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Friday, January 26, 2024

FIGHTS WILL BE BATTLED

Mike Mearls started a Patreon, which of course reminded me of the majesty that is Fight Battle. My friends and I have been laughing about Fight Battle for over fifteen years, and now so can you!

Monday, December 25, 2023

Review: 2023 Unknown Armies Halloween Game Jam

Over at the Unknown Armies Fan Club Discord, mellonbread organized a 2023 Halloween Game Jam for Unknown Armies and asked me to review the results on this blog. (Where stats appear, the entries assume the theoretical audience is using the third edition of the rules.) Whether or not that was a good idea is an exercise best left for the reader.

Three disclaimers before we get started:

  1. If you find yourself seriously using reviews to discern whether or not you will enjoy a work, you will achieve best results if you find someone whose writing you enjoy and whose values more-or-less appear to align with your own. Fortunately in the case of this game jam, you have plenty of choices: Frahnkmellonbread, zomner, and 33.3 FM all have contributed reviews, and their style might better inform you whether you're going to like a given piece of art or not.
  2. Reviews aside, you should read all of the entries anyway, because people worked hard on these and the longest is just shy of 1,333 words. Most are shorter than that.
  3. If you are unfamiliar with Unknown Armies, it's a game about power and responsibility, set in the modern world but taking place amidst the secret occult milieu behind our everyday world. As you might imagine, that's going to sometimes involve violence, sex, occultism, and fictions being presented as truths. I will try to call out specific things in some of the entries that I think people might want to know before they read them, but I will probably miss stuff because my own view of what is and is not distressing in art is no doubt different than yours. (For example: when recommending, say, horror movies to people, a frequent refrain is inevitably something along the lines of, "Ah, fuck. I forgot about The Heathen's Stand scene." So, tread carefully in these entries, in case there's something you find deeply distressing that I overlooked.)

Without further ado, here are the 20 entries of the inaugural 2023 Halloween Jam:

Four of Chimneys by mellonbread
Every beggar knows that you put a little change in your begging cup before you go out on the street to entice people to give, so mellonbread starts the game jam with three entries to help facilitate the project. This first entry is a solid story hook including a cabal and a location. A classic of the genre, "Four of Chimneys" describes the standard "backroom occult poker game" schtick familiar to fans of Last Call. As a bonus, the scale is left intentionally vague so you could put it in any game: it could as easily cater to the local sad sack losers as it could to a table of powerful high-rolling occultists. (As written, the entry implies that all sorts of people across the spectrum may be found here, but you could easily have it cater to only one crowd.) I would absolutely drop these guys into my game in a heartbeat with no changes. My only complaint is that I would change "splat" to "sourcebook," but that's a personal preference as time (and language) march on without me in the fast-paced world of internet discourse. Since I'm an easy mark, "Crassus Belly" made me laugh.

The Greggs and the Graveyard by mellonbread
A zombie survival horror scenario featuring grad school academics who have delved into forbidden secrets. While the writing is solid and surviving zombies is gonzo fun in any RPG, this feels more like an Esoteric Enterprises story hook than an Unknown Armies one. (In the sense that this scenario has an OSR sensibility of "lots of stuff for the PCs to mess with" while ignoring the specific themes that really make Unknown Armies unique. You can use the game as a generic horror engine if you want, but I already had a couple of broad-spectrum occult horror games when I came to Unknown Armies, and I think the idiosyncratic setting sells the game.) Surviving mindless zombies in Unknown Armies doesn't really do much with the system or the setting that you couldn't do somewhere else. If Dr. Frost and Bell Breaker had ambitions beyond random mayhem, this might have worked for me, but as it stands, this is a generic horror scenario. (Stats for the zombies might also be nice, although I am sympathetic to the limitations of space.) On the positive side, I like that the instigators of this tragedy are a professor and grad students. Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green get a lot of academic horror scenarios given the source material, but Unknown Armies has been begging for more since the first edition core rulebook included that example plot of a professor tangling with the First and Last Man, and since the second edition core rulebook included that story hook about Professor Morbius and Lab Section Six.

Darla Jean by mellonbread
An NPC (often rendered as a "GMC" or "Game Master Character" in typical Unknown Armies parlance) for the canonical cabal known as the Sect of the Naked Goddess, Darla Jean typically acts as a bodyguard for members of the Sect. Since the Sect is a cult based around the worship of an ascended goddess who also happened to be a grindhouse porn star in the 1990s, Darla also has the skills one might expect of a sex magician. One of the limitations of the rulebooks and the typically-tight page counts of RPG books is that there often isn't enough space to include a full GMC write-up and plot hooks, so the comparative freedom of Google Docs gives you plenty of room for both. Darla is a little more Identity-heavy than I typically like my GMCs, but I also disagree with most conversations about character stats and rules in the Unknown Armies Fan Club Discord so take that critique with a grain of salt.

Also, since there are three more mellonbread entries at the end of this contest, this feels like as good a place as any to note that there's a certain quality to the authorial voice that I call, for lack of a better term, '90s edge. (Irreverent or flippant, often about sensitive or taboo subjects. You catch whiffs of it now and again in the first and second editions of Unknown Armies, and scattered throughout the various '90s White Wolf books.) I honestly didn't notice it in mellonbread's work until I read the other fourteen entries and then read the final three entries, but if that's the sort of thing that grates on you like nails on a chalkboard (and the various online complaints about '90s RPGs seem to suggest that it will for some of you), you might find mellonbread's writing or attitude off-putting in ways I didn't.

