Saturday, December 24, 2022

State of the Blog Year 4

This is the 4th anniversary of A Distant Chime! Time really does fly, I hope you're all having another wonderful Christmas Eve, now onto the year's reflections. 


In keeping with the trend from last year, 2022 saw fewer posts than any previous full year. There's a few reasons for this. I've been balancing school with a part time job this year, I've been dedicating more time to running games than writing about them (the L5R game the last few posts were about is ongoing, I just haven't been good at writing up play reports). The biggest difference is that this year I've started a long-term romantic relationship. That said, there are a few posts I recommend reading:

Books for Dungeon Masters: The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker recommends an excellent nonfiction book, whose prose can be a great aid to DMs learning to narrate

Julius Wavestone Keep Killing! is a short adventure I wrote for Bryce Lynch's Wavestone Keep contest, which got a decent review from him, and which I found gratifying

An Alternative Humanity in Vampire: the Masquerade takes Justin Alexander and Yora's criticisms of VtM's Humanity system and proposes an alternative which lends itself to a quite different playstyle. If I run VtM in the future, I'll do it this way


Blogger tells me that this blog received 60k views this year, more so than any previous year, accounting for a plurality of my all time 150k views. How this occurred in a year when I wrote less often than ever before I'll never know. I suppose this is the strength of a big backlog. Interestingly, the most popular post this year was the Epilogue for my Castle Xyntillan campaign series. 


I occasionally share my posts on the OSR discord, but that's about it, but it doesn't seem to have hurt readership too much. 

The Index

Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level posts stretch far away

Away from the Blog

I've been running fewer games online (only a handful this year so far), and more in person. Still, those were fewer games than in previous years, less than twenty, a far cry from the pandemic days when I would regularly run two online games a week. I don't regret this, since that time is going into things I value more highly, but I am feeling the effects of not having a nearby, stable group a lot of the time. Most of the people in my Ptolus game earlier in the year are also in my current L5R game, but I can't rely on them also being around for more than a couple years out. This is both because it's a university group, and because I move around a lot, I don't live in one place for more than a few years at a time, making cultivating a solid group for long-term in-person play difficult. A couple months ago I tried to recapture some of the magic by gathering players I knew from DMing online during the pandemic for an AD&D 1e game, the world for which I've been prepping for a while now, albeit privately rather than on the blog. I managed to make a session work, but some player fallout after the session heavily demoralized me, and speaking with a couple players it's clear that the environment for online play just isn't what it was a couple years ago. My best players are older, married with kids, and during a time when they were laid off or otherwise had more time on their hands, it was possible to dedicate a lot of time to games. But this is less the case now. 

I intend to take a break from DMing online, and from playing online as well (with the exception of participating in Rick Stump's very occasional sessions and PbP) and focus on in person games, even if those campaigns are shorter term and for shifting groups. 

If there's one thing I'm proud of this year, it's that I introduced my little cousin (10 years old!) to old school D&D. I did that last year actually, but when he visited for the summer he was obsessed, and I wound up running some simplified AD&D 1e for him and my girlfriend. They had a delightful time, and I've now set him up with OSE books and Rich Burlew's color-in monster tokens, which he should be getting... oh right about now. He intends to run games for his friends in school, and I for one can't wait to watch that happen. 


Thus ends another year! I hope you all have an excellent holiday season, spend time with your families, and special thanks again to commenters Sofinho and Spwack!

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Emerald Empire Sessions 2 and 3: A Writ of Justice

My Legend of the 5 Rings game continues! Hiruma Saya's player's cousin visited us and I took it upon myself to introduce him to tabletop games as a guest player. 


Bayushi Nori, Scorpion clan courtier
Suzume Minori, Sparrow clan warrior
Tsuruchi Kenzo, Wasp clan archer
Kitsuki Ayumi, Dragon clan investigator
Hiruma Saya, Crab clan scout
(Absent in session 3) Shiba Imori, Phoenix clan warrior 
(Guest in session 3) Ryuma, Unicorn-born ronin
(NPC) Akodo Torokai, Lion clan shugenja

The Session

The party learned that Kitsu Rin, court diviner of Vigilance Castle, was missing, and resolved to solve this mystery. 

The next morning they spoke with Matsu Hiro at greater length and learned more about the situation. They were granted access to Kitsu Rin's room, and Ayumi's keen eye soon found several clues. The floor had been scoured with lye, but a trace of the pollutant remained: a bloodstain. His desk had a secret compartment, which had recently housed something, but was now empty, and showed no sign of forced entry. Outside the window, on the ground three floors down in some bushes, they spotted something glinting. Akodo Torokai later collected it and confirmed it was an amulet Kitsu Rin frequently wore. 

The party spoke to the various guest samurai, whom Matsu Hiro suspected. They determined that the Scorpion courtier, Yogo Akira, wasn't what he seemed. In fact, he likely wasn't a courtier, and his painting secretly encoded the locations of Lion clan battle camps. 

Isawa Kato, the Phoenix shugenja, accepted Bayushi Nori's challenge to a go game, and won handily, while the rest of the group determined that he was preparing suspicious scrolls. Shiba Imori accepetd Mirumoto Nobara's challenge to a sparring duel, and was defeated, but earned her trust, while the rest of the group learned about the castle's history from Doji Mai: until recently it had been a Crane stronghold, but the Lion clan invaded it, and the Crane samurai within threw themselves from the tower rather than be captured. 

The party also investigated the servants and the steward, Roku. They quickly determined that several of them knew more than they were letting on, and with Matsu Hiro's permission pressed Roku more forcefully. He was extremely confused, but the truth soon came out. A week previous, they had been summoned to Kitsu Rin's room, and saw Matsu Hiro leaving with a bloody blade, Kitsu Rin dying on the floor. He ordered them to clean up the mess and bury the body, and then he took several documents, which Roku presumed got burned. Thereafter they buried the body away from the castle. 

The next day the party took Roku to investigate the burial site with a crew of eta (the lowest caste, responsible for filthy jobs such as touching corpses) and confirmed Kitsu Rin's body was there. They also found that he had inscribed something into his arm using his fingernail, a series of ragged characters which spelled out 'Ko-ra-to'. 

Back at the castle, Akodo Torokai broke the news of the party's investigations to Matsu Hiro. The lord was overcome by grief, and soon afterwards departed for a local monastery for an indeterminate period of time. 

That very day, however, the party received a letter from the nearby North Hub Village, requesting aid on behalf of Otomo Sojin, a prominent courtier of the Imperial clan. They made their way with all due haste, arriving the following afternoon. Just within the town gates they were met by a ronin, Ryuma, hefting a colossal axe in one hand, who was waiting for them and was prepared to guide them to Otomo Sojin. Akodo Torokai separated to announce himself to the local magistrate, and instructed the party to meet Sojin and learn what afflicted him.

They followed to the Gentle Blossom geisha house, where they were expected, and the madam welcomed them all effusively. Within a private and luxurious room they encountered Otomo Sojin... who was not expecting. Only Akodo Torokai's personal seal convinced him they were here to help. Earlier that very day (well after the party got the letter asking for help) he had received a ransom note for his son, Otomo Kokare, who would be returned only when he paid back the debt owed. The note warned against contacting the authorities, lest his son be punished. 

Sojin was distraught and confused, and proved to be entirely unaware of who his son associated with and what he did. The party gathered basic information and were warned not to take this to the local magistrate, a member of the minor Tortoise clan that Sojin demeaned as a near-peasant. Ryuma spoke up to inform the group that a good source of information was the Smiling Tigers yakuza gang, one of two major criminal organizations (along with the Red Foxes gang). He pointedly refused to confess who his employer was. 

