“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective.” – G.K. Chesterton
It’s like this: When I’m tired, or irritable, I run off in all directions, learning new games and creating or converting new settings; but when I’m calm and rested, I keep coming back to a handful of them.
That handful is All Things Zombie, Traveller, Dark Nebula, Dungeons & Dragons, and Savage Worlds (in which I include Beasts & Barbarians).
So, for 2015, I’ve decided to embrace those and focus on them, building a greater understanding of how they work and the kind of detailed settings and backstories I admire so much when other game masters provide them.
Consider this post a line drawn under what has gone before, and a reboot for such games as survive. (I thought about deleting the old stuff or starting a new blog, but I usually regret doing that later.)
Moving forward, since I think of my campaigns as action-adventure TV shows, I will focus on each of them for 26 weeks in turn, that being how long a season of a show used to last before the writers’ strike and the adoption of mid-season breaks.
We’ll start with the Dark Nebula. Buckle up, sports fans. It’s going to be a fun ride.
I think the next session could well see the party back in town, so I need to work out what’s there quickly. Out comes Red Tide and its GM aids; we’ve already established that the Temple of Athena has influence and that there is a powerful wizard nearby, so I pick the city tags of Important Temple (p. 107) and Magical School (p.108). Much though I like Thegn Ragnvald as an NPC, nobody has gone near him since he was created nearly a year ago, so he fades into the background.
The Temple of Athena
The Temple is the local headquarters of the Order of the Minewatch, which sponsors paladin PCs. Like the historical Knights Templar, this is a religious fighting order established to protect travellers – in this case, those on the main east-west caravan route from Ezhdan to Skulos, and the river route from the Sea of Marenos north to Hjemland. The biggest danger in both cases was posed by the monstrous inhabitants of Irongrave, so the Order founded its headquarters and largest temple in the nearest town – Murad. Play has already established that friends at the Temple include Bishop Otus, high priest and Grand Master of the order, and his acolyte Galen; likewise we know that there is a relic, the Holy Handkerchief of St Veronica. Galen doesn’t fit into the “official” version of the tag, but useful as these GM tools are, they serve me, not the other way around.
As preparation for a scenario involving the Temple, should one be needed, I crack open Stars Without Number and roll percentile dice on the adventure seeds table on pp 133-136. A score of 44 tells me that “A librarian Friend has discovered an antique databank with the coordinates of a long-lost pretech cache hidden in a Place sacred to a long-vanished religion. The librarian is totally unsuited for danger, but necessary to decipher the obscure religious iconography needed to unlock the cache. The cache is not the anticipated Thing, but something more dangerous to the finder.”
No need to create another NPC, Galen seems perfectly suited to this. Galen has recently bought a scroll from a caravan merchant, and on reading it discovers directions to a lost shrine of Minerva, as Athena was known to the vanished Empire of the Wolf, in the depths of the forest north east of Murad. This shrine contains the Helm of Minerva, a powerful artefact. On fighting their way through various encounters to the shrine, the PCs discover the Helm long gone, if it was ever there, and some suitably heinous undead in residence instead. If they survive that, they can go looking for the Helm.
The Magical School
I know from previous sessions that Myrrdin the wizard lives near Murad, and that one of his former apprentices turned to the Dark Side. That gives me a Friend, again not one on the list in Red Tide but never mind, and a Complication, which is on the list.
Rolling again on the SWN adventure seed table, I get 41; “A Friend who is a skilled precognitive has just received a flash of an impending atrocity to be committed by an Enemy. He or she needs the party to help them steal the Thing that will prove the Enemy’s plans while dodging the assassins sent to eliminate the precog.”
Again reusing an existing NPC, I make Myrrdin the precognitive. Looking at p. 108 of Red Tide, I decide the head of a rival school will do for the Enemy, and a tome of forbidden lore for the Thing. That triggers an association for me with SPI’s Demons, which I’m using for the wilderness map.
If this scenario seems appropriate, Myrrdin summons the PCs to tell them that he has had a premonition that his old rival, Kyryl the Skulan, has acquired a copy of the forbidden Lamegeton, a tome of demonology, and that Kyryl plans to use this to kill him and loot his tower. The party’s tasks are to protect Myrrdin from demonic assassins (which fortunately can only be sent during specific phases of the moon) and recover the book (which Kyryl is bringing with him as he travels into Gardar in pursuit of his dark goals).