Alexander Head and the Undercroft by Traskomancer
This is a GMC that had something bad happen to him, but now finds that he can do something bad to other people in turn. Alexander is a solid character concept that is a pure wildcard: while he could end up as an ally to a player cabal, his prickly demeanor makes it likely that he acts as a minor antagonist, or even a major antagonist to a fledgling cabal. (Of course, if you're desperate to threaten someone but lack the gumption to do it yourself, you could probably hire him. Just make sure that he doesn't get turned against you later...) He reminds me a little of the journalist Carl Streator in Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby, which of course endears me to him to no end. My one complaint is that the stat block includes a custom power that refers you to another document rather than just telling the GM what it does, but on the plus side, Me, Myself & You (which describes the Terrorize supernatural Identity) is Pay What You Want at DriveThruRPG.

STYX SUBWAY by Indigo
Short and sweet, this is a travel ritual that can take you between any places that have subway stations, even in other dimensions (called Otherspaces in Unknown Armies). No GM can ever have enough functioning rituals, and this one is short and to the point. My one edit is that, given how travel (especially to and from Otherspaces) is usually considered a potent thing in Unknown Armies, I might make this ritual a significant ritual rather than a minor one, but that's more of a "vibe" thing than a "game balance" thing. And I imagine the escalating cost in material components is meant to counteract the fact that the ritual only costs minor charges. Good luck finding more silver dollars in Ricketyland...

Otherspace Sickness by Valiant
A mystical illness that afflicts people who delve too frequently into Otherspaces. I'm partial to diseases in general, and think that interesting consequences are always of value, but as the author writes in the penultimate paragraph, "Otherspace Sickness is extremely disempowering. Be aware of the amount of control that you're taking away from your players over their ability to affect the world. Or lean into it." To keep it fair, you would have to heavily telegraph its presence before springing it on a PC, and if a GMC is infected, then you don't need the rules, just the consequences. Assuming an inexperienced GM, this entry could benefit from some design notes describing how it is used.

Of note: shortly before editing this, I saw a comment on Discord that Valiant was inspired by the Carcosa stuff in Impossible Landscapes for Delta Green, which makes perfect sense. If you see Otherspaces as an eldritch infection that's spreading, this would be a perfect entry point to facilitate that.

The Secret Saints of the Cecilites by tormsen
The title tells you exactly what you're about to read: a concise and evocative collection of heretical saints venerated by the Vatican's secret exorcist squad, the Order of St. Cecil. If you're looking to make the Order of St. Cecil more esoteric, this is clearly how you do it: add more secret histories, give additional options for church miracles, that sort of thing. (And while St. Cecil is fictional, many of the other saints described here were actual people, which I always think adds a lot of texture to a game.) My main complaint about the structure of this entry is that I don't think GMs need any special rules to describe Cecilite miracles: any recorded "church miracles" easily fit within the existing Unknown Armies paradigms of gutter magick, supernatural Identities, and avatar paths. (And the unofficial Cecilite sourcebook Thin Black Line even includes a Christian adept school.)

Ultimately, this one fell flat for me. There's a perennial conversation in the Unknown Armies Fan Club Discord about making the Order of St. Cecil weirder to bring them in line with the more esoteric factions of Unknown Armies. And while I applaud any efforts to make a role-playing game one's own by hacking the rules or altering the setting, I think a lot of the "Order of St. Cecil is boring" discourse ignores the role the canonical Cecilites play in the game's ecosystem. I'll spare you the details on why I think the Cecilites are a clever subversion on par with the other occult horror deconstructions in Unknown Armies, as that's a little outside the scope of these reviews.

Obviously, if you're one of the people who thinks the Order of St. Cecil needs to be weirder, this is a good place to start. If you're not, give it a pass. (But maybe still steal the secret saints for a splinter sect, or another esoteric cabal of Christian mystics.)

Felix Kaufman, Not a Medium by Ben
Felix Kaufman is a normal guy who imagines conversations with the dead as a coping mechanism. He's not a medium, but some people think he is because of how vividly he imagines these conversations. That makes Felix a great target for paranormal investigators who think he's just a medium in denial, and an even better target for cabals who know just enough to be dangerous and think he can help them talk to ghosts or demons. I am always a huge fan of mundane GMCs who are going to intersect with the occult underground badly, as well as potential hoaxes for player groups operating in the paranormal investigator mode. The writing is evocative, and the character is up for grabs. Is he going to become the subject of inquiry for a high-level cabal who sees occult symbolism everywhere? Is he going to be the (accidental, unwitting) push for a street-level cabal to fall into the occult? Will his coping mechanism explode into a full-blown supernatural power when he finally intersects with the occult underground? Some rumors or story hooks might be useful, but sometimes you just need a guy who isn't quite supernatural but might be interesting to someone who is.

University Street by Justin Miland
Those who know the secret paths can enter the secret Otherspace beneath the rail station at 3rd and University in Seattle, finding their way to an alternate Seattle where University Street is still part of the University of Washington campus. This was one of my favorite entries: clean, evocative prose describing an Otherspace with GMCs and story hooks! This is the sort of entry that should make a GM start scheming as to how they can get their players' characters to Seattle. Justin does a lot with the limited space, and this is practically begging for a full treatment as part of DriveThruRPG's Statosphere program. I want more, but such are the vagaries of a Game Jam. (And it's better to leave an audience wanting more than to tire them before they reach the ending.) 

The Cleaners by Kate C and mellonbread
The PCs are shinkansen cleaners (and obsessive sorcerers based around cleanliness called Katharomancers) whose union is being undercut by a bunch of scabs working for some company called Mokusouji based out of Tokyo. But the secret is that CEO Rin Maeda can afford to underbid the competition because his workforce are ghostly slaves pushed into earthly shells!

