Saturday, 14 July 2018

Considering Mountains

My current campaign which I am GMing is set in David McGrogan's excellent Yoon-Suin.

In particular, my game is set in the Oligarchies in the Mountains of the Moon. In real terms, this is a fantasy counterpart of Nepal, with several powerful city-states ruled by immensely wealthy elite with a very casual view to the lives and sufferings of their less-wealthy peons. Yetis and yaks abound.

My players have so far traveled between two major cities, passing from one major river valley into another over a well-traveled trail through an otherwise-intimidating and labyrinthine mountain range.

My players like calling sessions "episodes"
 As I've grappled with various shades of travel rules, balancing descriptive flow with time-saving brevity and mechanical satisfaction, I've been thinking a lot about mountainous travel in RPGs.

The following is an unscientific thinking-aloud about mountains and their nature.

If you look at Nepal or any other mountainous country, there are, unsurprisingly, lots of mountains. Correspondingly there are valleys. Shocking, I know. If you look at a map which shows mountains in any detail - the kind with lots of lines representing 10s or 100s of meters in altitude - you see that mountains, valleys, and their interrelation are chaotic and fascinating.

All folds and bumps like a crumpled piece of paper
We see that valleys are gutters - rivers flow where they flow because they follow the grooves left between ranges and ridges of mountains. Mountains as we know them - Ben Nevis, Mt. Everest, etc. - are just nodules, snarls, bumps and knots along larger ridges. Valleys are the absences between these squiggly walls of rock. All mountains are longer than they are wide; properly conceptualised they are vast chains of rock stretching from horizon to horizon. Think of the Beacons of Gondor scene in The Return of the King.

Most ridges end one of two ways:

(1) they taper to a nub, getting narrower and shorter, becoming the vertical line of a capital T to the horizontal bar of another valley - intersecting with a nudge that makes rivers do their squiggly U-bends.

(2) they don't actually end, they just curve around, capping off the valley and coming back down the other side as the valley's opposite perimeter.

The ends of mountain ridges are like proud ramparts slipping sadly into the sea

So really when you think about it, valleys only end one of one ways - this end of the valley is just the middle

When you look on those maps I mentioned earlier, you realise that this is how all ridges work - they form loops that run up against each other, a fractal of larger and larger valleys.

The general pattern is - the higher up the chain of larger loops (or "horseshoes" if you want to be more accurate) the larger the ridge and the higher the mountain. Almost like each smaller valley contributes its mass to a larger whole.

All of the largest mountains in this picture are obscured but they're on the border beneath the Orange and Light Blue lines - you can see some of them on the Pink/Orange/Light Blue junction and another on the Orange/Light Blue/Yellow junction.
I am now approaching making some sort of point

The valleys in my game must therefore exist within such fractals. Although my players crossed from the Valley of the Hand to the Valley of the Warrior, in actuality those 'valleys' are comprised of a main river valley bristling with adjacent sub-valleys, each with its own tributary rivulet, each contributing the the ridge-horseshoe fractal building up into larger mountain ridges.

Consider this picture of the Budhi Gandaki River Valley in Nepal, which maps eerily well to what my players know already around the city of Bhudinanda in my game.

My players came into the Ginseng Valley from the south, crossed the river to its eastern bank, followed the trail, stopped off at Joshipur (and stole a holy relic), skipped Paluth, crossed BACK over the river, stayed in Bhudinanda, then rapidly ascended into the mountains to the west, where they met some stone giants.
 This is why I've been thinking about all of this lately

The Oligarchies are not flat. When my players have been following the trails from A to B to C, I have described as best I can the mountainous terrain and such. But actually I think this is something that could do with more proactive scrutiny.

