Thursday, January 1, 2015

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs - OSR Role Playing Game of Germanic-Noir Tentacle Horror (another exorcism of ideas)

Let's start the new year with a crazy idea: throughout the year 2015 I - the Disoriented Ranger - will gather enough focus to conceptualize and write a role playing game [dramatic music ensues]. This is not a random idea, but haunting me for a month now and if I can't get it out of my system, I'll grow more beard and start pillaging along a coast or two ...

[Edit: Just decided that Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is a better title, so I'll go with that ...]

Origins and Concept

1. Charisma/Wyrd as foundation of a game

It all started with me reading an introduction to The Song of the Nibelungs and writing a post about it back in December (here). Other than changing Charisma to Wyrd (to better reflect a certain period, in this case mimicking etymological realities of the Dark Ages or ca. 500 a. D.) I did propose a house rule to reflect the Nibelungs dark fate in a D&D game:
A player may take any amount from his Wyrd score as a bonus to saves or to reduce damage he received. The only ways to regain those points are (1) plus 1d6 whenever a character gains a new level (up to the original maximum), (2) a wish and (3) a difficult quest for a divine entity. In all other regards it's treated as an ability score, so it might be subject to attacks that reduce it as a form of damage. If for some reason a character's Wyrd drops to zero, it can't be regenerated by any means from there on and the character will meet a tragic doom as soon as it's convenient for the DM (but within the same session).
Wyrd becomes a character's fate and works in all other aspects as Charisma would. It got me a bit excited to read that the mechanism described above manages to capture exactly how recorded history describes the motivations of the tribes that brought down the Roman Empire in the middle of the 5th century (quotable reference here).

In short (and to follow my winded logic how this connects): (A) to get followers a king-to-be not only needed treasure, he also needed to be a hero. Being a hero was defined by being lucky (fated, one might say) in the challenges he chose. A successful hero will attract followers and, ultimately, seen fit to be king (if he's generous with his treasure, too). (B) the brutal fate of the Burgunds described in the Song of the Nibelungs adds a dark twist to this idea in that being victorious comes with the ultimate price, discipleship leads to envy leads to betrayal ...

A Dark fate awaits them all [Public Domain and Art]
... which pretty much describes how Wyrd works (and incidentally what it means, too). A hero will sacrifice Wyrd to survive his challenges and gets followers (high ability score) or envy (low ability score) for it, with the danger of loosing it all big time (but go out in style).

2. Themes of the game (introducing tentacle horror and folk noir)

So far this is only a twist to what D&D can be like: Adventurer seeks fame and treasure to become hero, get a following and land to be finally a king among his people. Using the Dark Ages as a background, though, has some serious implications that are best formulated further to get a direction how to change D&D in order to reflect the atmosphere the game wants to evoke in the system first (terminology and mechanics).

The fall of the Roman Empire was a consequence of several barbaric tribes migrating further south, taking the Roman border by force and settling mostly where Romans already had established some infrastructure to form many small kingdom at war with each other.

They had their reasons to try and get what
the Romans had ... [picture is Public Domain and art]
Let's begin with how the Romans saw those barbarians. Caesar rather had built walls than dealing with those wild barbarians populating dark forests with, according to Caesar no less, had "unicorns and elks without joints"*. An elk without joints is now either something very stiff or (and this I prefer far more) a horror that resembles an elk in that it has fur and antlers, but has tentacles instead of bones.

Imagine such a creature roaring in a dark ur-forest. This is what I'd want in my game. Not only fierce nature, but nature transformed by dark magic. Well, that and everything else mythology might throw my way (Siegfried slayed a dragon, the Nibelungs may be considered some sort of dwarfen race, etc.). Add to this the decadent remnants of a now extinct Roman Empire, still clinging to old frivolities in shadows thick enough to hide them, often bound to sinister occult forces. The characters facing such evil would be hardboiled strangers in a dark and hostile country, surrounded by enemies but also the hope to make it and the legends of gold and fame to feed this hope.

The mood of  Lost Songs of the Nibelungs.
It's very much inspired by noir fiction. Here is a moody piece of music to illustrate the idea further (Era Escura by Faun):

Expect nature to be one of the biggest enemies in the game. Any creature that might have a chance to eat you, will most likely be at least twice as strong as it's D&D equivalent.

