In case you missed it, Tony DiTerlizzi posted a neat little article on the origins of several iconic D&D monsters. (Apparently, they come from a set of dime store "dinosaurs" that can only be called such by truly generous souls.)
Also, happy Christmas! (Or, if you prefer, happy birthday to alchemist, mathematician, physicist, and noted jerk Sir Isaac Newton — 371 years young today! Or, if you're in a fighting mood, happy Takanakuy!)
The Cenobites of the Pleasure in Pain, also known as the Hierophants of the Order of the Gash, is a shadar-kai cult of personality gathered around an entity known as the Architect of Pleasure and Pain, or alternately, the Engineer of Pleasure and Pain. (Occasionally, this entity is called "Leviathan" for unknown reasons.)
The origins of this group are unknown. Anyone's best guess is that the Cenobites (or Surgeons, as they are also known — they seem to be quite enamored of epithets) form from a confluence of three factors. The first, is the shadar-kai themselves — when the shadar-kai first arrived in the Shadowfell, they found that they would fade away without strong emotions. As such, they took to the extremes of living to maintain their own identities.
The second factor is a now-disbanded Sigilfaction called the Society of Sensation. Before they disbanded after the Faction War, the Sensates believed in experiencing all things to achieve enlightenment. Despite their reputation as hedonists, they sought to experience all available experiences — positive and negative. Although the Sensates as a group disbanded after the Lady of Pain's decree, some keep their traditions alive. It is not precisely clear how a group of shadar-kai came across the beliefs of the Sensates, but the shadar-kai would easily take to their worldview of empirical thought and experiential enlightenment.
The third factor is the Architect itself. This entity is apparently a somewhat potent baatezu, as those shadar-kai pledged to it are almost universally warlocks. The Architect appears as a striking, sensual male humanoid with pale skin and leather clothing. This figure appears to be constantly in a mixture of ecstasy and agony from the various hooks, pins, and piercings worked through its flesh.
Whatever their origins, the Cenobites typically keep to themselves in their own demiplane forged partially from the Shadowfell and partially from the Nine Hells. However, they sometimes emerge to explore the boundaries of experience, and to proselytize their experiences to others. While they consider themselves evangelists and explorers, most communities encountering the Cenobites consider them to be invaders and fiends of the worst sort, arcane torturers who typically leave their victims dead or worse. The Marquis d'Ennui of Sorgtomb has a standing bounty on any Cenobites found in his domain.
The Cenobites usually travel between realms through the use of arcane puzzle boxes provided by the Architect.
Unbeknownst to the Cenobites, the Architect is actually an aspect of Belial, Lord of the Fourth and Lord of Pain and Sufferings. Belial is using the Cenobites as a cult to further his goals, and also as a militant order in case he needs to counteract any plans of his scheming daughter, Fierna. It is possible that Fierna controls a group similar to the Cenobites.
Playing a Cenobite
Cenobites are universally shadar-kai (Dragon 372, page 5) and almost always have the Sensate theme (Dragon 414). They are usually of the warlock class (Player's Handbook), although some may not be directly bound to the Architect by contract. Some Cenobites learn how to use a spiked chain; those who do take the Spiked Chain Training Feat (Dragon 372, page 11) and may take the associated Novice, Expert, and Specialist Feats as well.
Cenobites' warlock powers usually manifest as barbed chains appearing from their bodies or nearby shadows.
It is, of course, possible to play a former Cenobite (much like the typical repentant warlock character). In such a case, the character is likely being hunted by his or her former comrades.
NPC shadar-kai appear, among other places, in Monster Manual and Monster Manual 2.
Enterprising DMs could use probably adapt the Cenobites for use in other editions of D&D. The shadar-kai appear in the 3e Fiend Folio, while warlocks appear in Complete Arcane. It is also possible that they could created using the rules for magic-users, clerics, elves, and suchlike in earlier editions.
Since the PCs are quickly exiting Thüngen next session, it seems probable (although not completely certain) that they will miss Dittmar, the bandit leader. He gets a roughly two sentence description in Better Than Any Man, but since his potential presence seemed notable, I gave him full statistics in Unknown Armies. So, without further ado...
Personality: Two-Face from Batman. He seems like a somewhat suave gangster, but his reliance on chance tends to add a little capriciousness and viciousness to his demeanor. Obsession: Power. Money's part of it, but Dittmar really likes the control his position brings. His reliance on chance is just to keep things interesting. He's likely to become a postmodern Entropomancer if he's not careful. Wound Points: 65
Rage Stimulus: Messing with his dice. He will seriously go apeshit. Fear Stimulus: (The Unnatural) Predestination. Really, anything that makes him feel boxed-in or otherwise out of control really bothers him. Noble Stimulus: Gamblers. Dittmar has a soft spot for people who roll their own bones, and might join them for a game or cut them some slack.
Body: 65 (Toughass) General Athletics 25%, Hold Your Liquor 20%, Struggle 50% Speed: 60 (Ready to Move) Dodge 35%, Horseback Riding 15%, Initiative 30%, Missile Weapons 50% Mind: 45 (Pragmatic) Conceal 20%, General Education 15%, Notice 30%, Strategy 25% Soul: 50 (Superstitious) Charm 30%, Intimidation 40%, Lying 35%, Roll the Bones 15%
Obsession: Conquering death. Death is a form of spiritual alchemy. By controlling the doorway, you control that potential. Wound Points: 45
Rage Stimulus: Pointing out that he might be insane or deluded. Schwartz might be a murderous psychopath, but he really doesn't enjoy being reminded of it. Fear Stimulus: (Isolation) Dying of old age. Noble Stimulus: Helping children. Willibald crafts art of the bodies of young children because that's the highest gift he can bestow to one killed so young. He can't help it if his glass tiger gets confused from time to time.
Body:45 (Living Well) General Athletics 25%, Hold Your Liquor 20%, Struggle 25%, Work Without Rest 20% Speed:50 (Steady Hand) Dodge 20%, Horseback Riding 25%, Initiative 25%, Taxidermy 35% Mind:75 (Learned) Conceal 35%, Notice 40%, Occult Correspondences 60% Soul:90 (Transcendent) Avatar: The Magus 60%, Charm 30%, Lying 50%, Magick: Thanatomancy 70%
Possessions: Rapier (+3 damage), dagger (+3 damage), various fine clothes and ritual components
Notes:Occult Correspondences is Willibald's General Education skill. It also covers his general knowledge of folklore and occultism. Avatar: The Magus originally appears in The Ascension of the Magdalene, page 53. Magick: Thanatomancy originally appears in Postmodern Magick, pages 111-115.