The party took him up on this and visited the gang at their headquarters in an abandoned inn. They soon met a gang lieutenant, Adoka, who presented Bayushi Nori with a recognition sign: he was an undercover member of the Scorpion clan backing the Smiling Tigers. The conversation between Adoka and the group, primarily with Kitsuki Ayumi, was tense, as Ayumi didn't want to tip her hand in case the Smiling Tigers were responsible for the kidnapping. Eventually, however, they got a hint that they could find what they needed in the Drunken Phoenix gambling house, which was sponsored by the Red Foxes. Nori spoke with him further alone, and learned that Adoka had been the one to send them a letter asking for help, having caught wind of the plot early and hoping to use the group's help to crush the Smiling Tigers' rivals and gain a monopoly over organized crime in town. Nori did not share this information with the group. 

They investigated the Drunken Phoenix, with Nori gambling (and ultimately winning a few silver bu) while the rest of the party drank at the bar. Hiruma Saya made fast friends with a ronin, Tomoji, who turned out to know Kokare, as the two frequently drank together and gambled at this establishment, in blatant violation of class norms. They plied him with drink until he confessed that he saw Kokare escorted from the Drunken Phoenix two nights before by a pair of burly men, whom he pointed out, likely yakuza belonging to the Red Foxes. 

The party left the gambling house but stuck around the area until the yakuza left, and tailed them to their headquarters nearby, the 'Red Fox Inn.' The party rendezvoused with Akodo Torokai, and in the small hours of the morning made their move: Torokai used an earth spell to let Ayumi float underground and observe the goings-on within, and she located Otomo Kokare tied up in a storage closet within, as well as identifying the dozen-plus yakuza within. The group got into position, and launched their attack. Tsuruchi Kenzo and Bayushi Nori hung back and shot the guards at the front door, shortly backed up in melee by Ryuma and Ayumi. Meanwhile Hiruma Saya and Suzume Minori scaled the walls to the inner courtyard and assaulted the compound from the other side. 

Also, all the melee combatants were cloaked in a spell of magical fire that burned their opponents. 

It was a massacre. They had secured the two main entranced, and with their archers having good lines of sight, their enemies never got a break. Their biggest scare came when the Red Foxes' lieutenant, Yukira, came out to meet Saya and Minori in the courtyard... and cast a blood magic spell on Saya, which enervated her leg. Luckily the two of them were able to slay him swiftly before he could cast more blood magic. 

In short time, only a fraction of the gangsters remained, and survivors surrendered, with Ryuma taking their weapons and purses. Minori and Saya located Kokare and unbound him, though he was in such terrible shape he couldn't even walk. Saya turned Yukira's room upside down until she found the blood sorcery scrolls there... very similar to the ones found at Half-Moon Village a few weeks previous. Minori, meanwhile, found the near-deaf boss of the gang, Boss Churokire, who attempted mightily to bribe her into letting him go, but ultimately went quietly. 

By this time the guard had shown up, and with the order of an Emerald Magistrate, took custody of the yakuza. Kokare was returned home swiftly, and the party was fêted and richly rewarded by Otomo Sojin, who offered each a boon. Ayumi accepted a wardrobe of fine clothing which marked its wearer as one in the good graces of the Otomo family, Minori commissioned a fine sword with the Sparrow clan mon inscribed on the blade, Kenzo and Nori accepted specialized archery equipment, while Saya reserved a future political favor for her boon. They were also weighed down in fine gifts for the wedding they would be attending shortly. 

They were visited by many local samurai who wished to meet the brave magistrates-in-training, debriefed with the local Jade Magistrates regarding their repeated encounters with blood sorcery, and met Ikoma Satoshi, an officer in the Lion army who had taken leave from the front to visit Torokai, his old friend, and took the party out drinking. 

When the week was out, the party was ready to get back on the road to the Dragon lands, where they would attend a wedding between the Otomo and Tamori families. 



Saturday, October 1, 2022

Legend of the 5 Rings Megapost


[The remainder of this campaign, while successful, was unfortunately not documented]

Emerald Empire Session 1: Sunrise Over The Empire

Earlier this week I ran the first session in what will hopefully become a short (25-ish session) campaign using Legend of the 5 Rings (L5R) 4th Edition. I actually ran this same campaign before for an online group around the same time as my Icewind Dale game, also as an introduction to the setting and system. I didn't effectively document either campaign, so I hope to make it up with this one. Strap your swords to your belt, and get ready to enter Rokugan!


Bayushi Nori, Scorpion clan courtier
Suzume Minori, Sparrow clan warrior
Tsuruchi Kenzo, Wasp clan archer
Kitsuki Ayumi, Dragon clan investigator
Hiruma Saya, Crab clan scout
Shiba Imori, Phoenix clan warrior

The Session

After finishing up their character sheets and getting introduced to one another outside of the game, the party got their first taste of Rokugan. It's the late spring of 1113, the tenth year of the reign of Emperor Hantei XXXVIII, and the characters, who were all unlikely candidates to become Emerald Magistrates (think samurai FBI) receive letters of acceptance. They will be assigned as trial magistrates under the watch of newly minted magistrate Akodo Torokai, a very high-status and orthodox cleric of the Lion clan. They will serve under him for a year, and at the end if they have his approval, they will become full members of the Imperial bureaucracy.

They meet him in his estate outside the Imperial City, and discover they've all been chosen as part of Torokai's pet project to expand the Emerald Magistrates outside their usual strict conformity by injecting some unusual candidates into the mix. As a result of politicking against him, however, the group has not been assigned a mission, so if they want to gain glory and achieve high status, they'll have to go looking for trouble. After he is pulled away for a moment, his wife, Akodo Tomoko, threatens them all with gruesome death if her husband doesn't come home, and instructs them in how to properly serve him. 

They depart the Imperial heartlands and head west toward Lion territory. Along the way, they run into a group of monks on the road. They are fleeing the looting of the nearby Half-Moon Village, where bandits have taken the head priest hostage. The party deliberates and settles on a plan. Hiruma Saya disguises herself as a monk with Shiba Imori, Suzume Minori and Kitsuki Ayumi 'escorting' her in the direction of the village while the archers lie in wait. when they run into a handful of bandits guarding the entrance to the walled village, they drop their disguise and demand the surrender of the bandits. 

Battle breaks out, with Saya taking injuries, but the archers' support and the intimidation factor of well-armed samurai allows the group to kill two and take one hostage while one escapes and raises the alarm. The remaining bandits scatter with what little loot they could take, but the party finds the shrine still occupied. Within, the bandit captain is interrogating a young priest while the elder priest lies dead on the floor. 

The party launches an ambush and manages to incapacitate the second-in-command, but only lightly injures the captain, who attacks the restrained priest while muttering a strange spell. He is slain in short order, and the party is even relieved to see the elder priest rise... until they realize he has been animated as a zombie. 

Only half the party manage to keep their wits about them, the rest trembling in fear of the undead creature before them. Nevertheless they are able to dispatch it with some difficulty. 

Investigation and interrogation, as well as consultation with nearby Jade Magistrates (the party's opposite number focused on spiritual threats to the empire) confirm the use of blood magic, and find the bandit's true goal: a cache of blood magic scrolls, hidden in the foundation of the shrine over twenty years ago, which are promptly burned. 

