Reflections on Karameikos

So, GAZ1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, published in 1987 by TSR. What a book. What a gloriously imperfect, yet exciting book. As someone whose gaming supplement standards are informed by the likes of Yoon-Suin and Kevin Crawford’s Sine Nomine products, it’s difficult to not be a little frustrated by GAZ1. Information is generally provided in a text-dump expository way; there are very few tables to generate new content; it lacks many of the innovations and conveniences that modern OSR publishing has pioneered. The text is somewhat unpleasingly presented in many places, and conveyance suffers from the usual lack of clean formatting and highlighting of important bits. But faulting the book for this would be like faulting for 1939 Chevrolet for not having air conditioning. What’s there is there, and what’s there is pretty great. And I find myself thinking and daydreaming much, much more about Karameikos than I ever anticipated.

A lot of the interesting bits of the book stem from how author Aaron Allston’s vision of Karameikos is delightfully messy. What does it mean to be from Karameikos? It depends on whether you’re a Traladaran, or a Thyatian settler. It depends on whether you approve of Grand Duke Stefan or not – and whether you consider him the prophesied reincarnation of King Halav. If you’re a thief, which of the three guilds do you belong to? If you’re a magic-user, do you roll your eyes at local superstitions or do you abide by them? If you’re a cleric, which church do you belong to, and do you subscribe to any secret doctrine?

Interior art from GAZ1: Grand Duchy of Karameikos, © Wizards of the Coast.

Playing in Karameikos immediately invites you to interrogate your character concept on the setting’s premises without too much long-wrought exposition or setting lore mastery. GAZ1 hits the sweet spot here, and adds one pinch of spice to perfect the dish: no one has perfect information about everything from the beginning.

Karameikos is deceptively complicated to just the right amount that it becomes a story machine as soon as you insert some player characters. It conceives of the Grand Duchy as anything but monolithic. Because Allston does not structure the region around modern conceptions of nationality and nation-statehood, Karameikos appears much more authentically medieval than many other takes on adventure-friendly feudal polities. Like Capetian France and Norman England, Karameikos is animated by the interactions and tensions between constituent groups and factions, and more than any dungeon (a subject the book is surprising sparse about), sociopolitical messiness provides the stimulus for adventure in the Grand Duchy.

A normal day in Karameikos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, delving and dungeoneering seems almost like an afterthought in Karameikos. The provided list of adventure seeds almost all deal with some kind of social or political theme. I can’t help but think that Karameikos in many ways would make a better Burning Wheel setting than it would a D&D setting. Or a reskinned game of Pendragon, where the players take on the role of knights in the service of Stefan III. The setting just seems to lend itself very well to characters who have stakes in the social situation.

I’d happily participate in a D&D/OSR game as well though – in fact, grabbing Kevin Crawford’s An Echo Resounding and an assortment of sandbox toolkits, populate the wilderness, and roll up some new-freshed adventurers sounds like a hell of a time too…

Damn. I kind of want to run a Karameikos game now.

Any older publications that unexpectedly inspired you recently?

Musings on Three Types of Hexcrawl

A post on hexcrawls, three ways of using them, and why you might actually not even need to anyway.

First off, I adore the hexcrawl and the hexmap. To me, they scream old school gaming in a way that’s hard to quantify. Many a fantastical land has been envisioned through the medium of 8 or 12 or 24 miles-per-hex, and that’s awesome. But ultimately, all this hexagonal goodness is a tool, and any tool used improperly will produce poor results.

I don’t think all campaigns need hexcrawl procedures. If a campaign is doing just fine without, hexmap traversing and navigation has a tendency to introduce tedium and disengagement. After all, not all campaigns need procedures for domain management, or magical research, or griffin-taming. If the logistics of adventurous travel are not important to the experience at your table, a hex map might do just fine, but a hexcrawl might disrupt the flow of the game. Similarly, campaigns that deeply revolve around dungeoneering might not need full hexcrawl rules. Some sense of space and distance between dungeons and adventure sites will likely suffice. If players show up to play daring dungeon delvers, there’s no reason to spend gaming on in-depth traveling. In short: Don’t try and force your game to have hexcrawls segments if it doesn’t need it.

I see three main ways of using the hexmap and, more importantly, the procedures of the hexcrawl as tools of play.

Note: You can probably replace “hex map” with whatever your preferred map type is; it’s just that convention dictates that hexes are the common format. And I like hex maps.

Karameikos, one of the classic locations first envisioned through the medium of hexes. Courtesy of The Atlas of Mystara, who do wonderful work.

1. The Hex Map As Obstacle

You start at point A. You need to get to point B. Between A and B, there’s a big ol’ hexmap full of dangers, and it’s your mission to make it across safely.

