Thursday, August 25, 2016

HMS APPOLYON PLAYERS GUIDE PART 1 - Combat and Exploration

It's perhaps long overdue, and really this document has been sitting about, mostly edited, mostly complete for some time now.  I've finally decided to release it and hopefully others will find it useful.  In addition to being the combat and exploration rules I've used extensively for my last campaign of HMS APPOLYON, it's a set of fairly well tested rules that I've used in modified form for other games.

A LINK TO THE GUIDE

From the Introduction to this ruleset:



H.M.S. APOLLYON

Player Manual Part I
COMBAT AND EXPLORATION

I never set out to write a retro-clone, only my own esoteric setting material, but HMS Apollyon has turned into a retro-clone of sorts – specifically a sort of homage to the earliest editions of Dungeons and Dragons.  I have a copy of the “Whitebox”, the later “collectors’ edition” that I bought long ago in my youth, but I never really read it with a critical eye until playing in Brendan S.’s Pahvelorn game on Google+.  Most of the basic rules and mechanics here are pulled or interpreted from the “Whitebox” and the “Little Brown Books” it contains, but they are more the product of other’s work and games – Nick W., Ramanan S. and most of all Brendan S., as well as the players who have stuck with the setting as it has contorted and evolved, especially Chris H. and Eric B.

I have tried to keep my rules concise, but rather than just offer another set of retro-clone rules I want to provide my reasoning for why I have adopted them.  You may notice small text boxes below some of the rules, and in these I have tried to justify why I am using a rule and what I hope to accomplish with it.  It’s my belief that while setting is largely formed by evocative description, NPC interaction and collaborative storytelling, that rules are still important as they can destroy or support a setting’s tone.  I shy away from too many player-facing mechanics and try to emphasize “player skill” over “character skill” but mechanics do help make a setting, especially combat mechanics which largely set the game pace, character turnover (lethality) and how important central is to the game.

The intent of the HMS Apollyon setting is to provide players an exploration game in a setting where life is cheap, the world cruel, and combat against the denizens of the haunted hull a desperate, not altogether wise gamble. These combat rules are written with this goal in mind.  The rules were slowly developed and modified through play and thus are esoteric as opposed to systematized.  While systematized rules have an intuitive appeal, I have found that the effort to fit everything into a structured rule set rather than a collection of smaller subsystems or individual rules tends to stifle the sort of “rulings not rules” mindset that early Dungeons and Dragons fosters as well as discouraging the individualized house rules that are necessary to fill gaps in any rule system in a comprehensible manner that doesn’t rely on metagaming or “build science” more appropriate to war games.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Funnel Equipment Lists for Fallen Empire's Desolation of Zubrab



FALLEN EMPIRE
ON THE PATH TO ADVENTURE

PDF OF WITH LISTS HERE

The Fallen Empire is a place where the lives of the citizenry are constant hostage to contingency.  No day goes by without rapacious tax assessors turning a village into desolation ready for sale to outside interests, a sink beast surging up and invading a nearby croft, or that the simmering conflict between two ancient houses is finally settled in a bacchanal of slaughter.  The survivors of these tragedies, insignificant to the callous and exhausted powers of the world, find themselves without sustenance, support or succor in a time where the oppression of time and the past means that even compassion has guttered down to the barest coals.  Some die. Most suffer and then die.  A few survive, and the rarest prosper.

Those individuals that are able to withstand the buffets of ill fortune mostly become treasure hunters, grave robbers, and mercenary agents.  Guides, wildmen, spies, travelers, chroniclers, prophets and reavers - adventures, starting from nothing these men and women shift and bully the Empire’s somnolent powers, dusty mores and resigned masses, carving themselves places of note. 

Before riding a wave of blood, magic, fire and cunning to wealth and power all adventurers were something else – usually something contemptible and piteous.  To start an adventurer on their path to death or glory roll 3D6 once for each of the following stats: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma.  If the score is 5 or under the adventurer has a -1 in that statistic, fifteen of over it’s a +1.  Strength grants a bonus or penalty to melee damage and to hit. Intelligence a +1 or -1 to initiative, Wisdom to Saving Throws, Dexterity to Armor Class, Constitution to Hit Points on a per die basis, and

Equipment in the PDF below  is defined by the region and past of the adventurer, with  several potential tables to determine starting equipment and past for adventurers in the regions around the Desolation of Zubrab – The Pyre Sea, The Pyre Coast, Provence Maritime, and Green Hive Canton.

