of the authorities, who busy themselves with inspections, assessing fees, and so on. To acquire the necessary licenses, the PCs must pay the level of the institution x 300 GP by the next downtime  (or find some other solution) or have the institution shuttered.
  8. Shortage! Perhaps owing to its recent success, something necessary for growth of the institution is now in short supply. Whatever is in short supply will have to be provided by the end of the next downtime or the institution will lose its newfound gains falling one step on the tracker.
  9. Suspicion! The rising institution has drawn the attention of an NPC or faction in the city, who suspects the hand of a resourceful and enterprising group behind its success. They begin to keep tabs on the party, looking for opportunities to exploit the situation, perhaps trying to get the party to do something for them through blackmail or with some combination of threats or offers regarding the institution. 
  10. Puritanical Opprobrium! The rising institution has been chosen as an example of the rot within society by some zealous sect, grasping politician, self-righteous reformer, or two-bit orator. There are rising protests, speeches, or boycotts against the institutions--unless the players do something about ti. 

Looking at the table, in terms of prep, the best thing a DM could probably do is this. When the party makes it known that they are going to be advancing an institution, the DM should develop some quick notes on the institutional scene as it exists, focusing on rival institutions. The DM should jot down four or five lines about, say, two institutions at each level the institution exists in the scene. This will take maybe 15 minutes, and then on a complication result of 1-4 the DM will always have ample material to draw on. The DM can seed the future fun by starting to casually mention the rival institutions in downtime threads, or campaign news, or city adventures, etc.

A Quick Example

Navilus, a former fisherman in Rastingdrung turned adventurer, has decided he wishes to bolster Old Nin's, a tiny shanty serving a passable crab stew and shots of vile rotgut. He used to come as a child with his father and remembers playing at the feet of sailors. Outside of the walls of Rastingdrung, it is a place away from the prying eyes of the Scarlet Censors. The party has been meeting there, and would like to use it as a more stable base of operations and a place to stash their contraband goods. Navilus thinks it's time to give the place a boost.

It is an inconsequential institution and the aged Nin, tough as she is, is holding on by a thread. Navilus decides to hire carpenters to shore up the rickety structure and expand the place to give it some light and air. He tells them to construct a back room where the party can meet in total privacy, and to dig out a small cellar for storage. He also goes shopping for some better lighting than the greasy candles that produce only a dim light. He says he will spend 750 GP on this endeavor, giving him one roll of 2d6+1. The DM judges this all makes sense, and the player rolls...and gets an 8+1=9. So that's a success and Old Nin's advances to a minor institution, drawing in new crowds to the more comfortable and attractive setting. She is very grateful and tells Navilus his father would be proud of him. But there's a complication, and the DM rolls a 1. Envy! Some kind of gossip from old competitors will be the problem...

The DM, consulting their notes, decides that the source of the problem is another wretched seashack called The Devil's Egg, run by Bartholomew, a crafty former stevedore with a horseface. He is circulating the rumor that Nin is getting money for her expansion from the Scarlet Censors as a rat-faced informant on the fisherman. Navilus is going to have to do something to counteract this if he wants Nin's to hold on to its gains. Navilus takes it to the party, and talk about putting the heavy on Bartholomew to get him to recant, but it's not really their style to intimidate an impoverished former stevedore. Instead they decide that Nin will loudly sponsor a flagrantly impious float mocking the Scarlet Censors for the upcoming Festival of Sybarites. That should do the trick at the modest (!) price of 200 further GP. The DM thinks this is an excellent way of counteracting the problem, but decides that the Scarlet Censors might take note in the future.

Later, Navilus wishes to expand Nin's operation further. The party is now interested in building a network among the Fishermen to whom the party's cleric has been preaching his strange new faith. (Having meanwhile started another institution in the form of a tiny congregation!) Nin's is currently a minor institution, and so Navilus decides to drop 1500 GP for the next roll. This time he wants to pay off the Guild of Fishers to get Nin choice crab and other more succulent fare, help her hire some cooks and further help, and build another expansion, including a second story with a deck for summertime. He really doesn't want to just lose this gold, so he decides that he will also give to Nin a treasure the party has recently acquired, a decanter of fine wine that is never empty. The DM decides this provides Nin's with a major situational advantage, and gives Navilus an additional +2 for the roll. Navilus' player rolls a 4 +3=7 and just squeaks by!

So it works! Nin's restaurant is now a middling institution, a fixture on the scene that attracts large number of fishermen, and even some others, who in summertime might wish to eat crab on a deck looking out over the oily waters of Lake Wooling. The DM decides that the success is due largely to the freely flowing wine, high quality but sold for a remarkably low price even fishermen can afford to pay. But there's that complication...the DM rolls a 10 Suspicion!

The Scarlet Censors have been watching ever since that odious and clearly blasphemous float was sponsored. The DM decides that they have a spy working at Old Nin's, a cheerful serving lad named Merrick. Merrick has told the Censors about the decanter, and with further investigation they have found out about the adventuring party and its exploits, not all of which have been strictly legal. The Voluptuary Venguld sets up a meeting at which she will try to strong-arm the party into performing a "mutually beneficial mission" on behalf of the Temple of Ulim. Will this entangle the party in the Temple politics they have heretofore avoided? Will it lead to enmity and conflict with the Voluptuaries? Or will it lead to new and valuable Temple contacts? Let's play to see what happens.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Zine Review: The Dirge of Urazya

The Dirge of Urazya is created by Jack Shear of Dolorous Exhumation Press, author of the long-running blog Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque. The zine is available in print + PDF here for just $6, and in PDF here for $4. Shear has written about the process of making it here and especially here. He did it all, from writing and illustrating to assembling the zines by hand. The zine presents the background of an apocalyptic gothic setting, and provides a series of questions for players and DM to answer in a session 0 where they collaboratively build the setting for their game together.

