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!

The Orc Problem, redux-upon-redux

Not to beat a dead horse too severely, but Dwiz at A Knight at the Opera wrote a post about The Dreaded Orc Discourse™ a little bit ago, and it's a far more salient examination of the issue than I can muster.

(I know I already said the included links ought to be the final word on the subject, but well, here we are. Despite the vaguely sensationalist title and the fact that I'm probably still allowing demihumans in my dungeon-y, dragon-y elfgames, it's very, very good.)

Read it, won't you?

I Don't Think I'm Going to Allow Elves to be Playable Anymore on A Knight at the Opera

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Zen and the Art of Triage: Revised Objectives for UA3

This idea is only half-formed, so expect a small amount of brainstorming, especially toward the end.

One of the major innovations in third edition Unknown Armies is the Objective system. It's both a method by which the players can delineate their goals, while also giving everyone a countdown and a road map to fulfilling those goals. (In play, it acts a little like collaborative tools for scenario generation, a little like clocks in Powered by the Apocalypse and Forged in the Dark, and a little like a convenient quantitative method by which characters can fulfill their goals by improvised magick, which was notably lacking in previous editions but exists in the source material like Tim Powers' Fault Lines trilogy.)

However, while making and switching Objectives is relatively cheap and easy, anybody with a modicum of GM experience knows how players get about their character sheets: once you put something on a character sheet, players will do anything in their power to keep it, no matter how foolhardy. So, even if players turn out to be lukewarm about the Objective they've chosen, they will almost never abandon it, even if something more interesting comes along.

In essence: the Objective rules work as designed, but not as intended thanks to the sunk-cost fallacy.

(Plus, characters invariably accumulate personal goals, but in my personal experience, it's particularly rare for a player group to focus on such individual goals, so they just tend to languish in the background unless they are especially easy to adjudicate.)

Enter: Juggling Objectives

I haven't playtested these or even fully formed them, so I don't know how players will respond to them, but the jist is this: the Objective rules still largely work as described in Book Two: Run, with the exception that you can take on as many Objectives as you like. Your cabal is no longer limited to just one Objective. For the purposes of these rules, you are only considered to have additional Objectives if there are points in them. So, if you have "Assassinate the Mayor 56%" and just declared "Successfully cast How to Cut Off Your Own Head 0%" on your character sheet, you still technically only have one Objective. It's only when you increase "Successfully cast How to Cut Off Your Own Head" above 0% that you now have two.

(I don't quite know how to determine when a new Objective is declared, though. Can individual players determine a new Objective whenever they want? Should it be a simple majority? A unanimous declaration? My sense is that it should be a unanimous decision, just like regular Objectives, but different groups might be all about letting individual players determine their own goals without the intervention of the rest of the cabal.)

If you just have one Objective, the normal rules apply.

If you have more than one Objective, pay attention to which Objectives accomplished milestones this session. At the end of every session, if a given Objective is left untouched, it loses percentage points. (All others gain Objective points as described in Book Two.)

I haven't quite decided on the number. I figure either the Objectives lose 1d10+5 points (like a petty milestone), or roll a number of d5s equal to the number of Objectives minus one. (So, if your group is juggling four Objectives, you roll 3d5 and subtract that number from all inactive Objectives for the session.) The former is straightforward and mimics the rest of the extant Objective system, while the latter disincentivizes players from juggling too many Objectives simultaneously. (Rolling Xd5 is less of a penalty in the 2-4 Objective range, but becomes more likely to penalize the cabal at 5+ Objectives. If that seems too low, perhaps roll d10s instead. Again, I'm just noodling through an idea that still needs testing.)

You might want to try both and see how players respond to them.

If an Objective drops to zero points, it goes away. Of course, you can always re-declare it and try again, or just abandon it and continue on your way.

