Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Moon Moth (Jack Vance)

May 10, 2012

Jack Vance wrote this story “The Moon Moth” about a culture of people who always wore masks and accompanied their singing language with various instruments always carried. It was also about the protagonist’s search for a dangerous assassin whose identity was impossible to determine because everyone wore masks. Right now I’m more interested in the masks.

The masks were part of the culture’s honor system, called strakh. If you had high strakh you could walk into a shop and receive a nice mask or a nice houseboat, no money required, since it increased the strakh of the craftsman to give it to you. A person with low strakh wouldn’t be able to get much at all. Your deeds could affect your strakh, for example a fine craftsman would have greater strakh than an unskilled one.

Slaves always wore black cloth masks.

Other masks had names, like Forest Goblin or Moon Moth or Sea Dragon Conqueror. The mask you wore showed what kind of personality you were trying to project. If you wore a mask with physical pretentions you would be constantly challenged to duels by Forest Goblins and so forth. A Tarn Bird mask showed that you made no claims whatsoever. A Moon Moth was a scummy stupid mask and it’s what the protagonist wore. People often had multiple mask types for various moods and occupations and settings.

You could affect your strakh a little by your persuasion: your skill at singing and choice of words, and skill at playing the instrument and choice of instrument.

The masks seem to have been organized into cycles. It was never explained well and I imagine a mask cycle is either a series of levels within a pretention type (such as various types of big bad tough guy mask) or a range of pretentions at a given level (explorer, wanderer, crusader, settler, etc).

The masks were interestingly named and could easily be the springboard for some cool magic items. We don’t really have enough magic masks. Especially since a magic mask has an opportunity cost: if you wear the mask and get a magical effect, you can’t also wear a helmet and get an armor bonus (especially a magic helmet giving a great armor bonus!).

I scoured the Internet using Google for several minutes until I gave up on finding anyone who had a complete list of the mask names. Here you are, in no particular order but arranged in generally the groups that I think fit together (the last block is weird ones that I couldn’t fit in another group). Enjoy!

Moon Moth
Tarn Bird (no pretentions)
Cave Owl (has some association with wisdom / scholarship, maybe not meant to be a bird-type at all)
Triple Phoenix

Red Bird
Green Bird
Bright Sky Bird
(these three were only ever described as worn by women, though I don’t know if that’s a requirement)

Tavern Bravo (apparently a mask for getting your drunk on)
Fire Snake
Thunder Goblin
Forest Goblin (the big bad tough guy mask)
Shark God
Sand Tiger
Dragon Tamer
Equatorial Serpent
Sea Dragon Conquerer (apparently the best mask)
Red Demiurge
Sun Sprite
Magic Hornet

Sophist Abstraction
Black Intricate
Wise Arbiter

Gay Companion
Star Wanderer
South Wind

Master Craftsman
Ideal of Perfection
Universal Expert (conflicted over whether this or ideal of perfection is the higher level craftsman mask)

Prince Intrepid
(All three apparently in the Kan Dachan Hero cycle)

Alk Islander (described as worn by a boy-child)
Pirate Captain
Emerald Mountain

Some masks had descriptions in the book. They’re not realistic masks, they’re highly stylized. Some are incredibly intricate (thousands of articulated wooden pieces) or just a bunch of scales and feather (Moon Moth … although the disparaging description may have been because the protagonist felt he should wear a greater mask and couldn’t).

Read Languages / Decipher Script : Lankhmar

November 18, 2011

Reading Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death, the story “The Seven Black Priests”, I come upon a familar scene:

“The runes of tropic Klesh!” the Northerner muttered. “What should such heiroglyphics be doing so far from their jungle?” … Together they pored over the deep-chopped letters, bringing to bear knowledge gained from the perusing of ancient treasure-maps and the deciphering of code-messages carried by intercepted spies.

Here is a fine example of the use of the Thief’s Read Languages ability (or a Rogue’s Decipher Script skill).