How is the Zine Made?

The zine is trimmed and saddle-stitched (stapled) with a black cardstock cover. The interior is 26 black and white pages printed on decent white paper (a step up from copier paper, maybe 24 lbs). Let's start with the cover. Just look at that thing. With just a few brushstrokes of white acrylic paint applied in a stencil, shear has created the ragged outline of white fangs, which emerge, luminous, from the darkness of the pitch black background. There is an aura or mood that hovers around the zine before you even open the cover. This simple but clever artistry is why I love handmade zines. Hand-painted covers using a homemade stencil? Brilliant.

It makes me think of a range of other possibilities. I'm a lover of elegant ink stamps. How about a white cover with a black and white illustration, embellished with a single elegantly placed red stamp? Or why just the cover? How about a motif that runs through the pages of the zine. You could pay black and white printing prices and then hand stamp certain pages of the zine. It would be a delicate operation, but the effect could be striking.

Back to Shear's zine, the interior is laid out in a single column for each page (double column for the facing pages), using the free word-processing program LibreOffice. It is self-illustrated by Shear. The opening illustration of the castle outline is great. The other interior ones have crude DIY vibe, which won't win any awards but work with the overall aesthetic of the zine. Again, I love about this zine how much Shear is able to do with basic resources.

The zine was printed online by a service called Best Value Copy, a competitor to Mixam, which I talked about last time. Shear ordered the prints as unassembled sheets, and folded, stapled, and trimmed them himself. Although this is not a big deal by any stretch of the imagination, unfortunately there are telltale signs of printhead smudging or misalignment in the zine. In inkjet printers, printheads are little nozzles that spray droplets of ink onto the page. In laser printers, they're lenses that fire a laser beam at a drum, building up an electric charge to attract toner to the drum in the pattern to be printed, which is then transferred to the paper. In both kinds of printers, the print heads can be become dirty (inkjet printers get clogged, laser printer printheads get smudged). In inkjet printers, they also need to be lined up and coordinated with the paper that's fed in, since they jiggle and spray the ink directly on the paper. If they're misaligned or dirty you get strange features, like blurry or darkening text or thin white lines running through text and images.

In my copy of the zine, the type on some pages is a little crisper than on others. In particular, the type tends to get marginally darker and blurrier as it moves across the page. It was subtle enough that I had trouble getting a photo of it on my phone, because the phone corrects for the differences in the shade and blurriness of the writing. To be clear, It's not the kind of thing you would notice, unless you know about printing and are anal about this kind of thing. But if you're going to pay someone else to do the printing and copying of your zine, you probably don't want this to happen, so I guess I don't recommend Best Value Copies. But I do recommend Jack's zine!

Castlevania is in the zine's appendix N, with good reason

What is the Zine About?

The zine presents the fantasy setting of Urazya (Eurasia). Humanity here was ruled like chattel by the Nobility, four great vampire houses. The vampire houses jealously guarded their knowledge of powerful magic and technology (including AI, and robots), keeping the human masses they ruled in ignorance. The vampire houses fell in the Global War, a nuclear and magical apocalypse that left standing only the great Capital, a Duskvol like gothic metropolis with crumbling steampunk technology, ruled by humans. The Capital is surrounded by the Borderlands, an uncharted post-apocalyptic wild-west, full of small villages, witches, demon worshippers, and--of course--vampires. Beyond this lies the Devastation Zones, forbidden irradiated zones full of mutants, environmental hazards, and lost technological wonders. The players play a group of "hunters": monster-slaying heroes.

The briefly presented scaffold of setting material is neat, but I had a little trouble holding the three thematic elements in my head at one time. First, you have a post-apocalyptic Gamma World type setting, with AI, robots, radiation, and mutants. Second, you have a setting where great vampire houses ruled ignorant human chattel. Third, you have a gothic metropolis, with dark streets, occult secrets, demons, vampires, werewolves, unhallowed fey, and 19th century historical trappings, including both the gothic city and a wild west periphery. I found that I could get two out three of these in view at any time. When I tried to hold them together in my mind, the closest I could get was the kitchen-sink aesthetic of Rifts, which I don't think is quite what Shear is going for, since it treats any period trappings as just one part of a pleasing but incoherent melange. To be clear, I think this may be a failure of imagination on my part (maybe I just need to watch more gothic themed anime), and more importantly, it is an issue that could be posed and hashed out in the Session 0 that Shear's zine equips you to run.

This is another item from Appendix N.
I haven't read it, but I always love Yoshitaka Amano's art.

This is where the zine really shines: the real innovation is what the zine does with this setting. The zine presents a simple system neutral procedure for a session 0 get together, in which your group collaboratively creates a setting on the provided scaffold. The retro-gaming scene (OSR, NSR, *Dream, whatever) has been excellent in providing vivid and intensely imagined worlds in a bottle. In other words, it has excelled at worldbuilding in the service of open world style (sandbox) play. But this has tended to take an authorial form, where someone invites you to play in their created world, and an associated culture where people encourage each other enthusiastically to share their creations with one another. The scene has not explored collaborative worldbuilding sufficiently, although there are some notable and excellent exceptions, like the home village generation in Beyond the Wall, or the use that some have made of Microscope to launch campaigns. I think this is a shame, because there's a lot of room to experiment with techniques for drawing players into collaborative worldbuilding, without undermining the asymmetry between player and DM that is crucial to retro-gaming play.

The method of collaborative worldbuilding the zine presents involves breaking the setting into 4 thematic sections: the world, the Capital, the borderlands and devastation zones, and a catch all including technology, the populace, magic, and the hunters (the party). Each section first provides some setting background to serve as the scaffolding for improvisation. The background is followed by a brief section called "aesthetics, themes, and imagery" that names a themes and mentions common elements to give you a sense of the flavor you should aim for in answering the questions. For example, the aesthetics, themes, and imagery of the section on the Capital begins like this:

Urban Decay. Slums and tenaments, rust, fog-choked streets, gangs and the criminal underworld, ramshackle homes made from scavenged materials, vermin, graffiti, outbreaks of disease.

