3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.

 

2. Do the Worm

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Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.

 

3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.

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-Bushi

bushi

3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

Cirsova reviews Cute Knight

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Cute Knight, for PC, looks to be a quirky anime-style RPG with a number of tried and proven mechanics (e.g. dating sim style stat and money balancing activities). Alex shares his thoughts after three play-throughs, and though this particular one won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it does sound worth a look.

Getting to know the Man(ly)

In what looks to be a multi-part series, Oghma tells of how he became acquainted with the works of  Manly Wade Wellman – a great blend of personal anecdote and appreciation for another great writer we’d do well to check out. “Silver John” – what a cool-sounding character!

Sizzling hot princess, beef

In honor of Women’s Day, Jon M. decided to highlight one of SFF’s most underappreciated (and hottest) strong women – Dejah Thoris. *Trigger warning: this post contains a delicious steak sandwich recipe. You may not want to read if you’re hungry and have no steak on hand.

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Get a’writing (via Seagull Rising)!

Indie publishing seems to have really taken off, especially among the Pulp Revolution crowd. But outlets like Cirsova can only fit so much. What’s an aspiring short fiction writer to do? Well, there are other outlets out there. Jon shared one recently – StoryHack Action & Adventure is currently accepting submissions, and it’s worth checking out if you’ve got something you can send in by April 1st!

(Japanese) picture of a good “strong female” character

Over at SupervisiveSF, Anthony looks at Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky and concludes that Sheeta is a much more attractive and effective strong female character than many in contemporary storytelling. As he points out, a well-done woman character can be brave, competent, and feminine. Humility is an attractive virtue, not a weakness, and a good woman should be complementary to a man, not overtly usurp his role or compete with him. Double thumbs up for the Rey-bashing.

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Comparing Heinlein

I must confess I haven’t read either of these books, but HP does a commendable job looking at two Young Adult SF stories – one very recent, and one over half a century old. The bottom line seems to be that while there are many imitators, it’s hard to match Heinlein at his best. Lest you think that’s all there is to HP’s review, though:

“Have Space Suit—Will Travel and Martians Abroad couldn’t be more different.  The former is emphatically blue SF and the latter is emphatically pink SF.  They aren’t even in the same sub-genre.”

Princess Monomoke – BEST MOVIE EVER

I must confess I was a little skeptical at first; I’m a fan of Princess Mononoke, but it might not even be in my top 10 animated film picks. Still, Malcolm makes a great argument for the depth and supervisiveness that many viewers may miss. Game of Thrones grayness but hopeful instead of nihilistic? That’s actually some pretty potent stuff.

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Some…different…monsters

There’s a great post over at Tribality with twenty ghosts and spirits from various cultures that don’t get much play (literally). Some time ago Jeffro noted an observation by game designer James Raggi:  “Because monsters should be unnatural and hopefully a little terrifying, using stock examples goes against the purpose of using monsters to begin with.”

So why not spice up your game with some more obscure or unique demons and specters? Of course we’re most likely all familiar with the banshee, but personally I had never heard of most of these.

Potentially great inspiration for writers, too!

Getting fired up by Anderson

Poul Anderson is another awesome old SFF writer that I had never heard of before diving into the pulp scene. It’s great to see him getting some play! Jon Del Arroz recently read Fire Time, and shares his impressions.

Castalia House sweeps the scene

It’s hard to cover everything, so I don’t even try! Be sure to check out Jeffro’s latest sensor sweep over at the Castalia House blog for some more noteworthy articles. There may be one or two overlaps, so feel free to read those particular posts twice!

The Kaiju

Also if you’ve been following Kaiju’s sword and sorcery tale, be sure to check out his latest installment. Plenty of action and gore in this one!

-Bushi

bushi

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

The Overworld and the Undertale

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As I make my way through the Dying Earth stories, Jack Vance remains one of my newly discovered favorite authors. And yet, I didn’t enjoy Eyes of the Overworld overmuch, and I find Cugel’s Saga thus far to be the same. Still, there are multiple layers to this.

First off, why am I not a big fan of Vance’s Cugel stories? Jesse (in a separate conversation) puts it nicely:

Cugel is a dick. And not one of those guys who’s a dick but then actually has a heart of gold, a ‘la Han Solo. For example, in one incident, Cugel is interacting with some clam-men (yes, they’re dudes who live in clams). They play a trick on Cugel by “gifting” a shirt made of water, which holds together initially, and then…falls apart and drenches him. He retaliates by killing one of the clam guys, who places a curse upon Cugel with his dying breath.

Cugel also abandons smoking hot babes to servitude and death, and murders (or arranges accidents) for various wayfarers he encounters when he can profit by doing so. And he is remorseless for all of these misdeeds.

