HillTown Studio Longform Content

Like most esoteric pursuits, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) attract weird terms that serve as shorthand for bigger concepts. In the TTRPG space we have our Quantum Ogres and False Hydras, among many others. Permit me, perhaps, to add one more.

Sauron's Dog is what I am terming the illusion of planning. Whereas the Quantum Ogre is an evocative shorthand for illusion of (player) choice, I haven't yet come across a similar term for when the roiling chaos at a dungeon master's (DM's) fingertips begins to look like a real plan. There is long held recognition in DMing circles that amounts to “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, where “the enemy” is another way of referring to the player character party. The reality at the table is that players throw curve balls more or less continuously, and the resulting emergent narrative is one of the several wonders of this hobby.

More specifically, I am thinking of several scenarios. 1. Those times when the players' ideas are better than the DM's ideas for something. More minds are better than fewer minds, etc. 2. Those times when what emerges from incoherent and random events becomes a coherent narrative (sometimes with work). 3. Those times when something inconsequential thrown in via improvisation becomes integral to the emergent narrative.

#3 is the dog, but the concept covers the other two as well. It's the dog the player characters (PCs) encounter on the road between adventure sites, the one that ends up captivating them for no reason than that it's a dog. And because it captivates them, it achieves narrative heft that was completely unintended. It is therefore not just any dog, but Sauron's dog, because by being consequential, it must in some way connect to the larger narrative. The end of that road is the big bad evil guy (BBEG), who in classic fantasy literature is Sauron.

The illusion is preserved as long as the players are willing to believe it, and as long as the DM can sustain it. “Of course this is all planned this way,” the players might say, and who is the DM to disabuse them of the notion? Paradoxically, DMs have less chance of creating and sustaining this if they plan for it from the beginning. Or maybe that's a whole other debate.

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In conversation with someone in DMAcademy, I was spitballing a monster concept that was the personification of paranoia, and then it occurred to me: the best monster for instilling paranoia is no monster at all.

That's not to say there was no monster to begin with, only that there is no monster now. What happened to it? It was probably defeated. Or it fled. But what it left behind was doubt. As long as that doubt persists, the monster still lives, in a way. It can generate sightings, clues, rumors, etc., indicating its continued presence. Those indicators all have non-monster explanations, but a monster remains a plausible explanation as well, so the doubt and paranoia linger.

Now, if you were to introduce this monster into a TTRPG, you might wonder how to run such a thing, as well as whether it can be done again. As for the second question, the fun thing about doubt is that you can instill this over and over again in your players. Think, for instance, about how many players instinctively have their characters reach for 10' poles.

But running the absence of a monster will take some work. It's not enough to come up with a monster stat block and run it according to the monster's tactics. There is no monster, remember, though because there WAS one, you can use its modus operandi as an inspiration for the various acts of malfeasance that will be attributed to it in absentia. These acts of malfeasance do not need to perfectly correlate with whatever the original monster did, would have done, or is even capable of doing, since the monster itself is not the point. That said, there are still some concrete things to consider:

  1. The original monster should be something that is strong or vile enough to instill fear, especially in the public mind, if not the PCs' minds. Things that are known to hide well and wreak malicious mischief are good candidates. Think along the lines of gremlins, grindylows, etc., but less joyous in their mischief, perhaps. Vampires and werewolves make sense for this as well.
  2. You'll need a table of acts of malfeasance that can be attributed ambiguously, but with a monster always a plausible explanation. Mysteriously dead animals? Monster. Missing person(s)? Monster. Something prowling the woods at night? Monster. Food, tools, or something else goes missing? Monster.
  3. But it's not enough to have the acts themselves. They all have to be interpreted and reported with the idea of the monster already in mind. So for each act of malfeasance, you will need not only the true cause, but also the monster-based interpretation, what gets reported to PCs who go looking around for clues.
  4. Which also means that the clues themselves should be reported to PCs rather than directly observed by them whenever possible. This limits the tools PCs can bring to bear on the clues, tools which, depending on the TTRPG system in question, may unmask those clues quite easily. You can do this by making sure the evidence itself is always contaminated in some way, reported through hearsay, or in other ways passed through unreliable (and biased) people.

