A Recurring Dream

The Time of Night

The Dream began at sundown, when the first pillow received the first head, and plunged its sleeper into the common Dream. Tomorrow, at daybreak, the Dream will end and be forgotten.

Some say the end comes soon. Everyone is worried, vaguely worried at the very least. Yet time is a slippery thing. People live and die in the Dream, they birth children, real children (or so they hope). Time passes and details are lost.

Where were you last week? Or last year? Polite society does not tolerate such inquiries. Better to sweep the whole "time" thing under the rug. 

Perimeter Check by Travis Anderson

The Dreamers

The dreamers made the Dream. The city, the apparitions, the tarnished illusion of waking life. 


The Apparitions

Runaway fragments of a dreamer's fervid psyche. They take ghastly shapes but are hidden by the Veil of Hours. Paranoia runs rampant in a world where your strange-smelling neighbor could be a five-headed cockroach, plotting your demise. 

by Maxim Veherin


The Veil and The Eyes

There are layers to the illusion. Theory and experiment would indicate there are at least twelve. One may see into the higher layers by cultivating Insight. 

And what is the Veil? The lie of reason, of cause-and-effect, of law. There are no boundaries in the Dream only pure, pan-psychic chaos. Those who embrace the truth may exact their will on the Dream. In the process, inevitably, they lose their minds. 


The Gods

The dreamers do not sleep alone. Perhaps the Gods are avatars of their collective hope, their dread and anguish; creations of the dreamers, just like everything else. Perhaps the Gods come from outside. Of course they conform to anthropocentric archetypes, how else could they be known?

Either way, it isn't strictly true that the dreamers made the Dream. The Gods too leave their mark. Perhaps they are dreamers as well.

The Investigators

Law and order are hot commodities in a world without rules. Of course, sufficient investigation often results in unsavory aftereffects. That is, for the investigators. 

As a result, the dreamers heap their troubles on freelancers, sourced from society's lowest rungs. They are destined for death, madness, or early retirement. 

It is here, of course, that we find our Players. 


What is All This?

I had Pulp Apocalyptic on my mind, then I read Folligato by Alexios Tjoyas and Nicolas de Crecy. Made me think about the old Common Dream campaign. After about an hour of shower-storming and some seasoning borrowed from Bloodborne, here we are.

Let me know if you've got any recommendations for surrealist or dream-oriented media. I have acquired an unusual taste. 

Foligatto, its a wild ride

Pulp Apocalyptic

Map of the continental U.S. in 1959, after the dust storms cut the country in half, after the pale fever took its due, after the Legion was driven out, but not before they killed thousands with their war-machines and preternatural flames.  

Just something for a deiselpunk setting I'm working on, inspired by Indiana Jones, Bioshock, and the Book of Revelations. If you want to use the map for your own nefarious purposes, I would be honored. 


Traveler's Guide to a Ruined Nation

The United States
President Roosevelt hasn't been seen in public since his victory over the Legion. The western states have succeeded; more will follow. The C.I.A. sticks its tendrils wherever they'll fit. 

The Southern Occupation Administrative Zone (S.O.A.Z.)
Aims to enforce federal law in the Legion's former strongholds. Military leadership coagulates into looter-cliques, with little interest in turning over their power.

Tuskegee Semi-Autonomous Republic
Territory turned over to the south's Black partisans. The S.O.A.Z. seems to think Tuskegee answers to them. Roosevelt's administration disagrees. The Republic itself takes a third stance on the issue. 

Transappalachia
Abandoned by S.O.A.Z. forces in 1950. Dominated by Charismatic cults and ex-Legion warlords, played off each other by the C.I.A.

The Triple States
Theoretically subject to federal jurisdiction. Functionally the Wild West, home to fugitives, cowboys, and oil barons. 

The Dust Storms
They tear flesh and spark arc-lightning. Worse, they carry the pale fever. Gas-masked madmen lurk in the ruins of Colorado.

Deseret
Revolutionary Mormon republic, preparing itself for the end-times. Rich in gold, starving for water.

Las Vegas
Loophole through Deseret's strict import/export policies. Managed, of course, by organized crime. What isn't these days?

The Sonora-Mojave League
Abandoned by the capitals in both east and west. Their country ballads would have you believe its the only free place left on Earth.