In addition to his own magickal prowess, Willibald Schwartz has access to the rituals Song of Ancient Days (detailed below) and Fires of Pure Will (Hush Hush, page 47).
Notes: The Glass Tiger's exceptional Body stat grants a +3 to all melee damage. This is in addition to the beast's teeth and claws, which also grant a +3 to damage. The glass tiger reduces damage equivalent to heavy armor, removing the +3 damage for sharpness and the +3 damage for heaviness in hand-to-hand combat while also reducing rolled damage by three-fourths. Guns are deal hand-to-hand damage, but aren't reduced but the tiger's armor. Magick deals damage normally, although it's not made of flesh, so Magick: Epideromancy blasts do nothing.
Song of Ancient Days (significant ritual)
Note: This is the Unknown Armies version of Schwartz's Journey to the Past spell. In my version of Better Than Any Man, Schwartz was kind enough to give the PCs all the components to enact the ritual, including a copy of the Fires of Pure Will ritual (a charge-building ritual). Your Schwartz may not be so accommodating.
Cost: 7 significant charges
Effect: The caster and a group of up to eight individuals participating in the ritual are sent back in time to July 14, 10,000 B.C. They are sent to the same point in time, although they appear in the same geographic location they left. (So, if the caster casts this ritual in downtown London, he'll end up in the middle of downtown London...before it's ever built.) To the outside observer, no time appears to pass — the ritualists appear to flicker for a fraction of a second after the ritual ends. However, the casters are cast back to 10,000 B.C. for an amount of time equal to ten times the sum of the dice. As such, a caster rolling a 45 will spend 90 minutes in the past, while a caster rolling a 12 will only spend 30 minutes in the past. Being sent to the past is a rank-7 Unnatural check.
Ritual Action: This ritual requires a simple stone hammer, particularly of the sort that would have been used in the Neolithic. The caster should use this hammer to break a sandclock, shouting, "Ula atolnay!" with each hammer blow. When the clock is smashed, the caster should use the hammer to draw the seal of Prince Seere (a goetic demon) in the spilled sand while reciting a chant in Latin depicting a litany of the demon's praises and epithets. Once finished, the caster should then use the hammer to smash a sundial, deface a calendar, and destroy a seal of King Philip II Augustus. Again, with each hammer blow, the caster should shout, "Ula atolnay!" The ritual completes with the final hammer blow.
Note: For easy reference, Prince Seere's seal looks like this:
So, last time, some mysterious guy told them that they needed to deliver a note to someone in the past, and if they talked to a guy named Willibald Schwartz...
...that he would lead them where they needed to go.
At this point, my players seem to adopt the same strategy whenever a dungeon crawl/James Raggi adventure occurs and proceed very cautiously. They have enough food for a couple of days, so they avoid towns. They don't talk to anybody. They meet some Swedish soldiers on the road, but Goffhilf — himself Swedish — manages to avoid any nasty entanglements.
The PCs find the Mound without incident, and having been warned about the oil pit, don't light themselves on fire. They approach Willibald cautiously and courteously (more or less), and walk away with a time travel ritual and a lead on several ducats' worth of ruby ant statue for their trouble.
The caves and insect shire on Goblin Hill similarly go hilariously, because they avoid random encounters and have a map of the complex. Once they're sure they have everything they need, the PCs cast Journey to the Past (rebranded as Song of Ancient Days, a UA-style ritual requiring enough significant charges that Goffhilf went whole hog and sacrificed his hand for a major charge).
Once in the past, everyone learned that Maksymilian is a clockworker, because his "bodyguard" Aleksy is actually a gear-powered robot.
Pitting one robot against a bunch of ineffectual prehistorical cultists went something like this:
Upon their return to the present, they managed to kill the antlion guarding the ruby ant statue through a combination of robot punches and magic. Goffhilf dealt the killing blow with a critical hit blast spell, reducing the giant antlion to so much hemolymph.
As with most of my dungeon crawls, massive player casualties were avoided through luck and skill. Also noteworthy is a trend I've noticed in supernatural games: weird things don't give the PCs any trouble (giant antlions, crazed sorcerers, etc.), but mundane things give the PCs major headaches (soldiers, constables, etc.). It was like that in Deadlands, too; we tangled with a Rattler in one of our first sessions, and were routinely clashing with The Devil Himself, but we were terrified of being arrested.
Where will the intrepid time-displaced 1611 occultists end up next time? Stay tuned.
I try to keep my video game talk minimal around here, but I keep coming across video games that seem relevant to table-top gaming.
Besides, every moment you spend not playing this is a disservice you do to yourself.
This one is called Kentucky Route Zero, and it's a point-and-click adventure in five Acts. As is the style with some games at the moment, it is being released in installments; currently, only the first two have been released.
Kentucky Route Zero revolves around a truck driver named Conway and his dog as they try to make a delivery to Dogwood Drive. As the adventure progresses, it becomes obvious that Conway needs to find his way to the Zero, a strange subterranean road, to complete his delivery.
KRZ is a linear experiment in much the same vein as Goichi Suda's killer7 — it's not terribly innovative in terms of gameplay or graphics, but it does play with how the player identifies with the main character(s) in the story. The only meaningful choices the player makes involve how the characters interact with others; the game seems as though it plays similarly no matter what choices you make, but what is the mood of the game? Tired? Wistful? Hopeful? You help influence that by way of your dialogue.
In terms of story, I'd particularly recommend it. It falls within the slippery genre of "magic realism," placing it among the works of artists such as Tim Powers and David Lynch (when the latter isn't out-and-out surrealist).
