Tuesday, December 19, 2017

World Building and Old School Games

Old school blogs are full of excellent advice about how to run a game in an open world, with sandbox style play, and jostling factions. OSR types regularly sing the praises of a style of gaming where narrative emerges as a kind of byproduct of the choices people make and the chaos of chance. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that you already know how to run an open game like this. What I want to talk about is how to do this with a crazy, over-the-top, snowflake of a setting. I want to talk about how you engage in high concept world building while also running a game that is focused on hex crawling, GP for XP dungeon trawling, and faction play, all with total freedom of player choice, and emergent story telling.

There are real challenges to putting these two things together. One challenge comes from the mental perspective that goes along with emergent storytelling. Players in OSR games are often not investing their characters, initially, with a lot of backstory or thought. They prefer it to come out, over time in bits and bobs, as it's relevant, and fun. They want the story to accumulate moving forward, and they don't want to be doing homework. Since they don't view themselves as creating a narrative around their character, they also don't want to read thinly veiled fan-fiction, or massive setting documents. They want to sit down and start playing a game without having to do too much thinking.

Another challenge is framing meaningful player choice. For an OSR style game to be fun, the players need to be making tactically meaningful choices constantly. They need to know what they're dealing with, or have the fact that they don't know be part of the tactical situation they confront. They need to be making real choices about where to go and what to do, with real consequences. This is connected to the fact as well that PC death is an always looming possibility. (It's not fun to die if you aren't dying as a result of the risks you knowingly accepted.) It's also connected to the aversion to adventure paths and railroads of all kinds. This means the players have to know more or less what they're getting into when they choose to do that. The more alien the world, the less tactical information the players start with.

The last challenge is, I think, more general. Brendan S. talks about it very well here. The idea is that the extraordinary pops in part by starting from a baseline of what is known. If everything is wild and out there, then nothing stands out. This is partly an aesthetic point, and partly a point about information overload. If everything is always new and far out, then, in a sense, nothing feels new and far out. Also, it's hard to absorb and keep track of new information without a baseline of normal. What we remember are deviations from normal.

And yet, for all these challenges, my experience is that serious worldbuilding can jive with old school sensibility in play. Indeed, there is a special kind of joy that comes from combining high concept world building with sandbox style play in a tactical old school mode. For two and a half years, I have been running a game where players are dungeon and hexcrawling their way through the dreamlands. And its pretty far out there. They've explored the inverted jungle that hangs from from the bottom of a flying city in Wishery. In that inverted jungle, they've visited the shores of Lake Yannu that hangs like a suspended tear drop. They have opened the first two of the metaphysical locks of the Abyssal Dungeon created to hold the dread crown of the Hidden King, where they've battled the punishment puppets of the Inquisitor's Guild, stuttering nightmare automata made to entertain and terrify. Right now, they're getting into faction play with Phantamorians, travelers from the dreamlands of the dreamlands. This world is a snowflake's snowflake. TRUST ME.

Now I'm going to tell you how I do it. Here are some techniques for overcoming the challenges of combining high concept worldbuilding with old school play.

So You Want to Run a Snowflake Setting in an Old School Style Game?
Try These Techniques!

(1) Home Base in The Known

The first technique involves creating a home base where the players know more or less what's going on. The idea of "town" in D&D has always operated this way to some extent, as a safe place that operates on known principles, as opposed to the unknown howling wilderness or mythical underworld or Caves of Chaos, where reality might operate on different principles, and struggle with unknown foes, strange magics, and cunning traps, is to be had. In a game that employs a setting that is evocative and alien, the presence of this known quantity and safe zone becomes that much more important.

A good use of this technique comes from M.A.R. Barker's classic "Barbarians in The Foreign Quarter" set-up for playing Empire of the Petal Throne. That was a snowflake of a setting if ever there was one: a sword and planet world with highly-mannered cultures that are a melange of Indian, Egyptian, and Meso-American influences, all organized around a baroque religion worshipping alien intelligences.  Barker's fix for the epistemic difficulty this posed for players was simple. The PCs start as barbarians fresh off the boat in the city of Jakalla. They are staying at an inn in the Foreigner's Quarter, a kind of polyglot neighborhood full of Conan type rubes, all working as gladiators or doing jobs for shadowy patrons. It's basically a classic sword and sorcery neighborhood lodged in a bizarre Tekumel metropolis. It is assumed that the PCs start knowing nothing about the complexities of the society and religion when they start. But they need to learn quickly in order to survive the ensuing intrigues, so they can make a buck and advance in station and experience as they venture beyond the known boundaries of the Foreigner's Quarter into the cultural unknown of native Jakalla.