Job done, in about 15 minutes. All I need now is players. I’m now covered for one session if they turn around and march out of the dungeon, and two sessions if they don’t; time to down tools for the moment.
I switched over to using Black Hand Source’s Dwarven Kingdom as the Irongrave dungeon map a couple of sessions ago, and allocated each page in that document a group of dominant monsters – Orcs rule the complex shown on page 5, for instance. When last seen, the party were marching in a determined manner into an area set aside for Ancient Constructs (Red Tide p. 117).
So, what I thought I needed for the next session were some statistics for them, and I was all set to convert them; but after a little thought I decided I could use the One Page Bestiary (see tab above) and save myself the effort.
Based on their hit dice, Men of Jade and Clay and Porcelain Servitors are Novice stock NPCs, while War Golems and Black Jade Juggernauts are Veteran ones; the Juggernaut retains its immunity to normal weapons as a monstrous ability, and of course they all have the Construct ability.
Novice parties have a Weak encounter, Seasoned ones an Average encounter, and Veteran ones a Strong encounter. I’ll assume that each construct is armed with something that allows it to make full use of its Strength die in melee, and that they do not use ranged weapons.
Job done. This new ruthless attitude to preparation is working well. All I need now is to get the players together again, and we’re off.
I like my campaigns to be a persistent environment; if you scrawl graffiti on a wall during one adventure, the next time anyone goes past the wall, it should still be there.
However, the level of carnage and vandalism the current PCs are wreaking in the dungeon of Irongrave is making this problematical – the voluminous notes and extra marks on the map required by this will be too much effort to keep up under my new ruthless regime
So, I need some way to make the regular disappearance of their graffiti and stripped corpses reinforce the persistence of the environment. Luckily, old school dungeons already have the concept of a clean-up crew to address this issue – assorted giant insects and scavengers clean up the bodies, and since I’ve already established Red Tide‘s ancient constructs as inhabitants of the complex, they can be maintenance crews, cleaning and repairing the dungeon as best they can.
Once the PCs notice that the evidence of their passing has been removed, they can encounter a work crew of Men of Jade and Clay, supervised by a Porcelain Servitor and protected by more militant constructs. Should they encounter constructs before then, I know that they will be carrying buckets, mops and tools, and that other monsters generally leave them alone, the beasts because they are inedible and intelligent monsters because otherwise they’ll have to clean up their own mess.
Compared to most fantasy RPGs, Savage Worlds has a limited number of monster types.
My guess is that this is because games like D&D apply the Sorting Algorithm of Evil; as PCs level up, their goblinoid opponents likewise have to scale up from goblins to orcs to bugbears and so on. D&D 3e gave intelligent monsters levels to compensate for this, and D&D 4e has different variants of the same monster for this reason.
It’s easy to apply trappings to monsters – use the same stats with a different description – but it’s also easy to buff monsters while you do so, much along the same lines I mentioned in the One Page Bestiary. You can:
- Increase all the creature’s die types by one – this gives +1 Toughness as well each time you do it.
- Make them Wild Cards.
- Increase their Size and/or Armour.
- Apply other weirdness to taste.
For example, a mummies might be Wild Card zombies, with a Weakness to fire. The ancient dust stirred up in combat with them causes an airborne, long-term, minorly debilitating disease as per SW Deluxe p. 87. The zombies themselves might be Soldiers with the Undead monstrous ability applied, if I’m playing away from home.
While Nessime, Gutz (formerly known as Tenchi) and The Warforged were resting just inside the Great Hall of Kings, they were approached by Athienne and Garstrewt – these two had been exploring the hall, and hid during the fight. The five recognised each other as regulars of the Brass Dragon in Murad, and agreed to join forces.
Moving off towards the northeast, they searched several rooms, finding nothing of value but triggering a trap which released wolves onto them. Slaying these, they crossed an underground lake by bridge, finding a dying dwarf who gave them a key. This turned out to be useful when they triggered a portcullis trap, as it allowed them to open the inset door.
The session closed with them pausing to compose themselves before moving on, further to the northeast.
GM: Taking a leaf from Ars Ludi’s book, the snug at the Brass Dragon has a table where the various parties scratch rough maps of the dungeon to share information. I shall create this somehow from the party cartographers’ scribblings and see what it winds up like.
