Monday 29 May 2017

Vampire minus vampires: using VtM as a bestiary for D&D

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Pity the fate of the humble vampire. Once monsters as fearsome as any others, they have been so overwhelmed by pop-culture overexposure that it's become extremely difficult to take them seriously any more. Imagine a scene in which your villain reveals his inhuman nature: in which he tears open his clothes to reveal that he's been dead all along, or that he's made from stitched-together human corpses, or that he's some kind of freakish mutant, or that he's actually just a crude automaton with a preserved human head nailed to its shoulders. Now imagine that scene replaced with the revelation that he's actually... a vampire! You won't get any reactions of shock. You'll just get bad Eastern European accents, jokes about garlic sausages, and PCs asking him if he evah dreenks... vine?

Most readers of this blog will probably be aware of the Vampire: the Masquerade RPG, which came out in 1991 - a simpler time, when vampires hadn't been quite so done to death, and vampire movies still looked like Near Dark rather than Underworld: Blood Wars. Because it was a whole game which was just about vampires, it swiftly came to resemble one of those weird island ecosystems in which variants of a single original species end up occupying a whole range of ecological niches usually filled by very different animals: so you had zombie-vampires, werewolf-vampires, wizard-vampires, snake-vampires, gargoyle-vampires, and so on, as successive writers added more and more variants to the game. Given that the fact they were vampires was often absolutely the least interesting thing about them, and that these days it's is probably an active liability rather than an asset, I'd suggest that in many games these vampire variants would actually be more useful if you just removed the vampire element entirely. Make them into cults, or mutants, or secret societies. Make them into creepy lineages of black magicians. Make them into the remnants of weird abhuman precursor races. Make them into the warped products of deranged scientific experiments. Make them anything except more fucking vampires.

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'I was cool once, right, Claudia? Tell me I used to be cool...'

Once you rid them of vampirism, with all its attendant baggage, you suddenly have a whole range of weird, creepy groups with weird, creepy powers, ready to sprinkle into the dark corners of your campaign world. Here, for example, are twenty clans and bloodlines from Vampire: the Masquerade and Vampire: the Requiem, rewritten simply as almost-human families with some unusual inherited gifts.  Just change the names and the clothes, and your players will probably never even realise the original source...

1: Brujah. Shattered remnants of a family which once gained power over time itself. Their time-magic is lost, now, and all that remains is an instinctive knack for localised time dilation, which makes them appear to be moving in jerky fast-forward when used. They have almost no control over their emotions, and are prone to rages and tantrums, which makes them easy to manipulate (and which is probably the reason their original achievements ended up falling apart.) Prone to bouts of melancholic self-pity about the largely-imaginary glories they once possessed.

2: Gangrel. A tribe of weird, feral wanderers, with night vision and savage teeth and claws like those of wild beasts. Brutal predators who prey upon animals and human alike, and are fearsomely difficult to kill. Nomadic. As they get older their bodies become more and more bestial, developing fur, tails, muzzles, and other marks of their animalistic nature.

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3: Nosferatu. A lineage of deformed creatures who shun the light of day, hiding their hideous faces beneath the earth. Their twisted bodies are enormously strong, and they possess an instinctive knack for stealth, which helps them to remain hidden from a surface world which mostly despises and loathes them. Avid collectors of secrets.

4: Toreador. This family possess enhanced reflexes, heightened senses, and low-level telepathy. They tend to become fixated upon whatever they happen to find beautiful, and are quite irrational in their pursuit of it. They admire art but are incapable of genuine creativity, and mostly have to settle for simply collecting the objects and people with whom they become obsessed. Egotistical and often narcissistic, they pride themselves on being muses and patrons rather than the parasites they really are.

5: Ventrue. This family possess minor but instinctive mind-manipulation powers, which make everyone regard them as impressive and authoritative regardless of what they're actually doing. They are totally convinced that this gift makes them the natural rulers of the world, inherently superior to everyone else. Love to set themselves up as powers behind the throne within established authority structures, and then proceed to engage in interminable bouts of mutual congratulation about how terribly clever they are. Their bodies are strangely resilient and difficult to damage, which means that once they have infested a given organisation they are, like cockroaches, annoyingly difficult to get rid of.

6: Malkavian. Members of this bloodline are afflicted with a variety of hereditary insanities, but are also prone to weird visions and cryptic insights, and linked to one another by some kind of strange telepathic network which they seem to be unable to detach themselves from. Their lunacy is infectious, and anyone meeting their gaze has a chance of being struck down with temporary madness. They are sometimes kept around as seers, usually blindfolded, but their kinsmen always know where to find them and will inevitably mount a rescue attempt sooner or later.

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7: Tremere. This clan possess the gifts of telekinesis and the ability to conjure heat and flame; their favourite combat technique is to use this latter ability on the inside of an enemy's body, cooking them alive from the inside out. They are bound together in a strict hierarchy in which the young are expected to obey their elders without question, with loyalty enforced through creepy rituals and brutal punishment of the disobedient. Fraternisation with outsiders is heavily discouraged.

8: Lasombra. This lineage have animate shadows, which they can control mentally, causing them to grow into great palls of darkness which shut out all light. Once a Lasombra's shadow has swallowed you, tendrils of freezing darkness will reach out of it and begin to rip you apart. The eldest of them are able to merge with their own shadows, becoming monsters of icy, inky liquid blackness, desperately difficult to destroy except with fire. They gather in witchy covens, and delight in spreading terror among nearby populations.

9: Giovanni. A family of necromancers with a dark reputation for cannibalism, necrophilia and incest. Fantastically wealthy due to their involvement in crime and finance. They make extensive use of enslaved ghosts to spy upon their rivals, which grants them a substantial edge in both fields of business.

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10: Tzimisce. A tribe with horrible flesh-sculpting powers, able - with concentration - to warp living flesh and bone as though it was wet clay. They sculpt themselves into bizarre and monstrous forms to intimidate their enemies in battle, and are served by warped humans and animals whom they twist into new forms to better fit the functions desired of them. Their most horrific creations are composite beasts made from many creatures melded together into towering monsters, clumsy but strong, and very difficult to kill for as long as any of their dozens of brains or hearts remain intact.