The Pacific Consortium
A defective fragment of the Legion's military-industrial complex. Their airships cruise the skies, seeking profit before war. Sometimes they bring war anyways.

Campaign Retrospective: The Common Dream

About two years ago now, on a dark, rainy night at the campus library, I wrapped up a little campaign inspired by Aleksi Serviö's Gloom. Its been on my mind lately and enough time has passed, I think, that now would be a good time to dissect the soggy corpse, and find out what made it tick. 


Credit: Chris Cold

So, The Nightmare Begins Again

Premise was that a sleeping plague afflicted the waking world, plunging my players into a soporific nightmare-realm which in time would steal them of their memories, minds, and life. In order to forestall this terrible fate, they cooperated with a mysterious, paraplegic sailor, who promised them freedom from the dream in return for the star-charts he needed to navigate.

These star-charts, of course, were scattered across dungeon-islands and invariably held in the clutches of their most villainous denizens. 

In plain parlance, the gameplay loop was: sail to island-> explore-> find star-chart-> kill its owner-> return to ship.

Nothing groundbreaking, but the whole "dream" thing meant I could throw in anything I wanted. The Mysterious Menagerie of Dr. Orville Boros? Of course. The Meal of Oshregaal, reskinned as a piratical caper? Sure, why not. Bespoke dungeons made by yours truly? Absotively.

Now the problem with this smorgasbord approach was a lack of interconnectivity. On the one hand, the islands were fictionally separated (by the ocean), so it sort of made sense. On the other, the islands' hyper-individuality made it pretty clear that they only existed to be the "dungeon of the week."

And that can be fine. But there is a certain richness in your players gradually uncovering the truth about the world, drawing connections between disparate places and people, then backtracking to unravel past mysterious, armed with well-won knowledge. 

I sort of made a stumbling-stab at building The Common Dream into a more cohesive world by posing questions, such as:

Who is the Dream King?

Where did the dream come from?

What power do the star-charts hide?

Who is the sailor?

Where are all these demons coming from?

What is happening in the waking world?

Theory was, anti-canon would save my bacon. Problem was, when my players set about finding answers, they could tell I didn't have them. This reduced their investment, understandably. 

If I had to run all this again, I would have some answers in mind. And I'd probably include one or two raft-fulls of shanty-singing corpses who follow the players from island to island.


Credit: Quaresma

Time is A Thing You Put on The Wall

The moon bore the face of a clock. Each session, I gave my players 12 in-game hours to wrap up their business on the island. At midnight, everything re-set. Dead players came back (with nerfed stats), enemies revived, dungeon semi-randomized.

At least that was the idea. Anyone who's played a rogue-like knows how frustrating it can be to face the same challenges, again and again. As it turns out, its kind of the worst in TRPGs.

In my infinite wisdom, I attempted to rectify this problem by not reviving the enemies, and leaving the dungeon-layouts alone. So in effect, my players were just immortal. Worse, they knew they were immortal. Hijinks ensued. The fun kind of hijinks, but ultimately--just as in the real world--immortality bleeds life of its worry, its tension, and its joy.

What would I change? Twelve-in game hours, then the island sinks into the sea. Die in the dream, you die in real life. Maybe every few hours some sort of pelagic horror would crawl out from behind the moon and set about eating everyone. That sounds fun. 


Credit: Chris Cold

The Numbers, What do They Mean?

This brings us, finally, to the game system. I ran Common Dream in the Cypher system, with all-homebrew character options and items. Newsflash: the Cypher system's resolution and class systems are about as intuitive as the finer details of classical Latin grammar. At least for my players. Personally, I thought it would run much smoother. Alas. 

Now what I did like were the cyphers themselves. Powerful, limited use items; few things are better to evoke strategic thinking. I included some permanent magic items as well. These were exploited, which can be fine, but at times did break the game. 

Never talk to me about magnets. Not ever.

I think Bastionland's got the answer to this. Pepper your magic items with limited uses, inconvenient girths, terrible prices, or wills of their own. Just delicious. 

As to the character options, I think perhaps I should've just thrown them out the window. Its kind of weird to me that XP just lets your milk your race/class/whatever for inexplicable jumps in ability. It turns players inwards; they see only dollar signs and their Amazon cart. That's a super wonky metaphor but I'm keeping it.