These types of hex crawls should emphasize danger and time constraint. If Frodo could have made it to Mordor at a leisurely pace, I daresay that story would have quite less dramatic. The role of the hexmap here is to help the player’s plan their route and help them make meaningful decisions. It needs to be full of regions that are inherently dangerous (foul swamps, dangerous forest, scarred demon-haunted hills, etc.), but also needs to be peppered with safe spots – enough that the PC’s can have the occasional quick breather and regroup before they press. Similarly, some kind of time pressure is good; an index of rising darkness, of the veil between worlds tearing, or how many of the undead king’s hordes have awakened so far. The quest, if you will, needs to propel and push the story forward, and meaningful player choice emerges in how they deal with dangerous encounters with limited time and resources. Discovery is of secondary priority here, and the players should have at least rudimentary intelligence about what they can expect to face.

2. The Hex Map As Conquest

Before you stands a fractured and factionalized land, and it is up to you, dear adventurer, to make a name for yourself and become king/queen/autocrat/first consul/scoundrel duke by your own hand!

This is the kind of hexcrawl suggested by things like Kevin Crawford’s excellent An Echo Resounding sourcebook, but also seen in Paizo’s Kingmaker module for Pathfinder – and indeed present, in a very latent form, in B/X D&D and it’s suggestions of establishing domains. The procedures of such a hexcrawl needs to be sensitive not only to the actions of the PC’s as a party, but the PC’s as a potentially factional/political force.

In a hexcrawl like this, the map needs to be peppered with places that in some way are important to ruling and governance. It needs castles to rebuild, villages to clear of doppelganger conspiracies, lairs from which raiders and ravaging monsters sally forth – problems that when solved would enhance the reputation of PC’s as would-be rulers. Furthermore, it benefits tremendously from having factions already established, preferably tyrannical or dysfunctional ones. Crucially, there needs to be spots of hope and a sense that things can improve and get better (unless you’re want a classically grimdark game). In this type of hexcrawl, each adventure site, location and faction is interesting because of how it fits the politics and power dynamics of the area. Things need to be intertwined and interrelated. Players need to fight in both social and environmental arenas, and they need to be wary of factions and mobilizations beyond a single site.

Even as a non-Pathfinder player, this hexmap makes me want to play Kingmaker. Courtesy of the Lost Atlases blog.

3. The Hex Map As Exploration

A country unmapped by scholars of the known world. A place uncharted, and likely full of wonder and weirdness. A place of adventure most certainly!

Two issues have high priority here: Information and resources. Scouting, gathering intelligence, and generally piercing together a bigger picture is paramount in this type of hexcrawl, and these activities need to be weighing against their cost in resources – which should be scarce or hard to get. A relatively safe home base is good, but beyond that, we’re in terra incognita. Anything could be out there, after all. As long as they have at least one safe place for provisions, equipment, and recruitment, the world around them can be a strange and dangerous place. Exploration-based hexcrawls tend to benefit from a kind of “no mercy” approach to hex contents – what’s there is there, and it is 100% up to the players to beat a retreat when necessary, and 100% up to the GM to telegraph danger and risk meaningfully. This kind of level-indifferent brutality does not fit every kind of group or game, but it is a big part of what gives the West March style of play appeal. And it provides a very genuine sense of achievement and heroism to overcome a terrible obstacle that you discovered, you prepared for, and you ultimately overcame.

This type of hexcrawl really benefits from “push-your-luck” mechanics. Zzarchov Kowolski’s quasi-OSR game Neoclassical Geek Revival has mechanics for giving players more XP the more the press into the dungeon without resting – a similar XP mechanic could very well fit a hex map exploration campaign.

Mixing and Matching

These three broad archetypes can and should cross-pollinate. The 5e module Tomb of Annihilation mixes exploration with a quest. A lot of hexcrawls have areas that are unexplored, and others that are hotbeds of faction play. Classic Mystara tends to have a little bit of each. None of these are mutually exclusive. But either individually or in combination, they require some thought about which procedures to use, what to emphasize, and whether such procedures will help create the gaming experience you want at your table.

OSR Class Shaker v2

Two important events have happened since the original post: Knock! issue 2 was published, and the first non-kickstarter-exclusive issue of Necrotic Gnome’s Carcass Crawl magazine was released. Both are treasure troves of old school goodness, and both offer some quite fun new classes. Thus, time to update the table. Sundry classes from various other sources also added.

The class shaker “rules” are simple: Roll five times for which classes are available at the beginning, and two times for classes that can be unlocked for PC’s through adventure. Build a capsule setting from that.

Class: Mysterious Badass. Art and copyright by Conner Fawcett.