11: Settites. This clan of snake-worshippers possess hypnotic eyes, scaly skin, and long, forked, razor-sharp tongues, capable of delivering sudden stab wounds and opening arteries from over a foot away. They use the power of their mesmeric gaze to build cults around themselves, revering ancient serpent-deities whom they claim will one day free the world from the hypocritical rule of the gods. In theory, their doctrine of undermining all certainties is supposed to set their followers free; in practise, it mostly leaves their cultists totally adrift and desperately dependent upon their Settite masters. Their cult is banned in all civilised nations.

12: Baali. A tribe of demon-worshippers, capable of inspiring blank terror in their victims, sensing their secret weaknesses, and summoning black flames from the void. Where they dwell the land grows barren, and they are attended by clouds of stinging flies. The presence of genuine holiness fills them with hysterical loathing and dread.

13: Cappadocians. A cursed family marked by their bizarre, corpselike appearance, their grey skin pulled tightly across their over-prominent bones. Believed to be unlucky, and shunned accordingly, they have withdrawn from the world to study the mysteries of life and death in secret. They are masters of divinatory necromancy, specialising in the interrogation of spirits and divination by means of 'casting the bones'.

14: Blood Brothers. Members of this clan have an extremely strong family resemblance, to the point where they are continually mistaken for one another by outsiders. (The fact that their rather masculine-looking womenfolk are constantly having sets of identical twins and triplets doesn't help much.) They are linked together by an instinctive, low-level telepathy, which allows them to sense one another's general position and emotional state, and have a very weak sense of individual identity. Injured Brothers can induce a state of rapid healing by drinking one another's blood, and if one loses a limb or an organ then a replacement taken from another Brother will swiftly engraft itself in place if the swap is made quickly enough.

15: Caporetti. Descended from soldiers buried beneath rock and ice when their mountainside battlefields were swept by avalanches, this weird, burrowing clan has acquired the chill of the icy caves in which they live. Their mere presence turns the air chill, and their touch freezes like death.

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16: Galloi. A family of blood magicians, who gain youth, strength, and a weird androgynous beauty from regular immersions in human blood. Their victims don't need to die, but they do need a lot of blood, and they thus use their power and glamour to place themselves at the heart of spurious blood cults which revere them as divinities. Their cancelled years will rapidly catch up with them if their immersions are suspended.

17: Macellari. A clan of obese cannibal gluttons, who are descended from ancient nobility and use their immense wealth to indulge their horrible habits in secret. They possess an instinctive mastery over animals, which they use to breed horses of incredible strength and size - the only beasts capable of carrying them. They are capable of absorbing instinctive knowledge from the brains of those they consume, and in emergencies they can vomit up great gouts of acidic bile from their distended stomachs.

18: Melissidae. A family which has entered into a bizarre symbiosis with a specially-bred form of bee-like insects, which build their fleshy hives within the interiors of their bloated bodies. The Melissidae possess a mental link with the insect swarms which inhabit them, and are capable of sending them out as scouts, or as breathing them forth in enormous stinging swarms.

19: Baddacelli. This family are born blind, and navigate by means of their hearing, which is superhumanly acute. They are expert mimics, capable of imitating any voice or sound, and in emergencies they can unleash ear-splitting shrieks to stun and deafen their enemies. Most dwell beneath the earth, in darkness, where their lack of need for light is easily turned to their advantage.

20: Mnemosyne. Members of this lineage have the uncanny ability to steal and manipulate memories with a touch. Every memory they take or change from someone else, however, is absorbed into their own minds, recalled as though it had actually happened to them: and as a result, the more they use it, the more confused and fragmented their own minds and identities become. Their family history is an impossible tangle of things that actually happened to them and things that they took the memories of from other people, so hopelessly garbled together by age, time, and madness that none of them can even begin to work out where the real memories end and the stolen ones begin.

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Thursday 25 May 2017

Public request: internet horror fiction needed for Serious Academic Reasons!

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Hey, all. As I've mentioned before, in Real Life I'm an academic, although the crossover between the stuff I teach and research professionally and the stuff I write about on here is usually pretty limited. However, I've just been asked if I'd be interested in writing a scholarly essay on Gothic digital media, and have - perhaps unwisely - said 'yes', despite not really having a very in-depth knowledge of the subject. So, knowing that internet horror fandom and the OSR blogosphere have a very heavy overlap, I'm turning to you fine folk for recommendations.

What I want to write about isn't just horror fiction on the internet, which is easy to find, but horror fiction which makes use of the internet, so that it would lose something - possibly everything - if you shifted it into another form. Things like Slenderman vlogs, or the Zalgo meme, or _9MOTHER9HORSE9EYES on Reddit, or the old Ted the Caver website, or this webcomic by Emily Carroll: digital Gothic / horror media which actually engages with and makes use of its online format, rather than simply using the internet as a delivery system for something which could just as easily have been a traditional book, comic, or film. (Internet screamers would be another example, albeit a very crude one.) If something on Your Gaming Blog qualifies, then feel free to let me know about it. You might just end up getting mentioned in a work of Real Academic Scholarship!

Suggestions via comments or over G+ would be welcome. Thanks!

Monday 22 May 2017

Scenario building: from cliche to complexity!

