Thursday, September 30, 2010

Where The Ancient Dragons Roam

I am trying to Mythopoeia my way to a world in which giant intelligent dragons roam. I have some ideas based on Fafner, Grendel, and Tolkien's Dragon, Glaurung, of which we find the following description in Wikipedia:
"Glaurung was a very powerful and cunning dragon, and he at times used his abilities to achieve his desired ends without resorting to direct physical violence (at which he was equally proficient). Glaurung appears to have been more cunning than Gothmog, a contemporary in the hierarchy of Morgoth. Like Sauron, another of his contemporaries, it was his nature to trick and deceive, and to spread lies and deceptions so cleverly that they could not be discovered until it was too late. In this manner, he accomplished much more damage than he could have with brute force, and caused the destruction of the Elven stronghold of Nargothrond and the suicide of mankind's greatest hero to date, Túrin Turambar. He caused amnesia in Túrin's sister Nienor, and since neither recognized the other when they met (Nienor was born after Túrin had left home), she eventually married her brother. Glaurung himself was slain by Túrin's blade Gurthang before he committed suicide.

Glaurung was called Father of Dragons. It is not known with certainty, but it is largely suspected that he sired the rest of his race (or at least of his own sub-species, the Úruloki: wingless firebreathing dragons). He was bred by Morgoth from some unknown stock and was the first dragon to appear outside of Angband. This first appearance occurred during the Siege of Angband in 265 (First Age), when he came forth to attack, but too early because he was still young and immature. He was defeated and driven back to Angband by mounted Elven archers.

After the sack of Nargothrond, he made a nest of treasure in the abandoned tunnels of the city. It is likely that he is the dragon that appears in Tolkien's poem "The Hoard" in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, which seems to be based on the events at Nargothrond. The memory of Glaurung lives on in the many creatures that he apparently sired."
Now this here is what I call a Dragon's Dragon(!), fit for the kind of world that I'm interested in weaving Adventures for. I've grown rather fond of the concept that the Greater Monsters (the ancient Dragons, Trolls, and Balrogs, etc) of Elthos are *very* serious beings indeed, meant not at all as fodder or foils for Player Characters, but instead they are the creations of the All-Mighty Elkron (the deities of Elthos, whom, as suggested, *rarely* make any kind of visible appearance in the World directly), and are as such powerful, mystical, and often exceedingly cunning.

That said, I should note that I do not typically run a campaign where player characters go running off to slay dragons! No, no! Far from it. Just the opposite, in fact. The PCs in the adventures to date have been actually running in the other direction - down-sized to fight Tiny-Monsters! So far the PC's have been shrunk down to fingernail size (and sometimes smaller), wherein they've fought spiders and nearly perished in the attempt to rescue their friends from the webs; they met battalions of Ants whom they befriended (fortunately for them). In one adventure they had a sky battle in a makeshift leaf-boat named 'Sky Raft' that blew along on the breeze and eventually was tethered to ladybugs, against a Squadron of the Crimson Heart Mosquitoes (who have hypnotic pulsating eyes). They once got involved in a war between the Mice and the King of the Weasels which the mice lost, by the way, but during the battle of which our heroes rescued a fey princess from the Weasel King's Fortress of Stone, so all was not lost.

You'll notice these adventures had a rather fairytale-ish aspect. Other adventures have included a trip to the land of the giants from which several children on a giant's hearth-shelf were found frozen with terror and rescued. Then there was the visit to the under sea kingdom of the Nyriad Queen, with whom one Player Character fell in love, but then lost her, and now wanders in search of her. Then there was the trip to the enchanted forest where they fought fey riding wolves, and finally made their way to the Tower of the White Wizard... and so on.

You can see from these examples that the stories are fanciful, even playful, and have as yet not touched upon the ancient darker things, the ancient races of the world, their wars, or their dread doings. Those are but whispered rumors, and that's pretty much as I think it should be for the time being. Some day, perhaps, when the PC's achieve high enough levels they may be tempted to plumb the Stygian depths far beneath the surface realms of the Celestial Island, and they may be in for truly shuddering experiences.

I admit, I’m probably a little overly fond of the idea, and that I open myself to the possibility of pretension, but I do very much like the idea that the Elthos World is a creation that stands on it's own as a literary work in it's own right, whether players engage in it or not. I feel that players in Elthos ought to have the impression that they are far from the primary forces in the world, that the world does not revolve around them and what they may do, but rather that the World has powers and beings which are as great as they are immutable, as are the Elkron, the Celestials and Archetypes of Elthos. Time has shown me that the PCs, as much as I love them, are much more transitory than the Golden Kingdom of Oswald, or the Dungeons of the Black Emperor, or the Mad-Halls of the Necromancer on the edge of the Serpentine Forest where the poison barbed arrows of the Scything Centaurs slay men with but the thinnest grazing. Or the Long Corridors of the Ant Men, or the dark Jungle Caves of the Tarantula Priests. I am inclined to believe that this aspect of Elthos, this underlying "reality", and my refusal to give way to the leaping fancies and impetuous whims of my players, or my own, lends Elthos the desired solidity and depth, providing those who adventure therein what I hope is the best chance at actually ‘going somewhere far away' and ‘uncovering hidden mysteries’ when they play. I am working in that direction and feel somehow that in so doing I am creating the kind of world that I and my players may enjoy at greater depth and with greater relish than what I think is the common fare for adventure gaming. It is not enough for me to run a world in which the primary activity is to "Kill the Orcs and Take Their Stuff". My aspirations are higher than that. I'm trying to achieve a more literary quality experience for myself and my players. My hope in the long run is to achieve a World from which works of literary merit may be written. It is a fanciful dream, I know, but then again, I believe that our Mythopoeia can provide true inspiration, and so I am intent on trying my best and seeing where it shall lead.

