Tuesday 27 March 2018

Dancing the Black Labyrinth

I'm writing a class for OSR games.
I want it to tie into a few OSR-ish ideas: frequent character deaths, prioritizing the story of the party over the stories of individual characters, amorality.
I want it to subvert expectations of play in ways that other classes don't. That is, I want to make a class which does not mind dying. A class that sees the unpredictable lethality of OSR play, and embraces it, and profits from it. A class for which death is not the end.

Here's how I'm gonna do it.
First up, the fluff. The Dancers Of The Black Labyrinth are a mystical religious group. The Cleric as a class embraces fundamentally western ideas of spirituality. Worship, death as a finality, the granting of favors through divine grace. This class, meanwhile, takes on a more oriental approach, focusing on the soul's journey through reincarnations towards transcendence. I want this class to be morbid, thanatological mystics who treat death as a minor setback.
The do not see death as an end. The soul passes into a lightless maze, from which it cannot easily return. These mystics, though continually retread the paths of the black labyrinth, each journey expanding their knowledge of its nature and how it might be exploited.

In play, how does this work? The Dancers work like clerics: it makes sense for such a mystically-inclined class. They have only a few spells, mostly surrounding death and divination. Compared to an MU or even a cleric, their repertoire is limited.
The first Dancer you play is capped at level one.
When they die, if your next PC is also a Dancer, then this cap is increased; if they survive and gain enough XP, they can progress to level 2. The new PC is, on some level, the same entity as the last one. Though their body and mind are different, they have some degree of memory of their previous life and their exploration of the Black Labyrinth can continue.
Furthermore, each time they die, the nature of their death unlocks new secrets to them: each subsequent Dancer gains a permanent bonus for each new type of death unlocked. For weirder and more esoteric deaths, these bonuses can be quite dramatic.

So you get an entity who reincarnates into different PCs over the course of the game, gradually unlocking greater power as they do. One who is motivated to die in new and unusual ways.

Leaving Kansas

One day soon I will post something you can actually put in your game rather than merely philosophizing. Not today, though.

One thing which I think is at the heart of of a lot of old-school aesthetics is the clash between weirdness and familiarity. In particular, I find these games tend to have familiar characters from familiar locations visit somewhere strange. 
The thematic heart of the game, then, is this; can our representations of the familiar world survive and prosper from contact with the Strange?

Setting up the familiar is pretty simple. Most players of RPGs are acquainted with the 'default medieval fantasy' setting, with feudal lords, peasants, knights, priests, and so on. Likewise, the modern world, or mundane history can serve as the familiar. So long as it's the sort of place and time that your players can readily understand, make assumptions about, and so on.
This is the background your PCs are drawn from. The options available to a PC come to define the everyday normality of your setting, the baseline from which the weird departs. If you have wizards capable of casting spells as part of your 'normal', magic itself is not 'weird'. It is something the PCs can do and, presumably, might be familiar with. A vampire is never going to be scary when you can roll up a level 1 vampire PC, after all.
I actually think that, here, a certain degree of blandness is good. Exotic and strange details in this part of the game world detract from its normal-ness, and likewise make the strange seem less strange. The more default and obvious this baseline seems OOC, the easier it will be to see it as default in play.

This, then, is contrasted with the Weird. The weird is other. It is external to the players, unfamiliar, separated from them somehow. It might be a dungeon. It might be an unexplored wilderness or a strange foreign land. It might be intrusions from other worlds, even. But it must be different.
The weird can, and should, break the rules that PCs operate by. Enemies can use spells, certainly, but they shouldn't have the same spells in the same spellbooks that the PCs do. Their capabilities should be unfamiliar.
It must likewise be clear when you are stepping out of the familiar and into the weird. When you go down the steps into a dungeon, you enter the Weird. Sometimes, this process is drawn out (such as the mounting strangeness in the overland section of Deep Carbon Observatory, before descending to the observatory itself). Sometimes it's abrupt (such as stepping through the doorway to Ynn). However, for the weird to seem weird, it needs to be clearly marked off.
So now we have our PCs - little avatars of the 'normal' - entering into the weird. This is our 'through the looking glass' moment, our 'I have a feeling we aren't in Kansas anymore' moment. What happens then? Exploration, conflict, and consequences.
In short, the PCs explore and investigate the weird. They see how it is different to the normal, how their assumptions (and likewise the ooc assumptions of the players) do not apply to it. The uncover the true extent, nature and weirdness of the Weird. This establishes the ground for the next stage.
Next up, we have conflict.  We know the familiar, and we are becoming aware of the weird. The two are opposed. They simply co-exist as each is incompatible with the stability of the other. So, the Weird will threaten the PCs, and try to destroy or weird-ify them. Perhaps this is violent conflict with monsters, insidious mental effects, traps, environmental dangers, and so on. The weird strikes out at the PCs, and the PCs strike back at it.
Lastly, we have consequences of this conflict. Perhaps the PCs are weakened, killed, mutated, crippled. Conversely, perhaps they overcome the challenges they face, grow powerful, gain useful things. It's very possible that by overcoming the Weird, they can incorporate it into the Normal (perhaps by seizing magical weapons for themselves - after all, anything the PCs do is the normal default). But, either way, the weird changes them.
Finally, they will return to the familiar world to recover or enjoy the fruits of their efforts, and the normality of the normal world reasserts itself.

