Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hedge Magick

I seem to remember the idea of cantrips being tossed around on other blogs recently. I've been thinking along those lines myself lately. What I want to do is give low-level magic users (or Hermits or Cunning Men/Wise Women or whatever I am going to call them) something to do at those times when they've used their paltry quota of magic or are saving their detect magic spell for the crucial moment when it is really going to count. Also, and this is important to me, I'd like to introduce some way of emulating the grubby eccentrics that were the wizards and witches of the middle ages (or of the Dung Age conception thereof). These people performed, presided over, or guided various ritualistic actions that had ambiguous or negligible outcomes. In these situations the appearance of performing an action to achieve some degree of control over some aspect of a chaotic universe was important.

In a game situation I think this kind of minor magick could be reflected as allowing the magic-user character to influence the outcome of a roll, granting a +1 bonus. This is not a game-breaking power, but I think it needs to be balanced with some mechanism. The mechanisms that could be utilised to ballance this power are time and cost, each Hedge Magick cantrip takes 1 turn and costs 10gp (maybe 5) in magical ingredients. If the ritual granting Tostig the Ruffian a +1 to his strength check as he attempts to topple the idol takes one turn rather than one round, or if the necessary materials sacrificed to propitiate the spirits to grant a +1 bonus to a search for secret doors cost ten gold pieces then the players have incentives to not overuse these minor powers.

I am not yet sure how this would work out in play, the threat of poverty and extra wandering monster checks may not be suffieciently prohibitive to prevent the party's Hedge Wizard from consulting the bones, burning mystical incense, drawing magical designs etc. before each and every action that is attempted. The time constraint will have the effect of making it impossible to use hedge magick in battle, but potentially a charms could be worked beforehand to influence the outcome of a couple of rolls.

The cantrips are further restricted by only being active for one turn after completion of casting (or maybe 1 turn per level of caster).

Rolls that can be influenced include;

-A specific saving throw e.g. a charm against poison
-An specific ability check
-A reaction roll
-An initiative roll
-An attack or damage roll (a weapon could be enchanted)
-A search for secret doors roll
-An open doors roll
-Armour Class, a special case, equivalent to a -1 penalty to opponents attack roll.

The fluff component of this could take the form of;

-Incantation/mumbling/screeching of magical words
-Trance-like meditation/concentration (caster may be asleep)
-Burning of foul-smelling incense/candles/sacred herbs
-Imbibing of sacramental entheogens
-incising/drawing/painting strange magical designs/runes/glyphs on the subject
-Anointing of subject with unpleasant ointments/unguents
-Consumption of unappetising objects/substances
-Strange and unsettling dances with singing and/or the ringing of bells/chimes or the rattling of rattles.
-Consultation of the liver/spleen of an animal/person
-Repetitive and interminable casting of the bones/runestones

et cetera

Any combination of the above would be appropriate. I think a random table would be in order but it's too late here now and I have to get up early.

I think this has the potential of being flavoursome and frequently of little help which is very suitable. The greater magicks that constitute the wizard's spellbook should be rare and special - beyond the experience of the rude peasants who might occasionally call upon charms of dubious efficacy from the local madman.

This whole concept relies, to a certain extent, upon the low-level nature of the campaign. I am capping human characters at level 7 and Demihumans at about level 4 or 5. Magic-users do not have the heights of awe-inspiring power to look forward to so they need to be compensated with some extra options at low level.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

On Ogres

As I’ve stated before, I do not want to use a standardised monster list for the Middenmurk campaign - predictability is the enemy of monsters. Instead I want to develop tools for the construction of interesting and evocative antagonists. I will however draw inspiration from ideas about various mythic archetypes as a means of establishing parameters or a field of possibilities within which a monster can be defined, rather than nailing it down. I really want to avoid over-determining that which should be made of the stuff of legend.

To my mind, the quintessential monster is the ogre. I was inspired to write about the ogre in part because of comments made in Zak Smith’s excellent blog, see this post. Zak characterises ogres as a primitive and brutal and unsettling reflection of humanity, “ like a brother with some tragic, moany, drooly and brutal mental problem.”

I like this. It captures some of the disturbing nature of the monstrous. There is an extent to which humanoid monsters draw from our familiarity with ourselves and subvert it. The thing is scary because it is a reflection of the monstrous within us or it is scary because it is a hideous parody of us, too close for comfort.

