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Thursday, May 19, 2022

REVEL AT ION

I've learned a lot about myself during this ongoing pandemic of ours. For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was in ten role-playing games, and running six of them.

I've learned that you should never, ever do that.

(These days, I'm at a more reasonable six games, and only running five of them. You should never do that, either. I suspect I'd be happiest running two or maybe three.)

I've also learned that I'm not a big fan of running one-shots. They're fun to play, but I find it takes roughly as much work to craft or prepare a one-off game as it does to start a campaign, and then I might as well just run the campaign. (An endless series of one-shots requires roughly the same effort every time, but campaigns have a break-point where what I get out of them vastly exceeds the work I put into them. Plus, most games are complicated enough and many players are addled enough that there isn't really time for character creation and a game session, meaning a one-shot is two sessions, or I have to make the characters, which adds to my planning load.)

Of course, the track record among my circle of friends probably speaks to that. I have a modest number of completed campaigns under my belt, but to date, I have only played in one campaign to completion, and even then the GM scrambled to wrap everything up before he lost interest. Campaigns otherwise usually fall apart, or the GM gets bored, or the character sheets get lost, or whatever.

I vastly prefer to run RPGs than play them. (But you probably guessed that from the content on this blog.)

Most importantly, I think I've learned what my ultimate, Platonic ideal of a campaign would be.

Serious, Stupid, Spooky

You need the mix of all three in roughly equal proportion. To keep things interesting, the tone needs to drift over time. Perhaps an example will explain what I mean. My ultimate game would go something like this:

The player characters are trapped in a town during a zombie outbreak. (Did they arrive during the outbreak? Were they in town and the dead rose? It probably doesn't matter, although the latter makes more sense.) It's the standard zombie setup familiar to Romero fans and Resident Evil players: the town is under quarantine, zombies are wandering the streets, easy escape is unlikely, and help isn't coming. The zombies are scary: there are a lot of them, they never sleep, and maybe there are a few variants and mutants here and there. Even if the players are hardened horror fans, you can still overawe them through numbers and graphic description. [Spooky]

There are a lot of residents, and they all need help. And you can meaningfully help them, should you choose to do so. (What I mean by this: while choosing to help someone in the middle of a natural disaster is a difficult choice, it shouldn't backfire. You probably only get one guy in the opening act who is secretly nursing a zombie bite, and you don't get any tricks like "the PCs escort the NPCs to the safe haven but it's full of zombies and everyone dies." Your choices should be difficult, but meaningful.) People need food and escort to safe havens, disparate family members want to be reunited. Not everyone is going to survive, and the player characters will likely fumble their plans a couple of times, but the meat of the scenario is the tense character drama as the player characters interact with NPCs and argue with each other. [Serious]

Also, for some reason, there's a talking dog. The dog is helpful, but is mostly there for comic relief and so I can do a silly voice in an otherwise grim scenario. Apart from being able to talk, the dog isn't supernatural in any meaningful way. He can probably do a couple of useful things if asked like find lost objects or sniff out zombies a block away. The PCs probably think the talking dog is weird at first, but they probably grow to love him. [Stupid]

Then we boil the frog. Change the parameters of the test over several sessions until the campaign looks like this:

The player characters are pretty inured to the zombies now, so you tend to play them for dark comedy more than anything else. A zombie wrapped in a chain link fence who can't get free. One pinned under a car, snapping its jaws at the PCs' approach in the most amusing way possible. They don't stop being a threat, exactly, but you start playing up the slapstick elements. Zombies make weird noises designed to disarm the tension. [Stupid]

Of course, zombies aren't the real threat anymore. It's the people. (Maybe it always was.) It's been A Week™ for everyone in town: a week of raw terror and shattered nerves. Nobody has had a hot bath in that time, or a hot meal. Tensions are high. People are starting to get desperate and make bad decisions. And most importantly, the player characters aren't doing enough. As the campaign continues, the townsfolk become angry at them. You're the most capable people here. Why haven't you solved this yet? It probably doesn't take too long before some townsfolk reach the only logical conclusion: the "heroes" engineered this crisis. They're manipulating us. The torches and pitchforks emerge soon thereafter. [Spooky]

Towards the climax of the adventure, the talking dog dies. It's probably very heroic. The dog's body is recoverable. [Serious]

I could never run this as described, of course. Most of the elements I enjoy are things that emerge naturally over the course of a campaign. I like to be surprised.

It's a collaborative medium, and determining too much in advance spoils the fun. Even if I'm running an "adventure path" for real '90s-style traditionalists, the path is just an outline. If the players go somewhere else, that's fine. The surprise keeps me as an engaged player, too.