(If Wikipedia can be believed) Leiber’s book Swords Against Death was published in 1970, but the story “The Seven Black Priests” was published in 1953. The Lankhmar board game was written in 1937 and published by TSR in 1976, and the Greyhawk Supplement in 1975. Clearly Leiber’s work predated Gygax’s and so it’s possible that Gygax was inspired by Leiber, but not the other way around.

On a side note: it seems like Fafhrd is a Fighter/Thief with the Sailor secondary skill, and the Grey Mouser is a (Lankhmar-style) Magic-User dual-classed into Thief before hitting a significant level. For all the magic he uses after his intro story, you could just call him a Thief.

I think this is a result of D&D being written to try to let people play certain fictional characters rather than some special quality of D&D that allows it to depict existing characters.

LOTFP Grindhouse Received

May 8, 2011

I participated in a “Make up a 1st level M-U spell” competition on Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which I won (I was pretty surprised) and for which I received a copy of his new Grindhouse box set (I was pretty delighted). I won’t have a chance to read it for a few hours because my hopeless human eyes can stay open for only so long at a time.

The SenseNet

October 20, 2009

Cyberpunk is based on a bleak future, high technology superimposed and contrasted with frail humanity, hopelessness and powerlessness that enable violence, and the disparity between the ultra-wealthy and those so poor they end up owing money when they die. Cyberpunk, done right, is about more than overclocked elective prosthetics and a virtual reality Internet. Like all good science fiction it’s concerned with people. The new tech isn’t interesting: how it affects people is what’s interesting.

That said, the Cyberpunk of the 80s was based on a Japanese cultural / economic superpower and the rise of the corporation. Old Uncle Bear suggests that this is silly but still awesome and a retro-futurism Cyberpunk would be cool. But his suggestion is a self-referential farce, which is great for some gaming groups but if you wanted Cyberpunk that isn’t it. If you’re trying to decide whether to play Toon, Paranoia, or Retro-Future Irony Cyberpunk then it fits. I disagree with Uncle Bear’s assessment that the corporation is no longer a threat – we’re just currently experiencing a different kind of destabilization that could easily shift in a few decades.

But what seems to be coming to a head soon is Intellectual Property rights. It’s clear that increased control over customers is in the interest of a company. Only laws and ethical restraints prevent a corporation from devastating human dignity and human rights. But because corporations have a lot of money and teams of lawyers they can influence legislation and judicial process. And because the corporation is not an actual person, there is no expectation in American culture that the entity itself will be ethical. The executives have the opportunity to act unethically and say it was for the good of the company. In the end, a corporation would achieve whatever is good for it, at any human expense, so long as it’s technically possible.

Permanence is, I hear, a decent book. I found it through this thread where “E.T.Smith” gives a summary of two interesting ideas from the book.

1: All goods are leased. You pay a small amount (or nothing) for the object but you pay to use it. It stops functioning if you stop paying – or cannot pay.

2: Sensory broadcasters stationed throughout the city modify your consciousness. They can make you see what they want, or what you pay to see. There are pop-up ads that you have to pay to block. It affects everyone. Newborns begin seeing ads for sugary cereal and sneakers with favorite monster on the side while they’re still in the womb.

Of course, the Cyberpunk game typically involves characters who are able to circumvent these procedures. Whether they disable the IP controllers or block the SenseNet (or even hack it), they are not the poor unfortunate souls forced to suffer through life.

Yes, I would rename it SenseNet. Feels more Cyberpunky than Inscape. Or maybe I’d call in InSense.

Anyway, in case it isn’t clear I’m all for using Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020 or whatever as-written in terms of technology even though such things are today out of date and it isn’t even 2020 or 2051. For the same reason it’s still fun to watch the Original Star Trek series. Sure they have big chunky plastic buttons instead of touchpads! Sure we have datajacks sticking out of our temples and we need to plug into a computer to use it!