Each such section is followed by a series of five "prompts", i.e. questions, about different aspects of the setting that the group poses to themselves and collaboratively answers. This is the heart of the technique, and it's worth looking at some of the questions Shear poses.

My favorite question is this one from the prompts on the capital: "Whose thrilling exploits are written about in pulp novels and penny dreadfuls, adapted to the stage, and the subject of popular ballads?" This is an amazing question, because it's such a creative way of projecting your imagination into the setting. In essence, it asks you how the people in the setting imagine their own heroes. It also shows rather than tells a lot of setting materials, communicating that this is a place where there are penny dreadfuls, and that people in the Capital read pulp fiction, and throng to a lively theatrical scene. It conveys immediately that there are legendary hunters or daring criminals out there, and that they have a role in the popular imagination, which might or might not align with reality. The answer to this question just oozes adventure possibilities: one hopes that the party of hunters will, in one way or another, cross paths at some point with this figure of popular legend. I can also imagine these kind of questions eliciting riffs on a theme, sprawling unpredictably outwards into a shared world. 

Other questions are more prosaic, such as, "Name an eldritch horror and describe their cult." The question is solid, conveying that the setting has eldritch horrors and cults. But it lacks the verve of the question about the penny dreadfuls. Most of Shear's questions are of this latter, more generic sort, for example, "What commodity is currently sought after in the Capital?" I though this was a bit of a missed opportunity. Perhaps this latter question might be pepped up in line with the penny dreadful question like this, "What commodity in the mail order catalogues has recently become all the rage in the Capital?" This would suggest that there are old-fashioned mail order catalogues full of wares and consumer fads in the city. It presents the same information but in a way that conveys the sense of a broader world, while also suggesting elaboration into immediate adventure possibilities. What are the main catalogues called? Who is running them? In short, I find the penny dreadful versions of the questions more fun to think about, and I suspect they would produce more fruitful collaboration.

After the collaborative prompts, there are various further tools for play, including a set of "Additional Prompts". These are not formulated as questions, but rather seem to be different elements (locations items, villains, gangs, etc) that can be included in the game by DM with further elaboration. They were a tad generic, e.g. under uncanny locations one entry is "An island used for secret rendezvous". There is also a list of one line adventure seeds that strike me as quite useful. There are several alternate campaign premises (play revolutionaries, or missionaries, or entertainers, etc.), and very barebones character background and personality traits that didn't do much for me. 

In Sum

This zine shines in two ways. First, it shows you just how much you can do starting with a good idea, a free word processing program, a long-arm stapler, and some creative flourishes.  The second is that The Dirge of Urazya is innovative, presenting an original template that can easily be reproduced. At its best the template fills a real lack in retro-gaming play. The zine's structure of four sections, each with background scaffolding, followed by terse notes on themes and imagery, and then a series of collaborative prompts is solid and could be easily replicated with any number of settings. In fact it's a great premise for a continuing zine. I think it would be neat if Shear continued with future issues for other worlds: each issue presenting a different world to be collaboratively built in a session 0. I hope he does it.    

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

So You Want to Make a Zine: Printing

This is the first a series of posts about the craft of zine-making for tabletop rpgs, all intended to act as a community resource to lower the bar of entry. You can find the rest of the posts under the tag, "So You Want to Make a Zine?"

I'm also going to be linking to resources as they become available. Let's start with this: if you're thinking of doing zinequest, check out this post at Caradoc Games for a bunch of good links. If you use twitter, start following @zeshio and check out his data on last years zinequest. Join the discord server linked there for real time help from a community of zine makers!

But back to the main business. This series will cover all aspects of zinecraft, from writing, to working with artists, layout, and physical assembly. This post is about the options for printing your zine. I'm going to cover four options, with a couple of permutations along the way: (1) use a copy machine, (2) print at home, (3) print it at a print shop, and (4) have an online company print it for you.

Option 1: Use a Copy Machine

The most barebones option available to you is typing up or handwriting a zine on loose sheets of paper that you photocopy and then staple together into booklet form. (More on assembling a zine in another post!) In terms of startup costs, you could literally have 100 issues of a medium zine made--say 32 8.5 x 5.5 pages plus a cover--for the price of $45 dollars worth of black and white copying at 5 cents a side, plus the price of a long arm stapler and staples. Here is a guide by the wonderful Julia Gfrörur that makes this process crystal clear. The main headache will be getting your pages in the right order.

She originally linked this on this twitter thread, making clear that she wanted this guide shared widely. I was put onto that thread originally by Jack Shear's excellent blogpost about making a zine here. (Hi Jack, I'm going to be reviewing your zine Dirge of Urazya soon!) While you're at it, check Gförur's etsy store too where you can buy a $1 physical copy of this guide along with her other alluring zines.

One downside of photocopying your zine is that you'll probably be using copy store paper, which is very light weight. Also, any images in your zine are going to lose some details in copying if they're complicated. An upside to this method is that it allows you to use collage in your zine rather than fancy layout programs. Just cut out a public domain image, and glue it right onto your page. You can do the whole thing in analogue, just like the punks did it in the 1980s! You don't even need a long arm stapler if you do a zine  like Mike Davison's Boarding Action, which was a single sheet of double-sided paper (admittedly, it's more a newsletter than a zine):

This is actually on pretty thick blue graph paper, so I think Davison
actually scanned it and then printed it at home.

To sum up, the bar to entry for the copying technique is very low. You need almost nothing to get started, and it can be really satisfying to make something with your own hands. It gives you the freedom to use collage techniques, and hearkens back to the DIY values of the punk and riot grrrl scenes. Just for very detailed images with a lot shading to reproduce a little unclearly, and you'll need to be satisfied with copy paper, which can feel a little thin.