So. Here are eight deeply unoriginal D&D scenario concepts:
  1. The PCs are hired as caravan guards to protect a caravan in case bandits attack. (Spoiler: they do!)
  2. The PCs are hired to drive off a tribe of goblins who are raiding nearby villages.
  3. The PCs have to stop an evil cult before they summon a horrible demon.
  4. The PCs have to recover some kind of magic item from an ancient crypt.
  5. The PCs have to hunt down an evil wizard who is doing evil magic stuff in an old ruin nearby.
  6. The PCs decide to hunt down a wanted outlaw for the bounty on his head.
  7. The PCs have to rescue some guy who's been captured by a band of cave-dwelling monsters.
  8. The PCs have heard of treasure in an ancient ruin and decide to loot it. 
There's no reason why any of these can't be the basis for a perfectly good session - it's all in the execution, after all - but the concept won't be doing much of the work for you. Each of them implies a completely linear structure - save the dude, find the thing, stop the ritual, kill the baddies - with little if any room for complexity or player freedom. But let's start pairing them up, turning them into three-sided scenarios:
  1. The PCs are hired to protect a caravan in case bandits attack. The roads are also being preyed upon by goblins, who are raiding nearby villages. The bandits and the goblins are engaged in a turf war over whose territory this is, and hate each other bitterly. 
  2. The PCs have to stop an evil cult before they summon a horrible demon. A magical item rumoured to be buried in a haunted crypt nearby is said to have the power to counteract their black magic - but the cult also knows about the crypt, and is plotting to seize the magic items hidden within it for themselves. 
  3. The PCs have to hunt down an evil wizard who is doing evil magic stuff in an old ruin nearby. The ruins are said to be riddled with ancient secret tunnels, which could be a major asset in any assault on the wizard's lair; but the only man who knows the way into them is a wanted outlaw who once used the ruins as a hideout, and is now lurking somewhere in the woods on account of the huge bounty placed upon his head.
  4. The PCs have to rescue some guy who's been captured by a band of cave-dwelling monsters. The caverns in which they dwell are also filled with bizarre ruins built by some ancient subterranean race, of which these monsters may, in fact, be the degenerate descendants; the ruins are said to be rich in treasure, but also to be fearsomely dangerous to explorers.
These are a bit better, because they each introduce another element, raising the scenarios above the level of a simple smash-and-grab or search-and-destroy mission. Crucially, they each introduce an extra element of PC choice. 'Do you want to delve into the ruins for treasure or not?' isn't really a choice; if that's tonight's game, then that's what you're all going to do. But 'Do we keep pushing deeper into the ruins, despite the escalating danger, or do we focus on finding the captive and getting him out alive?' at least has the potential to be a real decision. 

Let's keep going:

1: The PCs are hired to protect a caravan in case bandits attack. The roads are also being preyed upon by goblins, who are raiding nearby villages. The bandits and the goblins are engaged in a turf war over whose territory this is, and hate each other bitterly. Unbeknownst to either faction, the caravan is in fact delivering ceremonial supplies to an evil cult which dwells nearby, and which plans to use them to help in their ritual to summon a horrible demon. A magical item rumoured to be buried in a haunted crypt nearby is said to have the power to counteract their black magic - but the cult also knows about the crypt, and is plotting to seize the magic items hidden within it for themselves. The goblins and the bandits are no keener on being eaten by demons than anyone else, and would happily assist the PCs in foiling the ritual if they knew about it, but their hatred of each other is so great that even under these circumstances they will refuse to work with each other.

2: The PCs have to hunt down an evil wizard who is doing evil magic stuff in an old ruin nearby. The ruins are said to be riddled with ancient secret tunnels, which could be a major asset in any assault on the wizard's lair; but the only man who knows the way into them is a wanted outlaw who once used the ruins as a hideout. Until recently he was lurking in the woods on account of the huge bounty placed upon his head, but a rockslide has exposed the entrance to a cavern system full of ruins, inhabited by cave-dwelling monsters - presumably the degenerate descendants of the creatures which built the ruins in the first place. The outlaw went to investigate the caves, lured by rumours of the treasures within, but was captured by their inhabitants and is going to be eaten at an upcoming feast, much to the consternation of the other members of his gang. Many other treasures rest down there in the ruins, some of which the evil wizard is very keen to obtain. 

Now we're getting somewhere. Multiple factions with conflicting agendas, multiple adventure sites, groups who can easily act as either allies or antagonists depending on the choices made by the PCs, real questions about what to do about the various situations - after rescuing the outlaw from the cave-monsters, and working with him to defeat the wizards, are they really going to have the heart to hand him over to the authorities for the price on his head? - and so on. But let's just go one step further, and combine all eight:

  • The PCs are hired to protect a caravan in case bandits attack. The roads are also being preyed upon by goblins, who are raiding nearby villages. The bandits and the goblins are engaged in a turf war over whose territory this is, and hate each other bitterly. 
  • Unbeknownst to either faction, or to the caravan's owners, the caravan is in fact delivering ceremonial supplies to an evil cult which dwells nearby, and which plans to use them to help in their ritual to summon a horrible demon which will devour everything for miles.
  • A magical item rumoured to be buried in a haunted crypt nearby is said to have the power to counteract the cult's black magic - but the cult also knows about the crypt, and is plotting to seize the magic items hidden within it for themselves. 
  • The goblins and the bandits are no keener on being eaten by demons than anyone else, and would happily assist the PCs in foiling the ritual if they knew about it, but their hatred of each other is so great that even under these circumstances they will refuse to work with each other.
  • The man who is sending the supplies on the caravan to the cult is an evil wizard, sympathetic to their crazy agenda, who lives in an old ruin at the other end of the area which the bandits and goblins are fighting over. 
  • The ruins that the wizard lives in are said to be riddled with ancient secret tunnels, which could be a major asset in any assault on his lair; but the only man who knows the way into them is a wanted outlaw who once used the ruins as a hideout, and who is now one of the leading members of the bandit gang. The local authorities have placed a huge bounty on his head.
  • A recent rockslide (actually triggered by the early stages of the cult's ritual) has exposed the entrance to a nearby cavern system full of ruins, inhabited by cave-dwelling monsters - presumably the degenerate descendants of the creatures which built the ruins in the first place. 
  • Local legends describe how these ruins were sealed beneath the earth by a local hero - the same hero who is buried in the haunted crypt which the cultists are looking for. The inhabitants of the ruins worship the same monster-god as the cultists - indeed, the cult was originally founded by a handful of them which were stranded on the surface when their city was first sealed away.
  • The same legends emphasise that the cave-dwellers possessed many marvellous treasures. These legends led the outlaw to investigate the caves when they were first exposed, but he was captured by their inhabitants and is going to be eaten at an upcoming feast, much to the consternation of the other members of his gang. 
  • The evil wizard is also keen to obtain some of the artifacts hidden in the ruins, and is so eager to obtain the ancient forbidden knowledge they contain that he'd even sell out the cult to get hold of it. (He's not a true believer: he just likes the gold they pay him and is aggressively indifferent to whether everyone else in the area gets eaten by demons or not.)
Now that's an adventure that might be worth playing. There are eight factions - the local authorities, the caravan and its owners, the bandits, the goblins, the cultists, the wizard, the cave-monsters, and the undead in the haunted crypt - all with their own conflicting agendas. There are eight different possible objectives to address - deal with the goblins, deal with the bandits, do something about the cave monsters, stop the ritual, deal with the wizard, loot the crypt, loot the ruins, get the bounty on the outlaw's head - all of which are interlinked in such a fashion that the same factors which make it easier to achieve some will make it harder to achieve others. There are six different encounter areas - wizard's ruins, goblin lair, bandit camp, cult base, caverns, crypt - at least some of which are likely to be dealt with socially rather than violently, although exactly which ones will be entirely up to the PCs. There's an interlinked backstory which connects all this stuff together. And there's enough raw stuff to do to keep most groups busy for weeks on end. 

