Dungeon Camping

When you make camp in the halls of the dead or the ventricles of a monumental stone war machine you must assume a certain degree of risk. By all means, set a watch, make a rotor, look very very hard into the gloom at the fire side. You may have the pleasure of seeing what bloody inconvenience you have brought upon yourself moments before your sleeping associates do.

An enterprising drip has worked its way into your rations and prompted a luminous blue fungal bloom. It glows faintly and is quite pretty, but might be best not to eat them.

Small creatures have made off with a random item in the night. They have replaced it with a bundle of twigs or other appropriate local detritus. An equitable exchange maybe?

You wake up choking. Your mouths and eyes are filled with little puddles of brown water that dribble down your chest as you sit up in a panic. You seem fine but all your metal gear shows sudden signs of rust developing.

You are woken up several times by the distant voices calling your names. Some of your friends claim it's just the wind, but you heard it. None of you count as having had any sleep, even the naysayers.

Your party is awoken by an angry man waving a strip of velum in your face. It has a large seal and apparently entitles them to exclusive rights to the salvaging of this dungeon/cave/ruin/&e. "Them" being a moderately sized adventuring band.

While your watch sleeps and the dreams still hover, you see one of your party enter the fire light and wipe thick juices from their mouth before quietly slipping into their blanket as though they had never left. They claim to remember nothing on waking.

One of you wake up in a different and potentially dangerous location. No one saw you leave or knows where you are.

Everyone wakes up fine and dandy, except for one. That one has an enormous pulsating spider sitting on their face that retreats as the others stir, slipping inside their mouth and down they gullet in a diminishing bouquet of legs. Then they wake up, good as ever.

Develop these in directions prompted by the reactions they receive.

Smashing weapons

My plucky players have entered a megadungeon in the vain hopes of escaping the mind racking adventures of the surface world (the fools!). This opens all sorts of interesting things to mess with based on extended periods spent underground, away from civilisation. Like weapon fatigue, something I've quite fancied for a while.

In real life swords are pretty delicate things, maybe surviving a couple of intense battles before needing a good seeing to. Spearheads come loose, polearms snap, knives bend, clubs splinter &c.

Every time you roll a 1 the die size of your weapon drops. So, a typical sword on rolling its first 1 will fall from d8 to d6. This goes all the way down to d3, where you are reduced to a heavy nub with which to assail the enemy, though rendering pitying looks rather than blood and bruises. Up until this unhappy point it is fixable. Lamentations' rules of "bigger weapon, bigger dice" works very nicely with this, simulating a longer period of usefulness in larger weapons that have more to fall apart. A polearm without a head is still a big stick, after all.

Similarly, by design armour takes a pounding. When a 20 is rolled against you, your armour drops by increments of 1 until it falls apart. Up until that point it can be repaired and patched quite happily.

So, repairs. It will take 10% (modified by local market trends) of the item's value to repair an increment. A sword worth 100 silver pieces that has gone from d8 to d4 would cost 20 silver to repair. While on the road a character that has suitable equipment (whetstone, nails, needle & thread, whatever makes sense) may repair one increment of damage sustained that day.

This system shouldn't be symmetrical. Enemies aren't around long enough and are too varied to make proper use of these rules. Instead, keep a tally per game of how many times you've rolled a 1 for non-players' attacks. Every 4th (5th? 3rd?) 1 rolled will result in that fellow breaking their weapon. As for players rolling 20s, a 20 is its own reward but you could potentially apply the same system: every Nth roll shatters some armour.

I suggest varying the increments each game, possibly going so far as to roll it randomly so as to keep the players from being tempted to count them.

Shields, of course. Shields.

If you have a shield you can ignore armour fatigue, however at the end of the fight there is a 1 in 3 chance that the shield is knackered beyond use.

Entirely unrelated point:
If you don't know why a location is named the way it is then it probably shouldn't be named as such. The people living there don't need to know, but you should. In countries that have existed for more the a few generations place names are very literal and locals are usually aware of the history.

Books as remembered (poorly) by me, Part 2

On by Adam Roberts

I sometimes feel I'm the only person who's read this, a (sci-fi?*) book from the well respected Adam Roberts. That is of course until I meet someone who has read it, but then I find out they hated it so instantly expunge the conversation from my memory. Can't be wasting mind space on people who are so very, very wrong.

The link above will give you a plot synopsis and a bunch of people grumbling about it (remember: wrong) so I'll spare the details and get to why this book makes games better and everyone should read it and agree with me.

World building is important, obviously. How you do it is your own business but consider the option of being totally fucking mental. On takes place on a vertical world, The Wall, with platforms and outcroppings all the way up it that people live on. At various points they think about what's on the other side, or what's at the top, or why they can't fly very far out before they get pushed back in. Pretty crazy, huh? But wait! It's not. Mr. Roberts explains in a chunky essay in an appendix that the book is on Earth after a (apparently vaguely plausible) shift in gravity, so that it spirals around the world rather than pulls us down. There is no other side of the wall, there is no top, and you can't fly far out 'cos that's just space up there. And he didn't tell us in the fiction. Of course you could possible piece it together, but that's not the point.

So what is the point? Good question, me. The point is that he had a hidden keystone that connected everything in his setting together. If we had access to it then it would all click together, all the strangeness, everything that just didn't make sense. It did make sense.

The practical application here being: start with a keystone, extrapolate out, then hide it. It creates a wonderful logic that can only be seen from a specific angle, and one day you can hand over the keystone or have it taken from you, whereupon everyone will go ah ha, we're so smart!

