Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Everybody wants to be initiated, nobody wants to be tricked

This is a post about three storytelling techniques I've seen in media - and at the RPG table. 

Initiation

In initiation stories, the audience is brought into some conspiracy or made privy to an essential secret of the universe. This initiation turns them into one of the elect. 

In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo (and the audience) that the real world isn't the real world. Humans are being farmed by machines. The world we know is a shared mass hallucination. There is a prophesy that one human will be the One who can fully overcome the machine world and rescue humankind from their captivity.

There are games like Vampire: The Masquerade that tell their secrets in the opening pages of their introductory narrative. This isn't exactly what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the feeling of giving the players a "Oh. That's what's going on" moment. 

In my experience, conspiracy games like Delta Green's Control Group module can elicit this effect. One or two sessions of the game are played with both the players and player character's in the "out" group. Then, they receive initiation and are told the secrets of the game world. 

It's fun to be initiated. To be in the know. To be told secrets. 

(This feeling is what keeps Q Anon morons coming back for more conspiracy slop. They're one of the smart ones! They followed the clues and did their own research and now they know that Joe Biden is doing the plot of Henson's The Dark Crystal.) 

Revelation

In revelation stories, the audience is told a seemingly normal narrative. At the very end of the narrative, there is a moment of revelation that changes the context of the entire story.

At the end of Fight Club, you realize that Tyler Durden was a figment of the narrator's imagination.

At the end of The Sixth Sense, you realize the bald guy was Bruce Willis the entire time.

This is a difficult type of story to tell in an RPG format. The fun of revelation stories is in the rewatch. You don't read Gene Wolf, you reread Gene Wolf. Still, I wanted to include this storytelling technique because it felt so close in theme to "initiation." If you have any good examples of this from a mainstream game, let me know.

Apostasy 

In apostasy stories, the audience is initiated and later told that their first initiation was false - an apostasy. They're then inducted into the true initiation.

In The Matrix Reloaded, the Architect tells Neo (and the audience) that the story of the One is a false narrative. The cycle of the One is all part of the machine's plan. There have been many Ones. Each One has collapsed the current Matrix, rescued a handful of humans, and restarts the cycle. 

Apostasy is not fun. The audience only has the text with which to understand the narrative world. We know only what the filmmaker/GM is telling us. If they're lying to us, we don't have a way to know that. The revelation-after-the-revelation isn't satisfying. We feel tricked. 

This is all to say:

Everybody wants to be initiated. Nobody wants to be tricked.


Sunday, May 19, 2024

Legojam: Castle Hexcrawl

This is a submission to DIY&Dragon's Summer LEGO RPG Setting Jam.


The Induction

"And you'll note that the people in Peaksville, Ohio, have to smile. They have to think happy thoughts and say happy things because once displeased, the monster can wish them into a cornfield or change them into a grotesque, walking horror. This particular monster can read minds, you see. He knows every thought, he can feel every emotion. Oh yes, I did forget something, didn't I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster. This is the monster. His name is Anthony Fremont. He's six years old, with a cute little-boy face and blue, guileless eyes. But when those eyes look at you, you'd better start thinking happy thoughts, because the mind behind them is absolutely in charge. This is the Twilight Zone."

Once upon a time, there was a divided kingdom. It was divided by heritage, with several waves of invaders coming to the land, pushing the last wave further inland, and then settling. It was divided by religion, with the old gods of the rivers and bogs going hungry as need-fires to the new gods of fire were lit on the seashores. It was divided by blood, with feuds between the petty kingdoms going back generations.

It was said that one day, there would come a king, sprung from an ancient line but wed to the new gods, that would unite the realm.

He came. He was a nine year old boy named Leo. He was given the magic Sword of Wishery by the half-demonic old druid the people named Majisto. Then, everything changed.

Good King Leo reigned over the newly Reunited Kingdom. His knights were resplendent in golden armor, the proud lion rampant on their shields. They fought against the Bat Lord and his foul knights. He made peace with the Duchy of the Blackfalcon, and subsumed them into his kingdom. He played games of wits with the free-spirited, anarchic Forestmen. He married the Green-blooded Princess of the Dragon Knights, sealing a union of peace with the one faction he could not defeat in war.

And the next year, they did it again. And again. Broken bodies were put back together. Broken castles were rebuilt brick by brick. By magic. By the king's magic.

For the Good King Leo was not a good king at all, but a boy playing at being a king--a boy with a child's ideals of good and evil, sin and chivalry, love and war. He was given a man's body by the Sword of Wishery. Thus also was he given governance of the realm and the rules of the world. Men and women were made his playthings. Over and over again. 

You are one of the people trapped in the eternal game. You have played this game before. What will happen this cycle?

The Hexcrawl

And Spitfire said, “What joy shall we have of soft beds and delicate meats and all the delights that be in many-mountained Demonland, if we must be stingless drones, with no action to sharpen our appetite for ease?”

...

“We,” said Juss, “have flown beyond the rainbow. And there we found no fabled land of heart’s desire, but wet rain and wind only and the cold mountain-side. And our hearts are a-cold because of it. ... Thou O Queen canst scarcely know our grief; for to thee the blessed Gods gave thy heart’s desire: youth for ever, and peace. Would they might give us our good gift, that should be youth for ever, and war; and unwaning strength and skill in arms. Would they might but give us our great enemies alive and whole again. For better it were we should run hazard again of utter destruction, than thus live out our lives like cattle fattening for the slaughter...”

- The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison 


Wow these were more hexes than I imagined at first


Random Encounters (2d6)

Unless there are special encounters in a particular hex, use this random encounter table.

2. Wizard's Cart: The archdruid and councilor to the Good King, Majisto, is encountered on the road. His horse is masked and wicked-looking, and the cart has a pair of working dragon's wings. At need, it can fly. Majisto asks penetrating questions about the PCs goals, trying to ferret out potential insurrectionist vibes. (Majisto knows anything the GM knows.) Majisto will be pleased if the PCs tell him something that the GM has forgotten, and give them a gem of fireball (sold for 100g, or thrown to deal 4d6 damage once).

3. Witch's Windship: The Mountain Witch (normally in hex 04.04) flying in her windship (which is like a complicated hot air balloon). She is looking for fallen shards of lightning (ingredients for her potions) or for cuckoos (which she uses for haruspicy). She calls down to the PCs from her windship to implore them to help her in these quests. She will trade with them by lowering and raising a basket.

4. Dungeon Hunters: A tumbleweed wagon guarded by 1d6 Lion Knights. The wagon cell contains: [a Forestman / a Bat Knight / nobody (yet)]. 

5. Bandit Ambush: Stand and deliver! Your money or your life! Encounter 1d10 bandits. [50/50 chance bandits are either Forestmen or Wolfpack; both go about the same way. The Forestmen are a bit nicer about it and will probably just tie you up instead of slitting your throat.]

6. King's Carriage: The Good King Leo, accompanied by 3d20 knights and 1d100 camp followers, travels the land on a "Perambulation" to see his kingdom. He is gracious and welcoming, almost play acting at being a king. He regularly holds court outside to dispense the king's justice. His favorite way to administer justice is to call for a trial by arms. Peasants must get knights to represent them in battle. 

