Friday, May 17, 2019

Descent into the Depths of the Earth

My 5e PCs are probably going to delve into the Underdark tomorrow, so it's high time I get all that sorted.  Luckily, it gave me the opportunity to dig into Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth in greater detail.  (I also finally detailed the main tunnels winding underneath the Sorrowfell Plains.)

The following forms the network of caves known as "the Trials of the Chained."  (If you're playing along at home, the entrance to this network is in Hex 90.46.  Or more accurately, under it.)  Black represents the tunnels formed by Torog's torturous descent into the depths.  Blue represents the subterranean descent of the River of Tears as it winds its way through the earth.  Red represents some old mining earthworks, probably crafted by the Deep Janeen.

Assume standard six-mile hexes.

Click to enlarge.
As for the settlements on the map, they are:

Chooldubrool: Population 950.  This mad kuo-toa temple-city reveres the manufactured deity Turladebaoth, an effigy of mud and bone built along the riverbed.  They additionally serve the aboleth known only as “The Cold Eye of Crushing Aeons.”

Chornodom: Population 155.  This village of the ghouls rests in ancient tunnels, and has secret paths to both the Ghoul Market and the Plane of Dreams.

Cinlu Tlurthei: Population 17,200.  A dark elf metropolis, mentioned a few times in my notes but never detailed until now.

The Citadel of Smokeless Fire: Population 3,100.  This Deep Janeen outpost is run by The Omnipotent Dream of the Mountain's Heart, an efreeti lord.

DA VILG (or DA VILUJ): Population 165.  This village of the Cambrimen sits lazily on the banks of the river.  Their drow “slaves” have actually turned the stupid Cambrimen into their cult.  (“HEER DAH WURD!  DAH SPIDR WURD!”)  The 58 or so Cambrimen can’t figure out that their 107 dark elf “slaves” actually run this village and use it to make note of any threats coming down river so that they can warn their masters in Cinlu Tlurthei.

Redoubt of the Deep Myconids: Population 660.  This colony of 33 myconid circles plumbs the depths of the Cosmic Overmind.

Svirfneblin Trading Post: Population 1,500.  Many travelers in the Trials of the Chained miss this hidden outpost, more properly known as Segflanoaen in Gnomish.

Village of the Blind Antler Men: Population 135.  Here the Blind Antler Men live in quiet contemplation, withdrawn from the greater society of filthy humanoids.

I'm also kinda-sorta adapting the out-of-print adventure Hecatomb into a usable adventure for my purposes, so I made a Veins cave network for it.  If you want a big-ass cave network, the Vaults of Gnashing Teeth are also here.  The circled cave is the one that actually contains the Acropolis and the core Vault of Gnashing Teeth from Hecatomb, but of course, do whatever you want with it:

Click to enlarge.
Also, please don't record my terrible handwriting samples for sympathetic magic.

Friday, April 26, 2019

RPGs as Art

I've been trying to devour more RPG-adjacent content lately, which brought me to RPG YouTube and RPG Twitter.  I've encountered this idea in a couple of places — I know The Strix mentioned it, and Matt Colville has definitely talked about it — but here we confront the idea that RPGs don't have a narrative.

There are a couple of interviews between Adam Koebel and Matt Colville where they mention it at length.  If you have some hours to kill, watch them.  I'll be here after the jump.



They talk about a lot of stuff in those interviews, but the part that interests me in this blog post is the idea that RPG sessions don't have narratives — the RPG session is about following the rules of the RPG while ignoring the tropes that make literature happen, and it's only in retrospect that the narrative happens.  (I know Matt Colville mentioned this in another video, but I'll be damned if I can remember it.  For that matter, I don't even remember in which of the two videos Adam and Matt reiterate this idea.)

Like life, basically.  Stuff happens without adherence to narrative tropes, but we narrativize life by organizing our thoughts and stories in ways that make sense to us.  Life has no meaning except that which we give it.

There's some truth to that, but that relies on a very Western view of what a narrative is.  It is well beyond the scope of this blog post to deconstruct the Western concept of the narrative, but a good counter-example is kishōtenketsuKishōtenketsu often eschews conflict — the essence of Western drama! — in exchange for portrayals of dynamic relationships.  A comic giving an example of this four act structure follows; click for a more detailed examination of kishōtenketsu:

The core of the story isn't that the main character is buying a can of soda, but why, and what that says about the relationship between the two characters.

More to the point, trying to emulate genre narrative structures with RPGs ignores the fact that RPGs have their own narrative structure, and have a few unique quirks about how they tell stories.  Most forms of literature do, so let's unpack that a bit.

Novels and short stories are incredibly intimate, projecting a story directly into your brain.  You can do all sorts of things with them, but they excel at showing the reader someone's mental environment: you can spend an entire story in someone's head (or perhaps several someones' heads) without too much difficulty.  (You would be hard-pressed to get a feature length movie out of, say, "To Build a Fire," but the short story contains an entire bleak world in the narrator's head.)  The drawback is that any new or complex concepts have to be conveyed with words, so the more you have to explain, the more complicated the narrative becomes.

Films aren't terribly intimate, but the format means you can include a lot of visual storytelling, thereby packing a lot of story into the comparatively short runtime.  Television has similarities, but you can use it for long-form storytelling, as soap operas have known for decades.  (Police procedurals and anthology series ignore long-form storytelling for familiarity: if you're watching The Twilight Zone, no given episode has anything to do with any other episode, but you know the kinds of stories to expect from episode-to-episode.)

Comic books have a lot of the strengths of television, with the difference that they can visually convey things that television would find prohibitively expensive.  I'll freely admit I don't read a ton of comics, so I'm not fully aware of what comic books can do that other formats cannot.  I expect it's more than that, though.  (For example, I'm sure there's some resonance to the fact that comics are paced like television episodes but rely on static images so that understanding relies partially on the reader's engagement with the text.  You can always slow down and investigate an image or ruminate on a concept for a while before continuing, like you can with a book.  Whereas a television show keeps moving whether you've fully processed it or not.)

Video games are a bit odd, because they get a lot of the visual shorthand of film and television mixed with some of the intimacy of a book.  A video game may not tell a terribly original story, but you still love it because you lived the plot.  The sense of ownership is what makes it enjoyable.  Plus, the interactivity means that video games can turn some things that would be narratively boring into interesting mechanical challenges.  (No More Heroes turns mowing the lawn into a challenging mini-game, for example.)

So what about table-top role-playing games?  Puffin Forest recently had this to say about it, comparing RPGs and film.  (If you don't have the half-hour to watch it, his main thesis is that movies have a lot of time for spit-and-polish, while RPGs are improvised and in-the-moment.  I'm going to invoke Meisner here just to annoy Nicole.)


He dances around the subject that I want to address here about the interactivity and intimacy of RPGs.  (I would argue that movies aren't the best analogy: the visual language of film isn't most directly comparable to the verbal language of RPGs.  Role-playing games are somewhere in-between, having both the nonverbal subtext of film with the textual language of books.  It's an odd blend, to be sure.)

RPGs combine part of the intimacy of novels with part of the interactivity of video games.  A role-playing game session is not quite as intimate as being alone with a book, but a role-playing game still injects a narrative directly into your brain.  On the other hand, it tends to be more interactive than a video game, because you (presumably) perform any action you want.  (Some RPGs and individual GMs are more prescriptive than that, but we'll casually assume here that the traditional model wherein you can attempt anything you could reasonably consider in a given situation is still in effect.)

