Service offered: Interactive Narrative Consultancy

This is something I’ve been doing off & on for a while, but realised it would be worth formalising the concept.

I would like to offer my services consulting on interactive & genre narratives.

“From experience, I can assure you that Sean has both a serious interest and a deep insight into game mechanics.”
Magnus Hedén of Spiritmask RPG

Whether you’ve got an RPG adventure you’re running or a ruleset you’re writing, whether you’re writing a horror novella or a sci-fi play, I could help you eke out the greatest narrative resonance from your story.

Who is this clown?

Well, I’m not actually a clown. But I am a magician.
That means I spend a lot of time thinking about what each audience might expect and how to achieve & manipulate that.
It means I’m used to thinking about objects & the interactions between them in different ways. No-one thinks about cards like a magician does.

I’m a writer: primarily speculative fiction, like cyberpunk or noir. I like building from and subverting genre expectations. I’ve written about the similarities between roleplaying and medieval oral culture.

I’m an interactive narrative & games designer, from building silly games to modules for published systems. I’ve consulted with mindreaders about card games for oracle cards, written specialist GM advice for indie behemoths and spoken on villainy & antagonism at a monthly videogames conference.

What can I do for you?

  • I can solve problems you have with interactive or static narratives.
  • I can help you understand the core conflict within your narrative.
  • I can highlight & clarify the emotions your game mechanics will promote.
  • I can simplify & refine unwieldy systems or stories.

What do I care about?

I like players & characters to have agency – the ability to visualise & enact narrative consequence.

I like brevity & clarity.

I like people to be social & to promote their ability to tell stories.

What is my fee?

I’m taking a leaf out of the book of someone I greatly admire. My standard initial consultation fee is the price of a cup of caffeine. Buy me a coffee & we’ll talk through your needs. If you envisage needing a longer conversation, you can buy me lunch. If you’re in a different country, we can do PayPal & Skype.

From there onwards, we can arrange further services according to your needs. But for many people, that little nugget of insight will be all you’ll need.

Email me today at SEAN at BOOKSEANSMITH dot CO dot UK & we can arrange a coffee.

What are people saying about this?

“Thanks for all of your advice, and your assistance. You’ve been a huge help, and it really helped me re-structure a lot of the rules, explanations, and organization of everything. Your feedback was invaluable.”
David Schirduan on Mythic Mortals

“I think these [ideas] are, no contest, the best feedback I could get from this project. Thanks :D” —Sangjun Park

Service offered: Interactive Narrative Consultancy

We press on deeper…

When your players insist that they want to delve deeper than the dungeon they have reached the bottom of, there will be one or two passages they can follow.  Here’s what they find when they descend:

Draw a card.  The value represents the nature of the section.  The suit represents the threat and obstacle.

  • A – PALLID PAMPAS-GRASS CAVERNS – the head-height grass covers the floor of the cavern; it takes effort to push through and is very difficult to do at speed without passing passive STR checks
  • K – TRYPOPHOBIC SINKHOLES – the surfaces of these caverns are split with holes of various size and depth; sometimes these sinkholes lead to lower caverns, though  often there will be something aggressive hidden within
  • Q – GARGANTUAN BADGER SETT – the walls have definitely been carved out by the claws of an enormous beast; passages turn and jut at strange angles and often end abruptly
  • J – DOLERITE SPUR NETWORK – much of these caverns are open expanses, pierced with thick trunks of igneos rock; the surfaces are smooth but not slippery, however moving between spurs unaided requires passive DEX checks to avoid falling
  • 10 – FOSSILWOOD CLADDING – the surfaces here are paved and the network appears to have been constructed; the walls are clad in wood panelling that has fossilised over time; some of the surfaces depict unknowable things
  • 9 – SKELETAL CATHEDRAL – the earth is held back by the enormous ribs of an animal that has long since rotted away; some of the bones are broken and it seems that you can follow the passage afforded by their being empty of marrow
  • 8 – DEEPWEAVE FABRIC – the walls of this area appear to be a fine weave of a fabric you cannot quite identify; if the walls are cut into, the fabric continues to significant depth
  • 7 – DESSICATED LYMPH – the veins through the rock here seem to retain traces of organic matter, but the lymph has long dried away; the passages bulge and narrow at seeming random
  • 6 – KERATIN CANYON – the sheer surfaces of the canyons here thrust high with the fibrous rigidity of nail and hair; sometimes a successful passive INT check will reveal weak-points in the growth
  • 5 – FOLDS OF LEATHER – observed from a distance, the deep valleys in this section seem to take on the appearance of cracks in leather; up close, the rough surfaces of the valley walls are difficult to classify
  • 4 – STONEPULP HONEYCOMB – the haphazard construction in this section show unmistakable signs of having been chewed and spat out, like the paper of a wasps’ nest
  • 3 – SUBMERGED SPIRALS – the interlocking shells in this section split out from each other at all angles; a third of all areas are flooded with a translucent milky fluid
  • 2 – CARDED ALLOYWOOL – the surfaces in this section are covered in fibers of metal loosely twisted together, giving to pressure but impossible to part; progressing through these floors require passive CON checks to avoid becoming fatigued

