Monday, October 24, 2011

Ravenloft was Rock 'n Roll

What is it about the Ravenloft campaign setting that draws my attention, decades after I was introduced to it? What strange magic fascinates me with the moors and dark forests of Barovia, the glittering waterfalls and unforgiving peaks that circle around the rustic towns where villagers fear the coming of the night? Whether it's forgotten tombs or haunted country lanes, or even the the dread castle of Baron Strahd von Zarovich itself, the setting is replete with locales and ambience that just cannot be beat.

Perhaps it is because there is a strange simplicity to be had there. The old gothic setting is very clear about good and evil: the forces of darkness are vast and powerful and it is not a question of how the good guy will win but whether he shall simply be able to survive the night. There is evil, there is vast amounts of fear and indifference, and then there are a few scattered pockets of good fighting an impossible battle against a foe that cannot be defeated. True heroism, in other words, and true monsters.

Ravenloft harkens back to the old Hammer horror films, where Bela Lugosi intoned how he did not drink wine, where heroines ran in terror through the woods dressed only in white camisoles, where brave doctors and men of science would venture out into the night to face the unspeakable.

This world of good and evil soon gave way to camp mockery, as vampires began to be taken less seriously, which in turn gave way to the vampire of the early '90s where Anne Rice and White Wolf redeemed the vampire by making him post modern--no longer were they monsters, but now they were sexual predators, they were human yet more, scorning crucifixes and garlic and wearing leather jackets and sporting pony tails. Count Dracula was a product of human foolishness, our attempt to understand the real monsters that were modern and feral and seductive in our midst. All the old laws were transgressed, and in that act of transgression, in the ridicule for such ancient beliefs as their not being able to cross running water, we found a new paradigm that compelled our faith in these monsters of the night.

And yet. Despite our modern take, something about Ravenloft calls me back. That old fear, that old traditional take on good and evil. That's why the moors of Barovia will always sing a siren song for me, because 21st century man that I am, something about Ravenloft is truly rock n' roll.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jack Vance is my DM

If you've not read Jack Vance you need to get a copy of his Dying Earth novels ASAP and get reading. The man single handedly inspired Gary Gygax's take on magic in D&D, but further he is so ineffably brilliant, erudite, witty, droll and fantastic that no fan of fantasy can claim to be well read without having put his works under his belt.

Can you imagine what it would be like to have Jack Vance as your DM? The worlds which your PC's would visit, the NPC's that would beguile and befuddle them, infuriate and delight them? There is no greater master of throw-away brilliance. There is nobody who can match him for scintillating dialog. Ah!

Each clerk and ruffian would become a thing of fascination. The couture of the average citizen would become an indication as to social mores and biases, and each new town that the PC's came across would be defined by bizarre yet compelling takes on values and cultural norms. Monsters would be diffident and exceptionally dangerous, and the landscapes would feature endless ridges, dense and dark forests, glorious sunsets and stunning coastlines.

Ah, for Jack Vance at the helm of a game! Not a single NPC would simply say something, but each and every one would aver, simper, growl, proclaim and demure. Women would be recalcitrant, beautiful, sullen, passionate and disillusioned with the world, villains would suffer from the most vainglorious of megalomanias and perturbations of the psyche, and the PC's would find meaning only in the struggle, and never in the reward.

Go read Jack Vance, my friends, and let his voice inspire your campaigns.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Roll a D6

This cracked me up. I'm probably one of the few who prefers this version to the original--and dang, they got some good special effects in there. Looks like a good gaming group too--makes me miss my regular table top game :P

Roll a D6 from Connor Anderson on Vimeo.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Musings: Liches

"A lich is an undead spellcaster, usually a wizard or sorcerer but sometimes a cleric or other spellcaster, who has used its magical powers to unnaturally extend its life.

As a rule, these creatures are scheming and, some say, insane.They hunger for ever greater power, long-forgotten knowledge, and the most terrible of arcane secrets. Because the shadow of death does not hang over them, they often conceive plans taking years, decades, or even centuries to come to fruition."

What manner of being would willingly forsake their humanity for immortality and power? This question might at first seem easily answered by the flippant 'many', but when you stop and give it more thought, the leap from mortal to lich is a truly terrible one.

