Friday, February 14, 2020

RPGs Aren't Art

Last year, I made the assertion that RPGs are a unique artform, something that requires a specialized language to describe.

But perhaps solely looking at RPGs as art is also the wrong idea.

I operate in a lot of indie gaming spaces because that's roughly where I started and because those games are fun. (All games are fun, you cowards!) At their best, these spaces are a showcase for new and innovative games, or an interesting place to discuss game design. At their worst (which, since this is the internet, is much of the time), they're a place to bash other people's design, invoking the dreaded badwrongfun and decrying certain games as "not real roleplaying games, like we play." (Make no mistake, though: if I were in more forums centered around traditional sorts of RPGs, I'm sure I would see someone's terrible discourse about "imagine wanting to play regular people" or "who wants to play a game about feelings?" or whatever. I just notice the bad indie RPG discourse because that's where I am.)

The timestamp tells me I downloaded this in 2006. Your argument is not original or interesting.
And the real shame is that we could still have interesting conversations about the failings of RPGs, but we don't. Using D&D as an example (because that's often the target), we could have interesting conversations about the domination of corporate art in a folk art scene, or how popularity breeds homogeneity, or even have an in-depth discussion about how rules and writing reflect the state of play at the table. But instead, we rehash the same, tired complaints about how people who try to do something creative with D&D or use it to emulate certain storytelling tropes are doing it wrong, how other games do it better, and how the state of the industry would just be so much better if other games had an equal shot.

(Completely ignoring that our hipster asses would be hollering about Apocalypse World or GUMSHOE or Noumenon if those games were the top of the heap. Popularity breeds contempt while somehow also disrupting critical thought on both sides of an issue.)

But these arguments somehow completely ignore the fact that RPGs aren't just art; they're also tools. We've already briefly delved into RPGs as their own artform, but it's just as relevant to recall that the overwhelming majority RPGs are also game engines designed to model certain situations and then give the player group the tools necessary to overcome those situations. Comparing different RPG systems is like comparing different computer languages: while different languages are better at performing different sorts of tasks, some people just like programming in specific languages based on their ease of use, flexibility, ubiquity, or whatever other criteria meets their needs. (This ignores the fact that people also appreciate art for a host of personal reasons that they often cannot articulate, and also ignores the fact that some people use tools because of the simple fact that they learned how to use them. Why do you speak in your native language all the time? Or if you don't, why do you speak the language of the prevailing culture in which you live? I ought not to presume etiquette on this wretched internet of ours, but you wouldn't go up to someone and say, "Japanese is more poetic than English, so why are you trying to write poetry in English? It's so much easier to create new words in German, so why are you attempting to make new lexicon in English? Imagine trying to talk about snow and the coastline without speaking Tlingit.")

It's useful to remember that people gravitate to certain games for various reasons, including:
  • Cost. While many indie games are low-cost or free, don't forget that D&D (as an example) is technically free and also ubiquitous enough to be easily pirated from The Trove or other sources. If you're building stuff, you probably started stocking your workbench with Craftsman tools (or the local equivalent) because of the price rather than the quality.
  • Availability. People shop where they shop, so they're going to get what they find. Your local game store isn't going to have every game, and if you don't know about OneBookShelf or the thriving indie scene on itch.io, you're not going to look there. You might assume that people can easily research any RPG on the internet, but remember that assuming good Boolean search techniques or even steady internet access is sometimes a tall order.
  • Ease of Use. An RPG that is dense (either in mechanics or setting) is probably going to have less of a fanbase than one that is easier to understand. Although even some particularly complex RPGs can be made accessible through...
  • Ubiquity. Not only are you going to pick something readily-available, a starting gamer is going to pick something with a burgeoning community and with a lot of information available. Unknown Armies only has a handful of Actual Plays, and you have to hunt for them. (Shameless Plug: That's why the Unknown Armies Fan Club has an Actual Play thread.) On the other hand, I can think of at least four D&D Actual Play streams/podcasts without heading to Google to confirm. And the fact that gamers are often taught the rules by someone else rather than reading them means the bigger games tend to get passed down from gaming group to gaming group.
  • Support. Have you heard nerds crowing about how their favorite game is no longer making new material? Since the game police don't confiscate your out-of-print books, it's clear people like playing games with lots of content, and with the promise of new content to come. If you want to make a thriving game, support your local gaming community with new material!
I've seen people's social media feeds blasted into oblivion when they suggest the "play more RPGs" argument comes from a place or privilege, but they're not entirely wrong. Access doesn't just mean cost or complexity, and while there might be a system out there that does the thing they want better, they might not know about it, or might not have the resources to understand it, or might not have the time to learn a second RPG even if it's technically "easier."