The suit of the card drawn will represent the potential threat in this area:

♠️ – hostile native fauna: perhaps of animal intelligence, perhaps monstrous humanoids

♥️ – toxic environment: perhaps poisonous gas, perhaps sharding surfaces

♣️ – physical obstruction: perhaps natural cave-ins, perhaps extreme distances

♦️ – being hunted: perhaps intelligent pursuant, perhaps natural predation

Going yet further underground its been reported that some of these section appearances can become combined.

We press on deeper…

Why delve?

  • A – You don’t know another way to make friends.  When did you realise this?
  • K – You can use this as an outlet for your rage.  How do you otherwise keep on top of it?
  • Q – You lost a relative to this search.  Why can’t that happen again?
  • J – You have to be the first to find Rico.  What do you have to give her?
  • 10 – You seek a rare material.  What do you hope to turn it into?
  • 9 – You need to prove your theory.  What piece of evidence is missing?
  • 8 – You are the strongest, the most worthy.  Who is the strongest?
  • 7 – You soon will die.  What will be your legacy?
  • 6 – You want to see the subterranean sights.  What must you see before you die?
  • 5 – You have been tricked into this.  How can you make even?
  • 4 – You want to be the most famous hero.  What do you have to prove?
  • 3 – You want to prove Rico’s “findings” a hoax.  Why won’t you let this rest?
  • 2 – You are engaged to Rico.  Where did you propose?
Why delve?

Odd Armour: Crabmail Cuirass & Red Tapeworm

Because platemail’s efficiency is boring 

CRABMAIL CUIRASS

Some enterprising soul has managed to knit together a large number of crabs of sundry heft

Don: d4 actions

Doff: drink bitterroot tea and wait an hour

Crabmail provides you with Armour 2, though any ranged attacks made against you are Enhanced.  Crabmail is loud — it is unwise to sneak whilst wearing it.

If you ever take exactly 8 points of damage from a single attack, the crabmail scatters and mobs the nearest foe for d8 damage each round until the crabs are beaten off.  You cannot reassemble the crabmail afterwards.

Cost: Exorcise my pet eel, Flaccit

RED TAPEWORM

A precise parasite and the perfect evolution of exploratory-capitalist-symbiosis

Don: takes a week to incubate

Doff: submit form 85l to the Relevant Authorities

If a weapon breaks your skin, that weapon becomes enmeshed in a silken wrap.  Further attacks from it (to all targets) are Impaired. 

Your healing is quickened if you follow the Health and Safety (Subterranean) Guidelines.

Cost: name-drop three Leading Entomologists (including the lady selling it to you)

YOUR TURN

These armours have been statted for Into The Odd.  If there’s a system you prefer, I’d love to see the numbers you settle on for those!  Alternatively, I’d love to see these illustrated by someone more skilled than me.

The best entries will receive A Mystery Prize.

Odd Armour: Crabmail Cuirass & Red Tapeworm

Le Roi en Jaune (fragment)

This has been translated from a French collection of lays. Originally written in a freeform structure, I’ve taken the liberty of corralling it into rime royal. The second half is lost.

Inside the palace crypt Cassilda sings
A mournful song of lost now in Carcosa,
Such as the recent passing of our kings
From living to the lake-side land Carcosa:
Beneath the baleful suns of far Carcosa.
Yet time upon our city now to mourn;
Bid patience ’til successor be inform’d.