So with all this in mind, let's create a scenario in which the absence of a creature is the animating force.

The monster archetype: A werewolf. Werewolves are good for this exercise because the lore surrounding them is often contradictory, they may or may not be aware of their nature, and while they're not in their animal form, they live among regular people. Additionally, according to many traditions, lycanthropy is a transmissible curse, so you can rely on this to infuse the community with a fertile doubt.

The acts of malfeasance/clues, and the truth in parentheses:

  1. Local livestock has been found mauled and partially eaten. Farmers have dispensed with the carcasses already by the time the PCs arrive. (Truth: there are wild animals who sometimes raid farms).
  2. Villagers report having heard sniffing and growling, or having smelled the musky scent of some predator, then seeing tracks the next morning “too big to be a wolf”. The PCs may catch hints of the remaining tracks, but should not have any conclusive proof that the tracks are too big/small or even wolf-like. (Truth: more wild animals, and/or a prankster or two.)
  3. Local children have reported seeing a furry creature walking upright in the woods on their way home in the evening. They ran away before they could get a closer look ... or be eaten. The creature left prints, but they're a confusing mishmash of shod feet and paws, and it's difficult to know when each was made. The tracks lead off toward the village but disappear on the cobbled roadway. (Truth: A villager was out hunting and ran down a bear or dire wolf; the children saw that and conflated the two, which also explains the tracks.)
  4. Several village teenagers have been reported as “missing for a good part of the night” for some nights, and are either cagey about their whereabouts or convincing in their assertion that they don't remember. When they return, they are dirty, scuffed up, and reek of animal. (Truth: the teenagers have found the cub of a predator and are taking turns caring for it in secret. It's caged up in a nearby cave, but getting to and from the cave in the dark is difficult.)
  5. The family who recently moved to town? At least one of them appears to be quite hairy, causing people to gossip, especially since in the villagers' minds their coming is correlated with the rise in “werewolf” activities. The family is standoffish and a bit dour. (Truth: they're regular people who are being unfairly maligned, and their standoffishness is a result of the whispers that started the moment they set foot in town.)
  6. Villagers are reporting that some animal appears to have dug up a grave or two in the cemetery. The digging was not done with shovels, that much is apparent, though there aren't any identifiable tracks around. (Truth: there's a grave robber in the area, and they dig with a pickaxe. By the time the PCs get involved the grave robber is probably moving on.)

Feel free to repeat these in variations, especially while the players have yet to uncover the truth behind the clues. Add some atmospheric details like howling at the moon, dogs and horses acting skittish, odd musky smells, etc., and let the players run with them. You'll be able to maintain doubt for a while, but players may eventually give up and just accept the hauntedness of the situation rather than trying to resolve it. That's okay too.

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One of the chief concerns of a fantasy-adjacent TTRPG is magic. In Weardcynn, I am aiming for a magic that is grounded in several senses. One is the pagan/animist sense, in which the magic user (generally termed in my game as Wyrdwyrhtas, or literally Fate Workers) persuades and manipulates the spirits that inhabit all things into performing tasks. They do this by using Wyrdwegas (literally Fate Ways). There are limits to what can be achieved, and all magic costs, but the ultimate source of it is the vast well of animating spirits that comprise the world. These spirits are often mercurial and uncooperative, so must be tricked or captured in various ways, but they are ubiquitous, representing the divisions within divisions that reflect and refract through all creation.

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The setting for Weardcynn is implied within the main rules text. That doesn't mean there isn't a more coherent setting present. I am building this new earth in the image of William Blake's already fallen/always falling Albion with his Zoas and Emanations. In this telling, the fourfold giant that comes to know itself as Albion stirs from within a great deep, void, or unknowing. This is perhaps akin to a Big Bang moment, from which all things proceed, representing the division of all things from the singularity that birthed them.

Physics likewise infuses other aspects of this process. For each action, as we know, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and this remains so even in the stirring of Albion from the deep. Albion is the action that spawns the immediate reaction, and his equal and opposite, or his reflection or emanation, is known as Jerusalem. Here Blake is appropriating and reshaping Biblical concepts into something else, and I am preserving as much as makes sense for what I'm doing.

