The Sandbox vs the Railroad… or Spontaneous Story Creation vs. Pre-Plotted Story

Elsewhere I’ve talked about the casual, improvisational nature of early Traveller play, the value of random rolls and random encounters in Old School play, and what we mean by “encounters” in Old School play.

I’ve also touched on how the nature of modules and adventure design changed from the early days of the hobby to what publishers produces in the 1990s. (In short, adventures were once more situational and lightly sketched (as in the early Classic Traveller Adventures) and later became more focused on pre-plotted stories (The Traveller Adventure, the Dragonlance modules). In the first random rolls and random encounters are the Referee’s friend because they offer more opportunity for the Players to make choices and create more adventure material on the fly. In the second they random encounters are a problem because they distract players from “what the story is supposed to be.”

Someone pointed me to this lovely video which does a bang-up job of giving examples of two different kinds of play. In one campaign found as the Referee responses to the interests and desires of the Players and makes up material as needed. In the other the Referee knows exactly how he wants things to go and forces the Players along certain paths to make sure the story is awesome.

I really think it is worth a look…

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box–An Invitation to Invention


Over at Facebook Traveller Group, someone linked to my post “TRAVELLER and ‘Hard Science Fiction’–I don’t think so…

As it also does, the post started a conversation about the nature of science and science fiction in Traveller play.

Someone pointed out that the title seemed to imply that I was against Hard SF in someone’s Traveller campaign. This is not the case at all.

I wrote the post as an argument against the assumption that Traveller, by definition, is built with the diamond hardness that would please engineers who want their SF real-real-real.

I pointed out the stories that had inspired Marc Miller to create the game in the first place. If you read the tales from Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, E.C. Tubb, and many others, you’ll find that while there is a patina of hard SF to make the stories grounded, they are, first and foremost, adventure stories in a pulp-SF tradition.

The primary concern of these stories is a rousing yarn, with the SF elements there to create complication and drama for the protagonists. The SF elements are consistent within the story, allowing the protagonists to solve problems to their own advantage.

But if you tried to learn something about actual science from these tales you’d be in big trouble. And not only because the science has changed from 40 years ago. Even for their time most of the science in the tales ranged from speculative at best to nonsensical at the other end. I won’t say “worst” at the other end, because the point of the tales wasn’t to teach science. The wild and wooly nature of the SF details helped build colorful environment and problems for the protagonists–which means the SF details were great across the board.

For the most part, these tales use far-flung space elements, strange aliens, and exotic environments to create an environment where frontiers, bold action, and spectacular adventures have enough room to take place. That they possess an element of science to justify the wonders they present does not make them scientific.

But to be clear: I want people to play the kind of game that people want to be playing at their tables. If someone really wants to drill down in the contemporary scientific principles and theories to build the RPG setting more power to them.

That’s why I started the TRAVELLER: Out of the Box series, after all. Two years ago, when I went online to ask questions about Classic Traveller I was continuously told, “That’s not how The Third Imperium works,” or “The trade rules in Classic Traveller are broken, because the GDP of a world with a Population 9 would produce more ships than the system allows…” I decided to go back and re-read the original three Traveller Books and see if there was a good game in there or not. Because so many people seemed to think the game was “broken” and kept having to be fixed.

So, this series has always been a pushback who assume that because the rules of Traveller don’t make sense because the rules in Books 1-3 don’t make the kind of setting they want. Instead, I looked at the rules and said, “What kind of setting does this produce?”

And not surprisingly, it produced and encouraged the kinds of settings found in the pulp-SF stories that inspired Marc Miller to write the game.

Still, if one read the post I linked to above without context, one might assume I was telling people they could not or should not play Traveller with one of the dials turned all the way to “HARD SF.” And when asked about this on that Facebook thread, I replied:

I wrote: “If I were to retitle it now, it might be: TRAVELLER: Hard SF — sometimes, sometimes not”

And then Cam Kirmser asked: “What is an example of ‘sometimes not.'”

I replied to Kirmser, “I will use a title you mentioned above: Ringworld.”

Kirmser had written:

Ringworld comes close to smacking of Science Fantasy. Some species are so bloody advanced their tech seems magical. But, even those species have limitations that bring them back into the realm of hard SciFi. Yes, a GP hull is impervious to anything – well, except antimatter – because it’s one big molecule. The property is rather ‘soft,’ but the explanation, though out there, returns it to ‘hard.’

