New on Desk #55 — Cold and Tired

I got nothing done this week aside from the gaming stuff. Too cold for it or something. Even this newsletter will be perfunctory.

My theory of cold depression

The theory is simple: when it’s cold it’s nicer to stick to sleeping. Bears know where it’s at. Going out is a bother and a half with all the thermal insulation, and a word to the wise: jogging is fun (acquired taste, maybe, but I enjoy suffering), but maybe don’t do that at -25 C° — tasting your frozen lungs on the back-breath isn’t so fun.

Life-hack: wear a mask, even if the closest Covid case is like 200 km away. External breath chambering is an oldie but goodie in accomodating cold conditions.

So bear-wise, I’ve been sleeping a lot this week. Sleeping and procrastinating, although admittedly I’ve also been a bit busy with the gaming in what little productive time there’s been. Still, I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time getting the simplest things done, and sleeping double shifts. The working theory is that I couldn’t possibly keep being so low in energy for long, so next week’ll probably be better.

Aphorism of the Week

I’ll also share with you an aphorism that I’ve been chewing on this week. I’m not sure where it’s from; the piece sounds so edgy that it could be some throw-away faux-deep pop culture line, but it also feels like I came up with it myself. I don’t know. It’s anyway just a remix:

Existence is rotting flesh.

As is the case with cynical wisdom in general, I don’t mean that in a desperate tone of voice. Nobody owes me youth and happiness, and I certainly have no fetish for rot. It’s more of a reminder of how fleeting our mortal presence is on this Earth, and how disgusting is the substratum upon which our feeble attempts at divinity grow. Memento mori, y’all.

Aphorism is a challenging genre of literature, and one that is oft misunderstood in my experience. The purpose of the terse witticism is to be silently mulled over during the incidental window of time when the words and your mind, chaotic machinery that it is, align. I’m not actually sure if there is even much merit to sharing aphorisms between people, or if it’s all just a status game riding on fame and sophistication; the true aphorism is the one that is crafted in specific words that happen to speak to you, flowering into a greater understanding. This week I’ve felt the above thought to be resonant and meaningful, despite the general sentiment being an oft-expressed stoic truism. The ugly ulcers and pustules I’m developing this winter probably have to do with how this specific phrasing speaks to me right now.

Monday: Coup de Main #30

We went boating with the Coup! Specifically, the party decided to attempt to reach the mysterious Castle Greyhawk, this legendary folly of the last landsgraf of Greyhawk, one Zagyg Yragerne. The working theory ended up being that roads are for birds, and legs on men are a distraction — so a big fat row-boat would be just the thing for getting to the castle!

The adventurers hired a boat and swain at Yggs and retraced the route taken by the party’s legendary founder Sven Torsson when he fled the Castle earlier in the spring, one of the very few to have escaped its confines in living memory. Sven, back in the campaign intro sequence, jumped from the castle’s walls into the river and the floated all the way down to Yggsburg. Reason states that the reverse should also be possible, for all that the local boaters do not generally speaking try to enter the old woods surrounding the Castle.

The amusing part of the session was that while there was no harassment from random encounters, the party had a fight in their hands in managing to row their way upstream. The spring rains had just subsided (last week’s adventuring happened through at best a steady drizzle), so the river was somewhat more rigorous than normal. The running joke of the session was how the rowing skills of the party members increased in leaps and bounds. Phun the scholastic milk-beard got so thoroughly exhausted that the party had to take an entire day off rowing to account for his delicate constitution and inability to roll <16 on the d20.

My favourite bit was when the party got into the penultimate hex and gathered their strength to row through the rapids, a more narrow and fast-paced part of the stream just downriver from the Castle. Frida the Witch, who has a sorcerous talent for omen-reading, realized that should the party try the rapids, they would manage to push the boat through the current, but only at the price of their boatswain hireling keeling dead from the exertion. The poor man’s heart would give out.

Frida is a good gal (if a bit misguided at times), so she convinced the rest of the party to delay taking on the rapids. Going the rest of the way on land was considered, and it was generally all good clean fun in wilderness adventuring style, with signs of monsters and exotic herbs entertaining the party. Frida is something of a herbalism maven, so she couldn’t resist looking for rare herbs, and did she find some — apparently the rare “Witch Lotus Root” grows in the old woods! It’s purported to be capable of granting you spell-casting abilities.