But the above scenario describes all the things I like in the course of a campaign. There should be something dramatic and sad, a tragedy the player characters can possibly prevent or solve or just watch unfold as they pursue their personal interests. Vampire: The Masquerade drew me into this hobby, and it still represents a lot of the things I like in stories and RPGs. If possible, I like to include a nerve-wracking and horrific threat. (I also lump thrillers in with horror, so sometimes the "spooky" element is simply the hidden: a mysterious serial killer, a lurking mastermind, an "ally" who knows too much.) And finally, I like there to be something a little dumb and fun to act as a release valve when the other elements are too much. Something with a silly voice, or some harmless eccentric as a bit of local color. My Unknown Armies games include a handful of scary wizards among a sea of obsessive (but ultimately friendly) weirdos. My arcane thriller about a secret wizard cabal has a ninja turtle in it.

While I can't usually plan the twist, those sorts of things happen naturally. Characters introduced as bits of color become important, central characters. The mood shifts as the player characters become more competent and their investment in the world changes. Things that were once threatening become mundane as greater or hidden threats emerge.

You know, the usual stuff.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Artifact April 2022

Seven years ago, I posted Artifact April, a month of theme posts whereby I posted one magical item every day in April across various RPG systems. I was hoping to do that again this year, but it never materialized.

However, some Artifact April is better than none Artifact April, so here's a selection of seven magic items. I'm running a lot of fifth edition D&D these days, so stats (where available) will primarily reference that edition, but I'll provide some notes on other editions because I convert material with abandon. Anything here should be easy to convert to your game system of choice.

(But just to make everything more confusing, Hekanhoda's Bane and Straight Razor are both made for Dungeon Crawl Classics.)

Cage

It probably looks something like this.

This sapient blade is a greatsword, appearing as a scimitar sized for a giant (or an efreeti, in this case). It is always warm to the touch. The black iron blade bears glowing runes in the language of fire elementals, while the shagreen wrap on the handle bears binding spells in the language of dragons. The pommel is a small, black iron cage in which a single red ember floats.

That red ember is the efreeti noble Padishah Nurhan Solak, bound in the blade. (He bestowed that title on himself, so he's likely not as powerful as you think he is.) When he speaks — and he often makes demands in imperious whispers — his voice emanates from the ember as it glows and crackles. The ember flares when he is angry.

Trapped in his own sword by a vengeful wizard, the sword now has the statistics of a luck blade. (Interested parties can also find 3.x statistics. The AD&D version of a luck blade gives +1 to saving throws and contains 1d4+1 wishes according to the Encyclopedia Magica.) This particular blade contains 3 wishes, powered by the bound efreeti. When the last wish is cast and the blade loses the Wishes property, the efreeti is released. He almost assuredly returns to the elemental planes and begins plotting his revenge against every previous owner of the blade, whom he has perceived as exploiting and wronging him in some way. (However, he may be gracious to an owner who uses their first wish to release him from the blade, possibly even offering them a free wish. As a lawful evil entity, however, any wishes he offers are of dubious quality.)

In true It Follows fashion, Nurhan probably works his way backwards, starting from the most recent owner until he eventually plots his epic revenge against the wizard who bound him in the first place.

Unlike most sapient swords, Cage cannot initiate an ego battle as the sword is the genie's prison. However, nothing prevents the Padishah from talking, constantly trying to convince the sword's wielder of the benefits of using a wish in this particular situation. Since he wants to escape the sword, he's even less capricious than a typical genie, fulfilling the spirit and letter of any wishes he grants. (At least for the first two wishes. He probably perverts the intent of wish number three as a final "fuck you" to his wielder before he leaves and plots his vengeance.)

If this sounds a bit like recommended Shadowguiding techniques from Wraith: The Oblivion, then you know exactly how to play the Padishah.

In addition to the standard properties of a luck blade, the sword's wielder can speak and understand the language of fire elementals while they carry the sword, and they are unaffected by extreme heat. (Up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. That's about 49 degrees Celsius if you use metric.) The user can use a bonus action to cause the ember in the pommel to brighten, shedding bright light in a ten-foot-radius and dim light in a further ten-foot-radius.

The sword loses these properties if the genie is released, although it keeps the bonus to saving throws (and to-hit and damage for 3e and 5e versions and the Luck property in 5e).

Although it can't initiate conflicts, the sword's statistics might still be useful. It is lawful evil; has an Intelligence of 16, a Wisdom of 15, and a Charisma of 16; can hear and see (with darkvision) out to 120 feet; and can speak, read, and understand Common and Ignan.

If you're using 5e, Cage is a legendary magic item that requires attunement.

Dunce Cap

Nobody makes kids wear these anymore, right?

A standard paper dunce cap, albeit decorated with strange writing on the inside. While worn, it makes it hard to think but also makes the wearer less noticeable as a threat: people tend to ignore the wearer, and enemies target them less often.

For fifth edition, I'd probably give advantage on Charisma (Deception) checks to seem unobtrusive and Dexterity (Stealth) checks to remain hidden. The downside is that this item grants disadvantage on Intelligence checks, attacks, and saving throws.

This is likely a rare item that probably requires attunement. Assuming it requires attunement, it grants disadvantage on Intelligence rolls while it's attuned, but only grants the bonuses while it's being worn. Tricky, eh?