The effort in this direction is the subject and goal of the Literary Role Playing Game Society of Westchester (LRPGSW) for those who may be interested in this aspect of Gamesmastering.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Mystic Sight-Stone of Juliette Bellowick

When Juliette Bellowick came into possession of the Mystic Sight Stone from Black Hill Tower she did not imagine that one day it would replace her own eye... the one she sacrificed to escape from the River of Death with Pamela McFearson.   Now, however, it has become a part of her, and with it she sees through rock and stone, capturing the essense of that which is, and when she does, the double spiral pattern glows with an eerie red fire.   Those who know her well fear it not, but the enemies of Minvar, that mightly Celestial Elkron of the Golden Sheaf, have good cause to fear.  What she beholds through it, only she alone knows...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Black Hill Tower 1 - Game Notes

Outside of Glendale Valley there is to the East a region of land that is largely unexplored. Very far into this region, beyond the far limits of Hamfest Village there is a lonesome trail that leads up through the hills into the Black Forest. There one may find the Green Dragon Inn, and beyond that higher up into the mountains one may find the logging camp of the Highland Lumberjacks. They're the ones who have encamped the furthest east of anyone, and beyond that region of the forest even they are disinclined to venture. For the few that have gone further upward into the Mountains of the Black Forest have never returned. But recently a young and pretty little priestess of Minvar, Morgana Feyton, fell in with a man by the name of Mr. Montague, who whisked her away far up into the mountains to an ancient ruin named the Tower of Black Hill Forest. This place has been hidden by ages of time until the tower itself can hardly be seen for all of the overgrowth of vegetation which covers it. Down one side of the Tower descends a great Ivy which the aphid people call The Great Ivy Way, and at the top of which they have, hidden in the center of a stone block among those of the tower's parapet, is the Temple of the Aphids in which lives the Holy One of the Aphids. It is to this place that the 'Steel Wool Sheeps' Adventure Group journeyed to save Morgana from Mr. Montague, and it is at the base of the tower where he died, and was swept away by the Great Black Bird.

Along the Great Ivy Way there are branches and leaves which lead into the tiny kingdoms of the Insect Lords. These places are largely unknown and unfathomable by ordinary men. But the 'Steel Wool Sheeps' have come to know of them, and have made friends among the Princes of those strange, yet familiar, Kingdoms. And it is in these Kingdoms that decisions are made that effect the course of events for the whole world - unknown, and unfathomable to ordinary men as this may be. And it should be said that the Elkron themselves, those Mighty Celestials of the Outer and Inner Worlds, take notice of the events in the tiny Insect Kingdoms. And they may, at times, put their hands upon the events therein.

Upward in the Kingdoms of Men there is little notice of the aphids toiling among the leaves of their vines and flowers, nor of the ants that rove among them, nor the ladybugs that fly from tree to tree... but the Elkron know... and so do the 'Steel Wool Sheeps'... to some degree...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Strangly Coincidental News

This News Just In...

"Australia's Darling river is running with water again after a drought in the middle of the decade reduced it to a trickle. But the rains feeding the continent's fourth-longest river are not the undiluted good news you might expect. For the cloudbursts also create ideal conditions for an unwelcome pest – the Australian plague locust.

The warm, wet weather that prevailed last summer meant that three generations of locusts were born, each one up to 150 times larger than the previous generation. After over-wintering beneath the ground, the first generation of 2010 is already hatching. And following the wettest August in seven years, the climate is again perfect. The juveniles will spend 20 to 25 days eating and growing, shedding their exoskeletons five times before emerging as adults, when population pressure will force them to swarm.

It is impossible to say how many billions of bugs will take wing, but many experts fear this year's infestation could be the worst since records began – 75 years ago. All that one locust expert, Greg Sword, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, would say was: "South Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria are all going to get hammered."

A one-kilometre wide swarm of locusts can chomp through 10 tons of crops – a third of their combined body weight – in a day. The New South Wales Farmers Association said an area the size of Spain was affected and the Government of Victoria alone forecasts A$2bn (£1.2bn) of damage.

Though locusts move slowly when the sun's up, at night they can fly high and fast, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres. "A farmer can go to bed at night not having seen a grasshopper all year and wake up in the morning to find his fields full of them," said Professor Sword.

All locusts are grasshoppers, but not all grasshoppers are locusts. The difference is a suite of genetic changes that kick in when population densities cross a critical threshold. In some species, they produce physical transformations – the desert locust of North Africa goes from green to black and yellow, for example – but the Australian plague locust merely reprogrammes its behaviour, from solitary to gregarious.

Swarms probably make use of the available food more efficiently as the leading edge is constantly pushing forwards into new vegetation. It may be fear more than hunger, however, that drives the locusts.

Locusts are highly cannibalistic, says Professor Sword, and any that stay still too long are likely to get nibbled. "Swarms are like lifeboats," he says, forging a gruesome metaphor. "If you're the only one in the boat, you could easily starve. But if you've got lots of company, you could be the last to survive. We call it travelling with your lunch."