My sense is that this would encourage players to juggle one or two Objectives at any given time while also providing a method by which they can abandon Objectives that no longer suit their purposes without going through the rigmarole of declaring that they're abandoning an Objective. But it might just be additional bookkeeping or underutilized. In any case, if you try them, let me know how it goes!

Thursday, August 12, 2021

X Gonna Give It To Ya

This blog turned ten years old this past Monday, August 9. (Contrast with the first post here.)

It's a very weird set of circumstances that convinced me to start this blog in the first place, but here we are. I don't get to write in it as much as I did when I started, largely because I run a lot of role-playing games. (I'm currently playing in one game and running four on a rotating basis, with a couple of games as occasional things lurking on the horizon. The high water mark towards the beginning of 2020 was ten games — I was running six and playing in four, all of them on a regular, rotating schedule. My advice: don't do that.)

You would think running lots of games would make me more likely to write about them, but that is sadly not the case — there usually isn't enough time to get my scattered notes into a format I could give other people to read. As a result, recent posts usually take the form of "here's something I've been considering and so I put it in front of you" rather than "here's this fully-formed tool or piece of game detritus that's ready to use."

(And honestly, when I need to solve a problem at the table, it's 50/50 odds whether I pull an existing tool or kludge something on the spot. Neither of which makes for a good blog post.)

Regardless, the blog continues at its strange, glacial pace. If you're reading this and you have ever used or been inspired by anything you've found here over the last decade, that's all I could have wanted. If you're just joining us, you can see what has been wrought over the first decade of the blog by investigating the widgets and things over to the right of the page. (I might recommend the published works towards the top of the page, or the collections like Artifact April or Spore Week.)

What will the next ten years bring?

As always, watch this space...

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Firehold Megadungeon

This might turn into yet another project I don't have time to write or run, but it's been on my mind lately, so I might as well put it here. (Long time readers might recall my plans for a Carcosan megadungeon; apart from a single session nested in my long-running D&D game, I haven't had a chance to initiate it. Although there is always the future.)

When the dwarves fled from bondage under the tyrannical rule of the giants, they settled across the Sorrowfell Plains, most of them settling into cities and towns that are now familiar to the folk of the world (such as Khuragzar or Sorgforge), but one group of now-forgotten clans settled beneath one of the mountains of the world. 

They called this place "Firehold."

Industrious and versed in runecraft, they made wonders unknown even to other dwarves. The secret of their success was the beating heart of the mountain itself: a uranium deposit beneath the mountain, creating a naturally-occurring fission reactor. When they initially found it, they realized only that it generated heat and made the miners sick. (Although their superior dwarven constitutions protected somewhat, many of them still died, but they were given heroes' burials for their sacrifice to the clan.) But the industrious dwarves soon learned how to harness this energy for their own purposes, building containment units and enriching centers and steam engines. They were the most advanced civilization on Khaldun.

But no one has ever heard of them.

When the lands of Men fell to corruption and devil-worship, the dwarves consulted their histories and feared what they saw coming: another cycle of darkness and subjugation beneath the whips and chains of another oppressor. So they did the most sensible thing they could consider: they withdrew. They secured their gardens and redoubled their mining efforts and ensured that they had supplies for centuries — millennia, even — and then they sealed their highways with rune-magic.

This was their folly.

The corruption of the surface empires did not last long before heroes rose to stop it, and before long it was washed away. But the lost dwarves did not know of the turning of ages; they merely waited for a sign, some manner of augury to return them to the surface.

They never received it.

Whether the gods did not speak to them or they merely misinterpreted the signs, the old priests refused to risk the safety of their clans, and so the dwarves stayed underground in their secure shelter.

But the deep dwarves were builders, not soldiers. One by one, monsters emerged from below, and one by one, districts of the city fell. The deep dwarves were forced to retreat, refugees in their own city, withdrawing to the safety of centralized, defensible locations. Now, the last of the dwimmer dwarves take refuge in the quays and the foreign quarter, praying for a sign to save their civilization.

