Category Archives: Dungeons and Dragons
October 17, 2016
Sean is 26 years old, and he runs a game of D&D for people in their 70’s – who just started playing. Read their story below.
(With a bonus interview with the players themselves at the end of the article.)
From left to right: Maureen the Human Fighter, Margiella the High Elf Wizard, Darrak the Dwarven Cleric, Kangaroo the Human Fighter, and Jeffro the Halfling Rogue
Tabletop Terrors: So Sean – your players seem to be a bit more “seasoned” than most—what’s the median age of your players not including you?
Sean: Well it’s a good thing I’m not included here because I would certainly bring down the age a bit, being 26. My grandma is 72, my grandpa is 71, and I’m not exactly sure how old their neighbors are (and I feel like I might lose a couple players if I ask!) but they are in their early-to-mid 60s. We also picked up my mom once she heard about the fun everyone else was having. She’s 51 so that puts our median age at about 63.
It seems like you’re having an absolute blast – what made you decide to try to get these wonderful folks to play D&D?
Honestly they were the ones that pushed for it. I was down at my grandparent’s shore house a few weeks ago relaxing and drawing some maps for another group’s campaign. My grandma asked about what I was doing, and I explained that it was for D&D. She said, “Oh we’d like to play, we love games!”
I actually tried to talk her out of it at first, thinking it would be a waste of time because there was no way that my grandparents would ever be interested in playing D&D. But they pushed the issue and invited me over for dinner, telling me to bring everything I would need for them to play.
I think if I was the one that pushed it on them rather than having them be the driving force behind playing, they never would have gotten into it.
What rules system are you using?
We’re playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition with a little homebrew here and there (mostly because when I don’t know a rule I just try to make something up that sounds fair and then stick with it rather than spend 10 minutes searching through the rulebook).
Are you running pre-made adventures, or making up your own stories? Similarly, are you using pre-generated characters, or did everyone roll their own up?
I’m running them through the 5e starter set campaign, Lost Mines of Phandelver. I may throw in some of my own sidequests here and there if I think of anything they may be interested, but for the most part we’ll probably just stick with LMoP. They’re using the pre-gen characters that come with the starter set, but only for the stats and abilities. I had them decide what their characters’ personalities were like, what drives them to go off and adventure, and what flaws their characters may have that could be problematic. I think they did a great job coming up with their backstories and I also think that by letting them decide on their backgrounds, it helped to get them more invested in the story.
Is everyone using your books and dice, or have any of the players made the leap into buying their own adventuring gear?
For now everyone is using my books and dice. I have enough dice for everyone to have their own set while we play, and I give them the starter set rulebook to use so they can look up their own spells or check on rules that they have questions about. Meanwhile I have the Player’s Handbook on my side of the screen. The plan is for us to play pretty consistently, at least for the next few months. I personally don’t mind them using my stuff for as long as they want, but I could see them wanting to get their own gear as they get more into it.
What has surprised you the most about this endeavor?
I would say I’m most surprised by my grandpa and how he has taken to the game. Out of everyone that’s playing, he is the one that I least expected to get really into his character. He’s a tough guy who has certainly done his share of manual labor, but he’s playing a sneaky, Halfling rogue named Jeffro. He’s really dived in headfirst and has even texted me to talk about his character’s backstory in between sessions.
What has been the most challenging thing that you’ve come up against while trying to play with this group? How did you overcome them?
I think at the end of the day, this group provides a lot of the same challenges that any group of first time players would provide. It’s a balance of simplifying the game in a way that they can learn the rules as they go while still not losing the depth that makes D&D so great.
Right now I think the biggest challenge I’m dealing with is just going to be getting them all on the same page. They are thinking of themselves as individuals – all of them are the heroes of their own story – and that’s not totally a bad thing because it’s helped them get into character. At some point though, they’re going to need to really work together to overcome some tougher challenges. I think they will, though. They’re all smart people, and part of learning the game is learning how your character can synergize with the rest of the group (in terms of decision-making and also in the use of abilities in combat).
The other challenge is going to be finding ways to motivate them in ways other than gold. So far their first question to NPCs asking for favors has been, “how much will you pay us?” Gold is a great motivator, especially for new players, but my hope is that the intrigue of the story starts to cause them to make decisions based off of a desire for information more than for coin. That’s not totally on them though; if I do a good job as DM, that change should happen naturally.
What has been the most rewarding thing?
The most rewarding thing for me as a DM is always just to see my players have fun. That’s true of any group, and even moreso with a group that I didn’t expect to really get into the game the way my grandparents did. I am fortunate to have a really good relationship with them, and being able to share something with them that brings me as much joy as D&D does is awesome.
In general, it’s just really cool being able to play D&D with them. Most people my age who spend time with their grandparents probably have to compromise a bit when it comes to activities. Mine have fortunately always been cooler than the stereotype of what people think of when it comes to older relatives, but this definitely makes Tuesday dinners at their house a lot more interesting.
Here’s the DM himself, Sean
*** BONUS: WE INTERVIEW THE PLAYERS. ***
We were able to ask a few of the players their thoughts on D&D. We posed the same three questions to all of them:
1.) What surprised you the most about playing D&D?
2.) What did you find the most challenging?
3.) What is your favorite thing about D&D?
Maureen the Human Fighter’s Answers
1. What surprised me most was even though the names are unusual, I found it easy to follow.
2. The most challenging thing was following my team when I wanted to take a different path.
3. My favorite thing is how everyone embraces their characters and fits into their roles.
Margiella the High Elf Wizard’s Answers
1. I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed the adventure. I was not sure when we first started but it challenges your thought process and makes your brain think of strategies to win.
2. The most challenging thing is deciding how to fight the enemy and what is the best weapon to use.
3. My most favorite thing about D & D is that you can play with others as a team and work together to make decisions. We played last night and had a lot of laughs on the adventure. It was obvious that some of our decisions went badly, but we all still laughed about it. This is a game that can bring together people of all ages to have a great time. My grandson is the host and in his twenties, so it is especially enjoyable for me to be able to have that time with him at this point in our lives. I can’t wait for our next game.
Jeffro the Halfling Rogue’s Answers
1. The biggest surprise to me was the intricacy of how the game plays out and how your
choices help to move the game along.
2. The most challenging thing is as a new player it’s getting familiar with my character and what he is capable of doing.
3. The thing I enjoy most the molding of my character to what I feel he is supposed to be like.
Need some inspiration? Check out our bulleted eNewsletter 5 Crit Friday.
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Do your PCs spend a lot of time in taverns drinking and gambling? Do you want to role-play the games perhaps as a change of pace or as a prelude to a cracking barroom brawl?
The dragon and the Thief is a perfect game for PCs to play when relaxing in their favourite tavern. They can play it among themselves or try to win coins from the locals. Unlike some gambling games, a single round of Dragon and the Thief can go on for some time, but large amounts of money are rarely won or lost as each player usually only puts down or picks up one coin at a time.
A game of Dragon and the Thief is a great way to introduce new NPCs – either normal locals, rival adventurers, thieves, rivals or even potential employers. A game of Dragon and the Thief is also the perfect backdrop for some impromptu information gathering.
How to Play
To play, Dragon and the Thief, each player needs two six‐sided dice and a game board. The game is best played with three or more players.
Start: Before play begins, the players must decide what denomination of coin (copper, silver, gold or platinum) to wager. All players start by placing a coin of the relevant value on the number 7.
Who Goes First: The players all roll their dice. The player with the lowest score goes first. Thereafter, play passes to the left.
Playing: Each player rolls his dice. The result determines the player’s action:
- 2 (The Thief): The player takes all the coins except those on number seven (The Hoard).
