Tuesday 23 December 2014

Chthonic Codex - GOATS

 The latest and the last, in which all things are brought to a close. You can find the rest here: Cryptic Creatures, Academia Apocyrpha, and Mysteries and Mystagogues.

Lets look at the rest of the stuff in the box first..

A big A3 map of the Hypogea-

Free map!

I hate mapping, or perhaps I am simply bad at it so nothing is as useful to me as  a usable free map that I can scrawl all over.

Chtnonic Codex maps are quasi-linear, made up of lines and loops.

(Underground mapping throws up some very weird problems. For instance, it really matters what side of a river you are on as you can't retreat from the route it carves. Everything is connected in a 1-2-3 fashion, so it really matters what things are next to or in line with other things. In the outside world, if the catacombs are one mile away and the monetary is two miles away, you can go around the catacombs to reach the monastary. It everything is connected via tunnel or karst valley, then you have to go past the catacombs to reach the monastery, this time and every time, so the relationship between you and that feature matters more.)

This is an attractive, simple clear-line map that your could use as a seed for CC or that you could put directly into almost any game as a tunnel system. The large area's of white space left by mapping tunnels means you can write all over it.

There are a bunch of intersecting loops towards the north of the map, giving PC's a lot of options for avoiding or interacting with things. The southern part has more straight lines.

I am still thinking about how underground mapping could or should work. (I mean large-scale, not just dungeon mapping.) It doesn't transpose exactly onto any other kind of map but I think generally areas with lots of interconnections are a bit more like cities or towns in how you think of them. At least they involve making a lot of choices about where to go and you can manipulate a little more the means of how you get there.

As you more into more linear areas the choices become more about how-you-get-past-this-thing. You don't get to decide so much where you are going (you have already made that choice) your effort is concentrated into dealing with the problem in front of you.

Interconnected zones are Vancian areas where you can run around avoiding trouble, swapping solutions and problems and improvising a lot. Linear zones are fatalistic Cormac Mcarthy stories where you are out on the plains and meet a thing and you deal with it with what you have and that's it (literally 'The Road')

Two character sheet-booklets-

These have a neat design so that when you fold them over to use them the spell-list is folded inside the booklet. Most of your immediate-use information is directly accessible and you can unfold to access the larger spell list when you need to.

A4 table of scroll scraps-

This is to hand out to players. This pretty much fills the space that a rumour-table would play in other settings.

Six starting characters with portraits-

These are really good. They are by J D Duncan, I advise you to click on the image to visit his Deviant Art page here and check them out yourself


Any of these guys are already about a million times more interesting than anyone you will find in the 5th Ed players handbook.

The only (debatable) problem is that Paolo's description of Lvl 1 PCs in the book is essentially as massive dorks, in time-honoured D&D fashion, you start off looking like a tit. These images follow the description given but actually make the people involved look cool.

If there was anything likely to make someone with no RPG experience want to play the game it would be showing them one of these pictures and saying 'this is you'. They work well as separate images but would also work really well incorporated into the character gen section.

Overview - Renaissance-Chthonic

Our worlds betray their makers pretty quickly. You can't create freely and relentlessly for long enough to fill out a book without exposing some weird aspect of who you are. Zak is a godless warren of snow and decadence. Noisms is an opium dream of a distant east, Scrap is full of life and wild animals, I am an endless network of caverns full of cannibalism and madness.

Paolo is Renaissance-Chthonic rather than just Chtnonic. The Codex and the hypogea it describes is powered by strange energies leaking upwards from an inner world. But the caverns aren't totally dark, they are open to the sky much of the time and the stuff leaking in isn't black, its bright.

The book, like the setting, and by my own questionable logic given above, presumably like the man, is about deep energies interacting with the human world, not just our world but specific human beings.

CC is embodied, many of the rules lock you organically into the setting, its based around people, not monsters. There are monsters and they are dangerous but actual play would be driven not by them but presumably by what happens at work. Pissing off your teacher is more dangerous than pissing off a monster.

Many, maybe most adventures are about you going out into a world that somehow presses against you, walking into the wind, confronting things far from home, pushing order or at least humanity as far into the chaos as you can go. This is an adventure that takes place at home. If 'home' is a huge mad cavern complex. The valley of fire is big, but not LOTR big, you are not really meant to go on huge journeys elsewhere, you are meant to get to know this particular place really really well.

And its silly, much of the time. Tables arranged by rhyme schemes, odd objects turning up, bordering-on-slapstick rituals.

So: embodiment, human interactions, a human-centred world (of play I think), humour, sort-of-optimism and a world you learn to gradually comprehend more and more.

Its the Renaissance.

Plus goats.

This is a unique and perhaps under-appreciated thing, quite unlike any other OSR product, that deserves more attention.

Friday 19 December 2014

Chthonic Codex - Mysteries and Mystagogues Review

This is the third (but not final) part of my review of Paolo Greco's Chthonic Codex. This covers the third book: Mysteries and Mystagogues. The first and second are here and here.

In relation to the standard D&D three-book pattern, the closest equivalent to this would be the Dungeon Masters Guide. Read mainly or entirely by the DM and referred to almost entirely before the game, used to construct the world.

