Monday, December 31, 2012

Staring at the Sea

Perhaps I've read too much Lovecraft, but I recently toyed with the notion that the sea within the world in which Hrulvir is situated is in fact a living entity - a god, perhaps, or a being from another time, place, or dimension that evades human conception.  This, of course, will present all sorts of complications - especially for mariners.   Or, perhaps the sea is simply imbued with a disembodied consciousness that came from another place and chose the sea as a worthy, but uncommon, vessel.  I don't know how this will play out in-game, but I sort of like this idea, despite its vagueness.

One of the few things that I'm still working on establishing is how magic works in my game.   BRP presents some options, but none of their systems really convey what I'm looking for.  In  most sword & sorcery tales, magic is the province of nefarious mummers and vile necromancers.  I know that Kane was an adept sorcerer, as was Elric and the Grey Mouser, but they are the exception.

Magic, in these tales, is not the Vancian type.  That is to say, there are no fireballs or lightning spells.  I have no problem with the systems that have adopted this traditional approach to magic, but I am looking for something that is more arduous.  That is why I gravitated towards summoning.  The rituals requite time, endurance, and, expectedly, the forfeiture of sanity and health to complete.

Getting back to my original idea, perhaps magic is more psychic in nature.  Perhaps there are certain people who are attuned to a certain dream frequency that is used by the sea, and, through conversing with this being, they have discovered latent powers with themselves

Sunday, December 30, 2012


I don't know when, how, or why, but this locale will rear its head in my game.  This has to be one of the most beautiful, haunting photos that I've ever seen.

100 Physical Features

I am sick today and a bit bored, so I decided to put together a quick list of one-hundred distinguishing features that I plan to use in my game.

100 Distinguishing Features 

1. Teeth have been filed to sharp points (1d6 bite damage).
2. Wears a necklace of shriveled ears.
3. Missing  a hand.
4. Missing fingers
5. Missing nose.
6. Several tattoos.
7. Armor of distinct color, design, or make. 
8. Body covered with ritualized scars.
9. Peculiar odor.
10. Speaks with an unknown accent or impediment.
11. Possesses and odd pet.
12. Gregarious and friendly.
13. Awkward gait or limp.
14. Burned skin.
15. Carries and oversized weapon.
16. Uncharacteristically tall or short.  Oddly proportioned in some manner.
17. Carries a broken set of manacles.  
18. Wears an eyepatch.
19. Interesting hairstyle. 
20. Under the influence of an odd narcotic.
21. Narcoleptic.
22. Prone to sleepwalking.
23. Carries a set of ivory dice.
24. Nearsighted or otherwise visually impaired.
  1. Compulsive liar.
  2. Offers anyone who'll listen a fake treasure map.
  3. Carries and attempts to play an exotic stringed instrument.
  4. Claims that he or she was once a professional executioner.
  5. Androgynous.
  6. Sweats inordinately
  7. Afflicted by some unknown disease.
  8. Self-concious about a physical feature.
  9. Glances about furtively.
  10. Two different colored eyes.
  11. Refuses to remove their hood.
  12. Soiled garments.
  13. Obsequious, or otherwise annoying disposition.
  14. Obsessively sharpens their weapons.
  15. Garments are too small or too large.
  16. Leather armor is dry and creaks loudly when they walk.
  17. Bloodstained armor.
  18. Long criminal record.
  19. Wanted for a crime that they may or may not have committed.
  20. Distant relative of an important NPC in the game.
  21. Pregnant.
  22. Proud parent.
  23. Attempting to start a business in the city center.
  24. Recently murdered and resurrected.
  25. Searching for a long-lost relative.
  26. Footwear on the wrong feet, two left shoes, etc.
  27. Clothing made of an odd material.
  28. No clothing, or they're obviously missing an article of clothing (shirt, pants, etc.).
  29. Louse-ridden, or otherwise infested with some sort of parasite.
  30. A reanimated corpse.
  31. A former slave or currently enslaved.
  32. Starved appearance.
  33. Down on their luck.
  34. AWOL.
  35. Traitorous.
  36. Owes money to a powerful syndicate.
  37. The head of a small, but up-and-coming crime ring.
  38. Attracted to one of the PCs.
  39. Phobic (spiders, wizards, etc.).
  40. Poorly trained.
  41. Extremely young or old.
  42. Soft-spoken.
  43. Insomniac.
  44. Vacant stare.
  45. Experiences intense nightmares.
  46. Always hungry or thirsty.
  47. Odd facial hair, unkempt appearance.
  48. Boorish behavior.
  49. Fastidious.
  50. Urbane and arrogant.
  51. Refuses to wear attire that is not a specific color (s).
  52. Snake charmer.
  53. Skilled at cooking exotic cuisine.
  54. Short attention span.
  55. Convinced that they are the opposite gender.
  56. Extra toe or finger.
  57. Extra nipple.
  58. Convinced that a birthmark is an additional eye.
  59. Hirsute.
  60. Savage.
  61. Siamese twin.
  62. Simian appearance.
  63. Underbite or overbite.
  64. Stutter or other impediment.
  65. Dense.
  66. Corpulent.
  67. Flatulent.
  68. Flamboyant sobriquet.
  69. Falsely claims a noble title.
  70. A charlatan and quack.
  71. Offers to kill one of the PCs' enemies for modest fee.
  72. Arrested several times for writing defamatory graffiti in public places.
  73. A member of an obscure cult.
  74. A priest of a fake religion.
  75. Wears cloak made of a fake animal fur.
  76. Alleges that they are able to see and commune with spirits.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Some images


Here are some images that were sketched out by the great Tim Jordan - a fantastic tattoo artist and, hopefully, the illustrator of the setting book that I may create from these slapdash notes and daydreams.