Big Nasty Table of Classes

Die Roll (1d8 and 1d6)ClassSource
1 / 1FighterOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 2ClericOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 3Magic-UserOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 4ThiefOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 5ElfOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 6HalflingOSE Classic Fantasy
2 / 1DwarfOSE Classic Fantasy
2 / 2AcrobatOSE Advanced Fantasy
2 / 3AssassinOSE Advanced Fantasy
2 / 4BarbarianOSE Advanced Fantasy
2 / 5BardOSE Advanced Fantasy
2 / 6DrowOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 1DruidOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 2GnomeOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 3Half-OrcOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 4IllusionistOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 5KnightOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 6 PaladinOSE Advanced Fantasy
4 / 1RangerOSE Advanced Fantasy
4 / 2 Living HarnessKnock! #1
4 / 3Ne’er-do-wellKnock! #1
4 / 4Swarm LordKnock! #1
4 / 5AstromancerThe Crimson Pandect
4 / 6TheurgeThe Crimson Pandect
5 / 1Shakunasar/AzuThe Crimson Pandect
5 / 2DemonologistBrave the Labyrinth #4
5 / 3Beast MasterCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
5 / 4Chaos KnightCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
5 / 5MageCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
5 / 6MutoidCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
6 / 1MycelianCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
6 / 2WardenCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
6 / 3Cave DwarfSlumbering Ursine Dunes
6 / 4War-BearSlumbering Ursine Dunes
6 / 5Crab-ManYoon-Suin
6 / 6VowedRed Tide Campaign Sourcebook
7 / 1Errant FriarKnock! #2
7 / 2Bad BrownieKnock! #2
7 / 3GreyKnock! #2
7 / 4PlatypersonKnock! #2
7 / 5BeggarKnock! #2
7 / 6Prophet of RuinKnock! #2
8 / 1AcolyteCarcass Crawler #1
8 / 2GargantuaCarcass Crawler #1
8 / 3GoblinCarcass Crawler #1
8 / 4KineticistCarcass Crawler #1
8 / 5Monster HonchoScourge of the Scorn Lords
8 / 6MentalistScourge of the Scorn Lords

Results and Riffs

Roll 1

Core Classes: Barbarian, Half-Orc, Knight, Acrobat, Kineticist

Unlockable Classes: Illusionist, Druid

Not a single traditional spell-caster in the core classes! The kineticist is the OSE take on psions, so that does count for something. Strong Dark Sun vibes to this; I imagine a wasteland studded with proud city-states where knightly aristocracies reside, contemptuous of the tribes of the nomad tribes around them, with mercantile caravans / traveling circuses connecting these settlements. Unlocking druids probably involve purifying some defiled wilderness holy places, and illusionists require access to forbidden books kept under lock and key by the knights.

Roll 2

Core Classes: Ne’er-Do-Well, Halfling, Prophet of Ruin, Illusionist, Cleric

Unlockable Classes: Magic-User, Astromancer

I see a great and ruinous city, with a vast underbelly, half dungeon and half slums. Here, the prophets of ruin spread their word to a population with no faith in its future. Halfling households may be the greatest stand against despair in this part of the world. And deep inside the dungeons, below the earth, the brave can uncover the long-lost secrets of the true magic-users and the astromancers – if they dare.

Bonded Treasure, aka The Smaugian Gambit

The Council of Wyrms boxed set for AD&D 2e is an imperfect melange of ideas, and probably way more fun to read and daydream about than it is to run. It is, however, teeming with dragon-focused rules paraphernalia, and among them, the rules for bonded hoards. Essentially, this attempts to make gameable the traditional Germanic folkloric conception of dragon treasure. A dragon that sleeps and rests on its hoard gains a connection, a bond with it. The dragon becomes more powerful, but in turn, it stores some of its energy within that treasure. A dragon that loses parts of its bonded hoard is therefore weakened until the hoard is either restored, or suitable replacements can be found.

I think this is brilliant. It’s like treasure-phylacteries on a lower scale. And more importantly, it gives the dragon’s hoard a new narrative and in-game role without invalidating its former role as loot and reward. It also provides a rationale for monster treasure-hoarding. These objects are not just shiny and pretty – they are literally a way for the monster to survive and grow! Smaug didn’t sit on the hoard of Erebor just for fun, now did he?

Dragon’s Hoard by Stephen Hickman.

And why stop at dragons? Plenty of monsters could have bonds with their treasure. The traditional undead guardians of withering tomb complexes are an obvious choice. A medusa’s bonded treasure could be its pertrified former lovers. A giant’s hoard might be its trophies of slain enemies. And so on. As long as the loot is transferable, the bonded treasure can work, even if it is essentially worthless to the PCs.

Here are some example tables based on the idea.

Generic Germanic Folkloric Dragon

For every 20’000 gp worth of treasure or magic item lost, roll 1d6 for ability affectedAbility affected
1Lose 6 hp.
2Breath weapon only half strength.
3Can fly for no more than one minute a day.
4Lose highest-level spell-casting ability.
5Worsen saving throws by one HD category.
6AC worsens by 1d4.
Adjust as needed if dragon collects books, scrolls, art, cheese, or other item type as its primary treasure.

Tomb-Haunting Ghouls (Effects Apply to All Ghouls in the Tomb)

For every 1’000 gp worth of tomb ornaments, votive gifts and grave goods lost, roll 1d6 for ability affectedAbility affected
1Counts as a 1 HD undead for turning purposes.
2Lose 2 hp.
3AC worsens by 1d3.
4Victims get +3 on saving throws against paralysis.
5Saving throws are all rolled at disadvantage.
6Roll d4s for hp, not d8s.

