Wednesday 21 February 2024

Mining the Pit

Fifteen years ago this month I wrote a post about Out of the Pit, the Fighting Fantasy monster manual and my first ever RPG book. In particular, I wanted to see what lessons I could take from that beloved book. 

I was still finding my feet with that blogpost, and I continue to do so today, so I can't say it's really worth revisiting. 

But what about the monsters of Fighting Fantasy?

A few years ago I saw Beyond the Pit and Return to the Pit on the shelf of my local game shop, both follow-ups to Out of the Pit, compiling a new selection of monsters from the Fighting Fantasy books. 

Any gems in there? Let's pick a few and see what we get. 

Beyond the Pit

So for context all(?) of these monsters have appeared in a Fighting Fantasy book before, compiled here for the first time. While they're all from books set within the world of Titan they're interesting because they've all seen some form of action. 

I'll go through the first few spreads of the book and pick the monster I like most from each.

Angaroc 

The first line of this entry has me hooked.

"[Angarocs] exist only in the dream world - until some sorcerer discovers how to bring them through to the real world!"

It looks like a snake with four spider legs, which is kind of disappointing but also sort of fitting for a native of the dream world.


They have no weapons because their mere presence is poisonous (in both the dream world and reality). It drains life force through a janky, arbitrary mechanic which belies its gamebook roots, so it's kind of a quintessential Fighting Fantasy monster. 

Ape-Dog and Dog-Ape

I haven't even read the description yet and I know I'm choosing this one. 

One is an ape with a dog head, the other is... well, work it out.


They guard the gate to a demi-sorcerer's tower and offer some sort of riddle. Again, the gamebook vibes are strong with this one. It also notes that "the race of Blogs from central Allansia is very similar to the Dog-Ape in particular, though this just may be pure coincidence".

Are "Blogs" detailed in this book?

They are!

Blog

Okay, I'm done laughing at the name. 

They're jungle-dwelling pot-bellied humanoids with dog heads, hated by the local humans who hunt them tirelessly for the sins of head-hunting and eating human flesh.


Alarm bells are going off in my head, but I'll continue. 

The shoot poison darts, which paralyse victims for long enough to take them to their huge cooking pots. 

Blogs first appeared in a 1988 gamebook and if I'm being generous I'd say they feel very much of their time... or maybe of a time before. 

Annoyingly they don't even look that much like the Dog-Ape who sent us here!

Right, onto a random spread. 

Dinosaurs

I was all ready to flick past this page, as I'm met with a bunch of real-world dinosaurs, but I'm glad I stuck around.

It's noted that "there has been speculation of late that they are not originally from this world. For example, they have no recognised deity in the pantheon of the Animal Court."

That's a fantastic little bite of worldbuilding.

It goes on to suggest that dinosaur eggs were brought to this world through portals, prized as beasts of war. Again, that's a lovely touch.

Onwards.

Pool Beast

Wait, isn't this just a Bloodbeast?


No, it's a different "big monster stuck in a gross pond". 

I suppose that's handy for a gamebook. It keeps the monster in one place, ensuring you get to encounter it within its signature lair. 

This one also has a large violet gem in its head, presumably to serve as treasure. 

All very Fighting Fantasy but not all that inspiring for me right now.

One more random flick then I'll go to the final spread.

Toolfish


Wait, no.


Apparently, Merfolk have difficulty making tools underwater, so have bred special fish to serve as tools. Flintstones of the sea, I guess. 

They're small when kept on the rack, but magically grow when taken out for use. It even details some of the special varieties, from axefish to glowfish to the obvious sawfish (the only one that will fight on their own).

You can buy them from a Merfolk, but when used by non-Merfolk they swim away after one use. Classic old school fuck-you to the players.

This is all very dumb but I don't hate it. 

Onto the final spread.

Zoalinth

This is the most "fantasy RPG monster book" monster I've ever seen.

Let's check these off.

  • Two croc heads
  • Bear body
  • Bird legs
  • Stegosaurus tail
  • Eight-fingered claws
  • Acid vomit attack
  • Lives in dungeons
  • Made by a wizard

I can't say there's much interesting to actually do with this. It speaks common and has average intelligence, but is still mostly described like a guard animal. It specifies that it can be trained to recognise a badge or symbol...

Oh wait, that'll be something from the gamebook that it was used in, right? The player will need to find the badge that lets them pass through without fighting this thing.

Right. 

LESSONS?

I'll level with you, I did this just because after finishing up the writing on Mythic Bastionland I wanted to dig into warm, familiar world and look at some silly monsters. There are examples of nice worldbuilding but also lots of stuff that shows its gamebook roots a little too strongly for use in a TTRPG.

Next time I'll dig into Return to the Pit and see if that fares any better. 