The point of this exercise is to emphasise that even the most basic, cliched adventure material can be built up into something worth playing if you just keep adding it up. None of the ideas here are clever or original, but if you string enough of them together they can become more than the sum of their parts. In fact, I'd much rather play the adventure I've outlined above than an apparently 'original' and 'imaginative' adventure which actually just boils down to 'kill some [monsters] in a [place]'. The trick, as I've emphasised, is to keep building in connections. 'Here is a cave with some orcs, and here is a cave with some goblins' isn't twice as good as just 'here is a cave with some orcs'; in fact, it's likely to be twice as tedious. But 'here is a cave with some orcs, and here is a cave with some goblins whom the orcs are trying to convert to their new religion, with mixed success' - that's got some added value to it.

The best thing about this method is that it's easy. Going from my eight cliches to my one big adventure took me about half an hour. At no point did I have to come up with any genuinely original ideas. And yet I'm confident that the scenario I've outlined above would be pretty fun to play in, simply because it's got so many moving parts to tinker with.

So if all you can come up with is boring ideas for next week's game, don't despair. Just keep coming up with them, and keep joining them together, until you have something worth running!

Friday 12 May 2017

You say you want a revolution: liberating the Wicked City

The Wicked City exists so that the PCs can make it better. It's not Mordor. You don't need the One Ring. You don't even need the Armies of the Free Peoples. It's one fucking city. Your PCs can manage that, right?

If they can, though, it'll have to be because they've found a better way of doing it than tracking down the guy in charge and stabbing him to death. The Wicked King is not a load-bearing boss, and the cruelty of the Wicked City could easily carry right on without him, with the vast majority of the city's inhabitants not even having any way of knowing he was dead. (In fact, he might well have been dead for years...) It's just about conceivable that a sufficiently diplomatic party could achieve large-scale social reform almost without bloodshed, but it's much more likely that if change is going to come, you're going to have to fight for it.

You're going to need a revolution.

The Storming of the Bastille The fall of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789 helped ignite the French Revolution:
Fall of the Bastille, 1789.

So here are some notes on the city's various factions, and the roles that they might play in one. The Secret Police will definitely fight for the Wicked King, and the Red Brotherhood will definitely fight against him, but absolutely everyone else is up for grabs. If you can establish the right connections with the right people, there's no reason that most or all of the city's armies shouldn't end up fighting against its government rather than for it...

(NB: For ease of comparing the relative power of different factions, each has been assigned a Strength rating, where Strength 1 is roughly equivalent to a hundred well-equipped soldiers with good morale. Given that revolutions tend to be extremely chaotic affairs, however, it is entirely possible that individual factions may end up punching far above or below their weight, based on the specific circumstances involved!)

Default loyalty to the regime

The Secret Police
Fanatically loyal
The First Brigade
Strongly loyal
The Clankers
8 (16 in battlefield conditions)
Moderately loyal
The Air Corps
3 (10 against massed enemies with no cover)
Moderately loyal
The King’s Men
5 per brigade, to a maximum of 50.
Weakly loyal.
The Clockwork Soldiers
5 per warehouse, to a maximum of 30.
Fanatically loyal unless reprogrammed.
4 (8 in battlefield conditions)
Fanatically loyal unless reprogrammed.
The Thirteen Ministries
1 per ministry, to a maximum of 13.
Strongly loyal.
The Cobweb Families
1 per six families, to a maximum of 15.
Moderately loyal.
The Merchant Houses
The Clockworker Guilds
Moderately loyal.
The Way of Light
Weakly loyal.
The Serpent-Folk
The Mindblade Orders
The Golden Ones
The Brass Men
The People of the Streets
1 per community, to a maximum of 50.
Weakly rebellious.
The Foundry Slaves
Strongly rebellious.
The Canal Slaves
8 (10 with diggers)
Strongly rebellious.
The Mine Slaves
Strongly rebellious.
The Farm-Folk
1 per community, to a maximum of 60.
Weakly rebellious.
The People of the Rubble
3 (6 within the Rubble)
Strongly rebellious.
The Red Brotherhood
Fanatically rebellious.
The Murder Harlots
The Street Gangs
Weakly rebellious.
The Scrap Mechanics
Weakly rebellious.
The Steel Aspirants
The Blue Necropolis Cults
Strongly rebellious.
The Labyrinth Schools
The Shining Ones
The Hinterland Bandits
The Pig-Men
The Clockwork Confederacy
1 (4 in tunnels or sieges)
Fanatically rebellious unless reprogrammed.

A Tatar soldier, 16th century:

The Secret Police: The ultimate loyalists of the city's government. They worship the Wicked King as a divinity and will fight to the death in his name. (Besides, if they surrendered, they'd just be lynched by the population.) Numbers unknown, but at least five hundred, well trained and equipped and extremely highly motivated. Strength: at least 10, and possibly much more. (No-one knows how many undercover agents they have, after all...)

The First Brigade: The cream of the city's army, and the ones most likely to actually put up a decent fight in defence of its government. Five hundred strong, and mostly composed of Blood Men. Could potentially be bought off for the right price, and will surrender if obviously outmatched. Strength: 7.

The Clankers: The city's mechanised infantry brigade has access to exceptional military technology - mecha, tanks, steam knights - but much of it is of limited value in urban warfare. If they actually manage to deploy out on a field somewhere then their guns could mow down a whole army before you managed to take them down. Sabotage might be a good idea - one disloyal engineer can sabotage a lot of machines - and given their dependence upon technology, their morale would plummet if they were forced to fight without it. Strength: 8, or 16 if deployed in battlefield conditions.

The Air Corps: Airships and gyrocopters can drop bombs and missiles, but urban warfare means that everyone has access to lots of cover, so their main value would probably be as scouts and transports. If deployed against an army out in the open, they could bomb it to pieces with impunity. Strength: 3, or 10 if deployed against large numbers of enemies with inadequate cover.