If you liked Sorry to Bother You but thought the plot could use less gonzo science-fiction and more necromancy, you'll like this one. While I think this is a clear candidate for expansion into a full pdf on Statosphere, it bites off a little more than it can chew as a humble Game Jam entry. There's nothing wrong with being ambitious, of course, but if the authors left this as "asshole manager and his weird necromancy scam" without turning it into a full-fledged scenario, I would probably want more in the good way rather than the bad one. An experienced GM can figure out stats for the dummies (I'd probably start with Phasma from Book Two: Run) and sort through the group creation of a cabal of Japanese Katharomancers, but including those dummy stats and pregenerated characters would make this complete and ready-to-run. (If the authors have to omit something, I could even live without Rin's stats, since in my experience, a GM is more likely to need the minions than the boss. Especially since he's just a rich guy with one supernatural gimmick; if I'm pressed for time, that's the sort of character who might not get full stats, only a couple of notes.) Given the limitations of space, the authors chose to include four different ways to differentiate the PC Katharomancers rather than include pregenerated characters, which is a nice compromise.

On Discord, mellonbread mentioned that the secret way to defeat the dummies would be culturally known to the characters and Japanese players, but likely obscure to players from other countries. (And of course, just volunteering that information gives away one of the scenario's secrets.) If one were to expand this into a full Statosphere thing, that's probably an important problem to solve, especially for inexperienced players; experienced players will probably either already know enough Japanese folklore, deduce that the clues are adding up to something and either do research or ask about it (which might prompt a Knowledge check or some other GM contrivance), or determine some other solution.

Galatea by Valiant
An AI startup in San Francisco has been training their large language model on occult texts and is getting some weird results.

Unknown Armies has the occasional cyberpunk flavor, given the millennial timeframe and the focus on postmodern magick. From the books themselves, the second edition core book includes a story hook about the dot com bust that sounds similar to Galatea (or at least what will probably happen to them within the next couple of years), while Book Two: Run for third edition includes GNOMON as one of the factions. (And that ignores other cyberpunk elements like The Hacker from Book One: Play, or the fact that Alex Abel employs a private army of troubleshooters like some sort of Cyberpunk 2020 CEO.)

If you have space in your game for that sort of stuff, this is a solid fledgling cabal concept with plenty of story hooks to get characters involved. (Or you could just as easily take these notes and play the characters given, fleshing out their stats and backstories during your group's initial corkboard creation.) As you've no doubt noticed by now, I'm a big fan of wildcard GMCs and cabals who are ultimately clueless rubes about to unleash a serious problem beyond their ability to control. (And in this case, they clearly have some in-the-know dark money behind them, meaning they could tie into any other faction in your campaign.) My only complaint about this one is that I could use a little more: since the author is 400 words below the word limit, there is plenty of room to define the computer acronyms used, and anything that makes an entry easier to use gets it on tables faster. Likewise, that extra space could probably be used to give an additional detail or two for each character in the cabal to make them pop. (Although if a GM were to use this as the template for a character creation corkboard, less detail is likely a little better.)

Bartlett and Sprouse, College Thaumaturges by Traskomancer
This entry describes three rituals left behind when a budding college cabal violently imploded. Given that, let's start with my complaints about this one: the author really buries the lede, as my initial assumption was that this was going to be about two collegiate wizards rather than three rituals. The title and opening page describe two thaumaturges, but you don't learn until the end that one is dead and the other is missing, having left behind these rituals. (If I were editing this, I would probably start with the final paragraph letting the audience know that the pair is dead or missing, then put the rituals, and then give their backstory.) Aside from that jarring bit of authorial legerdemain, I liked this entry: one of my other biases is that I think no GM can ever have enough functioning rituals, and the thematic links among the three rituals are strong. (They're all based around college tropes.) I imagine the time dilation ritual (designed for studying, naturally) would get the most use, although that's probably more revealing about how I run games than anything else.

Ultraflat by Cliomancer
Sometimes, buildings with non-sequential numbers—like places that omit the number thirteen for superstitious reasons—grow an extra room. (But watch out!) This is a magickal trap, and while I'm often wary of traps because it's easy to telegraph them too little, I like this one because it does three things I enjoy: it gives the victim plenty of chances to realize something is wrong and escape (I would probably allow at least some of that without rolling, but I tend towards fewer rolls anyway); it does something cool with non-sequential numbers in buildings; and it's a pun! (Flat and flat, get it?) Besides, I ultimately suspect that it's unlikely that a PC would get trapped in here. It seems more likely to be used as a story hook: someone important to the PCs goes missing and they were last seen at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel...

CÁBALA DEL REY DEL INVIERNO by Mechristopheles
Based out of Los Angeles, Oscar Fuentes is a refrigerator repair man who has also developed a way to trap las lloronas in old refrigerators. (Which is good, because the ghosts are a plague across the city.) Mechristopheles had the absolute gall to release a truly excellent Los Angeles story hook a mere three months after my seven-year-long Los Angeles game ends. Tight, evocative writing with solid hooks and ties to existing folklore. (Unsurprisingly, this was one of my other favorite entries.) The entry even ends with a sample scenario that is almost ready to use. The only thing I would want out of this one is some structural stuff to make it a little more friendly to a new GMs: take another editing pass or three, because I bet Mechristopheles can cut some of the word count and make this even tighter; and then use that reduced word count to put the ghost the PCs are hunting into the scenario. Unknown Armies stats are simple enough that a sentence of background and a sentence for the revenant's Urge would make the included scenario ready-to-run right out of the box.

Gert by Dennis Kearney
There's a booze wizard who haunts the last train before the rail shuts down: give her a drink, tell her your troubles, and she'll unburden your soul. This is as simple as it gets: terse, tight writing for a GMC that could fit into any game. While I normally would ask that a short background on a GMC also includes stats since there's plenty of space, that feels hypocritical, since I might never actually give a character like this any sort of numbered statistics. I wouldn't say no to a bit more, though: What does she do with the secrets? What happens if someone takes a stress check for telling her a secret? (I guarantee there's someone who would take a Self or Helplessness check for telling their secrets.) But I also don't think there's anything wrong in this case with leaving that stuff for the GM.