Swiftly from the tomb Cassilda steals
And to the waiting arms of her Diego:
A close embrace then at her feet he kneels.
“Do tell me that Camilla does not know.”
“Neither of our love nor poison, no.
The secrets of his murder with him rest;
No need that talk of treason be suppress’d.”

Yet the late king’s illicit lover waits
And hears the dialogue admitting guilt:
Lucrezia stands hid behind crypt gates.
Initial thought of confrontation wilts
To better guard her safety ‘gainst swordhilt.
“I’ll shed the falsehood at the masquerade
And that the coronation might be stay’d.”

While edge of town a tattered stranger knocks
With vivid hand cowl’d under yellow shawl
And cover’d face as though to shield a pox.
The door opened by royal chef full tall
Who in but a breath is under stranger’s thrall.
The stranger he invites into his home.
Then feastly preparations to be done.

For now the lights are dim, the wine is set:
The guests arrive in rich excellence clad.
Despite disguise all as a king are met.
Among the throng the yellow robed nomad.
So look upon the dance as one near-mad
And hear the conversations overheard
Regardless of who took intended word.

Come midnight bell the call to then unmask
And all but one reveal smiling delight.
All but one — the stranger he — “I wear no mask.”
Camilla from him turns her face in fright
Surveys the scene all pallid in moonlight.
Cassilda from the room has turned and fled.
Camilla’s husband: lying, twitching; dead.

The nobles clutch their stomachs full of pain.
The stranger tall he stands amid the scene
Looks on while gore and bile from faces rain.
The toxin wine gone from decanter clean
Absence brighter than yellow tatters sheen.
Into the street fleeing Cassilda thrust:
“Not upon us, oh king! Not upon us!”

Le Roi en Jaune (fragment)

BURN, SIR — an investigation for INTO THE ODD

The following adventure was written by stealing mercilessly from the excellent folk song Burn, Sir by Apple of my Eye. You should definitely buy the song: it makes excellent music to play out the end of the session with.

The Scene is Set

The town of Orchard lies barely a day’s ride from Bastion and is famed for its most excellent cider. It also happens to be the home of a young woman who was waiting on the visit of one of the players: who didn’t turn up as promised…

Ask the following questions of the players — ask a different question to each player:

  • Who is this woman & what happened that you didn’t go back to her?
  • You were also involved, but why don’t you feel bad about it?
  • Why did you plan on visiting Orchard?
  • What do you owe another player?

Likewise, ascertain why the players are now interested in heading to Orchard. Once they have stocked up on supplies, they may make their way out of town.

The Journey to Orchard

Orchard nestles in the low foothills outside of Bastion, set gently on a soft river that runs lazily out to the Polar Ocean. The route there is straight and largely uninteresting, though sadly the players are set upon by a murmuration of 2d4 johnson swifts.

The swifts are fast birds, night-black save for the dull pink of a slobbering acidic tongue in the place of their heads. They are driven to dissolve glistening surfaces (such as eyes). (STR6, DEX16, HP1; d6 acid tongue {ignores Armour}.)

Orchard Town

The village is a sizeable one, its buildings surrounded entirely by fertile farrowed ground. There are no trees. The inhabitants of the town can’t directly remember the recent past. This doesn’t worry them.

1 Halen Dormal
2 Corm Noergat
3 Zhett Blund
4 Glory Scart
5 Swifft Owin
6 Jarl Hedg

The memories are affected by the presence of the hateseed. Likewise, its presence means that all of the roads out of town loop back to Orchard.

At night, a solitary treegaunt stalks. It is driven to pluck ripe fruit. (STR14, HP14; very slow moving; d10 ripening touch; decapitates on Critical Damage.)

Points of interest

  1. The boathouse on the river might be the only way to actually get out of town. Beside it sits the watermill, whose grindstone is mealing up poison-powder from appleseeds.
  2. At the edge of town, a rainbow’s end almost meets the ground. There is nothing there beyond a murmuration of 2d4 johnson swifts.
  3. There remains a single barrel of cider in the pub. The price goes up continually as the barrel drains: half a pint currently costs sixty shillings.

The villagers are able to identify the house of the ex-lover. She won’t see anyone.

The next morning

The oppressive mood of the village feels even greater and when you look outside it’s possible to see hundreds of treegaunts moving slowly about. It very much feels like a net closing in. After leaving a building, as far as the eyes can see there are houses burning.