We Have Assignments -
Exceptional Events and Reasons to Roam

This is a kind of adventure hook / mission generator. Its based around the kind of thing a powerful wizard would bully a group of apprentices into doing, or the kind of things they would fuck up entirely on their own.

Distinctively, its grouped into chains of consequence. Meaning you can start anywhere in the chain and take it as a single encounter, mission or event, or start at the beginning and use each entry as a series of unfolding events.

I have not seen anything quite like this done before. Its a bit charming, a bit irregular. Paolo writes 'soft' entries, which gives you more freedom in interpretation but makes them less 'tool-like'. The chains of consequence are not all chains, some are starbursts of parallel but possible related events.

Incidentally Missing Magical Ingredients -
This is a simple, useful mini-list that pretty much anyone could hack or lift for a range of purposes.

Exceptional (Yet Somehow Not Uncommon) Events
More like a list of simple adventure seeds or event-prompts. You can roll on this one right away. The events are neatly expressive of the strangeness of academic life, that weird half-job and its mad politics and its organisation. Its a bit like a corporation, a little like a cult, something like a religion.

Academic Accomplishments -
These are specific in-game actions that unlock 'tiers' and abilities from AFG, Paolo's game. I do not know how that works. But, I assume its roughly equivalent to his version of levelling up'. So in this game we can assume that you get better when you do these things. This is interesting, its a bit like the 'keys' from Shadow Of Tomorrow.

This is an idea I have considered myself, I have never seen it done long-term in a game but I would be very interested to. It means that in AFG: CC your ambition is specifically to win the Bear owl Jousting contest, or bind an otherworldly being in a cyst in the earth. To achieve that in-game thing. Those specific things can help you advance.

So you could mix this with customary levelling up and let the players work out what they want to do, and, crucially, you can tell them how it works or not. If they know that if you sleep over the Gorge of Dreams, this make them investigate in a specific reward-oriented way, if they don't know which specific things cause you to advance then they become strange experimenters, and of they don't know the system exists at all, until they trigger it by doing something, then that's another kind of game entirely. These will all bind you into the world in a different way.

Like everything involving experience, it shifts the game a lot. The implications are wide spread and hard to predict.

Mysteries and Initiations -
This is a new spell-getting system.

So we already have the boring standard method, the more interesting one-roll method and the one where you become a hermit.

Now we have these strange quasi-angelic ancients who guard spells and make you go on ritualistic quests. The exact details of these rituals cannot be recorded of it will piss off the Mystagogues that guard the spells. So most things have to be communicated by analogy

(Oh, everything has an AA BB CC rhyme scheme)

These are all aspects of the natural world, smells sensations and relations. An initiate of that mystery is meant to reveal these (but maybe you could just observe them and get an idea. That would make them an encounter "you notice the ridges on the narwhales have a strange complexity". That would be a way of making the world interesting for wizards, it makes them poets of reality almost. Its also a very MU thing to do, slowly watching paint dry over days so that that cracks in its surface reveal a hidden mystery.

Examination and dedicated study of this leads you to:

This is a list of simple, strange, broadly-gettable objects. So you get all this stuff together and study it for a few days, then you find THREE OMENS.

The rituals are maybe silly, maybe time consuming, maybe deadly, maybe expensive. The marks are mainly just difficult and strange.

C. Then some MYSTAGOGUES turn up
Ok, again, some 'funny' some very serious, each gives you an INITIATION CHALLENGE and possibly a BOON as well. The challenges are sometimes hard, some super easy, some just eat game time, some demand the DM come up with something.

The boons are funny and half of them are curses or broken, old school players will know that a cursed object is just a trap that hasn't been re-purposed yet, but still...

then there is a REVELATION which is another thing you have to do.
The revelations are less-horrible or difficult things which sometimes you have to do, and sometimes just happen to you.

How do I feel about this?

An average roll is going to have people spending money and time. Doing at least one ridiculous thing, and doing at least one difficult or dangerous thing. That's not bad if you consider it as an average roll.

But, you could also get difficult-as-fuck missions for low level rewards, or super-simple missions for high level ones. Most importantly, the quests don't really lock into the type of power you are trying to get. This sort f half makes sense. Mystagogues are really old and have probably got strange over the years, plus rituals accrete detail like barnacles, plus everything can be a metaphor for a different thing. But if you roll it old school, it might not be satisfying. But it might be charming. Depends on your feelings about tone.

I wouldn't rip this out to use it a little somewhere else. If you use it consistently in-setting, the strange and the ridiculous even each other out. You would get to expect that maybe one day you wear a shoe on your head and another something tries to eat your heart. That way, if you get a 'silly' mission, instead of feeling ripped off, you feel relief.

I really like the pictures of the Mystagogues. they are my favourite thing about this section
they are not funny at all, they are serious and strange. Not like anything else, maybe super old wizards that got too magic, or genius loci, or like tarot cards you forgot existed, now come to life.

(Its Christopher Stanley again, does he have a web site Paolo?)

Mere Parodies of Mysteric Powers -
These are like spells, but also general mutations-powers-abilities. They basically bonds with the world that make you interact with it a certain way. Embodied again, instead of abstracted. Living things again. Snake on a stick is cool.

