Monday, March 18, 2019

Through Ultan's Door Issue 2: Progress


Issue 2 of Through Ultan's Door is nearing completion. I still need to commission a few pieces of art, but we're almost there. Here are the contents:
  • A cover by Russ Nicholson showing the entrance to the catacombs (pictured above). Roughly twice as much art as in Issue 1, including several jaw-dropping pieces by Huargo. Like the one below!
  • The Shades of Zyan on the nature of the living dead of the dreamlands.
  • House Rules for Slumberland, a new regular column introducing house rules for play beyond the veil of sleep.
  • The Catacombs of the Fleischguild, an entire 31 room trap-filled dungeon of the butcher priests of Zyan. As in issue 1, the cover of the zine is detachable with a lovely map of the dungeon by Gus L. on its interior.
  • Items & Spells: Several new spells for clerics of Vulgatis, the Archon of fecund and unseemly growth, and the legendary Spatterhaft, a splendid tool of ritual slaughter passed down among the Master Carvers of the Fleischguild.
  • Down The Sewer River, A separate point crawl map of the sewer river on folded 11x17 paper. The map is also being drawn by Gus. The key will be right on the map, with a massive encounter table on the reverse. This map connects the Ruins of the Inquisitors' Guild in issue 1 with the Catacombs of the Fleischguild in this issue. In a single sheet of paper, it contains everything you need to send your PCs down the river to numerous destinations.
By Huargo
If you wish to receive notification when Issue 2 becomes available, please send an email to throughultansdoor@gmail.com to be added to my mailing list. If you ordered a physical or digital copy of Issue 1 from my Big Cartel store, then you are already on the mailing list. I may at some point start a Patreon, but have not done so yet. 

When the new issue goes on sale, I will also be reprinting Issue 1. So if you missed it the first time around, you'll have a second chance to nab it. The Melsonian Arts Council will be handling orders for both issues outside the US with more reasonable and reliable shipping than I can manage here. I hope that will better serve international customers this time around.

And did I mention that Dave Sealey converted the first issue of the zine to 5E? Check it out here.

OK back to work.  

Monday, February 25, 2019

White Jungle Races: Plumed Reavers & Mole Rat People

By Evlyn M


In the hypnogogic twilight of the threshold of slumber a vision wafts towards you on the fragrant, scented breeze that blows through the bright groves and shady bowers of the White Jungle. Oh intimations of strange races from a topsy turvy jungle! Perhaps in your next opium dream your psyche may be cast into the role of one of these vessels of adventure.

Plumed Reavers

By Evlyn M



Flocks of these winged humanoids may be seen flitting from tree to tree in the Bright Groves and the Windy Isles, the sparse and airy lowest levels of the White Jungle, where they dwell. Their originally bright and colorful plumage is stained and mangy from constant exposure to the jungle's offal rains. They are counted among the many hazards of the jungle's lower levels, their rotting parrot's finery and the sounds of their beating wings striking fear into the hearts of jungle denizens. For they are savage raiders without mercy, who delight in the suffering of their victims, often dropping bound victims to their death in the heavens below for sport. Although their tastes are crude, they enjoy bartering the goods they seize for colorful baubles and arms, and have a bird's curiosity.

Plumed reavers have developed immunity to the offal rains of the White Jungle. In addition, their hardy immune systems grants them +4 to save vs. disease. Starting at 2nd level, their wings become strong enough to support flight. At this point, they acquire a fly move of 12", which requires space for a 6" wingspan. They must for a round for every turn of flight.

Min/Max: Str 9/18  Int 3/15 Wis 3/16 Dex 6/18 Con 12/18 Cha 3/16
Racial Adjustments: Con +1 Chr -2 Wis -1
Permitted Classes: Fighter, Ranger, Druid
XP Adjustment: -10%

The party from the waking world currently has a cautious if neglected alliance with the savage plumed reavers. Bryan Mullins played a plumed reaver, Keew, who helped the party pillage the riches of the legendary lost Hanging Palace.


