Saturday, July 7, 2018

How Should I Share My Dreamlands Material?

I want to share with you my labor of love, the D&D dreamlands material that has formed the basis for my nearly 3 year (and still running) campaign on google plus, and about a dozen posts here. Speaking with Robert Parker the other day helped crystallize two major issues I've been struggling with in figuring out how to do this.

The first is that it's too BIG to produce. It is divided in reality and in my mind into three parts: (1) Zyan Between, the cluster of (more or less modular) dungeons in the undercity of Zyan that Ultan's door opens into. (2) Zyan Below, a 3-D hex crawl through the inverted white jungle that hangs from the bottom of the rock of Zyan. (3) Zyan Above, a cursed city in the dreamlands. It thus comprises a point crawl between dungeons, a massive wilderness hex crawl across four stacked hex maps, and a full city supplement. AND there are three tent pole dungeons, of the 200-400 room variety (only two of which my players have visited).

And even if it could be produced, what genre of RPG book would it be? Well, it's a tightly thematically unified campaign setting book for sure. In theory people don't like that kind of book, although they might like this. But it's also a point crawl between more or less modular dungeons, a wilderness setting in a dreamy alien jungle, and a city supplement. Oh yeah, and also kinda a megadungeon book (or three). Yeah right.

OK, so let's get real. How can I do this thing?

Robert suggested that I break it up (for now) and release things bit by bit, starting at the beginning. The idea would be start with Ultan's door and the area it opens into in the undercity of Zyan. (It opens into a dungeon called "The Ruins of The Inquisitor's Theater".) Zyan Between, where The Ruins of The Inquisitor's Theater is located, is inspired by the underworld of Empire of the Petal Throne, a vast complex of tombs, temples, and Red Nails style empty chambers. Zyan Between is the best entry point for introducing players and DMs alike to Zyan, since it's the most familiar in terms of the tropes of D&D. It's not as batshit crazy, or nearly as ambitious as the White Jungle or the city of Zyan itself.

So supposing this is the place to start, how should I do it? Robert suggested that maybe I should start a Patreon and do the first couple of dungeons, perhaps all of Zyan Between, as free PDFs with costs offset through supporter contributions. But my career doesn't allow me to make commitments to paying supporters that I will meet regular deadlines, so Patreon does not seem optimal.

Another option would be to do it as a series of zines. The first zine, for example, might be The Ruins of the Inquisitor's Theater. The second might be The Great Sewer River, and so on. Roughly one dungeon or pointcrawl area per issue. If the zine was modestly successful it might at least pay for itself, allowing me to hire people to do maps, art, and layout.

Another option is to do Zyan between as a series of free pdfs available for the community. (I love you guys so hard.) Without any funding source, they would have to be pretty bare bones, using my crappy maps, and maybe a single piece of commissioned art. Doing this doesn't foreclose eventually representing the material in a more developed commercial form. That's what ended up happening with my first module, The Submerged Spire of Sarpedon the Shaper, which started on my blog, migrated to the free supplement From the Vats, and is now going to be published (and sold) in a prettier, better, and more usable form by Necrotic Gnome Press. So if I do it free first, maybe later it could be presented in a different form. Or maybe not. Either way it gets to you.

A third option would be just to try to pair with a small publisher, and do Zyan Between as a series of modules. This would likely allow the most adequate presentation of the material, with for real layout, decent maps, and lurvely illustrations. But it wouldn't be as cheap as a zine, much less a free PDF. Also, I'm not sure that I will be able to find a publisher, although I'm certainly game to try.

So what do you think? How should I do it? What form would you prefer? Zines? Free no frills PDFs? Published modules? Any options I'm not considering?

Thursday, April 19, 2018

City State of The World Emperor: Lessons from a Failed Experiment

Cover art by Jannel Jaquays

Behold Viridistan, City State of the World Emperor, demon ruled metropole of a thousand intrigues! Look upon his Vasthosts of soldiers in fine battle dress, and his Equithrongs of archers, slaying from afar with their red metal arrows that cut like scythes, forged from carbellium drawn from the heart of a vast meteor! And yet, look more closely at the City of Spices' once exquisite alien architecture, and you will see that beneath the fanfare it is crumbling, as though consumed by a gnawing hunger. How riddled is the city with traitors, like a fine mansion, now honeycombed by termites. Look how the enemies of Viridistan--not least the Invincible Overlord!--have grown bold, and win unthinkable victories.

In a lot of ways, the City State of the World Emperor, published in 1980, is better than the City State of the Invincible Overlord that preceded it in 1976. It's conception is amazing. Viridistan is ruled by the self-proclaimed World Emperor, Huatulin Seheitt and his Empress Murielle Eidn. They are the last of the Viridians, an ancient, wicked race, tall and green-skinned scions of "remnants of the quarrelsome gods of the Uttermost Wars, Wild Men of the Confederate Tribes, and mermaids of the Trident Gulf". Emperor Seheitt is also God-Priest of Armadad Bog, a hideous entity of the depths. Part of Seheitt's papal palace is a horror choked submerged dungeon, where Armadad Bog has his watery throne room, dripping in Emeralds. Armadad Bog has enslaved the mermaids of the Trident Gulf, and in the World Emperor's inner chambers stand the tanks for "visiting" mermaids. It's kind of amazing.

And yet, for all its brilliance, the product is a failure. To be clear, I think it's brilliance is great enough that you should probably own it, and if you ever play in the Wilderlands, it will be absolutely essential to your campaign. And yet it doesn't work. I believe that part of the explanation is simple: the main author, Craighton Hippenhammer, felt himself forced to follow the template the CSIO laid down without understanding how that template worked. In fact, as I learned recently by corresponding with him on Facebook, he wasn't much of a gamer, and had only met Bledsaw at the Decatur Public Library where he worked. When he got him on board for the project, Bledsaw had already sketched out portions of the city, and finished some of the key entries, including, I suspect the entries on the city state history and the World Emperor.

Furthermore, as we will see, the template, so perfect for the CSIO made much less sense applied to the CSWE. This is interesting, since it suggests that the way we design our D&D city should depend on the city. Another part of the explanation is that Hippenhammer lacks the wild, banging away at his typewriter, hyped up on 1000 CCs of caffeine, elliptical genius of Bledsaw's terse prose.