Every RPG has its high points and low points, a complex alchemy of factors that determines whether or not it's right for you and your group. Don't let some social media chump who doesn't know the needs of your table tell you you're playing RPGs wrong just because they don't like what you're doing. How you use your tools is your business.

Never forget: Once a game enters your house, it's yours, and you can do whatever you want with it. The idea that art or tools are somehow sacred and must be used as intended is a false claim. Have fun however you want.

Basically how I live my life.
I'm going to leave you with one last thought, one that is (admittedly) quite selfish. I know the desire to see your favorite RPG succeed comes from a good place, and in this capitalist cyberpunk hellscape of ours, you want to see your favorite content creators get paid so they can make more of that content you love. (And also, you know, so they can live.) But think about what you're asking when you want your personal game to lead the pack. Do you really want every two-bit weirdo with a handful of dice to invade your local fandom? Do you want all the grognards invading the Ryuutama community, trying to bend a light game about cozy journeys into a wargame simulator? Do you want every person unironically playing FATAL and laughing about sexual assault playing Bluebeard's Bride? Do you want a group of munchkin Vampire: The Masquerade players trying to cultivate a cube of Physical Attributes and combat Disciplines coming to your careful, investigative Fear Itself open table at the next convention?

Of course you don't.

You don't want these people at your table anyway, so why are you trying to hard to dissuade everyone from having their own fun? Every genre has a mainstream, and the MCU people aren't necessarily going to like Mulholland Drive or Sorry to Bother You just as the core Call of Duty audience isn't guaranteed to enjoy Braid or Gone Home.

Don't worry about selling to them. There are over seven billion people on the planet, and you have an audience somewhere. Target the weirdos you want to encourage in the world and the rest is but smoke.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Greed in the Heart, Doom in the Mouth

I published a post on Monday and will publish another on Friday that are both blathering about the state of the industry. (The Short Answer: It's the same mess as it ever was.)

Both pieces elsewhere in the week are serious, so I'm hard-pressed to pay the Joesky tax on those posts, but I'm posting it here. Since a lot of my current content is bound up in scattered notes, 5e statblocks, and other such ephemera, I went with the recent Joesky tax writing prompts from Throne of Salt. (I rolled a 16 and a 52, if you're into that sort of thing.)

Timely!

The Avarice Beast

Have you ever met someone who hates? A real Ebenezer Scrooge-style bastard, someone who just takes and takes and takes. A bottomless pit for food, money, and affection.

Most of the time, these are just standard-style jerks, but occasionally, their festering hatred is almost a disease unto itself. (This usually occurs in men and always in humans. Whatever affliction menaces men is unknown to demi-humans. So far as we know.) Physicians have occasionally found small calcified stones in their hearts, the beginning of some sort of bezoar. (These bezoars are prized by alchemists for love potions, potions that allow the imbiber to smell gold as some dwarfs do, or other preparations that enhance the user's ability to covet.)

But the bezoar is less an accretion and more an egg. If the avaricious wretch continues on its path, the bezoar will continue to grow. (Any amount of genuine affection will halt or even reverse the bezoar's growth at this point. It's not too late for a redemption arc.) During this time, the person might notice a shortness of breath or increased fatigue, but most of them are so sedentary that they never notice the change.

Eventually, the egg will hatch.

