Role-playing design notes

Random notes on the design of Gods & Monsters, and maybe even Men & Supermen if I can remember what I was drinking when I wrote it.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons
Biblyon, Highland
Saturday, April 11, 1987
Jerry Stratton, Ed.
Say yes or use the magic 8-ball—Saturday, December 19th, 2015
If you are a god

The RPGPundit, in his own matchless manner as “the new and improved defender of RPGs” has taken on the utility of say yes or roll the dice. It’s something that has mostly gone unquestioned, even on (he would of course say especially on) the Forge. I used to hang out on the Forge a lot when it existed, and had many great conversations there.

Gods & Monsters uses a lot of of what I learned there, which is mainly that rules must mean something; if a rule doesn’t mean anything, get rid of that rule. You might think that this rule goes without saying, but having cut my teeth on AD&D in the hybrid form that consisted of some AD&D books, some Blue books, and some BX books, rules that didn’t mean anything or were never used are a basic part of my education.

Go through the amazingly cool AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, and most of those rules were not used by the writers, let alone by the customers.

From the Forge, I learned about hooks, but used them solely to help the game master end arguments about whether or not your character will do that. You said your character will do that, it’s right there on your character sheet. It is meant to divert play away from pointless, fun-sucking tedium.

It was there that I also learned about building your character in play, but the sole reason for building your character in play is to avoid skills that wouldn’t make sense in the pre-existing world.

But while “say yes or roll the dice” sounded very cool the first time I read it, you will not find it in the Gods & Monsters rulebook or in the Adventure Guide’s Handbook. The reason is that while it does sound cool at first glance, it has no practical use in the kind of games I enjoy playing in and running.

I enjoy games in which there is a world that can be interacted with, and through that interaction discovered.

That’s very different from the mindset of “say yes”, in which there is no such world: the world isn’t so much to be discovered as it is gamed. I enjoy the hell out of Donjon, but I wouldn’t want to play it long-term. And it knows this; Donjon is presented as an inherently silly game, much like Creeks & Crawdads but with a little more heft.1

The Biblical and other engravings of Gustave Doré—Saturday, July 25th, 2015

I haven’t used Gustave Doré as much as, say, Caspar David Friedrich or John William Waterhouse, but when I use him, I really use him. Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law appears twice in Divine Lore as well as in The Road, where the tablets of the law are one of the nine tablets of Enki.

I also used Jacob wrestling with the Angel in the main rulebook.

Part of the problem is that, as woodcuts go, his are not as evocative (to me, anyway) as William Miller’s. This may be simply because the reproductions available online aren’t as high quality as the reproductions of Miller that are available. Take a look at the best version of his work on The Raven, and there’s some really good stuff there—at fairly low resolutions. I’d love to use his Angels departing with Lenore into the sky, but the quality of the image just isn’t there.

Browsing through his works for “most gaming/fantasy-like art”, Bohemund alone mounts the rampart of Antioch is something I might use eventually, and Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise has potential, with its sword-wielding angel at the edge of the wood pointing the way to an angry Adam and tearful Eve.

But for sheer Monster Manual weirdness and teenage sexuality, I had to go with Les Oceanides Les Naides de la mer which, besides its subject matter, is in color. Imagine your player character meeting those nymphs in the middle of a long sea voyage!

The Pre-Raphaelite fantasies of John William Waterhouse—Saturday, July 11th, 2015

The Pre-Raphaelite movement is a gold mine for amazing fantasy artwork. Among the best was English painter John William Waterhouse. I use his work extensively in the Adventure Guide’s Handbook, and while I didn’t use the actual painting (yet), his The Lady of Shalott was the reason I used that poem in The House of Lisport. It’s just such an amazing piece of fantasy, the magical or fairy lady with knight-encrusted blankets and three candles lighting her waybill a prone crucifix… in fact it’s so amazing I just took out Waterhouse’s also-amazing Circe Invidiosa and replaced it with the Lady.

He created great paintings of rituals, from Circe Invidiosa with her preparing to turn Scylla into a hideous monster, to his Danaides pouring from three vases into a water-bearded cauldron, to, the most amazing in my view, his Magic Circle which is, precisely, a fantasy ritual, with burning incense, a magic staff, a magic circle, and a moon-shaped sickle. The sorceress has even attracted some ravens or crows to assist her!

