Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Bloody Basic] Weird Fantasy Edition review/overview

I've been aware of John M. Stater's work for some time, but never got around to actually check out anything. His main design is the OSR title Blood & Treasure, for which he created a basic version, called Bloody Basic. Bloody Basic is a whole line of shorter books, each containing the essential rules for character creation and playing with slight variations, but presenting a different setting and race/class choices. There's a book for classic fantasy, a "contemporary" edition (contemporary meaning something like steampunk? I haven't read this one, it has "automatons, drakkens" etc, but also "fighters, sorcerers, clerics and thieves", so I don't know how different it is from the classic book), a fairy tale supplement (the brilliantly titled "Mother Goose Edition") and Sinew & Steel (promising a more realistic medieval setting). And there is a last one, which I have:

Bloody Basic: Weird Fantasy Edition

What I like about this book is that it strives to capture the atmosphere of weird fiction without or even before pulp. The short two-paragraph preface is wonderfully dense, evocative, and it provides a very strong statement. Stater stresses the origins of the weirds in the Romantic Movement:
"[Weird fantasy] has in its genes both pseudo-historical romances, Orientalism and fairy tales, though not fairy tales fit for children. The fairy tales that parented weird fantasy were never stripped of their violence or their erotic overtones.
Weird fantasy is both steeped in meaning and bereft of it. It is quiet and noisy and ridiculous and sublime."
His main touchstones are Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith, although I feel Dunsany is the stronger presence here. At the visual side of things we get Beardsley and Sidney Sime, who are not just "public domain illustration sources", but major influences.

Sidney Sime. Hothrun Dath.
For Lord Dunsany's "Gods of Pegāna"

So in the end, we arrive at a game of Donjons & Decadence.

Yes, Stater substitutes "donjon" for "dungeon". And there are many-many more quirky words scattered around the book. There is even a handy Thesaurus so that you can spice up your language with appropriately archaic words. "You can call a gemstone blue, but there are many other fine words to use in its place," including, but not limited to "aqua, azure, beryl, cerulean, ceil, cesious, chalybeous, cobalt, cyan, ecchymotic, gentian"... Why call a temple simply a temple, when you can instead refer to the local "chantry, chapel, church, cloister, convent, conventicle, dagoba, deanery, dewal, dogobah, fane, fold, friary, glebe, holy place, house of [god], house of prayer"... This is all quite hilarious.

The game rules are OGL-based, with the standard six attributes. There are only three types of modifiers, 0, -1 and +1, for average, below average and above average ratings. These apply to "tasks" (tests rolled with 1d20), attack rolls, etc.

I love how the description of polyhedral dice is illustrated by Bragdon's "Sinbad, in the desert, discovers the Five Platonic Solids"!

Things get more interesting with Races! Humans are humans (although their appearance in a fantastic world can differ from ours). Elves are graceful, soulless and hedonistic. Grotesques are humanoid with one or more exaggerated or bestial feature, eccentric loners who are often slaves to their passions. The fourth available player race is Satyrs from the Greek myths. The difference between a Grotesque and a Satyr probably lies in their perception of their own "deformities" - a Grotesque wants to be a human (I'd totally go White Wolf with this race), while a Satyr is just fine, pass on the wine.

The Classes are re-skinned and slightly modified versions of the classics. Clerics become Idolators. "Turn Undead" is now "Shunning" (and can be used against any enemy of the idolator). Spells are called orisons and are gained by becoming initiated into one or more of the nine mystery cults (each initiation comes with an extra taboo!). Overall, there aren't many such orisons: a total of 30 (10 per level), and each cult gives access to basically just one spell in each tier.

The Magic-User class is renamed Magus, who cast "cantraps". As usual, the magi get a significantly wider array of spells: a total of 52 cantraps. Stater's love of new names is in full swing here as well: "Ken Gibberish" for "Understand Languages", "Eldritch Bolts" for "Magic Missile", and so on.

The Fighter is called the Puissant. They get feats and the usual combat bonuses. It comes as a surprise to see the simple Thief as the last class... :) Their lowly designation is spiced up by two possible subclasses, the Demimond and the Odalisque.

The Three Witches from Orson Welles' "Macbeth" (1948)

The Game Master advice section is generic, but the Monsters return to the flamboyant style. The Weird Tales rule supreme here: there are tentacled aberrations, gibbering mouthers, but also standard fantasy and old-school RPG beasts. Stater, obviously, uses the authentic spelling of "gnole". There are also listings for scrolls and magic items (including the "Masque of the red death" and the "Silver key" for breaching dimensions).

