Saturday, February 22, 2014

Howling Across the Chasm

When the time comes for describing the monster the GM looks up and to the left, searching for the words,  and the hands come out and begin delineating and caressing the invisible contours of this thing they are imagining. The players are transported, to some extent, by this performative enactment of monstrosity. It is not merely the actual description of the monster but the struggle for description that bears the aesthetic reward. There is a moment of shared mythopoieia where the GM is delving in their visual imagination and the players are doing the same and the fruit of that description, the mental image and conception of the thing is born in everyone's mind, fresh and immediate and consensually realised. Then the players take that emergent image of the monster and embed it in the situation they find themselves in and it becomes a threat or an opportunity, a mystery or an unmitigated calamity unfolding.

That such a thing can occur at all in the context of aesthetically mediated group-bonding rituals is wonderful to me. That it occurs all the time, as a matter of course is even more so. The storytelling instinct and the competitive instinct and the yearning for group one-heartedness humans possess innately makes this miracle commonplace, to be taken for granted. 

There are two distinct kinds of excitement I am interested in that can arise from the moment of description. The first of these is the dawning familiarity/dread response: "You see a wrinkled sphere hanging in the gloom atop which writhe a number of short tentacles and from the midst of which there glares a single baleful..." "Fuck, Beholder! Run!" The second is the unfolding mystery response which makes me think of my own first D&D session - I encountered a rust monster and a carrion crawler, neither of which I had any notion of beforehand and both of which made a very strong impression on me such that subsequent encounters engendered in me the dread response, the thrill of which was all the keener from the disastrous initial meetings.

I am a bit jaded about settings and scenarios that only use established, folklorically entrenched D&D beasties. There is an OSR tradition of using such creatures in novel combinations and in new ways which is laudable but not what I am chasing here. There is also the accumulated technical knowledge of ways and means of dealing with monsters that brings with it a certain kind of slick satisfaction - even if that satisfaction is derived from huddling in a grimy corner trying to bless the last crossbow bolt before the rakshasa finds you and provides a tragic finale to your travails. These things have their own particular aesthetic appeal but I would like to investigate other ways.

The other way I have always striven to pursue is to try to reboot the process. To begin anew with whatever descriptive powers I can muster to break through to the freshness of things as-yet-unimagined. From whence will inevitably commence the diminishment of novelty. If it can be engineered that this slow death of wonder can be made to pass through phases of notoriety or fond familiarity then all the better. 

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Foreshadowing

In published scenarios it is not uncommon for there to be examples of the literary device of foreshadowing. Rumours and portents precede the thing towards which the PCs are being guiltily ushered (often in direct contravention of accepted orthodoxies regarding railroading). Conversely, wandering monsters are almost never foreshadowed save as plausible inhabitants of certain habitats. If you go traipsing through the Accursed Principality of the Dead and encounter Spindle-Ghaists tripping bonily along the very nature of the place has done the work of priming the players' expectations for something gaunt and necrophilous, but there is scope for introducing other means of telegraphing intention to ramp up dread. Wandering monsters are usually just there, a sudden unpleasantness to add artful disarray to a situation that was probably going terribly awry in the first place.

So, as a means of fleshing-out the environments through which the PCs travel and of producing a sense of foreboding it would be aesthetically pleasing to have signs that precede the appearance of wandering monsters. Something like;

Dost thou wander the Lackly Veil? Roll each morning and evening upon this table;

1. Reek of burning hangs in the air and trees bear jagged wounds. Distant screams as of animals in pain. (Ugsome Boors)
2. Cruel honking geese harry and harrass, following at a distance, regarding with sinister sidelong glances or darting in to bite. (Aglæcwif)
3.The land about seems suddenly gaunt, pinched and harrowed as with years of hunger. Something rumbles from afar. (Grunzel-gullet)
4. Twittering starlings shrill and flock, innumerably multifarious, surging and warping on the northern wind. (Sceadugenga)
5. Huge footprints as of some elephantine behemoth have torn the countryside. Morning fog lasts too long. (Pukelin Tark)
6. In a mournful quiet, sparse and wiry grass grows in old lime-pits and red clover nodding in the breeze. (Marlebrute)

etc. 