Laws Of Reality -
"Reality hides deeper laws that we don't understand yet. Some we can use, but we can't explain how they work. They mock us. This is not acceptable."

This is a generator for certain mystic laws or processes that always work the same way, some of which might be commonly observable, some hidden from general knowledge. For instance, if a woman breaks glass under a bridge, it can freeze the water there.

This is interesting. Maybe a bit awkwardly laid out. This is only a pre-campaign thing, but its quite different to anything else. Quite different. It makes all of the PC's investigators.

Could you hack this for an already running game?

If you are running a medium sized game, you probably couldn't bang them in right away. But if its small, then they wont have encountered most of the possible permutations yet, so you could use the uncommonly-know ones. And if very big and wild, then players have probably forgotten most of the situations that might have triggered one, so maybe you can use them then.

Apotheosis Of The Grand Sorcerer -
How you become the top guy, and a specific top guy as well. The ritual and precess of becoming the Grand Sorcerer of the Valley of Fire.

This is a good idea. Its player and Dm orienting in a specific way. Why wouldn't you want to become Grand Sorcerer?

The fact that the ritual is described with its events and items, characters and roles, means there is a lot you can do with it. You can try to fulfil it, to become the GS. You can witness it from the outside, you can try to subvert it (90% of D&D parties will be doing this). (This is an interesting ritual. How do you become Pope of Vorn anyway?)

It's like a setting book that just has a bank with a shitload of money, and describes all the protections in detail and leaves it at that.

(So they have a democracy / guaranteed fair resolution spell, that's appropriate, a Thaumarchy would have one.

Chthonotron -
This is the best name possible for an underground mapping system. It's not bad. Simple. Dice-drop and intersecting lines, not very 3d but its Karst not Underdark.

Chthonic Contents -
This is what to put on your Chthonotron. The range of things is relatively small, but most complex options have separate generators for creating crypts, cave complexes, hermitages, goat villages, monasteries etc.

So the effect of this would be to be surrounded by repeating types of things, but each different and with its own character. Multiple shrines, multiple gorges etc. You can sometimes throw sacrifices into the gorges to please the Chthonic Gods that live down there.

 The section here on Farms is good, or at least, exists, agriculture is poorly-used in most D&D games. Making Farms Interesting is the OSR final frontier for people who are annoyed that the Pellanor Fields aren't actually fields (ie me and me alone.)

The Monk Rules link into the Rules of Reality stuff and the Mystagoge section. This is really good. It produces unique OSR monks (cowl and habit monks not punching monks) that gain specific knowledge of reality the more weird shit they go through. This is quite different to spell casters or clerics.

There are lots of situations in this book where you really need a goat. Or part of a goat. And there is an entire race of goat-people who, presumably, wouldn't take too kindly to you just stealing and killing goats. This could end up like the taxis in superhero games, where everyone has magic powers but they all forget to buy a car so the Justice Squad ends up taking a bus to the fight. What is the Goat-Gelt Paolo?

Hypogean Travel Shenannigans-
Essentially an encounter table. One of very few tables that you might roll on during the game.

The layout of text-blocks, lines and dice results on the page 47 is good. there could be a "1-3 4-5 6" line across the top of the page as you will be rolling that every time, but you can write that in yourself.

Some of the more complex results require yet more table rolls.

Fancy Trinkets -
Ok these are alright, same humour-useful balance as the rest of the game

Devouring Idols-
Ah FINALLY the kleinplastik! These are really really good. An excellent combination of art and rules and text. Weapons, treasures and adventure seeds. The fact that you can sculpt your own makes them more like evil or powerful shapes that can be  learnt and exist somehow outside the materials used to make them. Haptic spells if you will. The choices of shape and form are simple, effective and imaginative benefits-drawbacks backed into the rules make them endlessly-replicable put one in your COC game. If you steal one thing from Chthonic Codex, steal this.

Loot and plunder-
This ties together all the treasure tables up to this point into an overall generator quite well.

Some statistical stuff on how to generate your own School of Magic.

On Truth -
Attitudes to take towards the text, treat-as-real, related fiction or what most people will do, just botch up all the stuff you found interesting in one big thing.

Then some name generators for character and gods.

To Sum Up-
This is a setting-generation-before-play book and definitely not a Vornheim-seat-of-your-pants book.

Charming, warm, silly, some high points where text and image meet. The Mystagogoes and Devouring Idols in particular. Highly individual. If you were looking for a school-of-magic setting to drop into your world, now you've found it. Brings a world to life.

A series of chasms filled with processions and groups of weirdo's all engaged in inexplicable rituals, all trying to gain power over each other. The monsters are not the opponent in this setting, its the organisation you belong to that will cause you most trouble. Everything leads back to the Schools.

A mixture of humour and danger which you may or may not like, depending on your character and preferences. If you don't want to risk losing a character trying to get, as treasure, a Suede Lead-Lined Suit, then you will want to hack it.

Sometimes densely-interconnected rulesets, often to useful and unique effect, but limits cannibalisation and also ensures you need meaningful familiarity with the text

I am not done with this. There is still some stuff left in the box so  will review that next and along with that, give my summing-up and opinions for the whole thing

Thursday 11 December 2014


This is one of the 'lost and forgotten' from the project previously known a Velvet Horizons. Its lost and forgotten becasue it won't be appearing in the book. The name 'Foul Gamboge' might be, because I really like it, and the image below might be, but it won't be this monster.


