I’m reading Stephen Hunt’s Six Against the Stars at the moment, I’m only two chapters in and it has already descended into Hunt’s trademark rollicking flow of happenstance encounters, but it’s got a very nice idea for an adventure setting that I don’t think I’ve seen before. The story starts on a far future Earth, its history full of wars and environmental troubles, whose present inhabitants seem not really to fully understand the world they live on or its history. Beneath the earth is the “World Below,” which sounds a lot like a kind of far future Underdark. As our hero runs through it, we have it described thus:

In the heyday of the conflict age, the empire had hollowed out the Earth and refilled it with underground factories and cities, keeping the surface as a park that was only seen by the imperial court.

Some of these subterranean continents had caved in, but others had failed more gradually, only to be reclaimed by the flotsam of the ancient Earth – criminals, slaves, rogue androids, rebels, computer viruses which had become self aware, feral genetically engineered creatures which had broken their own behavioral programming. As the core was abandoned, the pets and toys of the merchant palaces became inbred in bizarre and unanticipated ways, sharing genes and self-splicing where run-down shaping technology lay derelict. They preyed on the safaris that ventured from above. Self-cleaning floors that had learnt to secrete acid to paralyze rodents, drink dispensers which could spray superheated water when threatened, wild herds of protein blocks that had grown armour and gored unwary travellers.

Like much of Hunt’s work, the idea is slightly comic or carnivalesque, but also rich with ideas for adventure settings and a kind of space opera or shadowrun-styled megadungeon. Instead of Aboleths we have ancient AIs residing in abandoned research factories; in place of Mimics, vending machines. Perhaps self-aware cleaning droids float through the corridors like robotic Beholders, and old abandoned tanks or other war machines function like golems and dragons. Were the world above to be fashioned as a post-shadowrun collapse society (perhaps akin to the society from the Amtrak Wars novels?) then the World Below would be a treasure trove of ancient items, and access points that still functioned would be hotly contested by the tribal powers of the surface – or avoided at all costs. Perhaps then some elves would have migrated to the World Below, so it would even have its own stock of shadowrun-styled Drow.

This would be a great setting for a campaign – a post-apocalyptic shadowrun future on the Great Plains of the USA, with a mad max styled surface world where adventurers attempt to enrich themselves and their communities by plundering the World Below. Perhaps more civilized folk use its surface ways as secret routes to attack their neighbours, or to cross deserts and wastelands. Bandits set up kingdoms, and all the rebels and renegades of the surface world flee to the World Below to make their uncertain future. It would be particularly fun to adventure in such a kingdom using Shadowrun, or one of the simpler space opera style systems like Stars Without Number. If you want dungeoneering with a mixture of savagery and high space opera, perhaps Stephen Hunt’s World Below is the perfect place to go looking for adventure …

Following up on a similar post last year, I present another random dungeon table from the Japanese RPG Make You Kingdom. This table is also for generating rooms in one of the kingdoms you invade, but the theme is “man-made” or human-engineered rooms. Again, the rooms are rolled randomly using “d66″. For a d66, you roll 2d6. The lower value becomes tens, the higher value units.

Here, then, is the table:

11 A stone garden 23 A workshop full of half-finished goods 36 A giant stone mural, abandoned mid-carving
12 A spiral staircase cut into a giant-sized pit 24 An ancient battlefield scattered with bones and rusted weapons 44 A huge hall containing nothing but a tapestry
13 An ancient library full of only dust 25 A toilet of carefully arranged stones 45 A line from an underground railway Empire
14 A simple, run-down shrine 26 A high-class kitchen 46 A gallery full of pictures or sculptures
15 An engine room noisy with the sound of pistons and cogs 33 A room of brick 55 A cemetery full of rows of sarcophagi
16 A giant’s causeway 34 A theatre, as silent as the grave 56 A giant’s gate, with a massive, rusted door
22 A room carved from a massive log 35 A midden strewn with rubbish 66 An abandoned prison

Would you risk your fate with this man?

