Tuesday 28 December 2021

Remnants of the Nameless Empire: more monsters from City of Spires

More monsters that my players have run into during my current City of Spires campaign. These ones lean further into science fantasy, as one of the key conceits of the campaign is that it's a fantasy setting built on top of the ruins of an SF setting. The deeper you dig the more likely you are to start running into all the malfunctioning cyborgs and radiation zombies left over from previous ages of the world. 

Worm Cultists: AC leather, 1-5 HD, damage by weapon, morale 7.

Long ago, the Nameless Empire procured the egg of an alien worm-god for study. At some point after the fall of their empire, this egg hatched, giving birth to the enormous alien monster known as the Great Worm. It remains trapped to this day in the subterranean vault it was originally stored in as an egg, but its dreams and magical radiation are powerful enough to bleed into the world outside.

Worm cultists are those wretched individuals who strayed too close to the Great Worm's prison, and found their minds overwhelmed by the power of its alien dreams. Compelled by its will, they dig themselves as deeply as they can into the rock and earth that entomb it, bathing themselves in the bizarre radiation that it emits until they are utterly changed, body and soul. Their bodies and limbs become slimy and segmented, studded with bristly hairs that allow them to sense vibrations in the earth and air. They can still just about speak, though their voices sound as though they're gargling with slime. At the apex of their transformation they tear out their own eyes, their empty sockets becoming hollow, slime-filled pits in what were once their faces. Mortal sight would only be a distraction from their new senses.

Worm cultists retain human-level intelligence, though the submersion of their minds in the dreams of the Great Worm tends to make them rather unhinged. They are utterly devoted to the Worm, and work tirelessly to free it from its prison. Their boneless bodies can squeeze through any space wide enough for them to get their heads through, and they can tunnel efficiently through soil and dirt. Their bristling hairs allow them to sense motion, making them hard to evade: they can also instinctively sense radiation, including the background radiation found throughout nature, and can recognise different substances from their differing radiation signatures. They are still blind, however, and cannot easily distinguish between e.g. one human and another unless they hear them speak. Drying out is very painful for them, and they take an additional 50% damage from heat- or fire-based attacks. They prefer to remain in cool, wet, dark locations whenever possible.

All worm cultists double as priests of the Great Worm, and have the spellcasting abilities of a cleric with levels equal to their hit dice. 

Image by Artur Owsnicki, after an image by Devon Cady-Lee.

Worm Men: AC leather, 2 HD, damage by weapon, morale 6.

This is what worm cultists eventually degenerate into after soaking up too much magical radiation. Their legs atrophy into vestigial stubs, while their arms warp into long, boneless, wriggling tendrils. Any hint of neck or waist disappears: apart from their arms, they now resemble giant segmented worms with distorted human faces at their apex. Their radiation-fried brains are only semi-intelligent, and they cannot speak. They have the same sensory abilities as worm cultists, and are even more proficient as tunnellers, but lack their spellcasting powers. They usually fight with crude clubs or spears.

Worm men are hermaphroditic, and are capable of breeding with one another, though their irradiated state means that their fertility is very low. They instinctively obey worm cultists, who use them as warriors, labourers, and guardians.

Image by Patrick Reinemann

Zomborgs: AC chain and shield, 3 HD, damage 2d6 (blade hands) or 4d6 (energy blaster), morale N/A.

Cybernetic zombies built by the Nameless Empire to guard the resting places of its honoured dead. They resemble embalmed corpses held upright by cybernetic skeletons: their right arms terminate in a variety of blades (to allow them to assist with embalming work), while their left hands have been replaced with short range energy blasters. These blasters require three rounds to reload between shots - zomborgs will try to keep their distance while their blasters are reloading, but if their enemies close with them they will fight with their blade-hands, instead.

Zomborgs sense intruders via motion sensors built into their eye sockets, whose blinking red lights are easily spotted in the darkness of their ruined vaults. They have no other senses, and are oblivious to noises, smells, lights, etc. They have no intelligence beyond their preprogrammed 'guard-hunt-kill' and 'autopsy-embalm-preserve' routines, and are incapable of learning from experience. (My PCs mostly dealt with them by luring them into traps.)

Stranglers: AC chain, 1 HD, damage 1d4 / 1d4 (2 claws), morale 5.

These hairless subterranean humanoids are a deliberately devolved caste of engineer-slaves created by the Nameless Empire. Their stature is dwarfish, averaging only 4' high, but their bodies are lithe and muscular and they have freakishly long arms ending in long, clever, multi-jointed fingers. They can see in the dark, and underground they are as agile as monkeys, effortlessly climbing and swinging along walls and ceilings. They are capable of squeezing their bodies through narrow cracks like contortionists, and their nests are usually found in spaces only reachable via fissures so narrow that only they can squeeze through them. They possess only animal-level intelligence, but have an instinctive knack for mechanical labour if commanded to undertake it via the correct machine-noise signals.

Stranglers get their name from their secondary function, which is to protect the areas they inhabit against intrusions from unauthorised personnel, i.e. anyone without the correct subdermal microchips. When they sense intruders into their ruined underground complexes they will creep stealthily down upon them, aiming to sever ropes, douse lights, and otherwise render their victims blind and vulnerable: then they will leap down upon them in chattering swarms and try to claw and strangle the life from them. If a Strangler hits the same target with both claws in the same round it has its hands wrapped around their throat, and will proceed to throttle them for an automatic 2d4 damage per round in place of its normal attacks until either it is defeated or its victim dies. (Obviously, this special attack only works on enemies who have necks and need to breathe.) They attack only from ambush and in packs, and will retreat if faced with determined opposition. 

Stranglers are usually found in the wreckage of Nameless Empire factories and laboratories, some of which still house semi-functional AIs dozing through the centuries on sleep mode. Explorers who manage to fight their way through the Stranglers and contact such an AI may be able to persuade it to microchip them if they can convince it that they are there on legitimate imperial business, though the AIs may demand that they perform other tasks in return in service of their long-dead empire.

Friday 10 December 2021

That's what Shi said: race, gender, and 1990s comic books

Who here remembers Shi?

I certainly didn't until recently. As my dalliance with Mutant Chronicles demonstrates, however, there are few limits to my tendency to become fascinated by whatever 1990s pop culture ephemera happen to cross my path. In this case, all it took was a stray link to a recent kickstarter and the fact that the comics turned out to be on sale at Drivethru. 

In many ways, Shi turned out to be a kind of bottled essence of mid-1990s nerd culture. A sexy Japanese woman in a stripper costume, written and drawn by a white American man, engages in bloody martial arts battles against urban criminal gangs while quoting Sun Tzu and pontificating on the nature of Bushido, all against a backdrop of Japanese corporate takeover of American business. It has everything: violence, Orientalism, urban decay, mercenaries, ex-Special Forces vigilantes, objectified 'action girl' heroines, guns, katanas, rampant fetishism. It even finds room for the then-current preoccupation with Catholicism that was so much a part of other 1990s action-girl comics like Magdalena, Fallen Angel, Warrior Nun Areala, and Avengelyne.

