Play Report: Knave + Stygian Library

Due to an unfortunate confluence of events, it’s been about three months since I was last able to get a group together for an RPG. Thankfully, I was finally able to get together just two players for a few hours today, and used the opportunity to run them through a completely randomly-generated crawl through the Stygian Library, using the rules from Knave, with some additional flavor from Broodmother Sky Fortress. It was my first time getting any material from any of these sources to the table, and I aim to use them all again in the future somehow, so I’m eager to jot down some impressions while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Random characters are great, if sometimes slow to make. I’m now very used to quickly whipping up randomly generated character for Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland, which goes extremely quickly by virtue of requiring very few rolls—just three ability scores, hit points, and coins. Knave requires quite a few more rolls—twice as many ability scores, five rolls for starting equipment, and then eleven rolls for traits. Then I added some more on top of that, rolling on the “What’s my motivation?” table from Broodmother Sky Fortress (in case “you’re a knave who wants treasure” didn’t feel sufficiently compelling or amusing), and describing each spell as contained within a blasphemous grimoire from another table from that book (because spells in Knave are each represented by individual books in your inventory, and I wanted an excuse to use this table).

Even though we only had two players, each making a main PC and a backup PC, the whole process of random character creation, and going over rules distinctions with D&D editions they know better, took about 40 minutes. That’s a lot longer than I might normally want for a high-lethality OSR game, but I imagine it would go faster if you don’t need to explain the rules, and if everybody has their own copy of the tables to roll on themselves. Fortunately, I thought character creation itself was pretty fun to do as a group, as some combos are worth reading aloud to the table. One player ended up with a married couple (one brawny, the other so weak that he was killed by spending several minutes in an uncomfortably warm room), while the other ended up with an unwitting magical being specifically designed for dungeon delving (who couldn’t shut up about how the Pope was a fraud, thanks to some odd logic one needed to adopt in order to use a certain spellbook), and a tomb robber named Fentanyl (because the player chose randomly from the Story Games Names Project and turned to a page full of poison-names rather than people-names, and that seemed appropriate enough).

Unplanned is awesome, but aimless and endless are hard for me. Stygian Library has some interesting rules for goal-oriented delves and loosely guided pacing: Go into an interdimensional library-between-all-libraries looking for a specific piece of information, and the deeper you go, the more chances you get to advance your “progress” score and find that thing. I asked folks on The Gauntlet Slack for suggestions on a good book to have them hunt for as a McGuffin, and ended up going with Jesse Ross‘s idea to send them after a children’s book called The Gardens of Ynn—another module by this author in the same format. Stygian Library’s progression rules seemed imperfect for a one-shot, though, making it extremely unlikely we could actually finish if we followed them as written. Instead, I ended up ignoring all instructions to lower or reset their progress score, and when our ending time approached, I just flipped through the bestiary until I came to an appropriately big monster to set up some kind of finale.

I felt a little guilty for not following the rules as written when it came to pacing—isn’t the OSR GM supposed to be an impartial “ref,” after all, and didn’t I follow the rules to the letter when I let some PC get killed by a wee bit of smoke inhalation? I figure, though, that for a one-shot, the GM is also basically an event facilitator, and I knew we’d all find it kind of an unsatisfying event if we just wandered aimlessly for a few hours before going home without some kind of conclusion. So, when they arrived at the children’s book section, they found a levitating, cyclopean skull with magical gaze attacks, proclaiming itself guardian of the children’s collection, and I left them to figure out some way to overcome it.

Everybody is MacGuyver in an OSR game. I think my favorite part of old-school-style, problem-solving-oriented play is when things come together in a way that’s all the more satisfying for feeling foreshadowed, but is only made possible by chance and pattern recognition skills. At first, characters just goof around trying to figure out some use for random starting items, like the PC who drew trail markers with soap for a while until someone reminded her she started with a bunch of chalk. And then along the way, the players end up gathering a bunch of spells it seems like they’ll never get a chance to use. In the very last scene, though, they bring it all together in true OSR fashion. After consulting all the random junk and treasures they had on hand, they devised a plan to overcome the skull monster, which involved (1) causing a distraction by releasing a living inkblot they’d trapped in a water skin, (2) creating a magical pit, (3) sucking the skull into the pit with a gravity spell, and finally (4) escaping by using a stone-shaping spell to make an impromptu sculpture garden, which in turn enabled them to (5) draw a portal to the Gardens of Ynn … using the randomly rolled chalk that just seemed like a joke three hours earlier. That has got to be some of the best unintentional foreshadowing I’ve ever seen in an RPG. Great setup for follow-up adventure, too, should we have one.

Remember the real-world tools you have on hand, too. The players liked the random dungeon creation format, but we all agreed it was a little frustratingly slow for me to keep stopping to sift through books and read descriptions. Afterward, one player remarked that it would be super helpful if we had an online generator so everything appears in one place. Then I kicked myself for not remembering sooner that I have one bookmarked. Well, hopefully I remember for that potential follow-up adventure. (Edit to add: And of course there’s a Knave character generator right at the same domain. Of course.)

More knavery needed. I think I need to play a bunch more Knave to really get a feel for whether I’d want to use it in place of other systems for hacks I work on down the line. Compared to my main go-to OSR system, Into the Odd, it’s way easier to adapt existing OSR materials on the fly, which hugely cuts down on prep time and cognitive load at the table, and the slightly more detailed inventory system demanded just enough careful resource management to be interesting. I’m not a huge fan of combat systems that can have turn after turn of misses, though, which has me thinking quite a bit about whether Into the Odd-style attacks and armour might be tacked on here without breaking too much. We never actually engaged with the item breakage rules that occur on a crit, so I can’t say for sure how much of a loss that would be. I’ll take this as an excuse to run some more Knave in the future.

2 thoughts on “Play Report: Knave + Stygian Library

    1. I have so many modules I’ve only ever read, plus so many I will only ever GET to read, that my sessions end up being kind of a mishmash grab bag just so I can try out as much as possible. 🙂

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