PDF OF EQUIPMENT LISTS

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fallen Empire - Rules of Setting Creation


SETTING RULES FOR FALLEN EMPIRE

Thinking about settings and the generic assumptions of fantasy games and where I want to place "Fallen Empire", my current online game, within those constraints made me realize I need more than just a vaguer sense, I need some ‘rules’ or ‘truths’ about how the setting works at a high or conceptual level. I visualize the setting as my version of 'vanilla' fantasy, a sprawling world of jumbled faux-medieval, classical and renaissance bits where dragons and unicorns exist (likely in a twisted form - but still there).  In order to make the setting consistent I want to create some core ideas, and I want them to be interesting, ideally running against some of my least favorite fantasy archetypes.

This is complicated by a couple of factors, first I abhor vanilla fantasy settings, and second classic settings are already ably represented by numerous products, many of them far, far slicker then anything I could ever deliver.  Consequently I want a setting that is high fantasy, but not derived from Tolkien, Greyhawk and The film Excalibur. Even dispensing with the obvious influences, high fantasy settings come with their own problems – principally really high fantasy is sprawling, better suited for heroic games of conflict between great forces with players acting to pursue world changing adventure.  The titanic conflict between forces of good and evil, order and chaos don't really work well with the rule sets I like, which are at their best providing when a game is about exploration and trickery and picaresque adventure for personal gain. An open world is therefore essential, with room for the players to scheme and explore but there is very little open world left in many high fantasy settings. High fantasy games of great empires, kingdoms and might wizards logically leave very little of the map to explore – there problems aren’t on a human scale, they are epic: ancient evil awakening, barbarian invasions from the realm of nightmare or conflicts between stately pantheons of deities.  OD&D doesn’t really support that sort of game, and while running a version of Journey to the West about reformed demons and pagan gods fighting back against the bureaucracy of heaven and sometimes on behalf of an upstart populist religion has an appeal – it’s not the game I want to run right now.

I find having high level setting truisms helpful keeping my setting and adventure design focused, for creating expectations and building a sense of how the game should works.  One traditional way of doing this is to focus on a monster manual for the setting - what are the common creatures encountered?  A world where goblins are on every random encounter table is radically different than one where dragons are.  An abundance of either implies something about both the world and the goblins or dragons involved.  I want to do this for fallen empire - define its singular monsters (I’ve been doing this in my Monster Archeology posts), but more I want to create a few other ‘truths’ that define the setting.  While it's likely these setting constraints will grow and change in play, it seems useful to set up specific guidelines for everything I produce for Fallen Empire so that it has a distinct look and feel.

While a good chunk of that look and feel is purloined art from Roger Dean and other 70’s/80’s progressive rock album cover artists, I want that to be a bit more than an aesthetic draped over a standard D&D game.

Rodney Matthews (Not Roger Dean) - so smooth

Sunday, February 21, 2016

I6 - RAVENLOFT - Review

OH THE CREATURES OF THE NIGHT...

I'm not sure if this is a review or a mediation on adventure design principles, but I've recently been thinking a bit about the horror genre and tabletop adventures - while running a location based wilderness point-crawl with a post-apocalyptic high fantasy setting.  My long running game set aboard the HMS Apollyon attempted to have horror elements, though perhaps failed in that regard, and with that in mind I find myself looking at the first really successful horror themed D&D module - I6 Ravenloft, -written in 1983 by Tracy and Laura Hickman, a few years after two other modules I've reviewed here (somewhat unfavorably): Rahasia (1979 republished/rewritten 1984) and Pharaoh (1980), but before the couple launched into Dragonlance.