Option 2: Print It at Home

Another option is to print your zine at home. Provided you have access to a computer and printer, this allows you more control over the process. You can lay things out digitally. That might sound intimidating, and it can be if you use a professional layout program like InDesign. But it's possible to do simple layout in Microsoft Word. For example, Gabor Lux's excellent Echoes From Fomalhaut, one of the most popular and well-loved retro-game zines, is laid out entirely in word! And if you have access to a scanner, at home or through a copy shop, you can even combine the analog and the digital methods by scanning collaged pages in and so forth. Printing at home also allows you to experiment with fancier paper, within limits.

This excellent zine is laid out entirely in MS Word. A little utilitarian, but otherwise fine!

But there are a couple of problems you're likely to run into printing at home. First of all, if you're going to buy a printer, make sure that it has the duplex function, i.e. can print double-sided. Otherwise, you'll have to feed each sheet in twice to get both sides done, and if you do that, good luck keeping the pages in order.

The second thing to think about is ink, which is expensive. One way to get around that is with Epson ecotank printers. They're not cheap, but once you make the investment, ink is very inexpensive. So depending on the volume of printing, over the lifetimes of the printer they can end up being a steal. I have the Epson ET-3750, and it's a wonderful machine, but it costs $355 new, (there's a less expensive but still great ET-2750 that costs $300). It prints relatively quickly, and does pretty good color and black and white images, and also color scans and copies. You could easily use it to print a full color zine for the staggeringly low cost of 15 cents a zine, immensely cheaper than a color zine copied at a copy shop. Counterintuitively, it's cheaper to print a color zine using this printer than it is to print black and white zines. But even for black and white you'll print each issue for under 25 cents, which is amazing.

Epson Ecotank 2750

A cheaper option in terms of initial outlay, but more expensive in terms of ink, is a monochrome (black and white) laser printer, which you can get in the $50-$80 price range, although they're a dying breed. On the higher end of this spectrum is the Canon Image Classic line of monochrome laser printers. I have the Canon Image Classic LBP 251dw. It prints duplex in black and white at superfast speeds, with reasonably crisp image. With an official high volume black ink cartridge for this printer, you can print a 32 page zine plus cover for only 55 cents, only slightly more than a copy shop, although you'll have to pay for your own paper.

This Canon Image Classic is a simpler model than what I have. But it costs only $80. 

A problem with all home printers is that in big print jobs, things often go wrong. There are jams, which are obvious, since they grind everything to a halt. But there are also insidious problems that creep in without your noticing it, for example misaligned print heads that lead to smudged and blurry text and images. There are also more arcane technical problems. So if you're printing high volume at home (as you will be if you do 100-200 print runs for your zine), plan for some headache, some heartbreak, and some wasted supplies.   

Another problem is that, depending on how fussy you are about images, and how complex the images your zine has, it's hard to get detailed images to come out looking crisp and pretty, with all the details visible, and the contrasts just so. This problem is only amplified if you're printing in color. What's more, no matter what the printer says on the box, my experience is that no printer you can get for your home can handle high volumes of printing on heavier (i.e. fancy) interior paper and cardstock covers. It's going to misalign your print heads, lead to interminable jams, and ultimately break your printer. This is wisdom won from great personal suffering.

So my advice to you, if you're going to do your printing at home, don't go crazy with your paper quality, and don't include highly detailed images with a lot of fine contrasts. Make the most of what you've got. With a little patience, it'll be a step up from photocopying, with more options and control over the process. It'll work great as long as your demands aren't super exacting and you don't push your equipment too hard.

Option 3: Print at a Print Shop 

This option is more expensive than other options, although not necessarily as much more expensive as you might think (and in large volume for some methods it'll actually be cheaper). It's also the level where the technical limitations are really removed. Print shops can do high quality printing in big volumes very quickly. They can handle heavier paper weight and cardstock. You can purchase paper directly from them, or you can give them your own special paper to print on. They also can fold, staple, and trim a zine for you. In fact, the trimming services they offer, especially for offset printing, outstrip anything that you can do at home, allowing you to go "full bleed" with images that run right out to the edge of the page. (This is only possible with precision trimming, since every printer leaves a border of white around the pages printed. To make that border go away, you need to be able to trip the top bottom and right side of the zine perfectly. I have a super fancy trimmer, but I could never reproduce this effect consistently at home, certainly not over large quantities of zines.)

This is a page from the "print ready" version of the PDF I bring to my digital print shop.
See how page 34 is 3?

Before discussing the options, my main advice about printing at print shops is this. Prices and services vary tremendously. You need to find a printshop that is careful, competent, and willing to do what you want to do at a reasonable price. Different print shops are willing to do different things at different prices. There is no alternative but to talk to a whole bunch of print shops in your area, and find out what services they offer, and what rates they're willing to offer you. I recommend going in face to face if you can. (They often may want you to email to get a quote, so do that, but face to face meetings are even better.) I hate this kind of thing, negotiating, asking people what they're willing to do, getting turned down, etc. But it's worth it, since once you find a print shop you work with and trust, this will be a valuable relationship that will support and enable your zine-craft. Since zines are potentially long-running affairs, this can be a long term relationship. You should take it seriously and find out who is out there doing printing, and what they might be willing to do. 

This Indigo Digital Printing, the print shop I used for Issues 1 & 2 of Through Ultan's Door. 

There are two printing options for your zine: digital printing and off-set printing. They are very different printing techniques, in theory each better for different sorts of jobs. (But as we'll see, changes in pricing may be shifting the balance towards offset printing for a wider range of jobs than in the past, at least for a brief window....before offset printing is replaced by advances in digital printing.)