7. Smuggler's Hayride: 1d12 peasants acting suspicious. They're on some errand on behalf of the anarchic Forestmen: [smuggling goods/smuggling escaped Forestmen bandits/smuggling a tied up tax collector to be held for ransom]. 

8. Crusader's Cart: 3d4 religious peasants on a pilgrimage. They've dug up idols buried by an almost extinct forest cult that once flourished in the region, and are taking them to the cathedral lighthouse in Siren's Call (05.00) to be destroyed. They want to share their fire and food with knights in exchange for protection on the road, but are tediously religious.

9. Treasure Cart:  A wagon bearing the sign of the royal lion, guarded by 1d12 Lion Knights, is being attacked by 2d10 [Wolfpack bandits/Bat Knights]. The wagon contains treasure worth 10d10 x 100 gp. Will the PCs choose a side?

10. Traitor Transport: The Lord of Bats himself is leading a raiding party of 2d6 renegade Bat Knights. Their goal is to capture the PCs and take them back to the Castle of Night (hex 05.03), where they'll be used as a pawn in the Lord of Bats' schemes. If the going gets tough, the Lord of Bats will summon a cloud of bats to carry him away from the battle.

11. Dragon Wagon: 2d6 dragon hunters from the Firebreathing Fortress (hex 04.03). Armed with spears, weighted nets, and long hooked poles. Outfitted with a large wheeled cage, a team of horses, and bait chickens. 50% chance the dragon hunters have a live dragon captured.

12. Dragon!: Roll reaction to see if its hungry or not. 


00.00 - Hunting Lodge

Forestmen's Hideout (6054-1)

A hunting lodge carved from the trunk of a giant titanwood tree. Owned by the House of Elk, the ruling family of Elkhame (hex 01.00). The House of Elk's master of hunt, Willy Redarrow, governs the hunting lodge and oversees a small staff. 

Willy Redarrow is secretly in charge of recruitment for the bandit group the Forestmen. The Forestmen are anarchists and fervently believe in the cause of freedom. 

Willy will sell hunting rights in this hex, and offer to serve as a guide (1g/day). During this hunting trip, the PCs may encounter: 1. A dire boar covered in arrows called Bristleback 2. A giant albino stag (bad luck to shoot) 3. A sly fox 4. A bear (that's actually a man who's been transformed by Majisto the druid)

Those who are skilled in bushcraft or archery will be offered a chance to prove themselves in order to join the bandit group. 

There's a 2-in-6 chance that 3d6 Forestmen will arrive, seeking to use the hunting lodge as a hideout.

00.01 - Forestmen's Crossing

Forestmen's Crossing (6071-1)

Where the Wanderwade River is widest, a rope bridge stretches from bank to bank amidst forested ruins. It is guarded by 3d6 Forestmen. Any who wish to cross the bridge must pay "taxes" to "Lord Jack." They will ask for a tenth of any coin the PCs are carrying. They say these taxes go to feed the poor, sick, and widowed (true).

Alternatively, the Forestmen will accept a good joke in place of a single person's payment. The joke must be in-character and actually make the table laugh in order to be acceptable to the Forestmen. 

00.02 - The Floating Fortress

Forestmen's River Fortress (6077-2)

The true seat of the Forestmen's power is the Floating Fortress. It is located within the marshlands of 00.02, but moves by way of enchantment (or perhaps...the land is enchanted to move around it?). Those who seek the Floating Fortress have a 1-in-6 chance of discovering it each day. 

The leader of the Forestmen, Jack in the Green, uses the fortress as his primary hideout. PCs who intrude on the fortress will be taken before the him. He will question PCs intently to learn their ethos and outlook. Those found to have good humor will be dealt with gently and released. Monarchists and belligerent guests will be robbed and dumped into the marshes. Those with a burning desire for freedom will be given a chance to perform quests for the Forestmen and possibly join their troop.

Jack in the Green's Quests: 

1. Rescue the captured Forestmen in the Tower Dungeon in hex 01.01. 

2. Find a way to publicly humiliate John Forte the Tax Collector of Castle Town (hex 05.01). 

3. Track down Dame Villaheart and steal the magic horn she won from the most recent tourney at the Challenge Fields. Then, sink the horn into the marsh, to remove its power from the hands of monarchists. 

4. Liberate the gold from the High Falconer (hex 02.03) and give it to the poor of Elkhame (hex 01.00). 

The ultimate goals of the Forestmen is to overthrow the monarchy and dissolve all hereditary titles. 

Those who have gained Jack in the Green's trust are taught a special whistle that calls the Floating Fortress. This allows them to navigate to the Floating Fortress unerringly.

00.03 - Blacksmith Shop

Blacksmith Shop (3739-1)

Ferrous Jim is a blacksmith that lives in isolation with his daughter, Gemina. He was once a Blackfalcon Knight, but became sick of the eternal cycles of battle. He wishes for his family to be left alone. 

Jim can make excellent metal tools. They are light (taking up less slots in your pack), durable (able to withstand more damage), and well-balanced (giving you a +1 to tests when you use them). These tools cost 4x what they normally cost. Jim refuses to make weapons of war. 

Additionally:

  • Once a year, on the summer solstice, Jim can make a magic item if his forge fire is lit with dragon's flame. 
  • Jim's hammer is magical and can be commanded by its owner to work on its own. If gifted to a PC, the hammer can repair arms and armor during camp.

Gemina is a brave, romantic, sarcastic, independent young woman who yearns for connection to the outside world. However, she won't leave her father's side because the idea of him being alone makes her too sad. She enjoys flowers.

00.04 - Goblet and Grape Inn

Guarded Inn (6067-1)

The Goblet and Grape Inn sits at a crossroads. The beer served at the inn is brewed by St. Auguthine's Abbey, also in this hex. It has tongue-loosening properties; those who drink it make reaction rolls with a +3 bonus. You can buy a small cask of it for 37 gold. 

Dame Rose is the proprietor of the inn. She does not mean to be a gossip. When she hears a secret from one of her patrons, she finds it difficult to keep it inside, however. She whispers it to her livestock: the ewe that gives milk, the goose that lays eggs, the sow who gives her piglets. These animals can't keep the secrets to themselves, either. These rumors come out through whatever food they produce. Your ham and egg breakfast might whisper secrets to you.

Rumors you might eat at the Goblet and Grape Inn:

1. It's said that if you wait outside the crossroads at midnight on a night without a moon, a man in a red cape and red skull cap will trade you a magic spell if you consent to kiss his rear end. 

2. There's hidden treasure in the tower dungeon (01.01). But you'd have to break into prison to get it!

3. The passage into the lands of the House of Dragon are guarded by the Black Knight! In truth, the knight isn't even human. They're undead: a skeleton -- immortal, invulnerable! Weapons are useless against them.

4. The ruined castle by the sea is haunted (05.02). There are caves underneath it that were once used as a hideout for pirates. However, the caves flood with the tides. The pirates became drunk and lost track of time, and were all drowned. Now, they host a never-ending party, and will drown anyone who comes looking for their lost treasure.

5. The Lord of Bats wants to kidnap the Green-blooded Princess in order to harness her draconic powers in his war against the Good King.