With this inauspicious beginning past them, the party continue on their way. Their first stop is the Castle of Vigilance (Shiro no Yojin) of the Lion clan's Matsu family. This fortress is the Lion's greatest stronghold on their southern border with the Crane clan. At the moment, however, it is nearly empty as its lady, Matsu Megumi, and her army are at war with the Crane clan and have pushed the border fifty miles south. The Lion are allied with the Crab and Scorpion clans, while the Crane have allied with the Unicorn and Mantis minor clan which controls the seas. The Dragon and Phoenix clans remain neutral. 

The acting lord of the castle is her husband, Matsu Hiro, who happens to be Torokai's cousin. He also intends to visit the castle diviner, his friend and mentor Kitsu Rin. The party arrives and is treated to a luxurious bath and welcome, and soon meet other samurai staying in the castle as guests. These include Doji Mai, a Crane clan courtier taken hostage by the Lion, Yogo Akira, a Scorpion clan courtier on his way to a wedding, Mirumoto Nobara, a Dragon clan duelist traveling around to refine her skills, Isawa Kato, a Phoenix clan cleric also here to see Kitsu Rin, and Yasuki Arinori, a Crab clan merchant here to discuss supply logistics and trade. 

This group is dickering over a trinket; a hair ornament shaped like a dragon's head carved from a single piece of blue jade. They finally decide to dice over it, and Shiba Imori and Tsuruchi Kenzo also join in, though ultimately it goes to the Yogo, who proposed the game of chance in the first place. 

Akodo Torokai returns without having met Kitsu Rin, who is in isolated retreat. Instead they are all treated to a dinner with the castle lord. At the end of that meal, when no servants remain in the hall, Matsu Hiro confides in them: Kitsu Rin has been missing for a week and is presumed dead. His servants are acting strangely, and with several samurai from other clans present, he cannot afford to act rashly. Thus he charges the party to get to the bottom of this mystery, and the session ends. 


If you're interested in running it yourself or introducing this system to your group, I link here the primer I made for my players. 

The players haven't yet adjusted to the notion that they aren't playing outcast drifters a la D&D, but instead magistrates with a great deal of status. This is something to instill in them over time. 

Counting up dice rolls in this system definitely takes longer than in systems without dice pools, but I expect this will be remedied over time as the players grow more fluent with counting up dice. I tend to roll my dice in a cup, and next session I'll make sure everyone has their own dice cup. I'll probably also print out a cheat sheet for stances and actions, as the combat this session was slowed down with people not being sure which actions to take. Movement was, oddly enough, an issue that kept popping up, with players feeling they couldn't do anything because they couldn't get close enough to the enemy. 

And as a payoff for the title pun, my song of the week: Archenemy's Sunset Over The Empire

L5R 4e Primer

This is a short primer I wrote for my current Legend of the 5 Rings 4th Edition campaign (you can find the megapost here), in case any of you are interested in running this system or introducing it to your friends. 

The Primer

You are a samurai. You live, fight, and die in the empire of Rokugan, a fantasy mashup of East Asia filled with magic. The gods and spirits are real, some might be your ancestors. Heaven is a place you can fly to (if you go without permission you will be shot down) and your soul is trapped in a cycle of reincarnation. Demons are also real, and there’s a whole land of them just to the south which are barely held back. Good luck. 

Your character, mechanically and RP-wise, can vary a lot, but a few things are constant. Honor and Glory matter to you, as does the code of Bushido, whether you follow it or defy it. A samurai’s life is marked by five events: Birth, Graduation, Marriage, Retirement, Death. The three in the middle are expected but not absolutely necessary. 

You live in a society full of ritual and history, where it’s easier to justify murder than an insult, and where the wrong word can be the difference between eating like a king or begging for scraps on the roadside. You are part of a hierarchy, with lords you obey and peasants who are utterly terrified of you. Figuring out how to get what you want while dealing within the system is difficult, but it’s part of the fun. In D&D terms, you might be Good, Neutral or Evil, but you’re definitely Lawful. If you can’t navigate Rokugani society, you’ll be a pariah at best, hung from the nearest tree at worst. 

Basic Mechanics

You roll pools of d10s. When you see XdY, it means roll X d10 and keep the best Y d10. You will never keep more dice than you roll. Usually, you keep dice equal to your trait, like Reflex when rolling attack, or Fire when casting a Fire spell. For example, a player with Reflexes 3 and Archery 2 would roll 5 dice and keep 3, and the sum of those 3 dice is the total of the roll.

Dice explode on a 10, meaning that you get to reroll and add the result on top of the 10, unless otherwise noted. If you roll another 10, they explode again. This can get crazy. 

When you fail a roll, you can sometimes roll a second time at a +10 penalty. Wanna try again to climb that tree? Go ahead. Obviously, this doesn’t work for attack rolls and most mental skills. And there’s no third shot. You just ain’t climbing that tree. GM has final say. 

Other, more exotic rolls like Cooperative rolls and Cumulative rolls also exist, don’t worry about them just yet. 

Rings and Traits

Why is this called Legend of the 5 Rings? The 5 Rings are Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Void, representing your alignment with the four fundamental elements of the world and the voidness that unites them. Each Ring is associated with two Traits, one physical and one mental:

Air: Reflexes and Awareness
Earth: Stamina and Willpower
Fire: Agility and Intelligence
Water: Strength and Perception
Void is not associated with traits, but Void Points, which can be spent to enhance rolls. 

All PCs start with these traits and rings at 2, though by the end of character creation you’ll have a few raised to 3.

Your Ring is equal to the lower of the associated Traits. For example, if you have 2 Agility and 4 Intelligence, you have 2 Fire. If you improve your Agility to 3, your Fire goes to 3 as well. 

Traits and Void can be improved directly. To improve Traits, spend XP equal to 4x the next rank: increasing Agility from 2 to 3 costs 12 XP. Void is improved for 6x the next rank. 


You also have Skills, which are ranked from 0 to 10. These include the usual suspects, like Archery (Kyujutsu) Stealth, Animal Handling, and so on, but also things like Dueling (Iaijutsu) and Artisan: Flower Arranging. Not all skills are equally useful, but none are useless. Even Flower Arranging. 

Skills are increased by spending XP equal to the next rank. You can also spend 2 points to get Emphasis in a skill. This means choosing a subspecialty of a skill, like Heavy Weapons (War Bat) and when you make a Heavy Weapons check using a War Bat, you get to reroll and replace 1s, but just once. 

If you have 0 in a skill, it is Untrained, and it has some limitations: mostly, dice don’t explode, and you don’t benefit from Raises. 


Raises let you gamble with the dice. Say the Target Number (what we call the DC ‘round these parts) is 15, and you’re confident you can beat that. You can call a Raise, which raises the TN by 5 to 20, with a benefit, like dealing extra damage. If you fail the roll, you get nothing, even if you beat the old TN. You can do pretty much anything with enough raises. Want to disarm the enemy? 3 raises. Want to prevent your rival from realizing you’re the one who spread that nasty rumor? 2 raises. Want to expand the duration of your spell? 1 raise. The amount you need varies from situation to situation, GM has final say. 

Also, you can only benefit from called Raises to a maximum of your Void Ring, so pump that number up. Luckily, some abilities give you Free Raises that don’t count towards that. They can either give you effects for free, or lower the TN by 5, your call. 

Clans and Families

Unless you’re a Ronin, you belong to a Clan. There are major and minor Clans, but we’ll be sticking to major ones. Each Clan contains multiple families, and multiple schools. You can mix and match family and school, though in most cases you will be educated inside your own clan, unless you’re part of a hostage exchange.