On Tuesday I start working at the Tokyo University Department of Global Health Policy as an Assistant Professor, which means that on Sunday I am moving from Steamy Beppu to the City of Light. I will also be returning to full time work after a year working part time and being a househusband.

This means that my Japanese Warhammer 3rd Edition group has broken up, and my Japanese role-playing plans in general have to go on hold until I can find a suitable group in Tokyo. I don’t know how easy that will be. It also means that I’ll have a lot less time for, and material to put into, long posts, so my posting frequency will go down, which is a shame because I’ve been on a bit of a roll recently.

To keep my posting frequency up I may add a new posting series, about bars and restaurants in Tokyo, because I will be exploring them. I may also put in some taste-testing of various Japanese sake, which I’m becoming interested in… we’ll see. It’s a bit off topic but when I go searching for information about Tokyo night life I appreciate other peoples’ views, so maybe someone will appreciate it being here… also there may be some general aspects of Tokyo life to comment on, so the blog may open a little beyond nerd culture to include general big city culture.

I will of course be trying to expand my role-playing horizons in Tokyo – who knows, I may even play in English! – and exploring nerd life a little. There may also be some Harajuku-related material on here too… we’ll see how busy I am. But the move to Tokyo may well indicate a move to a broader focus on Japanese otaku life, hopefully from the perspective of someone at least slightly involved in it. We’ll see. But for the meantime, expect me to post slightly less frequently, and don’t be disheartened.

The miniature at the top of this post was painted by one of my players, Tencho-san. It’s a likeness of me. You can’t see it in the photo but the book has “Master” written on it’s cover, and on the back of the wizard’s jacket is written (混沌東大), which is Japanese shorthand for “Tokyo University Chaos!” This was part of my going-away present, along with the game Make You Fortress and a collection of cards for the game Make You Kingdom, which contain colour cardboard cutouts of all the cute monsters from the game. I really need to play this game at some point…

A report of the last session of the Rats in the Ranks campaign will be going up soon. In the meantime, any particular requests for investigation you would like to see conducted in Tokyo, please let me know in comments (and yes, if I find a used underwear vending machine I will post a photo!)

May Flopsy guide my schemes...

I crawled out into the freezing cold with a hangover today to visit the Asami Shrine in Beppu, to burn my 2010 demon-breaking arrow and purchase a new arrow for 2011. Burning the arrow that symbolizes the year before gives one time to pause and think about what one did in that 365 days, and to think about the year to come. My year to come promises to be busy, but I have a variety of plans I want to put into action in my gaming, research and real lives. Here is a brief outline.

Gaming Plans

Continue the Rats in the Ranks Campaign: My players indicated they want it to continue, and so I’m going to try and play it right through until I work out at what point WFRP 3 breaks. Whether this happens or not I don’t know, but I have a long-term goal for this campaign (or rather, the adversaries I’m controlling have a very distinct long-term goal in Ubersreik, which hopefully my players will discover before everything goes pear-shaped). After that we’ll see where the campaign takes us. It’s fun and my players are good, so let’s see what happens.

Start an Oriental Steampunk sandbox: Based on the one-off Pathfinder adventure I ran last year for a Japanese group, I’ve been thinking for a while now of expanding that into a genuine steampunk (literally!) sandbox. The players from that group have a hook for one more adventure, and from there we could start exploring. I’m thinking of using my ideas for adapting WFRP 3 to steampunk, or even to high fantasy (depending on the direction I want it to go) and just playing along until it gets boring. This will give me the opportunity to get my Japanese players to collaborate in building a semi-oriental/semi-western steampunk world based around a Meiji-era image of the place we are all living in now, with (at the very least!) gnomes.