Start in the normal world, cross over into the weird, explore the weird, come into conflict with the weird, suffer consequences, return to the normal world. Repeat. It's an easy pattern to spot. Every trip into a dungeon follows this pattern, for example.
Likewise, because the weird needs to remain unusual, it naturally lends itself to picaresque narratives. Journeys through the comparative normal where periodically, the PCs cross over into an area of the weird for an episode, explore it and return. Each episode on the picaresque is a new 'weird' to contrast against the ongoing normality of the campaign.

So far, so much arty wank with little application at the table. How to make this useful?
Firstly, understand that the PCs represent what's normal. If your PCs can cast spells, magic is normal. If your PCs can be elves and dwarves, elves and dwarves are normal. If your PCs have easy access to weapons and armour, violence is normal. Anything the PCs can be or do can not, therefore, be the Weird. Magic, dwarves and fighting are not in and of themselves weird, for most D&D games.
(It doesn't have to be this way. In our normal lives, most of us are not familiar with real violence. In a purely mundane modern-day game, the introduction of warfare, weapons and so on can push things enough away from the 'normal' to be their own sort of weird. Look at the Bates Motel, for example...)

Second, it must be clear when you are no longer dealing with the normal. Clear transitions, marked boundaries, and so on. Make the entrance to your dungeon foreboding. Mark the start of the dangerous wilderness with border fences and sentries. Likewise, when leaving the weird and returning to the normal, put markers in the world for this.
A game that does this very well is Lacuna. By establishing the modern-day corporate world the players operate in, and then the process of plugging into Blue City, the weirdness of Blue City is accentuated and kept defined.

Lastly, the weird needs to stay weird on an out-of-character level. Basically every player by now knows what an orc is. Those that don't soon will if they're encountered more than a few times. So, to keep things weird, you need to vary them. Make them feel new. 

Friday 23 March 2018

more theory models - what makes decisions and what drives the game?

So, Zac is continuing to slowly and meticulously vivisect the GNS essays, and this has got me thinking about the different ways we can divide games up. I don't really have an overarching theory of gaming, but I do have the basic categories I tend to put stuff into. These are largely based on my own observations and prejudices.
Worth noting that when I say games, I mostly mean a specific group playing a specific system. The way I run (say) LotFP is probably very different to the way the next person does it.

First up, what controls the game? When an outcome is doubtful, how do you decide what actually happens?
You can divide this into three rough categories: crunch, shared narrative, and fiat (and then also hard skills sort of). 

In a crunch-based game, there is almost certainly a specific mechanic for what you want to do. Players interact with the world and the ongoing story through game rules and often by applying specific character powers. Mechanics are carefully balanced so that the 'right' outcomes are probable or guaranteed (...if the designer did their job properly). You often have a broad underlying mechanic, and then loads of modifications to it for different situations. These games tend to put a lot of focus on character builds. What you can and can't do is strongly defined by the decisions you make in character creation. Often, a skilled optimiser can make a character that's much stronger than an unoptimised character. These sorts of games tend to involve a hefty character gen (maybe taking up a whole session or more) spent pouring through books comparing options, and then in play fairly strict adherence to the rules. In play, there tends to be a lot of focus on working the system in your favor, so that the raw mathematics of the situation rigorously defines what happens.
Rules-mastery and character optimization are how you get ahead. Combat is often a focus, there are typically huge amounts of books for this detailing ever more options. It's the kind of game that encourages spreadsheets.
Ultimately, here, when something is in doubt, you apply game mechanics to find out what happens.

Vampire the Masquerade is an example of this sort of game that I like, Pathfinder is an example that I don't.

Shared narrative-based games (AKA storygames, narrativism, wank etc) are focused on deciding who gets to decide how things play out. The system is there to determine who gets narrative control, and the GM's power to decide world details and outcomes is spread among the players more evenly. Games without GMs, or which give players a lot of tools to take over GMing fit in here nicely. It's all about collaborative storytelling.
Usually, the mechanics are pretty abstract and universal. You tend to get the ability to force the story in particular directions and control over things that aren't your own PC. These games have much more of a tendency to think of themselves as Art, and to deal with genres that aren't variations on action, horror, fantasy and sci-fi. 
These games require a lot of creative input and a lot of buy in. All of the worst experiences I've had in gaming have been with these games, because by exposing your ideas for others to judge in the sorts of creative struggles these games produce, you inevitably let yourself be emotionally vulnerable to the results. So have a few of the best; when everybody is firing on all cylinders you can get some cool results.
An example I like is Monsterhearts, an example that made me want to pound nails into my eyes was Ten Candles.