Grim Fire Giant

For every 8’000 gp worth of trophies, magic items, and fire-themed jewellery lost, roll 1d6 for ability affectedAbility affected
1Lose 10 hp.
2Morale worsens by 2.
3Worsen saving throws by 1 HD category.
4AC worsens by 2.
51d2 guardian monsters leave.
6Roll d6s for hp, not d8s.

Territorial Basilisk

For every petrified victim smashed, 2’000 gp worth of jewels lost, and every magic item lost, roll 1d6 for ability affectedAbility affected
1Petrifying touch ability lost.
2Saving throws against petrifying gaze made at advantage.
3Lose 8 hp.
4Worsen AC by 2.
5Worsen saving throws by 1 HD category.
6Move reduced to 30′ (10′).

Monsters from the Slush Pile

The last few weeks have been quite busy with moving and adjusting to a new life situation, leaving relatively little time for the blog. I intend for that to change soon, and continue the Thrasos posts. Until then, here are some OSR-style monsters from the slush pile, statted in a vaguely-OSE way. Their creation was part drawing practice, part meditation on monsters in the wake of going through the 3.5 Monster Manuals and the amazing Fire on the Velvet Horizon by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess.

OSR Class Shaker

Beside the classic seven B/X classes, the creativity and enterprise of the OSR community has spawned a veritable ocean of classes, and with good reason: classes are fun, they can evocative and flavorful, and they are discreet pieces of rules strongly tied to a concept in the fiction of the world. Plus, classes are one of the most powerful player-facing tools of traditional-style D&D-esque play.

In his OSE supplements, Gavin Norman addresses the issue of having too many classes to choose from, and he suggests limiting the initial choice of PC classes to a handful. I’m a firmly believer in restricting the initial setup for any game, even just a little, and build from there. A limited palette forces interesting choices. There have been many excellent posts on reddit and other forums doing thought experiments along this line: if these classes are the “core classes” of this campaign, what does it suggest about the world and about what kinds of adventures will happen? Furthermore, some OSR material has played around with the idea of ‘unlocking’ classes through adventure, with certain choices only becoming open to the players after completing tasks relating to it.

This is great stuff for kickstarting some creative juices.

The idea is simple: Roll six times on the table for initially available class, roll two times for ‘unlockable’ classes, riff on the results, dream up a world or setting based on that. I wrote some examples here, but I hope this can inspirational for you all out there – if so, share your results and ideas! I oriented this primarily around OSE and its adjacent materials, but it obviously does not reflect what is available or palatable to everyone. Season and change to taste, as with everything.

When every player except one rolls up a fighter. Art by Stepan Alekseev.

Big Nasty Table of Classes

Die Roll (1d6 and 1d6)ClassSource
1 / 1FighterOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 2ClericOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 3Magic-UserOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 4ThiefOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 5ElfOSE Classic Fantasy
1 / 6HalflingOSE Classic Fantasy
2 / 1DwarfOSE Classic Fantasy
2 / 2AcrobatOSE Advanced Fantasy
2 / 3AssassinOSE Advanced Fantasy
2 / 4BarbarianOSE Advanced Fantasy
2 / 5BardOSE Advanced Fantasy
2 / 6DrowOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 1DruidOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 2GnomeOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 3Half-OrcOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 4IllusionistOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 5KnightOSE Advanced Fantasy
3 / 6 PaladinOSE Advanced Fantasy
4 / 1RangerOSE Advanced Fantasy
4 / 2 Living HarnessKnock! #1
4 / 3Ne’er-do-wellKnock! #1
4 / 4Swarm LordKnock! #1
4 / 5AstromancerThe Crimson Pandect
4 / 6TheurgeThe Crimson Pandect
5 / 1Shakunasar/AzuThe Crimson Pandect
5 / 2DemonologistBrave the Labyrinth #4
5 / 3Beast MasterCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
5 / 4Chaos KnightCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
5 / 5MageCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
5 / 6MutoidCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
6 / 1MycelianCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
6 / 2WardenCarcass Crawler Inaugural Issue
6 / 3Cave DwarfSlumbering Ursine Dunes
6 / 4War-BearSlumbering Ursine Dunes
6 / 5Crab-ManYoon-Suin
6 / 6VowedRed Tide Campaign Sourcebook

Results and Riffs

Roll 1

Core Classes: Elf, Warden, Swarm Lord, Half-Orc, Thief, Magic-User. Unlockables: Cave Dwarf, Cleric.

Riff: Quite a few nature-esque classes here; the warden from Carcass Crawler is essentially a spell-less ranger variant, and the swarm lord commands, well, a swarm of stuff. I imagine vast, forested wilderness, where trade caravans travel between the fortified Holy Cities that dot the landscape. Thieves are city outcasts, magic-users are the last inheritors of a magic tradition that was once great. The cave dwarves live in the canyons and dungeons, and if a tribe is befriended, they can be used as PCs; clerics are unavailable until the arbitrary demands of a Holy City’s government are sufficiently met. All this suggests that divine influence is limited – perhaps the few gods left are jealous keepers of ‘civilization’?

Roll 2

Core Classes: Astromancer, Mycelian, Mutoid, Halfling, Illusionist, Fighter. Unlockables: Dwarf, Knight.

