Thursday, January 9, 2020

Esoteric Enterprises (plus character sheets)

So it's been a while.

I don't really want to address that in any significant way right now, as every time I try, it ends up in a spiral of excuses, desperate jokes, and a waste of the reader's time so instead I'll just make a brief post about a game I'm excited about and a little fan-thing I made for it.

The game is Esoteric Enterprises, written, designed, everything elsed by Emmy Allen of Dying Stylishly Games, and published by Soulmuppet Publishing. It's available in pdf here and in hardcopy from Melsonian Arts Council and Exalted Funeral.

It's the mashup of World of Darkness and Old School D&D you never knew you wanted. Eight classes that let you play anything from a mad scientist or paranormal investigator to a werewolf or the wandering soul of a coma patient (examples from the book's helpful "How do I make a..." section). Plan heists, cut inadvisable deals with immortal cthonic beings and mundane mobsters in over their heads, delve into subterranean complexes radiating with forbidden knowledge and more terrifying monsters than yourselves.

If this sounds at all exciting, you really should check it out. The first print run sold out almost immediately and the physical book is gorgeous and glossy. The pdf edition includes both the regular version and a printer-friendly art free version, which is a considerate touch, I think.

The only thing it doesn't have yet is a character sheet. So I decided to make my own. It's not particularly glamorous, but I think it gets the job done. There really isn't room for spells, so for now those are best written on the back or a separate sheet, and at some point I might make a magic sheet for spellcasters like the one below. Anyway, for now, here's the sheet in two formats: Letter Size and A4 (click on the description for the pdf).

Letter Size

A4 Size

EDIT: Made a spell sheet for Occultist and Mystic PCs.

Letter Size

Friday, December 26, 2014

Illyrians of Note: The Demimonde

Just above the ranks of the criminal underworld but falling just short of respectability, there exists a shadowy, ill-defined "half-world" populated by a motley assortment of artists, poets, entertainers, and others whose profession and temperament leave them stranded on the fringes of polite society. Their unique position affords them the chance to mingle (in certain contexts) with all levels of society, and may be found lounging disreputably at theatrical premieres and gallery openings, making introductions at bohemian soirées, and slipping out of unexpected bedrooms just before first light.

magician4.jpgDoctor Perdurabo

This mysterious foreigner has attained a considerable notoriety in the short time he’s spent in Illyria, and the ruined abbey he’s purchased in the countryside is rumored to be the site of occult ceremonies and frenzied rites of the most depraved kind. He has put it about that he is seeking a young female accomplice to serve as his “crimson altar concubine” for some unknown but vaguely sinister purpose.

Madame Zazu

Depending on the source of the gossip, Illyria's most sought-after clairvoyant and medium is an exiled "Queen of the Caravans", the fugitive mistress of an Azerbaijani oil tycoon, the reincarnation of Queen Hatshepsut, or an obscure provincial girl with a gift for accents and cold-reading.    Whatever her true origins, her seances are well and rapturously attended, and
her Tarot readings and consultations (always held in her small but fashionable lodgings in the New Town) are booked almost a year in advance.  She offers no clear explanation for her mysterious powers of prognostication, save that she works with the assistance of a "spirit guide" in the form of Zalmoxis of the Getae, an ancient Thracian warrior-king whose bronze sword hilt she wears on a silver chain around her neck.


Laszlo, the People’s Poet

An impassioned young man of upper-middle class origins, Laszlo maintains a fashionably dilapidated squat above the fire-gutted ruins of a printworks, from which he publishes broadsheets and handbills proclaiming his fiery but inconsistently-defined ideology. The building was scheduled for demolition some time ago, but the authorities are in no hurry to tear it down, as the location is well-known and easily surveilled, should the nightly gatherings of University bohemians ever develop beyond posturing, sesquipedalian demagoguery, wine-bibbing, and the swearing of fearful oaths. It is considered a rite of passage for junior police officers to attend such meetings undercover, dutifully taking notes in suspiciously crisp leatherbound journals.

Vera Petrović and "Freddie"

A middle-class divorcée turned essayist and playwright, Mrs. Petrović (she has retained her married name) presides over a raffish and often combatative (the last meeting was broken up by police after a pistol was discharged into the ceiling) salon in a small coffeehouse at the edge of the Old Town.  Wits, dandies, and flaneurs of all stripes are drawn there, and the resulting verbal fireworks are breathlessly related (though always under the zealous pen of the censor) in the morning editions of Illyria's rival newspapers.  Mrs. Petrović is most often seen in the company of "Freddie" (full/real name unknown) a free-spirited American sculptress with whom she shares a modest apartment overlooking the parade grounds. Mrs. Petrović has politely, but firmly declined subsequent offers of marriage.   


The Great Clown Pagliacci

Currently playing the Capital for a series of sold-out performances. A bitter, depressive alcoholic who may snap at any moment now. Suffers a recurring delusion that he is God imprisoned in flesh and every day lived as a man is his punishment for creating humankind.

