Monday, 16 April 2018

periods of ancient time

Arnold wrote a G+ post about fantastic prehistories and Throne of Salt replied to it here with a list of forgotten epochs to be dug up by your deep-time spelunkers and wizard paleontologists. There's some of this in Deep Carbon Observatory as well. Most fantasy worlds don't concern themselves with stuff like evolution and geology - either they have some Tolkienesque divine creation myth or it just never comes up. The idea that your setting could have a semi-plausible prehistory is, as far as I can tell, an OSR innovation.

Anyway here's some more periods of ancient time.

1. Kleptocene Epoch. 

Also known as the Ten Million Years of Crime. Began when a previously harmless species of cyanobacteria figured out how to run a protection racket, demanding a greater slice of the ecosystem in exchange for not evolving to massively overproduce oxygen and devastate the global climate. Competition swiftly lead to the domination of the biosphere by brutal interspecies cartels that survived by shaking each other down - like, nice reproductive strategy you got there. Be a shame if some more efficient species started competing with you for nesting sites. Hey, are you using this migration route, because my wife has one just like it at home. The execution of a prominent genus of arboreal herbivore by a species of flowering plant that spent four hundred thousand years insinuating itself into an enemy cartel before suddenly and deliberately losing all its nutritional value sparked a gang war that wiped out 90% of all species on the globe, leaving behind only a few random strands of criminal DNA.

2. Carnocene Epoch.

Triggered by a sudden, unexplained mass extinction among the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Unrotting corpses piled up in mountains, fresh as the day they were killed except for a few bite marks. Scavengers and obligate carnivores grew fat and gigantic on the endless, risk-free food supply, wading knee-high through fields of jagged bone and clotted blood. Jungles became sunless fortresses of fallen trees, wastelands where nothing could reach the soil or the sky. Sea levels  rose as leviathan corpses piled up on the ocean floor, home to civilizations of crawling pale crabs. Theologians argue that God brought this age about as punishment for the first murder, so that the body of the first victim could never be hidden. It's not clear if humans had evolved yet but that doesn't stop them.

3. Turbozoic Era.

Characterised by a massive acceleration in tectonic activity, with mountain ranges throwing themselves up overnight and continents chasing each other around the equator like Benny Hill. Ease of intercontinental contact led to the development of a thriving heterogeneous global economy among the insect people of the time, though the difficulty of stable farming kept technology primitive and populations low. First sapient volcanoes.

4. The Age When Bacteria Were Big And Animals Were Small.


5. Svabhavan Glaciation.

Continents seeded with organic superconductors, rearranged into a single vast circuit and cooled to near-absolute zero by a hyperevolved race of yeti seeking to transform the planet into a huge computer and use its superior brain power to achieve absolute enlightenment. The computer either sublimated them into a higher dimension or killed them all and committed suicide, depending on who you ask. The planet was left to warm back up over a period of hundreds of millions of years. Multicellular life basically had to start from scratch, and the oldest sapient volcanoes are said to still be angry about it. Samples of life from before that time are preserved in hidden yeti cryovaults, guarded by terrible electronic sentinels, possibly.

6. Groovy Age.

Dominated by a phylum of fungi that released psychoactive chemicals into the atmosphere as part of their respiratory cycle, making everything very chill and relaxed. The pressure of evolutionary competition weakened as major species of carnivore began to wonder why everyone needed to be so aggressive all the time, leading to the development of herbivores goofy enough to fall backward into their open mouths. A mass extinction event was averted by the advent of fungus-eating "cop beetles", which is still gleefully cited as an example by conservatives everywhere.

7. Bird Age.

Everything was birds. Trees? Tall birds. Viruses? Small birds. Rocks? Heavy birds. People were pretty happy to see the end of this one.

8. Tartarocene Epoch.

Herd animals began to evolve hells as punishment for antisocial behaviour, leading to a population boom as they became increasingly co-operative and disinclined to masturbate. Pack hunters copied the practice, piggy-backing on equine and bovine hells instead of developing their own. A couple of species flirted with heavens but found them ineffective as a motivator. Over time the hells became more painful and horrible as species sought to outdo each other, and whole ecosystems sprung up around it - parasites without afterlives who could physically drain the sin from your body, inquisitor alphas who exiled sinners from the flock before they could corrupt the youth, temptresses who guided rival species into depravity in exchange for a kickback from the demons. Fossils from this epoch have a tendency to look very frightened.