Last up, we have fiat-based games. This is where the OSR style is focused. Outcomes are mostly decided via the GM making a judgement call and often an ad-hoc rule. Rules are minimalist, and tend to focus on things that are hard to make fair judgement about (magic because there's no real-world version to refer to, character death because of the stakes, violence because it's so complex and there are also high stakes).
Character gen is usually fast, because the mechanics are comparatively unimportant. In-world details are more important than game mechanics: if you can find or make a ladder, you'll climb easier. This goes back to the 'GM's rulings' thing: any mechanical effects are adjudicated by the GM based on specific circumstances.

Player skill tends to be an important concept here. A player who comes up with smart ideas is likely to succeed, regardless of their actual character strength. Game balance tends to be a low priority, as that artificially restricts the GM's ability to make an accurate ruling, and means that player skill would need to be minimized if they do something 'too good' or 'too stupid'.
If you're reading this blog, you probably play this sort of game. 

(in larp, there is a fourth category: hard skills. Which is to say, there are few game mechanics or storytelling tools: to do a thing, you actually fucking do it. In one of my favorite games, Odyssey, pretty much everything was hard-skills based. Fighting was done by smacking your enemy with a prop sword, religion was done by actually performing ceremonies and hoping that the members of the plot team watching were impressed, thieving required you to sneak around the camp at night while people were sleeping, and so on... you see this sometimes in tabletops, such as in things like riddles, chess puzzles and talky social bits, but it's less common and normally the game has another system so the fights don't descend into unplayable freeform anarchy)

Although different games focus on different styles of decision making, there's overlap. I find Vampire tends to be hardskills social scenes and politics, and crunchy combat and powers. Likewise, fiat-based decision making is inevitable at least a little, because no game can cover every circumstance.

Ultimately, this distinction is about where the power lies in the game: with the game's rulebook, with an agreement to share creativity, with the GM's judgement, or just 'well actually do it then'.

The other distinction I tend to care about is what the game is about. What are we here to do, where is the fun in the game? Where are your goals and what will drive things forward? Again, I'd divide this up into a few categories: challenges, finding stuff out, characterization and plot.

Challenges is pretty self explanatory. There is an obstacle or danger, and you need to overcome it. This is most purely expressed by your crunchy tactical combat of 4th edition D&D. Here is an encounter: beat it. You get your fun by taking on an obstacle and winning. This is the 'challenge based' play a lot of blogs talk about, or what GNS is pointing at when it talks about gamism.

Finding stuff out is also pretty easy to grok. It's your mystery games like call of cthulhu and gumshoe. It's also exploration-based games. This is how I tend to run something like Wolf-packs & Winter Snow, and what The Garden's Of Ynn was all about. You keep playing because you want to learn what's over that next hill, what the next dungeon level down is, how deep the conspiracy runs... 
Finding stuff out is also, tbh, my where my fun tends to be. I like learning about things, I like putting information together. 

Characterization is focussed on the PCs, their personalities and their interactions. You roleplay the shit out of your character, and see how that ends up. Games driven by this stuff care about the PCs backstories and personal philosophies and what links them together. Often, low-level social PvP happens, but violent and lethal PvP is unlikely. Every time I've played Monsterhearts, it's been like this. I often find Vamp tends to go this way, to; I think it's something about playing a monster that makes you really want to get IC and explore that character.

Plot is, you know, plot. There is a story ark, and we are going to play through it. At it's worst, it's going to end up as a horrible railroad. Of course, if you're sensible the plot develops as you go. This is, I think, how WW expected Vamp to be played, but not how it usually ends up in my experience.
I'll be honest, if I want a plot, I'll just read a novel. RPGs scratch other itches much better. Your mileage may vary, though.

So yeah. That's how I tend to divide stuff up and describe things. Like 'oh, VtM is characterization driven and crunch based' or 'wolfpacks is exploration driven and fiat-based'. 

These are only rough thoughts. I could put them into a better essay, but I'm lazy.

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Elves, Gender, Why am I writing this?

Thoughts on the whole sexual fluidity elves thing:
1: cool, elves being presented as minor shapeshifters and slighlty removed from human ideas of gender! This makes elves feel fey and interesting and I like that.

2: oh, the discusion around this and presentation in the fiction is tying it to real world LGBT issues. Oh.
 2a: I try to remove real world 'issues' from my games. We're here for escapism and fun, not a bleak and harrowing exploration of Man's Inhumanity To Man. RPGs are fun because you get to be a cool liberated agency-filled free agent who doesn't have to deal with all the petty shit of the real world.
 2b:  'good' elves get this as a gift from their 'good' god. Evil drow have a matriarchal society which is, basically, all the worst traits of IRL sexism taken to a bizarre extreme and then gender flipped. But, uh. Some drow also get this gift and are, uh, persecuted as a threat to the matriarchy. Oh no.
2c: if this becomes plot relevant it's probably because we get to see the LGBT stand-in being horribly persecuted in ways that are eerily similar to the actual shit LGBT people face in the real world. OH NO.
 2d: why the fuck would I put an obvious analogy for the horrible shit that happens to LGBT peeps in my nice escapist game about tomb robbers? That crap's what we're all here to forget about...
 2e: I just want to play an androgynous sidhe. If I wanted a deep and nuanced exploration of sexuality and gender identity, I'd play fucking monsterhearts, which does it far better than dungeons and dragons. Please don't make drow secretly a metaphor for terfs.

