Tuesday, 31 December 2019

SECRET SANTICORN - A gift from Mr. Screw-on-Head to all of us....

Joining the OSR discord was definitely one of the best decisions I made this year, at least in this particular sphere of my life: it's been a wellspring of inspiration. Opportunities to cooperate and collaborate are constantly presenting themselves, most recently in the form of the Secret Santicorn: participants were invited to record their (RPG) heart's desire on a spreadsheet, then were randomly assigned other participants, for whom they attempted to fulfil said desire. As you may remember, I prepared not one but two GLOG classes (the JAzz Bard and the Aviator) for the (un)lucky Sherlock Hole, and you can catch up on all the enties thanks to Ancalagon, who has prepared a comprehensive (and still being updated afaik) list of this year's submissions here

The Saxons are coming! Argh!
So what did I ask for and which poor sap ended up with my ludicrous request? Well, one of my current "experimental" games is a mash-up of Spwack's Die Trying and my own OD&D house rules: sessions are short, and often disconnected forays into alien worlds (so far we've tried Ynn and the Stygian library and that's about it), and I thought it would be interesting to have them run around dark age Britain, prior to the Saxons but after the Romans fucked off: y'know, Arthurian times, but less shining armour and more wyrd faeries and mudmen (neither of which I mentioned in my request, because I'm perverted like that).

Mr Screw-on-Head did not disappoint.

First, what I asked for AND HOW

Post roman/pre Saxon Britain Hexcrawl! not a whole map, just a few interesting hexes!

Now, the link to Jones' interpretation of my request:

Now an explanation of why I think it's so good.

The best OSR material out there acts as a tool set: in the words of Cavegirl, "an rpg is a PRODUCT to give people tools to make ART of their own. You're not selling a completed film, you're selling scripts, set-dressing, costumes, lessons on film-making and letting them shoot a film of their own." Instead of creating two or three unique hexes, Jones has created a set of matrices that can create am enormous number of unique hexes.

It goes like this:
  1. Roll up a locale: this is six dice rolls, detailing topography, scenery, tone, air and (number of) landmarks. 
  2. Each of the (two or three) landmarks is generated using a six column d20 table, providing Terrain, Purpose, Usefulness, Action, and two columns for additional details.
  3. Finally, Jones recommends generating 2-3 significant residents for each locale; again, this uses a 20 row table with multiple columns. The inhabitant type corresponds to the setting  (we have Roman soldiers, Saxon mercenaries, Wyrms, Faeries and sundry wildlife), with each entry provided further flavour via columns for disposition and action (roll twice)
While I'm unsure of some of the word choices for the column titles, the contents themselves are redolent of the historical period and geographic location: hill, marsh, moor, valley, forest and field can be damp, grey, misty, muddy, rocky or windswept; further adjectives evoke the tone and ambience.

This is where the DM's creativity brings the generator to life: Jones has previously mentioned Chris McDowall's Spark Tables as a method for jumpstarting inspiration, and the words thrown up by the generator are there to be reinterpreted, played with, and moulded into something new and exciting. Jones concludes the post with three hexes generated using this method, but embellished with his own idiosyncratic flair, so I think it's only fair that I try my hand at a similar enterprise.

Topography: Valley
Scenery: Grey
Tone: Ancient
Air: Ashen
Landmarks (2)
1. Jagged StonesPurpose: To drive home the land’s indifference to mortal dealings
Usefulness: Harmful
Details: Growing, Despoiled, Grey
2. ShrubsPurpose: To reveal the ending of a way of life
Usefulness: Neutral
Details: Replenishing, Lichen, Ancient
Definitely a grey theme here! It's almost as if Jones has been to Britain... who would live in such a place?
Inhabitant: Poet
Disposition: Lonely, Tranquil
Purpose: To show that there are those who need saving
Details: Struggling, Calling, Grey, Worn
Inhabitant: Bandit
Disposition: Despairing, Panicked
Purpose: To demonstrate the collapse of society
Details: Dying, Longing, Wounded, Lichen
An ashen sky overlooks this ancient valley, its steep slopes studded with jagged rocks and its base home to clusters of ancient shrubs. This former physic-garden to a vanished people is dominated by witch hazel, hawthorn, elder and blackthorn, lichen clinging to their spindly, unkempt branches. 
  • Wandering amongst the ancient shrubs is the poet, Naig. Emaciated from malnutrition, she is nonetheless at peace with the world, having embraced her own mortality following a period of intense artistic reflection. Intermittently, she can be heard singing her mournful song, as she glides between the brambles like a ghost.
  • On the jagged rocks of the valley's eastern slopes, three outlaws have set up  temporary camp. They are low on rations and terrified, having lost most of their comrades during a skirmish with Saxon mercenaries. They are aware of Naig but believe her to be a banshee, heralding their imminent doom.
The wonderful thing here is the questions raised by the inhabitants and the landscape they inhabit: as multiple hexes are generated, we start to get a bigger picture of the environment, and can start to tie these disparate threads together.

I will certainly be putting a few more hexes together for my casual Friday game, and will share them here as I do so. The generator has provided additional inspiration for the ongoing City of Ghosts project, which I hope will combine some elements of the procedural generation here with either a depth mechanic or some kind of magical zoning expanding on some of the ideas I threw down in this ancient blog post and the hexflower generators proposed by Goblin's Henchmen.

All in all, a long-winded way for me to say thank you to Mr Screw-on-Head/ Jones Smith, and a reminder for all of you to look at his blog, in particular this beautiful hexcrawl generator:

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