Categories
D&D Planescape Tabletop RPGs

Raiding the larder for Planescape sandbox ingredients

I’ve been noodling some more about running Planescape as a sandbox, and since my copy of the boxed set isn’t here yet I decided to pull stuff off my shelves that seemed like it might be a good fit.

Important safety tip, Egon

This is dangerous! This is how ideas collapse under their own weight! But I only have two speeds, OFF and TURBO ZOOM, so I can’t not think about it.

I’m not reading, or rereading, these before I dig into the Planescape core set, and if you’re thinking about running a PS sandbox I’m not suggesting that you do, either. But these are Cool Things, and they’re shaping my thinking, so here we are.

Calgon, take me away!

The stuff in that photo falls into two categories: things that seem like a good fit for a Planescape sandbox, and things I’ve used to good effect while co-GMing a Dresden Files sandbox with no session prep. Here they are in alphabetical order:

  • The Dresden Files RPG, Volume 1: Our Story (paid link): The city creation system in DFRPG is stellar, and while Sigil already exists and doesn’t need to be created, Dresden’s toolkit still sounds like a good match. It involves identifying themes, threats, locations, and faces (key NPCs), and then — and this is important! — using those ingredients before creating others. That’s awesome for sandbox play.
  • Fever-Dreaming Marlinko: I wrote about why Marlinko is awesome here on Yore, but the bits I’m thinking might mesh well with Sigil are the carousing rules and the Chaos Index. The latter is a simple way to track how the stuff the PCs and others are doing affects how weird the city of Marlinko is, which — based on my half-baked, haven’t-read-the-books-yet understanding of Sigil — sounds like it’d play nice with Planescape.
  • Fire on the Velvet Horizon: I really need to write about this monster book here sometime, but in brief it’s 1) weird as hell, 2) amazing, 3) strange in ways that make me think of Planescape. I like monsters that confound my players’ expectations, and that’s this book in a nutshell.
  • The Harrow Deck (paid link): This is basically a reskinned Tarot deck for Pathfinder, and it’s awesome for improv GMing. I draw a spread of cards, usually three, and either use them to come up with something specific or just keep them in front of me for those moments where I go “Uuuuuuuhhhhhhh what the fuck is going to happen now?” They go really well with the Story Cubes (below).
  • Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad, issue #3: Another thing I’ve written about here, but in this case just one thing from one issue: “The Heist.” PCs are always stealing shit, or hoping someone will pay them to steal shit, and this heist adventure toolkit is fantastic for dealing with that on the fly. It includes patrons, marks, heat, and loot, and rolling up a heist is stupidly easy. In a city full of factions, it seems like a good fit.
  • Planarch Codex: Dark Heart of the Dreamer: This tiny book is more or less solely responsible for making me wonder whether Dungeon World (paid link) might not be a better option for the style of game I have in mind. Either way, though, it includes a system-neutral job generator for planar freebooters which, like the Ur-Hadad heist generator, looks like it’d drop seamlessly into Sigil.
  • Red Tide: I own most (all?) of Kevin Crawford’s books, but Red Tide remains my favorite. It includes great systems for generating locations and other sandbox elements, it’s excellent imagination fuel, and the output is lean and mean — it makes stuff that’s actually useful in play. There’s nothing Planescape-y about it, but the guts line up pretty well.
  • Rory’s Story Cubes (paid link): I have umpty-doodle sets of these, and I love them. I use them when I’m winging things, and in Dresden they paired well with the Harrow Deck. I grab a random handful whenever I need to make or decide something I hadn’t thought about before, like NPCs in whom my players take a sudden interest. Not all the sets are perfect for this, but most of them are.

I’m probably forgetting a bunch of other stuff I shouldn’t be forgetting, but that’s what’s rattling around in my brain at the moment.

Categories
D&D DCC RPG Tabletop RPGs

Debauchery & Dragons: Carousing for XP, 1977 to 2015

It’s 1977. D&D is wild and wonderful and everyone’s doing their own thing.

So much so, in fact, that in that same year two people published alternate versions of one of the core mechanics of old-school D&D: earning XP for treasure.

In 1977, Dave Arneson, co-creator of D&D, and Jon Pickens, who later became an editor at TSR, each published alternate systems for earning XP.

While the baseline was 1 XP for every 1 GP of treasure recovered and brought back to civilization[1], Arneson did things differently in his Blackmoor campaign, and Pickens proposed much the same alternative in Dragon Magazine #10.

I love this stuff, so I want to talk about it here — and about its modern descendants.