6. Both the Castle of Night (05.03) and the Castle Rampant (05.01) have a secret enchantment. When a magic word is spoken, they take the shape of a colossal stone knight, which can stride about and do do war. It's prophesied that the two castles will destroy each other in this way.

01.00 - Elkhame

Dark Forest Fortress (6079-1)

Elkhame is a small town and hereditary seat of the Huntlord, the lord of the House of Elk. This town's population is about 1000 souls. They are all fanatically loyal to the bandits, the Forestmen, and their cause for freedom. 

The current Huntlord is Tomas IV Elk. He is rarely in his estate, but the entire town pretends as if he is there. Demands for an audience will be met with delays and excuses ("Ah, you just missed him, he rode off for a multi-day hunt"). In truth, the Huntlord has abdicated his titles and lives as Jack in the Green, the leader of the Forestmen. He is more commonly found in the Floating Fortress in hex 00.02.

Random Encounters at Elkhame: 

1. A prisoner in a crow's cage will claim to be Miserly Melanie, one of Good King Leo's tax collectors. The taxes she was carrying have been stolen by the Forestmen. She promises rewards from the king if she is rescued.

2. A cadre of knights led by the Inquisitor Meritia are seeking information about the Floating Fortress. She will pay 250 gold for a reasonably made map of the area, and 800 gold for the location of the fortress itself. 

3. Archery contest! Winner wins a grand prize of 100g.

4. The Huntlord Tomas returns to town, to the general celebration of the people. He holds a feast of hunted boar and invites everyone in town. Good jokes are rewarded with golden goblets (50g).

01.01 - Tower Dungeon

Dungeon (4817-1)

Rising out of the woods is a drum tower surrounded by a dry moat filled with sharpened stakes. A dreary place, splashed with the azure and gold colors of the House of Lion. This is the tower prison where enemies to the crown are held.

If the PCs run afoul of the Lion Knights and fail to win their case in a trial by combat, they will be placed in a tower room here. Because of Good King Leo's warped sense of narrative, it's not difficult to break out of the tower prison. It's under-staffed and falling apart.

Sir Tibald is the Senior Gaoler of the Tower Dungeon. He has an unpleasant personality (which is why he has this shit assignment). He is nice to the dozen stray cats that he takes care of. He wears a mithril breastplate, which confers damage resistance 2.

Random Prisoners you Share a Cell With:

1. Harry Hunchedback of the Wolfpack, a foul-smelling old man who tells terrible jokes and expects you to laugh. He has a plan to catch one of Sir Tibald's cats and ransom his way out of here. He has a shard of glass which he threatens to shank you with.

2. The Green Knight of the Forestmen. He longs to win his way free in heroic combat and join the Candlemass tourney in hex 04.01. His wish will be to elevate all peasants to noble status to remove the class divide.

3. Sir Ylther the Dragon Knight, being held as hostage in the king's wars with his house. He expects to be ransomed any day now.

4. Whispers, a skeleton. Only you can hear him. He whispers of a treasure his mate buried in the adjoining cell under a loose flagstone. 

01.02 - Camouflaged Outpost

Camouflaged Outpost (6066-1)

Here, the forests wash up onto the foothills. The tree line changes, with evergreen trees replacing deciduous. Stirges are common here.

The Forestmen have a hidden fortress in the hills, built from refurbished ruins and natural caverns, occluded by a thick copse of sentinel trees. They use this outpost to hide stolen goods before they're redistributed to the needy. There's piles of treasure stored here worth [1d10 x 100] gold at any point. When there's not a significant haul stored here, the Forestmen presence is minimal. 

The only consistent presence is Sambell Spider, the canny spymaster of the Forestmen. He will put to death anybody outside the Fraternity of Forestmen who comes upon the hidden fortress so they cannot tell of its location.

01.03 - Wyrming Wastes

Traitor Transport & Free Dragon Cave (6099-1)

Special: In this hex, make random encounter rolls using 2d10 instead of 2d6. Any roll of 12+ is an encounter with a dragon.

Volcanic mountains. Black gravel peppering the sides of desolate peaks. No vegetation. Sulfuric pits. The landscape is otherworldly, like the surface of the moon. 

02.00 - The Barrows 

Skeleton Surprise (6036-1)

The Barrows is a stretch of fertile, hilly land, well watered with fogs from the Wanderwade River. The ground bulges here. These are not man-made barrows. At least, not in the way you think.

Each time the Romance of the Reunited Kingdom is reset by the Sword of Wishery, the world returns to the beginning of the "story." This isn't time travel. It's matter manipulation. People who were killed during the last cycle (and certain people are killed almost every cycle because it's important for Good King Leo's story) are re-created, like clones. 

If you cut into the bulging hills of the Barrows, rotting bodies come spilling out.

Random Encounters at the Barrows: 

1. A random PC sees a rotting face that looks like their own. That PC immediately rerolls their HP. If the new HP is higher than their current HP, they have seen the face of death and steeled their will. If the new HP is lower than their current HP, they suffer terrible ennui.

2. The PCs find the body of a well-loved and well-known NPC. The NPC is carrying a knightly complement of gear, including a random piece of magical treasure. (This encounter can only occur once.)

3. Attack by 1d4 skeletons. As each one is defeated, they moan terrible secrets of a future that has already happened. The referee must give the PC one rumor about some likely future occurrence.

4. Attack by a crawling human centipede of rotting bodies. 

02.01 - Fort Wosemouth 

Royal Drawbridge (6078-1)

Where the Wanderwade River exits the forest, there are dispersed homesteads and vast farming estates. Fort Wosemouth straddles the river. It is stationed with Lion Knights to protect the farming population from Forestmen raids and to collect taxes from the riverboats. At need, the fort raises a chain to block river passage.

The leader of the garrison at Fort Wosemouth is Dame Evlyn. Her betrothed, Jysica, was kidnapped recently by the Lord of Bats. Dame Evlyn wrongly blames the Forestmen. She is hungry for vengeance. 

02.02 - Hemlock 

Hemlock Stronghold (6046-1)

Hemlock is the name of a fortress (called "Big Hemlock") and a small village that supports its staff (called "Little Hemlock"). Population of 300 souls. Previously, the Lion Knights held Big Hemlock, but the Forestmen have recently driven the Lion Knights out and are currently occupying the fortress. The villagers are nonplussed by the change in leadership. 

The former captain of the fortress is Sir Ennis. He is desperate to reclaim control. He is likely to be found begging for additional resources at Fort Wosemouth (hex 02.01), or skulking in the woods gathering intel. He would be eager to hire the PCs to help him retake the fortress, but doesn't currently have any liquid cash and can only pay in promises.

Sheila She-Bear is the ranking Forestwoman currently occupying the fortress. She thinks it's enormously funny that the Lion Knights have their knickers in a twist about this, but doesn't know exactly what to do next. She wishes there was a graceful exit that gave the people of Little Hemlock a better life--not just re-occupation by the old regime.

