Sunday, 28 March 2021

Rift City Campaign -- Session 44

Well, the PCs had another go under the ruins in the Rift. Halvor the Cleric, Berg the Dwarf, Kate the Halfling, Brigham the Cleric and Gibbet the Thief once more ventured in search of excitement, adventure and big piles of loot.

The first thing they did was finish up exploring the tower. They've been there on two previous occasions and had failed to find the room with the trapdoor down to the lower levels. They also hadn't made a map and ended up exploring some of the areas they'd been before.

In one of the rooms, they came upon some undead presences. These proved a little tricky as the PCs don't all have magic or silver weapons. But with Berg taking two hits and losing two levels, and Gibbet losing one, they did manage to overcome the entities before they were all back to First Level. 

The PCs eventually came to a room they hadn't been before, as it was behind the only door they've found that they hadn't opened. Not in some Quantum Ogre sense, just because it was the furthest from the entrance. In the room, sitting on a rug that turned out to be top of the trapdoor, were a couple of prisoners and some Ogres. They Ogres died pretty quickly, the prisoners did not. Their names were Aben (a female Halfling) and Hames (a male Elf); they begged the PCs to rescue their friends (more prisoners had been taken down into the tunnels, it seemed), and agreed to come and help.

So, everyone rolled back the rug and opened the trapdoor, where they found a staircase heading down to the south. They followed it to a landing where stairs went east and west. The east stair smelled bad (probably Troglodytes down there) so they took the west stair. This opened into a wide E-W hall with various doors and corridors off. Taking a door on the north wall, they found themselves in a room where a man dressed in black was playing a lute and singing to to a female human, a female Ogre, and a couple of Giant Rats The female human was one of the captured NPCs, a young woman called Miranda, and there seemed to be some sort of magic going on. A fight rapidly ensued with the music-man being Held (then killed), the Ogre and the Rats being killed, and Miranda falling unconscious when the music-man died (and his spell was broken). On regaining consciousness, Miranda told them that the other prisoners had been added to a group already in the tunnels but that 'the man with the dark eyes' had taken a fancy to her and told the Ogres to hand her over to him. She agreed that coming with the party (given Aben and Hames were with them) was a good plan. So they looted the room as best they could and, after setting what was left on fire, they left.

On the way out, they ran into a couple of rough-looking fellows who seemed to be some sort of wandering guard patrol. Unconvinced by the PCs' explanation, the guards resolved to 'check with Eldwin' (the music chap with rats and women in his thrall, now dead and in a burning room). As they passed the party, a quick attempt at a surprise backstabbing was made... and failed. These guys too were immune to normal weapons apparently... so a short and vicious fight broke out between the PCs (five of them) and their NPC allies (three) on the one hand, and the two guards on the other. The only problem was that due to the lack of magical weapons, only about 4-5 of the PCs could fight anyway. But obviously, the PCs could deal with a pair of lycanthropes even so. Looting the bodies netted some sacks of low-value coins and a couple of pieces of expensive jewellery.

Deciding that by this point that is really was time to head back to the City, they made their way back to the exit. Heading out through the ruins, however, they ran into another patrol - this time 6 more lycanthrope guards. Again the fight was brutal but eventually 6 dead werewolves netted another 300GP for the coffers - and no-one from the party's side died. No-one was infected with lycanthropy either, though it was pretty close in some cases. 

High-tailing it back up the forest path the party was back in Rift City in time for tea and the division of spoils. What will happen 'tomorrow' is anyone's guess...

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Faith + Magic = Reality

I have too many things on the go... but this will I hope be quick. Then I can get back to writing about 'Labyrinth' or something.

Reading a book at the moment, called 'Coldfire Pt.1: Black Sun Rising' by Celia Friedman. I'm rather enjoying it. It contains what I think is a great idea. The action takes place on a planet where a magical force, called 'fae', sort of sloshes about in tides and streams... in some ways, it's a bit like weather. It means that some places are both easier to cast spells in, and magically more fraught, because with great power comes, well, greater chances for things to go wrong. Magical tsunami sweep the continents, vortices of magical currents swirl around and earthquakes of thaumaturgical energy batter settlements and the brains of the magically-susceptible.

It also affects the local flora and fauna. First, there can be an interaction between fear and fae, which means monsters are literally born of people's imaginations. Fears manifest themselves physically. Imagine a creepy grinning skeletal figure with a paralysing touch, and a ghoul could actually appear behind you.

Then, it can affect evolution. What is believed becomes real so if people think that geese are fish that grow into birds from barnacles (as was believed in Medieval Europe for instance), then, I guess, that's what starts to happen. Over time creatures come to evolve to be the way people imagine they are.

