"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


"I remember after finishing the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started up and flung the book into the fireplace; the volume struck the barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of Hali; and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth—a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow..."

"The Repairer of Reputations," by Robert W. Chambers

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living god ...

In 1895 Robert W. Chambers published a collection of ten short stories.  More than a few of these are garden variety romances.  Some, like the prose poem "The Prophet's Paradise," are evocative and atmospheric, but not terribly remarkable.  Hidden in the pages of this collection, however,  are four interrelated tales of cosmic horror, four stories that revolve around a play which--if read--causes reality to unravel and madness to bloom.  These stories are remarkable.  "The Repairer of Reputations," "The Mask," "In the Court of the Dragon," and "The Yellow Sign" are extraordinary pieces of horror fiction, bleak, hallucinatory, terrifying.  They are the first haunting glimpse of a subgenere that would not really take form until Lovecraft, and their influence on his work is unmistakable.  His infamous Necronomicon is the clearest sign of it; a touchstone that links several tales, a meme that kills like a virus.  In his famous "The Whisperer in the Darkness," Lovecraft even goes so far as to embrace Chamber's dread play by making reference to elements of it.  In this way, the play made its way into his "Yog-Sothery," what later would be called the Cthulhu Mythos.  Its archetypical significance is far greater though.  We see shadows of this play not just in Lovecraft's blasphemous tome but as far afield as Sadako's video tape or the madness-spreading aliens in Bird Box.  The first season of True Detective was even erected around it.  Chamber's play has thus infected us, a sickly thread that runs through popular culture.  If you have played Call of Cthulhu you know it.  If you've played Arkham Horror you know it.  If you have played Trail of Cthulhu or Petersen's 5e Cthulhu Mythos or any other Mythos-related game its name is familiar to you.  The play shares its name with both the short story collection and its own enigmatic antagonist.  You know his name.  We call him The King in Yellow.

As gamers, we have so come to associate The King in Yellow with the Cthulhu Mythos so strongly that we often forget it is an entirely separate mythology.  This is what makes Robin D. Laws's new RPG, The Yellow King, so intriguing.  Powered by a modified version of publisher Pelgrane Press's GUMSHOE system (also designed by Laws), The Yellow King is about the "Hastur Mythos" ("Carcosa Mythos?" "Hali Mythos?") and the Hastur Mythos alone.  Its century-long campaign draws its narrative from the four short stories mentioned above, with nary a Deep One, a Mi-Go, or a Byakhee in sight.  Broken into four separate parts--four separate campaigns with four separate sets of player characters--The Yellow King is linked just like the original four short stories by the corruptive influence of the play and the denizens of Carcosa.

In Paris you play wealthy American students studying in fin de siècle Paris.  The publication and spread of the play, The King in Yellow, begins the hideous warping of reality, ushering in the arrival of the alien royalty of Carcosa.  Horrors that once remained hidden in the shadows, or perhaps were never even real before, begin appearing.  Phantoms.  Specters.  Vampires.  And worse.  In The Wars, players take on the role of soldiers in the Great European War...of 1947.  The arrival of the Yellow King and his terrible daughters has altered history; America is an isolated Empire, Europe has been fighting for decades.  These player characters must contend not only with the horrors of war but also of battlefields warped by the mind-bending power of Carcosa.  The Royal Court of that world is behind the conflict, and their weird war machines make the struggle even more horrifying.  In Aftermath, set in present-day North America (yet still in the alternate timeline created by the publication of The King in Yellow), the player characters are former partisans in an American empire that has just thrown off the yoke of Carcosa.  They struggle to rebuild the nation while fighting the horrors that remain behind.  And finally, in This is Normal Now, the player characters are people living in yet another timeline, a timeline like ours in which America was never an empire, WWI and WWII played out just as they did in our world, and everything seems on the surface to be...normal.  And yet these characters discover the horror beneath the surface, a reality that has been completely rewritten, a world in the thrall of the Yellow King and his Daughters.  They discover that they themselves have been rewritten, and of the terrible truth that connects them to player characters in Paris, The Wars, and Aftermath.  It falls upon them to stop the machinations of the King and his Daughters before their terrible endgame is completed.

In short, what Laws has constructed here is a literary hommage, a game that embodies the spirit (and sometimes even the letter) of Chamber's four interconnected King in Yellow tales as neatly as Greg Stafford did in Pendragon or Ken Hite did in The Dracula Dossier.  Those stories were about altered timelines, alternate histories, but above all else they were about identity horror.  The King in Yellow is all about taking off the mask and not recognizing what is there.  It is about losing your sense of self.  The madness caused by the play is not about losing your sense of reality, it is about reality losing its sense of you.  Laws zeroes in on this theme and delivers with laser-like precision.