To understand Ravenloft, and perhaps to give my critique of it a more appreciative cast I think it's first important to look at the Hickman's adventure design in general.  If Gygax's adventures can be identified by a certain actuarial abundance and callously fair mercilessness (The deadly but entirely rational traps of S1-Tomb of Horrors, or the highly detailed Keep in B2-Keep on the Borderlands), the Hickmans' adventures are about: storytelling and heroic narrative.  They may be the creators of this school of adventure design.  If one should thank Jennell Jaquays for interesting non-linear map design, the Hickmans stand tall in the annals of game design by offering an alternative to the location based adventure and approaching tabletop games with a novelistic eye rather then that of a wargammer.  That is to say that even Rahasia, written at the same time as Keep on the Borderlands, wants to tell a specific story where the player characters are heroes of an epic fantasy struggle and does so with set piece encounters that flow logically into one another.  Of course this "story path" style of play can lead to the sort of awful excesses that deny player choice and freedom to have a say in the story of their characters - the railroads, forced decisions, coercive encounters and  quantum ogres that mark 00's and 10's mainstream tabletop products. The Hickmans' own work isn't usually as bad as all this, it's not even as bad as a contemporary OSR influenced WOTC product like Lost Mines of Phandelver, and the saccharine vanilla fantasy flavor of most of the Hickmans' work is done earnestly, with a certain unique flair and in general far more forgivable in 1979 or 1983 than 2016. Ravenloft is likely the best of their adventure design work, and it contains a lot of interesting ideas that sometimes fall flat or are two big for the module they're in, but are generally not boring. It's a novel and useful effort at design - one that I personally wouldn't run expect under certain circumstances, but would be tempted to steal some ideas from.

Yup, That's Pretty Gonzo

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Monster Archeology - Lesser Undead

SKELETONS AND ZOMBIES

I'm not sure if the animated skeleton is the most iconic Dungeons & Dragons monster, but it's certainly close.  Interestingly there are few undead in Tolkien (other then the Ring Wraiths who are a clear inspiration for the wraith in D&D), but plenty in the other Swords and Sorcery inspirations for Dungeons and Dragons. In the Monsters & Treasure undead are broken down by power level, but unlike humanoids each variety has some variation in abilities and a variety of statistical differences.

Interestingly, Skeletons and Zombies are grouped as a single class of enemy with only minor indications that they might be considered different sorts of monsters.  The taxonomic mania of AD&D is less fully evolved in the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, with monsters having a variety of Hit Dice or types within a larger class and with almost none of the detail and ecology that defines later monster manuals.  While this doesn't go as far in building a default setting for the game, that is a blessing of sorts, encouraging GM creativity and interpretation of these monsters and by extension the fiction they inhabit.

The description for Skeletons and Zombies is long on behavioral description by Monsters and Treasure standards and provides some interesting ideas:

SKELETONS/ZOMBIES: Skeletons and Zombies act only under the instructions of their motivator, be it a Magic-User or Cleric (Chaos).  They are usually only found near graveyards, forsaken places, and dungeons; but there is a possibility of their being located elsewhere to guard some item (referee's option).  There is never any morale check for these monsters: they will always attack until totally wiped out.

The statline for Skeletons and Zombies (or animate bodies more generally) includes Hit Dice and Armor Class distinctions allowing for 1 Hit Dice or 1/2 a die and Armor Class of seven or eight.  Possibly, or even likely these distinction are meant to be the difference between Skeleton or Zombie as separate creatures, but such limited variety seems far less interesting then a mere random variation between creatures.  Other more bizarre or interesting reading are possible, even if utterly unsupported by the text.  One could reasonably use the higher stats for undead thralls that are undamaged, but the weaker set for ones that have been damaged (knocked to zero HP) after they get back up or reform.  Another option would be to use the higher Hit Dice and Armor Class for creatures directly under the control of their creator, rather then left as guards.  