If my game was set in generic fantasyland - a sort of pastoral English Midlands - it wouldn't really matter how fastidious one tracked location and terrain features, describing with pinpoint accuracy and respect to the canon of established descriptive precedent. You could describe a hill or forest or Stonehenge just for the sheer sake of having something interesting to put in the horizon, to paint the mental picture, and if the players decided they wanted to check it out, that they wanted to make concrete its existence in their story, bam, surreptitiously add it to the map, make a note. It changes nothing. It doesn't "break" the map. The rivers and roads are not irrevocably fucked because you added and extra grassy bump.

But in a landscape like Nepal roads and rivers go certain ways for very specific reasons. The road goes over the mountains at this point because there is a pass. There is a pass because that is the lowest, easiest-to-get-to point through this ridge. You can't just decide to skip the pass and cross the ridge a mile up ahead - certainly not with wagons and animals. That turns from "travelling" to "willful mountaineering", which when I word it like that sounds like a misdemeanor.

A big part of verisimilitude is consistency

If I just describe "walking through a valley" or "climbing over a pass" or "in the shadow of a great big mountain" just for the sake of saying fancy words, I have created irrefutable, immovable implications about a great deal of the local landscape that "hill" and "forest" in Englandia simply does not.

Saying there is a pass at point A means that everything either side of it is going to be a mountain ridge, probably with high points that would be known to the locals as named mountains. The land either side of this pass/ridge will be two valleys, each with a stream in them at least.

In mountainous land, all these systems - mountains, ridges, valleys, rivers, passes - are HIGHLY concentrated over small spaces and HIGHLY interconnected. If I said "oh, you pass a river heading south" - boom - now west and east are ridges, north is too and probably a great big mountain is up there also. If my players decided to get in a boat and follow this casually-invented river south, I've got to figure out where it goes, because wherever I put the course of this river, everything in a couple-mile radius around it will be obliterated and replaced with the corresponding ridges, cwms, scree hills, peaks and glaciers that come with the bargain.

And that's not even getting into how the hell you make traversing this environment exciting and flavourful for the players...


Saturday, 5 May 2018

Identifying the Point of 'Identify'

Following on from Scrap Princess' Google+ discussion about first level spells, I've been thinking about Identify.

The problem - Identify identifies the properties of magical items. Therefore the implication is that you don't know what magic items will do unless you (A) randomly and dangerously activate them or (B) cast this particular spell that has no other function.

If the GM is giving players magic items, or providing a space/setting that allows for the random acquisition of magic items, the implication is that the GM thinks it would be jolly good fun if the players had magic items. So why, then, the barrier to using them? Players either

(A) waste one of the wizard's otherwise-useful slots with this otherwise-useless spell and then just carry on as if they knew the item's properties from the outset (and if the day consists of "ok we do nothing today except let the wizard identify the item so we're not going sperlunking with one less spell slot" then in real-time about 10 seconds passes so it's almost as if you just told them outright anyway)

(B) don't touch the scary object because they're afraid what in reality is a "boring ring of boringness" could be Satan's Personal Fuck-You Ring, so there was never a point to giving them it

(C) fire it off randomly, and surely there are more interesting ways to fuck with your players and their characters' wellbeing than just giving them magic items whose only purpose is to hurt the players.

(D) take it to an NPC identifier because they have no wizard, at which point we're just pussyfooting around just telling the players, but now you've put that info behind some weird EA Games paywall microtransactions bullshit.

The Solution - get rid of Identify altogether?

But just letting the players magically know what the items does is also a bit lame. There are millions of non-magic items I come across in my real-life life that I haven't a clue what their application is, so random omniscience is dumb too. Plus, identifying is just one of those things that makes the nerdy, 4HP wizard feel very smug that all the big beefy fighters are watching with philistine awe as they do their very smart stuff to figure out what the helmet does.

Pictured: Magic-users
So let's keep the idea of identification, let's even keep it a spell - Identify - but scrap how it works. We could scrap the name too, but now I'm interested by the name as just a hint of what the spell does. Forget everything you know about "Identify" - just go on assumptions about what the name suggests. It identifies things, right?

Things. Not specifically magic items.