Coincidence ... or ... ?

hmmmm... sometimes news from the real world intersects strangely with an RPG World. This is one of those cases. Those of you following along with Juliette and Storm Wizard of the 'Steel Wool Sheeps' Adventure Group in the Elthos Play Test Campaign will know what I mean.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Magic: Fireballs vs. The Mystic Journey

A couple of questions that come to mind when thinking about magic in Role Playing Games from a Gamesmaster's perspective.

A) In many Fantasy Role Playing games (and fantasy films) magic is often a display of directed energy, transmutation, or transmigration. For example, we often see wizards flying, casting fireballs and lightning bolts, and polymorphing themselves into other forms, all of which is common fare for RPGs and modern fantasy films. I think of this as "Special Effects Magic", which is to say, Magic whose purpose appears to be to make for dramatic visual displays that "shock and awe" the audience.

However, there is another kind of magic possible and from our readings of literature we can see hints of it. One excellent example is the Finnish Poem 'The Kalevala' wherein we learn of the great Wizard, Old and Truthful, Wainamoinen. In this ancient tale of primordial sorcery coming out of the northern tundras of Lapland we learn of the ways in which men and Gods were once believed to use magic. There is a shamanistic aspect to these mystical adventures, and there are layers of meaning embedded in the tales. I wonder how could we as Gamesmasters incorporate the magic of the Inuit Indians, for example, or the ancient magical style of Medea and Circe? What of the less "magical" magic of herblore, poisons, and alchemy? And most interestingly, how might magic in the tale of Wainamoinen demonstrate how magic might be used not so much as an effect, but as an element of the mystic journey?

B) How does magic reflect the symbolism hidden within a story? What is the nature of correspondences between say the Constellation Leo, the Sun, Apollo, Music, Healing and Apollo's Plaguing Arrows? How might a Gamesmaster set about understanding these correspondences in order to evolve a 'larger' story within their game?

Just some questions posed as food for thought for those who might find an interest in thinking about such things. For my game I like to try to make magic more subtle than what I usually find in the common lot of RPGs and fantasy films. Of course, I have fire bolts, and lightning arrows, which from a game perspective are important. However, I also like to include more subtle forms of magic into my game world wherever possible. You might notice these kinds of effects in the Play Test Stories I've been posting. Especially, I think, in the next one that I will be posting based on last weeks game. In this segment I will be illustrating a more subtle kind of magic that is used way down in the Tiny-World of the Insect Kingdom. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Down the Spider Hole – Part 2

From his position in the lead, Laraby found that by the torchlight he thought he could see that the tunnel through the webs lead into a darker tunnel which seemed to exit the cavern on the far side, about sixty paces beyond where they were. He made his way cautiously toward it, everyone following behind him in a slow moving line. Everything was flickering torchlight, dancing shadows, and echoes of the terrible chitterling.

Laraby suddenly cried out, “There was something! I saw something! It was in the shadows! But now… now it’s gone! Where is it?! Where!?”

When she heard this, Juliette decided she should move forward, as her mystic eye allowed her to see better than anyone else. Again she noticed that seeing through the webbing was more difficult than she thought it should be. Magic, she thought.

Laraby was starting to panic. He was shaking, and his lips began to turn an odd bluish color.

“It’s ok Laraby. Keep going,” said Juliette encouragingly. “We’re here behind you. Did I tell you that Minvar killed a mosquito?”

“That’s great…”, Laraby called back shakily. Suddenly Juliette saw a black shape hovering in the webs over Laraby’s head. She decided it would not be good to panic him, so she held her tongue. The black mass suddenly fell, and Laraby, due to his great instincts, stepped backwards just in time for it to fall where he had been standing and land with a dull thud on the ground. It was a large hairy spider about the size of a small dog, with eight black eyes, and two black fangs glistening. Juliette called upon the great Elkron Minvar to strike down the hideous spider, and at that moment a rock fell from the ceiling and crushed the spider, it’s long black legs writhing beneath the gray stone.

The chitterling in the cave became more incessant, and louder.

“See Laraby, that wasn’t so bad!” said Storm Wizard unconvincingly as he darted his eyes in every direction.

The party forged ahead slowly, Brian holding the torch over his head, providing a flickering light for everyone. They came to a web-shrouded tunnel, which extended away into darkness. They followed it. The air was cold and dank, and a mist clung to the ground. The chitterling was incessant and horrible.

They entered into another black cavern, covered in dangling white webs, but on the far side they could see a light streaming through. They approached the light rapidly. They could see an exit from the cave, and everyone crowded towards it. Storm Wizard, who was at that point, was toward the rear, backed into something soft, wet and yielding. He slowly turned around and found that he’d backed into a large mass of round objects, glistening in a silky cocoon. Each one looked like a gelatinous ball about the size of a grapefruit, inside of which he could dimly see black shapes, which wriggled and writhed chillingly. At that moment a large black spider, dropped down from the ceiling.

This spider was much larger than the first one, and it’s black fangs dripped with green venom. Immediately Ferdinando leapt forward and thrust his sword into it. The creature was not phased, and appeared to take little notice. Juliette summoned her Kung Fu spirit, and attempted to use her power to kick the horrid thing. However, her attack fumbled badly, and she not only missed it, but instead stomped the ground so hard that a clod of dust flew into the air and temporarily obscured Ferdinando’s vision. He staggered back. As this was happening Storm Wizard had taken out his dagger and had stabbed one of the glistening balls, piercing the fist sized creature inside. It was a baby spider, and it died writhing on the end of his dagger. He thrust another one. And a third.

Meanwhile, the spider jumped suddenly at Ferdinando’s leg and bit into it, sinking his black fangs deep into his thigh, injecting green poison into the wound. Isabella ran forward as Ferdinando fell backwards into her arms.