If it hatches, the miser is living on borrowed time. The creature always hatches in the person's sleep and latches into the heart muscle. From there, it starts taking over the function of the heart over the course of a month. (It is apparent as a dark stain in the heart muscle, eventually turning the heart completely black. Once it has devoured the heart and assumed its function, it looks like a shriveled but overlarge dead fetus implanted into the circulatory tissue, curled in the middle of the victim's chest.) If the person is slain during this time, the creature cannot survive without the host, and will probably die within a matter of hours.

The creature will continue to consume additional nutrients (and negative emotions) from the host, growing to full size in 4d4 weeks. At that time, it messily tears itself out of the chest cavity, unfurling to the size of a small dog, all black skin and gristle and bone. It seems slick with moisture, but whatever is upon it either evaporates quickly or is merely the sheen of its skin.

(No doubt a number of alleged serial killings and botched robberies are actually the work of avarice beasts birthing themselves.)

From there, it begins its nightly hunts. It is a patient and cunning predator, seeking not only food but to cause the most harm possible. It typically targets people who will be missed, often children or lovers, stalking a lone child or half of a couple silently. When they are alone, it will strike quickly, snatching them away to be swiftly devoured. It will either leave their remains near where they disappeared, or in some other place where the family can find them.

Within the span of a week, the avarice beast will hunt enough to grow to roughly the size of a human. The upper limit of its lifespan is unknown.

Avarice beasts are intelligent, and understand the languages of their former hosts. They cannot speak, but can attempt a sort of mimicry, often mimicking children's laughs or cries, or speaking words and phrases of a couple of syllables. ("Come here" or "help me" are frequent favorites.) When the creature becomes aware that people are becoming aware of its activities, it often hitches a ride underneath a cart or other conveyance to leave town as soon as it is able. (On the road, it will hunt by night. In a bit of dark irony, having an avarice beast silently hiding among a caravan is good luck, as the creature often hunts or frightens any random encounters that might occur by night.)

It is entirely possible an avarice beast may not even originate from the town in which it is found.

The Avarice Beast: AC 15, Move 120’, HD 3+3, claw/claw/bite 1d6/1d6/1d8, Morale 10. Climb walls 99%, hide in shadows 95%, move silently 95%. Surprises on 5-in-6.

The Conch of the Damned

Recovered from an ancient shipwreck in the Weeping Bay outside Sorgforge, the conch of the damned is a wicked version of the horn of Valhalla, a way to summon the spirits of the dead to defend the user.

The conch's interior is gilded, and the exterior is decorated with black opals carved to resemble human skulls. When blown, 4d6 zombies arrive within 1d3 rounds, either staggering from the sea if it is in range, or arising from the ground if it is not. (If you want to draw parallels between the conch of the damned and the horn of Valhalla, make the zombies appear as draugr, dead Norse warriors.) They will follow the conch owner's commands for one hour; at the end of this time, they will turn and attack the blower of the conch and their companions, seeking to seize the conch. Where they take it afterward is unknown; in all likelihood, it is placed in some other remote place to cause ruin.

Assuming a conch blower survives the shell's curse, smart conch blowers will typically use the zombies for one task, then order them to destroy one another. Still, there is always the chance that one will not have the opportunity to do such a thing, or that the dead will still come for the conch eventually...

Monday, February 10, 2020

One Year Later

An Apology: I hate writing this. The worst parts of us are the parts that take someone else's pain and contextualize it, packaging it as a thinkpiece for public consumption. It is the height of vulgarity, a snuff film produced for others' pleasure.

And yet, these thoughts infest me, and I must put them somewhere. If you're anything like me, you shouldn't read them. And if you're anything like me, you will read these thoughts. Every wretched word. You will read them looking for the humanity in them, hoping to see a glimmer of something real and honest, rather than yet another schmuck making a tragedy all about himself.

I am sorry to constantly disappoint you.

One Year Later

One year ago, Mandy Morbid made accusations of sexual assault against Zak Smith, including accounts from Jennifer and Hannah making similar sorts of accusations. Three days later, Vivka Grey did the same thing.