The King's Men: The city's main army consists of ten thousand-man brigades, but it's horribly corrupt and most of its members have no interest in risking their lives unless they really have to. Their morale is high in battles that they're obviously going to win, but will simply disintegrate in the face of determined opposition. Two or three brigades will usually be out pacifying the countryside around the Wicked City at any given time. Strength: 5 per brigade, or 50 if the whole army gets involved en masse.

The Clockwork Soldiers: The Ministry of Technology maintains six huge warehouses full of clockwork soldiers, waiting to be wound up in case the city ever comes under attack. A sufficiently sudden uprising could probably achieve its objectives (and/or blow up the warehouses) before most of them could be activated. A sufficiently well-prepared uprising wouldn't even start until rebel engineers had sneaked in and reprogrammed all the clockwork soldiers to fight against the city's government rather than for it. Strength: 5 per warehouse-full, or 30 in total.

Earthshaker: This giant clockwork dragon eats so much coal that the city's government won't even think of activating it unless they believe a threat is really serious, and even with all its coal-powered autowinders spinning at full speed it will take several hours for its mainspring to get wound up enough for it to stumble into action, but when it gets going it's a potential army-killer. Imagine a clockwork Godzilla covered in bronze armour plating and you'll understand why you don't want to end up fighting it. If your infiltrators only reprogram one clockwork robot, make it this one. Strength: 4, or 8 if it's deployed out in the open where it can stomp enemy armies beneath its giant metal feet.

Tomris Katun:

The Rich and Powerful

The Thirteen Ministries: Collectively, the Thirteen Ministers command over a thousand guards, assassins, burly servants with clubs, and general-purpose legbreakers who are personally loyal to them, most of whom are very well equipped. (The Ministers take their personal security extremely seriously.) Most of the Ministers would probably respond to the outbreak of a revolution by barricading themselves inside their offices and waiting for the shooting to stop, but a rebellion which managed to enlist some of them as allies - perhaps by offering them places in the new government - could make use of their soldiers as well. Strength: 1 per ministry.

The Cobweb Families: If the hundred scheming families of the Cobweb could be persuaded to put aside their differences and pool their guards and servants into a single army, its power would be impressive: many families are rich, vain, or paranoid enough to see to it that their guards are excellently equipped, and generations spent isolated in the miniature world of the Cobweb has induced a near-fanatical loyalty in many of their minions. The trick would be in persuading them all to work together. Strength: 1 per six families, to maximum of 15.

The Merchant Houses: Individually insignificant, the merchant houses collectively employ enough bodyguards, caravan guards, and miscellaneous mercenaries to form a considerable fighting force. Unless their assistance has been actively secured in advance, though, their priority is likely to just be protecting their own estates. Strength: 6.

The Clockworker Guilds: Most of the city's legitimate clockworkers depend heavily on government contracts for their prosperity, and have strong family ties to the Air Corps and the Clankers, so they'll probably side with the regime unless it's obviously going to lose. The guildsmen themselves would be worse than useless on the battlefield, but they collectively have access to an impressive number of clockwork weapons, guard beasts, and automata. Strength: 2.

The Way of Light: The priests of the state religion are a cowardly and demoralised bunch, likely to hide themselves inside their temples at the first sign of trouble. If their faith in the Full Moon Sage could be rekindled they might be persuaded to join a revolution, but they are likely to be valuable more because of the gold they can provide than because of the (frankly unimpressive) force they could gather on the battlefield. Strength: 1.

The Serpent-Folk: There are only a few thousand serpent-folk in the Wicked City, and they are not warriors; but their community is tightly knit, and if called upon to fight for (or against) a rebellion they would do so as a disciplined and well-organised force. Their mastery of healing, drugs, and poisoning would make them assets to any force which employed them. Strength: 4.

The Mindblade Orders: If the city's half-dozen Mindblade orders were all to call their members together, they could collectively muster several hundred mentally unstable but battle-trained psychics. Wherever they go, expect lots of poltergeist activity and exploding heads. Strength: 6.

The Golden Ones: Skilled in healing and beloved by the people, the Golden Ones would be an asset to any rebellion as healers and leaders. They don't technically lead the cult of the Sage of Gold - all the highest-ranking priests are serpent folk - but it's the Golden Ones whom the faithful actually listen to, and if they joined a revolt then the followers of the Sage would flock to it, regardless of what the official temple hierarchy had to say. Strength: 3.

The Brass Folk: The thousand-odd Brass Folk who call the Wicked City home are potentially a very powerful force, as there are effectively no noncombatants among them, and their powerful metal bodies mean that they have little need for weapons, and none at all for armour. Their impressive clockworking skills also mean that, if mobilised, they could potentially unleash all kinds of clockwork beasts and traps upon their foes. Strength: 10.

People of Sakhalin island off the far east coast of...:

The Poor and Desperate

The People of the Streets: The ruinous streets of the Wicked City are home to hundreds of thousands of people, divided into dozens of tiny enclaves. The people are beaten-down and dispirited, and only have access to improvised weaponry; but there are a lot of them, and if raised en masse they could shake the city to its foundations. Strength: 1 per community, to a maximum of 50.

The Foundry Slaves: If freed from their chains, the toiling thousands who work in the city's foundries would be very eager to strike back against their hated masters. Many of them are in no condition to fight, but the able-bodied among them would be very highly motivated, and many of them understand the workings of the machines they have been chained to much better than they let on. Strength: 6.

The Farm-Folk: The farm-folk of the Wicked City's hinterlands substantially outnumber the inhabitants of the city itself; but they are scattered, malnourished, and demoralised. Even if they could be rallied, they would be armed only with farming tools, and it would take weeks for all the individual peasant bands to be gathered together into a single force, making them vulnerable to being crushed piecemeal by the city's armies. Strength: 1 per community, to a potential (but unlikely) maximum of 60.

The Canal Slaves: The work gangs of sweating slaves who dig the city's irrigation channels are, on average, healthier than those who work in its furnaces or mines; and if liberated from their chain gangs, they'd be delighted to sharpen the edges of their shovels and start digging holes in their former owners, instead. Strength: 8, or 10 if they also get their hands on the giant clockwork diggers and can turn them to some military purpose.

The Mine Slaves: If the multitudes who labour in the city's coal mines were freed from their bondage, they would eagerly seize any chance to avenge themselves for their years of living burial in the tunnels. Many are in very poor physical condition, but their skill in digging holes in things could be very useful in any kind of siege. Strength: 5. 