Introduce the local convention to some English-language-only games: I’m in something of a unique position here to introduce my local Japanese-language gaming convention to untranslated games, and I’m thinking of running a session of WFRP 3 and maybe Exalted for just this reason. Recently a player at the convention said she wanted to play a game “that used loads of dice!” and it occurred to me right then that Exalted was just the game for her. This type of international exchange segues into my biggest possible plan for the year…

Start a TRPG Club at my University: This may seem a bit trivial but it’s actually a plan full of possibilities. My local University has about 100 nationalities of student, many of them nerdy, from all over the world, and they all meet to study and hang out using two languages that I speak – English and Japanese. So these students could bring an untranslated game from their own country – most likely in Thai, Mandarin or Vietnamese, but you never know what else is lurking out there – and run it in a different language for the other students. Or, they could play a game that isn’t translated to their language for a group of their compatriots. This opens up all sorts of options for language and gaming exchange, and a few people I’ve spoken to have been interested, so I’m thinking I might look into doing that this year.

GM Make You Kingdom in English: I’m going to Australia for a few weeks twice this year, and on at least one such occasion I will be in Melbourne, so I’m thinking of inviting regular commenter (and previous player) Paul to join me in a game of Make You Kingdom, translated of course. This depends on me being able to translate the necessary information by the time I go there and also being able to explain the rules for him (and get to Melbourne). I reckon I can do it, and I can even put stuff on this blog. Maybe I can also GM Double Cross 3 at some point too…

All of these plans are going to depend on a few crucial meat-life plans as well, though…

Meat Life Plans

Go to Iceland: I’ve never been and I really want to go. It’s vaguely in the pipeline to do this year, in which case I might pop into filthy scummy London to see some old friends at the same time.

Improve My Japanese: Today I received a New Year’s Card from the Japanese language school in Fukuoka where I did a 6 week intensive last year, and this year I think I’ll be in a position to do skype lessons with them. So, this year I really want to improve my Japanese to the point where I can do the following:

  • Teach Statistics in Japanese: easier than it sounds, but still fiendishly hard
  • Watch TV in Japanese: a lot lot harder than it sounds, and still impossible for me
  • Read a Fantasy novel in Japanese: I may start with A Wizard of Earthsea, because I know it, but from there I want to read Japanese authors. This has always been a big goal of mine in my Japanese study. I have read one novel already, but it was an easy one and really hard work, so at the moment I’m sticking with manga because they have less words and often furigana.

This is obviously an essential meat life goal if I want to be better able to role-play in Japanese. Or just live here happily.

Get fit: I have never been so unfit as I am now, and although my current fitness level is acceptable for a 37 year old, by my standards it’s awful. This year I need to do something about this!

Research Plans

I’ve got a whole research plan written for the next year (it coincides with my starting a PhD through an Australian University), so I aim to do quite a bit of research. This year’s plans are:

An overview of advanced statistical methods for intervention research: Modern research into intervention in health systems requires quite advanced statistical methods, including heirarchical linear models, time series analysis and probability survey research, but combining these can be very challenging. I aim to get a good, solid overview of what is being done in the field and what can’t be done, with the view of using it or improving on it.

Combining heirarchical linear models in Probability surveys: There has to be a way to do this, and I want to work out how. Or alternatively, work out approximations and workarounds to the problem.

Systematize time-dependent difference-in-difference models: Difference-in-difference models are a fancy way for economists to say “linear regression with interaction term” but all the fancy language doesn’t hide the fact that understanding of how to use these models in the health economics literature is remarkably poor. I aim to systematize this, to point out the (trivially obvious) problems in doing this research without considering the time dependent component of the data, and to make recommendations for its application in health services research.

Who knows what trouble this is going to throw up? But that’s my main research goals for the year.

It looks like it may be a busy year for me, but I think I’m going to enjoy it…

Meat's back on the menu, girls!!

