Friday 26 May 2023

Modular Ecology

Been playing that Zelda game everyone’s on about, and rereading Dungeon Meshi (trailer just came out for the tv version!) and thinking about the way they do ecology, and started folding those thoughts into a Graverobbers thing I’m working on (not the current thing, the next thing).

What I’ve landed on is a hopefully practical approach to including gameable ecology in adventure games. I think crafting systems that ape video games can very quickly fall into tedium, and abstracted versions don’t really jive with the strict inventory-based playstyle I’m aiming for.

The long and short of it is defining materials by location. Zelda, for instance, has plants that grow in hot/cold places only, but also ones that grow in, say, quiet places, which I think is a very nice bit of magical thinking. Dungeon Meshi defines all its dungeon inhabitants in relation to one another in a more complex system suited to its medium, but I’m drawing inspiration from that overall vibe too.

So, for example, in the full version of A Pocket Guide to Smocklehythe, I introduce “coffin rot”, a black fungus which grows “only on an unloved grave”. Or, we might say that the flower “mourner’s tears” requires the opposite - the grave of someone dearly missed, plus plenty of water and not too much warmth or light.

The big advantage of this as I see it is its modularity - I can define the prerequisites for a plant’s growth within a single section of a book, then not have to bring it up again elsewhere. We know that trolrushes grow only by slow rivers and under bridges, so we can assume that every bridge over a slow river mentioned in this book is a good place to find them. In this way the players and GMs who want to bring this up, focus on it, or use the information practically can do so, without sacrificing the flow or efficiency of the text.

The bigger picture then is that this extends to other modules, past and present. Graverobbers assumes all its adventures take place within one city, so if players encounter a bridge over a slow river in another adventure - one I wrote years ago without thinking, or later on without wanting to reference an otherwise unrelated text - the ecology systems from the other module can be easily incorporated.

That’s the ultimate aim of course, to use this to introduce practical, gameable elements to the play space. The important thing about coffin rot, as your players will find when the full Smocklehythe drops, is that it can be distilled into an ink that makes magical tattoos. Lore only matters when it matters right now.

So, mourner’s tears attract a particular butterfly which lays its eggs among the mauve flowers and abandons them when they hatch. The caterpillars protect themselves by secreting a substance which attracts ants - the line of ants bringing food back to a grave grown with mourner’s tears to feed the hungry caterpillars they farm is often called a worker’s wake, and it’s considered bad luck to step over one.

There will also be an NPC in the module who can use mourner’s tears to brew a particular potion. So now players have a choice of leaving the plant and harvesting the substance to attract ants - for whatever reason - or picking the flowers and using them for something else.

This aligns with the way I tend to prefer to do magic in adventure games, as a series of truths about the world. In much the same way that players already know they can use fire to cast light, burn things, warm things up, melt them etc, they can also learn that, for instance, moonlight reveals all magical illusions.

The player’s arsenal of tools expands in more interesting ways when magical effects are constants within the game’s reality, that can be exploited like any other in-game truth. (This is the kind of thinking that Zelda players and Dungeon Meshi’s characters use to great effect. See this recent prismatic wasteland post for more on Zelda and ttrpgs.)

So, by defining in-game ecology as

- a series of facts, truths about the world

- concerning the locations of in-game items with useful effects

- allowing for use across otherwise disparate adventures within the same fictional space

I’m hoping to create a system that’s easy to reference (or ignore as players see fit), useful and fun to engage with, and allows for easy modularity between different adventures (or indeed, sections of the same adventure)

Idk thought that might be useful to someone! Ok, back to work ✌️

Monday 22 May 2023

The Crimes of Smocklehythe

A Pocket Guide to Smocklehythe is out now (see last post) and I felt like going over some of the inspiration behind the 6 new Crimes in the game.

A bit of class design, a bit of history (like I did in this tweet thread going over the real history of a GRAVEROBBERS pamphlet adventure). Part of me is very David Lynch “the film is the talking” about stuff like design influences but part of me is a huge nerd with a big loud mouth sooooo

All of these are real crimes from real London’s past or present. With the original 6 classes in the Bare Bones, I wanted to allow for a lot of wiggle room as to whether a character actually committed a crime, make people think just a bit about what constitutes a crime, etc. These are a little more direct but hopefully still have some of that vibe

Btw while I’m at it “Smocklehythe” comes from the root word for “smuggle” and the -hythe suffix seen in various South London place names (Rotherhithe, the -eth in Lambeth) referring to a place where things were brought in by river. Rotherhithe: cattle, Lambeth: sheep, Smocklehythe: contraband.

Art by Jon Bliss

Firebrand. A fun word for “protestor” essentially, or “organiser”. Very fitting for Graverobbers’ setting, I’ve been wanting to do one of these for a while. All their starting items are real things used locally in non-violent protest throughout history, but also classic dungeon-y adventure game items. As a class they’re great for causing trouble

Also I’m aware people (especially outside the UK) might not know what a toffee hammer is, but it’s easy enough to figure out, plus you can just google it. I try to explain things I made up fairly thoroughly, so if something seems obscure chances are it’s from real life and you can just look it up.