3: here come the assholes saying that 'Wizards of the coast are pandering to SJWs' and so on. This is actually largely irrelevant to me because why the fuck would I game with assholes?

4: why do I need to give WotC 50 bucks in order to include the nice progressive content in my game ? Sexually ambiguous or fluid elves can go in any DIY game without needing the official WotC stamp of approval. I've seen elves played kinda like that already, it was no big deal.
 4a: Oh, it's a 'once per day' feature. So, uh, do elves have to trade out some other mechanical perk to get it? Because that's also... not a great look.
 4b: you know, I kind of hate the way a sanitized fantasy metaphor is used for a lot of issues. TBH I think old White Wolf kind of got it right with the 'look, some of these characters are gay. Sometimes that sucks for them. But hey, they have vampire powers' thing. Not sugarcoating it in a nice fantasy filter.

5: I bet I am going to get some real fucking stimulating feedback from both ends of the political horseshoe over this.

Why I play and GM the way I do

This one's gonna ramble a bit. I'm throwing ideas and oppinions out without much planning.

So, Zac's been doing a series of long and detailed blog-posts in which he takes apart GNS theory. It's been interesting to read, in a 'somebody insightful and acerbic is criticizing something I think is stupid' sort of way.

The thing about GNS is that it at least gets people thinking about what they like from games, and how they can achieve that, even if the specifics leave a lot to be desired.
I play Empire, a large (nearly 2K) UK based fest larp, and one thing I really like about it is that it accommodates lots of different playstyles and priorities. The costume-and-special-fx loving people all play certain areas, the people who love interpersonal drama and relationships and angst (in larp circles, this has aquired the nickname 'ballgowning') play certain types of character, the fighty people have their area, the argue-about theology people (I'm one of these!), the spreadsheet nerds who want to be efficient... all the different areas of the game are pretty nicely signposted so if you know what you want, making a character to fit is simple. In many ways, it's very good design.

I used to be one of the hardcore storygame types. Games can be Art, and they can be Deep and Interesting, and their design can be inventive. All that wank. I got slowly disillusioned with that for a few reasons. 
Like, to make that style of game work, everybody needs to be creatively on peak form. You can't sit back, have a beer, chuck dice around and enjoy a game with your mates. You need to be creative and proactive and insightful so this beautiful story can work.
I remember fairly recently playing a game of Ten Candles with some close friends, and it was probably the single most miserable experience of my gaming history (worse than the one where my meds ran out at the same larp fest where a cat. 9 storm destroyed my tent and the mud was up to my knees). Ten Candles, for reference is a high-concept, arty game about losing hope in a dark (metaphorically and literally) world. It's post apoc and mysterious and theatrical, and uses extinguishing candles to bring the dwindling hope to the fore. In particular, it sets things up in a very 'pass the talking-stick' shared narrative rights way, but gives a narrator just sliiightly more information than everybody else. I spent the first half of the game having my ideas shot down by others in the group. The second half was spent using my creative input in the alternating cycle of 'introduce something highly explosive' and 'make the highly explosive thing explode in the hope of ending this sooner'. 
God, it was horrible.
See, that's the problem with shared narrative rights: fundamentally, it means putting a bit of creativity on display and risking it getting stomped on, and when it is stomped on, it sucks.
I've had similar sorts of problems playing monsterhearts. 'Everybody is playing supernatural teenage monsters in a buffy-style setting' is my jam; I play a lot of WoD. And yet, the loose, story focussed nature of the system just grated on me. I didn't want all the themes about sexy awakening and personal identity that the mechanics kept thrusting on me, I wanted to roleplay as a hive-mind of spiders (basically, aracnopolis rex from VotE, but wearing a sexy teenage girl's skin as a disguise). Constantly being asked to evaluate and contribute towards the queer metaphors for emotional impact got in the way of my arachnophilia.
SO yeah, screw that stuff.
On a similar note, screw the following: PvP (which monsterhearts had loads of), character builds that make the system their bitch, fights that go on for ever, setting agnostic systems, and slavishly rolling for everything.

