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.