Now admittedly there is some good fun in some of this. It’s satisfying to see Cugel outsmart even bigger heels than himself. But it does get tiresome to follow the adventures of a d-bag. He often gets some form of comeuppance, but I’d be happy to see him finally bite the dust. Vance’s first Dying Earth book contained several interesting and heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters. I’d have preferred to read more about them. Cugel is all well and good for a few tales, but two novels all about him just feels excessive.

Why do I keep trudging through, then? Well, why did I make myself read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series? Maybe I’m an idiot.

Actually, there’s still a lot to appreciate in the Cugel books, even without really liking the protagonist. Vance’s writing style and technique remain masterful throughout, and I love reading through his descriptions and dialogues. I haven’t learned so many new words in ages! Furthermore, the Dying Earth itself remains a fascinating setting, full of wondrous and memorable characters, artifacts, and situations.

For any DMs out there, these books are just overflowing with ideas ripe for the plucking. How about Magnatz, for example? A small town sits beside a mountain range and a lake. Long ago, a wizard cast an enchantment to protect the town from the terrible giant Magnatz : so long as a Watchman is posted to look out for the return of monster, the town will be safe. The townspeople don’t realize, but Magnatz is actually asleep at the bottom of the lake. You can probably guess what happens after Cugel (thinking he is being Clever) accepts the role of Watchman.

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This is just one interesting situation of many. And so I’ll keep reading. But I’m looking forward to being done with Cugel.

In other news, I was able to breeze through Undertale pretty quickly the past ~week. In case you aren’t familiar with this one:

The creator is a big Earthbound fan, and it shows. The music, graphics, and tone of the game are largely reminiscent of the SNES SMAAAASH-hit. It may not look it, but Undertale is able to adeptly hit alternatingly silly, serious, and creepy notes and that really makes nailing it down a challenge. On the surface I suppose I’d call it an RPG, but many of the traditional RPG elements are stripped away or turned on their heads. I don’t want to give away too much here, as I think the discovery involved in this one is a big part of the fun, but I got through it without gaining any EXP or LVLs. Also there are a lot of dogs, if you’re into that.

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The bottom line is that Steam and the opening up of the indie game market has been a tremendous boon for gamers. If you’ve got any interest, I highly recommend Undertale.

-Bushi

bushi

 

The Overworld and the Undertale

Into the Dying Earth

It’s been a long time coming – I’ve finally gotten underway on Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth.

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Having sampled the first entry of his Demon Princes series and the standalone the Gray Prince, and noting that he’s perhaps best known for Dying Earth…well, I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while, and it’s been perched near atop of my queue for some time now. But I kept veering off to read something less widely-reviewed or topical of conversations being had within the online SFF community. No further delay can be abided!

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of Vance’s four Dying Earth books – The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent. The contained stories take place on an ancient, decaying Earth far in the future. Although related to and maybe overlapping with the “post-apocalyptic” tag, these tales properly fall into a subgenre named after Vance’s creation – “dying earth.”

Vance’s Dying Earth draws heavy inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith’s contribution to the genre in the Zothique cycle. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, but soon enough.

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What I have read of CAH’s work suggests that he’s another one of the greats that’s fallen into unjust obscurity. Together with Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was a contributor to the Cthulu Mythos and one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine. If cosmic horror is your jam, he’s required reading.

I believe Kaiju is going though some of Smith’s material now. For my part, I’m hoping soon to dig into Zothique – the tales of an earth on its last legs. Technology has been lost, the sun has dimmed and reddened, and horrors roam the world. Sounds fun.

So far this is also the flavor of Vance’s Dying Earth. Ghosts and demons abound, and men scrape for wealth and power. Technology is lost and magic, while common, is on the decline. As for horrors, well.

Chun the Unavoidable is a scary guy.

The Dying Earth and Zothique make me think of Final Fantasy VI. Though the SNES classic initially presents more of a post-apocalyptic world than a dying one, there are many similarities.

FFVI’s protagonists encounter all manner of terrible and demonic creatures; abominations; cultists; crazed sorcerers and evil horrors. So too is the world littered with bits of forgotten and ruined technology and proofs of lost magic and powerful artifacts. Espers take the place of gods and demons, though ultimately in a sadder, more servile role.

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Image Source

 

After the collapse of the floating continent and Kefka’s rise to small “g” godhood, the world is changed. The seas become blighted and the land wastes and new terrors are unleashed upon the earth. Strange cults arise. A horrible demon even roams the skies.

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The reach of the dying earth subgenre extends far and is observable in all manner of succeeding media.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Jack Vance and the Dying Earth are cool. Clark Ashton Smith is cool. Final Fantasy VI is cool. And you, friends – you are cool.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Into the Dying Earth

Video games, SFF, politics, and contempt!