Mole Rat People


By Evlyn M


The mole rat people live in the darkness of the massive root ball warrens in the Brambles at the top (the base) of the White Jungle. They are diminutive, with pink wrinkled skin and twitching whiskers. They are great believers in rank and station, their society abounding in a superfluity of hereditary ranks, and honorary titles under the benevolent authority of their beloved Queen Bethany. Although they never wear pants, they otherwise dress as befits their stations with epaulets and medals, and tiny suits of armor and weapons. They are prone to romantic dispositions, heroes and scoundrels both.

The mole rats are small in size, roughly 2.5 feet tall. They must wield tiny weapons that do 1 die less damage. (So a two-handed sword does 1d8, and a longsword 1d6.) Their vision is keen in the darkness, but sensitive to the light. They can see 120' even in pitch darkness, 60' in shade, but only 30' in sunlight. Their time in the rootwarrens allows them to detect sloping passages, and they have an unerring direction sense underground. They receive saving throw bonuses as halflings, and a -2 AC  against normal sized opponents or larger.

Min/Max: Str 3/14 Int 5/18 Wis 5/18 Dex 6/18 Con 3/18 Cha 6/18
Racial Adjustments: Str -1 Cha +1 Dex+1
Permitted Classes: Fighter, Paladin, Thief, Magic-User
XP Adjustment: +10%


Evlyn M

The party from the waking world are fast friends with the mole rat people, having all received the title of Knight Errant after helping them vanquish the hideous encroaching hybubs, boneless oozing ghouls. Aleks Revzin will soon be taking over a beloved NPC mole rat person, The Viscount LeGrande, pictured below.

The Viscount LeGrande



Thursday, February 14, 2019

Crossroads


I believe Mandy, Jennifer, Hannah and Vivka. If you haven't read their harrowing accounts of Zak Smith's abuse, you should go do that right now. Thank you for your bravery. I completely disavow Zak Smith. I have blocked him on every social media platform. I will never play a game of Dungeons and Dragons with him, or work with him, or buy one of his products, or speak to him again. Our attention should be on the victims who have come forward and what they have to tell us. Support them any way you can. I have tried to.

But I have to apologize. And to say something about Zak and the OSR community. Because I think we're at a crossroads and what we do next is very important. If you think that's navel gazing I understand completely. Please stop reading now.

My connections to Zak are long, and I don't want to minimize them. I read Playing D&D with Pornstars from the beginning. It was from that blog that I learned about the existence of G+. While I was slow to get on it, and so missed the exuberant early days, I've been on for the last 5.5 years. When I joined G+ I didn't have a blog, had never published anything, hadn't been much on forums, and so no one knew who I was. Here was my very first post:



There was Zak, happy to immediately friend a newbie and play along. Another thing about Zak is that he had great taste (from my perspective). Some people would find our community through his blog and the other blogs he promoted--improbable people who showed up with rare talents, and he would promote their work right from day one. It was a clique of very creative people. Even though I haven't produced very much--one zine, a long running online game, a blog I post to once in a blue moon--he generally promoted my work. He played occasionally in my online game as well, including the early sessions, and he praised it. I benefited in that way from the increased social capital that his support gave me.

Zak also was a producer of public goods for the OSR. He seemed to have almost limitless time online. He helped convince people to get on google plus in the first place. He helped to organize FLAILSNAILS and Constantcon. He invented the term "Gygaxian Democracy" and popularized that improvisational communal practice that produced many wonderful things. I say this about his role in the community because some people inside the OSR are saying, "He wasn't at the heart of things, I blocked him ages ago" and a lot of other people outside the OSR are saying "He was at the heart of things because he was a master manipulator". I agree that the OSR was a huge mosaic with many sub-communities and people unconnected to Zak. Plenty of people kept him at arms length, or just had their focus elsewhere. I also don't want to deny that he was good at manipulating people, judging from the testimony of his victims--and my own (far lesser) experience--I would say he was very good at that. But the sad truth is that to the extent that he was at the heart of the OSR it was mainly because it's a volunteer operation and we let him do so much for us, especially those of us who were in and out of his clique.