Player choices have consequences for me too. Their choice of the Norse pantheon meant that the local culture should be Norse, or nearly. Earlier play had established that the characters’ native land was ruled by foreign invaders, so that meant the Rus. That in turn meant a different map. In my usual lazy way, I scouted around for a map I could reuse, and alighted upon the map from SPI’s Demons. This little beauty suits the emerging concept of the Rus, with orcs standing in for Mongols.
I was at first concerned about copyright, but then I noticed that the map is actually central Armenia at a scale of about 2.5 miles per hex, rotated slightly anticlockwise – in the real world, Echmiadzin is pretty much due west of Yerevan. That scale was too small for my needs, though, so I expanded it to 25 miles per hex.
There’s even a real-world iron mine in hex 0610, shown as Tapas. I’ve marked that as Irongrave, with a mine symbol.
I also lifted the idea of demonologists searching for treasure. There should be a few scenarios in that. Given that they enter the map from the left-hand edge, they enter Gardar from Skulos.
For some time now, I’ve ruled that unless the player says otherwise, the character has the same handedness and gender as the player.
As an experiment, I’m now extending that so that the character speaks whatever languages the player speaks, at whatever level of fluency the player speaks them.
I tried that out in Irongrave first, and it’s been fun, for me at least. The languages there align as follows:
- Dwarves: German.
- Elves: French.
- Empire of the Wolf: Italian.
- Ezhdan Caliphate: Turkish. Also spoken by dragons, kobolds etc.
- Gardar, Hjemland: English – the “common tongue”.
- Iron Horde: Russian.
- Rakashans: Japanese.
- Skulos: Greek.
I hope no more races come into the game, because I’m pretty much out of languages now.
Please note: I have allocated languages to cultures based solely on being able to say something appropriate in that language – don’t read any more into it than that!
(And the post title? It means “Look out! There’s a trap!” in Turkish.)
Various decisions the players have made over the last couple of weeks, for example their liking of the Norse pantheon, mean I’ve felt the need to reboot Irongrave.
It’s not like they’ve actually been anywhere more than about ten miles from the dungeon yet. They won’t even notice.
I still like the Welsh Piper’s idea of zooming in and out of the hexgrid, but this time I’m starting at the top and zooming in. Here’s the continent of Varldsdel at a scale of 625 miles per hex:
This means that each hex is roughly the size of a European country. At the next level down, each of these hexes is subdivided into 125 mile subhexes, each of which is roughly one month’s strategic move in WHAA. Below that we move to 25 mile hexes, which is going to be my standard wilderness scale.
For encounters with military forces I think I’ll use CR3.0 Swordplay Army Lists, with WHAA for other encounters.
- Gardar is based on the Kievan Rus, while Hjemland uses Viking-era Sweden as its template. Both use the Northmen Army List.
- The Iron Horde are orc and goblin steppe nomads, so use the Nomad, Goblin or Orc Army Lists, depending on how I feel at the time.
- Ezhdan is a vaguely Middle Eastern Caliphate with a state religion of dragon-worship. It uses the Eastern Empire Army List.
- Skulos is based on Byzantium, and uses the Western Army List.
I expect that the campaign will be limited to Gardar for years yet, but it is useful to know roughly what is off the edge of the main map.
Nessime, Tenchi and the Warforged continued their quest for the Holy Handkerchief of St. Veronica, tracking its Orcish thieves upriver to an abandoned dwarven city. Here they found a small tribe of orcs, with a chieftain, an ogre, and a handful of dire wolves.
Convincing themselves that the dire wolves chained up in the guard rooms were actually werewolves, they bypassed these entirely and moved off towards the main entrance hall. The howling and barking from the dire wolves had roused the orcs, however, and a pitched battle emerged. Using a favourite tactic, the party retreated to a corridor where the orcs could only come at them two at a time, and inflicted massive casualties before the orcs decided to retreat and fight again another day.
During the combat, they killed the ogre (which they have yet to identify, beyond it being some kind of large orcish thing) and looted its body, whereupon they found the Holy Handkerchief in use as (what else) a handkerchief.
It is to be hoped that the necessary washing and purification will not damage the inherent magic of the relic.
Session 5 closed with the group resting in the city, having barred the exit to keep out werewolves. The paranoid fear of werewolves they have developed since session 3 is most gratifying.
Quote of the session: Nessime, wanting to throw rocks at orcs, discovering she had no Throwing skill, and scanning her character sheet to see what skills she did have:
“I Persuade the rocks to throw themselves at the orcs…”