Things Bob Bledsaw would never have written:

Sanitation Department
                            Class Align LVL HP AC SL STR INT WIS CON DEX CHAR WPN
Pike the Lefty     FTR   LE     4      20   10  6    18    9      8      11      8       10         Lance
Salman Rudee    FTR   CE     3      16    8   4    11    5      10     8       9        8          Spear

Pike supervises the cleanup crew in the city and arrest residents who continually throw garbage into the streets. Hires rodent specialists when they are needed. PROB 10% of sanitation workers contracting dysentary; 30% PROB contracting fever rash; but pay is good. Salman Rudee, in charge of the Street Scoopers Sections, sees that the constant traffic of animals is cleaned up after; he has a special detachment in each stable area.

This is the kind of fantasy trivia that has no purpose in a gaming product, and of which the CSIO contains exactly 0%. Does Salman Rudee keep a "special detachment" to shovel horseshit? Wow, that's interesting. And Pike the Lefty pays pretty well for rodent specialists...but they might catch dysentary. Classic. Let 1000 adventures bloom.

Even some entries that have real promise lack that Bledsaw verve. Take this one:

Barracks XIV Cavalry (LT)   

                            Class Align LVL HP AC SL STR INT WIS CON DEX CHAR WPN
Sasabonsum        FTR   LE     4      27   7    5   14     11    12    8       9        10         Scimitar     
The Duelist

An accomplished duelist, Sass is collecting the scalps of his victims on the mess hall wall. It is thought that he provokes many of these one-sided duels as a way of alternately feeding his ego and venting his frustrations. Like many other members of the realm army he is somewhat superstitious and will often postpone a duel until the omens and soothsayers feel that the time is right. His one big quirk is that he cannot abide to see any weapon or amor which is not in prime condition. This has saved him and his men on many occasions.

Here's how Bledsaw would have written that same entry:

Accomplished duelist; collects scalps of victims on mess hall wall. Superstitious, consults omens and soothsayers before every duel. He is meticulous about the condition of the arms and armor of his men.

The Bledsaw style version is less bloated. But it's terseness is also full of possibilities. Is Sass a serial killer who slays when the stars are right? Does he have an anal obsession with fastidious armor? Or is he just a grade A asshole? I mean what's up with this guy? This is the kind of entry where every detail lets you riff. An encounter with the Bledsaw version of this guy is going to be memorable; an encounter with the Hippenhammer version is not. The point of a Bledsaw description of an NPC or locale is not to do the imagining for the DM, but to spark her imagination. What you want from a description is just enough interesting material to get improvisation going and no more. It's a neat trick once you see how it's done, and it's not that hard to replicate. (I just did it!) But enough about prose style--on to the next point.

Different Kinds of City Make for Different Kinds of Play 

The City of the State of the World Emperor is not only the enemy of the City State of the Invincible Overlord, it is its opposite. The CSIO is an anarchic mess of a fantasy city, bursting with violent energy and sloppy juxtaposition. It is ruled from above with a light touch. It's the kind of place where you can pick up a rumor about a haunted mansion over on Festival Street while buying some illegal elven wine, and then get robbed by a minotaur on your way over to perform an exorcism. It's that kind of crazy. The City State of the World Emperor stands as order to this chaos.

For example, the text tells that the World Emperor is quietly replacing nobles with demons, about whom it says, "The demons have to look like common men and women, because most CSWE inhabitants do not care for strange differences in their neighbors." That's right, the main objection CSWE inhabitants have to demons is that they look like weird foreigners. The text also tells us that "The World Emperor loves order  and hates disturbances." Public disturbances are put down ruthlessly and will draw guards in 2.5 minutes (less than 3 rounds!). Even the map is rigid, as though someone had taken the CSIO map and smoothed it out, regularizing all its little quirky turns and alleys until a neat order prevailed.

The whole idea of this city is that everything of interest lies beneath the facade of order. It is a city of petty bureaucrats, yes, but also secret societies of cruel aristocrats, endless scheming rivalries between evil clerics and generals, and the plotting of hidden revolutionaries. It is a place where the World Emperor feels the need to maintain the upper hand by replacing his own nobles one by one with demons. And who knows what those infernal bastards want! In it's ancient, bureaucratic, and hierarchical manner, it reminds me most of a city from Tekumel. The same sorts of faction play, and shady patrons, double-dealing, and inscrutable cultural politics will be at the center of gaming in Viridistan.

The text, perhaps written by Hippenhammer, tries to stress this to players. He offers them this advice:

Gathering Information

Talk with everybody, being especially friendly with the employees of inns, taverns, and eateries. If possible, get them drunk, or otherwise in an open frame of mind. Observing marketplace activity can be extremely helpful. Encourage the relating of rumors, new and old. Learn about sudden unusual behavior. Concentrate on getting to know persons of one's own rank, position, and interests. Talk with the right people. Books and libraries (the literary kind) may also be advantageous. 

In Virdistan it's about who you know, and from among this subset, the tiny universe of those you can trust. It's all a game of cat in mouse in this ancient city of brooding secrets. This is a fun premise for play. CSWE tries to foster this with its tables of encounters, so different from those in the CSIO. It's all "Someone has urgent private information for a player," or "So and so is desperately searching for a prophet," or "A child is squeezing into a small space to spy on someone," or "The guards want to ask you some questions." It doesn't quite work, because it isn't quite the stuff of adventures, but one can imagine a good version of the encounter tables that would do better. CSWE also introduces an awful mini-game for "establishing comaraderie", reminiscent of the sexist mini-game for picking up women in CSIO, where the players has to perform a set sequence of actions to gain "levels" of comaraderie with an NPC. For example, two jokes plus a drink gets you "Level 1". Again, we could imagine less mechanically awkward and more productive rules for acquiring contacts in the city. (The Nightmares Underneath has some excellent ideas about this kind of thing.)

