Monday, 15 July 2019

Play Report: The Clay That Woke

I had been curious about Paul Czege's The Clay That Woke for a long time, and a couple of weeks ago I finally got to play a session of it, run by Mikel Matthews on Gauntlet Hangouts. You can even watch the video if you like.

The Clay That Woke is a fascinating, deeply idiosyncratic game. The most obvious feature is the unique task resolution system. It involves putting various tokens into a pot, pulling out four of them, and interpreting them according to a chart to get the outcome of your task. This is really the only 'mechanic' in the game - at least, all the other mechanics flow into this token economy in some way.

The other key component of the game is the setting: a lush, strange, decadent city surrounded by jungle, in which players control minotaurs who form a sort of racial underclass doing menial tasks for humans. A lot of the setting's details are intimately woven into the mechanics. For example, the minotaurs' code of conduct governs how they lose 'Silence' tokens. When a minotaur runs out of Silence, they run wild and go into the jungle, where they can regain Silence - thus creating a natural rhythm between city and jungle scenes.

Because of these connections, it's hard to imagine reskinning the game for a different setting, or even modifying the default setting very much. This wouldn't work if it weren't for the fact that the default setting is extremely compelling. Normally when I read RPG setting material I am filled with ideas for how I would remix it for my own games. When reading The Clay That Woke I was instead filled with a desire to enter into Czege's vision exactly as he describes it.

I won't go into detail about all the events of the session I played. Suffice to say that there were two players and we were working at odds to each other. Often we weren't in the same scene together, but at the end we had a climactic confrontation that ended in both our minotaurs 'running wild' into the jungle.

The way the token-based resolution plays out is very interesting - not just because of the tokens themselves but also the text surrounding the moment of resolution. The book specifically tells you to "play deep into the scene" before drawing, and then to "use the draw as an oracle to inform you as you play out the rest of the scene". For example, during a fight scene, the GM and I worked semi-collaboratively in describing a few exchanges of blows; then we drew tokens that showed a bad result for my character; then we kept playing the scene, both of us angling towards depicting my failure.

This style of resolution feels more collaborative than a trad game of "player vs. GM", but also more concrete than the really loose storygames I've played like Fiasco or Final Girl. I found it helped me to get immersed in my character's internal thoughts in a way I haven't experienced before.

The other unusual thing about the game was that the PCs were often separated, so each player had a lot of 'downtime' spent listening and not playing. The game book specifically tells the GM to set up scenarios in this way. This is quite contrary to trad RPG advice that sees downtime as a negative, e.g. "Never split the party" "If someone dies, bring in their new character as soon as possible".

Czege has stated that this is an intentional choice to give players time to reflect on their character. Weirdly, this reminds me of James Young's blog post about running large groups, in which he states that he will split the party into two subgroups. "the main trick is this - get one group to a decision point where they can discuss what to do next, then switch to the other." Although they're very different play styles, the common thread is that downtime can be positive if the inactive player/s have something worth thinking about, instead of just sitting around waiting.

When I'm GMing, I definitely start to sweat when the party splits up and players are spending a lot of time waiting. In future I'll try to follow this rule of 'give them something to think about'. I wonder if the game mechanics could also support this in some way... perhaps if there was some minigame the players can pursue without input from the GM?

I could say more about The Clay That Woke but I'll wait until I get a chance to play more. In particular I'm curious about the jungle scenes, which we didn't get to in the single session I played.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Towards a High-Level Dungeon Crawl with Muta-Metal & Lumina

Heather Hudson

Muta-Metal: This metallic liquid responds to human thought. Concentrate and you can permanently shape it into whatever form you desire. One vial of muta-metal could become a grappling hook, a sword, a set of lockpicks, a roll of iron spikes, or even a wire cable extending up to 50'. It can be poured inside things and then hardened to form a seal (great for locking doors) and it can be magnetised. With several vials of muta-metal, it is possible to create improvised mechanisms, traps, tripwires and so on.

