Saturday, March 31, 2012

Campaign Idea: Batmania

The Australian mountain forests are funereal, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle in their black gorges a story of sullen despair… The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great gray kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that when night comes, from out the bottomless depths of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and in form like a monstrous sea-calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire, dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear-inspiring and gloomy.
- Marcus Clarke

Deep in the southern hemisphere there lies an uncharted continent known only as Terra Australis Incognita. It is a land more ancient than any other; the elves have no memory of it, the dwarves have no records of it inscribed upon their stones. Its people, the dark-skinned natives of the many tongues, have never before seen the strange white men who are now settling on their shores.

In Sydney Cove and Van Diemen's Land, small penal colonies have been established, where the overflowing inmates of Albion's soot-stained prisons are shipped to toil the rest of their days under the hot southern sun. Yet there are also men who come to this land willingly, seeking its rich natural resources, and the foremost amongst these men is John Batman. Having made his fortune in Van Diemen's Land, he has now established a third fledgling colony: a ramshackle camp on the banks of the Yarra River, which he has given the name, Batmania.

The forests of this land are thick, the mountains tall and ancient. Even the Kulin people, who have dwelled here for uncounted generations, know only a small fraction of the secrets that the uncharted bushland holds. Rumours abound of weird monsters that roam the dry interior, of enormous hairy giants who lurk in the mountains, and of cyclopean ruins of ochre stone, built by some empire lost to time. Though there are no elves or dwarves native to Terra Australis, they have rough equivalents in the brolga people and the wombat folk - strange beings who are half-man and half-creature, with whom the Kulin natives share a quiet but enduring peace.

As it was in Albion long ago, a great age of adventuring is about to begin. Swordsmen, pistoliers, sorcerers and priests from all over the world are arriving in Batmania, eager to make their fortune exploring the undiscovered country. At the same time, the young men and women of the Kulin take up their own weapons and their own magics, leaving their tribes to go 'walkabout' alone or in the company of white men. For these bold souls, either riches or death await. From the seal rocks of Phillip Island to the rugged peaks of the Dandenong Ranges, from the dusty plains of the northwest to the creeping horrors of Van Diemen's Land, they will pursue their prize, and either return as heroes or be forgotten as a few more of those who vanished into the last uncharted continent.

Note to international readers: Don't snigger. John Batman was a real person and the city where I live (Melbourne) really was called Batmania when it was first founded. It has nothing to do with a certain gravelly-voiced superhero.

Converting 4E Classes to AD&D: The Ardent

It seems a lot of people are critical of the 4E 'grid system' for character classes. The grid system basically consists of the idea that each character has a power source (Martial, Divine, Arcane, Primal, etc.) and a combat role (Defender, Leader, Striker, Controller). Though it's impossible to say for sure, it seems like part of WotC's design process for new classes is to look at this grid and try to fill in the blanks. For example, the Barbarian and Druid filled up the places of Primal Striker and Primal Controller, respectively, but the new classes of Shaman and Warden were created to fill the role of Primal Leader and Primal Defender.

I actually like this process, because it brings out a lot of new and interesting character concepts. The Shaman, for example, may have started off as nothing but 'Primal Leader', but the final concept (which is based around communing with animist nature-spirits) is more than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, these interesting core concepts can kind of get buried under all the At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers and the rigid adherence to the character's combat role. So I thought I'd make a project of converting some of my favourite 4E classes into AD&D-style format, in order to distill their essence as it were. I'll start with one of 4E's most obscure and sometimes ridiculed classes: the Ardent.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Doré Day

All the other blogs have some kind of weekly gimmick. You know, like Wizardly Wednesday, Warlock Wednesday, Friday... something something...

Anyway, I hereby declare that from this day forth, Friday is Gustave Doré day.

...believing it to be a small hillock, would walk straight into the creature's mouth...