Also interesting in the description of skeletons and zombies is that they are the same creature, animated dead bodies.  There's no reason to make a distinction between the amount of bone vs. flesh on the horrifying shambling corpses (and the do shamble with a move of 6 rather then the 9 for most humans).  For a GM this is a nice change, breaking free of the overly taxonomic approach to monsters that table top games seem to relish sometimes, and encouraging the GM free creative reign.  The real limitation here is that Skeletons/Zombies are mindless undead, raised and controlled by magic.  While Monsters and Treasure grudgingly acknowledges that they might be left as guards somewhere it almost demands that a wizard or evil priest is controlling the flock of stumbling corpses - this makes skeletons and zombies far more interesting, not because it effects them much, but because it implies that all undead encountered outside of the thrall of some sorcerer are something else - wights or mummies seem the logical candidate

The animated dead in Monsters & Treasure are also something designed for use as war game opponents - figures on the field rather then narrated enemies in a table top Role Playing Game. Skeletons and Zombies are the bodyguards or accompanying unit for evil priests and wizards rather then an enemy on finds while disturbing a tomb.  These creatures chance of being in a liar is listed with a 'Nil' (Nil being one of those D&D anachronisms that while originally a shorthand slang for not on list and the Latin for nothing, has returned thanks to Gygax's esoteric brand of pedantry and autodidact's vocabulary).  What this means it that Skeletons and Zombies are never in their own location, and never have treasure of their own - they are purely automatons, created and commanded by others.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Monster Archeology - Large Humanoids

OGRES, TROLLS & GIANTS

I actually like the 5E Ogre Art
Under utilized in my own games, large humanoids have been a staple of Dungeons & Dragons from the beginning.  The three modules that later made up "Against the Giants" were first written and published in 1978, around the same time as my 6th edition of the "white box" and only shortly after the first edition of Basic D&D, but before the AD&D Player handbook.  The 'Giants Series', still represents one of the better examples of Gygax's incremental approach to monster design and open world world adventure design. It's unclear exactly what place large humanoids have in D&D though it seems that they fit well at the top of the 'humanoid ladder." G1 recommends a 9th level party (name level for a fighter), and is not an easy adventure, though 9th level seems high given that Hill Giants are 8HD creatures.  In Monsters and Treasure Ogres, Trolls and Giants range from 4-12 Hit Dice, making them in the top tier of monsters with 'Hydras', 'Dragons' and 'Purple Worms', though large humanoids are encountered in larger groups then these other top tier menaces.

It is also notable that ogres at least have always been a monster to throw at beginning parties - wandering ogres are a particularly tough and rare random encounter on the 1st dungeon level based on the tables in "The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures" in of the 'White Box', but trolls and giants however are reserved for the deeper levels.  The inclusion of a single ogre in "B2 - Keep on the Borderlands" as well as the idea that the chiefs and bodyguards of hobgoblins and gnolls fight as ogres and trolls also suggests that large humanoids aren't just a late game enemy.

Monsters & Treasure suggests little else about large humanoids.

OGRES: These large and fearsome monsters range from 7 to 10 feet in height, and due to their size will score 1 die +2 (3-8) points of damage when they hit.  When encountered outside their lair they will carry from 100 to 600 Gold Pieces each.

So we really get little description about ogres, and mostly focus on their ability to do greater than normal damage and the way they carry around wealth (relatively rare).  Ogres are dangerous melee combatants, and that seems to be the entirety of their existence. The statistic box for Ogres, and the mention of them elsewhere in the monster list provides a few more clues.

Yet, there's nothing that suggests the 5E ogre should be definitive
Ogres wander quite a bit, outside of their lairs 70% of the time and are always carrying at least 100 GP when they are.  Within their lair they have a guaranteed 1,000 GP and a good chance at additional treasure, making them acquisitive in an almost human manner.  Likewise Ogres can be found with other humanoids, working with Orcs some of the time, especially in Orc villages.  It's unclear if these "Orc Ogres" are huge Orcs, similar to the giant Hobgoblins (who fight as Ogres) that make up a Hobgoblin court, or are Ogres who work with Orcs for pay or because they have been compelled to somehow.  What's interesting about all this is that Ogres are obviously social, interested in money and willing to work with other monsters (or presumably humans) to benefit themselves.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Miserycrawl, Negadungeons and Killer GMing.