Olympia Gautier

The reigning prima donna of the Illyrian stage, the pale, striking Gautier rose from playing an assortment of slave-girls, maids, and ladies-in-waiting to the ingenue roles with a swiftness that garnered the astonishment of critics and the envy of her peers. Her hypnotic gaze, shockingly naturalistic portrayals, and a certain indefinable something have made her the most talked-about commoner in the Capital, and speculation is rife as to her origins (her name is almost certainly a fiction), amorous entanglements, and the tendency of actresses contending for the same parts to succumb to bizarre and unaccountable reversals of fortune which serve to take them temporarily (or in one recent case permanently) out of the running.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Illyrians of Note: Crime & Punishment

A twisted funhouse mirror-image of Illyria's storied aristocracy (see previous entry), the Underworld is populated by no less sensational personalities.  Indeed, the more notorious members of the criminal element make a far greater impact on the lives and livelihoods of many in the Capital than do the glittering worthies found on souvenir portraits and picture-postcards. The tenements, back-alleys and dimly-lit basements where they hold court are the patrimony of your characters, and the gallimaufrian patois of thieves, beggars and whores their native tongue. Below are just a few of the more notorious of these, who may well serve as allies or rivals (or both from one minute to the next) of your characters, along with some of those charged with bringing them to such justice as may be had in Illyria.

gTnzO0v.jpgMagda the She-Wolf

A hard-bitten former prostitute, pickpocket, and smuggler, Magda keeps a watchful eye over a small horde of orphans and runaways in a cavernous warren beneath the Old Town. She shields and chastises her young charges with equal ferocity, and her “little mice” in turn act as her eyes, ears, and light-fingered hands throughout the Capital.


“Butcher” Piet

If backstreet rumor and the shrill warnings of moritat-singers are to be believed, the always-dapper Piet is responsible for innumerable violations of the laws of God and Man. For all the atrocities he’s credited with, no scrap of evidence has yet held up in court, and he walks the streets a free man-- to the consternation, awe, and terror of all. He is rumored by many to be The Devil Himself (or at least a close relation) and Piet has made no attempt to refute these speculations.

The Vrána Brothers

Boško and Bogomil Vrána appeared on the scene seemingly out of nowhere about 5 years ago.  They claim to be identical twins, and they do in fact exhibit a disquieting simultaneity to the point of finishing each other's sentences and occasionally speaking and moving in perfect unison.  As to their physical appearance, no one can say for certain, as they never appear in public without one of several matching pairs of bird masks in a variety of styles.  If bar-room gossip is to be believed, these masks are not removed even in the presence of intimates.  Of the two, Bogomil seems to be the more intellectual brother, and appears to be au courant with the latest trends in music, literature, and art.   Boško has the simpler tastes of a sporting man-about town, and may be further identified by a sharpened Art-Nouveau thumb ring which he employs to pluck out the eyes of those who offend his many whims.  The two have taken up residence, along with a retinue of enforcers, toadies, and hangers-on, in a lavishly-furnished townhouse in the heart of a fashionable quarter of the New Town.  From here, they direct their ever-expanding portfolio of criminal enterprises, including blackmail, theft, racketeering, prostitution, ,sport-rigging, and murder-for-hire.

Young Frankenstein6.gifCommissar Kaltenbach

Obsequious to his superiors and snobbish to all beneath him, the Commissar is a thick-headed, preening martinet to whom the ins and outs of policing play a distant second to the cultivation of gleaming brass buttons, boots spit-polished to a mirror finish, and crisply-executed salutes.


Chief Inspector Sobotka

Bitter, sardonic, and frighteningly competent, the Chief Inspector was himself a graduate from one of the many informal thieves’ academies which flourish in the crook-backed alleyways and dilapidated tenements of the Old Town. As such, he is intimately familiar with Illyria’s criminal underworld and rarely misses a trick. He is hampered only by the contempt of his superiors and the resulting lack of funds and manpower to realize his ambitions.

Sergeant Popov

Ever-amenable to a discreet payoff in the form of a flask of schnapps, some perfunctory sexual gratification, or a modest amount of cash "to buy perhaps some toys for the children," Sergeant Popov  strolls serenely though the streets of the Old Town whistling a jaunty music-hall ballad and absent-mindedly twirling his polished oak truncheon.  Popov projects the image of a jolly, easy-going, genially corrupt policeman, winking indulgently at little transgressions and leaving the citizenry more or less in peace.  For the most part, this is true, but Popov drops his avuncular mask with alarming speed when his stream of "honest graft" is challenged or threatened in any way.  More than one recalcitrant citizen has woken up in the hospital, bones broken, fingers crushed,  and jaw wired shut after a particularly enthusiastic thrashing from Popov himself or the patrolmen under his command (whose ranks include no less than 3 adult male representatives of his massive brood, which at the time of this writing number thirteen).      

Friday, November 28, 2014

Illyrians of Note: The Quality

The next few posts will feature examples of prominent NPCs that players may encounter in the course of a caper or campaign.  While it is rather improbable that your gang of brilliantined swindlers and back-alley toughs will make the regular acquaintance of the worthies listed below, any gallery opening, public ceremony, or fashionable soiree' (such as attract the wealthy and fleece-able) is guaranteed to have at least one of these in attendance, with any luck diverting attention as you go about your larceny.

1367272271-mr-arkadin01.jpgGrand Duke Orsino IX

Jolly but irresponsible “merrie monarch.” Steadily bankrupting the country with his many extravagances and caprices. Orsino is, in no particular order, a gambler, womanizer, gourmand, sportsman, and cinephile. He is also something of an amateur stage conjurer. Friends, relatives, servants and random subjects (especially the more pulchritudinous of these) are often pressed into service as volunteers for the Grand Duke’s latest illusions, card tricks, etc.
Duke Stefano

Solemn, university-educated, progressively inclined, though still a monarchist at heart. He has rebuffed the overtures of at least two conspiracies to usurp his elder brother but his resolve is weakening. He is a current Fencing Champion of all Illyria, a breeder of prize-winning thoroughbreds, and an amateur civil engineer.


Lady Désirée

The wealthiest widow in Illyria, and its leading patroness of the Arts. Speculation is rife as to whether her total obliviousness to all forms of wordplay, innuendo, and double-entendre is a ruse designed to confound suitors or the result of a strict convent upbringing and/or a persistent innocence in matters of the flesh. In any case, her brief marriage to a notoriously debauched sugar magnate yielded no fruit before his untimely demise, and Lady Désirée passes her remaining years in a series of salons, gala luncheons, and candlelight suppers.

