Friday, March 29, 2013

What's So Damn Hard About Running Ruined Cities?

For the third time in as many years, I deep in insomnia mode last night opened up and reread Robert E. Howard's last-written and perhaps greatest Conan story Red Nails

It's not so much the excess of “raw meat” (that Howard semi-famously admitted in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith about the story) that draws me back each time as much as it is the setting of the story, the massive ceiling-enclosed city-structure of Xuchitol:
“They were not looking into an open street or court as one would have expected. The opened gate, or door, gave directly into a long, broad hall which ran away and away until its vista grew indistinct in the distance. It was of heroic proportions, and the floor of a curious red stone, cut in square tiles, that seemed to smolder as if with the reflection of flames. The walls were of a shiny green material...
The vaulted ceiling was of lapis lazuli, adorned with clusters of great green stones that gleamed with a poisonous radiance...”
Others in old school circles have commented at length about how strong of an influence this particular story had on D&D in its wind-in-its-sails years (the presence of factions, the almost-megadungeoness of the city, the direct inspiration for Moldvay's Lost City module etc.) While I find those things interesting--and often make my hand want to reach for a pad of graph paper--there's something else that draws me back with a stronger compulsion: the sweet melancholy of lost cities.

To be sure it's a theme that gets banged on time and time again in Howard's writings in remarkably similar ways. There's the drug-addled, sinister, slithering menace of the lost desert city of Xuthal; the gleaming ivory dome and sorcerous, sinister menace of Kutchemes; the sinister menace of the dusky iron statues of the island in the Vilayet Sea; the oracular, sinister menace of Alkmeenon —the list of lost cities and creepy menace goes on even, but you get the point.

Though I laugh at it presented in a list like this, it's only half-hearted, I love each of those forgotten cities and never leave reading them without feeling reinspired. It's been a mini-theme here on this blog over the years the love of great heaping ruined piles—something that always maintains my gaming imagination truthfully more than the archetypical megadungeon—but something eludes me in translating that vision into play at the table.

To sure I have dipped my foot into it, the half-ruined metropolis of Kezmarok and its vast undercity have been a central revolving point of the HC campaign for going on nine months now. But the full on running of a vast ruined city as an adventuring locale has eluded me.

And it's potential, unlike the dungeon, seems to have eluded D&D for a good long time, even back in the hoary day. To be sure we had The Lost City (mentioned above), Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and Night's Dark Terror (not surprisingly all on my mighty short list of beloved published adventures). All of them are evocative, dripping with flavor and nicely done encounter areas, but there is a doggedly vague spareness to them, a feeling of a very psychologically little place.

The ruins bug caught back then too. I distinctly remember painstakingly drawing out whole city blocks building by building over many sheets of graph paper for my Gamma World and AD&D campaigns—and panicking each time when the keying came around.

Why is that? Is it the awkwardness of the scale? Or the age-old dilemma of what to do with “empty space”?

Part of the ongoing success of the dungeon, as any GM who has had to run a game for more than a few sessions instantly groks, is the manageability of the micro-environment. On the other end of the scale spectrum (and trickier to pull off in an interesting way) is the hand-waving emptiness of the wilderness where whole miles are nothing more than a few sentences between the punctuation of encounters and zoomable sites.

But the ruined city is sandwiched in there between scalewise, with hundreds if not thousands of potentially exploreable sites spread over a distance smaller than a wilderness hex but many times larger horizontally than even the biggest of dungeons. The confining visibility and limited choices explode exponentially in the open streets.

That Dragon magazine had only a single article, “Ruins: Rotted and Risky but Rewarding” (issue #54) devoted to city ruins as an adventuring site is again telling. There are some clues and fixes there in that single entry (random chart and descriptions of a number of commonly found buildings--that sadly suffer from too many overly-prosaic examples like a paragraph on a bowyer's workshop) and some things that just compound the overwhelming feel of it like advising to map the whole city in a 10-yard scale (just think about that for a second).

The wind-up is overlong here, so I will leave some of the fixes and half-solutions swirling around in my brain for the follow-up (and yes the pointcrawl and Runequest's Big Rubble loom big there).

I turn the floor back to you: have you had successes/difficulties in running this kind of site? What have you learned?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Good News about Flashing Blades

Just heard from a friend two very fine pieces of news about Flashing Blades (a game I have desperately wanted to play after a half year in an En Garde play-by-post)  from the game's author Mark Pettigrew. 