I use a structurally identical gambit in my game. The home base of the players is a homebrewed sword and sorcery city-state in the Wilderlands. It operates on normal D&D type principles. But this is not the main place where adventure is to be had, at least not at first. For a door to the dreamlands has opened in the back of Ultan's print shop, and the PCs are the very first people through. This door leads directly into a dungeon in the sewers and catacombs beneath a flying city in the dreamlands. At first I had every session begin and end outside of Ultan's door with a potentially shifting group of players. (Over time this evolved into a more relaxed and organic style of play, with longer and longer forays through the door and a more stable group of players.) The fact that the players had no idea what they were getting into--what kinds of foes were on the other side of the door, who the relevant factions were, or by what principles things operate there, is part of the explicit fun and challenge of the game. Their lack of knowledge is part of the tactically relevant situation they confront, an obstacle that they have to overcome through play like other obstacles, as they foray from the known waking world into the unknown country beyond the vale of sleep.

(2) Setting Information Only in Connection with Game Objectives

People absorb and retain the information that is practical relevant to them. If you are playing an old school style game, it follows that you shouldn't introduce setting material through narrative or info dumps, since the game is not directly about narrative or information gathering. Instead, always tie evocative setting information to the kinds of hooks that move old school games: to sites of adventure, or to potent artifacts, or to rival factions. For example, suppose you want to get a little further into the alien religion of the city of the dreamlands. Well, why not put an inter-dimensional temple to the Unrelenting Archons on the map as a dungeon the party can explore? When the players finally choose to go there (if they do), they'll learn a certain amount of dreamlands theology in a fun dungeony form. Believe me, crawling into a new wing of the dungeon through the hellish portal born from the belly of a statue of Vulgatis, the Archon of fecund and unseemly growth, will make a greater impression on your players than three pages of text wall. Or again, suppose you want to develop the idea that this flying island in the dreamlands is surrounded by the Endless Azure Sea, a reimagining of the sky as a boreal, half aquatic elemental space. Then why not introduce a Prince of the Air as one of the major faction players in the wilderness hanging from the bottom side of the island? The party is bound to tangle with him in one way or the other eventually, and when they do they'll want to know where he comes from, and what his sources of power are. Because they'll want to kill or swindle or avoid him. They'll need to know.

(3) Lavish Descriptions Only Once

When the party first gets somewhere mind blowing, or first sees something amazing, especially if they've been trying to get there for a long time, they have a greater appetite for listening to a description than they normally have when in tactical game mode. They want to hear about it and immerse themselves in an experience of it.  When this is likely to happen in a session, you should think about how you're going to describe the place in detail--you should think of this as an essential part of your prep. And you should think of this as your one shot to give such a description. Every time after that first time, you should have at most a couple of sentences to remind the players of what the environment is like they are moving through. Anything more than that will be boring--no matter how cool the environment is they are moving through, or how amazing the appearance of the NPC is they're interacting with, and so on. Seize the opportunity while you have it, and don't overplay your hand on later occasions. This has been very hard for me to learn, and I still stumble from time to time.

For example, the first time the party descended into the inverted White Jungle that hangs from the bottom of the rock of Zyan, I thought in detail about how I would describe the profusion of life, the sights of the foliage, the sounds of animal life, and the fragrant smells of this alien jungle. I thought about what it's like to move in space through it, on a system of ropes, descending ever deeper, walking on lattices of branches that can give way at any moment, and so on. And I shared that with them, because I knew they would be into it. I knew they would want to know what it is was like to be moving through an inverted white jungle in the dreamlands, in part because they worked so hard to get there, and in part because the wow factor of this setting bit. Every time after that that I made the mistake of launching into rich descriptions of the jungle, I watched their eyes glaze over. They were thinking, "Now is not the time for that; now we are trying to get from point A to point B." And they were right. This is a hard but important lesson for someone who wants to do rich world-building in an old school game. 

This is part of the answer to Brendan S.' worry about the baseline of normal. The first time I described the jungle it popped. After that it was the new baseline of normal that operated in now familiar mechanical ways. Everyone knew what was what, and that meant that there was now room for the next thing to pop as new and exciting, when its moment came.