And all the while, the danger grows beneath their feet, for no one has tended the reactor in generations. If the reactor burns hotter than the reservoir replenishes, or if some tunneling wurm or ambitious underdweller should damage it, it could cause a meltdown or an explosion, contaminating the ground water or spreading radioactive fallout across the Sorrowfell Plains.

In addition to references in ancient archives, there is one other hint as to the location of lost Firehold: the rocs that lair upon the mountaintop build their nest over the exhaust port, so that the steam keeps their eggs warm while they are in flight.

Rules Notes:

A player character who delves into the right archive or uses the right divination spell or asks the right questions might find and unlock Firehold as an adventuring location. A lost megadungeon of advanced dwarven technology, it has long since been overrun by monsters, but is a palace of wonders. (In addition to the standard treasure, the dwarves of Firehold potentially hold lost secrets of arcane, historical, and technological varieties.)

Anyone who finds lost Firehold also unlocks a new playable variety of dwarves: called dwimmer dwarves or bone dwarves in my notes, they have a facility with rune-crafting and artifact manufacture that most modern dwarves lack. (In old-school games, they would be able to craft magic items and undertake other sorts of spell research. In 5e-ish games, they have innate transmutation spells, and are best suited for the wizard or artificer classes.)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The World of Ysat'naf

 A bog-standard fantasy world for dungeon-y, dragon-y fantasy systems.

Use all the same fantasy assumptions those sorts of games bring to the table with one major exception: all alignments are inverted. (So chaotic becomes lawful, good becomes evil, and the like. Neutral alignments stay the same, as do unaligned alignments if you're using 4e or 5e.)

We'll keep it straightforward with two simple rules:

1) All extraplanar creatures summoned to Ysat'naf have their alignments inverted automatically. (Depending on how the Game Master interprets things, this may or may not change their core programming. It will at the very least change how they attempt to complete their goals and what sorts of behaviors they attempt to instill in the creatures they encounter.) Why this happens is not terribly clear, and finding the source of this phenomenon would obviously make a good goal for player characters to achieve. (I'm thinking it's some sort of curse upon the land, or maybe some kind of magical radiation that suffuses the atmosphere.)

2) All creatures native to the world also have their alignments inverted, although there is no supernatural force backing this up. (We can casually surmise that this inversion is due to the influence of extraplanar visitors who have had their alignments inverted and then proceeded to proselytize among the native populations.) As such, individual members of the various fantasy races can have any alignment and you might have the occasional "rogue" good elf or evil orc, but populations as a whole tend to stabilize to the opposite of their bestiary-listed alignments. They can retain their well-trod personalities and niches, now recast through the lens of their new alignments, so you get Lawful Evil elves in a strict hierarchy whose aesthetic predilections come across as Toreador antitribu-like displays of blood-daubed wicked decadence — like a whole race of Hannibal Lecters — while Lawful Good orcs now fulfill the Proud Warrior niche, a Klingon-like Golden Horde trying to throw elven imperialists off their land.

To fully embrace the potential Mirror Universe sensibility of such a place, it does not affect most Prime Material natives who might travel here by extradimensional gate or what have you. (So your characters are unaffected when they come through, although their familiars and summoned allies might behave very differently if they originate from another plane.)

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Ours vs. Theirs

This isn't an important update, just something about which I've been ruminating lately. There's functionally no "conclusion" or gameable content to this post; I'm just putting wordcount into the aether so that it is out of me.

Years ago at a local convention, I bought a copy of Tome of Beasts and was busily showing everyone the ridiculous monsters inside when a friend asked the following question:

"Why did you buy that when you can make up any monster you want?"

(An odd question, particularly given that said friend is an author and no doubt realizes that you can write any story you want and yet choose to consume other stories anyway.)

It's a pervasive role-playing game argument that has people firmly entrenched on both sides. On the one hand, why buy material when you can make it up? On the other, why create material when professionals have done the hard work for you?