But the setting can change to something more relevant in terms of society. And in terms of tech we can explore its effects without overhauling the game system. I think Cyberpunk loses a whole lot when you exchange sub-dermal plating for nanites, and datajacks for wireless networking. Eventually it becomes indistinguishable as technology and you might as well be playing a Monk or a Magic-User. The trade-off for personal power in Cyberpunk is a loss of humanity, a reduction in how much of you is still flesh and bone. That’s an interesting choice to make and clearly reflects the themes of the genre.

Detective stories and the town adventure

October 13, 2009

TL;DR Town adventures are a lot like dungeon adventures in structure. Developing them will help you develop better dungeon adventures. Read good detective stories for inspiration.

I’ve always had trouble with town (social) adventures. Partly it’s player and DM expectation: D&D is about killing monsters and taking their stuff. You can do other things but the interesting mechanics are all about combat and from there spring all the rewards. And I need to keep players from becoming bored!

But that mental blockage contributes at least a little to a difficulty in creating and running roleplaying adventures. So I’d like to share some thoughts on the premises of an adventure and how you can use your skills at creating a dungeon to create a detective adventure.

First off, the structure of the dungeon is that there are various treasures within, some hidden and some obvious. First you must find the dungeon, then discover the treasures within. Each treasure has dangers to navigate past to acquire it. And there are dangers scattered throughout the dungeon.

I propose that a detective adventure is exactly the same thing. First you must discover that there is a problem. The entire problem, including all the people and things and places involved, is your “dungeon”. The treasures (objectives) may be obvious at first, or you may have to dig around to find them. The dangers you have to nagivate to achieve your goals tend to be either people trying to keep you from succeeding, or else simply the mystery of how to exploit that objective. And of course there are other people and situations working against you.

Take an example from Red Harvest (no, I haven’t finished reading it yet. Life intervenes!)

(Spoilers below, if you plan on reading it. Which I recommend)

The narrator is a detective from an agency in a larger city. He comes to a town called Personville (Poisonville colloquially) at the request of a man who is murdered when the detective arrives. He starts investigating the murder. The dead man’s father, a wealthy man, hires the detective to break up the stranglehold that gangs have on the city.

The detective begins investiating. It turns out there are a few separate gang leaders who were called in by the old man years ago to gain control of the town, but who took over once they were there. Each has his own faction. The police chief is also a pretty nasty guy, and the police are described from the start as crooked and shiftless. There is a woman whose allegiance is based on money. The detective brings in a couple men from the agency but otherwise he can’t rely on anyone.

So the dungeon is Poisonville. The objectives (treasure) are the destruction of each gang. It’s possible that a gang will be ruined if the leadership is killed or driven off. The dangers surrounding the objectives are the gangs and the gang leaders. The miscellaneous harsh conditions are the unfamiliarity of the town, the crooked police force, and the shifting and conflicting alliances.

As it turns out, these complex NPCs can be used against each other. In a few instances the detective manages to get the police chief to assault one of the gang headquarters because he unearthed evidence that the gang leader had committed serious enough crimes in the past. But the chief privately doesn’t want the detective around, and tries to get him killed multiple times. He’s able to get the greedy woman Dinah to give him information that he uses to sow discord among the gangs. He gets information from locals who have a dispute with one of the gang leaders.

(End spoilers)

For a freeform adventure like this one, you can’t rely on a standard map of the town and NPC descriptions. You also need to set up a flowchart for your own use, to make sure there are plenty of connections and ways to find each piece of information. The players don’t have to follow your flowchart, this is just a way to check that you haven’t written a “room with no entrance” or an “unopenable lock”.

But in general, don’t write a story. Write a setting where things are in some equilibrium. If the PCs do nothing, things shouldn’t change much. Or if the situation is time-sensitive, write a short list of things that will happen if the PCs don’t intervene.

Morning May 12 A small dragon is slain by the Royal Cavaliers in the badlands outside town. They were hunting bandits.
Evening May 12 Illo the Woodsman brings word back to town. He was around when they killed it.