3. How it's D&D and how it's not

The system I have in mind owes a lot to the D&D I know (which amounts to HackMaster/AD&D 2E and the D&D Rules Cyclopedia). It will have 6 attributes that are based on the classic 3d6 in a row schtick and it will have saves (if somewhat altered). HD/Levels and armor class will have a home here, too. Basically I'll try and come up with something that's not too hard to convert to older editions of D&D. At least I'll keep lots of the DNA ...

... and change the rest (because it ain't no D&D no more). The first thing I'll do is change the terminology, somewhat like I did here and will end up (so far) with the following alterations:
Strength = Muscle
Dexterity = Finesse
Constitution = Grit
Intelligence = Spirit (?)
Wisdom = Nerve
Charisma = Wyrd 
Bonus = Edge
This way the game will sound very different and thus evoke a different feel than D&D (I'll go for a mix between hard-boiled vocabulary and Indo-Germanic roots, if that makes any sense at all).

Then I'll change that whole business with the classes and build a level-based point-buy system where an ability score is the main focus. Basically I'll invert the idea that certain classes focus on certain ability scores to if your main focus is on a certain ability score, you are good at certain things and with every new level you get points to buy traits associated with your main focus. 

An example:

Everybody is equal at level 0 (like they do it in DCC, I guess). Same HP (1d8, rolled), same damage (1d6 plus Edge), etc.. When reaching level 1 the characters decide what their main ability score will be and get 1 point

(the level you reach is the points you get)

to buy a trait associated with that

(Muscle as the main focus would allow to buy a base damage of 1d8, Grit would allow to buy an 1d8 as HD per level, etc.)

and add their Grit to their initial HP (more hit points mean more hacking, so this will be gory).

So the focus allows to buy several features that where associated with the class-system before, changing that focus between levels will basically allow customizing an individual hybrid-class that is the character (it's like multi-classing, but with the ability scores as the main source).

As in the examples above already illustrated, this game will be heavy on altering ability scores: you can use Wyrd to avoid death (with a twist) and you add Grit to your HP (Grit will function as a buffer: if you fall under zero HP, Grit will be reduced and the character is severely injured (this is where you get scars, etc.) and if Grit is reduced to zero, the character is dead). Same will be true for all the other ability scores. Nerve will reflect Sanity, Spirit will have to do with the occult (Mana?), stuff like that.

Ten will be the highest level. After that the adventurers are considered heroes and the game changes to domain-play (maybe a supplement? ... But I digress). Some of the house rules I wrote up on this blog will be part of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (echoing dice, called shots, etc.).

There will be no Vancian Magic. But this couldn't be a surprise, either.

Additional Sources of Inspiration

Die Nibelungen (movie by Fritz Lang, 5 hour epic and in the public domain, here is a link)

So this will be 2015 at The Disoriented Ranger

You can see, I already got the basic outlines of the game and (I guess) around 60 % of the rules. Combat will be a bit tricky, as will be initiative and magic (well, magic maybe not so much), but that's sort of the point. I want to see if I'm able to create a customized set of rules for a specific setting.

Layout, art, etc. are things I will find out in the next months.

The rest are ideas I'm chewing on since I started the blog. The Goblintribe-Simulator will get some love again, Settlements and regions will be built, cultures will rise and fall and I'll aim to get at least 120 posts out there this year. Also: the usual nonsense.

I wish all of you a successful year 2015. May the dice be on your side and the great DM in the sky full of bright ideas of what life will offer you :)

*I'm quoting here Herwig Wolfram's Das Reich und die Germanen (transl.: The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples), p. 69 of the German version.


  1. I have only read the first paragraph and listened to the dramatic music in my head and I can say with certainty I am 100% in. Any thing I can do to assist .. let me know... Now I'll go read the rest.

    1. Thank you, Mark! If you're still up to it after you've read the rest, I just might take your word on that :)

      I am serious about this one. Don't know if the world needs another retro-clone, but I don't care that much either. I really need to find out if I'm able to pull this off ...

  2. Does everything need to be twice as strong as in D&D? I've been playing a game with my son and some of his friends and so far we've had (in 6 sessions) 10 PC and 4 NPC deaths. For small numbers of low-level PCs, even half-a-dozen Orcs or a few bandits can be a deadly encounter. Animals tend to be easy for players to kill, but if there are no 'wolves and bears', only Dire Wolves and Cave Bears, then perhaps that might redress the balance somewhat. Or, I suppose there could be 'heroic Bear individuals'... this isn't 'a bear', it's Deathgrip, the Ancient and Savage Bear of Myrkwood (who just so happens to have some Druidic abilities, can control the weather and summon packs of wild animals to fight for him...)