THE COMPLAINT

I've occasionally seen some table top gamers and bloggers denigrate "miserycrawls" as an OSR aesthetic, usually this is largely the typical litany of boring and traditional complaints and stereotypes about the OSR as a pack of neckbearded haters of innovation who relish in the unfair slaughter the player characters and the gruesome aesthetics of heavy metal album art.  As dull as this critque is, it did get me thinking about setting feel, adventure design and why I like both low fantasy settings and high lethality games.

I advocate for a low fantasy settings when using a Dungeons & Dragons based system, especially the early editions, where simple, quick combat that tends to leave even strong characters dead sometimes because these settings work with these mechanics.  When one is using the lethal saving throws, low hit point totals and the high probabilities to hit that one finds in white box style D&D (negative AC is an artifact of later editions and it can ruin mid-level play) letting players know that they are not invincible, or even the toughest people in the local area, tends to be important - hence the low fantasy, or grim fantasy setting.  The feedback between mechanics and setting are important for letting players understand how to 'play' in the world and help build player comprehension of both ruleset and setting expectation. Low fantasy settings (though whimsical 'gonzo' settings also work very well as failure becomes part of a narrative of slapstick black-comedy) become especially important now, as they reinforce the rules and set player expectations that character death is more likely then in more modern systems, or games with player facing narrative.




Retreat from Moscow - the Scenario (Painting by Adolphe Yvon - 1856)

Friday, December 11, 2015

Maps maps maps.

So I haven't stopped making stuff for Table top games, I'm working on a few projects these days, and thought I'd share some of the map art I've made for them, and for other purposes of late.

First, A map I drew of the local region the "Master's of Carcosa" game I play in occasionally takes place in.  Run by my friend over at Save Vs. Total Party Kill, it's a pretty fun game.  A very open sandbox, that is becoming the most pro-social and optimistic game I've seen in a while.  Despite, or perhaps because, the GM has given the players a great deal of leeway, and  the setting is so amoral - filled with casual genocide, violence, theft and cartoonish depravity, the characters (a troupe of actors/con artists) have a become heroic civilizing force for peace.  Currently we are operating out of Invak, a Boneman lizard herding village that grudgingly accepts non-Bonemen refugees.  Jahar to the South, a Brownman trading city is on the verge of making an alliance with Invak due to player actions.  Much of the Southern map remains to be explored.

The Second Map here is an unlabelled map of a Fallen Empire river town.  The town (Mire? Rivertown? Tradefork? - Fallen Empire names are descriptive, not fantastical) is built up on sunken Imperial barge hulls, and pilings.  It's all recent wooden construction, wealthy and well protected thanks to the swamp and the grounded hulk of an old monitor which still has some working arcane weapons aboard.  I think this place may be the "point of light" in an adventure I've had brewing in the back of my head for some time. 

A very detailed map - in need of some shading
Also sort of incomplete - needs shading and actual maps.

The last item here is a map illustration/elevation/isometric projection/blah blah/whatever for a location map.  The location being the 'ruins' of a late Imperial era hunting lodge deep within a corrupted wood.  The lodge should be 3-4 levels and present an interesting set of challenges. I still need to draw out the interior maps and key most locations, but the project is going fairly quickly, though I am unsure if I'll PDF it or maybe even publish it somewhere.




Saturday, December 5, 2015

Lost Mines of Phandelver - Review

THE WORST THING ABOUT D&D

Forgotten Realms was the worst thing to happen to D&D, a terrible setting that reeks of bathos and takes itself far too seriously.  It plunders everything cliched and overused from Tolkien but abandons all the strange sadness and the mythological references. It fills the land with huge civilized bastions of good/order like Waterdeep and exhaustively defines their systems of governance, but allows these nations to be plagued by trifling enemies like goblin tribes. Forgotten Realms embraces a pedantic faux-medievalism, but then uses a contemporary positivist understanding to explain magic that allows for cutesy magical technology to gloss over the inconvenient aspects of the pre-modern.  Most offensively, most objectionably, Forgotten Realms is a dense, full world, so steeped in cliched lore and laid out so extensively in dull gazetteers that there is no room for a GM's creativity without excising some of the existing setting and map.

