Thursday, December 18, 2014

Structure for a Colonial Horrors Games

The New World is a place of lurking horrors.  Ancient monsters crouch within the primeval forests of eastern America  The Native Americans avoid the swaths of land that are cursed or possessed by spirits that skulk and hunt humanity, but the European settlers of early New England hold no such knowledge and awaken slumbering evils.  And then there's the horrors they bring with them from Old Europe, riding like parasites across the seas, to infect a new land with their blights.

The New World needs monster hunters.

As I think through what a Colonial Horror sandbox could look like, there are some interesting challenges presented by a class and level game like LOTFP or D&D, and the sandbox model.  Why are heavily armed strangers allowed to roam around?  If experience points come from dungeon gold, how is that going to work in a Colonial setting?  What about game balance vs party levels?

I'd probably place such a game around 1650.  The Dutch still hold New York, English settlement is thriving in Massachusetts, and there's intense competition with French fur traders coming out of Quebec and Montreal.  I like the idea of an English authority figure - perhaps the aide of a governor - writing home to hire a band of Old World monster hunters to help bolster the colonies.  The campaign begins with the player's ship of passage pulling into Boston harbor or Plymouth.  The characters, at the start of the game, are just as "new" to the New World as the players themselves.  It seems to be a great way to avoid a pre-game info-dump and let the setting unfold naturally through play and exploration.

It also accounts for why a heavily armed band of miscreants is wandering from village to village, with papers from the governor, that let them seek out and prosecute creatures of evil and haunts of the night, Solomon Kane style.  Should they be called 'witch hunters'?  I'm not terribly interested in doing Salem the RPG, though I suppose some stance on historical witch craft is required by the setting.  It could go a lot of ways.

How about levels, experience, and danger?  I'm thinking of flattening the danger curve, so the sandbox is filled with a range of potential horror scenarios of similar (dangerous) levels - like all the adventures are suitable for character levels 1-5.  The horror referee should be indifferent to player survival, as long as the scenarios are developed such that players can succeed in resolving a situation with methods beyond straight combat.  Running and regrouping is often the best tactic in a horror game!  Because the danger level is high, the rewards would be equally large.  It'd feel a lot different than the typical fantasy game, where low level characters mug goblins for their copper pieces at sword point, and hold the kobolds upside down to shake coins out of their pouches.

One necessary addition might be something like a henchman or inheritance rule.  The lethality for beginning characters could be high.  The rewards would be good enough such that survivors will quickly level up in an old school system.   A mechanism for henchman or beneficiaries to step in for dead characters would get the job done.  Maybe I shouldn't worry about it.

There's a poll going on right now, regarding which setting sounds more interesting for horror - Gothic Yorkshire or early America.  England has ruined castles and monasteries, and mist shrouded creepy moors.  Now I've given myself an interesting direction regarding how a Colonial game could look - exorcists and monster hunters from the Old World, traveling to the colonies to stalk the horrors of the New.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Icons Game Reports - the American Ninja Cowboys Campaign

I took some time off blogging (and RPG gaming), but the gang is coming over this weekend to pick up again.  Our current \ active campaign is 'American Ninja Cowboys', a post-apocalyptic anime-inspired game set in a fantastic, future America, featuring lumbering spirit beasts, magic, and ninja cowboys.  The characters are super-powered members of the Pine City Rangers, a fighting team protecting Wood Nation and Pine City from the other nations and various super-powered criminals.  Pine City is in the Pacific Northwest, built over the thousand year old ruins of Portland.

I've really enjoyed Icons.  The system plays fast and loose, and allows (er, requires) a lot of player improvisation at the table.  It supports random character generation!  I can definitely see using it for more types of super hero games.

The official designation of the player's ranger team is "Orca Team 6", but they call themselves the Otters.  At the beginning of the campaign, the Otters had just finished a long patrol south of Origami City, the city at the southern end of Wood Nation.  They were on their way back to Pine City in time for the upcoming "Pine City Games", a super-powered competition in Trailblazer Arena.  They stopped in Origami City to visit their retired coach and mentor, Old Man Skinner.

Skinner and the Otters were ambushed by some criminals and thugs, directed by one of Skinner's old enemies, the synthetic android Replicant Dioxide.  Replicant was thousands of years old, a relic of the Ancients, made to lead robot armies in the time before the Fall.  He looks like a large metal skeleton, wielding ridiculously oversized anime-style weapons.  Now he operates as a bounty hunter and salvage specialist for various criminal entities like the secretive 'Sixth Nation'.  A fight against a bunch of sword-wielding thugs and a lone copy of Replicant Dioxide (he can multiply himself) was a good introduction to the Icons combat system.  Inazuma, their lightning fast electric swordsman, figured out that the replicant's metal form was vulnerable to lightning, and defeated the copy.

