Beowulf Playtest Complete!

IMG_0037Well, I completed my playtest for the Beowulf game using the Yggdrasill system. A quick note: since Cubicle 7 has let go of the license on this game, and since the game now is officially out of print, I see the price of the hardcover has been gouged on Amazon from around $50 to $250. I hope those sellers don’t get what they’re asking! I hope that Le 7eme Cercle republishes the game, perhaps with a new translation, and that those who missed out on it this time around are able to enjoy yet a better edition. One unfortunate gamer reported on the Cubicle 7 forums that his/her Yggdrasill record in his/her DriveThruRPG wishlist suddenly vanished. Now this person would be willing to purchase the entire line if only given the chance. I myself have wished that I hadn’t bought the entire line at full price but had been lucky enough to find this game while the Humble Bundle drive was going on! Argh! Oh, well. I guess I was able to directly support the game while it lasted.

Not unexpectedly, the Beowulf playtest was a bit wonky, but overall I think it worked out alright. This “wonkiness” was the reason why I initially had given up using Yggdrasill to make a con game and instead had devised my own Old Norse Old School Roleplaying system. It was much easier to grasp the power structures of the simulation using the lingua franca of the gaming community. But as you might recall, being perfectly satisfied with a D&D game being run by a friend of mine, I didn’t want to run yet more D&D with my home group, so instead went back to Yggdrasill when it came time to retell Beowulf. (Aside: my group has interest in playing Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea when I get the hardcopy of the second edition expected to ship this October; perhaps that game is sufficiently different enough from D&D — at least in setting — to justify two of those games being run.)

In regards to the wonkiness of Yggdrasill, one of my players summed up the issues with Yggdrasill perfectly. At first glance, the core mechanic of the game is quite simple. Roll pools of d10s attributed to your Characteristics for any kind of skill test, add any relevant Skill if applicable, beat a Difficulty threshold. But, once you start manipulating this core mechanic in any appreciable way, as the game does, very quickly you are dealing with large numbers and math problems complex enough to slow down the simulation. Are you performing a Feat? Well, you have to take a negative modifier to your Test based on the level of the Feat — and, while you’re at it, are you sure the Feat’s effect is worth the penalty that otherwise might be just straight damage to your target resulting from an excess value required to make your test? And some Feats and specific attacks require you subtract or add your Characteristic value. And dice explode on tens, so sometimes the rolls are wildly (and lethally) successful, and sometimes they are pathetic. And sometimes, for some game applications, tens just don’t explode. And there are plenty of gaps and openings for interpretation for this rules set, either by design, by overlooked omission, or through ambiguities in the language translation to make this game (as I have described it in a different place) “old school” in flavor (as long as we focus on a definition of the old school that few groups of gamers played the same game the same way).

Anyway, thanks to this playtest I think I have the Beowulf game reduced to manageable parameters. Contrary to what I told Gaming and BS, I have generated pregens. The pregens might be a bit statistically powerful, whereas the characters in my homegame had a number of toys to aid them (i.e., buckets of healing unguents). When I initially drafted the adventure, I included a number of encounters and possibilities that simply have to be cut for a time allotment of 4-6 hours, and I believe this benefits the game, because it reduces the action and story down to (just about) the central elements in the poem. I think the session will be good fun, should anyone sign up, even if it might not make more game adherents–an ideal one-shot experience for a con. And potential consumers no longer are able to buy the game anyway (for anything less than $250, that is!).

Epilogue to a TPK: What Happens to the Hireling?

For the third time that night, still standing upright, Dollen jerked awake. The donkey again was stamping its hooves and emitting that low, unearthly whine. That sound made Dollen’s beard stand out like a weather rod. The night had grown yet colder, and now flurries were melting on Dollen’s cheeks. “There there,” the dwarf said, placing an attempt at a soothing hand on the donkey’s flank. “Your owners will be back soon, and then we’ll be out for a mite to drink.”