I'm not here to talk about Forgotten Realms, except as a symptom, it will always be terrible.  I'm here because I've been reading the 5th edition's introductory module Lost Mines of Phandelver.  I start with my objections to Forgotten Realms, because I think they are the root of the module's considerable problems.  That and a player coddling, computer role playing game derived game design ethos that limits player choice and insults player intelligence in the name of providing a consistent play experience. Many people love this module, I do not.  It's not the worst thing I've ever read, it's not even as bad as Dragons of Flame, but its positive design and structure elements are mired in a pablum of fantasy cliche so bland that it makes for one wish for even Dragonlance's feeble gestures towards the weird and the wonderful.  As a 'teaching' module Lost Mines is also a wreck, giving good advice about avoiding railroads one moment and then on the next page making every effort to railroad the characters.

LOST MINES OF PHANDELVER

Hey look a Dragon
A glossy and sometimes lovely book with maps and art that are both inoffensive and excellently drafted.  The art is relatively sparse and frequently seems designed for reuse, not showing actual events or NPC from the adventure, but rather generic fantasy monsters and vanilla fantasy adventuring archetypes engaging in non-specific adventuring tasks. In fact not a single art piece within depicts an actual event from the adventure - it's as if everything was designed to be recycled in later publications.  Even the cover is a generic adventurers and dragon sort of image, yet the art and layout are inviting,simple and certainly professional looking - more digital watercolor, bland but with a bit less of the shiny over sized shoulder armor or 'dungeon punk' aesthetic of some other editions.  Something a bit more characterful would be nice, but everything in its soft pastels, greys and browns is readable, clean and offers no challenges for the reader.

The adventure itself is fairly long, broken into four episodes, some with multiple small keyed locations.  These sections begin to feel rushed and more poorly designed as the adventure progress, but none are unusable.  First there is a section of general advice and plot overview, followed by a goblin ambush and lair, then a town with bandit trouble.  Finally some other small locations, one with a dragon, a castle of goblins and ultimately a cave complex with the regional evil mastermind hard at work exploring within.

PLAY ADVICE AND INTRODUCTION

In a way this short section of advice and suggestions for playing Lost Mine and D&D more generally is one of the most interesting parts of the adventure.  The advice in introductory modules is always a window into the game designer's mind and the system's preferred playstyle.  In general I have enjoyed the 5th Edition of D&D's expressions of support for less structured, non-adversarial play, with more GM control and a focus on rulings and creative solutions to in game problems.  The advice in Lost Mine follows this pattern with explicit and early cautions against adversarial play and encouragement towards fairness and adjudication rather then rules mastery.

There is little specific advice in this section, and while it's friendlier then the introduction to something like Keep on the Borderlands (a pure expression of that Gygaxian impartial actuary of death play style) it also has less advice on running the game, running monsters and thinking about the world.  What advice Phandelver offers however is refreshingly positive and encourages the sort of creative group story telling that only table top role playing games can deliver.  It just fails to give practical examples of this, or when it does the actual adventure provided will trample all over them in favor of a squishy railroad, moral judgment of player goals and forced novelistic pacing.

The hooks and background of Lost Mine are less interesting - ancient mine, pact between gnomes and dwarves, and a magical forge that produced wondrous magical items. Of course orcs smashed it up at some point and it was forgotten. People keep trying to find the rumored treasure mine, but no one has in hundreds of years, until now - despite its convenient location. This whole hook makes my skin itch, but worse is the disheartening level of vanilla fantasy, rulebook obsessing detail it's described with.  The invading evil army is of course orcs, and of course Lost Mines has to add that 'evil mercenary wizards' were also involved.  Dwarves and Gnomes are of course the original owners of the cave, and somehow lost all their maps when the mine was overrun. Why do only dwarves and gnomes ever have mines, why do ancient NPC orcs need human wizards, and why must it always be orcs destroying things. First rewrite.