The second game session had the players trying to figure out Replicant's target.  He came from the Scarred Lands east of the Mississippi, and normally operated in Earth Nation, east of the Rockies.  Someone must have hired him to come to Origami City!  Through skill checks and roleplaying, the players identified a series of likely targets - the hidden shrine at Bullfrog Lake, or the mystic monastery.  The players guessed he was after the Crack'd Bell, a symbol of liberty kept in the highest spire of the monastery, whose ringing could drive away gigantic lumbering Kaiju from the spirit world.

A gang of Dioxide's replicants were attacking the monastery, apparently going after the Crack'd Bell.  Kid Galactus flew Tex towards the top of the monastery, while everyone else went towards the main gate as quickly as possible.  Tex made himself super-dense and was dropped on a replicant from high altitude, while Kid G started battling the replicant climbing the tower walls.  At the gates, Haruki, set up her unassailable Tower of Iron Wind defense to defend the gates, and Black Russian summoned inky tentacles from the Dark to wrap and restrain another replicant.  Unfortunately, the attack on the monastery was a diversion, and the ringleader (General Dioxide) was nowhere to be seen.  Then came a report that the Hidden Shrine was under attack!

Origami City is on the river and a center of the lumber industry for Wood Nation; the monks of the Mystic Monastery make boats.  Everyone jumped in a half-finished hull in the monastery courtyard, and Kid G picked it up and flew everyone out towards the distant Hidden Shrine at super speed.  The shrine was a smoking ruin, with dead monks scattering the grounds, and General Dioxide waited for the players in the clearing.  He had retrieved a giant clay jar from the depths of the shrine, carefully sealed and scribed with mystic sigils.  Kid Galactus dumped the players into the clearing and went straight for the General.  Meanwhile, a fresh set of replicant clones stepped out of the woods, ready to fight.

The great thing about kids with super powers is they love to blow things up!  General Dioxide taunted Kid Galactus, who blasted an energy bolt at him with everyone thing he had.   It was all a ploy to get Kid G to destroy the clay jar, which exploded into a million pieces, releasing a shrieking spirit beast into the air.  Genoskwa was free!  Genoskwa (at least in the game world) is a kind of Pacific Northwest Sasquatch demon, the herald of the Apocalypse Beasts.

Game session 3 ended with General Dioxide thanking the players for the assistance, since he couldn't break the mystic seals of Genoskwa's prison himself.  Now he's off to collect his commission from his patron!  When we resume tonight, I'm sure the players are going to try beating the tar out General Dioxide and his replicants to get some answers.

Cast of Characters:
Tex
Inazuma
Haruki
Trapper Keeper
Kid Galactus
Black Russian

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Alien Races for the Weird Horror Sandbox

Here's more work from my continuing exploration of Silent Legions - some sample alien races.  The book is targeted at helping the referee brainstorm, build, and run a modern-day Lovecraftian sandbox, but I'm going to use the material for something in the 17th century - either Colonial America or Gothic Yorkshire.  I went into the process knowing that I wanted to do something that reflected themes of folklore.  I'm calling the alien races "angels", "faeries", and "devils", although those tags were just to help guide some of the idea creation.  I'm pretty happy with how the book has been helping the development.

Race 1 - Angels

The "angels" are ethereal beings that have lingered on the earth since the prehuman past.  The earth-bound angels are exiles from their own species- perhaps from a crashed vessel from elsewhere in the galaxy.  They can possess humans as vessels and thus pass through human society perfectly disguised.  A handful of relics or artifacts from human lore and mythology are eldritch weapons from the time of the fall.  They've influenced human civilizations through the creation of organized religions, and they once controlled entire empires before they were actively hunted by the other alien races.  These days they focus on controlling small cabals and secret societies within human institutions, remaining aloof from the other alien races that hunt them.  They are Machiavellian in nature, admiring treachery in their human minions and controlling them through blackmail.

In their natural state, angels look like gaseous wisps of glowing white light, with many spider-like arms waving in the air (giving a vague appearance of wings).  Angel-possessed humans have great strength.  Open questions:  there is a terrestrial element that is quite deadly to them (what is it)?  And what are they doing here in the campaign area - perhaps a lone angel-possessed human (a captain of industry) is performing salvage operations to recover some vital mineral or ancient relic.

