Sunday, March 24, 2013


Victor Ambrus is awesome

So I'm working fecklessly on a project and striving to find the middle road between railroad-y prescriptiveness (which I hate) and gonzo randomness bereft of a strong sense of internal consistency. I'm a Tolkien fiend from childhood and am very enamoured of the seamless sense of an internally consistent world the Professor achieved at the cost of tremendous labour and which would probably have seen him rewrite everthing several times over had he had the chance. I am also very fond of the elements he allowed into the mythos which were a little bit jarring and which might have been effaced later on in a moment of sobriety had not the pressure to publish precluded the opportunity. Bombadil is one of these, the primordially avuncular nature spirit (or whatever he is) cops flak from those to whom mawkish jollity is anathema but to me there is something wonderful about him. Beorn is another, once we get into the grim seriousness of LOTR post-Rivendell, dudes do not turn into bears or have helpful serving-goats, that would be silly, but I like these wrinkles in the composure of the story. I like the fucked-up steampunk monstrosities that destroyed the walls of Gondolin before Tolkien decided that was a bit too gonzo and I like Melko getting chased up a pine tree in some early scrap of bootleg juvenilia before things get mythically consistent in a way myth never was.

However, I think that the combinatorial randomising approach that the OSR has embraced and, to an extent, improved upon, is potentially less than optimal for creating and maintaining a tone unless that tone is specifically absurd and chaotic and open to the intrusions of discordant elements. I understand that, of course, the game is about communal goofing-off as much as it is about cohesive narrative but all I am striving for is a balance between the two poles.

N.C Wyeth in understated mode
One of the significant issues I face in pursuit of this end is my tendency to codify everything in turgid little prose poems with a distinctly unplayable quality. I can't really help myself. It is a compulsion. My intention is to convey as much as possible the style and tones and generic conventions of the setting without resorting to blocks of faux history and faux geography which I cannot bear and cannot read and certainly cannot write.

So little nuggets is it then, in a style like the guy who wrote Eye of Argon doing a pastiche of Clark Ashton Smith doing Poe doing Pilgermann*  and describing only that which can be mechanically codified or lead to further opportunities for expanding the narrative.

 I like bandits. I remember Dr. McGrogan writing (in the thread that lead to his big old Monster pdf and which was my  introduction to the embryonic OSR back in late '08 while I was teaching in some shitty nowhere town in the desert) that it would be great if someone did a Monster Manual consisting entirely of humans. I agree, I think humans are the best adversaries. Almost all of the decent minable-for-ideas literature out there deals with human conflict and that which ostensibly does not really does 'cos that's all there is. That is what we're pretending to do, really (kill people).

So I guess this would be part of a big old Crossing the Fells table and would appear like this;

 roll d10
1. Mouldering Hugo and his Wherrymen
2. Coney Skinners
3. Helgafel the Mummer-queen
4. Runagate Pikers
5. Groote Hans
6. Bartholomaeus Crumpe
7. Magisterial Bombardiers
8. Bridge Churls
9. Lost Crusaders
10. Pontifical Harquebusiers

1. Mouldering Hugo and his Wherrymen attack with kern-darts and six-foot morningstars at the ford. They are bow-legged grizzle-beards in smocks of dun and Jarrowneck green. Hugo is a grinning oaf of poetic distractions who fights with Lang-dirk and targe. The seven Wherrymen sing the Ballad of the Frisky Mule (or suchlike lacklustre peasant ditty) as they wade to the attack. All are sick with grippe and casually sadistic.

Mouldering Hugo - AC: 6 (coat-of-plates, targe) HD: 3 hp: 17 Dmg: 1d6+2 (lang-dirk, STR) ML: 10

Wherrymen (7) - AC: 8 HD: 1 hp: 4 each Dmg: 1d6 or 1d10 ML: 8

Booty - sack of 77 groats hidden in a barge amongst the weeds by the riverside, Hugo has a silver Tetrarchic Signet Ring worth 25 groats, anyone wearing this will be hunted by the Tetrarchic Heterodoxy

Special - Fighting waist-deep in the ford imposes a -1 penalty to AC. Anyone coming into contact with these men must save vs. poison or contract grippe.

2. In a steep land of moss and scree and stony echoes an ambush launched by green-stained youths befalls the party. Babbling, feral and mostly naked they roll down great rocks and hurl bones and shards of stone from inaccessible clefts above. The Coney-skinners may be placated with offerings of food or frightened off with fire but they cannot speak for they are immeasurably mad.

Coney Skinners - (17) AC: 9 HD: 1/2 hp: 1 each Dmg: d2 (rock) ML: 4

Booty - a dented bronze cauldron worth 2 groats hidden in some brush

Special - 6 working together are able to roll 1 boulder every three rounds which will require one character to take evasive action (forgoing that round's action) or be forced to save vs. petrification to avoid taking 1d8 dmg. One of the youths is the wayward heir to the Earldom of Scroggscombe lost on a hunting trip three years prior.

