Wednesday, August 10, 2016

out in the swamp where the water is dark

monsters in dungeons and dragons can feel very taxonomical, as if some fantasy Linnaeus separated the ghoul from the ghast and the wight from the specter. In practice, it's just palette-swapping. However, I like the idea of monsters that suggest an unusual and inscrutable method of specifying one kind of creature from another.

by Tim Waters
distributed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

However, I also want there to be something of a blur between kinds of monsters. Monstrosity is something afflicted or achieved, it is a political category, a caste, a title. Bluebeard and Christman Genipperteinga are as much ogres as men; Elizabeth of Bathory was a woman, witch, and vampire. Monsters and witches can and should step on each other's conceptual turf, just because neither are wholly one thing. 

witches with beautiful hair
Such a witch keeps his or her hair in a long braid, ornamented to look like a snake. A single strand of it, teased free and tied around the finger, wrist, or neck of a victim, ensures their compliance in all things; so long as the strand is still attached to her head, the witch can command it to sever the member around which it is tied. Neither distance no scissors are protection against this; a witch's hair can stretch across oceans or over mountains, and no conventional means can cut it.
     Witch-hair is exceedingly fine, but a watchful witch-hunter can follow the hair from victim to owner. However, the witch can always use his or her victims as hostages no matter how far they may be, or even blackmail them into fighting their would-be rescuer.

blood-swallowing witches
A witch of this ilk has learned a very beautiful song that summons great swarms of mosquitoes. The witch then disperses them across the countryside to collect blood from her neighbors. When the mosquitoes return, they vomit the blood up into the witch's pots and pans, which the witch then brews into vile liqueurs. Some are fatally poisonous; others simply delicious, while the most coveted restores a measure of youth to the drinker.
     A witch-hunter knows a blood-swallowing witch by their love of music, by their hidden or strangely stained pots and pans, and by the barrels they keeps but never seems to tap. Imprudent enemies of a blood-swallowing witch might find themselves exsanguinated by a storm of mosquitoes.

witches whose shadows have eyes
The most mysterious kind of witch. shadows cast by these witches have eyes, as if their owner had two holes in their head and light was streaming through. Their shadows do their bidding, rising up off the ground, gaining strength and substance. A witch's shadow crawls about unnaturally, like a person trying to walk on all fours, but runs as fast as a horse and possesses the strength of two.
     These witches can only be caught by close examination of their shadow, or by their shadow's absence when they have commanded it to run off and perform some wickedness. Witches whose shadows have eyes have been known to hide their nature and rise to positions of great power and prestige.

witches who live under the mangroves
These witches can hold their breath as long as they please. They carry heavy cudgels and live out in the mangrove swamp, where they float facedown in the waterways or thrash like a drowning swimmer so that they can bludgeon their rescuers unconscious and carry them away to a half-submerged larder. When they are not hunting, these witches sleep in the dark waters between mangrove roots, thinking black and briny thoughts and trading secrets with passing crocodiles.
     Witches who live under the mangroves are betrayed by the mud in their mouth, which they can never quite spit out and which prevents them from speaking well. The eldest witches of this kind are trapped below their mangroves, transfixed by slow-growing roots over the course of their century sleep. They are easy to destroy if discovered, but their mgic is powerful and filled with venom.
by Guillaurme Schaer
distributed under CC BY NC 2.0

Monday, August 8, 2016

upon the ancient shores of albion...


A Most Thoroughly Pernicious Pamphlet has received an Honorable Mention in the distinguished 2016 Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming, an honor I will treasure until my dying day, and one I will clutch in my bony fist long after.


I've decided to lower the price of the Pamphlet to $2, so if you've been holding out in hopes of a lower price, your day has come. You can get it here. If Gumroad gives you any trouble, which has been known to happen, let me know in the comments of this post or over on Google+ and I'll get you a copy.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

New Barbary Session 1, Delivery in La Habana

I ran New Barbary/La Habana yesterday, and it went very well.

