Wednesday, September 2, 2015

2015 Thought Eater Tournament

I like Secret Santicore, I like the One Page Dungeon Contest, I like tables made by Gygaxian Democracy and I like all the other kinds of cool shared gameables you people make.

But I also love Revolution Natalie on Why D&D Has So Many Rules For Combat, Jeff Gameblog on Max, James Mal on the Monster Manual as Medieval Grimoire and False Patrick on Miniatures as Sculpture.

The DIY game scene has lots of ways of encouraging people to make game stuff. We don't have that many ways of encouraging these kind of critical and reflective essays on the nature of the game and game-related stuff. The traditional way to do that would be to start a magazine, but magazines are dead. So instead, I'm announcing the...

This could be you don't you love that idea? You do i know.
Here's how it works:

1. If you want to be in the contest email me: zakzsmith AT hawtmayle .

2. Also tell me at least one topic you'd like to see covered in the essays as part of the tournament--something you'd like to see other people tackle.

3. I will arrange the contestants into elimination rounds and assign topics from the suggestions to each pair.

4. Each contestant will attempt to produce interesting prose containing at least one original idea on the topic assigned within the week and then email it to me without putting it up anywhere else. Note: It's ok if it takes a while for me to assign these. This can be a casual tournament if need be.

5. For each pair of contestants I will place both essays (without the authors' names--to prevent politicking or bias) up on the blog. Blog readers will vote on which essay is the more engaging and original. (I will not vote or participate.)

6. Three days later I will count the votes and reveal the names of the contestants (with links to their blogs if they have them). Winners will move on to the next round and be paired with a winner from the previous round. You can put the essay you wrote up on your blog if you have one at that point.

7. Participants will receive: adulation for how smart they are and attention for their blogs if they have them.

The community will receive: some thought-provoking prose.

The winner will receive: a boon of their choice granted by me. Since the winner will be, by definition, immensely wise, the boon requested will obviously be something cool and reasonable, so I'm pretty open about what that is.

So get to work, Brainiacs...

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Horrible Horrible Jackal-Heads

They shall call the nobles thereof to the kingdom, but none shall be there; and all its princes shall be nothing. And thorns shall come up in its palaces, nettles and thistles in the fortresses thereof; and it shall be a habitation of jackals, a court for ostriches.
--Isaiah 34:12-13

Jackalmen are gnot gnolls. Gnolls have hyenaheads and they're tough. Jackalmen are scrawny and gross and they are all bad wizards. They usually wear spooky robes so they look like guys in old horror movies about cults in animal masks.

Also: Jackalmen aren't a species--they're a moral consequence. If a man should betray a friend in the Colossal Waste, he becomes one. If a woman should steal from an innocent, she becomes a horned she-jackal.

Stats are basically as a human magic user except roll 2d6+6 for intelligence, 4d4 for strength, plus enhanced hearing. They'll only bite you if they've carved a curse into their teeth or in case of genuine desperation.

They carry khopesh swords, barbed nets and gold sickles. The sickles can be imbued with a single spell at a time, storing the spell and discharging it when it hits a target--they can also be thrown. This is all awful.

They worship Nathrekk the Devourer who is a three-headed jackal whose wide radiating mouths form a black blossom. It is said Nathrekk is brother to En Gorath, it is said they keep secrets from one another.

They live in the ruins of our cities, so their scheme is to encourage and then annihilate your culture. How far along in the two-step they've gotten depends what century and hex you're in. Their government is very Lottery In Babylon. Even in their most progressive phase they encourage only malefactors--organizing despots, crimelords, sellers of homes.

Jackalman magic involves disorientation, switching, the nesting of dimensions. Like a classic jackalman spell is turning a puddle of water into the surface of a deep and shark-infested vertical sea, another is fucking up your relation to physical space--imagine the weird inside-out rooms in the Red & Pleasant Land dungeon transported to a fake-Islamic environment full of fountains, muqarnas, bas-reliefs.

Probably the worst thing they do is throw babies. Specifically: they take a human child and stuff it into an outfit not unlike a baby-pajama version of siberian bear armor...
...then huck the babies at you. If you catch the baby it might live, but then the spikes are poison--and also they're spikes.

Their leaders prefer to meet you before killing you. They'll typically be accompanied by a pair of sub-priests chanting a version of the Sanctuary spell that makes it impossible to attack or be attacked. They'll start by just talking if they can, taunt you, then leave.

They are ruled by the horned she-jackals, high-level priestesses--they will always offer you something you greatly desire in exchange for some seemingly innocuous favor, even if you've slain your way through their armies to get to them. They consider it a test of your meddle.

Sapientiam Comedentis Interemptorum

The book is written in a language used in Vornheim, though it is punctuated by terms and pictograms in the ancient language of the Waste and the tongue of the Jackalheads.

Read Magic will allow anyone to read the spells, regardless of what mundane languages they can read.

This text is difficult--it abrades the mind. Beginning as a desert travelogue, it descends into spattered polemic after its author--caravan marooned in the Waste by a bandit raid--kills his fellow travelers for water and recounts his initiation into the ways and society of the Jackal.

The book will reveal the key to the lottery runes and the myriad rites of the Devourer. Once read through and understood, the text will reveal answers to questions about the jackalmen or the horned she-jackals on a successful Int check up to three times.