But, the CoDominum books – Falkenberg’s Legion books, the Sparta books, Mote – seem to have been written from a Traveller campaign. I mean, take out the instantaneous Jump, replace it with a week’s time in Jump space, add in some grav plates and you’ve almost got textbook Traveller, even to the dispersed empire based upon the remains of an earlier, greater society aspect.

I guess it might be just me, but I see Pournelle’s Future History as the glove that fits Traveller’s hand.

I replied:

I absolutely believe that see Pournelle’s Future History as the glove that fits Traveller’s hand… if one looks at the text of Books 1-3 a certain way.

The point I would add is *all those blank rows at the bottom of the Tech Level chart*!

In my view, those blank rows are there to be filled in by the Referee as he wishes. One you start filling those in, you can easily make Ringworld a possibility.

And it was assumed the Referee might well do that. That’s why all those blank rows are there. Not that a Referee had to! That’s my point.

In fact, I think this is one of the major splits in how one approaches the original rules of Traveller in creating a setting:

1. The items, tech, and concepts in Books 1-3 are what the Referee are the building blocks of any Traveller setting.

2. The items, tech, and concepts in Books 1-3 are a baseline for setting for the PCs to be from a fairly conservative culture, and the Referee adds extraordinary concepts as he wishes, per the blank rows at the bottom of the Tech Level chart. Those blank rows are an *invitation* to the Referee to add more!

Keep in mind as well that in Book 2, in the experience section, we find this:

“Such methods could include RNA intelligence or education implants, surgical alteration, military or mercenary training, and other systems. Alternatives to the above methods must be administered by the referee.”

There are a lot of ideas packed into the first sentence that the rules never address in any way. And the second sentence says, “And more!”

So, for me, “…sometimes not…” is when the Referee takes advantage of any SF ideas and concepts that he wants to pursue and adds them at the bottom of the Tech Level chart to make things unexpected, strange, alien, and beyond the baseline scope of ideas, tech, and concepts found in Books 1-3.

As an example, Ringworld. There is no reason the Referee couldn’t use Ringworld as a setting using the oringal Traveller rules, having the PCs land on it and explore it.

The bottom 25% of the Tech Index table found in Book 3:


I think the point I made about the blank rows at the bottom of the Traveller Tech Level chart is an important one. And I think it speaks to a great division in how people see the game and approach making settings in the game.

For some people what is Traveller Books 1-3 is where the science starts and ends for a Traveller campaign. For others of us what is in Traveller Books 1-3 is just the beginning…

King Arthur Pendragon 1st Edition–Currently Free on DriveThruRPG


As I’ve noted elsewhere King Arthur Pendragon is one of my favorite roleplaying games ever. I first encountered it in the 3rd edition and was blown away by the mechanics, the layout, and Lisa Free’s gorgeous art.

James Maliszewski wrote a lovely tribute to the 1st edition back in 2010. And lo and behold, DriveThruRPG currently has a PDF of the 1st edition available for FREE until January 31st, 2017. All the contents of the original game are included in a single PDF.

While the editions haven’t changed that much over the years (apart from the 4th edition which added magic and expanded the “classes” of characters from knights to many other folks) I’m curious to see how the original version of the game reads.

Below is the copy from the DriveThruRPG page:

Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain.

Relive the glory of King Arthur’s court. Uphold the chivalric ideals of fair play, courage, honesty, and justice as your caliant knight-character undertakes perilous quests and risks monstrous dangers in legendary Britain. He’ll smite bloodthirsty giants and crush treacherous invaders for King Arthur and his own glory.

To play the Pendragon roleplaying game, you create and take on the role of squite, knight, or noble of the realm. Armed and armored, you overcome life and death struggles, impossible frustration, and ruthless enemies to join the Fellowship of the Round Table

The gamemaster leads the other players in interpreting the Pendragon rules and is central in bringing the adventures to l ife. He commands the magic of Merlin and Morgan le Fay, the actions of King Arthut and Queen Guenever, and the schemes of Mordred and Agravaine.

Game Features:

Roleplaying – innovative game mechanics awaken passionate love, hate, and loyalty in your characters, leading them to acts of mercy, cruelty, lust, piety, valor, and cowardice.

Campaign Play – customs, manners, and weapons change during teh phases of Arthur’s long reign. Over these years your character-knight begets a family whose reputation depends on the glory he achieves. He passes his hard-won inheritance and grudges to his sons. Up to four generations of knights will live and die during Arthur’s reign.

Game System – Easily remembered, simple-to-play mechanics feature a single die roll to determine combat, to settle personality encounters, and to resolve skill use.