Hippenhammer was compelled to include entries for endless shops, military barracks, petty bureaucrats, and taverns over two separate books numbering 160 pages (with a third separate book for the Wilderlands Campaign Hexmap 6!). Furthermore, the locations leave blanks for the Judge to fill in their street locations. It doesn't bother putting them on the map, because, frankly, who cares where they are. Getting from point A to point B is not an adventure in itself, nor can one visit a notorious bootmaster married to a bigoted ogress to get shoe repairs. This lack of location gives the lie to the whole enterprise: the truth is that there is no point in this city to the micro-geographical knowledge provided by the CSIO.

And since the establishments aren't themselves sources of adventure, there's no point to detailing them all either. Hippenhammer told me in our brief Facebook conversation that he had trouble understanding why he was filling in all these trivial detail in the seemingly endless numbered locations. Partly this may be a lack of understanding of the model provided by the CSIO, but I think it may partly be a real lack of fit with the city as described. Seen from this perspective, one main problem with the CSWE is that it mechanically applies a template that is suitable for the specific style of play of the CSIO to a city better suited to a different style of play.

It is possible to imagine a better executed version of the template, that has the quirky Bledsaw energy in all the location entries, but tries to hew closer to the concept of Viridistan. Perhaps, instead of rumors, the entries for the establishments might say what secrets the owners of the establishment know, and who their allies and rivals are. This would certainly be neat, a sort of micro-geography of hidden knowledge and webs of relations. But this information would not see nearly as much play as the entries in the CSIO, since walking around the city is not an adventure in itself, so there is much less opportunity to bring the potters and glass-blowers of the city into the fabric of adventure on the fly. Still, I think it maybe could work.

But a more obvious approach for this city than detailing all the shop owners, would be to focus on the description of factions, of central players, of secret societies, and hidden and remarkable locations. We need tables of schemes, and hidden purposes. ("What does the intercepted message say?" "How is he being blackmailed?") On this approach, coming to know Viridistan is not coming to know its byways and alleys, much less its rooftop mazes. Instead, to know this city is to know its secret schemes and the people behind them. With Bledsaw quality prose, this approach could have produced an amazing city supplement more suited to running games in The City of Spices.

Because play is the thing, a city supplement must focus relentlessly on the facts necessary to enable the Judge's improvisation in this style of play. The ultimate limitation of the City State of the World Emperor is that it doesn't do this.
Druillet, who else?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

City State of the Invincible Overlord: The City as Dungeon Crawl

The City State of the Invincible Overlord is a boisterous sword and sorcery city. It wears its pulp and weird tales roots proudly. It is the product of shameless pastiche. What would happen if Conan were in Lankhmar, and tried to steal an elven jewel from the Temple of Pegana? If that premise sounds appealing, then you just might like this city.

The City State of the Invincible Overlord (CSIO) is one of the gems of the early hobby. It was published in 1976 by Judge's Guild. The map for CSIO was sold originally out of the trunk of Bill Bledsaw's mustang at Gencon IX, along with subscriptions for future installments with a map key and rules for play in the city. Eventually it was sold as a package number, with a guidebook to the city, rules for encounters, ancillary dungeon maps, and the campaign hexmap #1 of their famous Wilderlands setting. You can still buy PDFs of all that here. Rob Conley recently redrew the map in color, and you can nab that here.

The heart of the product is the map of the City State. It is absolutely gorgeous, a thing of real beauty. It's set in a pleasingly complex geography, surrounding the Estuary of Roglaroon, and the Mermist Swamps, giving it a sort of seedy port feel. The map names every major street and plaza, and you can trace the many back alleys, and envision their twists an turns. It also shows you every single building in the city. Many (roughly 1 in 4) of these buildings have names and keyed entries.

The reason that the map is the heart of the CSIO is that it approaches the city as a giant dungeon. The idea is that it is full, dripping, almost implausibly exploding, with adventure. Just walking from one neighborhood to another in order to visit some shops will embroil a party in numerous exploits. The way that a dungeon map is the heart of a dungeon crawl adventure, and is a kind of known environment (to the DM), coiled like a spring with possibilities, and filled with fun to be had around every turn--this is like that--except bigger, more open, and so looser, and more free wheeling, dependent on chance and a greater level of improvisation.

When I say that the city is lovingly detailed, so that you can know every corner and alley way, and can catalogue at least a large fraction of its more interesting establishments, I don't mean that it is like a fantasy encyclopedia. Unlike many other city products of a later vintage, moved by a similar fantasy of totally knowing a city, the CSIO has no patience for extensive trivia. The entries are organized by street name. They are terse and suggestive of a whole scene of action, and have the flavor of something banged out in a fevered pitch on a typewriter. Here is a sample shop entry, under Barter Street. It is, in fact, the second entry in the book:

Boot & Strap
                              Class  Align Lvl HP AC SL STR INT WIS CON DEX CHAR WPN
Karugy One-Eye     FTR   CE     3     13  7    5    13    9      8      14      14     14        +1 Dagger

Notorious Bootmaster -- 28 pairs PROB 20% of fit, 3 GP each (double for Dwarves). Large Battle Axe over counter; Strongbox: 14 SP, 28 CP, 1-6 GP on person. Aliadar, huge Ogre wife: HD 4+1 HP:26 AC:5. Trapdoor to pit opening into tunnels below the city. Four kegs of wine, flask of oil, roast pig, cloak hanging on peg has key to strongbox. Map to 3000 GP hidden in the Despot Ruins. Customers include Bandits, Thieves, and Ogres, NA: 1-6, LVL 1-6 Sign over door 'Elves & Halflings Axe on Sight in Shop'. Rumor: Adolescent Wench is being dragged by her hair south on Slash Street by an Ogre named Gothmag. Rumor: Two drunken Rogues Possessing a Staff of Power are slumped over a horse tie (actually two dying Sages). 

This is pretty good stuff. A one-eyed notorious bootmaster and his huge, bigoted, ogre wife have a front shop selling boots. It smells of a pig roast and always seems full up with a rough customers, drinking wine, and gossiping. In reality, it conceals an entryway into the undercity, and these patrons are all smugglers, kidnappers, and bandits, who stop on their way out after work to get a plate of roast pork and a cup of wine from the underground roasting pit tended by the brutal ogre matron.