The ghouls to the left and underground dwellers that occasionally creep into the city proper and, well, feed on whatever they can get their claws on.

The athletic rogue featured in the other panel is Jaliel, a cursed thief who has provoked the wrath of some of the underworld heavies that lurk in the shadows.  It is worth mentioning that none of the ideas are written in stone.  Jaliel's importance is subject to whim of the PCs.

Their association with him, however, has put them at odds with a few people, unfortunately.   It will be interesting to see what happens in subsequent sessions.

Although it is difficult to determine in this picture, Jaliel is covered from head to toe in sigils that were carven into his flesh by a vile sorcerer.  Jaliel escaped before the sorcerer could skin him and use his flesh for some profane ritual.  In addition to having some angry goons on his tail, Jaliel is also stalked by the agents of a very powerful sorcerer.

We'll have to see how this all shapes out.  Depending on the interests of my players, these plot lines may or may not develop.  While I have my own ideas, the last thing that I want to do is force my players to follow any preconceived stories.

I am actually using the character Jaliel as a PC in a game that I'm involved in as a PC.  It is early Iron Age Sorcerer campaign.  It is very enjoyable thus far.

Kite Fighting and Poverty

Since Hrulvir is built on a system of hills, many of the poorest neighborhoods are built upwards in a series of terraced alleyways created by a one level of shanties being built upon the next.  These neighborhoods (The Narrows, for example) are cities unto themselves, and generally managed and ruled by one or more of the countless gangs that operate within the shadows.  Recently, The Ravens have made some inroads into these heretofore lawless regions, so it is not uncommon to stumble upon patrols as they attempt to ferret out the gangs.

The children who grow up in these regions are known to fly beautifully colored kites.  So skilled are these children that they often engage in ritualistic kite fights.  The fights are carried out by affixing pieces of sharpened glass to kite strings, using wax, or some other substance.  The intent is to cut one's opponent's strings.

There are, in point of fact, sanctioned bouts between various gangs of kite flyers which take place on specific days of the year.  In the beginning, these bouts were intended to simply sever one another's kite strings so that the loser's kite would be carried off by the wind and either devoured by the ocean or smashed against one of the myriad cold stone towers.

Since nobody wishes to lose a kite, secondary strings are employed, and flyers will endeavor cut this extra string, which is usually dyed a bright color.  The contestants will usually wager a few coins, or, possibly their kite.

It goes without saying that a great deal of time and effort is put into making these kites. Some of the them are sought-after works of art.  It has also been suggested that some of the cagier of the children involved in this past time have learned to infuse their kites with sorcerous powers.

On Heraldry

It has been awhile since I've posted, but my dear friend and super talented artist Tim Jordan just furnished me with some sketches that were inspired by Hrulvir.  I will share them in a later post.  In the meantime, you can check out Tim's astounding artistry at
One of the first sources of inspiration for Hrulvir was an image of a three-headed raven.  I decided that the three-headed raven is an appropriate standard for a grim, damp, city.  I am not sure what the three heads symbolize, but the number three is arguably the most psychically-charged number in human culture, so it makes sense that Hrulvir would adopt a three-headed symbol.

I think the three heads represent the three branches of power in Hrulvir:  the vozhd, the church, and the byzantine council of petty nobility and ambitious commerce.  It is worth mentioning that the world of Hrulvir is analogous to the Middle Age society.  It is certainly not a society flowering with courtly love or shining armor, but it is less brutal than The Dark Ages.

It is a mean, fractious world of city states, disease, and superstition.  Hrulvir is probably larger and more populous than any city of that historical period, which is fine, because I am not interested in historical accuracy.  Since I used Moorcock's Young Kingdoms as a palimpsest, some of that setting's flavor has seeped into my conception of this world.  There is also a generous helping of Sanctuary, as well as The City of the Black Toga and Gormenghast.

With all this in mind, I need to remind myself that, while all these details are great, the true story and character of the city will emerge through play, which means  that my players will have far more to say about the character of Hrulvir and its surroundings than I ever will.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

King Kull

I've started rereading Howard's Kull stories, and I must say that I am really enjoying them.  What I love most about these tales is that the world in which they are staged is alien, cthonic, and mysterious.  Howard's scant, but nonetheless evocative, descriptions impart a sense age.  In point of fact, Valusia, the imperial city from which Kull rules, is succinctly described as being one of cyclopean stone and shadow.  It is an alien palace fashioned by unknown architects eons before man was upright or conscious of itself.   This sense of age and mystery is reinforced by Howard's economic habit of limiting his descriptions to the essential and the immediate.  We, the reader, discover what lurks beneath the royal palace, or over the next hill at the same time as Howard.

He is, dare I say, even less civilized than his Cimmerian cousin, and just as melancholy and irascible.  In short, I love these tales of the axe-wielding king, and I plan to glean what I can and use it in my campaign.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Poisoned City

It has been a little while since I posted anything about Hrulvir or anything RPG-related.  Given the fact that I have no subscribers, I doubt that many people noticed this lapse in activity.  I was thinking today about one of the NPCs that lurks in the shadows - Balthazar, specifically.   Balthazar leads a rather brutal crime syndicate - one of many operating within Hrulvir's bleak walls.