- 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 or 11: The player checks the number for a coin. If a coin is there, the player takes it. If there is no coin the player puts one down on that number.
- 4: The player does nothing.
- 7 (The Hoard): The player puts a new coin on that number.
- 12 (The Dragon): The player takes all the coins on the board.
Play continues as long as the participants want to play; players can join or drop out at any time.
Get it Free
This is an extract from a Raging Swan Press product released as a special Christmas gift. It’s still available as a free download and contains several different printable game boards along with lists of players and in-game events designed to spice up the PCs’ gambling session. You can grab a copy at RPGNow or DriveThruRPG. Get your copy today!
I have established a new Facebook Gaming Group.
I haven’t had much time to build up the membership yet because I’ve been busy but I have tried to build up some interesting content. The primary interest of the group is gaming, but like this blog it will cover history, archeology, warfare, science, technology, fantasy and science fiction, literature, pop culture, comics, etc.
You’re welcome to visit and to join. Just hit the links provided.
In keeping with what I said over the weekend about beginning to once again post my own Works (as per this Post) here is my entry for Design of Things to Come, though it is one day early due to later work week scheduling conflicts.
Also I have now corrected all my former entries in The Other World so that they now properly show in that category, as they should. Later I will begin reposting my Essays on Gaming and Game Design.
So here you go, the Introduction to The Caerkara, or The Expeditionary Force
Introduction to The Caerkara
When the Eldeven folk began to realize that monsters were being accidentally created through the use of Elturgy (Arcane Magic) they began to track down and capture many of these monsters and isolate them in various places where they could be studied and hopefully cured. However the alterations caused by exposure to (especially) high level Elturgy seemed irreversible.
Eventually the Eldevens also realized that Elturgy itself seemed to be “mutating” some of their own kind, as well as other creatures, into monsters, or the Caladeem. Many at the Court of Samarkand came to understand that some of these monsters were completely rogue and out of control and could not be held or captured, that once transformed certain monsters would have to be killed due to their new and vicious nature. The Eldevens in Samarkand formed secret teams of “monster hunters” that traveled throughout the Known World (and sometimes to places in their world beyond their explored knowledge) to capture or kill monsters. At the same time the Samareül began a project that lasted for many decades that attempted to “repair” elturgy so that it no longer created monsters. But the deterioration only seemed to increase and worsen and no means was discovered to return Elturgy to a reliably benign state of operation.
Some monster hunter teams soon discovered that monsters were disappearing right before capture. The reason was a mystery until it was discovered that these monsters were fleeing to another world, through means unknown. The Samareül put his best Sages and Elturgists upon the problem and eventually the Drüidect was discovered, which allowed travel between their world and Terra, though the means by which “the Weirding Road” operates is still a mystery.
The Samareül formed a secret and elite team of Monster Hunters to go to Terra and either recover or kill the monsters that had escaped to that world. While there agents of this team met human beings and discovered human ideas about religion as well as information about Miracles (Thaumaturgy). When this team returned home and reported on their findings the Samareül decided that these events were not coincidental at all but fated, and that Thaumaturgy, God, and religion might just be the long sought answer to either repairing or replacing the troubled nature of Elturgy.
Since then the Samareül has been carefully studying humans, their society, religion, thaumaturgy, God, and other related matters. He has sent his elite Expeditionary Team into Terra on numerous occasions. Ostensibly it is the job of this team to hunt down and capture or kill the escaped monsters from their world, but secretly this team also studies humans, religion, thaumaturgy, etc. and gather intelligence to return to the Samareül for further study and research. This secret team or Expeditionary Force is called the Caerkara. Over the course of their expeditions to Terra they have spent much time in the Byzantine Empire (where many of the odd events affecting both worlds, as well as the escaped monsters, seem to tend to congregate) and humans have become aware of their existence, though not their true nature and point of origin. They have also become uneasy allies on occasion with the Basilegate, and as a result of this interaction a relationship has developed between the Court at Constantinople and the Court at Samarkand.
I will soon be returning to blogging and posting about my own game worlds and milieus, my novels (in this case regarding my fantasy/mythological, my sci-fi, and detective novels mostly), my essays on gaming, the games I have designed and written, TSS scenarios, GPADs, my start-ups that are game related, my Vadding expeditions and urban exploration, and all of my other personal creations, enterprises, and Work.
Recently I have been much too busy with both business and personal matters to post about my own creations. But things have calmed now and that’s about to change.
So from now on I will be posting at least once a week about my own creations and designs. This I will do mostly on the weekends, but if you are a follower of this blog then you will know as soon as it happens.
Have a good weekend folks.
Very, very nice… from Ed
Well met, adventurers! Today I am going to do something you have not seen me do before. Something bizarre and unexpected. I am going to gush about my kid. I had meant to write this prior to Father’s Day weekend, but things here at BardCo have become somewhat hectic, what with school letting out for the summer, sports programs beginning, and new multimedia ventures coming to fruition. Suffice to say, this is a little late, but still retains much of its potency.
There are two things you should know about me. The first is that I am a fan of the old Gygaxian dungeon crawls of yore, with its pitfalls and terrors beyond reckoning. They were punishments disguised as fun, and damn it if he didn’t accomplish both. Never have I had so much fun being rent asunder or crushed to death, or boiled alive, or having my soul torn out or… well, you get the picture.
The second thing your should know about me is that my young son has a strong desire to play D&D or Pathfinder. He can’t decide which cover art is cooler. He likes to play with the minis I have on hand, set up my terrain, draw maps on my dry erase flip mat, and tell a story. Sometimes he even asks to use my dungeon master screen for reasons that are unknown but undoubtedly sinister.
If was a few months ago that he asked me if he could “Make a dungeon” for my weekly group. I gave a wry chuckle and found myself filled with something I believe to be a mix of pride and amusement. I gave him the go-ahead, handed him a Monster Manual and a Bestiary, a couple magic markers, and a boat load of minis, and he went about his dark work. What he created still gives me pause. It would have been an act of pure cruelty and insidious design.
And it was good.
I’ve given the map he gave me the digital upgrade, as the only remaining picture I have of it (aside from the one seared into my mind’s eye), is blurry as all-get-the-funk-out. I will detail each room of this two level horror show.
The Tomb Of Xandarr, The Cruel
The first thing you may note about the “Tomb” is that it is a little oddly shaped. The triangles, rectangles, squares, and ovals (all shapes easily recognizable to a Kindergartener) that are connected together by a series of strangely-shaped hallways. But when you really take a look at it, a couple things become apparent.
First, the rooms aren’t the typical square rooms we’re used to in dungeons, leading someone who has no idea the whole thing was designed by a 6-year-old to believe that the entire complex was created by a madman with some issues. The rooms are chaotic, adhering to no symmetry or even consistency. There is no sense of familiarity between rooms since they vary in size and shape with each new chamber. This puts characters on the defensive, never knowing what each room might hold. Granted, this should be the normal state of mind for every character going into a dungeon.
Secondly, those hallways. If you are playing with players who get paranoid easily, these halls are nightmares. Bizarre angles and narrow passages make for an almost claustrophobic setting. Without realizing it, my wee geekling is playing a psychological game with the players, putting them through their paces and tearing away any semblance of peace.
Now, let’s get into Level 1
Section 1 – Orc Encampment: “A crooked and jagged hallway of jutting stones zigs and zags its way toward a mostly rectangular chamber. Grunts from the eastern wall signal that the room is occupied. Half a dozen burly orcs rise from a sitting position gripping cruel axes.”