Notice that Karugy is a bootmaster who happens to have levels as a fighter. Now you might think this was specific to the criminal operation in this establishment--he is, after all, married to an ogress--but you'd be wrong. Every potter and barmaid in the City-State has levels in some class, usually fighter or thief. The assumption seems to be that everyone can hold their own, and the PCs are nothing special. This is also one of the many ways that the CSIO takes the mechanics of D&D incredibly literally, perhaps more literally than intended.

Notice too the system of rumors. Most entries have one, but this entry, being full of gossiping miscreants, has two. The rumors provides the dungeon master with something to slip in to the conversation if the opportunity presents itself, providing a sudden adventure seed to be followed up on should the players be interested. In this case, the rumors are probably what the cliental are discussing when the PCs enter the shop. Obviously this feature has to be handled with discretion and a light touch by the DM. It is something to liven up the scene, something we can assume the NPCs know about, and the source of potential good fun. But it should be used sparingly and introduced organically as makes sense.

These rumors like almost everything in the CSIO are designed to introduce adventure primarily by providing tools for DM improvisation. But the main tool for improvisational play is the elaborate system for city encounters. You check for an encounter once per turn in the city. There are two sorts of encounter check, rolled on alternate turns. The first is a percentile chance of a special encounter for each named street. It runs from the prosaic, for example, on Barter Street where the Boot & Strap establishment is located:

                                              Barter Street
PROB 38% chance of being surrounded by Street Urchins demanding 1 CP each to go away

To the the fun:

                                              Festival Street
PROB 20% of 'Razing' (Harassment) By Party of Nobles, MA 17-22, LVL1-12; (Attack only if insulted)

To the bizarre:

                                             Prefect Street
PROB 10% of An Efreet Jumping Down From A Roof And Stealing any Item.

This is a neat mechanic that provides a quirky texture to the city, giving identity and life to the different streets, that come complete with vermin infestations, mysterious fogs, festivals, and roustabouts of all kinds.

The second sort of encounter is the more usual 1 in 6 chance, rolled then on a table, or rather a series of tables. Most of the encounters that result are generic, e.g., "A slaver attacks the party out of religious hatred," or, "An Amazon propositions the party to search [for something or someone missing]." In play, I've found this generic quality works very well, allowing one to adapt the encounter to the specifics of the ongoing situation, and providing just enough material to work with for purposes of improvisation. The tables have enough variety that I don't think they would get old. (In full nested combination, the tables produce thousands upon thousands of possible encounters.) They have consistently produced great fun at my table.

However, it took me a long time to grok the system, which worships at the altar of Rube Goldberg. The procedure is this. First you roll on a chart called "Type of Encounter" (1d6) 1: Attacked by surprise 2: Attacked 3: Slanders/Insult 4: Questions Players 5: Propositions Players 6: Special encounter. (There is, apparently, a lot of fighting in the CSIO.)

Special encounters have their own table (in some cases with nested further tables) which is fun, it can be anything from having a brick dropped on your head to having a town crier announce that the city is being attacked by legions of orcs. For 1-5 you then roll on the second chart "Who Encountered" 1-4: Men 5: Unusual 6: Per Quarter.

Each of these results requires you to roll on a separate table. If you roll 1-4 then you next roll on a "Social Level" chart which is a 1d6 and 1d20 giving you a range of possible folks, grouped by fanciness, with healthy quantities of town guard types thrown in to the matrix. There are further charts for a result of 5: Unusual people, and for encounters with 6: Per Quarter which sends you to a shorter table with the sorts of people you would expect to bump in to in the quarter of the city where the encounter happens. There are further charts like "Attack Reasons" or even "Who are the Vigilantes Searching for".

It could happen that you have to make up to 5 rolls, the first to determine that there is an encounter, and four separate rolls on different tables to determine, for example, that "Vigilantes are searching for a dwarf". Another problem is that women are almost never encountered. When they are encountered, they're supposed to initiate this weird mini-game where the PCs can pick them up through repartee rolls supplemented by gifts. This is especially strange in a city where the women encountered almost all have levels and seem to be just as badass as the men. I have the feeling that it is much more in keeping with the CSIO to have a looser and freewheeling sexuality to match the 300 religions that the guidebook tells us are practiced in the city. If ogres are marrying notorious one-eyed boot-makers, and S&M shops abound (see the entries on the fine establishments of Hedonist Street) then clearly anything goes in this city. At any rate, that's how I'd run it with adults.

I have to say, even with all the rolling on sub-tables and layout flaws, it has run like a dream for me at the table. So far I've run 8 (short) sessions with my son (9) and his cousins (10 and 13). They have gotten up to some memorable shenanigans. Here is one chain of events, that played out over three sessions, all the product of improvisation using the encounter tables, and the map and key.

When the party first got to the City-State (that's another tale!), one of the first things they stumbled across was auction in Slave Market Plaza. Their reaction to this trafficking in human wares was, "Slavery? Hell no! We are going to make these people pay!" So they came up with the brilliant scheme of selling the beefy half-orc fighter in the party as a slave (for a tidy little sum), and then using him as an inside man to rob his purchaser. I played up the slave-owner's villainy (he was a noble called Lugo the Cruel). In the end, the party fomented a slave revolt, during which they looted his mansion on Twilight Road.

In a later session, one of the slave's they freed, a loyal follower called "Lobster" because of a birthmark on his head, was slain by an attack from an ogre who came barreling out of an alley and took umbrage at the fact that Lobster was in his way. The players had really loved Lobster, and they remembered that a candlemaker named Remy on By Water road had offered to sell them a candle that allowed one to speak with the dead. Along the way they were propositioned by a noble wearing a mask, who said he had seen them fight the ogre, and offered them a hefty sum if they would use the same set of skills to kill a minotaur gladiator,  who was kept in some apartments of the undercity beneath the Sea Hawk Tavern on Regal Street. They agreed to the deal intending to swindle the mysterious noble.

When they had purchased the skull-shaped candle and conversed with Lobster in its eery red light, they asked him two questions. (1) You know the city pretty well, where can we get a fake minotaur head? Answer, "Try the mask maker on Festival Street, near the Plaza of Profuse Pleasures". (2) Is there any way we can bring you back from the dead? Answer, "For three days I dwell on the shores of river styx before I can be ferried across by the boatman Charon. During that time you may beseech Harmakhis, God of the Dead, to release me. He appears each night to receive a sacrifice in the bowels of his temple near the Square of the Gods." When they asked each question, I briefly looked at the map and consulted a couple of entries and voila sweet, sweet adventure hooks appeared. This is the kind of improvisational adventure, focused on the micro-geography of the city, that I think the CSIO is designed to foster.

