Thursday, October 18, 2012

Campaign Dials and Medieval Hack

Three in the A.M. thoughts continue to rule my head as we pound out playtests—and pages--of Medieval Hack. Many of the sleep-deprived thoughts seem to cluster around the broader game design questions. Long box-car thoughts like: “we chose a relatively narrow period/place/literary tone so we could focus a bit more on period feel and little details...but we love DIY what is the range we think it can support conceptually before it becomes something else entirely?”

While I find myself feeling that sliders and other schemes are a bit mechanistic (and confining when a game starts growing organically in play), they do allow you to think about the broad parameters are of the game. What follows are some idle, “non-official” thoughts on some campaign dials.

Campaign Dials
Medieval Hack is designed to be flexible enough to incorporate a range of campaign types and settings while maintaining its coherence as a focused mostly historical, yet-fantastical and weird game. Gamemasters should think about what feels right to your play group and choose accordingly. (My own Ulfland playtest campaign is a nice even 2,2,2 in setting while Evan's Languedoc is a 2,1,3).

Fantasy Element Dial
1. Magic and the supernatural as open mystery. The existence of Magic and the supernatural is an open question. Does witchcraft exist or is it trickery? PCs are typically not allowed access to magical skills. Supernatural effects may exist but are shrouded in mystery.

2. The Medieval Mind is “right”. The world view of much of this period is assumed to be mostly accurate. Witches sometimes work “black magic”, sometimes just folkloric “low magic”. Prester John's kingdom and its strange monsters and stranger denizens likely does exist somewhere at the end of the earth. Still for the majority of people in Christendom these matters are mostly unknown and unencountered in daily life—and greatly feared. The game has mostly been designed and playtested to support this approach and while it can be readily played on the other settings, we feel this gives the broadest play experience of the game's vision.

3. Low Magic Fantasy. The setting is assumed to something more akin to what is called a “low magic” setting in a D&D or fantasty novel context. Magic practitioners, while still rare are not as feared and shunned, and have an open existence in civilized areas. Supernatural beings and goings on are more readily acknowledged and encountered. The game Ars Magica, the fantasy Earth of Runequest 3 and other games come to mind.

Setting Historicity Dial
1. Historical World, Realistic. The campaign setting is based in  historical Europe. Major settlements are actual historically-existing places. Small-scale settlements and areas (such as villages and manors)  may, however, be semi-or entirely fictional. Important personages are typically found in historical accounts. (Fantasy elements can still exist in this dial setting.)

2. Historical World, Fictional. The campaign setting is based in historical Europe but has regional areas that may be fictional. The fictional area could be an entire county-sized area such as Averoigne or a mythical set of islands such Jack Vance's Elder Isles. The rest of the world is more or less historical. Some important personages will be entirely fictional.

3. Fantasy World, Quasi-Historical. The setting world is entirely fictional, but the culture is a thinly-skinned Northwestern Europe of this period. Important historic parallels will exist such as a (mostly) universal monotheistic church.  The setting may even blend in thinly-skinned personages from real world history.

Player Restrictions Dial
1. Players restricted to certain roles. Character generation in MH will often produce a wide range of backgrounds and vocations for players. Some GMs may desire a more focused campaign with a specified range of characters. A GM for instance shooting for a more knight-based chivalric game may ask players to only roll characters under the Second Estate table or one seeking to have a bandit-like Robin Hood game could give a range of likely vocations such as bandit or forester as open options.

2. Broad but bounded. This is the default of character generation as written. Character types are drawn not as a statistical snapshot of life in that period, but as the classes and backgrounds more likely to lead to an adventuring life in the bounds of Northwestern Europe of that time (or its fictional mirror). Use of the Alternate Table can slant players to be more likely to members of the nobility while maintaining both the diversity and bounds of the game as intended.

3. Wide open. Players can either freely choose from character backgrounds or are allowed to play roles that may have been more difficult. Playing Islamic characters or Joan of Arc-like warrior women (not historic impossibilities  but rare) for example is allowed.   

Saturday, October 13, 2012

News of Ulfland

Campaign news for the Medieval Hack playtest.

Lord Bodwy's tragic woes continue, Sir Taran was foully murdered in an ambuscade on the new bridge fording Norde Creek. Some say that this is the work of brigands, cooler minds doubt that outlaws could work with such impunity in the middle of the day and on the old Roman road during fair time no less. Sir Gralon, his twin brother is offering a substantial bounty for the heads of the culprits and Taran's boon companions, Sir Menguy the Blueballed and Sir Jos the Fairbearded, are in a froth of wrath. Bodwy's banneret Kavan asserts that this is the work of Lord Govran and vows “war with mercy” on that foul baron.

