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Late autumn is upon us, and it’s the season to curl up in front of a roaring fire with a good book. New books in autumnal green and brown are the limited edition versions of The Fall of DELTA GREEN and the 13th Age Bestiary 2, available in the webstore this month, alongside a compendium of mythos monsters and more in Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos, available to pre-order now.

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13th Age

Elf Queen SketchThe 13th Age core book tells us little about the Queen’s Wood, where the Elf Queen rules: it’s a sprawling elven wood, largely empty now, whose trees have leaves that are “a riot of silver and gold and green and indigo.” In the lengthy description of the elven Court of Stars in 13 True Ways, we learn a bit more:

The Queen’s Wood redounds with the magic of nature, to which the elves of all mortal races remain most bound. The Court of Stars moves in harmony with the other, inaccessible natural worlds hanging high in the heavens. It moves across the magical forest as the constellations proceed through the night sky above. As such it comprises the central vortex of the ever-growing, ever-breathing collection of living things that is the Queen’s Wood. Just as the plants of the forest floor can grow from seed to maturity in a few short hours, the forest transforms itself as the Court approaches. To try to map it is fruitless. It’s not that you can’t perceive it properly—all the details of the physical environment exist in literal reality. But by the time you’ve drawn up your map, the details have faded into obsolescence.

So, here we have a fairy wood, ever-changing under the Queen’s influence. This is more than enough to spark the imagination when it comes to adventures inside the Queen’s Wood: this place is magic, but of a vastly different kind than the Archmage’s in Horizon. Time and space behave differently here, not because someone harnessed the power of wizardry and, through force of will, made it that way. There’s no “because” here; things simply are, the way they simply are in a fairy tale.

How do you represent this in your game, should you decide to send your heroes on a quest within in the Queen’s Wood? Here’s how two of my favorite fantasy authors handled the matter of the deep, magical forest, and those who dwell within.

Little, Big: The Further In You Go, The Bigger It Gets

John Crowley’s novel Little, Big chronicles the lives of the Drinkwater family, whose destiny is mysteriously bound up with the fairies. In a flashback to the Victorian era, we hear an ancestor, Dr. Bramble, explain why he believes descriptions of the little folk vary so wildly—from tiny people with “spears of locust-thorns and their chariots made of nutshells” to fully-formed men and women three feet tall, all the way up to “fairy warriors on great steeds, banshees and pookahs and ogres who are huge, larger by far than men.”

His theory is that the universe consists of worlds or layers of reality in concentric circles. Our world is the outermost, largest ring; but paradoxically, the further in you go, the bigger those innermost worlds are. Passing through a “door” into the next circle brings one into contact with the smallest of the fey. Entering the next circle, you meet larger fey. At the center is the infinite realm of Faery.

Using this approach in an adventure within the Queen’s Wood makes the journey a multidimensional one that plays with the idea of perception vs. reality. The characters may perceive themselves to be traveling through a forest, but they’re actually transitioning between parallel worlds. Each world, zone, circle—however you want to frame it—is home to different types of fey creatures found in 13th Age. But perhaps in the Queen’s Wood, elves, pixies, sprites,  and so on only appear to be different types of creatures because the PCs encounter them in different places. Maybe the next time they glance over at the pixie NPC who agreed to be their guide, that tiny, winged creature has become a faun, or a tall elven warrior with a shining spear. (See the fey entry in the 13th Age Bestiary 2, particularly the power of a name mechanic which gives fey different powers depending on which name they’ve taken.)

Lavondyss: Old Forbidden Place

In Robert Holdstock’s book Lavondyss, Ryhope Wood is England’s last primeval forest, and the way into the Otherworld, or “Old Forbidden Place” as the book’s hero Tallis calls it. Here, “mythagos”—hero-forms from myth, legend, and folklore—take material form from the power of the forest and the often dark, violent subconscious of humanity. You could meet Guinevere, or Robin Hood, or olderheroes from humanity’s prehistoric past here. But the Robin Hood you meet might not be the version you’re familiar with, or want: a winking rogue in Lincoln Green, or a strange, silent predator. Arthur might look like Malory’s noble Once and Future King, or might be Artorius, a Latin-speaking military commander covered in mud and blood.