02.03 - Blackfalcon Duchy 

Black Falcon's Fortress (10039-1)

The major city of the Duchy is named Freeloft. Freeloft hosts the seat of power for House Blackfalcon, called Castle Mews

Freeloft is town perched high in the mountains. Its position makes it practically impossible to take by force of arms, and has many years worth of provisions stored in caves. The people are suspicious of outsiders, solemn, and religious. It has a population of 10,000.

Random Encounters at Freeloft: 

1. It is the birthday feast for the High Falconer's daughter, Edwindina Blackfalcon. They are using the opportunity to look for a suitable match for marriage. Edwindina has already been rebuffed by Good King Leo, and the High Falconer is eager to avoid her daughter becoming an old maid. However, Edwindina is by no means a pleasant companion. As persons of note, the PCs are invited to the feast. 

2. A funeral procession of a single wren, led by the children of Freeloft. They solemnly mourn the loss of the small bird.

3. The hue and cry is raised! Wolfpack raiders have made it inside the gates! The granaries are burning, and raiders are using the distraction to plunder.

The lord of House Blackfalcon's hereditary title is "High Falconer." The current High Falconer is the Duchess Edwina Blackfalcon. She is prickly about honor and quick to anger.

House Blackfalcon has an ancestral claim to the throne of the realm, being descended from the Black Monarch (who was deposed by an ancestor of House of Lion). At different parts of the eternal cycle, House Blackfalcon is either in rebellion against or newly reconciled with the king. Rebellions tend to happen early in the year, before the more serious perennial threats to the kingdom (e.g., the Dragon Knights) take shape.

The High Falconer's Quests: 

1. Guard a wagon bearing protection money to the Wolfpack (02.04). Make sure they aren't attacked before getting to the Wolfpack Tower, at which point the mercenaries would claim they never received their "fee."  

2. Defeat the giant Hornfoot who is troubling shepherds in the high dales.

3. Deliver a letter of friendship to the House of Dragon in hex 04.03 and bring back their response.

02.04 - Wolfpack Tower

6075-1

A crumbling tower straddling a river that serves as the home base for the bandit/mercenary company the Wolfpack

The Wolfpack understands that they exist in a continually resetting cycle of violence. They embrace it. There are no stakes. They may kill, but what does it matter? They may die, but they will live again. Let every life be a firework--an explosion, a thunderous noise, a moment of awe, and then silence. 

The leader of the Wolfpack is Granny Ghoulie, a decrepit old hag whose body is barely held together with magic. If the PCs can justify their way into an audience with her, they may receive work from her (instead of being summarily robbed).

Granny Ghoulie's Quests: 

1. I've heard a rumor that the Forestboys have some secret encampment nearby (in hex 01.02). See if you can find it and rob 'em blind! Eeeheeheehee. If you bring a taste back to Granny, we can work together again.

2. We're not (just) robbers, of course! The Wolfpack are as strong and brave a fightin' force as any beknighted armor-wearing clinker clanker. You're respectable lookin'. If ye can get a contract for us with [the Lion Knights/the Blackfalcon Knights/the Dragon Knights], we'll give you 10% of the total fee. Eeeehehehe.

3. Kidnap the daughter of the blacksmith (hex 00.03) for us. You don't have to hurt the poor thing. We're going to convince the smith to make ol' Granny a magic sword and he needs some convincing. Eheheheh.

4. The Pack is going hunting Lion Knights! How'd ye like to serve as a decoy? Pretend to be robbed, and then just sit back when the Pack actually robs them. Easy money! Just don't fight! Eeeheeheeheehee.

03.00 - Black Monarch's Castle 

Black Monarch's Castle (6085-1)

The Black Monarch was a cruel tyrant that ruled these realms hundreds of years ago. Good King Leo's ancestors deposed him and began the line of the House of Lion. His black castle was abandoned. It is widely known to be haunted.

This is the main dungeon of this campaign setting. You will have to supply it yourself. The author is very tired. Make it big and scary with lots of skeletons and traps that test bravery and chivalry.

At the center of the dungeon, the Ghost of the Black Monarch sits on a throne of stacked skulls. He wields the Sword with Strange Hangings. The sword can only be wielded by those of noble blood, and will kill all others who draw it. 

03.01 - Abbey of St. Llawfordred

Knight's Stronghold (6059-1)

The Abbey of St. Llawfordred sits in the village of Giant's Cauldron (population 750 souls). The abbey is also called the "Seat of Chivalry," and is the center of knighthood within the realms. Any knight, regardless of their house affiliation, is always given safe passage to the abbey and allowed to claim sanctuary there.

There is a long table in the abbey with an enchanted knife stuck into it. Once a day, a feast appears on this table. The abbot and any knights currently in residence are afforded the honor of eating this enchanted food. 

If formal oaths are sworn on the knife and sealed by blood, they cannot be broken (until the cycle is reset by the Sword of Wishery).

Traditionally, knights come here to declare a new quest. A quest must be dangerous, worthy of praise from other knights, and have no immediately apparent solution (an OSR challenge, in other words). 

  • If a knight accomplishes a quest, they gain a new level and fame throughout the land. 
  • If a knight attempts the quest and fails, they gain no XP but everyone agrees the knight was brave for trying.
  • If a knight turns away from the quest or does not pursue it in a timely manner, they lose 1,000 XP and everyone calls them a coward. 
  • A knight can only pursue one quest at a time.

When a knight declares a quest, anybody at the table may suggest a "rider" - an additional challenge or complication to the quest. For example, not only must the knight defeat Hornfoot the Giant, but they must do so without a weapon.

  • It is considered bad form (but not wrongful) to turn down a rider. 
  • If a knight accepts the quest's rider, they immediately gain 1,000XP.

03.02 - Valehall

King's Mountain Fortress (6081-1)

The landscape consists of sheltered glacial valleys separated by exposed moorland. Tiered terraces for livestock grazing have been cut by the area's farmers. The southern edge of the House of Lion's domain terminates at the mountain fortress of Valehall, manned by a garrison of knights and their staff.

There's a 1-in-4 chance that Good King Leo will be residing in the Valehall (as he frequently goes on "Perambulations" around his kingdom) when the PCs visit. When the king resides in his mountain fortress, he welcomes knights errant, troubadours, and other travelers. He asks them each to entertain him with stories of their travels, and richly rewards those who tell him tales he's never heard before. 

Skerples's Sidebar

Step 1: Ask yourself "how many castles can there be in a 6-mile hex?" 

Step 2: Download Google Earth Pro (free)

Step 3: Download and open this KML file. Backup.

Step 4: Go, "Oh, that's a lot of castles."

/sidebar


03.03 - The Caldera 

Dark Dragon's Den (6076-1)

Vividly blue lake and springs, warmed by volcanic activity. Sparse vegetation. Sulphuric scents. 

The House of Dragon rides dragons into battle, like Hannibal rode elephants. Before dragons can be ridden, they must be broken. The Caldera is the fortress where captured dragons are trained, far away from the (flammable) settlements of the Dragon Duchy (hex 04.03). 

The Caldera is inhabited by a staff of about 100 souls. At any time, 2d12 dragon knights are there, attempting to bond with a dragon. Only 1 in 20 will be successful. 