Riff: The power of the Chaos Stars has disrupted of magic to this desolate world, where communities of humans and halflings rub shoulders with mushroom-men and chaos-mutated bands of wanders! Below the earth, the Dwarves jealously keep their safe caverns, but may be persuaded to accept upworlders that help them in their wars with the monsters below. Roaming orders of knights insist on upholding a bushido-esque code even in this desolation.

Roll 3

Core Classes: Assassin, Druid, Beast Master, Chaos Knight, Mage. Unlockables: Acrobat, Living Harness.

Riff: Note: the mage class is a variant magic-users modeled more on subtle Gandalf-esque magic through a skill system.

This screams ‘dark fantasy’. Strong ‘nature does not care about you’ vibes with the amount of nature-based classes; this could very well be a game about anti-heroes navigating dangerous wildernesses while dealing with the corruption and decadence of a decaying kingdom that has openly accepted the worship of some dark power. Acrobats can be recruited after making friends with the Royal Circus, and Living Harnesses can be recovered and recruited by delving into ruins from before the corruption of the kingdom.

House War in Thrasos Campaign Seed, Part 1

Being a semi-coherent collection of ideas springing from the thought: What if the players right from the start got to be participants and decision-makers of Game of Thrones political-military faction/domain mess, while also leaving for OSR-style adventuring? Default rule system used is the excellent Worlds Without Number by Kevin Crawford; base ruleset is available for free here. The basic idea is a feudalistic quasi-Byzantine realm torn apart by strife between the noble houses. The players are scions of one such house, and set up their family through a series of prompts, choices, and questions. Tables are presented so they can be rolled on, or results picked as desired. This has not been playtested or put into practice; consider this post a thought experiment that went too far.

Become king by your own hand! Or become friends with someone who does, it’s all cool.

What’s The Situation?

The heartlands of the Empire of Thrasos are in turmoil. The last emperor of the Panaphratzes dynasty, Baiannes VI, is dead, killed at the hands of his own Imperial Grandees. For decades, the Panahphratzes have been growing lax in their duty to organize resistance against the seeping influence of the Ur-Abyss and its demonic progeny. Now, with no heir to the throne, it seems the Empire has finally lost its mandate as rulers. The imperial noble houses look elsewhere while the threat of the Ur-Abyss grows ever more acute. Independence is, for the first time in memory, a valid option – if your House can scramble to the top in the chaos of strife, that is.

Your House

Start at Cunning 1, Force 1, Wealth 1, Magic Low. Starting attributes can never exceed 3; re-roll if a result would increase an attribute to that.

Your House is based in… (1d6)

  1. The Cradle of Kings, where three rivers meet and the crops are plentiful. (+1 Wealth)
  2. The Gold-Bone Coast, where ships from beyond bring their wares. (+1 Wealth)
  3. The Highlands of Caiamedes, where the sheep grow crimson wool and wyverns roam the night. (+1 Force)
  4. The Perimeter Fiefs, where demonic beasts stalk the stony moors and rocky hills. (+1 Force)
  5. Old Saurametes, where philosophers and haruspices debate among the ruins of a fallen people. (+1 Cunning).
  6. A (Former) Imperial Throne City; roll 1d4 to determine where. (+1 Cunning)

Your House ancestors were… (1d6)

  1. Impeccably Thrasoan, with impressive genealogical records to show for it.
  2. Mercenaries from the Hypo-Steppe, giving nobility for their service in the demon wars.
  3. Originally petty lords of the kingdom of Drevnic, adopting Thrasoan customs after their lands were annexed by the Empire.
  4. Caiamedeans, the people the Empire could never break and thus allowed self-governing territories.
  5. Philosopher-kings of Old Saurametes, folded into Imperial nobility.
  6. Refugee merchants of a faraway land, who came to Thrasos as exiles and eventually earned noble titles.

Your House motto is… (1d8)

  1. “By Bow and By Sword.” (+1 Force)
  2. “Uncowered, Undeceived, Unbeatable.” (+1 Force)
  3. “Patience Unending.” (+1 Cunning)
  4. “Let Others Perish.” (+1 Cunning)
  5. “Sow, Reap, Grow.” (+1 Wealth)
  6. “Our Coin Is Justice.” (+1 Wealth)
  7. “Suffer No Evil.” (Magic to None; Gain Informers Asset)
  8. “With Boundless Knowledge.” (Magic to Medium)

Your House follows the religious precepts of… (1d4)

  1. The Court of Wisdom, whose many saints provide insight and guidance.
  2. The Cult of the Goddess-In-Iron, who teaches strength and courage.
  3. The Neo-Dualist Mysteries, which reveal the constant struggle between Eternity and the Abyss.
  4. Thrasoan Aniconism, which cautions that idolatry is a tool of the Ur-Abyss.