I like the idea that belief shapes the world around us. It seems like it could work well in game terms, for at least two reasons. The first is, suddenly, all those weird monsters in the Monster Manual and Fiend Folio and the pages of White Dwarf make a particular kind of sense. That monster over there with the legs of a giant moth and a trunk and the body of a hyena seems improbable... doesn't matter, someone imagined it in a fever-dream. Who cares if dragons can't fly? If people believe they can fly, then they can. It is, if I can coin the term, a very Pratchettian way of looking at things. Faith + Magic = Reality. This I think has some relationship to what Jens is talking about over at 'The Disoriented Ranger' here, where he talks about how people in different societies pattern reality, and how stories emerge (also of course something Pratchett talked about a lot). Obviously, Dwarves and Trolls and Dragons aren't real for us... and aren't real for us, even 1500 years ago. But they were real for the people who believed the stories about them in Northern Europe during Volkswanderung, the period Jens is exploring in Lost Songs of the Nebelungs. Our lack of belief doesn't change the nature of the world they inhabited.

The second way it works is, it gives you a great excuse to make things suddenly weird, which is sometimes good. I don't think it's fair to do it all the time: if everything is weird, then nothing is is weird, it's all just confusing and I guess quickly stops being fun... the players lose all agency because if there's no apprehensible (spellcheck doesn't like that one) logic then there's no basis for decision making and nothing has meaning. But, perhaps, the weird builds up (in a measurable way) until it breaks through into reality and changes things. I'd love to work on mechanisms for this. Instead of Wandering Monsters, a sort of Magical Mishap table. Of course, if the PCs' fears can create monsters, maybe this is the best justification for a Wandering Monster turning up (see above). 

But, and this is one place I'm having problems with the application of this concept, if the Wandering Monster has actually been created from a PC's fear, it should probably be something that the PC fears... and that might require either knowing in advance what the PCs are scared of (in which case someone I'm sure will claim to be scared of being captured by the very attractive clerics of a sex-god/dess, or maybe suddenly finding huge amounts of money... again, Pratchett talks about this... the 'unexpected money Goblin' or something), or alternatively, it means listening very hard to what the players are saying and incorporating that into the game - so when they go "I hope we don't run into any trolls down here", the next thing they encounter should be trolls. But my feeling is it's difficult to pattern a wandering monster table on the basis of 'whatever the PCs said 2 minutes ago'.

I guess most of us who use wandering monsters have some sort of system like 'roll 1-2 on a d6 every 2 turns, more (frequently, or just a bigger number) if the party is being noisy/careless with lights/setting fire to things/leaving food lying around etc. Instead, this would be more like applying Magical Mishaps if the party did something ritually 'wrong', or if they were tired or distracted, if they had misread the flows of magic... I remember The Angry GM describing the use of wandering monster dice that are stacked up in front of the players so they'd know how noisy they were being or how much time they were taking (in this post here). Perhaps the 'fae detection' could be similar - a kind of 'charge' that builds up depending on the players' actions.

The ability to use magic (possibly even including 'safe' magic like potions or weapons) would maybe require something like a saving throw to be successful. This could be augmented by such things as an accurate map of the magical currents, or maybe something analogous to a miner's canary or Universal Indicator Paper - something that detected fae energy to help with knowing safe levels and places. All of this may require extra systems to check or it could be as simple as a Save. But the effects of (conceptually at least) 'failing' the Save?

I shall be considering this more, no doubt.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Rift City campaign - session 43

 The party made their... what, let's call it '43rd' visit to the caves in the Rift (it's not really, we missed a couple of sessions due to work issues, and on some sessions, they've made multiple visits, leaving after a good quick haul and going back 'the next day' during the same session... but about 43rd) on 14th Feb. 

Yes I know that's Valentine's Day, but as it turned out, the four players who came to the session are two couples. 

No I didn't do anything particularly Romantic for the session, but in line with some of my recent musings, I made extra-sure to use Reaction Roles and Morale rolls. I know I should do that anyway, but... I made extra-sure.

Anyway... Halvor the Cleric, Berg the Dwarf, Gibbet the Thief and Brigham the Cleric (that was the marching order) made their way towards the towers that they'd found last time. They'd got a treasure map at the last session that looked something like this:

In case you can't read the text, it says "In the Rift there is the Fortress of Skile, two towers with a gatehouse between. Beneath the eastern tower, a stair leads down to a crypt where lies the Fabled Hoard of Riha the Bejewelled. Gems without count and fabulous jewellery are there, adorning the bones of the last of the Sorcerer-Queens. From the tower, take the staircase, and at the landing, turn west. Foul things lurk in the darkness of the eastern stair. In the Deeps, we came to a great room with six corners, but this was a false chamber – we never found the real burial chamber beyond."