“Ferdinando! My dear Ferdinando!” she cried out as he staggered backwards with her, the wound on his leg already beginning to turn black, and pulsate with a dreadful fiery agony. Morgana ran to him, and Isabella and she drained the wound as quickly as they could, while Isabella reached into her cloak for a small bag in which she had an array of useful potions.

The spider continued it’s furious rampage. The fighters tried to kill it, and Juliette called once more upon Minvar’s great power. But her strength was depleted, and the monster was not destroyed. The spider leapt onto Brian and sank his fangs into Brian’s arm. He fell backwards and Morgana ran to him and called upon her patron Elkron.

“Oh Minvar, we’ve called upon you in our distress these many times, but take pity on our friend, and heal his terrible wound,” she prayed. It was a few moments later that Brian began to feel the pain ebb from his arm, and the wound, though still a sickening black color, stopped growing. He began to breath, and slumped into Morgana’s arms.

The heroes, angry and frustrated to be so close to the entrance and escape, yet so far, hacked away at the spider from every side. Daniel and Laraby thrust at it, kicked it, and hacked it with their weapons until the horrid thing fell inert to the ground, finally. Light was streaming through into the cave from a small opening above their heads.

Ferdinando was being tended to by Isabella, who had taken out a glass vial and poured some of its contents into the wound. She then gave some of the potion to Brian, who accepted it gratefully, though he did not know what it was. He began to murmer to himself, and he appeared to be suffering greatly, despite the fact that his wound was substantially healed.

“It’s a deadly poison, I’m afraid,” said Isabella. “This potion will help to stabililize them so that they will not die immediately, but we must get them someplace where they can be properly healed. I fear they shall suffer from delusions soon,” she said, wiping the sweat from Ferdinando’s forehead.

“Will they be able to walk?” asked Juliette.

“For a time, yes, but the potion will not last very long before the symptoms become more severe,” she concluded gloomily. "Oh my poor Ferdinando!" she said dabbing his forehead with her handkerchief.

The members of the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ adventure group clambered out of the dreadful cave into the sunlight. They found themselves directly under the twig upon which the Red Locust Ambassador, Emmanuel, had taken up his position. They could see him above them. Isabella, who had been closest to the exit, stepped outside first. She shrieked, and staggered backwards momentarily. Over head, a deep droning sound could be heard as the mosquito launched itself into the air. The pulsating of green and red light could be seen reflecting off of her eyes. She stood up slowly.

“Yes, my master. I come to you now,” said Isabella with a vacant and empty look in her eyes. She began to walk forward, her hands raised in the air in front of her. Ferdinando gasped and reaching up tried to stand, but staggered against the wall of the cave.

“Noo!” he cried out. “My lady!” and then he fell back against the wall and began to sob burying his head in the crook of his arm. "Nooo... anything but That! nooo!"

Juliette, infuriated, summoned from her dwindling power another prayer to Minvar, calling for yet one more Divine Strike against the hypnotic mosquito, hoping to free Isabella from his dreadful power. However, the prayer was too weak, and Minvar did not hear. Storm Wizard stepped forward in an attempt to stun the monster with his mystic beam, but he could not obtain a clean line of sight from where he was.

“I am coming, Master,” said Isabella dully as she walked beneath the hovering mosquito.

Brian, though wounded, and perhaps because he was delirious from the poison, leapt forward and grabbed Isabella, dragging her back toward the heroes who were crouching in the shadow of the giant twig. Fortunately, Brian’s moving forward gave Storm Wizard the opening he needed and so he chanted and pointed his hands and from them emanated a narrow beam of purple light, striking the mosquito in the face, and causing it to fall unconscious to the ground. Isabella, freed from the mosquito’s power, came back to herself.

“You saved my life”, she said to Storm Wizard.

Everyone looked around into the sky. Above them on the twig stood Emanuel who was waving his arms and making his strange high pitched humming sound, summoning and commanding the mosquitoes. They spotted three mosquitoes immediately in the air around them, and other mosquitoes further off heading in their direction. They counted five within visual range.

“We can’t outrun them. If our choice is to run or hide, our safest bet is to hide,” said Storm Wizard.

“But there is no place to hide … except … in the cave!” yelled Juliette frantically.

“Indeed. In fact, that may well be the safest place.”

“That’s just great,” said Juliette. “But I think you’re right.”

“The other alternative is to pile on Emanuel,” said Storm Wizard.

“Mosquitoes are only out a few hours per day,” pointed out Juliette. “We could wait them out.”

“Of course, that may not be true for mosquitoes being controlled by an angry Locust Ambassador,” responded Storm Wizard.

“I have a feeling that waiting out the mosquitoes is not going to happen. Our best chance, I suspect, is to knock out Locust Boy," he said.

“And then?” asked Juliette desperately.

“And then the Silver Locust Prince can send the mosquitoes away,” replied Storm Wizard.

“Ok, then go ahead and stun him!” ordered Juliette.

“I will,” replied Storm Wizard. Everyone climbed back into the dark cave as the mosquitoes began to bear down on their position. Laraby, meanwhile, had run forward with the silver sword of the Red Locust Ambassador, in the hope to stab the unconscious mosquito through the heart so it would die, but his luck was stretched too thin, and another mosquito had come far too close for comfort. So, he made his way back into the cave without slaying the unconscious monster, where the others were cowering in various states of discomfort, fear and anxiety. There they found the Silver Prince, observing them with a wry smile on his face. He evidently found all of the proceedings rather amusing, though none of the adventurer’s could quite discern why. Insect humor is quite different from our own, one might suppose.