Race 2 - Faeries

The Fey are a gruesome, amphibian race that lives in caves and dwellings in fresh water.  In their natural form, they look like giant toads with a humanoid torso and head instead of a toad head.  Their skin is translucent and they have large over-sized heads.  If killed, their forms melt away, and their underwater structure dissolve away if left unattended, leaving little or no evidence.  The Fey have influenced human DNA and inadvertently activated psychic (or clerical) powers in humans through abductions and guided breeding.  They view humans like lab animals fit only for experimentation.

The Fey are divided into 'courts' and most of their energy is directed at avoiding treachery from within.  They use mind-control technologies to project glamours that hide their true forms from human sight, but folklore-myths like the nuckalevee, water horse, drowning fairy, or Rawhide Rex point to a deeper truth.  The Fey have accumulated vast mineral wealth in their underwater cities.  They still abduct humans and keep human slaves for debased entertainments.

Race 3 - Diaboli

The Diaboli are a cthonic race that escaped an alternate dimension - a place known to humans as Hell, Limbo, or Pandemonium.  Their activities are focused on cleaning up evidence of their presence on earth, and preventing incursions from their former masters (one or more of the elder gods in the pantheon).  Humans are disgusting and loathsome to them, but the Diaboli have taught sorcery to discrete individuals and train such humans to assist in keeping their presence on earth a secret.  Knowledge of the true nature of the universe is their greatest strength, and they wage a shadow war against the other aliens on earth (and the baleful influence of the elder gods).

The diaboli admire secrecy and deceit, striking at their enemies from the darkness.  Their gross appearance limits their influence over humanity, outside of the bizarre cultists and mad wizards who heed their fevered whispers or make 'deals' with them for knowledge and power.  Their physical form is that of a legless crawler with skeletal, telescoping arms and hands, and a circular mouth like a bladed maw.  They're able to burrow through the earth, and defend themselves with a poison stinger (in addition to their prodigious mastery of sorcery and magic).

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Pantheon for a Weird Horror Campaign

I decided a cool project this winter would be to work on a weird-horror sandbox style campaign.  Some of the ideas in a recent kickstarter, Silent Legions, inspired me to pick up with blogging again.  Silent Legions is explicitly based in the modern day, but I'll be using the sandbox creation ideas for a historical game featuring the LOTFP rules.  I'm not 100% sure on the setting, but I'm leaning towards Colonial America (mid-17th century, maybe 1650?) or Gothic Yorkshire, an area to which I'm inexplicably drawn.  Looking below, I think I can make the pantheons work in either locale.

I thought it would be fun to give the mythos some overtones of European folklore and Judeo-Christian mythology - many of the eldritch beings and alien races have been confused with demons, angels, faeries, that kind of stuff.  I'm starting with the pantheon.  There are two groups of elder beings - a loosely associated collection of demons, and then a handful of independent gods.  For now I'm making four of each.  These are just the briefest of sketches - they'll get developed further as I add alien races, cults, artifacts associated with them, etc.  I'm going to elaborate the pantheon organically as other setting elements come together.

The Demon Pantheon
The traits of the demon pantheon are "maltheistic and relics".  They are carryovers from an earlier reality, and are completely malevolent towards humans.  I'm thinking the beings of the demon pantheon are outsiders, originating beyond the world in another dimension, which has been confused or conflated with Hell through the ages (I'm going call it Hell until I get around to creating the alternate dimensions).  They are creatures of spirit that can only manifest in the physical world through possession of a vessel.  Here are the first four of them:

Descriel, Purple Seer of the 9th Circle
This being sits immobile in the frozen center of Hell, contemplating the heat-death of the universe.  It's portfolio is thirst, cold, and deprivation.  I imagine that mad wizards and sorcerers have been found in their sanctums, frozen solid, after reaching out to Descriel and failing in their ability to handle the contact.

Naziel, Murderous Arm of Torment, Prince of Malady
Naziel is a brutish demon of destruction.  It reeks of steaming jungles and the stench of blood.  It commands an army of lesser beings, and is frequently represented in stone idols as a blend of humanoid and bestial features.

Ohaniel, the Voracious Autarch
Ohaniel manifests as a spirit that possesses its cultists, turning them ravenous and insatiable.  Maybe those touched and abandoned by Ohaniel continue on as cannibals, like the wendigo myth.  The entity is associated with rage, hunger, and death.