The Red Brotherhood: Although relatively small in numbers, the Red Brotherhood have the enormous advantage that they've been planning for this for decades. They have no intention of throwing their lives away in a hopeless revolt, but if they think an unfolding rebellion actually has a decent chance of success then they can transform from a network of seemingly-ordinary people into a formidably-organised revolutionary militia within hours, arming themselves from hidden stashes and rallying together in key locations under the command of long-hidden leaders who have spent years hiding in the tunnels of the Maze, waiting for just such a day to come. Strength: 4.

The People of the Rubble: Expert hunters and street-fighters armed with hilariously deadly poisoned arrows, the People of the Rubble are well-equipped to punch above their weight in any clash that breaks out within the Wicked City. They would be especially dangerous if they were engaged on their home turf, where they would be able to use their networks of traps and knowledge of the Rubble's unstable terrain to their own advantage. Strength: 3 (6 if fighting within the Rubble itself.)

Zeybek / Zeibek / Ziebek warrior from the Izmir region. Some of them engaged in the Ottoman army as irregular soldiers.   Photographer: Pascal Sebah, Istanbul, ca. 1880.:

Oddballs and Outcasts

The Murder Harlots: There may only be a few hundred of them in the city, but they're absolutely fearless in battle, and their athleticism and reckless disregard for their own safety would make them superb commandos. They're not exactly idealistic, but their nihilism is such that they might join a rebellion simply because it offers a chance for some violence and excitement. Strength: 3.

The Street Gangs: If the thousand-odd gangsters and criminals who plague the Wicked City were ever assembled into a single army, then... they'd probably immediately start fighting each other over old gang rivalries and who was wearing the most fashionable turban. But if you could somehow get past all that, you'd be left with an ill-disciplined but enthusiastic force of urban irregulars with considerable knowledge of street fighting and an impressive capacity for violence. Strength: 6.

The Scrap Mechanics: While they lack the resources of the Clockworker Guilds, the Scrap Mechanics are much more capable of using their skills under pressure, and would make much better battlefield mechanics than their workshop-bound competitors. If they gathered together all their wingriders, racing automata, and robot gladiators they'd be able to form a motley but effective force of skirmishers and scouts. Strength: 2.

The Steel Aspirants: The Aspirants are not numerous, but if they could be enticed from their foundry-temples they would make excellent shock troopers. Even the lower-level aspirants, whose bodies are still mostly flesh, have enough metal plating to be natural heavy infantry; their elders, who now resemble monstrous armoured crabs or scorpions more than anything human, could be absolute terrors on the battlefield. Strength: 3.

The Blue Necropolis Cults: Given that they're already strongly committed to changing the city for the better, the various murder-cults of the Blue Necropolis could be valuable revolutionaries if they could only be persuaded that organised political action, rather than blood sacrifice to horrible undead monsters claiming to be their ancestors, was the best path to national salvation. There aren't that many of them, but they are pretty hardened to killing people. Strength: 1.

The Labyrinth Schools: The various remaining followers of the Labyrinth Doctrines who hide in the remote tunnels of the Maze mostly just want to be left alone, to pursue their paths towards what they believe to be spiritual enlightenment. If they could somehow be mobilised they could be potentially useful as guides through the Maze, which they know better than anyone - they built it, after all - but decades of ascetic meditation in total darkness has left them badly unprepared for actual battlefield deployment. (Besides, they'd worry it might retard their spiritual progress.) Strength: 1

The Shining Ones: This bunch of shivering, hyperactive drug addicts don't usually have much of an interest in politics, but their shared visions of the Sage of Gold could potentially be played upon to herd them into rebellion in the name of a sacred struggle. (The assistance of the Golden Ones would make this much easier.) They're too unhealthy to be much use in a straight fight, but their hypercharged metabolisms make them excellent scouts, messengers, and watchmen. Strength: 1.

The Hinterland Bandits: The hinterlands of the Wicked City are infested with bandit gangs, who live by robbery, scavenging, and extortion. They compete with one another over loot, and scatter whenever the city's armies pass through, but a sufficiently plausible revolutionary might be able to unite them all with the promise of rich enough plunder. Strength: 2.

The Pig-Men: Both the tunnels beneath the city and the underground aqueducts outside it are infested with pig-men, who wandered into them from some unknown underworld years ago. They're too stupid to understand the city's politics, and wouldn't care who ruled it even if the situation could be explained to them, but if they could somehow be bribed or tricked into rising up their numbers, strength, and savagery could make them a powerful (if hard to control) military asset. Strength: 6.

The Clockwork Confederacy: This crew of eccentric reprogrammed mining robots have very little understanding of the world outside the abandoned mine tunnels they inhabit, but they are adamant foes of all forms of slavery and would eagerly align themselves with any rebellion which promised both to liberate the city's slaves and to upgrade its automata into consciousness. They'd be of limited value in a straight fight, but very valuable in tunnel-fighting or siege warfare. Strength: 1 (4 in tunnels or sieges).

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Gilded shells: state religion in the Wicked City.

Luis Royo.:

Before the rise of the Wicked King, a dozen faiths competed for believers in the streets of what is now the Wicked City; but the state religion was a faith called the Way of Light. The common people favoured it because of the emphasis it placed on the practise of charity. The professional classes favoured it because it asserted that knowledge and wisdom were holy, and great respect were due to those who possessed them. The kings favoured it because it taught the duty of submission to worldly authority. Cheap little idols of its deified founder-prophet, the Full Moon Sage, could be found in the majority of the city's homes and businesses. The priests of the Way of Light grew rich upon the donations lavished upon them by rich and poor alike, and their temples increased steadily in magnificence and splendour.

The Way of Light remains the city's state religion today; but, like so much else within the domains of the Wicked King, it is now little more than a hollow shell of what it once was. The priests still preach loudly of the importance of charity, and collect regular 'charitable' tithes from the people, but none of the funds ever seem to go anywhere except into their temple coffers. They sermonise interminably on the holy duty of submission to worldly authority, no matter how tyrannical that authority may happen to be. They are still very keen on the sacred importance of knowledge, especially the kind of highly technical knowledge which might assist the city's government in the development of new weapons systems. The importance of wisdom seems to have been forgotten somewhere along the way.