“How long do you think it will take for your brother to get bored of waiting?” asked Storm Wizard of the smirking Prince.

“He won’t,” was the unfavorable reply.

”Well, how long before he gets hungry?” asked Juliette.

“Ah, well that’s another matter entirely. He is bound to be ravenous any time now,” replied the Rohar, Silver Prince.

“Well, we fed him pretty well before we tied him up.”

“When you say, ‘pretty well’, what do you mean?”

“Oh, well he ate a few tables, and a few chairs, along with all the food in the Aphid Hall,” replied Storm Wizard.

“Ah well, that’s too bad then,” said Rohar.

“I’m so HUNGRY. I wish I had food to eat!”, yelled Juliette out of the mouth of the cave. “Some yummy green plants would be so GOOD right now!” However, her effort was in vain, as Emanuel was not yet hungered, and so he paid no heed to her suggestions.

Instead he called down into the cave, “I have you surrounded. You will never escape!”

Storm Wizard crept up to the mouth of the cave, and stepping forward he chanted his mystic spell, and pointing his finger up at Emanuel, he caught him on the side of the head with a stun beam. How annoyed Emanuel was as he fell unconscious would be hard to describe. But there he lay, inert, unconscious, his antennae twitching slightly.

“We have about thirty seconds before he wakes up again. We might be able to make a run for it,” said Storm Wizard.

“I could assume command of the mosquitoes which would give you a chance to flee, but I must be in the open air commanding them,” offered Rohar.

“That won’t help us. We need you or your brother to come with us to the human lands.”

“We need to grow up again”, said Juliette.

“Well how can we grow again? Last time we climbed down the Great Ivy Way. Would that work again?”

“Well how did we get small this time?” thought Storm Wizard out loud. “Well, … we used the red pearl.”

“The red pearl? Great Minvar! Why didn’t we think of that before?! We could have been grown up by now!”

“We can grow big again if we stand in a circle and I use the red pearl while we hold hands. That’s the way I think it works, isn’t it so, Isabella?”

“Yes, that is how you use it. We must all hold hands, but I’m afraid we can not try that inside the cave. By the time we grew large, but not large enough to push through the rocks, we’d be crushed. We have to do so out in the open air. Otherwise anything larger than we are will very likely crush us along the way. I should remind you, that it took about thirty seconds or so to grow small. It will take that long to grow large.”

“We could have avoided this whole nightmare, by growing large!” said Juliette with great exaspiration.

Outside, they heard the sound of a horn blast. Then they heard a horn reply from another direction somewhat further away.

Rohar leapt from the cave entrance to the top of the twig. He looked down at his sleeping brother and shook his head regretfully. He then looked around in the distance in every direction. Again the horn blasts sounded. Again horn blasts replied.

Deep in concentration Rohar commanded the mosquitoes to fly together and form into a squadron over his head. All of a sudden a black wasp with blue stripes came flying fast and low and zipped past the twig. Then another wasp flew past from another direction. At the same time, several grass blades began to sway, and upon them, from the entrance of the cave, the tiny heroes could see black ants climbing upward in Dectalions of ten. There were very many of them, forming an army along the towering green sward around them.

“My goodness! What is this?” exclaimed Juliette.

“These are the forces of the Insect King,” said Isabella. “He promised to send his Calvary, and they have arrived!”

Last Episode: Down the Spider Hole - Part 1
Next Episode: Insect War - Part 1

Down the Spider Hole – Part 1

At their tiny size the ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ stood barely tall enough to climb onto the back of an aphid. Having captured the Red Locust Ambassador, one of the human-ish Princes of the Locusts, and carried him down from the Temple of the Aphids into the towering grass blade forest at the base of the ruined Tower on Black Hill, the tiny adventurers found themselves suddenly beset by a new threat. Onto one of the grass blades high over their heads leapt another brawny Locust-Prince, this one of silver hue, wearing silver armor, and with the same strange oblong locust eyes and antennae.

In his anger at being told by the Red Ambassador that they had been betrayed by the High Holy Aphid, the newly arrived Silver Locust Prince began to transform from his Grasshopper form into the dread Locust form entirely. His muscles began to bulge and glisten, his features sharpen and glint in the bright sun, and his face began to take on an ominous hostility toward the band of tiny heroes. Though he was the same size as they, if the great difficulties in capturing the Red Locust Ambassador were any indication, the Silver Prince would be a formidable foe, one not to be taken at all lightly.

“The boat appears to have sailed on being able to handle this diplomatically,” said Storm Wizard to his friends. “Though I suppose it would not do any harm to give it one final try before we gear up for what will prove to be a hard battle, I think we best prepare ourselves for the worst,” he concluded grimly.

“I agree,” said Juliette, girding herself up for combat.

“The Wise Aphid did not betray you,” Storm Wizard shouted up to the Silver Prince high above. “We were merely bringing this individual in as a witness in an important matter.”

“It’s a lie!” shouted the Red Ambassador.

“He would not come with us, so we had no choice but to attack him,” concluded Storm Wizard curtly. His friends all stood behind him nodding affirmatively.

The Silver Prince was getting more irate by the second. He leapt from the grass blade he was on, to a closer one, towering directly overhead.

“A little help?” said Storm Wizard to Juliette.

“A little help with what? What am I supposed to do?” she asked in return, entirely perplexed as to what might sooth the savage heart of the Silver Locust Prince.