Another favorite of mine is The Tempest, with the daughter of the sorceror Prospero sitting on the shoreline in a storm, watching what looks to be yet another ship dashed against the rocks by wind and wave. She’s worried mostly about her hair. I know that’s not the way the Shakespeare play goes, but it certainly looks that way in the painting.

Unlike the rest of the painters in this series, Waterhouse painted into the 20th century—which may have helped provide him his best subjects. In addition to painting from Dante and Shakespeare, he also had at his disposal the inspiring poetry of Alfred Tennyson, who died in 1892.

Ethereal engravings of William Miller—Saturday, June 27th, 2015

William Miller was a Scottish engraver. His artwork was created to accompany other people’s writings, and, as often as not, from the drawings of other people as well. This amazing image of Lochnaw Castle is from the Memoirs of Sir Andrew Agnew, by Thomas M’Crie. The engraving was from a drawing by R. K. Greville.

Lochnaw Castle

The Temple of Minerva and the Ancient Sarcophagi are from Select Views In Greece With Classical Illustrations, by Hugh William Williams, who also did the drawings that the engravings were based on.

Ancient sarcophagi Temple of Minerva

His engraving of W. Linton’s drawing of Delos could just as well be Tolkien’s Last Home of the Elves. His Faeries on the Seashore (after W. Danby) is otherworldly—helped along, no doubt, by the fact that it’s an engraving, but the engraver’s skill and artistic talent show.

Engravings, while they reproduced other pieces of art, were difficult, time-consuming pieces of art themselves. Good plates could take years to engrave.

I have not yet used any of these images in adventures or lore books, but I can’t imaging that, at least, the Temple of Minerva or the Ancient Sarcophagi won’t inspire some use. The ancient sarcophagi look like something you might see in the cold waste on the Road to the First City of Man…

Inspirational art: Caspar David Friedrich—Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Inspirational art can really set the tone for a book or adventure. When I went looking for good fantasy art on Wikimedia Commons, the art of Caspar David Friedrich really stood out. His Wanderer in the Sea of Fog was so inspirational I used it as the first image in the Gods & Monsters rulebook: an adventurer, about to set off into the unknown, surveying the visible world before descending into the mist.

The wanderer above the sea of fog

This is not the summit of his journey. It is only the beginning.

Other paintings I’ve used for various Gods & Monsters books are his Juno Temple, Cemetery Entrance, Monastery Ruins, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, and, I think, the Abbey in the Oakwood. He has many more.

Two that really inspire me, though, are his Cross beside the Baltic and Man and woman contemplating the moon.

I strongly suspect that the cross partly inspired the cross in the snow in Song of Tranquility from Fight On! #7.

And doesn’t that tree look like it’s about to attack our contemplative moon-watchers?

Skin a module 3: Thracia to The Lost City—Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
Ostrusha Mound fresco

(Ivo E. Stankov, CC BY-SA 2.5)

When I first started gaming back in the early eighties, I heard about Judges Guild, but I never saw anything from them. We had no game store near us until my cousins started a game rack in their parents’ dime store, and that contained mostly, if not all, TSR. By the time I got to college, Judges Guild had already lost their license to produce official AD&D products1 and had pretty much stopped publishing. I’m not sure I saw any Judges Guild stuff in the otherwise well-stocked game store on the Ithaca Commons.2

But I had heard about them—supposedly amazing adventures such as Dark Tower, Tegel Manor, and The Caverns of Thracia. I had dabbled in buying gaming stuff over the Internet in the old days of Usenet, when I picked up a zine or two and managed to score an OD&D box set. But it wasn’t until the dawn of eBay that I began to discover these old treasures. And then Noble Knight became a reliable source as well, a kind of Mile High Comics for gamers.

Most of my changes for Thracia (PDF File, 727.3 KB) are changes in names; I added a reason for the lizard-king to be waiting: he’s studying one of the Tablets of Enki. And the means that player characters arrive is by means of the teleport pads; once, all the ancient temples were connected; the controls have been destroyed, but the controls were merely mankind imposing their will on the divine. The pads themselves work still. So they enter the caverns by way of a teleport pad inside of the Temple of Apuiporo in the Yellow Forest on The Road.

Athena became Ishtar, Zeus Dupater, Apollo Sin, and Thanatos Enki, who appears draped in seaweed. These gods are all associated with the older religions, and Thracia is part of the empire of the first city of man. Lizard-men became saurians, not a big change, but the gnolls and dog-brothers became degenerate mananubi, the servants of the dragon Tifá. I already knew that these Anubis-styled creatures wandered the wastes outside of the City, and wanted to introduce them before they reached the City.

