Thursday 23 December 2010

Old School Christmas

As the day is nearly upon us, and as I'm unlikely to be posting on the 25th, here is a little treat for you all: back in 1971, an animated Christmas Carol was made that still stands proud amongst the multitude of imitators since. I like this one because of the thoroughly retro feel to its animation, bringing to mind the original Victorian illustrations and with more than a hint of Gustave Dore's cityscapes.

I'd like to raise a glass of port to you all this Christmas; 2010 may not have been the best of years for the world but I'm glad to have all of you as followers and hope that I can offer you many months and indeed years of reading. My best wishes to you all and to all your friends and families.

And now, the movie:

Sunday 5 December 2010

Hooks and the City - part 4

Street entertainers (1d12)

1. Fortune teller
2. Juggler
3. Dancing animal and handler
4. Illusionist doing weird colours in the air
5. Tumblers
6. Fire eater
7. Singer, sole
8. Singers, choir of, female, very harmonious
9. Singers, choir of, male, deep baritone
10. Conjurer, doing tricks with cards, balls, pigeons etc
11. Knife thrower and assistant
12. Mystery play

Street traders – 1d20

1. Clothing – second hand. May have some degree of infestation
2. Clothing new – might have been stolen.
3. Boots and shoes
4. Jewellery – cheap
5. Jewellery – mid-range
6. Artwork – good quality engravings and prints
7. wines and spirits
8. perfumes and cosmetics
9. books – various subjects
10. Charms and religious items – a slim chance that there is a +1 amulet of protection in there somewhere
11. Fruit and vegetables
12. Bread and cakes
13. Folk medicines – as with the fortune teller, the buyer takes a chance.
14. Livestock – chickens, caged birds, mice, rats, cats, dogs. Cattle and sheep would be found at market
15. Meat, cooked – sausages, ham, etc.
16. Herbs and spices – if in a rich area of the city, they will be the genuine article, if in a poor area, they will be an admixture of some genuine and mostly dried and chopped leaves
17. Fortune teller – may be bogus or genuine.
18. Pies
19. Drink – alcoholic
20. Drink - non-alcoholic

If food, then check the following quality table (-1 from die roll if in respectable neighbourhood, -2 if in very well-to-do neighbourhood)

1. Excellent quality
2. Very tasty – might like another one of those
3. Good, you’ve had better
4. Fair – worth the price you paid
5. Passable – you feel as if you’ve been cheated
6. Chewy – that won’t stay down long
7. They must have scraped the mould off that one
8. Has probably passed through more than one digestive system


The party will encounter one of the following trades

1. Apothecaries
2. Armourers & Brasiers (armour-makers and workers in brass)
3. Bakers
4. Barbers (also surgeons and dentists)
5. Basketmakers
6. Blacksmiths
7. Bowyers (longbow makers)
8. Brewers
9. Broderers (embroiderers)
10. Butchers
11. Carpenters
12. Chandlers (candle makers)
13. Clothworkers
14. Cordwainers (workers in fine leather)
15. Curriers (dressers of tanned leather)
16. Cutlers
17. Dyers
18. Farriers (shoers of horses)
19. Fishmongers
20. Fletchers (arrow makers)
21. Girdlers (girdles and belts as clothing)
22. Goldsmiths
23. Loriners (stirrups and other harness for horses)
24. Masons
25. Mercers (general merchants)
26. Needlemakers
27. Pattenmakers (makers of wooden clog-style footwear)
28. Plaisterers (plasterers)
29. Plumbers
30. Poulters
31. Saddlers
32. Salters
33. Scriveners (writers of court letters and legal documents)
34. Skinners
35. Tallow chandlers (Candle makers)
36. Upholders (upholsterers)
37. Vintners
38. Wax Chandlers ( candle makers)
39. Weavers
40. Wheelwrights
41. Woolmen (winders and packers of wool)

The tradesman will be either Master (25%) , Apprentice (55%) or both (20%). They may be

on their way to a business meeting, either with buyers or suppliers,
at their business premises,
going to their premises
coming from their premises

It may also be that if an apprentice or apprentices are encountered, they may be fighting with apprentices of another trade. There is often great rivalry between the trades and these fights sometimes end in death. The city authorities, keen to keep trade where it belongs – i.e. in the city – will not wish to be too zealous in prosecuting those who are responsible for such deaths.

Wererat – beneath the city, in the sewers and catacombs that honeycomb the earth, there is a war going on between the wererats and a band of weretigers or werecats who are hunting them. This battle has consequences above ground too, as the weretigers have been hired to sort the rats out by a group of city dignitaries and the rats have the backing of the thieves’ guild who use their services for travelling through the sewers and spying etc.

Weretiger – a female weretiger has been captured in tiger form and the collar she’s been fitted with is trapping her in this form. She cannot change back. Her mate is in the city to try and find and free her but she is in the process of being sold to a rich noble’s menagerie and if he doesn’t find her soon, her mind will be completely animal by the time she transforms again.

Werewolf – he has entered the city to try and find a sanctuary where he can get cured of his curse but temples are turning him away and he is feeling very tempted by some of the more evil attractions that the city has to offer.

Werewolf 2 – lycanthropes are a powerful clique within the city (valued for their virility and strength), and it is a great honour to be selected to join them. Their needs are catered for and they have their own quarters and privileges, bestowed by the authorities in return for service in defence of the city. The party may see someone being dragged away by two furry looking types and weigh in to rescue them, unaware that the victim is a volunteer and the werewolves are town dignitaries.

Wight – the wight is in fact a former dungeon-delver who was cheated, robbed and left for dead by his comrades and when he recovered, he was trapped inside a tomb complex under the city. He eventually starved to death and now the former party comrades are now being stalked by a creature of the night and are being picked off one by one.

Will O the Wisp – in the slum area of the city, the waste produced by the population is dumped in a huge tip. Scavengers and tip dwellers pick over the refuse in order to find something valuable that might have been overlooked. In areas, the ground has become boggy and treacherous and some denizens of the waste tip have come to an agreement with a will o the wisp that it lures wanderers to their death and feeds on the life force and the tip dwellers then plunder the body.

Wraith – this undead spirit is bound to a particular object by a curse (painting, sculputre, etc) and whoever owns it falls victim to it. The wraith needs a specific number of souls to free itself and is only 1d12 short of that number. The object has a particular occult cachet and is highly sought after by those who have a penchant for such things.

Vampire – a group of vampires lurk in a crypt beneath an ancient building, to which they have been driven by the actions of clerics and paladins over the years. Now, the city wants to knock down the building and redevelop. The vampires want to either stop this or, if such is not possible, relocate somewhere that they are not likely to be disturbed again. The party can take either side of this particular battle. As an added complication, it may be that one of the vampires is sufficiently old that they have knowledge of a system of traps in a dungeon below the city and someone wants to use that knowledge. But how do you torture a vampire?

Lich – some of the would-be lich’s followers are trying to find ingredients for the spell that will cause him to become a lich and are busy preparing the lair where he can live on in peace. Robberies at various apothecaries and magic shops are starting to attract attention but those sent to investigate have vanished without trace (they’ve probably been turned into mummified guardians to serve the lich)

Odd things that happen in taverns (1d12)

1. A wandering minstrel doing a gig in the tavern starts to sing a song and slowly, everyone at every table joins in – except the party, who don’t know it.
2. A man at a nearby table has what appears to be a tiny glowing creature with wings in a golden cage. He can make it do tricks, to the great amusement of all who watch – except one member of the party who can hear a voice inside his head begging him to help the creature.
3. One table in the tavern is always empty and newcomers are told not to sit there. It is the table where a much-liked party of adventurers sat regularly before they vanished one day, never to be seen again. Then one day, the party in question does come back – but as horribly decayed walking corpses, still bearing the marks of whatever killed them. And all the regulars except the party are delighted to welcome them back, seeing them as they were when they left. Why?
4. Above the fireplace of the tavern is a large mirror. Whichever of the party passes it first will notice that it reflects everyone else in the tavern – except them.
5. A young child wanders into the tavern with a box of trinkets, moving from table to table, asking if anyone wants to buy. As she arrives at one table, one of the occupants undergoes some sort of apoplectic fit, staring at the child in horror, screaming for her to keep away and then falling to the floor, frothing at the mouth and soiling himself. He then begins to rant in an unknown language before being dragged out by his friends. The child is visibly upset but then comes over to the party’s table.
6. A card reader is doing the rounds and asks the members of the party if they’d like a reading. Her cards begin to make rather accurate revelations about the party’s activities.
7. During the evening, when the tavern is packed, a group of strolling singers come in and begin a set that includes some old folk songs, a love ballad and a rousing, if bawdy piece. One of the young women will wander round the bar singing and sitting on the laps of one member of each table. At the end of the set, the singers pack up to leave, at which point the young woman will make a beckoning sign and all those who she selected for her attentions will rise and, zombie-like, follow her out of the tavern
8. As the party walk into the tavern, the landlord’s cat, which is sitting in the bar, arches its back and hisses at them with a mixture of fear and hatred.
9. Each time the party ask for drinks and food, the waitress or landlord brings one more helping or tankard than there are members in the party. When asked, she or he gets confused and can’t understand why they did that.
10. While the party are drinking, two members of the city guard come into the tavern and proceed to nail up a wanted poster that is for a member of the party.
11. One evening, while on their way to their regular tavern, the party is bothered by a mad old gypsy woman who begs them to take a cheap and tawdry amulet. She tells them that it will protect them from what is coming. Whether they take it or not, when they get to the tavern, they will find that the innkeeper greets them by different names, serves them different drinks, seats them at a different table. To each other, they still look the same but a glance into any mirror shows that they now have different faces, possibly different races and different genders. If they took the amulet, did it do this or has it protected them from being completely transformed? And if they didn’t take it, would it have prevented this from happening?
12. While playing an innocent game of cards or dice, one of the party gets a lucky streak going that will soon result in accusations of cheating.