The perpetrators:
  • An amnesiac Castilian deserter with a talent for fighting and a real gift for lying. He still remembers that the fort he was assigned to (Castillo de San Marcos in La Florida) is threatened by a mysterious curse or god.
  • Sol, A mysterious maskmaker practiced in botany and superior pact-making skills. She had a hard time lying and a nearly supernatural ability to get people to tell her the truth. She was contracted by a devil to repair its mask, which was destroyed by the same entity that threatens the Castillo de San Marcos--or so the devil says.
by Christophe Meneboeuf, distributed under CC-BY-SA license
They owed their cantankerous one-legged landlady 100 pesetas by the end of the week or she was going to sell off all their stuff, evict them, and alert the constabulary. They decided on approaching the Red Hibiscus Society for work, and were led to the bathtub-bound towering ex-bandit who led the Society: Uncle Yusuf. He told them to pick up a package from the House of Honey and Salt and deliver it to a dead drop location at the Old Royal Park.

On the way, they evaded a pack of coyotes gnawing on a body in the abandoned urban areas around the Souk, and tripped over the body of a (extremely stabbed) courier. The letter clutched in his hand was addressed to Frederico Buendía, the owner of the biggest distillery in Cuba, warning him that the infamous pirate Sayyida al Hurra had stolen a major molasses shipment, which would cost him an enormous sum of money and drive up the price of rum catastrophically.

Bearing this in mind, they pick up the package from the Saints. It's pretty disturbing--they are told not to open the package, get it wet, breath heavily around it, or spend much time touching it. Sol asks for an extra blanket to wrap around it, and pretends she's carrying a child. On the way out, she notices it's a bit warmer than body temperature and might even be moving subtly. 

On the way to Old Royal Park, they notice a man with a hat pulled low over his face following them. They set up an ambush and successfully capture him, forcing him to reveal he works for a rival gang (the Ivory Palm Guild). The Deserter knocks him out, and they steal his machete, a flask filled with a floral-smelling liquid, and a brick wrapped in paper--possibly a decoy for the package they are trying to deliver.

They reach the Park without complication, hide the package, and successfully flee a group of Ivory Palm Guildsmen, including a limping figure clutching his head. However, while running away they stumble into two sorcerers who manage to catch up with them, helped by a dimly seen creature that blinds the Deserter. It's a man and a woman--Rosa and Rodrigo--who Sol guesses correctly work for the Klatch. They were trying to prevent the Saint's package from being delivered to the Red Hibiscus Society, but now that it already has been, they want Sol and the Deserter to figure out where it is being kept. They agreed, realizing the Saints and Society were probably up to no good and also recognizing that Rosa was probably going to shoot them otherwise.

They return to the Red Hibiscus Society's headquarters and receive their reward from Uncle Yusuf, with a small bonus for fending off the Ivory Palm Guild. Then they alerted Frederico about the impending rum-market disaster. He gave them a small award and agreed to let Sol and the Deserter join his expedition to get the molasses back (the Deserter lied about his Navy experience, and since Frederico thought he possessed "the steady gaze of an honest man", he let them join). It would leave in a few days.

The next day, the party, wanting more money so they could outfit themselves for their coming adventure, asked for more work at the R.H.S. They were told to deliver a sealed cask to the bastard Castilians, but on the way a mysterious, ragged man named Jorge asked if he could poison the cask, with the promise that it would only "cause digestive distress" and that his days as a smuggler would let him tamper with the seal without chance of discovery. They were very hesitant, but as Jorge enjoyed a cigarette they decided to let Jorge do it if he and his "many friends in lofty office" agreed to search for the R.H.S.'s hidden and guarded package. Jorge poisoned the cask, and the bastard Castilians took it without even looking Sol and the Deserter.

Flush with cash, they went the Souk and bought themselves a rusted breastplate and a suit of tattered leathers for armor. Sol purchased some sacrifices so she could form a contract with one of the Souk's Mercenary Gods, and settled on The Beast Among The Lilies, a jaguar-spirit that could strengthen the Deserter or fight on its own.

We ended the session with Sol and the Deserter ready for the hunt for the pirate Sayyida.