It includes the following unique spells:
Mass Inscribe (Inscribes a lottery rune on everyone in a 30 foot radius--Level 1)
Clutching Coil (Once a prepared net, rope or other binding is wrapped around a target, the spell causes it to squeeze for 2d6 damage per round--Level 2)
Arrows to Asps (Affects chosen arrows immediately as well as any arrows of the caster's choosing mid-flight if they are shot this round within line of sight--Level 3)(This was stolen from some Conan thing.)
Thousand Claws (as Web but clawed arms reach from a surface. They inflict d6 damage per round--Level 3)
Deepwell (The puddle trick above--Level 3)
Scatter (This only works in a place you call your home and have lived in and prepared for an hour. Range 100'. Everybody in a 30 foot radius has to save vs spell or be teleported to a random room in your home--Level 3)
Derange Space (This only works inside. The entire room is subjected to a random Perplexity of the Interior as in Red & Pleasant Land, only Middle-East-themed--Level 3)
Steal Face (Take and convincingly wear someone's face until it rots off or they get it back. Range: Touch. Level 4.)

Reading the narrative or spells will force a save vs spell. A failed save indicates that the reader has been affected by the text--whenever they roll a natural 1 on a d20 they will be afflicted by desolate visions (treat as Confusion spell) for d4 rounds (d6 rounds if they've read the spells and the narrative) thereafter until treated with some activity or magic which cures madness. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

3 Dozen Psychotics Agree: Go Buy Vornheim

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit is back in print. Get it here.

The rest of this entry is for those of you who still need convincing. Here's the thing about Vornheim:

Sure it's going for 170$ on ebay...
Sure it's beloved by both veteran GMs and people coming to games for the first time...
Sure it received critical acclaim from famous and respected contemporary writers inside the game industry and out (like Red & Pleasant Land)...

But there's no need to trust the judgment of these pretentious book collectors, clueless newbies, gaming-adjacent gadflies and OSR lickspittles--why not ask people who fucking hate me what they think of Vornheim, its author, and the ideas in it?

You want it.
It is a fascinating city that takes the approach of making a fantasy city actually fantastic. Why yes the crazy lady in the spooky house is a medusa...and everyone knows that and its just a thing that exists.

Its stupidly full of little color bits that could grow into full on plot hooks. And it has some clever mechanics, like the cover doubling as a table that you physically roll dice on and the position the dice lands tells you stuff...solidly in my category of 'things I'm very glad I bought...

-Ralph Mazza

I thought his Vornheim book was fucking amazing


I just started reading Vornheim recently and am pleasantly surprised…Just off the top of my head, Vornheim itself includes things like the God of Rain and Rust as the city's patron deity, the palace and grand cathedral shaped like hands with the spires as fingers reaching for the sky, lists of bizarre superstitions, decadent nobles who walk pet snails and turtles to show off their idleness, and creatures like a "La Llorona" style vampire bride who is really essentially a bodiless penanggalan fastened to the top of an empty dress.

....Vornheim is a good example of fantasy that is focused on the fantastical rather than world-building, something that is rarely seen today. For example, the palace shaped like a hand, with tower fingers reaching toward the sky, the gardens of black flowers, and the fact that all snakes are secretly books.

-Halloween Jack/Keith Robertson

I've heard good things about Vornheim and have no reason to believe that the game design used there is anything short of excellent, for those for whom it is well-suited. I've never put forth any notion that Zak doesn't make good game stuff. A lot of people I respect respect his work.

-Fred Hicks

Hell, he’s a good artist

-Anna Kreider/Wundergeek

...if you are a fan of random tables and like the particular style of art in the book then the ideas here make it worth the price of admission. Any one of the pages in this book has enough ideas to become the seed of a memorable session...

-Ash Law

Vornheim is fucking brilliant too

-4chan anon

It's really good stuff. Very idiosyncratic, very weird, but every page has a bunch of little details that scream PLAY ME!

-Jack Shear

...I like his art and RPG's…


Vornheim was so fucking based

-4chan anon

I don't dispute Zak's writing. A Diana Jones nom is nothing to sneeze at.

-Mark Carroll

There's also the fact that he seems to be genuinely intelligent and articulate.


…but Vornheim owns

-4chan anon

I've heard good things about Vornheim as a product...

-Jussi Marttila

....he's an awfully good artist.

-Malcolm Sheppard

He’s a solid artist in a number of fields…a solid artist

-Fred Hicks again

Zak is a person who appeals to a lot of decent folks because he has a lot of good ideas and qualities and is tremendously creative

-Pope Guilty

I'm quite impressed with Vornheim. I was surprised to discover that Zak's a actually good writer…It's very evocative.


Zak S Vornheim was an amazing piece of work, so borrow it or whatever if you don't want to pay him for it, but it's very worth reading.


There's a lot of decent material in Vornheim. For what it is, it's a good product, and I'm prepared to assume that the latest work of Mr S is also pretty good.

--Potatocubed / Chris Longhurst
I have no doubt that his actual RPG products are good

-Guilty Spork

He can write well, therefore the reason everyone hates him is because he's a genius that embarrasses lesser men.