Surprising no one, I (and I suspect most RPG gamers who aren't Extremely Online™) fall somewhere in the vast middle. I like to use my own content because I create a vast amount of it and because I always make things I enjoy. I like to use others' content because I only have my perspective and using something someone else made gives an air of verisimilitude to any game I run. (I can come up with anything I conceive, but others might create something of which I did not conceive.)

Using others' content comes with two important disclaimers, though:
1) I usually select things I like, and I'm the guy running it, so it's going to sound at least a little like me anyway. (Nicole thought Scarlet Jax was my own creation for years until I offhandedly mentioned that I cribbed her from Dungeon #186.)
2) I do fall in the camp of finding prepping other people's work to be difficult, so the author either needs to make it easy or compelling. (For instance, I understand King for a Day* has a lot of good ideas in it, but the work I would need to do to keep all the details straight means that I am unlikely to use it and would be better served making my own adventure whose details I can keep in my head.)

Those concerns aside, I find the mix of styles to be engaging, and I don't think my players notice the seams terribly often.

What about the rest of you? Do you use published content, homebrew content, or a mix of both?

*A protip for authors: if I have to take more notes to prep your 300+ page adventure containing "nearly 200 NPCs and dozens of unique locations and stories" than I took for a graduate-level course, it's probably too much work.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Orc Problem, redux

I wrote about The Dreaded Orc Discourse™ a little over a year ago, and like most of the things I write, you probably shouldn't read it.

However, vagabundork wrote a post on the same subject about seven months ago, and he said it far more eloquently than I. (To the point that it should probably be the last word on the subject, at least until the situation radically changes.)

Go read it:

Can racism be fixed? on Chaos Magick-User

Thursday, May 20, 2021


I provide occasional updates for my long-running D&D game on the blog, so here's this one:

Crux of Eternity turns ten-years-old today. (The blog itself doesn't turn ten until August 9.)

What started because one of Nicole's co-workers asked if she played Dungeons & Dragons (neither of us did at the time, but we were very aware of it) has since sprawled into something both wonderful and strange. The request hit at the perfect time: I had just picked up the fourth edition books and I had just discovered the OSR blogging scene. The game has since spiraled out into at least eight other games (across at least five separate rule systems!) with the eternal possibility of more in the future.

The game started with just a handful of prompts, including:
I think the experiment has been successful, although only the players can say for certain. We switched to fifth edition partway through the campaign, which helped streamline some things while making other things more complicated. (Most notably, 4e games are very linear, but 5e is a little more forgiving of sandboxes, so we've had more improvised and sandbox-y game stuff since the switch. Honestly, it's my preferred mode.)

Back on May 1, the players finally faced the ultimate evil of the campaign after almost a decade of play: the Esteemed and Omniscient Peacock Lord, the aforementioned beholder ultimate tyrant and mastermind of many of the miseries that have infected this particular campaign. (Ironically, due to COVID and social distancing, I never got to use the actual ultimate tyrant miniature; we ran the battle using digital tokens over Roll20. So it goes.)

(The campaign isn't quite over yet, though; I introduced content from Coliseum Morpheuon several sessions ago, and the PCs decided that they hate the Khan of Nightmares and want to kill him as a coda.)

As always, if you're into Actual Play and session writeups, you can read the whole shebang at Obsidian Portal.

While I expect I'll be dealing with this setting and the fallout from its many campaigns for years to come, I'm sure I'll move onto some other long-form obsessive campaign for the 2020s. If the 2000s were dominated by World of Darkness and the 2010s were dominated by D&D and OSR stuff, what do the 2020s hold? (Potential predictions: my long-running Unknown Armies game, Tip the World Over on Its Side, turned five-years-old on May 2, so the idea of running a sprawling, inter-connected series of Unknown Armies games is very much on the table. Additionally, I'm leaning towards using Forged in the Dark stuff for the official follow-up to Crux of Eternity.)

If you want to see what happens next, watch this space...