Overall, this is a wonderful little game. The use of archaic words might not be everybody's cup of tea... But I have to point out, that when it's needed, Stater writes in a comprehensible way, rules are kept clean & clear, they are easy to learn.

Personally, I think this game would be even better if it relied less on the old-school RPG canon! I would love to see more interesting "cantraps" and "orisons" which are not just renamed D&D spells. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

[LotFP] Cunning Folk, WIP

The setting document on "A Field in Lorraine" keeps on growing and growing -- one day I will put up the extended version. I keep adding stuff that I find as I go, so right now it's a bit chaotic, but with some editing it can be turned into a supplement that others can use as well.

I like Clerics in fantasy games, but in a 17th century weird horror fantasy they seem a bit out of place. "Divine spells", as described, are too "clean". The modus operandi, so to speak, of Catholic exorcists, Jewish cabbalists (as I see, they are best described as a mix of Magic-Users and Clerics), Protestant witch hunters are very different.

And then there are the Cunning Folk, the practitioners of all sorts of witchery and popular magic. This term, although it originates from English culture, can be used as an "umbrella term" for the entire phenomenon (see the entry on Cunning folk & the literature listing in Wikipedia for starters).

cunning folk, wise men and women

devins-guérisseurs, leveurs de sorts
Hexenmeister, Kräuthexen

toverdokters, duivelbanners

kloge folk

klok gumma (“wise old woman”), klok gubbe (“wise old man”)

curandeiros, benzedeiros, mulheres de virtude (“woman of virtue”)

Cunning Folk are definitely something I want to include in my Early Modern Weird Europe. That's why I included in the first version of "A Field in Lorraine" various ideas and folk magic spells. But now I think this can be made into a class.

Instead of working from a set spell list, the Cunning Folk would rely on two types of manipulations:

  1. "Folk magic", encompassing everything from folk medicine recipes to love charms and various practices to help out "around the house". These "spells" are part of an extensive and very convoluted oral tradition. Christian prayer and pre-Christian beliefs are intermingled. Although they are considered to be tried and trusted, there is only a limited chance that any given superstition or cantrip really has a magical effect.

    I included a list of such spells in the first version of "A Field in Lorraine".

    A great variety of spells can be culled from "Long Lost Friend" (or "Long-Hidden Friend", "Der Lange Verborgene Freund"), a collection of pow-wow spells compiled in the 1820s by the Pennsylvania Dutch healer John George Hohman (see the text here). These practices are clearly based on tradition brought along from Europe; mixed with Christian prayer. Includes three folk variants of Hold Person, "Immobilize a Thief": "How to cause male or female thieves to stand still, without being able to move backward or forward?"
    A great read.

    But there is also...
  2. Magic done with the help of a Familiar.
    Now this is a very different can of worms. A Familiar spirit is low-tier supernatural entity, a small demon, which assists the practitioner. 
These two types can overlap, and the assistance of a Familiar greatly increases the chance of a traditional folk spell to take effect.

An image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579.

There is an eerie passage (Q. 4) in "The Discovery of Witches" by Matthew Hopkins from 1647, in which the familiars of a witch are described. They materialize in vaguely animal forms:
"1. Holt, who came in like a white kitling. 
2. Jarmara, who came in like a fat Spaniel without any legs at all, she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly and said he suckt good blood from her body. 
3. Vinegar Tom, who was like a long-legg'd Greyhound, with an head like an Oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this discoverer spoke to, and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his Angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house, and vanished at the doore. 
4. Sack and Sugar, like a black Rabbet.
5. Newes, like a Polcat."

I hope I will be able to find time to turn this into something.

Ideally, there should be a nice random table for Familiars (maybe taking ideas from the LotFP Summon spell?); some rules that govern the "working relationship" of the Cunning Folk and their Familiars; and ideas for the GM about "Familiars gone bad".

Saturday, November 12, 2016

[LotFP] A Field in Lorraine

I've put together a short document with my ideas for a weird & nasty & dark fantasy game set in the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War. This is not a scenario or adventure, but rather little atmospheric pieces that help to show the world of 17th century Weird Europe.

I've also included a list of "folk magic" spells. And mushrooms.

