tisdag 17 november 2015

Bookmongers of Zargosa

Ever since Prince Asphyxis of Zargosa made books and writing a controlled substance in his domain, there has sprung up a huge and lucrative black market around said commodities. At present, this shadow economy is dominated by a few major criminal factions who generally keep peace among themselves, and settle their disputes by arbitration, although occasional skirmishes are not unknown. The bigger players frequently hire adventurers (duh) as go-betweens, procurers of rare product, or general bruisers. Among the most noteworthy are:

Erknul the Antiquarian

An elderly man who runs Zargosa's largest and finest illegal bookshop from an octagonal tower in the ancient quarter behind the Sea King's Temple. His operation is protected by a large gang of erudite thugs, the patronage of several wealthy bibliophiles among the city's upper social tiers, and his reputation as a discreet and non-discriminating fence. He will move most product that is not too hot, and can generally be relied upon to not reveal the identity of either buyer or seller, although he sometimes charges a service or two to ensure his silence.

Artisan Marzuli

Erknul's former lieutenant, who has set up shop indepentently, much to his displeasure. She operates out of an old barge upriver, and is rumored to deal in books  that most other book traders refuse to handle, like the cognitively toxic tomes from far-off places like Yoon-Suin, Quelong and the Southernmost South,. She doesn't enjoy the noble patronage that Erknul does, but someone highly placed must be protecting her, considering that she manages to keep her brazenly illegal trade going. She is also rumored to keep a large terrarium, for reasons unknown.

The Corner Squires

Zargosa has the finest and largest university in the world. Students come there from all over the continent of Tlön and beyond to study law, metaphysics, natural history, rhetoric, and all the other sciences, high and low. Tuition fees are steep, however, and even though the University faculties run their portion of the city as a more or less independent fief, the book prohibition has greatly affected the availability and price of course literature.

As a result of these factors, increasing numbers of students each semester turn to a life of semi- or full time criminality. For those whose funds have run dry, there has always existed the option of working as a private tutor for the children of the wealthy, and/or prostituting themselves to the same (the wealthy, that is). More and more however,  who are either too desperate, incompetent or impatient for these lines of work, are drawn to the Corner Squires. These are simply criminal gangs of students, who make money by selling books to their peers, and those bibliophiles among the citizenry who cannot match Erknul's or Marzuli's prices. The Squires operate out of street corners in the University quarter, where they settle their turf boundaries by short and ugly street battles. There are at any time four to six major gangs, depending on the economy. The books they peddle are generally of low quality, copied by hand or on cheap printing presses. The source of their product is a matter of speculation, although it is rumored that some highly placed academics make money by supplying them with knock-off versions derived from their own private collections of books.

The Dwarven Book Masters

Those who wish to get an accurate appraisal of a given book's worth may consider paying a visit to the Dwarven Ghetto, beyond the Foreigner's Quarter on the South side of the river. The Dwarven Book Masters are unparallelled experts when it comes to the craftmanship, material and physical qualities of books, but they have no interest whatsoever in their content. (Note that this information applies mainly to orthodox dwarves, who adhere to the ancestral ways.) Since ancient dwarven religion teaches that Dwarves are the chosen tools of the Demiurge, and it is their sacred duty to constantly create the world anew, the human custom of writing by way of the repitition of a set number of letters or characters is anathema to them. Indeed, each and every dwarven text is like the Voynich manuscript, a self-contained system of signs and symbols which are created by the individual writer at the time of writing, and must be actively interpreted by each individual reader. (This is similar to the way in which magical treatises and spells are written, although they tend to follow a set of semiotic principles which are common to specific magical traditions.) There is, however, nothing that prevents Dwarves to exercise their skill in crafting, repairing and trading in books. Indeed, since the Ghetto exists in a kind of legal limbo similar to that of the University quarter, more and more of the black book trade gravitates there.

Zorlac the Philosopher

By all accounts some kind of monomaniacal collector, who doesn't get out much. He/She/They is, however, rumored to own a library of immense size and is constantly seeking out books to add to said collection, by any means available.

The Book Keepers

Zargosa, like all cities, does not maintain a standing armed force for the policing of crime and enforcement of laws. Lord Asphyxis does however employ a detachement of soldiers whose specific duty is to keep track of the book trade. Their job is a thankless one and consists mainly of keeping an eye out for "cognitive fallout", such as the appearance of a previously unrecorded building in a market square, the sudden emergence of hitherto unknown cults and organisations, strange zoological phenomena, and other signs that the baleful influence of books has once again taken its toll on the minds and reality of the people of Zargosa.

onsdag 4 november 2015

Books just show up

In any wizard's lab in any dungeon in any fantasy world, there is typically found a disproportionate amount of books. Hardly anyone can read, and the printing press has barely been invented yet. Still, everyone with half a gold piece to spare seems to have at least one big room labelled "LIBRARY" on the dungeon map key, filled from floor to ceiling with rows and rows of books. The only rational explanation to this is that books are not merely made, they are also generated spontaneously from thin air, much like fungus, maggots and vermin.