In the aftermath, the OSR (and the greater RPG community) collectively turned its back on Zak, and over the next several days and weeks, people shared their own thoughts on the subject. Some of these were soul-searching, a few were gloating, and many were self-serving — a chance to take the tragedy of four women and make it about oneself, or an opportunity to tell everyone "I told you so" and prove how smart one is, or a chance to ramp up blog traffic by capitalizing on the story of the day.

Scattered among the smug posts were accounts of people's own encounters with Zak. Many strange anecdotes about the man himself asking for support here or there: cut this person out of your friend circle, don't support this product, do this weird favor for me. The standard cult leader schtick.

There's still some lingering controversy as to whether or not Zak actually victimized anyone — but if even one tale out of the multitudes is true, then it seems enough for serious examination and reflection. Zak is still out there, crowing for proof, but the hard reality is that you don't get to claim you didn't hurt someone when they say you did. Even if you think the other person's accusations are unfounded, you kind of just have to apologize, move on, or both.

If someone hates you, you don't get much say in how or why they dislike you. You either change their opinion by being a better person, or you move on with your life.

What Did We Learn?

In a word, nothing.

Or more accurately, perhaps we learned too much. Once you read the Necronomicon, you can't un-read it. I reject absolutely the thesis that some knowledge is poisonous, venom for the soul, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe some things are too dangerous to know and stay human.

Collectively, the community took its ten seconds of public contrition and self-reflection and then decided to make the same mistakes over and over again.

It's fitting that all this came at the end of Google+, that the punk, grassroots, do-it-yourself RPG community fractured in its aftermath. While the greater RPG community took it as yet another controversy in a subsection of the hobby, wrote their thinkpieces about it, and moved on, the Old School Revolution (or Rules or Ruckus or whatever pithy term we're using now) still hasn't fully recovered.

The OSR and associated artpunk RPG movements fractured into Twitter circles of influence and private Discords and a thousand thousand tiny communities flung across social media, each typically crystallizing around one or two prominent personalities. (And a year later, half of those luminaries aren't even speaking to one another.)

We can't even agree on the name of the old-school movement anymore — some people find OSR too acerbic, too problematic, too reminiscent of past failures.

(An aside: Personally, I keep using the term "OSR" as an act of defiance. Every time we cede something we enjoy to someone else, our island shrinks. If the Nazis invade your subculture and you give it to them, then you have less stuff to enjoy and they have more. I certainly appreciate the Russian strategy of pulling back into the frozen wilderness and burning your villages as you go, to leave nothing for the invaders, but that strategy only works if you go somewhere they can't follow only to someday return. If they get it forever — I guess I can't like this thing because assholes like it now — then they won. You don't necessarily have to be the person to fight for your community, but if no one does, everyone loses it.)

(Another aside: But people also like to use their subculture as a weapon, a pointed dagger to keep people separated. I wouldn't actively consider myself part of the OSR, both because I tend not to think of myself as a member of any given community, and also because I play many varied sorts of games. The D&D/OSR/storygame/whatever divide is a set of false dichotomies, another front in the culture war designed to keep focusing on our differences rather than our similarities. Another rant for another time, I guess.)

But more worrying than the fracturing of the gaming scene and the emergence of several new cults of personality is the venom. Zak Smith still casts a long shadow over various parts of the RPG scene, but instead of being the guy who shows up to yell at people in a thread, now he's just this malignant presence, an unspoken threat in every conversation. (For example, I've typed his name several times in this post simply because no one else will. I usually see him referenced by innuendo or pseudonym like he's fucking Voldemort. Everybody treats him like the goddamn bogeyman, a lingering shadow who ought not to be named lest he is invoked. If you treat somebody like a god, they become a god, so don't be too quick to give your divinity to everyone you meet.)

While people were quick to throw out his writing, they certainly did keep his rhetorical style. Social media nerds have always been adept at vitriol, but Zak indoctrinated many RPG people in how to win an argument through brute force and how to quietly drive people out of a community, and then they used it. Starting last February, people sharpened their knives and started settling scores. Every corner of the community is now a battleground where people are encouraged to stay in their respective lanes, and if you say the wrong thing, you will be exiled from your corner of the hobby without any opportunity for contrition. (Sorry, buddy. If you want to keep making or talking about RPGs, you're relegated to TheRPGSite with the alt-right guys. Have fun in racist jail.)