Countess Viola

Variously described as "a mockery of her sex," "pert beyond all endurance" and "that vicious little hoyden," the youngest member of the Grand Ducal family is the despair of her elders, the vexation of her suitors, and the darling of the international press (Illyrian newspapermen being firmly under the censor's thumb).  She is most often encountered on horseback, sabre swinging from her hip, or behind the wheel of an experimental automobile, and nearly always in one precisely tailored regimental uniform or another.  Her one notable departure from this caused a minor scandal at last year's Masquerade as she appeared as Artemis of the Hunt in a diaphanous chiton of alarming brevity, bearing a (functional) Tatar bow and flanked by two enormous Irish wolfhounds.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Some News, Ill Met in Illyria [Part 1], and Also I'm not Dead

First off, I'm not dead.  Not just yet.

Second, some news:
1.  As inactive as I've been on the writing front, I have been getting more and more illustration commissions, and with each new project I feel like my skills are improving.  Here's one from an adventure supplement to James Maliszewski's  Thousand Suns

Some private commissions for Mike Davison of Sword +1

For Evan Elkins of In Places Deep

And Trey Causey of From the Sorcerer's Skull

In addition, I did some work for Epidiah Ravachol's Sword & Sorcery zine Worlds Without Master

And a series of pregenerated PC portraits for Paolo Greco's fantastic Chthonic Codex boxed set.

I have work in Chris McDowell's upcoming revised and much-expanded edition of Into The Odd.

I'll be illustrating the Fever-Dreaming Marlinko city supplement that was unlocked as part of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes Kickstarter.

And then there's this.  I think that one will end up confirming all my elementary/middle school teachers' worst suspicions about my character when they saw the comics I'd made.


I have a neglected pile of half-written posts about Galbaruc and Oriax, but before dusting those off and putting 'em up there's a little side project I've been working on.  In the interests of finally finishing the thing, I thought I'd keep my interest and momentum going by posting some "teaser" excerpts from the document as I'm putting it together.  Eventually, I'd like to put out a nice printed edition of this thing with maps, floor plans, and copyright free (and some original) illustrations, but for right now my goal is to knock out a 15-page or so pdf.

So a while back, Trey Causey did a couple of posts (1 & 2) outlining the basics of a "Ruritanian Rogues" campaign, which happened to coincide with me recently catching a performance of Twelfth Night and watching a bunch of pre-Code movies, mostly directed by Ernst Lubitsch. This is what emerged, and right now I'm working it into a sort of "playset"for Over the Edge / WaRP as that's the system I can most easily run off the top of my head (with the possible exception of WFRP 2nd ed.)  With very minimal tweaking, it could work well for Risus, too.

So here's a brief intro:

The Year is 1912. You are a motley ad hoc association of swindlers, pickpockets, gigolos, demimondaines, legbreakers and second-story men. Your playground and prison is the obscure Balkan microstate of Illyria. With nothing but brains, charm, muscle, and an assortment of random odds and ends, you and your associates will attempt a series of increasingly improbable heists, swindles, and outrages of public decency while staying on step ahead of the police, rival gangs, grey-suited bureaucrats, the secret police, student revolutionaries, formidable dowagers, occultists, aristocrats, ponderous academics, street urchins, monocled sadists with Heidelberg dueling scars, femmes fatales, and your own tragic shortcomings.

Illyria totters drunkenly between picturesque feudalism and modernity. In the Capital there are telephones, cinemas, electric lights and even automobiles, but a traveler venturing beyond its turreted walls may be forgiven for thinking they've somehow stepped back into the 18th Century.

The National Language is Illyrian (an Indo-European language in a tiny branch by itself) which is spoken and understood by all commoners. The business of the Archducal court is largely conducted in French.

The Illyrian Orthodox Church serves as the State Religion, though there are sizable pockets of Roman Catholics, Jews, and, to a lesser extent, Muslims (largely an artifact of the nation’s brief period of occupation under the Ottomans). There is also rumored to be a small commune of Swedenborgians somewhere in the north of the Great Forest.

The standard unit of currency is the Kopin. You have very few of these at present, and the world is teeming with people who have more than they can be trusted to use responsibly.

Here's some recommended viewing to get you in the right mood:

Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Kafka (1991)

The Trial (1962)

The Great Train Robbery (1978)

The Assassination Bureau (1969)

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

Royal Flash (1975)

Shadows and Fog (1992)

The Illusionist (2006)

Duck Soup (1933)

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

M (1931)

The Threepenny Opera (1931)

The Ladykillers (1955)

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949)

The Great Race (1965)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Jewel Robbery (1932)

Next post, I'll put up some NPCs that can serve as marks, foils,or allies of convenience for your gang of Graustarkian ganefs.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Items of Psychotronic Might #2: The Brazen Head of Criswell

Preserved by strange alchemies from the far-flung XXth Aeon, the head of this legendary seer will utter strange and terrible prophecies for the benefit of any adventurer bold enough to consult it.  When it speaks, its stentorian tones can mold and mutate the world around it, bringing mundane reality ever closer to its mad vision.

The head may be consulted once per day with a question relating to the following:

     1.  The past or future history/provenence of an object, NPC, building, or geographical feature.  The answer  may well be negated by PC actions/repurcussions of same. 

     2.  The customs, mores, etc., of any society/culture/ethnic group,etc. known to the PCs, at any point in its past or future development.

     3.  What is going on, at this exact moment, in a location known to the questioner.

For every consultation, make two percentile rolls.  The first gives the probability of an accurate answer (the head is notoriously unreliable) while the second represents the consultation attempt itself.  If the answer is inaccurate, the GM is free to invent whatever outrageous bullshit he or she desires, but both accurate and inaccurate answers should be delivered in the same stentorian, overblown, and slightly delerious manner, with the PCs referred to as "friends", "my friends," "dear friends," etc. 