    Who was it that I saw recently who wrote an excellent piece about nature? I'll try to find it again. The point is that nature should not be a fluffy, sunny background of pretty flowers - it should be brutal, uncaring at best, malevolent at worst, decidedly scary - even such prettified creatures as naiads and dryads (which I think would work fine in a Germanic setting as Rhinemaidens and sinister forest-spirits) should be trying to kill the PCs. Would-be heroes should be the target of strange beings like wild forest or water spirits who would spirit them away never to be seen again.

    Perhaps - and this is just a suggestion - Wyrd should act as a 'monster attractor'. The more of it you have you more likely you are to come to attention of the local Fossegrim, Queen of the Elves or a Dragon. Or maybe character level could be an indicator of coming to the attention of a local malevolent entity. For sure, usually it's up to players to fix on a mortal enemy - but it may be particularly applicable to the 'fate'-based approach here to say that mortal enemies may fix on a player.

    This would imply that inventing some evil (or at least sinister) potential opponents, then deciding which of them the heroes come to the attention of, might help.

    As to how magic should work - maybe all characters should get some access to Clerical magic. I don't see a problem with MU magic either, though there should be some sort of Conan-like idea that wizardry is a) unheroic/unmanly and b) corrupting. But this might be covered in lower Health (hp) anyway?

  3. Further thoughts:

    Have you ever read 'Mythago Wood' by Robert Holdstock? If not, you really should. You don't necessarily need to bother with all the sequels however. I think there are things there that would definitely apply to what you're trying to do.

    Everything needs to be close - D&D (especially its older forms) has a 'Frontier' vibe (whether that's little islands of humans exploring in the vast uncharted wild, or survivors picking over the ancient ruins of lost civilisations) which I think is perfect for this setting. Human settlements should be surrounded by Trolls (anything on the KGOHGBO spectrum), Elves (real Elves/Drow, Dryads, Nixies and other Fey types, who should be less friendly than in standard D&D), Dwarves, Giants and monstrous creatures (including 're-writes' of real creatures... all of which should be able to do what Pliny and/or medieval bestiarists thought they could).

    Monsters should be tied to particular zones if not specific locations. Wolves and bears (ie, as in my previous post, Dire Wolves and Cave Bears) OK are fairly ubiquitous but there are no Giant Elk in the Mediterranean, no Lions in the German forests. I'm thinking of a European setting but Pseudo-Europe might work (and I'm not sure Pseudo-Araby or Pseudo-pre-Columbian America would work as well). Whatever - beasts being an emanation (even a warped one) of nature need to be tied closely to the setting. Different areas need different cultures and different ecologies to go with their different weather and geology. This is really important I think. A barbarian from the Northern Forests should be very out of place if he goes to the Southlands. Possibly people should sicken if they're too far from home for too long.

    Your alternative character sheet doesn't have 'Experience' because you didn't do the other side... Experience should be something like 'Fame' or 'Renown'. You don't 'gain Experience (Points)' for killing monsters and stealing treasure, you gain Renown. And you should distribute Gold, not hoard it, to gain the Renown from it (by being a 'Ring-Giver', “a young man ought by his good deeds, by giving splendid gifts […], to make sure that later in his life beloved companions will stand by him, that people will serve him when war comes” (from Beowulf somewhere). Renown should work a bit like your idea for HD for territories: the more Renown you have, the more widely you are known. It might go something like this:
    0-10 Renown: not the most famous member of your family, even your Grandfather might not be able to remember your name;
    11-100 Renown: known in your village, though some people will confuse you with your father/cousin, who has done more bold deeds than you;
    101-1000 Renown: known among your Tribe, though many will not know precisely who you are and confuse you with other heroes;
    1001-10,000 Renown: known even beyond your Tribe, your fame is spreading throughout the Nation and you are starting to come to the attention of Fey and Eldritch Powers - watch out that a Dragon doesn't take against you!
    10,001-100,000 Renown: you bestride the world like a Colossus, if you don't have at least 2 hugely powerful enemies then what are you playing at?

    I don't know how this ties with your '10 levels' idea... but it seems to fit in some kind of basic way.

    I'm going to mention Conan again. Just because I think it's important.