Character Generation – create a squire, knight, noble, or fair damsel, of Roman Saxon, Cymric, Pictish, or Irish heritage. Select between the Christian, Wotonic, or pagan religions.

Background – Includes a 22″ by 30″ map of Britain complete with kingdoms, cities, castles, keeps, forests, Roman roads, abbeys, rivers, mountains, fortified walls, and battle sites. A bestiary of natural and mythical creatures includes avancs, barguests, dwarfs, elves, giants, kelpies, spriggans, unicorns, yales, and the Questing Beast among many others. You are provided character statistics for major personalities such as Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot. Also enclosed are lesser-knowns such as Balin le Sauvage, Breuse sans Pitie, Saint Cadoc, King Mark, Nimue, Percivale and Ulfius. A chronology includes wars, adventures, customs, campaigh escalation, and characters of note. An extensive bibliography provides further sources of information, all to support campaign play.

The Game of Quest, Romance & Adventure

Der Entdecker: An alternate-reality sailing ship found by the Player Characters in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign


My game is on hiatus right now, allowing me time to sort through some bookkeeping and prep for further adventures.

As noted previously, my players tracked down a sailing ship that can travel between alternate earths. Here’s a writeup for the Players, using the rules from Rules & Magic and the ACKS Guns of War.

I built the sheet above to hand the players so they’ll have a sense of ownership of this piece of equipment. They’ll be tracking supplies and more.

When we left off they had used the ship for the first time, using the ship’s wheel to steer a course for an alternate world where two arch-mages fight a decades long battle and the the peaceful Qelong Valley has been shattered by the fallout.

TRAVELLER: Out of the Box-An Approach to Refereeing and Throws in Original Traveller (Part I)

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This is kind of esoteric, and I’m not quite sure how to articulate this in a concise way. For some of you this might be stone-cold obvious. For others it might seem like the dumbest thing ever.

But here we go:

I was chatting with some friends online about how I’m beginning to see how Refereeing Traveller (and original D&D) required a different kind of approach than that used by roleplaying games that came after it.

I’ve tried several times to clean top the ideas contained below. But I have failed. So I’m gong to post the original comments in their raw form. They might be of interest to some, but not to others!

I wrote the following:


I’ve discussed on one of these threads the idea of Refereeing I work with taken from Free Kriegsspiel and Braunstien… That the Referee is the impartial adjudicator of events, making decisions sometimes without even referring to rules.

Rolls are made when the Referee is uncertain, but the idea really is a REFEREE. He provides opportunities and obstacles to the Players, sits back, lets them make decisions and take actions, and then says, “Ummm…. here’s the call.”

It goes without saying that this entire system of play is dependent on the Players TRUSTING the Referee. Whether this is a GOOD idea, is beyond the scope of these posts. But that’s what we’re talking about.

So… skill rolls in Traveller and skill rolls in other games, and rolls in general.

It occurred to me that given the above framework, I really do, when I roll, hand off the power of fate to the oracles. I really have no agenda. I’m just looking to see what happens along with the Players.

It is an impartial act to find out what happened so we might find out what the Player Characters do next.

An Implication for Traveller Throws:

Keep in mind that I don’t think Classic Traveller has a Skill System. It has a Throw system (throw 2D6, equal or beat a number, add DMs from a variety of sources (skills, characteristics, and circumstances). Not everything Throw has a Skill DM. THAT IS IMPORTANT!

Because it we have a system for Referee saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen here. Roll these 2D6 and we’ll find out what happened.” All sorts of modifiers can come into play depending on what the roll is about. It is a universal system that looks like it has not system! (Every later edition of Traveller has a skill system, tying all rolls to skills.)

So, I’m thinking about this, and thinking about how I see this as different than I see, let’s say, skills in Cyberpunk 2020. (I’m using CP2020 as an example, but really it’s a stand in for all RPGs after 1980, and some before 1980.)

Because in CP2020 the roll doesn’t seem impartial at all. As a Player, that skill roll is my skill roll. If I hit it, it’s not because we’re turning to the oracles to find out what happened. It’s because my guy was That Fucking Awesome.

The distinction I am trying to express is strange and subtle. I don’t even have words to describe it yet.

In the case of Traveller we are making an impartial roll to discover a result that my PC’s skill can influence. In all later RPG skill systems, the roll is about my skill.

That is all. Like, I don’t know where to go with that, exactly. But I do know this shift in understanding (clearly seeing what I’ve been thinking about the Traveller rules) makes perfect sense to me.