The length of each phase is entirely left up to you.  You could move through them quickly, or prolong each as long as you like.  Paris plays a bit like Cthulhu by Gaslight, but soaked in absinthe.  There are ghosts and vampires and all sorts of things that go bump in the night.  The Wars is more like Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, while Aftermath has a very cold-war, Red Scare, paranoid aura around it.  This Is Normal Now is probably the most mind-bending of the bunch.  Each introduces specialized rules for that particular setting, and character creation is interconnected; in other words, the characters you play in Paris affect the characters you play in The Wars and so on.  Likewise, the GM has a great deal of latitude in how he portrays the King in Yellow  and his court.  There is a great deal of freedom in deciding what Carcosa wants and what its true nature is.  You could run a subsequent campaign very differently from how you ran your first.

I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth...

The system is essentially a streamlined version of GUMSHOE.  Abilities are divided into those which are Investigative and always work (if you have Natural History and there is a Natural History clue, you will always turn it up) and General which require you to roll a six-sided die against a Difficulty Number to succeed.  General abilities have numerical ratings which represent a pool of points you can spend on these rolls to help them match or beat the Difficulty Number.  These pools refresh at the start of a new session or at appointed times during the game.


It differs from "vanilla" GUMSHOE in a number of ways, however.  Combat is now player-facing and never requires the GM to roll; it is also heavily abstracted.  In a nod to his own HeroQuest system, Laws now has the player declare roughly what he or she wishes to happen in combat, and success means seeing that come to pass.  This is all handled by a single combat roll.  Damage to health and shock to the mind are now handled by special cards detailing the effects of these injuries.  Also, it is now possible to "win" your combat roll and still pay a "toll," gaining a minor form of damage or shock.  

While these innovations do indeed speed play, and more deeply reflect the literary leanings of the game, there is nothing stopping you really from running The Yellow King in Trail of Cthulhu or even Call of Cthulhu.  The game is at once a system, a campaign, and a setting (or settings), and given its subject matter could easily be adapted to those systems.  While arguably the system as it stands here is a shade more like Chambers than those others, Lovecraft adopted the genre of cosmic horror Chambers bred in his fiction, and thus an authentically Lovecraftian rules system would not feel that inappropriate here.

So who is The Yellow King for?  For starters, it will feel immediately recognizable and instantly attractive to any fans of Cthulhu Mythos games, or the "weird horror" that permeates games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Roleplaying.  This is horror with a deeply literary bent, the kind of thing that would appeal to readers of China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, or Thomas Ligotti.  Obviously, fans of Chambers will also want it.  While the game can and does include all sorts of gothic and vaguely Lovercaftian horrors, it is primarily about the horror of collapsing reality and loss of identity.  If you are looking for a "monster of the week" it probably isn't you (the closest Buffy episode to it would be "Normal Again," where her reality swings back and forth between Sunnydale and an insane asylum).  I would also add that gamers who like games faithful to their source material, deeply authentic games that capture the essence of their inspirations, will find The Yellow King worth a look as well. 

Friday, May 24, 2019


Chapter Three:

No One Can Make You Do Anything is the beginning of a three-chapter trilogy, introducing the player characters to Prax and giving them a deeper look at the Lunar Empire.  Followed by Violence Is Always An Option and There Is Always Another Way, it also explores the core beliefs of the Orlanthi.  It is part of an ongoing campaign (check here if you are new to all this).

Like most Gloranthan game masters, when writing for the setting I try to keep the core myth cycle as I see it in mind.  From Darkness emerged the Waters and then the dry Earth, initiating a Green Age of innocence and bliss.  Then came the reign of the Fire/Sky, a time or ordered perfection.  The emergence of Air/Storm shatters this by killing the Sun, and initiates the Gods War.  Chaos comes.  Suffering begins.  The world is dying.  The Lightbringers set off on their quest to restore life and light.  These events form patterns that are evident in daily Gloranthan life, such as the rising and setting of the sun and the seasons of the year, but the great myths also echo in the lives of Gloranthan residents.  For the vast majority of Gloranthan humans, the main myth cycle is that of Grandfather Mortal, who was born, fathered/birthed children, and died.  But for others, those who commit to higher magics and mysteries, other cycles come into play.

The story presented in Six Seasons in Sartar intentionally echoed then the Green Age, Golden Age, and the coming of Darkness and Storm.  The characters were children—innocents—in a time of peace and plenty (relatively speaking).  The destruction of their clan by the Lunar army is like the fall of Lesser and Greater Darkness and the arrival of the Devil.  Now, in The River of Cradles, we mirror the Lightbringer’s quest…not necessarily the myth itself so much as the core of it; the characters are setting off beyond the limits of the world they know to rescue the life and light they lost (the women and children of their clan sold into slavery).

These three chapters then begin that quest.

A Note on the Lunars and Terminology Used Herein:  Yes.  Glorantha is not Earth.  Out of habit and long practice however, I present the Lunars as a mixture of three empires; the Roman, the Persian, and the Gupta Dynasty of India.  Mentally, I portray the armies as Roman, the provinces (satrapies) and government as Persian, and the religion slants towards Indian.  When I refer to Roman legion ranks or other cultural appropriations, just bear in mind I am translating from the original New Pelorian terms.    

Setting: Pimper’s Block and environs. Starting from Water Day, Disorder Week, Dark Season 1619 ST.      