9. Second Bird Age.

God damn it.

10. Oneirocene Epoch.

The "dreamtime period" when animals took on, and retroactively had always possessed, human form, and went around doing fairytale stuff like stealing each other's tails and accidentally creating the world from a grain of sand. Setting of all mythological origin stories. Brought all other epochs into existence and also was brought into existence by them. A fringe group of researchers argue that this epoch never happened, and was invented by fuzzy-minded fabulists as a way to reconcile the gulf between hard science and the foolish obsolete superstitions of a less rational age, but those guys are wrong.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

dinosaur mountain

Gonna need to reiterate that I can do these fucking things until time runs backwards and a scaled tyrant crawls from the stone to tear me to pieces

People Paths Cities Quests Encounters
1 Llama-herd. Trades gossip, meat, cold-weather clothes Foot-wide arch over hundred meter drop, far too fragile for anything heavier than a llama and two saddlebagsTemples, markets and farms all seem to float serenely on the surface of a mountain lakeSacrifice these fifty llamas to the storm god (a mosasaur) by throwing them off that far-away cliffSwarm of tiny vampire bats. Anaesthetic saliva means you might not notice them until the weight bears you down
2 Raptor-catcher. Trained hoatzin assists in catching colourful raptors for the sale of their feathers Ancient rope bridge, knowledge of its construction lost, now maintained by weaver pterosaursSuspended in centre of ravine by living web of vines. Population accordingly obsessed with horticultureKidnap a willing husband from the swamp people. Comprehensive demands for new husband's manly attributesVenomous pterosaurs. Their bite inflicts tremors; they'll eat you once you shake yourself off a cliff
3 Soldiers. 'border patrol' a transparent excuse to raid the neighbours Ridiculously difficult free climb, last ten meters carried out inverted. Someone at the top could just throw down a rope thoughClinging to the side of a cliff, nestled beneath an overhang. Compete for space with a gigantic colony of burrowing pterasaursSteal egg from sufficiently large dinosaur, replace with this gold egg. It's a status thingPachycephalosaurs grazing grumpily, one eye on the skies
4 Stone mason. Pragmatic and full of good, if condescending, adviceDaring leap into a cenote, said to carry the faithful to safety and dash the wicked to piecesFills underground cavern. Huge, gold sun allegory on ceiling pours a stream of flaming oil, provides somewhat underwhelming amount of lightSlay epoch beast (quetzalcoatlus) to bring about new millenniumChupacabra, clambering about on backwards monkey paws, stealing llamas and children in the night
5 Astronomer desperately trying to keep up with the ever-changing minor heavensZig-zag path up the face of a cliff. Takes hours and hours to ascend, about 10 minutes to get down on shitty wooden bikeBuilt on the second-highest peak in the range. Streets and buildings form a map of the major heavens; the position of your house affects your destinyUndo recent prophecy to spite rival. You're going to have to figure out how to fake a rainstormGiant cricket, bounding about with flailing insect idiocy. Will try to eat you, may just bear you off a cliff by mistake
6 Silversmith, always looking for new designs, inspirations and muses. Very competitiveTrudge up scree slope. Canyon walls amplify and distort all sound - speech makes the rocks quiver, shouting would bring down the whole slopeSharp tip of mountain carved into a gargantuan ziggurat, stepped farms on the slopes belowRescue noble's eldest from an ill-advised hunting trip, long since overdue to returnQuetzalcoatlus. It is thought to be the god of this cycle. Its death is considered the apocalypse, ushering in a new world

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Outlaw Generator

Generates Wild West outlaws. I will probably use this in the SUBLIGHT hexcrawl I'm now running. Pairs well with this or this or maybe even this. The gang member list also has a lot of possible uses.

Monday, 5 March 2018

dinosaur thoughts

We rewatched all the Jurassic Park movies in the last couple of days and I have a lot of half-formed thoughts about dinosaurs and monster design that need to go somewhere.

