Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Undercity

Art by Liz Danforth

As regular readers know, recent posts have been about Flying Buffalo's CityBook series of supplements.  Electronic versions of these books are now available at RPGNow for your gaming edification.  In this post, we look at the third CityBook.  Having the subtitle Deadly Nightside, the theme of CityBook III – as explained in the Introduction – “is a dark and dangerous excursion into the seedier section of fantasy cities.”  The term 'Nightside' is used as the actual name of a section of a hypothetical city rather than a generic term for an unsavory urban area.  Whereas the establishments in the previous installments were organized according to business type, entries in Nightside are organized in three layers:  Good, Bad, and Deadly.  This layer structure is “the rough order characters would be likely to encounter [the establishments].”  The Introduction continues:  “In short, unless you've got a very jaded gaming group, you're not likely to hit an opium den right off the bat.”  Yes, an opium den is described on pages 76 – 82.

Michael Stackpole was the sole editor of CityBook III and also provided two of the establishments.  One of these entries – The Undercity – is like a Beggars' Guild, but “definitely a different Beggars' Guild.”  The term 'Undercity' refers to beggar society as well the location where the beggars reside (also called “the Warrens” or “the Underrealm”).
     The City's current level is built upon a dozen previous cities – some old enough to be legendary, a couple more lurk beneath those.  The beggars, over the generations, have dug down, excavated and set up living quarters in buildings that once stood in sunlight but now dwell in everdark.  Most of them live in a level about four cities below the surface, and the sewers cut through levels 1 and 2, though never did hit any of the warrens.
(The sewers are described as a separate 'establishment'.)

The beggars are divided into six 'tribes':  FAKERS (“...normal children of beggar parents”), WARDREGS (“...warriors or adventurers who have suffered maiming injuries”), GUTTERKIN (“...the utterly desperate and destitute...[usually] old, drunk, or mad”), ILLKIN (“...people who have been maimed and disabled by disease and illness”), SPOILED (“...those who have been maimed by an accident, or on purpose, and can no longer function in society because of their injury”), and YSRAIGET (“...congenitally deformed beggars”).  Many of the Ysraiget are 'changelings' – malformed children of 'Upworld' parentage who have been switched with “normal beggar babies.”

The term 'Ysraiget' is derived from Ysrai, a god that the beggars worship.  “A full thousand years before history was recorded with any veracity, Ysrai's temples were swept from the earth...,” the book explains,“Ysrai is so thoroughly removed from the minds of men that his name is only known to a few practitioners of arcane and blasphemous rituals.”  On the lowest level of the Undercity, the beggars found a statue of Ysrai, “broken and scarred like themselves...”  Creating their own cosmology, “The beggars made this god their own.”  They also “tied the selection of their King to their patron deity.”

The current Beggar King is Myre.  According to his description:  “He was one of four beggars who met the prime requisite for candidacy; he was maimed in a manner similar to the injuries on Ysrai's statue.”  As King, Myre “has stressed the importance of gathering and sifting information.”
     Through a bizaare [sic] set-up, beggars all memorize and analyze (if mentally capable) all the news, rumors and actions in the City.  Stories pass through the Undercity and are relayed to the individuals who handle that information.  New beggars are trained and learn everything one of the older beggars knows so redundancy is built right into the system.  In fact, some of the most hideously deformed Ysraiget are so mentally gifted they can remember and recall centuries-old gossip as if they'd heard it the day before, and they'll link it with any cogent data gathered before or since.  Without benefit of books or scrolls, the beggars have the most complete history of the City and world in existence today!
Myre's part in the information network involves him spending “time in Domdaniel's Gate speaking with Tranq.”

Domdaniel's Gate is an establishment contributed to CityBook III by the designer formerly known as Paul Jaquays.  The current Domdaniel's Gate tavern is situated under the ruins of the original Domdaniel's Gate.  Thirty years ago, the original tavern was destroyed by...
...a time implosion, caused by the crash-landing of a time vehicle.  Its pilot, Tranq, a man from the far-flung future found himself stranded in the past; pieces of his time machine scattered across the near past and future like a debris trail from a sinking ship.
Tranq is the current proprietor of Domdaniel's Gate.  As a tavern, the “Gate” has a regular clientele of “undiscriminating local bullies, ruffians, thugs, and punks...”  Other than the tavern's bartender, Tranq's true nature is known only to Myre, the Beggar King.
     Myre discovered Tranq's secret as a child and would often help him find the missing pieces of the time machine.  When he became king, it only seemed natural to use Tranq's establishment as a formal link with the “normal” world.  Tranq often uses his futuristic technology to aid the beggars in whatever ways he can.
All of the alcohol that the tavern serves is acquired on the black market and is delivered via the Undercity.  Also, Tranq is the only non-beggar to have been instructed in the “beggar dialect.”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Jacqueline the Ripper and the Warm-Hearted Game Master