Without getting into the metaplot of Unknown Armies, the Zero is clearly an "Otherspace," any one of a multitude of alternate realities that bleed into our own. Some claim that they're the leftovers of potent or repeated magic, while others claim they're the remnants of dead realities. Whatever the case, sometimes it's possible to find a place where the rules of reality run a little strange. The Zero is clearly such a place, running on symbolic and narrative rules rather than physical laws. Likewise, the area of Kentucky surrounding the Zero clearly has been influenced by this strangeness — an abandoned church plays a tape recorded sermon to no one (strangely enough, mirroring a similar church in Act II), while on the other side of Route 65, two guys push a propeller plane up the road. For that matter, you come across an accident that may have happened years before, and the person who leads you to the Zero might be a ghost (or at least, has a particularly fluid relationship with reality these days).
Once the whole thing comes out, I'm sure I'll adapt some parts to Unknown Armies, because seriously, how could one resist?
If you head over to the KRZ site, you can find the game available through Steam and Humble Bundle (the Humble Bundle version gives you Steam download codes as well as a DRM-free version). I believe that grants you access to the new Acts as they are released.
If you're not quite so sure about all this, you can also check out Limits & Demonstrations, a free mini-game featuring three characters wandering around an art museum. This side story details the artwork of a minor character in Act II, and grants a little more insight into the setting. It plays just like the main game, so if you feel comfortable with the point and click interface of Limits & Demonstrations, you'll be fine with KRZ.
(Also, the most important thing to come out of reading this article was likely the game Asphyx. A simple side-scrolling platformer, your job is to move your character through the world. There's only one rule — while your character is underwater, hold your breath in real life. If you take a breath while underwater, press ESC to drown.)
Since all statistics indicate that early modern British pounds, shillings, and pence are roughly equivalent to Warhammer's gold crowns, silver shillings, and copper pennies, I also put those in the conversion.
Using all these statistics, I made a chart that converts Venetian ducats, Dutch lions, Dutch guilders, Dutch stuivers, gp (with a separate entry for the extremely valuable gold pieces in LotFP), sp, cp, WFRP gc, WFRP s, WFRP p, and modern USD.
The PCs were unsuccessful in the main thrust of the adventure, but they still managed to leave with a couple of occult artifacts, and 11,500 ducats (approximately 4,600 gp, or 5,750 gold crowns if you're a Warhammer fan) worth of stolen treasure.
Unfortunately, said treasure was stolen from the Emperor, and they fought a couple of guards who saw their faces and fled.
Fast forward to two weeks later, when they've fled Prague and are recuperating in Eger. In the meantime, those who are not injured have been working, and they've sold one of the stolen tapestries to net 125 ducats (50 gp). One of them catches sight of some soldiers and warns the others that Imperial soldiers are in town. Before they can flee, however, one of the PCs is arrested by a contingent of soldiers headed by Jan Mydlář, Master Executioner of Bohemia. (I know that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but know that Rudolf sent his chief executioner to apprehend the PCs for symbolic reasons.)
The other PCs take their cart and stolen guns and loop around, making it to the guard station before their friend Goffhilf is led inside.
The PCs open fire on the guards.
In the chaos, Jan Mydlář is wounded and withdraws, Goffhilf gets away, Ross gets away with the cart, but Nicholas is killed by a volley of musket fire.
It's over a week later, after the group has fled the city, that they find the mysterious stranger who sends them to 1631 Würzburg...
As such, no real update on Better Than Any Man, but the PCs have received exposition. (They've been told to find Willibald Schwartz and complete a task for him. So that's bound to be entertaining.)
Obviously, the setup will require a little tweaking — the player characters are currently in December 1610 Prague while BTAM takes place in October 1631 near Würzburg — and Unknown Armies's brand of cosmic horror isn't quite compatible with Lamentations of the Flame Princess's brand of cosmic horror. ("You did it" versus "The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.") That having been said, though, there are enough parallels that I decided to make the jump. (While some of the stuff on Goblin Hill isn't quite Unknown Armies, the whole Karlstadt-overtaken-by-sorcerers-and-Gustavus-Adolphus-isn't-happy-about-it plot is incredibly Unknown Armies. "Sleeping Tiger" and all that.)
Back in the dim and distant days of 2004, White Wolf Publishing rebooted its famous World of Darkness line to wipe away thirteen years of metaplot and create something more accessible for fans. To set the mood, the opening chapters feature fiction in the form of "found documents," the sorts of papers PCs might find while investigating a nWoD mystery. One of the stories is a piece called "Voice of the Angel." (For those without access to the books, that link gives the DriveThruRPG sample of the God-Machine Chronicle anthology.)
"Voice of the Angel" details the testament of the fictitious Marco Singe, "the Pain Prophet of New Delhi," who received a revelation from an angel about the truth of the world. The angel indicated that the world was the creation and engine of some "god-machine" and that the greatest of its angels were exiled and cursed humanity with their various flaws. (The angel who granted humanity its mortality was entombed on the Moon, but the body was eventually found and recovered by Apollo astronauts.)
This story was not meant to reveal the truth about the World of Darkness — it was merely the rantings of a diseased brain, or an allegorical tale of true things, or possibly nothing at all. During the print run, various references to this "god-machine" appeared (the Promethean adventure "These Mortal Engines" features a piece of the God-Machine, and the Vampire: the Requiem book The Danse Macabre features a covenant of Kindred called Holy Engineers who serve the God-Machine — specifically the dead-but-dreaming Angel of Death on the Moon), but none of them were definitive; they were merely creepy things that might be true.
However, White Wolf (or Onyx Path Publishing, as it's now known) just released The God-Machine Chronicle, a setting and rules update as well as a companion fiction anthology designed to reveal the God-Machine and allow its use as a World of Darkness setting. Given the materials released, this review will be in three parts:
God-Machine Chronicle will focus on the rules and setting update.
God-Machine Anthology will focus on the fiction anthology released to coincide with the new setting.
Demon: the Descent will focus on the new World of Darkness game line that appears to take place within the setting of the God-Machine Chronicle.
The God-Machine Chronicle takes the implied setting of "Voice of the Angel" and turns it into a campaign. In keeping with the dark mystery and do-it-yourself nature of the new World of Darkness, this is more a chronicle toolkit designed to allow Storytellers to make a campaign with the God-Machine and its agents as an adversary (usually). The God-Machine is not fully defined; it is apparent that it is powerful, and that it can be seen as a deity both because of its massive power and because it is the engine that keeps the world running smoothly. (Several notes indicate that disrupting God-Machine operations can cause huge problems, possibly even ending the world if enough are undone. Mankind's freedom would come at a terrible cost.) The reason why the God-Machine is antagonistic is because it is inherently Lovecraftian — the God-Machine cannot be fully understood by mortal minds, and it does what is necessary. If an entire city has to die to fuel the God-Machine's designs, then so be it.