The basic unit of Jurassic Park is the theropod. From smallest to largest we have:

Compsognathus. Cute little piranha boys. You only see one at first - it looks innocent until you spot the next one, and the next one. Once there's a critical mass they jump all over you biting, then back away and wait for you to tire out from loss of blood. They stay just out of your reach like a hungry seagull will. Any "swarm" monster lets you escalate tension by slowly increasing the number of component bodies - compies are good because they combine that with the intelligent birdlike playfulness of theropods. Only in the second movie.

Dilophosaurus. Kills the fat guy in the first one. Again we see the movement from "this thing seems cute and harmless" to "wait, could it actually hurt me?" to "oh shit, I didn't know it could do that" to "I am dead". Has the frill and the poison to distinguish it from raptors - a little overdesigned, and therefore less versatile, which is probably why they never brought it back. Only so many scenes you can do with this guy.

Velociraptor. Actually a utahraptor, as we know. Smart, playful, always faintly smiling - basically a dolphin that can kill you. These films deserve immense credit for inventing a genuinely new horror monster - that's hard as hell to do. The core dynamic is "clever girl" - they can actually out-think you, which is always surprising in an animal. Immensely versatile but the writer has to work a bit harder - they should be more than wolves but it's easy to make them too human.

Tyrannosaurus rex. So big you can escape its notice - you're too small to be its natural prey. Scenes with this guy don't have as much moving around as raptor scenes. Either you're lying still and hoping it doesn't notice you or you're running away from it in a straight line. Can only see quick things - forces you to move slowly, which builds tension. The puppet they use for its head is great. The distant stomping that makes water ripple doesn't make sense - is it only taking one step every five seconds? - but still works wonders, obviously. An omen of the monster's approach, like seeing only one compsognathus. Not as sadistic as the other theropods - doesn't play with its food like the rest do. Would rather be eating a stegosaur really. A doting parent, feeds people to its babies but can you really begrudge it? The friendliest of the theropods.

Spinosaurus. The T-rex replacement in the third one. Long crocodile snout that it uses to probe into narrow spaces where people are hiding - seems designed to eat smaller prey than the T-rex mouth. Gives the sense that it actively hates you. You could make these amphibious - it could lurk like a crocodile with its sail jutting from the water like a shark fin.

Indominus rex. The genetically-engineered dinosaur from the fourth movie. This thing sucks and I hate it. It's supposed to be like a smarter crueller T-rex and also a metaphor for consumerism, but the design sucks and allegory by itself is always boring. They just glued a bunch of spikes onto a T-rex and gave it a random assortment of superpowers. It's lazy and you can't give dinosaurs superpowers, the basic idea is already complex enough that you can't overload it like that. Fuck this whole movie honestly. The name is okay though.

The movies only use a couple of other carnivores:

Pteranodon. Pointy-headed beaky boy. Clumsy and ungainly. Always on the verge of falling out of the sky. Picks people up and carries them off. When it’s on the ground it kind of hops toward you in this awkward way, stabbing at you with its beak. Interesting combination of heavy and fragile - you could break its wings with something heavy if you were lucky. Can probe into small spaces with its beak the way the spinosaur can. Wants to be fought in a three-dimensional space - there’s a good scene in the third one in a ruined aviary with ravines and catwalks and the great dome overheard. Doesn’t have the faint theropod smile and therefore does not code as playful or intelligent - it’s a mindless shrieking death monster that kills automatically. In the fourth one they dive like cormorants, which is good.

Dimorphodon. Smaller pterosaur with T-rex-esque head. Pins people down and snaps at them. A pteranodon couldn’t do this - its beak is designed for eating things smaller than itself, so they have to be bigger to be scary. Only in the fourth one, which is allergic to doing anything clever with its monsters. Have potential though. Basically another swarm monster like the compies. Could accompany a larger monster as groomers, picking parasites off its scales.

Mosasaur. Has only one move, which is to jump out of the water and grab something. Impressive by virtue of size but hard to see how you would use it. Effectively bigger-fishes the Indominus. Could maybe sink a ship - I could see one coming up through the floor of a glass-bottomed boat. They needed to let this thing get out into the ocean where it can actually move around.