Think about it: You're raiding through some random NPC's stash and unaccountably there are all these books: The Yellow Sign, The Poetic Edda, Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos, Ovid's Metamorphoses. Who put them there? Where were they published? Why, no one did. For the most part books just show up. There are patterns: Books seem mainly to be attracted to more books, so that the bigger libraries are the more they grow, and new books are mainly discovered by the erudite. It is rare for an illiterate pauper to discover a furnished library containing the complete Encyclopedia of Tlön behind her cupboard, but it is not unknown. 

Books almost always have authors. Sometimes these authors may even exist. They may or may not be able to recollect having written the books in question. Indeed, the act of discovering that they are the author of a certain volume may become their incentive to write it, so as to avoid embarrassment. If the book in question is deemed to be politically or metaphysically dangerous by the authorities, the author may be imprisoned to prevent him/her to write said book in the future. 

The work of any curator or librarian consists mainly of scouring the shelves for new and unknown books. This is a difficult task: New books may be almost exact duplicates of existing ones, differing only in the placement of a comma or a variation in the spelling of a certain country's name. A bestiary might one morning be discovered to contain an article about a hitherto unknown creature.

Some cults and philosophies claim that mirrors are responsible for the multiplication of both books and humans and so declare them an abomination. 

Books are dangerous

Books are dangerous.

Words have the power to shape reality, this is known. The whole point of words is to provide things with meaning, and therefore with causality. The act of telling a story differs from the act of casting a spell only insofar as the effects of the act can be observed. A low-level wizard's cantrips can turn snakes into sticks and call forth creatures from far-off worlds, but the words of a long dead author can change history and summon lands and people that never were into existence.

Books, then, as the physical manifestation of words and stories, are immensely powerful and potentially dangerous. Words and stories themselves dissipate the moment they are uttered and remain only as imperfectly remembered traces in the minds of the listener, but when inscribed into books they stay behind, unchangeable, potentially for ever. Even worse, if books are duplicated, the words and stories they contain can spread uncontrollably, from library to library, from mind to mind.

If it's true that snakes are books, as some claim, then it is also true that books are snakes, forever slithering between the shelves, coiling themselves around the world.

It is therefore sensible that all lords and princes who desire the strength and stability of their state and the safety and prosperity of their subjects should seek to control the spread and ownership of books. Only those of sound mind and noble character should be allowed to own libraries. Even among such people, there may be those who cannot resist and succumb to the terrible reality-warping power of books; one need only look to the story of the Knight of la Mancha or the unfortunate scholar Casaubon for two such examples. In the past, books were rare enough that for the most part only persons of wealth and discernment might possess them, but with the recent arrival of the so called Printing Press (no doubt a hellish invention by the denizens of the Underworld intended to bring ruin to the inhabitants of the Surface) even the meanest and most degenerate sections of humanity, who are by far the most susceptible to their power, may obtain them for a small price.

torsdag 26 mars 2015

Random encounter table (just what it says)

So like I said, one main reason why I want to have a blog is to have somewhere to put and organize my stuff. Sometimes I sit and look through old folders on the computer (or even old notebooks) and I find things that I've must have spent a not inconsiderable amount of time and effort in thinking up and writing down, and then it's just been sitting there, effectively lost like Rutger Hauer's tears in rain. Dammit. But that's a good thing, it means that I won't have to put in that much effort in keeping up the blogposts, since I've essentially written them already. On the other hand, I still have to translate them from Swedish... Anyway, here's an encounter table, that I thought would provide some interesting choices for level 1 of a megadungeon:

Encounters for level 1 of a megadungeon

(With some explanatory notes.)
  1. Kobold hunting party (20% chance of returning successfully from hunt, roll again to determine what prey they bring back)
  2. Kobold religious procession
  3. Kobold fighting patrol
  4. Kobold fighting patrol, with [roll again] as reinforcements.
  5. Goblin trading mission (carrying moderate treasure glamoured to look like trash)
  6. Goblin exploration mission (carrying reasonably accurate map to the nearest way down to lvl 2, in Goblin of course)
  7. Goblin diplomatic mission, roll again to determine who they're supposed to negotiate with.
  8. Thieve's guild members; roll 1d6. 1: Going to steal something 2: Having stolen something 3-4: courier mission 5-6: running from something (roll again to determine pursuer).
  9. Adventurers, roll 1d6 for characteristics. 1. Filthy 2.Snobbish 3.Non-human 4.Chaos worshippers 5.Artsy 6.Drunk
  10. Brown Jenkin
  11. Fractal Spinner (A species of giant spider that I came up with; incredibly advanced mathematicians who really only want to be left alone, will only attack if you disturb their nets which are in fact incredibly complex mathematical calculations, can be recognized as such on an INT-roll)
  12. Black centipede (Giant)
  13. Bat swarm (10% that they will be carrying a paraplegic ghoul with whom they have a kind of symbiotic relationship)
  14. Helpers (This was an idea that I had, that the megadungeon has these human servitors wandering around performing various tasks without any clear idea about why or how they got there. Either some force in the dungeon telepathically pulls people from the surface into servitude, or they're spawned in some fashion in the deeper levels.) Anyway, they're doing (roll 1d10: 1. Inventory of dungeon accoutrements. 2. Cleaning empty rooms so that they'll stay empty. 3. Repairs. 4. Serving refreshments to all they encounter. 5. Helping with personal hygien. 6. Health check-ups. 7. Entertainment (burlesque street theatre) 8. Exorcism (Chanting, ringing bells, waving insence and wreaths of garlic around.) 9. Giving directions. 10. Keeping the peace.
  15. Firebugs (mother with cubs)
  16. Pack of wild dogs (1t6: 1-2. Street mutts 3-4 Fighting mastiffs 5 Small but vicious dogs 6 Mix of the above. 10% chance that a magical talking dog will lead them.
  17. Halfling, family, on the move (not uncommon sight in the underworld since they're often persecuted above)
  18. Orcs, out to kill things
  19. Zombies, newly awakened (Accepted folk wisdom: Any dead body which does not undergo proper burial rites will rise as one of the undead. Cause of death (1d6): 1 Drowned 2. Robbed and murdered 3. Venereal disease 4. Freak accident 5. Monster attack 6. Suicide)
  20. Måntoad (Giant frog with human facial features)