Think: their very touch causes paralysis. The sight of them causes beings of less than 5HD (probably 95% of all living creatures) to succumb to fear and flee them. Right there they are eschewing companionship, friends, loved ones. Again, this might seem obvious, a small price for a megalomaniac wizard to pay, but think on it: to never be touched. To never have friends. For a monster, this might be no big thing, but for a human being--ah.

Some group--it might have been the Soviets--did experiments on new born children where they refused to touch them after they were born. They discovered that these children wasted away and died without human contact. When you think of our greatest psychopaths and most depraved villains, they have all been fascinated by their interactions with others. They have craved understanding on their own terms, power over others, adulation, desire. That their methods resulted in the death and worse of their victims was part of the process; still there lay at heart a desire to interact for some cause or reason.

Now, to become a lich, you must be willing to forgo all such interactions forever. What kind of mind would gaze unblinkingly at the abyss of such solitude and willingly step over the edge? For sure they can surround themselves with other undead, vampires and the like, but these will never be friends, nor even trusted companions. No; with the creation of their phylactery the lich ceases to be human in every way. It is a form of death that is truer than undeath, for with that final step they sever all connections with their past and the being they once were.

Where am I going with this? I feel that any wizard that is willing to become a lich is by definition a more psychologically complex entity than the common 'wizard looking for more power' explanation. Becoming a lich takes such a particular mind frame, such an inhuman and tortured point of view that you can't just say, "Veldemar the Ashen became a lich upon realizing that he could have immortality and greater power by doing so." That simply doesn't do the leap Veldemar took justice. Why was Veldemar willing to pay such a price? What manner of life did he lead that brought him to such a point? What are his goals now that he is a lich, what manner of goals saw him through the process and caused him not to waver?

Posit Veldemar the Ashen, horrific master of grotesque tragedies. At the age of fifty three he creates a Phylactery, undergoes the necessary rituals, and becomes forevermore a lich. Shrivels to near skeletal appearance, becomes separated from the world by his fear aura and paralyzing touch, can now bathe in electricity and enclose himself in ice, can if he avoids violence live forever in this terrible solitude. Why?

Postit Veldemar at the age of twelve. A nervous youth, delicate, beautiful. Painfully aware of the transient nature of all living things, the ephemeral beauty of flowers, small animals, sunsets, tastes of sweets on the tongue, how quickly both pleasure and pain pass. An intense child, not given to violence or evil, but simply over passionate, prone to depressions and fits, seeing no value in running around with the others, but rather spending hours stroking a cat in the afternoon sunlight, watching how its fur shimmers, or standing in the rain, or staring into the heart of a fire.

Veldemar, age fifteen. A strange, fey boy, estranged from his tavern-frequenting father and overly attached to his mother. Obsessed with different girls in the town, obsessed with the stage, the parallel to life that it forms. Tormented now by the transience of all things, prone to sweeping his walking stick through banks of blossoms so as to destroy the flowers before they can fade.

Veldemar, nineteen and sent away by his father for traumatizing a girl, the third in two years, seducing her with his visions and poetry, and then when she was his, rapt and hypnotized by his mesmerizing words, how he slowly drew a small knife down her cheek and scarred her. How he cried as he confessed to his mother that her beauty pained him so, and how his mother, terrified, thrust him away. How his father came home to find Veldemar screaming and breaking the contents of their home. How he struck Veldemar down, and the next day sent him to the city.

Four years later. Four harsh years of working in the back of a restaurant, carrying out slops, beaten by his uncle, made to sleep over the inn's stable. Four years of turning away from everybody, refusing to make friends, to think, to feel. Numb. His only pleasure in the heart of this awful city lying in visiting the playhouse when he could save enough money, or volunteering to work at a small private library as a clerk so as to have access to the books. The library's owner catches him reading when he should be working; they engage in bitter words, and Veldemar's quick wit is discovered. The owner, a wizard of middle standing, takes a liking to the bitter boy, and hires him on.

Six years pass. Veldemar is twenty nine. An apprentice magician now, having impressed his master enough to earn tutelage. Delighting in his ability to manipulate the world with his will. Irrevocably in love with his master's daughter, Salessa. He seeks to impress her in all the wrong ways, fails. Still the world pains him, but now he is able to fight that pain with his own magical advancement.