If character progression lies in the world itself, in people, in objects, in knowledge, then the players have a better reason to interact with it. The OSR sphere has spilled a lot of scrumptious ink on this subject.


In Conclusion

Harsher time pressure. More intentional worldbuilding. Diegetic advancement. 





A World in 13 Items

I AM ALIVE AND SO IS THIS BLOG. And what better way to celebrate my resplendent vivification than to swing into a blog-challenge, fashionably late?


1: Bearskin cloak, head intact.

2: Sabatons molded into bewildered faces.

3: Saddlebag full of fragrant white moss.

4: Honeycomb, fat as a fist, wrapped in oiled leather.

5: Book of daily prayers, held together with homespun thread.

6: Crow, friendly, missing a foot.

7: Handful of tarnished silver rings.

8: Lifelike golden mask of a bearded king.

9: Wooden sword hewn from an enormous rose-thorn, smaller spines sprouting out of the pommel.

10: Tower-shield, its face heavy with rot-smelling arrowheads.

11: Heavy ceramic flask painted with a black sun.

12: Lock of soft, dark hair, bound with a silver chain. 

13: Necklace of decayed, severed hands, strung on a rope. 


Well that was fun. Perhaps I'll dive deep into the challenges of the past, milking them for creative initiative. Who can say.

PARLEYING IS COMBAT WITH WORDS

I've often found PC-NPC negotiation unsatisfying. Don't get me wrong, its an important part of the game. But by great golly goodness, isn't it hard to make negotiation fair? 

Maybe its just because I've had the privilege of playing with a couple of inexhaustible polemicists, but far too many negotiations wind up in one of two categories:

1) The PCs spent an hour of irl time badgering the NPC until they get their way.

2) The NPC puts their foot down (because they're a king or a God or whatever). The PCs badger them for an hour of irl time, to no avail. 

In either case, I wouldn't necessarily claim that the PCs deserve their victory/defeat, nor would I claim it was fun for any party involved. Personally, I like both deserved outcomes and having fun. To that end, I've slapped together a rules-framework for how to handle negotiations, or to use the slightly more evocative term, PARLEY.

WHEN TO PARLEY
I designed these rules for a fairly narrow selection of situations. For their best application, both of the following should be true:

1) The PCs are trying to get something out of the NPC. 

It could be a favor, a change of heart, shakedown money, whatever. The key here though, is that the parleying is inherently asymmetric. There's not really a fair way to have a NPC force a PC to do things their way, at least not via sub-games. 

2) Its unclear how the NPC would respond.

If the PCs want the generous farmer to lend them a room for a night, just have it happen. If they're asking for an interest-free loan from the Dracolich, don't have it happen. Unless it makes sense. Basically if you can figure out how the NPC would respond in a couple minutes, don't bother with having a proper parley.

HOW TO PARLEY
You go around the table, having each PC make a relevant skill check. The party needs X successes before Y fail--HAHAHAHAHA SIKE. Never again 4e, never again. This is how you actually do it:

1) The NPC starts off at Resolve equal to their hp/life points/whatever. Once the NPC runs out of Resolve, the Players get what they're after. Did I steal the term "Resolve" from Griftlands? Did I, in fact, steal this whole parleying concept from Griftlands? Yes, yes I did.

2) Each PCs takes a turn (order decided by Initiative, or just go clockwise if you hate numbers) with which they can take a stab at convincing the NPC. There's a few ways they can do this:

-Intimidate: The NPC loses 1d8 Resolve, plus whatever bonus makes sense for your system of          choice (attack bonus for GLOG, Intimidate skill from 5e, etc.). However, the NPC gains 1 Lost          Patience. More on what that means later. 

-Manipulate: The NPC loses 1d4 Resolve, plus takes X bonus damage from Manipulation for               the rest of the parley, where X is your Deception skill/levels in Thief/whatever. 

-Reason: The NPC loses 1d6 Resolve. Now you could add your Int bonus to this, to put it on                better footing with Intimidate/Manipulate, but Reason already has a hidden diegetic advantage: it doesn't make the NPC dislike you in the long term.