Round of applause.

Besides this there are a few incredible portions of the book that translate to more concrete things that can be stolen, all need to be read to be used. The war fought through a vertical jungle full of tiger sized carnivorous earwigs, a trader who uses children as walking larders, and that god damn alien. Three pieces that will prove excellent fodder for theft.

* Like all good fantasy/sci-fi it resists easy labels but it most certainly generically inclined. Talking of genre, when are we going to admit that the fantasy/sci-fi genre split is ridiculous. They're the same bloody thing.

Books as remembered (poorly) by me, Part 1

I like talking about books, so I'm going to do that for a while. You could call what I'm about to do an Appendix N, but let's not. That term holds no meaning to me, I never saw the Appendix N when it came out and only learnt about it from other people whispering about it in corners. Spurred on by their hushed tones I found a digital copy of it and was shocked at how tiny and narrow it was. It's called a bibliography.

So here's part 1 of my annotated bibliography. I'll spare the waffle and just serve the meat.

Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe looms large in my lizard brain. Where there should be fight or flight responses and the urge to feed and fuck, I have the need to be Gene Wolfe.

Recommended reading:

Book of the New Sun
Latro in the Mist
Wizard Knight

All of these books are written as artefacts, two diaries and one long letter. All have unreliable narrators. Severian in Book of the New Sun is moving through a world that is as weird as anything on Dying Earth, yet we aren't given a proper look at it because that's just how it is for Severian. Everything is filtered through someone to whom this is normal or only slightly odd, leaving us wondering what's really happening. On top of this we also have the "translation" performed by Gene Wolfe, who claims the book is a found text which has to be very generously translated because of a lack of better words for such alien things. Many of these approximations are very weighted classical Greek references that reward knowledge of them.

These are all interesting things.

Both Latro and Wizard Knight are probably better written works, tighter and more disciplined. Each experiments with form in interesting ways, Latro is writing the diary because he forgets everything each morning. He is the opposite of Severian, being pure eyes for us to see through. The reader is more informed of what is happening than that poor fellow is, we having the ability to contextualise what he is writing.

Wizard Knight has the least experimental form: a letter written to his family back in the mundane world explaining why he isn't coming home. A portal fantasy, which is rare nowadays in adult fiction. This book is subtle and doesn't lean so heavily on classical references, instead creating an internal folk lore that requires extreme attention to unravel.

Of the three, Book of the New Sun is the undoubted king of influence. I read it at a formative time, way back when I started writing properly, and it has embedded itself. Every bit of literature, poetry or RPG thing that I do is held up against this book and judged. There are other books (as we might see later) that have had a more profound impact on a fundamental creative level, none have come close to the consciously chosen influence this has.

What did I learn?

  • It is okay to not make sense, to be obscure and referential. You don't need to lead the reader by the nose or particularly help them in any way.
  • Experimental forms can work if you throw everything in to them. We are not just making lists of facts to be absorbed, we can make things that tickle at an obtuse angle.
  • Narrators matter. Even in RPG books, a narrator is a choice that we make. 
  • Create the weird as though it is part of the furniture. Do not point.
  • It is okay to have a full three act play in the middle of your work.
  • Be weird, but have a logic to it. Even if only you know how it connects, it should connect.
  • Be unapologetically literate.
  • Anti-intellectualism and pop-cultural absorption is a choice, so make it or don't. Don't allow yourself to be washed along because that's how it's done.
  • Foreshadowing and slow realisation is the greatest thing. When weeks later a player goes "Oh my shit..." and links everything together in a montage of paranoia, then you have Gene Wolfed them.

Shake it off

Some days you wake up and your cup runneth not. Where before you couldn't shift your head for fear of something sharp and interesting sloshing over the side and onto your lap, now it is dipped into with a dozen tiny spoons who have to scrape against the sides.

Priests who took vows of pacifism. They are all issued apostate bodyguards to inflict and deflect harm on their behalf.

The princess in the tower was the worst monster of all and contained all life, the only way to stop her was a physical and metaphorical rape, sullying the universe forming inside her. Even the king of the dead refused to do this.

Humans from the end of time who seed the past with immense fighting machines, intended to be recovered by enclaves of their people and used to prevent the future they have. Their technology is not accurate so they form communities and pass on the locations as prophecy.

A group of nomads who run from their past. Their past chases them and all their stories are true. Towns they camp near have children stolen by changelings and trolls move in under their bridges.

Magicians travel between worlds regularly, understand actual science, every wizard tower you plunder is a monumental loss to humanity.

The undead siege an unsiegable sea wall. Months and months, bodies on bodies. Eventually they will walk over.

The Friendly Sea leads directly into the Deamon Sea, this is where all drowned sailors go, where all the treasure ships have sunk and also explains why it is so dangerous. The waters pour down a daemonic drain. The shores of the primary sub-realm are littered with these treasures.

The world is infinite, as is each sub-realm and realm above. The daemons worship us as gods but we do not understand their ways. Do we kill our gods as we worship them?

The world is shaped like a trampoline with a bowling ball in the middle. At these points the worlds touch, but they are very steep.

At any one time there are 4 or 5 things that might end the world.

Vornheim is a spaceship, buried face down in the side of a mountain.

Rats have a secret world with overlays our own. They have kings and countries and wars.

Magic-Users aren't real wizards until level 20, whereupon they retreat from the banal and petty world to pursue things we can't appreciate. Up until then they can barely claim to be apprentices or dabblers.

You get yourself pulled in so many directions, sometimes you have to shake it off.