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Lost Prototypes

After many years of waiting, I finally had a chance to play Grim Fandango and subsequently played Broken Age. These, in turn, reminded me of playing adventure games when I was much younger, which subsequently reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in years.

Starting in third grade, we used to play pretend at recess. That's not especially noteworthy on its own — lots of kids did that — but I made elaborate scenarios with continuity from one recess session to the next, and the plots ran for years. Individual sessions usually included puzzles to solve, enemies to battle, and friendly characters with whom to interact. (If I had known about randomizers like dice or any of the abstract LARP-style combat forms, this no doubt would have become even more elaborate.) By sixth grade, the damn things even had character sheets. (Just equipment lists, but still.) I think I even developed paper props once or twice.

It was only years later that I realized these were some manner of proto-LARP.

(Most of the characters were ripped from popular culture, but at some point, I should probably bring The King of All Trees into a game. Why I had some Green Man-style nature deity in my elementary school pretend games is probably a conversation for another time, although it probably has the same psychological root as my deep and abiding love of folk horror.)

The weird recess proto-LARP stuff I remember, and Nicole and I occasionally discuss it. (Lamentably, she always figured we were never interested in having additional players, and so never participated.) That's old news. The more recent memory from playing adventure games is this:

No doubt spurred both by this and by a diet of computer adventure games, at some point in sixth grade, I started writing analogue adventure games that we would run through at lunch. If you've played any of the command prompt or point-and-click adventure games popular in the eighties and nineties, you'll recognize the format: a map with a series of rooms, each of which usually features an NPC that requires some object or interaction (often from a previous room) to progress. These were all hand-drawn maps and characters, and while very linear (in the style of adventure games at the time), are recognizable as weird puzzle dungeons. I only remember one or two puzzles from them, but I now idly wonder if I could track any of those down...

(If I do happen to find any of them, and they're still legible, I'll no doubt have to scan them and upload them for general perusal. I wonder if I'll recall any of the puzzles from the time...)

I know at some point in seventh or eighth grade, I started developing a scenario with percentages, but never sorted out the math and always assumed it would have to be some manner of video game. Again, had I known about d100s or random number generators, I would have been running and designing RPGs years before I "officially" started.

Anyway, the point of all this is that I suppose no one (least of all me) should be surprised that I started running role-playing games or messing with game design. The obsession started early, before I had the language or tools for it.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Migration of the Oni-Wives

The oni-wives migrate on schedules unknown to mortal scholars.

"Migration" probably isn't even the right word, as it implies something regular, instinctual, inevitable, and purposeful. But the coming of the oni-wives is none of those things, save perhaps "inevitable."

The migration will happen, and the oni-wives will come. Will you be ready when they do?

They emerge from their mountain caves and redoubts and fastnesses, gripped by wanderlust. And where they wander, things change.

The changes are small at first. One of the witch-ogres arrives in a village and saves a child. Another finds a wolf whose leg is stuck in a trap and she sets it free.

But soon they grow large. An oni-wife destroys a slaving ring. An oni-wife faces down an army. An oni-wife destroys a city.

And before anyone can fully adapt, they disappear, returning to their mountain holds (or sometimes slain by angry mobs) and waiting for the next cycle.

Why do they do this? The few scholars who know of them have many theories but few answers. Some say they are emissaries of the numinous, go-betweens and messengers among the gods, the primordials, the folk of the world, and the forces of magic. Others say they are entropy incarnate, yet another mechanism by which civilization is doomed to fall. Still others claim they are the immune system of a healthy cosmos, a process by which the world keeps its systems vital and keeps its ages turning.

(Sages also wonder at their names. Are they truly kin to ogres or oni, or are these just poetic epithets? What do they do when they are not in the world? What drives them to come and bring change with them? Do they hear the songs of the gods and the music of the spheres keening constantly in their minds?)

It ultimately does not matter from whence they come or why they come or even when they come. What matters is that they will come, and you (or your children, or your children's children) will have to adapt to the change they bring with them.