Osetsopez the First Serpent, Crimson Dragon of Ruin
All of the primordial myths have snakes, dragons, and serpentine beasts of chaos, echoes of the first serpent.  Osetsopez is an agent of ruin and corruption, stalking the cities of men in borrowed flesh to foment destruction through war and vice.

The Independent Gods
There are four independent beings, not associated with the infernal pantheon.  Gnot and Bondaena are physical beings in the world, while Kehotek is a spirit of the barren wastes, and Kentharlzola descends from the depths of space.

Gnot the Sublime, Many Faced Destroyer of Worlds
Gnot is an embryonic being from the depths of space, crashed on earth in Neolithic times and regaining its power slowly over geologic time.  Its egg sac appears like a black, leathery geode, and has been steadily growing through the millennia.  If I place the campaign in England, Gnot is the being within the Black Cyst that lies in the depths of Harrow Home Manor.

It's traits are "immanent and wounded", and its portfolio is silence and pain.  Things to think about!

Kehotek the Sevenfold Seer, Opener of the Blind Gate
Kehotek is "indifferent and dissociated" and associated with visions and parasites.  I'm going to attach various cults of transcendence to Kehotek.  Cultists of Kehotek seek to transcend reality through mysticism and visions.  They infect themselves with progressively more disgusting parasites to achieve gnosis with Kehotek.  It grosses me out just thinking about the 'divine' worm infestations carried around by the cultists.

Kentharlzola, Winged Speaker of Flames
Kantharlzola is a deity woven through Middle-Eastern myths and the folklore of the deserts.  It is the phoenix, the efreet, the winged salamander, the fiery Ahura.  Contact with Kentharlzola is capable of imparting wisdom and knowledge of magic at the cost of years of life; cultists of the phoenix are withered beyond their years.

Bondaena the Hollow Sea, Anvil of Life
Bondaena is a monstrous leviathan in the ocean depths.  It is a forerunner of the life still yet to come on earth, protean and changeable.  It is a harbinger of mutation and disease.

Like I said, I expect these to change as I add other pieces to the setting.  I'll come up with better names, and elaborate the beings as I create some of the alien races, cults, and artifacts.  The tables in Silent Legion were fairly helpful in directing my imagination and brainstorming.  We'll see how it goes next week when I start developing some alien races.

Note:  I'm going to add a quick poll around what sounds more interesting for a horror-themed sandbox - Colonial America or Gothic Yorkshire.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Easy Historical Gaming

Brendan asked a question yesterday about running historical games.  Historical research is time consuming and has the potential to deplete all your time in a futile pursuit of veracity.  I'm assuming the game is about something other than the major events of the period - it's just using the period as a backdrop.  Horror scenarios, exploration or ruins, or investigative gaming set in a historical period fits the mold.  If that's all true, here's how I approach campaign preparation for a new historical period.

First, I try to find a good map online.  Quite often you can find a modern map, perhaps from a history book, that shows the campaign area during the period in question - major settlements, borders, that kind of stuff.  Modern maps are good for terrain and can be superimposed with the period map.  I develop notes about the settlement and period about as deep as you can pick up off of Wikipedia articles and similar survey level resources.  I care about demographics, major industries, and a bit on political allegiance and similar factors.

The important research for me is around the texture of daily life - what are the narrative bits that are going to create a good picture of the era for the players?  Things like the type of food and drink in taverns (assuming there are taverns), what are beds like, what's the normal clothing of the time, names of currency and coins, days of the week, names of ordinary people, that kind of stuff.  Pretty much all of the juicy details you're not actually going to find in a history text book are what's actually important for an RPG experience.  This is where all the research energy goes.

Luckily, we live in a time where historians and researchers are concentrating on this type of historical period writing!  You can usually find titles along the lines of A Day in the Life of Ancient XYZ and put all those rich details of the setting at your fingertips.  A lot of books for kids take this approach as well, since they prioritize creating an experience for the young reader over bland recitation of facts.  Don't be afraid to raid the kid's section of the library.  Then it's just a matter of finding a good calendar, a list of common names of the period (and building a name generator to make names on the fly) and you're cleared for take off.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Look Ma, No Dungeons

I'll admit, I love dungeons.  They limit the player's options of movement, allowing the referee to focus his or her preparation time on the important aspects of the environment.  There is usually an artificial explanation for why deeper levels are more dangerous, giving the players a built-in tool to gauge their level of risk vs reward - the dangers on the upper levels are less dangerous, but the potential rewards aren't as good, either.  The progression of levels in a dungeon-based game parallel the advancement of class and levels of the PC's on the player's side of things.  It's all nice and neat.