This behavior is hardly new, but the tribalism has almost certainly become worse in the past year.

The Antidote for Cynicism

Lest you think this is overly cynical, there are a handful of positive changes over the past year. The core RPG community is still overwhelmingly white, male, and American, but we've been talking about that a bit more in the past year, and we've been trying to encourage more women and more people of color in the community.

While the tribalism leaves a lot to be desired, the small collectives of creators have been doing excellent work, and we've been seeing more experimental projects. The blog scene is making a comeback after the death of Google+, if only because that's the only centralized place where we can have certain conversations.

And nothing is permanently written, right? I usually don't offer solutions in posts like these — there is a certain amount of messiness we have to accept from our fellow humans if we're going to coexist in this world — but we can always strive to be better. We still have a chance to change our course, to remain vigilant for predators in our midst and to allow people to make some mistakes without calling for their permanent exile. It is entirely possible to do both.

Remember: you're just as error-prone as anybody else. Take no shit, but if someone is willing to do the work or apologize or just show that they're coming at a problem from a different angle than you, you can probably find some common ground.

And if that sense of compromise is too much hippie shit for you, and you think total war is the only way to bring peace to your world or your slice of it, I suppose I can't argue. Come back in a decade and we can revisit the egalitarianism vs. tribalism debate.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Inciting Challenge

Here's a bit of unused content for another game.

Is it a blessing? Is it a curse? A gift from the gods? A mutation? A natural part of the world that anyone can invoke if they know something's True Name?

I don't know. It's your problem now.

The Inciting Challenge works as follows:

For all targets: You invoke The Inciting Challenge by invoking a character's True Name and issuing a challenge to fight. That character must make a save vs. spells (or Will, or Wisdom, or the local equivalent) at -10. If they fail, they are immediately overcome with rage and wish to kill The Challenger. They can still act intelligently, but automatically fail any actions that do not involve attacking or preparing to attack The Challenger and they will not willingly leave sight of The Challenger. Conversely, those affected by The Inciting Challenge gain a +5 to attacks and saves when fighting The Challenger. Once invoked, The Inciting Challenge is permanent unless undone by magic that removes curses, greater restoration or its equivalent, or any of the wish variants. Not even death revokes The Inciting Challenge; unless the corpse is sanctified or obliterated (and sometimes not even then), the decedent will often return as undead to attempt to kill The Challenger. If The Inciting Challenge is revoked, the target is aware it was magically manipulated. (The Inciting Challenge is otherwise not obvious, although an active detect magic spell can sense enchantment magic when The Inciting Challenge is invoked.)
     If The Challenger leaves the target's presence, the target will attempt to hunt down the target and confront them to the best of their ability. They do not have a supernatural ability to find The Challenger, but will usually devote all available resources to doing so. Additionally, if the target tells anyone about The Challenger, that person must also save vs. spells at -10 or else be affected by The Inciting Challenge against The Challenger.
     If The Challenger is slain, the target’s bloodlust ends, but it will return if The Challenger returns to life.

For non-player character targets: The target’s NPC attitude turns Hostile while under the influence of The Inciting Challenge, and cannot be modified by The Challenger or their companions under any means.

For player character targets: Player characters get a little more agency than NPCs, and so do not need to make a save vs. spells to avoid The Inciting Challenge. Instead, PCs get A Choice.
1) Ignore The Inciting Challenge.
2) Accept The Inciting Challenge. If the character accepts, they get the same +5 bonus on attacks and saves against The Challenger. They can take other actions without penalty. If they kill The Challenger, they gain a level immediately, gaining enough experience to be 1 XP away from the next level above that. (So a Level 6 character who kills The Challenger becomes Level 7 and is 1 XP away from Level 8.) This level gain is not subject to the one-level-per-adventure restriction of most old school games, so the character very well may gain a second level at the end of the session. If The Challenger gets away, the target automatically spends half the treasure they earn each session trying to find The Challenger until they find and slay The Challenger. If The Challenger plays in a FLAILSNAILS game, the GM should always grant a target of The Inciting Challenge a spot in the game if possible, even if session membership is usually random.