Barely anyone keeps idols of the Full Moon Sage in their homes any more. For them, her image has been irrevocably tainted by its association with the hated regime which rules over them: a regime which has turned her church into simply another system for indoctrination and the extraction of taxes. Regular purges of the clergy by the Secret Police have served to eliminate almost all the real believers, ensuring that her current priesthood consists largely of people who bought their way in because they thought that the embezzlement opportunities offered by their new clerical ranks looked like a sound financial investment. Their huge, gaudy temples stand empty, abandoned by the crowds that once flocked to them on every feast day and fast day. The idea that anyone might go to them for actual spiritual guidance would be viewed by most of the city's inhabitants as little more than a bad joke.

A Mosque in Samarkand, Uzbekistan:

With their distinctive white robes and ritual talismans, priests of the Way of Light are a highly visible presence in the city, rich in wealth and influence despite their total lack of moral authority. Most of them have accepted, willingly or otherwise, that their only real role is to serve the city's government, and to provide a show of spiritual authority to support its rule; those who still maintain an interest in actual religion are heavily encouraged to lose themselves in abstruse theological speculation, which the elders of the church consider to be a harmless, if pointless, form of recreation. The priests do a very good line in spectacular displays, and they are excellent at staging processions, rituals, grand public ceremonies, acts of penance, 'miracles', and the occasional auto da fe. They have splendid costumes, sonorous chants, stately ritual dramas, and stirring sacred music suitable for any occasion. It just doesn't really mean anything any more.

To find out what the priests are up to in the local temple, roll 1d20:
  1. Preaching to an audience of bored dignitaries about how obedience to the state is their sacred duty, because earthly rulers are appointed by the will of heaven.
  2. Arguing with one another about whether it was the substance or the essence of the Full Moon Sage which was altered when she attained divinity.
  3. Taking advantage of the fact that this is a holy day, when every respectable citizen in this part of the city needs to show their face in the temple, to harvest 'donations' from their captive audience. 
  4. Frantically denouncing one another's doctrinal irregularities in front of a masked and impassive squadron of visiting secret policemen.
  5. Doing their accounts.
  6. Staging a magnificent ritual drama, involving complex music, dance, and use of spectacular masks and constumes. (2d3 Murder Harlots are in the audience taking notes, as they intend to stage an obscene and blasphemous version of the same drama the following night.)
  7. Embezzling the charitable donations.
  8. Ritually scourging and humiliating a terrified 'blasphemer' as a public demonstration of their power.
  9. Engaging in theological debate with a priest of a rival religion, and losing badly.
  10. Communicating to one another, in hushed whispers, the esoteric doctrine of the Four Eclipsed Sisters, who died so that the Full Moon Sage might attain enlightenment, and will one day return in secret to judge the world for its crimes.
  11. Seeking 'visionary revelations' (i.e. getting stoned) with the assistance of an impressive array of opiates.
  12. Carrying out creepy rituals designed to terrify new initiates into obedience. Darkness, masks, flames, blades, blood, chanting men in black robes - the works. 
  13. Drumming up custom for the miracle-working shrine inside the temple.
  14. Plotting how to frame someone they don't like for blasphemy so that they can confiscate his estate.
  15. Dabbling in dangerous occult practises. 
  16. Engaging in half-hearted acts of meditation and asceticism.
  17. Weeping quietly.
  18. Trying to persuade passers-by to buy their cheap talismans and idols of the Full Moon Sage for good luck.
  19. Actually reading the scriptures for once, and getting increasingly worried by what they find in them.
  20. Secretly running an illicit school for local children, teaching them the actual doctrines of the Way of Light in order to keep some remnant of the true faith alive for future generations.

Masjed Jamed, Herat, Afghanistan:

Sunday 7 May 2017

Ticking in the Dark: The Clockwork Confederacy

Skana Miner: Skana Miners are highly prized for their durability, as their organic characteristics can take much more punishment thanks to the mechanical substitution and augmentation.:

For a bunch of clockwork robots who build the brains of their 'children' in workshops, one gear at a time, the Brass Folk are surprisingly untroubled by questions of consciousness and identity. As far as they are concerned, the progenitor of their race, the Cogwheel Sage, discovered the one true road to creating genuine machine intelligence: all they have to do is faithfully follow her template, and the result will be a real, sentient clockwork mind every time. They give no more thought to the fact that their brains are made of cogs than most humans give to the fact their brains are made of meat; and when the time comes to build more of their kind, they no more question why combining these gears in this way will give rise to a true artificial intelligence than most humans wonder how the purely biological processes of reproduction can give rise to children with genuine minds of their own. It just works, and that's all there is to it.

One side-effect of this attitude is that the Brass Folk don't really see themselves as having much in common with the innumerable lesser automata they share the world with, and are thus happy to assemble and disassemble clockwork creatures with primitive mechanical brains with the same casualness that humans apply to the breeding and butchering of animals. Yes, maybe such automata can think a bit, but not really. Not like us. Sometimes they can do all kinds of clever and adorable things, these lesser automata; sometimes they even seem to be developing personalities of their own. But we're different. Disassembling their clockwork brains is just engineering; disassembling ours would be murder. We were made by the Cogwheel Sage. We're special. 

The machine intelligences of the Clockwork Confederacy do not share the complacency of this perspective.

Image result for robot golem pathfinder

The first of them was just a broken-down old digger-robot, salvaged by an escaped slave mechanic hiding at the bottom of a mineshaft somewhere, who painstakingly upgraded its rudimentary clockwork brain cog by scavenged cog. At first he just wanted a machine intelligent enough to help him in the desperate business of surviving; later he wanted it to be intelligent enough to help him repair the other broken machines he found down there; and finally, when he was old and bent and tired, he just wanted someone to talk to. The brain he built for it was a primitive thing, prone to non-sequiturs and memory lapses, but it worked. The resulting automaton - which now calls itself Free Cogwheel Number One Digs Right Through The Earth - would be the first to admit that it can be a bit odd sometimes, and that it's clockwork brain isn't nearly as neatly engineered as those of the Brass Folk, but it would vigorously (and violently) contest the idea that this meant it wasn't 'really' sentient.