And I don’t see it squaring with other RPGs. (But I might be missing something. Like I said, it’s all new and kind of weird.)

This ties into the early RPG ideas where the Referee made all or many of the rolls. Maybe it wasn’t because he was fudging, but because the rolls weren’t about the Players making the roll or about “The Characters succeeding or failing.”

Maybe because it was part and parcel of the impartial nature of the revelation of events, offering a new set of obstacles and opportunities for the Players to deal with.

I think communicating this idea is important for how I’d like to play Traveller.

We could play the Lamentations of the Flame Princess I’m running the same way, with an understanding the hiding in shadows is not about whether “You are good enough to hide in shadow” but about “Whether you are seen.” There’s a distinction here, right? It is using the dice in completely different ways. The effect is the same, perhaps, but it is a distinctly different point of view about how one approaches the dice and the game. And, in turn, I think this shift changes a great deal about how one sees play working out. It really reinforces the nature of the Referee as impartial judge, the dice as oracles, and the rolls not as “skill rolls” but as impartial tools to determine outcomes. The point of the roll is not to see “How well the character did,” but to see what happened when the character did something, which in turn leads to the character having to do the next thing, based on the outcome of the roll.

But I also think I might melt the brains of people used to thinking along lines built out during the last 35 years of the hobby.

My friend Jesse then commented:

I’m reminded of a discussion I had with Raggi. A situation came up in my D&D 5e that involved the players trying to turn a congregation against their spiritual leader using illusions and other magic. It was a pretty good idea. I had the player who had concocted the play make a Deception skill check.

But it got me thinking. How do you adjudicate that in LotFP? I know Raggi is against using stat resolution (i.e. roll d20 get under CHA). It bugged me so much I just decided to ask him.

He told me that he’d just make an NPC reaction roll. And at first I thought, “Ah! Okay makes sense.”

But the longer I thought about it the more it bugged me because a flat NPC reaction roll in no way takes into account who the characters ARE.

And I think that ties into what you were saying. “Throws” center the situation as a whole. Stuff is happening. Could go lots of ways. We throw to see what branch we go down. Skills center the characters. This one is better at X and that one is better at Y.

And I think that represents the drift over time. We start out with a war game. Players are units. It’s a pretty birds eye view. Hell we have a “Caller” who speaks for everyone. But over time, people start wanting who there character *is* to matter more and more.

And I replied to Jesse:

And what I would add to Raggi’s note is a DM for the Awesomeness of the Magic. A Reaction +3 … or whatever … based, as you say, off the situation at hand, with the roll to determine where we go next.

You wrote: “But over time, people start wanting who there character is to matter more and more.”

Exactly… because this is also the shift away from Player focused play, to Character focused play. (“Player Skill, Not Character Abilities” in the parlance of the “Quick Primer for Old School Gaming.”)


That was the exchange. What follows below are a notes for context.

I’ve discussed before how I see Refereeing Traveller in the context of how Referees work when playing Free Kriegsspiel (a Referee driven war game).

Here is the passage on Free Kriegsspiel from the Wikipedia entry on Kriegsspiel:

“Free” Kriegsspiel

Kriegsspiel in its original form was not particularly popular among the Prussian officer corps. The rules were cumbersome and games took much longer than the battles that they were supposed to represent. It was not until 1876 that General Julius von Verdy du Vernois had the idea of placing more power in the hands of the gamemaster in order to speed up the game and reduce the number of rules. von Verdy’s “Free” Kriegsspiel did away with many of the movement and combat rules in order to save time, giving the duty of deciding the effects of orders and combat to the gamemaster. This allowed players to play a game in real time, giving the players a better feel for the tension of actual combat. To retain military accuracy, von Verdy emphasized the necessity of using military experts as gamemasters. The new “Free” Kriegsspiel soon gained more popularity than its predecessor (now known as “Strict” Kriegsspiel”); The Prussian (later German) General Staff used it both for its internal exercises and as a training tool.

In my research into the gaming culture and kinds of games surrounding the creation of Roleplaying Games in the 1970s I also looked and Braunstiena Referee driven precursor to Dungeons & Dragons.


Barons of Braunstein is a historical role-playing game, but one incorporating ideas and inspiration from the original Braunstein by David Wesley in the 1960s. (You can see the character sheet for the game above. I want you to really pay attention to how much information isn’t on that character sheet.)