Following such a foreshadowing and assuming something in the manner of an onward trajectory or feckless tarrying (rather than immediate withdrawal and/or other countermeasures) there is a 50% chance that the next wandering beastie corresponds to the foreshadowing (or if multiple things have been foreshadowed 25% or 16.7% or 12.5% each or whatever). The aesthetic intent here is the establishment of linkages, of apparent depth in an essentially procedural reality where depth can be hard to come by. 

I dislike the idea of determinism and the removal of agency but keenly love doom and foreboding. It would be nice to have the PCs discussing intently whether to go on up the Worm-Road knowing they'll probably meet the Pukelin Tark that tore out Pieter's lungs or go back around the hills where the starlings flock and risk forgetting their own names.
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So there's this thing:

Monster Reaction Table 

Roll Result 

2 Friendly, helpful                        
3-5 Indifferent, uninterested 
6-8 Neutral, uncertain                  
9-11 Unfriendly, may attack 
12 Hostile, attacks                       

The reaction table is the vastly underused social mechanic I tended not to use. I saw it as an excuse to skip past the important funny voices component of the game. I now see it as an armature upon which vast quantities of setting-specific colour can be hung, fluff crunchified, fashionable curly shoes and ruffs and virtuosic sackbut performances rescued from obsolescence.

More on that later (or maybe never if you're lucky). It suffices to say now entities have a hostility rating, ranging from -9 (St. Cumbertwilde on her Sanguine Ass) to +17 (Vehement Rutabagas). PCs can have some effect on this with gentle croonings or bribes of food etc. but the general rule is that different things exhibit different behaviours. I recall the thing of most interest to me in the crowd-sourced Grognardian endeavour - Petty Gods - was the concept of individualised reaction tables. Reaction need not be a consistent spectrum but a set of behaviours specific to the behaver and modified by affordances particular to its predilections.

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So that the discerning GM may interlard their nattering with a few choice phrases without resorting to the stultifying tedium of boxed text I have chosen to give descriptions of these beasties in collections of fragments. Of course, the danger that the fragments themselves may infect said GMs' tones with the recitative droning inflection typically derived from reading shit out may be circumvented through judicious insertion of an implied et cetera after the suggested phrases and the use of (hopefully pre-sparked) imagination. There are plenty of details in these fragments conducive to dramatic description.

For a while it's been floating in my head as an alternative approach to the verbose gibberish I usually employ but Jacob Hurst's Dire Boar Den Information Layout Thingy has encouraged me to experiment.

- Also, no more descending armour class. I relinquish orthodoxies reluctantly but recognise finally that I'll be able to maintain the mechanical parsimony I desire at the same time as not doing that little mental calculation every time. It isn't an enormous effort but any means of doing away with unnecessaries appeals to me.



Pilshach Oobit                                                       
Brutish Earth Sprites



Foreshadowings:

Moldiwarps emerge from their diggings to sneer and gloat.
-The land is strewn with boulders that seem curiously out-of-place and haphazardly arranged.
- Sensitive souls get the sensation they are being regarded with ill-will from among the stones.
-Everything seems heavy and trudgingly onerous. 

Appearance: Four-foot tall lumpen boulderish demon-thing

Elemental Menace: unearthly brutality of essence, alien hate, archaic loathing, weird dark thwarted intensity, hollow black sockets like holes in the world

Guttural Musicality: Singsong droning dirge, thunderous barking, quaint unaccountable ponderous dancing

Catastrophic Tumbling: sensation of vast weight and incredible force, quaking earth, embodiment of disaster and panic

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Upon Investigation of the Remains: They appears to be made of boulders and blood and bits of lambent silvery ore, 1d6 x 10 groats' worth apiece

To the Scholar of Paynim Lore (Heathen Language + INT check): The Oobits are sung of in the old songs as guardians of the thresholds between the earthly realm and realms of impenetrable density where the mountains dance and the sky is made of stone. The Dun-Trows know something of their ways and the uncouth mummery of the festival of Burian-Kirk is said to recount the parting of the Pilshach and Pulchrie Oobits in the long-ago springtime of the world.

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Hostility: Intensely Inimical, +7 to reaction rolls

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Oobit -  (1d6) AC: 18 HD: 4 #Att: 1 chomp or special dmg: 1d8 MV: 6 AL: C
Special: Tumbling: The Oobit must dance quaintly and sing gutturally for one round prior to this attack, 1d20 dmg, save vs. paralysis or be knocked prone
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Mallagrugous Welkintrout                                            
Supramundane Piscatorial Monstrosity
Foreshadowings:

- Minnows or frogs fall in a rainstorm
- A fishwife goes irrevocably mad, gesturing violently at the sky, ranting about a redness in the north
- A missing child is found dismembered in a tree, unspeakable glistening mucus drips down.
- There is a dismal reek that passes in the night. Perchance a wet flapping is heard.

