Welcome to the Uplands!

My two last campaigns (the Original Tilean Murderhobos one, is still running), are very much about the Uplands.

The uplands can be easily described as a mix of Switzerland and Scotland, cooked in an abundant bath of the Original Fantasy Fuckin’ Sauce and blatant disregard for history and pretty much anything else.

So, taking the Witch Valley road north from Bogfort, after a couple of days, you’ll get to Witch Pass.


Over the Witch pass, these are the landscapes. Valleys…











And then the Harga. The Harga is a subglacial volcano close to the Upland Court, the Heart of the Fatherland. Actually, the Harga has been sleepy and dormant for the past 20000 years. So the picture below is only a hypothetical case in case one of the players manage to make it erupt. I long for the day.

The locals mostly survive on mining, some agriculture and cattle and cheese exports.


The local build mostly with stone and timber, depending on what’s cheap in the area.




More details later…

AFG back-of-the-handbook adventure: The Temple (of Cthulhu) Under the Volcano. Also, brief thoughts on mountains and maps

The AFG manual is going to come with a mini-sandbox, because there are few things that set the tone for a game better than the adventure at the back of the handbook.

I had a small Checklist of Awesome for such adventure:

  1. Volcanoes
  2. Cultists
  3. Mountains
  4. Wilderness
  5. Contained

So I picked the first unexplored hex off the edge of my Western League campaign and started to populate it with MOSTROTRON and MONDOTRON. After letting the magic of random generation happen I started playtesting it, finished the map (I’m waiting for a proof from the printer right now) and started the writeup. The adventure starts like this:

This volume presents rules that tie AFG adventures to a specific kind of setting: a fake-European, faux-late-medieval fantasy setting. The availability of heavy armours and firearms, coinage names and nature, emphasis on fortifications and many other elements like feudalism all trace back to the European late Middle Ages. But it’s fantasy as well. So: 

What if Fantasy Switzerland had volcanos and a Temple of Cthulhu, containing a huge gold idol?

And what if one of the characters knew about the temple contents and “forgot” to tell everyone else to avoid scaring them?

Playtest is going well. I expect players to put their hands on the idol Tuesday night.

While mapping the zone at a 1 hex = 1km scale (there are reasons for this) I started to feel that simply putting a “mountain hex” was not enough: mountains are not simply “harder” to walk on. Some parts, like ridges, can be extremely problematic, steep and dangerous. So, I thought, ridges can increase the cost of movement and possibly deal some damage to unskilled and/or unlucky mountaineers. Especially if they happen to be simply walking across a mountain range, in the map below the ridges are black and the gap is a mountain pass.

So the usual movement cost of 1 per easy terrain, 2 for hills or forests, 3 for mountains is supplemented by the new obstacle category: an obstacle costs 1d6 additional movement points to cross and represents hard-to pass terrain like steep ridges, wide crevices and rivers. Some obstacles might require appropriate an check, like mountaineering, to pass unscathed or in the worst case even to pass them; if the check is failed the character takes damage ranging from 1 hit up to to 2d6 depending on the obstacle, equipment and other conditions.

On Eating your own Dogfood: generating adventure settings using AFG MOSTROTRON and MONDOTRON

I’m a firm beliver in eating your own dogfood. As I’m putting together “Castles on the Hills, Dungeons beneath” and I was feeling the white page syndrome, I decided to prototype MONDOTRON, an incomplete campaign Points Of Interest generator to kickstart writing on CotHDB: toss dice in, shake, get dungeons, settlements, weird and secret stuff out. Creatures would come out of MOSTROTRON, the AFG creature generator (you can find something similar but with a simpler structure here).

Two approaches seemed obvious: one more simple, teleological and user-oriented and one more simulationist. After jotting down a number of deciding factors to be used for the simulationist approach I decided to ignore them (for now) and go forward with the simple “table with of possible results”. MONDOTRON is going to be a stopgap solution: I need a usable setting generator soon rather than a perfect one later.

The simplest approach is to, for each hex or node in your map (maybe generated with Hexographer), do the following:

  1. come up with a name, possibly based on the geographical features.
  2. use a table to determine if monsters, treasures and traps environmental hazards are present.
  3. place monters, treasure and traps environmental hazards appropriate to the location. If the room location is empty, add an interesting and visible landmark or a special thing (ruins and standing stones are always a decent option), if the treasure is unguarded it might be buried, monsters might be in a dungeon and so on.
While this guarantees results which are exactly the same as dungeons with bad weather, such as a tribe of goblins and their hoard in a 30’x30′ room hollow in the woods, the result is not an open-sky dungeon: the main difference between dungeons and wilderness is the quality of the interaction with the environment. In a dungeon stone walls stop you from evading the ogre sentinels while in the wilderness only the most extreme environments, such as lava, crevices and vertical cliffs stop you in the same way, and only if no way to fly, abseil or climb are available. In the wilderness the lay of the land is much more interesting, interactive and varied than dungeon stone walls, and forgetting this will lead to frustrated players.

So, yes, this approach works. Can be improved on but it’s solid.

On the other side bringing a pickaxe in a dungeon might allow patient adventurers to loudly dig themselves and treasure out of trouble. It’s been done and it works.

A more sophisticated approach is to have a table with expected results, like this one:

  1. Dungeon: underground complex. You might be familiar with the concept.
  2. Special place: hot springs, standing stones, an extremely deep crevice. Players’ interest should be piqued.
  3. Hidden place: an hideout, a crypt, a buried treasure, you get it. The location must not only be remote but also purposely hidden.
  4. Outpost: small, single settlement, like a farm, an hunters’ lodge or a fort
  5. Village: a bigger settlement. Towns and cities should be extremely rare as they need extensive food supplies, which means miles of fields around them and security from monsters.
  6. Nothing special.