From the Classics: Harpies

We spread the tables on the greensward ground;
We feed with hunger, and the bowls go round;
When from the mountain-tops, with hideous cry,
And clatt'ring wings, the hungry Harpies fly;
They snatch the meat, defiling all they find,
And, parting, leave a loathsome stench behind.
- Virgil, Aeneid

The Harpies in the Aeneid don't actually attack the humans who intrude upon their domain. They just swoop down, steal all the food, and shit on the banquet table (I'm pretty sure that's what Virgil means by 'defiling'). Even when Aeneas and his companions attack them, the Harpies just kind of sit back and laugh because they can't be hit except by +1 or better weapons ("the fated skin is proof to wounds"). The danger to the travellers is not that the Harpies will kill them, but that they'll starve to death.

This is a cool twist to the monster that is lost when they become directly aggressive. Instead, I want to have the Harpies appear whenever the PCs are trying to eat their meals and snatch up all the food they can. This will work best on an island, in a deep ravine, or some other place where the PCs can't easily come and go. After a few days of no food, the PCs will start to feel weakened from starvation. The Harpies' defences make them difficult (but not outright impossible) to kill. What will the players do in such a situation? Will they turn their energies to exterminating the Harpies? Concoct a plan to eat their food in secret? Or just get what they came for in this location as quickly as they can and then escape?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cliff Kitty

The Cliff Kitty is a monster that appears almost exclusively at the tops of tall cliffs. It has the appearance of a normal kitten, and generally spends its time gambolling about, rolling on its back and generally being cute. Travellers often approach it to try and pet it or pick it up, whereupon the kitty will jump back just out of reach. This continues until the kitty has lured its prey to the very edge of the cliff, which has been chosen especially for its instability. The cliff then collapses and both the kitty and its prey will fall to the ground. The kitty then sprouts a pair of feathery wings which it uses to fly away. After the avalanche is over, the Cliff Kitty flies down to the corpse/s of its victims and begins to feed.

When not lying in wait for its prey, the Cliff Kitty may be seen nesting on the sides of cliffs. Young Cliff Kitties are completely hairless and nearly blind.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From the Classics: Bleeding Myrtle

There, while I went to crop the sylvan scenes,
And shade our altar with their leafy greens,
I pull'd a plant - with horror I relate
A prodigy so strange and full of fate.
The rooted fibers rose, and from the wound
Black bloody drops distill'd upon the ground.
Scarce dare I tell the sequel: from the womb
Of wounded earth, and caverns of the tomb,
A groan, as of a troubled ghost, renew'd
My fright, and then these dreadful words ensued:
'Why dost thou thus my buried body rend?
O spare the corpse of thy unhappy friend!
Spare to pollute thy pious hands with blood:
The tears distil not from the wounded wood;
But ev'ry drop this living tree contains
Is kindred blood, and ran in Trojan veins.'
- Virgil, Aeneid

The bleeding myrtle is a strange plant that generally grows only on distant isles. When given the chance to spread further afield, it seems to favour the sites of great battles or other slaughters. When planted over a grave site, the bleeding myrtle can give them speech from beyond the wall of sleep. The soul can only be compelled to speak by picking the leaves of the myrtle, which draws blood and causes the trapped spirit much pain.
Some unhappy folk, unable to cope with the loss of loved ones, cultivate graves of bleeding myrtle to converse with the reluctant shades. It is said that a certain noble lady has an entire garden of the plant, wherein each of her female ancestors for eighteen generations are buried.
Others covet the plant for more practical reasons. The dead keep with them many kinds of useful information. Even one who was an enemy in life can be forced to answer questions if one is willing to pluck cruelly at the bleeding leaves. Once all the leaves are picked, however, the plant wilts and the trapped soul departs forever.

Campaign Idea: Fantasy Doom Patrol

Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol is a great comic series. The basic premise consists of a team of superheroes whose various powers are tightly linked to their crippling disabilities. Robotman, for example, is described as an 'omniplegic' since his entire body was destroyed and replaced by a robotic shell. Crazy Jane has multiple personalities (and a different power for each personality); the Chief is in a wheelchair, and Rebis is... I don't even know how to explain Rebis.

But the corollary to these flawed characters is the idea that: fucked up heroes may be your only hope when fucked up times arrive. For example, the first story arc of Morrison's run involves the real world being invaded by fictional characters from an evil book, and the Doom Patrol must defeat them by finding a priest with a clock for a face and posing him a tautological question that causes his entire reality to collapse.