    Ask me not for context, some of this is straight out of Lovecraft and some things I just made up. As I look at it now, it's not too bad; I think I wanted to provide myself with a lot of variety. I might revise this table and see if I may put it to use, some things I still like while others I do not so much (think I'll throw the kobolds and the goblins and the orcs out, for now).

söndag 22 mars 2015

First post

I've been playing RPGs for close to 25 years, and I started following the old school D&D blogs a bit over five years ago. Since then I've made some abortive attempts at blogging; this is supposed to be a new start. My purpose is mainly to organize my own campaign material, and also as an experiment to see if I can actually get some followers. I'm going to be writing in English even though it's not my primary language, mainly to get a broader audience but also as an exercise.

The other night I ran a simple dungeon adventure with three players. It was a very simple setup: They woke up in an underground cell and needed to find their way out. During a few hours of play they explored a bit of the dungeon, searching for an exit. They fought some monsters and triggered some traps, made some wise decisions, made some poor decisions (like firing into a melee), made a few poison saves, found some treasure. They learned why they were there (kidnapped by thieves to be sold alive to Valusian snakemen), found an ally (a thief who survived the ensuing massacre when the business deal with the snakemen went south) and accepted his offer to lead them out.

It all went pretty well, I thought. But a few hours before the session, I didn't. I had a map ("Portion of underworld beneath the city of Zargosa"), and the scenario premise ("Kidnapped by thieves to be sold to snakemen") and some notes about what was to be found in some of the rooms. But there were probably 50 rooms on my map that lacked a description. I didn't really know what to put in them. And I thought that maybe I wouldn't be able to keep up my player's interest for three hours.

How do you make a dungeon interesting? I really don't know. I'm still learning. I've always felt that they could be, it's just that the RPG- and LARPing culture that I encountered in Sweden during the late -90's/early -00's did their best to discourage me of that notion. "Killing monsters in cave systems was something we did when we were kids; mature roleplaying is about storytelling and complex character interaction", something like that. Or maybe that's just the way that I perceived things.

Anyway, encountering the OSR was something of a vindication of my beliefs. A lot of people were apparently having a lot of fun exploring dungeons, and not only were they doing that but they also were using rules that were quite far removed from the nightmare of arithmetic and people-spending-15-minutes-per-combat-round-arguing-about-the-best-way-to-position-their-miniatures-on-the-combat-grid that was my experience of D&D 3.5.

So since then I've read a LOT of blogs and even GM-d a few times, but I haven't had the time to run a regular campaign. Maybe I still don't, but I intend to find out through trial and error. In the meantime, I have to come up with adventures for my players.

The one big eye opener that I got from reading OSR-blogs wasn't really that dungeons are fun; like I said, I already knew that. It was really this: The rules don't tell you how to play. And it almost made me kick myself, because it's so simple when someone points it out to you. I used to think that there was something central lacking in my understanding of how you were supposed to play an RPG, despite having done so on and off for 20-odd years. I used to pour over the "how to be a story teller" chapters in White Wolf's rulebooks, trying to find some answer to the question of how to be a perfect GM. Like I hadn't been providing my own answer to that question since I was 13.

And it occurred to me as the hour drew near that the same answer still  applies when you sit and try to run an old school-style D&D game: "You invent the fucking game yourself." Pardon my Klatschian. And the invention's not a precision clock, it's Frankenstein's monster. You stitch together a bunch of illicitly obtained bodyparts, run a lightning current through it and laugh maniacally as it comes to life. You put some stuff together and see what happens. If your players don't like it, you'll notice. If you don't have fun, you'll notice. It's not that hard. The hard part's in not making it harder for you than you have to.

Anyway, as I was preparing the other night I discovered a bunch of prepwork that I had laying around from previous sessions. Among them a list of 30-odd dungeon rooms that I apparently thought could come in handy. Consider this an IOU on the Joesky tax. This post was just a warming up exercise, I'll try and stick to primarily posting gaming material.