The Long Hoods, as they are called, are not known for taking no for an answer.  These are the sort of lugs who splinter doors so that they can splinter legs.  I mentioned, too, that Balthazar is known to be a really cunning swordsman.  Why that is, I'm not sure.  I suspect that it has something to do with prior military service of some sort.  He's a veteran-type - aloof, aquiline, cold-eyed, and, psychopathic.

I also made mention of the fact that Balthazar lost a hand somewhere along the way.   Perhaps he lost it during his military or seafaring days.  Today, I thought that it might be cool if I took advantage of Elric!'s wonderfully ambiguous demon binding rules and awarded Balthazar a demon-infused hand. Now, what does the hand look like?
Is it a mandrill's paw that twitches of its own volition?   It it similar to Han's assortment of hands in Enter the Dragon?  Or, is it some sort of seven-fingered, organic appendage that rots and then heals itself.  Maybe it's just an ordinary-looking hand.  More importantly, what does it require from its owner?  See the next post.

I also thought that it would be an interesting twist if Balthazar actually enjoyed poisoning people.  This notion inspired another idea: what if Hrulvir's chief export was poison?  Perhaps that is a stretch, but what if the city is nonetheless known for brewing exotic poisons?   That might be neat.  There may in fact be a Poisoners' Guild.

If such a guild exists, is it the only organization sanctioned to concoct poisons?  If this is case, for whom and for what purpose are these poisons manufactured?  I have no idea.  I suppose that alchemists knew quite a bit about poisons, so it is not too much of  stretch to imagine that a guild of alchemists dedicated to brewing substances that are inimical to life could possibly function within a city as dysfunctional as Hrulvir. 

Returning to Balthazar, I was left with an image of him lounging in his high-backed, leather and wood chair, casually watching an unfortunate soul convulse at his feet as an exotic poison worms though the victim's bloodstream.  It is some sort of poison that slowly suffocates and induces painful convulsions, simultaneously.  The poison is cultivated from the venomous freshwater eel that lurks in the River Hrul.  Sounds terrifying.  So does Balthazar.  I can't wait to introduce him to my PCs.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Inspirational Reading

I am currently reading several books, and I intend to draw from them whenever I feel like something is useful in my campaign.  For example, I am currently reading a compendium of Norse mythology.  Not the Prose or Poetic Edda, unfortunately, but a wonderful collection nonetheless.   While I knew that Fenris Wolf was Loki's son, I had no idea that Hel and The Midgard Serpent were also his progeny.   More interesting still, I had no idea that he himself gave birth to them.  We often tend to think that weird fiction is a relatively modern phenomenon, but think the weird has been thoroughly nestled within our subconscious since the beginning of time, and is manifested in within the bizarre mythologies of around the world.

It seems as though Loki's trouble began when he at the scorched heart of an evil Jotun or Vanir.  I can't actually recall which at this moment.  Be that as it may, I find it all the more interesting that he gives birth the force that ultimately destroys the gods and the World Tree.  

I just finished a story in which Loki cut off the hair of Thor's wife.  It reminds me somewhat of Paris absconding with Helen.  I am thinking of lifting this an using it in my game.   Perhaps the daughter of an important noble has her hair cut off by a member of a rival family.  

I am also reading The Water Margin, one of the great Chinese works of literature.  This story is essentially about a group of one-hundred plus bandits who band together against corrupt government officials.  Corruption seems to be a common theme in Chinese literary masterpieces.  I haven't started this one in earnest, but I am excited about doing so, for I think that each and every page of that novel will contain some sort of picaresque derring do that begs to be incorporated into a game.

I am also reading Anna Karenina, which, in my humble estimation, is one of the most beautiful novels ever written.  If you want to understand how aristocracy works, look no further than Anna Karenina, or any other Victorian novel. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Dramatic Inspiration

I recently viewed a local production of David Mamet's American Buffalo, a play which concerns the lives of two marginalized men.  Don, a somewhat avuncular figure, owns a dilapidated pawnshop in a seedy Chicago neighborhood.  Don's friend Teach is a loose cannon and a misanthrope.  A third character named Bob hangs around the shop and figures prominently at the play's conclusion.

Through vulgar, serpentine exchanges between this two men, we learn of their associations, their aspirations, and their desperation.  Additionally, we learn that a wealthy coin collector recently purchased  a rare coin from Don for far less than it is worth.  Don and Bob plan to get even with the man by stealing his coin collection.  As their plan germinates, Teach does his utmost to convince Don to nix Bob from the plan and use him and another associate named Fletch.

To me, this play is perfect fodder for a city campaign.  Without being heavy handed, it highlights the disparity between the rich and poor.  The fact that one is never introduced to the wealthy collector signifies a great deal. Teach and Don are so far removed from this other world that they may as well cease to exist.  In point of fact, the play closes with Teach tearing the pawnshop apart.  Perhaps these characters are undergoing the process of annihilation .  It reminds me, on some level, of the conclusion of the novel One-Hundred Years of Solitude.  In the case of Marquez's masterpiece, the characters literally cease to exist at novel's conclusion.  For that matter, an entire culture is destroyed.  I could carry on and on about this play.  I have only seen one live production, and I've watched the movie once or twice.  Dennis Franz and Dustin Hoffman are great in the film adaptation, but I liked the theatrical version better.