The Hot Fair of Maure begins. The muddy streets of Maure are choked with fair goers from all over Ulfland and Lyonesse. The cloth-hall and pavilions are bustling with the shouts of the booth vendors.

A kaleidoscope of colors greet browsers of cloth bolts. Though mostly local wool dyed in rich vermillions, scarlets and greens, there are dye-stuffs and cotton from Flanders and silks from far Lucca. The rich smell of Cordovan leather mixes with the piney scent of resin. Locals oh and ah over the exotic goods, sugar from Syria and even rare spices like cinnamon (which is well known to come from the nesting material of a bird in dusty Arabia).

Two cowherds have gone missing from Lammon's Meadow. The pair, sons of prosperous villiens on the manor of *Sir Morvan*, were not known to be prone to flight and their fathers worry.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lyonesse Maps

Hopping around the ether today I found some wonderful maps of Vance's Lyonesse on French fan sits. (Apparently like Jerry Lewis, that trilogy plays well in Francophone countries having produced the one and only rpg in the setting and several quality fan sites.)

This beauty of a South Ulfland map, naturally, had me a-twitter. Interestingly it places Fian Gosse (the barony I'm using for the Medieval Hack mini-campaign) almost exactly where I did working from the Lyonesse novel map. Scale fits too. 
Click to enlarge.

And here's North Ulfland ruled by the good King Gax (Gygax reference?)

Here's a nice one placing the Elder Isles in their European context.

Vance lovers be sure to check out the rest of the maps and the site in general. Google Translate actually does some semi-passable work with the translations.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Ulfland Playtest Mini-Campaign

Yesterday I pulled back the current on my recent medievalist game project. I mentioned that I was running a mini-campaign that "ports elements of 13th century Brittany into the strife-torn South Ulfland setting dress of Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy." 

For spectators and those interested in getting into the playing pool for one of the Google Plus playtest slots (or face-to-face if you fancy a drive to San Antonio), here's the background run down and starting situation on my little barony. 

Ulfland Mini-Campaign Notes
The mini-campaign is centered on Fian Gosse, a petty barony on the marches that divide South and North Ulfland. The region is a somewhat remote and wild place of rugged, grassy hills punctuated by wood-choked vales, lush river-bottom meadows, heather-covered moorlands, weathered megaliths and ancient, time-worn ruins. Arable plots are small and divided by dense bocage (hedgerows often overgrowing a crude stone wall) and herds of lean, rangy cattle and wooly mountain sheep dominate the wider open pastures.

Local Male Names
Local Female Names

Medieval Nicknames (note such wonderful entries as “Catherine de' Medici Jezebel, the Barren Wife, the Black Queen, the Eclipsed Consort, the Italian Duchess Without a Duchy, the Maggot from Italy's Tomb, the Merchant's Daughter, the Monstrous Regiment of Women, the Mother of the Modern High-Heeled Shoe”)

Hoel, Lord Bodwy’s last remaining son was found a fortnight ago nailed to the old Roman watchtower two hundred paces from the boundary stones of Lord Govran’s demense. His corpse was so riddled with arrows that it was difficult to identify the teen heir. Lord Bodwy remains bedridden and despondent to this day. Sir Paol, Bodwy’s castellan, is looking for “rough men” to help revenge the honor of the baron.

The Hot Fair of Maure will begin next week. Already the village is packing in wine merchants, harlots, pedlars, vinters, thieves and other ne'er do wells.

Sir Gralon and Sir Taran, twin nephews of Bodwy’s currently serving in the court of King Gax in Xouges are said to be on the road to Fian Gosse. Their mutually-contested status as heirs to the barony surely is prompting their sudden sense of homesickness.

Sir Paol has offered a one Libra (240d) reward for the slaying of the dreaded Hound of Blacken Moor. A shepherd had his throat torn out near the moors just a night ago.

Sir Kavan, the more martial of Bodwy’s bannerets, is looking for the fleet of foot and stout of arm to help in a return of his prize bull from a local banneret. Interested parties should seek him at Three-Pines Hall.

Jakez the Woodward has been breathlessly spreading in the village a chilling tale of coming upon a black rock altar deep in the center of Kaugh Forest. The blood staining in it was hot and fresh to the touch and he could hear the howls of Hell itself when he lifted his hand. The tale grows in the telling.

NPCs of Note
Lord Bodwy, the petty baron. Bed-ridden and despondent since the deaths of his three sons

Sir Kavan “Rooster”. Strutting proud banneret of Bodwy’s.