Your school trained you as a Warrior (Bushi), Cleric (Shugenja) or a Courtier. There are also Ninja and Monks, but we’ll be sticking to the big three for this campaign. All Clans have at least one school of each, but different clans have different specializations. 

These influence your starting Traits, Honor, equipment, and the techniques you can acquire. They also affect how the world treats you. 

If you’re a Ronin, time to get hustling, because you’re outside of the system, nobody is going to protect or feed you, and if you offend or scare anyone too much, nobody will go looking for your body. 

School Rank

This is the system’s equivalent of Level. Going up in school rank grants you extra techniques, access to better spells and kata, the works. 

Going up in Rank depends on your Insight score, which is a combination of your skills and Rings and some other stuff. Just put XP in places that make your character more effective, you’ll be fine. 

Combat and Actions

The basics are similar to D&D. You have Initiative rolls, you can delay actions, and at initiative 0 there’s a Reaction stage where status effects get resolved. At the start of each round, you take a stance: Attack, Defense, Full Attack, Full Defense, and Center, with their own effects on what you can do. Attack is the default, with no restrictions or benefits.

You have Free Actions, Simple Actions, and Complex Actions. In any turn, you can either do 2 simple actions or 1 complex action, plus a bunch of Free Actions. Refer to the table:

Damage in this system is called Wounds. There are various thresholds, depending on the game’s difficulty and your character’s Earth, that make things more difficult as you get injured. 

This Campaign

Without a doubt the most respected group within the whole empire are the Emerald Magistrates. They are the Emperor’s own lawkeepers, with the whole of Rokugan within their jurisdiction, warranted to act with great leeway anywhere that the empire’s laws against banditry, heresy or subversion are threatened and wherever the individual clans cannot deal with problems on their own. Groups of Emerald Magistrates bring together samurai of many clans and backgrounds, and with enough distinction any samurai can join their ranks and become a wealthy and high-status agent of the Emerald Throne. 

You are not Emerald Magistrates. Yet. 

You are young samurai in your late teens and early twenties, some only recent graduates of your schools, others with a few years of duty to your clan under your belts. All of you have distinguished yourselves, whether by personal action or your connections, and been accepted as trial members. You will serve as the bodyguards, assistants and spiritual advisors to a newly minted magistrate for the space of one year, and if you prove yourselves to him within that time, you will join the ranks of the exceptional. 

Your boss for this year is Akodo Torokai of the Lion clan. He is not intended to be a DMPC or a damsel in distress, but a superior interested in accomplishing missions, upholding the law and testing your abilities at the same time. His role in most sessions will be to provide an example of a very orthodox samurai against which to define your own characters, provide the framing and setup for adventures, and handle the bureaucracy and ass-kissing so your characters can do detective work, demon-fighting and conspiracy-unraveling you came here for. Buckle up, because you’re about to have a very eventful year.

Character Creation

You will begin by choosing a Clan, then a family of origin and a school within that clan. These will give you bonuses to two of your traits, the first rank in several skills, and your starting equipment. You also get 40 experience points to use as you wish, with which you can raise your traits more and improve your skills. I usually recommend spending 24xp to raise two more traits and spending the remaining 16xp on improving your main skills and picking up the first rank of some new ones. 

You also have Advantages and Disadvantages, which help you define your character. You spend xp to gain Advantages, and you can also select Disadvantages to gain xp: for example, if you spent all your xp on traits and skills, you can still pick up the disadvantage Bad Health, which gives you back 4 points. You could use these to pick up the Absolute Direction (1 point) and Precise Memory (3 points) advantages, or spend them on skills, or any combination thereof. 

You may not have more than 15 points each of advantages and disadvantages. 

Many dis/advantages only really make sense if purchased at character creation; it’s hard to justify your character growing half a foot after buying the Large advantage halfway through the campaign, or suddenly taking the Soft-Hearted disadvantage after you’ve already killed several people. If you think these dis/advantages describe your character, it’s best to pick them up early, though many, especially social or spiritual dis/advantages, may be purchased or awarded by the GM in play.

Sample Characters

With more than 30 basic schools available, finding the right setup for a character can be overwhelming at first. Here are some notable schools which might fit your character concept.

Want to be a duelist? The very traditional Kakita school of the Crane clan and the eccentric Mirumoto school of the Dragon clan both claim to produce the best in the empire.

Want to be a sly courtier? Between them, the secret-obsessed Baysuhi of the Scorpion clan and the ultra-refined Doji of the Crane clan rule the courts of the empire.

Who are the fiercest fighters? The matriarchal Matsu of the Lion clan charge into enemy formations without fear, the Hida school of the Crab clan fields heavily-armored walking tanks, the Tsuruchi archers of the Mantis clan are unmatched at range and the Utaku cavalry of the Unicorn have almost supernatural connections with their mounts, and while the Shiba warriors of the Phoenix clan are pacifistic, that just means they’ll cut you down while perfectly zen.

What about spellcasters? Nobody doubts that the Isawa of the Phoenix clan are the greatest generalist spellcasters, but don’t count out the Unicorn’s Iuchi school focused on speed, the Scorpion’s Soshi school who control the secret of undetectable spellcasting, or the Dragon’s Tamori who can store their spells as alchemical potions, and when you absolutely, positively have to rip apart a demon with holy fire and jade, accept no substitutes for the Crab clan’s Kuni school.

How about something a bit less orthodox? The Dragon clan’s Kitsuki school trains Investigators, experts in finding clues and uncovering lies, even though the empire’s legal system is based on testimony rather than material evidence. The bards of the Lion clan’s Ikoma school are boisterous storytellers who bolster the spirits of their comrades, and the Yoritomo courtiers of the Mantis clan have raised bullying and intimidation to an art form. 

No matter your character concept, you’ll be able to find something that can make it work.

Language and Roleplaying

L5R games put a strong emphasis on immersing yourself in a fictional world informed by a lot of real world elements. The complexity of a game where you have to be careful and subtle with words and manage your character’s social standing is a big part of the appeal for many, but it can also be a stumbling block for new players or those who have difficulty with other languages. 

As an introductory campaign, the goal is to start small to build familiarity and raise the bar as people get more comfortable. We take the assumption that your character performs all the small details of courtesy and ritual automatically, and your words out of character reflect your intention while in the game fiction the actual words your character speaks are more flowery and cautious. As a new player, you won’t be put on the chopping block because you forgot to use the exact right honorific when speaking to your lord.

Likewise for language. Some Japanese words have become so familiar in English that we can use them without worry; if I tell you your samurai has to leave their katana outside before visiting a geisha, few will be confused. But it would be unreasonable for everyone to understand the situation when an otokodate from the mura is looking for a kuge with an Agasha mon and they’re about to smash a tetsubo into your heimin’s on. Until everyone gets properly settled, we’ll be translating these less common terms and introduce the more important, less easily translated or denser ones as we go along. 

This is not Anime

I know, I know, the kind of group interested in playing a samurai game has a large overlap with anime fans, but coming into L5R with expectations of character or genre based on that will lead to miscommunication and to a game experience that isn’t satisfying for anyone. 

If you want a feel for the setting and tone, look at the links below.


Here’s the Core Rulebook (Scribd, Anyflip). If you want to read the basic rules in more detail, look at pages 75-100. If you want lore and clan details, look at pages 13-70. If you want to define your character, look at the questions on page 100. 

P.384 of the Core Rulebook includes inspirations and resources. I reproduce a few here. 

Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), directed by Akira Kurosawa, clip
Seven Samurai (1954) directed by Akira Kurosawa, clip
The Last Samurai (2003) clip 
Book of the Five Rings (1644), by Miyamoto Musashi

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

An Alternative Humanity in Vampire: the Masquerade

Not dead, just busy. I finished another year of college, finally decided my major, read a very weird book and enjoyed it more than I can explain, have cultivated a wonderful relationship, and I've been running some one-shots in Cyberpunk RED. My only regret is that the Ptolus campaign collapsed a few months ago due to my Covid, then another player's Covid, then exams, and then entropy. It went for about 13 sessions, I'll probably write up a reflection on how I failed to execute on my vision for it.

I happened to listen to this video about Vampire: The Masquerade's bloodlines and it actually got me excited and thinking about VtM. "Golly!" I thought. "Shapeshifting Gangrels living as sea monsters? Packs of identical Agent Smith vampires that can freely shift body parts between each other? Just straight up gargoyles? Those do sound like elements of a fun game!" I went looking at the VtM 5th edition book, which I'd taken a shallow peek at before, in case any of it grabbed me. 

Or, you know, that other thing vampires do

Unfortunately not. Partly it's the book's layout and presentation, which is certainly moody (I like the opening pages which depict in-universe documents accumulating on a desk, clearly differentiated from the actual rulebook) but bloated with self-indulgent terminology. It's also the fact that the book isn't made for people like me (I was a theater kid, yes, but not goth). The underlying assumptions of modern storygames chafe, and I'm quite turned off by the book's attempts to mix the banal and modern into the grand and dark, like Camarilla members apparently saying the word 'lol' in secret communiques or one vampire referring to themselves as 'a fucking creature of the night.' 

I get what it's going for, I like the grotesque as much as anyone else, but there's more bathos than pathos here, and when vampires sound like teenagers (or young adults. Or twitter users. Or low-rate US genre fiction writers) I'm not inclined to feel horror, terror, or pity. 

I also recalled some posts by The Alexandrian and Yora (Spriggan's Den) about Vampire, specifically what a 'game of personal horror' is and how game structures, especially the Humanity mechanic, work, or fail to work, into it.

Vampire depends on a downward spiral of degeneration, the constant threat of falling to the Beast which makes a mockery of eternal life. In Vampire 1e, according to Alexander, this intent was undermined by the Humanity mechanic having very few things hanging on it, being triggered effectively at the GM's discretion, and being set up to plateau at the player's preferred level of behavior. I'm not sure how Vampire 5e's system holds up in comparison; the Humanity system has a few things hanging off it, mostly related to Blush of Life, the ability which allows vampires to appear human, and the Stains and Remorse systems seem to apply more pressure, even though the setup does seem to be the opposite of a slippery slope; the less Humanity you have, the more difficult it is to lose Humanity. 

Even so, the 5e book states that "Humanity only shifts in response to actions with major story significance." Which is kinda the opposite of what I would want for a game of personal horror. It centers the major, climactic decisions of the players, rather than the small and apparently meaningless decisions, or the slow grind of entropy. 

Hell, looking across the way to Cyberpunk RED, which I've run a few sessions of, the Humanity mechanic there serves its intended gameplay purpose much better. It's a rating out of 100, with an original maximum set by your Empathy stat, with both the current score and maximum score (usually to a lesser degree) decreased with every piece of cyberware you install. It's one of the very things which gives CPR its 'cool' factor, cybernetic enhancement, which degrades Humanity, a constant temptation to trade it for power, and the results on gameplay are immediate through its penalty to Empathy and all rolls made based on it. 

Compared to that immediacy, granularity and clarity, Vampire's Humanity system doesn't cut it. Still, I don't think a straightforward conversion. with every additional Discipline resulting in lost Humanity, would be effective.

I've never run or played in a Vampire game, so take this with the same bucket of salt you should always give any critique of a game system by one who hasn't played it RAW, but here's a little daydream about an alternate system, with a different vision for the game. 

The New Humanity

One thing I do like in the V5 Humanity system is the Touchstones element, "humans who represent what you used to value in life, someone who represents or seems to incarnate one of your Convictions. If lost, the conviction is lost as well."

That's what I like to see! A vampire in the early stages of their undeath clinging to the people around them only to gradually lose them, like sand slipping through their fingers! A few problems with this though, there's too few of them. RAW, characters start with as many Touchstones as Convictions, that is to say between one and three. Less sand slipping through your fingers, more like very large marbles. 

They're also not directly related to Humanity, they're a way to maintain your Convictions, which guide character behavior and can sometimes reduce Stains gained and thus Humanity lost. Not my idea of elegance. So, here's the idea.

When a neonate is first infected with the blood of Caine, when they first brush up against their new bestial nature, their soul recoils. No matter how depraved they were in life, the abyss stretching before them is deeper and darker than they could have ever imagined before, and they're sent screaming back to shore. But there is no more shore, only pebbles. The embraced vampire grabs onto whatever they most valued in life as a desperate defence mechanism. These are often people, family and friends, idols, mentors, students, but just as often can be other things. Institutions, ideas, ideals. If the newborn vampire was especially lonely and not very high-minded in life, wealth and property will have a prominent place there as well, the hard-won fortune and the family land. 

Let the players get abstract with this, they'll have the space for it. I think the right number would be either ten or twenty. Ten would allow you to work directly off the V5 Humanity list, twenty would allow you to incorporate the number of remaining touchstones into roll-under Humanity checks. A d100 list of examples would be useful. Touchstones, or maybe we'll call them 'Remembrances' or something, are linked directly to your humanity score, and cannot be switched out or replaced once lost.

And you will lose them.

They will be threatened, and since you start out with a bunch the GM can attack different ones without the game becoming repetitive. Trying to protect them is a constant struggle, and one ultimately doomed to failure, no matter which ones you pick or how stable they might appear to be. There will always be some contrivance ("my touchstone is the Notre Dame cathedral." "My touchstone is the environment." "My touchstone is the reliability of the scientific enterprise" well sunuvabitch). That contrivance is straight up built into the game's expectations and procedure, the GM always has an active list of player touchstones being targeted. 

God hates vampires, and the GM is His willing instrument at this table. 

A careful and competent vampire could go for a few decades before the living people on the list go out, claimed by old age even if they're protected from all other harm, and turning them into vampires or ghouls won't help. The more durable or transcendent ones will last a while longer, your family name, your nation, your ideology, your home. Eventually, an elder vampire is reduced to monomaniacal, obsessive focus on maintaining a handful of things whose relation to their original life is tenuous, their wealth, their influence, their power. They will do literally anything to protect these, more jealous of their hoards than any dragon, because if that last string is severed, they'll fall, and there's no rock bottom in oblivion.

This would depart slightly from the V5 expectations, where most neonates start out with Humanity 8, and having Hum 10/10 representing saintly behavior with according bonuses, but I actually prefer this. The idea that newborn vampires start out being almost indistinguishable from humans, the use of their powers being totally unnecessary to maintain habits like digestion, sex and daytime functioning, and slowly decay from there, fits my idea of a Vampire game much better.

What do you think? Have you played Vampire? Leave your comments below, and as always, have a good week.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Read This: Spacetrawler the Webcomic

Spacetrawler was a webcomic which ran from 2010 to 2013, featuring a cast of humans abducted by a galactic revolutionary group to free the Eebs, a species of telepathic technologists, from slavery. It was primarily comedic, and leveraged that to deliver some quite effective drama later in its run. Explosions, blaster fights, dismemberment and alien lovemaking abound. 

I quite enjoyed it when I read it years ago. I remembered and went back to it recently, and was surprised to find it actually continued in 2016 with a second series, and then a third starting in 2019 which is ongoing. 