Urizen Shaft by Cliomancer
An urbex tour guide in the London underground, Urizen Shaft is a hair's breadth away from the occult underground. By this point, you can probably guess that I liked this one, as it's another character who is just on the cusp of the occult underground, and so is likely to intersect with PCs at any level of activity. (Plus I'm a sucker for a GMC with both a William Blake reference and a pun in the name.) It's complete, it does what it's supposed to do, and it makes me wish I was running a game in London (or at least in a place with a ubiquitous subway system). Including a ritual in his stat block as "something this guy has seen several times but hasn't performed himself" is an excellent bit of color.

The Mascot by Gatto Grigio
The Archetype of The Mascot. If "The Secret Saints of the Cecilites" is an entry that I thought was good despite not personally liking it, "The Mascot" is an entry that I personally liked despite thinking it needs more work and not even being sure if I would ever use it. Real talk: making an avatar Archetype or adept school is hard. With rituals, GMCs, story hooks, and maybe even simple scenarios, an experienced GM can probably eyeball them and expect them to work without much downstream processing. It's conceivable that you can develop them during the span of a week-long game jam. But Archetypes and adept schools really need time, lots of eyes, and playtesting to get the flavor just right, so dropping one for a game jam is a gutsy move.

(An aside: Although adept schools require much more work, I might argue that Archetypes are harder, because you're theoretically limited to concepts that are universally applicable, and getting folks to agree on those is a tall order. Of course, you have a little wiggle room: a given concept might always be deliberately placed into the Statosphere by a sufficiently dedicated wizard.)

So with that preamble, it's a decent concept and I generally liked the channels. (And connecting the modern mascot or fursuit to the Commedia dell'arte is a bonkers connection in the best Unknown Armies tradition.) I don't know that The Mascot is likely to appear in my own games, but I have a handful of changes I would consider if it did:

  1. That "never appear outside of the suit" taboo is too rigorous for an avatar path. Having to spend a certain amount of time each day in communion with the suit, or never becoming recognizable outside of the suit is a more reasonable taboo for The Mascot. If a GM loosens the taboo, I believe mellonbread suggested that the powers don't work outside of the suit, which is a good limitation.
  2. I keep waffling on the "original character" only bit. That's probably right—there's a clear differentiation between, say, Gritty and somebody in a Mickey Mouse costume at Disneyland—but I don't know if that difference is enough for the Statosphere. Then again, it's probably just a question of dedication: if you're just putting on the Mickey Mouse suit for a paycheck, you're probably not dedicated enough to become an avatar of the Archetype anyway. If you're putting on the Mickey Mouse suit because doing so makes you feel different, it probably still fits.
  3. I would tighten the wording on that first channel to make it clear that The Mascot can walk around in the suit without people feeling weird about it. The avatar still needs an invitation or a reservation or whatever, but nobody is going to tell you to take off the suit once you're there.
  4. I would likewise tighten the fourth channel to be more in line with the coercion rules. Making the fourth channel something like, "You have to pay attention to the Mascot avatar or else take a Helplessness (9) stress check," feels more appropriate than eating a random Violence (9) check because SonicFox glared at me. (I would probably change the targeted meters from Violence and Helplessness to Helplessness and Self.) I'm also not sure about this channel only being used three times per day; a lot of fourth channel powers just work, or work with higher limits. I'd probably let it work indefinitely with a successful avatar roll. (But in such a case, the avatar would do well to remember that attention is not always good, so you don't want to use it all the time.)

Samuel Pin Bone by mellonbread
A GMC who owns a tribal lending company. Here we end as we began, with three more mellonbread entries. As noted back in the "Darla Jean" entry, after being away from mellonbread's writing for several entries, I only noticed The Dreaded '90s Edge™ when I returned to it. And I mention this because mellonbread's flippant tone about an indigenous hard-boiled loan shark might rub a reader the wrong way, so dive into this entry with your eyes open.

By this point in the narrative, my "GMC who is mundane but is positioned to stumble into the occult underground" bias is probably now well-documented. This guy isn't anywhere near the occult underground (apart from being marginalized, which admittedly describes a fair number of Unknown Armies characters), but he clearly operates in adjacent spaces—someone's scumbag player character probably benefited from a shifty payday loan scheme, and now this is the poor schmuck who came to collect. (Although it's easy enough to flip that script if the PCs are native, in which case they could easily be the people he calls when expecting trouble. "Cabal that formed after some really angry occultist appeared at the Steelhead Lending offices," has a lot of potential as an inciting incident.)

Uncut Gems by mellonbread
A genital mutilation ritual that enhances the caster's athletic prowess. This is the entry that reminded me that I should probably put some sort of warning on these, so once again: this is the genital mutilation entry. My well-documented bias toward functioning rituals—especially including rumors and story hooks—means this one was a winner for me. An onerous minor ritual is a good hook for any PC or GMC, especially since the benefits are potentially quite tangible for any party. (And I disagree that the timeframe is too long for a PC to see real results, but then again, I typically run long campaigns.) My only change is that I'd add a casting cost, probably just 1 minor charge.

The Midnight Screening by mellonbread
This scenario describes a midnight screening of Night's Templar (originally described in Lawyers, Guns, and Money) that is likely to turn into a free-for-all with plenty of factions and chaos. This is the entry that reminded me to talk about The Dreaded '90s Edge, because I bet the glib, goofy tone of this entry will offend somebody—especially in the case of cabals like the Challah Cost Deniers and Living Zabiha Loca.