Trying to find the place where the jewels might be stashed, they headed down the path, past the spot where they killed the Giant at the last session (his corpse was still there, somewhat chewed by local scavengers, but substantially intact, so the party, deciding they didn't want a Zombie Giant rampaging around and mindful they were supposed to burn corpses, set fire to it using a barrel of oil they had in the Bag of Holding).

Going on a bit further past the smouldering corpse, the party noticed a flock of ... somethings ... flying above them. They weren't sure what they were so the PCs hid in the undergrowth for a bit. Turns out that the flying things were hippogriffs, and there were 15 of them. The party was undecided about what to do - Berg, Gibbet and Brigham kept hiding, Halvor decided to try and attract their attention. Then Berg threw out some beef jerky for one, which took it, but then the flock decided that it would rather go and investigate the burning Giant so flew off.

The party headed on to the ruins of the Fortress of Skile and found their way in. Remembering there was a pit trap, but not exactly where it was, the party unfortunately triggered it again. No-one was seriously hurt however. Now they've outlined it in chalk so perhaps they'll find it easier to avoid next time.

Making their way inside they turned to the left to try and find the entrance to the lower levels. The first room they came across seemed to be deserted, but the second contained a hideous spider-type entity.  Conscientiously rolling for the spider's reactions, the dice came up snake-eyes so straight into a vicious combat. To be fair, there's only so much interaction I'd be able to role-play as a Giant Spider I think. When they searched the room, they found a chest with some money in it, but unfortunately ripped the old tapestry hanging from the ceiling.

Pushing on, the PCs found a room decorated with a frieze of faces. Searching these carefully they found that one was hinged to come away from the wall. Behind it was a kind of safe - trapped, which Gibbet disarmed (they still don't know what the trap was, but Gibbet detected a trigger mechanism and disabled it) - and containing a potion-bottle and a bag of cash.

They'd reached the end of the corridor, but I reminded them that there were other corridors and rooms they hadn't explored in the other direction (this time they'd entered and turned left; last time they turned right). I don't often do that sort of thing but I thought it was justified in this instance. It was a month ago that the players last explored the dungeon, but for the PCs, it was yesterday. I think that the PCs would perhaps remember that there were further unexplored passages to the right even though the players didn't. So, they started to make their way back to the areas they'd explored the game-day before.

On the way they encountered some 'grey worms' - Caecilia from  the Expert rulebook. These were actually fairly straightforward to deal with, in the end. Somewhere, and I'm not certain where now, they also encountered some Giant Weasels, but as I have no real recollection of this fight 'm not sure they really gave the party much trouble either.

Having retraced their steps, they moved off to the right (east), back through some rooms they'd explored previously, and then on to new territory (actually, they may have run into the Weasels here). This led them to a room of Ogres, who the party, probably sensibly, decided would be a serious threat and a fight ensued. Halvor made good use of his Sticks to Snakes ability (the snakes this time were Spitting Cobras, which blinded several of the Ogres) and the Ogres (6 of them) were disposed of without too much damage coming to the party. However, the fight had alerted other Ogre guards and 5 more then barged into the room when the party were searching. The snakes were still around and had been tasked with guarding the door so the Ogre ambushers were themselves ambushed and soon defeated.

By this time it was the end of the session. The PCs had searched about 90% of the tower but not yet located the steps mentioned on the treasure map. I guess, they'll be heading back here next session... but one never can tell, they often end up going off in all sorts of unexpected directions.

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Gaming the Labyrinth - the inhabitants

I started posting about 'Labyrinth'. I've made a few notes about the general idea of trying to game it and some of the trickier aspects of how to translate something like the film to something like D&D, or possibly my newly-acquired game, Blue Rose (earlier post linked here). Photos have all been taken from the blog 'The Labyrinth' which seemed like a handy source. I tried to use the pics at IMDB, but they were all tiny so I gave up. It seemed really tedious to find more pics from different sources so I just went there and used what I could find. All photos are (c) TriStar Pictures.

Some of the inhabitants of the Labyrinth, Goblin City and Castle are pretty straightforward to translate into D&D terms. For Blue Rose, maybe not so much, but I'm sure I'll be able to find some ways to do at least some of it when I'm more familiar with the system. I've checked up what some of the characters are called, so will use the IMDB nomenclature.