The dungeon begins with a pretty straight forward fight between the characters and a band of orcs camping in the room. I say camping because that is what my son explicitly said they were doing. In my “Game Master must justify everything” brain, I reasoned the orcs were about to enter the dungeon and made camp in this empty and defensible first room to regain their strength for the path ahead.
For most characters who enter this room, this battle should be a breeze. Since I figure the average party should be about level 8 to take on the bulk of the dungeon, six orcs is a pittance. Still, with good tactics and focused fire, the orcs could still pose a problem, especially if the retreat down the hall in the north end of the room, which would bottleneck the players.
Section 2 – The Pit of Mummies: “This oval, domed, stone chamber is mostly empty. The walls are bare and there are not sconces for torches. The only thing of import seems to be a single, simple stone sarcophagus sitting in the center of the room. Small cracks run the length of the dust-covered floor like a spider web.”
Most dungeons will place their boss at the end. My 6-year-old says “To hell with conformity” and sticks that sonnova bitch in room 2! But he was not content with a simple boss fight. No. He wanted a boss fight with a trap. He wanted a boss fight in a trap! The stone sarcophagus sits in the center of a fragile circle. If a character spends more than two rounds on the surface of the circle, if two stand on it at once, or if two characters pass over it one at a time, the floor will give way into a 40-foot free fall onto a spiked floor. That’s a little rough, especially considering on top of the spikes you are also taking bludgeoning damage from the falling rocks.
But wait! There’s more!
Once the sarcophagus breaks after the fall, it reanimates the mummy lord within. This is Xandarr, and he doesn’t take kindly to being woken up. When I asked my progeny what kind of magic spells he had, he simply said, “Ones that make characters fall down so when they fall down they fall on spikes.”
That’s actually kind of evil. So, here is the scenario. If the floor collapses (because the encounter is actually entirely avoidable), any poor bastards that find themselves on the floor need to make dexterity or reflex saving throws. Anyone that screws the pooch ends up at the bottom of a 40-foot deep pit of spikes fighting a mummy lord that can put them back on those spikes with a wave of his hand.
“Are you my mummy?”
Did I mention the second mummy down here? Oh yeah. Impaled on one of the spikes is yet another mummy. Granted, this is just your run of the mill mummy, but damn! That just ups the chances of the poor characters stuck in the pit to get a fun case of mummy rot (still sounds like an STD).
What’s more, the rest of the characters would be stuck up above, trying to find something to attach a rope to, of which there is nothing. Melee characters would either have to traverse the rope and hope the mummy lord isn’t leveling spells at them or jump and deal with the spiky goodness. Those that choose the rope are looking at a 2-3 round commitment since the average climb speed is 15-feet, and the pit is more than twice that.
The walls of the pit are flat and smooth (not to mention round, so no corners to shimmy up), making climbing out without assistance a virtual nightmare as far as difficulty is concerned (and failure meaning another trip to spike town).
On the plus side, the mummy lord is carrying an amulet that can make your skin as tough as stone, so hooray for loot. On the downside, the mummy lord is wearing said amulet, and would be foolish not to use it.
Evil, evil child.
“There is nothing more precious than the laughter of a child.”
Section 3 – Trapped Hallway: “The door opens to a 25-foot long hallway. The hallway stretches off into a straight line, but there seems to be a five-foot deep, 10-foot long recess on the eastern side. Seven stone tiles make up the floor, each emitting a clicking sound when stepped upon. A stone door stands at the far end of the hall.”
My kid loves Minecraft. Moreover, he loves pressure plates and making them do things. This is a simple hallway, but a very complicated hallway at the same time. Immediately, a canny rogue is going to realize that every single inch of floor is a pressure plate. This makes the rogue’s job so much more difficult. Not to mention that recess. What is that? What even is that? Is it a trap?
Oddly enough, no. It’s just the shape of the hall. The mean part comes when an unfortunate character stands in front of the door leading out of the hall. Should they fail to disarm the trap, or if they step on the pressure plate before the door, that entire 10-foot section of wall on the eastern side of the door springs forward and crushes anyone standing there.
“Holy broken bones, Batman!”
It’s sort of a fake-out. A trap fake out. The recess screams “look at me!” when it’s the stationary wall that is the killer aspect here. I am both proud and afraid on the kiddo.
Section 4 – Go Ahead. Touch It: “This triangular room is lit with a pair of torches on the northeastern and northwestern walls. The torches burn with a sickly blue flame that casts the chamber in a ghostly light. A small pedestal stands at the apex of the triangle. Atop it rests a smooth violet jewel that size of a child’s fist. There is a pair of stone doors on the eastern wall.”
“What’s in this room?” I asked my son as he drew the funny triangle.
“A stone.” he replied matter-of-factly, “It’s purple. If you touch it it automatically steals your soul.” he continued, drawing a tiny stone in the room.
That’s right, the ultimate game of “I dare you to touch it.” The danger in this room is easily bypassed. Just walk on out. But that gem. That gem is likely to get someone into trouble. Let’ss face it, we all know that one player that can’t talk past a shiny red button without pressing it. Even if the button had a “Do not touch the red button” sign hanging over it, they would still have to push it, just to know what happens. Hell, more than one of us has been that character at one point or another.
“Touch not, lest ye be touched.”
The punishment for greed or curiosity is the loss of your soul. No save. Yeah, I made sure to ask him about that, but he insisted that it was automatic.
I asked, “Why?”
“Because they touched it.”
Can’t argue with that.
Section 5 – Dragonfire Pass: “This curved hallway has intricate carvings of dragons set into the stone walls. The doorways on the west and south are carved into the shape of dragon’s jaws. A strange and pungent odor fills the air here, leaving a sort of haze. The ground is wet, with a shimmering purple film seeping in between tiles and cracks.”
When I told my son about a dungeon I’d created where a bunch of kobolds lit everyone on fire with flammable liquid on the floor (such are out dinner conversations), his eyes grew wide and he couldn’t help but tell his grandmother, and anyone else who would listen. It was, I think, cool to him.
So cool, in fact, that he wanted to do something like it in his dungeon. The hall, as he told me, had dragon heads near the doors. The center of the hall marks the trigger for a burning hands spell to erupt from the dragon heads on both ends, and set the oil-soaked floor ablaze.
“It’s a disco inferno.”
Sweet. Simple. Barbeque characters. Even if they didn’t get a soul stolen, the hall can easily become a serious pain in the ass, especially for those bringing up the rear. What’s worse is that the door at the end of the hall is locked. How good is your rogue? Picking a lock while burning to death good?
Section 6 – Treasure Room: “The door opens revealing a large rectangular room with heaps of gold coins and overflowing chests of treasure. The room is lit by torches in each corner. The flickering firelight dances upon each glinting bobble. An iron door stands against the south wall.”
Treasure! Who doesn’t love treasure? And there are piles of it here. Coins, gems, magic weapons, and armor. Everything an adventurer could want. But apparently, I have raised the kind of child that doesn’t let anything come too easily. I blame years of telling him to clean his room.
Something lives in the piles of treasure. Well, lives may not be the word. A pair of dread wraiths haul ass out of the coins like a demonically possessed Scrooge McDuck. Dread Wraiths, as I am sure you know, are not kind creatures. My son equally so. With a plethora of enemies at his disposal, he hand picked the wraiths because, of course, they looked cool.
“Rule of cool.”
Section 7 – The False Exit: “The iron door opens to a long hallway with a simple wooden door at the end. Hanging over the door is a small sign that says ‘EXIT’. The walls of this hall are bare.”
The characters beat the bad guys, got the treasure, and managed to live. Now it is time to get out and enjoy the spoils. Except, this isn’t an actual entrance. That wooden door leads to nothing. The hall, on the other hand, does lead somewhere, and it’s nowhere good.