Theme:  Freedom vs. Slavery.  The Orlanthi principle that “no one can make you do anything.”      

Motif:  Bonds, both physical and spiritual.  Bonds of kinship, or cult, of tradition.  Physical bonds such as collars and chains.  

Synopsis: Broadly, the PCs are hired as guards to protect a merchant caravan heading out from Swenstown to Pimper’s Block.  Arriving at the oasis, they discover one of their own friends/allies/kinsmen has recently been taken as a slave and is laboring there.  Do they disturb the peace and put their employer in danger by attempting a rescue, or turn a blind eye and let it stand?

The above is the core concept you can adapt and drop into nearly any campaign.  Specifically, in terms of The River of Cradles campaign and my player characters, the heroes have joined with an Issaries merchant named Teolrian Soudatch—the Tradetounge name of Teol Soudsson—to act as his caravan guards on the way to Pimper’s Block.  They are headed there because the women and children of their clan, taken into captivity by the Lunar army after the events of The Turning, were brought there to be sold.  They want to inspect the Etyries records in the House of the Bonded to find out to whom their kin have been sold and where they currently are.  Unfortunately, none of them read…and that is where Teolrian comes in.  With a combination of the Lightbringer’s Oath (reminding the Issaries how his god aided Orlanth) and a favor Teolrian owed the Death Drake Targan Ironbeak, they have persuaded Teolrian to help them.  Once in the encampment, Teolrian will examine the records in the House of the Bonded and find out where their kin is.

Several things complicate this arrangement.

First, Teolrian is Sambari, the rival clan that ratted out the player characters’ clan (the Haraborn) to the Lunars and led to their destruction.  The Sambari, in return, were given the Haraborn’s lands.

Second, the Sambari practice taking and keeping thralls.  The Harbaborn are historically against this practice.  Teolrian is, in fact, taking five Heortling thralls to be sold at Pimper’s Block…putting the player characters into the position of abetting slavery while on a mission to rescue slaves.  As Teolrian will happily point out to them if they ask, “How else do you expect me to credibly enter the House of the Bonded unless I have legitimate business to conduct there?”

Third, Teolrian himself owns a slave.  A Lunar slave.

All this will make the journey to Pimper’s Block complicated.  The slave market itself will become even more complicated when Kalliva spots two of her cousins, Beneva and Dushi, working at a brothel there.  It turns out that four of their clansmen are right there in Pimper’s Block; another girl, Insterid, and a boy, Venharl, were purchased by the brothel as well…

Dramatis Personae

Teolrian Soudatch (Teol Soudsson)
  • Runes: Trade, Movement, Darkness
  • Issaries Initiate
  • Goals: To rise in the ranks of his cult and make enough of a profit to buy a house and land for himself on the edge of Sartar or civilized Prax.
  • Notes: While Teol is not a bad man, his affinity with the Darkness Rune gives him a cold streak and a tendency to be grasping; he wants, but it never really full.  He traffics in all sorts of goods, but his willingness to traffic in slaves is another manifestation of this Darkness…his own parents were thralls.  Born free, but poor, he has had to make his own way in the world.  Teol is a fair merchant and a true Issaries, however.  He never goes back on a bargain.  

“Orin” (Orininus (or-i-NIGH-nus) Prathvi Yuthaldrex)
  • Runes: Fire/Sky, Life, Truth
  • Slave
  • Goals: Teol has promised him the ability to but his freedom at some point in the future, an option he likely would not have under a Lunar master.  This makes him surprisingly loyal to Teol.
  • Notes: No more than seventeen, his pale skin tanned by the sun of Prax, his hair pale blonde and eyes sky blue…is from the Lunar Heartlands.  He is originally from a well-placed Dara Happan family that fell afoul of a Dart Competition.  The adults in his family were sentenced to death, the children to slavery.  Orin was sold to a wealthy Lunar magistrate soon after assigned to Pavis, and lost by his master in a dicing match.  That is where Teolrian bought him.  The boy is useful because he is fluent in Trade, New Peolrian, and now Praxian, knows arithmetic, and can read well.  While obviously a Lunar, he is by no means a Lunar.  He recognizes the Red Goddess and the Emperor as the supreme powers in the world, but culturally he is Dara Happan.  He sees the Red Goddess as something that happened to his people, not something they have become.  His father taught him that one day the Sun would vanquish the Moon…which is in part the kind of heresy that destroyed his family.     

Harjaani Finds-Water
  • Runes: Harmony, Death, Spirit
  • Foundchild Initiate, High Llama Tribesman, Scout
  • Goals: To be known as a great scout and hunter, to win a wife.
  • Notes: Finds-Water is a young and up-and-coming member of his tribe, a group of 34 wandering High Llama Riders (the Blue Stone Bearers).  He has a strange streak of curiosity regarding outsiders, something his khan disapproves of.  He has learned to be wary of the Red Moon People but the High Mountain People fascinate him.   