There are a variety of different ways I can see to approach the ogre. My conception would probably be the synthesis of a variety of different approaches to produce something satisfying rich and complex

-As a mythic personification of cannibalistic bandits in the vein of Sawney Bean and Christie-Cleek. or generic horrible inbred hillbilly cannibals. Essentially, ogres are cannibalism with brute force rather than cannibalism with subterfuge like ghouls. Ogres are the essence of ravenous predation, big hungry bellies on legs who smell the blood of an Englishman.

-As a personification of desolate wild hill-country. Wildernesses with rugged rocks seem to me to suggest, through the process of paraeidolia, big and powerful figures. These ogres are why people disappear in lonely places.

-The cruelty of boys who torture animals given form. Merciless sadism, the petty tyranny of the insignificant wielded against the powerless, made manifest. In this sense I see violence in company as being characteristically ogrish, (Zak subscribes to solitary ogres) hooting and laughing and trying to outdo one-another in the extent of their cruelty. Gang-rapists too, with their competitive atrocities and the acquiescence of the weaker individuals evoke this idea of collaborative evil.

-In a similar sense, cruelty on a different scale informs my conception. The acts of Gilles de Rais and Vlad the Impaler and of modern serial killers sexually addicted to the rush of violent acts are at the outer limits of what is horrible about humanity. In my experience ogres are not generally attributed with such capacities. I think it is only fitting that such atrocities are common among ogres. They are elemental cruelty, it is what they do.

-The tyranny of the powerful is ogrish. Ogres are bullies who are empowered by their own native strength to impose their will on others. An ogre is like a pack of jackbooted fascists knocking down your door and ruining your life.

-There is evidence for the Palaeolithic past of humanity being an exceptionally violent milieux. Observations of hunter-gatherer cultures in modern-times have recorded an exceptionally high death-rate from constant small-scale warfare, far-outstripping that of notorious warlike modern cultures. Evidence suggests that the further back one goes into human pre-history the worse things get.
Modern humans have many paedomorphic or neotenous characteristics. As the late evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould wrote "Man, in his bodily development, is a primate foetus that has become sexually mature". Compared to other animals we are playful and sociable even in adulthood. Contrast chimps, who make companionable pets when young but become extremely dangerous and immensely strong in adulthood. Ogres can be seen as like humans who have made an extreme transition into bestial adulthood, or as representatives of an archaic lineage like Homo heidelbergensis, hyper-robust and savagely violent, or as demonised fictions about dawn-raiders from an alien tribe, or as products of a hideous culture manifesting the "abuse begets abusers" cycle, or as Anti-Rousseau-ian ignoble savages.

I think you get the idea. Ogres are horrible. They are precisely as horrible as we have the propensity to be but without all the redeeming features I’m told some humans have. If PCs are going to kill stuff without remorse I feel it is necessary to make it fairly unpleasant.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I have long felt a niggling sense of dissatisfaction with the cleric as a class. I believe I am not alone in this. Despite OD&D including the cleric but not the thief as one of the foundational three classes, there seems to be general sense that while thieves and nimble roguish characters are well-represented in the source material, clerics are not.

The prevailing orthodoxy is that cleric characters represent something akin to members of militant religious orders such as the Knights Templar or the Teutonic Knights. The hoary old creation myth of Sir Fang and the need for someone to counter his undead power contradicts this tale. Clerics seem to be an unholy mish-mash of various sources; part Solomon Kane and part Abraham Van Helsing, with a healthy dose of biblical miracle-worker and the cudgel-wielding Bishop Odo from the Bayeux Tapestry thrown in for good measure.

For my Dung Age interpretation of the cleric I've decided to bring the cleric back to its mediaeval roots. In this context it is necessary to consider the ramifications of a monotheistic religion with a vast and dominant church. The culture of Mediaeval Europe was united and dominated by one God and one Church that played a part in everyone's life.

Interestingly the tropes of pulp fantasy downplay the influence of religion and display a strong tendency toward a kind of pantheism, perhaps in emulation of antiquity. This has been translated in D&D-world in such a manner as to produce campaign settings where religion and the gods play little part other than as exotic window-dressing. Sure there is occasionally the trope of pseudo-Olympians playing a great game with mortals as pawns but the point I am trying to make is that traditional D&D pantheism does very little to produce a dynamic that emulates the Middle Ages.