Your humble host supposes that wizards can be rather creepy without much effort.  For example, let us look at the eponymous resident of Garsen's Tower.  Although a physical location, Garsen's Tower is described in the 'Chance Encounters' section of CityBook II.  This entry was authored by Rudy Kraft, a contributor to several old-school era products – mainly for Chaosium and Judges Guild.

Anyway, Garsen, a prominent wizard hundreds of years old, “first set eyes on the love of his life when she was only 11; he watched her grow up and, at the appropriate time, swept her off her feet and married her.”  Although Garsen “could extend his own life span,” his wife Orsinia died of old age.  Garsen believed “Orsinia would be reincarnated and somehow find her way to him...”  He opted to place himself in suspended animation until the reborn Orsinia would eventually arrive at his tower.

Centuries have passed since Garsen withdrew from consciousness.  During that time, “Garsen's magic weakened the underlying earth” and the island of Garsen's tower partially sank into City harbor.  ('City' tends to be capitalized in the CityBook supplements.)  “At low tide the island and a connecting causeway rise well out of the water,” the book relates, “at high tide all the causeway and much of the island are submerged.”  A map of the island is displayed above.  The reader may notice that “SCALE: one square = 5 feet.”  Unfortunately, no squares are presented with the map; however, it is elsewhere mentioned that the narrow side of Garsen's tower ('B' on the map) measures thirty feet.  The tower is surrounded by a marble wall.  We are told, “Time's ravages have reduced most of it to rubble although a few sections remain intact.”  Regardless, the gate ('A' on the map) still stands.  The numeral '6' next to the gate refers to the strength of the lock.  A '6' lock is excellent, the highest possible rating:  “Could require magic or a howitzer to open easily – unless you have the key!”  Should someone tamper with Garsen's gate, it will generate “a blast of deadly energy...”

Garsen also employs a dozen “Guard Demons” to watch over the island.  Even though they are called demons, they are not infernal, “they are unusual trans-dimensional beings.”  They are 4'6", 240 lbs., can regenerate, teleport, and “are extremely sticky.”  Additionally, the demons are “scrupulously protective of women because Garsen wanted to be certain Orsinia could return without difficulty.”

The island is described thus:
     Much of the island is covered with a variety of strange and bizarre plant growth such as Rigle tickweed, Xustin molds, and even a rare Vedrosian Polyp plant.  At the summit of the island stands a twisted Vorpid oak, remarkable for the number of Yellowheaded gulls that nest in its branches.  Once every five years the island is covered by a riot of flowering Yellow Dreedils.  The fruit of the Dreedil is said to be distasteful and mildly poisonous – in fact, it is a fist-sized morsel of wondrous utility.  The fruit cures disease and grants immunity to further infection for a full month.  The quint-annual fruit supply is meager, scarcely six dozen fruits, but properly harvested and preserved (an arduous task), the harvest represents considerable wealth.  As chance would have it, the presence and potency of the Yellow Dreedils has been long since forgotten, so now the fruit merely insures a healthy brood of gulls.
Nowadays, the island is “a trysting place for young lovers seeking to escape parental chaperones.”

The first scenario suggestion for this location is that a female player character “actually is the reincarnation of Orsinia.”  Garsen realizes this when he wakes and expects the character to stay with him.  “The character is faced with the quandary of remaining or trying to escape, perhaps bringing doom on her comrades,” we are told.  “Even if she does escape, Garsen will ever after seek her out.”  Just the sort of thing to bring women gamers into the hobby.

The second scenario suggestion involves the murder of several women on the island.  For undisclosed reasons, the player characters try “to track down the killer.”  Instead of 'Jack the Ripper', the killer is a 'Jacqueline the Ripper'.  Since the duties of Garsen's demons “are specifically to protect women from men,” the demons do not protect women from 'Jacqueline'.  In fact, the demons protect 'Jacqueline' from men.  Who is 'Jacqueline' and what are her motives?  This information is not disclosed.  Why would you expect details from a GM aid?