Gaolbreak. Hey. How do you think gaol is pronounced? Yeah, I thought so too. Turns out we’re both wrong, it’s literally just an obsolete spelling of “jail”. Anyway I don’t think I need to explain that escaping prison was illegal throughout London’s history. Still is, far as I’m aware. I’m not certain. Never been caught.

This fills the same space as the Burglar in the classic Bare Bones, it’s the rogue archetype. I enjoy the thought of these tools meant for escape being used for a little b&e.

Mooncusser. real word! Real thing, real crime. Mooncusser is actually, gasp, an American term, but the English version, “wrecking” is a huge part of national criminal history. Wreckers were smugglers who supposedly deliberately wrecked ships, chiefly up and down England’s south coasts.

Smuggling is like a whole legendary folkloric concept here. It’s like the whole Robin Hood thing. Visit any seaside town, especially in the south west, and there’ll be a plaque or museum or guided tour about its smuggling history. I don’t sing the praises of much English culture but I do enjoy our predilection towards folk heroes being lower class folk “getting away with it”.

Also shrub is like a tangy citrus liqueur, later replaced with vinegar. Smuggled rum was often left hidden underwater, and adding a dash of shrub helped dilute the flavour of the seawater that’d seeped in. Ah and as far as class design, these guys are pretty much archetypal Graverobbers characters, primed for mischief

Nighthawker. The British term for metal detectorists who illegally steal the treasure they find. Very classic adventure game dungeon stuff. A good place to add in the only magic item, something practical and thematic that I’m sure has all sorts of nefarious uses. A touchstone is a real thing used to test for metals, but I like my magic version better.

This class is kinda the “finding and getting” class, which also extends to the Black Market as they’ve got decent average starting money plus a whole coin they can pawn.

Resurrectionist. Real thing, probably something most people have heard of. Surgeons on the cutting edge, if you will, of modern medicine wanted cadavers to experiment on and showcase in lecture halls. They had money and weren’t fussy about where the bodies came from. Resurrectionists were, wait for it, graverobbers. Burke and Hare are probably the most famous example and worth reading up on (there was a film, it’s not good), but this was a HUGE cottage industry for a long time.

The clothing is because they’d often disguise themselves as mourners to get access to graveyards. The wooden spade is because they make less noise! As a class these are kind of a variant nighthawker, there’s a decent amount of shared “archetypal Graverobbers” vibe between a lot of these which i felt was appropriate for a starter set.

Witch. Probably the one I need to explain least? So much stuff written about witch hunts and witch trials in England, and there’ll be a lot more of it to come in Graverobbers. This class is ideal for causing a bit of chaos. Start with no money but also the most expensive starting item so still p versatile. (Of course in an inventory-based system any character can redesign their whole deal fairly easily, but I like to think there’s something to the flavour of starting with a name and set of items like these)

You might think this’d be the class with the magic item, but I decided to go with what the witch hunt victims actually often were - women with above average knowledge of botany and medicine. Even at the time, most folk didn’t necessarily believe in witches, and there was growing awareness that this whole thing was just about oppression.

Oh, and a besom is a broom, that specific type of witchy broom with the sticks bundled around a central handle. There are a records of “witches” coating broom handles in psychoactive substances and using them as sex toys. Hence “riding a broom”, according to some theorists.

And that’s all of them! Check out the new rules here and roll up some characters, see what crimes you end up accused of! If you survive character creation.

Friday 19 May 2023

A Pocket Guide to Smocklehythe - Early Access

 By the twitching of my thumbs…

Art by Jon Bliss

Announcing A Pocket Guide to Smocklehythe, now in early access!

Available to download right here.

Currently, this is the newest version of the Bare Bones of GRAVEROBBERS, my system for adventure games of stealth and sedition, featuring:

- updated rules (very minor changes)

- six brand new Crimes (the Firebrand, Gaolbreak, Mooncusser, Nighthawker, Resurrectionist and Witch)

- new items and Black Market prices (from toffee hammers to hallucinogenic treacle)

- gorgeous illustrations throughout (by Jon Bliss, who I’ve worked with before on GoGoGolf! and Journeylands)

- new layout (still fits on two sides of A4 though!)

- landscape and portrait versions for easy use on screens or to print at home

Eventually, the Pocket Guide will expand to include:

- new Black Market vendors and a rumour table

- two micro adventure locations

- additional rules for carousing and character growth

- a fishing minigame

- an in-game card game

And as much as I can squeeze in there tbh.

If you buy now, you’ll get the full version free when it updates. I’ll probably hike up the price when that happens, so get on it now! Or, the free version of the Bare Bones is still up on my shop and always will be.

Graverobbers is the game I’ve been working on pretty much since I started this blog, and I’m so excited to be putting together an actual starter kit with adventures and setting all rolled in together.

I know that most of what I make is fairly small, but that’s because I’ve been reducing this game down to its barest essence over and over, playtesting and tweaking for half a decade now. This isn’t minimalism, it’s triple-distilled London dry adventure gaming. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever made, and I’m so excited to give you the chance to play.

If you like what I do here, please consider checking it out and showing your support! Cheers x

Wednesday 10 May 2023


 BRECKHELYGAN 0.4 is live!

This update adds the first chapter of the story, with new encounters, items and an exploration system.

Download for free here.