"The ancient rock spirits of the Wave Echo Cave produced marvelous magical gems, occasionally trading them to the primitive tribal peoples of the Coast, but as civilization grew the spirits retreated into their wondrous mine and traded less and less.  The folly of civilization is to believe it can overpower the world, and enraged by the end of trade, armies from the growing city states banded together to seize the spirits' mine and enslave it's diminutive fey workers. A great battle was fought and both mines and armies destroyed, the land around them called cursed. The surviving kings and leaders destroyed the knowledge of their defeat and the mines' sealed entrances soon became a legend. A local sage claims to have rediscovered an entrance to the caves."

This is really the core problem with Lost Mine, every situation, encounter or description that could be drained of weirdness, mystery and wonder has been and most have instead been remade with the dullest versions of standard fantasy tropes the designers could find.  This problem becomes worse as the quality of the encounters and dungeons decrease in the adventure's later half. Another example of this lethal blandness is the way Lost Mines uses names.  They are terrible fantasy names for the most part.  The initial question hook comes from a Dwarf named "Gundrun Rockseeker" - seriously?  Sure this is a fantasy cliche, but worse it's incredibly unmemorable and everyone else in here has similar terrible fantasy names - the villains "Irno 'Glassstaff' Alberk" and "Nezznar the Black Spider" as well as heroes like "Silldar Hallwinter".  Gad, just hard to remember and overflowing with gratuitous fake Tolkien flavor.  NPC names are important, but they should be memorable, as players will need to remember a lot of them to keep the story straight - especially if the adventure doesn't provide them with any memorable features (The dwarf merchant with the eye-patch is a lot easier to distinguish from other dwarves of business then "Gundrun Rockseeker").  The names provided aren't without some virtue - they tend to have good, simple, memorable elements sandwiched between nonsense fantasy sounds.  "The Black Spider" is a fine name for a villain as is "Glasstaff" - no need to add names that are impossible to remember and obey grammatical rules for fictional languages not involved in the adventure. Tolkien, as a linguist and obsessive world builder could get away with strange fantasy names because they were A) In a novel, and not important to the reader's immediate and story changing understanding. B) Part of an entire structure of fantasy languages, so they made sense in a way with an internal fantasy logic - the worst offenders, Tolkien's elven names, were mitigated through the use of a large amount of elven poetry and loan words throughout the text.  Lost Mines does not create an entire fictional language, and as such it should keep its names fairly close to real world names or as rough translations. The cultural importance of names (what naming conventions say about different cultures) can be preserved without resort to piles of funny consonants, for example if you want your dwarves to be business obsessed and orderly each dwarven name is structured [inherited profession] [Employer] [Serial Number] followed by a nickname, like "Rockseeker, Blue Mine, 1251, but everyone calls me One Eye." A dwarf adventurer might be named "Axegrinder, Solo, 000" and nicknamed "Cutter" or whatever.  Simple names used in a way that imply a strange world are better then strange names that imply a cliched world.

On a more positive level the mechanical design of Lost Mine is generally decent.  For example the background of the adventure is relatively concise and doesn't go into a great deal of detail (about that of the paragraph above) about unnecessary ancient events that have no impact on the adventure itself.  There's about a page and a half detailing the regional present, and the situation that the players will get themselves into, but not ancient history and pointless storytelling.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

HMS Apollyon - Player Introduction from Player Guide



The gates of the Bleeding Gaol opened, and the stiffness from your cramped confinement, the chaffing from the fetters and the psychic scars of darkness and uncertainty has finally left you over the last day or two.  Now there is only the Rustgates and the near certainty of a bad death.

You were born and raised among the stews and fleshpots of the Cannery, Pickbone Square, The Pool or even the Sun Rookery, but that hardly matters now.  Likewise, the pleasures and pains of the life you lived there are all just memories - that you were the shift leader on the can line, or the fastest scrivener in the factor house is as immaterial as if you were the worst copyist in the Queen’s Scriptorium or a lay-about Vory thug who never managed to savvy The Code.  Whatever you were is stripped away by the brand of ‘flotsam’ on your right wrist, and whatever you did to get here matters little.  Even guilt and innocence are unimportant, as only social status offers survival in Sterntown: access to food, protection from arbitrary violence, the freedom to move about town, availability of shelter, and the right to purchase proper supplies and equipment all depend on who you know and who finds you useful.  Even if you once were, you sentence means that you must again prove your value to self-interested and capricious judges.  You are an exile, a criminal, and outcast so  it’s your lot to live the rest of your days in the festering favelas and dense scaffold slums of the Rustgate, where you can either die or  find a thin accommodation with survival by pulling treasures from the haunted hull.