What surprised me about Shi is that, despite all this, it actually had some real merit. It almost manages to tell a story worth telling: not a narrative for the ages, by any means, but a good, pulpy tale about the self-consuming nature of violence and the futility of revenge, with strong roots in both Christian morality and Japanese pop culture. The art, at its best, manages to accomplish an effective fusion of Manga stylings, Floating World prints, and the Western superhero comicbook tradition. In places it comes close to being a cross-cultural success story, an example of an Italian-American Catholic artist developing a fascination with Japanese Buddhism that gives rise to something greater than the sum of its parts. But it never quite managed to cohere.

Here, as elsewhere, the hallucinatory Japanese warriors Ana sees around her in battle mirror the way that the comic itself is haunted by the Floating World imagery upon which it draws. 

Here's the story it wanted to tell: some time in the 1970s, a Japanese martial artist marries an American woman, converts to Catholicism, and retires from his old life to run a small business. One of his rivals sends a Yakuza hitman, Arashi, to hunt him down. He overpowers Arashi, and is about to kill him when his daughter, Ana, runs out, yelling 'Thou shalt not kill!' Arashi takes advantage of the distraction to shoot him dead, and then flees.

Traumatised by her father's death, Ana goes to her paternal grandfather for martial arts training, planning to shape herself into an avenger. Arashi, meanwhile, emigrates to America and builds himself a criminal empire. Years later, Ana hunts him down and starts killing his henchmen, but finds herself increasingly shocked by the human toll her violence is taking: after all, the men she's killing have wives and children, too. She tries to abandon her mission, but she's in too deep, and her attempts to disentangle herself only end up with more people getting killed. Finally, sorrowfully, she concludes that she has to see this through. 

Meanwhile, Arashi's powerbase is starting to crumble under the impact of Ana's assassinations. His enemies circle and the loyalty of his followers wavers, culminating in a coup attempt in which his own lieutenants rise up against him: Arashi wins, but is left broken-hearted, having killed his own closest friends in order to preserve his power over an empire that is already falling apart. Ana arrives to kill him, they fight, and she loses, but Arashi no longer has the heart to kill her, recognising her as a truer embodiment of the martial virtues he once aspired to than he ever was. Instead he commits symbolic seppuku by calling the police and framing himself for the murders she committed, while she abandons her avenger identity and walks away, her traumas resolved. The end.

At its best, Shi manages to be a rather humane story about the way in which violence can estrange us from ourselves: a story in which every fight scene has real psychological weight for the heroine, rather than just being meaningless padding of the 'and then ninjas attack!' variety. Its moral core is a struggle between three sides of Ana's personality: the religious morality that calls her to forgive, the honour code that calls her to avenge, and the primordial bloodlust embodied by the figure of the demon-samurai which haunts her, that calls her to just keep killing people because killing people feels fucking awesome. But anyone who has the slightest familiarity with 1990s comics will be completely unsurprised to hear that this core story kept getting buried under mountains of utter gibberish. There are conspiracies and misunderstood mutants and ancient orders of secret warriors and more fetish fuel and cod-Asian mysticism than you can shake a bokken at. 

Shi had honourable beginnings. The early editorials keep emphasising that it wasn't like those other 'bad girl' comics, with their meaningless violence and gratuitous fanservice, and at first it was sort of true. Billy Tucci had an actual story he wanted to tell, supported by real characters and an above-average-for-1994 level of understanding of Japanese culture, and these helped to make Shi a hit back when it was still just a struggling indie comic coming out at irregular intervals a few times a year. It got mainstream recognition: Tucci wrote proudly about the coverage he'd received in The New York Times and Elle magazine, notice that he attributed to his heroine's 'style and sophistication', approvingly quoting a description of Ana as 'the Audrey Hepburn of comics'. He was obviously frustrated with the way that Shi kept getting lumped together with what he viewed as inferior works, a perspective that Shi: Shiseiji (1996) was written to refute, as its editorial makes clear:

[A]s he spies upon Ana's adventures as Shi, our shiseiji has no idea of the complex moral issues that drive Ana's quest to avenge her family. Consequently, all he sees in Ana is a 'super ninja-bitch'. In this respect, Shiseiji is very much like a lot of fans in the comics community who write Shi off as another 'bad girl' book. The fact of the matter is that Ana isn't bad at all. She's not a ninja, either.

By 1997 Tucci was riding high, and unwisely tried to make Shi the lynchpin of a whole new comics franchise, with everything that implied in the late 1990s: spin-offs, crossovers, trading cards, alternate covers, the works. There were even plans for a Shi movie starring Tia Carrere, whom readers of a certain age will remember as Cassandra from Wayne's World. But the audience wasn't there, and the comics industry was in crisis, and by 1998 it was obvious that the entire enterprise was in deep trouble, with cancelled series and plaintive editorials begging readers to tell them what they were doing wrong. By 1999 the whole thing had collapsed into ruin.

It's easy to critique Shi. Critiquing Shi is like shooting fish in a barrel. Ana's whole character design is an exercise in fanservice - one comic even lampshades this by having her visit a strip club, where everyone naturally assumes, based on her costume, that she's one of the performers. Her fighting style apparently consists mostly of jumping into the air while sticking her butt out. The dilemma her character is built around rests on awful essentialising stereotypes that juxtapose kind humane western Christianity with alien and implacable Asian honour codes. (Moments where Ana starts talking about her giri tend to be particularly bad.) For a story supposedly built around a 'strong female character', a surprising amount of the plot consists of men taking decisions on Ana's behalf while she flops around having existential crises. The ancient secret orders of the Nara and Kyoto sohei, whose feuds drive much of the plot, are portrayed as murderous idiots, a kind of parody of Western stereotypes about Eastern religion, forever killing each other over trivialities and committing ritual suicide at the drop of a hat: it's impossible to believe that such organisations could hold together for a single generation, let alone a thousand years. (The 2004-5 miniseries Shi: Ju-Nen - which inexplicably featured costume designs by Anna Sui, of all people - showed them finally wiping each other out: the only wonder was that it hadn't happened sooner.) And the series never knew what to do with its secondary protagonist, Tomoe, whose narrative rapidly devolved into stream-of-consciousness mad-libs even by comic book standards. Not even the queer-baiting between her and Ana ever amounted to anything.

'I love you, Tomoe! But in a totally Platonic, heterosexual way, because it's still 1997! Now let's have another scene where we hug while we're both half-naked!'

The attitude of the whole franchise towards its Asian sources is deeply conflicted. On one hand, Tucci was clearly fascinated with all things Japanese, intrigued by Shinto and Buddhism, visually enraptured by kimonos and samurai armour, and delighted by the expressive potential of manga. (Shi had a manga spin-off in 1996, an era when manga was still relatively little known to the mainstream American comic-book market.) He proudly printed an endorsement from Stan Sakai, creator of Usagi Yojimbo, who praised Shi for being more respectful of its source material than most of its competitors, and who described it as 'captur[ing] the spirit of the buyuden - tales of valor popular in medieval Japanese literature'. Tucci even collaborated with the Korean-American writer Hank Kwon on the short-lived series Horseman (1996), whose story of an immortal Korean warrior predated the arrival of Hallyu culture in America by several years. 