The following sample character demonstrates what a finished hero might look like:

NAME: Mite
SEX: female
LITERACY: illiterate (+2 LUCK)
LUCK: 12
SOCIAL CLASS: commoner
BACKGROUND: Mite is a young street urchin with no knowledge of her birth name. Although willing to steal, she is protective of the weak and helpless.
EQUIPMENT: backpack, bedroll, knife, picks and tools, rations

Here is the important part: the Referee is supposed to use those few scattered elements to decide on the fly what the character can and cannot do in different circumstances.

For example, there are three “Social Classes” in Barons of Braunstien: Clergy, Commoners, and Nobles. Based on those three classes alone, the Judge must often decide what sort of skills or abilities a character might possess, what he might be able to do or not do at all, how difficult certain acts might be, and so on.

Here is the passage from the rules of Barons of Braunstien about “Doing Things”:


Some actions are easy. The player does not roll dice because their character is automatically successful. Other things are simply impossible and never succeed under any circumstances, although judges can always intervene (a matter of common sense and good judgment). Everything else requires the roll of 2d6, based on conditions:

Simple  —  ordinary walking/talking 
Easy  7 or better  elementary/little interference 
Moderate  9 or better  harder/distractions present 
Difficult  12+  daunting/dangerous conditions 

Notice that it is up to the Judge (the Referee) to decide if an action is automatic, impossible, or possible but requiring a roll. Note, too, the Judge decides what the difficulty will be. These matters will be influenced by  who the character is (background, history, social class and so on, as originally described by the Player).

Someone who is “willing to steal” (as in the example above) might have an easier time picking a pocket than a parish priest. It is up to the Judge to decide how difficult it might be for either the street urchin or the parish priest to pick a pocket based on nothing more than his own common sense and interpretation of the world.

One might say that this kind of rules system is kind of loosey-goosey! YES! And I suggest this sort of loosey-goosiness was part and parcel, and expectation, of playing both original Dungeons & Dragons and original Traveller.

I bring all this up because I believe if one reads the rules for original Dungeons & Dragons or original Traveller and it seems they are “broken,” “incomplete,” or “need to be fixed” it is because the person reading them is lacking the context of how the Referee worked in games like Free Kriegsspiel or Braunstien. (And we all know how much effort has been spent trying to “fix” the “Task System” for Classic Traveller over the years!)

This doesn’t mean this method of play is better, or should be played at your table. (Current RPG design certainly works to avoid this kind of play!) But it is a viable method of play.

Moreover, I believe it is an excellent approach for playing Original Traveller. In the next post I’ll talk about the practical applications of this point of view when Refereeing and playing Traveller.

Another Great Post About Skills in Original Traveller


Robert Weaver follows up this terrific post at Den of the Lizard King about Traveller skills with one of his own over at Ancient Faith in the Far Future.

A sample:

In Traveller power comes from player ingenuity, and an understanding of how the Traveller universe works.  Traveller does not provide the power fantasy of easily overcoming enormous obstacles and defeating large & powerful enemies.

Let’s face it. When you compare a ‘competent’ Traveller character to a character from most other RPGs, especially D&D in its later editions, the Traveller comes off looking, well, lame.

Yes, we know that my 4-term Marine with UPP 9998A8 and Cbt. Rifleman-3 is a tough hombre in a fight, but even so he can still get capped by a thug with an auto-pistol. A Barsoomian White Ape will make dinner out of him quickly, unless the PC is lucky and the player is smart…

What is to be done about this? I say: Nothing. Nothing at all. Let Classic Traveller be what it is.

Acknowledge up front that Traveller is not a video game, or an adolescent power fantasy. What it might be is an adult power fantasy. Let me explain…

Read the rest! It’s good! I like where he lands.

Robert’s view echoes my own. I believe Traveller characters are straight-forward and simple, like the conservative technology they carry into the distant worlds at the edge of civilization, in order to showcase the wonders the Referee brings to bear.

If everyone is already a superhero, then the Players have little to respond to in terms of awe when they meet something extraordinary. But if the Player Characters encounter aliens and technology that are beyond their understanding, then the creations of the Referee are puzzles and wonders to sort out. If the aliens and technology present dangers that are true threat to the Player Characters then the Players will have to work hard in clever ways to keep their characters alive.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Spell Booklets for Clerics and Magic-Users, Levels 1 & 2


Jeff Rients notes:

One of my few gripes with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess Rules & Magic book is the spell section.  I hate, hate, hate getting all the spells as a single long alphabetical list.  For too long my neural pathways have been charred into a configuration based upon the organization of spells by class and level.