Nevertheless, were this entry sitting in my back pocket months ago, this is probably another scenario that I would have dropped into my overstuffed Los Angeles game. It's a solid premise with colorful GMCs and vibrating with potential energy, all the things one would expect from an Unknown Armies scenario. The more goofy or gonzo elements might not fit in your particular conception of Unknown Armies, but there's a consistent authorial voice and a clear target audience in mind, and so hopefully this will reach the right people. (And I guarantee someone reading these reviews is in that meaty Venn diagram overlap between "people who know Kin-dza-dza!" and "people who know what The New Inquisition is.")

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Doxacon 2023 After-action Report

This past weekend (November 3 and 4, 2023) saw Doxacon X in Arlington, VA. Despite the fact that Nicole and I are still preferentially avoiding large groups in the midst of the ongoing plague, Kenneth Hite posted this three months ago and found it impossible to resist the siren's allure:

So off we went.

But first, a word about personal bias: Assuming you clicked on the above link to learn that Doxacon is sponsored by the Protection of the Holy Mother of God Orthodox Church, and assuming you have read my previous blog posts like this one, you might surmise that Nicole and I are not quite the target audience for this convention. So interpret whatever I write with that in mind.


Also, it appears that Doxacon eventually puts its lectures online, and there was definitely recording equipment present. So whenever that happens, I will endeavor to link to the lectures here.

Doxacon is a small convention: this gathering had somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 attendees, although we hardly saw that number present. Since we were coming for Tim Powers and Kenneth Hite, we missed several of the lectures and didn't participate in the gaming block around lunch on Saturday. (In hindsight, I'm curious to see the full shape of a table-top RPG at a Christian fantasy convention.) I would ultimately estimate that we saw about a third to half of what the convention has to offer.

Having skipped Friday evening, Saturday morning opened with an akathist before Tim Powers' lecture. Tim Powers spoke about writing fantasy fiction as a Catholic, and how having a belief in the supernatural makes one's fantasy writing more authentic. Whether or not you agree with that point, I can find common ground with the idea that you have to believe on some level about the subject of your writing — I have previously said that I think my Unknown Armies campaign The Rule of Beasts suffered because I never quite believed the antagonists' motivations.

In the afternoon, Kenneth Hite's lecture was about traditional morality in Lovecraft's work and in Call of Cthulhu. He argues that while most RPGs are escapist fun (and there's nothing inherently wrong with that), Call of Cthulhu reinforces traditional Christian morals because it posits that player characters are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of their community. Hite also connected this to the Western, and deftly brought these themes into Lovecraft's work by pointing out that most of his stories with "happy endings" occur in his hometown of Providence, RI. Despite his nihilism, Lovecraft clearly also had things he cared about and an eye toward community.

While I'm not the intended audience for this lecture, I'm certainly intrigued by the assertion: he has a point that most games do not start with coalition-building as an explicit goal, and almost none of them encourage personal sacrifice in either tone or mechanics. (That stuff often appears as an emergent property of the group rather than something explicitly coded in the rules.) While noting that there aren't many games that encourage coalition-building as an explicit goal, he referenced Underground and Avery Alder's The Quiet Year as good models in this paradigm.

I idly wonder if we'll see more coalition-building mechanics in the wake of renewed collective bargaining power over the next decade, but then again, who knows what the future holds?

The final lecture was a panel discussion among all authors about their writing process and about the role of fantasy in a secular world. Regarding the latter, Ken Hite's comments resonated the strongest with me: belief never left, as we always need stories and ghosts and fairies and continue to repeat them time and again even as proponents of the Enlightenment claim we have banished them. Regarding the former, Ken Hite contrasted what game designers do with what traditional authors do, noting that RPG designers really only provide setting, leaving plot and character to the individual tables, but that comes with the added difficulty of having to provide lots of setting as one does not know how those individual tables are going to engage with the material.

He also noted that the joy of game design is that nothing is wasted: if you have a concept that seems too niche to achieve mass appeal as a setting book, you inflict it on your home game instead. (His example was Rex of the Old '97, which I know for a fact would be eagerly purchased by tens of Unknown Armies fans.)

With that, we closed the book on Doxacon X, leaving Arlington before vespers.

While there were no grand revelations from the lectures at this Doxacon, it was a fine time and very worthwhile. (I got something out of all of the lectures, and I think it is worthwhile to occasionally immerse myself into wholly alien cultures.) I cannot say that we would return any time soon, although depending on the guestlist in a future year, I would be loath to say we would never return. If you're a faithful Christian in the D.C. area with an interest in science-fiction and fantasy, you'll probably like it. Otherwise, you might feel a little like Dr. Gonzo at a narcotics convention.

Edit (11-09-2023, 11:52 AM): Chaosium's Facebook page shared an article from Catholic news site Aleteia, which posted their own (much more thorough) overview of Doxacon.

Edit (01-11-2023, 10:20 PM): The recordings from Doxacon are live. Tim Powers' lecture is here and Ken Hite's lecture is here. (If by some happenstance you're reading this in the far future, the recordings from Doxacon X should be dated Tuesday, January 9, 2024.)

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

The Obligatory D&D Basketball Post

It was inevitable.

Long-time readers of the ol' hobby blog will no doubt recall previous write-ups of basketball wizards, both for BECMI/OSR-type systems and for D&D 5e.

Fast-forward to four years later: one of my players from Of Kith and Kin is running his first game, and I'm playing a basketball wizard. So of course, he includes a basketball encounter featuring a battle map from Neutral Party and Gab's basketball rules.

We didn't care for Gab's rules.

In this era of ubiquitous internet, I assume it must be a rite of passage to excitedly grab someone's custom ruleset from a blog or other source only to have them fall apart during play. In this case, the rules feature six pages of rules that basically posit a new combat system — way too many rules to quickly internalize in play, especially given a new GM and two new players. (To compare: the entire combat chapter in the 5e Player's Handbook is ten pages long, and that includes edge cases that are unlikely to appear in every combat.)