Lessons Learned
  • Vornheim remains the most useful rpg book I own. I went into that session with my blogposts on New Barbary and the following prep. Everything else I scribbled in during breaks or generated/rolled up from Vornheim.
  • This WaRP hack is going very well. The Klatch sorcerer that blinded the Deserter was just "Rodrigo: spirit of darkness 3D, 10 HP" and he did everything he needed to do.
  • D&D has a lot of granularity and mechanics I don't really use because of the types of games I tend to run. If I were to run San Serafin has a hard dungeon crawl, I would definitely use D&D, but WaRP seems to work quite well for what I want to run right now.
  • San Serafin is still a location and the players actually laughed out loud when I said they could go there to look for treasure.
  • The players really like the shrines of Mercenary Gods at the Souk.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

things to do in La Habana


It occurs to me that jinetero is a perfect term for adventurers, even if it doesn't perfectly match the real-life contemporary definition. Anyway, here's the lowdown on some of the player-adjacent factions in La Habana.


Red Hibiscus Society
A social club/trading consortium/gang based in La Habana. Their affinity for bypassing the Emir's taxmen has made them natural allies of the Castilians of La Florida.

The chief of the Red Hibiscus Society is Yusuf, a colossal ex-bandit who has given up direct robbery for the relative ease and comfort of running a medium-sized crime syndicate. He always smells of violet water, and is rarely seen outside of his bath--he's had a porcelain clawfoot tub installed in the Red Hibiscus Society Hall where he conducts most of his business so he doesn't have to get out even as he works.

The Society regularly employs vagrants, vagabonds, and soldiers-of-fortune to carry out its interests, both legitimate and illegitimate, with at least one layer of plausible deniability.
  1. Deliver a sealed cask to the bar next to the Castilian embassy by the Docks. Expect trouble on the way, and do not open the barrel.
  2. Retrieve a package from the House of Honey and Salt, and deliver it at a dead drop location at the Royal Park. Wash your hands thoroughly with hot soap and water afterwards, do not breathe heavily around the package, and do not get it wet.
  3. Yusuf's step-daughter is attending the Emir's birthday and he suspects some pencil-necked egghead at the College is going to ask her to attend it with him. Explain to him why this is not a viable decision, but don't do anything worse than breaking his knees.
  4. That bastard Admiral is holding out on Yusuf--the Castilian has, through various semilegal channgel, acquired Gran Morado, violet water made from the purest and most fragrant violets, said to restore vigor lost to age, bring good luck, grow your hair back, whiten your teeth, dispel melancholy, etc etc, but now he won't sell it to Yusuf as promised. Help the Society seize some La Florida-bound shipments of fine liquor to help the Admiral see reason.


Saints of Honey and Salt
A religious order of sybaritic assassin-surgeons who operate out of hospital-brothel-temple-laboratories called Houses of Honey and Salt. They're the best doctors in town, but also the best murderers-for-hire, so everybody needs them and nobody trusts them. Their influence is mostly a network of debt and favors--if you don't owe something to the Saints, you owe something to someone who does. Everyone agrees they are Up To Something, but nobody really knows what it is.
  1. The Saints need a jaguar for their experiments. Definitely healthy and whole, preferably alive, but with a minimum of injuries if that isn't possible.
  2. One of the Saints makes weekly rounds in Old Habana, giving free care to the sick. An upstart guild of sawbones have begun to threaten her and interfere with her work--guard her  this upcoming Sunday.
  3. A deliriously ill patient undergoing an experimental treatment has broken out of the House of Honey and Salt. Find them before the metamorphosis completes their illness gets the best of them.
  4. There was a pirate raid out east two days ago, and the Saints are expecting an influx of patients. Secure an emergency shipment of bandages and laudanum from the Castilians--and you don't have to be friends with them afterwards.
The Klatch
A loose society of brujas, brujos, shamans, sorcerers, exorcists, theologians, and philosophers who frequent La Habana's coffee houses and salons and who maintain correspondence with practitioners across New Barbary. They tacitly and informally police the supernatural community (such as it is) of La Habana, ensuring that devils, the dead, and hostile gods cannot hunt unchecked by more mundane authorities.
  1. The La Habana chapter of the Klatch believes a devil has taken up residence in the city. A reward of 50 pesetas to anyone who brings information leading to its banishment.
  2. The Emir's favorite dancer has been possessed by a malicious spirit, and it's taking most of her caretakers' efforts just to keep it under control. Take a trip out to the Hungry Grandmother's shrine and ask her for a purgative.
  3. An ambitious young thief has found a a djinni (again). His first wish was for a king's fortune and his second was for 100 wives. Since you can surely imagine how well that's going, get that brass ring off of his finger before he causes another international incident.
  4. The New Barbary Trading Company of Castile wants to build a warehouse and offices on what the Klatch believes to be the tomb of Blood Dews Upon The Lilies, a sainted ancestor liable to wake up again if disturbed. They aren't listening to a bunch of witches, but perhaps you can find a way to be more persuasive?
The Souk
Almost any merchant in the Souk will part with goods or services in return for a favor. You can buy most things there, but here are a few of the odder services you can get:

FOOD
  • a nice hot meal. 10 pesetas. A hot meal and a rest fully heals your HP, though you might have lingering injuries, depending.
  • ingredients. 5 pesetas. If you have the skills, you can cook a hot meal without paying a premium for it, and you can do it out in the jungle or bush if you bring the right equipment. 
  • snack. If you take 10 and eat a snack, you recover 1d6 HP. You can only do this 1/day OR 1/genuine hazard faced.
TRANSPORT
  • emperor ghost spider. The most reliable form of transportation in New Barbary, these colossal spider spirits are bound and trained to carry passengers and cargo. Their castle-sized carapaces are hollowed out: the abdomen holds lodging and cargo storage, while their handlers work in the thorax and head, where the blood of their animal sacrifices propagates through channels carved into the spider's chitin, and where the handler's soothing prayers can more easily heard. The largest emperor ghost spiders can traverse across the shallower parts of the Caribbean, their legs long enough to reach the sea floor. 
  • magot porter. New Barbary macaques are big enough to stare a draft horse in the eyes without getting off all fours. They aren't particularly fast, but they are strong enough to carry a person and all of their gear, and can traverse dense jungle and mountainous terrain. Overall reliable, handy, and peaceable, but if you do manage to anger or spook them they can pull your arms off without trying very hard. 
  • sedan chair. Mostly used in the city of Otra Tétuan. They have a faintly sinister reputation, since devils and the dead can use them to travel unseen, and powerful brujas will travel on sedan chairs carried by zombis. The spouses of Dead Ixe are infamous for being carried by their husband's mummified servants. Normally, though, it's old money, D-list royalty, and regular joes willing to pay a little extra for some swift and discrete transportation. 
  • cars. rare, expensive, loud, smelly. They drive spirits crazy, and most cars require apotropaics from front bumper to back just to keep ambient divine rage from shutting it down. Beloved by the nouveau riche and Flowerland industrialists. They can be rented. 
HELP
  • Competent mercenaries and guards will work for 50 pesetas a day, plus danger pay.
  • Hooligans, desperados, and ne'er-do-wells will work for 15 pesetas a day, and might try to squeeze danger pay out of you if they think they can get it.
  • Minor ghosts and spirits will work for 50 pesetas in sacrifices a day, though they are more erratic than the living and might demand further favors.
  • Godlings, loas, orishas, and the like don't really have a pay rate--you have to negotiate on a case by case basis, and you usually have to find a medium in good standing with the entity to want to call on first.

Friday, August 5, 2016

westward the course

Been wanting to run a little like Morrowind, a little like Tekumel, a little like Tartary. Magical realist Latin America if the Reconquista failed and some enterprising Berber made that fateful trip to what would become Hispaniola instead of Columbus. Think City of Saints and Madmen, Deathless, Dictionary of the Khazars, the Etched City, One Hundred Years of Solitude, House of the Spirits, Ficciones, Trickster's Choice, Mononoke, and Wide Sargasso Sea.

Because I am fascinated by but incapable of novelty, I am stealing Richard's Countercolonial Heist Crawl rules, and applying a few changes to soothe my trad gamer anxieties.
New Barbary
La Habana
The game starts here. The dastardly Castilians of La Florida have parked a flotilla of the coast, ostensibly to await the Emir of La Habana's response to their treaty proposal but in actuality to violently extract concessions should he refuse. This has proven to be quite a kick to the anthill--the surrounding loose confederacy of caciques, sheikhs, bandits chiefs, and pirate captains who technically owe fealty to the emir are all scrambling to pick sides and ensure they come out on top once the dust settles.