Noon May 13 The Royal Cavaliers ride into town. Everyone pretends to be surprised by the news of the dragon. The PCs arrive shortly thereafter.
Evening May 13 Illo and his two sons go out to the bandits in the badlands and tells them of the slain dragon. The bandits are excited and prepare to set out to find the unguarded lair.
Midnight May 13 Illo and son returns. The other son was attacked and mortally wounded by a rock lizard. He’s now resting at home.

Morning May 14 The townsfolk secretly meet to discuss the unguarded hoard. They elect several of their number to go out and search for it. A messenger is sent to the nearby abbey for a priest to heal the injured woodsman’s son.
Evening May 14 A Royal Cavalier gets into a fistfight over fondling a farmer’s daughter. The lieutenant wants to ignore it but the mayor insists on some punishment. The Lt. orders that the Cavalier stay at the inn with two others watching him while the other Cavaliers leave town to search for the hoard.

Morning May 15 A priest from the abbey comes into town. He has breakfast and moves on to the woodsman’s hut. He returns for lunch and has learned of the hoard from his patient. He seems very interested and leaves town for the abbey with all haste.
Evening May 15 Bandits ambush the Royal Cavaliers and flee. The Cavaliers suffer some injuries. One bandit is injured (lost a leg) and captured. The woodsman Illo and his sons come into town, buy some climbing equipment, and leave again for the badlands.
Midnight May 15 The Cavalier with the busy hands convinces one of the two guards to get them some more booze. They get pretty liquored up. The townsfolk who are still in town (mostly girls, and old women and men) meet and become angry that nothing will be done about the Cavalier. The mob goes to the inn and stands outside shouting. The three Cavaliers above shout back from the window. One of the crowd throws a rock at them, and a drunken Cavalier throws the chamberpot, knocking out an old man. A riot ensues.

Morning May 16 The town wakes to find bandits rummaging around looting. They’re beating people up and taking whatever isn’t nailed down (and some bandits have crowbars). A bandit rider gallops through town blowing an owl-whistle and they pack up with all speed and leave.
Noon May 16 The Cavaliers return to town with their prisoner. Six priests and six paladins from the abbey arrive at the same time and tend their wounds. The priests and paladins immediately leave town for the badlands at the protest of the Cavalier Lt. The mayor is angry at the Lt. and says his men got drunk and started a brawl. Many townsfolk wander around with bandages from the brawl and the bandit raid. The mayor demands that the Lt. keep his Cavaliers here to defend the town from the bandits. The Lt. wants to leave town to “exterminate the bandits in their lair” but really he just wants to hit the treasure first. The bandit prisoner is interrogated by the Lt. and the location of their lair is discovered.
Evening May 16 The Cavaliers leave town, including the three hung-over brawlers, much to the dismay of the townsfolk and the mayor. The innkeeper manages to give the men food poisoning in their breakfast on the way out of town, and it doesn’t hit them until they reach the badlands. The bandits hide the town loot in the woods.

Morning May 17 The abbey priests encounter the town’s expedition of men, some women, and boys. The priests “convince” the expedition to go home because it’s dangerous out here. The expedition circles around and continues searching. Later the abbey priests encounter the woodsman Illo and, thinking he and his sons are bandits skulking around, magically paralyze them and beat them mercilessly. They’re interrogated and Illo gives them the location of the bandit lair as the place where the dragon’s cave is. The priests and paladins set out for it.
Noon May 17 The Cavaliers cross the path of the priests. The Cavaliers know where the bandit lair is, and see that the priests are headed there. They set off to follow the trail. The folk in town board up their windows and hunker down.
Evening May 17 The Cavaliers and Priests fight at the bandit lair. The town expedition and the bandits simultaneously find the dragon’s lair and fight it out. The town expedition manages to drive off the bandits with few casualties and packs up the dragon’s loot. They send runners back to town to bring help for hauling and medicine.