“I don’t know,” replied Storm Wizard. “Help me convince him that he doesn’t have to fight us.”

“This man here (who we’ve tied up) has some serious issues going on right now. He’s very angry, and people when they’re angry don’t always say exactly what they mean, and can have altered perceptions of a situation. So please hear what my brother has to say!” yelled Juliette up to the Silver Locust-man, who appeared to be restraining himself in order to listen to her.

“I am … listening,” he said through grit teeth.

“We have no intention of harming this individual. We merely need him to testify for us,” shouted Storm Wizard upward, “as to a matter that is entirely true.”

The Silver Prince cocked his head to the side.

“If you were willing to testify in place of him, we would be able to let him go,” offered Juliette.

“What testimony are you looking for?” asked the Silver Prince.

“That the locusts are coming,” said Storm Wizard.

“Ah. I see,” replied the Silver Locust Prince, seeming somewhat amused by this. “But truth be known, that question is undecided.”

“So you say,” said Storm Wizard. “But isn’t it the case that you have come as Ambassadors to warn us that if we do not help you to take all of the food from the kingdom of the Ants, allowing them to perish by starvation, that you will come with your Grand United Army and destroy us all?”

“Aha! So that is what you’ve been up to Emmanuel,” the Silver Prince said to the Red Ambassador.

“It is for the good of the people, and to save the land!’ shouted the Red Locust up to the Silver Prince.

“Good for which people? Do not the people of this land have an equal right to live?” asked Storm Wizard of the Red Ambassador. But he retreated into a stormy silence, brooding and hostile.

“Grasshoppers are known as heroes of the Insect Kingdom. Are you going to aid in an untimely destruction, or are you going to stand for Justice?”

The Silver Locust Prince looked down. “You must free my brother, the Red Ambassador.”

“Will you help us bring him to where we need to take him?”


“Will you bring yourself?” asked Juliette.


“I will lay our cards on the table. We need to convince our countrymen that the locusts are coming. Will you help us?” asked Storm Wizard.

“You have no choice,” said the Silver Prince. “You will release my brother.”

“Does this mean you will not help us?” asked Storm Wizard.

“It does not mean that. It means that you will release my brother now.”

“If we release him now will you help us?” asked Juliette.


“I think we better do it,” whispered Juliette to Storm Wizard.

“We will release him because we know Grasshoppers such as yourself are honorable creatures. And I know that since we are being cooperative, you will return the favor,” said Storm Wizard trying to sound convinced by his own logic.

Laraby untied the first of the knots, and suddenly Emanuel burst out his bonds and leapt high into the air onto the grass blade where his brother was situated. The two whispered with each other. The Red Ambassador was ranting about something to his brother. The Silver Locust Prince again began to grow irate.

Then, the Silver Prince leapt down to where the adventurers stood, while Emanuel leapt onto the top a nearby twig.

“Might I ask your name, sir?” asked Isabella after a moment of silence.

“I am Rohar, The Silver Prince,” said he. “And you, I understand from my spies, are Isabella of the Ladybug People.”

“You are well informed,” she replied.

“I hope you will consider assisting us,” said Juiliette.

“Explain to me what you are doing,” said he.

“We need to convince… “, began Storm Wizard, but then changed the course of his speech. “Essentially your brother asked the aphids to tell the king a lie, to say that the ants had stolen the locust’s food, and that they should return it. The holy aphid of course refused to tell a lie. And so according to your bother the locusts are going to come here and kill everyone. We do not want this to happen, and so we want to gain the help of the humans to help us avert the situation.”

“What can the humans do to avert this situation?” asked the Silver Prince with a scoffing laugh.

“Well, perhaps the humans can obtain some food of their own to help the locusts. We haven’t thought that far ahead yet. But at the very least we can make the humans aware and perhaps their council will aid us.”

“But they will not believe us unless we have some proof.”

“And so the locust man would serve as our proof.”

“Well, I have to say, I understand your desire. I also have to say that you are in great danger here. I would leave here if I were you.”

“Danger from what?”

“From Emanuel.”

“Perhaps we could leave together," suggested Juliette hopefully.

“We can not leave without our proof,” pointed out Storm Wizard.

“Then I will leave with you,” agreed the Silver Prince. He then put his hands to cup his mouth and made a strange sounding whistle-hum, which was rather loud and made the grass blades around them vibrate. “I have bought you a little bit of time. But we must move quickly.”

As the adventurers began to turn to leave the area, Emanuel also cupped his mouth and made another sound, which was higher pitched, and equally loud.

“What is he doing?” asked Juliette.

“I suspect he is calling allies,” said Storm Wizard nervously.

“Indeed, so he is," said the Silver Prince.

And at that moment the adventurers began to hear a distant hum which grew louder and louder.

“Lets get out of here – right now!” said Juliette, fear suddenly coursing through her.

It was too late. Isabella pointed upward into the sky and shouted, “Oh no! Look!”

Over the tops of the towering emerald grass blades they beheld a frightening site. It was a mosquito, who compared with them was the size of a horse. It had great huge wings, long dangling black legs, and a terrifying proboscis that ended in a sharp serrated barb. Most terrible of all were its glowing eyes, which pulsated red, then green, then red, then green in a steady rhythm, which they all found difficult to look away from.

The ‘Steel Wool Sheeps’ desperately yanked their eyes away and looked around for a place to hide. Not in the far distance there was a gray stone lying on the ground. It was gigantic compared with them, though if you found it you’d have thought it no larger than an almond. They made a mad dash for the stone, hoping to be able to hide behind it. As they ran, Isabella commanded the the ladybug that they had flown down on with the captured Red Locust Ambassador, to flee, and so the huge creature lofted clumsily into the air and fled away into the distance. Isabella and her blue-black warrior, Ferdinando, lead the way, followed by everyone else in the party.