"Foul foul foul is the Gamboge, hated by all decent men. Treacherous, covetous, greedy, lustful, cowardly and just intelligent enough to try to break into your house. Servile though and, rather than a wild beast, something actively attracted to mankind." - Leptoblast

“The Foul Gamboge are simply Icter-Men, addicts of the Icter Flower, an urban blight and sometime rural plague. In Jukai I saw them stepped over on street corners in the mornings where they lie asleep, or piled in vacant homes. Haunting the margins of the crowd in ones or twos. No-one looks at them, they are not spoken of, or to, sometimes stupid people throw them food or let them eat from bins.

They are not hard to overawe or bribe, cowards entirely are they all, hungry without end, ceaselessly starving and begging for food. Or drink, or sex, or alcohol, or company of any kind, or any drug and most of all the Icter Flower for which they will risk any harm.” - Zenithal

The Icter flower is hardy, plentiful, addictive and banned. It grows well in dry or stony ground and flourishes where more sustaining crops would die. In cites, tows and villages it grows sometimes as a weed, from the cracks in dying houses or the fissures in abandoned venting pipes. If seen it is pulled up and composted in locked piles. Possession is a crime, distribution is a crime, consumption is a crime and seeing one and failing to uproot and hand it in is criminal as well. But still the Icter Flower grows.

When dried and burnt, the yellow petals of the Icter Flower emit a blue-grey glaucous smoke that pauses slightly in the air. This odourless curl and a smattering of barely-perceptible ash are all the evidence that’s left. The vapour is a mighty drug. It stings on inhalation, and imbues with drive and mental power. Icter smoke raises verbal and social intelligence, it fills the user with a deep sensation of confidence and the belief that, whatever problems may assail them, they are resolvable and reductable by rational thought. It works. The confident and focused Icter-smoker often can unfold the tangled skeins of life in ways they never could before. And it is addictive. And it slowly turns you to a Foul Gamboge.

Your skin turns yellow-red. You teeth grow like a nest of abandoned knives. Your jaw balloons enormously, a small door into an empty cavern room, opening opening opening until it seems to grow in size then falls away somehow into the huge disclosed inside. Your hair falls out, your limbs thin down, plates bulge and jostle in your head, your upper skull is carried off by the expanding mouth, your eyes are out of whack. It seems now more correct to you to go upon all fours. Your rear legs bow out from the side, your toes expand and splay, your sex, if male, hangs indiscreetly down.

The danger of the Foul Gamboge depends upon their access to the Icter Smoke. The longer they go without it, the more supine and thoughtless they become. In cities they are minor nuisances, sometimes suspected of break-ins assaults or pitiful crimes. Sometimes rounded up, expelled, or killed. Gamboge in the wilds form pseudo-communities of grovelling despair, eating roots and earth, begging violently but driven off with ease.

If they get the smoke, things change. Icter smoke returns to Foul Gamboge much of what it took at first. Intelligence, drive and dangerous memories of what they used to be. Smoking Gamboge have full recollection of their former lives, they remember what they were and what they lost. In detail. Yet the Icter gives them confidence as well. A toxic stew of shame and grief and self-belief and delusional intelligent rage.

Gamboge will do anything for the Icter smoke and once they taste it, are capable of almost anything as well. For anyone cruel, indifferent or desperate enough, and with a good supply of Icter flower, the Foul Gamboge present an easy source of power. The slum-dross can be made a ruthless gang, the sweepings of the wilderness can become a horde.

But anyone who seeks to wrangle the Gamboge must be careful and cunning indeed. They will do anything, anything at all, to anyone to get the Icter flower and the more they smoke of it the sharper and more cunning they become.

Friday 5 December 2014

Chtonic Codex - Academia Apocrypha Review

The last one gave you monsters, this one gives you you. A character to play. Specifically an apprentice mage in the Valley of Fire. So this is kind of the Players Handbook for the Chthonic Codex. All of the classes are Magic User.

Let’s go through what you find inside.

The 5more system

Paolo has come up with a handy d6 omni-system for deciding things that is also a skill system.  It seems simple, but like a lot of apparently simple systems the granularity that isn’t on the dice ends up seeping into the game, with good and bad effects, which we will examine as we go on.

I prefer a d20 but whatever.

Did I whine about this already in the last review ? I’m whining about it again now.

Apprentice Preparation

So we have a new casting system. I am one of those people who daydreams of playing a Magic-User, then takes a long look at the rules for that in almost any game and thinks ‘fuck no’. So this review comes from an essentially sceptical place.

Magic points.
Each spell only once per day.
Only casters generate magic points.
Spells and points come back at dawn.
You can get other sources of magic points.
A new learn magic spell that isn’t read magic.

Rules for learning magic are exactly as irritating as I have always found them

I like that spells are renewed by the sunrise, which is simpler than memorisation and easy for everyone to understand.