Beyond being very rules-heavy, the system posits that each character gets three combat actions per round, so the system drags a bit. I suspect it would be good for small teams (the rules suggests 3-on-3 matches), or games where basketball is a constant feature, but not as just an occasional fun aside.

But you probably already see where this is going: I was inspired to create my own ill-advised D&D 5e basketball rules. (My basketball wizard has a home world, after all, and my spelljammer players might go there and shoot some hoops. Also note that there's a little precedent in my games: I have previously included a football/soccer encounter for my Crux of Eternity players, using a sphere of annihilation as the ball.) For your convenience, I have included it below in pdf and html. Although it is still a little long — a full page, front-and-back in my .doc file — many of those rules are just reminding you of rules that already exist in the Player's Handbook and explaining how they apply to basketball. I could probably edit it further, but without further ado...

The Obligatory D&D 5e Basketball Rules (pdf)

These rules extensively reference Chapter 9 of the Player's Handbook, and make extensive use of the "Variant: Skills with Different Abilities" section in Chapter 7 of the Player's Handbook

The Abstracted Basketball Game

If you do not want to play through a whole round-by-round basketball game, you can simulate the entire game with group checks. Every player makes Dexterity (Athletics), and the DM assembles those results into a group check for each team. The team with the highest result wins.

If you need to know the precise number of points won in a game, assume a team scores a number of points equal to its Dexterity (Athletics) group check × 5. (Smaller games might use a ×1 or ×2 multiplier.) For example, a team with a group check of 14 scores 70 points. The DM might want to add 1d10 to the winning team's points or subtract 1d10 from the losing team's points to avoid perfectly round numbers each time.

The Round-by-Round Basketball Game

If you and your table want to play a basketball game with significantly more granularity, run it like a combat encounter. Each player rolls initiative and otherwise follows the procedures described in Chapter 9 of the Player's Handbook. A few points of interest are outlined below.

Possession

Initial possession is resolved with a jump ball: select two players on opposing sides to make contested Dexterity (Athletics) checks. The winner's team is the starting offensive team and begins with possession of the ball. It is up to the DM whether possession alternates thereafter, or whether it is always resolved by contested Dexterity (Athletics) checks.

Interacting with the Ball

Any attempt to shoot, pass, receive, or intercept the ball typically requires the Use an Object action. Attempting to shoot a basket requires a DC 15 Dexterity (Athletics) check. This check is at disadvantage if the shot is over 20 ft. away, and shooting a basket from more than 60 ft. away results in a loose ball. (If you're thinking in zones instead of feet, two-point shots are DC 15 and three-point shots are DC 15 at disadvantage.) At the DM's option, a character who can reach the basket with a high jump can make a Strength (Athletics) check at advantage to dunk the ball.

Passing the ball to a teammate is a DC 10 Dexterity (Athletics) check, although the character must be prepared to receive the ball with the Ready action. Passing the ball more than 20 ft. imposes disadvantage on the check, and attempting to pass from more than 60 ft. away results in a loose ball.

Conversely, if a character uses the Ready action to pass the ball on the receiving character's turn, the receiving character can interact with the ball freely during their move or action as described in "Other Activity on Your Turn" in Chapter 9 of the Player's Handbook.

Intercepting the ball requires the Ready action and a contested Dexterity (Athletics) check. The character must be within 5 ft. of the ball's trajectory to attempt to intercept it. If their Dexterity (Athletics) check is higher than the Dexterity (Athletics) check of the creature who was passing or shooting the ball, then they gain control of the ball. A tie results in a loose ball.

Loose Ball

A ball that misses the basket or is otherwise dropped lands in the space it was targeting or in the place where its movement was arrested. Each round at initiative count 20, the ball rolls or bounces 5 ft. in the most logical direction. If a direction is unclear from a given maneuver, the DM can roll 1d8 to determine direction, and the ball continues to move in that direction until stopped by another force.

A character can gain control of a loose ball either by interacting with it during their move or action, or by using the Use an Object action if they have already interacted with an object on their turn (see "Other Activity on Your Turn" and "Actions in Combat" in Chapter 9 of the Player's Handbook).

Other Combat Actions

Other actions described in Chapter 9 of the Player's Handbook might come into play. Examples include:

  • Attack: Attacking is almost assuredly a foul in any friendly game, although there are no doubt illegal underground basketball games that allow contact, injury, or even death.
  • Cast a Spell: The DM ultimately determines whether magic is allowed in a basketball game, and what constitutes a foul. Of course, in basketball games featuring Slamaturges and other magic-users, magic is generally allowed, with only a few banned spells (usually involving injuring opposing players).
  • Help: The Help action can significantly increase a teammate's chances of making a shot, pass, or interception. A shouted word of encouragement, interference with an opposing team member, or being in the right place at the right time are all excellent ways to justify use of the Help action.
  • Ready: The Ready action is likely to be the centerpiece of these basketball rules, as characters try to strategically maneuver the ball downcourt. Consider the utility of using the Ready action to pass the ball to a teammate who has just moved within twenty feet of the basket.
  • Improvising an Action: The catch-all action from Chapter 9 of the Player's Handbook, this covers any potential edge cases you might encounter. A contested Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check to steal the ball in mid-dribble? A contested Dexterity (Acrobatics) check to move through an enemy's space? A contested Charisma (Deception) check vs. an opponent's Wisdom (Insight) check to feint a pass?