If you like the idea of ancient heroes and legends (or their phantoms) dwelling in the Queen’s Wood, here’s where you open your copy of The Book of Ages and dive in—because past icons make great mythagos. This version of your players’ journey through the forest has a dreamlike feeling where past and present are mingled, and turning a corner might lead them to the scene of the Barbarian King’s last battle, a tangled path where the Huntsman has laid his snares, or to the foot of the Hermit’s tower. These shadow forms of the icons might be friends, foes, or both. It’s likely that the elves will warn you away from them, but maybe there’s a piece of vital information you need, and only the Spelljack (or his memory) has it.

For this approach, I recommend checking out the chapter on Heroquesting in 13th Age Glorantha. The PCs might perform a ritual in the Queen’s Wood, where the barriers of time and space are flexible, to enter a timeless realm of heroes and participate in the significant events of past ages as they exist in myth and dream. Success there could provide mythic insights or special magic items, or even alter the world in the present day by setting right an ancient wrong.

About 13th Age

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

“Like all decadents he was exquisitely sensitive to the color and atmosphere and names of things …”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

Much of the ironic entertainment of playing in Lovecraft’s universe comes from playing, well, in Lovecraft’s universe, or at least his Earth. Specifically, from playing with his names. And not just the Big Names like Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, but the human-scale names in his world. Meeting a supporting character named Waite, spotting a gunshot-riddled sign for the turnoff to Dunwich, discovering a slim volume in violet buckram by Randolph Carter — these very specific joys come from the very specific associations we formed with those names as readers of Lovecraft’s fiction over years or decades. Crack open your copy of The Lovecraft Lexicon by Anthony Pearsall and salt your campaign with those joys to taste.

The downside is that in order to enjoy them, the players must recognize those names as fictions within your fiction, the equivalent of seeing the “clue glow” in a video game. This endangers immersion, and mitigates against suspension of disbelief. If, as Lovecraft wrote to Clark Ashton Smith, “no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax,” then you damage terror and verisimilitude by introducing people and place names taken straight from fiction, and from increasingly familiar fiction at that.

In a classic Call or Trail game set in the 1920s or 1930s, players tend to adopt an ironic detachment from the running boards and candlestick telephones of the setting even without guest appearances by glittery-eyed weirdos named Tillinghast or Curwen. The past is another country, one that might very well have a seaside town named Kingsport in it.

But in a 1960s Fall of DELTA GREEN game, and even moreso a Cthulhu adventure set in the present day, players’ sense of the game world begins to bleed into the “real” and away from the stage set of the past. Thus, the unreal breaks harder when it breaks: if you know in your heart that Googling “Henry Armitage” gets you a “Fictional Librarians” tag on Wikipedia, it’s harder to play along when your Investigator Googles “Henry Armitage” and gets “Head Librarian, Miskatonic University 1924-1936.” To say nothing of the knowledge that Miskatonic University itself is just a cooler Hogwarts with a slightly better Defense Against the Dark Arts program.

Compare to the national name brand!

“The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Dragnet, opening narration

Alan Moore, as is his wont, has limned another approach, one that pays increasing dividends the closer your campaign gets to the present. Moore pointed the way out of this box in his comics series Providence (and before that, in The Courtyard and Neonomicon). Moore presents a Cthulhoid world with H.P. Lovecraft in it, a jetée we’ve danced before. Lovecraft’s stories, it transpires, actually happened in that world (which also has Chambers-style suicide temples in them as well) but Lovecraft, one assumes, changes the names, dates, and details when he fictionalizes them for his weird tales.