So for each hex you roll on the above table and then on the relative subtables. If you want to have a more mundane setting roll a dice bigger than a d6. You can also throw in modifiers depending on the location and its surrounding. This is the solution used for MONDOTRON. Sure it has a number of shortcomings: distribution of content can be far from perfect (but of course improvable), and a random approach leaves you hostage to luck. Also it doesn’t usually produce extremely interesting results because of its structure: the goodness of the result is on a first instance due to the single entries and not by their interaction.

It has of course a lot of plus sides: first, it’s really easy to write and to use. Second, leaning on any simple generator takes away hard choices but allows the author to take over when the creative cogs start cranking.

Also, it rides intuitive continuity toward the weird fantasy and pulpy end of the spectrum, possibly forcing a more heavy-handed approach to justifications to incongruence resolution. Intuitive continuity tells us that such incongruences are in some way justified, and can be roughly classified in one of the following classes:

  • No interaction. the first, simplest case is that the two entities do not interact meaningfully. Mostly non-changing.
  • Unbalanced interaction. This class of interaction has uneven tensions. The situation is therefore dynamic, change happening or about to happen. This part of the scenario is already evolving and will reach its natural conclusion unless meddled with, conclusions that will have consequences. Players should feel empowered not only to cause change through action, but also through deliberate inaction.
  • Balanced interaction. The third case is that the interaction is somehow beneficial for or tolerated by both sides. The tension must be balanced by another tension: this tension can be either internal (like a deal between a city and a warlord) or external (such as parents stopping brothers from beating the heck out of each other). The tensions will mostly counter each other and bring a non-evolving status quo, but might as well result in a new tension toward another element in the scenario. The resulting tension might end up destabilizing the whole: the example is a city paying some kind of tribute to a warlord and, as the lord makes new enemies, the city will suffer from their hostility too, in turn causing problems with the warlord and going back in due time to an unbalanced interaction.

All three lead to adventure scenarios but timing and opportunities are much different. Players can decide to intervene in all three scenarios, by either:

  • for the first class, forcing interaction between the parties.
  • for the second and third class, removing interaction or its causes, for example by blockading traffic between the city and the Warlord.
  • for all cases, acting in favour or against one of the parties, or as a new separate party, thus either stabilizing or destabilizing the situation.

Now, a number of factions, people and circumstances might lead adventurers to do some of the above. I’m pretty sure you can came up with these on your own.

The Chemistry of Dungeons, or: help me I need dungeons and I just have an old organic chemistry book. Also, writing to Gary.

I’m going to write possibly the nerdiest post ever.

Suppose your players left the village of Somewhere Away and decided to pursue the Dodgy Villager That Secretly Is A Pawn Of The Villain: you need a dungeon where the DVTSIAPOTV and his boss can meet.

And you just have a chemistry book: opening the book for inspiration, you see  meaningless chemichy blabber about lignin. Wood and paper are made of this stuff. What if you could turn all that drivel that allows us to keep our lifestyles possible in a fantastic adventuring locale? Behold lignin:

Instant Dungeon! And a big one!

First of all, the theme: lignin is about wood or paper, so it could be something like a dungeon full of constructs and animated objects, or full of books, or a library, or a magical miniature castle made of paper that you can enter if you touch, or a network of treehouses.

Now, what do you do with this map? how do you read it?


And requires zero knowledge of chemistry:

  • the lines (bonds) that links atoms above are CORRIDORS: 3 in 10 are either hidden, closed by a locked door, closed by a door. To determine which room has the key, roll a dice on the map and that’s the room: It can be either hidden or held by a monster (50%).
  • C means CARBON and Carbons are rooms with four exits, or CROSSROADS. Roll content as per empty room. You should also come up with a small random monster table adequate to the location (6 entries are good, too many seem really random and nonspecific).
  • O means OXYGEN or OBSTACLE. It can be a room with some nastyness: usually to stop intruders; traps, guardian monsters, locked door, trapped locked room with monsters, or simply a cave in that makes the passage unsuitable. Oxygens have 2 exits, like a passage. If an oxygen is lonely next to a carbon you have a DOUBLE BOND (described later).
  • H means HYDROGEN, and hydrogens are room with a single exit. They contain stuff and nasties.
  • N means NITROGEN and also NETWORK: the (usually three) rooms connected to it form some kind of small cluster of logically connected rooms, like a guardpost with barracks, studio, den or apartment. Dress accordingly, and use for important stuff peculiar to the dungeon.
  • DOUBLE BONDS happen when you count the exits between rooms and some are missing, while in some graphs are displayed as a double line. Two distinct passages link the two rooms, usually one of them is secret/locked/hidden/trapped, or one of the two rooms is split into two parts by a chasm, bars or whatever you prefer. See it as an occasion for interesting tactical choices in combat or exploration. Also, read MinnenRatta’s comment below.
  • If you have other letters, throw in random stuff according to the atom, or not if you can’t be bothered: it’s just there to kickstart your imagination and its deconstruction it’s only for your benefit. If you see strange lines connecting stuff, treat as special/trapped/secret passages. If you see, like in the picture below,  three/four lines connecting, it’s a CARBON/CROSSROAD. If there’s a bend that bend is a carbon crossroad that has two hydrogen rooms next to it (unless double bounds are present, reducing the number of hydrogen/rooms adjacent). The bit to the right is a long corridor with 10 rooms spread between the two sides, and a room at the end. I guess the below dungeon is good for a drug smuggling hideout.