It's paper, so it folds away easily but is also easily damaged. If you'd like, maybe it's made out of something more durable, like leather.

Green Sash

A gift from the Fair Folk always comes with strings attached.

You probably know this one already. Lady Bertilak gifts such a sash to Sir Gawain for his confrontation with the Green Knight.

There aren't any tricks with this one: the wearer gains immunity to slashing damage, but a critical hit from a slashing weapon cuts the sash, dealing full damage and rendering it useless. (If your system of choice doesn't include critical hits, assume it is cut on a natural 20. You might also decide a called shot can sever the sash, but you should make that decision based on your system of choice.)

While there aren't any tricks with the item itself, it is a sash of fairy make. There is a possibility that having the sash itself causes trouble, such as in the case of Sir Gawain.

For the fifth edition crowd, this is another legendary item requiring attunement, although I think it's a more interesting item if it doesn't require attunement.

Hekanhoda's Bane

It looks a little something like this.

If you've read Intrigue at the Court of Chaos, you already know Hekanhoda, Lord of Grotesques. (I believe Hekanhoda also appears as a patron in the DCC Annual.)

Hekanhoda's Bane is a powerful sword of Law dedicated to slaying Hekanhoda. However, this sword has great ambitions, as it has plenty to do before killing the Chaos Lord.

This Lawful +1 long sword has Intelligence 11, and can speak and communicate telepathically. In addition to killing Hekanhoda, the sword also wants its wielder to uphold the Law. It has several banes:

  • Thieves: the wielder gets a +1 bonus to attacks and damage against thieves.
  • Wizards: any wizard successfully struck by the sword is banished. The wizard must make a Will save against the sword's roll of 1d20+10 or else be banished back to its native plane or lair.
  • Earth Elementals: the sword detects any earth elementals within 100 feet, even if they are invisible or concealed. The sword can overcome magical defenses with an effective Will or spell check of +10.
  • Dragons: as with thieves, the wielder gets a +1 bonus to attacks and damage against dragons.
  • Sphinxes: the sword acts as a spotter, making it easier for allies to attack. Allies can fire into melee between wielder and bane at no penalty and with no chance of hitting the wielder, and allies attacking bane with missile fire within 100 feet of the sword receive a +1 attack bonus.

In addition, the sword has several powers. It can detect gold within 1d8 × 10 feet, it can locate object twice a day, it can shed light in a 20-foot-radius at will, it drains 1d4 XP with every blow in addition to its other damage, and the wielder heals 3 points of spellburn each night without rest, or 6 points each night with rest.

The Princess' Ring

Using magic from lost kingdoms is like unearthing uranium.
It could power or destroy a city, and there's only one way to find out.

While the origins of this ring are lost, the story attached to it is that the princess of a lost kingdom owned this ring, which she used to sneak around the castle and even beyond its walls. This is often told as a cautionary tale, as she was executed or exiled for witnessing something she ought not to have seen. Others say that the magic in her ring somehow destroyed the kingdom. Some even say her ghost haunts the ring, providing an unpleasant surprise for anybody who uses the ring's magic.

This item is simply an ornate ring that, when completely covered by the hands, transfers the user to the Ethereal Plane as per the etherealness spell. Depending on the tales, you can either use it three times per day or as often as desired, but it does require the user have both hands free. As such, it probably takes at least an action to use it.

If you're doing the full 5e thing, this probably works as a very rare item, although it likely doesn't require attunement. Watch out for thieves! (You might want to make it legendary if the wearer can use it at-will. Then again, you might feel that being able to do nothing other than hold the ring is balancing enough. It's ultimately your choice; I'm a blog post, not a cop.)

Straight Razor

It looks similarly impractical.

Diametrically opposed to the monument of Law that is Hekanhoda's BaneStraight Razor would see civilization reduced to rubble and ash. This Chaotic +1 long sword has Intelligence 10 but only communicates through simple urges. It seeks to build a monument to Chaos from the rubble of civilization and to punish interlopers and those who interfere.

The sword hates water elementals, sending its wielder into a berserker fury against them. When facing water elementals in combat, the wielder must succeed on an Ego check against the sword or else gain +4 Strength and Stamina for 2d6 rounds, and then become exhausted at -4 Strength and Stamina for 1d6 turns thereafter.

On the other hand, Straight Razor grants its wielder the ability to speak and understand thieves' cant, and it can shoot out a tongue of flame once per day. The flame jet is shaped like a cone, 40’ long and 10’ wide at end. All within take 2d6 fire damage and may catch on fire. They can avoid this damage with a Reflex save against the sword's roll of 1d10+10.

The Widow's Ring

Just what I always wanted: a ring that hates me!

Old tales speak of the maedar, the male versions of medusae. One particular tale speaks of a maedar who found a mate very late in life, but was as devoted to her as any other maedar is to his wife. In fact, he was so devoted to her that he ensured he would never leave her.