The undergrowth of the old woods proved too much of a bother for a party who hoped to not only get there, but also to get back in a reasonable time-frame, so they opted to brave the rapids after Phun had recovered sufficiently to row his part. The delay worked out for the party, saving the unsuspecting boatswain’s frail heart. With delight and trepidation the party discovered the campaign’s first major expedition success, Castle Greyhawk in all its glory!

The Castle proved an intimidating sight, very much saying “Castlevania was modeled after the castle that was modeled after me, fuckers!” Mist clinged to the towers, and the rocky outcrop upon which the Castle lies suggested many distinct caves and nooks to be found even without braving the cliffs or looming crenellations, seemingly abandoned.

(I’m seriously a bit impressed by this Castle Zagyg stuff that I’m using for Greyhawk here. It’s far too wordy for my tastes, but the actual architecture honors the concept of the Castle well. Get some editing in here and it’s great.)

The party opted for a soft hand, puttering about a bit in the wasteland south of the Castle buff, on their toes in expectation of an attack to come. Nothing occurred, though, and when the party successfully scouted an owlbear (oldies but goodies, I expect we’ll see more of classic old school dungeon filler in this place) in one of the caves in the cliff-face they decided to head back to town.

The absolute best part about the river thing was how quick it was to get back to town, going down-river. Like three days upriver, half a day downriver. That could be useful for future operations, what with a party on the upswing being more able to deal with unexpected complications. Gotta get some rowers, though, or work out more.

A totally accidental random encounter on the way back was pretty ominous; the odds were something like 1.5%, but it just so happened that Kimchel the Merchant (the Wizards’ Guild agent) was just traveling upstream, apparently on the same business of achieving the Castle Greyhawk via the river route, with his own adventuring party. It seems like the race is on! (No, I’ve no idea what they’re racing for. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.)

Session #31 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 18.1., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #4

Meanwhile in the Sunndi fork of the Coup campaign, the party bounced right back up after being so cruelly TPK’d by a random goblin encounter last week. The new plans revolved around Captain Bootsie, the trusted confidante slave-warrior of the local ruling Prince (“Glory to the Prince!”); Bootsie had survived last adventure by virtue of remaining behind, planning his ambitious expedition to find the troglodyte caverns that would surely exist somewhere in the swamps.

Troglodytes have been stealing livestock from farming villages paying fealty to the Prince (“Glory to the Prince!”) of Eyedrin, who’s become something of an intimate sponsor of the adventuring party ever after Antti was lucky enough to roll Bootsie as his starting character. This was one of the initial adventuring hooks I presented to the party at game start; not the easiest one, as it involves a bit of hexcrawling to find the troglodyte warrens, and intelligent cave-dwellers are the most dangerous game at low levels. Still, this is also the only adventure hook that is actually pressing on the safety of the community.

The hexcrawling was fun, I thought; everybody doesn’t like it as an activity, and that’s fine, but for me there’s something interesting in the inherent white noise of expedition logistics, searching the countryside and dealing with random encounters. It’s a simple game formula that isn’t any worse than dungeons as an adventure scheme.

There were several notable random encounters as the party worked their way through the habitated countryside and deeper into the wilderness:

Bullywugs: Some local farmers told the party that Bullywugs had been sighted pretty close to town. This is a bit unusual this high up the Pawluck River. There’s a complex cultural history between bullywugs and humans (the auld alliance of the humans of Sunndi, from when Wastri the Hopping Prophet was revered in the land) that basically boils down to parts of the rural population being friendly with them and remembering the old ways. The PCs, heroes that they are (the Sunndi party leans distinctly Chaotic Stupid, in case last week’s TPK didn’t make that clear), parleyed with the river-dwelling frog-men for information on the troglodytes, and then attempted a surprise attack on them. The Bullywugs handily escaped into the river and no, this will certainly not come back to haunt the adventurers later, why do you ask.