  • To finish, sprinkle secret doors that link more or less remote areas of the dungeon. And pick a number of exits.
  • Of course you might expand the meanings above to elements of the same groups. Halogens such as Fluorine and Clorine are EXTREMELY NASTY ROOMS, chalcogens like Oxygen ans Sulfur are obstacles and so on.

DONE. Ok, my nerd club membership has been renewed for the next 15 years or so.

And now the occasional tiny letter to Gary.

Hello Gary,

I know you’re dead and you can’t read me me. Also I guess you can’t read wordpress. I guess this makes me look a bit stupid, or romantic. Well, I wanted to thank you post mortem for having published my favourite game. I never met you and I can’t say much about you, but thanks for having given me such an empowering hobby.

That’s it. Ok, enough time spent writing to corpses buried thousands of miles away. Back to science!

Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit (Part 2)

Last weekend I played a session of Vornheim, using a PDF on a netbook as the physical copies were still at the printer’s. The preparation and first impact with the game has been discussed already here, what’s missing is some kind of play report and conclusions.

Except the conclusions are right here, and the report follows: if you like any of urban adventuring, random tables, sandboxes, the OSR, improvisation or preparation as opposed to using a premade heavily described setting, get Vornheim now; it’s probably the most-bang-for-the-buck RPG product I’ve ever bought in my life. If you ever plan to run some kind of city adventure, or you like random tables, still get it. I actually recommend it to any GM that can spare a handful of euros both to be aware of what can be done in terms of how handbooks can do to support your game and read  important bits of RPG theory that somehow till now managed not to be published. Just start a short campaign in Vornheim to acquire a taste for it, throwing stuff at your players faster than they can cope with, and see what happens. The city will cope with your initial clumsiness. 😉

V:tCCK is also a stunning example of how to write a setting describing what the characters and players interact with, instead of describing the whole of it. While this might be initially seen as shallowness by a non-OSR perspective, it turns out to be its greater strength. What stuck me, and that contributes to making V:tCCK so awesome, is that it doesn’t describe Vornheim. It gives you a method to create one, two, infinite Vorhneims. They are never going to be the same, but they’ll never be different.

And now, some short commentary on the game. Andrea, if you’re reading, stop now. 😛

My players rolled two new pcs, and with some kind of NPC-ex-machina the session started with an airship mooring on a mast on a Vornheim tower. Their weapons have been immediately taken care of by the police and, thanks to a rat-trap seller they managed to get directions to Zord tower.

Actually the bad reaction roll got them bad directions and kinda got them lost in the tower,(roll) ending up being assaulted by a damsel feigning distress and her accomplices. After the damsel (hf t3), fighting with a sword previously camouflaged as a shirt whalebone, fell under dagger blows and her goons ran away, the party managed to befriend a nearby (roll) glassblower, that allows them to hang out in one of his empty storerooms in exchange for some help in the shop due to a really teary story narrated by Pyeerroo. The “damsel” is searched and, together with money, a (roll) golden statuette of a bicephalous pig is found in her moneybag. The statue is so going to be a recurrent McGuffin, leaving behind a trail of corpses.

Pyeerroo is Andrea’s halfling thief, strangely resembling Hannibal Smith as they both love when plans come together and smoke cigars. Except Pyeerroo’s cigar is never lighted as he’s poor and can afford just to chew it a little bit.

In the room they manage to stabilize their “wounded comrade” and to interrogate her. Tuns out she’s a member of (roll, roll, see below) the Mob, the biggest thief guild in town, with hands in many other businesses as well. Tara (that’s her name, I watched some Buffy recently) barters some information and promises of collaboration for her freedom. The party manages to win her trust and admiration by giving her stuff back. Except the sword, so now PCs have illegal weapons again 🙂

On the way to the tower they met (roll, roll, roll) Gruk, a half orc physician and surgeon that uses modern techniques. Modern as in “they work and kill less patients”. After a short discussion about them being dark skinned southerners and what that means for Vornheimans, they befriend him and tell him that they’ll visit him soon. Then they start to climb up the tower, looking at the various establishments inside, with Pyeerroo ending up in the unlicensed brother at the end of the session.

They’ve been exposed to a number of things unmentioned: slow pets puzzled them but then somehow realized that it’s just a way to show social status by wasting time, architectural elements like towers and bridges, megastructures, gardens, and the Wyvern well.

Anyway, they never mentioned the serpent reader to anyone. Yay paranoia. 🙂

A player asked for feedback quipped:”it seems like Eberron”. Actually they meant Sharn. The fact that they couldn’t remember Sharn’s name says a lot.

Anyway, here are the guilds for thieves and physicians I came up with, from small to big, following the method described here.


  1. Black Fist
  2. Comrades of Empty Pockets
  3. United Bakeries (the baker’s union is just a cover, but they still make good bread. Don’t go for their meat pies unless you like human flesh tho)
  4. Blind Eye
  5. The Ring
  6. Dagger & Thaler
  7. Magnificent Beggars’ Kingdom
  8. The Mob


  1. Vorn Devote Healers
  2. United Unions of Physicians & Musicians (due to restructuring of the building they shared they ended up joining forces)
  3. League of Amputators, Leeches and Cuppers
  4. Surgeons and Physicians Convivium

Testdrive! Vornheim: the Complete City Kit

I really wanted to write a recension of Zak’s Vornmeim from LOTFP, but I decided against.

Instead, keeping with the spirit of the manual, I’ll just use it and see how it rolls. Later on today I’ll play a game and I want to do a fat hour of prep. While listening to Therion’s Vovin. The followup and final opinion on Vornheim is here.