The Caldera is overseen by two members of the House of Dragon (cousins of the current baron, Psamic), Kiriki and Kuroku. They are older women who have noble blood, have never been wed, and possess neither the magic nor the congenital weaknesses of their family bloodline. Both expert dragon trainers. 

04.00 - Majisto's Tower

Majisto's Tower (1906-1)

Majisto is what the peasants call the old druid that advises Good King Leo. It's a dramatic, kind-sounding name. It does not represent the truth of this terrible old man.

Majisto is the mastermind behind the eternal ouroboros of Good King Leo's reign. It is an experiment for him: an easy way to run a simulation 1000 times and aggregate the results. When his experiment is concluded, he will take back the Sword of Wishery and put it to other uses. He cares nothing about Leo or the humans of the realm.

The tower keep is staffed by 20 Lion Knights. Although Majisto's reputation is that of a kindly old wizard, these knights suspect the truth. They hate and fear the old druid.

Majisto has a 3-in-6 chance of being at his tower on any day. If an audience is sought, Majisto might employ willing PCs.

Majisto's Quests: 

1. Slay a dragon and bring him the blood for his magic. 

2. Sabotage the experiments of the Mountain Witch by pouring this potion into her bubbling cauldron. 

3. Enter the jousts in the Challenge Fields (hex 04.01) and defeat Sir Tibald the Gaoler, but refuse to ransom their armor back. Instead, bring their armor to Majisto for a greater reward. 

4. Enter the Black Monarch's Keep in hex 03.00, locate the ghost of the tyrant, ask him "Is it better to be feared or forgotten?" and return his answer.  

The tower guards Majisto's spellbook, magic wand, and the seal of the apocalypse

Majisto's Spellbook

  • The spellbook contains observations of 300-or-so previous incarnations of this reality. It is written in druidic and impossible to understand without mastering the cryptological devices used in its writing.
  • For each downtime action of study, you can attempt an Intelligence check to try and understand the spellbook. 
    • If you succeed, you can now use the spellbook to make predictions. 
    • If you fail, you have wasted your time trying to parse the paradoxes contained in the pages. 
  • Someone who has mastered the spellbook may read it to ask the outcome of a certain action taken. Ask the GM: "If I do X, will Y happen?" The GM will answer honestly yes or no. Each time the spellbook is used in this manner, the user loses 1d6 HP.
Majisto's Wand
  • The wand allows the user to transform people and objects randomly. 
  • Each wave of the wand transforms one thing. Think of it like swapping one Lego piece for another Lego piece. To simulate this randomness, you can reach into a box of Legos and pull out a random piece.
  • Change one item to another random item. Change a spear into a goblet. 
  • Change an animal into another type of animal. Change a parrot into an owl. Change a dragon into a horse.
  • Change a person's appearance. Change their clothes. Changes their face. Change their gender.
  • Change a person's appearance monstrously. Transform a person into a skeleton. 
  • (These effects are not random for Majisto. His magical powers are beyond that which a PC can achieve.)
Seal of the Apocalypse
  • A scroll bound with a red wax seal marked with an arcane glyph. Breaking the seal summons the star Wormwood. It appears within 1d20 hours in the sky. 
  • When the star appears, it can be "aimed" by using Majisto's wand. If it is not aimed, it will come to the hex where the seal was broken.
  • The star will crash into the earth 1d6 hours after it appears in the sky. It will destroy an entire hex and everything in it. 
  • This seal is Majisto's emergency escape button. It can be used seven times, ever, and does not reset with the Sword of Wishery. It has already been used six times.

04.01 - The Challenge Field

Knight's Challenge (6060-1)

Special: The power of Wishery is strong in this hex. Wounds heal at double rate while resting here.

A rich farmland, interspersed with royal hunting forests. The Challenge Field is located here. The Challenge Field is the traditional place where knights resolve disputes at hazard of their body. 

Random Encounters at the Challenge Field:

1. Thed Thin-and-Tall the Forestman is accused of stealing the chastity of Maid Una, daughter of Francis the Baker (works at the Grape and Goblet Inn, hex 00.04). The relationship was consensual, but Francis demands the boy be put to death for his indiscretions. Both peasants are looking for knights to champion their respective causes on the field, and will abide by the results of the duel. 

2. Sir Yctor Twoswords of the Realm has been accused of murdering Matty the Miller's Son for not giving him due deference (true). He is awaiting trial by combat against a champion to be determined. The Judge asks if one of the PCs will serve.

3. A ghostly tournament, with the ghosts begging each other's forgiveness. They are desperate to stop fighting, but are forced to relive the battle.

4. A special tourney is being held in honor of the new marriage between Good King Leo and the Green-blooded Princess, heir of the Dragon Duchy. 

Once or twice a month, formal tournaments are held here by the Good King Leo. Knights may enter as contestants by speaking to Sir Jeu the Master of Games. Follow these rules for jousting. Winners get to claim the arms and armor of the knights they defeat, which is ransomed back for 2d100 gold. Those who win the tournament are granted 1,000g and a random magic item by the king.

On Candlemass, the king holds a special tourney. Whoever wins the tourney gets to declare a New Law for the next cycle, enforced by Sword of Wishery. This is equivalent to a Wish, and can even fundamentally change the rules of the RPG that you're playing. The Good King Leo will peevishly refuse to enact Laws that are "bad form."

04.02 - Mountain Pass of the Black Knight

Black Knight (6009-1)

The only entrance from the plains to the mountains is a narrow pass between the mountains, through which a narrow rivulet runs. In spring, this rivulet is a deluge. In other months, it is guarded only by the Black Knight

Here is the truth: Nobody really understands who the Black Knight is or what his motivations are. What I tell you here is a secret to everybody.

The Black Knight is a victim of the cataclysm that sunk Aetherlanta. He crawled up onto the shore afterwards, burning with necromantic fire. He is a husk of bones and green flame. He suffers phantom limb syndrome, but for his entire central nervous system. He is in pain. 

The Black Knight is unkillable. He has infinite HP. You can cut him, smash him, or ensorcell him and he'll only get back up, bleeding radiation. He is not undefeatable. You can push him off a cliff, trap him in an iron maiden, or sink him to the bottom of the ocean.

04.03 - Dragon Duchy 

Firebreathing Fortress (6082-1)

For generations, the known world was dominated by the thalassocracy of Aetherlanta. Then, in a cataclysm, it sank.

Some of the survivors (are there others?) sailed to the shores of this realm. They reclaimed an ancient Aetherlanta fortress in the volcanic mountains of this realm, and began their conquest. This stronghold is called the Firebreathing Fortress. The area surrounding it is called the Dragon Duchy. It is sparsely peopled as the land has few resources. The Firebreathing Fortress houses 900 souls. 100 of these are Dragon Knights. Three of these are members of the royal House of Dragon.

Random Encounters at the Firebreathing Fortress: 

1. A play is being held in a central square. The actors wear heavy stone Grecian masks. The play is a Romeo and Juliet-esque forbidden love story. At a crucial part in the second act, the actors release doves and observe their flight to determine which ending they will perform. 50/50 chances of a comedy (everybody gets married, houses reconcile) or tragedy (double suicide). 