Another noteworthy, but oft-overlooked point: RPGs are art three times.  For, say, a novel, you extract the art twice: once from the text itself, and again from re-living it.  (That's rather simplistic, since there are artistic choices that go into the cover and layout, but we're going to keep it simple here.)  While we often talk of the text-as-art, the act of vicariously living with the text — letting it infect your headspace, integrating it into your life, telling your friends about it — is a form of performance art.  And that's before we get into literary criticism as a form of literature unto itself.  (David Lynch famously refuses to discuss the meaning of his movies because he considers the audience a key participant in the process, and whatever meaning the audience draws from the work is as relevant as anything he could convey.  I can't find a good example at the moment, but they dig a little into it in this article.)

Likewise, movies have the same sorts of layers: you can watch the movie, then wrestle with the movie.  It's up to you whether you want to argue that the-script-as-literature is still part of the movie, but I'd argue reading the script vs. performing the script are two different things, and in the case of film, you can also take the script as another layer of art.  (Part of this is personal preference, but part of this distinction is to maintain my point that RPGs are special due to their three-fold art process.  You come to my blog, you get my bullshit meta, kids.)

(A brief digression: I again recognize that this is a little simplistic.  A single piece of art in wide release tends to generate ancillary art in its wake: people write fanfiction, make advertising posters, and suchlike.  You can argue this all falls under grappling-with-the-text, but on a grand scale.  You can then further fall deep into the rabbit-hole of what ancillary procedures count as art.  Is editing art?)

But RPGs are art three times: once in the role-playing text itself, once in the performance art at the table, and finally when you narrativize it with your friends in the aftermath.

The text is probably the most obvious piece of art: a work of literature, usually with illustrations, and created with an eye towards both being aesthetically pleasing and used as a reference manual.  (That's a hard balance, one with which a lot of people still grapple.  What's the best way to organize information in RPGs?  A definitive answer to that question is The Holy Grail.)  Soberer minds than my own have analyzed both RPG texts as art and the utility of good visual art in RPGs, so let's move on.

The game at the table itself is the one with which Adam and Matt take issue: they argue that the action at the table is largely about rules adjudication.  (We'll ignore the fact that Colville's own postmortem videos for The Chain, hidden somewhere near the bottom of this playlist as of this writing, often talk about hitting certain narrative beats while running the game.  For the benefit of future readers, I'm talking about videos #24 through #33 in that playlist.)  And while there's a certain logic to that — is just doing stuff and living your life art? — even the most hardened grognard does a certain amount of role-playing at the table.  (Did you react to something that happened in-game?  Congratulations, you're an actor now.)  It's the equivalent of arguing that improv isn't art: Yes, and and audience prompts are simpler rules than, say, the entirety of the Player's Handbook, but there are still rules to be followed to construct the action that happens on stage.

(I would also make an argument that the standard progression of RPGs — overcome challenges to improve your character, who can then tackle bigger challenges with raised stakes — mirrors the rising action of Western literary canon.)

Even if you're totally eschewing traditional Western narrative rules (and as noted above, there are other cultural options), you're still collaboratively building something at the table.  It might not be in the standard literary sense, but performance art is still an artistic exercise, even if it's mediated with rules.  (A philosophical question: if RPG sessions aren't art because of the logistical rules governing play, do the social rules governing traditional art forms limit their artistic content?)

Finally, the narrativization post-game is another form of artistic expression.  It's the one that you talk about with your friends, put up on Obsidian Portal, use to draw pictures, use as the basis of your fantasy novel, or turn into another RPG product.  It's not quite as obvious as the RPG text itself, but if you sufficiently broaden your view such that a story told orally is as much art as one recorded textually, you can recognize the art content.  (It's still art, even if it's unpolished.  An entertaining tale told drunkenly outside an IHOP at 2 AM still potentially counts, even if it's not recorded for posterity; your brain still engages with it the same way, and it still leaves you changed afterward.)

But all of the above content argues that RPGs should be considered a form of artistic expression along all points of development while ignoring the main thrust of my point: RPGs are their own thing.  They resist clean comparison to other literary forms because they're not exactly the same, and possibly require their own language to describe them.  You get some Western literary tricks in there: rising action (most of the time, assuming the standard challenge/improvement/bigger challenge model), foreshadowing (although no fact in an RPG is guaranteed to later be important), and irony (to varying degrees), but the interactive nature of the medium suggests that we ought not to be looking to Western canon for our models of RPGs.

Traditional Western narrative structures rely on control: the creators of a work have total control over the structural events that take place therein.  (The audience's engagement relies on the fact that the work's interpretation is beyond the creator's control, but the basic facts of the work are ultimately known.  Fun fact: in literary criticism, the common convention is to refer to literary events in the present tense, because they're all happening concurrently.  The book has been written; the contents are ongoing.)  To contrast, role-playing games are not predetermined; the outcome is left to the participants (and to a varying extent, the use of randomizers).  I know a lot of wordcount has been devoted to RPGs-as-stories, but to get full enjoyment out of the genre, you have to abandon the idea that they're going to be the traditional, linear stories you're used to telling and reading.  Table-top RPGs can handle linear chains of events — particularly if your group is primed for that sort of thing — but they excel when groups are confronted with choices to make and open-ended problems to solve.  That yields a lot of information about the characters' interior worlds.  (Even a bunch of old grognards, moving their characters as playing pieces through a megadungeon, still engage in this behavior, making choices in an ever-branching decision tree.  Those choices tell us important things about their motivations, even if that's just gold-for-XP.)

Keep in mind: this is in no way an indictment of genre emulation in RPGs.  If that's your thing, go for it!  A lot of storygames try to cleave to literary tropes, making for tighter narrative structures in game.  But also keep in mind that RPGs have their own genre conventions, and maybe it's time we start confronting those rather than trying to use the language of novels or film to talk about them.  Different media are capable of supporting different sorts of stories, and the collaborative nature of the role-playing exercise precludes neat classification into existing literary forms.  Learn to embrace the loose, free-flowing nature of RPGs and you'll have fewer frustrations about keeping the players firmly on track of the plot, or how to deal with player absences, or whatever troubles you have.

Final Note: This is unlikely to become a series, but I'm sure I'll revisit the subject as I have more organized thoughts on it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Rise of the Baller Wizards, Fifth Edition Remix

As described in Rise of the Baller Wizards, there is an ancient sect of magical wizards who mastered their wizardry on the basketball court. That describes them in OSR-type games; if you want to use Baller Wizards in D&D 5e, you could just as easily make a wizard, assign Dexterity as their second-highest ability score, give them an orb focus, and choose Evocation as their Arcane Tradition. Pick the Entertainer background, but swap Acrobatics for Athletics, swap a musical instrument proficiency for basketball proficiency, and swap your starting musical instrument for appropriate basketball gear.

"The nail in the coffin!"
Of course, if you want actual rules for Baller Wizards, why not try...

Arcane Tradition: Baller Wizard

You are trained in the ways of the Baller Wizard, educated in how best to protect the helpless and dunk on your enemies. Baller Wizards eschew heavy magical specialization, instead choosing to focus on additional athletic training to be more maneuverable on the battlefield. Although they learn a few sorcerous secrets of their own.

For obvious reasons, most Baller Wizards tend toward orbs as an arcane focus — can you really be a Baller Wizard without a sufficiently impressive B-Ball?

To the Jam
When you adopt this tradition at 2nd level, your speed increases by 5 feet while you are not wearing armor or wielding a shield. You also gain proficiency in the Athletics and Performance skills if you don't already have them.