The hall, according to my spawn, is like a seesaw. If more than one character heads to the door, the weight will tilt the entire floor, effectively turning the hall into a massive chute. A chute to where?
Well… Nightmareville, basically.
Room 8 – Arena With Two WHATS?!: “The chute leads to what looks like a large arena with a dirt floor. Empty seats encircle the arena, void of spectators. Two large creatures hover above the ground. They have massive, fanged mouths with a sickeningly huge, singular eye. A number of stocks jut from this monstrous floating head, each with an eye of its own.”
“Eye see what you did there.”
I had to ask him three times to be sure. He was sure. Not only had he taken the notion of escape from the players, he pitted them up against not one, but two beholders, or as he called it, “The monster on the front of the book.”
“No. Just no.”
The fight is pretty straightforward, or at least as straightforward as a fight with two beholders can be. All the characters need to do is defeat them and they can get out. According to my son, the door only opens when both are dead.
I don’t think everyone will be getting out of this one alive.
“Kids these days.”
There we are. Short, simple, brutal. I should be making some comment about child-like innocence, but honestly, after that… I think he might be pure evil.
The kid has a promising future as a Game Master.
Roll well, my friends,
UNUSUAL BEGINNINGS TO ADVENTURES, CAMPAIGNS, AND QUESTS
Below are to be found descriptions and entries I have created regarding unusual ways to begin Adventures, Campaigns, and Quests for various kinds of Role Playing and Tabletop Games.
Though they could also be used as the basis and genesis of other types of games as well, for example LARPS and Alternative Reality games.
I intend to provide beginning scenarios for various types and genres of games: Contemporary, Detective, Fantasy, Historical, Horror, Science Fiction, and Wargames. To name a few.
I will make such posts on every occasion I have the free time to develop them. Also these scenarios will be different from the scenarios I have developed specifically for my own Setting and World. Those will be listed separately under the Category – The Other World
Feel free to take the names of places and characters mentioned in these scenarios (or even the basic structures of the scenarios) and alter them to fit your own gaming worlds or situations. These are, of course, merely suggestions. I describe these scenarios to give DMs and GMs far better, more original and more unique methods of starting games than, “your party meets in a tavern,” or “you all hear a rumor.”
So modify and use these beginning scenarios as you will. They are meant to stimulate original situations and your imaginations, not to dictate terms and conditions.
Tonight I will begin with Four Fantasy Scenarios for beginning adventures or campaigns: Infiltration of the Fertilands, The Secret Missionaries, The Sky From Long Ago, and The Long Road to Disaster.
Infiltration of the Fertilands – The Senate of Alaria has decided to clear an area of land 7 and ½ leagues north of the city-state (an area called the Losharian fertilands) to provide timber and resources for a proclaimed public works building project, and to establish a new frontier’s garrison and outpost for the city to ward off raiding attacks by local barbarians. However three separate surveying teams and their armed recon in force escorts (at least for the second and third attempts) have disappeared when sent to the location.
The Senate has decided to send an expeditionary force of 1500 men to investigate and clear the area of potential hostiles, but before they can vote on the measure or dispatch the forces the chief architect in charge of the new building program approaches your party and asks you to undertake the task of infiltrating the target area in secret, to see if you can discover the cause of the disappearance of the previous teams. You are charged with secrecy in your mission (you can discuss it with no one) and if you are successful the architect not only promises that you will be richly rewarded in pay but that the Senate will award you tax free lands on which you may establish estates and villas of your own. He also hints at the possibility of awards (Champion of the City), public acclaim, and possibly even junior seats on the Senate.
However since the mission would be kept entirely confidential he can offer you no initial assistance other than to provide you with information on how to find the Losharian fertilands.
But he does offer you two pieces of advice. First, do not drink the waters of the fertiland even if it is rainwater which falls during a storm. And secondly, watch the rivers, creeks, waterways, and marshes at all times. They may hide dangerous enemies and hidden perils.
The Secret Missionaries – Your party is called to the Great Temple of the Sacred Hierophants after nightfall one evening. The Church of Adaltorn, the Last Hierophant, in the city of Ramara Passea has decided upon a missionary program of expansion Eastwards. They wish to convert the rich, independent merchant cities east of the river Venwaldros, which they feel would be very open to their doctrine. However to the south of the narrow strip of unclaimed no-man’s land of the Venwaldros lies the fierce (and some say cannibalistic) barbarian tribes of the Colmar Confederacy, and to the north of the river in this unclaimed area lies the Imperial outposts of the Srechalt. All of which are hostile to both the Church and to Ramara Passea. This narrow strip of land and the thin thread of the Venwaldros which passes through it is called Reedbrake (for its high and musical reeds, which go silent when anything passes through them)) and it is the only safe passage from Ramara Passea to the East.
The church has sent scouting teams of monks and priests along the river which have either had to turn back after being attacked or were simply lost, their true fates unknown.
The church is willing to produce an indulgence in the names of each of your party (meaning you will be free from both local taxes and tithes for a period of ten years), to pay you a stipend for three years, to Bless each member of your party, and to secure you Writs of Absolute Non-Hindrance from the city fathers if you can help them find a safe passage through the Reedbrake so that their monks and priests may travel securely and unmolested from Ramara Passea to the eastern merchant cities. They will also equip your expedition and provide you with river-craft, a barbarian scout (a recent convert) familiar with the Colmar, and three warrior monks as servants and men at arms to assist you.
The Sky From Long Ago – The retired Sage Geirwovan (rumored to have once been the famous Wizard Taleorstir) has sent every member of your party a formal and very decorative invitation to visit his mansion six miles from the outskirts of the Ulorian borderlands.
When you accept and reach your destination you are shown to the Sage’s Tower and observatory where the ancient and bent Geirwovan greets you warmly and feeds and shelters your entire party. After a late dinner and entertainment by a very talented female bard (whom Geirwovan identifies as his personal Bard, the Lady Yurliel) you are ushered back to the Sage’s Tower where Geirwovan accompanies you to the roof. Briefly after sunset (far too soon after sunset) the entire sky is afire with stars but of very unusual constellations that you have never before seen. Some of these constellations seem to come alive, take on weird and fantastical shapes of creatures you have never seen before, and to move about and even battle one another. Stars flare and flash, changing colors or becoming briefly too bright to look upon. The moon rings like a giant gong. The tower itself seems to shake. Comets flash across the sky and explode by impacting one another. Then the entire sky goes absolutely black and a few moments after that returns to normal, as it would appear on any other cloudless and moonless night shortly after nightfall.
Geirwovan then takes you back into the tower where each of you feels weird and uncanny, as if you have just witnessed something unnatural, supernatural, and/or very spectacular and unnerving.
Geirwovan makes no comment and ignores all questions to explain and instead spreads out a series of complex maps upon an antique drafting table and begins to explain how rewarding it would be and how much you would all benefit by reaching a particular destination. One he repeatedly shows on the different maps. (The maps are also all filled with odd glyphs and scripts and indicated locales you have never heard of or seen mentioned before.)
Then Geirwovan tells you of the fabulous riches, both mundane and magical, that can be found at that destination though he will not describe the particulars nor disclose any details about what else may lay at the destination. He tells you that if you will go to that location then you will understand what he means and that you will understand what you saw in the sky. He asks only two things: 1. that when you arrive you do what is appropriate, and 2. return to him all that you find so that he may examine it and then he will keep only one article, a small silver coin of unremarkable design. You may keep all else that you find and there will also be another reward awaiting you upon completion of your expedition. If you agree then he will hand you one of the maps which he says will guide you unerringly to your destination but that you must never venture from the route it dictates for the map is untrustworthy otherwise and you may find yourselves lost in such a way that you will be unable to return. He also offers to allow you to take his bard Yurliel with you if you so wish.