Winged Victory became Tifá’s servant, the demon Ebeorie from Helter Skelter.

Skin a Module 2: The Fell Pass becomes Mansio Solis—Saturday, April 25th, 2015
The Claws of Heaven

One of the most surprising moments for me when reading through the Dragon Magazine CD-ROM collection was an adventure in issue 32, The Fell Pass, written by a San Diegan named Karl Merris. I have never met Karl Merris, and the issue was slightly before my time, but I had been through an adventure called Fell Pass and it had been run by a San Diegan. It was in college, too many decades ago, and I was playing a cleric of Ra named Praxos.1

Our Fell Pass resembled Karl Merris’s only in that it was a short cut through a mountain populated with strange creatures. But since our college DM was someone I still gamed with, I asked, and sure enough he knew the guy.

So I determined to run that adventure relatively straight. The chance came when the player characters boarded a train, and the line ended at a chasm in front of a mountain. I needed a mountain with a desert on one side and a jungle on the other, along an old road known as Highway 49. The Fell Pass became an old way station along that road from a culture steeped in the divine and the technological.

If this sounds a bit like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, it freaks me out a bit, too. While I had read the first book in the series before creating the world of Highland, Sai King had taken forever to get the others out, and they are the ones The Road resembles. Even now, reading The Wind Through the Keyhole with its forest of gigantic trees and swampland abutting an ancient bridge over a chasm with tentacles reaching up, and the old way station on the other side I wonder what common source we are obviously stealing from. Mind you, my bridge went through what I call the abyss, but King has that covered too: he’d call it a thinny, and no doubt after the world moves on from young Tim’s time, that chasm will get a thinny.

But, back to reskinning The Fell Pass. This is the most extensive reskin I’ve done, mainly because this was a complicated adventure with warring factions, and I needed reminders of who related to what. The hardest to deal with was the Beholder. Beholders are powerful enough as is, but with minions they’re a real pain. One of the things I did to help was draw a diagram of the Beholder and the area of effect of each of its eyes.

First, The Fell Pass became The Station of the Sun (PDF File, 2.3 MB), or, in the original language of the City, Mansio Solis. You can see that I’ve expanded a bit on the area of the road before the original module.

Three ways to skin a module 1: from Chagmat to Dowanthal Peak—Saturday, April 18th, 2015
Sakmat sigil

Beware the octagon!

I have always enjoyed modifying adventures for cross-genre and cross-campaign use. My second article for Dragon Magazine back in January of 1991 was on reskinning adventures for cross-genre purposes. The basic idea is simple: identify the central characters, names, and items, and replace them with meaningful genre-specific replacements from your own campaign. The same works when using adventures in your own campaign that aren’t cross-genre. Most of the time, you can do this by printing out the PDF and scribbling in the margins (or, if you’re really old-school, by scribbling in the margins of the original).

In our last campaign, I re-used three adventures that were major enough to involve a serious reskinning: Chagmat, The Fell Pass, and The Caverns of Thracia. I re-used these as Dowanthal Peak, The Broken Road, and The Lost City.

Larry DiTillio’s original Chagmat was set in the town of Byr. In Dowanthal Peak (PDF File, 786.1 KB) I replaced Byr with Weaving, to add to the spider-motif. And it is right next to Michael Malone’s The Wandering Trees, which is now set in the weaving wood, also playing on the name.

Because I’m skinning this adventure specifically for my group, it also uses player character names when appropriate—Alvin is the warrior of the group, and the obviously big man.

I’ve converted the language in the original to match the language of the underground in our game. This paid off in spades later, when the mage’s player took the time to decipher the code based on learning a similar language. He recognized that the symbols matched those from a different language, replaced the symbols phonetically, and successfully deduced the trigger words for the Belt of Walking! You can see more of this language in The World of Highland Guidebook.

There are several question marks throughout the reskin. These are things I didn’t need to know right away, either because they pertained more to The Wandering Trees—such as the notes on the Great Ash—or because I didn’t think it worth figuring it out right away. If the question marks are still there, that means I was right. The vision of the ground cracking beneath them, for example, eventually came to light in the mountains to the northwest when they met an ancient oracle.

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