Anyway, PCs travel freely between Capolago (home base in my campaign) and the Dungeon of the Mad Archmage (run by Bowser’s player, my cousin Andrea). How to get them to Vornheim? Actually, not how (that’s easy, airship or sea ship laden with rare woods and food), but WHY?

I need a local hook that can kinda push them there in a nice way. Rolling a random page lands me on the Library of Zorlac: Archmage Darkcloak will demand the PCs, since they caused the death of his apprentice Roderick and since Bowser owes him a favour, to recover a serpent reader. Noone heard of such things in my campaign world, but DarkCloak knows that “such unique and misterious artefact from another world” is owned by a private book collector in Vornheim. Recover it, or else: they’ll have a contact in Vornheim, i’ll come up with that later.

So far, easy: snake readers can be quite expensive but are not unfindable in Vornheim. But I need some intrigue. Comes out the connection table on page 53. Darkcloak is connected by NPC1, a native Vornheimer called Dick the Wit, which is (roll, 5) secretly (as in “one of many Dick’s personas”, roll roll roll) Okto of Skarr, a lotus addict aristocrat owning lots of really good farmland close to Skarr, a city far away (actually, he doesn’t). Okto entered Vornheim’s who’s who by feigning to be (roll roll roll) cousin of Kyle of Zord (yes, the family name is different, marriage between families happens, and he knew that Kyle doens’t know about his family branches and that one of his half-cousins’s wives is from Skarr), a sweaty and insecure epicurean employing the best chefs in the city, unwittingly sharing power with his sister, Tittlieb of Zord (yep, it’s the Vornheiman female version of Gottlieb, or Amadeus, but in this case she loves Tittivilla), a grubfight champion. Tittlieb (roll, roll) hates the f*ck out of Dick but respects Okto.

Ugh. Conflicting constraints. I love conflicting constraints 🙂 Constraints are directions allowing design to flow.

Tittlieb hates Dick as they used to be lovers in their youth (15 years ago), but ran away with all of her jewelry. She’s still mildly upset about it. At the same time she respects Okto as he’s rich, interesting, great at entertaining guests, and a relative. She doesn’t know about Okto being Dick, as he’s a damn good actor and conman. Conflicting requirements fixed.

Anyway, Dick and Kyle want to get rid of Tittlieb, and promise the PC that they’ll tell them who the book collector is if they manage to find a way to make Tittlieb GTFO of Vornheim. What not many people know is that… I need more stuff. What? Location, location, location. I need to populate the tower housing the Zords, called Zord Tower.

From the building table, a brothel ( “The Soft Damsel”), a food market hall full of pickpockets, a lawyer studio (“Pugnale, Portafoglio & Pantalone” [knife, wallet and trouser]  are the three lawyers), the mason shop that built and maintains the tower, a tavern (where Tittlieb plays grubfight), another lawyer studio (“Ingannamorte” [deathtricker]), a curio shop (“Magic Box”, sells magic boxes), a nameless winery, another lawyer (“Gragnuoli Brothers”), and another brothel (not belonging to any corporation, therefore illegal, seeming a normal apartment shared by a number of ladies). And two airship mooring masts (one in the market, one in Zord’s villa on top), 4 air bridges connecting the tower to other neighbouring tower clusters, 50% chance that a secret passage links any two given buildings in the tower (known to the old masons obviously, 1% that an inhabitant knows of about passages).

Many lawyers studios… I need guilds!

There are (roll 2d6) 4 lawyers guilds in town: the Most Estimated Union of Barristers, United Piemakers and Lawyers, Vornheim Black Advocates and Grand Advocates Guild. I pick Italian surnames for lawyers, insurers, bankers and moneylenders, just because of my genuine hatred for what they are doing to the place where I was born and raised; as a result NPCs from the above categories are usually evil and rich sociopaths that entertain good relationships with the mob. Ah, don’t get me started on the Vornheiman mob.

To simulate the spread of big and small guilds I came up with a neat rule: associate the guilds to a non uniform dice distribution (for example, 4 guilds -> spread with 4 possible results -> either 1d2+1d3 or 1d4 twice then pick highest), then roll for each.

  • PP&P -> 1,1 -> 1 -> MEUP
  • Ingannamorte -> 4,1 -> 4 -> GAG
  • GB -> 3,2 -> 3 -> VBA

The lawyers are always scheming. I dunno how or what. But hey are. They always do. They’ll hire the PCs to do odd, almost perfectly legal stuff.

Now, I imagine I don’t really need a plot or situation as I have a number of locales and odd NPCs and that will fuel the next sessions. I’ll just put the players in Vornheim and let them cause the usual trainwreck. Because they always manage to.

First, pre-game judgment: the book rocks. It threads a path rarely taken: describing a campaign setting encoding its behaviour. I can see a lot of material in the same style supporting it coming out of the OSR. I hope this will happen.

emergent plot – stirring up the sandbox

Aye, I know. I dropped the “P” four letter word in the post title of a supposedly OSR blog. The OSR police will come here with their 1d100 hirelings wielding glaive-guisarmes and hook-fauchards and lay siege to my parents’ place (I’m visiting) until I repent or burn my copies of Ravenloft and Tales of the Lance (those fools don’t know the dungeon/basement has a hidden exit).

Anyway: as previously mentioned IMVHO one of the most important hats DMs have to wear is the MC one: ensuring that everything’s running smoothly and that everybody’s having a good time. Not winning, but enjoying. Most importantly, keep the game going and provide players with stuff to interact with, while feeling more and more a part of the game world and able to intervene on it. Deconstructing the game to its bones you just need to provide players with 1-3 “encounters/events/interactions” for every gaming hour.