Friday 3 December 2010

Hooks and the City - part 3

Noble 2
He has a proposition for the party –he is taking part in a tournament in front of the great and the good of the city and needs some easy opponents to beat to make himself look good. He is willing to subsidise any cure spells or other such magic that the party might require after the fighting and will split any purses he wins between himself and those he beats. He is not concerned with the money, merely the prestige and fame.

Paladin – two paladins have come to the city on an important mission for their church but there is a problem. The elder paladin is mentoring the younger, who has recently converted after being a member of an evil cult for quite some time. Having seen the light, he views his mission as one of both atonement and purification of the realm from evil; he is a good deal more militant and zealous than he might need to be. The elder paladin is perhaps a little resentful of the job of mentor that he has been handed. He would rather be out there using the force of good to bring light to the dark places and slaying evil. In truth, his church has given him this role because they feel he needs to develop himself and a life of slaying was not doing that. As well as resentment, he is also keeping a very watchful eye on his young protégé as he is suspicious of backsliding and at the back of his mind, he thinks “once evil, always evil.” So the seeds are there for some very un-paladin behaviour. Add to this combo the presence in the city of some members of the cult that the young paladin once served, who would love to bring him back to the dark side and the stage is set for some very interesting machinations.

Paladin 2 – a young knight comes to the party with a request. He is the last in a long line of knight, the title of which has been handed down father to son and his father, recently died, has entrusted him with a mission. One of their ancestors is a restless spirit because his death was by decapitation and the body was buried without the head. The family has always made it a personal quest to try and find the head, which they have finally done, although it caused the death of his father. Now he has the head, it is his duty to reunite it with the body and settle the unquiet spirit. All he knows is that the body is buried in a catacomb somewhere under the city; he has a few clues but apart from that, nothing.
All, alas for the party, is not as represented. The knight is in fact hungry for power and the head is the final piece of a skeleton that he is sure, once it is reassembled and blood poured over it – the blood of the party, of course – will regenerate into a powerful demonic entity that will surely reward he who has brought it back to life. He genuinely does not know where the rest of the bones are kept.
He will feign charity, kindness and gallantry – after all, the only thing that matters for him is finding the tomb. If it helps, he can have a medallion or amulet that projects a false reading for Know Alignment spells.

Paladin 3 – a young apprentice paladin, who is not yet qualified, comes to the party to seek their aid. His master has vanished in the city several weeks ago after coming there to find a particular character and the apprentice is getting very worried.
In truth, the paladin in question has been captured by a vicious gangster who had recognised the worth of his captive, and has treated him horribly, removing both his legs and one arm and blinding him as all he wants is to use the lay on hands and cure disease abilities that the paladin has. This horrific state of affairs will run and run until the party manage to track him down and rescue him.

Passers-by and street happenings

1. A random passer-by will stop and ask for directions – if the party can provide them, he blesses them in a foreign language. For the rest of the day, their die rolls are improved by one.
2. Three men are struggling to unload a huge earthenware jar from a cart before carrying it into a house. As they do so, one slips on a patch of mud and the jar drops to the ground and smashes. What’s inside? Something dangerous or something interesting?
3. A woman screams from a loft window of a house overlooking the street, then climbs onto the windowsill and jumps. Halfway to the street, she vanishes. A sinister looking man peers out of the window and makes a gesture of frustration, then darts back in again
4. A passer-by will drop something and carry on up the street as if he had not noticed
5. A passer-by will stop at a shop window and peer in. As he does so, a scaly tentacle will slither up out of the collar of his tunic, look around and then slither back again. No-one else seems to notice.
6. One of the party is tapped on the shoulder by a very shifty looking man who holds out the member’s purse and says “You dropped this, sir”. If the party member checks the purse, it’s all there.
7. As the party turns a corner into a wide street, there is a huge roar of an excited crowd and a surging mass of people comes hurtling towards them, kicking some sort of inflated pig’s bladder from one person to another. Each pass is greeted by hoarse-throated approval from the crowd - then the bladder lands at the feet of one of the party.
8. A passer-by, caught out of the corner of the eye, resembles very much someone that one of the party members wants to see. By the time they realise, the passer-by is rounding a corner and will no longer be there. The party member will catch sight of them again, peripherally and briefly, several times over the next few days. What’s going on?
9. A heavy cart with iron sides and bars at the window is waiting outside a house. The driver is getting edgy and glancing round. Suddenly, two very muscular men come out of the house with a beautiful woman wrapped in chains. As she is being loaded into the cart and the doors locked, she calls out to one of the party by name, pleading for help.
10. A white horse appears from a side street and begins to follow the party. It has a saddle and bridle but no rider. If the party take rooms at a tavern, it will wait in the stables. No-one seems able to mount it as it becomes violent if anyone tries.
11. In a crowded street, a man comes running past the party, fear on his sweat-covered face. As he passes them, further down the way he has come, passers-by begin to burst into flames and die horribly.
12. Livestock stampede as animals escape from a market pen.

Peddler – he has sold what appeared to be a minor trinket to someone who was robbed – the trinket found its way into the hands of a master thief whose fence recognised it as very valuable indeed. They now need to find the peddler and work out where he got it from. Did he steal it or did he acquire it honestly and if so, from where?

Pilgrim – a group of pilgrims has received a vision that their god or spirit has manifested itself within a living person and that person happens to be one of the party. For a while, they will be besieged by adoring worshippers who are only too eager to do anything for their new idol. However, what the party does not know is that part of their religion is that the god’s holy blood must be shed in the correct way to ensure that the earth is made fertile again. And they’ll get very cross if anyone tries to stop them

Pilgrim 2 – a street corner marked by a simple bloodstain is now the focus of pilgrimage by two rival groups of religious devotees. They have fanaticism and weaponry and both are feuding over access to the site, interpretations of the martyr who died there and how best to honour his memory. There’ll be more blood before this is all over. The city authorities are trying to keep a lid on it but repressing it could stoke ethnic tensions.

Press Gang – they’ve shanghaied a group of wastrels amongst whom is someone whose father or guardian is very powerful and has enlisted supernatural aid to recover said person. The press gang are very nervous now as they are caught between this hunter and their own employer (probably a very tough gang boss) and they have worked out that they need to get rid of one of their captives but don’t know which one (they daren't let them all go)

Rake – this young city buck has debauched himself so much that he has come under the influence of a demon or devil who has allowed him seemingly eternal life and youth as long as he can keep the souls coming. The more innocent and pure the soul that he can provide to his new master, the better. However, he has now found a spark of conscience and wants to save the latest pure soul that he is in the process of damning. The demonic master will not want someone so effective to slip through his fingers, so getting the rake out of this one is going to take some doing.

Rake 2 – a young sybarite has discovered the delights of a new drug on the market and is introducing his chums to it. But one of them goes into a cataleptic trance and sees horrible things coming to get them. The drug is in fact connected to an extra-planar creature that is now out for revenge on those who harvested the drug, those who sell it and those who use it.

Rakshasa – one of these has arrived and has hired itself out as an enforcer to a minor gang boss. Under its tutelage and with its help, the minor gang boss is gaining in strength and threatening to upset the balance of power in the city with all the chaos that will ensue. The rakshasa will enjoy playing one gang off against another to try and cause the maximum chaos possible and promote evil.

Ranger – there are two rangers in this hook – an older male ranger and a younger female ranger. The female ranger was captured by orcs at an early age and used as a brood mare to produce half-orcs, bringing human strengths into the orc gene pool. The male ranger rescued her after killing many of the gang that had captured her and after helping her to recover her humanity, trained her as a ranger apprentice. She eventually parted company to strike out on her own but remained on good terms with him.
He started to feel his age, getting older, slower and more of a danger to himself. Parties of adventurers passed him by, he was injured on several occasions and eventually realised that his action days were gone. However, he was approached by a group of city nobles who wanted to use his services as a hunter and provider of exotic meats and to capture animals for the nobles’ private zoos. So down on his luck was he that he agreed and has grown used to the soft life.
His former apprentice, now a fully-fledged ranger has discovered what he’s been up to and has decided, with reluctance that he must be stopped and the nobles punished in case they continue their bad deeds. She has voyaged to the city to deal with the problem. She is tough, strong and rather beautiful but a creature of the wild and so needs a way to carry out her mission and not give herself away before she can fulfil her vows.