At the same time, though, Tucci kept condemning the very Asian cultures that he drew upon so heavily, returning repeatedly to the cruelty of the historical Japanese persecution of Christianity, and to Ana's need to reconnect with her mother's Catholicism as an antidote to the violence and inhumanity of BushidoEven when he was publishing his own manga series it was at pains to distance itself from association with the wrong kind of manga, keeping its own brand of softcore fanservice carefully distinct from the form's reputation for more extreme pornographic content. As the editorial to the first issue explained, 'Weird monsters, giant robots, invaders from space... you name it, we'll do it (although, we'll skip emulating some of the racier stuff, like LA BLUE GIRL or DEMON BEAST INVASION. Sorry, but Shi just isn't that kind of gal).'

OUR manga isn't porny at all!

The frustrating thing about Shi is how close it kept getting to becoming something more. Take these passages from the 1995 comic Shi: Senryaku. Here's Ana, aged seventeen, learning a harsh lesson about why the white American boy she likes keeps smiling at her -  

"Let me guess," Mike offered. He let an insinuating tone creep into his voice. "You've heard some things about Oriental girls, you were wondering if they're true, and since I'm married to a Japanese woman..."

"Hey, I knew you'd understand," Ted said. The leer in his voice echoed Mike's. "The guys in my frat say that Asian women are, like, totally submissive and they'll do anything! Y'think Ana would be like that?

"Gee, Ted, I guess you'd better ask her", Mike responded, as I stepped out of the office. Ted gaped at me, astonished and ashamed. I glared at him. He turned to Mike, realized he'd been set up, and stormed out.

Full marks to Mike, right? Except that after becoming Ana's substitute father figure, and sharing all his sorrows, he shows his true colours as well:

I felt so sorry for him. Suddenly we were embracing. I was rocking him, trying to comfort him... and he kissed me.

I froze, mortified. What was he doing? He kissed my eyes, my hair, he whispered in my ear. It was okay, he said, Mariko didn't understand him, our bond was so special, so deep, and then he said: "Ana, you're so beautiful... I've been waiting for this since the day you walked in..."

He'd been waiting for this since the day I walked in. Which meant he'd been planning for it since then. Which meant that everything he'd been for me was a lie to make me vulnerable so that this could happen...

I broke away from him. I couldn't speak. I trembled with fury and anguish at the incredible depth of his betrayal.

This is pretty insightful stuff for a 1990s comic book, offering not just obvious critiques of racial stereotyping and fetishisation, but also a more subtle awareness that just because a man seems to transcend such vulgar prejudices doesn't mean he's not waiting to exploit you the moment he gets the chance. But this appears embedded in a series whose entire marketing strategy essentially boiled down to: 'HEY! LOOK! BUSTY ASIAN CHIX! CHECK OUT DAT A$$!'

See what I mean?

But under all the nonsense there's some real strength, both in the writing and the imagery. Shi, I fear, was a graphic novel manqué, undone by the realities of mid-1990s commercial comic book publishing. If the strongest elements of The Way of the Warrior, Shi: Kaidan, Shi: Senryaku, and Tora No Shi had been distilled down into a single series of about twelve issues, it could have been great, a kind of red-and-gold counterpart to David Mack's astonishing black-and-white Kabuki: Circle of Blood: a lurid martial arts crime drama about a traumatised girl taking on the legacy of her legendary ancestress in a half-crazed bid for revenge and redemption, haunted by a hallucinatory swirl of Japanese folklore and Catholic religious imagery, oni and angels, leering tengu and bleeding saints. But drawing it out to over sixty issues, and diluting it with all the superfluous characters whom Tucci hoped to publish spin-off series about, just let all its strength dissipate, reducing Ana to the status of yet another 90s action girl with too many katanas and not enough clothes.

The moral of the story is that if you only have one story to tell, then for heaven's sake just tell that story. 

The application of this moral to RPGs is left as an exercise for the reader.

Monday 15 November 2021

Upstairs, Downstairs: d20 Power Relations

You know what makes for good drama? Unequal power relations!

You know what makes for even better drama? Power relations that are not what they appear to be!

Gerard ter Borch, Young Woman with a Maid (c. 1650)

Next time you introduce two NPCs, make clear that one of them is higher status than the other. This can be obvious (noble and servant, employer and employee, lord and villein, officer and soldier, teacher and student) or more subtle (two members of the same guild, community, regiment, or family, one of whom is just slightly senior to the other), but it's something that they're both acutely aware of, and it inflects every interaction between the two of them. 

Then roll 1d20 on this table to find out what the relationship between them really is!

  1. Exactly what it seems to be. The high-status NPC is in charge, and the low-status NPC respects their authority.
  2. Creepily extreme. The high-status NPC makes all the decisions, and the low-status NPC obeys instantly and without question, having apparently reduced themselves to a mere instrument of their superior's will. 
  3. One-sided. The low-status NPC is sycophantically devoted to the high-status NPC, to an extent that obviously makes them uncomfortable, and keeps making desperate attempts to prove the extent of their loyalty.
  4. Emptily theatrical. They make an enormous show of performative authority on one side and performative deference on the other, but anyone paying attention will notice they both actually just seem to do whatever they want. 
  5. Performatively informal. The high-status NPC makes a big performance over being the low-status NPC's friend, treating them as an equal, etc, but in practise they expect their authority to be accepted without question. 
  6. Erotically charged. The pair of them seem to be enjoying this whole 'giving and taking orders' thing a bit too much, in ways that may make people speculate about exactly what goes on between them behind closed doors.
  7. Founded on lies. The high-status NPC is actually the lower-status of the pair, and is trading on some kind of falsehood (e.g. forged qualifications, fake titles) to invert the power relationship that would otherwise exist between them. 50% chance the other NPC has started to suspect that something weird is going on. Obviously they'd be furious if they learned the truth. 
  8. Overt dependency. The high-status NPC makes a show of calling all the shots, but it's blatantly obvious that all the real decisions are being made by the low-status NPC. 
  9. Puppet show. In public the high-status NPC appears to be in charge, but actually the low-status NPC wields all the real power, either through some external hold (e.g. blackmail) or just through sheer force of personality. Their 'superior' would never dare to do anything that went against their wishes. (50% chance that the high-status NPC is actually OK with this state of affairs; 50% chance they resent it bitterly.)
  10. Covert subversion. The high-status NPC makes all the decisions, and the low-status NPC pretends to obey, but secretly tries to undermine and sabotage them at every opportunity. 
  11. Overt subversion. The high-status NPC makes all the decisions, but the low-status NPC openly mocks and defies them at every chance they get. 
  12. Covert equality. The two NPCs go through a charade of authority and submission in public, but actually regard one another as trusted equals and genuinely seek one another's input and guidance, though they may need to conceal this due to the status difference between them.
  13. Stiffly formal. The two NPCs have a very clear understanding of the exact nature and limits of their duties to one another, and scrupulously observe these at all times, making a great show of observing their obligations to one another to the letter without exceeding them.
  14. Founded on love. The two NPCs genuinely love one another, romantically or otherwise, though depending on the status difference between them they may need to keep this secret.
  15. Founded on fear. The low-status NPC only obeys the high-status NPC out of fear of punishment. If they can safely get away with disobeying them without consequences then they will happily do so.
  16. Founded on self-interest. The low-status NPC serves the high-status NPC only because they currently believe it to be in their best interests to do so, and will desert them in a heartbeat if a better opportunity comes along.
  17. Founded on abuse. The high-status NPC ensures the subservience of the low-status NPC through physical and emotional cruelty. The low-status NPC hates them bitterly, but is too beaten down to resist them unless they're absolutely sure they'll get away with it.
  18. Chronic misunderstanding. The low-status NPC is apparently loyal to the high-status NPC, but somehow manages to comically misunderstand almost every order and instruction they are given. (50% chance this is a campaign of passive resistance on the part of the low-status NPC; 50% chance they really are just that dim.)
  19. It's complicated. While the overall status difference between the two NPCs is clear, there is one significant area of life in which the low-status NPC is actually higher status than the high-status NPC, and can expect to be treated as such. (E.g. higher educational attainment, higher professional standing, higher religious status, higher military rank.) 50% chance the high-status NPC acknowledges and respects this; 50% chance they're furious about having to defer to someone they normally regard as an inferior. 
  20. Masquerade. The two NPCs have swapped places, with the low-status NPC pretending to be high-status, and vice versa - there may be a good reason for this, e.g. fear that an assassination attempt may be imminent, or it may just be a random whim of the high-status NPC. Neither is performing their assumed social role very convincingly. 50% chance the low-status NPC is still loyal to the high-status NPC despite their apparent role reversal; 50% chance they're scheming how to make their change in status permanent.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Desert Monsters from the City of Spires