Otra Tetuán
The biggest city in New Barbary, located near the real-life Panama City. Ruled by a cartel of traders and pirates, this is the metropolis where you can buy any good, purchase any service, or find any piece of information you might need.

San Serafín
Ruined nightmare island-city, filled with curses and monsters and treasure. 

Hacienda San Cuervo 
Lands in Western Cuba held by Ohache, the despicable Dead Man famous for the blood he demands from his tenants, servants, and slaves.

CHARACTER CREATION
Step 1: Determine Ability Scores
Roll 3d6 for Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma. Only record the modifiers, except for Constitution. The total equals your HP.


Step 2: Traits (Professions, Skills, and Specializations)
  1. Pick a Profession, like pirate or blacksmith or spirit medium. When you attempt a task that draws on the knowledge of your profession, roll 2D+ability score modifier. 
  2. Pick a Skill, like sailing, melee combat, metalworking, marksmanship, sorcery, charm, or pickpocketing. When you attempt a task that draws on your proficiency of this skill, roll 3D+ability score modifier. 
  3. Pick a Specialization, like seduction (versus the more general “charm” skill), swordsmithing (versus the more general “metalworking” skill), fist fighting (versus the more general “melee combat” skill), or curse-throwing (versus the more general “sorcery” skill). When you attempt a task that draws on your proficiency of this specialization, roll 4D+ability score modifier.  
When you attempt to perform a task that does not comfortably fit any trait, roll 1D+ability score modifier.

If all dice in a roll come up 6, you can roll again and add the new result to your initial roll. Keep on doing this every time you get all 6s. 

Step 3: Determine Wonder
Roll 3d6. Your Wonder trait has a number of dice equal to the modifier (treat negative modifiers as positive in this case). If the result is one or more, roll on the table below to determine what your Wonder is.
  1. Cursed to Die Unscrivened Upon The Banks of the Bosporus
  2. An Unnerving and Green-haired Beauty
  3. Knows the Secret Language of Spiders
  4. Receives Letters from the Prince of Monaco
  5. Tells and Is Told the Truth
  6. Dreamt of by Nearby Sleepers
  7. Courted Maniacally but Cannot Fall in Love
  8. Possessed by a Freakish and Crude Strength
  9. Served by an Erratic Spirit of Flame and Desire 
  10. Pursued by Storms
  11. Utters Prophecies in Ancient Greek
  12. Believes Self to be Reincarnation of the Queen of Sheba
You can use your Wonder like any other trait (so if you are Cursed to Die Unscrivened Upon the Banks of the Bosporus, you can roll it to withstand any other form of impending death). The Referee may occasionally ask you to make a check with your Wonder to see if it comes into play in a certain situation.

Step 4: Determine Gear
Use Richard's rules.

THE GAME
Teamwork
We are using Richard's collective action rules. This is mostly important for caciques, sheikhs, captains, chiefs, etc because when your posse is confronting another, you'll be using this mechanic. This will be handy for brujas and sorcerers, since spirits count as helpers and magical warfare largely relies on how many ghost friends you have made.

Magic
Magic is subtle and specific. Most standard-issue D&D spellcasting, like creating light, throwing fire, or raising the dead is the preserve of spirits and demigods--ignoble humans like PCs might be knowledgeable in the supernatural (what repels types of undead, rituals to prevent a corpse from being raised as a zombi). If they're very talented, they might be able to change the direction of the wind, give someone nightmares, or bless a couple with fertility. Otherwise, they have to bind or form pacts with spirits, find places of power, or work in concert with many other practitioners. 

Combat
Attacker makes a roll with their most relevant trait against the defender’s most relevant trait. If the attacker wins, the defender takes 1d6 - Armor damage (damage die might be higher with particularly effective weapons, but that’s the standard). Attackers can also attempt to disarm, tackle, shove, or make trick shots.