If you're a fan of sci-fi webcomic, especially if you were previously a reader of Schlock Mercenary, you'll enjoy this. It takes its premise in an interesting direction, and rereading the original chapters knowing the ending was still quite enjoyable. 

I also find that its framing device, and the montage in which the human characters are 'recruited' might be a fun way to open a similar sci-fi game. Each player character starts out in their own part of the world, have to deal with a mundane challenge, then get shanghaied by aliens, or possibly go along willingly. Only on the spaceship do they come together. 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Julius Wavestone Keeps Killing!

'The Shipwreck' J.M.W. Turner

Praise for Julius Wavestone Keeps Killing:

"... an absolute DELIGHT ... better than the vast majority of S&W stuff I’ve reviewed!"
-Bryce Lynch

As a longtime tenfootpole reader, I jumped at the chance to submit an entry for Bryce's Wavestone Keep adventure contest, which just got reviewed today. The short format led me to really test how far I could push brevity without compromising creativity, evocative description and sound mechanics. The end result totaled 3 pages, one of which was a (very poorly) hand-drawn map, with 9 rooms, a bit of background and some unique magic items. I once again used Melan's formatting for Castle Xyntillan. Maybe I should expand my horizons and try to actually innovate something next time. 

It looks like I did manage to make it too short; Bryce thinks I could have added a sentence or two to each room description, and expanded the introduction with rumors/omens, more background, as well as mannerisms and roleplaying tips for some characters and some more foreshadowing and buildup for the final room. The rooms also started verging on the setpiecey side, which I'm not too broken up about. 

Overall I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. You can pick up the pdf at the bottom of the review here

For the future:

My habit with the description of each room, before bullet points, is to make it short enough that I could read it off verbatim or almost verbatim as though it were boxed text, while hiding the GM knowledge in the bullets. Maybe a better format in the future would split that opening description into 'this can be read aloud without dragging on or revealing secret info' and 'this is description for the GM'? I'm not sure how to format that effectively. I might just be reinventing boxed text. 

I still need to work on my traps, which feel by far the weakest part to me. It just seems they have so much less dimensionality than monsters, NPC interaction and treasure. Justifying mechanical traps especially seems very difficult outside a deliberately constructed dungeon, and magical traps beggar the imagination just as often. Maybe I should expand my conception of 'trap' to include more environmental effects and challenges, rather than an obstacle created intentionally? Do let me know any advice. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Secret Jackalope: Rare Bugs and Spiders and their Uses

Ro-Man! over at Multiverse of Terror has requested: Rare bugs and spiders and their dangers/uses

Excerpts from "Creepy-Crawlies and You: A Perspicacious Wizard's Guide to Practical Entomo-Arachnology"

The Greater Doom Weevil

Much despised by farmers is the lesser weevil, scourge upon crop and soil. Yet more despised is its rare and powerful relative, the Greater Doom Weevil. The antennae of these colossal beetle-like creatures reach to the height of a man's shoulder, their shell is glossy and slippery and as fit a suit of armor as any forged. And their hunger far exceeds that of their swarming little cousins. 

The reader may protest that the Greater Doom Weevil is no more than another oversized (possibly magically enhanced) pest, a beast to be exterminated like so many giant ants, and giant wasps, and giant locusts. What warrants its inclusion in a collection of rare and wondrous creepy crawlies?

Beyond its gross physical abilities, the Doom Weevil is notable for its prophetic properties. To those suitably inclined, the preserved innards of such a beast are unexcelled for the purpose of haruspicy, superior even to the guts of an albino lamb. Its entwined antennae produce excellent dowsing rods, its glittering eyes produce extraordinary, multifaceted black crystal balls. 

This divinatory power is possessed of the being in life as well, to the detriment of those who would hunt it. The Weevil has been known to pronounce exact and correct prophecies about those in its presence, though it possesses no faculties of humanoid communication in other situations, or perhaps simply chooses never to use them. These prophecies are uniformly damning to their subjects, most commonly consisting of loss of wealth and property, ill luck in romance, and grievous injury. They will continue to speak these prophecies if the subject does not depart forthwith, and they do not cease to be accurate or horrible. Our thoughts remain with the late Professor Gilliwig, God rest his soul. 

The Anatolian Hair Spider

A relative of various species of burrowing arachnids, the dime-sized Anatolian Hair Spider seeks out coiffures as its preferred habitat. Note that it is not wild, but feral; the nobility of the Ottoman Empire formerly employed tame spiders as living fashion statements, accessorizing the spiders with particular hairdos and outfits. For nearly a century, no society woman would be caught dead without a little crawler of her own racing about on her head. The Anatolian is noted for a highly concentrated venom, which though insufficient to cause much damage to a human, retains a dormitive potency, and can put its wearer to sleep at short notice. 

This trait was much beloved of its owners, as it provided ready escape from dull conversation. However, after an unfortunate incident where the mistress of the Pasha Selim fell asleep under the spider's venom during his Excellency's poetry-recital, the Anatolian Hair-Spider rapidly fell out of court fashion. Extant varieties are not wild, but feral. They are attracted to perfumes and large headdresses, and woe befalls the soldier whose crested helmet has become a lair for such creatures. Once attached to a head, the spider is loath to leave, unless the head is shaved clean or chased off with a specialized spray (its recipe now sadly lost). 

After an Anatolian Hair Spider to a new, hirsute host, 1:6 each hour that the spider's bite induces sleep, with 1HD per spider. Many spiders have been known to inhabit the same head, but only over short periods of time, as they will eventually battle with one another for territorial supremacy. They are also excellent at maintaining hair health and eating ticks and fleas. 

The Jade Locust

Folklore tells of a young girl, sent out by her mother to find food, who instead discovered a colony of locusts in the process of devastating the local crops. However, she noticed that they left behind molted shells of pure jade. She brought the shells, and no small number of the locusts, back to her mother, who reprimanded the girl for bringing back such meager insects. Nevertheless, over her daughter's protestations, she consumed them. 

That night, a whole swarm of angry jade locusts erupted from her body and puppeted her dead limbs like an automaton. This was the beginning of the rule of the immortal Locust Empress. 

Though few today grant credit to such a dramatic myth, the properties of the Jade Locusts are not exaggerated. They do indeed secrete jade dust, and leave behind delicate shells when they molt. And likewise is their consumption a deadly and dangerous affair, as the locust can survive all but the most thorough mastication and retaliate in kind from the inside. Intense pain and sickness precede death, and if the body is not cleansed and burned swiftly, a whole colony will erupt from the body, which soon comes to resemble a mummy studded with mineral wealth. 

The gentle reader may be encouraged to capture a population of such creatures and maintain a farm, by which they could possess an ever-bountiful supply of precious jade. I will not seek to dissuade, except to say that it has long been attempted and rarely succeeded for any length of time, due to the locust's strange migratory patterns. A population may happily stay in captivity for years at a time, but on some inauspicious day will seek to escape to the outside world, prioritizing escape over all other drives, soon leading them to die unless released. 

In such periods, occurring no more than eight times in a century and no less than once, the world's entire population of Jade Locusts migrates to the far east, and when it returns it is much diminished. Tales of their ultimate destination and purpose are many and specious, but one commonality exists among many of the least fictitious: the area in which they congregate is the barren wasteland surrounding an ancient peak, within which is rumored to lie the final resting place of the Locust Empress, whose immortality was underestimated by heroes of yore. 


I hope this was to your liking, Ro-Man! Until next time, have an excellent week.

The Truth Behind the Jackalope and Those Who Hunt the Elusive ...