See, although it isn't often highlighted, the Doom Patrol technically exists in the wider DC Universe alongside Superman, Batman and the rest of the mainstream heroes. There's even a scene in the first story arc where Robotman says: "If we had any sense, we'd call Superman." To which the chief replies: "We don't need Superman." But what he could have said was: "What the hell could Superman do in this situation?" Superman punches out giant robots and aliens. He's not cut out to deal with ontological horrors from the pages of Jorge Luis Borges. That's why you've got to call the Doom Patrol.

So what does all this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons? Let me explain. I like to mess around with the 4E Character Builder from time to time, usually creating the strangest race/class combinations I can think of. I've got a dwarf vampire, a psionic goblin, a pixie barbarian, a robot paladin and an undead warpriest. Where the character options in previous editions can be pretty restrictive and po-faced (no Gnome Paladins for you!), 4th ed really benefits if you don't take it too seriously. And these off-the-wall character concepts are starting to sound a lot like the Doom Patrol.

Warforged Fighter, Eladrin Rogue, Genasi Wizard
So here's the pitch for a 4E campaign: The players can make whatever characters they want, but they have to have some reason to be fucked up and exiled from society. If they don't have a weird class/race combo, then the player has to think of some other reason why their character is on the outer edge. The setting of this campaign is a peaceful kingdom protected by a party of glorious adventurers in all the most canonical roles - Human Rogue, Elf Wizard, Human Cleric, Dwarf Fighter. These are the guys who wear the posh armour, ride around on parade floats, and receive the adulation of the populace. You don't get to be those guys. Instead, you get to be the Fantasy Doom Patrol - the kingdom's other team of adventurers, who deal with all the weird shit that the mainstream heroes won't touch with a 10-foot pole. While they're travelling to the Mountain of Mystery, you're poisoning the food supply of undead illithids on the dark side of the moon.While they're slaying the dragon, you're fighting a telepathic moat that strangles castles in their sleep. When they return home with the Three Legendary Weapons of the Gods, you've brought back a mysterious black statuette that triples in mass when you turn it upside down.

Oh yeah, and you're such a bunch of freaks and outcasts that most of the people you've saved from annihilation wouldn't want to piss on you if you were burning. But that's just the way it is for the Fantasy Doom Patrol.

Edit 24/6/12: Looking back on this post, I think it's probably kind of ableist, that is - talking about how it would be cool to play as disabled superheroes who are "fucked up" is pretty insensitive to people who are really disabled. I still think this is a cool idea, in fact I'm likely going to be running it very shortly, but I definitely want to move away from the disability angle, which wasn't a large part of the concept anyway. When I say the heroes are "fucked up" what I really want to focus on is just that they have bizarre powers and are generally counter-culture to the bland mainstream heroes. 

Does this mean Doom Patrol is insensitive also?? I'm not sure but I think not because Grant Morrison deals with the issues in subtle and interesting ways; I can't do that because I'm not Grant Morrison and also I'm running an RPG which entails thinking about a hundred other things already.

What's Been Happening Lately Table

For if your sandbox world starts to feel too static, a table of random events to amaze and confound your players. I'm not sure if this is really a problem that anyone needs solving, but it could be fun. You could roll on the table at regular intervals, or even do it whenever the PCs return to civilisation. Most of these are designed not to be adventure hooks so much as interesting details in the background.