Appearance:

Abysmal Foetor: Like;  - the dredgings of an ocean trench,  - a whalefish disemboweled, - the open grave of a rancid giant, an eye-watering awfulness at a hundred paces.

Glaring Fishy Eyes:  dead-eyed gloating malice, alien curiosity, otherworldly hunger, startling wrongness

Fanged Pugnaciousness: hideous array of vicious fangs, horribly ragged maw, snapping jaws, bristling with dagger-teeth, talon-fins and wing fins flailing

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To the Scholar of Inimical Otherworlds (Alchemists' Argot + INT Check): The thing probably originates from the ocean-skies of the Outermost Firmaments, beyond the poison-blue Empyrean of Night Everlasting. It can only have flown down to tellurean realms at the behest of a thaumaturge of considerable puissance.

To the Desperate Hooligan: The talons and fangs may be salvaged for use as shoddy weapons (i.e. breaking on a 1) doing 1d4 dmg. They smell very bad. Those struck need save vs. poison or be sickened (see below).
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Hostility: Very Nasty, + 5 to reaction rolls
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Welkintrout -  (1) AC: 15 HD: 3+7 #Att: 1 bite dmg: 2d6 MV: 6, Fly 24 AL: C
Special: Ungodly Stench, Save vs. poison within 20' or -3 to hit from vomiting. 
Uncleanness, Save vs. poison when struck or be infected with debilitating pustulent odium -1d6 CON per day unless a further save is successful, two consecutive saves needed for recovery. 
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The Tatzelwurm of Bastardly Hark                        

Creeping Squamous Odium

Foreshadowings: 

- Crickets shrill with fiendish triumph at the dying of the day.
- The trees and plants hereabouts are pallid and sickly. Hemlock blooms with fervid vitality.
- Dull-eyed lizards watch from  mossy niches.
- Carven deep in trees and stones is the figure of a twisting snake. Corroded fragments of chain  are found in the vicinity.

Appearance: Two-legged dragon-thing the size of a man

Baroque Grotesquerie: Weird ornate scaled anatomy, spiny and tattered, bristles and hooks and talons, undulating nastiness, awkward crawling and creeping, writhing worm-tail

Demonic Malevolence: Horrible gloating and hissing, gnashing and spluttering, drooling virulent spittle, tormented snarling

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Hostility: Inimical +4


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To the Historian of the Empire (Imperial Tongue + INT check): Of old in this region it is told an Imperial outpost was held to ransom by a poisonous serpent that demanded a seasonal tribute of maidens. By the actions of avaricious knights and by grasping clergymen caught up in bloody internal strife was it laid low. Now only yammering shades haunt its empty hall.

To the Canny Tracker (Language of Beasts or Lowlander Tongue + WIS check): Following the furrows and poisoned weeds back to its foetid lair the hoard it stole in ages past can be found. The Tatzelwurm's venom is on it such that anyone handling it recklessly saves vs. poison at +2 or goes down like a pollaxed steer for 1d4 rounds. 

The Hoard consists of;

- Three Falchions of Dwarfish Temper with scabbards and baldricks chased with gold -250 groats apiece but of Svartling make - Blæingr, Brusi and Baldrekr shall seek out the bearers of these and flay them alive.

- Two Silver Reliquaries bearing the bones of Heretic Saints (Bombasticus and Gnoldo) - worth 200 groats apiece but representatives of the One True Church are 50% likely to denounce the bearers and call for their excommunication.

- Ducal Signet Ring - worth 120 groats for the gold alone but potentially substantially more for the Imperial Crest (sadly of a lost and discredited house)

- 1298 groats in assorted solidii, guilders, stivers and half-crowns

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Tatzelwurm - (1) AC: 16 HD: 5+2 (hp: 27) #Att: dmg: 1d10 + poison MV: 9 AL: C
Special: Poison: Save vs. poison or flop around haplessly moaning for 2d4 turns
Threshing Flurry: When reduced below 10hp the Tatzelwurm will writhe its spiny form about in a snarling frenzy causing opponents within 10' to save vs. dragon or suffer 1d8 dmg from its barbed anatomy.
Curse: Three times a day the wurm can bestow a curse causing a character to be consumed with the lust for gold, save vs. spells each time another withholds gold or attempt their murder within one day.
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Ark Raven                                                                
Antediluvian Avian Hierophants



Foreshadowings

Vast webs of intrigue perpetrated by jackanapes and boobries under the tutelage of corrupt abecedarians ensorcelled by demented druidical priestesses commanded by a cabal of unseelie princes et cetera. Behind all of it, eventually, will be Ark Ravens.