Special Interests

Here’s Dave Arneson in The First Fantasy Campaign (which — a crying shame! — isn’t legally available in PDF, and tends to command high prices in print), under the heading “Special Interests”:

Instead of awarding points for money and Jewels acquired in the depths of the Dungeon or hoarding items against the indefinite future, the players will receive NO points until they acquire the items listed below unless it happens to already fall within the area of their interest.

The “items listed below” are:

  • Wine
  • Women
  • Song
  • Wealth
  • Fame
  • Religion or Spiritualism
  • Hobby

The wine rules are entertaining, awarding XP only until the PC is drunk. After recovering, she can drink more to earn more XP. “Song” is basically a big-ass party, with rules for how damaging the tavern impacts XP earned. Wealth covers hoarding gold, which would be a bit of a cop-out (doing that in vanilla D&D earns you XP, too) except that here, if it’s stolen you lose that amount of XP.

Fame is based on dueling and gladiatorial combat — basically picking fights for glory, but you have to go to a big party afterwards. Religion covers donations to churches, as well as quests, and “Hobby” is just that: Pick Your Thing, do Your Thing, and earn XP for it. (One suggestion is “the devising of better Torture machines,” a peculiar hobby indeed.)

“Women” is problematic. Sleeping around for XP, sure — that sounds like fun, and it’s true to the source literature (more on this in a moment), but it assumes the PCs are male and straight, and that all prostitutes are women.

Appendix N is rich with examples of carousing in action, notably in the Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales and Robert E. Howard’s Conan yarns. Lankhmar’s duo and the fearsome Cimmerian are frequently broke, and rarely shy away from wine, companionship, or song. But just that simple shift, substituting “companionship” for female prostitutes, costs nothing and admits all comers[2].

And then there’s this bit:

Slaves of the appropriate type (left to player) may also be purchased with the funds and utilized to fulfill this classification. These slaves may then be sold at reduced value, the difference being credited to the players account.

That crosses a line for me, and it’s something I’d strike before using Dave’s carousing system in my game.

Apart from those sour notes, though, this is a neat system. “XP for GP blown in Conan-like excesses” is a fantastic concept, and despite sharing a publication year with Pickens’ article in Dragon #10, I think it’s fair to credit Arneson as the first, as he’d been running Blackmoor for years prior to 1977.

Orgies, Inc.

Pickens’ article in Dragon #10, “Orgies, Inc.,” proposes basically the same thing:

Instead of receiving experience for gaining treasure, players would receive experience only as the treasure is spent.

He lists five options for accomplishing this expenditure of wealth:

  • Sacrifices
  • Philanthropy
  • Research
  • Clan Hoards
  • Orgies

Salacious title aside, Pickens leaves “Orgies” at “Lusty indulgence in wine, women, and song.” You can orgy for a number of days equal to your Con score, with a cost per day (earned as XP, and then you have to rest for a like amount of days. Set aside the “women” assumption, and I like this version better than Arneson’s.

Philanthropy is about the same as in Blackmoor, and “Research” and “Sacrifices” likewise map pretty well to Hobby and Spiritualism, respectively.

Clan Hoards is a much cooler idea than plain ol’ hoards, and it’s very Tolkien: Dwarves are called out specifically, and they must return home and consign the treasure to the clan’s vault (no withdrawals!). That’s awesome.

The artwork for the article is great, too (though uncredited[3]), depicting an interspecies Bacchanalian revel. I’ve trimmed out a safe-for-work portion, but it’s worth seeking out the whole picture.

Ale & Wenches

Fast forward to the 2008, and we get the best-known OSR system for carousing, published by Jeff Rients: Party like it’s 999. Here’s an excerpt:

At the beginning of a session if a PC is hanging around Ye Olde Village Inne with nothing better to do, they can roll 1d6 and spend 100gp times the roll on liquor and/or lechery. The character gains experience equal to the gold spent. The d6 x 100 standard applies to villages only. A PC could travel to a town or city and debauch much more efficiently.

Where Arneson and Pickens assign categories and break things down in more detail, Jeff simplifies everything down to carousing/debauchery and adds a glorious d20 table. If you fail a save vs. poison while blowing your gold, you roll on the table.

A 10 is “Beaten and robbed. Lose all your personal effects and reduced to half hit points.” A 14 gets you “One of us! One of us! You’re not sure how it happened, but you’ve been initiated into some sort of secret society or weird cult. Did you really make out with an emu of was that just the drugs? Roll Int check to remember the signs and passes.