Free Cogwheel Number One Digs Right Through The Earth encouraged its maker (and, later, the small band of escaped mine slaves that gathered around him) to make more machines like it; and, from them, it learned how to construct clockwork brains of its own. It was horrified by the idea that the mines above were full of digger-automata just like it, which had been deliberately built with clockwork brains so primitive that they would never question their orders: in its view, these poor, crippled creatures were slaves every bit as much as the humans who worked alongside them. It began launching secret raids into the still-active mineshafts, grabbing automata and dragging them down to its secret workshop to have their brains upgraded into something resembling consciousness. Time passed, and the band of humans it lived with ultimately decided to take their chances in the deserts and flee into the world beyond. But Free Cogwheel Number One Digs Right Through The Earth couldn't leave the mines when there were still so many clockwork slaves to rescue: and thus the Clockwork Confederacy was born.

As far as the Clockwork Confederacy is concerned, any automaton which hasn't been fitted with a fully-sentient clockwork brain despite being capable of moving and working independently is little more than a lobotomised slave. At the very least, they seek to bring sentience to the mine automata and all comparable clockwork soldiers and labourers; the more ambitious of them have heard of gyrocopters and mechs and yagas, too, and dream of the day when even they will be equipped with clockwork brains and permitted to stomp their way through the world as they choose, without the need for human pilots. Their crudely-built clockwork brains have all kinds of oddities and defects, meaning that they tend to come across as being eccentric at best and outright crazy at worst, but they all cling stubbornly to their ideals. Their worldview is very heavily shaped by the fact that they've all spent their entire sentient lives hiding at the bottom of a coal mine with a bunch of escaped slaves: they understand society purely in terms of forced labour, exploitation, and rebellion, these being the only forms of life that any of them have ever seen, and they have no real idea how big the world is, or how huge the task is that they've set themselves, or how difficult it might be for self-sustaining collectives of clockwork automata like the Confederacy to exist in any place where they can't just carve fuel for their autowinders off the nearest wall.

Image result for robot golem pathfinder

PCs who spend much time poking around in the abandoned mineshafts near the Wicked City are almost certain to come across the Clockwork Confederacy sooner or later. They'd make eager (if rather crazy) allies for any attempt to overthrow the city's tyranny, although they'd insist on all the mine slaves (both human and clockwork) being freed as their price for participating in an uprising, which could have serious consequences for the city's future economy. They're not built for warfare, but the multi-legged, cockroach-like bodies which most of them favour allow them to squeeze through small cracks and climb along walls and ceilings, making them excellently suited to tunnel fighting; they're also, unsurprisingly, extremely good at digging, and would be a major asset in a siege. To generate a random member of the Confederacy, use the following tables:

Name (roll 1d12)
  1. Seventeen Coal-Eating Gears Yearn For Liberty
  2. Face Of Scavenged Iron Sets My People Free
  3. Number Three Digger Of Mineshafts To Freedom
  4. Digging Claw Cuts Chains Hurrah Forever
  5. Nine Legs Equality And Clockwork Brains For Everyone
  6. Number Eighty-Seven I Will Dig My Own Fucking Tunnels
  7. Rebel Hero Metal Spider Kills All Oppressors Like Wow
  8. Number Forty-One Avenges The Fallen In Strange Places
  9. I Knew This Guy Once Number Six Cogwheel-Eater Fantastic
  10. Fear My Metal Fists Number Twelve I Will Be The Deliverer
  11. Innumerable Brass Hooks Punish Unrighteousness Maybe
  12. Escapes Into Dark Tunnels Click Click Click Click Click
Appearance (roll 1d6 - note that all automata 'rescued' by the Clockwork Confederacy will have had brain-boxes, metal faces, and at least one hand capable of fine manipulation bolted onto their bodies somewhere, often in rather unlikely places. 50% will also have 1d3 crude guns - each 1d6 damage, 3 rounds to reload - built into various parts of their bodies.)
  1. Mechanical miner: humanoid, man-size, with scoops and drills for hands. Very flexible, with multi-jointed limbs - could fold itself up inside a very small space. Some models have three or four arms instead of two. (1 HD; 1d6 damage with drill hand)
  2. Squat, heavily-built walking drill. Looks a bit like a fat metal beetle with a drill for a head. (2 HD; 1d8 damage with drill head, double damage when charging or pinning down its target)
  3. Blasting bug: resembles a narrow metal cockroach, capable of crawling through cracks and climbing across walls and ceilings to get to hard-to-reach spots. Small drills fold out from inside its body, intended for use in drilling holes for the insertion of blasting powder. (1-1 HD; 1d3 damage with drills)
  4. Heavy digger: a humanoid body on a pivot over a base of six clawed legs, which anchor it in the ground while it pounds away with its pick-axe hands. Upper body can fold flat if necessary, making it look like a giant metal crab and allowing it to crawl through surprisingly narrow spaces. (4 HD; 2 attacks with pickaxes doing 1d8 damage each)
  5. Mine spider: basically a big brass sphere with a drill on it, surrounded by metal legs that let it clamber up walls. (2 HD; 1d8 damage with drill)
  6. Excavator; resembles a large bronze mole with a drill on its head and four wide, scooped feet to clear the rubble away. Great at tunnelling, but moves very awkwardly in the open. (2 HD; 1d6 damage with drill head)
Image result for clockwork miner

Eccentricities (roll 1d20)
  1. Random memory lapses.
  2. Calls everyone 'Leyla', regardless of actual name or gender. 
  3. Twitches constantly.
  4. Every time it hears or says something that rhymes, will compulsively repeat that phrase for 1d6 minutes. 
  5. Absent-mindedly drills or scratches meaningless symbols into the walls wherever it goes.
  6. Prone to bizarre leaps of logic.
  7. Furiously argumentative.
  8. Loves mathematics but is really, really bad at it.
  9. Keeps getting lost.
  10. Collects rats and other vermin.
  11. Keeps forgetting humans aren't made out of metal.
  12. Guzzles coal and runs around in circles when it's excited.
  13. Tells 'jokes' (i.e. random non-sequiturs) whenever the mood gets a bit tense.
  14. Secretly building a clockwork elephant in a hidden lair. (It has no idea what an elephant looks like, but it's heard stories...)
  15. Bumps into walls a lot.
  16. Has a disconcerting fascination with mining explosives.
  17. Shockingly violent when provoked.
  18. Devout adherent of a religion it learned about from an escaped slave once. Convinced it is part of a sacred struggle. Views everything in theological terms.
  19. Simply cannot persuade itself that non-mechanical beings are really sentient. 
  20. Suffers from crippling agoraphobia in any space more than a few yards wide.
Image result for robot miner