Of course this came at a terrible price that I was wrong to tolerate. Oh my lord the fights he would get in with people. Nasty. Internecine. Interminable. Sometimes conflagrations inside the OSR around nothing more than personality, or (increasingly) with violation of his strange code of conduct for internet conversations. This created so many schisms that it was hard to keep track. I struggled to keep straight a mental map of the contours of the discrete neighborhoods that his conflict produced in my community, a cartography of wreckage wrought by his aggressive logos.

But more often these conflicts were with Story Games folks. I didn't know anything about Story Games at first. What Zak said about the community had a veneer of initial plausibility (he was smart), but over time it became clear to me that it was a bizarre obsession, a kind of holy vendetta. He was occasionally wronged by people from the SG world who would say some false thing about him. As Mandy says, at times his conflicts could spill over into anonymous rape threats and demeaning comments directed at his players (the eponymous porn stars of his blog title). That's terrifying and awful, and I have no idea who was behind them. But mainly as far as I could tell he was getting into senseless fights with SG people he disagreed with about games, fights that escalated rapidly because of his aggressive tone, and his intolerable argumentative style. He then kept tabs on the folks he was fighting with and prodded them frequently. And he had tiresome and elaborate theories about how his doing this made our community better. He had so many theories, and I never believed any of them. But I didn't do anything about it. 

Moth Hag, by Evlyn M

The first apology is to people he bullied inside the OSR. During a conflict between Zak and Paolo Greco that shook the OSR community, Evlyn M, a dear soul and brilliant artist, and a regular player in my game, bravely came to Paolo's defense and took a stand against Zak's bullying. When I had to choose between Zak and Evlyn, it was clear that I had to choose Evlyn. After all, Zak had brought all this on himself and Evlyn was only doing what seemed right to her. But all I did was kick him out of my group. That wasn't nearly enough, not by a long shot. I should have stood up to his bullying then--long before then--and condemned it.

So Evlyn ended up leaving the fucking OSR, because Zak papered things over with Paolo and life went on, and she had earned his enmity in the process. He was too central to the OSR, he was everywhere, even if you blocked him you saw him get tagged in comments or gossiped about, and she found it too stressful to be around him, because--you know--he keeps names. Evlyn I'm so sorry, I hope you can forgive me. And all the other people like Evlyn. I'm so sorry to all of you.

When I had decided to kick Zak out, I had a face to face conversation with him over hangouts to explain. Things were rocky for him at the time, because the OSR had risen up in a wave of revolt against him in defense of Paolo, and it wasn't totally clear if he was going to survive. (This is when Patrick Stuart washed his hands of him.)

by Miles Johnston

When we talked it was like I was speaking to a completely different person from online Zak. He was a prince. He was generous. He said nice and empathetic things about some of the people he feuded with. I was actually grateful to him at the time for handling it all so reasonably. Although he didn't agree with Evlyn, he understood my position. He said that it sucked getting kicked out of my game, but I could make it up to him by writing a piece for his upcoming horror game Demon City. It felt transactional and icky. His framing it as something I owed him made it hard to write the thing, and I refused money for it in the end although Mike Evans offered. But I wish to God I hadn't agreed to write it, and hadn't promoted his game by posting about the kickstarter on google plus. So I'm sorry for that too. 

The other group of people I really want to apologize to are story games folks. I did nothing to rein in Zak's bizarre vendetta against your community, other than argue with him occasionally about people I've come to admire like Johnstone Metzger or Jason Cordova.  I feel very bad about this. I know you don't know me yet, and so have no reason to forgive me. But one of the great hopes I have for the OSR is that it can now begin to heal the rift with those parts of the SG community that are interested in cross-overs. I think this would be very good for the OSR, and that we have many shared interests and overlapping design values, as the success of Fear of A Black Dragon shows. We have a lot to learn from you, if you'll let us.

The future for the OSR is uncertain at best with google plus going away, and now this. I don't know if the community will survive. But I hope it does, because I love this community. At its best, there are so many brilliant, vibrant, decent people sharing with one another in an open spirit, and producing extraordinary things. If we do keep going, on Discord or in some more diffuse form, we have to make absolutely goddamned sure that we don't let a narcissistic bully--and SO MUCH WORSE as it turns out, a domestic abuser and misogynist--do the work for us again. And we have to protect ourselves against someone who poisons our relations to one another and to surrounding communities for reasons that we do not share.