When they come, will you be ready to greet the world they bring with them?

Thursday, February 11, 2021

New Classes

While cleaning out the old corners of my Google Drive, I found the custom classes I made for Arctic Death, Infinite Night back when it was a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game.

You could probably also use them in a B/X game or other such derivative, were you so inclined. (Which is probably where they're best suited. Otherwise, good luck playing a half-ogre in 1630s Germany.)

As usual, if you use them, let me know how it goes.

The Half-Ogre

Similar to the dwarf, but strong instead of tough. (And now available in the psychedelic colors of classic AD&D ogres!)

I developed this class because my players encountered a half-ogre NPC named Chunk the Twunk and one of my players wanted to play him when her original character died.

The Froska Fairy

A pixie that can summon and speak with frogs. Based on the halfling, but way more agile and maneuverable. (And much harder to hit.) The trade-off is low hit points and an inability to carry much of anything. (If you want to fight, you're probably wielding a knife as a zweihander.)

I developed this class because one of my players wanted to play Saffron the frog fairy from Clint Krause's The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem after his original character died.

Click the link for the Half-Ogre and Froska Fairy classes!

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Old Horror Discourse

Because everything old is new again when it comes to RPG discourse, I recently saw The Dreaded Discourse™ around horror raise its head. This usually comes in two flavors:

1) Adventure games (especially D&D, but a wide net that potentially describes any game the commenter does not like) are bad at horror.

2) Modern horror is hard to do effectively.

The former argument is predicated on the fact that one needs specialized systems to invoke feelings of horror, while the latter argument is predicated on the fact that modern technology is too much of an equalizer in the struggle of humans vs. the unknown.

Both reflect exceedingly narrow viewpoints.

Issue #1: Adventure Games are Bad at Horror

I will freely admit: adventure games typically aren't built for horror, and aren't often my go-to horror games, but sometimes the lack of tools is liberating. Indie games tend to have very specialized procedures as to how characters interact with horror, and even Call of Cthulhu has a typical encounter loop (see the horror, roll SAN against the horror, fail and freak out or succeed and fight or retreat). But all you really need for horror is a sense of powerlessness, and it takes very little to reinforce that — a single powerful attack from the monster, or a single player attack that the monster no-sells, or even just something the players have never before seen, and suddenly everyone is scattering to regroup and figure out what the hell just happened. Ignore the advice on balanced encounters, and suddenly everything is survival horror.

But you don't even need to go that far. Just start describing a creepy environment, and most players get into the zone. I have absolutely made players fear something far weaker than they just by describing it in a frightening enough manner.

It's a sometimes food, and you don't want to just spring it on a group without some warning, but it's still worth trying at least once.

Issue #2: Modern Horror is Hard to do Effectively

I take much greater offense at this one. Sure, it can be hard to do horror when you're running a spreadsheet of ever-ascending numbers and magical powers, but the modern era is almost uniquely suited for horror tales.

As noted above, horror relies on a sense of powerlessness, even if that sense is transient or only arises from encountering something one has never seen before. (Even in the case of something like Unknown Armies, where the horror comes from responsibility, the "powerlessness" arises from unintended consequences and the sense of spiraling out of control. Powerlessness takes many forms.) The alienation of modern, Westernized society gives us this in spades.

I've heard the argument before that people avoid eras past 1980 because of ubiquitous computers and cell phones and automatic weapons, and I've heard the (admittedly rarer) argument that some avoid the last 100 years or even the 20th century altogether.

You have to watch The Thing, or more importantly, Aliens. Technology is your friend as a horror GM, because it offers a false sense of security. Players always like to assume that they can handle problems because of the tools at their disposal: they have guns, cars, and cell phones. Help is just a phone call away, and they can always get into a car and leave the scene if things get bad.

