Saturday 27 November 2021

2 Yarthmont - Behind the Statue

After twenty minutes, Broneslav had eaten his fill and was feeling rested enough to continue, although the burns from the beetle's attach were very distracting. He carefully opened the door from the storage room and looked through into the corridor. The choking gas appeared to have dissipated. He stepped through and sniffed carefully. There was a slight smell of the gas, but he did not choke as he entered the passage. The corridor looked the same as it had before apart from the smell. The wand was still twisted to the right as he had left it when he fled.

Thinking about the situation, Broneslav decided to investigate the door first. He listened but could hear nothing. He tried the handle. It turned but the door would not open. Taking a deep breath, Broneslav tensed as he tried the button beside the door. There was a grinding noise and then silence again. He tried the door once more and this time it opened onto a corridor ending in another door. Just inside the corridor were eight buttons. One of them had the same symbol carved above it as the button he had just pressed. Clearly there was a connection but he decided to mull that one over while he checked the statue again.

Broneslav had concluded that the statue would not have got that shiny if it was just a trap for unwary explorers. Therefore, it seemed likely that the wand was meant to turn widdershins instead. Holding his breath and tensed against whatever might happen he twisted the wand to the left. Nothing happened immediately, but then there was a slight grinding noise and the statue, together with the wall behind it, started to move away from him. When it stopped, a long corridor was revealed with a door on the right hand side.

Not one to be overly careful, Broneslav moved quickly to the door. He could hear faint chanting from within. He paused. Thoughts of what might be going on in there filled his head. With a certain amount of trepidation, he decided to enter, prepared for whatever he might encounter. Pushing the door open as gently as he could, he peeked inside the room.

"Well, I wasn't expecting that," he thought.

The room he was peering into had tapestries hanging on the walls. They showed all the major constellations. A stone altar stood towards the far end of the room and thirteen people in rainbow-coloured robes were gathered before it. They were all wearing silver masks featuring the face of the child whose statue he had seen. A stout figure front and centre of the group was also wearing a silver crown. The chanting continued as Broneslav took stock of what was going on.

The previous encounter had gone badly. He presumed it was because he had surprised the other people, so he sheathed his sword and stood waiting at the back of the room until the ritual was over. Once it was over and the people looked like they were preparing to finish, he spoke up.

"What ho, fellow pyramid dwellers," he tried in Common.

The stout figure rounded on him and said something that he did not understand.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand. I am a lost traveller who found his way in here."

The stout figure replied in Common this time, "Why do you wear the mask of Gorm then?"

Broneslav took off the mask, "This? I found it in the tier above."

The thirteen figures relaxed a little at this. Broneslav was soon able to explain that he was lost and found his way into the pyramid after a sandstorm. He inadvertently mentioned the men he had slain who wore the mask he had been wearing and the atmosphere in the room became decidedly more welcoming.

"Welcome to the chamber of the Magi of Usamigaras," declared the stout figure, "I am Auriga Sirkinos, leader of the Magi. It seems to me that your footsteps have been guided here by Usamigaras himself. If you, doughty warrior that you are, will pledge yourself as an initiate of Usamigaras, then we shall pledge to help you. Your aid as an initiate can surely help us lead Cynidicea back to greatness, even though you are only a warrior, and not a great mage like we are."

Broneslav accepted the suggestion to become an initiate.

Auriga explained that Usamigaras was the god of healing, messengers and thieves and that the Magi were the only ones capable of restoring Cynidicea's greatness. The Brotherhood of Gorm were all slow-witted warriors, while the Warrior Maidens of Madarua were all too soft to do what needed to be done. He also explained that Broneslav would need stop wearing his golden mask and that an apprentice Magus would return with a silver ring to mark his pledge to the cause. Broneslav should rest in the Magi's quarters while the apprentice ran the errand. This would take half a day, they said.

Seeing no alternative, and thinking that a good sleep would really help, Broneslav acquiesced and went along with their plans. Soon he was snoring away on a bunk bed in the Magi's dormitory on this level.