The Long Road to Disaster – The Lord of Merchants and Commander of the Merchants at Arms have called your party to the Tent of Foreign Prizes in the Agora of Kroipos to discuss an urgent matter. They explain to you that they have recently (within the past year) opened up a new trade route to the Far South, through the desert of Samorah, that they call the Elidian Road. (Elidia being what some rumors declare to be a semi-mythical and legendary city of peculiar and unique wealth located in the Far South.)
Within the past six months no fewer than four separate and well-armed caravan trains have been ambushed and destroyed or lost. By what the Commander describes as a well-organized, large, ruthless band of experienced brigands, raiders, and thieves.
Searchers and follow up teams have only recovered small bits of debris or valueless remains from the ambushed caravans and the losses to merchants in the area have been sunstantial and heavy indeed. Armed scouting parties sent by the city have discovered nothing and have been of almost no help.
Only three survivors have escaped thus far, two from one caravan (the first attacked) and one from the second caravan. No other survivors have surfaced or are accounted for.
Both the Lord of Merchants and the Commander of Arms ask if you will entertain shadowing the next caravan to be dispatched along the Elidian Road to see if you can discover who is responsible for these raids and possibly help save the caravan from being plundered and destroyed. If not can you then follow the attackers to discover their identities and base of operations so that a military force can be dispatched to kill them all.
Neither wants you to be part of the armed military and merchant force of the caravan so that if the attackers arrive in overwhelming force you may survive and bring back invaluable Intel on the parties responsible. They only want you shadowing the caravan unless it is obvious you could actually safely protect and rescue the caravan if it is attacked. Both Merchants promise you will be richly rewarded for your efforts. Though neither will describe precisely how or in what form.
After the meeting the Commander of the Merchant at Arms leaves but the Lord of Merchants pulls your party aside in confidence and tells you that his nephew will be accompanying this caravan in order that he may be trained in commerce. As is the custom at his age. This being his Voyage of Initiation. The boy has instructions that if the caravan is attacked he is to flee to the safety of your group or if necessary you are to rescue him and flee after discovering what you can of the enemy. He promises to reward you separately for this action and he tells you that aside from his nephew and the head merchant of the caravan no one in the group will even know of your existence or that you shadow the train. So he says it is imperative that the caravan not discover your presence either. You must also never mention this side deal involving his nephew. Especially not to the Commander at Arms, who would consider such actions cowardly and dishonorable.
He also tells you that he has personally interviewed the three survivors of the previous attacks. One is now dead of unknown reasons, one is in a long sleep from which they will not awaken (coma), and one appears to be mad. But before these things happened the survivors described weird things occurring during the attacks and despite the Commander’s opinions to the contrary the Lord of Merchants is not at all convinced this is the work of brigands or caravan raiders. In fact he says that he does not believe any raiders are involved at all. But he will not elaborate on his suspicions.
He will only say that he once read a passage in a book in the Far South that said that long ago the skies were poisoned by an unknown creature so that ghosts and dead men rained upon the living.
Also, feel free to suggest your own ideas in the comments below, or tell me if you’d like to see Beginning Scenarios for certain types of games, particular subject matters, or for specific gaming genres.
ESSAYS ON GAME DESIGN
Essay Thirteen: Scientifica Magica
Now before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion, based only upon the title of this post, let me state clearly that I am not one of those gamers or writers who favor turning magic (in either game or fiction) into a mere exercise in science and technology under a different name. I am not for “scientificizing magic.”
I am not in favor of turning either game magic or fictional magic into science by another name, nor am I one of those who favor making magic operate under closely regulated and studied rules of scientific function or with mathematical precision. I like my magic wild, uncontrolled to some degree, definitely unpredictable, prone to malfunction and misfire, and in most other ways outright dangerous.
(You know, much like a woman. Now I say that half-jokingly, but only half jokingly. To me science and technology should operate like a man – with precision, with mathematical certainty, with rules, with predictability. Now am I saying all men are this way? God no, and I can only wish. I know real people as they truly are, you see, and that is merely a philosophical postulate of how male types would operate ideally, logically, and rationally. Sort of like saying all Vulcans should be like Spock.
On the other hand women should be unpredictable, without Newtonian mathematical precision, with emotional flare and passion, fuzzy and quantum at the edges, hard to pin down, and in more than one way, truly dangerous. Generalizations of course, and type generalizations as well, but they make the point. Magic to me should not be Science and science should not be magic despite all the modern Geekery in games and fiction that would have them be, in effect, merely interchangeable and fungible concepts for the same thing.)
Science should be amazing in what it can achieve but predictable in how it operates, Magic should be almost miraculous in what it achieves but largely unpredictable and untamed in both technical function and in its methods of operation. The very point of science is to be controlled and safe, reliable and commonplace, not dangerous, for a dangerous and rare science defeats the very purpose and function of being scientific. On the other hand the very essence of magic is to be rare, uncontrolled – especially in comparison to science and the mundane – and unreliable. For indeed if you have a magic that is too easy to control, utterly predictable, reliable, safe, and ubiquitous then you don’t really have Magic at all, you simply have science under the flimsy and inaccurate guise and faulty nomenclature of “magic.”)
Now all of that being said there is one way in which I favor the intersection of magic and science and that is in the analytical and detective capabilities of modern science, which often border closely upon the frontiers of what I would actually call magic. Or at least magical in effect.
Being an amateur scientist and having a near lifelong interest in physics, forensics, archaeology, medicine, chemistry and biochemistry I often keep up to date on new papers and techniques in those fields and have recently been studying several superb new and relatively new methods of analyzing, collating, detecting, examining, and understanding archaeological and forensic evidence. Such as the use of LIDAR, magnetic surface and subsurface scans, satellite imagery sweeps in the infrared, multiple data source computer modeling, etc.
In thinking on those things and what they can accomplish it has recently occurred to me that a new type of “magic” (of a kind rarely ever encountered in gaming and fiction) could easily be developed to mimic such scientific technologies without necessarily being limited to being scientific in operation.
For instance I have recently begun developing “spells” for both game and fictional use that mimic such new discovery techniques without presenting themselves in a scientific or predictable manner. I won’t specifically describe these “magics” in detail or enumerate the spells themselves as that would take too long and as one could easily develop multiple spells from these general categories in any case, but I will briefly describe a couple of these “spell types” for you to consider in developing your own magics in this regard.
1. REENLIVENING SPELLS – Spells which cast a glamour over an area or other target and can then present, in a complex still or even a moving image, the events that occurred long ago in a particular area, concerning certain bodily remains, etc. For instance the spell could take you back into time (figuratively speaking) to see events that had occurred long in the past, such as making you privy to a particular conversation, an event in the life of a person long dead, to witness a long forgotten or unrecorded (or even an historical) event so that you could view such things occurring for yourself. These would be very different spells from something like Speak with Dead because you would be an observer and witness, not a conversant, and such results would not be limited to mere third party descriptions but rather you would be a first hand, though passive, observer.
2. RECONSTRUCTION SPELLS – Spells which cast a glamour over an area of building or object and that allows you to see that area or building or object as it looked at another period (of the past), say at the point of its making or shaping or construction. Via the use of such an enchantment you could see a building as it is designed and constructed, an object as it is manufactured, or perhaps even several different time periods (in sequence or simultaneously overlain against one another) and their interactions, tracing the construction or object through time to several different time-points to gain detailed information about its history.
