Saturday, March 26, 2011

On Setting Design and Sabatons

I am not much one for bandwagon jumping but I cannot help myself as the zeitgeist hath intersected my own thoughts. The idea of dispensing with game fiction and fictional geographic writings in the presentation of games, a fashionable topic in the blogosphere at of late (as originated by Zak Smith and expanded upon at Trollsmyth and Strange Magic) appeals to my own aesthetic.

I have 20-year-old campaign setting the contents of which are still only vaguely familiar to me. My eyes glaze over very quickly when I try to read about Silverymoon or Specularum. There is something about the characteristically lengthy and bland descriptions of places that makes me struggle with imagining what they feel like or why I would want to adventure there. I have a much more instrumentalist relationship with gaming materials. I want to know what affordances exist in the environment for the PCs to interact with. What threatens the PCs? What resources are they able to marshal to deal with those threats? What opportunities exist in the environment that the PCs can exploit for gain?

These things are traditionally the domain of the core rulebooks. Conventionally, the lists of equipment, hirelings, spells, magic items, treasure, dungeon features and monsters have to an extent remained static between settings. There is usually a little customisation (esp. with monsters) going on but it is generally assumed that the basics remain the same as those presented in the canonical text. Whether in Faerun or the Flanaess or the Grand Duchy of Karameikos the affordances available for the character to work with and thus the parameters that govern their survival and prosperity or lack thereof are similarly identical. All those settings are then, are means of determining NPC agendas and bits and pieces of scenery that may or may not actually affect the players’ trajectories.

Admittedly I am guilty of grotesque generalisation here, as suits my purpose. In spite of my curmudgeonly moaning I love many of the settings being produced in the OSR community at the moment. I am just interested in seeing if it isn’t possible to present a different way of enabling a rich and fascinating setting environment primarily by messing with the basics.

Which is all really just a lengthy preamble to my own ongoing project in which I endeavour to reduce the megadungeon setting presentation to a series of random tables, menus and lists. I’d like to produce a Middenmurk document which presents a fairly formulaic series of steps to generate a campaign.

I envisage something like this;

I. Generate Characters

II. Roll on Starting Village Table
– this will determine equipment and hirelings.

III. Roll on Fells Encounter Table(s) – journey through the wilderness

IV. Randomly Determine Dungeon Map (pre-stocked) – run through dungeon

V. Roll on Fells again – return journey

VI. Repeat ad nauseam

I’d like as much as possible to utilise equipment and encounter and treasure tables as the primary vehicles for the communication of setting fluff, whenever possible reducing description to a short and pithy paragraph as is my wont.

For Joesky:

Sabatons of Sir Fotherington Codsworthy

These cunningly wrought and fiendishly pointed pieces of foot armour were worn constantly by Sir Codsworthy throughout the 17th Crusade prior to his death of Mankfoot Fever following the Battle of Crodde. It is rumoured that the wearer can walk unharmed through Demon-Bile and skip across caltrops with impunity. They may also be used as a weapon against male creatures of manlike form, in which case they cause 1d12 damage and 1d4 rounds of extreme discomfort and incapacitation.

Price: 50 ducats

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Copper Standard

I understand the reasoning behind the gold piece standard as presented in various forms of D&D but I don’t think it fits with the Lowlands setting as I imagine it. The low-value and easily attainable gold pieces in Gygaxian D&D exist primarily to allow the existence of non-game-breaking dragon-hoards of a scale similar to that of Smaug’s. This convention has a few effects which I don’t really like.

- The first unfortunate side-effect is the immediate redundancy of the lower denomination coins. Conventionally, a copper piece is worth, on average, one-ten-thousandth of a PCs starting cash and not worth the bother of bending down to pick up. Consequently no amount is going to be sufficient recompense to tempt dungeon-delvers into dangerous depths.

- The second, related effect is that of quickly making items of mundane equipment comparatively cheap and easily attainable such that a PC can be equipped with whatever they want by the time they reach second level.

- The third effect is the consequent inability to spend the riches. Assuming the acquisition of piles of bloodstained gold is necessary to gain levels, PCs are going to have significant quantities of the stuff by the time they advance a few levels. This effect leads to the delightful silliness of carousing tables which are fine for emulation of picaresque pulp-fantasy wastrels but not so emulative of the Crapsack World approach.

- Five different types of coin is too many.