I don't play RPGs for the story, and attempts to do so have mostly resulted in me having a bad time. This is a great shame, as most of my close friends are all about the narrative.
I do, however, play games for the annecdotes.
Let me give you some examples:
  • I'm running Orpheus, the old WW game about ghost hunters. My players come into some money and use it to hire a mercenary company and set up a militarized base of operations on an off-shore oil rig, and end up basically being bond villains.
  • I'm playing VtM. The ventrue seneschal botches a drive roll while in another domain, and crashes his car. Into a church. Owned by that domains millenia old nosferatu primogen. Hilarity, complications, and Major Boons ensue.
  • I'm running Wolfpacks. One of my players is confident that she can survive this 'lethal meatgrinder game'. I make a bet that her PC won't survive the first session. She rolls up a mutant with what is essentially a glowing weak-spot. First encounter turns into a fight, first roll of the fight hits her weakspot and the mutant is gibbed ten minutes into the game.
  • I'm running Deep Carbon Observatory. One of my players picks a fight with the Crows and tries to fight them face-to-face. He's level 1. The crows aren't. He's turned into chilli con carne. Meanwhile a more sensible player unties the crow's captives while they're beating up the murderhobo and sneaks off with them.
  • I'm playing LotFP. My halfling is infested with parasites devouring their flesh at a rate of 1 hp every minute. She goes and finds some hemlock to down, on the basis that she's got a 3+ save vs poison and the parasites probably don't, and she's dead in five minutes anyway. I roll a 2. Thankfully, the parasites failed their save as well, so at least the infection didn't spread.

None of these were scripted, planned or really even a natural consequence of the rules. They just sort of happened through player inventiveness and (un)lucky rolls. They're anacdotes that are cool because they happened in games we were invested in, to PCs we cared about, and the combination of players and luck butterfly-effected into this badass and/or hilarious results.
The spontaneity is important to me, I think. The feeling that it's not people being creative and crafting a story, but just 'this cool thing that happened'.

As a player, I tend to go for information-gathering abilities. I managed to perplex a 5e D&D GM by building a wizard with pretty much nothing but divination spells. She sucked in combat, but god DAMN did she know what the plot was about. In VtM I tend to play characters with auspex, necromancy, koldunism, animalism.
I like finding out about the setting, basically. It's why I still read oWoD splat-books. The world is big and cool and well realised, and OK, the rules are a mess and the writers make their favourite factions the strongest, but it's fun to learn about.
I know a lot of players who, when introduced to a new game , go "Oh, for fuck's sake, do I have to read all about the setting?" Whereas I go "Oh fucking awesome where do I learn about this setting?" I never actually learned how the mechanics for shadowrun worked when I played it, but I could give you an in-depth in-universe explanation of the  HMVV infection and its biology.
So when I play, I want to be good at exploring and finding details and seeing what's there.
This is, partly, why storygames rubbed me the wrong way: the idea that I can add and invent details breaks me right out of the fun of discovery.

This is also, I think, why I love random tables in play. Every time I roll up a cave system in Wolfpacks, or roll a random encounter, or whatever, I'm effectively discovering something about the setting. Not inventing it (although I may need to be creative to tie everything together): I'm learning about it at the same time the players are. There's that little thrill of possibility there.

This is also why I love 3d6-in-order character gen. Roll up six stats. Look at them and work out what kind of person this must be. "Oh, they've got high con but rubbish strength and dex. Maybe the're arthritic but hardy? OK, so that means they're probably old...". I get to discover who I'm playing.

The Gardens Of Ynn is this principle writ large. Every time your players go deeper, you roll and discover a location together. Every roll for events lets you discover something or introduce something. As a GM, you see the map unfold and expand as your players explore.

It's probably also why I like anecdotes rather than narratives. Anecdotes are stories you discovered by chance rather than wrote on purpose.
This certainly ties together my two main loves as a player. OSR, for its exploration-based gameplay, its willingness to throw new ideas together, its willingness to treat the dice as an oracle. And then WoD for the sheer hugeness of the setting.
It's why Made In Abyss is my favourite Anime. It's why I liked Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair more than the other narnia books: they showed you new, weird bits of the setting, and tantalized you with the bits of the setting they hinted at but never revealled. Even as an adult, the descriptions of Bism in TSC still excite me with the unexplored possibilities.

No real moral here. Just some musings. Maybe your own priorities are similar: since you're reading this blog, I suspect they may be.

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Now on Sale - The Gardens of Ynn

I've been blogging about it, but now here it is: the Gardens of Ynn.

I wrote this to get out of a creative rut, liked what I’d produced, and made it pretty. I think it’s
easy for games to push in darker directions, and to match the unpredictable lethality of old-school
games with a particular grim and gritty aesthetic. I wanted to move away from that, into something
that, while not blandly pleasant, had a lightness of tone to it. A setting where sunshine is the default
I still have fond memories of myself at about 10, sitting up on September nights when I should be
sleeping but it wasn’t quite dark, and devouring Alice, D&D books, Narnia, The Hobbit. My life
was a bit shitty, but those books and the invented worlds within were delightful. They’re probably
what kept ten-year-old me sane.
I wanted a game that book that tried to capture that feeling, rather than the cynicism and grime of
adulthood. Here’s my attempt.

My playtesting was done with a horrible bastardization of S&W, LotFP, my own homebrew, and
bits taken from b/x.
Things should be fairly easy to adapt to your system of choice if it follows the rough old-school
model. For more modern games, you’ve got some work ahead of you as far as specific mechanics
go, but maybe you’ll like my ideas. Even if you don’t run this as it’s own adventure, some of the
individual encounters, tables and monsters can produce a session of shenanigans by themselves.