What’s Been Happening Lately? (d30)
The word certain indicates a random method of selection.
1 – War breaks out between a certain two neighbouring states. Roll again to determine the cause of the war:
1 – Holy crusade after an ecumenical council was ruined by an event involving a drunken abbot, a reliquary, and a stream of piss.
2 – Border zone that nobody wanted suddenly becomes valuable after the discovery of numerous jewelled beetles breeding there.
3 – Auguries said it would be a good idea.
4 – Escalating series of diplomatic incidents which began with a case of cross-border pig-snatching.
5 – The two states hold an ancient grudge ever since their war in ancient times. Roll again to find out what the war was about last time. And yes, you can get this result again.
6 – The army just needs to plunder something or they’re going to get antsy.
2 – One settlement suffers an outbreak of Creeping Pustules. The entire area is quarantined for 1-4 months while the disease runs its course. Those foolish enough to enter the town during this time are at least 25% likely to die a truly awful death.
3 – 1-4 adjacent hexes are discovered to be concealing a rich vein of gold. Prospectors arrive immediately and begin digging. The actual mining operation is far too boring for adventurers to involve themselves with, but the defence and/or robbery of the mines is an acceptable pastime.
4 – The leader of a certain state dies, retires, is deposed, or otherwise passes on his or her power, as per the political customs of the state in question. The people agree that the new leader is 1) worse than the old one 2) better than the old one or 3) much the same.
5 – Fire-breathing horse gets into the grain silo at one settlement, resulting in a food shortage. All food prices are doubled for 2-5 months. Meanwhile the horse is put on trial for its heinous crime.
6 – Sudden craze of hats in a certain settlement. All hats triple in value overnight. News of this spreads outwards, so that within a month or so the prices will have increased in other settlements as well due to merchants buying up hat stocks. The craze ends after 2-12 months.
7 – Violent coup takes place in a certain settlement. The old leader is overthrown by force of arms. The new ruler is 1) a gibbering madman 2) a starry-eyed revolutionary 3) a greedy opportunist 4) plotting something atrocious.
8 – A delicious new confection, the Jellied Cream Worm, becomes popular in one settlement. Over the course of a year it will spread to other settlements due to its mouth-watering flavour.
9 – One settlement becomes overpopulated by dogs. Various breeds of dog, nobody knows how they got there.
10 – A dragon arrives from distant lands and makes its lair in a certain hex. From there, it terrorizes anyone it can find within 30 miles, demanding a tribute of gold-plated skulls.
11 – An ancient relic is discovered in a vault or an attic of a certain settlement. Roll on the Artifacts table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide 1st Edition for what it is. The owner of the artifact puts it on display in the settlement, though it will be heavily guarded and sealed away again after 2-4 months.
12 – A brave warrior sets out into a certain wilderness hex and builds his stronghold there. Wandering monsters are no longer a problem in this area, but the knight demands tribute to those who pass through his lands.
13 – A new road is established from a certain settlement to the nearest other settlement. This road is tended by lamplighters and is relatively free of monstrous incursion. Well, it’s more pleasant that the wilderness, at any rate.
14 – A villager blasphemes against the river god or the storm god. As punishment, the river or the ocean floods. 3-12 adjacent hexes are affected by the flood. The waters rise around five feet above the ground. After 1-4 months, the waters subside.
15 – A shooting star at a festival makes for a romantic evening in a certain settlement. Nine months later, the settlement is overrun with babies. With more mouths to feed, all families in the area become more willing to send off likely lads to become hirelings to disreputable adventurers.
16 – Citizens of one settlement have the ill fortune to have offended a powerful witch. Their curse is as follows:
                1 – Finger of right hand stuck fast in left nostril
                2 – Lumpy thighs and ankles
                3 – Cannot open any doors in the settlement from dusk till dawn
4 – Cannot recognise faces; they begin to identify themselves by arrangements of colourful flowers pinned to their breasts
5 – Obsession with ever more exaggerated forms of politeness
6 – When they are cut, coins spill out instead of blood
17 – Head of a certain state proclaims that a new currency shall be minted, bearing his regal face on its coinage. All savings in the old currency must be cashed in within 6 months or deemed worthless.
18 – Boiling storm clouds move in over 2-8 hexes and sit there. All day long for a month it rains. Inhabitants are gloomy and irritable at the end of it.
19 – Immigrants from somewhere off the map arrive cold and hungry at a certain settlement. They bring with them woven baskets, strange dances, unknown crafts of glazed pottery. They increase the settlement’s population by 20%, but are forced to live in slums on the edge of town.
20 – Crude printing press set up in a certain settlement. Immediately put to use printing holy books, radical pamphlets, erotic literature and penny dreadfuls. Fad dies down within 6 months after populace realizes that the concept clearly has no future. All printed materials are thrown away or used as cheap wallpaper.
21 – A certain mountain turns out to be a dormant volcano. It erupts. A third of the residents of the hex are killed, the rest manage to flee. Thereafter, the landscape is somewhat changed and there are more fire-type monsters roaming there.
22 – A certain monster tribe (orcs, kobolds, etc.) attacks the nearest settlement and carries off a fair amount of treasure. If the PCs have banked their loot at this settlement, there is a 50% chance for each player that their savings have been stolen.
23 – A certain monster tribe is blessed to have a young savant amongst them. He invents irrigation and they become peaceful agriculturalists from now on.
24 – A sleepy baker accidentally causes a great fire that rages out of control through a certain settlement. Most of the residents survive, but 40% of all wooden structures in the settlement are destroyed.
25 – A band of upstart adventurers raid a dungeon and acquire some treasure from it. They then go to the nearest settlement to spend their gold and boast of their exploits.
26 – A fierce (but perfectly natural) tornado sweeps through 2-8 hexes in a roughly straight line. Anything in its path is torn up or flattened. Loose objects are picked up by the tornado and deposited at the end of its path.
27 – Grand funeral of a dearly beloved public figure. Seven days of mourning, followed by the entire settlement turning out for the funeral procession, during which time their houses are unguarded.
28 – Enormous heist pulled off by daring criminals; valuables stolen from the wealthiest building in the settlement. The thieves go to ground for 2-5 months. A substantial bounty is offered for their capture.
29 – Witch trials commence after a local woman is caught dyeing a pig blue. Numerous women dunked in ponds, hung upside-down from trees, thrown over bales of hay, etc. Magic-users, especially females, may arouse suspicion or animosity in the settlement, but the mania dies down after 1-6 months.
30 – Interesting times. Roll three times more on this table.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Some Monsters That Don't Want to Kill You