The Scented Lady
  • Runes: Crescent Go Moon (Earth and Life)
  • Seven Mothers Initiate, Brothel Madame, Shrewd Businesswoman
  • Goals: To increase her wealth, to maintain her independence, to accumulate information and intelligence.
  • Notes: Madame of the Court of Hidden Flowers, a brothel on the outskirts of Pimper’s Block, the Scented Lady wears saris of light cotton and silk dyed with indigo, red madder, and turmeric, embroidered with silver.  She is never seen without her veil, covering her nose, mouth, and chin.  She appears to be a woman in her mid-thirties, but her inky black-hair (carefully lacquered) might also be dyed.  She wears kohl around her eyes.  She is not a particularly cruel woman, but she reigns over her domain with an iron fist.  Having made her way as a Lunar camp follower in her youth, she understands what her staff goes through but is herself hardened to it.  One does what what needs to to survive.  The Scented Lady not only runs a thriving business, but she collects “pillow talk” from her clientele, and thus wields considerable influence (in the form of mild extortion) over officials in the area.  Crossing her is not a good idea.  

Ou’or Yii’yor Yav’av
  • Runes: Darkness, Death, Mastery 
  • Morokanth Trader and tribal leader, Waha Spirit Tradition initiate
  • Goals: To replenish his people’s recent loss of herd men (more on this in episodes ahead).
  • Notes: Not a stock monster, Ou’or is a person driven to extreme means to accomplish his ends.   

Principes Baegar Drussex
  • Runes: Empty Half Moon (Darkness and Death)
  • Seven Mothers Initiate, Princeps Ordinarius Vexillationis (in charge of a patrol)
  • Goals: To secure a position as second in command of his century, then perhaps full centurion.
  • Notes: Tarshite, Drussex has a deep-seated distaste for Heortlings who cling to the Old Ways.  It is not so much arrogance as he feels their lives would be better if they just set aside their stubborn pride and opened themselves up to the Goddess.    

Begin With:  DESPITE THE PALE and wintery Sun of Dark Season, the landscape in front of you is dry and barren, shimmering with heat that pools like water on the baked soil.  The sky is cloudless, a dark and azure blue.  Along the horizons you can still see stars, flickering and faint.  The caravan—three hours out of Swenstown—follows a narrow trail of dusty earth turned hard as stone.  It winds its way through the chaparral, thorned, waist-high bushes with tiny, waxy leaves, weird leafless plants covered in needles, the rare gnarled tree.  The beasts of burden are mules and zebras, laden with the merchant’s goods.  Walking beside the animals is the human cargo he leads to the slave markets of Pimper’s Block…four men and one black-eyed woman, hands cuffed, feet shackled, bound to a single tether than runs through a ring on the side of the leather collars they wear…

Add whatever dialogue or background you need here.  In my campaign this is a brief flashback to Swenstown, a goodbye to Targan Ironbeak, and the discovery that Teolrian is transporting Orlanthi thralls for sale at the markets.

  • Targan will narrow his eyes in the flashback and warn them; “Death goes with you, young humans.  Whether you carry the Sword, or face it, I cannot say.  I suspect both.”
  • Teolrian defends himself if the player characters attack him for trafficking in slaves: “And how do you propose I enter the House of the Bonded to inspect the sales records without legitimate cause?  Do you think the Etyries just allow people to wander in and examine the bill of sales?  These people are criminals; a murderer, a rapist, a kidnapper, and two debtors.  I understand your clan would execute, imprison, or exile them…is it any different for mine to sentence them to bondage?”
  • They also meet Orin here, their first real chance to interact with a Lunar who isn’t charging them with a weapon.   

As the afternoon wanes the characters begin to see dust devils, spinning columns of wind and sand,  Far ahead they see a cloud of sand that hides the horizon.  “Just as Orlanth is the great storm that blows over the mountains,” Teolrian explains, “his brother Urox—whom the people of the Wastes call the Storm Bull—rages here.  That is him ahead.  The Desert Storm.  It can strip flesh from bone.”

He proposes they encamp for the evening and head out early to Pimper’s Block come the morning.  They find a suitable place, a bowl-like depression cleared of scrub and brush with evidence of previous camps and campfires.  They set up camp here for the night.

Scene One: The Stranger.  As they prepare food, a figure emerges from the shadows, or perhaps the characters spot him first.  How he crept up on them is a mystery, for he is certainly easy to spot.  

He’s taller—a full head taller—than any of them, with tanned skin and sharp black eyes.  His nose is hawklike, and his face is intricately painted with black Runes, lines, and patterns.  His head is shaved (and also painted) except for a single long black braid on the back of his head.  He wears no metal…a long leather loin cloth and boots of fur-trimmed leather.  The patterning of Runes and lines continues over his whole body.  There are many white scars on his skin from past injuries.  He caries on his back a bow, arrows, and javelins, and there is a knife on his hip.  But he holds one hand up in a sign of peace and greeting.  With his other hand he leads by a tether a beast unlike the characters have ever seen.  At the shoulder it is taller than any horse, but then it has a long neck that raises its head two horses high.  It is covered with long smooth hair that grows shaggier at the chest.  It has the wide and gentle eyes of a deer.  The animal is also painted with markings like the man.