Jareth "is an Elf" in my notes. Seems obvious, and specifically, a Dark Elf. Also, sometimes disguises himself as a little old lady, or turns into an owl. He seems to sometimes use this latter ability to travel long distances (so it's a real transformation, not an illusion): at other times his mode of long-distance travel is not clear, but I'm going to assume it's always owl-form. He has crystal balls (steady at the back) which can become a peach with a forgetting spell (which wastes time, a vital resource in Sarah's quest) or a kind of floating bubble. He also has some illusion skills - he seems to transform a bubble into a crystal into a snake into a scarf, possibly then a Goblin... which (if any) are real is difficult to grasp (and the scarf may just fall on a Goblin already there). So they could be actual transformations or illusions. He possibly uses the bubbles to transport others to and from the Castle, but perhaps this is illusion too. If he's an Elf, he has a pretty direct Blue Rose equivalent - he could be some kind of corrupt(ed) Vata (a race similar to Elves; there are two sub-races called Vata'an and Vata'sha. Jareth is probably a Vata'an as they have pale skin and silver hair, which is more like Jareth than the Vata'sha, who look similar to D&D Drow, with dark skin and light hair). Alternatively, he could be a Human with arcane powers, in either Blue Rose or D&D. But he looks like an Elf to me.


Hoggle is a Dwarf who works for Jareth; one of his jobs is as a pest-controller in the garden. He's a coward. He has a spray that kills fairies, likes plastic, and has a (worthless) bag of charms that he values highly. He also has a kind of 'Portable Door' (which he only uses once, maybe only usable once, or perhaps once per day) and knows where to find rope. There may or may not be other Dwarves called Hogwart, Hedgewart, Heggle, Hoghead and Hogbrain. There are no Blue Rose Dwarves.

There are Fairies that bite (no pic of them on the blog where I found the rest of the photos). Hoggle has killed 60, he claims, but we don't know over what time period. He kills about 5 while Sarah is talking to him. A swarm of 10-60 is a possibility, I suppose. We do not know if they're truly intelligent. In D&D they could be something like AC9, Mv 90' (30') flying, hp1, save E1, Att 1 (bite), Dam d4, Ml 9 Al N, I would think. 

'Dennis', the Worm

There's a talking worm, that I decided is called Dennis (he isn't named it seems) who has a wife, drinks tea and knows the way to the Castle. He helps Sarah to identify what we might think of as 'secret doors'. On IMDB he is called "Worm".


There are tiny people (about 3" high?) that change the flagstones after Sarah has made marks on them. I have since discovered that these are called "Tilekeepers", but no-one has a credit as a 'Tilekeeper' on IMDB. They are perhaps related to Fairies (they seem to be about the same size) but do not have wings. They do seemingly have language and purpose however.


There are Goblins - many and of different sorts, but they boil down to small and tall (mechanically these are probably many Goblins or even Kobolds, and a few Orcs or Hobgoblins, D&D terms. Blue Rose has no real equivalents to Goblins, just large Orcs, who are called Night People). Some Goblins have sticks with small bitey things attached to them. Two small Goblins are 'the Cleaners', who ride a kind of bicycle-powered boring machine. Others are the Goblin Guard, and come in Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery varieties. The Cavalry carry spears and ride two-legged lizards; the Artillery have cannons and machine-guns, and the cannons seem to fire tiny Goblins. Most Goblins are armoured - at least, the ones in the Labyrinth and City. There's also a giant-sized mechanical construct piloted by a Goblin. However, it's probably best to consider this in relation to its location.

Ludo with Sarah

There's Ludo, a kind of Horned Troll with the ability to call d100 rocks (in 13 hours he does it twice, perhaps he can do it 3 times a day).


There are Fire Spirits or "Fireys" - there are five of these (No Appearing d6+2?). They may be some kind of weak fire-elemental. Pretty sure I can find some sort of analogue in both D&D and Blue Rose.

Sir Didymus

There is Sir Didymus, an anthropomorphic Fox-knight (other people think he's a dog, but I think he's a fox), who rides Ambrosius, an Old English Sheepdog. Sir Didymus is brave, but somewhat blinkered. Ambrosius is a bit of a coward. Though Blue Rose has rules for animals with psychic communication, it doesn't have rules for foxes that dress like 14th Century Landesknechts, talk as if they're human and hold weapons. In D&D, I might use the rules for Haflings (not as crazy as it sounds... honestly).

Wiseman and The Hat

There is a sage-type ("Wiseman"), with a talking bird hat ("The Hat"); the sage utters gnomic wisdom (or not), the bird-hat is sarcastic.


There is a kind of bag-lady ("Trash-Lady") who pushes memories as a distraction (.which again waste time).

Then there are lots of guests at a ball. These appear to be human, but there's an outside chance they're Elves (or Vata) like Jareth. Again though, no pics at The Labyrinth blog.

There are also other sentient beings - the 'Helping Hands', the 'False Alarms', the door-knockers and the 'logic guards' who don't know how their answers work - but these seem to be tied to particular locales. Of course, those above may be too - perhaps the Fireys cannot be found outside the jungle, or the Wiseman outside the garden, but we don't really know. I've pretty much assumed that those with some obvious means of perambulation might move around, those who don't (or whose job keeps them in place like the four guards who either lie or tell the truth) do not and are more like features of the location.

Locations will be what I get onto in the next post, I should think.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Questing in Elfgames X - Are the PCs special?