After the oracular pronouncement has been given

If the second roll is an even number there is no additional effect.  On an odd result, roll a d10 and consult the following chart ) :

 Random Brazen Head Effect
 "Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives."  The next 24 hours cycle in a continuous loop "Groundhog Day" style.  This can be broken by one of the party making a successful Save vs. Magic (or whatever), which can be attempted once per day.

 "And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future."
At any point within the next session, one fact can be made retroactively true or false, up to and including death, dismemberment, purchases of vital equipment, and ill-considered fashion choices.

 "You are interested in the unknown... the mysterious. The unexplainable."  The questioner can Identify any objects encountered within the next d4 days as per the spell.  There is no actual casting involved-- the character simply knows these things.

"My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer." The Head psychically scans the questioner, who must make a (whetever's appropriate for the system) save or yield up their deepest darkest secret, which the Head will decide to announce, in unsparing detail, at a time when it is least advisable.

 "Let us punish the guilty." As above, but all present must make the save. Of the characters who fail, anyone who's committed a shameful act (by the Head's Eisenhower-era standards) within the last 48 hours rolls twice and keeps the worse result for all rolls in the next 24 hrs.

 "Let us reward the innocent." As above, but this time acts of virtue (according to the Head) are rewarded, and any characters so affected roll twice and keep the better result.

  "Perhaps on your way home you will pass someone in the dark, and you will never know it, for they will be from outer space."  The next random NPC the questioner encounters is actually an otherworldly entity in disguise whose inscrutable designs involve the questioner in a pivotal role.

"My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?" Instantly summons d4 Ressurectionoids armed with laser scalpels and revivification rays. 

 "It is even more of a shock when Death, the Proud Brother, comes suddenly without warning."  Instantly summons d10 Astro-Zombies armed with vibro-machetes.

 "My friend, you have seen this incident, based on sworn testimony. Can you prove that it didn't happen?" However insane the Head's last utterance, it is now part of consensus reality, challenged only by liars, cranks, and the deranged.  Re-roll on the off chance it answered the last question correctly.

Special Bonus! The Legendary Criswell Predicts Your Incredible Future (1970)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Four Dignitaries of Hell of Special Interest to the Criminal Element

This can be considered an addition to the "Hell" entry in The Scofflaw's ABC.

1. Dulak-Mhir, Castellan of the Fortress of Joy. Appears as an aged man in a tattered scarlet robe, his body wound head to foot with iron rings, from which depend a clanking, jangling assortment of keys. He may be called upon to unlock any doorway, gate, or strongbox which stands between a mortal and their desire. He will perform this service in exchange for the petitioner agreeing to bear one of his key-rings. Dulak-Mihr will choose the ring himself, which may be small enough to wear around the pinky finger, or large enough to circle a man’s waist. Whatever the size, the ring will be heavy, uncomfortably tight (but not so much as to cut off circulation) and impossible to remove. It is not known what will transpire when Dulak-Mhir has cast off his last ring and may once more stand unburdened of his duties.

2. Kalkiskordivaay, Marchioness of the Wormwood Star. Appears as a leopard with the head of a woman of no mean appearance, her red-gold hair oddly cast in the light of a crown of pale green fire. When she speaks, it is as the tinkling of small chimes in the roar of a hurricane. Kalkiskordivaay delights in the corruption of stalwart hearts and the betrayal of duty. She will teach the lines and curves of her sigil to favored malefactors in dreams of unnerving beauty. These votaries will then seek out the individual they seek to bend from their purpose and attempt to persuade them to some inconsequential betrayal of a charge or duty. If they can be swayed but one iota, their doom is secured. The corruptor then inscribes the name of their victim in the center of their Patroness’ sigil. With each successive week after the the inscription, the victim becomes ever more susceptible to suggestion, and at a month’s end, they are firmly in their new master's thrall, unable and undesirous to disobey any direct order.  This binding may only be broken if the sigil is somehow defaced or destroyed, in which event, Kalkiskordivaay withdraws her favor in disgust.  She has been known to respond favorably to the sacrifice of a loyal guard dog, or a puppy whelped from same.

3. Ulshh, Master of Revels at the Court of the Inverted Citadel.  Vain, restless, and fond of novelty, Ulshh never appears to mortals more than once in the same form.  His last fleshly incarnation was as a grotesquely fat lavender-skinned man wearing the powdered and rouged skin of a slender fop, with the gaps in this unusual suit filled in with puffs of vermillion taffeta and laced with golden thread.  Ulshh is often appealed to by poets, actors, and musicians whose talents are on the wane, or have yet to acquire sufficent fame and fortune by more laborious means.  For the enterprising criminal, he has been known to provide the following service:  When presented with the tibia of a boy whose voice has not yet broken, Ulshh will fashion it into a flute, engraved with verses in an unknown tongue.  When the flute is played, all who can hear its music (save the player) are forced to dance a stately measure, and may do nothing else until the music ceases.  For every minute the flute is played, the player ages 1d10 years.  Should the player reach the age of 100 by this means, they must successfully save vs. Death every subsequent minute the flute is played.  Should the player die in the midst of playing, the flute splits open, shattering into useless fragments of bone.