I am moved by the approach of treating a city as a kind of freewheeling mega-dungeon. It taps into deep fantasies of mine of possessing a kind of carnal knowledge of the secrets of a city, a seemingly endless world of human creation that abounds in secrets and wonders. What can I say, I grew up in the East Village in the 1980's, and fell in love with the labyrinth of ruined splendor called Pittsburgh in the 2000's. How could I not want this?

Sadly, I think to really scratch that itch, the CSIO would need to be four, or even six times as big as it is. When I look at the map, I can't help but think to myself that the city is not big enough to sustain the sort of illusion it produces. The city is larger than life, and it is supposed to be crammed with every possible kind of intrigue and adventure--and 300 religions goddamnit--but it's the size of half the Greenwich Village. I want to prepare for the game by losing myself in the City-State's alleys and byways, to take a taste here and there, knowing that I could never hold it all in my mind. I want the thing to be big enough that the players feel that they could never explore all of it, and for the information they acquire about the city to be a big point of play. I want the shit to be deep.

Since it struggles with information and layout design as it is, to handle that quantity of material, it would need a serious redesign. The ideal form, I think, would be a clickable PDF of the city map, where you could click on each building to pull up the short entry if it has one, and you could fill in it whatever notes and information you want to add. Of course, part of the beauty of the original map is its lovingly hand-drawn, organic quality. We would need to keep the charm of that rather than opting for the smoothed over, artificially lit, hellscape that is produced by most digitized map design. At the very least, there should be more order to the map key, consistent use of the map coordinates to locate keyed buildings, and a quickly accessible index that let's you locate an establishment by name.

Another thing my ideal, fantasized CSIO would contain is excellent art, which it is almost entirely lacking in the original form. The ideal artist for the CSIO would be someone with a good pulp sword & sorcery aesthetic, the kind of thing you see in Conan comics by Ernie Chan or Barry Windsor-Smith, or maybe Stephen Fabian, or the sort of sensibility possessed by the artists currently working on the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

Erne Chan

In sum, the CSIO is one of the best products of the early wild days of the hobby. Looking at the rules of D&D in a very literal way, and having only dungeon crawling as a model to work with, Bob Bledsaw asked how the play of D&D might be extended to a sword & sorcery city. The City State of The Invincible Overlord is his brilliant if flawed answer. It provides one template for city design: the city as megadungeon, and shows us how it could be done well. Of course, we could do it better still.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

World Building and Old School Games

Old school blogs are full of excellent advice about how to run a game in an open world, with sandbox style play, and jostling factions. OSR types regularly sing the praises of a style of gaming where narrative emerges as a kind of byproduct of the choices people make and the chaos of chance. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that you already know how to run an open game like this. What I want to talk about is how to do this with a crazy, over-the-top, snowflake of a setting. I want to talk about how you engage in high concept world building while also running a game that is focused on hex crawling, GP for XP dungeon trawling, and faction play, all with total freedom of player choice, and emergent story telling.

There are real challenges to putting these two things together. One challenge comes from the mental perspective that goes along with emergent storytelling. Players in OSR games are often not investing their characters, initially, with a lot of backstory or thought. They prefer it to come out, over time in bits and bobs, as it's relevant, and fun. They want the story to accumulate moving forward, and they don't want to be doing homework. Since they don't view themselves as creating a narrative around their character, they also don't want to read thinly veiled fan-fiction, or massive setting documents. They want to sit down and start playing a game without having to do too much thinking.

Another challenge is framing meaningful player choice. For an OSR style game to be fun, the players need to be making tactically meaningful choices constantly. They need to know what they're dealing with, or have the fact that they don't know be part of the tactical situation they confront. They need to be making real choices about where to go and what to do, with real consequences. This is connected to the fact as well that PC death is an always looming possibility. (It's not fun to die if you aren't dying as a result of the risks you knowingly accepted.) It's also connected to the aversion to adventure paths and railroads of all kinds. This means the players have to know more or less what they're getting into when they choose to do that. The more alien the world, the less tactical information the players start with.

The last challenge is, I think, more general. Brendan S. talks about it very well here. The idea is that the extraordinary pops in part by starting from a baseline of what is known. If everything is wild and out there, then nothing stands out. This is partly an aesthetic point, and partly a point about information overload. If everything is always new and far out, then, in a sense, nothing feels new and far out. Also, it's hard to absorb and keep track of new information without a baseline of normal. What we remember are deviations from normal.

And yet, for all these challenges, my experience is that serious worldbuilding can jive with old school sensibility in play. Indeed, there is a special kind of joy that comes from combining high concept world building with sandbox style play in a tactical old school mode. For two and a half years, I have been running a game where players are dungeon and hexcrawling their way through the dreamlands. And its pretty far out there. They've explored the inverted jungle that hangs from from the bottom of a flying city in Wishery. In that inverted jungle, they've visited the shores of Lake Yannu that hangs like a suspended tear drop. They have opened the first two of the metaphysical locks of the Abyssal Dungeon created to hold the dread crown of the Hidden King, where they've battled the punishment puppets of the Inquisitor's Guild, stuttering nightmare automata made to entertain and terrify. Right now, they're getting into faction play with Phantamorians, travelers from the dreamlands of the dreamlands. This world is a snowflake's snowflake. TRUST ME.

Now I'm going to tell you how I do it. Here are some techniques for overcoming the challenges of combining high concept worldbuilding with old school play.

So You Want to Run a Snowflake Setting in an Old School Style Game?
Try These Techniques!

(1) Home Base in The Known

The first technique involves creating a home base where the players know more or less what's going on. The idea of "town" in D&D has always operated this way to some extent, as a safe place that operates on known principles, as opposed to the unknown howling wilderness or mythical underworld or Caves of Chaos, where reality might operate on different principles, and struggle with unknown foes, strange magics, and cunning traps, is to be had. In a game that employs a setting that is evocative and alien, the presence of this known quantity and safe zone becomes that much more important.