A few monsters who have turned up in my current campaign. I think my PCs have figured all these guys out well enough for me to safely list them here.

Image by Akihiro Tsuji

Smoke Giant: AC chain, 4 HD, 2 fists (1d8 damage), morale N/A.

Smoke giants are artificial guardians created by a long-fallen civilisation. In their dormant state, they just look like a thick covering of soot, coating everything in the room they guard. When they are disturbed, however, the soot flies up into the air and rapidly coheres into an ogre-sized humanoid monster, jet-black from head to foot. The giant furiously attacks anything that enters its protected area. If reduced to less than half HP, or if the trespassers depart, it explodes apart into a cloud of choking black smoke, which gradually settles to the ground as thick black soot. In smoke/soot form it recovers 1 HP per round until fully healed, at which point it will cohere back into humanoid form if the trespassers are still present. If reduced to 0 HP it explodes into smoke and does not recohere. 

If a dormant smoke giant can be collected into a container while in soot form without triggering it, then the resulting container can be used as a missile weapon: the moment it is opened, the giant will explode out of it to attack anyone nearby. Smoke giants are sometimes found still lying dormant inside their original storage crates.

(Once my PCs worked these guys out, they dealt with them by building an improvised suction pump attached to a hose, which they used to suck up the soot a little at a time from outside the giant's trigger radius. Then they mixed the soot with clay and baked it into bricks, effectively imprisoning the giant. The smoke giant's attempts to reform itself from inside the bricks makes them vibrate violently whenever anyone approaches, allowing them to function as an intruder alarm system.)

Locust Spirits: AC chain + shield, 4 HD, 1 claw (1d8 damage + strength drain), morale 8.

These awful famine-spirits look like shadowy humanoid locusts. They are only semi-corporeal and take half damage from non-magical attacks. Anyone struck by their claws is filled with terrible weakness, as though they hadn't eaten for days, and loses 1d6 strength - this strength returns at the rate of one point for each decent meal they eat. Anyone falling to Strength 0 is reduced to an emaciated corpse, apparently the victim of months of starvation. 

Locust spirits are only semi-intelligent, and can usually be found as servitors to more powerful spirits or dark magicians.

Jackal Knights: AC plate, 6 HD, 1 greatsword (3d6 damage) or 1 bite (1d6 damage), morale 9. 

These terrible demon-warriors of the desert can take the form either of a jackal (in which case they have a bite attack, and can run much more swiftly than a human), an armoured jackal-headed warrior (in which case they have a greatsword attack, and move at human speed), or a dust devil (in which case they have no attacks, but are immune to non-magical attacks, can move at much greater than human speed, and can blow through narrow spaces). Shifting between forms takes one round. 

In jackal or warrior form, they have long, lashing razor-sharp tongues, with which they can attempt to open the arteries of one opponent per round in melee combat. Unless their target is wearing armour on their neck, wrists, and thighs, they must save each round or else be cut, bleeding out for 1d6 damage per round. Spending a full round bandaging the wound allows for a new save to stop the damage. Any healing magic stops the bleeding instantly.

Jackal Knights register as magical to Detect Magic, and casting Dispel Magic on a Jackal Knight in dust-devil form will force it to resume one of its corporeal forms.

Desert Zombies: AC leather, 2 HD, 1 claw (1d6 damage), morale N/A.

This one was adapted from a Pathfinder monster. Created from the dehydrated corpses of unfortunates who perished in the wastes, these zombies resemble dried-out desert mummies aside from the candle-like flames that flicker inside their hollow eye-sockets. By day they slumber beneath the desert sands, quiescent unless disturbed, but by night they wander the in search of prey, their eye-flames visible from afar off in the darkness of the desert night. If they hit anyone in melee, their target must save or be grabbed and pulled in close enough for the zombie to exhale its dessicating breath all over its victim, causing an additional 1d8 damage in spontaneous dehydration. 

The flames in their eye-sockets serve as their eyes: immersion in sand cannot extinguish them, but immersion in water can. A zombie whose eye-flames are extinguished is effectively blind, and will simply wander randomly. If it is still animate by the following dawn, the flames in its eye-sockets reignite the moment the sun comes over the horizon.

Sunday 24 October 2021

Game-enhancing powers, game-ruining powers, and yet more magic items

I've been running OSR D&D more-or-less weekly for over five years, now, with a heavy focus on exploration, problem-solving, and diplomacy. Combat happens, but I learned early on that the kind of combat power-ups that most later D&D editions obsess over were almost irrelevant: when most fights are either one-sided ambushes or desperate fighting retreats, the shift from 1d8 damage to 1d8+2 damage is really not that big a deal. My players regularly forget which magical weapons their PCs are carrying. What they never, ever forget is exactly who is wearing the Ring of Invisibility to Undead. 


Whether in the form of magic items or spells, I've tended to give my PCs access to lots of utility magic, in order to enable the kind of improvisational problem-solving on which such games thrive. But there's utility and then there's utility, and a power with too few limitations can quickly break a game. Previous games, for example, taught me the hard way that giving PCs high-speed at-will flight is a genie that's really hard to get back in its bottle once released, trivialising everything from difficult terrain ('I fly over it') to tripwires and pressure plates ('I fly over it') to melee-only enemies ('I fly over it and kite it to death'). And the Team Tsathogga game taught me that even the humble Charm Person could become hard to manage once the PCs had enough spell slots. ('We hide in the bushes and cast Charm Person on him twelve times! One of them's bound to work!')

Of course, these problems are context-dependent. A more superheroic game could probably have taken both flight and mind control in its stride. (Although maybe not: every Exalted game I ever played in ended up crashing and burning due to the difficulty of challenging PCs with near-unlimited powers of mobility, persuasion, information-gathering, and stealth.) But assuming you're after something resembling traditional fantasy, in which 'a castle' or 'a troll' is a dangerous but solveable problem to a clever and well-equipped party of adventurers, then here are my notes on the kinds of powers that make for good, enjoyable problem-solving tools, as well as the kind that can easily spoil things for everyone unless counterbalanced by significant downsides or limitations, and a handy list of magic items to go along with both... 