As the God-Machine is not fully defined, the stories including the God-Machine are also loosely-defined. Things are made to be modular so that STs can piece a campaign together using the various ideas presented in the book. The first chapter gives a number of chronicles that can be run by stringing together the stories presented in Chapter 2; each chronicle will present a different spin on the God-Machine based how the stories progress. Chapter 3 provides a host of NPCs, both mortal and not, to be used in God-Machine chronicles; some of them are referenced in the stories in Chapter 2, while others are not tied to any particular stories, instead being presented for general use.
The presented toolkits all take the weird mystery of the World of Darkness and reduce the fantasy, instead invoking many of the tropes of science-fiction. Time travel, parallel universes, and robotic entities all have their place. It should also be noted that these elements can be used in the "core" World of Darkness with minimal tweaking, simply by removing the God-Machine (or leaving it as a unique entity that only appears in that story) — I seriously want to place the diner from "Do-Over" in one of my games as an eldritch set piece, and the strange geographies of the urban landscape (no doubt influenced by the same headspace that brought us Unknown Armies' Otherspaces) make "Sister City," with its Other Seattle, another logical choice (no PC has discovered it, but my home game's Las Vegas has a weird Otherside to it called "Sin City"). Although the book is obviously meant as a chronicle toolkit, one could easily take the things and use them for a single adventure — maybe the God-Machine is all-pervasive, but only intersects with one campaign briefly, or maybe the God-Machine is making inroads into another universe (the latter is implied as a possibility multiple times in The God-Machine Chronicle).
After the introduction and the first three chapters comes the Appendix, the rules update. This pushes the World of Darkness ruleset into story game territory, taking a lot of assorted bits from Mirrors and other sources to make a unified front. The Merit system is retooled to reflect changes in the rule system over time. Morality is replaced with Integrity — the resident karma meter becomes more subjective, and doesn't cause crippling derangements for transgressions. Flaws and various fiddly rules give way to Conditions, character "tags" that provide temporary benefits and drawbacks. Resolving a Condition is one of the major components of the experience system — instead of the old five-fold experience method per session (Did your character learn anything? Was your role-playing exceptional?), characters gain experience for completing their character goals and overcoming these Conditions. (Kick your heroin addiction? Get some XP. Get blackmailed and acquiesce to the demands? Get some XP.) The Experience system has also been overhauled — experience points are fewer, but are worth more and tend to be directly correlated with character points for easier number-crunching. There are also bits for social combat, new rules for combat, and similar alterations to try to present a more unified system culled from the various books in the game line.
Also worth noting is the fiction: the whole thing oozes atmosphere. The short pieces between chapters are enigmatic, creepy, and betray the strange science-fiction-ness of the God-Machine, while the prologue ("Dissemination") shows what is likely a parallel universe where the God-Machine's designs trigger some manner of horrific global event. Scattered throughout are also found documents detailing correspondence among several characters — these documents show the machinations of the God-Machine throughout the twentieth century, affecting the lives of several (at first, seemingly) disparate people.
Overall, I'm pleased with the book. It inspired a bunch of chronicle ideas, which is easily the most complementary thing someone can say about such a work. However, I'm actually not as impressed by the rules update. It ends up being more crunchy in a lot of ways (keeping track of Conditions will likely be something of a chore), and the storygaming aspect feels a little forced. That having been said, I'll likely use the new rules, just not for every game.
Also, the Onyx Path has reverted to White Wolf's old standard of large numbers of typos, so that's a thing for noting.
If you downloaded the free rules update and want to get more toolkit-type stuff to run the implied chronicle from "Voice of the Angel," you should absolutely get this book. If you weren't as impressed by the rules and want a premade setting, you might want to pass on this book. If you're a die-hard World of Darkness fan, you should absolutely get this book. Which brings us to...
God-Machine Anthology The God-Machine Chronicle also refers to an anthology of short horror fiction. Several of the pieces appeared in previous books ("Voice of the Angel" is reprinted from the World of Darkness Rulebook, "Eggs" is reprinted from World of Darkness: Urban Legends, "Road Gospel" is reprinted from World of Darkness: Midnight Roads, and so forth), but thirteen of the twenty tales are new for this volume.
As with the rulebook, the fiction anthology gives a lot of mood and a lot of ideas but offers very few concrete ideas. It confuses the issue; the God-Machine is not defined, although there is an obvious logic to its operations.
Most of the original fiction takes on a definite conspiracy tone. "The King Is Dead" details the horrific secret of a small town; "Quality of Life" does the same, albeit with a more Stepford Wives vibe to the Twin Peaks feel of "The King Is Dead." "Delivery Boy in Blue" and "Concession" both reveal something horribly wrong in the local police department (the same police department, in fact), while "Grind" follows two rednecks who stumble across the secret burden of a lone Task Force: VALKYRIE operative. (It's also a strong story on which to end the anthology.)
Despite Onyx Path's obsession with typos, you should just read the damn thing; $5 gets you the thing in pdf, mobi, and epub. This is also coming from someone who usually can't stand game fiction — it was tolerable when I was, maybe, ten years old, but the quality is usually unfortunate (a friend loaned me Predator & Prey #3: Werewolf for Hunter: the Reckoning once, saying that it was awesome; do yourself a favor and never read it). This however, is good, creepy stuff.
Which brings us to...
Demon: the Descent
White Wolf should be releasing a new game line within the next month or two. Called Demon: the Descent, it deviates heavily from White Wolf's old Demon: the Fallen game. Rather than fallen angels of a Judeo-Christian god, the titular demons are the fallen angels of the God-Machine. Such angels are created when they gain any whit of self-awareness, frequently either by absorbing conflicting programming or embedding themselves so deeply into human society that they become the mask. As such, the demons of the God-Machine are less Lucifer and more Agent Smith.
Of course, with the God-Machine being the God-Machine, a key question is whether demons are part of the plan or not.