Monday, March 28, 2022

Books for Dungeon Masters: The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker

I recently picked up the audio reading of J.A. Baker's The Peregrine on the recommendation of this blog. The book, published in 1967, won the Duff Cooper Prize the same year. It concerns the watching of peregrine falcons in England, and condenses ten years of observation into a readily digestible account. I doubt my readers have any interest in birdwatching (neither do I), but you should pick it up anyway for two reasons. 

First, the prose is excellent, especially in its use of creative metaphor and simile, and I believe any game master would benefit from reading it and picking up a couple turns of phrase. His description of landscapes, if cut down a bit, would make for spectacular opening narration. 

Second, it may inspire you to think more deeply of the behavior of natural and supernatural animals in your world. I imagine his words on the peregrine applied, to say, a giant eagle or even a roc, and the creature becomes so much more fantastical. What kind of lake might a giant raptor prefer in order to bathe itself, how does it spend its day in anticipation of a hunt, how does it play, how does it treat its kill? The thought of a creature that might strike from the blue, not out of territoriality or hunger, but out of cruel play, is so much more engaging. 

Of the country landscape and the nightjar, he wrote: 
"There is always a sense of loss, a feeling of being forgotten. There is nothing else here; no castles, no ancient monuments, no hills like green clouds. It is just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields. Dim, flat, desolate lands that cauterise all sorrow. I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence, as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger. Wandering flushes a glory that fades with arrival. 
I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision. They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us. Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach. They race to oblivion. They're old before we have finished growing. 
The first bird I searched for was the nightjar, which used to nest in the valley. Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask. It's an odorous sound, with a bouquet that rises to the quiet sky. In the glare of day it would seem thinner and drier, but dusk mellows it and gives it vintage. If a song could smell, this song would smell of crushed grapes and almonds and dark wood. The sound spills out and none of it is lost, the whole wood brims with it. Then it stops, suddenly, unexpectedly, but the ear hears it still, a prolonged and fading echo draining and winding out of the surrounding trees. Into the deep stillness between the early stars and the long afterglow, the nightjar leaps up joyfully, it glides and flutters, dances and bounces, lightly, silently, away."

Of sparrow hawks:

"Sparrow hawks were always near me in the dusk, like something that I meant to say, but could never quite remember ... They lived a fugitive, guerrilla life. In all the overgrown, neglected places the frail bones of generations of sparrow hawks are sifting down now into the deep humus of the woods. They were a banished race of beautiful barbarians, and when they died they could not be replaced."

Of the peregrine:
"He re-enacts the whole process of learning to kill that he went through when he first left the eyrie. The first short, tentative flights, the longer, more confident ones, the playful mock attacks at inanimate objects such as falling leaves or drifting feathers, the games with other birds changing to a pretense or attack, and then to the first serious attempt to kill. True hunting may be a comparatively brief process at the end of this long re-enactment of the hawk's adolescence.
Hunting is always preceded by some form of play. The hawk may feint at partridges, harass jackdaws or lapwings, skirmish with crows. Sometimes, without warning, he will suddenly kill. Afterwards, he seems baffled by what he's done, and he may leave the kill where it fell and return to it later when he is genuinely hunting. Even when he is hungry, and has killed in anger, he may sit beside his prey for ten to fifteen minutes before starting to feed. In these cases the dead bird is usually unmarked, and the hawk seems to be puzzled by it. He nudges it idly with his bill. When blood flows, he feeds at once."
Of watching a peregrine dive:
"He hovered, and stayed still, striding on the crumbling columns of air, curved wings jerking and flexing. Five minutes he stayed there, fixed like a barb in the blue flesh of the sky. His body was still and rigid, his head turned from side to side, his tail fanned open and shut, his wings whipped and shuddered like canvas in the lash of the wind. He side-slipped to his left, paused, then glided round and down into what could only be the beginning of a tremendous stoop. There is no mistaking the menace of that first easy drifting fall. Smoothly, at an angle of fifty degrees, he descended; not slowly, but controlling his speed; gracefully, beautifully balanced. There was no abrupt change. The angle of his fall became gradually steeper till there was no angle left, but only a perfect arc. He curved over and slowly revolved, as though for delight, glorying in anticipation of the dive to come. His feet opened and gleamed golden, clutching up towards the sun. He rolled over, and they dulled, and turned towards the ground beneath, and closed again. For a thousand feet he fell, and curved, and slowly turned, and tilted upright. Then his speed increased, and he dropped vertically down. He had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames. He became smaller and darker, diving down from the sun. The partridge in the snow beneath looked up at the black heart dilating down upon him, and heard a hiss of wings rising to a roar. In ten seconds the hawk was down, and the whole splendid fabric, the arched reredos and immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost in the fiery maelstrom of the sky.

And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending, hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and show filling the bill’s wide silent scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk’s beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.

And for the hawk, resting now on the soft flaccid bulk of his prey, there was the rip and tear of choking feathers, and hot blood dripping from the hook of his beak, and rage dying slowly to a small hard core within.

And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed."

I've only just started the book and immediately felt the need to share it with others; I have no higher recommendation. The audio version I picked up is read by David Attenborough, who brings a spectacular vocal quality to the text. Pick it up on your platform and venue of choice. 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Sticky Alignments

With the release of the Elric of Melniboné audiobook, I've finally gotten into one of the Appendix N classics. It got me thinking of alignment, along with the 1e campaign I'm prepping for the day I can seduce my group to try the system.

With the usual caveats about applying game system thinking to linear narrative media, Elric is definitely aligned with chaos. The Duke of Hell Arioch is his patron after all, you're not getting more chaos-aligned than that. But at the same time, Elric isn't some crazy chaos cultist, nor, in the early stories I've read anyway, is he particularly evil. In Fortress of the Pearl he proves himself capable of great nobility and virtue, even though at the end of that story he gives in to vengeance and bloodthirst.  

I think the nature of alignment this implies is far more interesting than alignment as a category for character ethics and morality. I would rather conceive of one's alignment as faction membership, or meta-faction membership. Elric sold his soul to Arioch, but he's not a puppet, and his personal morality quite often conflicts with that of his hellish master. Alignment in this system would tell you where your soul is going, what forces have a hold on you, whether you give yourself over to them enthusiastically or only reluctantly. 

In other words, alignment is sticky. Whatever metaphysical or supernatural forces have a hold on your soul are fairly invested in keeping it, and a single action contrary to your alignment isn't going to cause a shift. Rather, an alignment shift would be the end result of a longer series of contrary behavior, or a conscious and very strong rejection of your alignment in favor of another. It's like being part of a club or organization (a religious organization is a good model here) which is quite keen to keep its members and is willing to forgive some minor transgressions and bring wayward souls back into the fold, but if you deliberately break with it, or if your actions so consistently break with policy that you're no longer worth the trouble to redeem, you'll be excommunicated, and fall into a new alignment more consistent with your behavior. 

Alignment then becomes something external to your character, something about their relationship with the world, and not just their internal state of mind. This goes a ways to making features like alignment language more sensical, and makes it easier to adjudicate things like alignment-based classes. Yes, rangers must maintain a Good alignment, but they're not going to lose their class just because some villain forced them into a situation where they were forced to make an immoral choice. I'd go as far as to say that sort of thing could never cause a paladin or ranger to fall, unless in the process they suffer a true crisis of faith and reject their alignment of their own will. 

Likewise for an assassin, which must maintain an Evil alignment, donating to charity or rescuing innocents or otherwise aiding in Good causes isn't in itself going to cause an alignment shift unless, 
a) the assassin is so personally moved that they question their own alignment and cast it aside, or 
b) the assassin so reliably acts against the interests of the forces of Evil that he is cast out.