-A Plague of Hats

...a great artist and contributor to the hobby...

-Ron Edwards

I want to add that Vornheim is a really great "little" supplement and I would buy a lot more things like that if there were a lot more of them to buy.


Agreed. Additionally, unlike other city setting books, it's not filled to the brim with "Street Name #9" or "Bjorn's Wine Company" details. Zak views such things as unimportant details the DM or PCs can come up with during the game session or for their own games. Instead he relies upon quick and easy table generation for encounters, streets, etc.


It's a testament to the quality of Vornheim that some of its most vocal proponents around here tend to be the posters who've been most critical of the author's... distinctive online persona


He's a guy who's generally smarter than those around him…Vornheim…is the distillation of everything that he does that's awesome.


 Vornheim is okay...


I do like a lot of his ideas.


It's worth looking at and bits are useful. Different bits to different people.


I always thought the "snakes are books" thing from Vornheim was pretty cool.

--Inklesspen / Jon Rosebaugh

One of the best ideas I've seen in a long time. Definitely goes into the next D&D game I run. 

-Frank Trollman

Must play with this now!


That's a really cool idea.


It's a really nifty idea

-Ancient History

Honestly, awesome.

-Judging Eagle

Very cool.


Dude's book looks wonderful

-4chan anon

Zak is the gift that keeps on giving

-Ryan Russin

Zak, you're a wonderful, talented artist and you have some fun ideas.

-Ancient History

So if this collection of knuckle-draggers, edition-warriors, and sociopaths who have been trying to us run out of games for a year still managed to get something out of Vornheim, just imagine how much you--an individual well-adjusted and intelligent enough to be reading this blog without typing out paranoid conspiracy theories that dirty sexwomen are going to break into your house and force your children to play Old School dicegames about elves against your will--will enjoy it.

Now available again in hardcover for the first time in years from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and wherever unusually good cottage-industry RPG books are sold.

(Unlike Red and Pleasant Land,  of which LotFP has zero copies left as of last night. You'll have to contact your local game store or distributor to get one.)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ken and Zak Talk About Stuff

Kenneth Hite was the first person in the mainstream RPG scene to recognize what we were trying to do with Vornheim--or at least the first one to say anything about it. When I heard that, I decided he must be a pretty sharp guy. When he came over and ran Night's Black Agents at our house I realized he was probably one of the sharpest guys in history. And definitely one of the sharpest about history.

For fans, the man needs no introduction--but I hope this interview will offer a window into at least one or two things about Ken you didn't already know. Those new to Ken just need to know he's the idea-factory behind Trail of Cthulhu, the horrible wartorn survival magic-poisoned LotFP setting Qelong, the bold and bizarre Day After Ragnarok alt-history setting and dozens of other excursions into well-researched wrongness.

When and how did you start with role-playing games?

I started playing with D&D before I ever played D&D -- in junior high, my pal Steve loaned me his AD&D MONSTER MANUAL, which came out before the other two books did. So all that summer I built monsters using rules I made up based on the numbers in the book, which is the kind of on-the-nose detail rightly rejected in a novel.

Anyhow, my friends and I started playing D&D that fall, from a combination of that book, the Basic set, and then AD&D, eventually settling into an AD&D campaign with me as the DM. A little TRAVELLER in church youth group, because the youth pastor had the Little Black Books. Then TOP SECRET (which Santa brought us as a misguided "family game night" game), then my one true love CALL OF CTHULHU, from the moment it came out in 1981.

When and how did you start as a professional in the industry?

So I moved to Chicago for grad school, and that meant I could go to GenCon for about $20 by running games for Chaosium -- back then, they badged you in, piled you like cordwood in a hotel room, and bought pizza most nights, so my cost was train fare and liquor. At this same time, I was doing a kind of "free-jazz" improv alternate history game with two history majors I met at the University of Chicago SF Club, Craig Neumeier and Mike Schiffer, and running my Monday campaign for them and some other SF Club people. At one of those GenCons, I bought (or traded for) GURPS TIME TRAVEL by Steve Jackson and John M. Ford, which included the "Infinite Worlds" campaign frame. Mike and Craig and I noticed that Steve Jackson Games had very clear submission guidelines and an unsupported alternate-history setting, and we had all these settings just sitting there. So we wrote a sample alternate history and an outline and sent it in as a proposal. Which went nowhere, except because I had a Chaosium badge, Steve Jackson couldn't dodge me asking about it every GenCon.

One of my players in that long-running CALL OF CTHULHU campaign eventually got a job at Iron Crown, and he got a playtest copy of the NEPHILIM rules from Chaosium, thought "who do I know who should see a game of magical historical conspiracy" and sent them to me for comment. I wrote about 11,000 words of back-sass and sent them to him, and he sent them to Chaosium and right about the same time that Steve Jackson finally looked at our proposal (and accepted it immediately) I got an email from Greg Stafford His Own Self asking me if he could use my playtest feedback in the rulebook, and what was the next book I wanted to write for the line? So in almost the same month in 1994 I had two RPG writing gigs. The rest was just keeping at it; I wound up as Line Developer for NEPHILIM before Chaosium's first or second bankruptcy, and wrote a bunch of books for Steve, and then White Wolf, and then I got hired to design two STAR TREK games back to back and here we are today. In about 1997 I decided to do it full time (or rather my wife Sheila decided she'd rather be married to a happy game writer than a grouchy insurance company tech), and one or two really dodgy years aside, it's pretty much kept the lights on ever since.