But remember what happens in Aliens. The marines assume their heavy ordinance will nullify the threat while the tactical sorts coordinate the offensive over cams and comms. But their guns do very little to chew through endless waves of xenomorphs, and all the cameras and communication systems do is let the others watch them die.

Modern horror parties spend most of their time apart, embroiled in research, or working dayjobs, or splitting up to divide tasks more effectively. They rarely sleep in the same building, let alone the same room. And they sometimes encounter things that guns cannot put down.

Use this to your advantage.

If your buddies are halfway across the city when you get attacked by the rampaging monster, all your panicked cell phone call will do is let them hear your last, desperate moments. If you manage to get cell phone video of it, amateur digital analysts on Reddit will pick it apart and tell the survivors how fake it looks. Even with the fruits of 10,000 years of human civilization, your toys will not save you.

Everyone dies alone.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021


Several months ago, Argentinian game designer Gavriel Quiroga asked if I would take a look at his then-new RPG, NEUROCITY. Now that I have a spot of time and he has a new Kickstarter called WARPLAND (already funded with forty days remaining!), it seems like as good a time as any to dig into it.

What you get: One hundred twenty-six pages of post-cyberpunk dystopia. Gavriel clearly loves the genre, and puts loving detail into making a tech-noir mélange in the way that D&D provides components for a fantasy kitchen sink or World of Darkness makes an urban fantasy/horror kitchen sink. The best way to describe it is with the genres it emulates: you get shades of 1984, Brave New WorldDark CityJudge DreddMemoirs Found in a Bathtub, Robocop, The Prisoner, and THX 1183. In terms of the game's "feel," it has similarities to Black Sun Deathcrawl, Cell Gamma from The No Press RPG Anthology, and Paranoia. (Longtime readers will recall my love for Black Sun Deathcrawl, and so should be unsurprised to learn that I similarly enjoyed NEUROCITY.)

Gavriel's writing is terse and clinical without being overly cumbersome, and despite the lack of fancy layout, I found it easy to read. (By way of example, I read the whole book in an hour or so.) Art and white space are used as effective pacing, the art largely comprising '80s-style cyberpunk comics and collages done by Sol Olweder. The overall style looks like a mimeographed zine from the '80s, something someone would shove into your hand at a political meeting or a punk show. Whether that's a style of art you enjoy, it's a stylistic choice that works well and fits the game's tone.

The Setting: I'll let the author himself give you the gist:

In order to delineate the setting it could be said that we are in a Post-Cyberpunk era where we can find configurations that refer us to aesthetic (Tech-Noir) and functional conceptions of the 80s. This is mainly due to the technological involution society has been forced in order to maintain its functionality in a closed environment.

Due to rigidity in administration and the constant fear of reprisals for evading protocol procedures Neurocity is slowly sinking into a bureaucratic swamp. Behind an apparent efficiency that satisfied I.S.A.C's gaze we find the vicissitudes of a technocracy deprived of the freedom to act according to common sense.

He describes a world that was once ours until we developed an AI called the Intelligent Singular and Artificial Consciousness (I.S.A.C.) re-ordered the world, developing a class system and a physiological regimen to keep the population docile. (As in Brave New World, the population medicates with soma, and has been rendered sterile; sex is frowned upon, but is still a common form of recreation, especially among the lower classes.)

There is only one settlement remaining and it is Neurocity, an enclosed mega-structure with artificial sky and weather. The outside world is dangerous, the boundary of the city marked by increasingly-abandoned and dangerous districts until giving way to the wastes beyond. The city itself is a retro-futuristic dystopia, where the common folk increasingly use old-school technology while only the upper crust has access to the truly futuristic stuff. (For example: mobile phones and flying cars are practically nonexistent, as both might inspire humanity to something approaching freedom.) As with most post-cyberpunk settings, cybernetics are rare, but genetic engineering is exceedingly common. Nobody ever dies in Neurocity; clones are regrown and imprinted with the previous person's memories. The population in Neurocity is completely static.

Zero population growth.