When he felt his life coming to an end, he undertook the ritual that maedars sometimes undertake to become a glyptar, a maedar's consciousness remaining in stone. Maedars are said to go mad if they become trapped in gemstones, but this particular maedar willingly projected his consciousness into amethyst so that he could remain with his wife until the end of her days, and could continue to guide and protect future generations of their family. Before death, he made arrangements to have the amethyst fitted into a ring, delivered to his wife, so that they could spend eternity together.

And so the glyptar spent generations with his descendants, at least until some group of adventurers murdered them and took the ring.

As you might imagine, the glyptar is very displeased with this state of affairs.

Any medusa can use the widow's ring to gain a burrow speed equal to her walking speed, even allowing her to move through solid stone. Three times per day, she can turn stone to flesh, either ending the petrified condition on a creature or turning an area of stone as large as a 10' cube into meat. (If you're using an older edition with a proper stone to flesh spell, just use that instead. If you want the classic glyptar experience, old-school maedars can technically use their stone to flesh power every 30 minutes. In AD&D, the spell mentions turning stone golems into flesh golems, but since 5e stone golems cannot be altered in such a way, we'll skip that particular detail.)

Humanoids and other folk might be able to use the ring's powers as discussed above, but they have to convince it of their intentions first. The original adventurers who stole the ring probably won't get it to cooperate, nor will any adventurer who kills a medusa and lets the ring know about it. (Even hearing a rumor that the wearer killed a medusa might be enough to prevent the widow's ring from cooperating.) In fact, such users find the ring is basically cursed: the glyptar will attempt to take control, leading the wearer into suicidal situations. However, wearers who seem sympathetic to medusae and are willing to help local medusa populations will likely receive the ring's aid. (Although it might just ask for them to deliver it to a proper medusa, unless it thinks it can better aid medusakind by staying with the current wearer.)

The widow's ring is lawful evil; has an Intelligence of 12, a Wisdom of 13, and a Charisma of 15; can hear and see (with darkvision) out to 120 feet; and can speak, read, and understand Common. (If you're using an old-school system, the ring can also speak the languages of medusae. It also has the equivalent of a Labyrinth Lord psyche around 15 or so, to give you an idea of what sort of Ego rating you should give it in whatever system you're using.)

For 5e, this ring is probably legendary and definitely requires attunement.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Grousing About Alignment

I've been ruminating about this for several days. (A month or two, maybe?) I expect it was sparked by some passing discourse or other, but who can say?

But first, a word about personal bias: As noted elsewhere, I believe it's important to understand an author's inherent biases, so here is one of mine: I don't believe in an objective, explicit, cosmological idea of morality, sin, or evil. If you reduce all energy and matter in the universe into the finest dust, past the level of atoms or quarks or superstrings, you will find no modicum of good or evil in your sieve.

Good and evil can exist as personal concepts and frameworks, but not as large moral structures.

As such, I tend to disagree with The Dreaded Discourse™ about how alignment is problematic and ought to be excised from fantasy games. For me, alignment is the goofy, escapist fantasy. The universe is ethically grey and politically complicated, and sometimes it's nice to imagine a world where moral issues are (comparatively) simple. (I say "comparatively" because invariably every Game Master throws in a weird, moral conundrum independent of alignment. Sometimes, people do good things for bad reasons or bad things for good reasons, even in objective moral systems.)

I know it is not an escape for everybody — and more power to you if you excise it from your games! — but for me, alignment is one of those things that only makes sense in a fantasy world or as a learning tool. And, gee whiz, wouldn't it be nice if the world were simple sometimes?

Hopefully, this nearly explains why I don't typically worry about alignment as much as some Referees do. I suspect a lot of people conflate in-game moral assumptions with real-life moral assumptions and invariably talk past one another.

At any rate, we have now come rather far afield of the main point I wanted to make with this post. Ask me to elaborate on my thoughts about morality sometime if you want to get into a long, boring conversation about it.

And with that aside complete, onto the main post:

While my engagement with fantasy class-and-level games is comparatively recent, the arguments about alignment have existed since the beginning of the hobby. It's the standard problem: art creators have certain assumptions that everyone has the same background, the subculture around the art grows, the background conditions change, and almost nobody has the originally assumed commonalities anymore.

Growth is often painful.