I was a big fan of the movie The Descent, which pits a group of young women cavers against a colony of blind flesh-eating proto-humans in a dark and claustrophobic cave nightmare. This is the kind of movie that you really need to pause regularly, and it combines all of our worst fears – claustrophobia, darkness, betrayal, and being eaten alive by grey slimy beastmen – in one compelling package. So I was interested to watch the sequel, which is a slightly Aliens-style re-entry into the darkness. In the sequel the hero of the first movie, Sarah, has somehow survived the original horrors and turns up on a road 2 days after they all entered the original caves. Searchers are out looking for the missing girls but are, of course, looking in the wrong cave system, so aren’t going to find them, let alone carry their shattered remains out. So when the captain of the search crew discovers that Sarah is in a hospital, amnesic and terrified, he decides to get her to help find the other girls. The fact that she rocked up covered in other peoples’ blood and doesn’t remember anything doesn’t deter him, and in fact causes him to make the big mistake of treating the situation like a crime. He basically thinks he needs to rescue the girls from Sarah’s perfidy, or find their bodies and charge her with murder, and this is how he acts through the entire first half of the film.

A team of cavers is established, and head through an abandoned mineshaft into the caves. From this entry point we realize the provenance of the old caving equipment found in the first story, and discover another emergency exit, but it ain’t going to be no use to our team. By a series of (in some cases slightly disappointing) classic horror movie fuck ups they get lost, separated, and then the beasts in the earth (who I call “the Grey Men”) come to get them. Sarah is with them but nobody trusts her and from the moment they find the first body they think she may be a murderer, or mad. Her memories only come back slowly, as does her sense of survival, and for a short part of the movie she acts distressed and confused, which loses everyone valuable time in dealing with the threat they face. By the time she gets her act together the gore has begun to fly, and the remainder of the movie flows very much like the second half of The Descent - desperately scrabbling to escape a situation that it seems must inexorably drag all the characters to their horrific doom.

The Descent Part 2 was directed by a different, novice Director, so it doesn’t have quite the brilliance of the first movie, but it maintains much of the same tension and pace. The Crawlers are almost as terrifying, though a tad more monster-like. This time they’re  not terrifying solely by dint of their environment, but incorporate greater strength and power, though not to the extent that they’re a caricature. They’re still easily defeated in one-to-one combat in the light by strong humans, and still depend on terror, surprise and darkness for their victories. The fear is still at a quite intense level, and most of the decisions people make and the split-second acts they take are believable and reasonable. Unlike the first movie it relies on a few classic horror-movie tropes that can frustrate the viewer – the “advance even though there’s a big fat warning staring you in the face” option, especially, I find really frustrating and though this was once okay, in modern horror writing I think it’s a bit weak.

Although early on the movie goes over the top on the gore scale, in general the gore is at a lower level than in the first movie. Tension is maintained through environment, confusion, and darkness. The characters have a few more gizmos – radio communication, IR scope, etc – that make for some interesting fear-enhancers, and the discovery of the girls’ video camera makes for a really disturbing scene. There’s also a funny moment of Gygaxian Naturalism, as we find out a bit more about how the monsters live in their colony, and are reminded again that we are dealing with a natural, evolved species who are in that place for a reason, not monsters. I thought there was also a hint near the end of a leader-figure amongst the Crawlers, a kind of alpha male, which could make for interesting future movies.

The ending was a tiny bit confusing – something comes out of left field that really can’t be explained, and is obviously only there to set up a sequel – but the unresolved questions it leaves behind don’t bother me at all, in fact I quite like the possibilities it raised for future movies. In some ways the ending of The Descent Part 2 is even grimmer than the first movie, which is kind of cool. I think though, the way this movie ends won’t be to everyone’s taste – some viewers will think it’s an overdone or preposterous ending, or will just not be able to envisage any kind of explanation for it, so will reject it as farcical. It doesn’t spoil the movie overall though, and right up until literally the last 5-10 seconds the ending makes perfect sense and is perfectly acceptable.