All in your Face
Starting at 2nd level, you no longer have disadvantage on ranged attacks if you are within 5 feet of a hostile creature. Additionally, you have advantage on Constitution saving throws that you make to maintain your concentration on a spell when you take damage.

Wassup, Just Feel the Bass
Starting at 6th level, if you cast a spell and you are within its area of effect, you can choose to no longer be considered a target of the spell. This ability only functions if you are conscious. Additionally, if you deal damage to a creature, you don't provoke opportunity attacks from that creature for the rest of the turn.

Drop It, Rock It, Down the Room
Starting at 10th level, you gain proficiency in Dexterity saving throws if you do not already have it. Additionally, when you are subjected to an effect that allows you to make a Dexterity saving throw to take only half damage, you instead take no damage if you succeed on the saving throw, and only half damage if you fail.

Shake It, Quake It, Space Kaboom
Starting at 14th level, when you cast a spell that deals damage, you can expend spell slots to make a spell more deadly. You may only expend spell slots up to 5th level in this manner. Each spell slot spent increases the damage of the spell by an amount equal to its level. This additional damage takes effect when the spell is cast, and so may be halved by resistances or saving throws as normal. If a given spell deals damage of multiple types, choose one of the types to be increased by this spell.

Rise of the Baller Wizards


Baller Wizards, also known as Slam Thaumaturges (among a host of other names of mysterious provenance), are a sect of wizards practiced in the ancient ways of the basketball court. They are similar in some respects to Muscle Wizards. (With variants found herehere, and here.)

What follows is for old school, OSR-ish, dragon-y dungeon-y games. But there's also a fifth edition version, if you're into that sort of thing.

Appendix N: Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, NBA JamSpace Jam, every Harlem Globetrotters cartoon from the '70s and beyond (but maybe especially their Futurama appearances)

Prime Requisite (if your game uses it): Dexterity
HD: d6
Thac0/to-hit: As thief/rogue
Saves: As magic-user/wizard
Armor and Weapons: Standard: no armor, but can use daggers, darts, quarterstaffs, and slings. They are also trained in the ancient Shaq Fu of B-Ball combat, and so many use their B-Balls in skirmishes as described below.
Movment: Ballers move at 125% speed for a member of their race while unencumbered. So if standard unencumbered speed is 120', they move 150'. You can probably figure out the conversions from there. Round up if it matters.
XP: As magic-user

If you use prime requisites and XP bonuses for exceptional ability scores, Baller Wizards get the appropriate bonuses or penalties based off their Dexterity.

Baller Wizards can still do spell research and magic item creation like normal wizards, although their process tends to be more... idiosyncratic than usual. As you might expect, spell research and magic duels are usually settled on the basketball court.

Starting Baller Wizards get their first B-Ball for free.

"He just got his degree from dunkin' on U!"
B-Ball Magic: Baller Wizards don't use listed spell components, instead relying on their B-Balls as their primary component. (If a spell component requires a monetary cost, the Baller Wizard still has to pay it to perform alchemical maintenance on their B-Balls.) If a Baller Wizard loses their B-Ball, they're not casting. (As noted under the section for B-Balls, they can cast with an appropriately-sized sphere once.)

They don't use spellbooks, instead learning spells as maneuvers on the basketball court. If they acquire an appropriate magic-user scroll, they can "learn" it by practicing with it for an hour, then casting it once into their B-Ball. Rather than the spell's normal effect, they learn it by casting it. (As with Muscle Wizards, you can think of the stored magical energy as being in their muscles rather than their minds.)

Baller Wizards can work glyphs into their dribble patterns to cast spells, but if a Baller Wizard casts an offensive spell through their B-Ball — hitting the target with a ranged attack and centering the effect on the B-Ball — the Baller Wizard is unaffected by their own spell (so you can dunk on someone and cast fireball without ill effect) and the B-Ball does only 1d4 damage without the usual modifers. If the ranged attack misses, the Baller loses the spell but it has no effect (and probably has to retrieve the B-Ball, as explained below).

From Downtown: Baller Wizards can Climb Walls as a thief of the same level. (When in doubt, use Labyrinth Lord, page 13.)

"He's heating up!"
He's on Fire: If you use magic schools in your games, Baller Wizards typically only have access to abjuration and evocation. (Expand that selection if you want; I'm a blog, not a cop.) If there's a spell that makes a lot of sense for a Baller Wizard but doesn't fit their school selection, feel free to let them have it. Don't forget: Baller Wizards still have access to spell research like standard magic-users, so it's perfectly fine to research B-Ball-friendly versions of standard spells, as long as you can justify them.

If you don't use magic schools, let them use spells that make sense to be delivered via B-Ball, or cast via protective sigils worked into their dribbling patterns. (As per Ten Foot Polemic's rules for Punch-casting, it's fine if it's a little silly. That's the point!) They're usually into the flashy protection and offensive spells. But can the character cast charm person by dunking on someone and rewriting their memories, like Gilligan getting hit on the head with a coconut? Up to the GM.

"Boom Shakalaka!"
Jump Shot: Use your favorite system for exceptional jumps if you have one. If you don't, try these: with a running start of at least 20 feet, a Baller Wizard can make a horizontal leap of 3d6 + their level in feet, or a vertical leap of 1d6 + half their level (round up) in feet. Without a running start, a Baller Wizard can make a horizontal leap of 2d4 + half their level (round up) in feet, or a vertical leap of 1d4 + half their level (round down) in feet.

Shaq Fu: All Baller Wizards are trained in ranged combat and specialized in the use of their B-Balls. They get a +1 bonus to ranged attacks and a +2 bonus to damage when using their B-Balls in combat.

"Is it the shoes?"
The B-Ball
The B-Ball is a sacred object, a magically-enhanced sphere used as both the focus of a Baller Wizard's casting and a weapon if needed. (In a pinch, a Baller Wizard can attack with any sphere of appropriate size, although they don't get the +1 attack/+2 damage they do with a B-Ball. They can cast spells with any sphere of appropriate size, but unless it's an artifact or something, the act of casting with it destroys it.) A Baller Wizard's first B-Ball is always acquired with great celebration, either being inherited from a mentor or manufactured by the young apprentice.

Some few self-taught Baller Wizards manufacture their own B-Balls and learn the ancient spells without contact with the wider community; in the bards' tales, most legendary Baller Wizards are claimed to be self-taught.

A B-Ball is a spherical object, roughly thirty inches in circumference, and comprising complex alchemical reagents to give it its characteristic texture and elasticity. Assuming access to a laboratory or other place to work, it takes a Baller Wizard 1d4 weeks to make a B-Ball, and it costs 50gp per week in manufacturing costs.

B-Balls can be used as ranged weapons. They deal 1d4 damage, have a short range of 20', medium range of 40', and long range of 60'. Those who are not specifically trained with them find them difficult to use in combat, and can maybe do 1d3-2 damage with one. (No, you don't heal your opponent on a -1.)

A trained wielder can make a B-Ball bounce back to its owner after a successful hit — so if you hit with a ranged attack or a spell attack, and both hands are free, the ball returns to your hand as part of your attack. (This is not magic, but more like training with a boomerang; if you throw it into a spider web or it gets hit with a force field or something, it's not going to return the way you expect.)

If you miss your target, the B-Ball bounces past it. The easy rule is that your B-Ball still bounces back to you if your target is against a wall or something, rolls to a stop if there's open ground, or bounces off into oblivion if your target is next to a cliff. (This is the most likely reason why you're going to replace your B-Ball.) If you need granularity for some reason (maybe you're playing on the grid), assume the B-Ball bounces 1d6 × 5 feet before rolling to a stop. If the GM is really slick and feels like tracking it, the ball follows contours on the ground like you would expect. Use your common sense.