4. Glalabursik, Carnifex-General of the Legion Inevitable.  Appears as a pale, hairless androgyne clad in antique armor encrusted with rust, with shrivelled, sightless eyes and a cavernous mouth containing rows of tiny serrated teeth.  The murderer's friend, Glalabursik will grant the following boon to faithful petitioners:  He will produce, from some dark recesses of his armor, no less than 100,000 writhing maggots, which will scatter to devour any and all corpses within a 100 ft. radius of the petitioner.  Every hair, drop of blood, piece of bone, or scrap of flesh will be entirely consumed, leaving nothing but clothing and personal effects, picked clean of any trace of their owners.  This will take approximately one minute per corpse.  When they have finished, the sated maggots will wriggle their way back into their master's armor, and Glalabursik will take his leave with a slight bow.  Those present for this gruesome spectacle will notice no change in their own outward appearance, though anyone who was on intimate terms with those so devoured will perceive them as dripping with gore from head to foot.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Galbaruc: Eight Lies About the City

1.  Galbaruc is the First City, built upon the toil of the infant race of Man for the use and enjoyment of their masters, who journeyed across the trackless void to make dominion of our world, having destroyed their own though perversity or carelessness.

2.  Galbaruc is the Last City, her foundations raised by inscrutable magics and the labor of the creature that Man is reduced to in his last days.  Its overlords, realizing the immanent destruction of all they had wrought, enveloped the city in a great cloud of fog and propelled it backwards through obscure sidestreets and alleyways of time, after first ejecting its builders to endure alone and without shelter the long-deferred obliteration of their race.

3.  When the Celestial City of Urizen was at last complete, the warped boards, bent nails, and imperfect stones that the Great Architect had rejected were flung from the Highest Heaven into the sea.  In their fall, this detritus struck a prison galley carrying a shipment of murderers, whores, thieves, and other convicts being transported to a distant island to serve out sentences of hard labor.  Most were slain in the resulting shipwreck or by the sharks that swarmed to the scent of blood, but the survivors clung to the wreckage, lashing the pieces together and clambering over the struggling bodies of their fellows to safety.  Thus was Galbaruc founded, and the character of its citizenry established.

4.  There has only ever been one Beggar-King of Galbaruc.  His wisdom and sagacity surpasses that of all other earthly monarchs, and his court is a model of efficiency, decorum, and enlightened rule.

5.  There is no Beggar-King at all, and tales of this secretive worthy, his court, and his kingdom are a mere fiction, elaborated upon over centuries by beggars, unscrupulous academics, and the publishers of penny romances.

6.  The yearly marraige of Galbaruc to the Sea, in which the First Citizen takes upon himself the role of bridegroom, is not merely a symbolic gesture.  The First Citizen is betimes required to descend beneath the waves in a special conveyance of glass and gold, there to perform his conjugal duties with Yash-Kunag the Many-Toothed, the great shark-headed Sea Mother who dwells below in a great palace whose timbers are the rotting hulls of ships lost at sea.  It is for this reason that the First Citizen abstains from eating godling-flesh during the Festival of the Great Culling.

7.  There are gods so diminished in stature that they have been forced to take leave of the shimmering, otherworldly manses where they held court in better days, and now lead lives of bitter exile in crumbling apartments and drafty tenements throughout the city, sustaining themselves on the prayers of tiny cults and obscure sects.  Some of these wretches must subsist on the scraps of sacrificial meat and dregs of sacramental wine left at their altars by an ever-dwindling number of dedicated voataries.

8.  In the deepest recesses of the Temple of Yash-Kunag, there is a pool, tended by seven virgins of good family, whose charge is the care and feeding of the blind, albino god-spawn that circle and thrash restlessly therein.  There, they divine the city's future from the clouds of blood that bloom across the water's surface while the god-spawn are at their meat.  Should these creatures ever refuse their meal, the city will be swallowed up by the waves within the year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Scofflaw's ABC [Secret Santicore]

So here's the piece I did for Secret Santicore this year.  Gentleman wrangler Erik Jensen was kind enough to put a link to it on his blog, but I thought I'd re-post it over here, given the total lack of posting lately.  Looking at it now, I think it's definitely a mixed bag.  There's a few entries I think turned out well, and a few where my procrastination and last-minute scrambling to complete it are painfully obvious.  Still, I hope it's at least somewhat useful, or at least amusing, for someone out there.


If the stars are right, I'll be running a campaign with evil, or at least very selfish, PCs. They will be some kind of criminal organization starting out in the big city. I would like some kind of game aid in running such a campaign.

A Scofflaw’s ABC
Being in the Main Twenty-Six short segments of advice, observations, useful color, and points to consider when running and playing a Criminal campaign.

Assassination: Murder-for-hire, while it has the potential to be vastly lucrative, offers unique challenges to the independent contractor which are seldom considered by those resorting to such methods for political or ideological ends. Conflicts between clients are bound to arise, and, unless clear bylaws and guidelines are set, the whole affair can collapse into internecine chaos and confusion. In one notable example, an agency of some repute was assigned the task of eliminating its own Chairman. Technically, this order did nothing to conflict with the agency’s bylaws in this regard, and as the client’s credit was impeccable, the agency was professionally bound to carry out the contract, against the protestations of some of the senior members. Today, that august body of trained killers lies in ruins, to serve as an example to like-minded entrepreneurs.

Burglary: Even adventurers outside the criminal classes have dabbled in burglary from time to time, and there are few escapades more satisfying than a well-planned heist, successfully executed. Specialists such as Yeggs and Second-Story Men will demand a larger cut for their services, but this is to be preferred to dealing with amateurs who will drop lanterns, fail to staunch their nervous laughter, and bring the whole delicate operation crashing down upon your heads. When targeting a wealthy home, Keep an eye out for disgruntled servants, their livery indifferently worn and a curse for their masters on their lips.