(4) Information Gathering in Optional Downtime Threads

If you're going to go into a more discursive mode with setting information, it's crucial that you make it optional for folks. One way we handle that in my game is that if some members of the party want to do research in a library, or to extract information by questioning an NPC about some setting element, then instead of stopping the action in our hangouts game, we save that for later in a "downtime thread", which is basically a social media play by post. This gives me time to figure out answers to their often unanticipated questions. But it also allows a division of labor among the players. Whoever finds it fun to engage in these downtime threads does so, others don't, maybe perusing them before the next game, or maybe not. The basic principle here is that you don't ever force players to learn about anything in a discursive mode.  No one is ever forced to undergo excruciating (to them) setting information extraction (e.g. an info dump delivered by NPC monologue). To be sure, sometimes the PCs need to learn about the setting to get what they want to get done (or just because they're curious)--in those cases let a division of labor work where those who enjoy that kind of thing shoulder the burden of it. Memory and knowledge is a collective possession, a pooled resource, in a party of adventurers.

(5) Polished Canon Only After The Fact

If you're into worldbuilding, then chances are you like to keep records. You probably take more notes than most DMs, and may even write down canonical versions of things. This blog exists in order for me to do that. Speaking for myself, creating canonical, polished versions of my own private snowflake is one of the joys of worldbuilding. I want to write things up, I love doing it. There's a special aesthetic pleasure that comes from dressing up my fever dreams so they are presentable for company. What makes worldbulding fun is dwelling with something drawn from your fancy over an extended period of time, until it has a kind of life of its own in your imagination. Writing something up slowly, building it in prose, gives it that kind of reality on the page, and so partakes of the very same pleasure.

Of course, if you have a canonical version of things, you want to share it with your players. And you should! But yet, I just said that you don't ever want to force them to read anything. So here's how I handle that. I try to only put polished content on the blog after the fact, when my players have already learned the relevant information in game. This means that the players are never forced to read my canon, since they already know what they need to know by playing the game. I'll just post a link to it in the community for the game, and say "Here's a polished canonical version of that thing you guys learned about a while back. It has a little bit more backstory. Look at it if you want." Some people do, and some people don't as suits their taste. It's also handy to have those blog entries when, during a game, someone says, "Wait, what did that super-powerful Poem say that we picked up a year ago? Didn't it talk about this dungeon?" and as a DM I can just drop a link to the blog entry on In the Light of Other Moons.   

Using these techniques you too can combine your desire to dwell to absurd degrees in castles spun from the spiderwebs and stardust of your fancy with your desire to run open world, tactical old school style games. You can have your fucking weird cake and eat it too. It's delicious.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Agents of The Black Lotus

They who believe in the influences of the stars over the fates of men, are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law. All that man sees has to do with man. World cannot be without an intermundane relationship... No Shining belt or gleaming moon, no red and green glory in a self-encircling twin-star, but has a relation with the hidden things of a man's soul, and, it may be, with the secret history of the body as well. They are portions of the living house wherein he abides. 

Phantastes, George MacDonald

Sometimes when an orphan disappears in the City State, or when a criminal is sentenced to death but never appears before the executioner, who waits impatiently by the cutting stone with his great axe slung useless on his back, this is what happens. Taken blindfolded and bound by nondescript men, he is led by secret tunnels to a forgotten chamber beneath the Cryptic Citadel. His hands are loosed as a door suddenly closes behind him. So it is that he finds himself in the chamber of the Black Lotus.

A queer stone of a hue impossibly black rests upon an altar of purest white marble. Its majesty is terrible to behold, drawing in the gaze even as it repels. Although unmoving, it seems to turn upon itself folding like the petals of a trembling black flower. Then its song begins. One in ten leave the chamber to begin their training as a new member of the Order of The Black Lotus, the Invincible Overlord's society of monk assassins, secret police, and agents provocateur.

The Order of the Black Lotus was formed long ago, during the period known from obscure markings on the great calendar obelisk as the Cycle of the Black Sun. This heavenly body appeared at first to be an unpredicted solar eclipse, a disk of black surrounded by a solar corona. This lasted for ten days of hideous waking darkness, before the black disk separated itself from the sun, assuming for a period of seven years its station as a counter-sun in the day's sky, casting an eerie grey light with white shadows.

Manuel Tinneman

During this time unknown demons stalked the earth, and the principles of natural philosophy were stood upon their head. Alchemical processes were subject to strange and deadly alterations in the light of the Black Sun, and many a scullery maid's stew was ruined, or hands burnt by the sudden boiling of water, when the strange grey light fell upon their kitchen. Mass hysteria led to numerous inconclusive but bloody revolutions.