When they arrived on the other side of the stone Morgana found a cave entrance leading into a tunnel, which vanished away into darkness beneath the stone. It was large enough for each of them to walk into, and formed a corridor that was one person wide, and tall enough for them to stand upright in. And so they ran into the tunnel, following downward into the darkness. Behind them at the entrance stood the Silver Prince, his huge oblong eyes shining, his two antennae twitching. He had drawn his sword and was looking into the sky behind them. The terrible drone of the mosquito could be heard as it approached the tunnel entrance. But the Silver Prince stood his ground and the horrific creature approached no further.

Into the darkness they ran. It became pitch dark. Only Juliette could see by virtue of her mystic eye-stone. But even her vision was thwarted in this dim place. So they stopped when they came to a small circular cave, and Brian took out a torch and lit it. The walls of the cave were covered in a thin shimmering sheen of spider webs. Moss dangled from the ceiling and the air was chill. Out of the cave they saw another tunnel leading further downward. They followed that tunnel until they came to another much broader cave that opened into a small cavern. This cavern was covered with a thick sheen of spider webs, through which there formed a single narrow tunnel. It was quite terrifying to behold.

“I think that fighting a spider is probably better than taking on the mosquitoes,” said Juliette, as the others began to look longingly behind them. She noticed that she could not see very far though the spider webs, even with the light of the torch and the power of her mystical eye. The webs must be magical, she thought to herself.

Since Juliette was not in the front of the group, she could still just barely see upward through the ground to the air outside, and saw that there were several mosquitoes aloft above them. She called upon Minvar, the Divine Elkron of the Earth, to strike down one of the Mosquitoes outside of the cave entrance. Minvar heard her plea, and so the mosquito suddenly felt the heavy hand of Minvar upon his wings, and he fell to the ground, and his wings broke, and his neck snapped, and so Minvar slew him.

The rest of the adventurers forged ahead, having surmised that Juliette’s powers were not unlimited, and that there were too many mosquitoes above for them to tackle with any hope of victory. Into the webs they cautiously proceeded. Laraby picked his way through the white tangle, and used some oil to try to burn the webs. However, they resisted the fire since they were fresh, and not dry. He then tried to cut the webs with his dagger, but the result was less than encouraging. After some effort he managed to cut through one thick strand of webbing. They then heard a chitterling sound coming from within the dark cavern. It was a horrifying sound. Laraby began to feel a great dread. He could not see anything in the flickering torchlight, but he thought he saw shadows moving within the veils of web all around him. The short hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and suddenly broke out in a cold sweat. He felt as if he were standing ankle deep in freezing black water.

“I think I see something!” called Laraby to his friends behind him. Storm Wizard came up from behind to back Laraby up. Putting a hand on his shoulder he noticed that Laraby was shaking. Isabella commanded her warrior Ferdinando to go ahead and help the man make his way through the webs.

“Yes, my lady,” said the blue-black clad warrior, and he went forward with his steel bladed rapier held at the ready before him. He too approached the danger with some trepidation. Morgana hid behind Brian, and Daniel unsheathed his sword and put a protective arm over Isabella who was cowering next to him. The chiterling sounds echoed throughout the cavern.

“I’m stuck in the web!” shouted Laraby as his arm became ensnared in the sticky white threads. Ferdnando came to his side and cut through the webbing, but in the process his rapier became stuck in the webs. Laraby then withdrew the fine silver sword that he had taken from the Red Locust Ambassador after they had knocked him unconscious in the battle of the Aphid Temple. It was a fine sharp sword, longer than most, and in the torchlight he could see that it had an inlay of silver script along the blade. Even he, however, could not recognize the letters of that dazzling weapon. Yet with it in his hand he felt a renewed courage, and so he forged ahead, the party of adventurer’s following close behind him in a line through the tunnel that was formed by the sticky cloud of ghostly white webs.

Last Episode: Battle of the Aphids - Part 2
Next Episode: Down the Spider Hole - Part 2

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Back Story vs. Players

There is an old military adage by Carl von Clausewitz that states "No plan survives contact with the enemy". Gamesmasters the world over know that this principal is also true for back story development of RPG Worlds, and can be stated as follows: "No back story survives contact with the Players". This is particularly true when you are playing in "Sandbox" mode, which means the Gamesmaster endeavours to provide the Players with the ability to go anywhere in the world and do anything they can think of. The ideal often turns out to be shockingly unlike the reality. What happens? Well, Players do the damnedest things.

A typical (albeit hypothetical) example is when the Gamesmaster has created a trap in a dungeon complex designed by the Antagonist NPC that the Player Characters encounter. The Players have Characters who have sufficient skill to discover and disarm the trap. The back story has it that the villainous dungeon maker intends to keep people out of his precious dungeon and safeguard its treasures. So he devises a trap that makes sense for that purpose. The Players, however, don't quite catch on to the fact that the dungeon before them could be trapped. They trot in like a troop of prancing ponies ready to conquer and loot. They forget that the thief character is there for a reason because they're so excited about getting at the monsters and the loot. So they dance into the corridors and lo - the trap is sprung and someone 'gets it'. Maybe even the whole group 'gets it'. Well, at least according to the dratted trap design which made so much sense in the back story.