I digress, however.  In Hrulvir, the rich and the poor are precipitously juxtaposed.  Poor neighborhoods slash through rich ones, and vice versa.  Just as we see in our own society, the well-heeled will literally step over the least fortunate. The darkly-clan Ravens drive the poor into the filth of the back alleys.  Obviously, the meaner classes resent the wealthy, and this animosity often leads to violence.

With that said, David Mamet's depiction of the downtrodden in American Buffalo and my geeky homebrew setting differ in that there are no demons for Don and Teach to bind and summon to improve their lot in life.  Unlike the heroic characters that populate my setting, violence has immediate and very real repercussions for the flawed individuals inhabiting Mamet's world.  It would be facile of me to assert that Don and Teach are victims of their own circumstances.  That is obvious.  I think that they are also victims of themselves.  Tragically, they have nothing but themselves to rely on, and, as American Buffalo reveals, sometimes that is not enough.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

BRP vs Sword and Sorcery

One of the things that I've noticed thus far is that BRP does not necessarily emulate the cinematic feel of the typical sword and sorcery yarn without some tweaking.  I am currently using the Elric! rulebook, as well as the big gold BRP rulebook.   If you'll permit a bit of a digression, the latter is one of the most valuable rpg books that I've ever purchased.  Not only does it succinctly present Chaosium's house system, it presents pages of optional rules that can seamlessly integrated.

What that in mind, I have chosen to employ one of these options in order to make my DIY sword & sorcery campaign feel more like, well, sword and sorcery.  In the stories that I read as a kid (Conan, Elric, Kane, Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser), the heroes are all, as rule, supremely skilled.  Sure, they are certainly beaten about quite a bit, but they always persevere, a little worse for wear, but alive and ready to celebrate.

Although the Elric! system certainly conveys Moorcock's particular subversion of the genre, I have found that the characters created with this system are not very heroic.  In other words, they are easy to kill, which, even in Moorcock's gloomy universes, is contrary to the spirit of this genre.  Sure, Elric and Corum eventually die, but they do so after accomplishing great feats.  Their deaths may be tragic and ironic, but they aren't senseless or untimely.  I suppose Corum's might be senseless, but I'd need to go back and reread his chronicle.  It has been a long time.   Elric dies after he has saved the world by destroying.  There is literally nothing left of his world for him to salvage - nothing.

As a GM, I have found myself pulling punches, as it were, to prevent a lowly thief from cleaving one of my PCs down with one well-placed blow.  While I want death to be possible in the game that I'm running, I would prefer that my players' characters aren't dispatched by a toady.  If they are going to die, it is going to be at the hands of one of the badder, full-fledged villains that will eventually oppose them.

With this in mind, I am have opted to provide the PCs with significantly higher hit points.  In a typical BRP game, hit points are the average of SIZ +CON.  The average is typically somewhere around 12 or something.  In my game, hit points will simply be the sum of SIZ+CON.   The minimum should be somewhere around 20 points.  This means that it will be much easier for PCs to avoid succumbing to critical hits, and they will withstand more than two sword strokes.

There are still plenty of other simpler systems out there that strive to emulate the genre, and I am sure that they succeed, but I happen to like the BRP system.   Given its modular nature, it is easy to tweak the system to suit one's needs.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Desecration War

Although less common now than in the past, Hrulvirian nobles have traditionally settled disputes through duels.  The types of duels vary, but they are mostly carried out with blades.  Murderous duels are common, but maiming duels are also typical.  When a maiming duel is called for, the duelists employ blades designed specifically to leave nasty scars.  Innovations include jagged, thorny blades that snag, tear, and cling to flesh.  Other blades function as receptacles of caustic poisons which discolor and burn flesh.  While these types of weapons are exceptionally adroit at disfiguring and producing gruesome scars, they are, for the most part, impractical for anyone other than a duelist.

In addition to maiming and killing, nobles commonly desecrate the bodies of their fellow nobles.  While  this practice was inextricably linked to duels, it has, over the centuries, taken on a life of its own.  In the beginning, it was not uncommon for the victor of duel to break into the mausoleum of his or her slain rival and damage the body further.  It was also not unheard of for the family of a slain duelist to break into the victor's family's mausoleum and desecrate the body of his or her interred kin.  In any event, these desecrations embittered families, engendered additional duels, which, in turn, spurned more desecrations, and, ultimately, perverted and prolonged feuds. 

 This was so common at one point in Hrulvir's past that the citizens of the city referred to this period of time as The Desecration War.   During this epoch, mausoleums were broken into and bodies were dragged from their internment and left for the vermin in the streets.  The situation became so dire that The Raven, the city's guardsman, were deployed to the grand concourse of mausoleums known as The City of Tombs to prevent irate nobles from breaking into one another's family plots.  It was not unheard of for entire factions to go to war in the streets. 

It is still customary for the wealthy families of Hrulvir to hire mercenaries to guard their family mausoleums when a loved one has recently died; old grievances are often taken out upon the recently deceased.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A List of NPCS in My Campaign

Here is a list of NPCS who, to a lesser or greater degree, figure into my campaign.