As some may know that game has been in a legal limbo for a very long time. Though its original publisher, FGU, brought the game back into print, much like Villains & Vigilantes the creators had neither received royalties nor control back over their games. That changed last week with Jeff Dee and Jack Herman regaining their rights with this resounding victory

And now we learn from Pettigrew:
"FGU already agrees that I own the rights to Flashing Blades. I'm even receiving (very small) royalties checks again, after a 20-some year hiatus. I think I mentioned this before, but again, all of you are free to write, publish, etc. whatever you want for FB without worrying about copyright. I'm happy that people are still enjoying the game."

That's a real two-fer: a win for the designer and a refreshing "open source" direction for the game. Perhaps time to move this up on the "games I can run finally" Google-plus queue?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Hill Cantons Wilderness Crawl

Spring Break has my fantasy creative writing class all canceled, so I am going to play hooky and run the beginnings of a new mini-campaign tomorrow.

1. New characters to be rolled as per the HC Compendium and the draft version of Live Weird or Die.

2. Each session will have to end back in town or at a "save point" (a safe, habitable spot in the wilds that I will indicate as you discover them). New sessions can begin at any of the locales a PC ends at.

3. It's all about the blank hex map. In fact you will have a standing (paying) commission to survey and explore the land. Following up on your own personal El Dorados and the like of course is encouraged.

4. The action will take place just off the eastern border of the Overkingdom (to the north and east of the Hill Cantons proper), so expect some tie-in and recycling from the campaign.

Background Whoha
Countless centuries of gavelkind succession laws have cranked up the fractionalizing, autarkic, hair-splitting pettiness—so typical of life in places with a foot in the Weird--to a feverish pitch in the Translittoral Canton of Hoimatbuch. That chilly, windy easternmost bastion of the Overkingdom is further plagued by a strangely-virile nobility creating a maddening over-proliferation of hyphen-crazy micro-fiefdoms as each holding is divided equally among the male children of each line.

Matters have come to what seems a breaking point with the death of the Vastvoj the Viscous, the Wildgraf of Velky Hoimatbuch-Voka-Untmuntschaifen--at least in the mind of Jakov XXXIV the newly-anointed Sub-Wildgraf of Velky Hoimatbuch-Voka-Untmuntschaifen-Ujzed, a lordly domain comprised of a single blood-apricot orchard, giant-bat pasturage/fertilizer lot (shared with his brother-lord) and a decrepit hunting lodge located near the dread Pass of Sighs.

The rakish Jakov, known for his scandalous and calculatedly provocative views while at college in Marlankh, has a decidely more ambitious plan for avoiding the slow, slumbering idiocy of declining rural gentry life—expansion and exploration of the Weird beyond the Pass. He has put out a call for the usual rough and tumble sort of freebooters, border ruffians, sybarites, raving heretics and others to map and survey the wilderness to the east.

Jakov offers the following:
  • 30 gold suns for each hexagonally-organized 21.6 square mile area unit of land--quaintly referred to as “five mile hexes” by laymen—accurately mapped.
  • 100 suns for each settlement of sentient (preferably exploitable) life found. (Generous bonuses for maps of said sites to be paid according to detail.)
  • A variable bounty for sites of “particular, unusual interest”.
  • Use of his paid-up membership in the local hiring hall of Golden Guild of Condotierre, Linkboys, Roustabouts, and Stevedores located in the nearby town of Velky Hoimatbuch.
  • Room and board when you are back in the Lodge.
Scale is 5 miles to a hex. Click to Enlarge.

Hireling offerings for the Guild (contract period for one session only):
Men-At-Arms (20 golds suns rate)
Kracki the Hooded One, 3 hp, Half-Plate (AC:5), pike, nunchucks. Laughs at all your jokes.

Brown Tomas, former indentured servant, arquebus (only works in Corelands), studded leather, morion helmet, scimitar. Stands in your personal space.

Arsus of Ultima, 5 hp, loincloth, bear hat, spear. Has no tongue, smells like ass.

Mohag the Wanderer, 3 hp. Studded leather, quarterstaff, elaborate great helm. Has never left town.

Underlings (10 gold suns rate)
Pavol, 2 hp, claims to be a duly-elected “Master Torchbearer”, will carry two light sources at once, but complains about his back the whole time. Padded armor, dagger.

Craccus, 3 hp dogsbody and professional sycophant. Dagger. Is lying to you now.

Malinka, 4 hp executive assistant. Whip and club. Will get you to the dungeon on time.

Chargen Particulars
1. We are using Laby Lord.