“I have water to share if you will share fire and friendship and food,” he says in accented but passable Sartarite.  “For the Devil came and made these good things scarce.”

The players might recognize this as a Praxian version of their own ritualized greeting; 

Hail Stranger, who comes this way? I am…  Tell me your name.  Are you friend or foe?

You are welcome here.  I offer you the warmth of my fire and the protection of my house.  I offer you a blanket to sleep under, meat to fill your belly, and salt as a token of your honor.  This is a thing we offer only friends and kinsmen.

He introduces himself as Harjaani Finds-Water of the Blue Stone High Llama People.  He is a scout and hunter for his people.  The Blue Stone are grazing in the area and saw their camp, so he came to check them out.  He might not volunteer this, just claiming to be “out-hunting” first, but Teolrian is savvy enough to know the Praxians do not travel alone.

It is clear he is quietly just checking them out and seeing what their business is.  Not nefarious, just cautious.  He shares information as well, warning them that the Morokanth have been seen outside of Pimper’s Block, looking to purchase humans.  Teolrian seems perturbed by this.  “They are forbidden near Pimper’s Block.”  The Praxian nods.  “They are keeping about a half day away, out of the sight of the Red Moon soldiers.”

Teolrian thanks him for the information.  Finish the scene as you like.

Scene Two: The Morokanth.  The next morning, after the guest from the night before has departed and camp has been broken, the Morokanth come calling.  In Trade, or broken Sartarite, their leader, Ou’or Yii’yor Yav’av delivers a greeting similar to Harjaani’s the night before;

I have water to share and goods to trade for what you care to spare.  For the Devil came and made all good things scarce.

There are only a half dozen of them (or at least two to three more than the size of your party).  They have surprisingly few herd men with them.  They are looking to purchase slaves.  They are not interested in discussing why they want them.  They will not initiate violence, and any Contest here should be of a more diplomatic or negotiating nature.  But if driven off or forced to leave, the player characters should be left with the nagging sensation this is not over yet, and that something strange is going on…

Scene Three: Pimper’s Block.  Before the Lunars, the oasis was a scared place, where people came to negotiate for and buy back captured kin.  This was done at an ancient altar of red stone, which now the Lunar Etyries merchant cult has built a temple complex around, the House of the Bonded.  This contains shrines to both Etyries and the Seven Mothers, several massive slave pens, quarters for priests, officials, and guards, a large auction hall, and several libraries where records of transactions are kept.  For the original purpose has been twisted; instead of coming here to pay weregild and ransom, now people come to sell captives to the highest bidder.  The House of the Bonded is now the spiritual and literal heart of Pimper’s Block, as it actually encloses the original oasis itself in a large indoor garden in the center of the complex.

Around this temple have sprung up a dozen inns, scores of drinking establishments, a market square, and several brothels.  People come from across Prax, and from as far as Dragon Pass and the Holy Country, to trade in human (and sometimes other sentient) flesh.

The city is under the protection of the Lunar Provincial Army.  In the style of ancient Roman caster stativa a trench was dug around the entire settlement, the excavated earth thrown inward to form a rampart upon which a palisade of stakes is raised, forming a wall around the entire community.  The wood was brought here from Dragon Pass.  Guard towers are then raised at consistent intervals around the perimeter.  There are three entry gates.  

At one of these gates the player character’s party is stopped and challenged.  The merchant has the necessary paperwork, however, and they are allowed into the city with little difficulty.

He plans to go directly to the House of the Bonded with his thralls, and instructs the player characters to keep their heads down and stay out of sight until he concludes his business (and theirs).

Play up as much of touring the oasis as you like; the diversity of its peoples (members from all the major Praxian tribes come to trade, as well as visitors from the Holy Country and Dragon Pass.  A large Argan Argar market is in the bazaar.  

At some point, however, one of the characters notices two familiar faces outside of a brothel.  These will be two young girls who are kin to the character, taken in a past raid and missing for some time (in the context of my campaign, Kalliva spots two of her cousins—Beneva and Dushi—girls she grew up with, taken by the Lunars to be sold with all the other women and children after the battle of Red Rock Stead).  They have been forced into a life of prostitution, leaving the characters with two choices…to do something, or to turn away.

Scene Four: Raiding the Court of Hidden Flowers.  The Court of Hidden Flowers is like most buildings in the city, a square structure with an inner courtyard in its center, two floors, built of mud bricks baked in the hot Praxian sun.  It is garishly painted, inside and outside, with lewd scenes of beautiful women and boys being ravished in any number of ways.  

There was very little glamor in ancient world prostitution, and the Court is modeled on Roman examples still left to us.  The rooms are dark, low-ceilinged, and narrow, with skins and straw tossed on the floor.  They are lit only by small oil lamps.  The men are served wine and fruits in a main entry area, then led to these cells to conduct their business.  There are around 30 slaves here, 19 girls and eleven young boys (three of whom are slightly older eunuchs).  The players will have to decide whether or not to free all of them, or just their kin.