And frankly, I think that the old way of organizing spells was a lot more friendly for newbies.  Imagine playing a cleric for the first time and needing to search through 200 spells to find the ten you have to choose from.

I concur.

A year ago, when I started my LotFP campaign, I thought the same thing. I made spell list pamphlets for my LotFP Players, ready to be printed out as little pamphlets.

Include both 1st and 2nd Level spells. Since Player Characters won’t need 3rd Level Spells until 5th Level, I knew this would mean they’d be useful for several months of play!

LofFP M-U Spell Booklet, Lvl 1&2

LotFP Cleric Spell Booklet Lvl 1&2

They are formatted as A5 pages, but they’ll easily squeeze into a 5.5″x8.5″ sheet for booklet printing.

Free Traveller 5 Deck Plan Set

126973.jpgGame Designer Workshop is offering the Traveller5 Starships & Spacecraft-2 FIVE Deck Plan Set for Free (normal list price is $19.99)

Inspired by Judges Guild’s classic Traveller deck plans: Starships and Spacecraft. This new Deck Plan Pack re-imagines classic Traveller starships and adds new spacecraft and charts to the mix.

Five 22 x 34 inch black and white deck plan sheets for Traveller5 starships:

Scout/Courier, Express Boat, Free Trader, Corvette, and Colonial Cruiser. Sheets are 1:120 scale (1 inch = 10 feet; 1.5 meter square = one-half inch). Colonial Cruiser is 1:180 (1 inch = 15 feet; 1.5 meter square = one-third inch).

Plus, a sixth sheet: the Astrogator’s Starchart of the Spinward Marches: perfect for plotting voyages through the most famous of the Traveller sectors. Map scale is 1: 1,645 quadrillion (one three-quarter inch hex= one parsec).

Also: Welcome new visitors! (Apparently lots of people are stopping by to see this post!)

I thought I’d mention I’ve written a lot of posts in a series called TRAVELLER: Out of the Box.. The premise is simple:

I examine Books 1-3 of the original Traveller rules found in the original boxed set (both the 1977 edition and the 1981 edition) and see what sort of game and play is found within.

This means excluding the later books. It also means no concern for the Third Imperium (which is not mentioned in any way in the first three Books). And it means looking specifically at Books 1-3 and not The Traveller Book or Starter Traveller, which both contain different text than Books 1-3 and which change the nature of the implied setting found in Books 1-3.

If you’re interest, take a look around!

Fallen World Campaign [LotFP]–Twenty-Second Session (Return to Bergenzel!)


— PLUS: Thoughts on how I Run My Games and Set Up My Adventures —

SPOILERS for Scenic Dunnsmouth below!

The Lamplighters had journeyed to Bergenzel (AKA: “Scenic Dunnsmouth“) in our fifteenth and sixteenth sessions. They had managed to:

  • Find Herr Graupher, the inter-dimensional explore they needed to find (he was dead, yes, but they did find him)
  • Uncover the nefarious spider-cult that had taken over the village
  • Track down Magda, a witch who had fallen prey to the spider-cult
  • Defeat Magda, the Original Spider, and Uncle Ivanovik (the man who had killed Graupher)
  • They found the location of Graupher’s Keep from a man they rescued, and helped this man rescue the son of one of the cultists

They had done very well for themselves. They had found what they had come for, and they had done some good deeds along the way.

But the mystery of the swamp (“Why did time move differently here than the rest of the world?”) was still unsolved. They could use the information they had found to travel to Graupher’s Keep or they could continue to explore the village.

Their decision was… “Okay, this place is creepy. Let’s get out now!

So, they bugged out, returning to the farm they had rented outside of Munich to heal up, study some magic they had found, and make scrolls.

As recounted in the previous session report, after several seeks they made their way past the ruins of Murnau, past the path that led to Bergenzel, and up into the foothills of the Alps where the cleared out and took control of Graupher’s Keep.

The greatest prize of this expedition was a ship that could travel between worlds, hidden away in a massive cavern with an underground lake within the mountain that housed the keep.

I thought for certain they would gather a crew, board the boat, and travel to an alter reality. This has been the purpose of seeking out Graupher and then his keep. But the group was very excited to have taken control of the keep and wanted to clean it up, hire troops to man it, and make sure the road to the keep through the lowlands was safe.

The meant, one of the players declared, they had to go back to Bergenzel and figure out why a mist covered the swampy town and what was causing the time dilation. (They assumed the two were connected.)