What is it about RPG people and the insurance business?

Insurance work is like fast food for people with college degrees. They need a ton of drones to process their hellish oceans of data. Or they did in the 1990s, anyhow, it's probably all done with big data in Bangalore now.

You're known for setting work that's informed by a lot of research--both in history and
in the genre--can you tell us anything about the process of turning research into fiction?

All I can do, really, is quote someone much better than me at the same trick. Tim Powers says that at a certain point you stop researching a novel and start uncovering a secret history of the world. The human brain is hard-wired to pattern-match -- it's how we saw fruit in the trees when we were monkeys, and it's how we see the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich now, and it's how Lovecraft or Powers or I build fiction out of suggestively shaped fact, except we're doing it on purpose. Start with the premise -- if DRACULA were a spy novel, what else would be true? and then start looking for weird little facts that fit the legend you're inventing. George Stoker being a sometime asset for the Foreign Office, for example; or a startling number of British Intelligence higher-ups dying suddenly the same year as a major earthquake in Romania; Bram Stoker cutting the final earthquake scene out of his novel literally just before it went to press. I knew the last of those three facts before I started, but when I looked for more they always seemed to appear, because my brain was seeing where unconnected facts -- about DRACULA, and earthquakes, and the history of British espionage -- could be connected.

Re: Pattern-matching: that's a lot how making a collage works. I have no idea if that's a question, just an observation. You get a certain density of ideas and some begin to rhyme and it makes a dream-logic.

Yeah, to some extent trying to explain any of this stuff in writing is like dancing about architecture, as Martin Mull put it. Once you've been doing sculptures long enough, you see the elephant emerge from the block of marble. I do especially like the metaphor of facts and fictions "rhyming," because that's very much what it feels like in the moment.

Last I knew you were playing Call of Cthulhu regularly at home--anything else?

I haven't actually been able to play CALL OF CTHULHU regularly for a while now -- one of my core players has a major Lovecraft allergy. We were playing NOBILIS at home, I think, when I ran NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS for you; then I ran a CODA-system space game after building the setting with MICROSCOPE, and now I'm running UNKNOWN ARMIES set in the Old West. Each scenario occurs one year later than the last, so we get a good historical sweep out of it.

So do you set up your home campaign as a series of scenarios--almost like modules? Like Mission A then Mission B…?

My home campaign structures vary. Sometimes it's a fairly clear series of missions or modules; other times it's just sandboxing and I build (or co-build) emergent adventures around whatever trouble the players get into. In this campaign, it's kind of a hybrid of those two structures: I tell them which historical event that year their characters will realize contains UA weirdness and then build a sandbox inside it for them to play in.

How do you try out new stuff--with a home group or usually with designers?

It depends. Usually I'll play something with the designer or with some alpha GMs who I know from the convention circuit, but often I'll bring something back, like MICROSCOPE, and the home group will be interested in giving it a whirl. Metatopia is a game design convention, and I wind up alpha testing a lot of new games there as part of my Guest of Honor duties. My own new stuff is usually not a whole new system, but a subsystem -- when I was at Last Unicorn and Decipher we'd play parts of those games as we designed them. I ran a little 13TH AGE when I was developing the BESTIARY for it. I did run a full alpha playtest campaign of NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS while I was designing it, just to make sure GUMSHOE could handle becoming a thriller game, and I think that worked pretty well. But mostly my home game is blowing off creative steam, not an extension of my work day.

Your schticks are history and horror: both of which have been controversial lately--at least on-line--it's been suggested that playing games where bad things happen is covertly a way to enjoy or encourage bad things happening to people in real life. What's your take on handling subjects in games people might consider difficult? 

I write games about what interests me, which includes, as you mention, history and horror and the broad overlap of the two. My general take is that people who worry about being influenced by horror or the past should avoid playing games about those things -- there are plenty of great fantasy or space games out there. Anyone who opens a game by me I expect to be interested in a game by me on the topic, so I write for them. I treat my audience as adults capable of differentiating between fiction and reality, and between villainy and self-help advice, and in 20-odd years of doing this, I can count the number of times I've been wrong on the fingers of one hand. One Norwegian guy on Usenet got way too interested in authoritarian early 20th century ideology because of my description of Wilhelmine Germany in GURPS ALTERNATE EARTHS, but I have to consider that a fringe case.

So you don't buy the significance of the "we're all unconsciously affected in subtle ways by bad ideas" thesis? Or do you just figure if you are it's your own fault?

"Unconsciously affected" is the kind of red flag phrase that just screams "no causal link" to me, especially with regard to putative grownups. So yeah, if you play a game I wrote set in the 1930s and come away more racist or sexist or Freudian or fascist or Stalinist, yes I think it's your fault, not mine or even Stalin's.

Can you run down what you've got that's out right now and what each thing is about?

I can hit some highlights, certainly. DAY AFTER RAGNAROK is my post-WWII post-apocalypse "submachine guns and sorcery" setting, currently available from Atomic Overmind for SAVAGE WORLDS, FATE, and HERO. Writing that involved destroying the world in 1945 except for the parts that looked like Conan and Professor Quatermass.