I like the new ‘read magic’ equivalent  ‘Unveil Arcana’ which is a bit like that and ‘Identify’ which make sense to me as magic comes in all kinds of crazy forms. If you fall asleep with something next to your head you learn about it in your dreams without expending the magic points. I like that.


You get free stuff when start. One thing you do not get is a weapon. (You do get a knife and staff but they are almost the only normal weapons mentioned in the entire book, which fits the feel of the ‘Magic University’ setting and makes it more fully a problem-solving-improv game rather than a fighting game.

Since the free stuff depends on your college I would probably have put it in those sections. That way you can print it out for each player.

(Artificers do get a crossbow maybe (or even a gun!))

Then there is a list of 180 rrrrandom items. This is a slightly more ‘Blackadderish’ list than the mainly-serious ‘Zakish’ list that matches the tone for most OSR item lists. It’s a bit more gonzo and funny than the rest of the book and in a slightly different way.

I smell Barry Blatt on this list.

Art Of Magic

Oh god rules for crafting rope

hhhnngg, rules for picking flowers

Somewhere there is someone who dreams of going to a fantasy land full of adventure and danger and becoming a pharmacist. But not here.

Does anyone ever research spells? I feel like Brendan might. I must have read spell-research rules in about 20 games. Never seen them used. Well they have to have some as that’s what this game is about and here they are

Rules on spell casting - this bit is interesting

Some questions. Can anything be a curse? That is, a normal spell with a negative effect cast with a specific trigger that you say out loud? Or is it just things with 'curse' in the title? If its anything then that’s a very innovative and wide-ranging change.

Dispensations - these are very good, more on these later

Alternative procurement! – There is raw magic oozing out of the earth and you can go down there to huff it like fumes and invent spells. This is what everyone will be doing. So you can go into the caves (for a low low price) get lost and go crazy. Then you get the spell but there is something freaky about it that makes you mental or mutated or obsessed with some strange thing. Good. This makes the dullards up top carefully researching spells look even more boring.

Mana-Tar gives you magic points and also acts on you a bit like a drug with some serious side effects. This is good, turns mages into sketchy addicts.


Fire Dervishes

If I was going to bet on a single simple idea from Chthonic Codex going out into the wider nerdosphere and becoming a new fragment of the Generalised Fantasy Arcytype it would be the reinvention of fire mages as Sufi Dervishes.

It was about time someone weaponized Rumi. The character of the Fire Mage and the mystics relation to god match perfectly. You fall in love with the fire, the closer you get to it the more pure your love becomes. As you empty of everything else the fire loves you more and more. Except this time the fire is not a metaphor.

The spells are ok fire spells. Hope you like burning stuff. The dispensations involve losing control and endlessly dancing so that works. High Level spell Invocation of the Raptor of Embers is my favourite reincarnation spell that I have read anywhere so far.


Door mages essentially. The dispensations are excellent, leading to players talking to doors, obsessively building their own doors with fancy embellishments and leaving secret marks, circles and glyphs everywhere. These guys start off as someone who is really good at running away and end up as a general TARDIS mage.

There are some very powerful but highly specific spells limited by both what you need to do them and the fact that, like all colleges, you can only be this college. No mixing and matching.


Be friiiiends with the animals and annoy the DM by bringing like twenty pokemon to every fight and constantly playing the flute.

Example Spell: Xanathon's Xenophilia

“This spell effects two beings of very different species. The two subjects of the spell will save or be very very physically attracted to each other, regardless of inconvenient incompatibilities.”


The only problem here is the spell doesn’t specifically say they will produce viable young, which I think is the point? Unless you just like watching them fuck.

This class is about seducing frogs, stabbing people and being naked. Maybe you are a friendly Dr Doolittle type or maybe you are Ash from Alien looking at the Geiger monster in a jar and talking about its ‘perfection’.


These guys look into the future every night and then spoil everyone’s fun by worrying about it all day. The class is mainly about moving odds around, getting intimations of the future and trying to shift things generally in your favour. The dispensations work well with making the character obsessed with the future, with doing or not doing certain things.

The basic fortune-telling mechanism is another occasion where I must revolt against Paolo’s use of the D6. Instead of one d20 or d100 you get like a five stage process of d6 rolls.

Question, they say if you are down a well and look up, you can see the stars. Much of this game is assumed to take place underground, if you look up from a cave through a narrow well-like crack in the day, can you do stargazing then?

There is another really good high level spell in ‘Call Down The Baethilus’ which I think is what they cast on Monkey in journey To The West to trap him under that mountain.


Immortality, blood, pineal glands, eating hearts, messing with bodies another good high level spell essentially makes you Sauron. Much of it specifically ‘evil’, so if you want the play the #notallnecromancers necromancer or the ‘Don’t We Need Slytherin Really’ guy then you will have a hard time doing so.


In a sense this is half a school given in the spell list. It’s all meant to interact with the crafting system I skipped past earlier on. You can make commander data and gradually upgrade him. A bunch of other rather odd spells. For people who like building things really. You get a gun! (I mentioned that already). There would be a lot of interaction with the DM to decide what you can or cannot do but the possibilities are wide open. Go from MacGuyver to Aulë.