Perhaps the one defining characteristic of Mediaeval Europe is monolithic and inflexible and pervasive Christianity. Contrary to this in D&D's nominally mediaeval settings, desire for escapism (plus social factors that I can barely conceive as an Australian atheist) has produced cookie-cutter blandly tolerant pantheistic worlds.

The truth of the mediaeval world was often very unpleasant. The Catholic Church persecuted and destroyed non-believers, and waged a highly successful war for the hearts and minds of the peoples of Europe. The history of this world of unquestioned monotheism is filled with thousands of accounts of individuals whose faith in god makes them miracle workers - saints. There seems to have been a saint for every village, "Dark Age" Britain in particular is crawling with them. It is as if the more benighted a place is the more tales of divine heroes who banish snakes and kill dragons and heal the sick and plough up fish from the soil appear.

All of this is a bloated and unwieldy preamble to my re-interpretation of clerics and religion for the Middenmurk setting. A single monotheistic religion that is pervasive and dominant is necessary for the evocation of the classic Dung-Age atmosphere. This religion needs to be served by zealots, saints-in-the-making. I'm re-imagining clerics as fanatics - people touched by the One God, so fiercely devoted as to be able to work miracles and banish evil.

Importantly, fanatics need not be members of the clergy (though most probably are) many saints, such as Joan of Arc and various of the Holy Roman Emperors were just particularly devout members of the laity.

Other threads of mediaeval religiosity also inform my imagining of fanatics. Various heretical sects engaged in religious uprisings such as the Hussites, flagellants and visionaries, individuals like Peter the Hermit and the nameless French peasant boy who led the Children’s Crusade and the historically later phenomenon of the inquisition.

In the Northern Marches, every day is a saint’s day. Every village has a crack-brained holy man predicting holy doom. Pilgrimages criss-cross the countryside as the faithful seek atonement for their sins, and the fanatics whip up religious hysteria, crusades and witch-burnings, exorcisms and torture, persecution and martyrdom. The fearful populace cling to their faith because the righteous fury of its servants is often the only thing standing between them and the real evil of that which lies somewhere over the horizon.

So, integral to fanatics is their capacity to work miracles (cast cleric spells), not their combat ability (which isn’t too shabby but not what you’d expect of elite shock troops like the Templars).

The blunt weapon thing is just so arbitrary, I’m going to allow fanatics to use good, honest peasant-uprising style agricultural weapons –pitchforks, mauls, billhooks, threshing-flails, sickles, hatchets, staves and cudgels. These guys aren’t so much trained warriors as those driven by zeal to smite the enemy with whatever means are available, as well as this it keeps things earthy.

No heavy armour, for similar reasons.

There will be some kind of mortification of the flesh going on, scourges and whips, cilices and hairshirts, not sure precisely how I’ll implement this but I’ve got a couple of ideas.

XP will be given for gold donated or distributed among the poor.

Angry mobs of hirelings in a fanatic’s pay (or potentially merely devoted followers) should have a morale bonus to reflect their zeal.

The fanatic should probably be able to preach to believers, adding their level to reaction rolls.

Turn Undead will become Banish Evil and have wider applicability including cleansing miasmas and exorcising demons.

Tonsures and/or crazy eyes will be back in fashion.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


As I have promised I am going to present my conceptualisation of elves for the Middenmurk setting, or rather, for the “Northern Marches” – the ad hoc term I will use for the (semi) civilised lands nearest to the Middenmurk dungeon. As a matter of course I am assuming that the Middenmurk will be flexible like any other Megadungeon, having certain assumptions about flavour and texture associated with it but fairly much unattached to a specific setting so people can stick it where they want it. Which is a way of saying I’m not making a sandbox but I am doing bits and pieces of setting stuff.

So, I conceive of elves of the Northern Marches as being very much unlike the elves of Tolkien’s legendarium and, as such, fairly much different from elves as presented in D&D and role-playing games in general. The starting point for the approach I am making is the idea of elves as being objects of fear to peasants within the Mediaeval paradigm. Elves are fundamentally supernatural entities from beyond the fields we know that visit the world of the everyday to cause trouble for inscrutable reasons. Elves can be helpful but are associated with sickness and ill-luck, with nightmares, curdled milk, blighted crops and, worst of all, stolen babies.

The word elf is etymologically connected with the word oaf, which is associated with the idea of the changeling child; weird, uncouth, fey and shunned by the community. In this context elves can be seen as a kind of mythic explanation for a variety of intellectual disabilities, developmental disorders and mental illnesses. They can also be the explanation for manic creativity and savant abilities and psychopathic disregard for the well-being of others.