2. No standard demi-humans though all AEC advanced classes are open to humans and all my stupid variant classes are available (see the Appendixes here for that).

2. Roll 4d6 drop the lowest IN ORDER for stats. No swaps or cheating mccheatering.

3. Give yourself 2800 experience points as a signing bonus for indulging me. First hit die is maximum, roll others as normal.

4. 4d6 (drop the lowest) x10 starting gold (called a “sun”).

5. Five-fold alignment is in use. But who cares.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Mountebank, Take Three

One great advantage of four years of play in the same campaign is that you get the long-haul perspective on the effect of all your obsessive and ill-considered tinkering under the hood with house rules. Some become overtime Truly Terrible Ideas, others fall by the wayside, a few stand alone golden and untouched.

Most though just need some more applied tinkering. One of the oldest variants in the Hill Cantons Compendium (soon, knock on proverbial wood, to be updated and replaced by Live Weird or Die: The Roustabout's Guide to the Hill Cantons) is the Mountebank and as the Google Plus greys into solidly middle-levels it has become apparent that what worked for lower levels has become a decidely less interesting and capable class choice at middle levels.

(A big special thanks to Robert for the relentless Manzafrain the Mirthful and Jeremy for the much-missed Colonel for their playtesting—and to Evan for his own excellent, recent Vancian-inflected take on the class.)

What follows is a stick-bending of the class that may correct that falling off--or create new ones, that always being the pitfall. All input greatly appreciated.

Requirements: INT 13, DEX 13, CHR 13
Prime Requisite: CHR
Hit Dice: 1d4
Maximum Level: None

The mountebank is the consummate con artist of the medieval-fantasy world. By use of smooth talk, sleight of hand, and magical illusion the mountebank stays one step of the law—and earns a decent living in the mean time. Because of their specialized skill set they are often also employed as spies.

As a sub-class of the thief, they are allowed to wear leather armor and use any weapon. They are also allowed to pick pockets, move silently, hide in shadows, listen at doors, and back stab as per a thief of the equivalent level. They can further use disguises as per the assassin class. All saving and combat throws are made on the thief table.

They are also able to use a new skill, sleight-of-hand, at the level they can pick pocket--plus an additional 15 percent. Sleight of hand allows the mountebank to move, switch out, or otherwise manipulate without being noticed a hand-sized object.

At third and higher levels they begin to be able to use spells from the Illusionist class spell list (pick the version)--their spell assortment however tops out at level 11. New spells are gained by paying—or swindling—resident illusionists.

They are restricted to only using magic items open to thieves until ninth level at which time they can also begin to use items available to illusionists. An exception is for scrolls which they can employ at any level under the following conditions [Thanks to Evan Elkins for use of this paragraph]:
  1. To use a scroll the Mountebank successfully they must make a successful saving throw versus magic with a penalty equal to the level of the spell.
  2. If the saving throw is failed, the opposite of the intended effect of the spell occurs, usually in a way that is reflected back on the mountebank.
  3. A mountebank may also attempt to cast a spell directly from a spellbook, but the spell disappears in the same manner as a scroll.

At ninth level, the mountebank attracts a crew of 2d6 grifters, con-men, and other ne'er do wells (1st level mountebanks) as followers.

Mountebanks cannot be lawful or “good” in alignment.

Beginning at first level, a mountebank can use their smooth fast-talking and arcane powers to create semi-magical effects. All abilities are dependent on the character being able to talk in a language understandable to the target.

Mountebank Special Abilities
Level Effect Duration
1 Flim Flam, raises Charisma to 18 1 turn, +1 per level
2 Hustle, lower or raise a price in a commercial transaction by 10-40% Immediate.
3 Gain Illusionist spells (see below) N/A
4 Hypnotism, same as Illusionist spell 1 round, +1 per level
5 Manufacture Flash Powder, causes blindness, one batch a day with appropriate materials (150gp) Immediate

Mountebank Level Progression
Hit Dice (1d4)
+1 hp only*
+2 hp only *
+3 hp only *
+4 hp only *
+5 hp only *
+6 hp only *
+7 hp only *
+8 hp only *
+9 hp only *
+10 hp only *
+11 hp only *

Mountebank Spell Progression
Illusionist Spell Level
Level 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0
4 2 0 0 0 0 0 0
5 2 1 0 0 0 0 0
6 3 2 0 0 0 0 0
7 3 2 1 0 0 0 0
8 3 3 2 0 0 0 0
9 4 3 2 1 0 0 0
10 4 3 3 2 0 0 0
11+ 4 4 3 2 1 0 0