But I suspect the problem with alignment isn't so much a disagreement as a lack of common definitions. (As with most problems, this issue is broadly applicable to life outside table-top role-playing games.) When people talk about alignment, they are often discussing one of three related concepts:

  • Alignment-as-personality: I suspect this is what most modern gamers think about when they're contemplating alignment. When you make a D&D character, this is probably what you're putting on your character sheet: an alignment that represents your fictional character's moral center. In this regard, it is similar to Nature and Demeanor from World of Darkness or Virtue and Vice from Chronicles of Darkness or Obsession from Unknown Armies — it's a phrase on your character sheet so when you're stuck and wondering, "What would my character do?" you can reference your sheet and maybe get an idea. It's not a rules thing so much as a reminder to yourself.
    • Incidentally, this is where some of the thorniness over "what constitutes acting within your alignment" emerges. Right and wrong operate somewhat independent of morality — an immoral person can do the right thing, and a moral person can make stupid decisions. So it is with law-vs.-chaos and good-vs.-evil: you can probably make a case for any given individual action with any given alignment. However, you can probably make a reasonable expectation that a character's actions over time will more obviously cleave to one side or the other.
    • This can also be confusing because individual players might consider this more subjective or objective depending on their preferences. Being "lawful" might constitute literally following the law or just having a strong personal code. Being "chaotic" might mean might-makes-right or being a free-spirit or just being random. That's something you might want to discuss during character creation.
  • Alignment-as-affiliation: This is more of the classical, Moorcockian view of alignment you might expect from earlier editions of D&D. (Cynical readers might also consider this the default for people who, say, preach certain moral frameworks to which they do not abide.) In this schema, alignment is less of a personal moral framework and more of a political affiliation (or sports team allegiance, if you prefer that analogy). The black hobbits described by Ken St. Andre and Jeff Rients also reside in this paradigm. (Weirdly, 4e also asserted this as the "default" moral framework for that edition, although I don't know how many people used it.) Characters using alignment as a political affiliation might have any sort of morality, but they throw their support behind a particular cause. Anybody who is "just following orders" could probably be seen to have this sort of alignment. If you have ever been baffled by someone who seems very nice but holds weird, backwards views about the world outside of their narrow band of existence, you might have encountered someone with this sort of relationship to alignment. As in real-life, though, I expect that if you follow a particular affiliation for long enough, you'll begin to adopt its values, sooner or later. (And probably sooner.)
    • This is another source of confusion, because it's possible to imagine someone whose views are initially incompatible with their alignment until you dig deeper. The nice little old lady next door who supports the Dark Lord because he makes the trains run on time could easily have a Chaotic alignment even though her life and outward demeanor is seemingly orderly.
    • In a lot of ways, this is the most alien form of alignment to those with heavily-internalized, cultural Calvinism, because "good" is always bound with "right" and "evil" is always bound with "wrong." It is difficult to imagine someone who hypocritically holds both, even though most of us do it all the time. (We just don't like to examine it too closely.)
  • Alignment-as-physiology: This is the realm of the supernal and the extradimensional. Angels and demons are always going to be Lawful and Chaotic, respectively, and changing their alignment probably changes the base creature. The long tradition of supernatural creatures in mythology and literature means that this is the easiest to understand and also the least morally challenging component of alignment: zombies are mindless and always antagonistic, so there is no moral challenge or consequence to killing them.
    • Of course, this causes a lot of the confusion in the other categories as people conflate this type of alignment with the other two types. Detect evil and good often only detects supernatural forces rather than someone's personal alignment, for instance. Likewise, this is where a lot of the debate about "always chaotic evil" creatures arises, as people assume game designers mean this (orcs are evil and always will be no matter what their environment is like) when they often mean one of the other two things (orcs are Chaotic because most of them have thrown in their lot with Sauron and were never given a moral choice, for example).

So there you go. The next time the inevitable alignment debate arises at your table, you now have a framework to start interrogating what the players mean. Do you think the alignment is a fantasy Meyers-Briggs type, or your political party, or an inherent and unchangeable thing?

Thursday, December 23, 2021

No, Seriously, Enchanters and Illusionists Rule the World

Over four years ago, I alleged that enchanters and illusionists rule the world.

And finally, there is proof!

My players in the Sunday night game are on the cusp of learning The Awful Truth™: a secret cabal of enchanters has altered their memories to obfuscate the fact that the player characters accidentally stumbled upon their operations a few months ago. (In fact, the cleric has already cast greater restoration to restore his own memories, and so has already learned this secret. He currently plans on doing it to the rest of the party the next time they get to rest.)

They have previously received hints of this conspiracy:

  • They keep finding the same symbol everywhere they go. It usually appears on articles of clothing or jewelry, and on one notable occasion, as a tattoo.
  • They received a picture from an oracular dwarf girl depicting a creature none of them could perceive. (They managed to determine this because the henchmen in the party seemed a little weird when confronted with the picture, so then they started asking everyone they met about it. Once they determined that their description of the picture differed from everyone else's, they started interrogating the problem further.)
  • The campaign's arc words are, "Are you forgetting something?" (In fact, this and other secret messages appear if you Select All on the campaign's front page on Obsidian Portal.)

Currently, we don't know why the characters' memories were altered, but next session, we're going to do a brief flashback to find out the sordid details. (We'll be using a more narrative system for that to cover the fact that they clearly can't die in the flashback. And then we'll return to the present, in the midst of a deeply complicated standoff — roughly half a dozen factions are involved with some trying to enter the Temple of the Frog and others trying to repel them. It's a glorious mess that I am very excited to run.)