The black hind of the northern forests is rarely seen and even more rarely captured. It is said that this creature will only approach a young maid who holds but one guilt in her heart, no more or less. Even if it is ambushed, the hind runs faster than any mortal man and is rumoured to have other powers as well. Eating the flesh of the hind grants one the ability to gaze into men's souls and see all their sins.

Jewelled crocus beetles are said to be cursed due to their affinity for corpse dust, which is why they appear exclusively in ancient tombs. However, the beetles are quite harmless and have recently become fashionable among certain elite circles. A glittering, hovering necklace of crocus beetles is a highly prized accessory. A single nest of such insects is worth in excess of 2,000 gold pieces.

 The rocks on the shore around ancient Talo Bay are home to the mysterious flatfish. Resembling an undulating pancake almost two metres in diameter, the flatfish crawls out of the sea and slides over the rocks. Though their appearance is disconcerting, they are harmless and feed only on algae. For some reason they are attracted to the sound of living creatures. (I want to have one of these appear to my players and start crawling towards them, then watch them squirm as they try to work out what it is. If they kill it and then talk about it in the local village, everyone will ridicule them.)

The sandy corridors of the Temple of Syrenoth are swarming with sleepy yellow-banded snakes. The snakes will not attack so long as they are not disturbed by loud noises or fast movements (both of which the cult of Syrenoth considered ill-conducive to enlightenment.) Any attempt to run, jump or shout runs the risk of provoking the serpents. Combatants within the halls make mutual agreements to strike each other slowly and quietly. All characters take a -2 penalty to attack rolls, which they may forego at the risk of rousing the serpents.

The caverns of Arima are full of frogs. They appear in almost every tunnel and cave. They seem to be harmless and completely mundane, but what attracts them to the caverns is a mystery. After a while, their endless burbling can drive men to the brink of madness.

The bloating lungfish is a common catch off the coast of Talo, and was once considered useless by fishermen until others began to take advantage of its unusual ability. The bloating lungfish, when threatened, puffs up to something like a thousand times its original size, enough to fill almost any room with bloated fish-flesh. Adventurers carry these fish around in small bowls; when fleeing from pursuing enemies, they will toss the lungfish behind them, causing it to blow up and seal the path.

Ho there, weary traveller

Tarry by the fire awhile, and indulge an old man in his ramblings...