Saturday 20 November 2021

2 Yarthmont - A Statuesque Conundrum

Broneslav strode over to the door of the storage room and listened at it. His exceptional hearing picked out nothing on the other side. He eased the door open and peeked through. The corridor beyond was dark, lit only by his own torch. He stepped through and followed it a short way to a T-junction. To his left, the light of his torch glittered off an 8' tall statue of a winged child with two snakes twined around its body. In one hand, the statue held a wand, while the other had been carved holding a few coins. Broneslav noticed that the wand was shinier than the rest of the statue, suggesting that it was touched or polished by whoever lived here. He wondered who this statue was meant to represent.

To his right, Broneslav could see that the the short corridor ended in a door. Beside the door was a button with a squiggly symbol carved above it. The young warrior thought quickly. The door was the obvious way out, but the statue showed signs of use. He would check it first before leaving via the door.

With quick, panther-like strides Broneslav approached the statue and studied it. The wand was the obvious part to check. It had clearly been handled more than any other part, so he checked it carefully. On looking closely at it, Broneslav could see that it was hinged at the wrist of the statue, indicating that it could possibly be turned both sunwise and widdershins. The question was: which way? Looking more closely, he could see no clues, so he was just going to have to try and see. Sunwise was usually lucky, so he took hold and pulled. The wand moved easily.

Suddenly clouds of choking gas started pouring out of the statue's mouth. Broneslav sprinted back away from the statue and towards the storeroom. He held his breath as he did so, and only breathed out when the door was safely shut behind him. Panting, he sat on the floor with his back to the door and collected his thoughts. Should he wait and see if the gas cleared? His one brief breath of it had left him choking, so going in while it was still there was not really an option. That said, he could try holding his breath long enough to get to the door he had seen, but he had not idea what was on the other side. That could leave him both fighting for his life and out of breath. The final option was to return through the secret door and see where the corridor led.

Broneslav decided to wait (the first option scored higher on a die roll than the other two by enough to make it a clear choice despite the danger). He needed a rest anyway, so waiting was less of an issue, and it would probably be good to grab food and a drink while he was in a room replete with both. He blocked both the doors with crates and settled down to a good meal of what appeared to be dried mushrooms and some other preserved vegetable matter. The wine helped a lot though. That was a decent drink, although it too carried a slightly strange aftertaste.

Saturday 13 November 2021

2 Yarthmont - Delving deeper

Faced with the prospect of returning to the surface or delving deeper in the hope of finding better help, Broneslav chooses to venture deeper into the pyramid. He returned to the stairs he had found earlier in his explorations, reasoning that the man who escaped might be waiting below the trapdoor in the room he had found.

The stairs down ended in a door. Broneslav paused and listened before opening it. Beyond lay a corridor which he followed around a corner. The wall on his left at this point looked slightly odd to him (hard spot check succeeded), and there were scuff marks on the floor that made it look as though people had been walking through the wall. Broneslav tested the wall and eventually found a stone that pushed in. A section of the wall then swung inwards and he could see into a storage room packed with barrels and crates.

Broneslav's eye was drawn to four large beetles that were gnawing at the wood of several of the barrels. There was obviously something in the barrels that the beetles wanted, so maybe there was something for Broneslav in there too. He stepped forward, sword drawn. As he did so, the beetles turned to face this threat. Broneslav leapt towards the beetles. His sword flashed like lightning as he cleaved two beetles in quick succession, and kicked a third into the wall. The injured beetle and its one remaining mate raised their hind ends and noxious oil sprayed towards Broneslav. Our hero was too fast though. He stepped aside, whirling past the spatter of oil to impale the the uninjured beetle on his sword. As he did so, the injured beetle expressed its displeasure by covering Broneslav in a caustic oil (1 DAM plus -2 penalty on all actions until the burns are healed). He responded in kind by stamping on its head. As the beetle twitched its last on the floor, Broneslav poured the contents of his waterskin over his burns in a bid to dilute the caustic oil, and bandaged his now blistered skin (Healed 1 DAM).