One of the most productive ways to do this, for me, is to come up with overly ambitious NPCs and villains, and to make sure their brilliant secret plans to fame/sex/their parents’ approval/gratification/power/gold/munchies are coherent with the setting: this way, for scarcity of resources, as there’s only so much land/gold/etc available, conflict will arise, and the NPCs will be at each other’s throat in no time. Note that NPCs might not even know that they have conflicting plans, or who is opposed to them and in which way, or even that there are opponents… I’ll call these kind of NPCs “big players” (call them factions if you want, but they’re not factions di per se).

Best bit, they’ll be hiring PCs to do the hard/nasty work: this way PCs will possibly ingratiate their patron, get money and experience, push forward the patron’s plans and set back his opponents. Doing this they’ll get a bit of reputation (good or bad) as the words of their deeds spread, eventually being known to other big players in the campaign, which will try to interact with them in various ways: murder, bribes, blackmail, appeasing and so on. This should “automagically” create something that looks like a plot, making it emerge straight from the interactions between campaign elements. The situation should be unstable so that players tipping in a direction or the other can cause things to happen differently.

It might be that PCs will understand what’s going on and decide (probably later in the campaign) NOT to be hired, but to play their own part in the big game, becoming “big players” themselves in what’s “traditionally” D&D endgame (or Ars Magica first “summer” and then “autumn” Covenant seasons).

The most typical way to propel the plans are either “trigger driven” or “time driven”:

  • Trigger driven: things happen when player’s actions (or inaction) trigger them; for example, the Tyrant of Syrak decides to send his war navy to blockade Marchil when the PCs arrive to Syrak, just in time to see the galleons leaving the harbour in full sail, or even better to join them as privateers.
  • Time driven: NPCs do things all the time, interacting with the PCs just by in-game means; for example, the first of March the Emperor sets his armies off to new campaigns, armies that will take a proper number of days of overland travel to reach their destinations, a proper number of days to lay siege to cities and so on. As the time goes by, other “big players” will react accordingly as either their minions will report to them or simply rumors spread.

Note that in both cases I deliberately made the action noticeable to the players, either through rumors or direct interaction: making developments noticeable to players is very important, and justifies spending money for spies and the like. Some kind of rumor mill is needed, possibly with the players spending resources toward having better information sources. Of course some information will be worth a lot.

A simple example follows:

Up and Down the East Coast

  • On the East Coast there are two Kingdoms (North and South), separated by tribes of marauding orcs.
  • Kingdom South has lots of alpacas and needs iron for its heavy cavalry. King South is an epicurean slob, but cares much about his people, who loves him back (mainly because of light taxation and reasonable justice system and code of laws).
  • Kingdom North has iron and needs nice and warm textiles because winters there are horrible. King North is very greedy and (as you’ll read) has a nice business going on.
  • Kingdom N and S are very good commercial partners and enjoy a long military alliance against the orcs. There is a sound that would enable them to trade by sea avoiding to sail around the big Isle of Nasty Waters, but it is home to a strangely active dragon (currently trying to assemble a big hoard to attract a mate). No one goes in the Dragon Sound… almost no one.
  • Oversea trading is done via the Trading League, a trust of ship-owners owning galleons seaworthy enough to double the Isle of Nasty Waters. They have bought out, brought in or sunk all other trading companies in the two kingdoms, and talked the kings into taxing imports not coming from the the kingdoms, resorting to pretty much anything to keep on being the real “king of the hill”.
  • Marks on the borders of the two kingdoms would like to be independent, squish the orcs, grab & settle on their lands and join in a league, thus securing an inland trade route. If they could get rid of the dragon they could also secure the Dragon Sound, the Isle of Bad Waters and make the Trading League’s operations less viable unless they get a nice share.
  • Independent pirates try to capture ships for ransom around the Isle of Bad Waters, sometimes fleeing in the sound, where they pay the dragon for protection. They could team up and settle in the sound, as the kingdoms’ war navies are not that big.
  • In the North big landowners are a bit grumpy because of the trading guild, as local winterflax (a kind of flax that lives north) is not commercially viable anymore. Their distance from their Capital makes them not really politically powerful or active. The King doesn’t care as he owns the iron mines, financing fortresses and mercenaries with money gotten from the mines and its thieves guild.
  • Said mercenaries can kick orc asses before breakfast, no sweat, but want to be paid. Or else.
  • The Archery Commanders in the South see the whole heavy cavalry thing as an overly expensive exercise that not only takes away a lot of their prestige, but makes the South Kingdom reliant on foreigners to equip their army, and would like for this shenanigans started by young hipsters to stop and return to the old traditional mounted archer. The “new” heavy cavalry Commanders are a smart bunch of young and brave officers that study military theory, fight very effectively (think winged hussars) and are a bit annoyed at their gramps using strategies and tactics from a few centuries ago.
  • Two thieves guilds (one per city) buy stuff from the pirates and, at times, sinks or capture foreign ships or buy their mutiny; this is done mainly to fix prices (at times both guilds and the trade league act in concert) and both have vast hoards of iron and wool hidden in both cities and their surroundings: the relative scarcity is at the moment created by the Trading League and the Guilds. The North Guild secretly pays his king a quarter of its gains every season, also secretly recruiting spellcasters to curse the local nobles and their lands so that winterflax doesn’t grow well, while the South Guild is tolerated by his king and nobles as they source them with the good stuff anytime they want. Or else.
  • When the players will realize the stupid amount of gold and iron the dragon is sleeping on, they’ll start drooling over themselves.