On True Names: In a pre-industrial society, True Names usually comprise a character's first and last name (or first name and title), although some characters may keep their actual names secret, instead going by an alias. (Although characters need to watch that, as an alias might become a character's True Name if it is more widely known!) Creatures such as gods, spirits, demons, and ancient dragons often exist in multiple planes simultaneously, and so have appropriately-complex True Names that are often obscure.
     The GM is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a creature’s True Name.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Legend of Drusilla God-Biter

Torinn's axe has tasted of the blood of a god, and now seeks more.

Since it's entirely possible this axe might show up anywhere in the multiverse, I put it into the aethers for the consumption of the internet.

The stats below are for 5e, but it's pretty easy to convert: +3 greataxe dealing extra damage vs. dragons and gods, it can be used to parry cleric spells with a visible vector (like spiritual weapon or whatever), it can cast dispel magic once a day (but the axe chooses when to do it and will usually target cleric magic), and it can destroy any god-wrought artifact (but is destroyed in the process).

Drusilla God-biter is Neutral, and wishes to goad its user into conflict with dragons and gods, particularly evil ones.

If you use Drusilla God-biter, let me know! Let its legend grow. (Although the rumor is that Torinn is incredibly possessive of his axe, so beware...)

Drusilla God-biter, the Wyrmfoe
Weapon (greataxe), legendary (requires attunement by a creature of non-evil alignment)
Once just a mundane blade, Drusilla God-biter is a rough-hewn greataxe of orcish make.  Its blade is marred by a black stain that runs along the edge and is splattered across the blade; this stain occasionally writhes and changes, shimmering like motor oil when illuminated.  The rest of the blade is strangely clean and glitters like platinum.  In sunlight, draconic runes in some ancient dialect are faintly visible along the haft.
You gain a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic greataxe.  It has the following additional properties.
Wyrmfoe.  When you hit a dragon with this weapon, the dragon takes an extra 3d6 slashing damage. For the purposes of this weapon, “dragon” refers to any creature with the dragon type, including dragon turtles and wyverns.
Godsbane.  When you hit a deity with this weapon, it takes an extra 3d6 slashing damage and its regeneration trait does not function at the start of its next turn.  For the purposes of this weapon, “deity” refers to any creature as designated by the DM — typically a unique aberration, celestial, fey, fiend, or undead.
Doom of Divinity.  When you are targeted by a divine spell attack, you may use your Reaction to make a special melee Attack roll with this weapon.  If your attack roll is higher than the spell caster’s attack roll, the spell is negated as if by a counterspell.  For the purposes of this weapon, “divine spell attack” refers to any spell attack by a spell from the cleric, druid, paladin, or ranger spell list, as well as spell attacks by deities.  It can also refer to the spell attacks of other creatures with unique ties to the gods at the DM’s discretion.
Drusilla God-biter can cast dispel magic once per day.  It decides when to cast the spell, and will usually target divine magic.
Drusilla God-biter can be used to destroy even artifacts and unique magics wrought by the gods, but is destroyed in the process.
Sentience.  Drusilla God-biter is a sentient neutral weapon with an Intelligence of 9, a Wisdom of 12, and a Charisma of 14.  It has hearing and darkvision out to 120 feet.
The weapon communicates telepathically with its wielder, and can speak, read, and understand Common and Draconic.
Personality.  Drusilla God-biter seeks the destruction of dragons and deities, particularly evil ones.  Conflict arises if the wielder fails to destroy dragons or deities when the opportunity arises.
Drusilla God-biter is gruff, grim, and matter-of-fact, albeit with a vaguely maternal tone toward its wielder.  It is somewhat distrustful of arcane magic but seems to truly disagree with the precepts of divine magic, claiming the gods as petty tyrants who seek to control the fates and souls of sapient beings.  It similarly claims that dragons are attempting the same thing in a pale and rote imitation of the gods.
It has some measure of respect for the god Bahamut, whom it seems to regard as its creator.  (But it would probably still goad its wielder to attack him if given the opportunity.)
If someone proselytizes in its vicinity, Drusilla God-biter will speak out against them, trying to provoke an argument.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

That Old Silk Hat

And now, a bit of Christmas magick: an artifact for Unknown Armies, third edition.  Enjoy!