Yes, a drink. At this time on any other night Dollen would be in Rok’s Tavern hoping for beer charity from the more prosperous denizens of Black Rock. He had hoped tonight to be paying back his friends and making new ones with the fifteen gold this odd band of adventurers had promised him for one night’s service — yes, the onerous service of watching the cart and donkey. Cart Watcher, they had called him, and left him here with a new mace that they had purchased for no other reason than that he had said he wanted it and because he was expected to die while protecting the cart and donkey. But now the work wasn’t feeling as posh as it first had seemed. The valley below him was dark, so dark he believed he could see heat traces in whatever forest animals might now be hunting within those branches. It seemed unlikely, now, that the band would be making the trip back to Black Rock this night, once his employers came out of that hole.

Grunting, he went back into the old ruined Guild Hall, temporarily sheltered from the biting wind. If his employers’ absence kept up, he supposed, he should untether the animal and lead it in here. But he didn’t want to make too many decisions on his own. An odd group, they were. Scattering gold in their wakes as if they were kings. He stood at the top of the stairway again and peered down into its inky depths. Nothing. The pitch smell of his employers’ torches, by this time, had faded to the smell of a cold forge. He strained his ears. Did he hear something? Perhaps a distant cry? No, just the donkey again emitting its terror to the night. This was not how Dollen had expected to spend his night. Perhaps he should have been more specific in the terms of his agreement. It occurred to him now that he didn’t even have a contract.

He stepped back outside. “There now, Jasper. We’ll get ourselves out of this wind.” But the donkey couldn’t be settled. It seemed to want to bolt, and that would be bad with it still tethered to the cart.

The cart. He thought he heard a sound come from within it, something like the exhalation of great nostrils. They had seen a great cat earlier that day, during their climb. It made sense that cold wooden cart walls would occlude the heat signature from Dollen’s darkvision.

Poor Dollen. As his grip tightened on his brand new mace, glowing green eyes rose up from within the cart and looked down at him from behind a wide mouth of sharp, feline teeth. The donkey tried to run, the great cat leapt into the air.

Just Say Yes? GM Improv in Campaign Play vs. One-Shot Play

IMG_0033Some background before this post: Coulee Con is coming up, and I recklessly took the plunge and submitted two games to GM at the end of August. The first submission is Beowulf using the Yggdrasill system. The second is a Conan game called “Blood in Their Wakes” using the brand new 2d20 Modiphius system for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

I call these submissions “reckless” because the last time I submitted a game, “The Boon of Barrow-Isle” for the Yggdrasill system at Gamehole Con 2016, I belatedly realized that I was nowhere near prepared enough to run it. Therefore it was a mixture of disappointment and relief when absolutely no one signed up to play. Now, for Coulee Con, I feel prepared enough to run an Yggdrasill game, having run a campaign of it off and on now for almost a year. But Conan puts me in a situation similar to where I was last year with Yggdrasill. I am enamoured with the material and the system and really want to be an ambassador for it. Therefore I committed myself to it by submitting a game, and with my home group I’m fairly anxious to familiarize myself with the crunchy 2d20 system.

So I have to get to the “Beowulf” content in my Yggdrasill campaign to provide myself with plenty of time for the Conan rules set. And this haste and anxiety led to the thoughts that I have for this post. Last session I made good on my resolution to resort more to the runes as a game mechanic, but I did something else that, during post-game analysis, I regretted. If I could go back to our last session I would act differently in response to a player’s question. This falls under the topic of “Just say yes” during improv play.

Some time ago I listened to a recorded seminar from Paizo Con. One of the panelists was a noted GM and practitioner of improv theatre. He had two major pieces of advice for GMs: 1. Let the players shine and 2. Just say yes. Really, he was teaching the improv rule of “yes and.” An example of this:

GM: So the oaf has you down with your back on the table. His massive mitts are around your throat, slowly squeezing the life out of you. What do you do?

Player: I look around. Is there something nearby that I can grab and hit him with?