    One campaign that I put together (but never ran) was set in 'Dark Age' Britain - not the 'Pendragon-type' medieval-mystical Britain, but a post-Roman Britain where the English were Orcs invading a ruined and battered province of the vanished wonder-working people known as 'Rhom'. The forests (with dark things in them) were encroaching, the Ghouls were attacking the West, Longbeard Dwarves strode down to battle in Italy and the (H)Ellenes preserved their Elvish magic in the East. Let me know if you think any further info on that might be of help...

    1. Very cool, Red Orc, that's a lot to digest! I had on some of your ideas similar thoughts, different on others. From the top of my head: "dire is the norm" describes better what I had in mind than "twice as strong", so that needed to be a bit more precise. Don't know if you've seen "The Grey" with Liam Neeson? A pack of wolves should be a threat to a mid-level party and a challenge to higher levels. Your example with the bear is perfect. If the monsters in a set of rules are somewhat stronger, a DM will (I think) tend to use them more as individual encounters, not as cannon fodder. Individual monsters are always to be preferred, in my opinion.

      High Wyrd will give a character the favor of the gods and all creatures, low Wyrd will make you enemies of all sorts. It's like when a character gets enough damage to have his Grit (Con) affected and he will keep scars: if your weird is damaged, you get enmities. This is by the way how it will work for all the ability scores.

      Which leads to magic. I think I'll go and use something where the life force of all living things might be used. either by careful rituals, by using a characters inner power or by forcing it. This should result in areas where nature is tainted near an evil wizard's sinister tower and all that jazz ... The balance of things, stuff like that.

      If a character chooses Wyrd as his main ability score, he is a man of faith. I'll have an example in my next post about that.

      To become a hero, a character needs to be of "noble" birth (which means he needs to be at least a cousin of a cousin of someone important ...). I'm thinking about making some random family trees to that effect. A band of heroes will always be connected to someone powerful (and if only by blood). You are dead on about this. Myriads of small kingdoms, lots of allies and foes and the rest is dark and fierce wilderness with a good dose of magic to explore for treasure ...

      I had an idea about how adventurers could spend their gold. Part of that was about financing a career that'd start with name level (you want an army? start early on financing the thing, bribe the right people, make the right contacts, etc. and you'll have that army when you are level 9 or have the funds ...). I need to modify that a bit, but it should work here, too. Courtly love, for instance, is something very expensive, but also, as you pointed out, is being generous.

      The level 10 mark is just for now the way a adventurer has to go to become a hero. After that, like in D&D, he'll just have his own castle (or army or tower, etc.) and the game changes (or it's a new game/supplement/add on?). Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is (for now) just about the epic journey to become that hero the people talk about.

      First of all I need to get the terminology right, though. If I want to talk about this game-to-be, I need to get my vocabulary in order (I already got some changes pinned down, but not yet written about; Int changes to Wits, for example, and ability scores will be qualities, which is a bit like what you suggested above ... more commentary and another post will follow tomorrow). Thanks for commenting in such detail! I'll check that book out.

  4. On the question of families - perhaps everyone should have to pick some utterly ridiculous trait or feature to do with their birth. Brought up by Dwarves/Witches/Wolves/Wood Spirits/destined to kill father. Dipped in the Underworld River and immune to magic/arrows/mistletoe or whatever.

    When a character reaches some randomly determined level (somewhere between 1-10 in your scheme), they should find out the secret of their true birth which is randomly rolled or maybe determined by the DM given the background the player chose. Perhaps they really are the son of the King they killed. Perhaps, having been brought up by Dwarves, they discover they're the heir of a family with a feud with the Dwarves...

    I'm sorry Jens, this has been really exciting me and I've not stopped thinking about it since you posted it!

    I'm seeing that pic you posted recently of the impossibly rocky forested German hillside and thinking 'yeah! There! In a thunderstorm at night! You could totally believe there were Dwarves making magic and fey beings in the forest...'

    1. Man, I really like your enthusiasm! You are all over the place, it's great. And yes! Those Dwarf making magic on a rocky cliff during a thunderstorm is definitely a direction I could see this going (the energy of natural forces bound in a ritual ...). The possibilities for a mythology are great, as your comments illustrate very well, but it's way down on my to do list. The only thing I know right now is that I need a system as slick as possible. So this is the first challenge: finding a structure that is able to support all those ideas without being a meandering baroque Frankenclone. I'll start right now with setting the terminology right, so we'll be able to use the same vocabulary and describing the core features of the game as detailed as I can, so everyone knows where this is heading ... Then we can continue talking about how to implement all this.