Arvik Crool is a Crimson Isle warlord bent upon subjugating the entire world.  Like the majority of his ilk, Crool indulges in bizarre rites of torture, and festoons his armor with tokens of those whom he’s tortured and cannibalized.  He masks the upper half of his face in skin - a woman's or child's, perhaps.  Through perverse acts of sorcery, Crool has warped and mutilated his body – a common practice among the denizens of this island nation. 
Balthazar is the head of a particularly vicious crime syndicate known as The Long Hoods.  He is cruel and possesses an explosive temper.  Although he is missing his right hand, Balthazar is one of the most capable swordsmen in Hrulvir.  Most are loathe to cross him.
The Popol Vuh stains its sackcloth robes in the steaming blood of its sacrifices.  Its aim is to sow pain as frequently as possible.  Its adherents support their cult by engaging in assassination, kidnapping, arson, and interrogation.   They are ruthless, unappeasable cannibals that worship suffering for its own sake.
The Dark Ladies currently lead the Pilferers’ Union.  They are three conjoined twins, beautiful and jealous of everyone and everything - including each other. 
Dobbas is an alcoholic fence with a dark past.  He spends most of his time at The Frigid Moon, a tavern nestled within the seediest portion of The Narrows. Dobbas actually owns this establishment, but he doesn't run it. 
Frost is tall, beautiful, and has thorny hair that sprouts from her head.  She is quite friendly, and has a soft spot for the downtrodden.    Rumor has it that she once had a brother who left one day and never returned, but not before he forced himself upon her.  Although Frost has many suitors, she has declined every marriage proposal, much to the chagrin of her callers.
The Giant is a cannibalistic hunter hired by the sorcerer Arvik Crool to apprehend Jaliel.  It was killed by Yauk and Jethris during a fierce battle in the city of Hrulvir.  It was barely prevented from achieving its task.
Jaliel is a freelance cutpurse who has incurred the wrath of every crime syndicate in Hrulvir.  Every inch of his skin is covered with magic sigils, the product of his stint as a servant during his youth The Crimson Isle.  He has many enemies, including former friends whose lives have been ruined via association with him.
Jaliel was once Arvic Crool’s slave.  As such, Jaliel was subject to the worst of Crool’s excesses.  In point of fact, Crool etched his extensive list of spells and conjurations into Jaliel’s flesh.  His intent was to flay Jaliel alive, once the final inch of flesh was covered in profane sigils and runes.  Jaliel escaped before Crool could accomplish this loathsome task.
Lady Dychae is a wealthy noble who enjoys slumming with men culled from Hrulvir’s underbelly.  Her morbid obesity hasn't prevented her from successfully enticing a steady procession of men to follow her into her bedchamber.  
Lord Azathoth IV is the current Vozhd of Hrulvir.  He is a dour man with a cleft pallet and furtive eyes.  He is abstemious and prefers to spend his time within spacious libraries studying the endless historical tracts that are entombed within those somber walls.  Some believe that his wife Gertrude is the true power within the city.

In fact, Gertrude was married to Azathoth’s older brother until he died mysteriously and his son was exiled from the city.  Since scandal is very common in Hrulvir, no one paid too much attention to this intrigue.

Madam Nu’s House of Pleasure is the premier brothel in Hrulvir.  Madam Nu claims that she hails from a faraway empire of mist-shrouded jade, that she was the youngest of thirteen daughters, and that her father was the benevolent ruler of an empire that stretched through time and space.  While most of Nu’s clients find her tales entertaining, most know better than to ask Nu what an emperor’s daughter is doing in a dingy city managing a brothel – albeit an upscale one.
The Pilferers’ Union is one of the myriad criminal syndicates operating in Hrulvir.  Their activities are relegated mostly to The Narrows and the wharves, but their influence is slowly growing.  

Sepharis Vulnoor is a typical Hrulvirian noble:  tall, arrogant, and particularly unimaginative.  His primary fixation seems to be fashion.  Unlike most of his ilk, Sepharis has mercantile interests throughout the city, which, among the more conservative of his class, is scandalous.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Pithy Review of Vornheim

I've meant to review the extraordinarily talented Zak Sabbath's city toolkit Vornheim for awhile now.  I know that this little masterpiece has been around for quite some time, but I figured that I should add a few kind words about this book, since I have it on hand behind my screen at all times.  For those of you haven't yet had the opportunity to read Vornheim, you are doing yourself a disservice - especially if an urban setting figures prominently within your campaign setting.

I have always loved urban settings.  Probably every since I first read Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series.   Zak, in typical fashion, subverts everything you'd expect to find in the typical city guide.  Instead of lambasting the reader with street names, prominent NPCs, shops, taverns, plots, and intrigues, Zak provides the tools for GM create all these things on the fly.

He does provide a little bit of fluff about his version of Vornheim, a frigid, landlocked burgh of crumbling towers, covered bridges, and slow-moving pets.  He provides all this information with a bit of a nudge and wink.  I suspect, too, that Zak is a huge fan of Burroughs, and that he employed the cut-up method when he devised some of the zany customs, jurisprudence, and superstitions of the people reside in his city.

Zak is quick to assert, also, that the intent of his book is to inspire the reader to make Vornhein their own.  This is most readily apparent in the sections that outline rules / suggestions for urban crawls, generating the various shops on a city block, easy urban cartography, and much more.  He also provides tables to quickly generate nobles and NPCs, random floor plan generators, random events, tavern names, etc.  In short, you have pretty much everything you need to keep a city interesting.

The only criticism I have about this book is that I wish there were more of it.  I know that Zak kept it short so that it remains accessible, but I would've enjoyed a few more random tables, or even a few more anecdotes about Vornheim.  Be that as it may, the book is delivers an extraordinary amount in a small amount of space, so, I can't really complain.  So, if you've heard about Vornheim, but you've been ambivalent about picking it up, rest assured that you'll get your money's worth.

Thanks, Zak for taking the initiative and creating such a quirky, utilitarian book for a new GM.