That Old Silk Hat

Power: Significant

Description: That Old Silk Hat is usually treated as a joke or urban legend (it seems soundly ludicrous to think the holiday song "Frosty the Snowman" holds mystical significance), but some checkers in the occult underground claim it's an actual thing.
     That Old Silk Hat appears as an old, unassuming, and somewhat battered top hat, made of cheap felt.  Any story depicting it usually indicates it's found in the garbage or has been otherwise abandoned — it usually smells like refuse, and is occasionally described as being crusted with blood.  The stories claim That Old Silk Hat rarely stays in one place for long, as misfortune tends to befall those who use it.  It won't be long before it shows up in some dumpster, or abandoned basement, or forgotten corner of someone's garage...
     Chargers in the know claim there are many such hats, each with a limited number of uses.  In that case, the magick is not in the hat, but in the ritual that empowers them.  The chargers who tell such tales claim a ritual to empower That Old Silk Hat is a significant one, and requires the ritualist to murder someone and entomb them in a snow effigy.  The hat placed atop the snow effigy is then empowered as That Old Silk Hat.
     (Such a ritual would probably take 2 significant charges, and would empower the hat for a number of uses equal to the sum of the dice.)

Effect: When That Old Silk Hat is placed on a mound of snow that has been sculpted to resemble a human shape (typically at least given a face and rudimentary limbs, although most people who receive That Old Silk Hat are under explicit instructions to make the snowman "as lifelike as possible;" some of them are quite elaborate), the hat summons the nearest demon to animate the snowman.
     While demons are always hungry for experiences on this side of the Veil, That Old Silk Hat does nothing to make the snowman stronger, or grant it significant structural activity.  As such, snow golems animated by the hat are pretty fragile, and will still melt if the ambient temperature gets too far above freezing.
     As a result, demons are usually pretty annoyed with being trapped in a snow-body.
     Still, it beats being on the other side of the Veil.  Clever (and stupid) checkers can use this to communicate with demons, and particularly smart ones use this as a negotiation tactic; after all, a summoned demon probably needs the occultist to enact any particular schemes it has in mind, so it allows a would-be demonologist to negotiate from a position of strength.
     While in a snow body, a demon's wound threshold is only equal to 20% of its Urge (round down), and it only deals an amount of damage equal to the tens place of the roll when making hand-to-hand attacks.  When a snowbound demon makes a melee attack, it takes the same damage itself as it shakes its snow body apart.  A snow-body only takes hand-to-hand damage from guns, although any explosions or sufficiently large trauma will probably deal full damage.  (When in doubt, the snowman is fragile and probably just falls apart.)  If you're tracking movement, snow-bodies can typically only move at half-speed (check out "Running Around" on page 63 of Book One: Play), and take 1d10 wounds if they move at full speed.  Likewise, if it's too warm outside, the demon can take anywhere from 1d10 wounds per hour to 1d10 wounds per minute.  (Although the degradation of a snow-body in high temperatures is ultimately up to the discretion of the GM.)
     A would-be snow-sculptor can potentially heal a snow body by re-packing the snow, restoring a demon's full wound threshold with a few minutes' work.
     A demon is released when its snow-body is destroyed or when the hat is removed.  Sensation-junkies they are, however, no demon will willingly remove its own hat.  (If, as some stories say, That Old Silk Hat has limited uses, any given found hat probably has 1d10 uses.  A single "use" ends when the demon is banished; there is otherwise no time limit.)
     At the GM's discretion, a particularly skilled snow-sculptor might be able to make a sturdier-than-normal body.  If a character has an Identity uniquely suited to building a particularly-sturdy snowman, then the snow-body has a wound threshold equal to the character's roll or 20% of the demon's Urge, whichever is higher.  Likewise, such a snow golem might deal additional damage on a successful Struggle roll, such as dealing half standard hand-to-hand damage, whole damage, or even weapon damage (for a sculptor adding sticks and knives to the snowman's construction).  Such a snow golem might even maintain its integrity when it makes hand-to-hand attacks.
     It is exceedingly unlikely someone could make a snow sculpture sturdy enough to use a gun, but who knows?
     A character living in a cold climate or otherwise with access to a sufficiently-large, frozen place could potentially keep a single snowbound demon around for a long time, if they so chose.  It's possible that a particularly demented charger has a demonic snowman familiar stashed away in an old restaurant freezer somewhere.