– – –     – – –     – – –

Another location described in the supplement is Cap'n Bill's Bait Shop.  Stuart Bute, the author, does not seem to have contributed to any other RPG publicationThe owner of a fishery bought a shack and installed “a disabled seaman known as Cap'n Bill to run the place as a bait shop” selling the refuse from the fishery.  Cap'n Bill has an endless supply of sea tales, any of which could lead to an adventure.  In fact, the sole scenario suggestion is based on Bill's knowledge of pirate booty.  The write up for Cap'n Bill's acknowledges that the bait shop “is not the most likely place for characters to go.”  As such, there should have been a scenario suggestion that leads the player characters to Cap'n Bill; for instance, there could be a MacGuffin among Bill's collection of scrimshaw.

An employee of the fishery, the charmingly named Guter Snype, brings a supply of fresh bait daily to Cap'n Bill.  He also cleans up the shack.  Guter is described as “Almost human.  Ht: 5'0".  Wt: 288 lbs.”  Additionally, “Guter is repulsive in thought, word, and deed...”  Not surprisingly, Bill and Guter “don't get along at all, and it's a strain for them to work together for just a few minutes every morning.”  The book explains that neither Bill nor Guter “is able to take the first step that would mark the beginning of a firm friendship...”  We are told “there's an adventure scenario possible here, for a warm-hearted Game Master, if there is such a thing.”

Really?  The evolution of a friendship between a crusty old sailor and a person whose defining characteristic is that he's repulsive?  That wouldn't make for the plot of a crappy, made-for-TV movie, much less the basis for an adventure scenario.  The nature of the relationship between two non-player characters is at the whim of the Game Master – warm-hearted or otherwise.  Only for the benefit of the players would such a thing be played out.  What sort of player would even care?  Perhaps it's not surprising that Stuart Bute has no other RPG credits beyond this CityBook.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Port o' Call

Art by Liz Danforth

Over a period of fifteen years (1982 - 1997), Flying Buffalo published seven installments of its CityBook line of system-neutral game supplements (or “a GM aid for ALL role-playing systems” as the books themselves state).  All of the books provide details about various urban establishments, including descriptions, maps, non-player characters, and scenario suggestions.  Each book after the first was presented as a themed collection.  For instance, CityBook II – published in 1984 – carries the subtitle Port o' Call and “focuses on places an adventurer is likely to find in the worlds' crossroads: port cities.”  The editors for this second volume were Liz Danforth and Michael Stackpole (or “Liz Dansforth and Micheal Stackpole” as they are credited for “Typoes”).

As demonstrated in a cover graphic (shown below), one of the selling points of the second CityBook is a conrtibution by Dave Arneson.  This is interesting in that the entry – “The Longtooth Lounge” – does not especially conform to the seaside theme the book proclaims.  However, the introduction to the 'Lodging and Entertainment' section jokingly states that “a number of horizon-expanding experiences are available” at the Lounge.


The Lounge offers “liquid refreshment as well as female companionship for its gentlemen clientele.”  Of course, port cities have such establishments, but there is nothing to indicate that the Longtooth Lounge isn't in a landlocked locale.  As the depiction above shows, there is “a large pair of sunken double doors” next to “a three-story tall tower.”  This is more subtle than a train entering a tunnel, but not by much.

As one might expect, the Longtooth Lounge is no ordinary brothel.  There are various aspects that make the Lounge an interesting adventure location – or a sit-com premise.  Foremost among these is Jeanie, “the most popular girl” in the establishment.  She “commands the highest prices and leaves even the most obnoxious customer satisfied.”  We learn, “This is because Jeanie gives the customer exactly what he wants, magically...”  You see, Jeanie is a genie.  Jeanie entered the world's oldest profession when the madame that owns the Longtooth Lounge made an off-hand comment while holding the locket that contains the genie.  Not realizing that the locket was associated with a genie, the madame said, “I wish that the Lounge had someone to help the girls with the guests...”  Nothing about the wish suggests that Jeanie assume the role herself, but assume it she did.  So, the brothel has a working girl who is a genie, but no one realizes she's a genie.  (The Lounge's bouncer may know the truth, but this is not made clear in the description.)  Jeanie, “like all genies, [is] likely to take any requests literally, [and] her power is often wielded rashly...”

