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Detlef Sierck Presents: Mostellaria (The Haunted House), by Plautus

March 25, 2020 2 comments

Borrowed from the Long Island Press. Uncredited.

 

You have probably never heard of Titus Maccius Plautus. He lived in Rome in the second century BCE, when it was still a republic, and he wrote farces. Shakespeare stole his play The Brothers Menaechmus and called it A Comedy of Errors, and Molière stole The Pot of Gold for his play L’Avare (“The Miser”). The musical (and movie) A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum combined elements from several of Plautus’s plays, and the 1963 London production starred Frankie Howerd, whose TV comedy series Up Pompeii was almost certainly inspired by it.

 

I discovered Plautus in the mid-70s, reading his plays in translation as part of a side-project from my Latin class. It was a golden age for farce and low comedy in Britain, with the Carry On films on television every weekend, or so it seemed, and TV shows like Up Pompeii, Are You Being Served?, On the Buses, and others holding out against the more surreal comedy stylings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies. Discovering Plautus and his fellow Classical farceurs Terence and Menander was an eye-opening experience, proving that farce is eternal – and that there’s no such thing as a new story.

 

Mostellaria (“The Haunted House”) has a timeless setup. With his father out of town, young Philolaches is hosting an epic rager – and Dad returns early. There’s no time to stop the party and clear everyone out, so it carries on unabated while a resourceful servant named Tranio intercepts his master.

 

Tranio spins the best lie he can think of: the house is haunted. The merry din from inside is really the moans and screams of tortured souls, and the sounds of breaking crockery and furniture are violent poltergeist manifestations. An inconvenient money-lender has to be explained away, and other obstacles are overcome before the truth comes out.

 

Many English translations of Mostellaria are available, including this free one from Project Gutenberg. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is available on multiple streaming services, and among its many other attractions it features the immortal Buster Keaton in one of his last roles as the returning father, Erronius.

 

While A Funny Thing combined it with plots and characters from several of Plautus’s other plays, the basic idea of Mostellaria could make an entertaining one-shot adventure in an urban setting. The PCs are friends of a young noble, or they need to curry favor with him for some reason. As the party rages on, ever louder and more obvious, they must devise an explanation to save their patron from his father’s wrath, and maintain it in the face of all manner of problems from late-arriving guests to impatient creditors. In a fantasy setting, a real ghost might provide a plot twist, as the party literally wakes the dead and the outraged spirits of family ancestors must be pacified.

 

What other plots and incidents would you add to turn The Haunted House into a full-fledged “Rough Nights” adventure? Drop your ideas in the comments section below. Meanwhile, Monday Maps #8 has some plans and elevations of noble mansions that you might find useful.

 

Other Detlef Sierck Productions

The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson

 

About Detlef Sierck

Detlef Sierck, the greatest dramatist of his day, was created by Kim Newman (under the pesudonym Jack Yeovil) for the Warhammer novel DrachenfelsHe made guest appearances in Jack Yeovil’s Genevieve Undead and William King’s Skavenslayer, and has appeared in two products for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: the Warhammer Companion for  WFRP 1st edition and Rough Nights and Hard Days for WFRP 4th edition.

Although Sierck is a part of Warhammer’s Old World, the plays and other sources in this series can serve as inspiration for almost any roleplaying game, in almost any kind of setting.

Detlef Sierck Presents: The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson

January 29, 2020 1 comment

subtle

 

I first got into roleplaying games through amateur theatre. I was a member of a couple of different local groups in the 70s and 80s, and while I was working at Games Workshop I joined Nottingham’s Lace Market Theatre and got a part in this play. I don’t think it inspired “A Rough Night at the Three Feathers” directly, but it is certainly similar in that it features a single location – in this case, a London town house – in which multiple plots collide over a short period of time.

The house’s owner, Mr. Lovewit, has gone to the country to escape an outbreak of plague, leaving his servant Jeremy to look after the place in his absence. Jeremy has plans of his own, though, and joins forces with two confederates to cook up a number of schemes. One is a con man named Subtle, and the other is a prostitute named Doll Common. Jeremy himself adopts the persona of Captain Face, with the social acceptability that brings, and lures prospective marks to the house.

Dapper is a lawyer’s clerk who wants better luck at the gaming tables. Subtle convinces him to seek the favor of the Queen of the Fairies (played by Doll) and the two subject him to various “fairy” tricks and humiliations while relieving him of all his valuables.

Abel Drugger is a tobacconist who wants his newly-opened shop to succeed. Under the guise of advising him on the luckiest stock and furnishings, the trio robs him of a lot of valuable tobacco.

Drugger introduces them to two acquaintances recently arrived from the country. Kastril is a quarrelsome young gentleman who wants to learn how to argue in the sophisticated manner of the town. His sister, Dame Pliant, is wealthy and recently widowed. The three smell profit in both of them.