Digital Printing

Digital printing uses electrostatic rollers called drums to apply toner to paper, one drum for each color. The drums use an electrostatic charge to attract the toner onto the surface of the drum, which is then rolled onto a sheet of paper. The paper is then heated to fuse the toner to the sheet. 

In terms of quality, if you've purchased my zine, you can ask yourself this: does my zine look good enough for you? If the answer is yes, then digital printing will work fine. The word on the street is that digital printing does better with black and white than with color--since it loses some of the sharp contrasts and vividness of color printing. Since most zines are black and white, digital printing seems like a good option. 

Illustration by the amazing Orphicss.

In terms of price, there is no setup cost for digital printing. I've watched my print shop do it a few times now: they just load the paper into the machine, toggle a few settings on the computer, and the machine starts churning out copies. Given that there's no setup, it makes no difference if you're printing 1 copy or 1000 copies of something. For this reason, it has a lower cost for smaller print runs than offset printing, since no setup is required and volume doesn't affect the pricing. This is another reason that digital printing is a good option for zines, which often have a small print run of 100-200 copies. 

But there is a catch. Owing to the availability of high quality color digital printing, print shops have phased out black and white digital printers. This means that if your zine is black and white, it will have to be printed on a color printer. In fact, it's likely that your digital print shop won't even list separate prices for black and white printing. And this isn't a good development for us, because most zines are black and white, and color printing is much more expensive. 

Indigo printing works with me because of the volume of sales I'm bringing them to offer me a considerably lower rate their full color price. But it's still not as cheap as I would like. I'm paying 10 cents a side, so $2 to print a single zine. And I'm providing super fancy paper for them to use and doing the assembly by hand. The paper costs me about 55 cents per zine. So it's costing me $2.55 in total for materials and printing for each zine, even before we factor in the price of layout, art, and editing--PLUS countless hours to assemble them myself. 

Here I am trimming the umpteenth copy of my own damn zine

Don't get me wrong, in the past I've enjoyed physically making my own zines, and it does allow me to hold my assembly process to exacting standards. But I feel like I could definitely do better, both in terms of price and in terms of focusing my effort where it counts.  Right now I'm shopping around Chicago to see if anyone will do offset printing at a lower price using my own super special paper. I'm hoping they can assemble the zine for me to a sufficient level of quality, so I can focus my energy on the creative rather than mechanical side of zine production. Also, if I'm being honest, my circulation has grown enough that physically assembling zines threatens to take the joy out of the whole thing--and in fact is becoming nearly impossible.

Offset Printing

Offset printing is an older, more exacting, more tailored printing process. In contemporary offset printing, they begin by separating the colors of your PDF into black, cyan, magenta, and yellow, and etch each color onto its own separate flexible aluminum plate. Each of these four plates is put onto a roller, and the parts of the plate without an image are dampened with water. Then a vegetable oil based ink corresponding to relevant color is applied, flowing to the parts of the plate that are dry. The image is then offset (or transferred) from this roller onto a second roller with a rubber blanket on it. (That's why it's called offset printing.) Sheets of paper then are run through these four sets of rollers, where the colors mix to produce the final resulting image.

Offset printing is offered only in select print shops, since it requires expertise and machinery. It comes with fixed startup costs, since the plates must be etched for each job separately. So it is expensive for smaller runs. But the vegetable based ink is much less expensive than the toner used in digital printing, so the larger the run is, the less cost there is for this method of printing. At high volume, offset printing is actually cheaper than digital printing. It produces higher quality images, particularly when it comes to color images, and gives you some more paper options. So if your zine has fancy color art that's a little complicated, or images where the color scheme and crispness really matters, then off-set printing might be for you. If you're doing a large print run (1000 copies), then off-set printing is almost definitely for you. But for smaller volume print runs, say under 200 copies of your zine (and likely, if you're just getting started, you might want to do a 100 or 200 run), off-set printing might not be economical.

However, given the elimination of black and white digital printing, offset printing is becoming increasingly attractive economically speaking, and may be less expensive even for some smaller print runs, if you can find a print shop that will work with you on smaller runs of offset printing in your area. There are other, more specialized and arcane printing methods, like risograph printing. But I don't know much about it yet. When I learn more maybe I'll write a post about it.

These pretty colors were made with a risograph printer

Option 4: Print through an Online Printer

If you can't find a good printer near you, or just want to compare prices, there are now excellent online printing services that fill the role of printshops. It used to be that your only option was print on demand services that handle both printing and distribution. You submit a PDF, and then they host it. When a customer orders a copy, they have a printing center that prints one up, and then they handle the shipping. These services were attractive at the time for those who didn't want to worry about figuring printing out, or trek to the post-office and deal with packaging a ton of orders. The main print-on-demand services I've seen people use are Lulu and DriveThruRPG. The problem is that in terms of printing, these print-on-demand services are set up primarily to print books rather than zines. As a result, they don't give you many printing options, in terms of materials and binding, and all the printing is (obviously) digital. The zines that I've ordered from Lulu or DTRPG never feel or look right. Often they're perfect bound, or have a glossy cover that seems chintzy in a depressingly corporate way.

Luckily, nowadays there are outstanding online print services that are not print on demand. They print, fold, staple, and trim the entire print run of your zine for you. They pack them in a box and ship them to your door for distribution. The online printing service that most people I've talk to currently use is Mixam. Depending on how large your order is, they will either print it digitally (for smaller runs) or offset (for larger runs). You can select different paper weights for the interior and cover, and even various finishes to apply, as well as your method of binding (likely saddle stitch for a zine). The service, in addition to having numerous options, is also remarkably affordable. Have you read Tuesday Knight's Games, Mothership, Dead Planet, or Pound of Flesh? Did you think they were pretty? Well, they were all printed through Mixam.

This looks good right? It was printed on Mixam.