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Wednesday 14 February 2024

Dealing with the Council

What happens when a player Knight in Mythic Bastionland actually gets to rule their own Holding?

First you have a bunch of entitled jerks to deal with.

PLAY

Ref: Okay, Tal, now that you’re the rightful ruler of Raider’s Gate you’ll want to assemble a Council. 

Ref outlines the positions of Steward, Marshall, Sheriff, and Envoy.

Tal: Okay, Moss, are you up for being the Marshall? Getting the soldiers into shape?

Moss: Yeah, of course.

Ref: Yeah that works. Now even though you proved the previous ruler, the Chain Knight, as an enemy of the Realm, the Steward that served under him is still here. She’s Medryn, very formal and professional. You can kick her out of her seat or keep her on.

Tal: Let’s keep her on for now, but we’ll keep a close eye on her. I’ll go and talk to her properly a little later.

Ref: Well security is also part of the Sheriff’s job, watching for threats inside and outside your walls. Who are you appointing there?

Tal: Needs to be somebody we trust. 

Moss: I don’t think I trust anybody around here anymore.

Tal: Okay… can we leave the seat vacant just for now while we decide?

Ref: Well we can talk about it some more, but I definitely wouldn't leave you Realm without a Sheriff unless you want to invite trouble!

Tal: Argh, okay. Hey, what about that guy who was guarding the tower we found?

Moss: Yeah, he helped us out.

Tal: Okay, he was over here, right?

Tal points at a landmark a few Hexes away.

Tal: Can I like… send a rider out to summon  him or something?

Ref: Of course, you’re the ruler now!


THOUGHTS

Like so many other parts of the game, ruling a Holding is at its best when the players have enough information to prompt difficult decisions with impactful consequences. 

Assembling the Council is a good opportunity for this. As we see here it’s a chance to introduce new characters or elevate previously encountered people into a more prominent role.

Focusing Holding management on the Council has a few beneficial effects. Firstly it keeps the spotlight on interactions with characters rather than the fine details of economics and infrastructure. You can decide that you want to collect more taxes, or change the armament of your warbands, but doing so requires going through your Steward or Marshall respectively, keeping those relationships at the forefront. 

This is most effective when a ruler’s Council and Court are both populated by a dynamic cast of characters. Here a Referee can create a messy web of ambitions and quarrels for the ruler to attempt to keep in order. A combination of Spark Tables and Luck Rolls can give some useful prompts for this. 

If one of the Knights ends up ruling a Seat of Power, then the rulers of each Holding become an additional layer of relationships to manage on top of this. 

Still, I like to ensure that the ruler still gets a chance to go out and be a Knight, letting their Council manage things in their absence. This can be encouraged by reassuring the player that Knights are expected to delegate rule to their Steward in order to continue fulfilling their Oath. If a Knight gets too bogged down in politicking from their castle then word begins to spread that they’ve grown soft or renounced their Oath to “seek the Myths”. That should give them a nudge toward adventure. 

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon. 

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Unwelcome Omens

Mythic Bastionland pre-orders are now open for late backers!

Backers will receive their survey within the next few days, so far I've just sent out a test to a lucky 5%.

Now onto the post. 

What do you do when an Omen doesn't quite fit your current location?

PLAY

The Company are travelling through a barren tundra during winter, facing dire weather at every turn. Ref makes a Wilderness Roll and gets a 1, rolling for a random Myth from elsewhere in the Realm. They roll the Forest, which the Company have already encountered the first five Omens from. This means they’ll encounter the sixth and Omen.

Ref: Okay… hm…

Ref fumbles slightly, as the previous omens had all been encountered in areas with plenty of trees, an easy fit for the Forest.

Ref: A bitter mist rolls over the tundra again, chilling your faces. Through the mist you can see shapes. It looks like a forest.

Moss: I thought this whole area was a sort of frozen wasteland?

Ref: Yeah, it was. 

Tal: Oh, I bet this is something to do with the Forest, right?

Moss: Yeah, shall we go in?

Tal: I think we should! We’re meant to be “seeking the Myths” after all.

Moss: Okay, let’s carefully go in.

Ref: As you enter the mist begins to clear. The air even feels warmer. Looking around, you feel like you’re in the middle of a deep forest, despite having only walked a few paces into the trees. 

Moss: At least it’s warm.

Ref: A towering figure stands boldly between the trees. Their body is thick, writhing wood, knotted and gnarled. Their hands are like great clawed roots. The imposing creature looms over you. What do you do?

THOUGHTS

Remember that Myths operate under their own rules, and they don’t need to follow the usual laws of reality.

This means situations like this one, where a Myth’s Omen feels an odd fit for the current situation, can easily be woven into the ongoing story. 

It helps that, in general, the players want to find Omens and resolve Myths, as this is the main way that they gain Glory. Besides, the nature of Omens is that they’re all going to happen eventually, so being caught off-guard by one isn’t a huge problem.