The Competition The PCs, of course will not be the only game in town. Whatever the Racket, odds are someone in the City is already hard at work to the same purpose and will resent the intrusions of upstarts and newcomers. Perhaps there will be an offer extended to Join or Die, or perhaps this established concern will lash out at once in full vigor, the better to maintain its reputation. If the PCs are indeed newcomers, they will be vulnerable from the very beginning, and their arrival on the scene will disrupt the delicate web of alliances, feuds, etc., as each faction and concern scrambles to work this new situation to its advantage. It may be advisable to join such an organization from the beginning, only to play on the cupidity, ambition, or grievances of its members, and arrange a coup from within. While this has the benefit of providing the PCs with an existing infrastructure, the loyalties of your co-conspirators will forever remain in doubt. How long, after all, before some other brash young upstart makes a similar attempt?

Doxies: Trollops, jades, and filles de joie, as well as the gigolos, catamites, and rent-boys who call them sister, are an invaluable resource for the criminally ambitious. Like their cousins on the stage, they mingle and co-mingle with all classes of society, and for a small consideration may be relied upon to provide all sorts of carelessly-provided gossip or relate events to which they were an unnoticed or unremarked witness. They may sometimes be privy to even weightier matters, as their clients may often let slip some secret in a moment of unguarded candor. This last phenomenon, often the cause of great sorrow to the employers, superiors, and co-conspirators of such blabbermouths, has given rise to the occasional practice of deliberate misrepresentation, in which an agent will seek to confound or discover his enemies by passing false information along this network.
A few other means by which they may be employed:

1. The obvious. While the office of bawd, as has been noted, is far from easy, the burdens of generalship are seldom appreciated by those unfortunates serving on the front lines.

2. Theft. Depending on the specifics of their arrangement with a client, a quick-fingered jade may be given ample opportunity to pick pockets, search saddlebags, steal or make impressions of loose keys or signet rings, etc. If given clandestine access to the client’s apartments, so much the better. These items may be procured for their own sake, in service of a larger scheme, or as a means to…

3. Blackmail – If the client stands to lose favor, position, reputation, marital harmony, etc.; if their indiscretions become known, the theft of a distinguishing possession, piece of clothing or jewelry, or simply the recitation of certain physical characteristics visible only in a state of undress may well provide the necessary leverage. If the act of patronage itself offers no opportunity for shame and entrapment, the loss of some object vouchsafed to them by a third party can be quite efficacious in holding such an agent in thrall, particularly if the third party is not known to be of a forgiving disposition.

Explosives: Volatile, expensive, and dangerous to operate and procure, explosives should be employed as frequently as possible.

Fences: Often glossed over, the difficulty of disposing of obviously stolen loot should be brought to the fore in a Criminal campaign. Sumptuary laws may be enforced with more vigor, creating a black market for what could previously be sold openly, driving up the risk and the fence’s cut along with the potential reward. Some items are of little value to all but serious collectors, and the PCs must decide whether the payoff is worth the time, trouble, and expense of arranging such a buyer. The arrest, murder, or disappearance of a fence, particularly one with an established relationship to the PCs, invites new complications and difficulties to be overcome.

Grave Robbing: This venerable industry has two distinct branches, and its practitioners will generally stick to one or the other by virtue of opportunity and inclination. The first involves theft of grave goods – everything from jewelry, cerements of costly stuff, weapons, and other personal effects of the deceased, as well as the furnishings of the grave or tomb itself. Grave-mounds, mausoleums, the barrows of barbarian chieftains, and the half-submerged necropolises of antediluvian kings are generally held to be most fruitful for this kind of work, though not without their attendant dangers. When not engaged with lantern, sack, and pickaxe, they may be found seeking out and poring over ancient histories and crumbling maps. They will have developed contacts with established Fences, and may count academics, antiquarians, and wealthy eccentrics among their acquaintance, though neither would acknowledge the association openly.

The second branch is the domain of body-snatchers and resurrection men. Here, speed and opportunity are the watchwords, and intelligence is to be gained by loitering in gin-shops and execution yards. The cadavers themselves are the prize, though a gold tooth, locket, or finger ring is always a pleasant bonus. Their efforts supply the needs of a clandestine clientele of anatomists, surgeons, artists, necromancers, alchemists, and necrophiles, many of whom are known to the resurrection man only through a third party. Some enterprising scamps in this trade are so scrupulous in their desire to provide fresh and unblemished product to their clients that they will readily employ a pair of strong arms and a pillow rather than trust in the vicissitudes of Fortune.

Hell: The Final Reward of all those who make their living by vicious and dishonest means. Sages, savants, and theologians imagine this abode of the forsaken as anything from a sort of double-sided griddle or waffle iron in the hands of a vengeful Deity, to the state of a soul for whom the absence of said deity is felt with severe and unexpected keenness, to a chaotic, formless nightmare realm of pure thought and sensation existing parallel to our world, to an inverted and exaggerated representation of the Metropolis itself. Such metaphysical considerations and barely-disguised Social Commentary is beyond the scope of this primer. We concern ourselves here with Hell’s Native Denizens—in particular those grotesque and fantastic worthies who serve as Courtiers, Impresarios, and Middle Management in that Sorrowful Country. Many of these are said to take an interest in the affairs of mortals, and to aid and inspire acts of malice, cupidity, and vice among Men, for such is their delight and pastime. The rascal who attracts the attention of one such may aspire to outrages that will keep the moritat-printers and snatch-singers in capons and gin for months, though he may in consequence grow careless, and find himself face-to-face with his Patron earlier than he had anticipated, following an appointment with the Noose or Flensing- Spoon. There is a prolific and cut-throat trade in the criminal demimonde for scraps of lore, rituals of summoning, rites of appeasement, etc., that will secure even the fleeting attentions of these entities.