peeking in the toolbox

This article is written as some kind of followup of a post written by my favourite bat, but as my average article gestation time is measurable in months, well, it kinda spun off in its own direction.
Here’s the content of my toolbox: what I use when I need some help during improvisation:
  • AEG Toolbox. Toolbox is a thick book chock full of tables: the original book is quite d20 oriented but the stats can be disregarded as needed. Back in the day my toolbox was literally just this handbook (and the d20 core books). AEG put out also Ultimate Toolbox (excerpts available), which is TONS of new material and not a reprint of the old stuff in a posher book, this time in system neutral format. I’d get it but as I have the first one I’m not willing to spend money for it. I always find a bit hard to find stuff in this kind of book.
  • Monsterless Manual from Beyond The Black Gate, because at times you need to have stats for a wench or a sergeant, or you want to insert an interesting dramatis persona but don’t know who (the same way we crack open the monster manual looking for an interesting encounter). Dragon Lords of Melnibone (d20 version) has an equivalent section, but with more fluff: the Monsterless Manual has justs stats and a random personality table. Hiring tariffs would have been a nice addition (how much is a wench? and a soldier? and a doctor? for a month? or an hour?), as well as “meaningful names” for characters, such as… ok, can’t come up with anything in English but a wench called “Darla Presti” sounds totally right in Italian; about that, see here for the concept, here for villains, and here in general, because nomen omen est.
  • Kellri’s netbooks. You know them already, or at least you should. As previously mentioned, my campaign without CDD#4 would have been much more boring, or hard work, but possibly both; being similar to AEG Toolbox, it suffer the same lookup-problem (but it’s cheap).
  • Roleplaying Tips’ Session Checklist (second part here). It’s the second most gaming-significant article I’ve ever read, the first page of my RPG ring-binder used to be the same handwritten checklist. I might as well put it back there or even better stick it to the binder cover. If you’re interested, the first one is here, but mostly concerned with other stuff.
  • my RPG ring-binder. Years of game writing and improvisation produce an amazing quantity of material, yet most of it it’s never recorded. And I don’t mean plots and bad acting, I mean NPC personas and stats, motivations, locations, stuff players really enjoy and so on. I understand that you might not want to break the game flux and rhythm taking notes, but GMs might be literally throwing away the best bits of their improv efforts. It’s like not taking notes while brainstorming: you might lose gems.
  • Everway decks and a tarot deck. I got Everway used for 5 quid but never played it (the full set of cards can be bought for cheap on ebay), and one of my best friends bought me a tarot deck. Both are tools used to build narratives around protagonists, and I used both for improv and adventure-writing. There are countless sources that teach tarot reading, I use Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot and Place’s The Tarot, and you can resort to automatic spreads if you have no decks around. There are also many versions of Ravenloft Tarokka decks you can use. Everway cards have questions on the back, which kinda handholds brainstorming but makes it way faster; overall better than a tarot deck as it’s not “polluted” with christian and jewitchery themes that might make it alien to your fantasy world.
  • For dungeons, I usually resort to geomorphs. Lately I printed and cut DysonLogos’s and Risus’s. If there’s the need to “save” the dungeon disposition, I can use a digital camera or a webcam.
  • Websites: Cartographers’ Guild and Google have nice maps/props, and I stop by Age of Fable and Chaotic Shiny when in need of generators.

a mind blank and improvisation

When I’m tired my language skills are terrible. I wrote this at 1:30 AM after a very long day. please forgive me.

It’s been a while since my last post here. About 10 days.

It also must be said that meanwhile I started about 10 drafts, but none of them seemed worthwhile enough. Possibly beause I’m very tired and feel very spent, possibly because (before sunday) I haven’t run a game since April 4th, when the party went TPK. I played Carlo’s GURPS fantasy sandbox a handful of times in the meanwhile, enjoyed a few games of Agricola, Sankt Petersburg, Carcassonne, San Juan. But no games run.

But Sunday players came over, rolled new PCs and decided to start over in a random campaign location. to pick the spot one literally closed his eyes and pointed at the map. Turned out the location was exactly one hex away from there the TPK happened. I could have had railroaded them back to the “main campaign” but they wanted something different, so I just came up with this village of hunters, loggers and shepherds, and unilaterally declared that their PCs are teenagers, a few months before their “coming of age” ritual.

I could have gone a bit further and, instead of let them pick a “normal” equipment, force them to look around and pick stuff up.

But they decided to go hunting, to show off. And stumbled in tracks, that ended at a cavern, smoked out what was inside and killed a bear. In the bear cave they found a dungeon entrance as well. They went in and did neat old school stuff. As in having their gender changed by a magic fountain, set a tapestry afire, which in turn made angry an ogre, which later was dispatched as it charged the spear-set characters. Enough loot was had to max-out level 2, mostly jewels (which are extremely valuable in B/X and BECMI), plus a +1 long sword, light on command (but they don’t know the command, and it’s switched on). Nothing too complex, but good fun was had, and later feedback was good.

Same setup as last time (at the Glasgow University gaming club), except I didn’t chicken out. Because, despite not having prepared anything, I spent some time preparing myself to improvise; decent “fluff” comes easy, but decent “crunchy bits” are a way, way harder for me. My mind was blank, but I had tools.