The big deal with these guys is they can heal you and also they know a lot about plants. They are almost the only guys who can heal you. I wish that was more interesting. Interacts with the plant rules the same way artificers interacts with the crafting rules so they are almost both half-a college if you just read the spell list. Scrap you might like this. Plants?

There are some very nice pictures of plants.


I like these guys, simple rules too, spells are characterful and appropriate, goat based. The most original of all the schools. Paolos goat fetish really came out with this one.

Asceticism - this is another form of spell research which is less boring than normal spell research. No books, no stuff, one tenth the cost, at least twice the time, sit on your own and think. People are going to be like Patrick you don’t want to search for plants or build things but you do want to sit alone in a cave and  to that I say yes that is who I am.

Captivating Container is a pure, excellent fairy-tale spell.

This class turns you into the guy who turns up an a Greek Myth and you are like ‘Fuck no hero don’t talk to that guy’ but they do and end up fetching hot girls for a Cyclops to eat because they made the wrong deal. Well now You can be That Guy. The weird soothsayer from Act Two who fucked everyone’s shit, running in and out of your self-made karst on your goat legs.

Three Spells About Undergound Trees

At the end there are three spells about underground trees.

There they are.


Dispensations in the spell descriptions are elements of the imagined world which, if they are in place, allow the Magic User to cast a spell without using Mana. Or in standard Old School D&D, without using a spell slot.

This is interesting. It does several things I like.

It offloads complexity onto the written document so you don't have to remember it all the time. But does so in a short and simple way that doesn’t add much weight to the spell description.

It gives strong impetus for the PC to interact with the world in a certain way in order to gain advantage.

So a Gatekeeper spell is that you can talk to doors and see what went through them. But if you build your own door and make it fancy with at least 100 worth of stuff then you can always talk to it without cost. So gatekeepers end up in houses and buildings full of really fancy doors they made themselves.

Dervishes can animate tiny spirits from fire. If they choose to they can do this for free, but they get more spirits and cannot control what they do.

Chimerists can make frogs into giant frogs, but if they seduce the frog first they don’t need to burn the spell points.

This leads to mages doing a lot of mage like stuff, looking for weird things, building things, dancing, playing instruments etc. It produces excellent magelike behaviours which the player will fully indulge because it gets them something if they build their own doors.

They are a bit like Carcosan Rituals but embedded into the Players info rather than the setting.

Question: do level 9 spells take 9 mana to cast, or one? If its one then the dispensation for high level spells is not that useful since for a 9th level mage burning 1 mana isn’t such a big deal, if its 9 then the dispensations are VERY useful indeed.

How would it work, what would you do with it ?

If you use this as-written you get a bunch of disparate mage PCs who are all going to act stranger and stranger but really can’t get much done on their own. So the stage is set for co-operation and conflict.

The characters of the schools are embedded well into the objects, spells and behaviours that surround them.

If you want to tear it up and turn it inside out you can turn the Players handbook into a setting relatively easily. The schools become mages you can talk to who both need and resent each other. The specifics of the Dispensations become quest seeds.

I would make a Karst desert full of Goaty hermits in caves or on the tops of poles and Fire Dervishes spinning endlessly on pools of vitrified glass.

Sunday 30 November 2014

Why does the Enterprise look cool?

The more I think about sculpture, the more upside down I find everything about it. The most creative parts are the least attended and the parts that have to do the most ‘work’, face the most constraints and pack the most information into the same space and also make it useful and explain itself, are ignored.

So. Why does the Enterprise look cool?


If you compare the Enterprise to a person and imagine it standing on-end, the nacelles would be spindly 'legs' the hull a waspish thorax and the dish would be centred about in the middle of the breastbone. A human head would poke out of the top.

The saucer edges would be where spread out arms would be and the reach of those arms is roughly suggested by the edge of the saucer.

So while it is not proportioned like a person, its proportions are related, there is a kind of conservation of proportion. It make sense to compare it to the human body, even though they are not the same they are clearly linked.

It has a ‘head’, body and ‘legs’ and those parts are roughly arranged in thirds, which matches the basic structure of life that we are most familiar with. A long thing, arranged into thirds, with a top, middle and end of roughly equal mass, about three times as long as it is wide.  When we want to make something look alien or ‘wrong’, or imagine something strange we often mess with those parts. The octopus and manta ray, a caterpillar.

The Space it Holds

It encompasses space as well as taking up space. It is not simply ‘there’, embedding itself into the space like a pile or a block, a planet or a knife. It locks into space in a complex way, like a piece of a puzzle.

There are two ‘negative space’ Enterprises that you can imagine in the empty space highlighted by the limbs of the real Enterprise.

The first one is upside down and back to front. You could actually almost built two Enterprises locked together, facing top to tail, each upside down relative to the other, with each having its hull trapped in the other Enterprises space, their saucer opposite the others nacelles and their nacelles opposite the others saucer.

Opposed, locked together so that they could never actually move, facing top to tail and each upside down relative to the other other. How many ships, or even sculptures can you say that about

The second is that space encompassed by the ship itself. Above the hull, between the saucer and the nacelles. A weird little puzzle-box back-garden space. You could almost fit another ship in there, if its neck was long it could face back with its neck between the nacelles and if it had wide bits, they could poke out on either side above the hull. It couldn’t be too ‘high’ or ‘deep’, there isn’t room for it.