With this done, he had time to take stock of his surroundings and to investigate. The crates and barrels were full of wine and dried food. Broneslav replaced the fresh food in his pack with dried rations and refilled his waterskin with wine. With this done, he had a choice. He could return to the corridor and follow it further along, or he could leave the room via the only door which lay opposite the secret door he had entered by.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

New Book: Myths and Realities of the Viking Berserkr

 My new book will be published on 24th December 2021. It is available for preorder now, currently with 20% discount on the Routledge website. Even with that discount, the hardback is eye-wateringly expensive, but the e-book may be a more realistic solution for most. There is also a Kindle edition that is heading towards cheap enough, if you prefer that format. Unfortunately, it is in the nature of academic publishing that prices are through the roof and that the author does not benefit from those costs. I doubt I shall earn enough from the royalties to pay the licensing costs for the images I used. Still, it will be nice to finally have this book out there. I've worked with this material far longer than is healthy! I should note that there will also be a paperback edition available one year after the publication of the hardback. That is likely to be the most realistic prospect for those interested in hardcopy.

The book is substantially a reworking of my PhD thesis and draws largely the same conclusions. It refocuses the thesis, brings the research up to date so that the most recent academic work, as of mid-2021, is addressed, and expands some of the sections to make my reasoning clearer. It is clear from responses to my thesis online that this was needed. I have also used this opportunity to add a short discussion of approaches to researching this sort of topic that I hope will prove useful to future researchers.

In the book I demonstrate that most of what we believe about berserkir is a product of later research and is not actually reflected in the primary sources. I show that not everything written about berserkir should be taken literally. Those who wrote the sagas down were perfectly capable of using figurative language, hyperbole, etc. and often did; any reading of the sagas shows that many of them were adept with words and storytelling. I also demonstrate that the medieval audience for these sagas would not have understood the action in the same way as we do now. All of this affects how we interpret the Viking Age berserkr, and I use my analysis to create a model of the Viking Age warriors who went by that name.

Publisher blurb:

The viking berserkr is an iconic warrior normally associated with violent fits of temper and the notorious berserksgangr or berserker frenzy. This book challenges the orthodox view that these men went ‘berserk’ in the modern English sense of the word. It examines all the evidence for medieval perceptions of berserkir and builds a model of how the medieval audience would have viewed them. Then, it extrapolates a Viking Age model of berserkir from this model, and supports the analysis with anthropological and archaeological evidence, to create a new and more accurate paradigm of the Viking Age berserkr and his place in society. This shows that berserkir were the champions of lords and kings, members of the social elite, and that much of what is believed about them is based on 17th-century and later scholarship and mythologizing: the medieval audience would have had a very different understanding of the Old Norse berserkr from that which people have now. The book sets out a challenge to rethink and reframe our perceptions of the past in a way that is less influenced by our own modern ideas.

So, what do I need to say here, as this is a gaming blog? For the wargamer, this work may appear too focused on language and meaning. However, words mean things. The way they are used affects how we interpret the past. Without analysing what the words mean, we cannot understand who and what these men were, or where they fitted into Viking Age society. That, in turn, affects how we model them on the tabletop. About the time that my thesis was published online, I wrote a blog post addressing my views on how berserkir should be depicted on the tabletop, and I am largely satisfied with that post still.

It's hard to reframe and reassess things we have grown up with and that are so much a part of our daily existence. This applies as much to the vocabulary we use as it does to the broader questions of our identity and lives. The word 'berserk' is so inextricably linked to ideas of loss of control these days that it is almost impossible to imagine it meaning anything else. I know that it took me a while, even after I had begun my research, to question whether berserkir went berserk or not, and to realise that no one had seriously asked that question and researched it. The question arose as I examined the less commonly read primary sources and looked at broader usage of Old Norse berserkr beyond the most commonly read sagas.

When you combine this underlying assumption with translations that unthinkingly use the word 'berserk' in the modern English sense and that favour readability over accuracy, you have a recipe for serious misunderstanding of what is going on in the narrative. This problem is further compounded by the fact that some of the texts I have analysed are not available in translation. How do you analyse the meaning and usage of a word when you cannot access the literature it is written in?