In such a situation, losing the character class might mean that they actually lose those abilities, which implies some supernatural force granting the ability to assassinate and use poison (which doesn't make all that much sense to me) or else that the character is no longer willing to use such methods and the player thus loses access. This is a grey zone which doesn't fit as well with this conception of alignment, and which would require more detailed adjudication. 

It also gives a meaning to faction alignment or species alignment without being totalizing. The Melnibonéans are, one and all, Chaotic. This isn't because every single one has the same morality (the vast majority are cruel and do not heavily value life, but this results from the same causal factor rather than being the cause itself) but instead because they've come up in a culture which traditionally aligned itself very strongly with Chaos, and those assumptions and traditions remain even as they've weakened. There can be Melnibonéans who disapprove and want something different, who seek to align themselves with other forces, but because of the particular cultural dynamics summarized by that big C, they're very much the exception, like Elric.

And if you sell your soul, your alignment isn't changing, period. Elric has that big capital C on his sheet from the moment he makes his covenant with Arioch, and no matter what decisions he comes to about his own morality, or what lessons on justice he brings back to Melniboné, it's staying there. 

I think this is the understanding of alignment I'll use in my games going forward. How does this compare with how you use alignment at your table, if you use it at all?


Enjoy this sort of post? Be sure to follow the blog and comment below. Until the next time, have a great week. 

Friday, March 4, 2022

Running the Campaign: The Stinger

A 'stinger' is a post-credits scene in a film or tv series. During my ongoing Ptolus campaign (we just had our 11th session and will be on break in a few weeks to come back in April, I just haven't kept up with session reports) I stumbled on a use for this in RPGs. I don't recall where I picked it up, but the idea is simple enough. At the end of a session, pull away from the PCs to show a short scene elsewhere, something the PCs do not know about. It is entirely meta-knowledge. 

An example: a few weeks ago, after the party defeated a district boss of the Killraven Crime League, Durant the Stink Man, I pulled away to crimelord Kevris Killraven's secret lair, where the remaining boss the party had let go was begging for his life. I wrote the whole thing out.
A woman sits on a majestic throne before a roaring fire, in a secret keep deep below the city of Ptolus. A portly dwarf, Dollin Ebonhome, the head of the Killraven operation in North Market, kneels at her side, bloody and beaten. 

"It was all Durant's idea! Please!"

The woman contemplates the fire, and sips mead from a goblet. "North Market was your turf, Dollin. Why was Durant acting as he pleased there, without you doing anything?" The goblet is made from a dwarven skull. 

"I just needed help making collections, he- he just got out of contro-" The snout of a gold-plated dragon pistol presses to his forehead.

"Tell me again how things got out of your control."


A bang fills the chamber. The dwarf's brains coat the rug. 

Behind the throne, something, something tall, with the long arms of an ape and the eyes of a goat and the teeth of a wood chipper leans down and slurps out the remains. 

"Get this to Korben in South Market. I'm sure he could use the ... motivation. Then convene the Pactlords for tomorrow night, and make an example of Durant's worms. We make our move on Godsday. And see to it that these mice don't make any more trouble."

The thing's shape melts and reforms like water, into a young woman with red hair and an impish smile—Tellith Herdsman. Then into a diminutive, wiry gnome—Anageo Quigg—and again into an elderly woman, the Administration building requisitions officer. On the table before them are four dossiers.

Jaiden Cunningham: ELIMINATION
Lucien Chenier: ELIMINATION

This is much longer than I would recommend making a stinger, and now I no longer plan them out very much or write them out. Still, it worked. It gave the players some meta-information, namely that the other boss was dead, that the captured gangsters would be executed (as they found out the next morning from the newspapers) that the plot they'd been told about was ongoing, and they got a look at a secretive villain. Plus, it set up a new intermediate villain, the ogre mage mercenary KILLBOSS, who the party actually dealt with and defeated not long later, but at a high price. Without that setup, he would have just come out of nowhere, but with it, his sudden appearance in the middle of a dungeon made more sense; not to the PCs, but to the players.

This information was largely non-actionable, and I trust my players well enough not to go trying to pass this off as in-character knowledge. This allows me to build dread and tension without having to worry immediately about PC reaction. In last session's stinger, I told the party how, the very same night they were living it up in Castle Shard, rubbing shoulders with high society, a young, ragged woman in the slums was hunted and eaten by a black dragon. This is setting up yet another intermediate villain. I think that's where this technique shines best, like in the teaser at the end of a thriller series episode, taking the POV to the villain to set up the next challenge. 

Have you used anything like this? Do let me know below. 


Enjoy this sort of post? Be sure to follow the blog and comment, and until next time, have a great week.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Adventures in Rekeying

Hey! The blog's not dead, just busy, plus what bandwidth I have for RPGs right now is going towards my in-person games. Still, I find time to plug away at old-school material.

I've been going through the G series and rekeying it for likely future use. And boy do I need to rekey this stuff, because no way am I going to run this at the table in this format.

From G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl

5. ICE CAVERN: The giants have frozen 8 corpses of mutilated victims. standing them upright in blocks of transparent ice. Evidently these are meant to "frighten off" any trespassers. The bodies are obviously hacked and very dead, not merely frozen whole. Each of these corpses has some valuable item with it in the ice: 1) is dwarven with a battle axe +1, 2) is elven with a long case at its feet (cold wand with 16 charges), 3) is human and wears a jeweled belt (worth 7,000 g.p.), 4) Is human and has a tube In its hand (a scroll of protection from elementals), 5) is dwarven and has a spilled pouch of (3710 g.p. base value) gems at its feet, 6) is human and wears a fire resistance ring, 7) is half-elven and grasps a sack with a burst seam showing silvery coins (471 s.p.). and 8) is a human In gleaming armor (magic armor of vulnerability,-2 but appears as +2 until actually struck in combat). If a fireball is used to melt the ice blocks, all magic and jewelry will be destroyed. Lesser fires or chipping will cause melting or vibrations which have a 10% per block cumulative chance of causing the ceiling of ice and Icicles to collapse and inflict 6-60 hit points of damage on each creature beneath.

I tried rekeying this in the format I cribbed from Castle Xyntillan, which I also used for the First Rat Bank:

5. Ice Cavern. (4’’x3’’) 8 standing blocks of ice contain mutilated corpses, each with a valuable item within. 

  • If a fireball is used to melt the ice, all magic and jewelry is destroyed. Lesser fires or chipping has a 10% per block cumulative chance of causing the ceiling to collapse for 6d10 damage on each creature beneath.

  • Dwarf with a battleaxe+2.

  • Elf with a cold wand (16 charges) in a long case.

  • Human wears a jeweled belt (7,000 g.p.).

  • Human holds a scroll of protection from elementals in a tube.

  • Dwarf with a spilled pouch of gems (3710 g.p. Base value).

  • Human wears a fire resistance ring.

  • Half-elf grasps a burst sack of silver (471 s.p.).

  • Human in gleaming armor (armor of vulnerability -2, appears as +2 until first struck).

We've cut 40%, from 227 to 135 words, gained a great deal in readability and scannability. More interesting, it's probably shorter depending on how wide your margins are. Here on the Blogger editor, my rewrite is slightly longer, but in the preview they're the same length. Meanwhile on google docs it's actually shorter, and it remains so when put into two-column form. In conclusion: rekeying old modules is worthwhile, will make them easier to run, and doesn't make the modules page-for-page longer.