2. A procession winds around the walls of the fortress city. Cultic statues held on the shoulders of the participants. In sequence, the statues tell a story from ancient Aetherlanta: a mer-king, a white horse, an emerald tower, two dragons embattled and both dying. Strange, unfamiliar images.

3. A new dragon-prowed ship has been completed at the drydock. To celebrate, Duke Psamik is hosting a grand melee. The winner has the honor of naming the ship. 

4. The PCs spy a lidded basket in a refuse pile. The basket is teetering back and forth, as if something is inside it. If they investigate, they find a cat, white as moonlight, within. It has an uncanny aspect. The cat will follow the PCs and attempt to suck the last breath out of any foe they defeat. It will rub against anything magical but hidden the PCs encounter.

The House of Dragon has long practiced intermarriage to select for the powers of sorcery. Most of them have the Hapsburg Lip and some magical talent. 

The current House of Dragon members:

  • Psamik III, head of household, uncle of Sitre. Drunken and lecherous. Physically handicapped like Tutankhamen. Gifted with the power of withering (can turn someone inside out by pointing at them). 
  • Tia, sister of Sitre. Simple minded. Gifted with foresight. Foresaw the cataclysm, and is the reason the family escaped.
  • Sitre, the Green-Blooded Princess. The first member of her house to be gifted with health in both body and mind in generations. Gifted with the awesome power of dracomorph, where she can take on the shape of a dragon. She loves her sister as much as she hates her uncle.

At the end of each cycle, Good King Leo always joins the Green-blooded Princess in marriage to end the feud between their houses. 

Psamik's Quests:

1. Other Aetherlantean ships were lost off the coast of the Castle of Night (05.03), sailing away from the cataclysm. One was carrying an artifact called the Mantle of the Gold Breast, which can only be worn by chaste women. If you dive the wrecks and recover it, you will be rewarded.

2. The twin dragon tamers of the Caldera (03.03) are feuding. Mend the feud between them so that they return to their task of taming war dragons.

3. It's said that there was much treasure, including some of Aetherlanta, within the Black Monarch's Keep (03.00). Map at least 15 rooms of the ruin; payment will be commiserate with the detail of the mapping.

4. The Lord of Bats has ringed the Firebreathing Fortress with a never-ending storm. Find a way to dispel the magic. You might have to face the villain directly, or solicit the aid of the Mountain Witch.

04.04 - Manse of the Mountain Witch

Witch's Magic Manor (6087-1)

Between two pointy mountains (called the "Witch's Teats") is the Manse of the Mountain Witch. It is riddled with traps to catch those who would sneak in and steal the witch's magical treasures.

The Mountain Witch calls herself the "Speaker for the Dead." She is one of the last practitioners of a forest cult that was once widely practiced within the realm. She can talk to any corpse, and will do so for a fee. Bring her your dad's skull and she'll have him arbitrate your family disagreement. Bring her the body of a saint and she'll argue theology with it. 

The Mountain Witch is bitter foes of Majisto (hex 04.00). She detests what he has done to the cycle of life and death. She also hates his stupid bearded face. 

The Mountain Witch's Quests:

1. Fetch me the black lotus that grows in the Wyrming Wastes (01.03) / and any of my potions can ye taste.

2. Pour this potion on Majisto's wagon / to wither it's wings of dragon. / You don't think that rhyme was good? / Well...I didn't think that you should.

3. Light this brazier with dragon's flame / You might purchase it from those who dragons tame / Bring it back with fire lit / So I can fix my flying ship.

4. A crusader's cart bears inside / an idol sacred to my rite. /  Bring it to me, don't delay / Gems of fireball will I pay.

05.00 - Siren's Call

Viking Voyager (6049-1)

When the first men came to this land, they cast their totem poles from their boats and first settled where the tides brought them to shore. Today, a town named Siren's Call stands in this place. The oldest town in the kingdom, but small (population of 800 souls).

A large lighthouse church, the Pyre Cathedral, watches over the town. Crusaders wheel the idols they have dug up from the roots of trees and fished out of marshlands to Siren's Call to feed them to the lamp's flame.

There are mermaids in the bay. Do not listen to them.

Random Encounters at Siren's Call: 

1. A whale has beached itself. It is singing mournfully of an inverted world under the sea. Whale hunters are on their way to kill and butcher it.

2. Pirates have come to town to spend their coin. They're willing to spend a fortune, but create trouble. Roll reaction every time you encounter them. Sometimes they're friendly drunk, sometimes they're angry drunk, sometimes they're sad drunk. They're big into shanties.

3. Dragon attack! A dragon is down at the docks. Drive it away before its fiery breath sets the ships aflame! 

4. Raving man speaks of other worlds - men from the moon on flying ships, men who explore underwater, magical pink cities beyond your imagining. 

05.01 - The Castle Rampant

Royal Knight's Castle (6090-1)

The center of the realm and seat of Good King Leo is the Castle Rampant. The Castle Town sprawls out at its feet. The Castle Town is the largest city in the realm, hosting 20,000 souls. Almost any service or good can be found here, for a price.  

Random Encounters in Castle Town:

1. "Ho there! We are two knights. One always speaks the truth..." "Oh boy, here we go..." "And one of us always tells filthy lies!" "Look, I said I was sorry, alright?"

2. A Punch and Judy puppet show is being performed to a crowd of children. The PCs notice that the beats of the story are, essentially, their own story up to this point. The PCs can ask one question about what comes next in their adventure and see an answer play acted by buffoonish puppets. The answer is: [1 - wrong/2-3 - silly/4 - mostly right].

3. A triumphal parade of knights streams through the city to the cheers of the people. Pennants crack in the wind, confetti is tossed by the fistful. Good King Leo looks down from the ramparts of his castle, favoring the knights with a sign of blessing. The Good King loves these kinds of parades, and they happen frequently.

4. The PCs catch the eye of Mooncalf, the king's jester. He follows them around, mimicking their actions, making rude noises at inopportune times, and laughing at their failures. He will only leave when he gets bored. 

Good King Leo's Quests:

1. The traitor, the Lord of Bats, has sent raiding parties to the farms surrounding Castle Town. They've been burning barns, despoiling crops, and slaughtering beasts. Go and mete out the king's justice. A bounty of 50g will be paid for every shield painted with the black bat.

2. Tribute is being sent to the Castle Rampant from Castle Mews (02.03). The Wolfpack bandits are active in that area. Go to the Castle Mews and serve as guards for the treasure caravan.

3. The Mountain Witch is a terrible hag who wishes to undo the good magics of the king's advisor, Majisto. She has been spotted flying in her windship in the farmlands. If you shoot it down, you will be rewarded with a small tower keep and lands. 

4. Bring me the head of Sir Hathor the Dragon Knight! 

05.02 - Ghostly Hideout

Ghostly Hideout (1596-1)

Cliffs by the sea. A ruined castle, once called Lady Salt, slowly crumbling into the sea. A preponderance of large crabs. It is commonly accepted that the castle is haunted.

This rumor was deliberately started by the Wolfpack. They found a cache of treasure (pirate booty, they suspect) in tidal caves under the castle, and have been using it to store their own plunder. 