I don't suppose I shall convince my critics who deploy (often older and unreliable) translations of sagas as evidence that I am wrong. I do hope that my new book will help people question those ingrained ideas anyway and approach reading the sagas afresh, learning to question better what they read. I also hope that it leads to Viking army lists with no 'lunatic nudists' (to quote Bernard Cornwell) and wargames figure ranges with no naked berserkir, but I suspect it will be some while before that can happen. Sometimes the legend is just too popular, and, to be honest, in a fantasy context I would deploy them too, complete with (fictional) mushroom pot.

Monday 8 November 2021

Keeping solo roleplaying interesting?

 Now that I am back running my Scarlet Heroes solo game again, I got to thinking about my approach to solo role-playing and how to keep it interesting. I've read a few pieces on how to do this in the past, and these musings do draw on what I have read, even though I cannot remember where I read it any more. The question is how to roleplay when you have full knowledge of the environment.

Scarlet Heroes is designed around the idea that the game will feature just a single character. D&D scenarios can be very easily adapted to these rules on the fly and still run with one character instead of a full party.

I'm running old Basic D&D modules for the nostalgia of it, so there is nothing for me to discover as I send my character into them. I already know what the modules contain. I have to. I can't run the modules without knowing. That means that I know the secret doors, the traps, and anything else that would be hidden DM information.

This really puts my role in the game into perspective. I have DM-level knowledge, so really I have to be the DM in these games. That means that I have to programme the character, not the dungeon. Realising this changed my view of how satisfying solo roleplaying could be. It is still my character, but the satisfaction lies in seeing who they become as a result of the rolls I make to decide how they act.

I created the character at the start of the campaign, and have a vision of the type of person they are. I use that vision to decide how likely they are to act in certain ways. Scarlet Heroes has a series of oracle tables to roll on when making decisions. You rate how likely the character is to act in a certain way and then roll on the table that corresponds to that probability. In all likelihood the character will act as expected, but there is always the chance for an upset.

My character is a young man of Lawful alignment. He is most likely to obey authority if it tells him to do something. However, the table could tell me that he does not obey that authority or that he dithers about it. The table can also raise complications, so he obeys but does something or sees something that makes his obeying problematic. When the character acts unexpectedly, there is the opportunity to explore him in more depth.

Another example would be a decision based on his age. Does he continue further into the dungeon despite being badly wounded or does he stop to rest up and patch himself up? The sensible choice would be to stop, but he is a young man of 16. Young men are not renowned for their sense of self-preservation, so I rate his chance of stopping as unlikely and roll on the appropriate table.

The roleplaying element then lies in how I rate his chances of doing something, and I can amend his character traits as he responds to events. If he lives, he may grow to be a cynical warrior, perhaps even shifting alignment to Neutral as he learns that authority cannot always be trusted. The dice will help to tell this tale.

For other hidden elements, I also resolve those as rolls. If there is a hidden door, I always roll to see if he spots it. Likewise, if there is a trap, then he gets to roll to spot it. When finding something hidden is essential to progress or completion of the dungeon, then I make it an automatic spot. I might roll to see how the character spots the item but I ensure that they do. Likewise, if specific actions are required to make progress, then I find a way for the character to do them. Dice rolls can fill out the details here but the action has to happen. There's little point coming to a full stop when you are solo roleplaying.

Black Streams is a free supplement from Sine Nomine Publishing that details how to adapt D&D-alike games so that a single character can run through a dungeon designed for a party of characters

I find roleplaying as the DM more satisfying than the random dungeon method I have used before. It required a shift of focus and emphasis, but that was worth it to return to these old modules that have such nostalgia value for me. I have also found that using a system designed for single characters keeps things simpler. I'm not sure I would enjoy the game as much having to keep track of everything for a party of characters.

Saturday 6 November 2021

2 Yarthmont - Onwards

I'm back in the mood for some solo RPG action using Scarlet Heroes. It's been five years since last I posted about my character Broneslav's adventures. I find myself in the mood to continue now, so here we are. I love the Scarlet Heroes game system but have no interest in the background included with the rules. For nostalgia's sake, my adventures all take place in the D&D world of Mystara and I started the campaign with the Basic D&D adventures. This is what we played when I first got D&D and the pull of the nostalgia is too strong. 