Yesterday Rod Walker posted about our little conversation on Harry Potter, political ideology, and SFF. I think Rod hit upon a key point, which I want to highlight here.

Generally, the best books are written by writers who appreciate human nature for its foibles without being contemptuous of them, and RW thinks that is hard for hyper-political people to do.

Indeed. He added in the comment section in reply to me:

Agreed! Contempt is a dangerous vice in which to indulge, because it distorts one’s thinking and causes one to make decisions based on incorrect premises.

Bingo. Perhaps this is the word or idea that I needed to complete my thoughts in the Harry Potter post. Contempt is a nasty thing. While it can galvanize a particular group against another, it can just as easily destroy one’s chances of conversion, repulse those who aren’t hardcore believers one way or another, or distance allies who feel it to be an unworthy or unfair expression of disagreement.

I myself do some shit-posting and trolling of Leftist or PC activities. And I comment on politics and culture. What’s the difference? Well, first off I’ve got to be careful not to elevate myself here. Perhaps I’ve been guilty of the very thing I’m complaining about. If so, feel free to call me out on it any time. But if you follow me on Twitter or scroll through some of our post titles, you can pretty easily guess what our shtick is here. So first off, we’ve got a target audience. If someone else wants to engage and tell me I’m a cuck or rightwing nutjob, feel free to drop a comment. Your level of reasonableness and civility may determine whether we actually interact, but there you go.

When it comes to entertainment, I may criticize the statements or actions of creators, but I try to keep that separate from the quality of a given work.

Increasingly my beef has become with sites that bill themselves as focused on something like, oh, I don’t know, video games, and then start injecting politics. And you can guess what kind of politics they’re usually foisting. Even that is forgivable in and of itself, though it is tiresome to the max. Writers have opinions on politics, sure. And sometimes they absolutely can’t help themselves and must talk about how phallically-shaped swords are another oppressive tool of the Patriarchy, or why the new GOP-headed FCC is going to destroy the internet. People who get tired of that crap can either push back in comments or stop reading. That’s why I don’t follow many gaming websites anymore.

The latest – Touch Arcade. I used to check in pretty regularly to keep an eye on interesting-looking iOS games. Their reviews were always timely and of decent quality.

But now we’re starting to see stuff like this gem:

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So now that we’ve got a temporary moratorium on foreigners from 7 high-risk terrorist countries, the US is really becoming like an oppressive, corrupt superstate. And Touch Arcade felt this was an interesting thing to talk about.

Well, not all gamers are liberals, and not all gamers are interested in being sermonized to on political topics.

After Kaiju messaged me about this article, I gave it a quick look to see if there was any pushback. Well, the comments have bravely been disabled. How about on Twitter? Why yes:

Touch Arcade, as you might imagine, is respectful of its readers and prepared to dialogue.

I followed up, but it was about as productive as you might guess.

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There you go. And so we circle back to “contempt.” If you want to start a discussion with your readers, that’s one thing. But if you want to spoon-feed them your ideology and spurn any opportunity for divergent opinion or dialogue, that’s another. So yes, TA may have only gotten two or three people voicing their dissatisfaction with this kind of behavior from a gaming website. It’s possible they picked up a few regular readers who thought to themselves “Hey I too hate Donald Trump and like mobile games – let me bookmark this site.” But there are also plenty of folk who clicked (there’s your stats), couldn’t comment, and didn’t feel like trying to find you on Twitter. If you don’t care whether or not you alienate these readers, then come what may. Some people don’t want to frequent sites that make them feel like they’re being held in contempt.

As you said Touch Arcade – seeya!

-Bushi

bushi

 

Video games, SFF, politics, and contempt!

Mobs vs Monsters: Death of a PC Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote a little about player character death in pen and paper gaming, and how it impedes one from becoming the pulp hero master of all. If you are dead, you cannot be Conan.

Branching off a little, Alex of Cirsova and I exchanged a few thoughts on the nature of hero deaths and the primary mortal threats to iconic barbarians and the like.

Alex went on to expand upon his point here.

I agree with him on the danger of groups of enemies. Play enough games (of various types) and you’ll learn that mobs of low-powered foes can pose plenty threat.

What about for the characters in the kinds of stories we often model our own gaming characters after? Well, we find a mix. In the Cirsova post, there is talk of “economy of force.” That is to say, when there’s one big monster, it is usually fighting against multiple adventurers who get more attacks than it does, or do more damage or can take more punishment in aggregate. Thus it’s pretty much outgunned, even if it’s super strong.

Two things about this. First, in the kinds of stories we often read of heroes facing off against terrible horrors and fell beasts, the numbers are usually more even. Or at least they are more likely to be than in a game of D&D. Conan picks up occasional companions, it’s true, and he is a leader of men. But he also operates and fights alone quite often. Thus his eldritch encounters are usually pretty close to 1:1.