Your House Seat is… (1d4)

  1. A villa complex in the countryside. (Gain Base of Influence and Farmers Asset)
  2. A fortified tower on a hill. (Gain Base of Influence and Infantry Asset that counts as Force 1, but cannot move)
  3. A bustling trade town. (Gain Base of Influence and Monopoly Asset that counts as Wealth 2, but cannot move)
  4. A temple-fortress once belonging to a heretical warrior-cult. (Gain Base of Influence and +1 Force)
14th Century French miniature of the crusader conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

Your House is recognized for… (1d10)

  1. Its record-keeping informant-chroniclers (+1 Cunning; Gain Blackmail Asset).
  2. Its mystical induction rites (+1 Cunning; Gain Petty Seers Asset).
  3. Its tradition of chivalry (+1 Force; Gain Fearful Intimidation Asset).
  4. Its deep ties to the common folk (+1 Force; Gain Guerilla Populace Asset).
  5. Its trade connections with the Mercantile Guilds (+1 Wealth; Gain Caravan Asset).
  6. Its patronage of Saurametean philosophers (+1 Wealth; Gain Dragonsman Asset).
  7. Its well-funded irregular militia (Gain Armed Guards and Thugs Assets).
  8. Its terraced gardens and excellent lotus crops (Gain Farmers and Smugglers Assets).
  9. Its finely-honed sense of business (Gain Useful Idiots and Front Merchant Assets).
  10. Its regiment of House Grandees (Gain Cavalry Asset that counts as Force 2, not 4).

A pivotal part in your House’s history is… (1d10)

  1. Its acceptance of renegade demon-blooded who rejected the Ur-Abyss. (Characters of your House can take the Xenoblooded Focus to simulate their Abyssal heritage)
  2. The Inheritance of Maximines Raxos, a wealthy magnate, whose treasury was bequeathed to your House. (Start with 2 additional Treasury)
  3. House head’s tenure as State Magister helped establish dynastic influence. (Gain a Base of Influence in a settlement in the Cradle of Kings.)
  4. Family tradition of educating heirs at an Academy in Old Saurametes. (Gain a Base of Influence in a settlement in Old Saurametes.)
  5. Its securing of an arcane stockpile during the Third Abyssal Incursion. (Gain two occult exemplars worth 40,000 sp each)
  6. The Imperial gift-giving after your House remained loyal during the Half-Brother’s Rebellion. (Roll a random Major magical weapon that gifted to your House as an heirloom; name it).
  7. Shameful secret dealings with Abyssal cultists, where dark arcane was gained for gold and silver. (The first Asset that has Low or higher Magic requirement that your House purchases costs half.)
  8. Its custom of organizing delves into pre-Imperial ruins. (Gain two randomly determined magic items.)
  9. Its eager patronage of art and music. (+1 Wealth; the first Court Patronage Asset your House purchases is at half price.)
  10. Its association with the illicit lotus trade. (Gain the Smugglers Asset.)
12th Century miniature of Byzantines defeated by the Bulgarian Tsar Simeon I.

One faction of the collapsing Empire is your hereditary foe, another has always supported you… (1d6 twice; re-roll duplicate results).

  1. House Paulonos, the foremost family in the Cradle of Kings. Always have they craved the Imperial throne and the trappings of Empire. Will you help them reunite the Empire, or oppose their brazen power-grab?
  2. House Areistes, a cadet branch of the Panaphratzes based in the Perimeter Fiefs. Fierce Aniconists, they are the sworn foe of all demons and Abyssal monsters. Will you help them in their quest to contain the Ur-Abyss, or let them bleed dry before you pick them off?
  3. House Zenob, the gilded masters of the coastal town of Rymnos. With the Imperial navy destroyed in the turmoil, their mighty navy now counts as the finest in Thrasos. Will you assist them in their defense of trade and prosperity, or will you resist these falsehood-spewing coinclippers?
  4. House Kryne, greatest of the slayer-clans of Caiamedes. Proud warriors that will suffer no insult, nor compromise their autonomy in the face of turmoil. Will you join forces in their defense of their ancestral lands, or will you make sure these stubborn provincials are finally folded into a proper kingdom?
  5. House Mendicar, inheritors of Old Saurametes. Before the Empire, there was the city-states and kingdoms of Saurametes, and House Mendicars are the most powerful curators of this ancient legacy. Will you help them restore their land so that philosophy and reason may rule again, or will you crush their nostalgic dreams and force them to face the future?
  6. House Runaides, border princes of Drevnici descent. A stern family that has always kept a low profile, the Runaides now see their chance to break free and carve out their own polity, vassals of neither Drevnic nor Thrasos. Will you join their fight for independence and recognition, or will you break the will of these dissident half-barbarians?

The upheaval caused your House to suffer misfortunes… (1d6)

  1. Divided loyalties among commanders and knights resulted in a deadly scuffle. (Highest Force value unit starts at half HP; if multiple units are tied for value, both start at half HP.)
  2. The unrest has caused several ledgers and records to be destroyed and lost, significantly affecting economic efficiency. (First two Faction turns, gain only half Treasure.)
  3. Your rivals have taken advantage the turmoil and struck first against your connections and estates. (All Wealth Assets start at half HP.)
  4. Several informants have been executed or have defected, leaving a significant intelligence gap. (Your House cannot buy Cunning Assets for 1d4 Faction turns).
  5. The muster roll has been gravely affected by the turmoil. (Your House cannot buy new Force Assets for 1d4 Faction turns.)
  6. A spot of Ur-Abyssal influence has been left unchecked; a particularly large and vile monster has entered your lands, threatening your Assets. (Must be dealt with! It’s a demon mini-kaiju!)