Printing my zine, Through Ultan's Door, at Mixam would save me a lot of money, although it would give me a little less control over the process.  If you are willing to handle distribution yourself, but don't want to fuss with a local print shop, then Mixam is an excellent option. The only technical hurdle is that you will have to prepare electronic files that match their specifications. But even that's pretty easy: you upload pdfs of each separate zine page in the order they are read (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 8, etc). So you don't even need to worry about having a print-ready copy with the crazy page order.

So that's a wrap for my first post in the new "So You Want to Make a Zine?" series. My next post is likely going to be on finding artists and commissioning illustrations from them to bring your precious zine worlds to life. Or maybe I'll talk about setting up a webstore. Look for upcoming posts in my other new series "Zine Reviews". I'll be starting with separate reviews on (in this order) The Dirge of Urazya, Lowcountry Crawl, and The Doom That Speaks "zinis". In the meantime, if you have further thoughts on printing, want to share your experiences, or know about other online resources and discussion, drop a comment below!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Zines: Two New Series of Posts

Zines are amateur magazines, usually inexpensively printed, often with small print runs, and a D.I.Y aesthetic. While I don't know much about the history of zines, you can find a seriously oversimplified overview here. The story as recounted there is that zines began as part of science fiction fandoms, and then in 1970s and 80s, when copy shops opened, were adopted by the punk scene in London, L.A. and N.Y.C. In the 1990s there was efflorescence of zines in the riot grrrl scene.

There is a long history of zine-making in the ttrpg community and its precursors, which is natural given that ttrpgs grew out of the science fiction and wargaming scenes that already had a rich zine trade. Jon Peterson talks about some of that history here. Before he ever dreamt up Castle Greyhawk, Gary Gygax published the Domesday Book zine for the Castles & Crusades Society, in the pages of which Dave Arneson first published details about the Blackmoor setting as part of a play by mail fantasy game. Early zines in the hobby included Lee Gold’s still running Alarums & Excursions. Judge's Guild had several zines, including the Judge's Guild Journal, Dungeoneer, and later Pegasus, although over time they became more professional and less zine-like. Tekumel had its early zine, The Tekumel Journal, followed later by a few others, including The Journal of Tekumel Affairs, The Imperial Courier, The Eye of All Seeing Wonder, and Visitations of Glory. The Arduin Grimoires were printed entirely in zine format. Even Skyrealms of Jorune, a game that almost no one ever played, has had five different fan produced zines: Borkelby's Folly, The Danstead Traveller, Sarceen's Knowledge, Journal of the Tansoor Society, and, most recently, Segment Sho Caudal.

This isn't an accident. In many ways, zines are an ideal form for DIY tabletop gamers to share their adventures, houserules, settings, systems, and so on with one another. Unlike in the early days of our hobby, when one had to mimeograph an entire issue, the bar to entry at present is extremely low. If you do things right, and if you have the skills (and gear) to handle the electronic side of the operation, a zine might cost you as little as a dollar to print and ship at the price of a regular letter. The technologies for selling zines online are also basically free. For $150 you could easily have a 100 copy barebones print run of your own homebrewed creation that you share with your fellow gamers through social media and a webstore, or a through a third party site like DriveThruRPG, Lulu, or

The retro-gaming zine scene is currently going strong. Some of the most interesting DIY work that's being done is being done in zines. There were a raft of exciting new zines of all sorts spurred recently by Kickstarter's excellent ZineQuest in 2019. Thankfully Kickstarter is doing it again next month, so we're about to see another slate of new and returning talent. I've put out two issues of my own zine, Through Ultan's Door, and I'm hoping to debut issue 3 at GaryCon this year.

But I can't help but feel that things aren't as easy as they should be. Our collective knowledge about the craft of zine making is huge. But how can someone who is just getting started, or who's trying to pick up a few new tricks, tap into that wealth? To help, I've decided to relaunch and extend a series of posts on this blog called "So You Want to Make a Zine?" This extended series of posts will share my own knowledge, and (more importantly) the knowledge I glean from talking to other zinesters about the craft, logistics, and economics of zine-making. I plan on covering everything from how to print a zine to how to physically assemble one; from how to write a zine to how to find and work with artists; from how to set up webstores to how to layout a zine. Hopefully the comments section of these posts will provide a host of other resources as people chime in. I'll also be linking to other people's blog posts and youtube channels, whenever I find useful information. 

I've also decided that I'm going to another series of post titled, "Zine Reviews". I've done some zine reviews in the past, before I started making my own zine, including a review of Melan's fantastic Echoes Fomalhaut zine, and a review of the older and now defunct AFS zine. But going forward, I'm going to do at least a couple of zine reviews every month, and I'll be focusing not only on the content (as I did in the past before I knew anything about making a zine), but also on the production choices, physical quality, layout, and so on. I'll also try to do the occasional review of an old zine, or run of zines from early in the hobby.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Magic items are born not made

"Govannion discovered and set down the high secrets of all crafts. These Arawn stole to hoard in Annuvin where none may ever profit from them." The potter Annlaw's face turned grave. "A lifetime have I striven to discover them again, to guess what might have been their nature. Much have I learned--learned by doing, as a child learns to walk. But my steps falter. The deepest lore yet lies beyond my grasp. I fear it ever shall. Let me gain this lore," Annlaw said, "and I'll yearn for no magical tools. Let me find the knowledge. And these," he added, holding up his clay-crusted hands, "these will be enough to serve me."

Annlaw drew up his coarse robe and seated himself at the wheel, which he quickly set spinning, and on it flung a lump of clay. The potter bent almost humbly to his work, and reached out his hands as tenderly as if he were lifting an unfledged bird. Before Taran's eyes Annlaw began shaping a tall slender vessel. As Taran stared in awe, the clay seemed to shimmer on the swiftly turning wheel and to change from moment to moment. Now Taran understood Annlaw's words, for indeed between the potter's deft fingers and the clay he saw no separation, as though Annlaw's hands flowed into the clay and gave it life. Annlaw was silent and intent; his lined face had brightened; the years had fallen away from it. Taran felt his heart fill with a joy that seemed to reach from the potter to himself, and in that moment understood that he was in the presence of a true master craftsman, greater than any he had ever know. "Fflewddur was wrong," Taran murmured, "If there is enchantment, it lies not in the potter's wheel but in the potter."