3. REENACTMENT SPELLS – Spells which cast a glamour over a large area or maybe a specific person or set of remains that allows one to view, hear, feel, taste, smell, and magically touch the reenactment of a famous battle, an unknown war, the forging of a weapon, a day in the life or an individual, or even the vision, trance, or dream of another individual or creature. The emphasis here would not be merely upon the gathering of information or the witnessing of an event, but more directly upon a sort of shared (or in this case reenacted/relived) past experience. Perhaps such a spell would actually allow you to become another person, another creature, or even an inanimate (but magically aware) object for a certain period of time.
4. RECREATION SPELLS – Spells which cast a glamour upon a particular object, building, device, etc. that can recreate a visual, interactive image of the same. Higher levels spells of this type can actually recreate a physically real or similar mock-up of the original object based upon the information gathered from the object remains by the initial glamour. Still higher level spells can recreate usable approximations of even formerly magical objects (though the magic contained in the reconstructed objects may be limited) and the very highest level such recreation spells can even recreate working (though not necessarily magical in any way) models of previously lost artifacts and relics (assuming there are any remains left for the glamour to read).
5. PROJECTION SPELLS – One of the other types of spells would have to be enacted first, but, once that was done, and using the information or experiences gathered from that initial set of magics a spell caster could then seek to work a secondary set of spells that would allow one to project what would happen in the future regarding one’s chosen target or set of targets. For instance say you were in an existing castle, you could then use a projection spell to analyze and predict how it might fall to ruins, what part of the construction would be destroyed, what parts preserved, why, and by what agencies of destruction or even of renovation or preservation.
As I said above I will not enumerate the specific spells I have developed using these categories or ideas of magical effects because I don’t want to limit your imagination to my conceptions. I think every DM or player or writer ought to develop their own ideas regarding the specifics of this concept.
However I will say this, that when it comes to the operations of “magic” in my own milieus and worlds and writings every use of magic is at least tinged, and sometimes heavily tainted, with the possibility of danger, misdirection, and even failure and misfire. For instance considering the spell types above perhaps the information gleaned from such a spell will be entirely accurate, then again perhaps the work will be only partially accurate, or even mostly inaccurate. Perhaps the caster intends to see an image of one particular fortification or construction site and what he actually sees is an entirely different site. Perhaps the spell will fail entirely (with no discernable consequence or with great and dire consequence). Perhaps the spell will erroneously mix information from several different objects together and produce an amalgam of an object that does not really exist. Perhaps the spell will cause a “Rogue Projection” that will attempt to divine or even produce an unanticipated future rather than accurately display the past. Or perhaps the spell will draw the unwanted attention of some dangerous creature or being that is monitoring or warding the intended target.
The dangers surrounding the use of such magics, as with the use of any such game or fictional magic, could be nearly inexhaustible.
And I fully encourage such dangers, just as I encourage the dangers inherent in the use of any magic.
Magic is, after all, not science. And it should not operate like science. Even when it closely mimics the basic functions of science and technology (as in the case of the “spells” described above), it should be remain essentially separate and distinct in operational methods and in general nature.
For even if magic yields an essentially scientific purpose this does not mean that it should in any way reproduce a technological outcome or result.
It should always remain dangerous, rare, unpredictable, mysterious, and “magical.”
Otherwise it is mere science under another name
THE KITS AND THE KITS AND THE KITS
You know, it makes an awful lotta sense that, especially in the early stages of their career, and in a world in which such things were common, there would develop pre-designed “kits” for various professions. Just as existed for soldiers.
Of course such kits would vary by race certainly, likely by geographic region (terrain, weather patterns, availability to water and shelter, limes and outpost proximity, etc.), and perhaps even by nationality or economic strength or technological capability or even just by preferred design modes. Or by such factors as item or material availability.
And absolutely such kits would vary with experience and exposure. My gear and equipment kits and carries have changed considerably over time as I have learned what gear is likely to be needed, what is likely never to be needed, what is truly useful, as equipment designs have changed, as far better tools and multi-tools have developed. And in certain situations I know I will need certain kits and stocks, and in other situations I will need different kits and tools, though overlap almost always occurs with some items. (You will always need a lighter, always need binocs, always need a knife, etc.) And I have encouraged both my players (and those I have known in real life) to develop their own kits specific to their own experiences and professions and to develop complimentary kits so that people in a team avoid redundancy or over-burdening themselves to no real point. (If one or two guys carry a hatchet then not every team member need do so as long as they do indeed work as a team and remain cohesive. One machete a team is usually sufficient, but everyone carries water and a knife.)
But this is, if you ask me, as excellent idea (and I know previous versions of different games have toyed with similar ideas in other forms), basic starter kits for various professions (not just tool sets) followed by highly individualized and special function kits as one gains experience.
(For instance a Ranger’s Urban Kit, used while tracking an assassin in a city would be quite different from his Wilderness Kit while tracking foreign raiders involved in frontier skirmishes. Money would likely be plentiful in an urban kit to pay bribes and develop informant networks, money is practically useless on the frontier.)
So you could have all kinds of Kits, such as General Profession Kits (Combatant Starter Kits, Magic User Starter Kits), down to Class Kits (Paladin’s Kit and Barbarian’s Kit) to Special Function Kits (Urban versus Wilderness Kits) to Highly Specialized Specific Mission Kits of the very experienced Adventurer and Team Member and even all the way down to the Sole or Single Operative who might act as an Undercover Operative, an Agent, or a Spy.
Then again you could have Special Gear and Special Weapon Kits designed for very refined purposes, such as thieves tools, medical and first aid kits, field chemical kits, firestarting kits, business kits, inscribing kits, disguise kits, instrument kits, weapon kits, even kits to be used against specific opponents (tactical kits).
Kits like this (of all kinds and of different levels of complexity) would be extremely useful. Especially Emergency Kits deposited at known locales, at dead-drops, and at safe houses to be recovered as needed.
Not my work but I fund the idea to be very interesting… see title link for .pdf download
I have downloaded and begun examining this gaming system. Although in my own system I do retain some character class system, and have invented others, I also have a parallel system that is very similar to this one. As a matter of fact several things about this system are similar to my own, such as the Virtues.
So, overall, and initially, I have a very favorable opinion of this gaming system. It seems a little overly-complicated to me in sections but that may just be an initial presumption.
That being said, however, from what I can tell so far it is an extremely well thought out and well written gaming system and set of mechanics.
It’s in beta and free to download. I did so and recommend that you do so as well if you are interested and wish to examine the game and it’s design approach to Role Play.
You can simply follow the title link in this post or go here for the available downloads:
By the way this sounds very much like the line of reasoning that was the basis for developing my own Role Play system of gaming. Though I also came out of a wargaming background (like Gygax, only I was younger) and had much interest in better representing combat on both the large (large group, strategic, wargaming) and small (small team, tactical, personal) scales.
During the course of their adventures, our heroes are likely to slay many evil wizards (and loot their bodies).
Sadly, most such individuals seem to never carry anything beyond a spell component pouch, a few magic items and some loose coinage. Not only is this boring it’s also utterly lacking in verisimilitude—after all, everyone carries odds and ends in their pockets. Use the table below, to generate such items of minor interest and make looting the body of a slain wizard much more interesting!
- An amulet comprising a single, yellowed dragon’s tooth suspended from a leather thong. A rune for protection is carved into the tooth.
- A small flask of powered silver (worth 50 gp). The leather flask itself has a small strap allowing it to be carried over the shoulder.
- A silver dagger concealed is concealed in one of the wizard’s boots. The dagger is clearly unused—its blade is sharp and polished to a high sheen.