"MONSTER JAM!"

Monday, April 22, 2019

Psychonauts of the Cosmic Overmind

There was a conversation on Tumblr, and this popped out:

Myconid psychonauts are trying to find the outer limits of consciousness in the meld, but they require the help of outside minds as variables in their prolonged experiment. Expect astral jaunts and planar travel as you plumb the depths of the cosmic Overmind.

Myconids (and the closely-related science fungoids of the unfathomable underworld) often communicate with sapients with some manner of bizarre telepathy mediated by psychoactive spores their fruiting bodies naturally produce.

Science!
(Maybe you find them in this rad Dyson Logos dungeon?)

Myconid psychonauts lair in the Dungeon of the Third Eye.
In D&D, myconids spend large portions of time in what they term "the meld," an n-dimensional psychographic conversation. As noted in the AD&D Monstrous Manual, "For the myconids, melding is entertainment, worship, and social interaction combined. The fungus men gather in a tight circle and the elder myconid release rapport and hallucinatory spores. The entire group then merges into a collective telepathic hallucination for eight hours. Myconids consider this melding to be the reason for their existence." Likewise, the fifth edition Monster Manual adds, "They use it in the pursuit of higher consciousness, collective union, and spiritual apotheosis."

By all accounts, they're intelligent and friendly, trying to hide from predators and spend their time in the meld, exploring infinity. But is a single, unified perspective truly enough to understand the cosmos?

Is this a pigeon?
Enter the player characters. They are recruited by a group of myconids attempting to understand the universal over-soul, and determining they need additional data. (Myconids aren't nearly ruthless enough to, say, dump rapport and hallucination spores in a nearby human town's water supply, which is why they have to rely on the consent of occasional passerby. Like adventurers traveling through their dungeon.) As such, they offer to allow the player characters into the meld, giving them a heavy spore dose so they will astrally project among the realms.

They probably know enough about sapients to offer payment, if nothing else.

Assuming they're all friendly myconids, of course...
It's a great excuse for some very weird plane-hopping action. You want to basically have a different genre or setting every session? Here's how you do it. You want a fantasy version of Anne's psychedelic sci-fi campaign setup? This is also how you do that.

You can justify anything in this context: a rollicking jaunt through Narcosa or a psychedelic dive into hallucinatory William Blake-esque cosmology or even a jump into other games or genres. Take your bog-standard Forgotten Realms game into the Dreamlands (perhaps even through Ultan's Door) or into Dark Sun or into Boot Hill or into Traveller or whatever.

It never got weird enough for me.
It's up to you how much you want to cleave to the setup or the logic of the setting. Do they arrive in astral form, impervious to all harm but spiritual? Does their equipment come with them? What are the parameters?

And what is the goal? Are they just reporting back to the Science Fungoids all they find, recording their experiences for posterity? Are they looking for something specific? Do you plan on them actually meeting the Cosmic Overmind and communing with it?

That's up to you.

This is your brain on myconid spores.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Dispatches from Gothcon: No Rest for the Wicked

I'm not at Gothcon, but my book is!  No Rest for the Wicked via Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

There isn't much out about it yet, but here's what we have.  Extant information and images are largely culled from these Facebook posts: this one, this one, this one, and this one.

The Yannick Bouchard cover, culled from LotFP's Instagram story
The back cover blurb.
The only review so far.
I'm going to take "too grim to buy" as a compliment.
If you want interior art, Jez Gordon posted a few on Twitter a while back: the Steiners, the Herzogs, and a picture of young Griswold Herzog.

I'll post more updates as they become available: when it's in distribution, whatever reviews I find, all the usual stuff.

If you like it or hate it or whatever, let me know.  Feedback is helpful!  (As you can tell from my RPGGeek page, this is my first project for a major publisher, so seriously: I want to know what you think.  Be brutal if you must.)  If you want other examples of my stuff, there's the Benighted Pleomorphic Prion from Beyond in 2018 Gong Farmer's, Vol. 2, and there's Mechanomancy Redux for UA3.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Review: Stranger Things D&D Roleplaying Game Starter Set

Image stolen shamelessly from comicbook.com because I didn't have time to take a decent picture.
As always, click the image to go to the original link.
I have actual posts in my Drafts, but they need polishing before publication.  In the meantime, I felt inspired to do a review, so that's what you're getting.  This will be comparatively quick.

Just yesterday, I unexpectedly received my copy of the Stranger Things D&D Roleplaying Game Starter Set.  While I'm not obsessed with Stranger Things, I've been keeping up with all the D&D 5e releases, and I certainly dig Stranger Things.

Like a lot of product tie-ins, the end result is... fine.

Most jarring: it's weird to see Netflix branding on an official D&D product.  That's vaguely surreal, but par for the course in our current cyberpunk dystopia.

So, what you get: a dice set, two demogorgon minis (that's "the demogorgon," not "Demogorgon, Prince of Demons"), a series of quickstart rules, five level-three character sheets based on the player party from season 1 of Stranger Things, and a starting adventure.

The dice are pretty standard, and the quickstart rules are what you would expect — a very serviceable set of basic rules that contains core functionality, but is ultimately crippleware designed to sell you a copy of the full game.  As it stands, this Starter Set is designed to support play from Level 3 to Level 4 (and allow the Dungeon Master to expand the provided materials from Level 4 to Level 5), and so the included spells, magic items, and monsters reflect that sensibility.

You do get stats for the Stranger Things demogorgon, as well as (so far as I can tell) the 5e debut of the thessalhydra, not seen since third edition according to my research.  If you're nostalgic for Monster Manual II, well, now thessalmonsters are back.

The demogorgon miniatures — one "painted" (meaning it has highlights, like a pinkish maw), one not — are odd by miniature standards.  They're made out of some flexible vinyl, like something you might get from a gumball machine.  (That might have been intentional.)  This is probably the single most exciting thing from the set.

Finally, there's the included adventure.  Purported to be Mike Wheeler's adventure he was running for his friends, it's a neat piece of Stranger Things lore, and might work as an introductory adventure, but is a bit flat as an actual D&D adventure.  It's pretty linear, features potent quest-giving NPCs, and is fairly dependent on the vagaries of the dice to complete.  (I daresay the adventure from the 5e Starter Set was better, and it was also a fairly linear slugfest.)

It's a neat concept — trying to make an adventure like the ones you wrote when you were ten — but is admittedly not the most inspiring starting adventure.  I would be unlikely to run it as-is unless I was trying to get non-D&D players into the hobby using Stranger Things as bait.

(An aside: despite my criticisms about it — which might just be a knee-jerk reaction to what I perceive as a corporate tie-in cashgrab — I truly love the idea of RPG pastiches.  I've seen a lot about genre emulation in RPGs, but not as much about authorial voice emulation.  Although that leads into the potential rabbit hole of RPGs-as-literature, a topic for another day.)

Credit where credit is due, though, the adventure has a couple of neat setpieces: they give rules and description for the Upside Down, as well as a magic sword specifically designed to combat entities from the Upside Down, and there's a neat segment with an infinite puzzle maze and a riddling knight that might be worth modifying and stealing.

Finally, regarding the art: the box art and the interior art in the quickstart is all official Stranger Things art in the same style as the promotional materials, so if you like that stuff, you'll dig this.  (If you're looking for fantasy art to fire your imagination, you won't find it here.)  The attached adventure is designed to look like a kid's drawings, which is endearing in its own way.