I tend to play a bit fast and loose with conversion from D&D to Scarlet Heroes, but I am planning to try to codify things better this time around. Ideally, this will mean pages on the blog recording how I have converted spells and monsters to try to keep things consistent. I guess we shall see how well that works out and how long I manage to keep going with it.

There is a separate page on this blog for my character sheet. It represents the point that the character has reached in my game. I schedule posts to appear one per week for as long as my enthusiasm holds up, so the character sheet represents the situation at the end of the last scheduled post, and not the situation at the time of the visible posts. 

Previously on Broneslav's adventures

Broneslav was travelling through the desert when he got separated from the caravan he was with by a  violent sandstorm. As he tried to find his way to civilisation, he stumbled upon the lost city of Cynidicea. He entered the city in search of food and water ...

You can catch up with his adventures here.

We return you to the action

Broneslav left the room. The corridor ahead of him offered a choice of turning left or turning right. There were doors visible along its length. He looked to the left. It appeared to be a dead end with no doors in it. To his right, there were doors on the right hand side of the corridor. Treading carefully, he moved towards the first door. As he advanced up the corridor, something glittered golden in the light of his torch towards the end. He decided to investigate this first.

As he moved up the corridor his torch soon revealed a golden statue of a bearded man wielding a lightning bolt. He thought he recognised it from somewhere, but was not sure. Looking more closely, he realised it was actually a wooden statue, but painted gold.

Broneslav moved back to the first door he had passed. Listening at it, he could hear voices from within. Carefully, sword in hand, Broneslav opened the door. The men within looked up quickly. Broneslav had time to notice that each wore a golden mask depicting the same person as the statue. Then there was a shout as each of the mail-clad men grabbed their weapons and charged at him (I rolled for their reaction to Broneslav and got a very poor one. sigh. New dice, you know. Got to break them in before they roll properly). He ran the first of them through with his sword, before slamming the second against the wall, snapping his neck. Then they were upon him. He fended off a flurry of blows from the men, reversed his parry into a cut that nearly took one man's head off, and bounced another's head off his shield rim. The final man tried a slice to Broneslav's leg which he dodged easily. Behind him he could hear the noise of more men approaching.

Broneslav stepped in close to the man and felled him with a blow to the head before turning to parry a blow from one of the newcomers and then cutting that man down too. There were five more, well, four more now, of the men in the plain blue robes and golden masks. Behind them was a man who was obviously a commander. His clothes and mask were clearly of better quality. These new attackers closed on Broneslav. A slice to the arm got past his guard (1 DAM) but he blocked the other blows with his shield. A backhand cut and a face smash with his shield felled two more of the men, and he pressed his advantage, pushing them back to the door of the room, even as he blocked their blows. This cost him another cut to the arm (1 DAM), but he still managed to kill another of his attackers. Only two remained. Their leader was a good swordsman and cut him again, this time on the leg (1 DAM). Broneslav redoubled his efforts and slew the last of the swordsmen, before cutting the leader across his chest.

Suddenly, the leader turned and ran towards the statue. He dived into the room beside it. Broneslav chased hard after the man. Breathing hard, he reached the room just in time to see a trapdoor closing as the leader dived down through it. Broneslav paused. He could give chase into the unknown, or he could take stock of his situation and plan his advance. He opted for the latter choice.

The Lost City, Tier 2

The room he now found himself in was like the previous one, with bunk beds lining the walls and small chests at the end of each. Broneslav weighed the trapdoor down with a chest and pushed one of the beds over the top of it for good measure. Then he bandaged his wounds (+2 HP). At this rate, he would run out of bandages! A search of the rooms found water and food aplenty. Broneslav was able to slake his thirst properly for the first time in ages. He filled his waterskin and filled his backpack with food. He also swapped his filthy tunic for a clean blue one from one of the chests at the foot of a bed. Taking his cue from the men he had just been attacked by, he put on one of the golden masks, while stashing the others in his pack. Perhaps he could get a chance to speak to the men before they attacked him next time.

With the tier cleared and the unfortunate misunderstanding between these mysterious and incredibly pale men resolved to their detriment, Broneslav is faced with a choice. He can return to the surface with the supplies he has now found, or he can venture deeper into the pyramid in the hope of finding aid.