I like that Ref doesn’t try to contradict their previous description of the area. The wasteland was just as frozen and inhospitable as they had previously described, and now it’s miraculously transformed into a thick forest. 

One of the reasons that Knights tend not to have magical-feeling abilities is that I want the world to feel more magical than the people within it. 

You’ll be exploring a mystical land, and while you’ll sometimes benefit or suffer at the hands of its magic, you’ll never quite understand or control it yourself. 

This is perfect for handling these moments, but should never be done at the cost of the previously established fiction of the game.

When they enter the woods, Ref jumps straight into the encounter with the Fearmonger in their true form. This is fine, but there was also an opportunity to have the players explore this strange place a little before the Fearmonger shows themselves. It would give a little more weight to the fact that the Forest manifested so suddenly, allowing the players to take that in for a moment before thrusting them into a high-stakes situation. 

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon. 

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Folklore

Knowledge is power in Mythic Bastionland.

What does the Oddpocrypha have to say about that?

PLAY

The Company are staying in the Holding of a friendly ruler. After dinner they are left to their own devices for a while. They have already encountered one Omen of the Child.

Ref: Okay, what are you both doing?

Tal: The ruler here seems friendly enough, but I’ll see if anybody else looks keen to talk.

Moss: I’ll ask around to see what people know about the Child.

Ref: Okay, Tal, as you’re moving around the hall a Knight strides over. You’ve not met them before, they’re…

Ref rolls on some Spark Tables to get an idea of their appearance.

Ref: He looks sort of soft-bodied for a Knight, a tattered cloak over his patchwork mail. He speaks to in a whispered tone.

Ref rolls a random Myth of the Realm for this Knight to know about, getting the Shadow.

Ref: “Greetings, Knight. Have you come from the north?”

Tal: Erm… (she checks the map) no, we’ve ridden in from to the east.

Ref: “Well, take my word for it, if you’re heading north then don’t look too closely into the shadows. A sorrowful presence lurks there. My brother-in-arms has already been taken by its melancholy.”

Tal: Is this something to do with the Child?

Ref: He doesn’t seem to know anything about the Child. He explains that he’s recently arrived in the Realm. He also describes the location of a monument he passed on the way, the mausoleum of a nameless Knight.

Ref points to the monument’s location on the map, a few Hexes north of the Holding.

Tal: Great, that’s useful.

Moss: Yeah, do I have any luck?

THOUGHTS

Non-player characters can be useful in different ways. They can offer hospitality, equipment, remedies, military aid, new positions in a council, or even a Holding to rule. Whoever they are, most people are also able to offer the resource of knowledge, as detailed in the Folklore section of the rules.

We can see the importance of this here, with Moss actively seeking information and Tal being more passive. I like that Ref gives Tal this useful information even though she didn’t explicitly ask for it. When it comes to Myths I like to ensure they’re worked into the conversations happening all across the Realm, even if the character is a new arrival.

Ref gives some very vague knowledge of the Shadow here. They could have had the Knight outright explain an encounter with the Shadow, or one of its omens, but the key is that they wouldn’t know the inner workings of the Myth. That level of knowledge is restricted to Seers, and is the basis for their powerful position within the society of the Realm.

Ref could have gone further here, and had the Knight who Tal meets actually be the Knight described in the Myth itself. One Omen describes a sorrowful Knight, lashing out at passers-by, and they could have presented this character to the Company, appearing before their miserable fate.

They could go in another direction, changing the Myth so that this new Knight is the one present in the Omen.

Instead, Ref takes the slightly safer option of having the Knight who Tal meets simply having a connection to the Knight that will appear in a later Omen. Still effective, but it’s always good to consider other options.

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon. 

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Hospitality

How does hospitality work in Mythic Bastionland?

PLAY

The Company encounter an Omen of the Pack, describing a shepherd having lost his flock. The Knights do their best to help, but the Shepherd is heartbroken.

Moss: Wait, where does this shepherd live? We’re nowhere near a Holding or Dwelling.

Ref: Do you want to ask him?

Moss: Yeah, okay.

Ref: He gestures in the direction of his home, a simple hut hidden away within this Hex. He also has a second hut in the neighbouring Hex, where he sometimes moves his flock. 

Tal: We should rest up here before we start our journey back to the Seat of Power. 

Ref: Yeah, proper hospitality restores your VIG, remember? You’ve both got some wounds that would benefit from it. 

Moss: Okay, I ask the shepherd if he can provide a warm place to sleep for tonight.

Ref: I mean he’s despairing about his flock being torn apart by his own dogs, so I wouldn’t expect too much of a warm welcome. He offers you a place for the night, as is the custom, but you get the sense he’d rather you weren’t there. 

Ref pauses for a moment.