Sir Epicure Mammon is rich, and would like to be richer – and younger, and more sexually vital. He is quickly convinced that Subtle is close to perfecting the Philosopher’s Stone that can turn all things into gold and is a key ingredient in the Elixir of Youth. Mammon hands over a fortune in household goods to pay for Subtle’s experiments. He also falls in love (or more likely, in lust) with Doll after catching an unintended glimpse of her. He is accompanied by Sir Pertinax Surly, a skeptical friend who tries without success to expose the con, dressing up as a Spanish nobleman at one point and allowing himself to be led towards a marriage with Dame Pliant.

Tribulation Wholesome and his sidekick Ananias are Anabaptists, members of a strict Protestant church with puritanical leanings. Despite this, though, they are intent on perpetrating a con of their own: using Subtle’s gold-making prowess to counterfeit Dutch money in order to advance their sect’s position there – increasing their own wealth and influence in the process.

Needless to say, the various plots collide horribly over the course of the play. The three con artists quarrel endlessly, refusing to trust each other because they are all liars and cheats. Subtle’s lab explodes at a critical moment. People from one plot arrive unexpectedly to interrupt the progress of another. In other words, farce ensues.

At the height of the chaos, the householder Lovewit returns unexpectedly. Despite his servant’s best efforts, the various plots are exposed one by one as things come undone. Subtle and Doll flee empty-handed rather than face the wrath of the law. Face – now Jeremy again – placates his master by offering him marriage to the wealthy Dame Pliant. The remaining plots are quickly wrapped up and the play ends with Lovewit triumphant and Jeremy chastened.


 

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch, circa 1617

Ben Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and this play was first performed in 1610. His language is similar to Shakespeare’s, but includes more contemporary London slang. Don’t be put off by that, though. Any edition worth its salt will come with explanations and footnotes. If you can find a stage production, you will find that the frantic pace pulls everything together beautifully. I would recommend a film or TV adaptation, but there don’t seem to be any, which is a pity.

Alchemist cover

 

So there you have it. A town setting, multiple plots, colorful characters, greed, lust, chicanery – it’s all very WFRP, even though it’s not fantasy.

Watch out for more #DetlefSierckPresents posts, and I’ll share more of the things I was watching and reading when I worked on WFRP. Perhaps they will inspire you, too.

 

Other Detlef Sierck Productions

Mostellaria (The Haunted House) by Titus Maccius Plautus

About Detlef Sierck

 

Detlef Sierck, the greatest dramatist of his day, was created by Kin Newman (under the pesudonym Jack Yeovil) for the Warhammer novel DrachenfelsHe made guest appearances in Jack Yeovil’s Genevieve Undead and William King’s Skavenslayer, and has appeared in two products for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: the Warhammer Companion for  WFRP 1st edition and Rough Nights and Hard Days for WFRP 4th edition.

 

Although Sierck is a part of Warhammer’s Old World, the plays and other sources in this series can serve as inspiration for almost any roleplaying game, in almost any kind of setting.

My Top Five RPG Monster Books

January 18, 2020 13 comments

Ever since I saw Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts on my parents’ black-and-white TV, I have been obsessed with monsters – especially those from myth and folklore. In my first D&D game, I played two thief characters, both of them killed by a minotaur. In the Games Workshop printing of the basic rulebook, I saw other names I recognized, and I was hooked right away.

I still love monsters, mythology and folklore, and monster books are still among my favorite types of tabletop roleplaying supplement. In this post I will discuss some of my favorites, looking especially at what each one offers the reader beyond the basic description and stat block.

Some of these are old – very old, but then so am I! – and there may very well be newer, even better books out there that I have not yet seen. If that’s the case, let me know! The comments section is right there at the bottom of the page. I’ll look forward to reading your views, and discussing what makes a monster book good, or great, or amazing.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Monster Manual 3.5

 

D&D Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual tabletop roleplaying rpg monsters Wizards of the Coast TSR

The original Monster Manual from 1977 was a landmark product in many ways, and just about every monster supplement published since has been influenced by it. Still, the 3.5 edition is better in my opinion. This is for three main reasons:

First, each monster description includes a ‘Combat’ section which covers the creature’s combat-related abilities and its preferred tactics. This makes it far easier to design encounters and run combats.

Second, the chapters at the back of the book – Improving Monsters, Making Monsters, and Monster Feats – make the book far more than just another collection of creatures. Following their instructions, the DM can customize monsters and create new monsters, providing the sort of endless variety that will keep players on their toes.

Finally, the list of monsters by challenge rating saves a lot of trouble when creating adventures. Page for page, it might even be the most valuable part of the book.

Today, no self-respecting monster book would be without these three features, and that makes the 3.5 Monster Manual something of a milestone.

Buy it at DriveThruRPG.

 

Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors

 

Petersen Chaosium, Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying tabletop rpg horrors monsters Lovecraft

There are Cthulhu Mythos monster books aplenty, but Petersen’s Field Guide stands out. It starts with a jokey-looking flowchart titled “Identifying Monsters of the Mythos” which is actually very useful indeed.

Fifty-three full colour spreads describe monsters in detail, including brief notes on their habitat, distribution, life and habits, and distinguishing features. A full-page main image is supplemented by sketches and notes illustrating different life stages and other peculiarities, as well as a human image for scale reference.