A small contingent (3d6) of Wolfpack bandits is left to guard the treasure and keep up the ruse. If they see anyone coming, they quickly don glowing paint and tattered shrouds and being blowing a modified alpine horn. WooOOOoooOO. 

05.03 - The Castle of Night

Night Lord's Castle (6097-1)

The Lord of Bats is the greatest villain of the United Realms. This was not always the case.

Many cycles ago, the Lord of Bats was a loyal Lion Knight and the trusted lieutenant of Good King Leo. He saw, more than anyone, the futility of the endless ouroboros of time. Each cycle, he performed his part a little less well, with a little less enthusiasm. Eventually, he broke away. Each cycle now begins with the king's most trusted advisor betraying him, and flying away to the mountains to become the Lord of Bats. 

The Lord of Bats is finding ways to avoid the reset to better facilitate this betrayal, testing the limits of the Sword of Wishery's magic, testing the limits of what he can and can't remember with each cycle. Slowly, he's getting the timing of his betrayal and rise to power earlier and earlier. Eventually, he hopes, he can challenge Good King Leo directly.

The Lord of Bats's ultimate goal is to steal the Sword of Wishery and sink it into the moors of 00.02, a sacrifice to long-forgotten gods, and break the endless samsara. He is ruthless in pursuit of this goal.




Sunday, May 5, 2024

The Infinite Orrery

One of the things I like about blogging is that it exorcises the daemons and geniuses that haunt your head. That is, it gets your ideas out of your head and onto paper so they stop bothering you. Maybe other people pick them up, maybe not. 

Here's a capsule game idea that I had that I don't have time to make right now. It's called The Infinite Orrery. The premise is that the players are apprentices (querents) serving a wizard. The vibes are Witch Hat Atelier, Wizard of Earthsea, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Howl's Moving Castle. 

Click these to make them big mode.

The gimmick of the game is that you play as a wizard's apprentice, called a querent. All the players live in the wizard's house, doing magical chores, gathering reagents, studying astronomy, creating potions, and learning spells (more on that in a bit). There's no limit on how much magic you can cast, just the outcome of what happens as you meddle with magical dangers. The GM takes on the role as the wizard, sending the players on quests. Eventually, players would graduate from their apprenticeship, and sail to another island to take on the challenges of the archmage and graduate to wizard-hood.


The game book is written to be as diegetic and in-character as possible. There are no numbers. You create your querent by doing a tarot reading and making decisions about important choices in your life. As you make choices, you gain defining virtues for your character - attributes, lores, items, etc. You start with one spell, too, based on your zodiac sign.


It was a challenge to write the resolution mechanic in-character, but I think it turned out oh-kay. There's some missing details here, but I only wanted to spend one spread on any concept. Basically, the more advantages you have, the more cards you draw. (An idea I briefly considered was using a magic 8 ball as a randomizer instead.)


The basic gameplay flows between two phases - the quest stage, when you're adventuring and solving open-ended problems on your island home for your master, for your neighbors, or for yourself - and the study stage, when you learn magic. 

I wanted to give the experience of learning magic both in and out of character. Players have to memorize the "Sidereal tongue" which is represented by a runic cipher. 

The players do not get to read the list of spells. All spells are 3 letter words (AGE, AID, HIT, HIP, HOT, FLY, FLO, FLU, etc.). During the study phase, you guess a combination and write down the runes of the spell you're attempting to learn. If you guess one of the spell words and your runes are correct, the GM (the master of magic) shows you the spell page which you copy down into your spell book. As you play the game, you literally make a little spell book out of a journal, with runes and illustrations on one side and in-character game rules on the other.


The master of magic has a separate book from the players. Some of it is spells (which they reveal to players when they correctly guess the letter combinations) and some are quests. Basically, every section of the island has open-ended problems that need to be solved, and different items that the master of magic might ask his apprentices to get for him. The GM just needs to choose a few for an evening of play, and see what sort of trouble the querents get into. The intention would be to include a lot of randomizers, too, to help drive play and keep things interesting.

Anyway! This was just a little thing I put together as a diversion. I don't have time to take on another project at the moment. I hope you thought it was interesting!

Credit

I made this proof of concept with a mishmash of borrowed assets. 

The whole project is spawned by an admiration for the feelies from video games - the Book of Patterns from Loom or the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom from Ultima.



Thursday, April 25, 2024

A Campaign Where There is One of Anything

It is well documented in the blogosphere that D&D fantasy produces a shift from fantastic as unique to fantastic as science. For example, in the myths, there is a single minotaur (literally, Minos's bull). The monstrous son of Minos, the King of Crete, is trapped in a labyrinth so that it could not escape and is fed captive prisoners. In D&D, a minotaur is a species of bull-person who, bizarrely, is good at navigating mazes.

Here is a way to frame your next campaign: There is only one of any fantastic thing. 

Create a map by filling it with unique things

Take your RPG book of choice. Take your copy of 5E Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual. Next, take a hex map. Then, fill each hex with one thing. (You can start with just three hexes, if you want.)

The old man in the forest can scry far off places. When you wish to gain the benefits of this awesome magic, you must first fulfill his bizarre wishes.

The passage through the mountain is blocked by the sphinx. She asks riddles of those who pass by, and slays those who cannot answer. Only the very wise may leave the valley.

The mountain itself is the haunt of the dragon. Its treasure is legendary. 

In its treasure horde, there is the flaming sword. It's said to be the sword placed by an angel to guard the Garden of Eden (but was later stolen by the devil). If you fight the dragon, you can gain the flaming sword.

Do the same with your character options

If there is a fighter, they are the Fighter. The prince that was promised. The eternal champion. 

If there is an elf, they are the elf. They are the King of Elfland's Daughter, brought into the world of men by the Prince of Erl. 

If there is a druid, they are the druid. The last in an ancient line of magical guardians, born of devilish parentage like Merlin. 

As adventures happen, place more unique things in far flung places

The fighter dies. Alas! However, the Holy Grail can give resurrection to one holy person per generation. Quest for it. If you find it, the fighter may be restored to life. The grail is taken by angels to heaven, to be filled with the dew of life for the next generation.

Because no ship made can get past the kraken, you must sail to the Isle of Winds where you must enter a joke contest with the god of winds in exchange for his flying carpet. Then, you can fly past the kraken to get to your destination. 

Even with unique fantastic elements in each hex, the world will feel magical. 

Further Reading

As ever, I'm not the first person to play in this space. Here is some further reading if this idea appeals to you. 

Monday, April 15, 2024

Interesting Social Situations, or The Discourse Post

The OSR space has discussed the importance of framing interesting combats. It has not done the same amount of work to provide concrete advice on running interesting social encounters. This post tries to talk about how to make social encounters more interesting and give more space for player choice.

This post contains two polarizing subjects in the RPG community: social mechanics and "systems matter." I swear it's not just discourse. I swear there is a point I am making here for the OSR blogosphere. If you engage in good faith, I think there's something here of value.

Social mechanics? Off topic!

"Nyehhhh!" I hear you saying. "I like [this system] that makes social encounters actually interesting! Instead rolling to swing a sword, you roll to make an argument..." That is not what this post is about. This post is not about social mechanic systems, but making interesting social encounters.