A good use of this technique comes from M.A.R. Barker's classic "Barbarians in The Foreign Quarter" set-up for playing Empire of the Petal Throne. That was a snowflake of a setting if ever there was one: a sword and planet world with highly-mannered cultures that are a melange of Indian, Egyptian, and Meso-American influences, all organized around a baroque religion worshipping alien intelligences.  Barker's fix for the epistemic difficulty this posed for players was simple. The PCs start as barbarians fresh off the boat in the city of Jakalla. They are staying at an inn in the Foreigner's Quarter, a kind of polyglot neighborhood full of Conan type rubes, all working as gladiators or doing jobs for shadowy patrons. It's basically a classic sword and sorcery neighborhood lodged in a bizarre Tekumel metropolis. It is assumed that the PCs start knowing nothing about the complexities of the society and religion when they start. But they need to learn quickly in order to survive the ensuing intrigues, so they can make a buck and advance in station and experience as they venture beyond the known boundaries of the Foreigner's Quarter into the cultural unknown of native Jakalla.

I use a structurally identical gambit in my game. The home base of the players is a homebrewed sword and sorcery city-state in the Wilderlands. It operates on normal D&D type principles. But this is not the main place where adventure is to be had, at least not at first. For a door to the dreamlands has opened in the back of Ultan's print shop, and the PCs are the very first people through. This door leads directly into a dungeon in the sewers and catacombs beneath a flying city in the dreamlands. At first I had every session begin and end outside of Ultan's door with a potentially shifting group of players. (Over time this evolved into a more relaxed and organic style of play, with longer and longer forays through the door and a more stable group of players.) The fact that the players had no idea what they were getting into--what kinds of foes were on the other side of the door, who the relevant factions were, or by what principles things operate there, is part of the explicit fun and challenge of the game. Their lack of knowledge is part of the tactically relevant situation they confront, an obstacle that they have to overcome through play like other obstacles, as they foray from the known waking world into the unknown country beyond the vale of sleep.

(2) Setting Information Only in Connection with Game Objectives

People absorb and retain the information that is practical relevant to them. If you are playing an old school style game, it follows that you shouldn't introduce setting material through narrative or info dumps, since the game is not directly about narrative or information gathering. Instead, always tie evocative setting information to the kinds of hooks that move old school games: to sites of adventure, or to potent artifacts, or to rival factions. For example, suppose you want to get a little further into the alien religion of the city of the dreamlands. Well, why not put an inter-dimensional temple to the Unrelenting Archons on the map as a dungeon the party can explore? When the players finally choose to go there (if they do), they'll learn a certain amount of dreamlands theology in a fun dungeony form. Believe me, crawling into a new wing of the dungeon through the hellish portal born from the belly of a statue of Vulgatis, the Archon of fecund and unseemly growth, will make a greater impression on your players than three pages of text wall. Or again, suppose you want to develop the idea that this flying island in the dreamlands is surrounded by the Endless Azure Sea, a reimagining of the sky as a boreal, half aquatic elemental space. Then why not introduce a Prince of the Air as one of the major faction players in the wilderness hanging from the bottom side of the island? The party is bound to tangle with him in one way or the other eventually, and when they do they'll want to know where he comes from, and what his sources of power are. Because they'll want to kill or swindle or avoid him. They'll need to know.

(3) Lavish Descriptions Only Once

When the party first gets somewhere mind blowing, or first sees something amazing, especially if they've been trying to get there for a long time, they have a greater appetite for listening to a description than they normally have when in tactical game mode. They want to hear about it and immerse themselves in an experience of it.  When this is likely to happen in a session, you should think about how you're going to describe the place in detail--you should think of this as an essential part of your prep. And you should think of this as your one shot to give such a description. Every time after that first time, you should have at most a couple of sentences to remind the players of what the environment is like they are moving through. Anything more than that will be boring--no matter how cool the environment is they are moving through, or how amazing the appearance of the NPC is they're interacting with, and so on. Seize the opportunity while you have it, and don't overplay your hand on later occasions. This has been very hard for me to learn, and I still stumble from time to time.

For example, the first time the party descended into the inverted White Jungle that hangs from the bottom of the rock of Zyan, I thought in detail about how I would describe the profusion of life, the sights of the foliage, the sounds of animal life, and the fragrant smells of this alien jungle. I thought about what it's like to move in space through it, on a system of ropes, descending ever deeper, walking on lattices of branches that can give way at any moment, and so on. And I shared that with them, because I knew they would be into it. I knew they would want to know what it is was like to be moving through an inverted white jungle in the dreamlands, in part because they worked so hard to get there, and in part because the wow factor of this setting bit. Every time after that that I made the mistake of launching into rich descriptions of the jungle, I watched their eyes glaze over. They were thinking, "Now is not the time for that; now we are trying to get from point A to point B." And they were right. This is a hard but important lesson for someone who wants to do rich world-building in an old school game. 

This is part of the answer to Brendan S.' worry about the baseline of normal. The first time I described the jungle it popped. After that it was the new baseline of normal that operated in now familiar mechanical ways. Everyone knew what was what, and that meant that there was now room for the next thing to pop as new and exciting, when its moment came.

(4) Information Gathering in Optional Downtime Threads

If you're going to go into a more discursive mode with setting information, it's crucial that you make it optional for folks. One way we handle that in my game is that if some members of the party want to do research in a library, or to extract information by questioning an NPC about some setting element, then instead of stopping the action in our hangouts game, we save that for later in a "downtime thread", which is basically a social media play by post. This gives me time to figure out answers to their often unanticipated questions. But it also allows a division of labor among the players. Whoever finds it fun to engage in these downtime threads does so, others don't, maybe perusing them before the next game, or maybe not. The basic principle here is that you don't ever force players to learn about anything in a discursive mode.  No one is ever forced to undergo excruciating (to them) setting information extraction (e.g. an info dump delivered by NPC monologue). To be sure, sometimes the PCs need to learn about the setting to get what they want to get done (or just because they're curious)--in those cases let a division of labor work where those who enjoy that kind of thing shoulder the burden of it. Memory and knowledge is a collective possession, a pooled resource, in a party of adventurers.