-In the dim vaults of their ancient seclusion are mouldering nests of tomes and scrolls, tablets and runestones and ogam-staves and myriad other glyphic artefacts in crumbling strata from inconceivable aeons, forgotten now by all save the waddling scions of the elder world.

Appearance: Featherless flightless birds, four feet tall

Features: 

Waddling Decrepitude: Wizened awkwardness, nearsighted, shambling, wrinkled hide, raspy croaking voice, mouldy stink

Aura of Ancient Wisdom: Hard bright eyes, vast store of sarcasm, cruel and mocking laughter, riddling speech, immortal pragmatism and patience

Hostility: Harsh +2

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Ark Raven - (1) AC: 12 HD: 2-7 #Att: dmg: 1d4 MV: 12 AL: N 
Special: Enchantments:1/rd at will; charm person, sleep, cause fear, hold person, bestow curse, charm monster, geas, mass charm. 
Uncanny Foresight: rolls d12 for Initiative rather than d6
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To the Scholar of Obscure Lore (Imperial Tongue, Heathen Tongue and The Language of Birds + INT check): There are faded legends of prophets and the fathers of the fathers of pagan kings who spoke to a birdlike race that lived in the deeps of the earth since before the stars were kindled. It is said they taught wickedness to the elves and avarice to the dwarfs and folly to feckless manlings newly woken in the world. They shall come again.

10 comments:

  1. Muchness and richness.

    Foreshadowings could be less meta-ly be spoor/tracks/signs of a creature
    (though I do like the metaness of foreshadowings) .

    And as either take the place of a "no result" on the encounter table, but increase the chance of that particular monster showing up next time. (unless the right precautions taken, like staying away from the river banks, coating yourselves in mud to hide scent, staying away from open ground, all possibly adding traveling time or requiring specialized knowledge).

    Definitely incorporating these concepts to my encounter tables anyhow

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  2. Ja! Here's a trick, using Labyrinth Lord's d20 encounter tables, roll d100, 1-20 is the corresponding monster, 21-40, 41-60, 61-80 and 81-100 are foreshadowings corresponding to those 20 monsters. So if 1 is Basilisk;

    21 is poisoned plants
    41 is mouldering statuary far from civilisation
    61 is too many weird lizardy footprints
    81 is coproliths

    Doing it this way increases wandering monster chance from 1/6 to 1/5 but saves a roll.

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  3. This is some pretty stuff. Still taking it all in, but darn I adore some of those words. As a mechanic and as monsters these are quite nice as well.

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  4. Very good stuff. It strikes me that in a game like WaRP or FATE without defined abilities, your descriptions only would be virtually sufficient for stats--and certainly evocative.

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  5. To the list of your virtues, which includes such distinctions as "mastery of a language" and "prose I want to cuddle", I will have to add "organization and layout". And you're right--we could all do a lot more to add foreshadowing. People have talked in the past about adding more to the encounter die, and I am rapidly approaching that opinion.

    I really love the trout.

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  6. Hostility (reaction roll modifier) as a standard stat is one of the simplest and best innovations I've seen in a long time. The foreshadowing and attention to descriptions are awesome, but this one tweak punches way above its weight class and is easily portable. Fantastic.

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  7. I love the idea of foreshadowing. It adds narrative richness to an encounter, builds suspense and fear, and offers astute players the possibility of preparing themselves for what may come. Fore-shadowed is fore-warned is fore-armed?

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  8. Hi Tom,

    Just wanted to let you know that I've nominated you for a Liebster award. I Don't know if it's the kind of thing you would do, and I'm not sure it fits with the tone of your blog, but I wanted to spread the word a little. Do what you will with it:
    http://mdarrow.blogspot.com/2014/04/my-eleven-minutes-in-light.html

    Cheers!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Mattias. I am humbled and perplexed.

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