- A silver bracelet from which hang a number of charms. Each is decorated with a single rune—fire, water, air, earth, dragon, devil, demon—among them. The whole thing is worth 75 gp.
- A leather scroll tube crudely painted bright blue. It is stoppered with a leather bung that clips into the place. The bung has been painted red.
- These fine leather boots have a number of small, unobtrusive pockets hidden inside. Most of the pockets hold commonly available spell components, but two hold a single platinum coin.
- This plain scroll tube contains several pieces of parchment the wizard used to make observations of the stars. These comprise several complicated diagrams of various constellations and cryptic notes regarding “the wanderer.”
- The torn and scorched cover of “Agananzar’s Workbook” is wrapped in cloth and hidden in the wizard’s pack. Sadly nothing else of the book’s contents remains.
- A pouch contains a variety of small bones—probably finger bones—clearly “harvested” from a variety of different creatures. Each is in pristine condition—all the skin having been boiled away.
- Three empty potion vials; one is marked “invisibility” while the other two smell slightly of cinnamon.
- A locket holding a lock of coarse black hair. It is evident from the hair’s texture—and the slight smell of rotten eggs—the hair is not from a natural source.
- A dozen small semi-circular stones worn perfectly smooth. An esoteric rune—depicting various types of magic—adorns each stone.
- A slender belt pouch specially treated to be waterproof. Inside the pouch, the wizard stored a variety of dried herbs. Each bunch is tied together with twine.
- The shattered stub of a wooden stake. Black blood covers the stake’s tip. Barely visible under the blood is some kind of rune, but its meaning is impossible to determine as part of it is missing.
- Three quills wrapped in an ink-stained cloth and two small vials of ink—red and black—all carried in a small pouch along with several scraps of crumpled parchment.
- A bent iron spike, the head of a hammer and a shard of incredibly tough stone.
- A black velvet cloth inlaid with golden thread wrapped around a dried and perfectly preserved red rose. The rose’s thorns are yet sharp and its flower emits a particular heady scent.
- A small treatise depicting the various protective circles—against good, evil and so on—along with notes on how to quickly create such protective barriers. A perceptive reader skilled in spellcraft spots several of the diagrams are fatally flawed.
- A flask of holy water and a flask of unholy water—both clearly labelled in Elven—along with a fine painter’s brush, two owlbear feathers and one gigantic feather (perhaps from a roc or other huge bird).
- A small red velvet pouch. The pouch is all but empty—however a determined examination reveals a few flecks of diamond dust stuck to the pouch’s lining.
GOING BLIND INTO THE DARK
If you ask me ancient archaeological sites like these make for superb adventure and dungeon and plot locales, though of a very different type than the standard dungeon or adventure site.
Very bizarre artefacts, relics, objects, events, rituals, and creatures could easily exist at such sites. I often use modified Real World archaeological sites and place them in my games and novels and stories because they are so ancient, rich, and full of odd and often unexplainable things. (As a matter of fact I have an entirely separate category of “adventure and plot locales” when it comes to ancient and prehistoric archaeological sites for my writings and designs, including the artefacts and events discovered/recovered there.)
It is very good to have odd and unexplainable things in your writings and in your games and milieus that the players and readers can try, like everyone else, to figure out, but can’t really understand, deduce, or explain.
Unknown or unexplained or recently discovered archaeological sites are superbly interesting because unlike many other sites they have already passed into pre-history (or out of history) or little to nothing is known about them until they are accidentally stumbled upon again (by completely different peoples and characters, etc.), and because, of course, they tend to be so ancient all memory of them has been subsequently lost. And of course many of these unknown and unrecorded sites tend to be megalithic and absolutely gargantuan in nature, consisting of many vanished layers of development. Entire campaigns and years and years of adventures, not to mention book sequels, can easily be written around such sites. And, of course, one site often bleeds into another.
That’s a superbly good state of affairs for the reader or player (going blind into the dark or going blind back into the far more ancient things), but it is an entirely excellent thing for the writer and the game designer/game master.
Because at such sites the entirely unexpected and the wholly forgotten should be the most common expectation and the most dangerous memory.
By RALPH BLUMENTHALOCT. 30, 2015
One of the enormous earthwork configurations photographed from space is known as the Ushtogaysky Square, named after the nearest village in Kazakhstan. Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA
High in the skies over Kazakhstan, space-age technology has revealed an ancient mystery on the ground.
Satellite pictures of a remote and treeless northern steppe reveal colossal earthworks — geometric figures of squares, crosses, lines and rings the size of several football fields, recognizable only from the air and the oldest estimated at 8,000 years old.
The largest, near a Neolithic settlement, is a giant square of 101 raised mounds, its opposite corners connected by a diagonal cross, covering more terrain than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Another is a kind of three-limbed swastika, its arms ending in zigzags bent counterclockwise.
Described last year at an archaeology conference in Istanbul as unique and previously unstudied, the earthworks, in the Turgai region of northern Kazakhstan, number at least 260 — mounds, trenches and ramparts — arrayed in five basic shapes.
The Bestamskoe Ring is among the so-called Steppe Geoglyphs in Kazakhstan — at least 260 earthwork shapes made up of mounds, trenches and ramparts, the oldest estimated at 8,000 years old, recognizable only from the air. Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA
Two weeks ago, in the biggest sign so far of official interest in investigating the sites, NASA released clear satellite photographs of some of the figures from about 430 miles up.
“I’ve never seen anything like this; I found it remarkable,” said Compton J. Tucker, a senior biospheric scientist for NASA in Washington who provided the archived images, taken by the satellite contractor DigitalGlobe, to Mr. Dey and The New York Times.
Ronald E. LaPorte, a University of Pittsburgh scientist who helped publicize the finds, called NASA’s involvement “hugely important” in mobilizing support for further research.
This week, NASA put space photography of the region on a task list for astronauts in the International Space Station. “It may take some time for the crew to take imagery of your site since we are under the mercy of sun elevation angles, weather constraints and crew schedule,” Melissa Higgins of Mission Operations emailed Dr. LaPorte.
The archived images from NASA add to the extensive research that Mr. Dey compiled this year in a PowerPoint lecture translated from Russian to English.
“I don’t think they were meant to be seen from the air,” Mr. Dey, 44, said in an interview from his hometown, Kostanay, dismissing outlandish speculations involving aliens and Nazis. (Long before Hitler, the swastika was an ancient and near-universal design element.) He theorizes that the figures built along straight lines on elevations were “horizontal observatories to track the movements of the rising sun.”
Kazakhstan, a vast, oil-rich former Soviet republic that shares a border with China, has moved slowly to investigate and protect the finds, scientists say, generating few news reports.
“I was worried this was a hoax,” said Dr. LaPorte, an emeritus professor of epidemiology at Pittsburgh who noticed a report on the finds last year while researching diseases in Kazakhstan.
With the help of James Jubilee, a former American arms control officer and now a senior science and technology coordinator for health issues in Kazakhstan, Dr. LaPorte tracked down Mr. Dey through the State Department, and his images and documentation quickly convinced them of the earthworks’ authenticity and importance. They sought photos from KazCosmos, the country’s space agency, and pressed local authorities to seek urgent Unesco protection for the sites — so far without luck.
The earthworks, including the Turgai Swastika, were spotted on Google Earth in 2007 by Dmitriy Dey, a Kazakh archaeology enthusiast. Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA
In the Cretaceous Period 100 million years ago, Turgai was bisected by a strait from what is now the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean. The rich lands of the steppe were a destination for Stone Age tribes seeking hunting grounds, and Mr. Dey’s research suggests that the Mahandzhar culture, which flourished there from 7,000 B.C. to 5,000 B.C., could be linked to the older figures. But scientists marvel that a nomadic population would have stayed in place for the time required to fell and lay timber for ramparts, and to dig out lake bed sediments to construct the huge mounds, originally 6 to 10 feet high and now 3 feet high and nearly 40 feet across.