Obviously this is the climactic challenge of the the episode, but the characters will need a plan.  First of all they need a way to get the slaves out without bringing the whole of the Lunar guard on them, then a way to get the slaves away from Pimper’s Block and to safety.  The GM can make this as easy or as difficult as he likes; a low Difficulty reflects catching the guard completely…um…”off guard.”  A higher Difficulty can reflect a better prepared watch.  Much of the Difficulty should depend on how clever the characters’ plan is.


Beralor, Kalf, Leika, and Kalliva spent a great deal of time planning their assault, going on to the inn with Orin to wait for Teolrian to return first.  They had begun to form a relationship with the Lunar slave by this point after hearing his tale and realizing his situation parallels their own.  Perhaps the Lunar Empire is not as homogenous and monolithic as they thought.

Teolrian was able to locate the sale of 47 of their people.  The Court of Hidden Flowers has four of them; Beneva, Dushi, Instered, and a boy, Venharl.  Ashart, along with a dozen other boys, was sent to the mines in Vulture Country (mining in much of the ancient world was done by children, who could more easily navigate small, cramped spaces).  Kalf’s mother is in Corflu.  Beralor’s father, Affar, and Kalliva’s aunt, Kallessa, are both in Pavis.  The rest are scattered up and down the River of Cradles at several plantations.  Armed with this knowledge, they can turn their attention to getting the slaves out of the brothel.

Teolrian turned out to be more sympathetic than they had thought.  He is, in fact, part of the Sons of Orlanth and helps smuggle people in and out of Lunar Prax for the rebels.  He and Orin both agree to help for their own reasons.  The plan they devise is as follows;

Teolrian arranges passage for the slaves with a caravan heading back to Sartar.  They send word to the Enjossi asking them to shelter them.  Beralor will draw on the magic of Orlanth Adventurous (his Movement Rune) to steal weapons and get inside the brothel, arming as many of the slaves as are willing to fight.  Kalf will set fire to the temple granaries as a distraction.  Leika uses her Before Me charm to raise fierce winds to strike down one of the gates (it works better than she hoped, actually luring a couple of Whirlvishes from the desert to devastating effect).  Kalliva gets her kin out.

It all goes fairly well, the Lunars caught off guard by the triple assault.  The combination of Leika’s winds and the fires Kalf set endanger the entire oasis.  With that distraction, it is easy to penetrate the brothel and rescue the slaves.  Unfortunately for them, the Jakaleel witch, Ashighara, is also in the city.  She has been in pursuit of Kalf and Beralor since they escaped her clutches in Boldhome.  Led—as always—by casting her Rune stones—to Pimper’s Block she guessed rightly they might come here in search of their kin.  She confronts them as they flee the city, and an epic battle ensues.

Kalliva improvises a Vingan feat and buries a javelin in the witch’s chest.  Beralor rains lightning on her.  Leika puts an arrow in her eye.  Kalf manages a stunning blow and beheads her.  The witch dissolves, leaving behind her robes and, to their surprise, a Truth Rune carved on a piece of Adamant (from the Block).  

As a narrator, I was reluctant to put Ashighara in the field so soon (no matter how tough an opponent, in either RuneQuest or HeroQuest, there is always a chance the dice will be on the players’ side).  But her death clears the field for larger foes.  Namely the Lunar Empire, once they find out who started the fires that burnt half of Pimper’s Block down and badly damaged the House of the Bonded (the fires consumed the library, losing many of the sales records there).  This changes the game.  The Lunars will now been committing troops and magic to find these vandals and bring them to justice.

THAT will be continued in the second part, Violence Is Always An Option. 

Monday, May 13, 2019



BY THE TIME I started playing their games in 1982, Chaosium already had something of a reputation.  Though no one was using the term back then, Chaosium appeared determined to be the first real publisher of what we now call "Indie" games.  While most publishers were either trying to "fix" D&D, rip off D&D, or adapt D&D to other genres, Chaosium was cornering the market on deeply literary, art house products, seemingly disinterested in the pop culture trends informing the developing RPG hobby.  At a time when Tolkien and Star Wars increasingly determined the conventions of tabletop role-play, Chaosium was drinking from a very different well.  Just look at the history.   

Chaosium's first RPG was RuneQuest--a game inspired by ancient epics and the academic theories of thinkers like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell.  RuneQuest had no orcs, no knights in shining armor, no recognizable Dark Lord.  There were no jovial halflings, singing elves, or dour dwarves.  Instead, RuneQuest featured a bewildering array of invented gods and exhaustive ruminations on mythology.  The most polite word for this game was "niche." Soon after, as the entire point of contemporary RPGs seemed to be accumulating levels and treasure, taking down bigger and badder adversaries, and climbing to greater heights of power, Chaosium followed RuneQuest with a game that  turned all the burgeoning conventions of RPGs on their head. Call of Cthulhu, a game based on the writings of pulp writer H. P. Lovecraft had its characters spiraling into despair, madness, and death.  These weren't heroes, they were investigators, and horrifically out of their depth.  Add to this the fact that in 1981, outside of French academia and those lucky enough to own hand-me-down Arkham House collections, Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos" was practically unknown, and Call of Cthulhu becomes a very art house choice for a company's second RPG. 