Incarceration is little employed, except a perfunctory stint prior to flogging, placement in the stocks, branding, mutilation, execution, or in some societies, sale (see Just Desserts, below). Someone suspected of possessing valuable information may well be detained for a considerable time, during which their only respite from the lonely gloom of the cell lies in their captor’s periodic attempts to Persuade and Extract. Princes and other individuals of high estate will often find themselves held captive – in varying degrees of comfort—by their enemies, who weigh the expense of their lodging against the expectation of ransom. If there is a significant public-minded spirit of reform, lesser offenders (especially minors) may be set to some improving task, instructed in an honest profession and in the precepts of religion. All too often, the proximity to other young people of like disposition proves too great a temptation for mischief, so that likely boys and girls become apprentices, and apprentices become journeymen in some loathsome trade or other. Persons in search of eager young recruits, already well-schooled in the ways of petty evil, will find plenty of newly-idle applicants on the steps of such institutions, tossing prayer-books in the gutter and pawning their tools for gin.
Just Desserts: As few malefactors merit prolonged Incarceration, their punishments will most often be meted out soon after arrest, on the spot, or after a perfunctory and largely symbolic trial. These may consist of time in the stocks or pillory, branding, flogging, mutilation, amputation (hands, fingers, ears and noses are popular), or execution, with or without preceding torture. Most of these will take place as a public spectacle for the edification and entertainment of the citizenry. Executions afford characters an opportunity for gallows speeches of pleading oratory or vulgar contempt, and the planning and carrying out of daring escapes. If a PC is not the star attraction, or if their associates are of a particularly practical or vindictive cast of mind, there are additional opportunities for profit and diversion. Souvenirs of personal effects may be sold, along with tickets to balconies, roofs, etc. (whether or not the characters own the building in question) refreshments, impromptu skits or puppet shows depicting the prisoner’s career of sin, ballad-sheets and replica gallows, flensing spoons, etc., for the children. In addition, opportunities for purse-snatching and pick pocketing are legion, and the PCs may wish to take the opportunity of such a city-wide distraction to commit some new outrage in another part of the metropolis when vigilance will be relaxed.
Kidnapping: A venerable and storied pursuit among brigands of all nations since time immemorial. It is not an enterprise to be entered into lightly, and each aspect of the scheme – choosing a target, contacting the family or guardian, the amount of ransom demanded, selecting and securing a safehouse, and the transfer of ransom and hostage itself must be considered in great detail. Even then, fresh complications may arise at any point, and the unfortunate kidnapper may find themselves saddled with a burden too valuable to dispose of safely and too unpleasant for company. By all means, avoid becoming entangled in the schemes of husbands to squeeze money from wealthy but recalcitrant fathers-in-law by kidnapping their wives and splitting the ransom. It seldom ends profitably for anyone.
Loot: At once a driving motive and a logistical nightmare. A few points to consider after counting that sweet, sweet lucre.

1.  What form is it in? Coins and jewelry, while cumbersome in bulk, will be much easier to get rid of than an exquisite antique chest of drawers. Those bottles of excellent wine will be worthless unless stored properly. Kidnapping the duchess’ lapdog seemed like such a good idea at the time, but now it’s yapping its head off at all hours and you’ll have to move safehouses again, or risk discovery. And you can’t stay at Vassik the Eel’s place again after that incident with his rug.

2.  How are you going to spend it? Conspicuous consumption sure is fun, but each new purchase makes it harder and harder to act in secrecy, which is how you were able to acquire it in the first place. Perhaps a some changes are in order…

3.  The more you acquire, the more time, money, and energy you have to devote to guarding all that loot from everyone else.

Magistrates: Eventually, a PC or associated NPC will find themselves dragged before one of these. It should soon become apparent whether you are dealing with a pinch-faced censorious type whose sentences favor the Draconian, and who may or may not carry on a double life of utter depravity in private, or the usual ruddy faced drunk from a Hogarth etching with a gouty leg, a terrifying social disease, and whose wig is conspicuously askew. Either way, courtroom drama should be indulged in shamelessly and with indifferent regard for the niceties of the law. Your players probably don’t have an intimate grasp of your campaign world’s legal system, you may not have considered the problem in great detail yourself, and there’s a good chance their legal representation is a bit shaky on the subject as well so theatrics and bombast are your friends.

Narcotics : When dealing with wacky fantasy drugs in your campaign, ask yourself the following:

1.  Why is it illegal? There must have been pressure at some point from some commercial, political, social, religious, medical, or philosophical concern for there to be an all-out ban on it. Is it purely a matter of economics? A moral panic? A combination of these factors?

2.  How is it manufactured? Are the raw materials readily available, or must they be imported? Is the process of its manufacture a closely-guarded secret, known only to a particular group or faction?

3.  Has the substance been legal (or at least unofficially tolerated) within living memory? Until very recently? This will have a huge impact in how its manufacturers, users, and purveyors are seen in society at large, and the respect or contempt in which efforts to enforce its ban are regarded.
The Occult: Even when not attempting to enlist the aid of the dignitaries of Hell in their pursuits, superstition is rampant in the underworld, and the use of amulets, talismans, “lucky” tools of the trade is widespread. Spells and charms of dubious efficacy are sold and traded, strange rituals are observed before heists and murderous rendezvous, cobbled together from half-remembered childhood observances, bits of stray gossip, popular music-hall routines, and desperate, muttered blasphemies.