QELONG is my damp, horrible sandbox hexcrawl for our pal James Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It's "fantasy fucking Cambodia," which if you know anything about the history is even worse than "fantasy fucking Vietnam," but I put enough spins on it (and invoked enough 20th century horror) to warrant keeping it in a secondary world, not just Solomon-Kane-ing it into the 17th century.

TRAIL OF CTHULHU is my adaptation of CALL OF CTHULHU to the GUMSHOE system; my most recent thing for that is the "Occult Paris" chapter of DREAMHOUNDS OF PARIS by Robin Laws.

I'm also writing a monthly PDF series for Pelgrane called KEN WRITES ABOUT STUFF. We're in the third series of KWAS now, and you can subscribe or buy the singles individually. I've done campaign frames like MOON DUST MEN about UFO crash recovery teams in 1978, and THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT in which you play Christopher Marlowe and his occult poet pals fighting demons and Spaniards in the 1590s, and TOMBHOUNDS OF EGYPT which is about crooked archaeologists in 1930s Egypt for TRAIL or any other GUMSHOE game. They might be GUMSHOE rules "Zooms" on historical magic like voodoo and goetia, or mind control or martial arts; or expansions for other GUMSHOE games like MUTANT CITY SPIES (my "S.H.I.E.L.D." expansion for MUTANT CITY BLUES) or XENO-ARCHAEOLOGY! for ASHEN STARS. Every other month so far has been a "Hideous Creature" from the Cthulhu Mythos, looked at from all different angles to let Keepers change up the too-familiar Deep Ones and such and put back the Lovecraftian mystery. And in some of them I just talk about stuff like the Nazi Bell project, or the Spear of Destiny, or Lilith.

On that same note, I'm doing a column (in English) for FENIX magazine in Sweden, usually either a setting, a campaign frame, or a mini-RPG. A bunch of those have been collected in three volumes of THE BEST OF FENIX (all in English), which should be available in PDF at least by now.

Hell, you can still buy my SUPPRESSED TRANSMISSION collections in PDF from Steve Jackson Games, which were me doing the same thing as KWAS, only much faster and younger and crazier. My Mekons era, not my Waco Brothers era.

You can also pick up most of my GURPS work from SJG, of which I most highly recommend GURPS HORROR 4th edition, which contains virtually all the good advice from my long-ago guide to running horror games, NIGHTMARES OF MINE, plus decades of good advice I've learned since or recycled from the earlier two editions of GURPS HORROR. Only about a quarter of it is GURPS rules or stats, and in the post-D20 age I don't want anyone saying GURPS stat blocks are too much work.

You know all about NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS, of course, and the Big New Thing for that is THE DRACULA DOSSIER, which is a massive improvisational, collaborative campaign based on the premise I mentioned above -- that DRACULA isn't a novel, but the after-action report of a failed 1894 attempt to recruit Dracula as an asset for British Intelligence. It includes DRACULA UNREDACTED, which is Stoker's full first draft "unredacted" by me and by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, and annotated by three generations of MI6 analysts trying to figure out if "Operation Edom" really ended in 1894 and discovering that nope, it's still trying to run Dracula as an operative in the War on Terror. So all the weird stuff in Stoker plus those annotations leads to over 200 encounters -- NPCs and organizations that might be innocent or part of Edom or minions of Dracula, locations and objects that might be innocuous or deadly dangerous, all depending on how the players approach them and how the Director puts them into the game. The DIRECTOR'S HANDBOOK combines all those various versions, plus some possible Capstone climactic endings, plus some campaign frames to add Cthulhu or undead Nazis if you want, and the overarching blueprint to help you shape your campaign the way you and the players want it to go.

Ok, Bram Stoker's Dracula: I gotta ask you. The prose in that book just puts me to sleep every damn time, aside from one or two passages in the beginning when Dracula first shows up, it seems so deadened and attenuated. Aside from the invention of Dracula himself (who's a great villain, obviously) what are you seeing that I'm not?

It may just be a stylistic preference: I like 19th century prose better than many people (although I don't possess the Dickens appreciation gene, so it's not like my taste is bulletproof here). I genuinely enjoy the narrative elisions created by Stoker manipulating the epistolary form -- so much so that I've written a whole game about them, in fact. The structure of the novel is bloody brilliant -- I feel very bad about deforming it in DRACULA UNREDACTED. Dracula's appearance in London is also wonderfully suspenseful and terrifying, and the thematic and character contrasts between the hunters' Christianity and reason vs. Dracula's diabolical animalism in the novel keep paying off. Finally, of course, as a cultural window into the late Victorian mind it's just plain unsurpassed as a historical document.

Is it generally true that the more alt-history a setting is, the more you like it, or are you also into less-grounded things like Traveller or Toon or 40k?