THE RUSTGATES

The Rustgates - almost accurate map of street level
The Rustgates are a small, even more densely populated area of the already cramped Stern.  Like all “decks” of the Apollyon they consist of a series of 100’ tall vaults of green-black orichalcum – unworkable “ship metal” formed by the long lost technology of the builders before the great marooning.  Unlike some other areas of the vessel, the Rustgate (and most of Sterntown) contain few orderly sublevels and whatever cabins, gangways and working spaces they once held have been ripped out, their stone, steel and wood repurposed to build a sprawl of scaffolding, balconies, poorly ventilated tenements, storefront shrines, bars, burlesque houses, gambling dens, fighting pits, noodle shops and flop houses. 

While at the deck level there is some semblance of a street, only on the “Golden Way” running in front of the great Gilded Exile Burlesque House do these streets reach from the metal of the lowest deck to the buttresses of the ceiling.  The majority of the space within the vault that makes up the Rustgates is tangle of buildings, shacks and scaffolding piled atop each other, forming a crazy web of shanties and hovels above the more prosaic buildings below.  
The principal industries of the Rustgates are vice and scavenging from the hull, and the powers of Sterntown profit from it anarchy and hidden order as the Rustgates provide an influx of treasure and raw materials from the rest of the hull that Sterntown’s industry and luxury both depend on, while also offering a productive way to dispose of citizens who defy, disrupt, question or inconvenience them.

The population of the Rustgates is truly made up of the vessel’s lowest and unluckiest.  Factorial workers maimed by machinery and cast out of the grim, tidy tenements of neighborhoods like Pickbone Square, and every other variety of madman, cripple and urchin.  Gangs of feral urchins (widely believed to be cannibal) nest high above the streets in the blower ducts and descend to rob, kill and run confidence games on the slightly less impoverished  denizens of the Rustgate’s lower levels.  Scavenging, trading in scavenged goods, and sybaritic entertainment are the only jobs within the Gates, and except for those too far gone to injury, madness or addicition the community’s leaders expect everyone in the Gates to work or starve.  The Gates principle factions control all life, and a longtime resident who offends the gangster “block captain”, the Steward thug,  or even the street preacher of Lyriss, may suddenly find themselves going hungry as even the stand where they’ve bought kelp and dried fish for ten years turns them away.  Only the three public fountains, great stone pools surrounded by chipped, hull-plundered statuary, whose faces have been re-carved many times to honor entire lineages of Uptown philanthropists are open to all and provide clean water and a sort of watering hole sanctuary to all. 

The incredible density of life in the Rustgates allows about eight thousand residents to be crammed into a space that is about two city blocks square, but built up in an overlapping mass of stories and half stories as high as a ten story building.  Like almost all of Sterntown it is lit only by artificial light, mostly by dim bluish gas lamps fueled by decaying waste piped from processing centers on the level above.  Private light sources are common as well, from the stub of tallow candles used by the beggars and addicts to light their pleading faces to the strings and bouquets of gay multi-colored glow kelp bulbs that advertise even the dingiest dive bar or knocking shop.

The Golden Way, the short ‘U’ shaped street that runs from the Rust Gate fortifications past the Gilded Exile Burlesque House and to the gates of the Bleeding Gaol is the most brightly lit, busiest and safest spot in the Rust Gates. Uniformed and relatively polite Steward gendarmes patrol the Golden Way’s starboard arm, while clusters of nattily, even foppishly, dressed syndicators openly bearing advanced weaponry such as block magazine rifles and drum feed, self-cocking arbalests.  The street is lined on all sides by theaters, gin palaces and fancy brothels and designed to appeal to both the most successful of scavengers and the wealthy Passengers who flock to its ‘seedy delights’.