In fact the invisible ship you imagine when you try to think of one to fill that negative space is pretty much the shape of a small Klingon Bird of Prey. Which kind of suggests that the Bird Of Prey is going to somehow mate with or fit into the Enterprise, to fill its negative space. Which I suppose, in an odd way, makes the Enterprise female.

Its parts

The neck is swept forward. This gives it ‘intentness’, things move their necks forwards because they want to go forwards. It looks eager. Birds of prey also do this when they are diving or killing. Tigers as they leap.

The nacelles are swept back. These are like strange wings. The swept-backness gives them the impression of speed. Again, things move their limbs back like that almost exclusively when they are diving or moving fast. For people, it would be when they are about to throw. If the Enterprise was a person it would be one with their head straining forwards and limbs or legs set back and bent, like a sprinter about to launch or someone throwing a javelin.

But it has a circular head. The circle is a shape of harmonious order. Safe, watchful, it is literally a smooth platonic curve. It’s probably the least threatening shape we have. Maybe an oval would be even less threatening but we kind of get that with the Enterprise-D.

So it’s a bird of prey but with a peaceful, ordered and calm head. It summons up the intentness and will to action of a bird of prey, but replaces its claws and beak and implication of death with calm. Regularity. There is a contrast there and that make it interesting.

It has an eye of sorts. The original sensor dish doesn’t glow which means it doesn’t really fit the idea of an eye as well as later versions, but in those it is a calm blue. It’s a friendly watchful eye. One of the good bits of the 2nd Abrams movie is when they meet the ‘bad’ federation ship it also has an ‘eye’. When violence threatens, that eye half-closes, which is an excellent piece of storytelling.

The way they all work together

Almost every part of it has both curves and straight lines.  The curves are always regular and geometrical. Nothing organic. The original engines are cylinders, the hull is a cylinder, the dish is a dish. The edges of the hull and nacelles are straight, the dish tents a little up and down but its lines are straight.

All the lines are stable, not bunched like muscles, more like naval architecture, indicating solidity, regularity.

There is a powerful contrast between what the general arrangement says and what the lines say. The form says ‘I am going to go fast, to go forward, I am aware and eager and watchful, I am like a friendly, fast, living thing’. But the lines say ‘I am calm, constructed, I am solid, predictable, I will not break, I am never irregular’.

We see all this at once when we apprehend the shape. The contrast in our heads gives the ship its character.

The engines are clearly making it go. The parts connecting them to the hull, and the hull to the saucer are clearly absorbing the imagined ‘force’ of its movement, but they are very slim and very clean. So we imagine them absorbing a large amount of force without difficulty. This reminds us of kinds of engineering we respect and admire. We know that absorbing force and movement takes mass and when someone builds something that can soak up a lot of force but without much mass we respect it in a certain way.

Like when we see a very modern bridge, very clean and simple and light, but clearly doing what an old stone heavy bridge did, but with only a small amount of the material. It makes us feel better about our culture. It speaks of intelligence and a kind of hidden knowledge and calm capacity, not obvious, but certain. ‘Yes we also can do things’.

The opposite would be the pyramids, or a 40K imperial star ship. They are all about having a lot of mass. They do not say ‘we deal with our inner powers cleverly and subtlety’ but just ‘we have a shitload of inner power’.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Keepers of Unkept Secrets

"Its harder to guess ahead of time how you will be recieved by those in charge of government documents than to guess what you will find in them. Ahead of time, I had guessed I would be sized up as a suspicious character up to no good: I was alone and peeking into government files and into Mann Gulch itself, which long since had been put out of sight and was better that way. Although Forest Service employees, I figured, would always be watching me with a fishy eye when I was around and even more so when I wasn't, there were not nearly as many spies as I had expected. They were mostly old-timers, and some of them had worked in the office long enough to know that some funny PR business had gone on at the time of the mann Gulch fire. Most of the Forest Service employees who had a corner of an eye on me belonged to that element in most PR offices who are never important enough to be trusted with any of the organization's real secrets - they just know genetically that big organizations have shady secrets (that's why they are big). Also genetically they like shady secrets but have none of their own. I gather that government organizations nearly always have unorganized minority of Keepers of Unkept Secrets, and one of these, I was told, went so far as to write a letter to be read at a meeting of the staff of the regional forester reporting that I was making suspicious visits to Mann Gulch and suspiciously arranging to bring back with me to Mann Gulch the two survivors of the fire. According to my source of information, after the letter was read the regional forester went right on with the business at hand as if nothing had interrupted him. And as far as I know, nothing had."

Norman Maclean

'Young Men And  Fire'

Sunday 23 November 2014

Cthonic Codex - Cryptic Creatures Review

This is a review of Paolo Grecos Cthonic Codex part one, Cryptic Creatures.

The cover is by Clair Maclean. It looks like this:

Ok lets do the basics first.

The Basics.

There's monsters, about 30 I think.

Its A5, black and white. Staples but no spine, 64 pages.

Nevertheless, paper stock is good, looks like it would hold up ok round the table. Someone (Paolo) took their time putting it together so you could bash it about and it would probably survive.

This version came in an attractive and sturdy box.