-Deal: The NPC loses 1d4 Resolve, plus 1d4 for each significant offering (roasted newt, oath of fealty, etc.) I'd stay away from using money as an offering, as that's more in line with simply buying something from the NPC. If the PCs have enough money to do so, they shouldn't be bothering with any of these parleying shenanigans. 

-Build Trust: Offer the NPC sensitive information (i.e., information that could be used against the PCs/their allies) in order to remove 1d6 Lost Patience. 

-Inquire: This is sort of a catch-all for all the clarifying questions that come up in normal PC-NPC interaction (who are you, what do you want, what is that wizard doing here, etc.) Also used to learn the NPC's Stance. Again, more on that later.

Finally, the PCs can boost their damage via player skill. If they roleplay a bit of dialogue relevant to their approach ("I've literally killed a dragon," could work for Intimidate) then they role Resolve damage twice and take the higher result. Ditto if their roleplaying goes off of what another player has said. If they do both, just have them deal max Resolve damage. If this seems like it'd end the parleying pretty quickly, that's the point. 

3) Once each PC has taken their turn--and this is terribly, terribly important--TIME HAS PASSED. This means random encounters, expending limited resources, having to refill the parking meter, etc. 

On top of that, the NPC gains 1d6 Lost Patience, which functions as damage-reduction for their Resolve. With each round of parleying, not only are the PC's put under resource-pressure, but it gets more and more difficult for them to win.

WAIT WHAT ARE STANCES
So the NPC's take a pretty passive role in all this but in an attempt to make each parley more unique, every NPC has a Stance. These are passive abilities that bend all the rules I've laid out above. 

Examples:

Short Fuse: +1d8 Lost Patience per round. Turn hostile if Lost Patience reaches their starting Resolve.

Suspicious: Immune to damage from Manipulate and Reason. 3 in 6 chance of this stance being removed by a PC Building Trust.

90% of the time, I'd expect a Stance to work in the NPC's favor. If they're sufficiently "naive" or "simple-minded," there probably isn't a need to parley with them; just give them a shiny gold coin and be on your way.

MY CONFESSION
This system is pretty rough, but I imagine anyone interested will end up hacking it to their liking anyways. There's certainty a lot of room to do so. Maybe I'll make a more polished version for Rats on a Stick or something. Who knows. 

AN OSR BLOG IS BORN SCREAMING INTO THE MOSTLY FULL VOID

"Zenosyne's" a word I lifted from John Koenig, the saucy lad himself. Means time goes fast and then it's gone. Synth's standing in for "synthesis," which is what I do. I steal things and smash them together until--like a funky fresh Frankenstein--they come alive and wander off to get in some trouble.

I got this here list of OSR/TRPG-oriented ideas on my phone. I'm going to leave the list right here, so you can have an idea of what's to come. 

-Make Degenesis playable for humans

-Ditto for Eclipse Phase

-Anachronistic space-sailing in the post-post-future, across a web of immaculately stitched spacetime bubbles created by ominous space stations. Like Treasure Planet but less optimistic. 

-An alternate 60s/70s where the moon's habitable and full of dead aliens, because those Cold War nukes had to go somewhere. 

-Swords on sorcery among a motherly gas giant's 10,000 moons

-A multi-tiered, submerged megadungeon, full of dead kings and their failed attempts to seal off the Abyss. Like a wet cake, but the flour is stone and the sugar rots your soul. 

-Persona-style psychic dungeons. Psychonauts, wizard brains, maybe some peace love and happiness.

-Blend interwar pulp with Neverwhere. Season with paranoia and the New Weird. Stir, don't shake it. 

-The crusades, but its actually Bloodborne.

-Dungeons based of puzzle boxes. Parts move, paths open up.

-Post-Modern Cyberpunk Limbo. 

-Mushishi, but with full-on demons from Hell

-Turn the Codex Seraphinianus into a gamebook. 


Dread it, run from it, the Joesky Tax still arrives. 

31: What sort of monstrous roadkill is that?

Nothing monstrous about it, at first glance. Its called a "fallen flock." Pile of feathers, covering hollow, splintered bones and pummeled flesh. 
Dragons have enormous wingspans. Sometimes they run into migrating birds. Its rare but made more common in areas the dragon passes through frequently. You must be close.