Overall, it's the standard starter set stuff: everything you need to play a quick game of D&D taking you from Level 3 to 4, and then all the necessary tools to give a starting Dungeon Master the ability to plan a game from Level 4 to 5.  Given that the Basic Rules are available for free online, along with infinite free content in the corners of the internet, it's up to you whether it's worth the $25 price tag.  If you're way into Stranger Things or think you could convince your Stranger Things-loving friends to play D&D with this, it might be worth your while.  Otherwise, you're paying for a couple of miniatures, a new monster, an old monster updated to the new edition, a new magic item, and one or two neat ideas to steal for your regular game.  Maybe that's worth it to you, maybe it's not.

Final thought: while this product fell flat for me, it's entirely worthwhile if it brings new people into the hobby.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Ghosts as Forensics

I caught the inaugural episode of Relics & Rarities the other day, and since their first adventure takes place in a haunted house, it got me thinking about ghosts.

(I've included the video below for the interested, but first the obligatory warning: it's a little over two hours, and streaming elfgames is somewhat different in format than what you might be used to doing at the table.  People who produce RPG content for the camera tend to make more linear stories, and their players bring a little less mayhem than normal.  The one below isn't a livestream, so it even has multiple cameras and editing!)


(Also, in case it needs to be said: this post represents my view on ghosts.  If you like your restless dead, ghosts-as-the-looming-spectre-of-death, keep liking them!)

But anyway, thinking about ghosts.  I often think of ghosts as being boring, but that doesn't quite strike at the heart of the matter.  (Chuck Wendig has an old post about hating seafood until he encountered good seafood, and I think that applies here.)  A lot of authors use ghosts as yet another weird monster or bit of set dressing, a spooky, incorporeal antagonist to be exorcised by the end of the story, which seems like low-hanging fruit.  Once you've encountered one or two hauntings, you know the typical schtick: the monster's vague hints and warnings get increasingly dire until they become physically dangerous, and then the protagonists somehow exorcise the ghost from the place.

(That's probably also a critique of lazy storytelling in general: I love vampires, but I've watched a lot of bad vampire movies.  It's clear that the guy just said, "Let's add a vampire!" with no real thought as to why they're doing it.  So it is with ghosts.  You can't just press the ghost button and hope spookiness falls out.)

Many authors smarter than I have devoted wordcount to how monsters mean things, but that symbolic language isn't precisely universal.  Vampires represent the fear of rape, except that they used to represent disease before Carmilla and Dracula made vampires sexy rather than gross.  (And that ultimately led to modern variants such as vampire-as-ultra-capitalist or vampire-as-sexpot.  Symbolism is weird.)  Zombies and revenants used to be the fear of disappointing our ancestors or retribution beyond the grave, but now they're the pestilential dead, or widespread ignorance made manifest.  Werewolves are anxieties about the wilderness, but they also represent fears about the sociopaths who lurk among us, but they might also be potent warriors in some of the older tales.  (Fears about them might represent old soldiers with PTSD, maybe?)

In that schema, one might expect the traditional role of the ghost is to remind us all of mortality and the debt we owe to our ancestors.  But I tend not to find the first particularly frightening.  (Aren't most monsters ultimately tied up in the fear of death?  That really encroaches on the ghost's niche, doesn't it?)  The second part — the ghost-as-tie-to-the-ancestors — seems infinitely more interesting.

Ghosts are typically created when something tragic happens, cursed to wander until the wrong is righted.  Sometimes that just means that their deaths went unacknowledged, but it usually means that something bad happened.  Ghosts, then, are the ancestors calling out to the modern era for justice.

Ghosts are forensic evidence.

I've previously discussed the possibilities of old epochs interacting with our own, and the fact that it's a recurring subject suggests that I dig my D&D flavored with sad geologic time à la Patrick Stuart.  (I do.)  But in this schema, ghosts aren't scary monsters to fight so much as the remaining thread of evidence that something terrible has occurred.

In stories, that usually means that ghosts are terrifying until you figure out what they want — you often start out thinking it's a traditional ghost story until the reveal that the ghost just wants you to solve its murder.  (Wasn't there an entire subgenre of psychic detective shows in the mid-2000s?)

In RPGs, that means ghosts are puzzles to be solved.  More importantly for a game in which you sit around a table talking to each other, ghosts mean you can talk to the evidence.  That means they can tell you things standard forensic evidence can't: thoughts, feelings, names.  Conversations also tend to stick in the memory in a way descriptions don't: a list of facts is going to be hard to remember without writing it down, but you'll probably remember the flow of a conversation, even if it's a little weird.  Plus, a ghost describing its own murder is probably more memorable than just coming across a body with no personalization.

(Another reason why RPGs are great: there are often multiple ways to deal with ghosts.  Low-powered characters have to deal with ghosts on their own terms and unravel the puzzle of their existence.  High-powered parties can always resort to punching ghosts, or using magic to lay them to rest, or whatever recourse they have.  Any good RPG usually has a couple of different games hidden in its matrix.)

You can never really give away too much information as a GM, but if you're worried about it, ghosts are often addled, or have facts they can't quite recall.  Keep in mind all the ways that people can misremember information, or the limits of an individual's perception.  (Rewatch Rashomon.)

If you're fine with restless ghosts being just another monster to fight, they can absolutely work that way, but folklore and the Monster Manual are filled with tons of monsters, including many that can go incorporeal or possess people.  It seems better to play to the themes that ghosts reflect: use them to reveal ties to the past and evidence of past tragedies.  Another piece of the past with which players characters can interact.

I'll leave you with a couple of examples:

The above adventure, "The Haunting of Benthem Manor," features an evil ghost that has possessed a woman whom the PCs need to contact for further information.  While it culminates in a fight against the aforementioned evil ghost, the bulk of the session involves going around the house solving puzzles and talking to the ghosts of other victims.

James Maliszewski's The Cursed Chateau takes a similar tactic, hiding many of the clues regarding the house's history among the (ghostly) household staff.  Of course, since the ghosts are all mad, interacting with them is... unpredictable.

The protagonist in Crimson Peak surmises (correctly) the apparitions tormenting her are actually trying to warn her of the danger in the titular manor.  (For that matter, it appears the dead have some knowledge of the future, as they try to warn her about it long before she ever goes there.)

Friday, February 22, 2019

Sharpened Hooks: The Tower at the End of the World

Atop a tall ridge in the Bloodstone Crags is a tower, a tower built by an ancient wizard, a wizard awaiting the end of the world.

"This is all that will remain when the Drown'd World reigns."
The Wizard is alchemically perfect, a Rebis changed by the Chymical Wedding*.  Their features are soft, young, and feminine, but with the white hair and long beard and wizened eyes of an old man.

Tales say the Wizard is one of the Fair Folk, both as old as the stars and as young as a fleeting line of poetry flickering through the mind.  Tales also say that the Wizard used to be as human and as mortal as the rest of us, but only achieved their exalted state through spiritual alchemy, through meditation and symbolic interactions.

The Wizard has no name.  Are they so old they forgot it?  So young they have yet to earn one?  Did the process of alchemical exaltation scour it away, a forgotten bit of dross vaporized and floating around the upper atmosphere?  Did they sell it to the Terrible Old Man in exchange for the knowledge necessary to complete this feat?

Who can say?