The herbivores don’t really do anything and I’m not going to go through them one by one. Most of them are used as just big dumb herd animals that get captured and eaten. Julianne Moore almost gets spiked by a stegosaurus and there’s a good bit in the second one with a pachycephalosaurus attacking a jeep - its head moves almost mechanically, like a piston. Sauropods and hadrosaurs are mostly set dressing. You could do something with a triceratops - maybe it goes into musth like a male elephant, goes insane with rage and starts weeping ichor from its neck glands. Works with an ankylosaur as well.

Here are some dinosaurs they could use but don’t:

Allosaurus. Occupies the size category between the raptor and the T-rex, which is probably why they don’t use it. Could fit into human-sized spaces - I imagine this following you through caves and tunnels, cramped, its head scraping against the roof. It actively wants to kill you, specifically, but it’s not playful about it like the raptors - it just comes for you until you’re dead. Maybe an endurance hunter - could pursue you across miles of jungle terrain, scenting and tracking you. Packs of two or three. There’s a similar dinosaur called the carnotaurus, which has two immense advantages - it has horns, making it visibly distinct, and it is called “the carnotaurus”.

Elasmosaur. Would be at home in a mangrove swamp, grabbing people from beneath the water, or picking off the passengers on a sinking ship. The long serpentine neck was not actually that flexible - it wouldn’t bend like a swan or strike like a cobra, but you could make it work. Can climb out of the water, although it’s hard to imagine them going very fast. There’s one called a styxosaurus, which is good.

Ichthyosaur. The huge eyes make these guys. They’re mostly just sharks but they do look super creepy. Since they look like dolphins, and raptors are dolphins, they could be the raptors of the sea - smart, playful pack hunters. They don’t smile though. There’s something very goblinlike about them - they always look frightened and appalled. Maybe an escaped pack that strikes fishing boats on moonless nights, giving rise to ghost stories.

Quetzalcoatlus. King of the skies bb. Bigger than the T-rex - the pteranodons they use are pretty big but this would dwarf them. Same basic body structure as a giraffe. Could fill the T-rex role as an ultimate boss monster, though not as friendly or loveable. Would attack you like a heron attacks a frog, striking downward with its toothless beak. Demands some kind of megastructure - an aviary, a skyscraper like the Burj Khalifa.

Titanosaur. Largest genus of land animals ever to live. Big enough to be terrain in its own right - you could put a howdah on its backs and rappel off its sides. Have an entire fight scene that takes place physically on the dinosaur while it rampages through the park, stomping through rollercoasters, before stumbling into the mosasaur tank. Give it its own ecosystem - moss grows on its sides, crab-sized parasites live in folds in its skin, pterosaurs eat the parasites. Best names are aegyptosaurus and patagotitan.

Conclusions we can draw from all this:

Dinosaurs work because they’re animals with clearly-defined physical characteristics. It’s not a Lovecraft thing like Alien where the more you find out about the monster, the less scary it is. They’re not metaphors for anything - they have their own existence independent of yours, and are native to an environment that you are trespassing in. The Indominus sucks because it breaks these rules.

Theropods have a very simple basic design that can be used for a huge range of different things. What compares to this? You can only do about two or three things with cats and dogs. The only comparison I can think of is primates - you get monkeys, apes, humans, neanderthals, goblins, etc. But we are primates so that’s not really fair. Maybe some morphologies lend themselves better to size variation than others - you can’t imagine a house-sized cat but you can imagine a house-sized gorilla.

Horror franchises don’t lend themselves to plot variation. Every Jurassic Park film is about humans trying to get off an island that’s overrun by dinosaurs, and always will be - it’s hard to imagine what else you could even do. The filmmakers think in scenes - this is the pterodactyl scene, this is the scene with the T-rex in suburbia and a bunch of classic sight gags. Since each film has the same premise, you could move any scene from one film to another without losing much. As long as you can come up with more scenes - which involves either finding new dinosaurs or coming up with new things to do with existing dinosaurs - you could keep reusing the same plot basically forever.

It doesn’t have to be Isla Nublar every time though. Jurassic World was a great opportunity to move the park to, like, Patagonia. Or it’s somewhere in Mexico and there’s actual Mayan ruins on site. Or it’s an artificial island in the Persian Gulf, funded by a Saudi billionaire. The environment controls the kind of scenes you can do - raptors can’t hide in the jungle if there is no jungle. I can kind of see what they were going for with the fourth one but they dropped the ball in about a million different ways.