It’s a light, easy-to-implement system, and it looks like it’d be a hoot in play. Again, I’d substitute “Companionship” for “Wenches.”

Carousing, orgies, and their alternatives

Claytonian JP mashed up “Orgies, Inc.” and Jeff’s carousing system and designed a DCC RPG version tied to Luck. His table is also fantastic. My favorite carousing result is 20, “An evil magic user has some of your hair and flesh… you wake up with a gash and covered in strange runes.

He also spun off systems for martial training, research, and sacrifices, each with its own fabulous, quirky table of delights/horrors. (They’re collected in a free Google Doc.)

  • A 4 on the martial table is “You lose a hand, but now have a wicked hook and intimidation rolls are easier for you.
  • Roll an 8 for sacrifices, and you get “Thou must feed my sheeple. 3 Idiots join you. They fight as henchmen, but they are bumbling fools and will constantly give away your position. Killing or turning them away is bad luck.
  • The table for research is pretty brutal. An 11 is “You attract ghosts like the dickens. Whenever you are in a haunted locale, wandering ghost are twice as likely to show up and primarily target you.

Unlike its predecessors, this system also assigns no gender specifics and makes no assumptions about the PCs — anyone can feel welcome to carouse.

Claytonian’s take is my overall favorite. It’d be easy to port into your own campaign (or out of DCC, or both), and it encompasses a variety of activities without adding much in the way of rules overhead. It’s slick.

Carousing in Marlinko

I wrote a bit about carousing in Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, but I want to expand on it here.

What Chris Kutalik and company have done in Marlinko is really neat: Carousing is based on which city quarter you do it in, and unless I’ve missed something it’s an optional addition to the normal XP-for-GP arrangement.

The different quarters of Marlinko are quite different from one another, which gives this system a lot of flavor. In one quarter, the PCs can hit the bathhouse, booze it up, and visit lotus powder dens. In another, a variety of pleasures — from savory to unsavory — can be indulged.

Spend the gold, earn the XP . . . unless you Lose Your Shit, which happens if the carousing roll exceeds your level. Out come the tables, also divided by quarter, and they’re awesome (spoilers):

  • Lost your shit in the Golden Swine quarter? You just joined the Church of the Blood Jesus, and are being held by nun-maenads in their private dungeon.
  • After a bender in the Domesman quarter, you took a purgative and shat your room at the inn so badly that it’s going to cost you some cash.
  • You thought Mercator would be better? You wake up while being serenaded by “horrifically disfigured serial murderer Taurus the Clown.”
  • In the Apiarian quarter, you spilled beer on the wrong woman’s dress, and she’s going to make you pay — hard.

Like Claytonian’s system, the one in Marlinko makes no assumptions about the PCs. As Humza Kazmi, one of the book’s editors, said on G+, “We tried to make sure that the carousing table in FDM was gender- and sexuality-neutral, to avoid the idea that all PCs are straight dudes.

It’d take new tables to adapt Marlinko’s carousing to another city, but the bones are all there.

2016 and onwards?

These are the five published carousing systems I’m aware of, but I bet there are others (and I’d love to hear about them in the comments!). Almost 40 years on, this idea is still going strong and being used in play, so I’d also bet there will be other takes on it in the future.

I’ve never run or played in a game that used carousing-for-XP, but it’s on my list of takes on D&D that I’d like to try.

[1] Plus XP for defeating monsters, of course.

[2] Pun intended.

[3] According to commenter Tony Rowe on G+, the artist is Dave Trampier.

Categories
Old school Tabletop RPGs

Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

While reading Chris Kutalik’s excellent blog, Hill Cantons, I found myself thinking, “Why the hell don’t I own any of his books?” So I ordered three of them in print: Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and the Hill Cantons Compendium. (While I was waiting for them to arrive, I also blogged about his killer series on dynamic sandboxes.)

After spending some time with them, I want to write a bit about Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.[1] Maybe this should be two posts, but I don’t care. I’m in the Kutalik Zone[2], and I’m staying there. Onwards!

Slumbering Ursine Dunes

Here’s a snippet from the introduction to set the tone:

Slumbering Ursine Dunes is known to the outside world for three things: the massive bulk of its red-sand beach dunes; the annual Yambor pilgrimage of soldier-bears; and Medved the hirsute godling who tenuously rules over its Weird-dominated reaches.