Ruffian –
What’s the ruffian up to? 1d12

1. Stalking
2. Menacing
3. Bullying
4. Threatening
5. Escorting
6. Fighting
7. Picking on someone
8. Enforcing a protection racket
9. Vandalising
10. Shouting obscenities
11. Evicting someone
12. Running away

Spectres and Shadows

A large mansion in one of the more well-to-do areas of the city is in a run-down state; the gardens are overgrown and it is clear from the condition of the place that no-one ever goes there. The party may wander past this and think Hmmm… If they decide to start investigating, they will find that their efforts earn the swift attention of some city guardsmen who eject them quick-sharp. If they investigate further, they will find that the house has a very bad reputation, even amongst the city thieves, who have declared it off limits for safety’s sake.
What happened was that the city government, a number of years back was involved in experiments in magic and ritual to create a unit of warriors with supernatural powers to give them the edge in a war that was going on at the time. It all went horribly wrong and the scene of the experiments was sealed off – the cellars and passages under the house. The rituals has opened up a portal to one of the hells and consumed the personnel down there, leaving their spirits as undead, spectres and shadows. The clerics of the city managed to seal the exits but knew that anyone who got down there would be hunted down and consumed by the evil spirits. The spectral remains of would-be thieves and looters also haunt the cellars, mournfully warning of horrible fates for those who try to investigate.


Rookeries – these are derelict buildings that have been turned into places where gangs of thieves can shelter in reasonable safety and use them for storing their ill-gotten gains. They will be suitably trapped and guarded, and have bolt-holes into the local sewers and catacombs. They may even be booby-trapped to collapse once the thieves have scarpered. Only a small percentage of the occupants will be thieves of higher than 1st level – although they will all have some small skill in thieving abilities.

Pickpockets – tend to work a crowd. They will be either children or adolescents, and will work a distraction/snatch/transfer scam, with a crowd of urchins waiting to mob the victim and prevent them from giving chase.

Burglars – if encountered during the day, they will be either casing a joint, possibly on their way to offload stolen goods or just drinking or hanging out with other members of the thiefly fraternity. If it is at night, they will be on their way to a job, committing a burglary or making a getaway. There is a chance that they have been detected and will be leaving the scene at very high speed.

Con men – usually occupied in setting up a scam or carrying one out. Almost always, they will be mistaken for someone else; if the party is very new in the city, the con man may select them to be the mark. They may try to sell fake treasure maps, fake artefacts, bogus magic items with Nystul’s Magic Aura, etc.

Fences – they will often use a bogus antique shop as a front for their dealings, although the shop will have a back door to a network of alleyways, a shaft into the sewers or catacombs and traps aplenty. They will also know a forger or two who can provide provenance for any stolen goods they acquire.

Street robbery – a bit like pickpocketing but more violent, the perpetrators will be older, burlier and armed, mostly with clubs and hammers but maybe one per gang with a knife or short sword.

Captured thief – a pickpocket is apprehended dipping a victim, a burglar is identified and dragged off by the watch, a mugger is pursued by a hue and cry.

Spiv – you’re in a tavern, having a drink and there he is – pushing hooky gear and casting furtive glances over his shoulder. But what’s he selling?


1. Counterfeit clothing
2. Paste jewellery
3. Stolen jewellery
4. Stolen artwork
5. Forged artwork
6. Fake wines and spirits
7. Dodgy perfumes
8. Copied books
9. Fake treasure maps
10. Bogus magic items
11. Charms and religious items
12. Something valuable – they don’t realise it’s worth anything until after the party has bought it.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Hooks and the City - part 2

Another big serving of city-based hooks for you today. I confess that I ran out of inspiration for harlots - they all got a bit samey after a while, so I've taken out the lame ones. I hope that there's something in here for everyone.

Giant rats
Giant rats in the sewers have begun to ingest waste material from the magic user’s guild and are now becoming more intelligent and forming a kind of culture below the streets, complete with weird writing, a basic religion and primitive artwork. They have a rat king, who is blind and mad but also a seer, whose visions have a habit of coming true. He has recently seen omens of an apocalypse and his followers have started to hoard food and other items in anticipation thereof.

Goodwife – she may either be gossiping, going shopping, cleaning house, cooking, tending the family animals, passing the time of day with the neighbours. There is a 20% chance that she is in fact a widow and might see one of the party as a suitable spouse.


Slovenly trull
A serial killer is preying on the dregs of harlotry and one of his accomplices is posing as a trull to lure more to their deaths. They are using the dead for their organs or blood and are making horrible undead creatures out of this. The prostitutes are terrified of the killer, who may well have supernatural abilities but cannot stay off the streets and have scraped together what little they have to try and hire someone to catch the killer.

Brazen strumpet
She has got ideas above her station and is now flaunting herself in a respectable neighbourhood. The goodwives of the area have got together to try and get rid of her. However she is not what she seems and now the goodwives are going missing.

Saucy tart
She likes a sailor and has had several over the past few days whilst a ship’s in town. Through payment by one of the sailors, she is now in possession of something that the ship’s captain needs for sailing (maybe the ship’s lucky charm or talisman) and he needs to find her. A rival captain is also out to get the talisman, either to get the good luck or scupper that of his rival.

Expensive doxy – this woman started out as the trophy wife of a rich businessman but when he died, it was found that his debts were massive and she was sold to a madam who hired her out to her husband’s former business rivals. She managed to get enough cash together to hire an assassin to kill her owner and now lives the good life, dividing her time between the richest men of the city. She will have nothing to do with the party if they are poor or low level but if they have wealth and influence, she will set her cap at the one with the highest charisma. Nevertheless, her history means she has enemies and they might try to get revenge while she’s with her latest victim.

Haughty courtesan – she is serving the needs of a nobleman of the city but worries that she is starting to lose her edge and is very suspicious of all young ladies who catch the eye of her man. She has sought the aid of dark powers and they have agreed to help her, firstly giving her youth in return for her soul and secondly assigning an invisible stalker to despatch any girls who the courtesan gets edgy about. She is, however, rather paranoid and starts seeing what isn’t there. This means that girls who are no threat to her are meeting grisly ends. The nobleman is getting rather alarmed that this trail of death seems to be leading to him and is determined to ‘safeguard’ his courtesan. He has therefore decided to enlist the aid of adventurers to find out what is killing the girls and why.

Aged madam – is having problems as two of her girls have disappeared overnight. No-one saw them leave and all their belongings are still there. One of their clients has gifted them with jewellery as a token of his esteem (he may have stolen it from a temple of darkness way below the city); this jewellery opens a portal to a plane where demons drink the souls of humans and the girls were sucked into it, whereupon the portal closed.

Wealthy procuress – she has been asked by a mysterious and rich client to find him a particular girl who was sold as a slave to a noble of the city. She is trying to track the girl down but this is likely to trigger alarm bells for the noble in question as the girl is the daughter/sister of a man that he had ordered to be killed in order to further his quest for power. If the man is still alive, it means that his men tricked him, or made a mistake. Also, it means that he is going to be made to suffer before his inevitable end (unless he can get out of it in some way). Either the party can be hired to protect him or they may be used as pawns by the avenger himself.

Sly pimp – this man seems to have whatever people want but how does he do it? Easy – helm of telepathy, that’s how. He selects a target, homes in on their deepest thoughts, searches his list of contacts for someone who can provide it and then sets up a honey trap that lures the victim in.

Rich panderer – he was hired to supply girls to a group of young bucks and the money was good. However, tales of their sadomasochistic games have started to percolate through the city and bodies have been found in horrific states of injury. The panderer wants to get out but the young bucks have good protection from the great and the good and they want their supply of victims to continue.

Illusionist – he is selling mirrors that create dark duplicates of their users; the duplicates also suck all the aggressive, assertive and decisive qualities from their victims who become weak, ineffectual and helpless as a result.

Where’s that labourer going?

1) Building
Temple, house, mansion, palace, underground cellar, tunnels, military job, new ship

2) Demolishing
Temple, house, mansion, palace, underground cellar, tunnels, catacomb, stripping out old ship

3) Refurbishing or repairing
Sewer tunnels, run-down mansion, derelict house, haunted temple, crumbling tower, military job, warehouse, dock, renovating ship

4) Loading
Carts, ships, goods into warehouse, masonry onto building site, mysterious packages into house,

5) Unloading
Carts, ships, goods from warehouses, personal belongings into carriage, statuary,

6) Clearing
Rubble, old statues, boxes, crates, carpets, curtains, paintings, antiques, magic user’s equipment, alchemist’s equipment,

7) Dumping
Timber, rubble, crockery, glassware, hazardous waste, barrels, crates, chests, coffins, body parts in bags,

8) Clocking off

What type of labourer? (1d10)

1. Carpenter
2. Joiner
3. Bricklayer
4. Stonemason
5. Plasterer
6. Plumber
7. General groundworker
8. Blacksmith/ironmonger
9. Excavator
10. Demolition

They will not be skilled tradesmen (q.v) but the muscle of any firm.

Magic User – the apprentice of a powerful magic user who was recently blown to bits in a duel with a rival or some mighty monster has swept up the bits and put them in an urn and is taking them off to a cleric to get a resurrection spell done. To make sure that news of the magic user’s death is not broadcast far and wide and gives succour to his enemies, the apprentice has decided to pose as the magic user and is rather pleased with the fear and respect that this gives. However, said enemies are always out to try and kill the magic user and the apprentice may well become a far easier target to eliminate now.

Magic User 2 – a group of apprentices have been given a task by their master in order to see who gets extra training and possibly advancement to 1st level – they must seek out rare and difficult material components of various spells and are allowed to use any methods to do so.