Another post I've neglected then re-discovered as I've been thinking about some of this stuff again. This one is on the question of what the PCs represent in the world they inhabit.

Are the PCs supposed to represent normal people in extraordinary circumstances, or are they in and of themselves extraordinary? I think there's a general feeling among what could vaguely be referred to as 'old-school' gamers (though some people I know are beginning to reject that label... I just don't have a better one) that PCs are not special. The assumption is PCs will die fairly often and as a result there's a certain disposability about them. This is the flip-side of the criticism that we (ie 'old-school' gamers) have about millennial snowflakes and their over-precious 3E+ characters who aren't allowed to die. "If character death isn't a possibility, how do the PC's actions have meaning?" we howl. "If you can just re-spawn in 5 minutes, how does PC death have meaning anyway?" the millennial snowflakes reply somewhat baffled, and they really do have a point. If we just pick up another character sheet and say 'and there's another adventurer coming at you round the corner' then... so what? How is that any better? I used to do that when I was playing 'Japs and Commandos' (this is what we used to call it, I believe it's now called 'LARPing') as a 7-year old. We'd 'get shot', fall over going "aiee!" and then we'd get up and say "and now I'm another one". That's basically how we treat a potentially endless succession of replaceable PCs. In one of my recent campaigns, when one of the PCs (a Dwarf called Harald) died, his player wrote 'son of Harald' under his name and he turned up the next day saying 'has anyone seen my dad?'. I thought this was perfectly reasonable.

But, I think this idea that PCs are not special is a mistake. Firstly, because even blacksmiths, among 'Normal Men' in the Moldvay rulebook, only get 4hp and NM saves (and you have to assume that blacksmiths are about as hard as 'Normal Men' get). 'Normal Men' are approximately as tough as a single Kobold and it's a weak PC that can't take a Kobold in a stand-up fight. They are pretty much the weakest thing that PCs will go up against (OK, normal bats, normal rats and insect swarms are pretty weak too... as befits actual things from the real world). So, the PCs can do things 'Normal Men' cannot and if this is true of Humans, I think it's safe to assume that PC Dwarves, Elves and Halflings stand in the same general relationship to their respective races as PC Humans do (though perhaps not quite as starkly, 'monster' Demihumans are a bit tougher than undifferentiated 'monster' Humans). Anyway, mechanically, PCs go beyond the 'ordinary', so by definition, they are extra-ordinary.

Secondly, and this is kinda more to the point in terms of the design-philosophy or ethos of D&D, it is arguable that it is in some way supposed to mimic the episodic adventures of Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Kull and other picaresque pulp-heroes. I read (years ago, and I went looking for it but can't find it now) an exposition of the idea that D&D is rubbish at epic fantasy (à la LotR) because it is set up for dirty episodic picaresque fantasy (à la Conan). This may not be true - there's certainly a decent argument (that I don't actually agree with but I do think the argument should be taken seriously) that D&D is a wargame and nothing to do with fantasy literature at all. Whatever - some people believe that D&D is set up to simulate picaresque fantasy, and that's good enough for me, for the purposes of this argument. The point being that Conan and other pulp heroes were 'special', in so far as they had, at least, extra-ordinary skills, drive etc. And PCs, to my mind, are already special too (due to point 1 above).

If this adventuring lark is supposed to simulate fantasy literature then PCs need to be special. This is an important aspect of my wondering why we aren't telling the stories that we are reading (if that's what we're trying to do, which it may not be). Also, ten years ago now, Beyond The Black Gate had a post outlining a seven-step approach to building an epic-quest-style escalation into (something like) a sandbox - The High Fantasy Campaign. I think it's neat. It left me with the distinct impression that it is possible to use 'old school tools' to make something a bit more epic than what I have previously described as 'shopping at the local cave-mall'.

Hence looking at how to do 'quests' and how to create 'Mentors' a while back. Both mentors and quests are part of epic fantasy literature in particular (not so much the picaresque Conan-style adventures) and somewhat missing from D&D. But there's something else missing from the equation I think, and that's the notion that the PCs are somehow important in the world.

Frodo is important because he has inherited the Ring from Bilbo. Without the Ring, there's no reason for Hobbits to be involved in the grand events that bring the Third Age to a close at all. It could be possible that Aragorn still went to challenge Sauron and re-unite the kingdoms (maybe, because in a dungeon-bashing expedition from Rivendell with Elladan and Elrohir, he stumbled on Gollum and the Ring himself). Aragorn is important of course, but he might have died in the struggle with Sauron. Then another 'Heir of Isildur' would have to be found... But the point is, Frodo was important because he was the Ringbearer. Aragorn was important because he was the Heir of Isildur. It's not just the things they did that were important, not just the actions they took and the choices they made (though of course these were important, and in game terms, this is what the PCs are doing), it was something about who they were (and this means 'how they fitted into the history and relationships of Middle Earth').