Sir Ranulf “the Cuckolded” (weak chinned and fat) and his wife Ysabel of Konche, raven-haired beauty of an “amazon”. Bodwy’s other banneret.

Sir Paol, Bodwy's Castellan. Old lean and a bit myopic.

Sir Tristan, knight bachelor holding a small manor two miles NE of Maure Keep. Two household knights and mercenary leader are PCs.

Surrounding Baronies:
Lord Govran, sadistic fucker who holds the barony of Caroth to the northwest.

Lady Mebille of Gelsme. Stewarding the barony to the south for her son. Eerily depopulated fief with bramble-covered ruined villages and wood-choked fields. Dark rumors abound about the lady.

Four “Founder” Saints of Ulfland (each grants specific powers under our divine magic system):
St. Tudwal
St. Christopher the Lesser
St. Padarn
St. Kaourintin 

Click to Enlarge
Barony of Fian Gosse
920 Serfs (15 square miles of cultivated land)
110 Freemen (2 square miles)

Maure Keep
An old pink-granite Shell Keep with 25-foot walls. Seat of Lord Bodwy. Currently houses five knights (including the Castellan), 14 sergeants, and 47 footmen. The demense is also backed by the two fortified manors of Bodwy’s vassals, Sir Kavan and Sir Ranulf.

Large village of around 750 that holds a royal market charter (and is thus growing into a town). Three mills, a smithy, two weavers, a tannery and most recently Kernun’s Antler, an inn.

Three Pine Hall
Venerable oak-trunk manor house known for the three massive ancient pines in its courtyard thought to have once been used in the worship of a pagan god.

Abbey of St. Christopher the Lesser.
Premonstratensian abbey run by the Abbot Fransez the Fat, a venal and grasping man.

Village of 238.

Village of 258.

Sinister little hamlet of around 50 herdsmen near Bracken Moor.

Teach tac Teach
Mountain range, three closest peaks are called the Cloudcutters.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Hardcore Medievalist RPG of Our Own

Like most of my fool gaming projects, it started so casually. Restless on leave, I threw out on Google Plus the idle thought that I was suffering through a perverse, masochistic urge to play a hardcore medievalist rpg like first edition Chivalry & Sorcery or Harnmaster.

For some reason the resulting discussion just clicked something in my head and low and somewhere in there it morphed into “let's make a game.” I trotted out a wish list of design goals for a dream game:
1. Low-to-no magic rpg. Magic and fantasy elements are rare and wondrous or terrifying.
2. Set roughly from 1190-1250 in a Northwestern Europe, but can support low fantasy or semi-historical fictional settings that are similar.
3. BRP-like percentile game as a baseline but with simple mechanics that are custom fit for the period.
4. Game feel inspirations: real world history, Averoigne/Jurgen weirdness and a splash of Howard Pyle-like romanticism.
5. Indirect "magic" (saintly, alchemy, sorcery/summoning, and herbal) that is well-researched and fits into the workings of the medieval mind.
6. Folklore and legends are often "real". Prester John may well live at the edge of the world in a land filled with strange wonders. The black hound may indeed hunt the moors and Woodwoses in the deep dark recesses of the forest. Faith and folklore have real weight.
7. Background, institutions and social class matter, but opportunity through social chaos/adventuring.
8. Interesting, painless chargen (career based with clear easy choices).

A mad writing rush of two weeks opened up with heavy-lifting help from Evan from In Places Deep  and Mike from Sword+1 and other mensch in our DIY corner or the hobby. Forty manuscript pages later and “Medieval Hack” (a working title) was a-born.

A good many ideas I've been long harboring for character generation minigames were sharped and found a home, you can guide a character through a large range of childhood class backgrounds along a vocation path of almost 50 different realistic vocations (with lots of strange events and related character development along the way). Long-tinkered, beancounting-minimal domain-level rules are finding a place too.

While we have a lot more tightening up and thinking out to for our evolving-bottom game, the punchline is we already had enough in place to start the real fun: hot-housing in several play-test mini-campaigns on Google Plus hangouts.

Evan is running one such game in the Languedouc region in the late-12th century. I'm running two sessions a week now of a mini-campaign that ports elements of 13th century Brittany into the strife-torn South Ulfland setting dress of Jack Vance's Lyonesse trilogy (see here for the full campaign description).

If you are interested in the game—and more importantly want to drop in and swing a virtual sword in one of the playtests--drop me a line. Half the fun is building a game organically from the bottom up with the discerning and devious minds of our wee hobby.