Elspeth Wade becomes Asenath Waite; the Boggs family of Salem becomes the Marsh family of Innsmouth; Ronald Underwood Pitman becomes Richard Upton Pickman. Moore interweaves real places and people as well: Manchester, New Hampshire becomes Arkham; the (historical) alchemist and Caliph’s son Khalid ibn Yazid becomes Abdul Alhazred (and also, as he did in actual early modern Latin manuscripts, “Hali”); the (historical) werewolf Jacques Roulet takes on a more important role than he did in Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House.” Moore’s “true names” (and lots of spoilers for the Moorecraftian tales) appear here, for the curious.

Presenting various names and places (especially real-world versions) as lightly coded (or de-coded, depending on which direction your epistemology polarizes) versions of Lovecraft’s names and places doesn’t break immersion because the players’ action of de-coding the game names mirrors their Investigators’ action of, well, investigating them. The player deduction that “Weldon Wycherley” is “actually” Wilbur Whateley reinforces and recuperates their character’s realization that the Weldon Wycherley in this picture seems awfully big for an eight-year-old boy. Players become alert for twins and mysterious hills and standing stones, mirroring their Investigator’s discovery of a hidden twin and a strange ruin on Sepulcher Hill. Thus, following Moore and making the various changes transparent ones helps the story and the drama along.

Or start with Earth, but even moreso! Real names and careers of Salem witches, for example, can provide an interesting warp for the Lovecraftian weft: did John Alden, Jr. traffick in other things than guns with the Abenaki? Did his ships bring in mummies and corpses? Or did the remarkably long-lived Jonathan Curwin escape accusation (unlike his mother-in-law) thanks not to his high position but to his necromantically-obtained blackmail material? With a little effort, I bet you can find real-life electrical experimenters and disgraced surgeons who died mysteriously somewhere in New England at some time between 1914 and 1922 — and if they didn’t die mysteriously, that’s where the coverup (or the weird effect of the Mythos on memory and testimony) comes in. Pick your favorite missing U-boat and say it’s the one from “The Temple.” Lovecraft already used real floods and storms for “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark,” and a real earthquake for the rising of R’lyeh; shift places and dates until something gameable clicks into being.

Use the same approach for real locations of Lovecraftian towns and hills: if your “Kingsport” is actually Marblehead, maybe the Old Pirate House is the house of the Terrible Old Man.  Feel free to scatter them around, too. Perhaps Lovecraft re-used Arkham to further snarl the trail: the meteorite fell near Oakham, Massachusetts; the witch Ann Foster hyperspatially disappeared from Salem rather than dying (as the records were altered to indicate); and the university with the arcane ambit is actually St. Anselm College in Manchester, or Brown University in Providence, or Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. If you can’t find a real legend or ghost or crime that fits Lovecraft’s story, make one up — and finding out who kept it out of the history books (and off Google) can be another layer of the onion for your Investigators to peel back.

 

 

In 1985, on October the 26th, a dog named Einstein became the world’s first time traveler—voyaging one minute into the future in Doc Brown’s flux capacitor-powered DeLorean. (Shortly after, Marty McFly hopped in and took Doc’s time machine back to November 5, 1955.)

Most of us don’t have the budget for a DeLorean—but thankfully, you don’t need one to travel through time! Pick up the TimeWatch RPG in the Pelgrane Press webstore for 10% off with the voucher code BACK2THEFUTURE throughout this weekend, and discover the mysteries, marvels, and menaces of the timestream—from superintelligent radioactive cockroaches to psychic velociraptors and liquid metal cybernetic assassins!

Buy it now

13/10, would travel through time with again

In this week’s episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff we break format to discuss a single topic—the life and legacy of Greg Stafford.

In the latest episode of their tender, fall-off-the-bone podcast, Ken and Robin talk unstoppable invasion, CHUDs, John Kovalic, and nocebo curses.

If you’re the kind of GM who hosts inspirational movie nights for your players, my number one suggestion for getting them in the GUMSHOE mindset has to be All the President’ Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976.)

It reinforces the two most important tips players need to get into the mindset of investigators and successfully solve the complex mysteries the game system specializes in:

    * Keep learning more

    • * You gotta talk to people

    Made gripping by Pakula’s masterfully subtle direction, the William Goldman script zeroes in on one thing and one thing only—the process by which reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) find the facts that connect the burglary of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel to the highest levels of the Nixon administration. We see exactly nothing of the protagonists’ private lives. They get scarcely a sliver of backstory—just enough to identify them as underdogs we want to see succeed. It’s all about the information gathering.