If you're not using dungeons, what are you doing?  You might be preparing the next set of adventures and plot hooks to lead the players to challenges and lairs that are right-sized for them at this time.  I get it - 1st level guys go into the woods, they meet goblins, the 4th level guys run into ogres, the higher level guys run into dragons.  The contrivance drives me a bit nuts.

There are ways to avoid the hellish contrivance, sure.  You could put the goblin woods, the ogre woods, and the dragon woods, right on the map, as three distinct destinations, right from the beginning.  Okay, you're first level, you don't believe me there's a dragon living in the dragon woods?  Fine, everybody dies, make better choices with your next set of characters.  I can respect an approach that puts multivariate dangers into the setting right from the beginning as a nod towards decreasing the amount of contrivance in a level-based game.

What about flattening the danger curve for your non-dungeon-based adventures?  There would be lots of adventure opportunities in the area, of indeterminate danger, and it's not going to be possible to fully gauge the level of danger until the characters learn a bit more about what's going on.  There is precedent - I've even seen published adventures with broad level ranges - good for character levels 1-8, or 1-5.

The interesting point about flattening the danger curve is that it flips the typical approach of D&D style games on its head.  Wizards and spell-based characters (the problem solvers) are particularly weak at low levels, so exploration in default D&D requires a steady stream of fighting and melee combats.  Fighters and combat skills become less relevant as the traditional campaign goes forward and characters gain levels - spells take the prominent role.   In the horror themed sandbox, if a first level party squares off against a higher level threat, combat is the worst option and the group is forced to find alternatives to fighting.  When was the last time a horror movie was resolved because the heroes had more hit points than their opponents and went toe-to-toe  in melee with Freddy, Jason, or the Xenoform?  (Arnold gets a free pass in movies like Predator, I'm sure his contracts stipulate he always gets to be a 10th level Chaotic Neutral Bad Ass.  Same goes for Vin Diesel).

As I start to work with the material in Silent Legions, the flattened danger curve is how I'd implement the horror-themed sandbox.  While the players are constrained by classes and levels on the player's side of things, there are no such constraints on the elder horrors and squamous things lurking in the sandbox.  However, true to the tropes of the horror genre, there are usually macguffins, silver bullets, or non-combat resolutions available if the players survive long enough to get the necessary information during the scenario.

You could see why this approach has me excited to work on some OSR material again!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Summoned Back... by Silent Legions



RPG gaming has been on a hiatus for me this fall.  I have a family commitment most Sunday nights, Friday night is usually tied up playing Magic, and it's been hard to make Saturday's work.  Still, kid's soccer season is done, I'm wrapping up the summer home remodeling projects, and there's renewed hope we'll be able to reform the group as my weekends get clear.  Cold, wintry nights in the northern hemisphere are well spent around the gaming table.

And then the kickstarter for Silent Legions showed up in my inbox.

I'll reserve a complete rundown for an actual review, but Silent Legions is a blend of game rules and campaign creation to create your own sandbox horror setting.  It's ostensibly set in the modern day, but after a quick read, it seems like it could be easily adapted to an earlier period.  In fact, that's what I'll be trying to do here on the blog.  I like the blend of D&D and horror, and Silent Legions uses a class and level system with strong OSR roots.  Putting it in a setting with fighters, clerics, and magic users is easy.

The elevator pitch for the book is something like this - many horror writers have created their own settings and horror mythologies as a backdrop to their stories - HP Lovecraft's New England, Stephen King's Maine, or Ramsey Campbell's Severn Valley all spring to mind as authors I've enjoyed.  Silent Legions provides systems and tables to guide the referee through creation of their own unique pantheon of elder gods, alien races, cults, artifacts, and grimoires to populate their own weird horror setting.  It offers a framework for creating flexible investigative scenarios to funnel adventurers into the stories through creation of scenario templates.

Anyway, this book had me at 'horror sandbox'.  Working through the material should be a fun project, and I don't see why I can't post any creations to the blog as I make my way through the book.  Stay tuned, it starts this week.

Meanwhile, what's been going out on the OSR blogs that I've missed?  From a cursory scan, the honeymoon between OSR gamers and 5E appears to be going strong.  Do we like the system that much?  I've maintained some distance and skepticism from the WOTC RPG team, but with the holidays looming, this seems like a good time to put the books on some wish lists and jump in.  I'll be sure to check out any play test reports I come across - let me know if you have any over at your own blog or web space I should check out.