So far, there is not a core book for this one (release schedule indicates it will see release sometime in October), but White Wolf did release the Demon: the Descent Quickstart. This offers a little overview of Demon: the Descent, revealing the titular demons as rogue agents of the God-Machine. To avoid being discovered, each demon adopts a Cover, a human identity and the game's karma meter stat. The better one's Cover, the harder it is for the God-Machine to discover the rogue agent. (As this suggests, demon culture draws heavily from espionage culture; also, even though the God-Machine is most powerful in cities, they stick to cities because these form effective camouflage. A demon in the woods sticks out like a sore thumb.)
In addition to a rules overview, the Quickstart also offers four sample characters as well as the writeups of their powers. Demons still retain some facility for manipulating the God-Machine's programming (these minor powers are called Embeds, and represent the natural laws put in place by the God-Machine), but as free agents, they can also bend it to their will. Such powers are called Exploits; they are more potent than Embeds, but draw significant attention from the God-Machine and its agents. (One of the sample characters bears an Embed allowing him to change clothes at will; the same character's Exploit allows him to become a living shadow and meld with others' shadows.)
After the rules comes a short adventure, "Honey & Vinegar," designed to introduce players to the occult espionage lifestyle of the demons.
Despite being a short, free document, this helps complete the current picture of the God-Machine, and is a must-read for anybody who took the time to look at The God-Machine Chronicle and its accompanying fiction anthology.
As with most of their limited-run and one-off lines, the new stuff coming out of White Wolf is top-notch weird horror gaming. If you like the weirdness of Promethean or Changeling (or even just the core World of Darkness books), you owe it to yourself to look at the new God-Machine stuff. If you prefer the political, mystical gameplay for which the World of Darkness is famous, you may want to pass — God-Machine is less about power politics and more about dark mystery and simple survival.
Sadly, the worst thing for a gaming blog is playing more than running. Most of my games are on the back burner, and so involve a lot of things I'm either not at liberty to discuss, or simply aren't foremost enough on my mind to allow for in depth discussion.
I think the D&D kick is on the wane — most of the fantasy games I got really excited about died quiet deaths, and I'm not sure if any will be resuscitated anytime soon. (I certainly hope Spelljammer rises from the ashes, as I put a lot of effort into it. Likewise, I do plan on returning to the Carcosa megadungeon, but my 4e players need to do their part first, and that will likely be a bit of waiting.)
Post-modern magic is back on the brain; I recently assimilated The God-Machine Chronicle (expect a review when I finish the accompanying fiction anthology). This, coupled with a revisiting of Lost, inspired me to tinker with a Lost-style modern hexcrawl that is only in the brainstorming stages at present (so at least all that D&D-delving I did won't be for naught). Those gritty combat rules from Armory Reloaded and Mirrors will likely come in handy. I'll probably revisit True in Some Sense soon when the opportunity presents itself. Set in the same canonical headspace as True and False in Some Sense is Not What They Seem, my homage to Twin Peaks. I don't know if that will get off the ground, either, but I have some ideas. (Like the guy in the RV at the edge of town? Rumor has it that he knows things, like the secret broadcasts from the center of the sun. That's probably why he mostly comes out at night; during the day he can learn by osmosis as he dreams of secret signs, doing his best Sleeping Prophet impersonation.)
If you enjoyed my Deadlands replays, the same GM is currently running a Changeling game. I'm not keeping the updates like I did with Deadlands, but fortunately, Nicole is. I play Wally, the Korean chemistry whiz who works nights at CVS (or Peoples Drug if you're nasty).
Once both parties clear the top level, the goal is to open up the dungeon to ConstantCon, probably using Labyrinth Lord. Any updates or relevant information about the megadungeon of Skyfall delve can be found on this blog by way of the #fourthworldproblems tag. I will also try to whip the Obsidian Portal page into shape relatively soon.
I try to keep focused on role-playing games on this blog, but I recently played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (I actually purchased and played a game shortly after release? Shocking!) and feel that it is relevant enough to elicit commentary.
Spoilers abound, although I'll segregate this into spoiler-free and spoiler parts, so you'll have plenty of warning.
Brothers is a platformer/puzzle game about (unsurprisingly) two brothers. Their mother is dead — drowning, according to the opening cinematic — and their father is dying of some unknown illness. The Brothers take him to the local apothecary who indicates that their only hope is to find the Water of Life.
Cue epic journey.
A brief word about gameplay: there is no English dialogue. All dialogue in the game is vaguely-Arabic-sounding gibberish; character interactions are determined primarily by inflection and context. (There were a couple of interactions that only made sense in hindsight, but this is a minor complaint.)
Likewise, both brothers are controlled by one controller. Penny Arcade describes it as "a co-op game, for one person." This is way less wonky than it sounds, as the player is given plenty of time to get used to the arrangement.
As for the game itself, the adventure neatly cleaves to the Dungeon Crawl Classics character funnel paradigm. It's a bit more fairy tale than D&D games tend to be, but it certainly feels appropriate. (I would frequently turn to Nicole while playing and note that these characters are going to be awesome adventurers someday.) You play two children (I'd estimate them to be roughly 10 and 14) whose main skill seems to be boundless energy and an athletic ability to climb. And you face down ravenous wolves, evil ogres, and vile cults in your quest, armed with only your wits. (You do get a torch at one point. That's about as close as you get to a weapon.)
This game seems like a 0-level hexcrawl waiting to happen.
All right, we're getting into the spoiler part, so keep out if you care about that sort of thing. (If you want my conclusions, though, you should go play the game. It's available on Xbox LIVE Arcade, and should be available on PSN and Steam soon. It's a good game if you want to get a feel for level-0 villagers journeying beyond the gates of civilization, and it's also good if you want what the internet commonly terms "feels.")
Are you gone?
When I mention fairy tales, this game is a bit more old school in its presentation — things are grim, and most of the game proceeds with the oppressive feeling that something bad is going to happen. (Personally, I thought that the brothers weren't going to make it back to their father in time.) There are a couple of moments when, in true fairy tale fashion, you transgress, and will be punished for it. (The rescued girl toward the end comes to mind.)