The Order of the Black Lotus arose at this time, one of innumerable apocalyptic cults. How this group came to possess the Black Lotus is not known, nor its relation to the Black Sun; whether it is a fragment of that other sun, or its effluvia, or even its seed, or whether it bears no relation at all. The cult was brutally suppressed and the Black Lotus interred in the undercity and forgotten for many years, until a pair of goblin engineers stumbled upon the chamber (and their doom) while excavating old tunnels beneath the Cryptic Citadel. With some research, the Overlord's sages uncovered smudged and torn copies of the cult's holy text, Gospel of the Alien Sun. From these the meditative practices of the cult were reconstructed.

In addition to their earthly training in arts of stealth and deception, the agents draw from their esoteric communion with the Black Lotus strange powers over density, gravity, and the void. These powers are harnessed in their weirding martial art, and in a variety of disciplines that initiate alchemical processes within their body. The limit of their power is unknown, but the Gospels speak of disciples whose open palm strikes with the force of a comet, and others who are able to survive the void of space.



Only humans may become agents of the Black Lotus. To survive their ordeal with the stone, they must possess certain remarkable qualities. They are the following:

Strength:       15
Dexterity:     15
Wisdom:       15
Constitution: 12

They must be Lawful Neutral or Lawful Evil.

Hit Dice

The HD of the agent of the Black Lotus is 1d4. However, an agent begins at first level with 2 HD.

Class Abilities and Limitations

Combat and Movement

Agents of the Black Lotus may use any weapon, but cannot wear armor. They fight as thieves of like level. They do not receive strength bonuses to hit or damage, nor dexterity bonuses to their AC.

However, as their meditative journeys penetrate deeper into the labyrinths within the stone their ability to control the density of matter, gravity, and other less well-understood forces increases. Through constant training they learn to weaponize these abilities and employ them as fearsome defenses.

As a result of these defenses, their AC decreases by one for each level above first. They may also save vs. paralysis to avoid normal missile attacks, and save vs. spells to avoid magical missile. Finally, if an attack (e.g. dragon breath) indicates that they would take half damage from a successful save, they take no damage.

Offensively, they receive +1 to damage with weapons for every two levels; and they gain extra unarmed attacks that do increasing damage as they progress in their weirding. (See the chart below.) Furthermore, if they roll 5 more than is required to hit a foe, then the foe is stunned for 1d6 rounds, with a base chance equal to their opponents AC +1% per level over 7 to kill them outright.

Every level above first their base move increases by 10'. 

Thief Abilities

As the secret police of the Invincible Overlord, agents of the Black Lotus receive extensive training in arts of stealth and deception. Like the houri, the agent of the Black Lotus employs +Chris Kutalik's B/X thief variant, which resembles the LOTFP specialist. Thief skills require rolling equal to or under on 1d6 modified by circumstances as the DM rules. The agent has starting skills equal to the following, and receives one additional point to distribute per level.

Stealth         2
Climb           4
Hear Noise    2
Disguise        1
Pick Locks     1


Requirements to Advance in Level

To ascend in levels, the agents of the Black Lotus must perform certain actions. To go up in any level, the agent must withdraw to meditate for a period of time, delving further into the Black Lotus. If you are not using training rules like those in AD&D, then the agent must miss one game session, where it can be assumed he is deep in meditation. (During this time, the player is encouraged to play a henchman or hireling.) In addition, to reach certain levels further tasks must be accomplished:

To reach 3rd level, the agent must win a minor victory for the Invincible Overlord. Minor feats might include disrupting or temporarily setting back an enemy's plan, sewing temporary discord between two of the Overlord's enemies, or delivering a piece of genuinely useful information to the Overlord.

To reach 5th level, the agent must win a moderate victory for the Invincible Overlord. Moderate victories include permanently ruining an enemy's plan, delivering a useful object (magical item, map, etc.), acquiring a piece of major intelligence, or significantly advancing one of the Overlord's plans.

To reach 7th level, the agent must win a major victory for the Invincible Overlord. Major victories include assassinating a minor enemy of the Overlord, sewing lasting discord between two of the Overlord's enemies, delivering a powerful magical object, or achieving one of the Overlord's major goals.

To reach 10th level, the agent must win an epic victory for the Invincible Overlord. Epic victories include assassinating a major enemy of the Overlord, starting a war between two of the Overlord's enemies, recovering an artifact (in the AD&D sense), or gaining a major asset of decisive significance of the Invincible Overlord.