    Along the way Woodstein, as the team comes to be known, learns a third axiom of investigation that applies more to some GUMSHOE games than others. Their secret source Deep Throat tells them to:

    • * Follow the money

    Bernstein speculates his way to a correct theory of the case almost immediately. But they have to prove it to print it. Together or separately he and Woodward try to pry from scared or otherwise unwilling participants confirmations they can use. They engage in a delicate cat and mouse with reluctant witnesses. Their interview technique suggests a new GUMSHOE Interpersonal Ability called Doggedness. They worm their way into encounters with resistant informants, then rely on social norms to win a grudging, often partial, admission, by continuing to ask questions despite repeated refusals.

    When one dirty trickster, Donald Segretti, seems weirdly pleased to unburden himself, it plays as a comic twist on the already established pattern.

    The movie also demonstrates a great technique for depicting a difficulty or stymied investigation. At several points the duo hits a wall and has to dig in and keep on digging. Pakula shows the stalled progress without ever killing his film’s momentum. He does this by always making the visual depiction of the arduous legwork aesthetically pleasing in some way. The best example of this occurs in the Library of Congress, as an overhead shot pulls back further and further from the two as they sort through a stack of documents. Becoming smaller and smaller in the frame, the characters are visually dwarfed by the monumental scope of their task. As viewers, the beauty and ingenuity of the shot keep us riveted.

    Steal this technique in your games by montaging the PCs through a segment of numbing legwork with a quick and entertaining verbal flourish. You might create one yourself, or invite the players to supply the narration that then bridges them to the next core clue.

    The film is now available in a fine BluRay transfer. Its ample special features supply historical context on the entire Watergate story for anyone who needs it.


    GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

    In the latest episode of their euphonious podcast, Ken and Robin talk dungeon productivity, trap streets, GMlessness & Hillfolk, and anti-saxophone time travelers.

    In the latest episode of their starry-eyed podcast, Ken and Robin talk Toronto film fest, talking before axing, and the Satanic panic.

    At the Imperial College of the Arcane, students struggle to master the art of magic, both theoretical and applied. And wherever there are students laboring under intense pressure—both academic and social—there will always be student societies. Most tend to be small, informal groups of close friends. However, some are powerful secret societies whose histories span the ages, and whose rituals remain forever hidden from outsiders.

    This article provides a brief overview of five secret societies of the College Arcane, located in the Archmage’s city of Horizon (which you can read about in 13 True Ways). These aren’t official additions to Dragon Empire lore, but players and GMs might find them useful for adventure seeds, character backgrounds, NPC opponents, and even One Unique Things.

    Common Features:

    • 15-30 current, active members, usually chosen from specific areas of magical study or types of spellcasters. First-year students are almost never invited to become members of a secret society—society members keep an eye on promising first-year students to see if they’d be suitable candidates in the future. Belonging to multiple secret societies is forbidden, and anyone found doing so will be cast out and shunned. However, some societies are friendly with one another, and may collaborate on joint activities.
    • An official name, and sometimes a nickname that’s more commonly used to refer to the society
    • An associated icon, who might be symbolic of the society’s focus, an inspiration to its members, or even its official head
    • An enchanted badge or token which, when worn, signals membership in the society to other members who are nearby—perhaps by changing temperature, tingling, or whispering in the wearer’s ear
    • A motto
    • An initiation rite that includes a challenging ordeal and an oath of secrecy
    • A clubhouse, which at the College Arcane is called a “lair”. A secret society’s lair might take any form, whether mundane or fantastical. The key thing is that outsiders cannot see or hear what goes on inside a lair, and members can enter and exit without being seen.
    • Society activities, such as the discussion of academic topics, formal debate, carousing, public service, or tasks performed on behalf of the society’s patron icon. Depending on the nature of the society, some of these may be done publicly while others are private and subject to the oath of secrecy.