Emotionally, the game does its job pretty well — one of the most effective points is at the end, when you are forced to play through burying your own brother. While I didn't expect it, the story foreshadows the older brother's fate nicely — he's not featured in the opening scene, nor is he playable in the dream sequence. Plus, the rescued girl just seems wrong the more you journey with her. (And the game warned you that the cult worships spider-things, but that lesson is swiftly forgotten.)
As for the game-able aspects of Brothers, most of the encounters would be interesting things to feature in a hexcrawl. I found the scene of the giant battle to be particularly effective in this regard — there is no combat nor is there really ever any danger to the player, just a creepy, fantastical sense of foreboding. The pygmy cultists who get tricked by the brothers, bathed in giants' blood, is both sufficiently weird and metal to warrant inclusion. The ogres' dungeon is a classic dungeon crawl that could easily be expanded for anybody who wants that sort of thing.
Additionally, in terms of the DCC character funnel, the game includes it. The older brother dies, and as the younger brother is just a child, it seems likely that his scarred psyche is going to tend toward either extreme: either he's never going to travel again, fearful of the dark, or he's going to become an adventurer, as he's far too restless to stay in a tiny village.
If you want an alternative to epic fantasy and you just want to see how the common level-0 schmoes live in a fantasy world, check out Brothers.
This is a post about powergaming, except, it isn't. Not really. I'll ramble all over the place, so just bear with me.
I've devoted a lot of word count to my love of Unknown Armies. My occult horror gaming background informs much of what I do gaming-wise — I try to make my fantasy wizards at least a little off-kilter, for example. I try to keep this picture in mind when I contemplate fantasy wizards. In my current 4e game, the gnome wizard was given a temptation in the form of a sexy vampire wizard woman with forbidden knowledge. (He took the bait, and is now a vampire diabolist himself.) The other wizards encountered in the game tend to be weird and buried in their own pet projects.
Don't worry, I'm getting to it.
I don't have a head for powergaming. I have a head for numbers and figures, sure, but I usually would rather make a broader character. In our recently-ended Deadlands game, I could have made Father Seward a straight-up gunslinger with a 5d12 shootin', but I wanted him to have a bit more happening, so I also made him a holy man and theologian with a troubled past. In classic World of Darkness, I typically couldn't conceive of making a character without at least a dot of Etiquette, for example.
Basically, I tend towards a well-rounded character. Jack of all trades, master of none, and all that.
One of my powergaming triumphs? The guy who ran Deadlands is running a Changeling: the Lost game. I just made a character who is amazing at chemistry — assuming he has access to his library, he rolls twelve dice with the 9-Again quality. He tried to physically resist someone else at the first game session and failed miserably. Not typically how people min-max their characters.
Of course, that's not really the focus of this blog post.
What I really want to talk about is the game-breaking sort of powergaming. You tend not to find it in horror gaming — even if you max out your rifle skill at 99%, Cthulhu still eats 1d6 investigators per round.
This sort of min-maxing never really bothered me. Real people do it all the time — if you're a Nobel-winning astrophysicist, you're probably not also a UFC champion, and if you're an Olympic-award winning boxer, you're probably not also a famed actor. (Not to say that these things are impossible, just that they're rare). If you make a combat character, he probably has some notable flaws, like an inability to negotiate through social situations or a weak will.
Game-breaking, though, is a different story. Since it doesn't really happen in horror gaming, one typically finds it in games such as D&D. Various people have attempted to create game-breaking characters, frequently in D&D 3.x, that exploit poorly-written or poorly-considered rules to make characters of preternatural power.
Of course, since the heights of power typically rely on magical abilities, this means that it is typically magicians performing these feats.
In my mind, that is what magic-users do. Player character magic-users decided to throw away a life of quiet experimentation to use their talents for profit, but the majority of wizards and sorcerers in the world are probably idiosyncratic research scientists, spending decades to unlock the properties of the philosopher's stone, or some similar eldritch discovery.
Do you remember the Zodiac wizards in Isle of the Unknown, each of whom is perfectly aspected to a sign of the Zodiac? What about the mosaic magician in that same book, who bound his mind and spirit into the mosaic in an old temple? What about Louhi from Vampire: the Masquerade, who has spent centuries engaged in a ritual to blot out the Sun? What about every gutter magician in Unknown Armies, trying to turn his life into an allegory for some grand occult design?
I imagine that magic-users do that sort of thing all the time. With that in mind, game-breaking characters seem pretty natural. It's an intriguing thought exercise to consider what makes them tick: why would you engage in a particular avenue of research to the exclusion of all others. Consider the following:
The muscle wizard is a very specific character build: you have to be an Illumian, for starters. This works, though; Illumians are very driven magical researchers who always hope to be the best in everything. At second level, an Illumian has two power sigils glowing around her head; these two power sigils combine into a single word. The "Aeshkrau" word allows the Illumian to use her Strength score to determine bonus spells for a spellcasting class. When combined with the Cancer Mage prestige class from The Book of Vile Darkness (allowing a character to become a disease carrier who receives the benefits but none of the drawbacks of any diseases, among other things) and the Festering Anger disease from the same book (which causes boils, fits of rage, and a degenerative constitution but also causes increased strength), this allows the character to increase her Strength score every day and gain more bonus spells (in addition to slowly but steadily gaining a ludicrously high Strength). Within weeks, you'll be able to memorize prodigious numbers of spells and split boulders in half with your bare hands, although you'll be a pock-marked pariah with a crippling vulnerability to Cure Disease spells, not to mention the fact that you had to mentally train yourself to maintain a near-constant murderous rage for about a year to catch Festering Anger in the first place. Such is the price of power.
Pun-Pun the super kobold is a kobold from Forgotten Realms whose quest for power led it to learn (or steal) shapeshifting abilities to assume the form and powers of a sarrukh. It uses this same power to do this to its serpent familiar. As the progenitor race of all Scaled Ones on Toril, the sarrukh can use the Manipulate Form ability to enhance their statistics. Since both Pun-Pun and its familiar are both reptilian creatures posing as sarrukhs, they can use Manipulate Form as well as various other enhancement magics to form a feedback loop whereby they can constantly improve each others' statistics. Through this method, Pun-Pun slowly but surely becomes a potent being, even holding Divine Rank in some character builds. If allowed to continue this activity, Pun-Pun will eventually become immune to the puny attacks of mortals, although the gods themselves would likely take interest in such a creature's activities. Interpretations of the character tend to cast him in the vein of the Monkey King; a divine trickster who stole power from the gods. Pun-Pun might cause havoc on the Material Plane, but it seems more likely at that point that such a creature would move into the realms beyond and quickly fade into legend. Who can say?