In structure, this is a little bigger than a dungeon you breeze through in a few sessions, but not
really big or settled enough to be the whole setting for an extensive campaign. Bolt Ynn onto your
setting and it forms an adventure site that PCs can venture into whenever they want.
Each time they go in, you procedurally generate a point-crawl for them to explore, with stuff
getting weirder the deeper they go. You build up a network of interesting sites and the links between
them. Each journey is different.
Intended for lower level parties. Rather lethal for 1st level PCs. Groups of about level 9 and up are
likely to have enough tricks at their disposal to trivialise a lot of what’s in here. Level 3-5 is probably
your sweet-spot but honestly balance isn’t that important.

I hope you'll like it.

79 pages of weird whimsical adventure in the gardens.

Generate a point-crawl exploration adventure as you go, rolling up locations and encounters as you explore.

Weird creatures tailored to the setting.

Surreal locations.

And other fun stuff

Go buy a pdf here. It's a few bucks and you'll probably like it. Print version coming shortly.

Sunday 18 March 2018

More from Ynn - The Idea Of Thorns

(So Ynn is nearly finished. I'm writing up a few final tables and details, editing stuff, and fiddling with layout. But I'm most of the way there.
The big underlying threat of the setting is the Idea Of Thorns; a memetic virus that's responsible for the gardens being abandoned in the first place. You'll only encounter it very deep in the gardens, and before you do it's likely you'll encounter stuff that foreshadows it in minor ways. Potentially a LotFP-style campaign-warping disaster. Inspired by the Rapture in VotE, but taken in a different direction.) 

The Idea Of Thorns is not a physical creature. It is, instead, somewhere between a disease, a hostile meme, and a spiritual presence. It is conscious. It wants to spread.
It does not need host minds to exist, but must find minds to infect if it wishes to affect the physical world. It will try to infect one mind, overtake it utterly, and then spread. It isolates, infects, subverts and controls.

When the Idea Of Thorns is first encountered, it will be as information. Writing scrawled on a wall, a little notebook with poetry in it, the sound of distant singing.
Anybody who refuses to look, covers their ears, etc, is not attacked by the Idea.

Those exposed to the Idea must save vs Magic. Any who fail have the first seeds of the Idea planted in their mind. At this stage, the only sign is that they see all plant life as having thorns. The thorns are real to them, and can cause damage.
Hearing somebody infected with the Idea talk about the Idea or their experience of it causes you to make a Save to avoid infection.

The Idea can compel an infected victim to take an action: roll a d20: if the result is equal to or higher than the victim’s Sense of Self (which equals charisma + constitution), the victim performs whatever action the Idea wishes.
The victim does not realise that the compulsion originated from outside their own mind.

The Idea will attempt to lower its victims’ sense of self by attacking the victim’s minds in the following situations:
à If a victim experiences an altered state of consciousness, such as drunkenness.
à If a victim sleeps.
à If a victim tries to work out an explanation for the Idea.
à If a victim tries to express the Idea or their experience of it to somebody not yet infected..
When one of these happens, all those nearby who are infected experience a sudden vision. They are faced with the Idea Of Thorns, incarnate as a towering being made of tangled vines, its form mimicking those whose minds are infected. It has all the moustache-twirling villainous bombast you can hope for. They must fight it. The fight lasts a single round and then ends. The next vision continues the fight where the last left off.

Treat the Idea Of Thorns as having the following stats:
à HD as the highest Intelligence out of those infected.
à 2 HP per HD.
à Armour Class is the highest Wisdom out of those infected.
à 3 Attacks with a bonus equal to the highest Charisma out of those infected.
à Saves as a fighter, level is the lowest Wisdom out of those infected.
à Immunity to mind-affecting effects. Immunity to poison. Double damage from fire and electricity.

The Idea does not attack hit-points, instead it attacks Sense of Self. Each successful hit halves the victim’s Sense of Self (round down).

As the victim’s sense of self falls, they will be prone to increasingly irrational behaviour.

If a victim has lost any sense of self, the Idea will make the following actions seem appropriate:
à Producing texts and artworks that express the Idea Of Thorns.
à Killing those that seek to oppose the Idea Of Thorns.
à Planting roses, briars, thistles and other thorny plants in places where they will flourish.
à Abandoning the trappings of civilisation and returning to a more feral state.
à Destroying buildings and replacing them with plants.
A victim who does one of these in a way that amuses, impresses or surprises the GM can, at the GM’s whim, earn an XP reward. The amount of XP granted is 50 multiplied by the total amount of Sense of Self they have lost.

If the victim’s sense of self reaches 0, they become an NPC, totally enslaved by the Idea.