Mysterious lady
The party are walking the streets one night when they hear a scream and moments later, a young lady runs out of a side street, pursued by several heavies with clubs. She hides herself behind the party and the heavies, deterred by the presence of others, leave, but keep a watchful eye on the party. The lady is dressed in clothes that seem very old fashioned, centuries in fact, and she is very beautiful but when asked who she is, she replies that she does not know and cannot remember anything before a few minutes ago when she was being chased by the heavies.
The lady in question has only been alive for a few minutes. She is in fact a classical sculpture that was brought to life by a lovestruck young man who has now made himself scarce. The heavies work for the owner of the sculpture and believed that the lady was involved in trying to steal it.
The owner wants the sculpture back and will try to get the lady and reverse the spell. The young man wants her for his own. As the lady’s unofficial protectors, the party needs to consider what to do and how to resolve this problem. The newly-animated sculpture knows nothing of the world and the ways of it other than speaking.

Mercenary – a mercenary commander approaches the party. He has a problem which is this – his armourer ended up in prison following a drunken night out and there are only a few days to go until his unit ships out. He’ll hire the party to obtain as much armour as they can by fair means or foul. After all, in a few days, he’ll be gone.

Mercenary 2 – this mercenary has been careless with the unit funds and word has got out. He needs recruits of any calibre to ship off to a war somewhere and wants the party to help him dragoon wastrels and drunks into some semblance of order so that he can collect his bounty and scarper.

Mercenary 3 – following the collapse of negotiations regarding their latest contract, a band of mercenaries are stuck outside the city with nothing to do. Therefore, some of them have slipped into the city and are now trying to stir up some sort of quarrel or civil disturbance by provoking the more hot-headed elements inside the city so that they can then be hired to sort it out.

Merchant –
A merchant has, unbeknowingly, come across a ruin or some such wherein can be found a large collection of exquisite statues that he knows a city art collector would love to buy. He has worked hard to set up an auction, private viewings, etc, to drum up interest in his sale, and now everything is in place.
However, recently, he has had several strange incidents – a couple of attempts to capture him, one attempt on his life, two attempted break-ins. He suspects a rival art merchant or a collector and wants to hire the party to provide security for his goods and track down the guilty party.
The truth is that the collection of statues is in fact the result of an encounter between a group of frightened refugees and a medusa, who stalked them when they took shelter in her lair. She later moved on to pastures new, leaving the victims as statues until they were found by the merchant. The families of the victims had hired hunters to track them down and they followed the trail to the ruins, where they found two statues left which they restored to life. They then followed the trail onwards and realised that the merchant had taken the rest. Now they need to get the statues back (preferably undamaged) and will deal harshly with anyone who tries to stop them.

Monk – the last of a monastic order has returned to find his abbey looted and the altar stone and other pieces taken by a rich collector. He sets off to recover them. Bound to the stones by spiritual forces are the ghosts or spirits of other monks. Wherever the stones have stopped, people have died horrible deaths and now the stones have arrived in the city to be delivered. It may be that the collector either wants to put them on display (which will be an opening night to remember as the doors slam shut, lock themselves and everyone starts dying) or he may have them built into the fabric of his new city mansion. The monk on the quest is a peaceable chap who just wants the stones back and is violence-averse. However, the rich guy will send thugs to work him over if he shows his face and so the party is either required to steal the stones or to protect the collector from spectral forces.

Monk 2
An exile from the city, cast out many years ago, has built up a following of tough monks and clerics who followed him as a guru and sensei. Now he has died and his followers have his last wishes to be buried in the city, right where a powerful cult/noble/merchant has built their house/temple/mansion.

Night Hag – on a recent job, a master thief broke into a derelict house with access to a subterranean vault wherein lies a skeleton. Now he’s getting horrific nightmares and is convinced that it’s to do with the loot he’s taken. Unfortunately, the house is now the residence of a band of robbers and thieves who have followed a trail of clues to the vault and have broken in only to find that it’s already been looted. They are on the trail of the master thief, he’s desperate to get the stuff back to the vault to stop the nightmares that are in fact the doings of a night hag who has fastened onto him for an entirely different reason.

Noble – a member of a family that has just lost a vendetta against a rival family is thirsting for revenge. He tries to persuade the party to get involved on his behalf, promising them much if he regains power but what he has neglected to tell them is that his family ran the place like the Borgias and no-one wants to see them back. And anyone who works for them is guilty by association in the eyes of the public.

Monday 29 November 2010

Hooks and the City - part 1

For this instalment in the Hooks series, I've taken the city encounter chart from the back of the DMG and tried to cook up some hooks for each of the encounters listed there. I've come up a blank on a few (my ideas for those were a bit lame) and so I've filled things out with some random tables of my own invention for making city life that little bit more eventful - for quite a few of these, I'm giving the d12 some Old School love.

Because the list is so big (it kind of grew in the writing) I'm posting four parts over the next few days; here is part one - I hope you get some use out of it.

(PS it should be noted that these hooks do not all refer to the same city. Just to clarify)

Assassin – Two assassins, an apprentice and master have arrived in the city. The apprentice has been chafing at the bit for a while and the master has been getting tired, wanting to retire. Then something happened – now they are at daggers drawn and trying to kill each other. Both are more or less as good as each other, so their schemes are razor-sharp and they both can see how the other thinks.
The party may well wander into the middle of it all or be used as patsies by one or the other.

Assassin 2 – an assassin on a job has had an accident and suffered amnesia as a result. He was taken in by a group of kindly clerics and has now found himself a niche working in a soup kitchen and doing good deeds for charity. However, his former associates are terrified that he’s going to turn them in to the authorities and have despatched men to take care of the problem. So far, the former assassin has run into two of them, and killed them both using skills he’d forgotten he had. He’s just marked it down as thugs trying to rob him but the clerics are perturbed and wonder what it is about their new brother that makes people want to kill him.

Assassin 3 – a gang of snyads has been hired by a vengeful patron to infiltrate and kill his enemy. The little menaces are perfect for worming their way through tiny holes, sneaking about and generally causing a whole heap of trouble. The party has been hired by the target to protect him as he’s heard that there’s an assassin on his trail but he has no idea what’s coming after him.

Bandit – after a bad encounter with law enforcement, a bandit is hiding up in the city until the heat dies down. There is a reward out for him, and members of his old gang suspect that he was complicit in the fight that broke up the band. He is starting to wonder if he has had enough of the bandit life and should turn himself in or flee the city.

Bandit 2 – a gang of rural bandits has kidnapped some travellers from a wagon train and is intending to ransom them. They have sent one of their number into the city to deliver the ransom and conduct the negotiations. Unfortunately for them, the person to whom the ransom has been delivered is a high-level evil priest (no-one knows this; he’s passing himself off as a businessman) and he intends to capture the bandit, turn him into an undead and use him to lead the priest’s minions (who include undead) back to the bandits’ camp.

Beggar – one of the cluster of beggars outside one of the city’s grander temples is in fact the temple’s god in disguise. He has decided to manifest to test the charity of the temple’s clerics and has so far found it wanting. He has taken to making arch comments every time he sees one of the clerics and they are getting a little narked off with this.

Beggar – some different types (1d12)
1. war wounded
2. child beggar
3. blind beggar
4. limbless beggar
5. lazy good for nothing beggar
6. mad beggar who is prone to weird (and occasionally relevant) outbursts
7. unfortunate victim of bad luck
8. beggar who has been cheated and screwed and wants revenge
9. undercover thief
10. undercover assassin
11. undercover city watchman
12. child selling knick knacks for food

Brigand – a rather ineffectual gang of brigands, who have regularly been defeated by the city guard and local forces so often that they are no longer taken seriously and now hire themselves out to frighten people rather than rob them. Recently, however, they have actually managed to capture a rather wimpy young man and his harridan of an aunt and the youth, a keen student of military history, has seized on this opportunity to forge the brigands into an effective fighting force, using the tactics and strategies of history. His hatred of his aunt led to her death at the hands of the brigands and he is now planning to launch an attack on a nearby militia outpost where he will seize more arms and use this victory as a recruiting drive. No-one even suspects that the joke brigands are a joke no longer until it’s too late.

City Guard v City Watch – the boundaries of responsibility have grown up over the decades, as have the rivalries and enmities that exist between the two forces. Each is trying to make the other one look bad, sabotaging investigations, making witnesses disappear. Each has its particular rackets that go on and each is trying to eat into the other’s territory. Because of the way that the city’s judicial system works, guard and watch have responsibility for some very odd aspects of city life – policing of lunatics, dealing with drunks, the maintenance of the city walls, the upkeep of the gates, licensing of taverns and brothels, fire fighting (this is a lucrative source of protection money as businesses and homes have to work out in whose territory they find themselves on a weekly basis and ensure that the appropriate premiums are paid).