Muta-metal is available in most towns. It is prized by adventurers but shunned by common folk because of its transient nature: after a few days, the hardened muta-metal rusts away to nothing.

Design-wise, I hope this item will encourage creative play and improvisation, with less focus on pre-planning the characters' inventory. This may seem like a minor variation on the theme of 'Quantum Adventuring Gear' as seen in Dungeon World and various other games. However, I've found that Dungeon World's Adventuring Gear mechanic is generally used to handwave things that the play group isn't interested in. "Yeah, of course I have some rope." Muta-metal, on the other hand, presents itself not as a shortcut but as a toy; hopefully, it will encourage improvisation rather than skimming over it.

Pyeongjun Park

Lumina: True dungeons are not just holes in the ground; they are places where a foreign plane intersects with our own. The environment in such 'Dungeon Fields' is inimical to human life. Even when there is light to see by, the air is filled with a miasma that distorts and dims everything. In the face of this miasma, humans quickly sicken and die (or worse). The only thing that counteracts its effects is Lumina -- the eternal blue flame, given to humanity by the gods themselves.

Adventurers descend into the Dungeon Field with jars of Lumina to fuel their lanterns. While the flame lasts, it not only provides light but can also be used to ward off monsters and burn away corruption. but slowly the miasma wears the Lumina down, and snuffs each flame one by one.

Replacing torches with a magical flame makes their role in the game economy more explicit, while thematically moving things up the spectrum from low fantasy to high fantasy. Letting players expend Lumina to drive off monsters will make them more aware of how many they have left. The miasma offers a solution to the problem of "What to do if the PCs actually run out of light?" Instead of blundering around in the dark, the players are faced with a nightmarish gauntlet-run back to the surface, beset by monsters and by progressively worse penalties from miasma sickness.

These two items, along with the Alchemist from my last blog post, have been kicking around in my head as part of some hypothetical high-level anime-flavoured megadungeon. In each case I'm thinking about how to retain the fun elements of a hardscrabble OSR dungeon crawl, but with a different aesthetic.

Class: The Dungeon Alchemist

Atelier Ayesha
Here's a new class for D&D-adjacent gaming: an Alchemist of the type that commonly appears in JRPGs and anime. Whereas the historical alchemist can be found in dark laboratories trying to create gold out of lead, the JRPG alchemist spends their time wandering in dungeons, collecting monster parts and herbs, and brewing them into potions on the spot. Despite the prevalence of this trope, I haven't seen such a character written up for D&D (let me know if I'm wrong, though!)

The core concept of the class is that you will be hoarding random items and monster organs, then combining them haphazardly to create potions. When playing with this class you must use strict Encumbrance rules - ideally the simple 'Slots = Strength score' or even simpler 'Slots = 10' from the wonderfully terse Moonhop.
D. M. Cornish

Key to the class's balance is that your potions expire fairly quickly, so you will be forced to carry ingredients and only cook up a potion when you need one. The potion you get is semi-random, but there are ways to gain more control over the outcome.

Because the layout of the potion tables is key to the class's function, I present it here as a PDF and here as Word document so you can modify it if you want. This class has not been playtested so let me know how it goes if you use it.

I got a lot of potion ideas from Goblin Punch's Alchemy PDF and handwaved the durations of all the effects using Necropraxis' Hazard Die system.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Saturday, 29 June 2019

The Dungeon Delve as Repatriation Quest

I love old-school dungeon crawls. I love the simplicity of the setup and the endless variations that can come out of it. I love treasure as a universal motivator for PCs. But more and more I'm feeling a bit uncomfortable with the colonialist aesthetic that goes along with the traditional dungeon delve. The basic assumption is that the dungeon environment exists to be exploited by the player characters. Denizens of the dungeon might be attacked, robbed or allied with, but ultimately these are all just different strategies to achieve the goal of extracting wealth. The morality of extraction is neither questioned nor explicitly asserted; it is simply how things are.