Persis B. Clarkson, an archaeologist at the University of Winnipeg who viewed some of Mr. Dey’s images, said these figures and similar ones in Peru and Chile were changing views about early nomads.
“The idea that foragers could amass the numbers of people necessary to undertake large-scale projects — like creating the Kazakhstan geoglyphs — has caused archaeologists to deeply rethink the nature and timing of sophisticated large-scale human organization as one that predates settled and civilized societies,” Dr. Clarkson wrote in an email.
“Enormous efforts” went into the structures, agreed Giedre Motuzaite Matuzeviciute, an archaeologist from Cambridge University and a lecturer at Vilnius University in Lithuania, who visited two of the sites last year. She said by email that she was dubious about calling the structures geoglyphs — a term applied to the enigmatic Nazca Lines in Peru that depict animals and plants — because geoglyphs “define art rather than objects with function.”
Dr. Matuzeviciute and two archaeologists from Kostanay University, Andrey Logvin and Irina Shevnina, discussed the figures at a meeting of European archaeologists in Istanbul last year.
With no genetic material to analyze — neither of the two mounds that have been dug into is a burial site — Dr. Matuzeviciute said she used optically stimulated luminescence, a method of measuring doses from ionizing radiation, to analyze the construction material, and came up with a date from one of the mounds of around 800 B.C. Other preliminary studies push the earliest date back more than 8,000 years, which could make them the oldest such creations ever found. Other materials yield dates in the Middle Ages.
Mr. Dey said some of the figures might have been solar observatories akin, according to some theories, to Stonehenge in England and the Chankillo towers in Peru.
“Everything is linked through the cult of the sun,” said Mr. Dey, who spoke in Russian via Skype through an interpreter, Shalkar Adambekov, a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh.
The discovery was happenstance.
Researchers are hoping to marshal support for investigating the earthen mounds that make up figures like this one, the Big Ashutastinsky Cross. Credit DigitalGlobe, via NASA
In March 2007, Mr. Dey was at home watching a program, “Pyramids, Mummies and Tombs,” on the Discovery Channel. “There are pyramids all over the earth,” he recalled thinking. “In Kazakhstan, there should be pyramids, too.”
Soon, he was searching Google Earth images of Kostanay and environs.
There were no pyramids. But, he said, about 200 miles to the south he saw something as intriguing — a giant square, more than 900 feet on each side, made up of dots, crisscrossed by a dotted X.
At first Mr. Dey thought it might be a leftover Soviet installation, perhaps one of Nikita S. Khrushchev’s experiments to cultivate virgin land for bread production. But the next day, Mr. Dey saw a second gigantic figure, the three-legged, swastikalike form with curlicue tips, about 300 feet in diameter.
Before the year was out, Mr. Dey had found eight more squares, circles and crosses. By 2012, there were 19. Now his log lists 260, including some odd mounds with two drooping lines called “whiskers” or “mustaches.”
Before setting out to look for the figures on the ground, Mr. Dey asked Kazakh archaeologists whether they knew of such things. The answer was no. In August 2007, he led Dr. Logvin and others to the largest figure, now called the Ushtogaysky Square, named after the nearest village.
“It was very, very hard to understand from the ground,” he recalled. “The lines are going to the horizon. You can’t figure out what the figure is.”
When they dug into one of the mounds, they found nothing. “It was not a cenotaph, where there are belongings,” he said. But nearby they found artifacts of a Neolithic settlement 6,000 to 10,000 years old, including spear points.
Now, Mr. Dey said, “the plan is to construct a base for operations.”
“We cannot dig up all the mounds. That would be counterproductive,” he said. “We need modern technologies, like they have in the West.”
Dr. LaPorte said he, Mr. Dey and their colleagues were also looking into using drones, as the Culture Ministry in Peru has been doing to map and protect ancient sites.
But time is an enemy, Mr. Dey said. One figure, called the Koga Cross, was substantially destroyed by road builders this year. And that, he said, “was after we notified officials.”
Adventurers are intrepid types and often disappear into the wilderness in search of gold and glory. Many such adventures seem to happen in the furthest reaches of barren deserts.
Use the table below, to breath life into adventures set in a desert. None of the happenings listed below are intended to spawn a full encounter; rather think of them as wilderness dressing designed to add realism and depth to proceedings.
- A lone desiccated tree emerges from the flank of a large dune standing across the party’s march. Its wide, frond-like leaves provide a modicum of shadow—and a brief respite—from the merciless sun.
- A smudge of black smoke stains the horizon. If the PCs investigate they discover three burning wagons along with the slashed and torn bodies of their drovers and guards scattered about the churned, bloodstained sand.
- Tracks—of at least a half-dozen humanoids—cross the party’s path. A PC steeped in wilderness lore can determine the creatures were trying to move single-file (perhaps to hide their numbers) and they were heavily leaden.
- In the valley between two dunes, the remains of a crumbling dry stone wall struggles above the sands. Its line straggles along for about 15 ft. before disappearing below the sands.
- A camel’s stark white bones lie amid the shifting sands.
- A small flock of buzzards circle the party for several hours, before losing interest and flying away.
- Heat rises in shimmering curtains. On the horizon, keen-eyed characters can make out what might be a small caravan trudging across the burning hot sands.
- A lone cloud scuds across the sky. Bizarrely it seems to be moving against the wind.
- A metal helmet—scorching hot to the touch—lies in the sand. Slightly further on, the party find a heavy steel shield and still later a breastplate scoured to near-blinding brightness by the wind-driven sand.
- In the shade of a deep valley between two towering sand dunes lies a seemingly dried up oasis surrounded by forlorn palm trees and stubborn, coarse grass. Characters digging in the dried up pool discover water several feet down.
- The sun reflects off something shiny on a far-off dune. The flash of light catches one of the party’s attention. Investigations (eventually) reveal a partially buried steel shield. The sigil of a local knoll tribe is crude daubed across it.
- Seven rocks—placed to form an arrow—point back in the direction from which the party has come. Small drifts of sand around the stones suggest they will not be visible much longer.
- A ripped and torn carpet lies half buried in the sand. The worn fabric is wrapped around the desiccated body of a man wearing only a loincloth. Perceptive PCs notice it seems nearly every bone in the man’s body is broken—in the same way as if he had fallen from a great height.
- The mouldering body of a hyena lies amid a swath of bloodstained sand. Two arrows protrude from its body and a pack of buzzards peck and tear at its flesh.
- A pack of hyenas trail the party. They hang back well out of bow range, waiting for someone in the group to collapse. If attacked, they retreat in search of easier prey.
- A sandstorm blows across the horizon. Luckily for the PCs it is not heading in their direction.
- The party encounters a wide “field” of cacti. Many of the prickly plants are as tall as human. In the centre of the field lies a small oasis. Because of the cacti, the oasis is relatively safe from wandering predators.
- The party encounters an area of particularly soft sand. Although this is not quicksand, it makes travel even harder than normal. The area is quite extensive—several miles across in fact—but diverting around it could add a day to the party’s journey.
- The wind and shifting sands reveal the remains of an old battle. Skeletons scoured bright white by the sands lie where they fell. Amid the carnage lies the combatants’ desiccated and rusted equipment.
- The party witnesses a savage storm ahead. Later—as night falls—they encounter an area of rock upland scoured free of sand. Near its peak they discover a cave containing a worn set of steps leading down into darkness…
GM’s Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing
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