More inspiration

If Balthazar is a bad seed, then this cat shall make Balthazar seem meek and mild!  This, for those of you who don't know, is an artist's rendition of the notorious Richard Kuklinkski, a killer-for-hire who carried out contracts for several   mafia families. 

I think it is safe to assume that no one really knows how many people this guy actually killed.  I suspect that there are still plenty of bones strewn across the United States that no one knows about.

If you have the stomach for it, the one or two books that have been written about Richard's life are really interesting, and there is plenty of source material that could easily be assimilated into one's setting.  Gruesome stuff, for sure. 

Session Report Number One

Yauk and Jethras spent a few weeks renovating a crumbling tower that they purchased from a crooked merchant named Dobbas.  Dobbas had hired them to retrieve a statue that had been stolen from him by another shady merchant / sorcerer.  The players were able to retrieve that statue, but they were forced to kill the merchant, as well as the two demons that he summoned to hinder them.

While the PCs were renovating their new abode, a letter arrived from a merchant residing in a wealthy hilltop district.  The merchant, Sepharis Vulnoor, invited the PCs to dinner at his manse to discuss a business proposition. The PCs, low on on coin from carousing and renovations, were happy to take the merchant up on his offer.

To make a long story short, Sepharis informed them that he was in the process of selling some old granary warehouses located near the wharves, but that he feared that one of the many local crime syndicates would attempt to raze the buildings to prevent the sale.  He implied that commerce inevitably forced one to transact with all sorts of individuals, associations, both legitimate and illegitimate, and that one was bound to make enemies. 

So, upon agreeing on an initial sum, the PCs were asked to patrol three warehouses that were on the verge of being sold.  The PCs took their leave of the merchant and headed directly to the wharves.  On the way,  they were waylaid by a group of rather forceful beggars.  Jethras's cloak was fouled by one of the beggar's dung after he drew his demon-infested sword and threatened to murder them.  A chase ensued through tangled and twisted alleys, but the PCs ended up abandoning the chase; Jethras discarded his cloak and importuned Sepharis to have his personal tailor fashion him a new one, the following day.

Two of the warehouse buildings were empty.  However, the PCs encountered a grisly site when they entered the third warehouse.  Several individuals - thieves, by the looks of them - lay dead at that back of the alley.  It appeared as though they had been hacked to death, or torn apart by something hideously strong.  More terrifying still, it appeared as though parts of their bodies had been eaten.

Upon recovering from the grisly site, the PCs also noticed that makeshift bed had been fashioned in the corner of the building.  Jethras and Yauk deduced that the rogues had encountered whatever it was that had taken up residence in the building, and that it had proven to be a tougher foe than they bargained for.  It was unclear, however, what the thieves were doing in the building.  Were they, as the merchant suspected, there to burn the buildings?

Upon asking some of the local denizens if they'd spied anything untoward, they learned that an odd fellow was seen coming and going from the building.  He was a bald man of indeterminate age, who seemed to be heavily scarred.  Jethras and Yauk decided it would be prudent to bring this information to the attention of the merchant Sepharis.

Although Sepharis was not particularly pleased that he'd been roused from his slumber, his anger was morphed into fear when PCs recounted what they'd witnessed at his warehouse.  Sepharis asked the PCs to keep the matter to themselves, and offered to pay them additional money if they disposed of the dead bodies and, in his words, brought the matter to a close without involving the city garrison.  The merchant was obviously concerned about the events coming to light and ruining the sale of his warehouses.

Although the PCs were convinced that the merchant knew far more than he'd divulged, they agreed to his terms and departed from his manse and decided to return to the warehouse and wait for the oddly-scarred man to return.  They hid behind some old boxes, and, as fate would have it, four men attired in similar fashion to those that had been slain entered the warehouse.

The PCs managed to get the drop on the strangers, who imprudently decided to fight and were all but slain by the Jethras and Yauk.  One of the thieves surrendered and, under threat of torture, admitted that they were in fact in pursuit of an individual named Jaliel, a bald freelance thief who had incurred the wrath of the syndicate to which those rogues belonged: The Pilferers' Union.  

The PCs also learned that the thieves knew nothing about the sale of the warehouse, nor did they have any quarrel with Sepharis Vulnoor.  The PCs allowed the fledgeling thief to leave, and they went about cleaning up the mess that they and whomever else had made in the warehouse.

They decided then to retire to their tower for some well-earned sleep.  The following day, they decided to visit the merchant Dobbas at his favorite haunt, The Frigid Moon, a seedy tavern in the narrows.  Dobbas admitted to them that he was actually not a merchant, per se, but a well-known fence who liquidated ill-gotten loot for just about every syndicate within Hrulvir.  He offered his services to the PCs at what he swore was an affordable rate, and then proceeded to offer them both his favorite wine.

They asked Dobbas if he could extend his antennae and find out who Jaliel was, and where they might be able to find him.  Dobbas told them to come back in a few hours.  When the PCs returned, Dobbas told them that Jaliel was known to frequent the sewers of Undercity, and that he'd made quite a few enemies in Hrulvir's underworld.  Thievery and skullduggery was rampant in The City of the Groaning Gates, but none of its instigators tolerated or respected unaffiliated thieves.

The PCs entered the sewers, and, after sloshing through muck and mire of the foulest sort, discovered another makeshift bed nestled away in a tiny cavern that branched off from the main sewer way.  A few moments later, they heard the sound of coarse voices.  The two PCs hid in time to evade a powerful-looking man attired in black, serpentine leather, as well as three rogues.