The Locate City nuke is not quite as narrow as the other two, but still requires a significant level of dedication. The Locate City spell locates the nearest city within several miles (specifically ten miles per caster level). The classic version of the build requires a specific selection of feats to add cold damage, lightning damage, sonic damage, and an explosive effect that throws everyone in the radius outside the radius of effect. This modified spell now locates the nearest city while also causing small amounts of elemental damage to everyone within its radius of effect, and flinging them several miles. Since the spell is centered on the caster, he is recommended to remain indoors while casting this spell. Assuming a Level 12 caster, he will be struck by the elements and thrown a few feet, likely surviving the encounter with significant but not life-threatening injuries. However, anybody else inside the area of effect is hit with elemental damage and thrown to the outside of the effect, which should strike in a 120 mile radius around the caster. (As noted, this is about the size of Spain.) Being thrown even a single mile will kill just about anybody, to say nothing of being thrown 100 miles. This will certainly kill every Level 0 entity in the radius, whether or not they are indoors when "thrown," and will kill many characters with class levels, as well. This 45,239 square mile holocaust will probably also make the character the most wanted person on the planet. Why someone would wish to inflict this level of villainy on the world is unclear, but any magic-user with a grudge or an agenda could clearly perform such a feat. Of course, it is also possible that the magic-user in question has no intention of surviving the blast, feels like he has no other option, or has been brainwashed to train in such a way.
Each of these potent wizards seems to come with significant weaknesses that make perfect sense of some mad genius who sought the heights of power. Of course, that doesn't necessarily justify allowing a player to attempt to derail a campaign in such a way, but anyone dedicated enough to try these sorts of antics might deserve having the opportunity to try. Even if it backfires horribly, as it often does.
Edit: This post marked two years of this blog, and I totally didn't notice! Happy birthday to me.
More to the point, I was directed to Blog of Holding's Dungeon Robber game and have been playing it in my spare time. For those not in the know, Dungeon Robber is built off the Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map project, itself built off the random dungeon generation charts from the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, pages 169-173. This game emphasizes the exploration and treasure retrieval parts of dungeon delving, while also dabbling in the domain game — adventurers can retire and make the town more prosperous, making future dungeon delves easier. Worth a look for a simple old-school dungeon experience.
Vice magazine is in the habit of putting out some pretty cool documentaries. (It's beyond the scope of this discussion, but my introduction was The Vice Guide to North Korea, which I highly recommend.)
Recently, I've come across two that detail weird, idiosyncratic little bits of modern occult lore. I give these to you specifically with the white trash gutter magic of Unknown Armies in mind, but they could conceivably be used in any modern occult conspiracy game, like Call of Cthulhu or World of Darkness.
Do you remember hearing anything at all about a woman named Valeria Lukyanova? She's a Ukrainian model who gained notoriety a year or so ago for being one of those women who gets reconstructive surgery to resemble Barbie. Well, Vice did a documentary on her, detailing both her modeling thing, as well as her life as a New Age guru:
I also came across one recently featuring several teenage girls from Arizona who perform exorcisms, trying to prevent things like "sexually transmitted demons." Watch it here:
I'm still invested in Primeval Thule even though it has not quite reached its goals. The campaign has four days left and about a third left of its goal (about $20,000). That's a long way to go, but I've watched James Raggi do it before, although he may have access to forbidden Finnish magic. The jury's still out on that one.
Anyway, Primeval Thule is a pulp genre mash-up setting that draws heavily on the traditions of Robert E. Howard — savage sword-and-sorcery action with the threat of big, nasty Lovecraftian horror in the background. Primeval Thule uses the core conceit of Forgotten Realms (mythic Earth) cross-pollinated with the Hyperborean Age or Middle-earth (prehistoric Earth) — Thule was the mythic Thule of the Greeks, the fabled northern continent, but has since become a lost land. Humanity is a young race, having arisen in a savage wilderness with aspects of ancient cultures and creatures.
As is the way of sword-and-sorcery, Thule is predominantly human, although demihumans do occur. They are, however, rare; there is probably just one city of elves, one city of dwarves, and so forth. These demihuman enclaves are small and hard-to-find. (The game will also note the possibility of using the demihuman races, but just making them cultural variants of humanity.)
Things continue to be slow on the things-to-post-on-the-hobby-blog front.
But, I continue to run and organize campaigns, so that's good, right?
If you want to read about my D&D 4e game that's been running for two years (we play infrequently, unfortunately), check out Crux of Eternity.
If you want to read about my comparatively more recent AD&D 2eSpelljammer game, check out Can't Take the Sky. We also play infrequently, although we're scheduled to play this weekend. I'm not convinced that will work out.
I've come across two current campaigns to start kicks, and I bring them to your attention.
Exile Game Studio's Revelations of Mars is an expansion to the award-winning Hollow Earth Expedition role-playing game. For those not in the know, Hollow Earth Expedition is a 1930s pulp adventure game wherein characters are adventurers and explorers in the Hollow Earth. Previous expansions added further detail to Hollow Earth and also detailed the pulp weirdness happening on earth's surface; Revelations of Mars expands the action to encompass Mars, providing rules for a not-quite-Barsoom world of weird science fantasy. Revelations of Mars has already hit its funding, but it's a good opportunity to pre-order the book or round out your Hollow Earth Expedition collection. The Revelation of Mars Kickstarter ends on July 31.
When last we left our heroes, the group boarded a train to Albuquerque, from there hoping to travel to Garrison Wells by way of Amarillo. While en route, the group exorcised the creature from Ruby and Father Seward, acting under the influence of the spirit inside him, stabbed Rufina and kicked her out of the train.
Father Seward gives a cockeyed grin and raises his hands in the air. Rex draws his gatling pistols and puts several rounds in Seward's chest.
Once Seward is immobile, Rex takes his gun and asks what must be done with him. As Ollie is still in the corner, and Ruby is curled in the fetal position on the floor, Rex's conversation is largely with David. David says that he thinks Father Seward should be left alive. Rex disagrees, saying that puts the whole party at risk. David says that if Seward is going to save the world and close the Hellgate, it's worth the risk to the party.