Fantasist Michael Moorcock was certainly better known than Lovecraft, but the publication of Stormbringer that same year was yet another example of Chaosium refusing to "just do" Tolkieneque high fantasy like everyone else.  Moorcock--who years later would be nick-named the "Anti-Tolkien"--famously rejected the creator of Middle-earth in his classic 1978 essay, "Epic Pooh." By making Stormbringer their third RPG, Chaosium doubled down on its own rejection of expected fantasy RPG tropes.  Three years later, at the very height of Star Wars fever, Chaosium yet again zigged while the rest of the industry was zagging with the hard science Ringworld.  Based on the works of acclaimed writer Larry Niven, Ringworld was another example of the emerging Chaosium pattern; go with the literary rather than the cinematic, the niche rather than the popular.

That Chaosium not only succeeded with these games, but in fact became an established brand through them, says something about the times.  Before video games, binge-watching, or the Internet, nerds were bookish.  The first generation of gamers in the 70s and early 80s didn't just read Tolkien, they read Howard and Poul Andersen, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, etc.  Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide came with an impressive bibliography.  Thus, when eleven-year-old me first encountered Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu back in 1982, the first thing I did was go back into the literature, reading every piece of Moorcock and Lovecraft I could get my hands on. RuneQuest had had a similar effect on me.  I read everything from the Iliad to Eliade.  Literature was the primary fuel for roleplaying.

Timing is everything, however, and the moment when Chaosium forever defined itself as a gateway drug into classic literature came in 1985, just as the rest of the hobby seemed to be turning away from literature towards television, cinema, and eventually—in a predictable display of inbreeding—itself for inspiration.  With Dragons of Autumn Twilight sitting on bookstore shelves, marking the dawn of an age when games now produced their own insular literature and mythology, Chaosium did exactly what they always did and went in the opposite direction.  Greg Stafford, who had already given us Glorantha, wrote his love letter to Sir Thomas Malory and 15th century Arthurian Romance.  If Call of Cthulhu was Chaosium's greatest commercial success, this game was their greatest artistic one.

It's name was
King Arthur Pendragon 

A winner of Origins awards for Best Roleplaying Game Rules and Adventures, the Diana Jones Award for Gaming Excellence, and an inductee into the GAMA Hall of Fame, Pendragon is ranked 5th in RPG.net's highest rated games, and consistently mentioned by both gamers and game designers as a groundbreaking and seminal work. Stafford himself viewed the game as his "masterpiece."  At the end of last year, Pendragon returned home to Chaosium with a new edition, "5.2."  A more polished revision of its two previous editions (5 and 5.1), the new Pendragon is the definitive incarnation of the game.  If you like your games literary, thoughtful, and thrilling, Pendragon needs to be on your shelf.          


Pendragon is, obviously, a game set in Arthurian Britain.  Given 1500 years of telling and retelling these stories, however, that covers a lot of ground.  Specifically then Pendragon is the unofficial Le Morte d'Arthur RPG.  Despite Stafford's discussions of the English, French, Welsh, and contemporary versions of the cycle (and how to include elements of them in your campaign), what is clear is that Thomas Malory lies close to the heart of the game and defines its parameters.  This means Pendragon is a game about knights; there are no rogues, no barbarians, no clerics, and no magicians...at least not as player characters.  There are no dwarves or elves (again, not as player characters).  Your character is an armored warrior in a feudal system of vassalage, and expected to follow a code of chivalry.  It also means that your character's traits and passions are going to be front and center in the game.  Malory distinguished his bewildering array of knights by focusing on their personalities; Galahad was chaste, Gawaine lecherous, Argravaine a bit cruel.  Lancelot was defined, for good of for ill, by his passion for Guinevere.  Because these things were important to Malory, they are important in Pendragon.  Finally, it means this game is going to be a bit anachronistic.  Malory's work was published in 1485, roughly a thousand years after the period it was set in, and the world he portrays looks a great deal more like his than post-Roman Britain.  Pendragon deals with this in a very clever way, which we will get to in a moment, but players need to be prepared for shining  armor, jousts, and courtly love.

Pendragon campaigns tend to cover the same period of time as Le Morte d’Arthur as well; namely from the reign of Arthur’s father, Uther, up through Arthur’s “death” and being spirited away to the isle of Avalon.  This is about eight decades of game play, and to accommodate this Stafford builds in the conceit that player character knights have one adventure per year.  Aside from the adventure itself, there is a year-end winter phase, when the GM and players manage the knight’s estate, arrange a suitable marriage, and go about the business of producing heirs who will then become the new player characters when the original ones are too old for adventure.  A player then might end up roleplaying three of four generations of characters.  It’s not merely a clever way to get through the whole of Arthur’s reign, but also goes to the root of another very authentic Malory concern…lineage.  Arthur’s story is, after all, just as much Uther and Mordred’s as it is his own.  