The solution I am proposing for the Middenmurk setting is a single unit of currency – the copper groat. My investigations into Mediaeval coinage indicates historical groats to have generally been a silver or billon (silver/bronze alloy) coin, but I am content to say the Imperial Groat is made of bronze or brass or copper (or possible pewter, tin or lead) with just a little silver in it sometimes – it’s a grubby little tarnished coin with little gleam about it. It is significant in that it is the only commonly encountered unit of currency, it’s what starting PCs get 3d6 x 10 of when they start out and it’s what you get experience for when you bring it out of the hole. Real silver and gold is very special and extremely valuable. Coins of lower value (half-groats are of little consequence, sub-groat transactions are usually resolved with barter and hand waving)


- Starting PCs get 3d6 x 10 groats
- 1 groat = 1 XP

Beyond the groat, there are the Guilder (80 groats), Stiver or Bawbee (2 groats), Obolus (6 groats) Ducat (64 groats), Florin (20 groats), Half-Crown (12 groats), Shekel (24 groats), Noble (80 groats), Sovereign (100 groats) Solidus (120 groats) et cetera, as well as ingots of gold and silver and Quartermaster’s Tokens and Commissary Writs and various other trinkets and baubles of precious materials which can stand in for coin in most situations. It should be noted in a mediaeval paradigm all values and all prices are approximations and players can keep track of the specifics of what they are trading or not as the case may be.

The effect I’d like to achieve when this is done is;

-To have PCs forced to make do with cheap and shoddy equipment and shifty hirelings initially. Finely crafted swords and armour should perhaps arrive a little further down the line. The effect of making a fine hauberk of mail 500 groats rather than 70 gp is to challenge the players to find different ways of conducting themselves, perhaps to rely more upon hirelings and missile fire than to wade into carnage unmindful of the danger.

-No longer to require 200 lbs of gold to reach 2nd level.
-To have cheap and shoddy equipment on the equipment list; ungainly agricultural tools, rusty old keepsakes, patched gambesons and rotten rope that fail regularly (on a roll of one) is potentially more evocative of the setting.
-To make crappy treasure like well-trained mules, pewter votive figurines, sacks of grain and captured weapons significant. Historical epics have been written about cattle raids – D&D characters never stoop so low as this, perhaps they should.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Villages of the Lowlands

Typically scattered and chaotic as I am, I am constantly revising and re-imagining my approach, postponing and aborting and editing ideas. But I am continuing to develop the setting (and its atmosphere) despite my lack of posts.

At this point I envisage a kind of formulaic adventure randomly generated from a series of tables and proceeding with a kind of predictable randomness

The Lowlands (previously the Northern Marches) are rustic and uncouth outlands at the edge of the wilds. Its inhabitants speak in a guttural bastardised version of the Imperial Speech known as the Meagre Tongue. There is little contact with the Seventh Empire from whence all civilisation and holiness springs.

It is to this far-flung realm on the margin of the world that the player characters arrive on their way to the blasphemous northern horizon

Each town has a series of special items that can be purchased
and hirelings that can be recruited. It should be noted that an inventory of basic items are available from every village - the special items and thehirelings are in addition to those in the basic inventory, the prices and crunch for which will be dealt with in a later post (if there is ever another post).

All prices will be in groats as per the new copper standard I would like to implement.

Roll 1d8 to see where the PCs arrive

1. Muttonwocky
2. Gnathous Bremley
3. Auld Skerrick
4. Scrope
5. Crowfork
6. Throckbottle Copse
7. Flockenwhistle Abbey
8. Foote

1. Muttonwocky: A dreary and hopeless grey little cluster of Mud huts and animal pens where clandestine and taciturn shepherds clad in soggy sheepskins mutter superstitiously at outsiders. The drizzle is without respite and the stink is potent.

Things that may be purchased here include;

- A Miraculous Tricorn Goat that banishes evil
- A rude ginger-pated knave - “Horsemonger” - and seven smelly and uncouth shepherds without flocks who speak only in monosyllabic grunts
- An ancestral black shillelagh with miraculous powers
- A firkin of muddy ale blessed by St. Aethelbrid; reputed to give fortitude to the unwilling
- Dried mutton and turnip gruel
- Sundry sickles, cudgels, spades and shortbows
- Apotropaic ram-skulls inscribed with sacred glyphs

2. Gnathous Bremley: A sombre hamlet in a hard land of barren and frosty fields where starveling ropy swains break ploughs toiling to stave off perpetual famine. Venerable owls hoot by day from dead pine trees. Hovels of stone shelter gaunt and fearful cottars. None speak here but Grandmother Morag.

Things that may be purchased here include;

- The ironmongery of Silas Groote, a hamstrung blacksmith of some renown
- A pack of desperate urchins with pleading eyes and groping fingers
- A cache of rusty war-flails and Jeddart axes from the Bartholemite uprising a century ago
- A pair of pavises from same, their heretical insignia has been but poorly effaced
- A Sacred Canon bound in mooncalf-skin
- No Food but boiled bark and beetle-grubs

3. Auld Skerrick : Abandoned imperial Bastion on a mossy hillock in an empty land. Aged Lost Crusaders and Heretics-in-exile hide out among dark hills in this palisaded ruin. Archaic imperial cuirasses are still stored here as are scrolls with charms of barring-the-way and come-hither-thrall. Croaking ravens perched on the battlements sing ancient battle-hymns of the glorious past.