Troglodytes: The party accidentally encountered one of the Troglydyte raiding parties on the way back home to their warrens. The tactical play must have been frustrating for the players, but I hope it was educational as well. The human scouts of the adventuring party discovered the troglodytes handily from a fair distance away, and the strategic model the players rigidly locked onto near immediately was that a) the trogs are far too scary to face directly, and therefore b) the party has to lure them into an ambush. Well and good, it was just that their “luring” was so weak-ass that I was forced to debate with myself whether I should even roll for it. Their ploy was literally just to send a random guy to moon the trogs, apparently in the hopes of their becoming enraged and obediently following the lure to the ambush. When the trogs (understandably) chose to instead hurry up and get deeper into the swamp, the adventurers let them go.

Rival adventurers: Later on, the party had gathered a variety of context clues and gone looking for the trog warrens in the Black Hills (yes, this is Darkness Beneath in case that wasn’t clear yet). It just so happened that Elmermer the Fighter, apparently a refugee from a Japanese light novel, had taken his heroic adventuring party to the same task! When the players met with the blatantly heroic Elmermer, his elf waifu Lamendel, their taciturn Elf-Friend (Chaotic Good Paladin-equivalent) friend Setrep and the Thief Garfunkel, they did not waste any time joining forces. Taken together, the two parties with all their hirelings numbered about 30 people — they would be sure to defeat the troglodytes now! Elmermer’s obvious Goodness would surely not come in the way of the Chaotic Stupid.

The party kinda-sorta had some confidence in knowing the rough area where the trog warrens might be, but as is easy to do, they’d over-emphasized a clue; in hearing that trogs aren’t that fond of watery marsh conditions, and that their warrens are more likely to be in a drier place, they were pretty confident that the warrens would be found on the Black Hills. This had the potential to take them a while, as they stuck to the hill hexes and explored systematically to find the warrens (actually to the south of the hill range, in heathland descending towards the swamp). The Elmermer adventurers brought in parallel information sources (they’re rather close to the elves of Menowood, Elmermer and his pals), but those didn’t shake the belief in the hill country either, merely confirmed the idea that the warrens were surely in one of these 5–10 hexes they’d narrowed down to.

(This is, by the way, core hexcrawling play as far as I understand it. Robust rules for travel, navigation, wilderness survival in various terrains. Discoveries to be made, and the gratifying pop-pop-pop as the map fills up with more or less carefully explored hexes.)

Before the party could run out of supplies or get eaten by the Manticore apparently living in the Black Hills, they had a lucky encounter with another troglodyte raiding party. (They’re relatively common when you’re hanging out within 10 miles of their warrens.) This time the party, perhaps encouraged by the ~10 extra fighters Elmermer brought to the table, were much more aggressive about assaulting the ~8 or so trogs with a fair 3:1 advantage.

We found that the trogs aren’t much of a fighting force when assaulted in the heath during the daytime: being underground-adapted lizard men, they have issues with eyesight and overheating. The trogs ended up running away, and for a time they could keep away, but a half hour of quick marching seemed to tire them out such that it was questionable whether they could defend themselves at all when finally cornered.

The trog forced march did succeed in bringing them to a still-water pond that they jumped into, apparently intending to cool down a bit and perhaps force the humans to fight in an awkward position. As the humans delayed, opting for missile weapons, the trog last gambit was to wade and swim over the pond and then try to run away altogether.

The party captured one of the trogs and let the rest go. Elmermer, being a decisive (and dumb) guy didn’t hesitate to send his Elf and Thief out to follow the trogs. Perhaps they could be followed to the warrens, finally?

I guess my liking this kind of hexcrawl emergent content shows in how detailed I got in describing the session.

Thursday: Christmassy Lapfantasy

Christmassy Lapfantasy actually takes a fair bit of my working time right now, despite my writing about it here relatively little. I would still characterize that mostly I’m just lazy, but the game does admittedly press on me a bit. I’ll be happy when we conclude it. On the other hand, it is a delight to see the scenario weave together the various plots of the different players.

I just stopped for a moment to consider whether there’s something I could share about the crazy special forces warmaking doctrines, or the brazen free trade colonialism, or the funky Lovecraft-Moomin-Burroughs magic maneuvers, but the fact is that everything happening in the game is occluded from at least one of the other players, so I shouldn’t crow about how clever the players are. Let them find out for themselves what their opposing numbers are plotting!

Sunday: Coup in Sunndi #5

We did an extra session of Coup with the local crowd today. As I understand, the inspiration was simply that it was a free day, and the game’s proving so entertaining that the guys wanted to do more of it. I’m not one to complain about that!