Lloyd Alexander, Taran Wanderer

This post is written for a world in which Arawn has not stolen the deepest lore of the crafts to hoard in Annuvin, but where that lore is known by master craftsmen like Annlaw Clay-Shaper. It is also written for a world of rare magic, where magical items are unique and not available for purchase.

This post is a followup to my rules for commissioning the creation of splendid artifacts. These allowed the players to take remarkable materials acquired during their adventures to master craftsmen to have them made into splendid but non-magical items. Splendid items have a unique identity and provide non-magical benefits. They also evoke the achievements and experiences of the party. I mentioned in passing that most splendid items are not magical, but that every magical item is also a splendid item. But how does a splendid item become magical?

A splendid item has been imbued with the idiosyncratic visions of a true artist who employs the deepest lore of his craft to breath life into rare materials. At the highest levels, craft itself passes into a kind of proto-magic, for the artisan speaks the hidden language of things, and composes an artifact set apart from ordinary objects. Such items are receptive to the impressions of remarkable events in which they play a role, which kindles in them their latent magic. Magical items are not made, they are born.

When a splendid item plays a role in a wondrous, epic, improbable event, it becomes magical. The enchantments that results is unpredictable, but the splendid item usually contributes something of its own unique nature, and something of the magic of the events that touch it. A magic item is thus influenced by the kind of artifact it is, the materials from which it is made, the intentions and artistry of its craftsman, and the events of which it has been a part.

Cursed items are kindled in the same way. When they are involved in great treachery, hideous blasphemy, terrible misfortune, or pitiful failures, befitting a tale of woe or perfidy that might be memorialized in poetry or told across the campfire for generations, then they acquire a devious and ruinous nature, weaving such afflictions as befit the combination of their own nature and that of the misfortunes of which they have been a part.

This means that every magical item comes with an origin story. It is a story that begins with the materials of its composition, and the identity of its maker, and ends with the tale that kindles the flames of its latent magic. In a game in which this system is used, spells identifying the nature and workings of magical items (identify) are stricken from the spell list. One identifies a magical object and its powers only by learning the story of its birth. Luckily, I have rules for non-magical research to help uncover things like this.

The Mechanics

When a party member is carrying a splendid item, and the item plays a role in a remarkable adventure, then either the player or DM may propose that its magic has been kindled. Both must agree that the events that transpired were worthy to live on in speech or song. If they agree, the DM should then decide on the magic of the thing in collaboration with the player. As the one who knows the level of magic in the setting and what would be "gamebreaking", the DM has the final say, but should endeavor to incorporate the player's suggestions. As a rule of thumb, the more remarkable the splendid item, and the more worthy the tale, the greater the magic kindled. Try to make the magic unique, fitting some combination of the spirit of the materials, the wielder, the craftsman, and, above all, the event that gave it birth.

What follows is the origin story of a magical item from my dreamlands game. This item is a high-powered magical item that is epic in flavor. So keep in mind that memorable stories come in all varieties, from the humorous tales of a trickster to stories of astounding sheer dumb luck, and many items, splendid as they are in one way or another, are considerably humbler than the war hammer Tempest Revelation.

A Splendid Artifact is Made

A century before Ultan's door opened in the space beneath the stairs of a printshop off Eidolon Alley, an equally incongruous door was seen floating on the oily waters of Lake Wooling by a fisherman heading at dawn to catch two-headed trout. Trying to haul the valuable door out, the fisherman accidentally opened it. This induced the strangest vertigo, for the door seemed to open not into the watery depths of the lake, but rather into airy jungle heights with no land in sight.

Soon word of this impossible portal made its way to the Chatelaine. Her rule was then young, and she had not hardened and been so corrupted by the power she wielded, which was in those days less absolute, more in need of compromise and friendship. But her magic was potent even then, and there was a man who served her, a sworn knight, who drew power from her blessing. His name was Sir Garanax, and he loved her not a little. She knew, or at least suspected, where the door led, and sent Garanax beyond its bourn as ambassador and champion.

In those days, the Zyanese aristocracy still travelled the White Jungle. Thus, in his jungle travels, Garanax came to know the nobles of that city, and eventually found his way to the court of Lathanon, last of the Incandescent Kings. He was often a guest at the King's legendary Hanging Palace in the lower levels of the jungle. It was there that he met Lathanon's concubine, the unparalleled Lady Shirishanu--Guide, warrior, poet, beloved of the Sibilant Maiden. Garanax was won over by Shirishanu's courage, grace, and potent fancy.

Soon she began to eclipse the Chatelaine in his heart. More and more he clung to the oaths he had sworn the witch queen of Rastingdrung as shield to protect himself against these divided loyalties. The Chatelaine was delighted by this connection to the royalty of Zyan, a far more illustrious--and wealthy--lineage than any available to her in the waking world, and encouraged his connection to Lathanon's court and Shirishanu at every turn. But it was not easy for Garanax, who longed more and more to be by his lady of the dreamlands, and who felt even his oaths to the Chatelaine threaten to become hollow words. And he feared that were his vows to become empty promises he would no longer be a knight.

Something in his troubled mind led him to have the war hammer fashioned. He sought first in the waking world the carvers of Rastingdrung, legendary throughout the Wilderlands for their work with the shining beach, a tree of lustrous wood that glistens like silver when oiled, and grows only in the hills about Lake Wooling. He went to Andori, greatest of the carvers, whom they called the Troubador, for his hands flowed across wood like the fingers of a musician across a fret, calling musical forms from the depths of the wood, and he sang the simple and ancient songs of Rastingdrung with his fair voice as he worked. Into Andori's workshop he went, carry a fine piece of shining birch hewn from a tree split by lightning the night before. From this the Troubador fashion a handle of silver shining wood that flashed upwards like a crackling flash across black stormy clouds to a setting at top into which a hammer head might be placed.