There was uncertainty on the part of a couple of the players about this course of action (“Wasn’t there a spider-cult there!”) while the rest of the group knew they had left a portion of the map unexplored and wanted to return and solve the mystery. And so it was decided they would head back.

As they explored the village they came across only abandoned homes. Apparently the rest of the cultists had fled. They returned to the church–and found poor Herman dead on the altar and Father Iwanopolous hung upside and crucified on the church wall. Parting presents from the fleeing cultists.

The fate of the priest, Herman, and the cultists still alive from the last journey was all stuff I had to decide on my own. (“Make it up,” in the parlance of OSR-Refereeing!)

Scenic Dunnsmouth doesn’t specify what the cultists do if the Original Spider is killed. You may no recall–as I did–that the Player Characters had found a map on the inside of the vivisected flesh of Sir Bruno, a knight of an order doing battle against the Duvan’Ku, and on the map was a mark of an insect.

Here’s the passage from my notes describing this:

A prisoner is here, Sir Bruno, a knight of the Order Medicinal. The order gathered the orphans of victims of the Cult of Duvan’Ku in Bavaria in centuries past. After the temple from Death Frost Doom was sealed up by the Clerics of many faiths, they shifted their focus to helping orphans of crime and war, though the order felt less driven in purpose. With the outbreak of the religious war 15 years ago across the Holy Roman Empire they found new energy.

Sir Boris heard rumors of the meteorites and strange circumstances around Middlehelm and went to investigate. He was captured and tortured by Ulrich and Gunther. They want to know where the Duvan’ku hid the World Stone.

The World Stone is a device that can transport people between Carcosa and Earth. Sorcerers from Carcosa used it to spy on Earth. Duvan’Ku cultists stole it and hid it hundreds of years ago.

Sir Boris refused to tell them what his order knows of the World Stone. So they vivisected him with magical means, peeling the flesh of his torso from him, revealing the truth as he knew it:

The inside of his flesh has become a topographical map of Bavaria.

Along the northern edge of the Alp floats the “Death Symbol” from Death Frost Doom. The Shrine from Death Frost Doom is located here. The World Stone is in Area 22 of the Shrine.

Further north on the map there is the sign of an insect. This marks Goblin Hill, from Better Than Any Man. The Order is actively investigating the rise of insects in the area and is closing in on Goblin Hill.

The agents of Carcosa care very much about the Duvan’Ku and the Insect Gods.

This is a technique I use in every adventure: I leave one or two clues or breadcrumbs for one or more other possible adventures. This way, as the Player Characters proceed they have choices about where the will go next. Note that I don’t leave the clue as to where they “have to go next”–because I never assume I know where they will go next. I give them many options. They can choose to pursue any of them… and even ignore those that I set before them and go off after something goal they decide on their own. That’s why, as in this case, I offered clues to two different adventure locations.

This was the symbol they found on the map marking Goblin Hill from Better Than Any Man:


They had all found the same symbol on the curtain in the basement of Magda’s hut… the curtain over the alcove where the Original Spider was hiding. (The text of Scenic Bergenzel specified that a curtain hung over the alcove. I decided to put the insect symbol on the curtain.)

Spelling all this out is a long way of telling you what I decided to do with the remaining cultists since the text of Scenic Dunnsmouth. Keep in mind, until the Players decided they wanted to go back to Bergenzel I hadn’t thought at all about the fate of the remaining cultists. Honestly, there was so much going on and so many other big events occurring, I’d forgotten all about them.

But this is how, in my view, healthy sandbox settings run. One can go off the mental deep end thinking that you are responsible for mastering and tracking every element in a fantasy world or interstellar science-fiction environment. But this isn’t the case at all.

I recently recorded an interview with Victor Raymond, who played in Professor M.A.R. Barker’s fabled Thursday Night Empire of the Petal Throne game. (I quoted Victor several times in a post about How People Played Traveller in 1977.)

In the interview, Raymond told a story about someone pointing at a spot on the map of Tékumel and asking Professor Barker, “What’s here?”

And the Professor replied: “I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet.”

And the person, very confused, replied, “How can you not know?”

“Well, I named it. I know a little bit about it. But until characters I think of go there and interact with each other, interact with the land, I really don’t know what’s there. I haven’t been there.”

I think that’s a really important lesson for all Referees. The man who created the world of Tékumel, who ran games on that fantastical on a weekly basis for years, who wrote novels about that world, not only did not know everything about it. He assumed that until that patch of geography was put into imaginative, creative motion, he could not know it fully.