Things that may be purchased here include;

- Valdemar, a scholar of the Inferno, constantly drunk and fearful
- Three vermin-infested squire-turned bandits, deserters from the 22nd crusade, with kettle hats and tattered gambesons and rusty eel-spears
- Crotchety old follower of the Panurgic heresy named Spetchley
- Various brandistocks, corseques and military forks of imperial manufacture
- Two Coats-of-plates and seven linen jacks, all of which were once embroidered in bright heraldic insignia but are now much faded and greasy and rust-stained
- Rye bread of dubious wholesomeness

4. Scrope; on a sluggish tributary with six dilapidated toll-bridges is a crannog-village on stilts - an enclave of villainous and watchful watermen and a stork that can speak and a water mill that is choked with weed.Here there are also many wooden racks of smoked fish and a venomous fear that permeates everything.

Things that may be purchased here include;

- Six gaunt and savage lurchers of exceptional fleetness
- A pair of snaggle-toothed villeins in mouldy leathern jacks with bucklers and baselards
- Several plumbata of archaic origin
- A number of wicked-looking war-flails and morning-stars laid-by for banditry and seven nail-studded targes for same
- Various lockpicks, probes and skeleton keys
- Two knightly sallets wrested as tolls from lost crusaders
- Saltfish and barley gruel

5. Crowfork; Fierce and oppressive village of vigilant and superstitious crofters nigh unto the crossroads. Here there are whippings and hangings and heads on spikes, bloodthirsty militia-men and flagellants and pallid and fitful sunlight. There are bonfires on the ridges and dule trees and sullenly accusing goodwives. Fanatical priestlings stride hither and yon imprecating against imminent skyfall.

Things that may be purchased here include;

- an Alectryomantic spatchcock in a wicker cage
- A variety of bloodied whips and scourges
- Six zealous brutes seeking pilgrimage and restitution
- An archaic imperial executioner’s sword, much notched from use
- A variety of reliquaries containing the mortal remains of various of the Quailbiter heretics
- Dubious saltpork

6. Throckbottle Copse: Here in a darkling grove with dirty snow on the ground are bodies stacked like cordwood and heresies afoot in wooden shanties. An ill wind blows and grindstones are always spinning, sharpening axes. Folk do not speak aloud here but whisper in corners and murder without conscience.

Things that may be purchased here include;

- Several copies of the Apocrypha of Nidde, hidden in sleeping pallets and under floorboards
- Axes, saws, adzes and chisels of exquisite sharpness
- A couple of arbalests with cranequins and a hundred quarrels accumulated in some long ago treaty of assize
- Ten battered siege-caps from same
- Two Green Recusants with sharp axes and sooty smocks seeking respite from the poisonous fear

7. Flockenwhistle Abbey: Smoke hangs low in the valley of the Abbey and it seems always to be dusk. The brethren observe the canonical hours diligently within the mouldering hulk of stone. Fugitives and foundlings serve and are exploited by or parasitise the monastical inhabitants. The Abbess is a blind saint and her thurifers burn loathsome incense.

Things that may be purchased here include;

- Seven Brass reliquaries containing the fingerbones, locks of hair and bits of preserved skin from St. Udo the Footpad, St. Boldo the Seven-crowned and St. Mormo the Leech
- Two antiquated croziers, one of bronze and one of silver
- Four tonsured and foolish pilgrims in hairshirts
- Medicus Blont, drunken Imperial leech with a variety of sharp blades
- Cock-eyed apothecary in the service of the order
- Three scabrous urchins with fleas and ballock daggers
- Smelly green holy water from the font of St. Tristram the Cenobite

8. Foote: Sinking village lit by guttering torches in a foul haze at the end of long causeways above turnip fields drowning in the flood,. Filthy serfs are hauling sticks and stones to repair the crumbling causeways or crowd around battered cauldrons of nameless gruel under the muddy sky. Everything is rotting and sodden and mouldy.

Things that may be purchased here include;

- A trio of Heathens from the Ashen Heights armed with dirk and targe and spangenhelm
- Wrapped in a greasy tabard and hidden in a well- the green flambard of St. Stephanovicus
- Three katzbalgers with red scabbards, taken from retreating Fensknechts after the battle of Cradlemark
- A dreadfully wasted soldier of fortune with an Arquebus and a tattered purple arming doublet
- Faded dun brigandine with basinet belonging to an imperial archer.