That’s all for now. More to come to cover thoughts on character generation, adventures, and projects.

The Lesson of Gonzo

The semantics of sub-genres are iffy. To some, gonzo implies a wild-style, ‘everything goes!’, kitchen sink madness full of cybernetic lizardmen breakdancing while naked wizards throw exploding jelly beans at city-sized butt-demons. Some gonzo really does embrace that chaos, often with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. It’s not my cup of tea; it’s too disjointed, it’s too fourth-wall-breaking, and it’s too inconsistent about its own internal logic. I find that when gonzo incorporates everything it gets no flavor from anything, because there’s always something wackier, something more absurd, right around the corner. Gonzo-fatigue sets in when every element of the world seems to be there just to out-awesome and out-weird the other elements.

That’s not to say there aren’t useful lessons to learn from gonzo. Quite the contrary. I think gonzo ideas and aesthetics tell us something fundamental about creativity. If we peel away the layers of airbrushed-on-the-side-of-a-van aesthetics of the most outrageous gonzo material, the concept of gonzo in essence revolves around taking two (or more) things we don’t immediately imagine as compatible, and then smashing them together.

In On Writing, Stephen King discusses one of his ‘cheat codes’ for getting a story idea: simply taking two seemingly unrelated concepts and bashing them together. Apparently, he conceived of Carrie after reading a newspaper article about high school girl cliques after having seen a TV program on psychic powers. Bam! That’s gonzo as hell, and the result is glorious.

I used to hate the proto-gonzo of Expedition for Barrier Peaks for ‘bringing spaceships into my fantasy!’ Today, I implore everyone to crash a spaceship or two in their campaign setting!

The less cognitive fatigue the initial premise demands, the easier buy-in is, and the easier it will be to expand the weirdness down the line rather than front-loading it. Gonzo should in imagination vitamins, and it should be punchy. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (which, honestly, should be regulated as a form of psychedelic drug) is brimming with strangeness, but its initial premise is understandable, if odd. Tolkien used the relatively palatable idea of pastoral communities of kind hobbits to lead us into a story of walking trees, fire-demons and resurrecting wizards. Gonzo. As. Hell. Kevin Crawford’s Godbound rulebook has an example setting absolutely bursting with gonzo ideas, from mecha-tsars to monster-eating bounty hunters and a hyper-atheistic ‘theocracy’ secretly ruled by vengeful angels. Gonzo. As. ALL. HELL.

Traditional gonzo stumbles when it wears its juxtaposing nature on its sleeves. When constant attention is brought to its thematically disparate elements, the whole does not become more than the sum of its parts. It just becomes clashing parts. With the right tongue-in-cheek attitude, this can be fun in and of itself (and fun is nothing to scoff at), at the cost of a coherent universe.

The lesson, I think, is that we don’t need to overdesign or overemphasize a setting’s contrasting elements to reap the benefits of gonzo. Cool ideas emerge from the combination of constituent parts. Traditional gonzo flagrantly and flamboyantly teaches us to throw things in the creative blender and press the button. We might not like all the results, and that’s fine. It’s a part of the creative process. I, for one, tip my hat to the wizards on spaceships, the cyber-dinosaurs and the three-headed mutant halflings with uzis. Your weirdness is part of what keeps our weird hobby from creative atrophy.

Riffing on ‘The Vast in the Dark’

Charlie Ferguson-Avery’s The Vast In the Dark zine is a treasure, and I highly recommend anyone with an interest in slightly off-beat OSR-adjacent material picks it up. The zine presents itself as being “about exploring dark and alien megastructures of an infinite realm”, and it delivers on that deliciously ominous tease. It’s a toolbox, succinctly written and jam-packed with neat ideas. Only negative? It’s fairly short, and I would love to see more of Charlie’s vision of this fascinating premise.

Setting, mood and tone are important in The Vast In the Dark. Rather than being set in quasi-European castles and dungeon, the Vast is more akin to something from the most feverish and half-mad realms of decayed beauty from the stranger bits of Lovecraft and Ashton-Smith. Unknowable, hostile, yet indifferent, all tinged with Dark Souls-esque ruin and a sense of melancholic dread. The zine packs a punch.

Handy in print too!

It present some variant rules for hexcrawling, exhaustion, generating ruins, inventory management, and so on, all broadly compatible with most OSR systems. It also has rules for what Charlie has termed ‘the Harrowing’, described as “an erosion of memory, drive and desire” that infects those who wander the Vast. It works like this: Each PC writes down five memories that drive their character. Certain events trigger losing one of these memories permanently. When the fifth memory is lost, the PC dies or effectively becomes an NPC, another empty husk of a being left to wander the Vast. It’s brilliant stuff.