Veldemar, thirty three, a prodigy. He feels his grasp on the world slipping even as he grows more powerful. He cannot bear the sight of a hummingbird in flight, wishes to snatch it and crush it in his fist. Cannot stand the strains of pure orchestral music. The more beautiful the world, the more it frets him, torments him. Only the stage and his love for Salessa holds him together, and for her he strives. Finally she understands the depths of his love, his despair, and swept away, agrees to marry him, falling under his spell.

Ten long years. Veldemar, forty three. More powerful now than his master. Respected, a highly appointed citizen. A great magic user. Master of the local playhouse, putting on one glorious show after another. But ah, the work it takes to smile and blend in! Only Salessa understands. Only she can keep him together. He has a private garden of orchids that he takes trembling delight in nurturing and then destroying. He breeds the most rarefied of song birds so that he can sever their vocal chords when their songs bloom. He buys the most passionate of art works so that in the privacy of his basement he can slowly take them apart and destroy them. Only Salessa holds him together, a crystal goblet that is resonating ever more violently to the frequencies of the world.

Forty six, and Salessa dies. He does not kill her, though in later years he can't be sure of this. Veldemar loved her so that he found a way to cherish her beyond her ability to handle. He brought so much pressure upon her that she burst, grew mad, killed herself. But was it his hand that moved her own? Was the weight that he placed on her shoulders too much? Never mind the scores of small nicks and scars that she bore from the years of his cutting her slowly, tenderly, while they made love. One night she could not bear the thought of another sunrise, and drowned herself.

Pain. Shock. The sky too large, the stars too bright, colors too gaudy, taste too rich. The world attacks him, and Veldemar retires from the Magic College, closes his city apartments and retreats to his country estate. Has all the windows sealed and curtained. The public assumes this is his right mourning, but in truth it's his last attempt to hide from the world.

He does not wish her back. She held him to life, held him in the light, for much longer than he should have bared. With Salessa's death, he is free to flee from life at long last. To give vent to his repulsion from it, repulsion made all the more piercing from his peerless appreciation of it. To rare an appreciation for beauty that turns a half turn with her death and becomes loathing without boundary. No longer does he content himself with songbirds and paintings.

Fifty. His magic arts have been directed at necromancy. He works alone, served now by the animated remains of his previous servants. Still directs the Play House, but now the pieces performed are macabre to the extreme, nihilistic and shocking. A bachelor once more, he begins to invite young women to his home, to court them, an impeccable suitor, but alas, each girl dies of natural circumstances, and soon he is considered cursed. But he is so charming, so melancholy, that for years still he pays successful court to women far and wide. Only when an enterprising young brother investigates further and finds dozens of preserved corpses of all the women in Veldemar's basement, their bodies defaced quite literally, does the truth come out, and Veldemar is forced to flee.

Fifty two. Two years on the road. He gives up all pretense of being a refined man, and becomes a beast for a time, murderous and foul. A string of corpses and disfiguring disease in his wake.

Fifty three. He meets Belinda, a necromancer of equal might. It is love, hatred, obsession. They fight, try to kill each other, make love, attack each other once more. For two months they debauch themselves, debase themselves, and then Veldemar, seeing that he is truly coming to love Belinda for all her sick twisted ways, kills her. He cannot risk becoming attached. Amongst her possessions he finds a tome directing him on how to become a lich.

Posit Veldemar the Ashen, horrific master of grotesque tragedies. At the age of fifty three he creates a Phylactery, undergoes the necessary rituals, and becomes forevermore a lich. Shrivels to near skeletal appearance, becomes separated from the world by his fear aura and paralyzing touch, can now bathe in electricity and enclose himself in ice, can if he avoids violence live forever in this terrible solitude. Why?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Monstrous Locales: Skull Mountain

"Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair."

Millenia have past since the demon giant Korthos strode the land. The legends of his prodigious power and malefic deeds have become myth, and myth in turn has degenerated into an amusing folk tale that recounts how a clever fox turned one of the evil sorcerer's spells against him, such that the giant's bones turned to stone and his weight sank him into the ground, disappearing forevermore. Whom the fox might have been in truth remains a mystery, but erosion these past hundred years have seen the emergence of Korthos' stone skull, giving truth at least to part of the folktales.