The Good Stuff - abilities that facilitate creative and intelligent play

  • Levitation: Slow, vertical-only flight. Allows for all kinds of ingenious problem-solving but requires careful set-up, not particularly useful in combat, and generates hilarious mental images, especially if you allow levitating characters to be moved horizontally by party members pulling them along on ropes from below!
  • Invisibility: This might seem very powerful, but if it genuinely is only invisibility - meaning that you still make sounds, leave scent trails, make footprints, etc - then there are so many potential failure points and counter-measures that it's more likely to be used as an ingenious component of a cunning plan rather than as a slam-dunk victory condition. Partial invisibility (e.g. you still cast a shadow) is even better. 
  • Illusions: The power to create intangible visual and/or audible illusions enable more demented ingenuity than just about any other ability. Endlessly flexible, and the lengths that PCs will go to in order to make sure no-one reveals the trick by just touching their illusionary treasure / monster / whatever are the stuff that truly insane PC plans are made of.
  • Tunnelling: Magical dig-through-stone-walls tunnelling can often short-circuit scenarios, especially in dungeon environments, but having a character with the ability to burrow through sand and loose dirt at semi-realistic speeds opens up all kinds of unorthodox approaches to break-ins, getaways, etc. 
  • Light and darkness: These are good, flexible powers with a wide variety of uses relating to stealth and detection, most of which require a bit of set-up if PCs are going to get the most out of them. (If you're going to use darkness to cover your escape, how will you see while inside it?)
  • Disguises: Powers that let people disguise their appearance to match someone else's are a particularly interesting form of illusion, because the potential pay-off is so large but the dangers of detection are so high. I feel that these are best when they perfectly mimic appearance but only appearance: when it comes to mimicking voice, gait, mannerisms, knowledge, etc, the PCs are on their own!
  • Movement effects: Things like Jump, Spider Climb, etc - powers that let you get into places you normally couldn't reach. Allow problems to be approached from unusual angles, often quite literally. 
  • Environmental manipulation: Things like creating heat, cold, fog, rain, etc - not inherently beneficial in and of itself, but capable of creating a new situation which cunning PCs may be able to turn to their advantage!
  • Construction abilities: Essentially a subtype of environmental manipulation - the ability to e.g. rapidly reshape earth, construct barricades, etc. Anything that lets PCs reshape an area on the fly and thus shift the spatial dynamics of an encounter. 
  • Water breathing: Like tunnelling, water breathing abilities open up new opportunities for getting into and out of places, and allow locations to be connected together in new ways via underground rivers, water pipes, etc. 
  • Enhanced senses: Things like enhanced hearing, the ability to see perfectly in poor light (not total darkness), the ability to follow scents like a bloodhound, etc, opening up new and unexpected avenues for acquiring information. 
  • Communication abilities: The more things your PCs can interact with, the better. Let them talk to monsters. To animals. To rocks, plants, corpses, water, air... As long as whatever they're talking to is not guaranteed to be useful or co-operative, giving them more opportunities for communication can only enhance their options for creative problem-solving. ('OK, how do we bribe the trees into helping us?')
  • Temporary intangibility: The trick is to not pair this with invisibility, by either making it ghost-style phantom projection, or literal gaseous form. It then creates an interestingly asymmetric situation - you can see and be seen, but can't affect or be affected by anything you're seeing. Can be used either for scouting or for one-way infiltration - you can walk through the walls to get in, but then how are you going to get out?
  • Very specific immunities: Complete immunity to fire, for example, or to falling damage. Abilities like these may be intermittently useful in combat, but they also allow situations to be approached in completely different ways. ('So I'll fly over the castle in a hot air balloon, jump out, drop a thousand feet down into the courtyard, and then open the gates from the inside...')
  • Limited telepathy: Things like the ability to sense someone's emotions, or read their surface thoughts - just enough to give the PCs an exploitable edge in social situations without having to worry about every mystery collapsing on contact.
  • Emotion control: Genuine mind control can easily become an 'I WIN' button, but the ability to scale up a specific emotion requires much more care to use effectively. 'I can make people feel really angry' is not, in itself, likely to solve many problems, but can easily be a component in such solutions...

The Bad Stuff - abilities that short-circuit play without significant limitations

  • Unlimited flight: Trivialises too many kinds of obstacles and opponents, especially if it comes with perfect manoeuvrability as well. If you want to give your PCs access to flight, try to build in some serious limitations. 
  • Unlimited intangibility: Genuine walk-through-walks-style at-will intangibility tends to trivialise information gathering, infiltration, escape, theft, etc - everything except combat, essentially.
  • Mind control: This includes 'super charisma' powers of the 'I'm just that persuasive!' variety. Anything that means PCs can simply steamroller interactions with NPCs rather than having to actually work out how to befriend or manipulate them is likely to lead to much less interesting play. 
  • Mind reading and lie detection: Short-circuits any kind of investigation or mystery and makes diplomacy much less interesting. 
  • 'Sniper' attacks: Very powerful, very accurate, very long-range attacks can make for very one-sided, non-interactive combat scenes, and thus for very boring gameplay. This can easily become an 'everything looks like a nail' situation. 
  • Unlimited information effects: The ability to commune with near-omniscient beings, for example, or powerful divination effects that always return accurate answers. It's usually OK if PCs are allowed just one question, but if this is a power they have repeat access to then it becomes very hard to maintain any kind of mystery, or even ambiguity. 
  • Speed/mobility effects: When confronted with any kind of enemy, one question the PCs are always going to ask is 'can we just kite it to death?' This is a fair question, but if the answer is always 'yes' then the temptation to resolve every possible encounter in exactly the same way becomes very strong. I'd thus advise caution in granting mobility effects that allow PCs to engage opponents without ever allowing their opponents to engage with them: speed effects, for example, that let them move at full speed while still attacking. It's fun the first time, but it can become very boring very fast.