City Official (1d12)

1. Debt chaser and collector – chasing up debt orders from the city courts. He could either be pursuing the party for unpaid debts or asking for their help in taking down a particularly big or powerful debtor who is laughing in the face of the city authorities
2. Constable – often commanded the city guard or city watch. What if he has two or more lieutenants who are keen to take on his mantle and something happens to him – might the city guard/watch disintegrate into a bloody civil war inside the city?
3. Steward of a noble household – what about if he’s being blackmailed to allow an assassin inside the house, or perhaps the noble suspects him of fiddling the accounts and wants him investigated to find out where the money’s going?
4. Officers of the Exchequer – perhaps a minor official of the exchequer is asked to undertake a bog-standard audit and uncovers evidence of high-level corruption. He takes it to his boss but the boss is in on it and bingo, assassins are on the official’s tail. The party might need to protect him and get him to testify in safety and see justice done
5. Tax collector
6. Customs inspectors – usually stationed at the city gates to check on suspicious loads, packages and carts covered with hay. The party could get caught in the crossfire between them and their arch-enemies, the smugglers who might try to hide contraband inside something the party is – innocently – escorting back to the city or perhaps have just looted from a dungeon and be taking to sell
7. Jailer – he and his men might be the ones locking up one of the party for some offence or other, or perhaps they might need help to defend the prison against a bunch of heavies intent on remaking Rio Bravo.
8. Judge – they like to think of themselves as incorruptible but they might also be seen as oppressors of the people, enforcing the city’s laws rather than justice. Are they appointed by the city’s rulers or do they form an independent judiciary?
9. Magistrate – making local decisions on minor quarrels and cases would tend to bring them into contact with the party or their friends, especially if the party was involved in some sort of altercation and got arrested
10. Liner - an officer in charge of tracing property boundaries in the city. Depending on which side of the line a property is, its owners might stand to lose a lot of money. People who make those sorts of decisions might become unpopular. They might need protection or help.
11. Summoner - officer of the court who served subpoenas. He might need help serving his summons in the rougher parts of town or finding a witness or some such who has gone missing.
12. Coroner
During the Middle Ages, coroners had numerous legal duties that went beyond investigating sudden, violent or suspicious deaths. In some areas, the coroner was responsible for investigating all crimes that carried the death penalty. The coroner had to record details of all deaths he investigated on his rolls. The process was so cumbersome and convoluted that it often resulted in errors. As a result witnesses and other people involved in the investigation were often fined.

This led to cases of people hiding dead bodies to avoid an inquest. Some people would even drag a corpse by night to another village or hundred, so that they would not be burdened with the problem. Even where no guilt lay, to be involved in a death, even a sudden, natural one, caused endless trouble and usually financial loss.

This cries out for adventures!

City Watchman – a member of the watch has a near-death experience during the course of his duties and Comes Back Wrong. Now he can control the undead who worship him as a King. He uses these powers to take down hoods, criminals and gangsters. The city likes the cut in crime that results from this, but the dead criminals become undead themselves and the churches are getting edgy about the new wave of walking dead, who, while they are not fighting crime, are behaving like undead normally do.

City Watch 2
A city watchman has had a tip from a seer that a big shipment of drugs is coming into the city. He has taken this news to his captain who has ordered tougher searches of all convoys and shipments.
The truth of the matter is that a band of pilgrims is bringing the mummified corpse of their cult leader into the city for a ‘religious ceremony’. During the ceremony, the mummy will be broken down and ground up into powder which the cultists will imbibe to partake of a mystical visionary experience. This will fade away after a few hours and they will leave. If they are prevented from going through with the ceremony or if the mummy is interfered with, they will get very angry and violent. Their home country may get to hear about it.

Cleric – a new cleric from an out of town sect has been sent to the city to preach to lost souls but he’s making a right mess of it and can’t fill a pew, let alone a temple. He needs ideas. Perhaps the party might assist?

Cleric 2 – this cleric belongs to a religion that is perceived as perfectly harmless, preaching peace and harmony. 99% of the time, they are. Unfortunately, in order to maintain harmony, their doctrine demands a human sacrifice at the forthcoming festival and the party are just what the doctor ordered. He needs to lure them to his temple and incapacitate them.

Cleric 3 – a down on his luck con-man has decided to make some money by starting up a new religion. He’s pretty good at the patter and has started to attract followers from the indigent and hopeless. Although it’s all a con, he is liking the attention and wants to keep going rather than take the money and run. And the belief and worship of his followers is beginning to form power on the spirit plane, giving him actual but unfocused energy. The city authorities are keeping a watchful eye on the movement, worried about its potential for causing trouble amongst the underclasses.

Cleric 4 – unlike Cleric 1, this guy has charisma and lots of it. He is, however, a preacher pure and simple and regards organised churches as an institutional evil. He will have a strong influence on those who listen to him long enough (including the party) but every time the authorities turn up to try and stop him, he seems to slip away. Is he just a manic street preacher or is there more to him than meets the eye?

Demon – a summoning spell has gone wrong and a demon is now trapped in the body of a gerbil. It’s a mean and evil gerbil but a gerbil nonetheless and the cult are looking for it to release the demon within. Big city, small gerbil – it could be anywhere.

Devil – a delivery of stone statues of angels, gargoyles and such like is expected at the big Lawful Good cathedral in the city. An evil cultist is planning to conduct a ceremony whereby he anoints them with innocent blood and other magical ingredients and causes them to come to life just when the high priest and his friends are having their main ceremony of the year. The statues are devils of some kind who have been ‘petrified’ or placed into some sort of pseudo-petrification stasis for the plan.

A doppelganger has taken the place of a kidnapped girl in order to infiltrate her family and rob it from the inside but whilst there, the doppelganger starts to take to the life and in fact wants to stay there. Meanwhile, one of the family suspects that all is not what it seems and hires the party to track down the real girl who is being held in some sort of tough prison. When they eventually get her out, the doppelganger has the family member killed off or disposed of and then challenges the party to prove that the girl is not a doppelganger herself.

Doppelganger 2
A nobleman returns from war and a few months later, a raggedy man who looks very like him arrives, claiming to be him and alleging that the other one is a doppelganger who had him kidnapped and imprisoned. Which is the real one?

Druid – what’s a druid doing in a city? Well, that’s a long story. The druid is on a quest to uncover and restore a sacred spring that has long been built over and by so doing release the spirit of the waters. Unfortunately, the spring is now deep within the city’s sewers and catacombs and is in fact under a subterranean fastness built by wererats. The druid is a bit of an idealist but not above using the power of fiction to persuade parties to follow him and help him fulfil his quest.

Fighter – a travelling show has come to town and they have a new attraction this year – in a cage, they have a huge and brawny man who, they claim is a champion fighter. Anyone who can take him on and beat him will win a handsome purse.
The fighter is indeed tough – at least three levels higher than whoever decides to challenge him. If any of the party is going to beat him, it’ll have to be by luck and guile.
If anyone does beat him – and it’ll be a fight to the death – there is a surprise coming because the travelling showmen have enchanted the coins in the purse and the night before they leave the city, they will track down the winner and kidnap him. The first he’ll know about it is when he wakes up in the cage on the way to the next city.

Gentleman –
A farmer has found out that he is descended from nobility albeit many generations removed. He is determined that his son should aspire to be a gentleman and sends him to the city to a finishing school. For a while, letters arrive home but after some time, they stop and he does not know what has become of his son. He suspects that the boy has now become a gentleman and is ashamed of his family but determines to find out, therefore spends his hard-earned cash on good quality clothes, a haircut and a trip to the city.
When he gets there, he finds that no-one has heard of the finishing school and that there is no sign of his son. He starts to ask questions and make a nuisance of himself and when the party encounter him, he is in the process of being beaten up.
The ‘finishing school’ is of course a con – its operators take the money and either imprison or sell the hapless would-be gentlemen into slavery for profit.

Ghost – on their way from somewhere to somewhere else in the city, the party is jostled by some urchins and a small but significant item is taken from one of their pockets or pouches. The urchins run at full pelt and despite the party’s best efforts, the urchins give them the slip in some warren of alleyways and back streets.
A few days later, the party catches sight of the urchins again, following and taunting them. This time, the party can follow them for longer before they lose track of them. The area is more run-down and derelict, with a level of poverty that makes civilised men shudder. Nevertheless, the urchins still manage to vanish.
This is repeated and this time, the last of the urchins is seen vanishing into a run-down building, a warehouse or townhouse that has definitely seen better days. If the party go in, they can hear the sound of laughter and movement that seems to be leading them down to the cellars. When they get down there, all that can be found is empty cellars.
The fact of the matter is that the urchins are ghosts – formerly street kids, they were causing a nuisance to local businesses and ‘respectable’ folk and so a committee of concerned citizens (aka vigilantes) tracked them down to their hideout and – realising that they would stand no chance in the warren of tunnels under the house – walled up the only exit, leaving the urchins to starve to death. The urchins’ ghosts have prowled the city, trying to lure someone to the site of their deaths so that their bones can be uncovered, huddled together in death, and given the proper funeral rites. However, investigations into the house and what went on there will alarm the original vigilantes who might want to take steps to ensure that their crimes are kept covered up.

Monday 15 November 2010

Would it be so terrible if I never rolled to hit again?

During my ongoing CoC pbem, I’ve been having a few thoughts about the raison d’etre of the adventures I'm running and those I'm planning.

For many, many weeks, the brave investigators have probed the mysteries, followed the clues, talked to the NPCs and been led a merry dance by the twists and turns of the plot. There’s only been one gunfight, and that lasted all of two rounds. And they seem to be loving it.