Ref: Actually, one of you can give me a SPI Save to see what his response is like.

Tal rolls an 18, failing the Save.

Ref: Yeah, he takes you in and cooks you some food, rolls out some simple, bedding, but the conversation is clearly focused on when you’re both going to leave tomorrow.

Moss: Rude.

Tal: I mean I guess he’s got bigger problems to deal with right now. Okay, let’s work out what we’re doing the next morning. 

Ref: Sure, and you can both restore VIG. 


THOUGHTS

Knights can expect hospitality from most of the people they encounter on their travels, but this can still create some interesting conflicts. Commonly these are based around how much the Company are willing to upset their host by outstaying their welcome, or whether the host is bold enough to ask for something in return. 

This section of play starts with a good example of how the Realm can be moulded by both the actions of the Knights and the Myths as they unfold. In an area with no mention of inhabitants, a Myth describes a shepherd. This suggests that the shepherd must have a dwelling nearby, even if it was not previously noted on the map, and so it becomes reality. 

I’d encourage Ref to note this down on the map as a new Dwelling. 

Of course, if the Company were in a Hex utterly unsuitable for a shepherd to live in, then the Referee might find a reason for them to be so far from home. Perhaps they’re in the middle of a long journey or pilgrimage.

Ref also indulges in asking for a Spirit Save to gauge the shepherd’s reaction to the Knights’ request for hospitality. This feels like a very low stakes roll, as even with a failure the shepherd allows the knights to stay. 

Normally I look to the mantra of “no risk, no roll” but I still think there’s a place for Saves like this in the quieter moments of play. For example, if Tal had passed the Save then perhaps the shepherd might encourage them to stay even longer, becoming reliant upon the Knights for a feeling of security after their ordeal. 

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon. 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

The Quieter Moments

An RPG session probably shouldn't be non-stop action. Those quiet moments can sometimes be overlooked by GM advice sections, so I wanted to touch on them when discussing landmarks in the Oddpocrypha chapter of Mythic Bastionland. 

PLAY

The Company is in a tower, overlooking the surrounding Hexes. Ref gestures to each Hex as they describe the terrain in broad terms.

Ref: The forest continues all across the west. The south looks more marshy, and there are rough hills to the east.

On their copy of the map, Ref notices there’s a Landmark in a neighbouring Hex, a Ruin. They rolled a prompt for this as part of their prep, noting that it relates to the Blade, a Myth not currently active in the Realm. The prompt for the Ruin was “crumbled bridge”.

Ref: You can spot a bridge in the distance out in this direction, but you can’t really see the details from this far away.

The players decide to head toward the bridge, arriving in the next Phase of the day.

Ref: Okay, so the bridge spans a mostly dried up stream and has collapsed, the centre now a heap of rubble.

Ref turns to the Blade myth to look for a hint to place here. They decide to use “Ilglamrent”, one of the names given for the Blade.

Ref: In amongst the rubble you can see a large block, previously part of the bridge. There’s something carved on it, covered in red moss.

Tal: I’ll carefully scrape it off with my dagger, trying to see the carving.

Ref: It’s faint but you can just make out the shape of a sword, the word “Ilglamrent” written down the length of its blade. 

Tal: Huh. 

Moss: I’ll look through the rubble. Maybe there’s a sword down here?

Ref: Yeah you dig through but there doesn’t seem to be anything of note.

Moss: Right. Hm. 

Ref: So where next?

THOUGHTS

Where Myths and Holdings generally act as the major features within the Realm, Landmarks tend to have a more understated place in the game.

Ruins in particular can feel almost out of place, offering a glimpse at a Myth that won’t actually be used in the Realm as it stands. The intent is to hint at a wider and older world, and as we see here it can create moments that border on downright anticlimactic.

I don’t think this is something to be feared. These moments of relative calm can be a welcome change of tempo, especially when used sparingly. I like that Ref allows the moment to play out before giving the players a gentle nudge to move on, asking them where they want to go next.

Ref did just about enough preparation here, rolling the Ruin’s Myth ahead of time and choosing a prompt for its general description. They could have gone further and worked out how the bridge tied in to the Blade, but they were able to improvise this just fine.

If they really found themselves stuck, unable to draw a connection between the Ruin and its Myth, then I’d encourage them to take a more relaxed approach. Maybe for now this bridge is just a bridge, no Myth connection at all. It still acts as a small point of interest in the world, a literal landmark to help with navigation. 

They could also place a person near to the Ruin, giving them knowledge of the related Myth. Perhaps here a wandering pilgrim is seeking the Blade, but so far nobody in this Realm has heard of it. Anything that helps the world feel large or old would work.

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This post was originally sent as a reward to all Patreon supporters, and is released freely on this site the week after its original publication.

If you want to support my blog, podcasts, and video content then head over to my Patreon.