The lack of game stats is both a positive and a negative feature. On the one hand, they are something that readers expect in a monster book published by a game company; on the other, their absence makes the book system-independent. There are a lot of Mythos-based games on the market, from Call of Cthulhu to Delta Green to Arkham Horror, and their various rulebooks provide game stats for  pretty much all of the creatures covered here.

The book ends with an extensive bibliography, covering game supplements, fiction, and other sources. The section headed “Bibliography for Other Monsters” winks at the reader, for its contents are entirely fictional. However, it makes a great list of documents for player characters to find in-game.

One very nice touch is the provision of initial letters on the page edge. This makes it very quick and easy to riffle through to the creature you are looking for.

Buy it from Chaosium.com.

 

Old World Bestiary

 

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Old World Bestiary 2nd edition tabletop roleplaying rpg WFRP momnsters

I’m allowed to like this one, because I didn’t work on it. Packed full of grimdark Warhammer atmosphere, it is broken into two parts. The first presents common knowledge about various creatures, consisting of equal parts useful information, rumor, and prejudice, while the second, aimed at the GM, contains the more familiar descriptions, stat blocks, and rules for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay’s second edition rules.

The presentation works well enough, and although it can sometimes be annoying having to flip back and forth to find everything on a particular creature, the atmospheric material is gold for a GM who needs something to tell a player who just made a successful Lore or Research roll. Another nice feature is the appendix of hit location tables for different body plans.

Buy it at DriveThruRPG.

 

GURPS Fantasy Folk

 

GURPS Fantasy Folk Steve Jackson Games Tabletop Roleplaying rpg Monsters

Fantasy Folk differs from a standard monster book (such as GURPS Fantasy Bestiary) in that it looks in depth at 24 races, providing enough detail on each one’s ecology, culture, and politics to create an almost endless variety of NPCs from each– and player characters too, if desired.

Centaurs, great eagles, and other non-humanoid races are covered in addition to the usual elves, dwarves, goblins, and so on. Best of all, each race is provided with a worked example of a character – essentially a detailed NPC, ready to go – and a selection of adventure seeds.

While most GMs will not use every single race in this book, it offers a solid starting-point for developing races for use in a campaign. Better still – and perhaps without meaning to – it provides a template for describing fantasy races of one’s own, which is far better than starting from a blank screen.

Buy it from Steve Jackson Games.

 

Trollpak

 

Trollpak Chaosium RungeQuest Glorantha tabletop roleplaying rpg troll

Chaosium’s Trollpak for RuneQuest was one of the first tabletop roleplaying supplements to describe a single race in detail, and it is still worth reading if you can find a copy. The boxed set consists of three booklets: Uz Lore (“Uz” being the trolls’ name for themselves) covers their nature and history, The Book of Uz presents rules and information on playing troll characters, and Into Uzdom is a selection of adventures. Also included are two more adventures and a 22” x 17” map of the troll heartlands.

Both atmospheric and useful, Trollpak sets a standard that is hard to beat even now, and anyone planning a single-race roleplaying supplement would be well advised to study it. There is much here worth plundering.

Buy it from Chaosium.com.

 

Honorable Mentions

In addition to these five, I have to mention two series of magazine articles that, to my mind, significantly advanced the art and craft of rpg monster descriptions.

The “Ecology of…” series in Dragon magazine established a very good format for looking at monsters in greater details than the Monster Manual allowed. Sections on history (including, where appropriate, a short box on the creature’s origins in myth and folklore), physiology, psychology and society, and lair design offer invaluable information to the DM, and notes on the creature’s presence in various D&D campaign settings are useful to those who set their campaigns there. The sweetest meat, though, is saved for last: options for developing advanced versions of the creature, with at least one worked example. Like GURPS Fantasy Folk, these articles also establish a template which can be used for developing monsters of your own, which can only enhance both the monsters and the campaign setting.

Before the first “Ecology” article appeared in Dragon, though, TSR’s British arm published a short-lived magazine called Imagine. It ran to only thirty issues but contained a lot of innovative material – including the “Brief Encounters” articles. These presented a single new monster using a showcase encounter which was specially written to demonstrate everything that was new and interesting about it. Brief Encounters continued in Imagine’s even shorter-lived successor, the indie magazine GM Publications, and when most of the staff from both magazines joined Games Workshop, there was talk of re-using the format for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. However, the only published fruit of this effort was “Terror in the Darkness” in White Dwarf 108, which introduced a creature from the Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader rulebook to the Old World. More about that here.


 

These are my particular favorites, and I’m sure you will have your favorites too. I’m sure I have missed a great many very fine monster books, particularly given the way tabletop rpgs have proliferated in recent years. So don’t be shy – let me know about your favorites in the comments section. I’m always up for discovering a new monster book.

At some time in the future, too, I will set modesty aside and look at some of the monster books that I’ve worked on over the years, explaining what I was trying to achieve with each one and discussing how well I succeeded – or didn’t. (I did. It’s here.)

I’m looking forward to reading your comments and suggestions!