I’m also working on a module that is very light on combat. There’s a lot of location-based investigation, magic, weird goings-on and of course talking to lots and lots of people. And its follow-up will be similarly combat-light.

Even Death Frost Doom (to take one of the flagships of the OSR's output) is more about atmosphere and ambiance than sword-swinging and axe-hacking (although there is the potential for that). From the reviews, it seems to me that a careful party that is not too greedy and not too foolish can actually get in, get loot and get out again. With no combat.

When I was playing first time around in the good old days, it was taken for granted that we were there to kill things and take their stuff. D&D or Traveller, the tactics were the same, it was just the weapons that differed. Guys wanted bigger guns to make bigger bangs and blow bigger holes in bigger opponents.

However, recent anecdotal evidence points me towards a view that there is a sizeable proportion of players out there (it seems to be female gamers, but I'm sure that there are males who would agree) who would get just as much enjoyment out of a game where there is as little combat as possible, and the main thrust is on interaction, investigation and problem-solving using brain rather than brawn.

The raison d’etre of D&D and indeed Old School dungeons is exploration but it’s implicit in the rules and the way that the characters are established (hit points, armour class, weapons, damage, enemies whose first resort seems to be fighting, stats for monsters which list AC, HD, Att) that combat is going to be taking up a lot of that exploration-centred activity. Cure Light Wounds implies that wounds are going to be suffered, after all.

So I find myself thinking – am I shifting focus to a genre of role-playing that eschews violence? Is it a mark of getting old and finding continual hack-and-slay boring or am I undergoing a fundamental paradigm shift?

Being a writer, I'm aware that the main feature of any story is conflict - the same applies to adventures. In days gone by, perhaps we took that word a little too literally. I know that I did - although towards the end of my first stint of gaming, back in the late 1980s, we were starting to move towards a style of play whereby we felt that if we had to draw our swords, we had failed to achieve our ends successfully. Admittedly, that was a city-based campaign where the opportunities for role-playing non-combat situations were somewhat heavier on the ground than they might have been if we were exploring the wilderness.

In my gaming sessions with Junior Grognard, the mix for the Training Dungeon was combat and puzzles, physical obstacles and features that challenged his thinking abilities as much as his dice-rolling. Yet if I'm selling D&D to kids, it's going to be pitched at the "Are you a Warrior or a Wizard? Find out with Dungeons and Dragons" tagline level - hack 'em or zap 'em, it's still combat. Where's the alternative? For seven-year-olds, the level of patience and social sophistication needed to run an adventure on non-combat lines is still lacking - they want to hit things with things.

I suppose it all depends - there is no "right" balance - the tastes of the DM and his players, the type of campaign and terrain in which the action takes place all play a part in determining how often the cry goes up

"Roll to hit!"

What's your view? Do you like a good bit of bloodshed or is it better to talk than fight? Would adventures that are less combat-oriented help to attract women into the game? And should adventures be slanted towards situations that can only be solved by combat or should the non-violent options be given equal chance?

Friday 12 November 2010

Fear on Friday - Facing my childhood nightmares

When I was young (okay, around nine or ten) the British publisher Armada, who regularly brought out titles for kids, had a series going called the Ghost Books. They were compilations of short stories on a spectral theme, edited by Mary Danby who also kept the editor's seat warm at Fontana's Horror Stories department.

The stories were pretty good for kids' fiction (as we've seen on Fridays past, the British of the 1970s had a peculiar notion of what was suitable for children) and the covers were a mixed bunch that probably didn't do the contents justice.

Except for this one..

I'm not sure what it was about it - the sickly green background, the skeleton rider reaching out menacingly or the look of sheer malevolence on what was left of its face but that cover absolutely terrified me.

In fact, it frightened me so much that my sister, whose copy it was, had to cover it in brown paper so that I didn't catch sight of it by accident. When I went into the school bookshop to browse (I must have been thirteen or so) I caught a glimpse of it on the shelves, fled and didn't come back for a long time.

Flash forward to 2010 and the middle-aged me is trying to think up a subject for the Fear on Friday slot. I'd seen the cover previously in thumbnail on Google images and if truth be told, I had a shiver even then. Was it still as scary as back in 1974 or was it just my memory of being so very scared that was making me edgy now?

Well, I bit the bullet and whilst it's an unpleasant image to contemplate (and I can see why it might have given a nine-year old a fright) it's no longer the stuff of nightmares.

But if I'd steered clear of that picture because of what I remembered feeling, part of me would always be nine years old and terrified.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

I need to talk about Howard

As you will probably know, I’m currently running a Call of Cthulhu pbem set in 1920. I’ve known Lovecraft’s work for years now but because of my involvement in this campaign, I’ve been steadily re-reading his stories over the past couple of months and have noticed that there’s a problem.

I’ve got no trouble recreating the look and feel of the 1920s – sources of research information and pictures are readily available on the internet and many a happy hour I’ve spent finding out the minutiae which will lend an air of historical verisimilitude to the world with which the players are interacting. I even have no problem with my characters, both PC and NPC smoking cigarettes.

No, what I’ve got a problem with is the degree to which the game itself and those who play it can ever hope to accurately recreate the world in which Lovecraft set his stories. Not the historical but the psychological and social world that he created.

That world is not the world that really existed at the time; of course, I’m not referring to the fact that there is no R’lyeh, no Cthulhu, no Great Race, no Mountains of Madness. I’m referring to the very concepts that powered Lovecraft’s vision.

This post is not the place to debate whether Lovecraft was racist – that’s another debate for someone else’s blog. What I’m interested in is whether it is possible for 21st century players and Keepers to get inside the mindset of someone who wrote perhaps eighty to ninety years ago and take on board and accept as normal the memes and tropes that he embodied in his work and which are taken as fact by those who inhabit the world that exists within that work.

Under siege

Lovecraft’s characters inhabit a world in which the white, intellectual Anglo-Saxon Protestant is under siege. The siege mentality pervades the narrative; the protagonists of the stories hold the line in an attempt (often vain) to stem the tide of an encroaching and threatening darkness. Those who stand against this tide are heroic if ultimately aware of the fact that doom is ineluctable. Those who work with the forces of darkness are the seething mass of miscegenated savages, their alien ways and unspeakable ceremonies truly terrifying to those who know what is out there. Lovecraft uses words such as brute, savage, creature, animal and of course mongrel to describe them and the stories take their cue from this particular vision.

He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. (Herbert West – Re-animator)

certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island.
(The Horror at Red Hook)

an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth,
(The Horror at Red Hook)

the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that something far deeper and older than negro fetichism was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, the creatures held with surprising consistency to the central idea of their loathsome faith.
(The Call of Cthulhu)

When we came to know the squatters better, we found them curiously likeable in many ways. Simple animals they were, gently descending the evolutionary scale because of their unfortunate ancestry and stultifying isolation. (The Lurking Fear)

Let’s look at this section of the Wikipedia entry on Lovecraft:

Though little known to his fan base, Lovecraft was familiar with the work of the German conservative-revolutionary theorist Oswald Spengler. Spengler's pessimistic thesis of the decadence of the modern West formed a crucial element in Lovecraft's overall anti-modern, conservative worldview. Lovecraft was also acquainted with the writings of another German intellectual who dealt with civilised decadence in philosophical terms: Friederich Nietzsche.
Lovecraft frequently dealt with the idea of civilisation struggling against more barbaric, primitive elements. In some stories this struggle is at an individual level; many of his protagonists are cultured, highly-educated men who are gradually corrupted by some obscure and feared influence.

The stories, set in the years just after the First World War, a war that was graphically portrayed as a battle of Good versus Evil, draw on this moral dichotomy and the taking of sides, albeit reluctantly to fight against that which seems too horrible to be allowed to live may well mirror the American attitude in 1917 – dragged into a war that they would rather not have joined. Those who returned from Europe were marked by a vision of hell as close to reality as could be possible. The influenza epidemic at the end of the war can only have confirmed to many that the alien, the outsider was coming, bringing with them this disease that would scythe through young and old alike.

As well as the emotional impact of the war on those who fought in it, there was also the geopolitical fallout that ensued. Communism, bogeyman of the political establishment had broken out of its manifesto cage and infected the minds of millions of Russians and, as far as the politicians were concerned, threatened to do so to the minds of British, American, European and other workers worldwide. The Palmer raids in 1919 and 1920 were a response to terrorism perpetrated by anarchists, linked in the minds of Americans with the menace of Bolshevism.

That the world of 1920 was not that of 1914 was painfully obvious to many – the old certainties had been overthrown and whilst it was not dead, the old social order had been badly wounded by the ruthless way in which obedience to authority, once the bulwark of the establishment, had been revealed to be one of the prime movers in sending millions to their deaths in Europe and beyond. There was no longer a sense that one’s social inferiors would accept their position in life merely because that was the way that it had always been. Another threat to the very people already terrified by the spectre of influenza and the Red scare.

Eighty or ninety years on, the Red scare has come and gone, social mobility has swept the old order away and science has, to a greater or lesser extent, brought epidemics under control with vaccines. Are these neuroses of Lovecraft’s world still the terrors that once they were?