I find it easier to buy mentally into settings connected to something real, usually history or legend or geography -- this preference holds in fiction, too. I prefer secret history to secondary world fantasy novels, for instance, and that holds for RPGs even moreso because the setting is so much more important there than in a novel. Even my homebrew D&D setting in high school was a heavily modded "fantasy fucking Byzantine Empire." That said, I like adding magic or myth or weird science or superpowers to the alt-history or secret-history setting -- even a straight history game is more fun for me with time travel in it. I liked the TRAVELLER setting well enough, though when I ran TRAVELLER I redesigned it for greater astropolitical plausibility (at least to me). I've never played WARHAMMER of any stripe because I didn't do it when I was thirteen (because it didn't exist then) so I missed the WH recruitment window. I can imagine playing one good afternoon's worth of TOON, but why?

What are you working on now?

We're still doing the rest of the stretch goals for THE DRACULA DOSSIER right now; I'm finishing my polish on THE EDOM FILES, which is a connection of adventures in Operation Edom's history from 1877 to the 21st century; Gar is finishing the EDOM FIELD MANUAL, which is a vampire-hunting manual disguised as a streamlined NBA starter kit or vice versa; then I get to watch 36 or so Dracula movies for THE THRILL OF DRACULA, a book about adopting and altering Dracula for your game using the movies as examples.

I'm also writing a big expansion for the MOON DUST MEN campaign frame that we're going to spread out over a couple of KWAS issues, and will probably involve writing some dogfighting rules I will need to playtest, and I'm getting started on the GUMSHOE adaptation of DELTA GREEN, called THE FALL OF DELTA GREEN. You play DELTA GREEN agents during its heyday as an authorized anti-Mythos operation: the 1960s. So it's back to Cambodia for me, then.

I had a lot of fun playing your Qelong setting for LotFP--especially fighting lotus monks--do you get to play all the things you write? If not--do you ever wish you did?

I don't have time to play all the things I write, and in fairness if I did, I'd probably squander a bunch of it hanging out with my wife and cat instead. Sometimes I'll write a scene or a mechanic and I'd like to run it or play it out, sure, but it's more fun to play stuff I haven't written yet. I get surprised more often, that way, anyhow.

It seems like setting stuff is mostly your thing--are you happy to let other people handle
the mechanics, or do you get ideas for fiddling with that end of things that you'd like
to publish?

I don't really consider myself a soup-to-nuts system guy, although I learned an awful lot about mechanics designing two back-to-back STAR TREK RPGs with different mechanics, and then reviewing games from all over the design spectrum for a decade for my column "Out of the Box." When I write for GURPS or SAVAGE WORLDS part of the fun is coming up with (or repurposing) mechanics to fit the setting or story, just like I did for NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS or even QELONG. If I get a really good idea for a mechanic I can usually either put it in KWAS if it's GUMSHOE-able, write a mini-game around it for FENIX, or shop-talk it at Metatopia, so I keep the urge pretty much under control.

You consulted on D&D 5--was there anything that surprised you about that process?

I was most surprised to be asked, actually. Like you say, I'm better known -- and better -- as a setting guy, and they didn't ask about that. But I did cut my teeth on D&D, and I've played every edition except 2nd, so I had some notions. Everyone at Wizards was very nice and professional, as they have been ever since they laid me off back in 2001 after buying the box I came in.

Are there any developments in games outside your own sphere you're excited about?

I'm crazy excited about the new technologies in tabletop wargames. First, the card-driven rules that Mark Herman invented in 1994 have finally come into their own in the last decade, mostly from GMT. That really lowers complexity while keeping flavor and feel strong. GMT is also cracking the very tough nut of the counter-insurgency wargame, with Volko Ruhnke leading the way. If we can get a real breakthrough in tactical game design the way we have in strategic games, that segment will go nuts. We may have already gotten it; I get so few chances to play wargames that I mostly concentrate on strategic stuff.

What wargames do you like? Whats your history with that?

Right now I'm very excited about the GMT counter-insurgency series and the strategic-level card-driven games in general, like I said. FIRE IN THE LAKE and NO RETREAT! are two great examples of what I'm talking about. I still play WASHINGTON'S WAR (nee WE THE PEOPLE) and love it. I started playing hex-and-counter wargames before they had hexes -- my dad bought the first GETTYSBURG game from Avalon Hill back when the board had squares, and he taught me to play it so he'd have someone to play. I played GETTYSBURG and a lot of other old AH grand-tactical games and then got very into PANZERBLITZ and its sequels, which led me down the hyper-tactical rabbit-hole of SQUAD LEADER and ASL which wound up killing my wargame interest for a while (that and STAR FLEET BATTLES -- take four hours to play 1/32 of a second!). Later I found RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN which got me into the operational and strategic scale stuff and that has stuck with me ever since. (I played a lot of WAR AT SEA in college, too, but not before or since.)

If you could give one piece of advice to wannabe RPG writers, what would it be?

Make your name by producing good work for a system with a lot of players. In my day, you had to get hired to write for D&D or RUNEQUEST or the new hotness; now, virtually every system you care to name is either open or the license is ridiculously friendly. Write what you want to play now, don't bother to fix what you think is wrong with whatever system hurt you in 8th grade. Between PDFs, POD publishing, Kickstarter, and the whole indie-DIY ecology, you can be a real life RPG writer from the jump. Make sure you hire (or sweat-equity) a really good artist and layout person so your work doesn't look bad, and make sure you've read enough good writing that you can tell that your work isn't bad. People say to hire an editor, and although I never have, I got very lucky and was edited very well and brutally my first day out by Susan Pinsonneault. Since she's not in the game biz anymore, you should probably hire someone.