GM: Yes, in your periphery there appears to be a kettle. Made out of iron, maybe, and you sense heat emanating from it. Perhaps it is full of hot water?

I have presented the “Yes and” principle here at the microcosmic level, and this would be perfectly acceptable in one-shot convention play. Giving the player something to hit her antagonist with, and adding to the request the detail that it is full of hot — maybe even boiling — water isn’t going to drastically derail the track the GM has prepared for a satisfying arc that hopefully fits neatly into four hours of play (unless it’s going to, but that’s up to the judgment of the GM).

But the “Yes and” moment I encountered last session had greater implications. Instead of saying yes, I said no, and I know why I did at the time. After thinking about it, though, I wish I had said yes, and the answer is because of this: I said no because I was impatient to get to the microcosmic “one-shot” aspect of my campaign. But I should have recognized that I wasn’t playing a one-shot but a campaign. As such, I should have said yes.

I’m doing something potentially problematic with my regular group. I designed a Beowulf campaign for convention play, and I want to playtest it with my group in the midst of an ongoing campaign. As a result, some edges of Beowulf need to be rounded and trimmed and sharpened. There are many campaigns, I know, that operate this way. That’s why people buy published adventures, after all! But not everything is a full adventure path. The GM has to determine how to incorporate his “second-party” material into his wider campaign arc — and the campaign arc, I’m convinced, should be a collaborative experience between the GM and her players. This is why in general I have such difficulty with published adventure materials. Often I have to modify them to the point where it would be much more efficient for me to just build my own content from the ground up. Also, when running a game like Yggdrasill (in contradistinction to OSR games), my “sandbox” style of play is less a hexmap of “hidden encounters” that the PCs uncover or reveal as they explore… Okay, to follow the “sandbox” analogy further, it’s less of a series of sand castles that somehow are hidden from the players, but more of a wide expanse of unshaped sand that the players and I together will form into a story.

I am to be forgiven, and I know my players will forgive me, for being impatient to get to the actual “Beowulf” component of our Yggdrasill campaign so that I can test it and move on to the Conan game “Blood in Their Wakes”, but what I want to remind myself here is that my players are not first and foremost my playtesters but instead first and foremost my regular group of campaign players. This has been preamble enough to what exactly went down.

A few posts ago I introduced Yggdrasill to Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design. I generated a table of possible adventure hooks for if the PCs decided to go snooping about the shoreline during their trip to Hleidra. For whatever reason, I entirely ignored that table last session. Instead, I drew runes and improvised on the spot, which also is entirely acceptable. But drawing the runes perhaps would have been more effective if I had coupled them with my table. Nonetheless, I had plenty going on: despite the warnings of the PC Lydia, who is a Volva, the Sjaellings had looted the Barrow-Isle of cursed gold. As such, they were becoming paranoid Smeagol-ish people, thinking everyone else was after their shares of the loot. This quickly became a problem when the Sjaellings began to mingle in the fishing village of Klepp which was crowded with three longships of trading Geats! After some antics ensued, Lydia asked me if there were any Volva nearby. I consulted a rune and determined no, there were not, being unable to connect the rune directly to Lydia’s request.

But lets look at the table I devised and chose, in the moment, not to consult at all:

Beneath a field of clover is a massive bee hive, tended by Volva who brew from it mead that augments skills of prophecy and poetry. The local jarl wants to export it, and there is increasing tension between the jarl and the Volva.

And:

It is said that a Volva harvests the webs from a thousand spiders that visit her garden each night. From them she spins garments of supple but strong fiber.

Really, the rune I consulted should have determined which of these Volva were nearby, not whether there were Volva at all. During gameplay I was happy to skip this information and a possible time-eating excursion, thereby forestalling yet again the playtest. But the detour would have been richer overall for the campaign. And it would have rewarded a player for excellent gameplay. And it also potentially could have better prepared the Volva for what is going to be no easy encounter with Grendel!