The only information the player characters currently have is that one of the cabal's agents is currently attempting to retrieve the Book of Salientian Hours I mentioned in a blog post last month. This artifact has only just been introduced, but the players currently know that it is the Froggies' prayer book and that two other factions also want it: an unknown elf who claims it was stolen from him, and the warlock's patron who has not yet been identified as Graz'zt himself. (While the players are aware of the aforementioned facts, the characters don't yet know this information, because only the warlock knows this as part of his patron's secret agenda. Graz'zt has promised the warlock the staff of a powerful wizard if he can retrieve the book ahead of the other factions.)

I love it when a plan comes together.

Once again, my bog-standard sandbox-y fantasy game turns into a sticky morass with plots and intrigues and secret histories.

As for what this secretive cabal of memory manipulators seeks with the Temple of the Frog's prayer book — not to mention their other nefarious plans — remains a mystery. For now, anyway. (Although readers may take note that Dark, Utopia, and the Southern Reach Trilogy had outsized influences on this thing, even though I watched and read them after the game started heading in this direction. Hopefully this thing will take shape with the fullness of time.)

As for the other games I run in Khaldun, this secretive cabal has only directly interacted with one other group of player characters, although they didn't know it at the time. But there is always the possibility that other groups will follow...

Thursday, November 25, 2021

On Prophecy

A couple of weeks ago, Matt Colville published a new video about prophecies, both talking about the concept and soliciting feedback from the community as to whether anyone has ever successfully included prophecies and visions in their games. (For the record, he hasn't ever gotten it to work.)

I'm not in the habit of spraying my opinion across the internet, so I'm sharing it here.

I don't watch Colville's videos religiously, but I'm always a little surprised by them when I manage to watch them because I usually agree with about fifty percent of his content. (Let's say 40%-70%, probably depending on my mood.) He runs a very different game than I do, and so a lot of his discussion and advice isn't particularly applicable to my table. (He also doesn't seem to play or run terribly often, so I get the impression that his games are way more planned and plotted than mine. I'm embarrassingly running five-ish games right now on a baroque, rotating schedule, so I frequently have to be comfortable with a good answer now rather than a perfect answer derived from five hours' planning.)

Colville tends to see role-playing game scenarios as an alternate form of literature akin to short stories or novels: linear plots with plot points, themes, moods, etc. These things are all knobs that the author (in this case, the GM) sets and constantly tweaks in response to player action. Astute observers will recognize the core of '90s game design, with its metaplots and linear adventures, probably traceable back to Maliszewski's so-called "Hickman Revolution" in the early-to-mid-1980s.

My initial and anarchic foray into RPGs way back in the late 1990s may have started with White Wolf, but I quickly surmised that their Storytelling advice wasn't going to work for me. How can I establish a theme and mood for the game without knowing the energy the players are going to bring to the table on any given night? They have a say in how the game runs, too, and they're probably not going to explicitly tell me what they want.

In retrospect, it's hardly surprising that I fell in love with old-school play. Playing to find out what happens, the "story" of the game is the emergent story at the table, and all that.

Which brings me back around to the point: I think Colville's approach to prophecies and oracles failed because he was still thinking about role-playing game sessions like novels and not as their own genre of art, as I will argue again and again in this corner of digital real estate.

In a novel (for example), a prophecy usually serves two purposes: it acts as exposition and foreshadowing. If a prophecy is somewhat vague, as most of them are, then the audience might get the shape of it — enough to know that something big is coming and maybe even with some idea of what shape that thing is going to take — but readers won't know the outcome until later in the story. The more explicit the prophecy or the more deft the writer, the greater the likelihood that the audience will be "rewarded" by figuring out what the foreshadowing means ahead of time.

Contrast with role-playing games. Prophecies and visions serve a similar purpose, but the audience and the participants are usually the same people, so visions have a very different weight: they're clues. Clues don't have to be planned ahead of time — astute players in an investigative scenario are going to interrogate environmental details that the game master didn't explicitly plan, but can surmise based on what they know of the larger shape of things — but they do need to be deliberate and included with purpose. More importantly, the game is always about what the players do at the table. So, as with any clue, the game can't come to a screeching halt if the players aren't interested or don't understand the prophecy they receive.

What does all this mean? In my experience, prophecies, oracles, and visions all work pretty well, but the game master needs to be deliberate about their placement, and the game has to be able to continue running if the vision is ignored. I'll give you a handful of tips and examples:

  • In the above video, Colville indicates that he included a vision almost as an afterthought: no preamble, no warning that the players were going to receive it, and most tellingly, he probably planned it only a session or two in advance. (Having watched some of his liveplay stuff, he seems to turn the plot on a dime as cool ideas occur to him. Protip: use your cool ideas, but make sure they're well-integrated with your existing game.) Even if a prophecy is about something minor, being able to tell the future is A Big Deal™, and should be both well-telegraphed and thoroughly considered in advance. How will this impact things? What happens if the players interfere? What happens if they ignore it? (Always assume your clues are going to get ignored. What happens next? Usually, ignoring a vision means that things escalate.)
    • As long as we're talking about giving players oracular abilities, there is an alternate method to giving a player a vision. I did it sometimes in my Dungeon World game, and it is one of the recommended methods for some oracular powers in Unknown Armies: give the character an in-game bonus (a reroll or whatever), and then when they use it, ask the player what they saw in their vision earlier in the day. While it is a much more narrative way to solve the problem than giving the players a puzzle to solve every time you give them a vision, it gives them a little more agency when it comes to how they use their oracular abilities. Of course, as with trying to use oracles in the first place, that won't work for every game, either.
  • In my Los Angeles-area Unknown Armies game, things were ramping up, and the player characters heard there was an Oracle in Las Vegas. They talk to the Oracle and receive the following poem. Unsurprisingly, the players didn't understand most of it, but it did reinforce that Something Big is happening, and that the player characters needed to interfere or else something bad is going to happen in Los Angeles. (This was further reinforced by the fact that many members of the occult underground left the city, evidently having divined that some sort of big trouble was on its way.) The core purpose of the prophecy was to let them know they were on a timer; any other clues they could derive from the prophecy were just icing on the cake.
  • My Sunday night D&D game keeps encountering weird signs: a picture they can't perceive properly, a mysterious symbol they've found unobtrusively on at least one person in each town they've entered, various people asking them, "Are you forgetting something?" A merchant once claimed he met the characters before, but when they were insistent they had never encountered him before, he said he must be confused. (He's from the Underdark, so maybe he doesn't have a great memory for the faces of surfacers.) The cleric has received a couple of strange dreams featuring the player characters, his goddess, and a dwarven woman they've never met before. The players still don't know what to make of it, which is perfectly fine: it lets them know that something is happening in the background that they don't fully understand, and each weird clue or creepy vision just informs them that a clock is running down to an unknown revelation.
  • My arctic Ravenloft game has two prophecies: a tarokka reading telling the characters where to find key elements to oppose Khan Yemur (a deliberate homage to Ravenloft's tarokka reading for treasure placement), and a prophecy. (Both the tarokka reading and prophecy may be found here.) They've been dutifully seeking elements from the tarokka reading, but they have a little less information on the prophecy itself. Again, that's perfectly fine: the prophecy is vague, and its main purpose is to let them know that they are important and that their destinies have been "claimed" by the Dark Powers of Ravenloft.

In every case, I fully recognize that the players aren't going to guess all the elements on the first try. Instead, these are sources of tension: each one lets the players know that their actions are important, that there's probably some sort of clock running in the background that they should be considering, and that there is some sort of confrontation coming that will relate to each prophecy. The more clues they uncover ahead of time, the more likely they are to have some warning for the coming event, but they don't need to perform any particular actions to enact the prophecy.

That's probably the key: don't treat prophecies as something you have to force the players to do, instead putting them there as additional sources of clues so the players can figure out what's about to happen. And if the players miss the prophecy date or misinterpret the vision and head in the opposite direction, so much the better! Whatever terrible thing they foresaw and failed to stop now gets to happen in their absence, and they can deal with it in the aftermath. Or not; maybe they decide to flee instead. If the continent is doomed, why is it always their responsibility?

Remember: the game is whatever the players decide to do at the table. Everything else is just fluff.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Lost Epoch of Khaldun

One of the original building blocks of Crux of Eternity was the existence of convergences — places where other dimensions leak into the world. (They're always written in bold. I don't know why; it just feels right. A tip for new GMs: not everything you do needs to have a reason.) Although this was a cool, mysterious detail, the real reason for this is to provide a plausible framework for including other people's content without stretching credulity. Your FLAILSNAILS character comes to Khaldun and finds another Tomb of Horrors? Blame convergences. The fungi from Yuggoth show up, even though they're really not from around here? Again, probably convergences.

I can introduce all sorts of hot nonsense, and when the PCs ask why winged cyber-boars are attacking, I just throw my hands in the air and say, "That's convergences, babey!"

(Convergences have steadily been getting worse and more numerous over the past couple of centuries, but that has an easy explanation: Morana the Forsaken has been tearing open convergences, hoping to open the right doorway that will resurrect her dead family while remaining utterly heedless of the cost. Now that she has been destroyed, that problem will probably get better. With the possible complication that a complete list of convergences exists in the Archive Adrift's Codex Canalium... which has already been seen by mortal eyes at least once before to scribe the Book of Salientian Hours for the Bogbeast Fens' Temple of the Frog. Among other blasphemies, it's how the cultists knew where to find The Egg.)

Well, a year or two ago, a player learned about the convergences and the fact that they were getting worse, and idly wondered why that might be. The campaign ended before it became important, but it occurred to me that I didn't know why they existed in the first place. (Once again, kids: world-building is fun, but only useful inasmuch as it gets used at the table or informs your decision-making. If it doesn't need an explanation, don't feel the need to give it one.) The immediate answer my brain conjured was some vaguely-considered idea that reality was damaged when the gods and primordials were fighting, and that damage is still ongoing. It didn't feel 100% satisfying, but if someone dropped a legend lore right then and there, it's something for me to riff on and develop further.