What's more, a strange boulder pulled itself free from the soil and began to circle Skull Mountain as it came to be known, its orbit erratic and limping. It was this circling boulder that drew the attention of Anyalla, a conniving Dark Naga who recognized it for a massive, depleted Ioun Stone. After studying it from a distance, the naga found an entry into the mountain, insinuating herself through an ocular cavity and into the great cavern within. There she was transfixed by the living will of Korthos, the ghost of his mind, and so began her slow communion with his vast but dispersed intellect.

This stirring of negative energies drew the attention of a lantern archon, however, and it in turn brought a small tribe of pseudodragons to its aid. Thus far they have done little more than roost on the circling Ioun Stone, launching the occasional raid down into the skull to distract Anyalla, but these raids ceased when the Dark Naga, infuriated by the distractions, enlisted the aid of five harpies. This filthy squadron of monstrous humanoids will occasionally issue forth to scatter the pseudodragrons and lantern archon, but have thus far failed to destroy their more agile opponents.

Time passes, and Anyalla grows ever more attuned to the evil energies of Korthos, slowly manifesting his mannerisms and personality traits as they grow more aligned. Her power grows, and the lantern archon has begun to spend long evenings combing the moors searching for others whom might help end this union before it produces horrific fruit.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Waiting for Godot

To say that I've been haunted by the image to the right from Chapter 2 of the old DM's Guide would be putting it too strongly, but something about those two Bugbears standing face to face in that empty room while a third sits against the wall has always disturbed me. I can imagine the eerie silence that must hang like a pall over the trio, none of them moving, blinking, awaiting a band of adventurers so that they can spring into action, given life by conflict, automatons that exist solely for combat--and ultimately death.

How unreal, how strange! While such a set-up might very well work for zombies guarding a necromancer's lair, or carrionette dolls awaiting a victim to come pick them up, it absolutely doesn't work for flesh and blood monsters such as bugbears. (A cool touch for a pair of zombie guards: describe the layer of dust that covers them, their faded footsteps showing where they walked forward to assume their current posts years ago, only to stand still as the seasons turned and the dust settled on their desiccated flesh, dust which suddenly falls from them as they animate, turning their heads to stare at the intruding PC's...)

A million questions begin to bubble up in my mind: what do the bugbears do to pass the time? Where do they go to the bathroom? Do they take turns sleeping, or does another squad come replace them every eight hours? Do they bicker, resent each other, have small rivalries that might blossom into a split second betrayal in combat?

That perhaps is one of the main differences between 'old school' and 'new school' gaming as described by Monte Cooke's article "No School But an Old School" in Kobold Quarterly #10. Old school games wouldn't care for the ecology of a dungeon, having hosts of traps and monsters simply awaiting the next party of PC's to come stumbling into their midst in much the manner illustrated by the map above. 'New school', however, asks those questions, and allows a curious or intelligent PC to access a host of innovative strategies that might otherwise be beyond them (a perfect example is Erik Mona's Whispering Cairn dungeon crawl, where ever denizen had a story and reason for being there).

For example. Consider our three bugbears. They've been guarding that empty room for six hours at the behest of their master, are fed up, bored, have already eaten their dwarf jerky and are now looking forward to being relieved by the next squad in some two hours. An inventive group of PC's might use this to their advantage: listening at the door could reveal the squabbling of the bugbears within, guttural, sullen arguments as to whom went to the latrine last, whether one of them was cheating at cards, idle threats as to what they would do to the leader of the next squad if they were late. The PC's could then plan to ambush the next bugbear to go to the latrine, or knock and pretend to be the relief squad arriving an hour or two early, roll a Sense Motive check to realize that the card game is about to erupt into a fight should they wait a few minutes more, or any other number of strategies that might give them an edge.

Reminds me of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis guns down John Travolta who's reading a magazine while sitting on the can. I love adventure modules that have their monsters and NPC's caught in media res when the PC's come upon them. Arguing, taking a nap, wrestling a hog out of a mud hole, excoriating the heavens over an increase in taxes, writing a love letter, tongue stuck out of the corner of their mouth. From such minor details is verisimilitude derived, and a world that exists only in the minds of the players and DM given ever more depth, color and vivacity.