Jeanie is also “Somewhat hard of hearing...” and “is surprised 5% of the time.”  Sometimes, Jeanie is 'surprised' by a customer and there is “a 75% probability that the assailant will be turned into something harmless and immobile – generally a plant.”  However, “the plants retain many of their human mental faculties.”  According to page 19, “The trouble with this automatic defense is that it seems to be permanent, and there is no way to restore any of the plants to their complete human form using normal magic.”  Jeanie places these plants in the Lounge's garden where they exist “with a nearly human awareness.”  Among the 'normal' plants in the garden, “there are domesticated triffids and Martian sand traps.”

Although there is nothing to suggest that the Lounge is in a port city, there are a few easy ways such a connection could have been established.  For instance, the tower could have been a former lighthouse or one of the working girls could have been a mermaid.  Due to the disappearance of Jeanie's 'victims', “The local authorities...seem to believe the [Lounge] is some kind of front for a slaving operation.”  The book's Introduction defines some nautical terms, including crimp:  “...someone who drugs and kidnaps lubbers to sell them to a captain who will attempt to turn them into sailors.”  The Longtooth Lounge could easily have had an actual 'crimping' sideline.

Among the other establishments listed in CityBook II, the good ship Golden Princess is described.  It is a contribution from Stephan Peregrine.  Within the seven pages devoted to the ship is the following gem:
     KyztprrThing.  Ht: variable.  Wt: 20 lbs.  Age: adult.  Fighting prowess: fair with what he uses in place of teeth.
     Unknown to virtually everyone aboard the Princess is Kyztprr.  During a violent storm off the accursed Isle of F'Tudd, Kyztprr was wave-tossed onto the ship and washed through a hatchway torn open by the typhoon.  Kyztprr made his way to the bilge where he hid safely, somewhat resembling a ballast stone.  For the most part, he is content to stay there, eating bilge worms and rats.  The diet is affecting his mind, driving him mad.  On nights when the evil stars rise, he has crawled forth in search of something besides rats to sate his hunger . . . .
Also included in the second CityBook is a 'notes' page, reproduced below for your non-commercial edification.  With the artwork and the large CITYBOOK™ NOTES title, not much space is reserved for actual notes. C'est la vie.  Your guess is as good as mine with regard to what that sign is supposed to show.

Art by Liz Danforth

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Taxidermy, Tarot, and Tattoos


Among the various categories detailed in Citybook I:  Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker, the vague grouping of 'Personal Services' offers some of the more interesting establishments.  As examples, consider the following three businesses.

– – –     – – –     – – –

The entry for Professor Fyber's Taxidermy and Museum is credited to Steven S. Crompton, to whom we were introduced in the last post.  (The 'museum' section is displayed above.)
The Museum houses a collection of oddities that the Professor has stuffed over the years.  This includes a two-headed unicorn [Wouldn't that mean it has two horns?], a bison with wings [i.e., a 'flying buffalo'], a wolf with eight legs, and other freaks of nature.  One section also contains several heads which once belonged to famous bandits that were executed in the city (the only exceptions to Fyber's no-humans rule)...
Your humble host suspects Fyber's name was inspired by (the abominable) Dr. Phibes of motion picture infamy.  Yet, if so, Liz Danforth did not use Vincent Price as the model for Fyber's illustration.

Art by Liz Danforth
     Professor FyberHuman.  Ht: 6'3".  Wt: 210 lbs.  Age: 58.  Fighting prowess: very good rapier or saber; otherwise average.
     Professor Fyber is a dark, aristocratic man with a thin moustache.  His dress and voice bespeak a highly cultured man with a sense for the finer things in life.  He is a gourmet cook, a lover of good brandy, and very well-read.
     ...Fyber is a charming fellow and fairly formidable.  He is also a taxidermical genius and very popular with the City nobility to whom he provides trophies.  He zealously guards his secret formulas for preserving tissue, and is not above slaying an intruder who tries to steal them.  His major goal in his work is to preserve the semblance of life in as natural a manner as possible...
Of course, Fyber must obtain his specimens somehow.  The player characters may be retained to search out these strange creatures.  “The hunting expeditions can make a simple scenario for players,” Citybook informs us, “and good mileage can be gotten out of any of the Museum exhibits.”  One suggested scenario involves a vast treasure, the secret to which is contained within one of the bandit heads on display.  The player characters “must steal the head and find a way to revivify it in order to get the clue.”