A few notes from the session:

  • d6 as oracle: simply put, if something is in doubt, a x-in-6 change is determined and a dice is rolled.
  • Kellri’s Old School Reference manuals proved to be awesome again, specially volume 4.
  • Dungeon was built using geomorphic tiles from A Character for Every Game. If a dungeon is needed it can be uncomfortably hard to come up with one. In this case tiles were pulled out randomly from a stack. I expected to see a 8×8 pattern of content but a mix of transcription errors and a bit of fudging made it more organic (and made the tiles reusable). Sure, it can feel a bit randomish, but most probably it was built by a number of different cultures/people over the years and not just by the current inhabitants, so there is the increased verosimilitude of both adapting the inhabitant needs to the living space and the inhabitants adapting the living space. Kobolds burrowed and the ogre kept for himself the bigger room. The magic fountain makes water available (the magic wears off if water is taken away).
  • Moldway suggestion to stock the dungeon with a few selected monsters and fill the rest with the dungeon stock table. Jeff Rients, in a great article in Fight On! #6, advices to split the population in “main guys” (say, a tribe of kobolds), a “lone wolf” (say, OGRE) and random creeps (snakes, fungi, etc): coming up with interaction between these three groups is up to you and, while technically not needed, can add complexity and depth to the dungeon (the ogre is fed by the kobolds so to keep him from going “OGRE SMASH”). Sham wrote on the topic of empty rooms and dungeon stocking a lot (also in more meaningful posts that I can’t find at the moment) so if you want to know more just follow the link.
  • Rients suggests also to create a random encounter table specific for the location. The tables provided in B/X has entries that probably won’t fit with your dungeon. My suggestion is to start with an empty table and fill it with random results from other tables, replacing entries that don’t fit with handpicked ones or with monster from the above three groups.
  • my GM screen (AC7) doesn’t have any table that I use in game. I prepared a list with 22 items I needed to refer to (more or less) frequently that my stupid screen doesn’t make available. I might try to consult Dragonlance DM screen (my favourite from AD&D) to to see if it has any good bits I missed.
  • take notes on what you create, so you can refer to them later. Running a campaign like this is like a flyweight: if it’s not moving, it takes effort to move it, but as you fill in the blanks it will be easier and easier to create material. In this case coherency can be both a great help and a really powerful tool, because if something is “wrong” you have an “instant mistery” (as in “why the caravans that left the village last week never made it to the city?”).
  • the biggest asset tho was to have no idea whatsoever of what would happen next. I often riff off my player’s ideas because, well, if it’s fun to “say yes”, it’s even funnier to run away with them.

For me, improvisation is a skill that needs practice and can be helped a lot by the right tools. It requires confidence from the DM and willingness to risk (both to be wiped out and to have a bad game) from players. It’s definitely thepart of running games that I prefer, and with practice it gets more and more effective and easier. It’s just a matter of getting started.

Guest Post: The Rise and Fall of a Game Master

We were cooling off after one of our three-hours long gaming sessions and, as it often happens, we drifted to campaign building, sandboxes and all the usual topics.

Somehow I ended up retelling how campaign building, to me, was totally different when I was 16 years old. And yes, this assertion makes me sound like a wizened old moron.

When I was 16 I didn’t have to prepare anything before a session. In fact I could go on for hours, events and people would play around in my head and in my players’ eyes, all of it made up on the spot, coherent, a bounty of gaming opportunities.

In fact I recall starting one of our most tasty campaigns ever, one which my players still recall fondly even if it ended in a total party kill*, with just this thought floating in my head: the main character is a young noble coming back from the war, where he finds that his father has left, along with most of the cash and the entire family entourage, for a distant land.

I recall, during the middle of the first session, that I told myself: “Sure this father of his was mighty crazy to leave land and title behind for a random exploration, what sort of family would follow him?”. The abandoned castle exploration turned into a tour of the family’s follies, from the weird underground theatre where ogres were showcased and trained to perform circus exibitions, to the endless labyrinth of tunnels that Aunt Greta had magically dug to loose herself, finally succeeding, never to be seen again. The exploration went on and on for multiple six-hours long sessions, all of it was entirely made up on the spot, without effort and without worry.

I wonder if the style of that campaign, and others, could be defined as being a sandbox. There surely was no story arc for the players to follow, at first, then all of my ravings started to be pushed consistently in one direction by the players together. It somehow climaxed multiple times before, at last, the aforementioned showdown on the flying steps, versus a dozen Balrogs.

After that golden period though, I entered a dark age, from 17 up to 20 and maybe a bit beyond, everything changed.

My mind was empty, I felt a kind of suffocation, no matter how powerful was the initial idea for the campaign, after a few minutes into the first session I was lost into a bleak landscape and my players began to watch tv in the meanwhile.

I must have aborted a dozen campaigns after a couple hours of struggling, painful “play”.

At first, of course, I blamed the players, who would loose interest before I could enter “the flow”, which, I told myself, would certainly happen after a session or two. But, while it was true that I was never allowed more than one session to prove the worth of the campaign, the whole concept of just needing a couple sessions to start properly GMing was bullshit. I am now sure that, even if we had endured dozen of hours of the gray void I was evoking at each attempt, nothing good would have come of it.

Like the efficient customers of a product marketing simulation, my players killed my campaigns just in time, as I was starting to truly feel the pain. I guess that their perfect timing was due to the fact that they were feeling the same pain.

Witnessing the abortion of so many campaigns I started to put in more and more time in preparation, something which I never had to do before. Yet, all of the preparation in the world did not let me run a successful campaign; and, towards the end of the dark ages, I tried hard enough to know.

How did I leave the dark ages? In my humble opinion I never fully left them, or, better, I never could return to the golden age. Maybe that’s because we are unable to meet for whole afternoons thrice a week, but it’s also because I now only partially manage to enter the flow.