A lot of old-school groups thread this moral needle by just running with the theme that the player characters are not good people. If you can enjoy the anti-heroic exploits of Jack Vance's Cugel or Umberto Eco's Baudolino, then why not play out such stories in a roleplaying game?

I don't see anything wrong with this approach, but I'm wondering if we could play legitimately righteous characters in a dungeon crawl setting, if we were to turn the whole premise on its head.

Say that some colonial empire--interdimensional unseelie elves, perhaps--has been laying waste to the PCs' homeworld for centuries. They have stolen the great treasures of the PCs' culture and locked them away in a vast and cruel fortress that sits on a crack between worlds. In recent years the empire has fallen into ruin and internecine warfare. The fortress stands half-abandoned, half-occupied by a variety of opposing factions.

The PCs come from a culture living in a state of occlusion. Large portions of their history have been erased by violence. They venture into the fortress not only to repatriate the physical artefacts of their culture, but also to rediscover their lost past.

Along the way, they may encounter stolen treasures from other cultures in other worlds. Experience points are awarded not merely for seizing treasure, but for returning it to its rightful owners. XP value is not measured by sale price, but by historical and cultural significance.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Tetrahedra: Angels of the Tessellated Realm

They are beings of pure Order, hailing from a distant plane in which their bodies tessellate endlessly together. In our world they appear as three-side pyramids hovering in space, fringed with cold fire. Each one surrounded by four smaller pyramids, which in turn are surrounded by yet smaller pyramids, and so on. In the centre of each pyramid is a glowing eye.

 An aura around them forces everything to tessellate with them on every scale. Get too close and you will begin to cough blood as your organs, cells, molecules and particles all try to arrange themselves along a triangular grid.

When threatened they will shrink down to microscopic size. When numerous, they will fuse together into giant pyramids that dominate the sky.


Cultists worship the Tessellated Ones in secret. They infiltrate cities and slowly restructure them according to the divine pattern. First a few geometric sigils, carved at certain key points on the landscape. Palindromic code words whispered from balconies at midnight. Plot the locations of their signs on a map and you will see they are forming a vast overlay of Sierpinski triangles. Another sign is the lowering of local entropy - coin flips start to come in regular patterns of threes.

As Order descends upon the city, the streets themselves subtly realign into tessellating patterns, while the inhabitants' thoughts begin to run on tracks. At last the ground is prepared for the incursion of the Tessellated Ones into our universe.

They come and they dominate us and they make everything run on triangles. Eventually the incursion site becomes a giant hive of tessellated matter - tetrahedral bodies interlocked with octahedral voids. Human bodies are twisted like bound feet until they fit the pattern.

The incursion is just a beach head. Slowly it will spread, until our whole universe is just like their own.


Or will it?

Certain heretical splinters of the Tetrahedra-Cults tell a different story. They tell how, just as the Angels can enter into our world, we can step through into theirs. How certain cultists travelled there long ago and learned to subsist in the spaces between the triangles. How even now they dwell in the infinite plane, spreading like a rot, undermining the perfect pattern.

There are whole towns in that other world, dimensional pirates who use the triangles to raid various parallel planes in search of food and supplies. They have hollowed out vast pyramid-caverns and dressed them with the spoils of worlds.

Because of them, the pattern is slowly collapsing. Vast quakes echo through the plane. Dislocated walls of tetrahedra grind against each other. In their own realm they are powerless to respond to these colonists, as to do so would require them to leave their pattern. Thus their only hope is to seize our own world. Their incursions are not a mission of conquest, but a last desperate attempt at escape.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