Morning May 18 The runners reach town and most of the townsfolk leave to help haul treasure and care for the wounded. The town doesn’t look much different though since everyone was hiding from the bandits anyway.
Noon May 18 The Cavaliers and then the abbey priests return three hours apart. The Cavalier Lt. commandeers the inn. The priests bang on the doors and demand to be let in, then move along and commandeer the mayor’s house. The mayor is gone and his servants don’t put up much of a fight.
Evening May 18 The town expedition filters back secretly. Each carries a little loot. They’ve hidden most of it in the woods and will carry the rest back tomorrow night. They’re enraged that the inn and mayor’s house have been seized. The Cavalier Lt. blames the priests, and the priests just come right out with it and say they’re going to tear the town apart until they find every last scrap of dragon treasure. Both remain entrenched.
Midnight May 18 The bandits roll into town and start torching buildings. The townsfolk drive them off but not before the inn and the mayor’s house are on fire. Instead of putting them out the townsfolk surround the mayor’s house with a pitchfork mob and stab anyone who comes out. The Cavaliers remain cautious and just put out their own fire.

Morning May 19 The mayor now leads a small band of hardy farmers who wear the armor and weapons of the abbey priests. They gather at dawn with the other townsfolk at the inn. They overpower the squires at the stable and seize the horses. They threaten the Cavaliers and demand they leave town. The Cavalier Lt. demands that the “King’s Tax” be given to him out of the treasure, and fines for attacking an officer of the law equalling the rest of it. The mayor refuses and says he will send along the standard portion of the tax with the tax collector at tax season. The Cavaliers file out and are given their horses but their stirrups are cut so they can’t fight back.

Next week a large band of the Royal Cavaliers returns demanding the entire treasure and locking up a bunch of peasants. But everyone is tight-lipped and the treasure is well hidden. The Cavaliers leave, unable to do anything and unwilling to start killing civilians. The abbey sends an agent to live in the town and hopefully eventually discover the treasure so it can be stolen later. The bandits, much reduced, clear out the remnants of their lair and scatter. They become mercenaries and pirates and soldiers in the months ahead.

In the next tax season the mayor gives up the full normal tax for the year plus the 20% tax on found treasure. But because nobody knows how much treasure was found, it’s unclear whether the town gave up the full amount. Only the mayor knows the actual total, and he is found to be telling the truth under a lie detection spell. Whether this is because he is telling the truth or because he now has a magic item to protect him is unclear.

Here we have a few factions: the Town, the Cavaliers, the Bandits, and the Priests. And the PCs of course.

There are many ways the PCs can get this off track. One of the main things they could do is eliminate a faction. But it’s pretty easy to see what happens when you take out any one faction.

Another wrench in the works would be if they defuse the situation between the townsfolk and the Cavaliers. Or if they prevent the priests and Cavaliers from fighting. They could prevent the priests from getting involved at all if they’re quick to heal the woodsman’s son before a messenger can be sent to the abbey.

So you should let the game develop as it will, but if you’re in doubt of what happens next because the players aren’t driving it or just aren’t affecting that faction, check your timeline. The timing may not be the same but the decisions the NPCs make might be.

Just remember to make your timeline very reasonable. You don’t want things to move too fast or the PCs won’t have a chance to influence things. You also need to be free with the information. The adventure here starts with the PCs already discovering the goal: the dragon is slain and the treasure is unguarded. From there they may completely ignore the rival factions and events in town, and just strike out for the wilderness. They might encounter the priests, or Illo and sons, or the townsfolk, or the bandits. And when they return to town they’ll find that interesting things have happened in their absence.

You should also have a short paragraph for the following for each important character or faction:

* Who does he think are his allies?
* Who are his actual allies?
* Who does he think are his enemies?
* Who are his actual enemies?

* What is his motivation?
* What he does if he achieves it?
* What he does if it becomes impossible to achieve?
* What can he offer in exchange for his life?
* What are his secret strengths?
* What are his secret weaknesses?