 3. Heralded by a discordant trumpeting in the distant gloaming comes Helgafel the Mummer-Queen and his gaudy entourage in tempestuous purple and jaundice-green. They come from a night of ghastly rapine glittery-eyed and bedaubed with night-soil, arrogant and queasy beyond mortal ken.

Helgafel - E3 AC: 6 (jupon, burgonet, DEX) hp: 12 Dmg: 1d8 (estoc) ML: 9 Spells: sleep, charm, invisibility

Revelers - (8): E1 AC: 8 (jupons) hp: 3 Dmg: d10 x 5 (ranseur, brandistock, feather-staff, war-scythe, military fork) d6/d4 x 3 (crossbows/ballock daggers) ML: 9 Spells: light (polearm users), sleep (crossbowmen)

Booty - Brightly coloured animal masques of silk and painted leather - 20 groats apiece, 1d12 groats apiece in spangled purses, plundered amber, ivory and silverware worth 1d20 groats apiece, 3 brazen bugles worth 15 groats apiece, Helgafel's estoc and burgonet are particularly fine and worth 100 groats apiece.

Special - The light spell will be used in an offensive capacity (to blind). Anyone displaying items seized from this troupe will receive a -3 reaction penalty in the Lowlands such is the fear and dread in which Helgafel and Co. are held. It may be possible to raise an angry mob aginst them.

4. Driving a dozen shackled slave children through mud and sleet come five Runagate Pikers with the black man-tyger of Scroggscombe blazoned on their mottled tabards. They bear half-pikes and scars and are hollow-eyed with fatigue. They reek of the battlefield and unforgivable sin. Crows follow them.

Pikers (5) - AC: 7 (jack, kettle-hat) HD: 1 hp: 4 each Dmg: d8 (half-pike 2-handed) ML: 6

Booty - 50 groats worth of tackle

Special - The children are kidnapped from the Petty Baronies of Framgarth, though the pikers be deserters their association with the Earl of Scroggcombe is sufficient to raise tensions between the two demesnes.

5. Sitting on a waystone at a desolate crossroads is Groote Hans, seven-feet tall and broad of beam, with battleaxe and bearskin and piggy little eyes. He greets danger with affable scorn for arrows will not pierce his gleaming byrnie nor bloodshed detract from his good mood. From all who come he demands tribute and servility. He may be persuaded by invocation of ancient rite to take part in a drinking contest for none can best him under heaven.

Hans - F3 AC: 5 (byrnie, spangenhelm) hp: 20 Dmg: 1d10 + 3 (Carle's Axe) ML: 12

Booty - Pewter goblet worth 5 groats, Antler-handled eating-knife worth 7 groats

Special - Byrnie of Blunderous Grylde; huge mail shirt of double weight and completely impervious to normal missiles but bestowing complete fearlessness such that the wearer is completely incapable of retreat.

I think Michael Hague always wanted to be Edmund Dulac, perhaps because Dulac was so very good

6. One Bartholemaeus Crumpe, excommunicated Scrivener of the Archimandrite’s Judiciary, waits in a dark grove. Crumpe bears the marks of torture – he wears a wooden nose and his ears are gone. With him are his eight hooded henchmen with torches and knives. All are cannibals. All are hungry.

Crumpe - T2 AC: 6 (brigandine) hp: 7 Dmg: 1d6 (war-knife) ML: 8

Henchmen - AC: 9 HD: 1 hp: 3 each Dmg: 1d4 (torch or knife) ML: 6

Booty - 1d4 groats apiece in filthy undergarments

Special - Crumpe's wooden nose would be of interest to agents of the Archimandrite

7. Away on a plain of long grass burnt yellow by the frost are toiling a troupe of Magisterial Bombardiers with iron ordnance and heavy tackle, their hose long since abandoned to the dysenteric flux that spatters their legs. From afar the wind carries the stink of filth and sulphur and the sound of their deaf and braying voices bawling out a marching song.

Bombardiers - (12): AC: 8 (cabassets) HD: 1 hp: 3 each Dmg: 1d4 (stiletto) or special ML: 7

Booty - 1d6 groats apiece in grubby wallets, Rusty Iron Mortar 500 groats to the right individual, 3 exploding shells - 60 groats apiece, Powder keg, half-full - 50 groats, Sundry articles of tackle 50 groats

Special - Mortar causes 3d6 dmg to all within 20 ft. from exploding shrapnel but Bombardiers need to hit an AC 3 to get within 20 ft. ROF 1/7rds, Range 150/250/300, first shot will obscure area with smoke, Will explode on a 1 for full effect to those firing, Bombardiers can talk but not hear.