Charlie’s Harrowing rules have achieved what I have seen many other game-tinkerers (including myself) have failed to: To mechanize the sense of spiritual dread that pervades so much dark fantasy media. They’ve done it in a way that’s thematic, evocative, unburdensome, and completely in line with OSR design principles. It instantly inspired me to think further on its possibilities.

I can imagine a game where death is inconvenience and not an end, but losing Memories is permanently dangerous. Where danger is as much about the condition of one’s soul and spirit as it is about physical danger. To muse on Charlie’s excellent rules, there might be a way of regaining lost Memories, much as Humanity can be restored in Dark Souls. But it should be a finite resource, dangerous to get hold of – and dropping to 0 hp is listed as something that triggers a loss of Memory…

Perhaps this game takes place in a pseudo-afterlife. The Vast might be a space between life and death, where (to steal from Dark Souls once more “the flow of time itself is convoluted”. The characters aren’t adventurers; they are the Limbo-bound lost souls of adventurers. Adventuring in the Vast is a quest not for riches and glory, but a quest to escape the entropy that withers everything away. The goal is motivated by hope, and that hope is expressed in Memories.

Cool. Chilling, but cool.

Thank you, Charlie, for this spark of brilliance.

Thoughts On Delving, Burning and In-Betweens

My current Burning Wheel campaign is wrapping up, and so we’re discussing what to play afterwards. We still want to play BW, and it was suggested that we could do a ‘Burning OSR’, and take the traditional starting premise of dungeon-delving knaves out for treasure as a springboard for a campaign. This, in a sense, is very much the idea of Torchbearer, which I sadly haven’t played.

Threw a ‘teaser poster’ for the idea together in Affinity.

All this got me thinking about ways to inject some OSR into Burning Wheel and vice versa. A quixotic task. The two systems exist in vastly different spaces, and operate on vastly different mechanical chassis. Creating a character for B/X D&D can be done in minutes; burning a character for BW can take all afternoon. OSR wants you to accept that your character can die any moment; BW tends to make death rare and dramatic. We can compare and contrast until the end of time easily enough.

Yet what both systems share is a sense of struggle. A sense that every decision can and will matter, that consequences (good or bad) will appear based on player agency, and that no reward comes without a cost. We can do a couple of gross simplifications here.

Burning Wheel is a highly character-centric game, and so rewards and obstacles tend to be structured around the emotional lives of the PC’s. They believe Thing A, which is at odds with their loyalty to Thing B, while they are instinctively driven to do Thing C, and so on. The inner struggle is often the most powerful in Burning Wheel. BW is Luke and Vader in the lift before entering the Emperor’s throne room; it is Aragorn agonizing over his shame about his heritage.

OSR gaming tends to be more focused on the physical space and on physical rewards and obstacles. You delve for physical treasure, and while there is obvious psychological elements (and sometimes codified rules) to the whole affair, the drama of OSR stems from how spatial and physical problems are dealt with by the characters. OSR is Indiana Jones running from the rolling boulder; it is Conan attempting to infiltrate the orgiastic rituals of Thulsa Doom.

These two kinds of struggle could, and should, cross-pollinate and inform each other. They do so a bit by default, of course. But can they do so even more, without becoming an awkward attempt to hybridize two systems with very different design intents? No one wants to show up to play Old School Essentials and then be told we’re actually playing Burning Wheel in disguise – and I strongly suspect the reverse to be true as well.

For OSR, I think the answer might lie in emergent context. Whenever there’s a goal reached, or a sacrifice made, or some other powerful decision point, it’s a spotlight on the character(s) making that decision. Ask them about what drove them here. Questions are good, leading questions even better. When the 1st level party returns from their first delve, ask them what keeps them from retiring on the spot with the loot they got. When the fighter almost died and was saved by the last cure spell, what thoughts allowed him to grip unto life? Contextualize the inner life of the character through their physical hardship, and empower the seat-gripping moments with just a bit of extra spice. Hitch unto the dramatic moments rather than the downtime moments for revelation and exploration of characters. It might reveal something cool.

For Burning Wheel, physical obstacles disconnected from the character’s story feel awkward and arbitrary. In the words of one of my players, “There are no random encounter tables in this game”. There aren’t, and that’s for a reason. The opposition to PC’s in Burning Wheel is less interested in the interactive physical specifics, and more in the opposition’s relationship to the PC’s character. But, and this is an important but, a lot of the inspirations for Burning Wheel strongly emphasize the physical hardships as well. BW games can too often over-focus on the inner struggle and emotional sacrifices. The resource management of OSR gaming is enlightening here. Torches are sparse. Food is running low. The rocks are slippery, leading to a great chasm. These are all challenges the heroes of the great tales must face, and there is no reason our BW protagonists shouldn’t either. Do not handwave their rations when they go on an expedition; do not skip over climbing the cliffs so we can get heart-wrenching inner drama; do not let them go through mud and blood without getting their clothes real damned dirty. The struggle should be fair, but it should be a struggle.