(5) Polished Canon Only After The Fact

If you're into worldbuilding, then chances are you like to keep records. You probably take more notes than most DMs, and may even write down canonical versions of things. This blog exists in order for me to do that. Speaking for myself, creating canonical, polished versions of my own private snowflake is one of the joys of worldbuilding. I want to write things up, I love doing it. There's a special aesthetic pleasure that comes from dressing up my fever dreams so they are presentable for company. What makes worldbulding fun is dwelling with something drawn from your fancy over an extended period of time, until it has a kind of life of its own in your imagination. Writing something up slowly, building it in prose, gives it that kind of reality on the page, and so partakes of the very same pleasure.

Of course, if you have a canonical version of things, you want to share it with your players. And you should! But yet, I just said that you don't ever want to force them to read anything. So here's how I handle that. I try to only put polished content on the blog after the fact, when my players have already learned the relevant information in game. This means that the players are never forced to read my canon, since they already know what they need to know by playing the game. I'll just post a link to it in the community for the game, and say "Here's a polished canonical version of that thing you guys learned about a while back. It has a little bit more backstory. Look at it if you want." Some people do, and some people don't as suits their taste. It's also handy to have those blog entries when, during a game, someone says, "Wait, what did that super-powerful Poem say that we picked up a year ago? Didn't it talk about this dungeon?" and as a DM I can just drop a link to the blog entry on In the Light of Other Moons.   

Using these techniques you too can combine your desire to dwell to absurd degrees in castles spun from the spiderwebs and stardust of your fancy with your desire to run open world, tactical old school style games. You can have your fucking weird cake and eat it too. It's delicious.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Agents of The Black Lotus

They who believe in the influences of the stars over the fates of men, are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law. All that man sees has to do with man. World cannot be without an intermundane relationship... No Shining belt or gleaming moon, no red and green glory in a self-encircling twin-star, but has a relation with the hidden things of a man's soul, and, it may be, with the secret history of the body as well. They are portions of the living house wherein he abides. 

Phantastes, George MacDonald

Sometimes when an orphan disappears in the City State, or when a criminal is sentenced to death but never appears before the executioner, who waits impatiently by the cutting stone with his great axe slung useless on his back, this is what happens. Taken blindfolded and bound by nondescript men, he is led by secret tunnels to a forgotten chamber beneath the Cryptic Citadel. His hands are loosed as a door suddenly closes behind him. So it is that he finds himself in the chamber of the Black Lotus.

A queer stone of a hue impossibly black rests upon an altar of purest white marble. Its majesty is terrible to behold, drawing in the gaze even as it repels. Although unmoving, it seems to turn upon itself folding like the petals of a trembling black flower. Then its song begins. One in ten leave the chamber to begin their training as a new member of the Order of The Black Lotus, the Invincible Overlord's society of monk assassins, secret police, and agents provocateur.

The Order of the Black Lotus was formed long ago, during the period known from obscure markings on the great calendar obelisk as the Cycle of the Black Sun. This heavenly body appeared at first to be an unpredicted solar eclipse, a disk of black surrounded by a solar corona. This lasted for ten days of hideous waking darkness, before the black disk separated itself from the sun, assuming for a period of seven years its station as a counter-sun in the day's sky, casting an eerie grey light with white shadows.

Manuel Tinneman

During this time unknown demons stalked the earth, and the principles of natural philosophy were stood upon their head. Alchemical processes were subject to strange and deadly alterations in the light of the Black Sun, and many a scullery maid's stew was ruined, or hands burnt by the sudden boiling of water, when the strange grey light fell upon their kitchen. Mass hysteria led to numerous inconclusive but bloody revolutions.

The Order of the Black Lotus arose at this time, one of innumerable apocalyptic cults. How this group came to possess the Black Lotus is not known, nor its relation to the Black Sun; whether it is a fragment of that other sun, or its effluvia, or even its seed, or whether it bears no relation at all. The cult was brutally suppressed and the Black Lotus interred in the undercity and forgotten for many years, until a pair of goblin engineers stumbled upon the chamber (and their doom) while excavating old tunnels beneath the Cryptic Citadel. With some research, the Overlord's sages uncovered smudged and torn copies of the cult's holy text, Gospel of the Alien Sun. From these the meditative practices of the cult were reconstructed.

In addition to their earthly training in arts of stealth and deception, the agents draw from their esoteric communion with the Black Lotus strange powers over density, gravity, and the void. These powers are harnessed in their weirding martial art, and in a variety of disciplines that initiate alchemical processes within their body. The limit of their power is unknown, but the Gospels speak of disciples whose open palm strikes with the force of a comet, and others who are able to survive the void of space.


Only humans may become agents of the Black Lotus. To survive their ordeal with the stone, they must possess certain remarkable qualities. They are the following:

Strength:       15
Dexterity:     15
Wisdom:       15
Constitution: 12

They must be Lawful Neutral or Lawful Evil.

Hit Dice

The HD of the agent of the Black Lotus is 1d4. However, an agent begins at first level with 2 HD.

Class Abilities and Limitations

Combat and Movement

Agents of the Black Lotus may use any weapon, but cannot wear armor. They fight as thieves of like level. They do not receive strength bonuses to hit or damage, nor dexterity bonuses to their AC.

However, as their meditative journeys penetrate deeper into the labyrinths within the stone their ability to control the density of matter, gravity, and other less well-understood forces increases. Through constant training they learn to weaponize these abilities and employ them as fearsome defenses.

As a result of these defenses, their AC decreases by one for each level above first. They may also save vs. paralysis to avoid normal missile attacks, and save vs. spells to avoid magical missile. Finally, if an attack (e.g. dragon breath) indicates that they would take half damage from a successful save, they take no damage.

Offensively, they receive +1 to damage with weapons for every two levels; and they gain extra unarmed attacks that do increasing damage as they progress in their weirding. (See the chart below.) Furthermore, if they roll 5 more than is required to hit a foe, then the foe is stunned for 1d6 rounds, with a base chance equal to their opponents AC +1% per level over 7 to kill them outright.

Every level above first their base move increases by 10'. 