Now, the awakening of Albion and the casting of his reflection as Jerusalem represents the first Fall, because it results in immediate division of what was previously a unity. But Albion is not finished falling. In fact, he will continue to fragment into countless pieces, and some of those pieces claim dominion over the others or, in some cases, claim to have created them. The eight chief fragments of Albion are the four Zoas and their respective Emanations.

This continual falling or fragmentation is the ongoing Fall that is at the heart of what I call the Schismata (which is also the name for the set of mechanics that underlie this system). This is my own embellishment and has nothing directly to do with Blake. It represents the idea that everything is already fallen and always falling further from unity, and will continue to do so until the harvest after the Final Judgment reunites all of the fallen.

If this feels like a heady and abstract mythology (godlar), I agree. It is, however, the basis for what the Weardcynn believe about their own origins. In their godlar, the primary of which they call the Albiones Hweol (Albion Cycle), the Weardcynn believe that mankind (Manncynn) were the creation of the Zoa named Tharmas, and that they had been seduced away from (disunited) by the Zoa named Urizen. This culminated in the spoliation of the natural world, that aspect of Creation they inhabited, primarily through overuse and exploitation. In response, the Emanation named Vala beseeched her Zoa brethren to entrap Urizen and destroy his hold on the Manncynn. It was Luvah's fire and Urthona's hand that created the trap. Vala caused the earth to birth its own new champions, the Weardcynn, to hem in the Manncynn and watch over them until they could learn to aspire toward unity once more.

There is of course more than this, and I will work through how this looks in a concrete sense as I continue development and lay out the mechanical implications. For these, I will make use of Ed Buryn's William Blake Tarot of the Creative Imagination. In the same vein as Invisible Sun (which has had a profound influence on the mechanics of this game), player characters will be able to use aspects of these tarot cards as mechanical touchpoints, not always to their benefit. The precise nature of these effects, however, are still percolating in my head. At the very least, I will have a spread of cards that makes sense for this game and use the positions of the cards to interpret how they influence the world at the moment they are laid out. Whether this can be done without vastly overcomplicating the system is still unclear.

I will undoubtedly return to this topic from time to time as I think about new lore and mythology pieces to slot in, but in no sense do I expect that players and GMs use the result of this work if they aren't interested. It is and will be a supplement to enrich their understanding of the implied setting.

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I recognize that most readers won't be able to decipher the title. It uses the futhorc, Anglo-Saxon runes, and reads, roughly Weardcynn, or wuh-ARD-kin. It is the current culmination of my system and setting development efforts over the last several years.

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Recently I purchased the flash cards from Exalted Funeral's Herbalist's Primer set. I did so in the wake of attempting (and not yet succeeding) to create my own set of cards for use in my games, but my perspective was for oracle use. The Herbalist's Primer flash cards are very useful, densely packed sources of information and inspiration that, among other things, can help flesh out the foraging options available in a campaign world. I intend to use them to offer real-world plants for my players to find while on my West Marches style islands. I believe this will add some appreciated realism to the islands without giving away overpowered treasure, etc.

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In mid-2016, I and one other D&D player formed a group whose membership fluctuated in the intervening years, though I'm happy to say that at least the two of us have remained constant fixtures and maintain our group even today. We started with a campaign of indeterminate length, with the promise that I would take up the second campaign at some future date. That date turned out to be much closer than I anticipated, and from November 2016 to January 2017, I furiously scribbled out a 47 page campaign setting for a world based on a handful of ideas and expanded on with a handful more. That world became Yer Shar, and it served as the setting for an epic campaign lasting nearly 3 years.

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Let this blog be a sort of development log for the various things I'm working on at HillTown Studio (which is mostly just one person, really).

I chose to expand this writing on a blog specifically because a) what's hosted on my Mastodon server is far more ephemeral, and b) I find myself occasionally with more to say on a topic than I can fit in a Mastodon-length post. Sure, since I host all of this, I could change the post length, but then what? If I feel that's not enough? No, it's better to fork off the longer thoughts here, where they can pool up more slowly and deliberately, unfettered from the constraints of the microblog.

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