We only know what lonely travelers to the tower have told us.  The Wizard is mercurial, but often kindly.  (Sometimes they are spiteful or angry, like a spurned lover or an Alzheimer's patient.)  The tower is sturdy, of ancient style but possibly recent manufacture.  (Did they find the tower or build it?  No one knows.)  The Wizard is a skilled astronomer in addition to being a skilled alchemist, and they claim to have learned the secret patterns allowing them to read the firmament as casually as one might read a book or scroll.

They claim they have foreseen the end of the world, and that the location of this tower is the only thing untouched.  (Although the addled mind of the Wizard often gives contradictory accounts of what the end will be.  Flooding is a perennial favorite.  Perhaps the world will end many times.)  They must survive to record The-World-That-Was-Lost for The-World-That-Shall-Be in the hopes that the same mistakes are not repeated.

The Tower at the End of the World is poor in terms of treasure and has few (if any) magic items, but is rich in terms of knowledge.  The Wizard and their library could conceivably hold any fact forgotten by the world at large.  (For a change of pace from the standard consult-the-sage quest, the player characters are sent specifically to cover up a fact that would be dangerous if released into the wider world.  Bonus points if covering up the fact or murdering the Wizard also destroys an equally important fact for the world to know, prompting a moral dilemma.)  Unscrupulous PCs could also steal the library and research materials for their own magical research, or murder the Wizard and start using the remote tower as a stronghold.  At least it's apocalypse-proof, right?

The obvious choice is to make the Wizard some kind of double-digit level badass archwizard, but it's probably infinitely more interesting if they're just low-level.  It's up to you whether they're delusional, or they have a unique ability to read the stars à la Joop van Ooms.  (If you want to combine "badass archmage" with "low-level neophyte," you can always run them as something akin to a BECMI Immortal on their second pass through the leveling scheme.)

* This is hardly the first time the Chymical Wedding has been referenced by sages and scholars.  Could the wizard in fact be Thearch-in-exile Giovanna d'Amalia of distant and forgotten Trias, member-state of the doomed Three Kingdoms?  Hard to say.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

On Learning New Systems

Two weeks ago, Cam Banks posted this on Twitter:
I wanted to respond to it at the time, but I got busy and time marches on.  Also, Justin Achilli posted a fairly concise response that largely corresponds to the thing I'm about to say:
I want to delve into this in a bit more detail, so here we go.

I'm guessing there are roughly two broad clades of RPG people: those who have maybe one or two systems they stick to using, and those who like to tinker and maybe like to look at a bunch of systems to see what's happening in the field and what interesting mechanics are out there.  I'm also going to guess that, by-and-large, the former are predominantly players and the latter are predominantly GMs.  If you're selling reams of splatbooks, you're probably appealing to players taking a deep dive into their preferred system; if you're selling new systems, you're probably appealing to GMs.

Generalizations, but that all seems pretty reasonable to me.  But that explains part of your problem: you're only targeting a subset of the entire RPG-consuming public, and at that, you're only targeting people who have actually heard of you.  With a field dominated by D&D and a handful of other systems, largely older ones, I'm sure it's difficult to get your tiny little system noticed.

I nominally fall into the latter category, but of the wide variety of games I consume, I only tend to play a few of them.  I've been thinking about this very subject because, after collecting a glut of retroclones for D&D, why do I need another one?  Likewise, most of the other indie systems floating around are variations on a theme.  Why do I need a new one?

What, precisely, am I looking for?

There are, maybe, four things that will get me to try a new system.  Keep in mind: this isn't a conscious effort.  I'm not sitting there with a checklist investigating RPG stuff.  This is an intuitive, sub rosa process, probably very similar to how I suspect most people consume advertising.  But I daresay I'm looking for these things:
  • Originality: Does it do something new?
  • Familiarity: Is it comparable to another system to merit easy comparison?  (Not necessarily incompatible with originality.)  Keep in mind that this will also be more useful to long-time gamers who like to tinker with systems.
  • Simplicity: Are the rules short and robust?
  • Setting: Does it have a unique or engaging setting?
I think part of the widespread success of D&D 5e — in addition to being D&D — is that it hits many of these notes simultaneously.

When I started with RPGs, I initially read World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu, Deadlands, and D&D 3e (of which I regularly played World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu), so I'm sure the wet computer of my brain is subconsciously checking all systems against that basic database.

Note that a system can do only one of these things and potentially pique my interest, but it's no doubt more effective the more things it does.

Originality
Your system doesn't have to reinvent the wheel — familiarity suggests it shouldn't — but it's more likely to pique my interest if it's somehow unique.  D&D 5e introduces advantage and disadvantage, eliminating the endlessly stacked modifiers of 3e and 4eUnknown Armies takes the simplicity of Call of Cthulhu's percentile system, but adds a bunch of dice tricks to make the system a little more robust and flavorful.  Powered by the Apocalypse games reduce everything down to the B/X D&D reaction roll as their base dice rolling mechanic to make everything consistent and lightning fast.

If it doesn't do something new, then why am I not using a game I already own?

Familiarity
However, your game system is way easier to understand if it has some grounding in what has come before.  If you make a game about robot butterflies that uses laser pointers and interpretive dance as a mechanic, I'm definitely going to be intrigued (because it ranks high on originality), but I doubt I'll understand and use your system, so I might pass on it.  It helps if it's grounded in something that's come before.  (I dig some of the stuff coming out of the indie scene, but they like to introduce new terms and mechanics with abandon.  After months of Dungeon World, I still didn't feel comfortable that I was monitoring move triggers correctly.  Many of the smaller indie games feel like they'd be a lot smoother as the first game you ever learn, before you have preconceived notions.  Then again, I'm sure that's a deliberate design choice.)  I understood Call of Cthulhu when coming from World of Darkness, because it had the basis of stats and skills, albeit with a different resolution mechanic.  Deadlands was straightforward because it used dice pools and had a similar separation but relationship between stats and skills.  D&D had stats and skills, and the leveling system is pretty ubiquitous in gaming.  Each system was different, but they had enough similarities for me to understand what they were trying to do.

If it doesn't have some familiar elements, then how will I understand it?  (Introducing a bunch of new terms can also break simplicity.)

Simplicity
Anymore, this is probably the biggest thing I want out of a new game system.  Is it easy to use?  Your core system should be easily summarized in a sentence or two, and I should be able to draft a rules summary in a page.  Maybe two at best.  (Unknown Armies 2e had all the rules on one page near the front of the book; the summary makes little sense when you first read it, but once you've read the rules section, you basically only need that one page.  I loved that design.)  If your system is really complicated, there had better be a reason for all that complexity, and it should probably be an obvious part of your game design.  (War simulation RPGs from the '80s tended to have high complexity, and given that they were trying to delineate the differences among different kinds of equipment and tactics, that makes a lot of sense.  Not my cup of tea, but I see why the complexity is there which gives me more buy-in.)  Complication can also be okay if it's intuitive — Deadlands uses a ton of different dice and deals in a ton of different modifiers, but the dice map to characters' skill level, and the modifiers are there to provide a realistic Western experience on the off-chance that you want to simulate intricate gunfights or Oregon Trail with it.

If it's not simple, why not?  I'm only going to invest in learning a complicated system if it's that way for a reason.

Setting
This is simultaneously the least and most important part of the package, because it might get me to overlook various other game design sins, but I might just use the back matter of the book to run my own game if it seems like too much of a pain to learn.  If you have a cool setting that engages me, I might not use your rules, but I'll at least buy your setting, which is a win for you.  (If I don't use your rules, but there are some cool ones lurking in there, I might very well steal them and tell people, "Oh, yeah, I swiped the swimming minigame from SCUBA Quest.  Worth checking out for the swimming rules and the dolphin-men culture I used this session.  It's rad.")  If you tie your rules into the setting, then I'm more likely to use them, even if there's a learning curve.  (Full disclosure: if I were running my own occult conspiracy game from scratch, I could see me using a variation of the Unknown Armies system while ditching the magick rules.  But I will never drop or even really alter the magick system in a standard UA game, because it's so intimately tied to the setting.  You can't change one without altering the other.  You know why I'm so gung-ho about the sanity rules and magick rules from UA?  That's why.)