Pendragon uses this pacing to do something else rather extraordinary.  When the game begins under the reign of Uther, it is very 5th century Britain.  The armor is a bit anachronistic (Norman), but the character’s estate is likely to be a ruined Roman villa or a wooden motte-and-bailey castle.  Life is Hobbesian; chivalry is not yet a thing and there is nothing resembling courtly love.  Magic and the supernatural are also quite rare.  Yet as the game passes through phases of Arthur’s reign, the arrival of the King unleashes a sort of magic over Britain.  Time accelerates, so that you race technologically through a thousand years of medieval history.  By the end, heavy plate armor, magnificent soaring castles and towers, high chivalry and courtly love all exist.  At the same time, magic increases.  Supernatural creatures and Fae knights make their appearances, as Britain becomes idealized and enchanted.  Of course Arthur’s death will end all of this, and the Dark Ages will rush back in, but for one brief, shining moment, there was Camelot.  Stafford brilliantly made Malory’s anachronisms a feature rather than a bug in a way that also allows groups to experiment with “different” Arthurs…one phase can be the historical Arthur, the next the old Welsh Arthur, later the English Arthur or the French Arthurian romances.  

The system itself is something of an evolution of the classic Chaosium “basic roleplaying” rules and a precursor to the engine driving Hero Wars and Heroquest.  It uses a d20, with the player attempting to role less than or equal to his rating in a skill or trait.  A critical success is achieved by rolling exactly your target number; if your skill is 16, rolling a 16 is a critical.  A 20 is always a fumble…unless your rating is higher than 20, in which it becomes a critical.  It’s a clever way of making sure that higher skill matters, rather than a critical being just a roll of a 1.  This universal mechanic handles all die resolutions in the game.

Since the player characters are all knights, they are distinguished from each other though what is probably the real centerpiece of the game, the system of Traits and Passions.  Lancelot was no doubt a great warrior, but we remember him for his love for Guinevere. Likewise, Arthur is revered for his sense of justice more than his jousting score.  To be true to the genre, the same has to apply to the characters in the game.

Characters are defined then by 13 pairs of opposed Traits, the sum total of each pair being twenty.  Pairs include Chaste/Lustful, Merciful/Cruel, Valorous/Cowardly, etc.  If your Chaste is 13, your Lustful must 7.  If Chaste increases, Lustful goes down.  These act as general guidelines how to play the character, unless the Traits rise close enough to 20 that you start earning “Glory” (a form of experience) from them.  Thus, if you are renowned for being a Chaste Knight, and earn Glory for your chastity, acting Lustful will probably require a roll.  If you fail your Chaste roll, you can act however you like.  If you succeed you must be Chaste, or else suffer a penalty (such as the Trait being reduced).

Passions have an even more profound effect on the game.  These can be things like Love, Loyalty, or Hate, usually targeted towards a specific person or group.  Passions can be rolled against to become inspired by the passion, gaining a bonus for a success and a larger bonus for a critical.  On the other hand, failing them, or fumbling them, can drive the character into depression or even madness.  We turn again to Lancelot as the perfect example of this.  His Love for Guinevere (or Amor, before they became actually lovers), could inspire him to fight furiously for her if she is endangered or abducted, but a failed roll could send him years of madness as a hermit in the woods (all of which has happened in the cycle).  This may not seem terribly realistic my modern standards, but it suits the reality of Malory perfectly.


Pendragon saw a first and third edition under Chaosium (there was never a second edition, or rather the project was scrapped).  These were largely consistent with each other.  The fourth edition, however, was a departure, including a player character magic system and broadening the scope beyond just Arthurian knights.  The 5th edition, crafted under the direction of Greg Stafford again, brought the original focus squarely back.  It was followed by edition 5.1, which mainly corrected the numerous mistakes in the 5th edition text and included the errata.  5.2, then, is nearly identical to the text of 5.1, but it is a completely new full-color layout and gloriously illustrated.  Compatible with the previous fifth editions and their sourcebooks (you will absolutely wish to have a copy of The Great Pendragon Campaign, a year by year walk through of Arthur’s reign complete with hundreds of adventures, stats, and a bestiary), it is the cleanest to read and the most pleasing to look at.  With RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon is part of the Chaosium holy trinity and it is only natural to have them all back in glorious color editions now.  The game’s influence over the latest edition of RuneQuest is obvious, and it feels “right” to have it back.  And Chaosium seems committed to the line, with a sister game, Paladin, that uses the Pendragon engine to bring to life the Charlemagne Cycle, already available.

Ultimately however it is not Pendragon’s position in the history of the hobby that keeps it in print; it is the fact that it continues to offer a play experience not available anywhere else.  It’s devotion to its literary roots ensures a voice and style authentic to 15th century Romance, something no other game really does.  It doesn’t come off as D&D in Camelot—or even RuneQuest in Camelot.  It feels utterly true to its inspirations, and thus entirely unique.