If (I said if) D&D is supposed to simulate the literature, the PC then is by definition important in the scheme of things. However, the protagonists of D&D games frequently die (unlike the protagonists of fantasy novels, who only die occasionally), so declaring one of them 'the Last Scion of the Kings of Old' or 'the Last Heir of the Mystic Masters' or whatever makes little sense. The world must continue even if the PCs die. Circle of life, and all that. More PCs must come along and continue to believe there's a point to what they do, so like open-ended quests, binary pass/fail conditions are not appropriate. Determining that the PC is a Scion of the Kings of Old or an Heir of the Mystic Masters is good enough. If the PC reaches 9th Level and has been on some grand adventures, the potential existence of other Heirs and Scions is not relevant. If the PC dies in a cavern surrounded by Goblins while still 1st Level, other Scions and Heirs can continue the good fight and the world has not fallen into unending evil as a result of their death. Perhaps there is a prophecy - but as many of us assumed JK Rowling would make more of the prophecy that could relate to Harry or Neville, prophecies should be ambivalent enough to allow for the death of the one that the prophecy relates to. They may not be the only baby born under the Wandering Star, or with a grail-shaped birthmark, or the only child of the Last Hope Gone Bad - they may have a sister. That heirloom may not be the only mark of kingship or magical power, the favour of the gods or the bloodline of the master-thieves of old, or whatever it is a sign of.

This is something I've apparently been puzzling about for a long time now without really getting anywhere, if this post from March 2018 and a follow-up from October 2018 are anything to go by.

What I haven't managed to work out is a procedure for doing this. There are a few possibilities I think.

The first is just making a massive list of possible heroic secrets. This is fine, but is hard work and a bit 'flat' somehow. Also, there's the problem of 'using up' entries... should the same option be open to more than one character? If I have (say) 100 entries I think they're probably be quite specific (1, orphaned heir of House Nyleth brought up in secret; 2, flame-haired child prophesied to bring about end of reign of Ice-lords, etc).

The second is just to get the players to do it, as I tried to do some time ago in the Rift City campaign (see the post I linked to from October 2018, above). This can be complicated, or maybe I was just unclear. Either way, it was much messier than I thought it would be, but there is still some mileage in the way I have done it in the Rift City campaign - the PCs who have given me something to go on have had some hooks to do with their family secrets. Perhaps more will come out.

The third option is to try to come up with a table using something like the idea expressed in the post from March 2018 that I linked to above, about using story elements and recombining them. This seems to me to be the way that will produce the most flexibility, but it's also probably the most complex in the end. Whether it's possible to do this in relation to the numbers that make up the stats and gold that a character rolls on creation is I suppose the Holy Grail here. It would link right back to the conversations I was having with Jens years ago, along the lines of 'roll a 1 and you're an orphan brought up by Dwarves...' which ties you to the world by giving you a backstory and you a potential mentor in the lord of the Dwarf-hold you come from... but it will be a complicated business coming up with a 7x6x6 grid of possible combinations.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Gaming the Labyrinth - some thoughts


It was my birthday a few days ago. That's not the point but it comes into the story. There are two reasons for mentioning my birthday - the first is a treat, the second is a present. It's also 5 years this month since David Bowie died. That's not the point either but it may explain some coincidences.

I was thinking that I was going to force my family to watch Labyrinth, because on your birthday, you can maybe insist that people do things that maybe they're not super-keen to do but you can say it's your special treat and they should just humour you.

But, I didn't have to. Two days before, Mrs. Orc was flicking through the channels and suddenly there was David Bowie in his surprising hair and even more surprising trousers, so we settled down to watch it. She didn't mind, she thinks it's a good movie too, and we thought we'd let Orc Minissimus off to do whatever he wanted. He can watch it any time he likes (we have the DVD). And, TV being what it is at the moment, with companies desperate to provide content to captive audiences, four days later it's on again right now as I'm typing up this part of the post. Possibly it's on because, as I say, Bowie died 5 years ago and somebody thought it was a good excuse to put one of his movies on telly.


Anyway, I started making notes on it because I want to run the Labyrinth (or something like it) as a D&D setting. I tried to note locations, personalities, magic items and whatnot to construct some kid of dreamworld or pocket universe with a similar logic or framework or whatever. I'm not thinking of running this as part of my regular gaming sessions, I think this would have to be a little side-project.

No-one reading this, I assume, is unfamiliar with the film. But just in case you've been living in a pocket universe of your own for 35 years... Sarah's baby brother, Toby has been taken by Jareth and his Goblins. Sarah has 13 hours to rescue Toby from Jareth's Castle beyond the Labyrinth, or he will be lost forever.