Peaching: While those partial to romantic novels may hold some notion of “honor among thieves,” and this fiction may be of use when practicing on the inexperience of the young and foolish, it is best dispensed with by those who wish to get about the business of lining their pockets with backs unpierced. Informers, finks, rats, stool pigeons, snitches and squealers riddle the underworld like maggots in meat. Though held in the strongest loathing and contempt by their peers, greed and self-preservation will out, and it is a rare scofflaw who will hesitate to inform on his fellows if the reward is large enough or the hangman beckons. The fear and suspicion that an associate has turned informant is a powerful motivator, and may send the campaign spiraling off in any number of entertaining directions.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Some thought should be given to the size, quality, and disposition of the Police, Night Watch, etc, which are in turn informed by the character of the City itself. Does the City even retain such a force, and how common are outbreaks of lawlessness? In Republican Rome, for example, there was no police force to speak of, and no one of sufficient means braved the streets after dark without an armed escort of slaves, clients, and retainers. Is the force large or small—well-funded, or shabby and struggling against a vastly superior force of thieves and cutthroats? How are they viewed by citizens? More to the point for committed criminal types, how corrupt are they? Is there a level of “honest graft” that any officer can be expected to more-or-less adhere to? Public outcry against laxity or corruption on their part may trigger sudden brutal crackdowns and shows of force, and your malefactor will find themselves made an example of for behavior that last week was pardonable with a wink and a small consideration.

The Racket: The chief means by which the PCs’ organization makes its dishonest living. At first, this may be confined to one particular activity in one particular area – running a protection racket in the Plaza of Drowned Men, for example, or supplying Purple Lotus Powder to a string of brothels, gambling houses, and cabarets along the Waterfront. There may be an initial struggle with The Competition, but once secure in their position, they can begin to expand geographically and/or in the scope of their influence as they grow in wealth and power. It’s up to the players whether to “diversify their portfolio” or focus more narrowly on a particular activity over a broader area, but either choice is sure to invite conflict as the PC’s sphere of influence threatens to encroach on those of the existing factions.
The Sporting Life: Whatever sports, games, and public spectacles are available in the City, there should be plenty of opportunity for the PCs to claim a piece of the action for themselves. Murdered bookies, crooked fight promoters, Halfling-doping scandals, sabotage in the hippodrome – something for everyone!
Thugs: Of great necessity when kneecaps need breaking, protection money paid on time, and interlopers discouraged, the PCs will want to acquire the services of a few of these at the earliest opportunity. If at all possible, try to find a short, verbose, almost offensively polite guy and partner him with a hulking brute with fists like Parma hams and a tendency to speak in monosyllables. I love those two.

Unforeseen Complications

1.  War! Martial Law is declared, sudden influxes of refugees, once common items become incredibly scarce as rationing goes into effect.

2.  Plague! Families shut up in their homes, the dead are stacked up like cordwood, and no one’s allowed in or out. If only some altruistic soul could be found to smuggle people and goods past the guard patrols…

3.  The City is hosting a great exhibition! The population will swell by tens of thousands, fantastic inventions and creatures are on display, and a countryside’s worth of well-scrubbed rubes is steadily trickling in to see what all the fuss is about.

4.  An important foreign personage and their sizeable entourage is visiting the City. New suppliers, new customers?
Vice: What’s seen as a vice in a particular campaign setting might be wholly innocuous in our world, and vice-versa. Perhaps there is no taboo attached to imbibing any substances, but certain fabrics are considered indecent when worn against the skin. Prostitution might be a wholly legal, and without any stigma of impropriety, but eating meat is regarded as decadent and depraved. Novels, plays, vocal or instrumental music, the display of certain colors or subjects in works of art – anything that gives pleasure could potentially be regarded as a vice and be subject to laws and restrictions which will be the PCs’ business to exploit. Watch as the PCs claw their way up through the vicious cutthroat world of trafficking in purple dye, or rise to become chocolate kingpin of Waterdeep, or whatever.
Some Weird Crimes:

Stealing the sense of worth from money.

Performing the office of Psychopomp without a valid license

Grimoire forgery/boobytrapping

Creating a Tulpa

Distilling nostalgia-moonshine from memories with all unpleasant facts boiled away.
Xenophobia: Many criminal organizations in the City are divided along ethnic and cultural lines, holding sway in certain neighborhoods and providing protection and a sense of continuity for recent immigrants, in exchange for support, acquiescence, and noncompliance with the Law. PCs blundering into these spheres of influence may unwittingly re-ignite centuries-old feuds and grievances between historically opposed groups, which may in turn bring reprisals as representatives from the Old Country arrive to sort out the affairs of their soft semi-assimilated cousins. Fear, mistrust, tragic misunderstandings, and plain old fashioned bigotry erupt as the City’s melting pot boils over. Or not. You may ignore this side of things all together. X was a tricky one. Is it time for Y yet?

Yegg, or Yeggman – a species of Burglar that specializes in cracking safes and strongboxes. They tend to be lanky and long- fingered or short and plump, with small, supple hands unadorned by rings. They take little care with their appearance, often going about their work in greasy shirtsleeves and stained trousers, though their leather satchels, glittering with the tools of their trade, will be well-worn but scrupulously maintained. They affect an air of lofty indolence and will demand exorbitant prices for their services. They will be insulted if you do not dicker at least a minute or two over this fee, but once agreed upon, always pay in full. A Yeggman will never forgive a slight, and will spend months or years constructing an elaborate and frightful revenge.
Zeal: Inexplicable and unpredictable, this is perhaps the quality the PCs should fear the most. As cynical, selfish entrepreneurs, they will be accustomed to dealing with other cynical, selfish entrepreneurs. Everyone can be relied upon to look out for number one, everything’s for sale, and everyone has a price. The Zealot throws all of this out the window, then lights himself on fire and leaps after it. Zealots are what remains when the acolytes throw off their purple robes and flee. They are the steely-eyed vigilantes who will not be paid off, will not see reason, and will gladly die before compromising an inch. They are the ambitious Watch Captains whose promising careers are over if they ignores their superiors but have dedicated their lives to seeing you hang and will bring you in anyway.