The bleakness

In the 1920s, society was still vastly Christian, with a very particular, almost solipsistic view of man’s place in the cosmos and the universe as a whole. Indeed, the understanding of the cosmos, Einstein notwithstanding was very much more limited than we have today. As such, the notion of man as cosmologically insignificant in a vast, uncaring, indifferent universe would have filled people of Lovecraft’s era with a horror that seems baffling by today’s standards. The notion of almost immeasurable distances of time and space holds more fascination than horror for us in the 21st century and I view this aspect of Lovecraft’s works with a quaint interest rather than a shudder of terror.

That having been said, the bleakness does horrify some people. Here’s James Maliszewksi on it in 2008.

“Perhaps because of this, I find the bleakness of Lovecraft's imaginary creation truly horrific. Were the universe as he describes it reality, I have little doubt that I'd be driven to depths of despair the likes of which I've never experienced (and never hope to). I find Lovecraft's stark, uncaring universe a source of profound terror for me.

I suppose that horror, like comedy is subjective.

Allied with the bleakness is the futility of many of the protagonists’ efforts to combat the dark forces menacing them from the Beyond. Many of the stories end with a solitary narrator penning his final thoughts as the monsters close in or knowing that despite his best efforts, they are still out there and there is nothing that can be done.

Unknown horrors
Since the 1920s and 1930s, we’ve reduced the unknown areas on the map to practically zero. What we can’t get to, our satellites can see. The only mystery left is the ocean depths and even there, we are fairly sure about what isn’t, even if we don’t know what is. There’s no R’lyeh, no mysterious islands that might be there, it’s so remote. In effect, the word remote has become devalued. We can no longer look to the blank spaces on the map or the depths of the ocean for the lurking horror that may wake to destroy the planet. Instead, our eyes turn outwards to the stars, scanning the sky for those colossal (dare I say Cyclopean) lumps of rock which could arrive tomorrow to obliterate entire cities, continents or worse. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the thousands of asteroids out there has the name Cthulhu on it. As a parallel for indifferent, uncaring nemesis, a Doomsday Asteroid is right up there with the Great Old Ones.

I believe, although it is a subjective point of view, that the fears that gripped, informed and shaped the psyche of the post-war society that would have consumed Lovecraft’s work and been chilled thereby have long since faded from the public consciousness. To attempt to immerse oneself in that society, to replicate its mores and its nightmares is as much an experiment in imaginative acting as it would be to try and think oneself into the mindset of a mediaeval knight or man-at-arms for Dungeons and Dragons.

Yet if we remove, or fail to include the themes and aspects of the world of Lovecraft’s fiction that trouble us, that are deemed non-PC or towards which we feel a fundamental discomfort, are we in fact neutering the very powerhouse of the game itself? Are we playing a watered-down version of the game? Is it no longer connected to the fiction that gave it birth? And is this such a bad thing?

So what’s your take on the mindset of the Lovecraftian oeuvre and can we (or should we want to) get into it if we want a wholly realistic Call of Cthulhu game? What modern-day horrors, terrors and fears can we use to replace those of the 1920s and make our investigators that little bit more realistic?

Or do you disagree with me and believe that Lovecraft’s original horrors still have the power to truly terrify?

Let me know what you think - feel free to give my ideas a good kicking; I'm happy to have everyone's opinion on this and to have my own opinions challenged and changed.

Friday 5 November 2010

Fear on Friday - Apaches

You may have had this experience in dungeons past; setting out with a strong, confident party, optimistic and looking forward to some good old-fashioned monster hacking and gold-garnering.

But then it all starts to go wrong. Someone fails a save or a monster gets maximum damage or a trap that no-one spotted claims its first victim. Then someone else falls to the capricious dice of doom and before you know it, you're stuck in a dungeon that's somehow acquired a personality - that of a serial killer.

Now, it's not so much "Will we get out alive?" but "Who will be the last to die?"

It's a routine that's familiar to slasher movies since time immemorial but in those movies, there is usually more than one survivor to bear witness to the horror that they've just experienced.

So now, let's take a look at Apaches - a public information film for children, made in 1977. This tells the story of a bunch of kids who decide that a farm is a great place for games of Cowboys and Indians.

Bad move.

We soon see that the farm is the countryside version of Tomb of Horrors as one by one, the children fall victim to the Grim Reaper in some pretty gruesome ways. Watch out for the slurry pit!

Stuff like this, with its impending sense of doom, and The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water that we saw last week must have had some traumatising effects on kids back in the 1970s. I remember a film that we were shown at school about the risks of bad driving that put me off learning to drive until well into my twenties. Perhaps the British attitude to health and safety stems from the generation whose elders thought it a good idea to show them this sort of thing...

Sunday 31 October 2010

Holy Hooks

Following on from my recent post about the portrayal of religion in games, I thought that I’d get some hooks together on the subject. All too often, the poor old cleric is treated as some glorified paramedic and undead-repellent, with nary a thought for the social structures into which he must – by virtue of his role as a priest of the church – fit. I’ve already mentioned my idea of a threefold split in the functions of clerics into healers, spiritual warriors and temple administrators and may flesh that out in a post one day but this post is for those DMs who want to give the clerics in their campaigns a bit more to chew on when it comes to fleshing out their characters.

It should be noted that where I refer to “the church” I’m intending it to mean the dominant religion of that area, country, kingdom. Although there are some subtle (and in places much less than subtle) nods to incidents in our world’s history, no-one should take offence, because I’m certainly not giving it.

1) There’s been a war in heaven and power has changed hands. The souls of those who worshipped the old regime have been exiled into their old corpses who now rise from the graves. They are not malevolent, merely desperate for life again and will do anything to hold onto it. As can be imagined, the new regime’s clerics are not too happy with heretic zombies walking the earth, whilst the old regime’s clerics, low on power and devoid of the high-level spells they need, will do anything to regain power and restore their gods.
Enter the hapless party.

2) After a long and bloody war, in which both sides are exhausted, the sudden appearance of a cleric preaching forgiveness and reconciliation is very persuasive. That the cleric also preaches letting humanoids into the folds of the church is somewhat less orthodox but strangely enough, the humanoids are going for it – perhaps they’re fed up with war and have bought into the forgiveness message as well. Or perhaps they’re using it as an infiltration method. The DM must decide and the party must try to work it out.
A split within the humanoid ranks could be very interesting to play, especially as there will now be nice orcs and nasty orcs – both visually indistinguishable. Humanoid missionaries? Humanoid clerics of peace and forgiveness?
This won’t make the “only good orc is a dead orc” militants very happy either. Such subtleties are perhaps a little beyond them.

3) The new hierarch of the church is determined to stamp his mark on the faithful and that means rooting out corruption and venality lock stock and barrel. However, his latest scheme has raised more than a few eyebrows. To obtain closure on the previous incumbent, the new hierarch wants to put him on trial and condemn him formally by the church’s rules. Unfortunately, he died at least two years ago. This does not seem to bother the hierarch – he wants the man resurrected so that he can face justice. The party is hired to track down the body and bring it back for the ceremony to take place.
(such a thing really happened – google The Cadaver Synod to find out more and check out the picture!)

4) A very rich man has had a spiritual experience and decided that he needs to go on a pilgrimage to a distant shrine. He needs the party to provide escort. However, his family (or at least certain elements of it) are worried that when he gets there, his spiritual renaissance will be confirmed and he will tithe large sums of money to the church. They want him dead before he gets there. The church, on the other hand want him to arrive in one piece but wish to ensure that he is not disenchanted by the time he does. They will pay the party to keep the spiritual flame alive by staging some minor miracles or fortuitous happenings on the way and then making sure that something life-affirming and significant happens at the other end.

5) A miracle has occurred in the city – not only did a petitioner become cured at the shrine of the Goddess of Healing but a surge in spiritual energy has cured everyone within a mile’s radius of all that ailed them and as that area included at least two cemeteries, the dead not only walk the earth but are looking warm, vibrant and healthy.
All of this has led to a flock of pilgrims and new worshippers to the shrine and a surge in power for the Goddess of Healing. Cure spells work with double effect, the dead can be raised to a state of spiritual bliss and none of the new worshippers seems to be sick or ill in any way.
Surely this can only be good news for the city?
Er, well, no, not exactly. At the same time as the Goddess of Healing became Number One, the Gods of War and Valour slid down the chart. Denuded of followers who now view any violence as heretical, they can no longer provide holy powers for their clerics. Added to that is the fact that a war has been threatening for some months and seems ever more imminent and this means the city is wide open.
The clerics of War and Valour need to redress the balance somehow before it’s too late and that’s where the party come in. They may need to find a new disease which the Goddess cannot cure or perhaps work out a way of strengthening the hand of the Gods of War and Valour. Either way, it’s a tough call.

6) The party is hired by a bunch of mystics and astrologers who have heard that a long-lost deity is due to be reborn in a distant land. They need to get the mystics there, wait around while they authenticate the birth and – if it turns out to be true – protect the child from the insanely insecure potentate and his crack assassins who will doubtless be on the warpath.
The mystics are a bunch of otherworldly hippies who refuse to believe that anyone could wish harm to the child and will frown on shows of force, weaponry, etc, believing in their pseudo-philosophical arguments to win the day.

7) A relic of the church has been lost for centuries but now clerics believe that they have found clues as to its resting place – right under the main temple of a rival religion. Faction within the church have been struggling over what to do and now the “attack it, take it, burn it, level it and then start digging” faction is edging ahead. The more subtle elements within the church need the party to break in, find the relic and get out without starting a major religious war. Needless to say, the temple is protected by some fearsome safeguards.