One of the most important parts of the film, which perhaps is a bit difficult to get across in gaming, is 'time'. Sarah is on a time-limit and Jareth keeps altering the rules. There are various distractions that eat up time. I suppose, one way of doing this would be to run this as a self-contained session: the Labyrinth must be solved by the end of the session or the PCs fail in their quest. So, turning Labyrinth (or, Labyrinth-like, maybe) into a one-shot.

Obviously, Sarah and Toby come from our world. Not sure how to game that in D&D terms, whether it would be easier to assume that all of this happens 'in universe' or to have a framing where the PCs are actually brought in from outside. I've been thinking a little about portals - (link here). Co-incidentally (maybe not, the point is that it mirrors fantasy literature), 'portal fantasies' are mentioned in the game Blue Rose - this is the birthday present I mentioned earlier, because I have now got a copy of the game. I will be reading it carefully to see what I can draw from it to either inform my D&D gaming or whether it might be better to jump in with both feet and run a game using the Blue Rose rules.

Is it possible to run something like Sarah's journey using Basic D&D? Possibly. But there's a certain amount of what might be called 'alliance-building' that goes on that is difficult to simulate exactly. Sarah's relationships with Hoggle and Ludo, particularly, look easier to 'role-play; than 'rule-play' and that is sort of the point, but also sort of not. Especially for NPCs, reactions should be 'rulable'. All else being equal, if Sarah is kind to NPCs, they should be well-disposed to her. If she is not, they should not be. Jareth may in the end be her enemy but Hoggle, Ludo, Sir Didymus and the other more minor characters should be friendly or not depending on their own motivations and Sarah's interactions with them. There should be a way of constructing systems for developing friendships. Again, Blue Rose has 'Relationship' rules - these I think are more intended for longer-term relationships than the ups and downs of a single session's adventuring, but perhaps there are things to be gleaned from how they handle it. Certainly, part of the charm (for me at least) of Labyrinth is the inter-relationships between the characters that help Sarah to grow as a person. Her relationships with Hoggle and Ludo help her to be less selfish - she's kind to them, and in return they help her on her quest (not it it's about 'returns', because virtue is its own reward, but... having a friend that can summon rocks is certainly helpful). Anyway - alliance-building is a key theme of the film. But whether it's possible to game that in D&D, using the Charisma,  Reactions and Morale rules is something I'm going to have to think about. Several years ago now 'Against the Wicked City' blog had a series of posts (using the tag 'Romance') looking at some of this stuff. I've been re-reading them and hope they'll help me to work out a way forward (there's a metaphor there somewhere). 

There are some things that it's not clear to me yet how to solve. But the inhabitants of the Labyrinth, Goblin City and Castle however are pretty straightforward in terms of their physical abilities (certainly for D&D, I haven't really assimilated Blue Rose yet) - I'll put them in their own post.

So, that's what I'm thinking about at the moment...

Monday, 18 January 2021

Portal Fantasy

This post has been dragged out of the oblivion of 'Drafts', for reasons that will probably become clearer in the not-so-distant future. It's is a continuation of my thinking about how to make D&D more like the literature that inspired it and also the literature that people who might be interested in playing could be reading. 

However, I may be a bit off base here as I don't really belong to the age-bracket or cultural context that didn't read LotR and Howard and Morcock as a youngster... because I did. So I'm not the best judge of what exactly would be high on the reading/watching list of the people who aren't playing but might be... I'm not so familiar with that literature, so in some ways I'm going into this a bit blind.

Anyway, one of the things that is part of a lot of the fantasy literature I do know about is portals, which I mentioned in the linked post. The idea that people from our world venture (often by accident) into another is a mainstay of fantasy literature, TV and film from Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant to The D&D Cartoon and Stranger Things.

So I'm kicking around some aspects of this question of using portals. I'm looking at the notion of bringing people from our world to the fantasy world to start with.

How does someone from the modern world survive? Classing modern people in D&D terms is tricky.

People from our world will generally be human - unless they have also been transformed while being transported, in which case anything is up for grabs. I can't think of a work where someone's body changed by going through the portal, perhaps there are. More likely that the journey releases unknown abilities (you can't do magic in our world but maybe you can by travelling to 'Fabulosa'? Can't think of any works where that specifically happens but it seems like there would be some. Certainly in the Fionavar Tapestry there is a certain amount of 'magic acquisition' but I'd have to re-read them to work out the particular causes). That might have  a bearing on what class you could be in the new world.