If your setting isn't terribly engaging, then why don't I run something else or make up my own thing?  Why do I need to learn your system at all?

So?
I'm just one datapoint on a graph, but the basic gist is the same with any advertising: you have to grab me with something.  If there's a game with a lot of hype, or a game that seems like it does something very specific that I want to do, I'll probably give it a look.  Mothership probably would have flown under my radar if it hadn't gotten all the good press in OSR circles, but it seems a robust little system for running sci-fi horror and I'm glad to have it in my back pocket.  Powered by the Apocalypse stuff largely hasn't grabbed me the way it's seemed to grab a lot of the indie scene, but I knew the quick resolution mechanics and low learning curve in Dungeon World were exactly what I wanted for the gladiator game.  I don't think I need another fantasy adventure system, but Belly of the Beast had such an engaging setting that I had to get it.

At this point, I have a ton of games, more than I'm likely to play or run in my life.  If a new game crosses my vision, it's competing with all the other games on my shelf or hard drive.  I don't want to learn a lot of new mechanics or terminology, but there also has to be a good reason for me to read it and not just use the games I already own to run something similar.  If you're just writing an adventure or a collection of monsters or even a handful of cool ideas, I'm going to be much more interested in using a system I already own unless you can simultaneously prove that your idea warrants a new gaming approach.  (Bluebeard's Bride is an excellent example.  I can run Bluebeard's haunted mansion in any game system, but that game delivers several tools to run that specific scenario, and is so engagingly written as to make me keen to play it.  Plus, it's a gorgeous piece of art in its own right.)

So new systems aren't hard to learn, but there has to be some immediate hook to convince me that it's worth my time to learn them when I have [redacted] games on my shelves.  I have to hear about it and see some merit as to why I can't do the damn thing with the games already available.  Good press helps, as does being from a game designer whose work I know and consistently like, but those are potentially secondary concerns to the need for it to either do something new or present its information in a concise way.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The "Personality" Problem

This is going to be a long post, and only tangentially applicable to RPGs, so read the next paragraph and skip the rest if you want.

Last week, Mandy Morbid and Vivka Grey both stepped forward with horrific accusations of abuse by a well-known RPG industry figure.  (There are a couple of other accounts nested in Mandy's account, too.)  Most commentary beyond the initial statements devolves into grotesquerie, taking victims' pain and transmuting it into something self-serving, either reframing accounts to be about themselves or turning it into the pointed dagger of some sort of agenda.  (For example: if you took this opportunity to gloat and tell people, "I told you so," then congratulations!  You're also a monster, one very similar to the creature described.)

(Cheyenne Grimes' and Luka Carroll's allegations against another well-known RPG industry figure also emerged within the same week.  Some of those have been repeated for several years now, but absolutely merit repetition here.)

Because people are complex and I'm a goddamn hypocrite, I would like to discuss something adjacent to the matter at hand.  I've been ruminating on it for decades, and moreso within the past year.  For obvious reasons, it's dominated my thoughts for the past week.  Maybe it will help someone else?  Or perhaps it will just exorcise it from me?

In either case, let's talk about the "personality" problem.

I've seen the term bandied about in the old-school RPG scene, but there are no doubt various terms across multiple disciplines that cover the same thing.  A "personality" is someone known for being a singular presence in a subculture, often able to exert their influence over cultural trends.  They're similar to the postmodern, social media concept of an "influencer," but there's usually a distinct difference: whereas "Influencers" act like courtiers in medieval salons, controlling what things become popular through social pressure, "personalities" usually do that and offer useful services to their subculture.  All the "personalities" I've met are intensely creative in their own right, and while they might benefit from good marketing, there's at least a modicum of substance around which the hype builds.

Basically, they're cranky artistic weirdos who have the influence to guide artistic trends through social pressure, because they have a cult of personality gathered around them who value their insights.  (By contrast, an "influencer" typically doesn't have anything to offer apart from their potential value as someone who correlates and collates content.)

A couple of warnings about the rant to follow:
  • I will offer no solutions, because there are none.  This is the Devil's bargain we took when we settled down to agriculture, cities, and the whole civilization schtick.  There are things you can do to mitigate potential problems, but there is no way to exorcise it from the species without drastic societal change.
  • It's probably going to be winding and disorganized, thoughts vomited upon a page.  Expect a variety of asides, all eventually leading to some manner of rambling conclusion.  Again, perhaps this will help no one, and I am only exorcising it from myself.
  • As a hobby blog focused on role-playing games, it's going to talk heavily about cults of personality in nerd spaces.  Make no mistake, though: it's applicable everywhere.  I am not involved in kink spaces, but a growing number of associates are, and I hear enough of a trickle of news to recognize cults of personality peddling influence in that subculture.  Strangely, my heathen ass gets far more news about ecclesiastical spaces, and let me tell you: that's a hot bloody mess of personality cults and Byzantine intrigues.  I've also seen personalities in every workplace I've ever encountered, and even in friends' circles.  It's broadly applicable.
  • In personal anecdotes, identifiers have been scrubbed to protect the innocent and guilty alike.  I'm not Mark Twain — and I'm a conflict-averse hippie freak, besides! — so my ability to throw shade is severely curtailed.  But maybe someone can read these words and change their path.  That's all I can offer.
First things first: every artist has a sociopath lurking in their breast.  The hubris of the artist is to look upon the world and deem it incomplete, so there's at least a little ego involved in the creation of anything.  It's just up to you how much sociopath you let into the wild.  (Stephen King's "Why We Crave Horror Movies" essay says we watch horror movies to "keep the gators fed."  That's descriptive of art in general, the overwhelming need to either exorcise something from yourself, or to share it with someone else in the hopes of human connection.  You're always trying to keep the monster in your heart at bay.)

You could (and probably should) make a case for any form of expression, beyond just the arts, requiring a little sociopath to fully put your stamp on it.

Therein lurks the kernel around which a personality can grow.

I'm not sure nerd spaces are more vulnerable to personalities than other places, but they certainly have some unique concerns.  Nerds have a tendency to be misfits for myriad reasons which all tend to reduce to it's easier to read than socialize.  Maybe you have a disability, maybe you're from a marginalized community or subculture, or maybe you just think running is bullshit.  You have a touch of an outgroup on your soul, and now you're reading three or four grade levels above your standard age range.

Astute observers will note that these are the exact conditions under which cults recruit.

A cult is actively looking for members who feel marginalized because they are more receptive to recruitment.  If you're doing well in your relationships, feel comfortable in your job, and are all-around confident in your skin?  You're probably well-insulated from cult recruitment.  But if you're somebody craving human affection and feeling somehow removed from your fellows, you're vulnerable.  A cult reminds you that they're the only people who can truly understand you and love you, the only people who can give you the affection you're lacking.  And when you're fully convinced of that, they can make you do anything.  Which you will do, because you love them.