8) The gods have spoken – their church is corrupt and the hierarchy must abase itself and go on a pilgrimage clad in sackcloth and ashes to atone for its greed and venality. Except that they’re not going to do that and need the party to discredit the revelation which says so. Unfortunately, the person to whom the revelation was vouchsafed is a very pious and well-liked individual whose reputation is more or less impeccable.

9) Someone has appeared who claims to be the long-awaited Chosen One. Miracles seem to be in plentiful supply but is he who he says he is, and if not, how is he doing his stuff? The party must try to find out for the established church whilst avoiding the zealous mobs and running the risk of being converted themselves.

10) Gold has been found in the lands inhabited by a confederation of tribes. To shift them would take a long military campaign and a lot of expenditure so the King has turned to the church to see if they can move in, convert the natives and somehow appropriate the lands. However, the natives have some quite impressive gods and shamans and the church is going to have its work cut out to convert them. So the party needs to come up with a solution – kill the shamans, eradicate the gods or just discredit them?

11) A suspiciously large amount of relics are issuing forth from an area recently conquered by the military. The vast majority are fake and are undermining the credibility of the church. However, some seem to be real; the party are hired by the church to head into the area and find out where the fakes are coming from and also to see what the source is for the real relics and if it can be secured by the church.

12) A local cleric has started to preach heretical doctrines but oddly enough his powers have not dried up. Church investigators sent to stop him have disappeared without trace and now the church wants the party to find out exactly what is going on and put a stop to it.
(the cleric may have been seduced by another god who is ‘spiritually funding’ him so that he does not lose his powers. The cleric is trying to win followers over to the heretical sect he aims to start and then use their backing to strengthen his god and mount a take-over bid for the church)

13) A senior cleric has declared that anyone bearing arms except in the service of the church is a danger and must be eradicated. The party have two choices – convert or disarm. The church has several practices and doctrines that are going to make a party’s life tricky and of course they would then be at the beck and call of the church and sent off to fight holy wars. There is also the constant threat of being denounced as heretics.

14) Either a kidnap or robbery has put a person or precious object in the hands of a cult which controls a city in a foreign land where things are very different and strangers would stand out like a sore thumb. The party is offered large sums of money/coerced/blackmailed into travelling there, going undercover and infiltrating the cult, rescuing the person/object and getting out again.

15) The Queen is distraught – her beloved husband has just died. Into this sad situation, a mendicant priest of a formerly unknown god has come, claiming that he can bring the king back to life but in order to do so, he will need human souls to pay off the God of the Dead. The queen is willing to try anything, as are the supporters of the old King, who fear being ousted by the Crown Prince. The established churches are a bit concerned, to put it mildly about the human sacrifice bit, but they are soon to be put under house arrest by the Queen’s troops as her mystical friend says their services and rituals are interfering with the chances of getting the King back.
The party may find that its cleric is drafted by the church hierarchy to try and work against the mystic, or they may be hired by the Crown Prince and his friends to investigate and put a stop to the goings-on.

16) A king has had a miraculous epiphany on the battlefield and now believes that a particular god saved his life. He is determined to impose this god’s worship on his population. The other religions that previously held sway are very upset by this and are determined to bring the king back to the old ways (they don’t want him dead since he has no heirs as yet and the chaos of a civil war could provoke a take-over by forces unfriendly). They aim to finish off the king’s new spiritual advisor, who is a young ex-slave and follower of the new religion. However, she is protected by some serious spiritual magic and the party are needed to break through her defences so that a gang of assassins can finish her off. This, so they hope, should discredit the new faith in the eyes of the king and leave the way open to restore the old ways.

17) A villain the party are chasing decides to head into the temple of a local deity and claim sanctuary. The clerics refuse the party entry as they are unbelievers. Even if they do manage to get in, powerful magic prevents all acts of violence on the premises.

18) The party is hired to track down the heir to a big estate (or even a noble title or kingdom). However, he’s got religion and has turned his back on the world and entered a religious order. Even if the party can get into the HQ of this order (a tricky job in itself as the entry requirements are quite demanding on ordinary adventurers), they will find that the heir has been sent off to some out-of-the-way place, the jungle, the wilderness, Craggy Island or wherever for spiritual work that the order has deemed good for his soul. The party’s backers need the heir, the order don’t want anyone to leave its ranks, and the heir is still wholly happy-clapping and does not want to go. He may even try to convert the party to his way of thinking.
And there is of course the threat of the wilderness/jungle/island to contend with as well.

19) The High Priest of the church has started behaving rather oddly. He has announced a review of the church’s doctrines, is preaching a message that seems to be undermining the church’s teachings and certain clerics have either been relocated to distant parishes or have ‘gone on a spiritual retreat and cannot be contacted’. New priests who nobody recognises have assumed positions of power. The party and their cleric need to find out what’s going on.
In fact, the High Priest has been replaced by a doppelganger, working for a rival mythos who want to discredit the church and use the resulting chaos to move in. Because of the authoritarian nature of the church, few are questioning the High Priest directly and those who do are falling foul of the inquisitorial courts. Into this atmosphere of fear and paranoia come the party, far more used to killing orcs and taking their stuff.

20) The party is hired to escort a band of rather irritating and obnoxiously pious pilgrims through dangerous territory to their shrine, a temple burrowed into the side of a cliff (again, very hard to get to, although this difficulty is held to be good for the soul). Deductions will be taken from the party’s pay for any pilgrim who doesn’t make it.
This, however, is not the main threat. When the party arrive, they find that other pilgrims already at the shrine are packing up and leaving in droves. The word is that the effigy of the deity has fallen on its face in the holy of holies and other artifacts and relics have become defaced or disfigured by pox or blemishes.
The pilgrims are a hardier bunch than those who are fleeing and try to persuade the party to go with them into the depths of the temple and find out what has happened. If the party seem reluctant, the pilgrims will go in anyway.
The temple has become infected with an evil presence which wants all the pilgrims’ souls and will ‘seal off’ the entrance once they are all in. If the party voyage in with the pilgrims, the presence will view them as a tasty hors d’oeuvre.

Friday 29 October 2010

Fear on Friday - The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water

This Public Information Film was broadcast in 1973, when I was a lad of eight. It was well-intentioned, warning kids of the dangers of swimming where we weren't supposed to - but it scared the living **** out of me and many others of my generation. The sight of the hooded figure sends a shiver through me even today.

So, if you've not seen it before, enjoy! And if you watched it when you were a kid and got traumatised like everyone else, prepare to shiver once more!

Thursday 28 October 2010

The Battle of R'lyeh

Well, it's a year that I've been posting now. Time flies, and all that. I've got some good stuff coming up soon, so I'll mark the anniversary with a picture that Junior Grognard has done for me.

As you can see, Cthulhu is there, in all his Cyclopean glory, being attacked by a red dragon and many, many warriors. There is, if you look carefully, a water serpent in the river that flows down from the castle. And something with tentacles in the water at the bottom.

I particularly like the thunder and lightning - freak weather is always good for heralding the arrival of a Great Old One.

Monday 25 October 2010

Vampires...why does it have to be Vampires?

Unless your postcode is MOON 1, you'll have noticed that we seem to be in the middle of a prolonged period of vampire infestation. If it isn't drippy Edward, it's Justin Cronin and his infectious bloodsuckers, a theme mirrored by Del Toro and Hogan in The Strain. Then there's Blood and Ice by Robert Massello, The Vampire Diaries, Blood Ties, True Blood, Blade, the obligatory Buffy and Angel re-runs...

Afficionados of UK TV will remember Ultraviolet (the TV series not the film) which had a Vatican-backed government hit squad taking out bloodsuckers while they plotted to blot out the sun and farm us like livestock, but that was 12 years ago and at the time, innovative and fresh. Shame it only had one series.

I started to watch Cronos (del Toro again) the other night and found it quite interesting until the old guy escapes cremation and finds himself smouldering in the sun and getting a taste for blood. I turned off - Vampires! Again!

In RPGs, it's a common theme as well, with Ravenloft and VtM (or VtR, depending on your choice) leading the pack. The vampire is regarded as the mightiest of the undead in the MM and often serves as the Big Bad when it comes to evil opposition.

So is it heresy for me to say that I'm all vampired out? I can't get enthusiastic about drippy, sensitives, plague-ridden predators or castle-bound counts. In short, I think I'm going to axe them from my MM.

The vampire itself is an interesting phenomenon. I've often speculated that their mythology has a lot to do with anti-Semitism - the blood libel, the day that begins at sunset, the rejection of the cross. The psycho-sexual undertones of Gothic vampire horror; yeah, they're a great subject but I don't think they'll work for my game.

We all have pretty fixed ideas about the fanged ones. Some say they can't go out during the day. Others say they can drink animal blood instead of feasting on humans. Some say they convert only the willing, others that they prefer the unwilling. Whatever trope of vampirism we might adopt for our games, it's bound to clash with someone else's.

So, what to do? I need something really original, something that's not doing the rounds, something that's going to surprise. The vampire, methinks, won't work for me.

So what's your take on the fanged ones? Edward or Angel? Strahd Von Zarovich or Nosferatu? Good for the game or time to go?