1d20 magic items for ingenious problem-solvers

  1. Mat of Levitation. Anyone sitting cross-legged on this threadbare prayer mat can levitate at will by concentrating. If they stop concentrating for any reason then they fall. Only vertical movement straight up or down is possible. 
  2. Ring of Near Invisibility. Anyone wearing this ring becomes invisible, but still casts a shadow. The ring itself does not become invisible, and may be spotted floating around by alert observers.  The ring does nothing to mask the wearer's scent, sound, or footprints.
  3. Amulet of the Mole. This amulet permits its wearer to dig tunnels through sand or dirt (not stone) like a mole, at a rate of 5' per minute. Tunnels will only be wide enough for the person who dug them to crawl through on hands and knees. It does not grant any ability to see in the dark. 
  4. Hatpin of disguise. Prick someone with this pin hard enough to draw blood, and the next time you place it in your own hat or hair you will take on their physical appearance until it is removed. (This is a visual illusion only, so if e.g. they have a beard and you don't then anyone touching your chin will realise something is amiss.) Your clothes and voice remain unchanged.
  5. Armbands of the ape. Anyone wearing these chunky brass bangles gains the ability to climb and brachiate like an ape or monkey, rapidly scampering up trees or walls and swinging easily from branches, ropes, chains, etc. Wear them as anklets and you can swing by your feet, instead. 
  6. A random weather bag.
  7. A random emotion bag.
  8. Tree Phrasebook. This enchanted book allows you to talk to trees... sort of. Reading from it gives you enthusiastic-tourist levels of ability to understand and be understood by trees, mostly by making alarming groaning noises with your throat. It does not make trees inherently well-disposed towards you, though they can be bribed with fertiliser or threatened with fire. Similar books may exist for communicating with rocks, rivers, etc. 
  9. Thought interceptor earring. If anyone within your line of sight thinks a really big thought (e.g. 'OH MY GOD I LOVE HIM SO MUCH' or 'I WILL FUCKING KILL HIM') while you are wearing this earring, then you will 'hear' it as though it had just been shouted into the ear to which the earring is attached. Such thoughts are 'spoken' in the wearer's own voice and it will not always be apparent whom they are coming from, though context will often make this obvious. If you're in a whole crowd of people all thinking really big thoughts (e.g. a panicking mob trying to escape a fire) then the effect is simply deafening. 
  10. Torc of water breathing. This golden torc is decorated with engraved gills. Wearing it allows the wearer to breathe underwater. It does not provide any swimming abilities, or the ability to see in the dark. 
  11. Cloak of limited flying. Once per day, this bright red cloak permits its wearer to fly rapidly for 1d10 rounds - this ability is triggered by simply leaping into the air. The user is unaware of how long the duration is, and will only know the magic has stopped when they start dropping out of the sky. 
  12. Ghost juice. Drinking this potion causes you to temporarily die and become a ghost for 1d6 hours. During this time you are intangible, allowing you to float around and walk through walls, but you are not invisible, and are clearly recognisable as a ghostly, ghastly version of yourself. You can talk during this time, though your voice is thin and tends towards wailing. You are immune to non-magical damage for the duration, and cannot cause physical harm to anyone else. At the conclusion of the effect you are sucked back into your body and return to life. 
  13. A double-edged potion.
  14. Divine Pass Note. Write a single factual yes-no question on one side of this enchanted papyrus, wait five minutes, and turn it over. God will have written YES or NO on the other side. Shortly afterwards, the note will spontaneously combust. Anyone trying to use this item to learn things that Man Was Not Meant To Know will find that they spontaneously combust, instead. 
  15. Acoustic Amulet. Wearing this amulet enhances your hearing tenfold, allowing you to listen in on conversations thousands of yards away. Any kind of loud noise that occurs nearby while you are wearing them will be painful if not deafening. 
  16. Hammer of the survivor. This worn construction hammer is stained with zombie blood. As long as suitable construction materials are available, it allows stockades and barricades to be constructed at twenty times their normal speed. 
  17. Magic Feather. As long as this feather is gripped tightly, no fall from any height will cause any damage to the holder. 
  18. FX Box. Looks like a complicated wind-up music box with a directional speaker. A wheel on the side can be set to any one of dozens of options (e.g. 'thunder', 'sounds of battle', 'screaming', 'birdsong', 'suspicious conversations', etc). When the crank is turned, the selected sound will be heard emanating from the place that the speaker is pointing at for as long as the user carries on turning the handle.
  19. Black Breath Choker. Wearing this onyx choker allows the wearer to exhale huge clouds of blinding darkness, which completely block all light and dissipate like smoke (meaning that they'll vanish much more quickly in a high wind or similar). Each exhalation exhausts its power for 1d6 minutes. The choker does not grant the ability to see through darkness.
  20. A bag containing 2d4 items from this list.

Sunday 26 September 2021

Magic bags and the things inside them

I've always thought that Aeolus's bag of wind from The Odyssey would be a great item for a D&D campaign. It's a bag with a wind inside it: point it in the right direction and open it to blow your ship across the sea, or knock your opponents down, or blow out a fire, or whatever. The effect is powerful enough to be useful, but specific enough to force players to think about how to turn it to their advantage, and the fact that it's a one-use item means you don't need to worry about the PCs suddenly upending your whole campaign setting by generating winds on demand. 

I reckon that the same principle could be applied more broadly. What other intangibles could a magician put inside a bag?

Category (roll 1d3)

  1. Weather bag.
  2. Emotion bag.
  3. Abstraction bag.

Weather Bags (roll 1d8) - When opened, these create a localised weather effect in a radius of 1d10x100 feet around the bag, which lasts for 1d6 hours. (The wind bag is an exception - see below.)

  1. Blizzard bag: Cold to the touch, and shakes and shudders violently. When opened a whole blizzard bursts out, filling the surrounding area with screaming winds and freezing, blinding gales of snow. Visibility drops to almost nothing, flying is impossible, and surfaces will be rapidly covered with snow and frost, making them very slippery and difficult to cross for anyone who isn't moving very slowly and carefully. 
  2. Cold bag: Cool to the touch - you could put it in a crate to make a crude refrigerator, or make a tiny hole in it to release a steady stream of ultra-cold air. Opened all at once it releases a burst of intense cold, enough to make a scorching desert feel pleasantly cool, or a temperate day feel like an arctic night. (If it's already an arctic night, you'll be in instant-death-from-hypothermia territory.) As well as the obvious effects on living things, the sudden drop in temperature may freeze nearby water and cause surfaces to become slippery with frost.
  3. Fog bag: You could make a pinprick in the side and use it for spooky dry-ice-style mist effects, but if this bag is opened a huge cloud of fog will pour out, reducing visibility in the surrounding area to almost zero. Good for covering escapes and other acts of stealth.
  4. Heat bag: Warm to the touch - you could use it like a hot water bottle on cold winter nights, or make a tiny hole in it to release a steady stream of heat powerful enough to cook or burn with. Open it all at once and it releases a burst of intense heat, enough to make a polar ice waste feel temperate, or a temperate day feel utterly unbearable. (If you're already in the tropical heat, it will raise temperatures to unsurvivable levels.) As well as the obvious effects on living things, the sudden increase in temperature may melt nearby ice or cause nearby water to evaporate, and will create a powerful localised air current - after all, hot air rises!
  5. Rainstorm bag: Moisture continually osmoses through the fabric - handy if you have something you want to keep moist. Make a tiny hole in it and water will trickle out: the total amount you can get out of it is finite, but it's many, many times larger than the bag could possibly physically contain. Rip it open and a drenching, monsoon-style rainstorm bursts out, cooling and soaking everyone within the affected area, massively decreasing visibility, and extinguishing open fires. Surfaces will be slick and slippery within minutes, and if there's nowhere for all the water to drain off to then localised flooding will soon ensue. 
  6. Sunlight bag: A faint glow emanates from between the closely-woven fibres of this bag, equivalent to soft candlelight. Make a hole in it and a beam of strong, bright sunlight emerges that you can use like a flashlight, or as an anti-vampire laser. Pull it open and hot, bright, dazzling sunlight pours out, floodlighting the whole area as though under a noonday sun, making stealth difficult and potentially causing temporary blindness in areas shifting rapidly from dark to light.
  7. Thunderstorm bag: Shakes violently and makes loud rumbling noises. In most respects this is just a noisier version of the rainstorm bag, but if you pull it open you get flashing lightning and deafening thunder as well as just rain, making it extremely hazardous to anyone standing on top of tall objects and/or waving conductive objects around.
  8. Wind bag: Trembles continuously. Poking a hole in it causes a strong stream of air to pour forth - potentially useful for blowing out flames, for example. Opening it fully causes a powerful gale-like wind to pour out of the bag for the duration. Unlike all the other weather bags, this wind does not simply create an environmental effect in the area around the opener: instead it is directional, with wind continuing to blow outwards in whichever direction the bag is pointed, allowing it to be used to propel ships across water, used as a weapon to knock people over, etc. Once the bag is opened there's no way to shut it again - the wind will just keep blowing out until it's exhausted. 