Here's the link to the .pdf:

"This is not a “historical” game. The Thirty Years’ War and other events are used as a backdrop, but their importance or overarching role is only understood in retrospect. People who are in the middle of it do not know whether the war and wars have ended or not. They do not have up-to-date information from the frontlines. News travel slowly, deception and rumors are abundant.

Lorraine is defined as the general area of events, but it is important for the tone of the game to keep the setting vague, regarding both chronology and location. Maps and timelines are only known to strategists and annalists. Player characters and the everyday people they encounter are utterly, hopelessly lost. Locals know their own village, maybe the road to the next hamlet. Superstition warns against going to certain areas, and for a good reason. Bands of marauders and deserters are menacing the lands. Many villages are completely abandoned; most of them are only inhabited by women, children, and the elderly.

The player characters are soldiers, mercenaries heading back to their villages. They served their time, their battalion was re-organized, or, more likely, destroyed. But they are not in a hurry… For they know that their “home” is not the cozy place it used to be. The player characters fear that the same atrocities they committed in foreign lands were carried out against their own villages by other soldiers."

(c) Simon Marsden

This was all created with Lamentations of the Flame Princess on mind, but can be used with any system. I hope to run this game soon for a couple of friends.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Infra Arcana

I was sick this whole week, couldn't concentrate to post anything worthwhile... Hopefully, more Swamp '70 ideas will come soon. I'm also working on an adventure framework for Apes Victorious.

"Cultist with artifact", by JMD3

In the meantime, I'm playing Infra Arcana, a roguelike dungeon crawl with occult / Lovecraftian themes. Despite the ASCII-style graphics (although not true-ASCII, but still minimalistic) it is a very immersive and atmospheric game. The music and sound effects help with this a great amount.

You can play as four different classes. The Rogue is good at sneaking around, and you can pick the "Treasure Hunter" trait as starters, which gives you a greater amount of loot. Playing as the War Veteran is probably the easiest, but they go insane much quicker than the rest... The Occultist is a tough choice: they can study spells from scrolls, but have a lower HP and combat ratings. And, finally, the fourth playable class is the Ghoul: a rather interesting addition, it can heal by chewing on fallen enemies, has some unique traits (e.g. "Foul" - there is a chance that maggots spring out of monsters killed and attack other enemies).

As for enemies, you get standard beasts / animals (wolves, various spiders), the undead, cultists, ghastly abominations. There are "mini bosses" appearing from time to time: powerful named characters with special abilities, like Keziah Mason...

You are low on health and encounter a huge group of zombies. You flee back to the closest junction, jam the door shut and try to heal up -- while the zombies are trying to break through the door. You shuffle for ammunition, but only find a scroll of teleportation: will the eldritch incantation take you to a safer segment of the dungeon or throw you straight into the mouth of an unknown abomination?!

As most roguelikes, it's punishing and hard, but not unfair, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

[Swamp '70] The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water

"Swamp '70" is the tentative working title / tag I've given to the 1970s occult game I'm brainstorming.

So, do you know this classic public information short from 1973? Pure genius. And it is a perfect creature or plot hook for the Swamp '70 setting.

"Do not play near the swamps, Hannah!" "No, Collin Smith Jr., you definitely cannot go fishing at the old pond!" "Don't go into the woods!" "Be careful, Jeffrey!" -- but the warnings and cautionary tales of parents are lost on the children... Kids keep disappearing under mysterious circumstances. Is it possible that a malevolent being is preying upon the children of the town? A serial killer, a twisted pedophile? Or maybe...

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water?!

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water is a disembodied entity that can form an empathic link with a sentient being and amplify in its victim such characteristics as unwariness, show-offishness, foolishness & carelessness. It inhabits perilous abandoned places. Typical examples include quarry lakes, junkyards, desolate buildings or even a poorly maintained playground. Dangers are plenty, yet subtle: slippery mud, crumbling concrete, loose stones, corroded iron. The Spirit is like the Imp of the Perverse: its influence leads the victim (most commonly, a child) to death. This is the only thing that can satisfy the Spirit's cravings.

"When the quarry operations stopped, the original quarry pit filled with water.
This was used for a "swimming hole" by local folks but it was dangerous.
Several people were drowned in the old quarry..."

The exact origin of the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water is unknown. One possible explanation that it is the hungry ghost of the first victim of the place, damned to haunt it for eternity, replaying the events of its own death over and over again. Another explanation is that once people retreat from a place, it slips into abandon, and otherworldly forces claim it as their own...