The only thing I'm not talking about here is the different types of character in the films - the capitalist, the mercenary, the scientist whose warnings get ignored. That's kind of its own post though.

Okay it’s Logan Lucky but with the Jurassic Park payroll office and the name of the film is Jurassic Heist.

Friday, 2 March 2018

dinosaur swamp

I can basically do swamps forever. This one is the swampy jungle from Tarzan at the Earth’s Core. Everything is impossibly huge. Roots arc meters over your head, leaves as big as your boat flitter heavily to the ground. Leg-length silverfish scatter at a splash; a bone-dry pteradon, mummified in golden web, is dropped from far above. Then the space between trees snaps into focus, a game trail bigger than castles, bigger than you thought dragons could grow. Gargantuan forms have snapped branches into rotting stakes, dredged new courses for the river, scattered spears of shattered wood as the sea vents fury on a shipwreck.

SIZES: 1: jackal, 2: person, 3: hippo, 4: stegosaur, 5: brontosaur, 6: a minor godzilla.

Creatures will largely ignore anything 4 or more categories smaller than themselves. Whenever something hits the water or roars, roll d6. If you get its size or less, something one category larger turns up to investigate in 1d6 turns. When something of size 6 enters the scene, it brings a wash of water that throws everything below the highest roots into disarray.

Path Find Big Bigger Madre de dios...
1 Kneeling on a bark canoe, paddling as quietly as possible An abandoned pleasure barge, plated in gold, bloodstained 1: 10d10 swarming silverfish penalise 1str and 1dex when attached. Will try to drag in into the water; either you drown or splash about until something kills you 3: Puppeteer spider, the males jump at you and grip tight, the female drags you back with their web 5: Giant octopus, capable of dragging itself slowly across the ground and surprisingly quickly through the trees
2 Wading through chest-high water, gear held over your head A hollowed-out hometree, villagers peeping from murder holes in the spike studded walls 1: Green ape shadows you, steals food when you sleep. If threatened it hoots as a size 3 creature 3: 5d6 muttaburrasaur, stampeding over anything that looks at them funny 5: Brontosaur, so large that to step out of the water would surely kill it
3 Weaving between mangrove roots twice your height A sprawling corpse, crabs and lizards nibbling away 1: Colourful oviraptor is adorably dorky, if its frill is spotted by a creature size 5 or 6, they will fly into a murderous rage until it is destroyed 3: Mudmaw, sickly tentacles thrash about and the mud drags everything down 5: Tyrannosaur. Not sure you need my advice for this
4 Teetering on a broken path of worked stone A nesting ground, parents temporarily absent 2: 3d4 raptors, patient and risk averse, communicate with you surprisingly well in whistles and chirps 4: Stegosaur, tail whipping through the air, frills pulsing with angry energy 6: Two headed serpent, touching it is said to make you immune to venom
5 Hiking across a range of fallen branches The skeleton of a great beast, impaled on a dozen wooden shafts 2: 3d4 good-humoured natives, smiles and bone weapons stark against their muddy camouflage 4: Massive, coal black gorilla, drags its kills into the trees above 6: Dragon turtle, who grants wishes to the bravest warriors
6 Climbing through a sprawling complex of vines A squat spiderweb, man-sized bundle in the centre 2: Sabre-toothed jaguar, happy to eat you, but happier if you lead it to larger prey 4: 1d3 allosaurs, brutish tactics and not enough regard for their own lives 6: Spinosaur, whose roar haunts you. Like actually haunts you though, all blowing out fires and slamming doors and shit

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Goblin Market Generator

Like the Yoon-Suin market generator but with goblins. Could fruitfully be used with the Hexcrawl of the Marcher Lords. For each street of the market roll once on the goods table, 1d3 times on the encounter table and once on the games table. Then scatter a bunch of these and these around. Zak's goblin market post is also useful - I feel like almost everyone has had a go at this at one time or another.