The PCs rather brazenly decided to make their presence known and they confronted the men.  Their leader told them that his name was Grimnick, and that he and his men were there to take care of Jaliel.  He informed them that the apprentice thief that they'd freed told him everything, after being tortured, and he accused the PCs of murdering all the thieves in the warehouse!   Despite the PCs' best efforts to avoid a fight, the ensuing melee cost the lives of two of the lackeys and mortally wounded Grimnick.  The third toady managed to escape without a scratch.

Jethras and Yauk preformed triage upon Grimnick and decided to drag him back to their nearby tower.  They were stopped by a contingent of Ravens - the city garrison - and they were forced to pay a hefty bribe for carrying weapons, as well as conveying a wounded individual between them.

Upon returning to their tower, Jethras remained with the wounded rogue and Yauk ventured out into the city and fetched the lovely Frost, an enigmatic sorceress and scholar whom the PCs befriended in an earlier episode.  Although she was not very enthusiastic about becoming embroiled within her acquaintances' affairs, Frost was willing to aid a wounded individual.

She partially healed Grimnick and unceremoniously took her leave.  The PCs interrogated Grimnick about his affiliation with The Pilferers' Union.  They learned that the Union was headed by a mysterious trio of conjoined twins known as The Dark Ladies.  Despite their best efforts, the PCs were unable to convince Grimnick to help facilitate a meeting with these enigmatic twins.  They finally decided to let Grimnick go, but not before they stripped him of his armor and his weapons.

Yauk decided to wear the armor, and, as soon as he buckled it to his powerful frame, he was forced to engage in a battle of will with the demon that had been bound to it.  Fortunately, the Organ warrior succeeded in subjugating the otherworldly being and learned that its true name was A'zzz'zz'le.  

The PCs, still empty-handed, decided to venture forth into the night once again.  They had not ventured but a few blocks from their tower when Yauk spied a bald, compact fellow with a scarred face lurking in the shadows of a side alley.  Jaliel, at last!

He beckoned them into the alley and the PCs and he engaged in a long chat.  They were still relatively certain that he was responsible for the grisly deaths of the thieves, so they remained wary of the surprisingly gregarious thief.  Jaliel assured them that he was not responsible for anyone's death whatsoever. He then proceeded to tear a tattered tunic from his upper body and reveal a torso that was completely covered in strange glyphs and sigils. Every inch of his face was covered as well.   He raised his leggings and revealed that the flesh on his thighs and calves was also covered.  Every inch of his body, in fact, had been scarred with a spidery script.

He informed the PCs that he had once been enslaved by a sorcerer from the Crimson Isle named Arvic Crool, and that the sorcerer had used Jaliel's body as his grimoire.  He'd escape before Crool could flay him alive and bind his flesh within the covers of a massive tome.  He's spent his life since then hiding from Crool's agents.  This Arvic Crool was the very same Crimson Islander who was rumored to have sailed to mainland and was currently amassing an army in the East.  Jaliel said that this profane warrior was known to wear the flesh of a murdered child across half his face, that his lips had been removed, along with a portion of skull.

It was at that moment that a massive form entered the alley.  The thing that entered was close to seven feet tall, and carried an axe made of bone.  He wore a thick cloak that appeared as though it had been fashioned from human flesh.  This, it seemed, had been the thing that had made short work of the thieves.   He raised it's left hand and tossed the head of Grimnick at the feet of the PCs.  A terrible battle ensued.

The PCs were both wounded, as was Jaliel, who was nearly disemboweled by the giant.  They managed to fell the thing and dragged Jaliel off to their tower, along with the axe, a dagger carven from bone, and the cloak.  Finis.  


Whenever I attempt to flesh out an NPC that I've introduced into my setting, I try to think of a character from film, literature, etc. to whom the character is similar.  For example, a character who has been roaming around in my thoughts is Balthazar, a decidedly brutal leader of one of Hrulvir's myriad crime syndicates.

I imagine that Balthazar is a middle-aged man, maimed in some way, who possesses, or is possessed by, an explosive temper.  With this in mind, I was reminded of Dennis Hopper's portayal of the infamous Frank Booth in Lynch's film Blue Velvet.  Talk about a memorable character!  So, with this established, I now have a vague sense of what Balthazar looks like and how he acts.  While I don't foresee this character engaging in any erotic oedipal sessions, I am relatively certain that Balthazar is psychotic, and prone to fits of anger.

I have also established that he is physically maimed in some way.  I am thinking that he lost one of his hands in a fight.  For some reason, I keep coming back to the notion that he enjoys employing exotic poisons, which, given his explosive anger, is somewhat at odds with my initial impression of this character.  Balthazar seems like the type of guy who would prefer to handle a threat head-on, rather than resort to something as subtle as poison.  Perhaps he's really a coward, and his irascible temper is a facade?  Anyway, this is how my mind works when an interesting NPC comes to light.


In a previous post, I indicated that the sandbox setting for my game is loosely based upon Michael Moorcock's Young Kingdoms, as it is presented in the wonderful Elric! rulebook.  As the campaign progresses, I am using the Young Kingdoms as a point of departure.  I have begun to slowly change the names of some of places, and I have insert
ed my own city, which will serve as a base of operations for the PCs.