If the Idea Of Thorns reaches the mortal world:
This is bad. It will spread exponentially quickly, rapidly taking hold among the common civilians who have comparatively little defence against it.
à After one day, several NPCs the players have spoken to are infected. They behave strangely, abandoning their normal lives. Hunting down and dealing with those infected to prevent the idea’s spread is reasonably practical. Minor surreal magic occurs; plants grown where they shouldn’t.
à After three days, a large amount of NPCs in the local settlement are infected. Graffiti expressing the idea springs up in public places. Arrests for crimes such as vandalism and arson spike massively. Hunting down those infected is still possible, if difficult. More surreal magic manifests, such as strange weather.
à After one week, the idea has spread to other settlements. Major powers in the world become aware of the problem. The settlement first infected is basically fully-infested by the Idea. Buildings are destroyed, plants begin growing over the ruins. The infected turn on one another. The only practical way to stop the infection is to burn it out with massive collateral damage. The dream-like effects on reality become pronounced. Plants move at night, animals behave weirdly.
à After three weeks, other local settlements are in an uproar. Major powers in the world send serious force to deal with the problem - armies, inquisitors and skilled mages. Pitched battles ensue. Brutal force or inventive tactics can still contain the infection, at great cost. The world becomes increasingly odd and dream-like magical effects manifest frequently.
à After a month, attempts to contain the Idea fail. Those infected run rampant. The world shifts and warps under the strange magic released. The infection cannot be contained.
à After three months, the world begins to resemble a slow, surreal zombie apocalypse. Plants grow everywhere, those infected who survive form gibbering packs, settlements are in ruins, the world follows dream-logic rather than the laws of science. Survivors cluster together in paranoid communites for support.
à After one year,  survivors form xenophobic closed communities, cut off from the outside world. Outside these fortresses of sanity, the world is a plant-choked wasteland, as surreal as any extra-planar space.
à After three years, the communities of survivors begin reclaiming land from the Idea, slowly and carefully.
à After a decade, the Idea is pushed back and contained. The world becomes somewhat less surreal, although the lingering effects never truly leave. Society starts rebuilding, after the massive upheaval that was the idea. Sporadic outbreaks every few years threaten this stability.

Monday 12 March 2018

Rose-Maidens and Myconid Composters - cultures in Ynn.

As a dryad is to a tree, these creatures are to beds of roses.
The appear roughly humanoid, with a  thick thorny stem in place of their torso and legs. Their arms are formed by intertwined leafy branches, and each one has a single large rose in place of a head; whatever sensory organs they have are nestled between the stamen.
The rose maidens can walk about on their roots. They talk in high, soft voices; where the human voice is a cello, a rose-maiden’s voice is a flute.
They are as intelligent as humans. They maintain the sites of particular beauty in the garden, brushing away dirt and litter and polishing stone and metal. Like the Myconid Composters, they have their own culture.
Their mannerisms are elegant. Despite their manual labour, they behave more like refined artistic types; poets or musicians perhaps. Everything beautiful must be preserved, everything ugly must be destroyed.
They sing as they work, producing melodies too subtle for the human ear to properly register. They sing when they fight, too. Eerie droning choirs.
Their songs hit strange resonant frequencies in the plants around them. By combining frequencies, their harmonies can produce supernatural-seeming effects.
These songs are also how they train plants to grow in particular patterns. Their homes - elegant bowers of living wood and leaves = are made in this way, as are those few tools they use.
HD 4, HP 9, Armour as leather, two claws (+6, d6), saves as MU 4..
Their eerie droning songs are disconcerting. 1-in-10 chance per rose-maiden present for any character casting a spell to instead do nothing that round. The same applies to other actions requiring concentration, such as first aid or aiming.
Twice per day, they can cast each of the following: Animate Plants, Speak With Plants, Pass Through Plants, Hold Plant. Spellcasting is only possible if more than one rose-maiden casts that round; a single rose maiden’s spells fail if somebody isn’t casting alongside her.

Myconid Composters
Lumpen fungoid proletariat of the gardens. Four foot high vaguely humanoid masses of mycelium with raisin-like sensory organs studded into their puffball-heads.
Their purpose is to gather dead, broken and dirty things, and pile them up in their great steaming compost-mounds to rot down. More composters sprout from the mass periodically, which is also used to fertilize the garden.
Myconids have huge nests in the depths of the gardens. Great rotting heaps of compost, with propped-up cavities within where they live. They don’t sleep, or eat, but instead replenish themselves by thrusting the mycelium roots from their hands and feet into the decaying mass that makes up their home.
Their consciousness is not as separated as other beings. Myconids can fuse together, letting the mycelium threads that make up their neural networks intertwine. Their consciousnesses merge, their personalities blurr together, they share memories The longer they’re fused, the more completely thei sentiences meld together. They can split apart again, and when they do they retain all the memories they once shared. Myconids greet one another by shaking hands, blurring conciousnesses enough to exchange information. Knowledge ripples through their culture rapidly, their personalities exist in a fluid pool.
They are extraordinarily  vulnerable to memetic corruption.
They wear dungarees and battered straw hats, and speak with regional British accents; Cockney or Cornish or Welsh. Stolid and practical, and single-mindedly dedicated to creating the best compost they can. PCs look compostable, too, they’ve got all those nutrients...
HD 3, HP 12 Armour as leather, gardening tools (+0, d8), Save as cleric 3..
Can fuse with another Myconid. The two combine into a single being with all the knowledge both possessed.. Combine the HP totals of both, up to the maximum 12.
Instead of attacking, the Composter can squirt spores from the top of its head, that do one of the following:
à Heal all fungi d4 hp.
à All non-fungi save vs poison or take d4 damage.
à Form a new Myconid with d4 HP, at the cost of that many HP from the donor.