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Fatal Shaft

The empire faced an epidemic of crime. The war had drained their coffers, the population was exploding and the ancient elite clung to what little capital was left, enclosing common land and replacing human workers with hideous new machines. The rural poor terrorised the highways and the urban slum-dwellers haunted the filthy streets, publicly indulging in unnameable sins, ready to do anything for their daily crumb of bread and tot of gin. Worse - Levellers, Radicals and Chartists were active among the mob, organising them to rise against their betters. Something had to be done.

When children toiling in the darkest part of the Cedarbrook Mine found a shaft sunk deep into the earth - a shaft that could have been dug by no human hand - Parliament was quick to act. The blind, emaciated survivors of the First Expedition were hastily packed off to asylums and secluded estates in the country, but the notes and maps they carried home were endlessly poured over by Her Majesty's patient administrators. The discovery - a vast, sprawling cavern system, home to clusters of edible black fungus, accessible only from above - could not have been more perfectly suited to the Empire's needs. They decided to name the settlement Fort Providence.

The army jury-rigged a rope elevator. At its first use the rope snapped, sending a basket-load of convicts clattering down into the dark. Their mangled corpses were never found. The second load of settlers survived for months in near-darkness, on starvation rations dropped down from the surface, desperately trying to work out how to farm the fungus. Parliament intended the colony to be self-sufficient - they resented having to pay for it. It took several years for the convicts, working under military supervision, to hack out houses in the cavern walls and get the hang of subterranean agriculture. Only when they struck a vein of copper did the town really begin to grow.

Decades later, the colony of Miasma thrives. The earliest convicts worked off their seven-year sentences, obtained their tickets of leave, were granted land by the government and a fresh supply of felons to work it. Their children are dark-adapted cave urchins, raised on half-believed tales of the bright lands above. They're allowed to return to the surface but rarely wish to. The First Subterranean Regiment, nicknamed the Devil's Own, are a rum-swilling, unshaven, sadistic mob who enforce the Governor's laws with bayonet and manleather whip. Fort Providence, in its bottle-shaped cavern with its huge central guard-tower, has a church, a hospital, a newspaper. Convicts who violate its myriad laws are dragged off to the secondary hells - satellite colonies in the surrounding caves, established to terrorise and punish those felons who are recalcitrant or incorrigibly criminal by nature. They are all governed by their own sinister Wardens, and all awful. Some contain their own tertiary hells. Nobody knows how far it goes. You can get sent there just for looking at a soldier in a funny way.

Anyone can walk away from Miasma into the surrounding caves at any time. The Veins are so insanely dangerous that most people who do just die, or are returned by Volumefolk or wandering Olm in exchange for rewards. The colony, being supported by a surface state, is very rich by Veins standards. The Devil's Own employ a few Olm trackers on a semi-permanent basis. On the other hand, it's not unknown for a tribe of Veins natives to take an escaped convict in and teach them how to survive in the underworld. These lucky few become Veinrangers - preying on the colony's outskirts, raiding their fungus-farms, stealing a sonic pig or two and vanishing back into the darkness. The PCs begin as convicts in a chain gang, brutalised by a heartless overseer, on the verge of being flogged to death. Escape is their first challenge. Becoming a band of Veinrangers is the second. The campaign's final goal is to find a way back to the surface. The obvious way is the rope elevator in the central shaft above Fort Providence - it can only be operated from above, and gravity is the enemy.

  1. Mandatory silence, darkness, solitary confinement. Based on the Auburn System. Prisoners weave silk from ultraviolet caterpillars.
  2. Half-flooded tunnels too low for a man to stand. Prisoners shuck black pearls from cave-oysters and slowly forget how to walk upright.
  3. Opal mine. Prisoners keep a fraction of their finds, must use it to pay for food and lodging. Meant to teach virtues of industry. Lots of gambling.
  4. Slowly flooding cells with four convicts apiece. Heavy crank pumps the water out - one person must always be turning it.
  5. Farming unusually huge black fungi. Near a natural fission reactor - convicts are rapidly and grotesquely mutated.
  6. Cramped cages dangling above lakes of lava, their iron bars agonisingly hot. The guards drop food-scraps from above and the prisoners must catch them.
(this is all based on Robert Hughes' classic of Australian history, The Fatal Shore, which I have just read. also there's a joke here about Down Under but I can't figure out what it is. I might do more on the Hells later but also maybe not)