There's a parallel with abusive families, with the added complexity that babies are born vulnerable to cult recruitment.  It's a species survival trait: since a baby takes a lot of effort and requires near-constant care, it forms a potent familial bond that ensures you will care for this tiny human (so that this child can become an adult and propagate the species), and that this tiny human will do what you say (so this child doesn't walk into an alligator's mouth, or whatever).  But abusive families will abuse this genetic, hormonal trust system, convincing you that the family is the only structure you can trust.  And again, they can make you do anything at this point, and again, you will, because you love them.

Truly astute observers will note that these vulnerabilities are often interrelated.

Back to the core point: you have a group of people who feel like misfits and tend to have small, intense interpersonal relationships.  Likewise, being a misfit, you feel grateful whenever a new contact doesn't immediately reject you for being eccentric.  And maybe you even have a weird, shitty homelife, so friends who understand you are far preferable to whatever hell in which you rest your head at night.

There's a truism that friends are "the family you choose," but that's not precisely true, is it?  You exercise a little more choice over your circle of friends than your family, but you are only introduced to your friends by way of complex environmental factors that are largely beyond your control.  And your choice to engage with them is likewise impacted by previous experiences you've had; a minute early or a minute late, a sentence more or a sentence fewer, and maybe you wouldn't have connected with this person the way you did.

As with many things in your life, there's a large illusion of choice.  (Don't get me wrong: you absolutely made a choice.  But your free will is mediated by a variety of subconscious influences that you may not fully recognize within yourself, and further mediated by external factors beyond your control.  Your free will, then, is never completely yours.  Especially if you refuse to confront the influences that push at your desires.)  But that illusion gives you a potent sense of ownership and engagement.  These friends are yours.

So, you're a smart eccentric with a tight circle of friends — your friends — and you didn't fall for the Rajneeshees' recruiting pitch and you didn't fall for the blatant racism and nationalism of British exit.  So nobody's going to trick you into joining a cult.

But thinking you're immune makes you more vulnerable to certain kinds of attack.

You might not fall for a cult or a fringe political movement, but your friends are neither of these things.  They don't have branding or a wide-ranging political agenda, they're just your friends.  They love you, and you can trust them.

Enter the personality.  You meet someone creative, with similar interests, who's charming and funny and gives great advice.

(A couple of other asides about this one: I'm not telling you to be suspicious of everybody you meet.  Your friends aren't plotting against you, and most of the people you meet have no hidden agenda, save perhaps a slight preoccupation with their own best interest.  Just be careful out there, okay?  Likewise, personalities aren't inherently bad.  It's that old saw about competition: good competition makes everyone bring their top form to try to get to the top of the heap, while bad competition cuts out otherwise viable producers through underhanded tactics.  That's an oversimplification of a complex idea with a lot of weird permutations, but you get the picture.  Sometimes what you need is a single iconoclast to shake up a staid old subculture.  But sometimes a single iconoclast can destroy that subculture, or completely remake it in their own image.)

Personalities are weird because they're as much the person as the group that forms around them.  It's that whole pointillistic, Big Data structure of humanity in microcosm: an individual person might not mean much from a Big Data perspective, but without a collection of individuals, you couldn't get the trends of the whole.  (Facebook and Google don't care about you, but there's paradoxically no them without you, you dig?)  Likewise, a personality in isolation is just a creative weirdo; it's only with a support structure that they can get thrust into a position as an agent of change with all the good and bad that potentially represents.

But the thing you get from a personality is usually an intensely creative person with strong Opinions™ about things that can be dispensed as wisdom.  Their well-considered opinions and creative output will usually earn them a small but zealous group of supporters; these supporters may also be creative people, or just friends and influence peddlers there to soak up the sun.  (Social media "influencers" probably fall in the latter camp, social remoras hitching rides on bigger fish, but potentially providing useful service as hype men.)  The support network is often a combination of archetypes: those who are creative in a feedback loop with the personality, and those who have learned to surf the social trends necessary to worm their way into the inner circle.

There's nothing wrong with this by itself — I bet we can all identify core movers and shakers in our friends' groups or work endeavors — but the real problem comes with isolation.  A cranky, gross weirdo is someone to be ignored and reviled, but if you end up in their orbit and think their behavior is normal, that's when you have a problem.  That knife cuts both ways, too: you might be a perfectly reasonable human being with a cult following, but when you start to be drawn into your own circle of influence, surrounded by people who think you can do no wrong, any action you take suddenly seems a lot more reasonable.  When the support group turns inward, all anybody can see is the personality.

Herein lies the beating heart of the personality problem: you are someone who feels a sense of alienation from the world, but you meet a creative soul who challenges your assumptions of what that world can resemble.  (Alternately, your sense of alienation prompts you to become that creative soul.)  You fall into their orbit.  If you're not paying close attention, it's very simple for the orbit to become all there is, a small group of people consuming each others' content and thinking the rest of the world looks like this, or perhaps the rest of the world should look like this.  The insidious part is that none of this is, on the face of it, bad — the world can always be improved.  It takes a great deal of reflection to notice when the commune goes wrong, when people are asking too much of you, or when they're cutting people out of the group due to minor disagreements or because it better enables them to jockey for position.  It also takes a great deal of reflection to notice that what's good for you and your friends' group isn't good for everyone else.

That also gets into the inherent paradox of the personality problem, because it's hard to tell who's in charge.  Sometimes the personality is in charge, but sometimes a supporter can subvert the original effort.  (Sometimes the sultan is in charge, sometimes it's the vizier.)  But it's the isolation that can turn a sweet little artists' colony into a hormonal hothouse, as things happen in the shadows and seem perfectly reasonable because at least it's better than things out there.

A handful of personal anecdotes from subcultures allowed to run in isolation.  I will freely admit I do not know all details, but here are facts as I know them:
  • Three associates indulge in a not precisely criminal, but certainly unethical conspiracy.  One is a personality; the other, their herald.  All three are caught.  The personality and herald turn public opinion against the third and completely push them from the friend group.
  • Two associates this time.  Same sort of conspiracy, same personality, same result.  The personality turns the group against the co-conspirator and pushes them out.
  • A friend operating at the periphery of the local cult of personality.  They're creative, enthusiastic, and among the best role-players with whom I've ever had the pleasure of gaming.  Someone you absolutely want at your gaming table.  But there is a strange undercurrent, and the local heralds do not like them.  They are forced in the periphery for reasons I do not understand and fathom.  (Although if we're all being honest, maybe it's the racism.)
  • Another friend in another scene, closer to the core.  Intelligent and insightful, I've never had a conversation with this person lasting more than maybe two sentences.  Why?  Because they're treated as a china doll, and it's usually only two sentences in before a paramour arrives and interrupts their train of thought.  We all pretend this is normal and not creepy and possessive in any way.
Why am I telling you this?  Because perhaps you'll recognize the rot that lurks in your own scene.  I previously told you there's nothing to be done — the damage was started when we outgrew our tribes, and had to rely on strangers to run the lion's share of civilization for us.  We still want hierarchies and families and senses of belonging, so we still arrange ourselves in these groups.

But while there's nothing to stop it, you can be aware of the dynamic.  You can extricate yourself from the horror if you're in the midst of it.  There are only a handful of things you can do, but perhaps they will be enough:
  • Self-reflection is key.  If you're in a situation you know is bad, or makes you feel bad, or makes you feel very conflicted, find somebody outside the scene to make sure it's normal.  Or just leave.  It hurts, and it sucks, but it might save you in the long-run.
  • If you're in the middle of a cult of personality, and you can look upon yourself doing all the weird, petty, kingmaker things previous described, extricate yourself.  Use your influence for good.
That's really it.  Be brutally honest with yourself, make sure you're doing the right thing, and you'll be okay.

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