Customization Options

Obviously, these rules are far from comprehensive, and are always subject to a modicum of DM interpretation and adjudication. Some customization options and specific rules interactions you may want to consider include:

  • Can characters make Strength (Athletics) checks rather than Dexterity (Athletics) checks to shoot or pass the ball?
    • I might be convinced, especially with a good rationale or description as to how Strength applies to a given maneuver. As written, strong characters are better at slam dunks than shots and passes.
  • How does the monk's Deflect Missiles feature interact with receiving passes and interceptions?
    • I would probably let Deflect Missiles receive passes as a reaction, although as worded, it doesn’t strike me as though it would have any effect on interceptions.
  • Do you have any special guidelines for the rogue's Reliable Talent feature?
    • I do not. The most obvious defense against a high-level rogue is going to be one or two players constantly guarding them, using the Ready and Help actions to make an interception.
  • Can the Interception Fighting Style also apply to basketball interceptions?
    • I would probably allow it, although since the Fighting Style automatically assumes deflecting an object rather than catching it, it might always result in a loose ball. The fighter just swats the ball away as a reaction.
  • Any weird magical variants?
    • Many. My favorite involves using a sphere of annihilation instead of a basketball, although the risk to the players would no doubt preclude such activities in most places. (And you probably wouldn't need most of these rules to adjudicate a basketball with a sphere of annihilation!)
  • If basketball is going to be a major feature of the campaign, what about using a custom basketball tool proficiency instead of Dexterity (Athletics) checks?
    • Assuming basketball is the centerpiece of a campaign, I would consider it. If the DM does not give their players such a proficiency at the beginning of the campaign, a coach could easily grant the characters basketball proficiency after eight months of dedicated training, as per the Training rules under "Downtime Activities" in Chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

All's Well That Ends Well


Another year, another completed long-form campaign.

Last year, one of my player groups wrapped our eleven-year-long Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Last week, we wrapped our seven-year-long Unknown Armies campaign. As always, you can read the entire thing over at Obsidian Portal.

After Crux of Eternity and The Imperial City, it comes in third in terms of number of years. Probably in the number of hours, as well: I would estimate maybe 300 hours, but who can say?

It started humbly, as a playtest of the yet-unpublished third edition. (You'll note there that I call it a mini-campaign, not yet aware that it was going to last over seven years.) We largely stuck to the collaborative setting generation, but as with Crux of Eternity, I started with a handful of inspirations which were woven into the structure as appropriate:

  • There's a rumor in the second edition core rulebook about Jim Morrison still being alive.
    • Being well-acquainted with the old rumors that he faked his own death, I decided a long time ago that he was probably The True King of Los Angeles.
  • I read volume one and volume two of the collected Suppressed Transmission by Ken Hite.
    • Specifically, there was an article about Misrule that got the wheels turning in my head about an avatar of The True King symbolically being deposed in favor of an avatar of The Fool.
  • Years ago, I wrote some notes about a potential game set in Las Vegas, featuring an apocalyptic cult leader in the mold of Tyler Durden from Fight Club.
    • I realized this was an opportunity to tell his backstory, since I knew he was an annihilomancer who got a major charge at some point.

These elements combined to form the basic setup. While the players just knew that Hollywood producer Jasper Fitzroy was acting a little strange of late, the truth is that he was an unconscious avatar of The True King, baptized as a child to be the king of film actors by none other than MGM executive Nick Schenck, attempting to make the ultimate movie star. Magickal shenanigans prevented it from working as planned, but Fitzroy was destined to step into a kingly role no matter where he found himself, so he became a royal movie producer instead of an actor.

However, Jim Morrison, The True King of Los Angeles, never wanted the job, but he also didn't want it to go to someone who might abuse the station. And he certainly didn't think a movie producer could avoid the temptations of a powerful occult position, so he tried to think of a way to rid himself of this rival king without killing him or informing him of the existence of magick.

The answer came in the form of Iggy Williams, an annihilomancer who left Los Angeles in the early 1990s but came back in the late-2000s. Jim Morrison recognized him, but knew that he didn't want him in town, either, so he hatched a plan to rid himself of both simultaneously by convincing Williams to get two major charges by leaving town and convincing Fitzroy to leave as well. This seemed like a pretty hard sell until Fitzroy's wife died, in which case it became easier to insert new people into his life during the upheaval. And that's the very unlikely set of circumstances by which Iggy Williams became Jasper Fitzroy's personal assistant.

Since Iggy Williams had never harvested a major charge before, he didn't know how much symbolic power he needed, so it was his idea to invoke the whole Misrule thing, introducing Fitzroy to an unconscious avatar of The Fool named Pamela Kruse and then slowly making it look like his predecessor cooked the books and Fitzroy would take the blame — but he could save the rest of his family by fleeing to a foreign country.

A convoluted and tenuous plot, but a symbolically resonant one.

Unfortunately, the player characters didn't unravel the plot in time, so Iggy Williams convinced Jasper Fitzroy to flee Los Angeles and put Pam Kruse in charge of his affairs. However, that misfortune kicked off the rest of the game's plot as the characters found themselves tangled in the local occult underground. (And I suspect that failure turned a short campaign into a long one, as they sought to unravel many mysteries and bring order to the city's chaos.)

The Obligatory After-Action Report

While I have run a lot of urban fantasy and horror games previous to this one, this was my first time running Unknown Armies for more than a couple of sessions, and specifically my first time running third edition.

Many of my complaints about the system remain despite the fact that it's a pretty good system, albeit one that feels more like an assemblage of parts than a cohesive whole.

It's a very sandbox-y game, which suits my style, but I think that player-driven goals can sometimes leave the players adrift, especially because of a pattern I've noticed across a couple of games. Having now run two Unknown Armies campaigns, I like to make them grounded and realistic, and the players instantly respond to this. They make backstories, introducing friends and family members and connecting with NPCs. But this also serves to make them play the game very conservatively, as they suddenly have jobs and loved ones they can lose. As such, nobody plays the sort of ruthless obsessives that Unknown Armies seems to really encourage, especially in previous editions, and that means that they approach Objectives with a lot trepidation and very little mayhem. And that limits their options.