Hrulvir, the city, is more akin to Lankhmar than any of the cities portrayed in the Elric saga.  That is to say, it is large, baroque, seedy, and corrupt.  I would be remiss if I didn't make mention of the fact that I am using the great Vornheim book to help me maintain the appearance of large, bustling metropolis.  I have no idea how many people live in the city, how it's run, or who the key players are. 

I do know, however, that the city of Hrulvir's patron deity is Groan, the god of groaning gates, walls, protection, death, you name it.  He is typically portrayed as a raven or a stooped old man. Once per year, apathetic priests dress in raven costumes and process through the streets.  Their parishioners inscribe their sins onto bits of parchment and place them in sacks carried by the priests.  The priests then empty the sacks onto a large pyre built upon a blighted patch of field in the center of the city.  

The city watch is an imposing faction that roves through the city's neighborhoods attired in black, feathery scale armor and raven masks with bright red eyes.  They are ruthless and not above accepting bribes.

Most of what I know about this setting has emerged through play.  I don't have an extensive list of factions, NPCS, or plots.  I will add to this as the city and its denizens develop over time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Elric! Summoning Rules

It has been awhile since I've posted anything.  I have run three sessions thus far of a campaign that is set loosely within the Northern Continent of Moorcock's Young Kingdoms.  I transplanted my own city, Hrulvir, into the setting, and I am using it as a base of operations.  My current roster includes an Organ necromancer and Half-Melnibonean warrior-sorcerer with a wicked sword-arm and a selfish streak.

We spent the last session on logistics - specifically summoning demons.  Much to our chagrin, we discovered that the rules outlined in the otherwise wonderful Elric! rulebook are, to say the least, obscure.  Ironically, the player with whom I spent last session working through the laborious summoning process seemed perturbed by the balance-shattering powers that are available to the sorcerer that successfully summons and binds a demon.

Although I remarked that Elric! is not a game that is overly concerned with balance, my nostrums did little to persuade my player that creating a sword capable of inflicting 2D10 points of damage would ruin the game.  I even went so far as to assure him that his adversaries would most certainly wield weapons of comparable power, which did little to allay his misgivings.  As a matter of fact, I think it bolstered his his misgivings.

I should say that I have never subscribed to the idea that a GM should go out of their way to kill their players' characters.  I am not saying that death isn't possible in my campaigns.  My players and I are grizzled adults with limited time to spare on something as trivial as an antiquated RPG; the only reason why we do this is that we still enjoy tossing dice and engaging in collaborative storytelling.  It would be anticlimactic, in my opinion, if my characters, the focus of this melodrama, were repeatedly bumped off by adversaries lucky enough to circumvent their blades and their baroque, demon-infested armor.

With this in mind, I took my friend's reservations to heart, and we devised (rather quickly) our own summoning rules.  I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that my friend responsible for the lion's share of the innovations contained within this system. I add a few touches, and I have since exercised GM prerogative and revised some of the rules that we hashed out.  For the one other person out there who actually knows about, cares about, or, perhaps, plays Elric!, I hope that these revisions come in handy.

Revised Summoning Rules

1)      Cast Summon Demon (8 Points).
2)      Roll under your luck score (POW x 5).  If successful, devote the 8 points to the demon’s attributes.  If you fail, you lose the 8 MPs and the demon fails to materialize.
3)       All demons must have at least 1d8 in every attribute, including SIZ, DEX, and APP.
4)      For a lesser demon, 3d8 must be devoted to POW.  No more than 24d8s may be devoted to attributes.  No Skills or abilities may exceed 100%.
5)      Use your pool of MPs to purchase demonic abilities, skills, as you see fit.
6)      Per the normal rules, a lesser binding costs 1 POW.  An eternal binding costs 3 POW.
7)      POW: POW contest to successfully bind the demon.  The demon reveals its true name.
8)      If you’re binding a demon into a weapon or armor, use the Damage Bonus determined by adding STR+SIZE and add it to weapon’s damage.  For demon armor, add CON and SIZE, consult the same table, and add that to the armor’s stoppage capacity.
9)      Additional d6s of protection or damage may be purchased for 10 MP.
10)   Describe how the item looks and make a CHA roll.  If you only put 1d8 in APP, your loss.  The DM will determine what a successful or failure means with regard to the appearance of your item.
11)   Think up a suitable need for the demon, or the DM will do it for you.

The Trials and Tribulations of World Building

Since I am relatively new to running my own game, I thought it might be helpful if I jotted down some observations about the world-building process.  I have thus far run one session of campaign called The City of the Groaning Gate.  The titular city is called Hrulvir, which is an unabashed pastiche of Lankhmar, Sanctuary, and every other city that looms imposingly within the books that I've read throughout the years.

Thus far, I have a huge city lurking behind impenetrable black walls, that sits on the shore of the flint-grey Eastern Sea.  The broad, slow-moving Black River snakes past on its western flank and continues to slither languidly across the length of the continent until it eventually empties into the Western Sea 

Hrulvir is positioned between the Serpent Spires, a range of mountains that stretch horizontally across the continent, and The Barrier Peaks, a range which form a vertical ridge down the eastern shoreline.  North of the Serpent Spires is an icy waste teeming with marauding tribes of subhumans.  Far south, the vast Wastes of Ahura bake underneath a cruel sun.

This is really all I have right now.  I know that there are several trade towns located along the Black River. There is also a horde of beastly warriors assembling under one banner along the Northern Wastes, known as the Crimson Horde

I am a firm believer in the notion that the setting will create itself as the story unfolds.   This has played out during every attempt that I've made to write stories, and I'm hoping that the same holds true when I run this game.