Second, I’d argue that game mechanics are limiting. A party of heroes facing off against a giant may have a pretty decent shot in a gaming context, but in a written setting…well, of course that in large part depends on the author. But a “written” giant is unbound by combat rules. D&D and other systems may do a decent job approximating battle mechanics with armor class and hit points and attacks of opportunity, but how likely is a DM-enthralled giant to just step on a PC or PCs and insta-smoosh them (though I’m sure this does happen)? And what are the odds that a party (if there are multiple adventurers) is capable of retaliating in kind?

Of course I haven’t read every fantasy book, nor am I an expert of man on monster combat. But it just seems to me that in such stories, even when in groups, heroes are often forced to rely on more than economy of force and the fairness of turn-based combat. They often need clever plans, strong magic, or favorable circumstances. It’s not to say that they can’t win otherwise, but usually the odds are stacked against the good guys in such cases.

(Warning: some spoilers ahead for Lord of the Rings, The Gods of Mars, various Conan stories, and Three Hearts and Three Lions)

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Then again, in some settings, heroes have the advantage. In Dickson’s Dragon and the George, for instance, dragon vs knight is an uneven fight…in favor of the human! Fully armored men, with lance and steed, pose grave risk to dragons, as the protagonist quite painfully learns.

Looking at mobs, Alex is clearly correct. Our own Conan is frequently forced to run when outnumbered and able. In the Lord of the Rings, the party flees from orcs and trolls in Moria, and the mighty Boromir is taken down by an overwhelming pack of Saruman’s orcs. Early in the Gods of Mars, John Carter and his companion Tars Tarkas barely escape from a horde of plant men and great white apes.

So as Alex says, “The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.” Yes, very true.

Where I do want to diverge a bit is in the estimation of mobs as more of a threat than monsters. To be fair, I don’t think Alex is making this as a blanket claim. His post seems more limited to a gaming context. It’s unfortunate that so many games, through their mechanics, make this distinction important, though.

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In the Conan stories, the barbarian runs from unwinnable battles presented by both man and monster. The very last paragraph from “The God in the Bowl”:

At last the movements ceased and Conan looked gingerly behind the screen. Then the full horror of it all rushed over the Cimmerian, and he fled, nor did he slacken his headlong flight until the spires of Numalia faded into the dawn behind him. The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now sleep in their nighted caverns far below the black pyramids. Behind that gilded screen there had been no human body—only the shimmering, headless coils of a gigantic serpent.

In “The Slithering Shadow” Conan runs from a mob of soldiers, trying to find his woman. He ends up encountering a terrible beast from which there is no escape. He barely survives:

A footstep roused her out of her apathy of horror, to see Conan emerging from the darkness. At the sight she found her voice in a shriek which echoed down the vaulted tunnel. The manhandling the Cimmerian had received was appalling to behold. At every step he dripped blood. His face was skinned and bruised as if he had been beaten with a bludgeon. His lips were pulped, and blood oozed down his face from a wound in his scalp. There were deep gashes in his thighs, calves and forearms, and great bruises showed on his limbs and body from impacts against the stone floor. But his shoulders, back and upper-breast muscles had suffered most. The flesh was bruised, swollen and lacerated, the skin hanging in loose strips, as if he had been lashed with wire whips.

Once again in the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey fights the terrible Durin’s Bane. While the wizard is able to slay the powerful Balrog, he gets as good as he gives.

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In Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, the party’s battle against the troll is a costly one. One of the party members is killed, and my memory is a bit fuzzy but I think the protagonist’s memorable steed, Papillon, may also be lost.

In our favorite stories, there are many dangers, both magical and mundane. A hero can be slain by a large group of foes or by one large foe. Discretion is indeed often the better part of valor, and living to fight another day is usually the best option. Once they’re dead, they don’t get another chance (unless Gandalf).

In game terms, the calculus may differ. When the most important thing is the survival of the party, you may not care about losing a member or two so long as you win the battle. If the dragon fries your fighter, you can just roll up a new one.

Returning to what I was talking about last time, though, I think many (most?) players come into a campaign with personal goals. Sure, sometimes they just want to be part of a cool story. Sometimes they want to amass a huge fortune or delve deeper into the dungeon than anyone before them. Sometimes a player wants to create a memorable hero – the most powerful wizard of the century, or the Conan or Solomon Kane clone (minus being a Puritan, probably), or the next Robin Hood. For those guys, losing their character to the lich king (even if the party wins) may be just as devastating as a TPK at the hands of a mob of bandits.

That’s not to say that a DM or a gaming system has to or even necessarily should consider the hurt feelings of such players. It’s just to say that on an individual basis, a monster may be just as threatening as a mob.

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

Mobs vs Monsters: Death of a PC Part 2