A green player without any D&D knowledge who hasn't read the spell descriptions might naively declare "I cast identify on the strange murals in the tomb!". No, pet, that's not how that works.

But maybe it should be?

To be honest this right here is where the post sort of ends for you, the reader, since what I'm about to suggest is heavy with a lot of implied worldbuilding unique to my table. The general advice of "ditch Identify and rework the spell from the title outwards" is my conclusion.

What I'M personally doing is this:

I feel wizardry ought to come with a heavy dose of "meddling with forces beyond yer ken", and so pacts with devils, demons, and genies seem like a staple of why some people can summon armies and other people don't know how to write their names in sparkles. A bit of it is academic opportunity, a bit of it is basic literacy and discipline, but a part of it also comes from making really dodgy deals with extradimensional demigods.

So Identify is a 1st level spell. I feel it is a very opportune place to insert the beginnings of a wizard's descent into devil-deals. One summons a being (a genie, in my campaign set in Yoon-Suin) whom the wizard beseeches to Identify something beyond the temporal knowledge of the mortal party. Maybe the murals on the tomb walls, maybe the provenance and capabilities of an ancient magical item, or maybe the identity of a corpse. In exchange the wizard offers some payment - at this very low-level, easy-peasy request from the genie, it's probably not going to be his soul. Maybe 100 of your local currency. It's really down to the given entity and magic-user to hash out an agreement, although again because this is such a low-effort dime-a-dozen deal request, the entity won't waste time if the magician gets super haggle-happy. "Dude it's literally the difference of ten silver. Fuck this, you can go read about this fortress' history in a book anyway, I'm out, Peace".

The limitations on what the entity is happy to identify will also teach the party about how genies (again, devils in your campaign, or whatever) work. There's a code of conduct. They won't identify anything that could affect another living person in the world - at that point you're hiring the genie for a much more involved process - espionage, assassination, etc. - and that requires a much more specific ritual that costs more and comes with more stipulations, and genies hate being pulled into the world for one kind of deal and then being talked to about a different kind (much like how people hate a 5 minute itinerary meeting evolving into a monolithic 2 hour expounding of everything the office is up to)  - so you can't Identify "the person who killed my father" or "the best way into the Doge's palace" or "the antidote for the poison I just drank". Identify should literally be a Google for publicly-accessible information that the party just doesn't have on-hand. History, art, and magic items, sure.

But if you've been teleported by a spiteful mage to the middle of an unknown forest in the middle of the night in another hemisphere, then sure a genie will be like "ok gimme that necklace and fifty gold and I'll show you which of these stars points south"

I feel like (again, personal to my world) becoming a more powerful wizard is a process of becoming less like your fellow mortals and more like a genie. Super-high-level wizards are floating immortal transdimensional wanderers for whom sleep, food, latitude and longitude are hazy suggestions rather than confines. So at a much higher level I would introduce another spell - named something other than Identify - which allows a wizard to personally tap into the Vortex and identify items and histories personally.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Yoon-Suin Setting & House Rules


The campaign is set in a western region of the Oligarchies of the Purple Land, a sprawling subcontinent vaguely Indian and South-East Asian domains. The Oligarchies are  each ruled by an Oligarch from a patriarchal House. Our down-and-out heroes have just gathered in Ma-Ma's Tea House, a small mountain pass bothy, located in the south Oolong Mountains between the river-valleys of the Mukkimono and the Mulligatawny - a wild and woolly borderlands region of independent-minded yak-herders and petty feudal micro-fiefs.

As the saffron sun rises, the twin valleys teeter on the brink of chaos. It is a land so very different from our own. The immortal, internecine wars between the Oligarchies threaten to boil over once more, between which and other sundry calamities have fractured the already fragile and decentralized realm. The Oligarchs' authority is now mostly nominal beyond the walls of their city-states.

House Rules
We're running LOTFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) with (most of) the house rules of Ten Foot Polemic