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Land of Frozen Horror

Allegedly, I sometimes run a blog.

Shoe Skogen recently asked what I was working on, so I might as well show everyone.

One of my D&D 5e games was set in a brutal, frozen waste, but the PCs ran afoul of a local organized crime syndicate and escaped via the Gardens of YnnAs written, the player characters emerge in a random place (which might be the place they just left), but I figured my players would balk if I threw them into whatever randomness I wanted to run, so I gave them a choice.

I received the following two requests in response:

1) An arctic place, like Icewind Dale (this from the ranger with the arctic specialization)
2) Ravenloft (this from the wizard playing the spooky necromancer)

I figured, why not both?, and so was this cursed arctic land born. Here is the map so far:

Click to enlarge! Starfield hexes represent the Mists of Ravenloft.
As per standard Ravenloft, the land is cursed, tied to the Fisher King-like monster who rules it. In this case, our would-be Strahd is a ruler combining aspects of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin: seeking to modernize and Westernize his land, he turned to greater and more dangerous technologies until the ensuing magical catastrophe destroyed his glorious utopia.

Where a sensible ruler might decide to scrap that experiment, our darklord instead decided that his attempts to modernize his city failed because just wasn't ambitious and ruthless enough.  That's how his realm was sucked into the Domains of Dread, cursed by the ambitions of one man. (And doomed to repeat the same cycle time and again.)

In the interest of avoiding yet another European fantasy world, I'm instead drawing inspiration from Inuit, Mongolian, and Siberian sources. I also have Skerples' Magical Industrial Revolution fresh on my mind (as you might gather from the "industrial magic city rapidly spiraling into disaster" setup), which likewise pushes me to draw material from dungeonpunk settings such as Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica languishing on my shelf. In addition to whatever other weird or spooky content I include in this game. (It's given me yet another excuse to delve into my 2e and 3e Ravenloft collection, which always brings me joy. And to revisit A Kayak Full of Ghosts, which you should absolutely read.)

Gearing up for a conflict between traditional cultures and industrialized ones, five main factions emerge:

  • The Khan, darklord and architect of the Cosmic City, rapidly leading his land to another cycle of industrialization and destruction;
  • the Church of Ezra, formerly a powerful political entity that oppressed the traditional religions of the native peoples before the Khan determined the Church comprised dangerous political rivals and purged them;
  • the druids and other followers of the Old Ways, attempting to desperately hold on to their traditional way of life;
  • the poor nomads and townsfolk stuck in the middle of this grudge match;
  • and the Idea of Thorns, which my players accidentally brought from the Gardens of Ynn.
A handful of interesting locations include a ruined port city that is the current stronghold of the Church-of-Ezra-in-exile, a crumbling factory upon the coast, a university thoroughly infiltrated by a secret society of sorcerers, the Cosmic City itself, the occultum mines on the far side of the continent, and the railway that joins the city and the mines (which is choking out the settlements that used to rely on traffic along the Khan's Road for survival).

I'd say it's more overtly political than some of my games, but then again, I'm also running a modern occult game about LGBT+ activism and the examination of violence as a public health concern, and another series of fantasy games where the central antagonist is an allegorical American nightmare. So at least I'm consistent, right?

When the setting is a little more developed, I might try to put it somewhere if I can navigate the thorny issues inherent in Hasbro's intellectual property copyrights. Or perhaps it will be yet another meditation on transience, a piece of art that exists only in the meeting of the minds at the table.

Print Friendly