I am moderating comments for the time being on my blog. I welcome criticism and will certainly post it and try to respond to it, even if it's angry. I deserve a measure of your wrath. But I will not approve comments from Zak (or Kent). 



Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Google Plus Mix Tape, Track 01: Flailsnails

I have been on Google + for five years now. I have met so many of wonderful people there. We have shared practices, theory, information, and bits of wonder, frozen starlight, passed gleefully from one outstretched elfin hand to another. I have been in on the jokes (some actually funny), and shared sorrows with you. I have learned how to play Dungeons & Dragons with you, in unimaginably rewarding and novels ways. But now Google + is going away. So I made you this mix tape. I think you'll recognize some of the songs. I hope you like it.

Track 01: Flailsnails

Before the OSR got onto Google +, it lived mainly on blogs and in forums. There was a rich blogging scene in 2009-2011, with many blogs posting 3-5 times a week. This led to a sprawling conversation that was conducted via comments and cross-pollinating blog posts. There were limitations to this scene, because mainly people knew other people only if they both had blogs. So the bar to being in conversation with others was quite high, namely, being willing to post frequently on a blog you maintained. As a result, many people were probably like me at that time: a lurker who didn't really feel able to participate in the conversation.

The transition from the blogosphere to the Google+ scene came in 2011. People were drawn largely because of the new possibilities of gaming that Google+ provided through the combination of social media and the Google Hangouts platform. The F.L.A.I.L.S.N.A.I.L.S. Conventions were first published in August 2011. They were the brainchild of three people: the idea was originally proposed by Calithena to Zak Smith and Jeff Rients, and the three of them worked out the conventions together. They were published simultaneously on Zak's blog D&D With Pornstars, and Jeff Rients' long running blog Jeff's Gameblog. The idea was simple. If you signed onto the conventions, then you agreed to allow PCs from other campaigns into your online game. You opened the doors of your game to a bunch of dimension hopping weirdos who showed up to plumb the mysteries of your world, pull off heists, and generally get into a lot of trouble. This led to the phenomenon of ConstantCon, a rolling series of dozens of hangouts games, such that on any given night you could jump into an adventure somewhere in the multiverse.

At its height, enough people were playing that the whole thing took on a player-driven, campaign hopping, mission-based feel. For example, when one group of PCs got themselves imprisoned in Castle Amber in Wessex, other players would put together a team for a rescue mission. Consequences sometimes followed characters between worlds, like when Brutal Pete stole a statue of Blibdalpoop and charmed one of the god's avatars in Herman Klang's game, and an invasion of kuo-toa followed Pete to Jeff's Castle Vyzor game. Markets developed trading in items acquired in different worlds. Got a problem in the Hill Cantons? Maybe you can solve it with an item from New Feierland. Characters made name level, and opened taverns...at which other players caroused in downtime. There was a misty wandering neighborhood, the Snail Quarter, in which flailsnails characters took up residence. There was even a character, Sir Alan of Partridge, owner of the (not so) legendary sword Chatscalibur, who ran a talk show interviewing other flailsnails characters.

And the characters! Some of them became Google + household names. Most notorious and beloved was, hands down, Jez Gordon's Man-rider. Rolling 3d6 down the line, Jez got a total attribute modifier of -8. Always game, he decided that the character must be a legless goblin. He rolls into adventures riding on the back of a nameless human servitor.


Man-Rider, illustrated by his player, Jez Gordon
In one session, Man-Rider had a god give him a ride, in another he got cloned, but, infuriatingly, the clone had legs. Eventually he became a paladin, which is good, because then he could aspire to one day summon a super fancy man-mount. You can read the (almost) complete history of his legendary exploits here.