Profession examples
If you want to be handy in a fight:
  1. bandits
  2. pirates
  3. mercenaries
  4. bouncers
  5. caravan guards
  6. veterans
  7. deserters
  8. vaqueros
  9. boxers
  10. fencer
  11. knight/faris
  12. fencers 
If you want to be tricksy, knowledgeable, or particularly able to navigate society:
  1. blacksmith
  2. student
  3. aristocrat
  4. poet
  5. burglar
  6. cacique/sheikh
  7. dancer
  8. prostitute
  9. journalist
  10. mechanic
  11. pickpocket
  12. merchant 
 If you want to be occult, holy, or generally magical:
  1. bruja/brujo
  2. spirit medium
  3. sorcerer/sorceress
  4. grave digger
  5. shrine tender
  6. exorcist
  7. charm carver
  8. herbalist
  9. savant
  10. oracle/prophet/prophetess
  11. maskmaker
  12. monster hunter

Saturday, July 30, 2016

mean as the summer sun

This is kind of a self-indulgent post but whatever. Been thinking about mashing The Curse of Strahd up with the Mozarab Latin American setting implied by San Serafin. I never quite understood why Strahd doesn't't just kick the shit out of the party as soon as they show the smallest signs of competence (the adventure has an explanation, but I don't find it satisfactory). I've tried to give it a more fairy tale/folklore vibe with constraints that make the cat-and-mouse game between Strahd and his hunters more interesting. Anyway, I'm changing Ravenloft to Hacienda San Cuervo, which is perfectly exactly as dorky as the original. ANYWAY...

There are seven Dead Men of New Barbary, each given special dispensation by the gods of death to reside in the Lands of the Living. They may only leave the darkness of their house on their assigned day of the week.

Dead Ohache's day is Friday, and he lives in an iron house.

His flesh is flush with false life, his teeth are like a coyote's teeth, and he licks them with a long red tongue. Everyone knows of his eyes, for they are as yellow and as mean as the summer sun, and they can see lies on a speaker's breath.

Dead Ohache wears a calabash on his belt, from which he drinks and from which he draws his power. It is filled with blood: the fresh blood of his servants, subjects, and slaves, the cold blood of his brides and grooms, the bubbling blood of the ancient beast that hangs helpless and eternally wounded from the rafters of his house.

He has six spouses who administer to his hacienda when he is confined to his house. They are beautiful and evil and love him dearly, for he keeps their hearts locked away with his most valuable treasures.

His house is iron, it is narrow and tall, it juts from the earth like a nail from flesh. His house is a place of disorder, and he does not rule his land well. By Dead Ohache's decree, all blood and all corpses in Hacienda Cuervo are his by right to take. The dead are not buried, but put to work, and the living are hunted and used for labor like animals. Dead Ohache is is a careless master, and his administrators are many and fractious. The villages on his holding's border have attained some measure of prosperity, but everyone has a friend or relative carried away to labor in Dead Ohache's fields, struggle in his mines, or bleed out for his supper.

Things to do in and around Hacienda San Cuervo
  1. Dead Ohache's depredations have awakened a mummified holy ancestor from its funereal repose. Rozerie, the Monday Regent of the Hacienda, will pay you to take care of it before the Tuesday Regent hears about it.
  2. The brother of one of Dead Ohache's kidnapping victims has put out an exceedingly generous standing offer to anyone who can rescue his sibling from the Dead Man's mines.
  3. A scholar in Otra Tetuán is writing a necrography of Dead Ochache and wants to know why the Sheikha and Sheikh of the Dead have given him permission to reside in the Lands of the Living. The University is backing up their research with a reward.
  4. Pirate-cleric Sayyida al Hurra wants a crack at Dead Ohache's treasure, and she wouldn't mind exorcising him either. Figure out where he keeps his vault and not only will she pay you, but she'll let you come along on the heist for a share of the spoils.
  5. Rumor has it some rebels are getting ready to raid Dead Ohache's sanguinary. Both sides are putting out an all call for anyone who can pick up a weapon.
  6. There is a particular and exceedingly beautiful flower that grows in the yard of Dead Ixe, Ohache's bitterest rival. He wants a cutting so he can grow it for himself.