    The Good Fellows

    Nickname: The Hellhole Club

    Membership: Primarily wizards and demonologists (from Book of Demons), if your campaign’s version of the College Arcane accepts demonologists as students.

    Associated icon: The Diabolist.

    Motto: “From Shadows, Light. From Light, Understanding.”

    Badge or token: Two hands clasped in friendship.

    Initiation includes: The candidate’s courage and will is tested by branding the society’s badge on their exposed skin. The brand (and associated pain) vanishes within seconds.

    Principal activities: Discussion of magic related to demons, devils, and the Abyss; the pursuit of power and influence.

    In reality, the Good Fellows are a recruiting funnel for the cult of the Diabolist. As part of the society’s fun and games, members are required to carry out “secret missions” in the Diabolists’ name. These tasks are harmless pranks at first, but gradually become more sinister. Any member who refuses is reminded that the society now has quite a long record of that member’s diabolical acts. It would be such a shame if it ever became public… (For more on the Diabolist’s cult in Horizon, see “The Diabolist’s ‘Moderates’” in 13 True Ways, p. 148; and the Hell Marsh Cult monster entry in 13th Age Bestiary 2, p. 134.)

    Society for the Advancement and Promotion of the Defensive Magical Arts

    Nickname: B.B.F. (Blast, Burn, and Freeze)

    Membership: All spellcasters, but primarily sorcerers.

    Associated icon: The Archmage, in his capacity as defender of the Empire and caster of some wicked destructive spells.

    Motto: “Courage Under (And Possibly While On) Fire.”

    Badge or token: Two wands, crossed.

    Initiation includes: On “Dueling Day”, candidates—dressed in ridiculous costumes—must fight public “duels of honor” on college grounds using absurd weapons chosen by society members.

    Principal activities: Discussion of magic as it relates to warfare and battle; re-enacting historical battles using magical miniature landscapes and animated figurines (some dating back to the society’s founding).

    Scroll and Staff

    Nickname: The Page-Shufflers

    Membership: Wizards

    Associated icon: The Archmage, in his capacity as the Empire’s greatest master of magical learning.

    Motto: “Read Thrice, Speak Once.” (Often paraphrased as, “Know your sh*t before you open your mouth.”)

    Badge or token: An open book with the flame of the Archmage rising from its pages.

    Initiation includes: The retrieval and reading of a scroll—the society’s founding document—hidden within the College Arcane’s vast library. The member must never speak of its contents to anyone, not even other society members.

    Principal activities: Debate, study, and the discussion of magical texts from past ages. After final exams, truly legendary carousing.

    The Cacophonous Society

    Nickname: The Bleating Herd

    Membership: Primarily bards and chaos mages.

    Associated icons: Elf Queen, Spelljack (See “The Age of Founding”, Book of Ages)

    Motto: “Wit, Harmony, and Friendship.”

    Badge or token: A lyre within a laurel wreath

    Initiation includes: Candidates are given music and lyrics for the society’s anthem (an almost impossibly difficult song) and must perform it in public while the current members heap good-natured ridicule on them.

    Principal activities: Discussion of the intersection of magic and the performing arts; musical, dramatic, and comedic composition and performance (both public and private); carousing.

    Hand and Eye

    Nickname: Rag and Bone

    Membership: Primarily necromancers, wizards, and clerics of death gods.

    Associated icon: The Lich King

    Motto: “Silence.”

    Badge or token: A skull with a skeletal hand covering its right eye.

    Initiation includes: Candidates are abducted from their rooms in the dead of night and led blindfolded to a certain cemetery on College grounds. There, they experience a ceremonial death and resurrection in which they are buried alive and then dug up again an hour later. The new members are welcomed joyfully with a lavish feast.

    Principal activities: Discussion of necromantic magic, philosophy, and ethics; charitable works related to death, dying, and grieving, always performed anonymously—for example, providing a poor family with funds for the proper burial of a deceased loved one.

     

    13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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