Ultimately, no one asked, and so I neglected the question, instead focusing on other activities.

However, I was recently inspired by a detail introduced into D&D lore by Fizban's Treasury of Dragons. They introduce dragons as consummate creatures of the Material Plane, so much so that they (and things tied to them) tend to recur across various alternate Material Planes in the multiverse. So, there might be a version of Benthosruthsa from Castle Whiterock on dozens of Prime Material Plane worlds — an easy excuse as to why several different GMs have run that adventure in their home campaigns and yet all those campaigns represent different fantasy worlds if taken holistically. (In terms of "things tied to dragons," the book gives the example of the many manifestations of the Tomb of Horrors occurring because Acererak killed a lot of dragons to help make it.) Some especially potent dragons even have dragonsight, allowing them to communicate with these extraplanar manifestations. Those dragons might engage in plans that span multiple worlds simultaneously.

To tie this all together, they introduce a new mythology of "the First World," wherein the dragon gods made one world, something happened to sunder it, and that made the sprawling multiverse in which all fantasy games take place.

(I stick with a Planescape-esque "all myths are true" vibe in my fantasy games, so even though the First World isn't necessarily the truth, it is still potentially true, you dig?)

That spiraled in my head to form a rationale for the convergences: a lost epoch of Khaldun, wherein a potent and despotic draconic emperor attempted to reunite the worlds in a grand ritual. (While this would have greatly amplified said dragon emperor's power, it would have destroyed the cosmos as we know it, collapsing all potentials down to just one.) The ritual failed, but the convergences remain as residual echoes of the attempt, linking various dimensions on a fundamental level. Since the gods weren't especially keen on having anyone attempt to reunite (and destroy) the multiverse again, all records of the world-spanning empire were destroyed, and it now exists only as a series of curious anomalies in the historical record. (And perhaps the occasional artifact for a delving adventurer to find.)

Of course, that assumes we can truly be sure that a nearly-godlike dragon emperor with potent sorceries and a consciousness spanning whole worlds is truly dead and not merely sleeping...

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Joesky Tax: A Game Anecdote

After a lot of lead-up, I'm finally running DA2: Temple of the Frog for the Sunday night crew. In an ideal world, I'd run the original version, but it requires so much work to bend it into shape that I might as well write my own adventure.

To explain the lead-up: the classic Crux of Eternity crew ran through a modified version of S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and informed the local university about it. Since then, the university has been running a research program to fully investigate the crashed spaceship, and have subsequently learned that there are other pieces that were scattered across the Sorrowfell Plains when the thing passed through the atmosphere. The Sunday night crew has since been tasked with researching the other pieces. One such piece landed in the foothills of the Hoarfrost Ridge and allowed me to run Lost Laboratory of Kwalish. Another landed in the Bogbeast Fens and was discovered by cultists of Bobugbubilz, who proceeded to call it, "The Egg," and ascribed religious significance to it. Five years ago, this minor frog temple proceeded to become more organized and militarized, and is now proving to be a notable nuisance in the region with ties to slavers in the big city up north. (Which, if you know the adventure, you'll recognize as the basic setup of DA2: Temple of the Frog. Astute observers will recognize a couple of differences — like the whole thing about The Egg — which will likely be revealed with the fullness of time.)

In addition to the original goal from DA2 (rescue a high-value prisoner), the university has tasked the player characters with capturing any extraterrestrial technology they can find. The PCs decide to sneak into the City of the Frog — ignoring the original adventure's infiltration hook, assuming (probably correctly) that they probably won't be able to pass themselves off as slavers or wannabe frog-cultists — and they prioritize rescuing the prisoner because she and her men are skilled fighters, so they can outfit her and her men and double their party's fighting force.

The plan goes to shit pretty much instantly.

They sneak up the canals using a combination of water walk and control water and are almost instantly spotted. They switch from stealth to speed, and their main asset is that it's foggy and the middle of the night, so there's a lot of confusion, so they don't get murdered by crossbow bolts. They make their way to the middle of the town so they can cast locate creature on their quarry, hoping to find her in the warehouses and barracks.

She's in the basement of the Temple of the Frog, of course. The precise place they didn't want to go.

They cut west, get pelted by some crossbow bolts, use control water again to get over the wall, and are now in the courtyard of the temple. On the plus side, they neutralize the guards and the alarm is sounded, so no more guards can easily approach from the City of the Frog. The bad news is that they don't have a control ring to actually enter the temple, so they're just. Stuck there. With a temple full of cultists at their backs.

Their current gambit is to hopefully trick one of the cultists in the City of the Frog into approaching, then stealing a control ring to enter the temple. We'll find out how that works on Halloween!

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