The acting was generally good, though there were one or two moments that were either ham-fisted or melodramatic, but the cast were generally solid and gave us a believable rendition of the mounting fear. Particularly, early on when the first (environmental) troubles hit the group, and we aren’t yet sure if the Crawlers are even on the scene, the cast do a good job of muted unease and fear, which slowly mounts. It certainly didn’t seem to hamstring the general atmosphere.

Overall, I think this movie is a good addition to the original, an excellent introduction to a series of movies expanding on the lives, ecology, and horrible habits of the Crawlers, and for most of its length both well-paced and scary. Of course it’s not up to the standard of the original, but I don’t think it lets it down in any way. Well worth seeing if you aren’t a caver.

Come to my kingdom, he said...

Today was the monthly Oita Devil Spirit Convention, and on the promise that one of my warhammer players would be presenting a second session of the Japanese RPG “Make You Kingdom,” I attended during an otherwise very busy weekend. Along with an apparent horde of other people trapped in the pre-christmas work rush, my player couldn’t attend, but a different chap stepped up to the plate without any preparation, and offered to run a Make You Kingdom adventure entitled “All Random.” The premise was that the adventure would be genuinely, from start to finish, entirely randomly generated. This, as it turns out, isn’t such a great plan for a convention.

Character Creation

This session I chose to play a priest, and we also had a Knight, a Servant and a King. For my Priest I chose the skill “Faith,” which heals everyone in the party, and my job was “cook,” which gave me the phenomenally useful power of “Apron”:

If a monster I kill leaves behind a raw material of any sort, I can convert this raw material into “meat,” which can then be used to make a “lunchbox.” This lunchbox can be imbued with a single skill that the monster originally possessed, and anyone who eats this lunchbox gains the skill for one turn

Also, when anyone in the party eats a “lunchbox” or a “full course,” in addition to its normal effects they gain +1 to their Bravery for one turn. Who knew cooks could be so powerful?

I rolled randomly (of course) for my character’s name, history, motivations, etc., and this is what I got:

  • Name: Hairan, who cannot even kill an insect
  • Background: Owes a huge debt (11 Gold Pieces) and is in trouble because of it
  • Fate: If he pays back the debt, Hairan will gain much favour
  • Age: 46
  • Favourite things: Medicine, his own country
  • Hated things: Being alone, people’s rumours
  • Item: a fragment of a star (swapped subsequently for a lunchbox)

So I decided on the basis of this that my character was a perfectly-dressed gentleman, who somehow manages to be wearing a different suit and hat every day, carries a cane with a sword hidden in it, and is something of a drug-addicted nationalist. Tally ho!

My character had 21 followers. Because the King’s job was “happymancer” I decided that my characters were all part of a carnival, consisting of a marching band of 10 members, 5 clowns, 5 pretty girls, and a giant.

The Kingdom

Our Kingdom, also rolled randomly, contained a palace, a casino and a ranch, and was called “The Ancient Empire.” It was in an alliance with another Kingdom called “Imperial Konparu Kingdom.” Konparu is a word used a lot in Japan (the hall we play at is called “Konparu hall”) but I can’t find a translation for it in any dictionary.

Our kingdom only had 56 citizens, so if all 4 PCs took their full complement of citizens with them on an adventure, only 2 would remain in the city. Not good! This meant we had to ration our supply of followers (except me, because my healing prayer was directly related to the number of followers I had, which was perhaps a mistake).

The Adventure

There was no beating around the  bush – the adventure was introduced as “We have learnt of a new kingdom, let’s go conquer it!” So, we set off to conquer it. First we did a bit of exploring, and discovered that most of the distant kingdom was empty rooms full of traps, but for one room that had 4 Foxes and a Boar in it. I then went for a wander through our kingdom, which proved pointless, and off we went for an adventure.