I start with a fine scenario, but it must be fairly detailed. I must have a good idea of all the entities involved in the core of the scenario and what are their goals and personalities. Then I fill in the rest during the game, and it works. I tend to begin with no more than a couple “forced” adventures to warm up the group and to provide ways for them to show interest in one or more of the seeds. The introductions are definitely part of the scenario preparation and I prepare them to introduce as many seeds as possible without messing everything up.

Unsurprisingly, this structure is pretty much the same that popped up in the golden age. During the dark ages, starting from this very same structure (albeit unconscious), I made a full circle, from totally unstructured “The characters are crazy deamons” campaigns, to meticulous “On the 6th of Larane the Agrikan knights leave Dirisa” epics, and finally back. All equally unsuccessful.

One very telling detail of the good campaigns is that, for all the preparation, almost nothing which actually proved memorable to me and my players was prepared. Most of the stuff that was really great, we invented on the spot, just like in the old days of yore. The difference now is that the great stuff is not present in such quantity as to be self-sustaining, I need solid, reliable, pre-produced mortar to support and breed the rest.

A few examples of the stuff that really worked great :

  • The merchant Galibaf, who will cater only the best stuff to the best adventurers, but who always leaves the PCs feeling like they have been duped, because, you know, Galibaf always wins a bargain, hands down.
  • The welcoming folks of the city of steel and coal, Volkgrendel, who speak like operetta nazi yet always gawk at the players and ask why THEY speak with “So veird an achzent!”.
  • The goddess Berella, who switched sides from being a dark and evil goddess into a purported goddes of light, thanks to her timely bedding with the head of the light pantheon, just as the fortunes of her previous partner, the god of violence, were waning. The switch meant that the PC who was worshipping her, as a professional assassin, found himself a paladin one week later. Yet, at crucial moments, he manifested peculiarly sinister powers, which hinted at the true nature of his Lady. He unofficially began to hail her as “The whore of heavens”, as she was often too busy “working” up the hierarchy of light, to answer his calls.

The stuff that I prepare, instead, even that which I consider to be top notch, which I often expect to astonish and gratify the players, the Blunderbuss, Dago and other cool stuff which does not belong to this post, is rarely a huge success. Sometimes it’s memorable, but it is not such a force in the campaign as I would have expected. I finally came to the conclusion that I must strive to prepare the best, most interesting stuff without hoping that it will guide the campaign. No matter how central I may believe a prepared piece of stuff to be, the central NPC in the main campaign seed, it will always be just context for the players, it’s the stuff I make up on the spot to react to the players actions in that context that becomes central and truly drives the campaign.

[And now, for something completely different: you would not believe it, but I just witnessed a snow avalanche while typing this. I’m on a train and while exiting the Gotthard tunnel I glanced out to see a previously green valley being engulfed by tons of snow sliding from mountaintops]

Finally, to wrap up this endless jaculatory with an endless closing, here follows my take on my shifting and ebbing performances in game mastering, and read carefully, because this is going to be utterly simplistic and obvious, proving that if there was any entertainment to grasp from this post, it was certainly located upflow from here:

Since the same campaign structure has both succeeded and utterly failed, which is the difference between the golden age, with its effortless and huge success, the dark age, with its serial failures, the silver age with much more technique and fair results?

A child’s unrestrained imagination, finally replaced by technique and experience?

Imagination, yes, but I think it has but a weak relation to brain age. The fact is that between 13 and 16 I was living and breathing my games. I didn’t invent all of that stuff on the spot without preparation, that’s nonsense. The preparation was there, it was pervasive, entertaining and completely unstructured. It took up most of my free time, even if I was apparently doing something else.

Lots of what I happened to see would push me to broad fantastications. Not plain stuff, as one might expect when picturing the way a child’s mind works, no, I was never inspired by a bus or by the bleak church standing beside my flat. It was the clouds, the mountains encircling Turin (which I could see once a week when pollution and fog were lifted by the odd windy day, thanks to the city’s marvelous weather), roman ruins, castles, NASA images, the Silmarillion (never a book was more boring, but such style!), maps, ancient pieces of furniture, game books, avalanches…

The good news is that this kind of stuff still has the same effect on me, it sparks my imagination. I just became good at focusing on “important stuff” and I didn’t let the multitude of inspirations around me run their full length in my head.

That’s what killed my games when I was a teen. I suddenly became focused on mundane stuff : school, technology, girls, friends, parties and the time my brain spent on thinking crazy was reduced to near-zero. What a waste!

Dedicated, time-boxed efforts to prepare the campaign resulted in a drift towards rigid adventures which killed the campaign even sooner than usual.

The first fine campaign I was able to run after the dark ages (the one which in fact marked the end of it) was run during a very peaceful period of my life, with little or no worries. Then I noticed that I had switched back to fantasticating and understood its relationship with the quality of my gaming sessions.

I’ve come to value my absent-mindedness, it’s what keeps me out of the dark ages. I’ve begun to breed it rather than the campaign itself and I’ve found that things have started to work, a bit, once more.

In one line: to me, the most valuable preparation is preparing a state of mind.

[*] : but it was a full-party kill set on the flying steps leading to the altar holding the ultimate sword of power, the only one capable of stopping the war between two races by proving that none was superior, but both were inferior to the now extinct smiths of said sword.

I asked Carlo, my GM to write a guest post, after the discussion mentioned at the beginning of the post. He runs a GURPS 4th edition campaign. It’s a rules-heavy sandbox and my character is a monk, whose order I shall label “celtic shaolin” for lack of better words. Anyway, he mostly does software engineering, not RPGs, so don’t expect to find about dragons & daemons in his blog. Yet.