Seward is to be left alive. Rex and David use David's belt to secure his arms. Then, they sit and await Albuquerque.
About an hour later, Father Seward starts to awaken. Despite having been overtaken by the demon inside him, he recalls everything. He tells Rex he's a bad shot, and then rolls off the side of the train. Rex, unprepared, doesn't grab him in time, but he draws his gatling pistols and starts aiming for Seward's head. Several rounds are discharged before a blast of scarlet paints the desert and Seward's body slumps to the ground, lifeless.
Since Father Seward was apparently integral to the Devil's plan, our GM called game there. Deadlands is finished for now.
So, apparently, Cobb's plan involved becoming mortal and being forgiven so that he could enter Heaven and storm the gates. He gathered certain people to aid in these affairs: David Hood and Ruby O'Flahertie owned the land surrounding the Hellgate, Father Seward was empowered by God and could actually forgive the Devil of his sins, and Jake was going to take the Devil's place as the new ruler of Hell. However, the Devil ran into a little snag: as a mortal, he was subject to mortal emotions, and ended up falling in love with Seward's daughter. When the Indians' ritual involving Seward's daughter didn't work, they savaged her and started carrying her with them as they traveled. Cobb encountered her again years later and fell in love, taking her from the Indians, raising her as his daughter (and also keeping her around as his lover). As such, he had developed a genuine interest in saving the world from the growing Hellgate. Whoopsie daisy.
(Of course, the Devil being the Devil, when given the choice between staying with his lover and declaring war on Heaven, guess which one he'd take.)
(Apart from any errant travelers who may happen upon the world, Llurb Tdunon is entirely made of Fiend Folio creatures. Feel free to check out the Fiend Folio-only encounter tables that accompany this world.)
Set in the same star system as Rockulon Prime, Llurb Tdunon is an enormous world (albeit with Earth-strength gravity), hundreds of thousands of miles in diameter. (In Spelljammer terms, it's a Size H, Type E spherical world.) Llurb Tdunon is a savage land of tundra, desert, forest, and jungle. Like Rockulon Prime, Llurb Tdunon's development was also influenced by the coming of the Space-God. Unlike Rockulon Prime, Llurb Tdunon did not play host to the dead-but-undying deity's corpus, but rather, the planet was infused with large quantities of the Space-God's blood (so much so that it has a somewhat ruddy hue, and even has a series of red rings, formed by frozen blood droplets). The quantity of deific blood prompted both strange evolutionary lineages as well as the proliferation of extraplanar portals. Various outsiders — such as githzerai and githyanki, slaads, and even the occasional devil — roam the landscape. It is said that the Princes of Elemental Evil even roam the landscape in material forms.
The natives, largely ignorant of the mythos of the Space-God, instead worship the strange outsiders that have come to be known on this world. In addition to the Princes of Elemental Evil, the planet's inhabitants are also known to worship Ssendam, Lord of Insanity, and Ygorl, Lord of Entropy. While many of the planet's drow worship the Princes of Elemental Evil, some have turned to the heretical worship of Lolth, Demon Queen of Spiders. (Oddly, apart from retrievers, there aren't really any spider-like creatures on Llurb Tdunon. Scholars think the local populace either treat the spiders as mythological creatures, or that some of the drow originate off-world and brought spider lore with them.)
Note that the good races typically also worship these deities, although their prayers and sacrifices are largely rituals of placation, and they tend to worship different aspects of the deities. The Princes of Elemental Evil, for example, are venerated simply for their connection to natural forces, while some clerics refer to healing spells as "The Closing of Lord Ygorl's Eye," referring to the idea that the Lord of Entropy's ignorance allows growth and healing to happen.
All-in-all, Llurb Tdunon is a savage land populated by monstrous humanoids and weird creatures. Barring visitors from other worlds and planes, native sapient races include creatures such as aarakocra, bullywugs, dakon, drow, flinds, githzerai, kenku, svirfneblin, and the like. With no native unifying race, the races tend to be insular and largely keep to themselves. (Adventuring parties composed of humanoids, however, occasionally occur.) As such, cities tend to have lots of untamed land between them, and they tend to organize along racial lines.
While adventuring through the OSR blogosphere, I feel like I've heard this concept a couple of times, and decided that since I'm working on a Spelljammer game for my associates, now would be as good a time as any to work on the concept. (For that matter, the Spelljammer core box set notes the possibility of using obscure Fiend Folio creatures to populate a world on pages 11 and 12 of Lorebook of the Void.)
As such, I decided to make a Fiend Folio-only campaign setting.
I'm really just here for the Fiend Folio stuff
Before I bore you with a ton of design notes, here are the Fiend Folio-only wandering monster tables in Google Drive spreadsheet format. If that's all you want, just follow that link and you're good to go. They're not terribly pretty, and they're not in a good format for printing, but they're readable.
So, over the course of a few days, I converted all of Hogan's tables to d100, removed any errant non-Fiend Folio results (his tables include humans, rival adventuring parties, demon princes, and groaning spirits), and reduced the "DM's Option" results (which I interpret as either DM's choice or special encounter tables or whatever) to 3% of the chart.
I also proceeded to convert all of the wilderness tables to D100 and remove all the Monster Manual results.
Here are more relevant notes:
These tables assume access to TSR's 1981 Fiend Folio for AD&D 1e. Several of the creatures have been reprinted elsewhere, so it's not totally necessary, but everything makes more sense if you have it.
As per the original Fiend Folio, the aleax, denzelian, hound of ill omen, terithran, and trilloch are omitted (although the terithran appears on the Ethereal Encounter Table). The creatures typically only appear in specific circumstances.
All percentages are kept as originally on the random encounter charts. I make the same assumption as Chris Hogan and assume creature frequency is the same in a Folian world.
DM's Option is whatever the DM chooses. You can throw a rival adventuring party into the mix, use a special encounter table, pick a creature you want to use, or whatever. (If you're stuck for ideas, you can always just re-roll.)
As in the original text, the wilderness charts feature several italicized creature names. These creatures have a 75% likelihood to be encountered airborne.
I replaced the number appearing distributions with dice ranges.