The idea of entities that will come in the night and steal your child is a deep-rooted and primordial fear. I guess this makes elves the perfect primitive psychological projection of the unknown other.

I am fond of the idea that elves are different and otherworldly, but not necessarily graceful and beautiful. They are merely different. They exist in a kind of strange parasitic relationship to human communities, possessed of uncanny secrets of the otherworld and with great capacity to help mankind, but a capriciousness and proclivity to inflict harm with casual detachment.

Additionally, and significantly, elves live among human beings like cuckoos. Elf PC’s will be changeling children or foundling urchins or uncanny strangers who are tolerated for a while by the superstitious peasants of the Northern Marches. They will always be on the margins of society, however, and always be a little odd. The association of elf and oaf – a word derived from elf - informs my conception.

Devil’s in the Details: Elves (oafs, changelings, hogboys, wights, Yule-lads, Fae)

Yes, I am well aware that James Maliszewski has already presented elves in this format. I have the utmost respect for James and think him a capital fellow, however, his Eld are from a fundamentally different paradigm to my elves (though they are similarly quite sinister) and I think there is space enough for both to exist (and let’s face it, James is the king of the OSR blog-o-sphere and I am a swineherd from the outlying provinces).

As I did with dwarfs I am presenting some aspects of elves as being analogous to real-world human psychological and developmental disorders. I do this in the interests of remaining faithful to the original subject matter as I see it, i.e. within a Mediaeval paradigm, these disorders are explained by and attributable to supernatural agents. Any offence caused by this approach is unintentional and I apologise in advance.

Many Elves (d20 thrice)

1. Speak in a raspy whisper.
2. Fear the colour red, won’t touch it and refuse to wear red garments.
3. Laugh at funerals, cry at glad tidings and show no compassion.
4. Make strange bestial noises, seemingly without being aware of what they are doing.
5. Have the ears of an ass, which they hide beneath some kind of headgear.
6. Appear to be perpetually adolescent, but with ancient eyes - or - appear wizened with age, but bright-eyed and hale.
7. Have a tail like a cow’s, which they conceal beneath clothing.
8. Have a strange floral or herbal fragrance.
9. Don’t tend to come in out of the rain or in any other way avoid discomfort.
10. Skulk around bone-yards, crossroads and other such ill-omened places
11. Feel compelled to build cairns of stones and little idols of sticks at random places.
12. Have the eyes of a falcon and stare at people in an unsettling manner.
13. Eat insects, snails and spiders.
14. Occasionally go into a trancelike state where they murmur in a long-forgotten tongue and rock back and forth.
15. Creep around at night and do odd jobs for people.
16. Dislike iron and avoid touching iron objects.
17. Have teeth which are disconcertingly sharp.
18. Periodically give away money and valuables.
19. Have skin which is cold to the touch.
20. Sing songs of unearthly beauty.

Some Elves (d16, 1d3 times)

1. Have a vacant, open-mouthed, idiotic expression.
2. Have no sense of privacy or modesty.
3. Have a sharp, feral, countenance.
4. Fear the sun and shroud themselves in layers of cloth to avoid its rays.
5. Harass and ride livestock to amuse themselves.
6. Take delight in frightening people with cruel pranks.
7. Cast a pale shadow.
8. Tend to attract the attention of various small animals.
9. Habitually sleep in ditches, up trees, or under hedges.
10. Are androgynous.
11. Creep around at night and peer through windows.
12. Crave butter and cream and will pay almost any price to get hold of it.
13. Are very lustful and seductive.
14. Move with feline grace.
15. Destroy things for no apparent reason.
16. Are very tall and gaunt or small and childlike.

Common Travelling Gear (d16 thrice)

1. A hazel switch
2. A small pouch containing (1d6) 1. Henbane 2. Dried Elf-Cap Mushroom 3. Datura 4. Mandrake 5. Belladonna 6. Diviner’s Sage
3. A stone that looks like a toad
4. A tall dunce’s cap
5. Ragged finery, tattered and befouled
6. An ancient bronze dagger.
7. A bone flute.
8. A sprig of mistletoe
9. An old shillelagh
10. A shortbow and quiver of arrows
11. An archaic corselet of bronze scale armour
12. A staff inscribed with ancient secrets in runes or ogham
13. A rote or lyre
14. A lock of human hair
15. A collection of elf-shot
16. Golden chains from a barrow-tomb