To reach 11th level, the agent must slay the current Master of the Fetid Calf in unarmed combat, for there can be only one.

To reach 12th level, the agent must slay the current Master of the Gelid Membranes in unarmed combat, for there can be only one.

To reach 13th level, the agent must slay the current Master of the Five Voids in unarmed combat, for there can be only one.

Special Powers

At second level, his special secret training in resisting magical interrogation allows the agent of the Black Lotus to mask his true thoughts from ESP with 70% success. This percentage increases by 2% per level.

At third level, his meditations allow him to enter the first of the chambers within the Black Lotus. There he will encounter the Rippling Torus. If he is not overwhelmed, he may now call on his uncertain bond with this entity to create distortions in the gravitational field, allowing him to jump, as the spell, once per day.

At fourth level, his mastery of the Rippling Torus deepens, and he no longer takes falling damage if he is within 20 feet of a wall or other vertical surface when he falls.

At fifth level, his meditations take him beyond the first chamber, to the threshold of the Labyrinth of the Echoing Shadow. Across the threshold drifts the Wind of Five Crystals. By inhaling this incense, he may cease breathing for 1 hour plus 1 hour per level over fifth level.

At sixth level, the agent may enter the Labyrinth of the Echoing Shadow. But to do so he must take it into himself, consuming it in a great psychic feast. After this, he may at any time enter the antechamber of the labyrinth within. Here he will hear the buzzing of the Hive Bells. By silencing them, he may slow his heart beat and other vital functions, feigning death once per day, as the spell.

At seventh level, he may penetrate further into the Labyrinth within the Black Lotus, wandering many turning ways in the darkness. When he is ready, he may follow the paths of his own whimsical memories, which lead to the White Room. The great Alabaster Map there charts the flow of alchemical forces through his body, allowing him to slow poison in his blood, as the spell delay poison, once per day.

At eighth level, he may follow his painful memories of rejection to the Frozen Apse, where the cold of space bleeds through the perforated masonry. He may now travel there once per day, allowing him to resist cold, as the spell, for 1 hour plus 1 hour for each level over seventh.

At ninth level, he may follow the trail of his guilty deeds to the Heavy Priory, where the churning of the space is a crushing weight. He may now travel there once per day, allowing him to survive in high pressure environments for 1 hour plus 1 hour for each level over ninth. During this time he may act as normal.

At tenth level he may he may return to the Alabaster Map, opening its hidden ways to travel throughout the byways of his body. This allows him to neutralize poison in his blood stream, as well as cure his own diseases once per day.

At eleventh level, he may follow his childhood fears through the Labyrinth to reveal the Sanctum of the Fetid Calf. Here he will encounter the Rippling Torus in its true form. Should he survive the contest, he will master the torus, gaining the ability to subject his enemies to crushing gravitational effects with a deliberate blow. He may now slow an opponent with a successful strike of his palm, as per the spell, once per day.

At twelfth level, he may follow the path of his lost memories to the Nave of the Gelid Membranes. This is a terrible place of no consciousness. He may now go there one per day, allowing him to inflict blindness and deafness on an opponent once per day with a successful strike of his palm, as per the spells.

At thirteenth level, he will finally begin to hear the reverberations of the Echoing Shadow. They will come to him unbidden, and will fill him with terror. Should he find the courage to follow them to their source, in the heart of the Black Lotus, he will find the Transept of the Five Voids. This will allow him to deliver the dreaded touch of the void once every two weeks. If he successfully strikes an opponent with the palm of his hand, he may plant a void seed within their body, bringing it to fruition at any point in the next two weeks. The victim must HD equal to or less than the agent. When the void comes to fruition, the victim will be swallowed from within, disappearing utterly.

It is not known what powers or perils those who choose to delve further into the Black Lotus. For, it is thought that to go beyond the station of the Master of the Five Voids is to come face to face with the Echoing Shadow itself.




Required Task












Minor Victory for Overlord






Initiate of the Labyrinth 


Moderate Victory for Overlord


Disciple of the Labyrinth




Wanderer in the Darkness


Major Victory for Overlord


Eye of The Overlord




Hand of the Overlord




Blade of the Overlord


Epic Victory for the Overlord


Master of the Fetid Calf


Slay the Current Master of the Fetid Calf


Master of the Gelid Membrane


Slay the Current Master of the Gelid Membrane


Master of the Five Voids


Slay the Curret Master of the Five Voids