If you can’t give any information for one or two of those, it’s okay. But if you can’t give any information for most of them, consider whether this character is really that important. Maybe you just need to write up more characters / factions / etc. to develop the adventure more. You can always pull things out if it gets more complicated, but the inspiration you get from the process is worthwhile.

You can use this motivational summary for groups of NPCs in a dungeon as well. I can see this being applied properly to a tribe of goblins, a band of pirates, or a hamlet of gnomes.

On pulp detective stories and not always fighting

September 30, 2009

I was recommended Red Harvest and Dain Curse, both by Dashiell Hammett. They’re hardboiled 1920s America detective stories, as far as I can tell. I bought a hardback collection of five of Hammett’s stories from Powell’s when I was down in Portland recently. I’m halfway through Red Harvest now. What’s striking is the lack of physical combat compared to the verbal combat – negotiation, interrogation, threats, planting information, etc.

I won’t spoil the book, though. You should really read it, even if you never thought you’d like that sort of thing. I didn’t, and I love it.

Regardless, how this pertains to D&D is that an encounter generally devolves into combat without hesitation if it looks like that’s the way things will go. But the narrator of Red Harvest seems (reasonably, I’d say) to want to stay out of a fight at all costs. Even when things go south and I’d be rolling to hit in a D&D game, he still tries to salvage things by talking it through. When a fight does happen he gets his hands dirty. Of course fists and bullets fly, but it would happen easily twice as often if I were playing in that adventure.

Maybe that would be an interesting premise for a character. But in order to encourage that kind of play from your players, you’d probably need rule mechanics that apply.

In D&D, you can obviously get in over your head, but especially in OD&D once you reach high levels you know a sword or arrow isn’t going to kill you. There really isn’t a chance. There are still dangers out there, and multiple hits could take you out, but you can weigh your risks and decide that a fight is a good idea.

The narrator of Red Harvest fights only when the fight happens, always reluctant to start it, and only when he knows he has a huge advantage does he seek it out (carrying a gun, stalking a man down an alley whom he knows probably has no gun). A fight is never a good idea. The exceptions seem to appear when guns are not involved – when he is not threatened by a weapon which could kill him instantly.

Furthermore, in D&D wounds can heal quickly – perhaps instantly. If our detective is shot, even if he isn’t killed, he’ll be laid up in bed for weeks and during that time will lose control of his situation in Personville. He’ll also be vulnerable to attacks by his enemies. He simply cannot afford to be injured. A fistfight he could recover from and move on. A bullet to the gut, not so much.

D&D just doesn’t allow for this line of reasoning. Either your enemy is what you think he is, and you can gauge the threat and choose to fight or not, or your enemy is a surprise and you know it only once the fight has started. In Red Harvest’s Personville, anybody with a gun is a threat severe enough to always avoid, and you don’t know who has a gun. Most do.

So imagine a D&D game where there was no level advancement. Even seasoned veterans risk severe bodily harm and death every time they fought. Too tough? Definitely. Games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Middle-Earth Role Play have critical hit tables that make any combat a scary proposition.

Shadowrun handles it by making armor and guns easily available, but you’re always in danger of being injured by a few bullets that slip through. Especially if you’re not wearing armor at all, which can make the difference between a Light Pistol just catching in your armor or outright killing you. And powerful guns are always a danger – they’re just uncommon, expensive, loud, illegal, etc. It’s more complicated, but that explains it well enough.

In any case, with deadlier game systems the player gains more from negotiation and roleplaying than swinging the d20s. Player skill enters the picture more frequently and has more importance. A well-played 1st level character can survive what a poorly-played 10th level character would not. Certainly, this bounces a nickel off the expectations of a standard D&D player, and is more worthwhile as a way of deciding whether to use WarhammerFRP or D&D. You probably don’t want to just houserule D&D to make it “one-hit deadly.”