Other names that come up again and again include Sir Ward, Reynaldo Madrinan's Lawful Good paladin who acquired the Sunsword, and once, by using a coin-operated vending machine, had the misfortune to accidentally crash the Broodmother Skyfortress, destroying an entire town of innocent souls; Mo, Scrap Princess' drunken lost soul from the shit holes of New Feierland, whose main positive accomplishment was a certain rescue operation to be discussed shortly; Blixa and Gleichman, Zak Smith's human thief and his dog; Phillip the Bloody, Evan Elkan's taxidermy obsessed wizard whom Blixa accidentally killed; Noggin Threeteeth, Barry Blatt's cockney, anarcho-syndicalist, dwarven sewer worker from the City State of the Invincible Overlord, who was slain by spectres in the Dark Tower; Malice A'forethought, Zach Marx Weber's white elf assassin; Aleksandr Revzin's Brutal Pete, hated of Blidolpoop; Shoe Skogen's Elsgin; Ba Chim and Father Jack of Hill Canton's fame, played respectively by Humza Kazmi and Michael Moscrip; Quartle, Eric Boyd's Frogling wizard; Anxy P's Babs Mackelthorpe; Tony, Paolo Greco's Pigherder, and his pig Hansel; Joshua Blacketter's wizard Pete Loudly, who rose all the way to 14th level, along the way killing a frog god, and unleashing She Who Dreams and Whose Dream is the Sea on an unsuspecting world; and Magic Meryl, Nick Kuntz's wizard who became a casual cannibal after studying the Scroll of Ghouls a little too intently, and was smothered by serpents only to be reincarnated as a halfling.


A group portrait of flailsnailers that includes both Brutal Pete and Magic Meryl by Nick Kuntz; click to embiggen.

And last, but by no sane accounts least, Barnabus Sleet, Maxime Golubchik's absolutely game-breaking muscle-wizard. By the end of his career, he was able to kill dragons with a single punch, and had five attacks a round, and an AC of -8. He once killed the god of the lizard men by punching her to death. He was that kind of guy.


Barnabus Sleet, drawn by Sam Mameli
What were the conditions of possibility for the amazing phenomenon of ConstantCon? For one thing, a heck of a lot of folks had been running games using either familiar older rulesets of D&D or an increasing host of retro-clones, or other systems that were variations on these themes. This meant that converting from one to the other was not too hard, in fact, usually a breeze. For another thing, various principles of play, like high-lethality, unbalanced, challenge oriented, location-based adventures, and the 1XP per GP rule, were widely shared practices in the gaming of the relevant community of bloggers and forum goers. Everyone was familiar with the trope of the dungeon crawl, and with the idea of a megadungeon, and sandbox, all of which both lent themselves very well to this style of play. Finally, the integration of Google + and Google Hangouts made scheduling and running a game very easy.

My guess is that FLAILSNAILS, more than anything, probably congealed a joyful solidarity and a living culture of play in the OSR. Everyone was playing in everyone else's games all the time. Everyone got to know everyone else by seeing them face to face, and sharing adventures with them. Useful techniques were carried like a virus from one game to another. Things that didn't work so well were tried and left behind. People came to know one another's campaign worlds as living things by cycling through them in a low commitment, high-octane, gaming. People were led to push the limits in creating in kind of competition with one another.

This percolated beyond the world of FLAILSNAILS. When I started my dreamlands game online, a bunch of folks just showed up, ready and knowing exactly what to do. We shared a set of assumptions about what we would be doing and how, everyone was familiar with the platform, and many of the folks knew each other (but not me, mainly). They were all, also, master players. I think FLAILSNAILS is partly to blame. (Another culprit were the long running non-flailsnails campaigns. Don't worry; I've got a song in that in a later track on the mixtape.)

When I was soliciting memories from flailsnailers on Google +, Trent B., the creator of the legendary New Feierland setting where many a flailsnails misadventures were had, popped in to remind his players about the fate of Trumpet, their donkey. It would be hard to come up with a better epitaph for Google +. 







But I learned later, in a twist of fate, that this was not in fact the end of poor, innocent Trumpet. For Scrap Princess' drunken ne'er do-well character Mo actually ventured to hell to retrieve Trumpet. And Shoe Skogen informed me that he now lives in a grassy meadow outside an inn somewhere. I can't help but feel that if we can bring Trumpet the donkey back from hell, then perhaps, after all, there is hope that we can give this wonderful community a second life, in some new, unimagined form.


Art by Shoe Skogen