So really my point here is that there are two types of games: campaigns and one-shots. There are two types of players: campaigners and dabblers. There therefore are two types of ways to say “Yes and”: yes, there is this possibility of an adventure that we will build right now out of the amorphous sand and yes, there is that particular item for sale right now in this fletcher’s hut. In campaign play, a GM’s first responsibility is for his campaigners, and she never should lose sight of that larger narrative structure in deference for the smaller. The campaign is an epic, the one-shot is a tightly-driven short story.

Yggdrasill Meets Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design

IMG_0027Elsewhere I have expressed my admiration for Matt Finch’s writing, especially for his work on Swords & Wizardry and his Tome of Adventure Design. I’m about to get back into the GM driver’s seat this coming Monday, and I decided it was time to generate some ideas — some adventure hooks and possibilities in case I needed something quick if the action were to grow stale. So I reached for my Tome of Adventure Design (rather, I opened up iBooks) and drew a handful of dice out of my dicebag.

What I’m running next Monday is Yggdrasill. Yes, the plan had been to playtest ONOSR for the Beowulf campaign, but no matter how much you modify Swords & Wizardry — as I did to create ONOSR — it really is a form of D&D. And my group is playing a very fine D&D game on alternating Mondays. I myself am “polygamerous”: I simply didn’t feel like running yet another D&D game. I also sensed that my players were missing Yggdrasill, so…

I originally designed the Beowulf campaign for Yggdrasill. The trouble occurred when I began to imagine possibilities for broadcasting my work beyond the confines of my blog and my home game. I’m guessing Yggdrasill is a fairly protected intellectual property, so I felt creatively challenged in the event that I were to invest considerable time and energy into it. Swords & Wizardry, alternatively, as I’m sure no one need be reminded, is within the wide umbrella of the Open Game License. I also found Swords & Wizardry attractive when I started to scale the power structures of, say, PCs versus Monsters like Grendel. Thus ONOSR was born.

Nonetheless, Yggdrasill is a very fine system. It was my first love when it comes to Norse-themed rpgs, and it remains my favorite, so I decided to, after all, try to run the Beowulf campaign as originally conceived. We’ll see how these Yggdrasill characters do against Grendel, his Mother, and, perhaps eventually a Dragon!

But, as I said at the beginning of this post, I needed some ideas for what might occur to the PCs on their way to Hleidra, wherein is the Golden Hall cursed with Grendel. So, as I said, I reached for the Tome of Adventure Design.

The Tome clearly is most particularly designed for traditional fantasy rpgs such as D&D, but my recent experience with it showed that it can, to a considerable degree, be “system agnostic.” The Scandian world of Yggdrasill departs from traditional frpgs through its particularly naturalistic tone. It is what can be termed a “low magic setting.” Yet some of the tables in the Tome suggest towers of high wizardry and entire nations of bizarre creatures living right next door to the humans. Nonetheless, what follows is a list of what I generated using Finch’s adventure idea tables and then how I interpreted my results in consideration of the Scandian setting.

Skeleton-Cairn
Location – Stage raid upon Docks
Individual – Guard/protect Messenger
Puzzle-Tomb
Living Asylum of the Gluttonous Horde
Below ground Fane of the Master Wasps
Contaminated Mill of the Carnal Father
Fossilized Pyramid of the Vampiric Demon
Spider-Garden
Storm-Harbor
Event – Escape from Duel (Addict-Music)
Location – Capture and hold Docks for Ambassador