The License to Kill

 What is the function of saving throws in old-school play?
What if their primary purpose was emotional rather than mechanical?
Why roll a saving throw at all? The general consensus around old-school best practices is that severe consequences should be telegraphed by the GM and therefore come as a result of the players' choices. A normal-looking door that shocks people to death is not allowed; but if the door has a sign saying "Keep Out! Wizard's Sanctum!" then it's considered reasonable. If the player tries to open the door, they made a bad choice and now they get the consequence. In terms of fictional consistency, there is no particular reason why there should be a saving throw. "Well, you've got to have some chance of survival." Yes, you already had that chance - it was called "not touching the trapped door"!
So the GM could just say: "You got shocked and now you're dead." But it's very likely this will feeling arbitrary and unfair to the player. The saving throw comes in as an emotional tool to give the GM some plausible deniability. It gives them a license to kill.
Both elements - the bad choice and the bad roll - need to exist for the death to feel fair.
(For death you can substitute any other severe and permanent consequence, of course.)
Perhaps other randomisers in old-school play also serve the same purpose. Look at encounter tables. All of the encounters on the table should offer agency to the players as a baseline. If one of your encounters is "5 red dragons, always attack from surprise" then it doesn't really matter if there's only a 1-in-100 chance of it happening, it's still bullshit. So to flip it around - if none of your encounters are bullshit, then why randomise them at all? Why not just pick whichever one seems appropriate in the moment?
The answer is: you roll so that when the players get into a fight, you have a license to kill.
The truth is it's all you (the GM). You wrote or chose the encounter. You introduced the possibility of death when you called for the saving throw. But the roll itself is a crucial point of emotional distance.
"Aw, sorry buddy. The dice killed you. Not me... the dice."

Monday, 3 June 2019

Dimensional Borer

The dimensional borer is a giant Neuropteran (net-winged insect), distant cousin of the antlion. In its juvenile (nymph) form, it has the ability to burrow through the substrate of reality, creating pocket dimensions from which it ambushes its prey.

The Nymph

The borer's hide appears from the outside as a dark, puckered hole in the surface of reality. It looks the same no matter what angle it is observed from, although the more clever specimens will disguise this by building their hides next to a solid surface.

Space is distorted around the hide, making it look as though it were in the centre of a fish-eye lens. All surfaces slope towards it; loose objects roll into it, and anyone who falls in the area will begin tumbling towards the hide. The hide is always closer than it appears to be, and even basic movements become confusing in its vicinity*.

When prey approaches, the borer nymph sticks its head out of the hole and attack by spitting globs of raw reality at its victims. A direct hit can potentially kill or maim the prey by distorting the space around them. However, the real purpose of the spit is to cause localised ripples in reality that knock the victims down and make them tumble closer to the hide. When they are in reach, the nymph will grab them and drag them inside its pocket dimension.

The pocket dimension is small and dark, a maze of pitch-black tunnels in which the nymph fights at a great advantage. Once the prey is dead, the nymph will slowly suck out the 'spatiality' from the corpse and then spit it back into the world. Such corpses are hideously stretched, nearly weightless, and react unpredictably to contact (think of glitchy ragdoll physics in a videogame).

The nymph's mandibles can be crafted into a unique weapon that distorts enemies' perceptions, although the wielder must train for months before they can avoid cutting themselves with it.

The hide itself will slowly decay if the nymph leaves or is killed. However, with the proper rituals it can be stabilised and attached permanently to a portable object such as a doorway or a bag.

The Mating Season

Dimensional borers remain as nymphs for a long time - up to one hundred years - before emerging all at once in response to some seasonal shift in the shape of reality. In their adult form they resemble giant dragonflies. Once they have left the hide they no longer hunt prey, and will die after a few days. Their mating flights cause dire disturbances in the fabric of reality: time skips, spatial distortions and even brief incursions from parallel universes. The borers mate in midair, after which the female severs the male's head and devours his corpse. She then finds a safe place and thrusts her ovipositor into the substrate of reality to lay her eggs.

While many humans fear the coming of the mating season, others see it as an opportunity. Dozens of hides lie abandoned in the weeks following the mating, and treasure hunters comb the hills looking for them. Additionally, the severed head of the male can be crafted into a shield that draws projectiles like a magnet, and the eggs are worth a fortune to wizards studying translocation.

*Readers of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun can imagine the hide behaving similarly to avern flowers.

Play Report: The Clay That Woke

I had been curious about Paul Czege's The Clay That Woke for a long time, and a couple of weeks ago I finally got to play a session ...