Ynnian Chess Sets

Chess Set
Constructed from living stone, the chess set is made from earth elementals carved into shape and bound to a particular role.
Each chess set behaves like a miniature knightly court. They engage in courtly politics and romance, war chivalrously with other chess sets or factions in the gardens, and embark on quixotic quests.

Each chess set refers to itself by a different name; the Red Court, the White Order, the Ivory Palace and so forth. Their customs are often bizarre but are at least vaguely similar to those of an Arthurian romance. Hospitality, duty, courage, self-sacrifice, and glory are lauded. Cowardice, treachery and unsportsmanlike behaviour is roundly condemned.
All pieces of the chess set are forbidden by custom from romance with those outside their class (save for the King and Queen). None the less, the set pursues tangled webs of romance with a dedicated fervour. They are keen to involve outsiders- even PCs - in these affairs. A chess-piece lover is a loyal companion, if slighted or betrayed they and their court become an implacable enemy.

A chess set cannot be properly destroyed without great effort. If even a few shards of stone remain, the whole set will slowly regenerate. ‘Dead’ members return as if from nowhere within an hour, so long as they are unobserved. As such, although a set may take casualties, those replenish quickly, and soon the set will be back up to full strength.
In truth, the set is not 16 creatures, but a single creature with 16 bodies, play acting at different roles, like a human with a puppet on each hand. What one of the set knows, they all know. What one feels, they all feel.
Any mind-affecting effects that successfully effect one chess-piece affect them all.

1 Rook, 1 Knight, 1 Bishop and 4 pawns are male (those on the king's side). The other half are female.

Position is everything in fights with a chess set. Those pieces close to one another support one another well, and they jump on isolated PCs and beat them into a pulp.
Even if you don’t normally use miniatures, get a chess set out for the fight to track where everybody is.
For the purposes of the fight, treat ‘adjacent’ as being ‘within about 3 meters’.

All chess pieces:
Immune to backstabs and other attacks that target vulnerable anatomy.  Immune to poison and sickness.
Half damage from sharp weapons, fire. Double damage from blunt weapons, cold, electricity.
All affected by mental effects that affect at least 1 chess piece.
If the king is taken out of action, the rest all fall inert until the king recovers.

If unobserved, all chess pieces (even those destroyed, transformed, put somewhere else) return to full strength within an hour and come back together.

The supposed ruler of the chess court. A stone elemental carved into the form of an old man in robes and an ornate crown. Slow, indecisive but potent. Think of Emperor Palpatine, if he was chivalrous rather than a baddy.
HD 5, HP 20, Armour as Chain + Shield, Smash (+5, d10), saves as fighter 5.
Instead of attacking, can grant up to 5 pawns, 2 rooks or 3 bishops/knights to make an extra attack. Cannot do this if engaged in combat himself.
Moves at half speed.

The real power behind the court. Somewhere between a cunning second-in-command and an unstoppable crusading warrior-queen. Think of a beautiful female Darth Vader, carved from stone.
HD 11, HP 40, Armour as Plate, Smash (+11, d10), saves as thief 11.
Can make a Smash attack against every enemy adjacent. 
Moves at double speed.

Stolid, defensive types. Tasked with holding and maintaining territory. Hold grudges with quiet fervour.
 Carved from elemental stone to resemble a warrior in plate, behind a huge shield, features blocky and square. The helmet features the distinctive crenulation of the traditional chess-piece.
HD 9, HP 32, Armour as Plate plus  Shield, Smash (+9, d10), saves as fighter 9.
Grants its AC to any adjacent chess-pieces.
Can make a free Smash attack against anybody who attacks a non-rook chess piece when the rook could have been targeted instead.
The dashing cavaliers of the court. Impetuous, touchy about their honour even for chess-pieces. Carved to resemble plate-armoured knights, in helmets with a heraldic crest shaped like a horse.
HD 5, HP 20, Armour as Chain, Smash (+5, d10), saves as fighter 5.
Can pass through walls, shield-walls, and other barriers as if they weren’t there.
Double damage when attacking from behind.

The clergy of the court. Solemn. Prone to blessing things in battle. Politically astute, but prone to hidden passions. Carved to resemble robed figures in tall bishops-mitres.
HD 5, HP 20, Armour as Chain, Smash (+5, d10), saves as cleric 5.
Add d10 to the damage done by adjacent chess-pieces.
Moves at double speed..

The rank and file warriors of the court. Servile, courteous. Not very clever. Apologise a lot.
Carved to resemble little people with bulbous heads, a bit like the toadstools in Mario.
HD 3, HP 12, Armour as Chain, Smash (+3, d10), saves as thief 3.
Moves at half speed..