Continuing on from Tuesday, the adventurers were trying to find this troglodyte lair, and as it happened, the trog raiding party they accosted in the Black Heath (the moors south of the Black Hills), when driven to escape, were foolish enough to lead the party’s scouts right to their doorstep. They could probably have achieved this by simply following the trogs without attacking them, too, but all’s well that ends well.

What followed was an intense dungeoneering session in the Warrens of the Troglodytes. This had it all. Some high points:

Better lucky than smart: The trogs had a disgusting refuse pit in a cave, so of course one of the more let’s say Chaotic Stupid (I say Stupid, but I mean Evil) party members had to go traipsing there in search of treasure. The mandatory amber ooze in the refuse rightly had a firm hold of his boot, only to fumble its attack roll and let go of a sure-fire kill!

Moon Slime is horrifying: Calithena (the module author) shows his evil colors with a room full of translucent dissolving slime. The party actually went into the room in closed ranks combat order, so the front row of three walked straight into the slime. At least PCs are cowardly enough to let NPC adventurers go first. Elmermer the Hero stumbled back in time while two of his hirelings gave us such a horrid show that two of the PCs took major mental stress damage. I can’t blame Bootsie for taking 6 mental stress (and isn’t he a wonder — the man has 7 HP, so survived with his sanity intact) when seeing a panicking man running deeper into the slime, struggling forward in slow motion as the flesh strips from his bones…

Chaotic Stupid in full flower: So you’ve allied yourself with this party that basically screams “Good and honorable!” in different flavours, what with the chivalric leader and their haughty elf waifu and so on. This being the case, obviously your first reaction to some poor armsman having the flesh of their skull melted by moon slime should be to pick his pockets. When this is discussed afterwards, the obvious play is to act offended and refuse to see any distinction between the bodies of allies and enemies. They didn’t even let you keep the 7 GP!

Yet the comeuppance comes short: Now, the elf that these other adventurers had with them, Lameniel, is a member of the “Choir of Contrition” or some such; basically an elven chivalric order of some kind maybe, but the point is, they’re rather stick-in-the-ass, and haughty at the best of times, so the PC party’s happy-go-murderhobo style is really rubbing them wrong. Lameniel, being an inhumanly decisive and self-important elf, decides to throw the Chaotic Stupid corpse-pilferer into the seemingly bottomless pit in the dungeon. Being elfy-competent that’s as soon said and done. The wondrous (and so disappointing!) part was that the bugger survived the fall and was fished out by his allies with more loyalty than common sense.

So we had fun with party dynamics. The best part of this arrangement is that the PC party is not pure Chaotic Stupid — they have Bootsie the Lawful Neutral Sriracha Mameluke de facto leading them, as he’s the one with the government contracts for rewards, and the one with the slave soldier platoon ready to punch holes into anybody stepping too far out of line. I imagine that without Bootsie there the two adventuring parties would have quickly ended up outright murdering each other (as opposed to merely incidental murder attempts). Bootsie is a loyal member of team PC, so I haven’t managed to talk him into throwing the rest of the murderhobos into the pit quite yet.

I thought that the dungeon was pretty varied and interesting, with plenty of potential. The party ultimately ended up wiping out a 9-member troop of troglodytes without major casualties. It’s just that the one casualty was the Elf Lameniel, who did survive being wounded, but caused Elmermel the romantic lover (I think all the players grok by this point that Lameniel might not feel quite the same) to be quite distracted. The delve ended with the party retreating successfully out of the warrens; we’ll see next time how they’ll follow up from that. Maybe retreat back to town now that they know where the warren is; this party’s played things safe so far, and that would be the safe play.

State of the Productive Facilities

Yeah, no. I haven’t even gotten around to writing that update for the crowdfunding campaign. I’ll need to get to that soon, otherwise the backers’ll think that I’ve absconded with the money.

Actually, I shouldn’t downplay the fact that we have had some pretty solid discussions about old school D&D at the RPG Theory club, the Discord home of the Coup campaign and my D&D development lab. This week alone we’ve rehashed some pretty heavy topics like the role of the caller and party organization in general, the evergreen HP cancel debate, and the best practices of module writing. That’s not nothing, even if it feels like I’m not making much progress.

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