Bag of Emotion (roll 1d10) When opened, these create a localised mood effect in a radius of 1d10x10 feet around the bag. Anyone within the affected area when the bag is opened must save or be affected by the relevant emotion for the next 1d6 hours. Many would make good missile weapons as long as you can be sure of them bursting on impact.
  1. Bag of anger: Anyone affected will be filled with irrational rage for the duration. The tiniest setbacks or disagreements will prompt screaming arguments and howls of fury, minor provocations will lead to fistfights, and serious insults or challenges are likely to provoke lethal violence. 
  2. Bag of confidence: Anyone affected will be filled with irrational confidence for the duration. This isn't insanity - they won't believe they can do something impossible, like fly or breathe water - but will tend to make people very, very reckless. Rank amateurs will gleefully attempt tasks that they would normally leave to trained professionals, while experts will throw all their normal caution to the wind. These effects can be helpful - e.g. to give someone with social anxiety the confidence to speak publicly - but will always tend more towards 'manic overconfidence' rather than 'calm self-belief'.
  3. Bag of curiosity: Anyone affected will be overwhelmed by curiosity. What's behind that door? What does that lever do? Why does that guy always look pale whenever anyone mentions snakes? Very occasionally, this can be a good thing, prompting people to solve puzzles and unravel mysteries they would otherwise have left untouched. More commonly it will lead to broken friendships at best ('What did happen on that night you told me never to ask about?') and broken limbs at worst. ('I wonder what happens if you push the button marked 'do not push'?')
  4. Bag of envy: Anyone affected will have their feelings of envy and resentment magnified manifold. This makes most social interactions enormously difficult: even something as simple as handing out jobs will cause intense bickering as people argue over all the ways in which they are being unfairly slighted. Anything that would normally cause envy anyway (e.g. seeing someone else with something you powerfully desire and/or believe should be rightfully yours) may well lead to acts of theft or violence. 
  5. Bag of fear: Anyone affected will be consumed with overwhelming anxiety, convinced that something absolutely terrible is about to happen. Even minor stressors (e.g. someone jumping out unexpectedly) will cause screaming and cowering, while something that would normally be scary (e.g. a fire, a battle) will prompt either fainting or panicked flight.
  6. Bag of friendship: Anyone affected will be filled with warm, fuzzy, happy feelings, like the kind you get after three or four drinks with really good friends. Enmity or hostility will still be regarded as such, but any kind of friendly behaviour will be enthusiastically reciprocated, even when it comes from complete strangers. Those affected will also be much more trusting than they normally would be. 
  7. Bag of guilt: Anyone affected will be consumed with guilt over every shameful thing they've ever done. If they're already feeling guilty about something, then the amplified feeling will be so powerful that it may prompt dramatic confessions, spectacular attempts at restitution, or even suicide attempts. Otherwise it will just make them really miserable and self-involved, too caught up in beating themselves up over everything they've ever done wrong to notice much of what is going on around them, and too crippled by self-loathing to accomplish anything more than the most basic and routine tasks for the duration. 
  8. Bag of sloth: Anyone affected is overwhelmed by feelings of laziness. Every task is carried out in the most half-assed fashion possible. Every corner that can possibly be cut will be. (Depending on exactly what they're currently doing, this may be extremely dangerous!) They will still try to protect themselves against immediate threats, but will never do more than this: they will not, for example, pursue a fleeing enemy.
  9. Bag of happiness: Anyone affected will feel happy. Really, really happy. Singing and dancing and laughing for no reason levels of happy. Negative emotions (e.g. fear, depression, anger) will simply vanish. Pain or exhaustion don't go away, but become nothing that can't be handled with gritted teeth or the aid of a rousing song. The effect is really, really enjoyable, and highly addictive. 
  10. Bag of misery: Anyone affected sinks into utter misery and despair for the duration, unable to do anything much except sit and weep about how unhappy they are. If threatened with immediate harm they will still try to protect or defend themselves, but are unlikely to be very good at it. 

Bag of Abstraction  (roll 1d10)

  1. Bag of darkness: Opening it a little bit is like dimming all the lights in a room, which may be handy if you're currently trying to sneak around. Opening it all the way releases a cloud of impenetrable magical darkness that persists for 1d6 hours.
  2. Bag of dreams: Opening this bag a crack will let a dream slip into your head, good for 1d3 hours of pleasantly surreal lucid dreaming. Ripping it open will force everyone within 1d6x10 feet to save or be plunged into a hallucinatory dreamworld for the next 1d6 hours, during which they can perceive reality only dimly, as though half-asleep. Suffering physical pain or damage will wrench them awake. 
  3. Bag of energy: Just letting out a little bit is enough to remove the fatigue of an hour's hard labour. Opening the whole bag will cause everyone within 1d10x10 feet to race around like rabbits on speed for 1d6 hours, after which they must save or crash spectacularly for the next 2d6 hours. 
  4. Bag of ideas: Just a sniff from this bag is enough to give you new ideas, allowing a reroll on Intelligence rolls or similar. If the whole bag is opened, everyone within 1d10x10 feet must save or be overwhelmed by too many ideas, spending the next 1d6 hours frantically trying to scribble down notes, build prototypes, etc. (Note that this doesn't grant any skills you don't already possess, just new ideas for how to use your existing ones.) They will still protect themselves if threatened, but will otherwise be lost in worlds of their own for the duration. If they have the ability to write down or otherwise record their ideas then they will each find 1d10 really good ones buried amongst all the gibberish after they finally come down from their intellectual high. 
  5. Bag of motivation: Inhaling a sniff of vapour from this bag is enough to motivate someone to push forward through hours of boring, difficult, and/or exhausting labour, but watch out - if the bag ever bursts, everyone within 1d10x10 feet must save or suddenly find the motivation to do whatever it is they've been putting off for their whole lives, which probably means they all instantly run off to take up singing or confess their love to their childhood crush or whatever.
  6. Bag of pain: This is a nasty one - even touching it hurts a bit. You can release it onto someone a trickle at a time as a form of torture, or throw the bag to unleash a cloud of incapacitating agony, forcing everyone within 1d6x10 feet to save or drop to the floor screaming in pain for 1d20 minutes. They can still try to defend themselves, but will do so with greatly reduced effectiveness.
  7. Bag of pleasure: Sniff a bit for an instant high, or throw it to make everyone within 1d6x10 feet save or drop to the floor in blissed-out stupefaction for 1d20 minutes, during which time they will do nothing but smile vacantly and maybe quiver a little. Anyone who wants to be affected can voluntarily fail their save.
  8. Bag of sickness: Not the airplane kind: instead, these are create by medical magicians, who pull the diseases out of their patients and place them inside these bags. If opened, everyone within 1d10x10 feet must save or become seriously ill, spending the next 1d20 days mostly bedridden by pain, fever, nausea, vomiting, and various other unpleasant (though not life-threatening) symptoms.
  9. Bag of stupidity: Created as a by-product of magical intelligence-enhancing rituals, during which wizards deliberately suck out their own stupidity and seal it away in enchanted bags. If the bag is opened or broken, everyone within 1d10x10 feet must save or have their effective Intelligence and Wisdom halved for the next 1d6 hours. 
  10. Bag of time: Who doesn't need more time? Opening it just a crack will allow a few more seconds to slip out between one minute and the next, which can be crucial when performing exacting tasks under pressure. Opening the whole bag will release a bubble of compressed time with a radius of 1d10x10 feet: from inside this bubble the world outside appears to be frozen for the next 1d6 hours, whereas from outside everything that happens in the bubble during those hours appears to occur instantaneously. Nothing from inside the bubble can leave the bubble until the compressed time has elapsed. 