8. Half a dozen shambolic Bridge-Churls on an ill-fated jaunt into banditry have barricaded a dilapidated bridge in a forsaken region and demand an unreasonable toll and any and all spirituous liquors from those who would cross. They are desperate and humourless and armed with rough and knotty war-bows and mauls. Their barricade is a paltry affair.

Churls (6) - AC: 8 (barricade) HD: 1 hp: 4 each Dmg: 1d6 (arrow) or 1d8 (maul) ML: 6

Booty - 15 poorly cured hides worth 1 groat apiece

Special - Such is their disillusionment with this venture that they will gladly join the party should they fail a morale check.

9. In the interminably dreek Marish-folds, emerging from the fog astride gaunt and archaic destriers come two septuagenarian Lost Crusaders in rusty harness. They are veterans of the Schism of the Accipitrine Concordat and half a hundred other campaigns. One will formally demand seizure of goods and chattel as a tithe to aid completion of the uncompleted 31st Crusade against the Leper-King of Blaskinforthe. The other will take exception to the heraldry, courtesy or theology of anyone present and demand judicial duels by pollaxe, by flail, by jousting and by wrastling.

Sir Umberton Nunsputter - F3 AC: 1 (plate harness, heater shield) hp: 17 Dmg: 1d6+1 (war-hammer, STR) or 1d10 x 2 +1 (couched lance at full tilt, STR) ML: 10

Don Romualdo the Intransigent - F2 AC: 2 (Plate, rotella) hp: 14 Dmg: 1d10 x 2 (couched lance) or 1d10 (pollaxe) or 1d8 (flail) or 1d2 (wrastling) ML: 10

Destriers - AC: 7 HD: 5 hp: 22 Dmg: 1d6 (bite/stomp) ML: 10

Booty - 3d10 groats apiece, Sundry weapons, Map with markings clearly indicating the lairs of a tatzelwurm, a haunt of Hob-grues and Codricke the Tarnie-Wight

Special - The destriers would be worth 500 groats or more apiece but their savagery makes such a transaction unfeasible.

10. Crouching in the wiry brush behind boulders atop a rocky knoll are five Pontifical Harquebusiers in ragged regalia. They seek to prosecute an ambuscade with terribly inefficient and complicated martial pomp and thunderous reeking fusillades and shouting, They are mustachioed and starving and heedless of mercy.

Harquebusiers (5) - F1 AC: 8/7 (morion, buckler) hp: 4 each Dmg: 1d8 (harquebus, ROF 1/3 rds) or 1d6 (pigsticker) ML: 8

Booty - 1d10 groats apiece, Scarlet Episcopal vestments of broidered silk in a hidden chest, worth 60 groats.

Special - The Harquebusiers do not know that the Seventy-Years-War ended long since and that the Pontificate and the Magisterium are united in the Crusade against the Lacustrine Apostasy.

* The best novel in the world. I shit you not.


  1. I don't find your prose-poems turgid. I think prose stuff can inform games by analogy, whereas as tables and what not have utility. At least for myself (and I think a lot of other people) novels, short stories, images have inspired much much gaming (sometimes even just by inspiring one to game) than books of tables.

    All that being said, I think looking for ways to get that inspiration in the most usable way with the most economy of verbiage is always a way to go and something I have been thinking about, as well. The real crime (it seems to me) of most rpg setting books sections on geography or history is that their both unnecessarily long _and_ unnecessarily dull.

  2. I absolutely agree that more gaming has been inspired and influenced by real art than books of tables and that most setting books are unnecessarily dull. I cannot get interested in the Mary Sue NPCs and Factions that characterised what James Mal would call the Silver Age of D&D and which is still very much a part of the rpg setting design way of doing things.

    I don't think books of tables are there to inspire play as much as to facillitate the way the various elements present in the game-world are ordered. The bulk of inspiration, for me, comes from vast quantities of imagery and texts and films (I just watched Mongol, visually superb stuff!). But I do think game setting that plough a lot of effort into stylistic bells and whistles can make for more satisfying and memorable play than those which invest in backstory. Think Planescape and Dark Sun vs. the Realms.

    Thanks for the always excellent feedback. If my prose isn't turgid I'm not trying hard enough.

  3. I'm too busy drawing things for Petty Gods right now to comprehensively read this but what I've read so far is fantastic. With a single paragraph an encounter with bandits just got a whole lot more interesting and actually adds something to the game world. I'd be hard pressed to kill Helgafel the Mummer-Queen and dust off my hands with a "bandits killed, next town please".

  4. Bloody marvellous. Keep it up, or I'll come round and stick a bat up your nightshirt.