This is your doing.

Despite the external threat, there is a clear path to either the well, or a conspicuous cellar. The player with the lowest WIL knows that the solution lies beneath.

Underground

  1. There is a room with a precariously balanced round-bottom flask atop a chest. On the bottle is the inscription “Eat me”.
  2. Along one wall, a rainbow-shimmering cascade of water descends — it is possible to walk through this with no danger (beyond the dampness) and doing so will allow you to bypass the next threat.
  3. As you push deeper into the tunnels, there are two treegaunts holding guard.
  4. Ensconced in a bed in a sparsely lit room lies the weathered form of the ex-lover. About her neck is hung the hateseed — an object that turns negative feelings into animating power (and if it is taken from her, the treegaunts will cease to “live”). Being close to her is dangerous: she breathes clouds of cyanide gas (pass a STR save each round or take 1d4 STR damage).
BURN, SIR — an investigation for INTO THE ODD

Four reasons why Judge Death is the perfect OSR antagonist

Staring down a vicious stat-block just isn’t in keeping with the mindset that best suits OSR roleplaying.  A long list of pre-determined weaknesses and resistances lends itself to an archivist’s game. A player’s success at getting past prescriptivist obstacles becomes an admin task instead of an opportunity for creative problem solving.

Vicious stat-blocks are so much easier to design.  Want to make this more dangerous?  Just add two to all of the numbers.

But designing problems that enable problem-solving is much more enjoyable an experience.  The incomparable Arnold K. wrote an excellent piece that summarises what I most enjoy about designing these challenges:

Writing a good OSR-style problem is tougher than it sounds.  It needs to be something that. . .
  • has no easy solution.
  • has many difficult solutions.
  • requires no special tools (e.g. unique spells, plot devices).
  • can be solved with common sense (as opposed to system knowledge or setting lore).
  • isn’t solvable through some ability someone has on their character sheet.  Or at least, it isn’t preferentially solvable.  I’m okay with players attacking the sphinx (a risky undertaking) if they can’t figure out the riddle, because risky-but-obvious can be a solution, too.

Now, a lot of OSR play does’t require overt antagonists.  However, Arnold’s breakdown coupled with my well-documented love of villains and resulted in the realisation that Judge Death is perhaps the perfect OSR antagonist.

250px-judgedeathirving
Judge Death by Frazer Irving

1. He swiftly sets a tone

While there can be a lot said for subtlety, it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with a subtle challenge in a nuanced manner.  Einstein famously said, “If you cannot explain something simply, you do not know it well enough.”  Judge Death’s personality is crass (& arguably one-dimensional) but this quickly establishes a standard from which to interact with.  Through play, the shades of meaning can be found.

The global annihilation threat isn’t a new story and it isn’t a particularly subtle one.  It is retold so often because it retains a powerful emotional pull.

Likewise, Judge Death’s plan sets up an inevitability that demands interaction.

2. His motive is clear to grasp

All crimes are commited by the living, therefore all life is a crime.

While Judge Death is unlikely to calmly debate the innate issues of his logical fallacy here (Talking back to a judge? That’s ten years, perp.), his reasoning is easy to follow.  The key word here is grasp.  Not only can players simply understand it, they are able to use it as a tool.  It doesn’t require setting-specific information in order to interact with and its simplicity enables the players to make safe assumptions about Death’s likely behaviours. And from safe assumptions, risky plans can be built.

Furthermore, it is clear that his motive is evil, in case there was any misapprehension about his role in the story.

dark-judges-spread
Fire, Fear, Mortis & Death

3. He comes with interesting friends

A villain capable of proving a real threat to the world doesn’t work alone.  However, Judge Death doesn’t just come with a legion of faceless goons.

The success of the other Dark Judges come from their variety; while the simplicity of their goal might become monotonous over a large campaign, the difference in their behaviour and tools help provide freshness.  The variety and distinction is another thing that helps in play: each becomes an overt opportunity to solve problems the solutions for which will differ between encounters.  Consistently showing players that they must solve these kinds of problems will give them the skill to solve problems later on.

4. His statistics aren’t the most important thing

While it would be possible to write a stat-block for Death, he becomes a much more interesting villain if a number of truths are established about his character than a number of Hit Points given.