Note that this isn't bad — more player buy-in versus more player mayhem is a choice rather than a value judgment — but it does make the Objective process take a long time as players try to determine the safest way to handle a problem. (The recurring joke during this campaign was that we were actually playing a Camarilla campaign, given all the careful politicking.)

I also suspect that has something to do with relative power levels: both of my long-running Unknown Armies campaigns have begun more-or-less at street level. Sure, the characters might start with funky powers and weird experiences, but they don't know that there's an occult subculture out there, and they certainly don't know about things like the Statosphere or Invisible Clergy. And when you're new to the occult community, all you have is the stuff you brought with you: your career, your family, your friends.

Obviously, you don't want to lose that stuff.

But there is something very magical about a slow-burn occult campaign where you see the players go from clueless newbies staggering in the shadows of giants to people who feel comfortable solving their problems with ritual actions and weird artifacts. It's telling that we started the campaign with the player characters trying to unravel the mystery of a film producer's sudden shift in mood, and we ended with a ritual arson designed to assassinate a powerful wizard.

As for "the plot," as befits a sandbox, the campaign ranged all over the place. The campaign lasted long enough for the players to plumb most of the mysteries I plotted at the start, although as one might expect, each question yields half a dozen others. By the end of it, they are movers and shakers, having cut deals and installed their own True King as the symbolic monarch of Los Angeles, so the repercussions of this game will likely reverberate into any future Unknown Armies games I run. (Especially as the charitable foundation they created moves into other cities.)

This was also probably the most romance-heavy game I've run: everybody had some manner of romantic relationship, often forged in the fires of the secret wars of the Los Angeles occult underground. (And some characters had several romances during the game!) As noted in the Crux of Eternity after-action report, I always find that funny as I don't plan romantic subplots, but it often appears in my games, so the players clearly trust the process.

Final Thoughts

As is usually the case, I'm running another campaign on Sunday, so I don't have time to mourn the passing of this one. It always feels a little weird to end things, but there are always more stories to tell, and time marches ever oneward.

Nevertheless, I expect I will continue to think about it for some time, wondering what might happen next in that city of tiny lights by the sea...

Friday, June 9, 2023

Advice Against Quantum Ogres

Meanwhile, on a Facebook D&D group, someone shared this meme:

Accompanying the meme was the question, "What do you do if you are the DM?"

As you might expect, The Dreaded Discourse™ reigns, and there is a long conversation nested in the threads below the post. (And the original post was shared to other groups, themselves with long nested threads of The Dreaded Discourse™, so there are a thousand thousand such responses.)

Contrary to my instincts, I engaged. (I fall firmly on Team Anti-Quantum Ogre.) Most of the rebuttals were something to the effect of, "How do I run an epic game without offering the illusion of choice?" But in the midst of that, I think I gave the best advice I've ever given as a Game Master, and will probably ever give as a Game Master, so I repeat it here for you:

The players are already on your side. You don't have to lie to them to get them to like you.

I'm only being a little hyperbolic when I say that 90% of GM problems could probably be solved by keeping this in mind. Even if you're gaming with total strangers, they're there to game. They want to play a game. It's not a job interview* and it's not going on your permanent record, so you don't need to impress anyone. Just make sure it's fun, and it will be memorable without you doing anything special.

(And obviously, "lying" in this case should be assumed to mean things like illusion of choice, or "protecting" certain NPCs, or other bits of behind-the-scenes chicanery. Most GMs keep hidden information, which falls under typical player expectations for traditional sorts of table-top role-playing games. Determining and calibrating how accepting players are about hidden conspiracies, secret NPC agendas, and the like makes a good Session Zero conversation.)

As for how to run an epic game without offering the illusion of choice, it's hard to fake the actual work. You basically have two choices in that regard:

  • Run a linear adventure path, and be up-front about it. Decide what you do when the players leave the rails before you get to the decision point. (If you don't have a meaningful choice in mind, why give them a choice in the first place?)
  • Run a sandbox, but make sure the players have enough information to make meaningful choices. (With the requisite caveat from The Alexandrian that choosing to not do research, or failing to find information, are also choices that should be honored.)

Outside of those options, be prepared to improvise if they make choices you didn't expect, or just be honest with them. You can get a surprising amount of mileage out of, "This is what I have planned tonight," although you have to be prepared to roll with the punches if you want the world to feel immediate and infinite.

And honestly? Speaking from experience, the most interesting game tidbits tend to happen when the players go completely outside of your expectations and into no-man's land.

But remember: no matter what else happens, the players are already on your side. You don't have to lie to them to get them to like you.

* Okay, so if you're a professional GM, it's a bit like a job interview, but "impressing" those players tends to come more from actual work than shortcuts. And as with a home game, you tend to impress players the most when you validate their choices — when the players see that their choices matter and that their decisions have an impact on the world, that's when they pay close attention to your game.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Why Is This Item Cursed?

On a post about cursed items, someone wrote, "I have never liked cursed items. Why would someone make one?"

I responded with a brief table. If you want to know why a given cursed item exists, roll 1d8 and consult the table below:

  1. Failed magic item project of an ancient civilization's wizarding grad school equivalent.
  2. Evil wizard or unseelie Fair Folk crafted item as a magical trap or revenge piece.
  3. Mundane object infused with fell magical energies as a side effect of a magical catastrophe.
  4. Magic item granted as part of a poorly-worded wish.
  5. Functional magic item corrupted by forgotten decades in an evil lair or by infusion with wicked sapience.
  6. Perfectly normal magic item in extremely alien and forgotten culture. ("We use bags of devouring to solve our trash problem!")
  7. Curse is an unintended side effect of the item's creation, and was overlooked by the creators.
  8. Item belonged to a famous hero who offended a god, archwizard, or other powerful entity and cursed their favored magic item.

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