I can't think of a single portal fantasy where the transportee(s) did not speak the language. Red Moon Black Mountain, the Fionavar Tapestry, Chronicles of Narnia, Labyrinth, Magic Kingdom for Sale - SOLD! and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (which to my chagrin I've never even read... though in my understanding the film doesn't depart massively from the book) wouldn't work if Mr Tumnus, Oliver, Loren, Dorothy and so on couldn't communicate. So for starters, the transportees speak 'Common'. Any other languages one might speak in the real world are superfluous. So what if you know English, French, German and a bit of Spanish? Only one of those equates to Common, the others don't exist. Dwarves don't speak Icelandic, Elves don't speak Gaelic. Probably. Though as they're both pretty conservative languages perhaps if the portal takes you back to 10th-century Norway or 5th-century Ireland, maybe the Dvergar and Tuatha de Danaan do speak a recognisable language. But, if you're in 10th-century Norway or 5th-century Ireland, you probably still speak 'Common' - which therefore would probably be Old Norse or Old Irish anyway.

What about skills? Most things modern humans know would be utterly useless. However, we have a much better understanding of stuff like communicable diseases and infection than people living in our own past and that might be a useful survival skill if transported somewhere Earth-like. Most of us I guess know a few things that might be considered somewhat arcane in a different world, like how to make steel by adding carbon to iron, or how to distil vodka. In general terms we might know more about meteorology, astronomy and such like (especially as regards Earth - portals to completely different world would render such knowledge more problematic) but in practical terms we would know less. 

Generally, non-physical skills are a bit more problematic than physical skills. Things like Mixed Martial Arts, archery, and various types of sword-fighting might equate fairly well (though if you're trained with an epee and then get a broadsword maybe not), and some things like being able to chop down a tree with an axe or hunting in the forest would be good for many 'fantasy' settings but otherwise, the sorts of skills that it would actually be beneficial to have are often going to be non-gaming ones. Woodworking and such like, though very practical in a real-world setting, are not exactly skills that feature high in character classes for D&D.

Thief skills are not really a problem. Picking pockets is picking pockets (and sleight-of-hand and misdirection play a part here too I think). The Thief skills seem to be among those that it might be reasonable to directly import.

Unless (see above) the transportation process sets of latent magical talents, Magic Users and Clerics will not be applicable here. Could a devout religious person from our world, whether through faith as an internal mechanism, or from an external source (some god), derive power that enabled them to be a Cleric? Maybe. But I can't see how a Magic User could exist.

Many of us are going to be less fit than people in the past, but conversely - perhaps - more healthy. We often do not lead such active lifestyles as people even 30 years ago, let alone 300 or 3,000. But we don't have anything like the prevalence of rickets, scurvy, polio, leprosy, smallpox or numerous other diseases or other complaints. A year into a global pandemic it seems odd to claim that we're healthier than previous populations but if you went back to Europe in 1349 and talked about a plague that killed 1/1000 of the population, the 60% of the population that survived the Black Death would think you were very, very lucky.

But perhaps some of this is not so relevant. Sarah only stays in the Labyrinth for 13 hours (actually less as Jareth keeps advancing the clock so maybe it's more like 9 hours). Yes, language is pretty fundamental to interact with the inhabitants, but perhaps disease resistance is not so important. The Fionavar Tapestry is perhaps the most 'realistic' attempt at the portal fantasy I can think of, but even then the 'party' (for want of a better term) don't all come down with cholera from drinking polluted water.

So there are problems to say the least with using D&D as a baseline for how you could do this kind of thing in a game, in terms of character generation and classing. Probably not a problem to establish basic stats: STR, INT etc are fairly generic categories, but if you've ever tried to convert D&D to be a space-game engine, for example, it's maybe a bit limited. However, 'how to do magic' is a problem that needs addressing for those classes.

There are a lot of other considerations around portals. I'm sure I haven't even considered a bunch of important factors.

A fundamental question - Who or what has brought the PCs to this world?

a Good Deity
an Evil Deity
a powerful Good Wizard
a powerful Evil Wizard
an accident
an ancient spell
a book or scroll
an ancient magical device
a secret portal (mirror, pool, wardrobe etc)

Not sure if this list is particularly exhaustive. Sometimes there can be more than one answer. An accident, for example, may involve an ancient magical device or spell gone awry. The PCs might be the unintended passengers of a spell meant for someone else, either from a good or evil entity. An Evil Wizard may use a spell or device to trap a questor, etc. Alternatively, an ancient magical device may have been created by an Evil Wizard. So the point of this list is more a 'first cause' than a set of exclusive possibilities. It's probably worth delving into deeper levels of answer that depend on the initial one.

I've just acquired a copy of the game Blue Rose which has a section on using portals in games - I'm going to be reading that section with some interest (along with the rest, of course - I didn't want it just for that section!). I hope, as it's actually part of the fabric of the game, that it might be easier to sort some of this stuff out

So, yeah... portals... they're a thing. Not a huge part of what I'm thinking about right now but I guess connected. It's sometimes difficult to know exactly where to put all the speculation.