Thief Abilities

As the secret police of the Invincible Overlord, agents of the Black Lotus receive extensive training in arts of stealth and deception. Like the houri, the agent of the Black Lotus employs +Chris Kutalik's B/X thief variant, which resembles the LOTFP specialist. Thief skills require rolling equal to or under on 1d6 modified by circumstances as the DM rules. The agent has starting skills equal to the following, and receives one additional point to distribute per level.

Stealth         2
Climb           4
Hear Noise    2
Disguise        1
Pick Locks     1

Requirements to Advance in Level

To ascend in levels, the agents of the Black Lotus must perform certain actions. To go up in any level, the agent must withdraw to meditate for a period of time, delving further into the Black Lotus. If you are not using training rules like those in AD&D, then the agent must miss one game session, where it can be assumed he is deep in meditation. (During this time, the player is encouraged to play a henchman or hireling.) In addition, to reach certain levels further tasks must be accomplished:

To reach 3rd level, the agent must win a minor victory for the Invincible Overlord. Minor feats might include disrupting or temporarily setting back an enemy's plan, sewing temporary discord between two of the Overlord's enemies, or delivering a piece of genuinely useful information to the Overlord.

To reach 5th level, the agent must win a moderate victory for the Invincible Overlord. Moderate victories include permanently ruining an enemy's plan, delivering a useful object (magical item, map, etc.), acquiring a piece of major intelligence, or significantly advancing one of the Overlord's plans.

To reach 7th level, the agent must win a major victory for the Invincible Overlord. Major victories include assassinating a minor enemy of the Overlord, sewing lasting discord between two of the Overlord's enemies, delivering a powerful magical object, or achieving one of the Overlord's major goals.

To reach 10th level, the agent must win an epic victory for the Invincible Overlord. Epic victories include assassinating a major enemy of the Overlord, starting a war between two of the Overlord's enemies, recovering an artifact (in the AD&D sense), or gaining a major asset of decisive significance of the Invincible Overlord.

To reach 11th level, the agent must slay the current Master of the Fetid Calf in unarmed combat, for there can be only one.

To reach 12th level, the agent must slay the current Master of the Gelid Membranes in unarmed combat, for there can be only one.

To reach 13th level, the agent must slay the current Master of the Five Voids in unarmed combat, for there can be only one.

Special Powers

At second level, his special secret training in resisting magical interrogation allows the agent of the Black Lotus to mask his true thoughts from ESP with 70% success. This percentage increases by 2% per level.

At third level, his meditations allow him to enter the first of the chambers within the Black Lotus. There he will encounter the Rippling Torus. If he is not overwhelmed, he may now call on his uncertain bond with this entity to create distortions in the gravitational field, allowing him to jump, as the spell, once per day.

At fourth level, his mastery of the Rippling Torus deepens, and he no longer takes falling damage if he is within 20 feet of a wall or other vertical surface when he falls.

At fifth level, his meditations take him beyond the first chamber, to the threshold of the Labyrinth of the Echoing Shadow. Across the threshold drifts the Wind of Five Crystals. By inhaling this incense, he may cease breathing for 1 hour plus 1 hour per level over fifth level.

At sixth level, the agent may enter the Labyrinth of the Echoing Shadow. But to do so he must take it into himself, consuming it in a great psychic feast. After this, he may at any time enter the antechamber of the labyrinth within. Here he will hear the buzzing of the Hive Bells. By silencing them, he may slow his heart beat and other vital functions, feigning death once per day, as the spell.

At seventh level, he may penetrate further into the Labyrinth within the Black Lotus, wandering many turning ways in the darkness. When he is ready, he may follow the paths of his own whimsical memories, which lead to the White Room. The great Alabaster Map there charts the flow of alchemical forces through his body, allowing him to slow poison in his blood, as the spell delay poison, once per day.

At eighth level, he may follow his painful memories of rejection to the Frozen Apse, where the cold of space bleeds through the perforated masonry. He may now travel there once per day, allowing him to resist cold, as the spell, for 1 hour plus 1 hour for each level over seventh.

At ninth level, he may follow the trail of his guilty deeds to the Heavy Priory, where the churning of the space is a crushing weight. He may now travel there once per day, allowing him to survive in high pressure environments for 1 hour plus 1 hour for each level over ninth. During this time he may act as normal.

At tenth level he may he may return to the Alabaster Map, opening its hidden ways to travel throughout the byways of his body. This allows him to neutralize poison in his blood stream, as well as cure his own diseases once per day.

At eleventh level, he may follow his childhood fears through the Labyrinth to reveal the Sanctum of the Fetid Calf. Here he will encounter the Rippling Torus in its true form. Should he survive the contest, he will master the torus, gaining the ability to subject his enemies to crushing gravitational effects with a deliberate blow. He may now slow an opponent with a successful strike of his palm, as per the spell, once per day.

At twelfth level, he may follow the path of his lost memories to the Nave of the Gelid Membranes. This is a terrible place of no consciousness. He may now go there one per day, allowing him to inflict blindness and deafness on an opponent once per day with a successful strike of his palm, as per the spells.

At thirteenth level, he will finally begin to hear the reverberations of the Echoing Shadow. They will come to him unbidden, and will fill him with terror. Should he find the courage to follow them to their source, in the heart of the Black Lotus, he will find the Transept of the Five Voids. This will allow him to deliver the dreaded touch of the void once every two weeks. If he successfully strikes an opponent with the palm of his hand, he may plant a void seed within their body, bringing it to fruition at any point in the next two weeks. The victim must HD equal to or less than the agent. When the void comes to fruition, the victim will be swallowed from within, disappearing utterly.

It is not known what powers or perils those who choose to delve further into the Black Lotus. For, it is thought that to go beyond the station of the Master of the Five Voids is to come face to face with the Echoing Shadow itself.




Required Task












Minor Victory for Overlord






Initiate of the Labyrinth 


Moderate Victory for Overlord


Disciple of the Labyrinth




Wanderer in the Darkness


Major Victory for Overlord


Eye of The Overlord




Hand of the Overlord




Blade of the Overlord


Epic Victory for the Overlord


Master of the Fetid Calf


Slay the Current Master of the Fetid Calf


Master of the Gelid Membrane


Slay the Current Master of the Gelid Membrane


Master of the Five Voids


Slay the Curret Master of the Five Voids