If you could give one piece of advice to the RPG industry as a whole--assuming they'd take it--what would it be?

They seem, mostly driven in good Marxist fashion by the changing means of production, to be finally taking my advice, which I've been offering since about 2005. Which is: stop thinking of games as insanely expensive, hard to sell magazines that have to keep going forever. Think of them as small press books, which in fact they are. Not every novel is a series; not every game needs splats and expansions. Most don't. Or if they do, the aforementioned crowd of DIY types will do it, and do it from a place of obsession, not a place of needing to fill a hole in the lineup. Maybe publish a game that can support a "trilogy." Maybe not. But don't push it. Publish what you would rather eat ramen than not publish, because you'll be eating ramen either way.

Damn, good point! Thank you for your time, Ken!

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Friday, August 21, 2015

The Art Economy In Vornheim

For a moment a terrible hunger lit up her eyes. But it turned slowly into indifference. "Besides," she said, "I would not go if they did. Why should I go? The High City is an elaborate catafalque. Art is dead up there, and Paulinus Rack is burying it. Nothing is safe from him-or from those old women who finance him-painting, theatre, poetry, music. I no longer wish to go there." Her voice rose. "I no longer wish them to buy my work. I belong here.

-Viriconium, M John Harrison

Sooner or later, the party will be paid in contemporary art--a small canvas by Aelfron Aelrey or a book of poetry by Princert with illustrations by Scraptric in with the ill-fitting ringmail and headless coins.

The good news is: By weight, art is worth more than almost anything else--hundreds of thousands of gp-and-therefore-xp. The bad news is: Its value depends on the whims of the salon critics of the High City.

The solution that presents itself most immediately to the conscientious FLAILSNAILER or murderhobo--assassinate the opposed critics--is impractical. This only creates martyrs of the physical bodies, leaving their philosophy intact to be carried on by those they were already influencing anyway. The party's goal is to discredit the hostile critics philosophically in such a way as to increase the value of the artworks they opposed, thus rendering the adventurers wealthy.

This is less dull than it sounds.
In the Vornheim salons, the current rage (in every sense), is Arbitrism, which is difficult to summarize, but let's try:

Since at least the Hex King's War it's been immediately clear to anyone that Vornheim's cosmopolitanism is imperfect--those of the Southern Continent are scarce, those of the Eastern are unheard of since the time of Ping Feng, women are wary of the Laws of the Needle in the low districts, dwarves will not mine any stone in mixed company, half-elves fear for their lives in the Prussing Fields--the city is in many ways an ignorant place. The people do, after all, worship pigs.

Arbitrist critics blame all this--and the decadence that results--on the city's many poets and painters--focusing particular bile, among contemporary artists, the writer Flameward Ragged Dei, a human living among elves in Nornrik, and the creatives associated with his small publishing house and its philosphies--Insane Etiolation Process, which, for practical purposes, is nearly all of the good ones.

The Arbitrists survive through intellectual arbitrage--that is, taking ideas that were discarded as useless in their native fields--philosophy, natural science, the academy--and importing them to the world of art, where their exoticism grants them a dazzling currency among the status-anxious neurotics of the collecting class.
Once an artwork is acquired, the more hostile critics are discredited, the more the work will be worth once sold. A poem by McCoffering Ginny is worth ten times as much in a world where the "red wizards" of The Awful are exposed as frauds.

The methods employable to discredit an Arbittrist depend somewhat on the critic in question, but it is safe to assume they are all discreditable since the philosophy itself is inaccurate. No sane, intelligent person could honestly hold it, therefore the critic must be insane, unintelligent or dishonest.
Typical vulnerabilities of bad critics include most or all of the following:

1. They possess a documented and widely-attested official history of madness, and their doctors will argue that their critical views are a result of this madness.

2. They are charmless and slow-witted--any personal contact with members of the salons of Vornheim will immediately convince interlocutors of their inanity.

3. Creative-critical dissonance: they have created hidden works slathered as thickly with the values they despise.

4. Personally terrible--they have committed grave and secret misdeeds in dark corners, from which their stentorian proclamations are a GOP-ish distraction.

In the case of 1, 3 and 4, documents or NPCs attesting to this can be treated as a kind of treasure to be sought across the hexmap or dungeon, or buried in a drawer at the end of an investigative scenario. In the case of 2, the goal is likely to convince the critic to appear in the salons of their own accord via social maneuver.

Further, all proponents of Arbitrism are, consciously or not, agents of the Red Hand of Tiamat--preparing the world for the coming of the lava babies. They are not without defenses, and the party may find themselves set upon by assassins and slanderers.

The physical location of critics is rarely considered to have any import in the salons--some occupy the city, some live East of Yoon Suin--they propagate their ideas via proxies. Hurling Tracing earned her name by periodically dropping copied artworks from a window of a tower in the Mulched Fen.