Next, in the dreamlands Garanax sought Lathanon's mason, the incomparable Asmorath Por whom everyone deemed mad, for he gave stones tender alchemical bathes to alter their inner constitution as one would lovingly bathe a baby, and could be caught whispering and cooing to the stones, and wept bitter tears as he shaped their surface with chisel and plane. To Asmorath Por he brought his prize possession, an uncut piece of dusk topaz from the depths of a cumulonimbus mine--claimed as were-gild from a spirit of the air he had briefly imprisoned in one of his many escapades in Wishery. This remarkable stone the mason shaped into the head of the hammer, fitting it into the handle, harder than steel but lighter so that it could be swung with a savage force. The mason's alchemical treatments altered the stone, so that one saw on its surface the colors of a cloud dipped in pink at dusk, but beneath in the depth of the stone one could see the darkness of night or perhaps a storm cloud, which showed through now and again. And in rare moments, the stone would appear to churn or roil. Such was the masterful art of Asmorath Por who understood stones perhaps too well.

Sir Garanax named the hammer Tempest Revelation, for the Chatelaine was a queen of storms, and Shirishanu a font of revelation. Tempest Revelation was a splendid artifact granting Sir Garanax a non-magical +1 to damage. But it was ready to be the stuff of legend, and waited only for its magic to be kindled by a deed worthy of song.

The Magic of Tempest Revelation is Kindled

During one of his many rambles through the jungle, Sir Garanax came upon the unmistakable trail of the Sanguine Wyrm, a terrible serpentine dragon that haunted the jungle's bright groves. Cunning Garanax tracked it to its lair. Returning to the Summer Palace where the courtiers feasted and made merry, he called on them to assemble a hunting party. The bravest of them rode out, the noblemen and women arrayed for hunting on their strange mounts, with a splendid retinue in train.

Surprising the beast, they drove it from its lair. Crafty Garanax attacked always from below, directing Lathanon's noble hounds to chase the serpent ever upwards, harrying him at great cost, for the old Wyrm was desperate in its rage and its thirst for survival was boundless. They pursued it until the great beast, exhausted, was tangled in the densest jungle where the boughs grew in thickets, and had no choice but to face his pursuers, hampered and constrained by the cutting branches that ensnared him. There the Wyrm slew many, as its terrible jaws gnashed the life from many well-clad noblemen and women, and its gyrations sent their splendid retinue spinning into the depths.

Seeing that this must be ended or King Lathanon himself would be slain, Garanax hurled himself at the maw of the great beast. In its rage, the Sanguine Wyrm swallowed him in great triumph, not realizing that it had brought its own doom home. For, as the jaws snapped on him, Garanax slammed Tempest Revelation in a terrible blow on the lower jaw, through the soft muscle of the tongue, shattering the bone beneath utterly. As the beast's head whipped from side to side, Garanax was tossed to and fro in a black and bloody whirlwind, but the others rallied, seizing the moment of vulnerability to pierce it with their long spears, and the teeth of hounds tore its flesh until it no longer moved. As Garanax emerged from the mouth, spitting up blood and covered in bone, the magic of Tempest Revelation was kindled.

The Enchantment

Tempest Revelation is an intelligent war hammer +2/+4 vs. dragons. It is ego 9 and intelligence 13. It does not speak, but can subtly affects the feelings of its wielder. It's powers differ depending on whether it is in the dreamlands or the waking world. In the dreamlands, once per adventure, the clouds on its hammerhead can blacken and roil, releasing a 6d6 lightning bolt with a crash of thunder. In the waking world, once per adventure or downtime, the hammer when struck against unblemished stone, will produce phantasms, calling forth an illusory scene, as a clairvoyance spell. These revelations are chosen by the hammer. Sometimes they provide useful intelligence, but just as often they show the wielder something they would rather not see. For the vision is influenced by the nature of Tempest Revelation, which loves ambiguous relations and divided loyalties, and will often reveal scenes chosen to complicate relationships. For it is a hammer for border crossers, and code switchers, those with conflicted identities who dwell between two worlds. Those who wield the hammer find over time that their heart becomes capacious enough to contain unresolved contradictions, although never comfortably, and they are drawn ineluctably into fraught triangular relationships.

Since Tempest Revelation is a truly splendid artifact, its wielder a great hero, and its birthing an epic event, we know that its enchantment must be powerful. In early editions of D&D, powerful magical weapons are: (1) intelligent, (2) have large bonuses to hit and damage which are often greater against certain kinds of foes, and (3) have multiple powers that can be used once over a given period of time.  Thus, Tempest Revelation has a hefty +2 to hit and damage against regular foes, and a whopping +4 to hit and damage against dragons, since the Sanguine Wyrm was a dragon of sorts. Since Garanax made the hammer as an expression of his conflicted heart, Tempest Revelation bears this imprint in its personality and disposition. Since it was created from materials from both the waking world and Wishery, it has different powers in each milieu, each corresponding to one of Garanax's patrons, for the Chatelaine is a witch queen of storms, and the Lady Shirishanu is a font of prophecy. In the dreamlands, the power is straightforward, owing to Andori's simple and plain songs, but in the waking world, the power is crooked, tainted by Asmorath Por's madness.

Of course, simpler magic items will lack such complexity. For these more humble artifacts, one must choose one or two powers, deciding whether to emphasize the materials, the maker, the wielder, or (most likely) the event kindling the item's magic. The guiding principle is that whatever enchantments are selected should serve as a fitting end to the tale of the item's creation and birth.