I crossed out “Puzzle-Tomb” and “Capture and hold Docks” because of redundancy, preferring, for my purposes, “Skeleton-Cairn” and “Stage raid upon Docks.” This also brought my results to a neat ten, a simple ten-sided roll if I wanted a random result. Of course, there is no reason I couldn’t roll a d12, but I liked the sense of appropriateness, Yggdrasill being a game that uses almost exclusively d10s. Then came my favorite part of being a GM and writer — the “dreaming.” Yes, what I rolled are, in essence, “writing prompts,” but what is most exciting about these is that I might actually get to use them rather than scribbling about them in my garret of an indifferent world. Here’s what they became:
1
The PCs are told of a “Dvergr Haug.” It might contain dwarf weapons. (It does not, just the smallish bones of a man and a woman in garments of desiccated hides. Beside them are bone and horn weapons and utensils.)
2
In Klepp, someone approaches the PCs inviting them into a raid on some ships loaded with local timber. The aim is to steal the ships and drive off any pursuit. “It’s not right that all of that costly timber should be leaving the area to build a foolhardy hall on some bit of rock of an island!” Will pay in silver.
3
An individual wants to be protected from a family who does not want him to bring word to a new wife’s family that she is being mistreated. Husband doesn’t want to lose the dowry. Messenger has been followed into town.
4
In one of the towns, more and more people are being infected with gluttony. It is a curse that is spreading into the town because someone shot a stag out of the nearby Alfwood. Some human sacrifices need to be hanged in the wood for propitiation.
5
Beneath a field of clover is a massive bee hive, tended by Volva who brew from it mead that augments skills of prophecy and poetry. The local jarl wants to export it, and there is increasing tension between the jarl and the Volva.
6
A mill (and the grain it grinds) has been cursed, because the miller had relations with his own daughter. All the grain makes people sick with morbid hallucinations. An evil spirit needs to be driven out of the mill.
7
In the center of a forest is an ancient, petrified ash tree. In its hollow core lives a troll that is said to flap out at night and suck the blood from sleeping people.
8
It is said that a Volva harvests the webs from a thousand spiders that visit her garden each night. From them she spins garments of supple but strong fiber.
9
It is said that a hammer fell out of the sky one night and broke a hole in a longship returning from a raid. The ship was loaded with silver, but divers have not been able to find it (nor the hammer — or the meteorite — that punctured the hull of the ship).
0
A young man who absolutely loves poetry and music asks the PCs to help him sneak away from a duel. He offended, in his drunkenness, a massive Viking who believes his own verses are the best ever. In the young man’s drunkenness, he agreed to holmgang, but now he admits he is a coward and will pay anything to be helped away.

This experience caused me to ponder just how far the Tome can be stretched into radically different genres. So far I’m certain it can be, because the results of course are about what the entries might evoke rather than the literal interpretation of the readings. If I ever create my “Diver” campaign for the Traveller system, it will be fun to use the Tome’s location and Dungeon Design tables to generate abandoned spacecraft. I’m certain the entries will translate beautifully.

Postscript

Incidentally, restarting my Yggdrasill campaign brought me by the Cubicle 7 forums, wherein I learned that Cubicle 7 no longer will be supporting Yggdrasill nor any of the other games it has had in English translation from Le 7eme Cercle. There is a suggestion that the Cercle might find its own means to translate its games into English and thereby continue its lines. But in the meantime it appears likely that Yggdrasill and some fantastic others (Keltia and Qin, for example) might be going the way of the Dead Games Society . Get your copies while you can!

Report from a Fallow State

IMG_0024AD&D 1e

I’ve been slightly fallow, after finishing my Star Wars campaign and waiting for my Beowulf campaign to begin. It had been scheduled for this coming Monday, but some core players couldn’t make it, so that means it will be two more weeks before session 1. On alternating weeks I’m taking part in an AD&D 1e campaign. It’s seldom that I’m a player, and it’s even more seldom that I enjoy being a player. But this experience has been great. For the first time ever, I read the 1e Player’s Manual cover to cover. I’m quite impressed with the game. I think it’s a good system. My DM allows every player to be running two characters: my rolls resulted in a Druid (Arty, short for Artemis) and a Cleric (Festus, sometimes called Fester, dedicated to the swine-god Gozer). My DM is about ten years older than I am. He is using all the original materials that he acquired in the 70s, because he never throws anything away, and we’ve been spending most of our time entering, exploring, and then usually fleeing a massive dungeon that our DM has designed. During downtime in the nearby village, Arty has built a hut in the forest and has started keeping chickens in some hand-built mud-and-wattle coops. Oh, that reminds me, the following is what I posted on our Facebook group:

Even after Artemis (affectionately known to those in the Order as “Ma Arty”) had become Grand Druid, those humble beginnings remained in the very center of the Grove Infinite. That dugout trunk and those mud-and-wattle coops functioned as the “Holy of Holies.” The chickens there were said to be preternaturally long lived. Their eggs, with yolks of a positively glowing hue, were said to boost fertility. And those seeking answers to the Druidic Mysteries made pilgrimage to those clucking oracles and contemplated that tired puzzler “What came first, the Chicken or the Egg?” The popular answer was “Neither”, or “Both”, for it is evident that the Chicken is within the Egg just as much as the Egg is within the Chicken. The two cohere in Immanence, which is as much as to say, as Ma Arty frequently has taught, that “the World is all there Is.”

Festus, alternatively, has been spending his time with the clerics in the temple of O-Ka (the Great Spirit), and because of their debates and discussions has come to learn that his own god, Gozer, serves O-Ka. Fester has come to believe that all sentient life — perhaps all life — originates from the Great Spirit, but in the process of incarnation, some life gets perverted or corrupted. These most commonly are the Chaotic and Evil entities, most often Monsters. And Fester’s divine mandate is to free these creatures from the shackles of the flesh so that their spirits might return to O-Ka for purification and eventual re-embodiment.

The Beowulf Campaign

Now and then I have poked along at Part 2 of the Beowulf campaign. I’m designing Part 2 as a bit of a hex crawl, making the PCs lords of Whale’s Head, the main harbor town of the “wind-loving Geats.” The thrust of the adventure, of course, will be for the PCs to try to locate and then possibly exterminate the Dragon who is terrorizing the farmsteads. The overall hex map has been created and I’ve sketched out the main outlines of the dragon’s lair. The rooms of this dungeon have to be detailed a little more, and a few other “dungeons” in various hex locations likewise need to be developed (just in case the PCs decide to explore outside of the narrative track). In this current fallow state, it’s difficult to continue work on this, though I’m certain that I’ll be inspirited once I’m able to begin playing Part 1 of the Beowulf Campaign.

Reading

I’m always reading a handful of texts, and a number of them typically inform ONOSR. Reading relevant to ONOSR has been some handbooks of Norse Mythology; The Land of the Silver Apples, the second book in Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls trilogy; and Charles Watts Whistler’s Havelok the Dane. I suppose at any moment I might, in a gulp, finish my third reading of Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, as well.

Conan the Slayer: Blood in Their Wakes

Ever since Cullen Bunn started writing his first six-issue story “Blood in His Wake” for Dark Horse Comics’s Conan the Slayer series, I’ve wanted to adapt the story — I think the story is original to Bunn — into a game for convention play. Over the last year or so I’ve considered adapting Swords & Wizardry for it (borrowing heavily, I suppose, from Mongoose’s d20 Conan system), but this was until I happened to purchase Barbarians of Lemuria on sale from DriveThruRPG. The iteration I bought was “Mythic,” and it is a prime demonstration of rules bloat. But searching out earlier, free editions of the game proved inspiring. I’m excited about the system and have sketched out a draft of Bunn’s narrative for quick convention play. I’ll probably develop this for my home group after the Beowulf playtest.

Traveller RPG

While grabbing Barbarians of Lemuria: Mythic from DriveThruRPG I likewise snatched up the original 1982 release of the Traveller RPG. A close friend of mine is deeply into the science fiction genre, and I thought it would be fun to run an original old school science fiction system to tell a story most likely set in Kristin Kathryn Rusch’s “Diving” universe. What’s great about Rusch’s most recent stories is how like an old school dungeon crawl they are: the difference is that Rusch’s characters, set on salvaging missions, are delving into the “Boneyard,” a strange area of space crammed full of mysterious, derelict spacecraft from a multitude of times and places. A game set in this milieu should be great fun, and if the experiment is successful it might result in yet another game I can offer for convention play.