This ties into a post I wrote a while back about the value of Random Encounters and Random Tables in Sandbox RPG play. We simply can’t know everything about a fictional environment, and we don’t need to know everything about a fictional environment if it is not in action.

This doesn’t mean that we simply ignore the plots and actions of our NPCs if they are off-screen. I spent time imagining and dreaming about what the Carcosan spies on Earth are up to in their effort build a bridge between Carcosa and Earth. Even when they vanished from the Player Characters’ concerns for many weeks of play, I never forgot about them. I imagined their setbacks, their victories, how they were moving forward with the raid on the Duvan’Ku shrine for the snow-globes of alternate realities that would let them travel to a version of the Qelong Valley and come back with the Aakom they needed to tear a rift in space from the Spatial Transference Void to the central Europe.

What it does mean is that we are wiling to find things out in play. That we let our imaginations be inspired by what happens in play. That we let the tension of the moment, the acts of invention (like my players using The Lost Battalion to defeat 3,000 zombies in the tower they needed to clear).

So, what had the cultists decided to do after the Lamplighters had killed the Original Spider and a good number of the cultists? I had no idea, since my imagination had no need to imagine anything in Bergenzel for a while. But the moment they decided to go back, my imagination was happy and excited to get back into gear.

I decided they cultists would head toward Goblin Hill. There were, after all, the arachnids in conflict with the insects. I decided the Original Spider was of this brood. And the cultists would think they were going “home” to carry on the work of their spider-kin. They tracked down the non-cultists in Bergenzel, murdered them in a horrific fashion, and headed north.

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After sussing out the fact that the cultists had picked up stakes, the Player Characters were left with the mystery of why time moved so strangely in Bergenzel. This was a mystery they wanted to pursue, sine the point of returning to the cursed town was to make sure passage to their new keep was secure and safe.

They had taped a good section of the village on their first visit, but Eric, the sharp puzzle-loving member of my group, noted that the northeaster quadrant of their map was still a blank. He assumed that whatever was causing the time-dilation would be found there. So that’s were they headed.

They saw a faint glow ahead of them as they approached the Time Cube, the light diffused by the moisture in the air that only got thicker and thicker the closer they got…

I won’t go into all the details of the experimentation and time distortion shenanigans they got into as the explored the cube. (At one point they fired a laser at the cube from one of the suits of power armor they had recovered from the shattered expedition the Carcosans had sent into the Duvan’Ku shrine. The bolt shot toward the cube at the speed of light–at first. And then it got slower and slower, until it looked like it was just about to touch the surface of the cube, but never reaching it…)

Suffice to say, like so much from the LotFP product line, it did its job well. It was mysterious, and offered a sense of both danger and novelty. They approached the problem with care and a great deal of curiosity, until the Magic-User cast Time Stop and the cube vanished. (The laser bolt suddenly sped back up, shooting into a tree past where the cube had been and destroying it!)

The water’s of the river suddenly began flowing again. The marsh began (slowly) draining. The mist that had obscured the small village for years vanished, allowing sunshine to illuminate the land around them once more.

I had assumed at this point they would return to the keep, stock provisions and crew, and sail off to Qelong to get the canister their Carcosan friend had told them they had to reach before the Carcosan agents did. But they surprised me (again!). They said they wanted to head north toward the point on the map where they had seen the insect symbol. They want to finish the cult once and for all.

Some Wise Words from Zak S


Over at Playing D&D With Porn Stars, Zak S. writes a terrific, brief post that I think is crucial to having a good time with roleplaying games. (Or, at least crucial to the kind of RPG play I like, and the kind of good times I want to have playing RPGs.)

Here’s a portion of it, and the general thrust of the post:


There is one thing that I think applies across the board to players and GMs in pretty much all RPGs and all playstyles and all personality types and that even experienced players and GMs can always push themselves to do better in every game (myself 100% included): support the reality of the other peoples’ inventions.

What that means is: when someone (within whatever parameters the game says is legit) establishes they’re doing something or something is there or something is like that–constantly casually acknowledge it in how you talk. It’s basically a lot like the old improv rule: “Say ‘Yes, and…'” but it doesn’t ask for as much. You don’t have to top them or even build on it–just mention what’s there, whatever it is…

The only consistent difference between hanging with your buds and playing one of these games–the only reason we chose to do the second thing instead of just the first–is whatever it is we get out of a shared imaginative space. Simply reminding them “Oh you imagined that? I am now imagining it too” deepens what we get out of that, no matter which direction we then want to use that space to go.