  • Judge Death doesn’t regenerate xHP each turn; instead, he suffers no personal harm on being damaged.
  • If his (current) body is completely destroyed, he moves on as an insubstantial spirit-form.  This form can possess bodies.
  • He doesn’t deal traditional damage; instead he reaches into your body and can stop your brain or heart.

Thus, fighting him doesn’t descend into a war of attrition.  The combat becomes less a mastery of the system, more a mastery of the narrative.

* * *

I can’t recommend you drop Death directly into your game.  Intellectual property protection would deem that a crime (for which the sssentence iss death).  But you can use the facets of his success to create successful antagonists in your OSR games.  Consider how you can use a character’s tone, her motive, her companions and the innate truths of her existence to provide elements for your players to interact with.  Your villains should be much more than just a bundle of numbers.

Let us know how you apply these lessons to your villains in the comments below.

Four reasons why Judge Death is the perfect OSR antagonist

Suburban Cathedral: a dungeon for INTO THE ODD

The Hook: Across town, various metal panels have been riveted into the ground. Some of these have even been found inside buildings. The panels have been put in place by a labour of molemensoon after the ground opens up in a fissure immediately beneath the panels. These fissures can be followed down into an enormous cavern five storeys deep into the earth. Out of the centre of this cavern rises a grand cathedral-like building of ruddy stone and marble.

 

The Truth: The panels prevent the fissures opening up further. The earth is splitting because a fissuremana living embodiment of an earthquakeis trapped within the suburban cathedral. The molemen are holding it there, trapped in a prison of tin.

It is not necessary to free the fissureman. However, the cathedral itself houses many valuable secrets.

 

The Map: The internal layout of the cathedral is one you know already. It will be a large public building with a mix of room sizes and shapes, and multiple entry points; a school or museum is perfect. The most important office in the building is the prison of the fissuremanit’ll be directly guarded by two frenetic molemen.

For each room the players enter, roll d6:

  1. There is a monster here. Roll d6+2 and consult the threat table below.
  2. This room is home to a monster, though they are absent. Roll d6+2 and consult the threat table.
  3. The room is empty, save for an odd sight or sound.
  4. The room is empty, save for a strange aroma.
  5. “The room appears empty.”
  6. There is something of value in the room. Roll on the treasure table below.

If players make a lot of noise, or delay for some time, roll d6: on a 1, roll d8 on the threat tablethat result enters this room; on a 2, roll d8 on the threat tablethat result is in the adjacent room.

 

The Threat Table (roll d8)

  1. “The air keens with a sudden pressure.” All players must make WIL saves or lose all HP.
  2. “From the direction of the further door, you hear an audible, breathless sigh.”
  3. An acrid scent tips your attention to one of the surfaces, which is coated with some indeterminate fluid.
  4. The room is darker than usual, save for a dancing humanoid glowing with dull light; it is in fact the lure of a CAVERN ANGLER (Str 18, HP8, d12 bite; driven to eat sources of warmth, swallows characters whole with Critical Damage.)
  5. A shapeless body on the floor is the home to a swarm of LEATHERWASPS (Dex 13, HP10, Armour 2 {because of swarming behaviour}, d4 sting; driven to escape into open air, lays eggs in victim on causing Critical Damage that slowly dessicate the victim’s flesh over a fortnightthe skin becomes a leathery shell for the adult wasps).
  6. Smack of d6 JELLYFINCHES that float through still air (Str 4, HP1, d10 beak; driven to crack open small, hard things).
  7. Chamber with d4 SKYCRABS moving through space on long, filament legs. (Str 9, HP4, Armour 1, d6 claws; driven to protect their territory).
  8. d6/2 MOLEMEN (HP2, d6 claws; driven to stay hidden).

 

Treasure Table (roll d10)

  1. Bag of Infinite Rats (single use)
  2. Hydraulics Bottles
  3. Dressed skycrab (very tasty)
  4. Baudrillard Hauberk (attacks on you are Impaired; take d4 damage when you move)
  5. Portable Portal (the size of a shield)
  6. Skeleton Key (only capable of locking doors)
  7. Niall’s Covetous Unguent
  8. d7 Artefacts of Impractical Shape (valuable to collectors)
  9. One cicada, bound and gagged
  10. Antique chess set

 

Suburban Cathedral: a dungeon for INTO THE ODD