And that's the rub. The Gamesmaster was expecting the Players to remember that they have a thief for a reason, but they forgot. Woopsie. And so what happens? Instead of a minor event where the thief was sent ahead and smartly found and removed the trap, gaining experience and saving the party from disaster, the Players forgot, and suddenly the trap is sprung. Dice are rolled, the damage is bad. If the trap was deadly, as logically, given the back story, it should be, then the damage is very bad. And moreover the story, instead of being fun and exciting, becomes a dead end of hopeless carnage.

The problem of course is that the Gamesmaster is in a bad spot. The choices are as follows:

1) the villains never come up with particularly deadly traps.
2) the particularly deadly trap doesn't quite work as designed when sprung.
3) the Gamesmaster hints to the Players until someone remembers to send the thief in first.
4) the Gamesmaster fudges the roll so the damage isn't too bad and the story isn't ruined.
5) the Gamesmaster lets the Players forget the thief, spring the trap and allows the story to end in tragedy.

None of these options is very great. What is greater, from a Story perspective, is when the Players play smart, and remember the thief, and save their party from disaster. However, one could argue that in the real world people are not that smart and a lot of expeditions have ended in tragedy because someone forgot something important like sending the thief forward to search for traps. And thus, it's ok for the story to end tragically because - well, sh*t happens, and a sudden horrible end can be amusing in it's own right. Some Players however may disagree. Of course.

It should also be noted that in this example the thief not being sent forward might have not been an oversight or forgetfulness at all. It could be because in a previous encounter they were attacked from the rear, for example, and so they decided very deliberately to avoid this by having the thief stationed at the back where he can listen for encroaching enemies. One thief, they point out, can not be on guard in two places at the same time.

The Gamesmaster is in a bad spot anyway. When you create a World you want to design it in such a way so that the back story makes sense. You don't want to be constrained to saying "My villains are universally idiots who can not plan a decent trap". You don't want to fake-out that the trap is broken because it doesn't make sense for the back story either - what is the point of having clever villains who parenthetically can't implement a trap correctly so that the Player Characters can still win when they went ahead and made a bad decision (in the context of this particular scene), or worse, forgot. You also during play don't want to give the Players 'hints' about what they *should* be doing because in some sense it ruins the fun. The reason being that it is a lot more fun when the Players make smart moves that save themselves from disaster, than being hinted at, cajoled, and otherwise pampered into making the "better choice". Of course the Gamesmaster could fudge the roll. And this, I think, is the most common response to the situation. If the roll doesn't "feel right", the Gamesmaster hides the roll, and decides against it. Or rolls again without explaination taking the second roll. For some, however, this won't work because in many games the Gamesmaster rolls everything above the table, with the odds sited before each roll. I play that way in my game because it's more fair, and lets the Players know I'm not cheating. Some Gamesmasters, though, have no problem with the idea that cheating is not a vice in RPGs. No problem, but that doesn't work for everyone.

The last option is for the Gamesmaster to let the Players fail. Ouch. That, from a Story perspective can be the worst option. But from a Game perspective it can be the correct and best option. Later, with their next Characters the Players will play better, and smarter, having learned their lesson. Presumably.

So this leaves the question: what takes precidence, good story, or good gaming, in an RPG? Well, the answer to that can be either, depending on what the group values most. It can be that both are equally weighted. And one can not but notice that in some sense the gaming aspect can reflect upon the story aspect. This happens when the Players pay careful attention, think through what they are doing before they do it, maximize their chances of success to the degree their Characters would, and then act.

All in all, it comes down to the fact that Gamesmastering is a challenging art, and so is Playing. To wind up with a good Game AND a good Story is the challenge, and it requires smarts on everyone's part. Even the villain's.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Mr. Dwimbles, The Psychadelic Froggie

Once upon a time on a lilly-pad not far from The Great Ivy Way there lived a wondrous magical frog named Mr. Dwimbles.   He could see through into other dimensions, hop from plane to plane, and had lots of magical powers.  He was a very nice little frog and delighted in helping those in distress, or just to pass the time telling tall tales and drinking magical teas in Weeleena's lovely Tea House.  His best friend was Miss Banishaw, a very special little duck who lived in a little pond just around the bend.  She often made her way to the side of Black Hill tower to munch on the succulent grasses that happened to grow there.  And to visit with Mr. Dwimbles, of course.  Many a sunny afternoon was spent passing idle hours trading stories, and picking through the yummy tidbits they often found there.

Mr. Dwimbles, it should be said, was an adventurous frog and liked to wander far and wide to see whatever in the world he might.  And he saw many a strange thing on his journeys, indeed.  Once he came upon a tall mountain that sat on a dark old thunder cloud, upon which he found a great stone fortress in which lived a wicked old witch named Watho, the Storm Queen.   But that's a story for another day.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Fantastic Imagination

This article was written by George MacDonald, a member of the Inklings.
The natural world has its laws, and no man must interfere with them in the way of presentment any more than in the way of use; but they themselves may suggest laws of other kinds, and man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms--which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation. When such forms are new embodiments of old truths, we call them products of the Imagination; when they are mere inventions, however lovely, I should call them the work of the Fancy: in either case, Law has been diligently at work...
His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed...
George MacDonald in this article is talking about the creation of Imaginary Worlds, though in reference to the creation of Fairytales, of which he wrote some wonderful examples. I highly recommend reading the article as it provides some very good advice for Gamesmasters who might want to create Worlds that are works of Art. I also even more highly recommend reading George MacDonald's works, as he was a fantastic writer!