If you want a social mechanic system, here are two that I like: 
But--again--that is not what this post is about.

The Approach Layer

It might sound simple, but I think it is very important to articulate: making choices is what makes games "games." It's what is fun. It's what we like. When you run a game or design a game system, this is the thing you're facilitating.

When you are playing an RPG, you decide what your character does. All at once, you are interacting with many layers all at once.



My character knows more than me about combat. I know so little, I really had to struggle to think about what my body would be doing when I tried to throw someone. Do I think I could fight a level 1 rat? Absolutely not. I would definitely run away if a rat was attacking me. That's the "real world" layer.

The abstraction layer is the actual dice rolling part. The abstraction layer helps me make informed decisions. If I think the werewolf is too strong to be pushed, I won't try it. Beyond that, it's not what's interesting.

Yes, I care about rolling a d20 and the combat maneuver bonus and combat maneuver defense. Those things have texture that matters to me as a player. I like thinking about them. But it's not really what's interesting at the moment of play

The approach layer is where the good stuff is. This is where I solve the problems of the encounter. How do I deal with the fact that there is a werewolf in front of my character? If I can't hurt him, what do I do? Do I run away? Do I try to frighten it with my torch? Do I try to bullrush him off the cliff? This is the layer in which I am making choices. 

Let's try to adapt this metaphor for social encounters.



So, even though I know more about talking than I know about combat, I'm still not really interested in putting too much emphasis in exactly what is said. I might voice my character's statements exactly, like an actor. I might also just say, "I'm going to try and make an argument that if he helps us, it will please his ancestors."

I don't need to be poetic here. But I also can't just say "I try to convince the king." That's like saying "I'm going to defeat the werewolf." 

I'm going to defeat the werewolf...by throwing it off of the cliff. = I'm going to convince the king...by making this particular type of argument

In summary, I really like this bit from the GLoG

> Roleplaying
You don't have to talk in a funny voice, but you do have to tell the DM what you are saying to the NPC, and how. 

It's not a division between player skill and character skill. If you don't understand that bootless goblins are susceptible to intimidation, and proud dwarven kings are not, you are bad at this game.

Common sense negotiations are one of the skills that this game tests.
This articulates exactly what I'm trying to get at here. It's not about saying exactly what your character would say. It's not about acting. It's not about being 'charismatic' in real life. It's about the approach.

(Arnold goes on to have some solid ideas about social encounters, here.)

Making Social Encounters Interesting

This is a pretty boring combat: 
You enter a 10' by 10' room. It is made of stone and empty, except for a skeleton. It attacks.

Similarly, this is a pretty boring social situation:

The knight refuses to give his name, and no, he's not wearing any heraldry. Just a featureless grey knight. He demands you give him taxes, or he'll attack.

Nameless NPCs, untethered to the setting or lore of the world, unable to be moved by any argument--a mere pretense for a shift to the combat phase. Boring.

Luckily, we know the essentials of how to make a satisfying OSR encounter: information, choice, impact. Let's talk through it for social situations.

Information

Players can only make informed choices when they are given information. Because RPGs are limited in how players can get information - the GM has to tell them, verbally, what's going on - the GM should be generous with the information they present.

This means the GM should freely tell the players an NPC's emotional state. No "Insight" checks. Just tell the players what they think is happening behind the NPC's eyes.
  • The satrap is furious.
  • The witch queen is cautious, she seems to recognize the danger that you pose.
  • The guard is hinting at wanting a bribe.
  • The princess is being polite, but you see she is secretly sad.

What if the NPC wants to obscure information?

Competent NPCs can, of course, try to lie the players, wear disguises, hide their intentions, or otherwise deceive players. Like mentioning scorch marks that indicate a hidden trap or a slight draft that indicates a hidden door, you need to give players something to probe to receive hidden information.  

In these cases, you give the "landmark" information, and hint that there's something more at the "hidden" or "secret" level. 
  • The vizier is probably lying to you through his ingratiating grin, rotten teeth, and greasy beard--but the offer seems good. You wonder what his angle is.
  • At the mention of "the princess," the knight tenses up and gets a far away look in his eye.
  • The way the princess treats you at the ball is not at all in keeping with the rumors you've heard about her character. She's being vivacious, kind, talkative...not melancholy at all. 
The players will need to investigate - during this scene or during subsequent fact-finding missions - to learn more.

Speed up lengthy back-and-forths
In the same way you don't have to roleplay every word you say (if you don't want to), you don't have to actually have time-consuming conversations. If something stops being interesting, you can jump to interesting part. 
  • After hours of negotiation, the dwarf merchant gives his final offer.
  • The tea with Aunt Helga is tedious and uncomfortable, but at the end of it she hints that she'll update her will if you get married by the end of the year.

Choice

OSR problem solving maxim: There should be no single obvious solution, but many possible difficult solutions. 

Applying this to social situations, you have the essential problems of diplomacy. Fundamentally different world views at conflict with each other. Competition over limited resources. Powerful emotional forces like love, vengeance, and piety.
  • The humans wish the dwarves to help rebuild their war-torn city, but dwarves refuse to accept their payment of gold and jewels because Moradin gave them the rights to all fruits of the earth at the beginning of time. "They would pay us with our own robbed coin?"
  • The cleric pities the heretics suffering under the twin burdens of ignorance and disease, but will not use his healing magic on those who have not converted to the Faith. The proud people of the Vale will never give up their ancestral ways.
  • How can you ask us to come to parley with the Bloody King? He murdered our father.
Create situations rich in opportunity for player choice, creative problem solving, and unique approaches to understandable problems.

"Where are my kindred? / Where is the giver of treasure?"
Regardless of what social system you use, I reject the premise that you can roll a nat 20 on a Charisma check and make people act out of character. The primary way to convince people to do things they don't want to do is to give them something that makes it worthwhile. An essential part of social capital is capital. Tit for tat. 

Every NPC must be defined by their likes and dislikes, and their wants and needs. By giving the NPC something they want, the PCs can oblige them to make actions on their behalf. This can be gold, but it can also be certain actions. 
  • The duke wishes to secure his dynasty. Do you have magics that guarantee him a healthy, male heir? Can you guarantee his wife's fidelity?
  • The cardinal is sad for the by-gone days of the church's glory. If the lost Bell of St. Sadwick could be recovered, he would consider it a sign from God that your cause is just.
  • The guard would have taken your bribe last year, but the new captain is a real hard ass. He can't risk it now. But if there was a new captain, sure, he could help you on the night of the ball. And no, by Mythrys, I don't mean kill him! Just like, get him demoted or something.
GMs should have a good answer prepared for whenever the players ask: "What do you want?" Let the answers tie the game back to the gameplay you want in your games, like adventuring and dungeoneering.

Impact

Success or failure should change the situation and drive the game forward. "Nothing happens" is a boring result. Diplomacy is the art of compromise...and a good compromise leaves everyone mad. Staying true to the principles of "Information," the results of their diplomatic endeavors should be communicated completely and honestly.


Depending on how the players approached the problem, different NPCs and different factions should update their state and their relationship with the players. This can cause a new problem ("Well, we royally pissed off the dwarves, so they've all left the city...") or perhaps the players have achieved a brief respite.