The layout is one image of the monster and a description on the opposite page along with mechanics. Mechanics come in standard OSR stat block and another for Paolos AFG system. Many monsters have random tables and special rules. Nothing that anyone rading this would have any trouble using.

Paolo fell in love with the fonts making this I think but has managed to avoid any of the stupid stuff design people end up doing when they start thinking fonts are important.

The two urges in RPG design are, on one side, the Raggi-Esque old-school clear-out-the-shit nothing-but-vital-info and on the other, the deep desire to have magic glyphs and have the runes in the spell book look like real runes and have the doomed world transmission *look like its on a real view screen*. These are both noble intuitions and the war between them will never be done.

The fonts and arrangements are a neat synthesis of these two very different impulses. They are 'ancient-world' enough to look like they are from an ancient world but also you can fucking read them.

Layout in general is good, clear. One could perhaps argue that some of the tables are a bit fernickety.

Paolo has decided to use a whole bunch of methods to squeeze a bunch more information out a a dice roll I see. So far so OSR, a country fair staffed only by tinkers who built their own goods, in which 90% of the market is also tinkers and occasionally some normal people kind of fall in by mistake.

The Art.

Interior art is by Christopher Stanley. It ranges from ok, to good to very lovely. There is a thing with dots he does where the lines dont quite meet up and very generally, the pictures with more dots are better than the ones with less dots. He seems to be an artist where, if you give him more to do, he gets better, which is a generally good sign.

Honestly if you want someone to say something intelligent about art then you can send it to Jason Dozens, Playing Z&Z with Zornstars or Scrap Princess. You know its me so you get a paragraph on art and a page on writing.

I liked it.

The Monsters.

But what kind of monsters are there and what world to they infer?

There are things made by Wizards, which is ok in this case as the envirnment described is round a kind of magical university.

Threre are one or two that could easily be things invented by Gary back in the day, or be from legends that you've read but can't quite remember. the Horned Kateract is like this, they all have veils over their eyes, can percieve everything around them and cause effects depending on which eye they unveil each turn, but its never both at once.

There are a bunch of things shat out by raw magic, some strange cave life, and some more general monsters.

If I had one complaint its that it doesn't feel 'cavey' or undergroundy enough to me. Probably you know my prejudices in this area, if everything isnt blind, drained of colour, insane and used to waiting twenty years for a meal I am not satisfied. But 'Karstic Complex' can mean many things, it can mean caves, but also limetone labyrinths, broken ground and desolate dry moors and this does feel like that. Caves, deep valleys, gorges and crags.

It's sunny for a cave and that probably becasue Paolo is kind of sunny.

Its almost a social monster manual as almost everything you meet is going to involve you with either things made by other wizards or creatures generated by magic. There are a one or two possible Alpha-Monsters-That-Also-Have plans and only one organised enemy race, the Cephalapods. They are more schemers than thugs. I can't imagine them skullfucking you, they look kind of worried in the pictures. Probably they are worried about the wizards.

There are rules for the omens gathered by watching birds, depending on what they do. Which I like

The Writing.

The monsters have descriptions from in-world perspectives, a sliver of history each, and then simple direct rules.

Its clearly the voice of a very enthusiastic person speaking an a second language
not badly written, but with words and timing arranged in a way that puts it a bit outside what I imagine feels normal for most english speakers.

Which is good really as it fits in well with the foreigness and strangeness. I kind of imagine a tour guide in their mid 20's guiding you round the Hypogea, gesturing at things, maybe waving their arms.

"As they become older and wiser, more and more bent and withered, even more haughty and crotchety, often they die. And while sometimes it's not noticable, some other times it is, and it's ok. So when they do go properly dead and motionless, we usually bury them in the catcombs, so that we can protect them."

The prose virtually has an italian accent.

"So no, we don't simply bring a few different skeletons stapled together back to a life."

One thing I keep thinking of while reading this, for some reason, is 'The Courtier' by Castigleione. This is a rennaicence book where a bunch of very mannered, sympathetic and human people hang out in a castle and discuss all manner of things in a highly civilised style.

It feels like that. Its has a very warm tone of voice. Personally when I'm writing I tend to go for pounding pseudo-miltonic wierdness that goes after your spine and doesn't hang around to hear what you think about it, but this book isn't like that, if it had a face it would be smiling, and listening really. Happy to be speaking to you. "Oh did you see the Silver Swans flying towards the sun? bad omen for travellers I'm afraid. You should stay the night. Sit down and have some wine."

More than anything its a book of monsters that brings to mind the people who tell you about the monsters. many are useless without a personality to link them too, several of the rest will probably want to talk to you, several will steal or alter your magic if you have any.

If you want to meet those people you can just go through the monster descriptions and find the first story fragment with a name and bit of history. If you like, that could be the person speaking, maybe its happeneing now. If you just take the past tense out of the story fragments then its a plot generator instead.

"Grand Sorceress of the Valley of Fire Edonoplechtus III ha(s) a penchant for silent guardians ... she (has) realised that the lovechild of a male barn owl and a female 20-foot long python (is) the perfect predator for an environment consisting mostly of underground caverns (but they have escaped and she wants them back, and her name kept out of it.)."