Rounding out the setting is a collection of tables for random encounters for the city's districts. I'm a sucker for random tables, and could see culling entries from some of these for other cyberpunk or science-fiction games. Even though they are specific to Neurocity, you could still mine them for inspiration in adjacent genres.

The System: The rules are pretty straightforward. Characters determine their role in society and their motivations, and also determine five stats ranging from 5-10. To perform an action when the outcome is in doubt, the goal is to roll 2d6 under the relevant statistic. There are a handful of complications and modifiers to this base rule — situational modifiers of -3 to +3 can be applied to the base statistic, successful rolls above 8 are critical successes, double 6s are critical failures, snake eyes or single ones are successful but might cause complications — but they're relatively straightforward.

(I'm personally not a big fan of overly fiddly modifiers, although the author recommends to just make sure they feel right. I would imagine in play the modifiers are rather like the shifts in Unknown Armies, and are meant to be applied with common sense rather than a strict tally of bonuses and penalties.)

Characters also have two derived scores, Tension and Wounds, which determine their capacity for mental stress and injury, respectively. Even though this is a game where violence happens, Tension is the true meat of the system, as PCs constantly have to balance the egregious psychological harm caused by this soulless system against the need to medicate or discuss their troubles. Tension also acts as narrative currency, as characters can choose to gain tension to reroll dice. If a character goes over their maximum Tension, they have some manner of psychosis as they lash out (and will probably be disciplined in some manner for acting in an unmutual fashion).

However, characters who are currently at maximum Tension and roll snake-eyes develop psychic powers, granting them superhuman attributes and an additional use for Tension.

As noted by the author, NEUROCITY is designed for short campaigns of roughly three to four sessions in length. (Before I read that note, I was going to guess five or six.) Although you could deviate from this basic formula, the basic gameplay loop seems to involve receiving a job from a superior (probably to do something about a terrorist cell comprising unmutual elements of the underclass), and in the process, ranging farther and farther out before learning the dark secrets of Neurocity.

The secret origin of Neurocity and the nature of I.S.A.C. provide the game's replay value, as these are designed to be randomized or altered every campaign such that no two versions of the city will be alike. (So while a campaign might only last four sessions, you could easily run a couple of campaigns in sequence to see if things turn out differently.) These secret backstory options also form the meat of the game and its central philosophical tension: how does one live in an absurd, dysfunctional future society where life is mandatory? How does one find meaning when life is meaningless? And is it possible to escape this prison, or is the prison preferable to what lies beyond?

The Verdict: We'll start with the bad: I found the rules a little fiddly and there are a few glaring typos that could have used another editing pass. (I don't speak Spanish and haven't read the Spanish version, so I don't know if that one is better edited.) Likewise, the book ends with some sample characters and other notes, but I might have liked a summary of some of the charts, like the example modifiers and the wound tables.

Beyond those minor complaints, I would recommend it. It has a neat setting and poses some interesting existential questions about finding meaning amidst the absurdity and existential dread of endless drudgery. (Contrast with Black Sun Deathcrawl, that offers no such philosophical musing, only the catharsis of nihilism.) The style of the book really fits the tone, and although the concepts are dense, Gavriel handles them fairly well. Even if the post-cyberpunk tech-noir setting or the rules don't interest you, you could probably use the random encounter tables and setting bits in your own cyberpunk or science-fiction games.

Given the game's replay value, either over multiple campaigns or as a source of random encounters for other games, I'd say the pdf price of $6 is more than justified. (The print-on-demand book is $30, and while I'm usually a physical copy sort of person, I don't imagine this will hit the table often enough to justify the price. On the other hand, if you planned on playing it multiple times, using the random tables, and taking it to conventions and such to run repeatedly, it would totally be worth getting a physical copy.)

And if NEUROCITY interests you, check out Gavriel's WARPLAND if you have the chance! It looks to be roughly the same price point with similar rules and philosophical attitude, this time in a fantasy setting.

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