 – – –     – – –     – – –

Thelesha Moonscry is a fortune-teller – or “seeress” – whose presence in Citybook is attributed to Larry DiTillio.  Given Liz Danforth's penchant for basing the appearance of Citybook personalities upon real-world celebrities, I am inclined to believe that Moonscry's depiction is inspired by Jane Seymour in her role as the fortune-telling Solitaire from Live and Let Die.

Art by Liz Danforth
     Thelesha MoonscryHalf-elf.  Ht: 5'9".  Wt: 130 lbs.  Age: 29.  Fighting ability: poor.  Magic ability: average; C5
     Thelesha has very pale skin, and long black hair with silver streaks in it.  Her left eye is sea-blue and her right eye is silvery-gray.  She is very beautiful and somewhat haunted.  Her typical attire is a sky blue robe adorned with a sigil showing silver moons and green oaks.
     Thelesha is not particularly cheerful.  She knows that she is fated to live without love, and uses her gift in memory of her teachers, an all but extinct sect called the MoonRiders.  She sometimes sees her talent as more of a curse than a gift, and may break off a reading if the omens she is scrying become too painful.  She rarely leaves her house and garden, and the MoonRider spirits watch over her there.
“C5” is Citybook code for communication magic.  I would have thought that divination would be part of clairvoyant magic (i.e, “C3”).  Regardless, Moonscry practices the following divinatory arts:  astrology, oneiromancy, pyromancy, hydroscopy, palmistry, cerescopy [sic], and cartomancy.  With regard to cartomancy, the Game Master is encouraged to “use a Tarot deck if you have one, improvising the meaning of the cards to fit the 'prediction' for the character.”  Otherwise, “You may use a regular card deck in this fashion:  Hearts indicate an emotional situation, Diamonds mean money, Spades mean competition, Clubs indicate magic [and] Face cards represent people.”

We are told that “Thelesha is about 90% accurate in all readings.”  As such, Game Masters are advised not to let Thelesha “be misused or over-used by the players.”  As a deterrent, “High prices should sufficiently limit the use of her powers!”  Also, readings need not be precise – “the more esoteric the symbolic answer, the more intriguing it will be to players.”

 – – –     – – –     – – –

Jock and Wilbur Sleaz are twin orcs who were raised by a kindly wizard who taught them how to make tattoos.  “(GM: if your system has no Orcs, or an Orc would not reasonably fit in your city, make Jock and Wilbur very ugly humans.)”  While Wilbur “quite frequently exhibits more of the standard Orcish traits,” we learn that “Jock is a very gentle soul” who gives money “to a local orphanage in order to give a few orphans the benefit of a better upbringing than he received.”  It seems to me that being raised by a kindly wizard who teaches them a trade is not so bad as an upbringing.

Anyway, the brothers employ their skills at a tattoo parlor of which they are the proprietors.  In addition to 'regular' tattoos, Jock (but not Wilbur) learned to create 'magical' tattoos (called “mattoos”).  By concentrating, the wearer of a mattoo can bring the mattoo into existence.
Once a mattoo comes to life, it will follow any command of the wearer (if it's a creature), or be employed in any manner the user wishes.  For each hour it exists, the wearer must pump strength into it, on an ever expanding scale.  The first hour costs 1 point; the second, 2; the third, 4; the fourth, 8; etc. (doubling each time).  Willing a mattoo to life for less than an hour costs 1.  The strength used returns at 1 point per full game turn.  (GM:  adjust to your game system.)
The price of a mattoo “starts at around 1000 gold pieces, rising with the complexity of the mattoo desired.”  Mattoos which are destroyed are no long usable, leave a scar, and cannot be replaced.

Jock himself has the maximum of five mattoos, created by the kindly wizard.  These mattoos are “two small dragons, a full-size flaming sword down his right leg, a waterfall on his chest (which can be used somewhat like a firehose), and a full-size rose on his left arm.”

A special mattoo is described:
Very simply, it is a “duckie”, a cute little representation of a duck.  Jock always recommends it because he likes duckies.  The duckie is like a normal mattoo – except that it always appears as a full-sized duck with full powers of speech, better than human intelligence, and a poisonous bite!  In addition, duckies have the power to deflect spells (set the level according to your game system); if a duckie is within a 5' radius of its wearer, it will partly protect its wearer by absorbing the spell.  Neither Jock nor Wilbur are aware of these powers – Jock just likes duckies!