They go about in high dudgeon, and finding one is generally no more complex than tracing the rail of snickers and eyerolls back to the source. To find out the critic's current obsession, consult the table:

What's the Arbittrist  Mad About Today? Roll d20

1. Famed director Orgel Ooclas has created a fantasy for the theatre concerning wizards and steel golems that dwell beyond the stars. In a revised version, one character, a beloved rogue, loses initiative in a tavern brawl when previously he'd won, causing a wide outcry of "Slann drew first" among the theatre mobs. The Arbittrist cites this popular reaction as an example of "poisonous manhood" and the work itself as "imperialist propaganda"--though admits to never having seen it.

2. The Arbittrist has become enraged by the word 'madness'--claiming it is has the effect of devaluing the opinions of the lunatic so labelled. 

3. A fad for erotic openness has swept the women of Vornheim. The Arbitrist is suspicious, claiming it is a cover for some darker force.

4. Serialized poems concerning the adventures of a scion of a high family of Vornheim who adopts the affect of a bat and protects the weak from violence and predation have gained favor with the young and young-hearted of the city. The Arbitrist is opposed. As a member of even a fictive upper class, imaginative sympathy for this Bat Man is unimaginable.

5. Parents of the city have begun constructing "sand boxes" wherein children might build from that humble substrate towers and homes for dolls and imaginary friends. It has come to the attention of the Arbitrist that it is a frequent practice to dismantle these miniature residences and sometimes even abuse the toys who dwell therein. The Arbitrist is alarmed that those who enjoy these "sand boxes" do not use them to simulate creation rather than destruction.

6.  The practice of counting "Hitting points" in schools of duelling is reviled by the Arbitrist--who claims it saps the creative expression of duellists.

7. Conservatory students, aged 8-11, have lately performed--to wide acclaim--the brooding and experimental ballad "Forty Six and Two" originally composed by Memes Canard Keyplan's Implement Quartet. The Arbittrist has railed against it on the grounds that the young girl singing the lead part does not grasp the true and esoteric meaning of the piece.

8. The Arbittrist is enraged by the hair style affected by an artist of the Warm Quarter.

9.  The word "barbarian" has been declared upsetting, as its etymology refers to the brutalities of the past.

10. Playwright Lost Weevil has created "The Scavengers"--a work wherein a god of mischief contends with an archer, a spy, a patriot, a knight in gold armor, and a gamma troll--receipts have been unprecedented. It is the Arbittrist's opinion that Weevil's entertainments serially insult the women of Vornheim, this one most of all.

11. It is an established fact that humans and demihumans often have bad ideas. It is the Arbitrist's notion that all humans unconsciously adopt all of these bad ideas and that, therefore, they are all loathsome, including themselves.

12. A group of sculptures purporting to depict creatures of the Lower Planes has been produced--the bodies are distorted and erotically charged. The Arbitrist claims their shapes insult the women of Vornheim.

13. Another Arbittrist has called for the censorship of the work of starry-eyed author and fantasist Geil Mainann. Mainnan, in turn, has responded by saying he shouldn't. The Arbittrist cites Mainnan's behavior as a clear case of harassment.

14. Rann Ice, author of erotic works concerning vampires, has defended a fellow author against an Arbitrist critic claiming she should be sexually assaulted. The Arbittrist cites Ice's behavior as a clear case of harassment.

15. The popular art works have inspire young women of the city to wear outrageous and revealing fashions in imitation of their heroines. The Arbitrist feels this insults the children of Vornheim.

16.  The Arbitrist has written a play. The Arbitrist is now disgusted by it--claiming the many hours spent writing have rendered it familiar and contemptible--and wants no part of the production.

17. The toymaker Rike Pearl--has hired an anti-Arbitrist artist and critic as consultant at the toy factory. The Arbitrist is incensed.

18. It has been widely reported that adventurers inside the city and out have taken to slaying dangerous and predatory beasts rather than ignoring them or allowing the parties themselves to be slain. The Arbitrist finds this practice "othering".

19. Teratophilic pornography from the East has lately appeared in the bedrooms and evidence-vaults of the city. The Arbtrist has declared it and its inculcators anathema.

20. An illustrated guide to Gyorsla and Voivodja has been recognized with some minor awards. The Arbitrist is displeased.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Desserts Aren't Always Right

So using Legend Lore, Mandy's sister figured out the symbol on the floor of the square room...
(that thing in the middle)
...meant you had to rearrange the rooms in the dungeon until they matched that pattern in order to get out.

Because in the Gem Prison of Zardax: (highlight for SPOILERS)....

The doors lead to a different random room each time you close and re-open them.

One room had the sphinx in there--blinded with magic sapphires by forces unknown.

Another had a secret door with 12 vampires behind it. As well as an altar to the Red Hand of Tiamat with a pair of ruby chalices.

Karolyn, who spent last session playing and losing two of the other players' pet dogs and pigs becaue her own cleric was temporarily out of commission received an apposite fortune...

...and made a new character--an Alice.

Just as she showed up, a horde of high-on-fire dwarves showed up, setting everybody's stuff on fire...

After they were dispatched but before they finished the shape and escaped, Karolyn decided to see what happens when you drink fire-dwarf blood from ruby chalices.

Not good things, really.

She immediately became a zealous adherent of the Red Hand. Though a Remove Curse was dropped on her forthwith, she didn't walk away normal...

Mariah is her character that got turned into a stomach
So that's a whole thing.

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