On the way we were attacked twice by other monsters, and suffered some damage that wasn’t serious. We arrived at the destination kingdom, and entered the first room. Here are the rooms in order:

  1. The Collapsing Ceiling: This room was empty, but had a collapsing ceiling trap that nearly killed our Servant. Nothing else was in this room, whose description I forget
  2. The foxes and the boar: This room contained 4 “Quick Foxes” and a “Sawing Boar,” and also a rose trap that puts its victims to sleep. We avoided the rose trap and attacked the resident beasts, two of whom were asleep, but unfortunately the boar woke up and nearly killed the knight. I used my single “wish” to enact my healing prayer, and healed everyone. We only just survived this room. The boar was turned into meat, which I attempted to use my “Apron” power on to convert to magic meat that grants the Knight the charge skill, but I failed. We then chose to rest here and eat a “lunchbox,” and I attempted to use my special skill (“Dungeon Feast”) to give everyone a +1 to their Bravery. This resulted in a fumble, which caused some kind of disaster that killed all 5 of my clowns, 1 of my pretty girls and the giant. So much for our carnival entry.
  3. The Dead Letter: We moved on to the next room, where the night stumbled upon a letter in an envelope. This was also a trap, and she had a choice of taking 2d6 damage (she only had 12 hps) or everyone in the party losing 1d6 followers (most people only had 5). She chose the damage, and survived, so we decided to rest again in this room so we could disarm the trap in the following room. We rested, and some of us decided to roll on the rest table. I went wandering through the room, rolled up some kind of excellent effect that depended on a skill check, and fumbled the skill check. Result: we all took damage from a dungeon disaster.
  4. The Escape Route: By now we were all down on hit points, running low on followers, and out of wishes. I was borrowing dice from my neighbour because of the huge fumble rate on my own dice. The room we were in was linked to a room that had a “trap” that sends you straight back to your own kingdom. We chose to go down that trap, and return home…

Returning home we rolled on the “return home” table, gaining a few followers and quite a bit of money. We spent the money on building a Watchtower, which increases our available total wishes, and we also gained a level. By the time we had made these decisions, it was 4pm and not worth returning to the Dungeon, so we all gave up and decided to wait the hour till the other groups at the convention finished their sessions.

Conclusion

Rolling a random dungeon was not such a good idea, if there was any risk of the dungeon being filled entirely with traps. Traps aren’t that interesting as an obstacle. So, we had a slightly boring adventure that finished early. Make You Kingdom adventures are certainly deadly – this is the second time I’ve played, and the second time we’ve survived by the skin of our teeth, consuming our fellow citizens and all our items in the process – but this time around a large part of the deadliness was random.

Make You Kingdom remains a really interesting and fun system, but this session made me think that it’s real strength will show in a campaign, not single adventures. Gaining levels and building up your kingdom is a really essential part of this game, as is achieving your fate, and a campaign where you get to do this would be really fun. I think this is going to be my next campaign after Warhammer.

An army of snowmen does his every bidding...

Having presented a random table and monster from the game Make You Kingdom, here are a few more monsters from the game. I have to return the book tomorrow, so there’ll be no more posts about it until I buy my own. Here is a translation of the monster in the main picture, General Winter.

General Winter (level 14 Angelic Monster)

  • Bravery:9
  • Range: 1
  • Damage: 2d6+2
  • Resistance: 13
  • HPs: 60
  • Character: Sly

Common Monster skills: Fist of the Fierce God, Divine Transformation, Swarm Defence, Feat of Arms, Sword Play, Minor Transformation

Storm of Snow: When someone other than General Winter uses a support action, he can interrupt them using this manoeuvre. Everyone but General Winter must make a Bravery check with a difficulty equal to the General’s Bravery +5. Those who fail immediately have their hit points halved.

Text (“flavour”): A valorous commander who serves the Winter Sovereign on the steps to heaven. He also has a side that is kind to children.

(I don’t know what the “common monster skills” are because they aren’t in my book, but they seem pretty scary).

Below are three other monsters that I scanned in as random trash during the process of scanning in General Winter, and figured I should upload. No translations are provided, but they’re all from the “Angels” family of monsters.

What doesn't kill you...

 

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