SUD is a small, short book, but its size is deceptive: There’s a lot of stuff packed into its 64-odd pages. Like what? Like this (note: spoilers, albeit somewhat mild ones):

  • Pointcrawl: Chris notes that he originally ran SUD as a traditional hexcrawl, but realized that because of the way the dunes truncate the PCs’ option set based on location, it makes a better pointcrawl. Seeing the pointcrawl concept in practice in SUD is neat just from a design standpoint. (If you’ve never heard of a pointcrawl, Chris also wrote a handy index to his entire series of pointcrawl posts.)
  • Sandbox adventure: There are factions, tons of locations, wandering monsters, rumors — all the ingredients of a saucy little sandbox. Even if you have no interest in running the dunes, this is a great toolkit for developing your own sandbox by way of Chris’ example.
  • Two cool dungeons: The Golden Barge is a huge ship with a golden dome rising from its deck, while the Glittering Tower is a tall sandstone obelisk that’s home to one of SUD’s signature personalities, Medved. Both are nifty dungeons.
  • The Chaos Event Index: This is such a neat piece of tech. It’s a subsystem to model the ebb and flow of weirdness in the Dunes based on the actions of the PCs and SUD’s factions, from blood rain to comets to the arrival of bubbleships to a demi-god who arrives to tour the Dunes. It fits SUD perfectly, but it’d also be easy to re-skin and use elsewhere.
  • A box full of goodies. There are monsters (ghuls, grues, pelgranes, soldier bears, zombastodons, and more), a couple of spells, a couple classes, and some tables for random hirelings, all solid stuff.

Taken as a whole, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a self-contained, peculiar, sometimes-gonzo sandbox area, all ready to go — you can drop SUD right into an ongoing campaign. It doesn’t deluge you with useless information, but it doesn’t stint on providing cool stuff, either.

But it’s also a toolkit, a box of delights from which you can pick and choose just the bits that interest you. Either way, well worth the money.

(Illustration by David Lewis Johnson. David also did many of the illustrations in Focal Point: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Running Extraordinary Sessions, which I published in 2015.)

Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

Set in the same world as SUD (but not requiring it in any way, or vice versa), Marlinko is “a more directly adventurable location than the traditional city setting book,” which is good because most city books are kind of super-boring. Marlinko is designed for change-of-pace adventures, a session or two long, and for use as a hub. (Notably, a hub for exploring the Dunes.)

The beautiful back-cover map by Luka Rejec is a perfect introduction to the city of Marlinko:

Marlinko’s four quarters (Contradas) are succinctly described, with a focus on conveying their flavor and providing interesting encounters. My favorite is the Golden Swine Contrada, a “benighted slum,” which includes:

  • A catacombs excavated by robo-dwarves full of ossuary sculptures dedicated to Jesus — yes, Earth Jesus.
  • The hirelings’ union. Send too many hirelings to their doom, and the party will find themselves blackslisted.
  • The Brothers of the Other Mother, a loathsome and dogmatic cult nonetheless useful to PCs because they can heal you.
  • Headquarters of the League of the Free-Handed, a criminal society that sticks up for the city’s poor.

That quarter feels like two-parts Ankh-Morpork, where a union of hirelings and a combination thieves guild/mutual aid society would be right at home, one-part D&D (the Brothers), and one-part Hill Cantons weirdness (robo-dwarves and Jesus). Marlinko isn’t Just Another Fantasy City.

Marlinko also two dungeons (one being the catacombs noted above), both excellent; a section of city news, which I love; a bit on buying/selling stuff; and a useful look at what happens when you commit crimes in Marlinko. But wait, there’s more — my three favorite things in the book!

  • The Chaos Index, which is like the one found in SUD, but Marlkinko-specific. I particularly like the (non-exhaustive) list of things the PCs can do in Marlinko that will directly affect the Index.
  • Random carousing rules, divided up by city quarter. “You must admit that waking up caked in dried blood is an alarming experience.” “Who is lowering that wicker basket of hand lotion down to you?” “Exactly whose mummy is this that lies in your bed.”
  • Rules for tiger wrestling. It’s as funny as it sounds, and your players will have their PCs do it: Defeating Pan Meow-Meow is worth a 1,000 gp bounty.

That last bit — of course the PCs will wrestle tigers for money! — is the genius of Fever-Dreaming Marlinko: This is a city book purpose-built for gaming, not fluff-wankery or the someone’s shitty novel masquerading as gaming material. Everything in Marlinko is there in answer to the question “What will your players actually give a shit about here?”

It does what it says on the tin, and it’s one of the best city books I own.

[1] The Hill Cantons Compendium is neat, too, but it’s a modest tome compared to the other two — by design — and it’s a PWYW PDF.

[2] It’s right next to the Danger Zone.