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Local gods and the spiritual technology of rulership

There's a legend about the Battle of Brunanburh, at which King Aethelstan confronted the allied kings of Scotland, Dublin, and Strathclyde in 937 AD. Before the battle, one of Aethelstan's soldiers was lying sick: he happened to be a Devonshire man, so in his sickness he prayed to his local saint, the martyr St Nectan, to heal him. That night he had a vision of St Nectan, and in the morning the sickness was gone and he was well enough to fight.

The interesting bit isn't the healing: it's what happened next. The Devon man told everyone about his miraculous recovery, and soon word reached King Aethelstan. Aethelstan was understandably nervous about the coming battle, so he asked the soldier which saint it was who had proven so receptive to his prayers. The soldier told him about Saint Nectan, and assured him that Nectan was always swift to intercede on behalf of those who had faith in him. Aethelstan prayed to St Nectan, won the battle, and was a generous donor to the cult of the saint thereafter.

Just think for a moment about what this sequence of events implies about Aethelstan's mindset. He's king of a sparsely-populated nation made up of hundreds of scattered communities, each with their own local shrines and saints and martyrs and holy wells, most of which have never been heard of by anyone outside their local area. He takes it as given that these saints are capable of interceding with God on his behalf, and that some of them are more likely to do so than others, but crucially he doesn't know which ones. The obscure hermit-saint revered in some provincial village might turn out to be exactly the guy you need to pray to in order to resolve a major national crisis. Working out who to pray to under which circumstances isn't a matter of set dogma, established long ago and handed down by recognised authorities: instead, it's a work in progress, to be figured out by trial and error. Building up a working knowledge of all your national saints, and cultivating suitable relations with their respective cults, becomes a potentially important element of kingship. 

This is a mindset that would, I think, have made intuitive sense to the Tengriist and Shamanistic cultures in the history of Central Asia, for whom the question 'which spirits have authority here?' was one that every nomadic people had to confront regularly as they roamed from place to place. It would have made sense to the Romans, for whom working out which set of local gods to buy off was an integral part of the process of conquest. It is, however, a mindset that seems to be very rare in D&D and associated games, where most fantasy religions seem to have completely codified understandings of the sacred rather than the more experimental approaches that have historically been so commonplace. This strikes me as a bit of a pity - there's so much more gaming potential in the latter!

Imagine if, instead of being a fully worked-out institutional religion like counter-reformation-era Catholicism, your cleric's faith was something closer to Aethelstan's version of Christianity, a hacky work-in-progress always subject to revision based on the latest discoveries. A huge amount of your adventuring could be motivated simply by the desire to learn more about different local gods or saints or spirits, which you would do by visiting lots of different shrines and making lots of different offerings just to find out which ones work best. In a world where most people stick close to home, worshipping their local gods, an adventuring cleric who's been all over the place could become a real asset simply because of their breadth of spiritual experience. ('Actually, my liege, over the mountains they have a saint that they pray to in exactly this sort of situation...') 

Probably the easiest way to represent this mechanically would be to have knowledge of certain spiritual practises grant access to new cleric spells. In most cases these spells might only be available to clerics who'd actually gone to the trouble of visiting whatever remote shrine they are associated with, but sometimes just knowing the name and rituals of the associated god or saint might be enough. Imagine the prestige to be gained in being the cleric who brings such knowledge back to their cult centre and thus unlocks a new spell not just for themselves, but for their entire religion!

And it works for quest-givers, too. Obviously every ruler is going to want to have the latest, sweetest spiritual technology on their side. Obviously they'll want to aggressively investigate rumours of holy sites, obscure shrines, sacred springs, and so on, in the hope of giving themselves and their clergy an edge over their rivals. Everyone knows about all the most famous gods and saints, so they just cancel out: the real advantage is to be gained from being the first one in on a hot new discovery, and they're almost always going to come from way out in the hinterlands, or someone would know about them already. Of course it's going to fall to your party to make the long, dangerous journey through the wilderness to the half-ruined shrine of some obscure local spirit or hermit, so that your cleric can check whether they have enough spiritual mojo to be worth adding to the national liturgy.

Just think of the adventure opportunities!

1d10 local god adventure opportunities

  1. The king wants to develop a new industry, but because it's not been historically practiced in his kingdom he doesn't know who the appropriate gods/saints/spirits are who oversee these things. Your job is to go to some foreign land where this trade is already established and surreptitiously steal all their knowledge about how best to honour, petition, and placate the relevant spiritual beings, all without giving away the secret of the king's economic plans. You'll get a bonus if you can learn the secret rites their guildsmen carry out behind closed doors!
  2. In your grandfather's day there was a weird old hermit living in the mountains. Now people are claiming to see him in their dreams and there are rumours of miracles occurring near the remote cave where he once lived. Your job is to get out there, try to work out if he really has become a legitimate god/saint/spirit, and - if he has - find some way to integrate him into the local religion. (Maybe a shrine could be built in his cave? Or maybe you could find his bones and take them to the local temple as holy relics?)
  3. The king is trying to integrate a recently-conquered frontier region into his kingdom, and he needs someone to do a spiritual survey. Your job is to roam from shrine to shrine among a resentful and rebellious population, cataloguing their local gods/saints/spirits and working out which of them, if any, might be worth adding to the national cult. 
  4. Old chronicles speak of a god/saint/spirit who once bestowed powerful blessings upon their worshippers, but its cult centre has long since fallen into ruin, and no-one remembers the rites by which it was once honoured. Might there be something out there worth salvaging? You'll have to voyage though the wilderness to its abandoned shrine and start making experimental offerings to find out!
  5. The king has a major project planned and he needs as much sacred mojo as possible. Your job is to visit the shrines of the relevant gods/saints/spirits, obtain their sacred items and holy relics by whatever means necessary, and bring them to the capital to ensure the project's success. Naturally, you can expect the locals to violently resist the removal of their treasures.
  6. As 5, but from the other side. A bunch of thugs with a royal warrant just rode into your local shrine and carried off the relics of your local god/saint/spirit to the capital, claiming that the king needs them more than you do! Now your community looks to you to steal them back, and to establish a new, secret shrine where they can be safely kept in future.
  7. The king is planning to hold a major religious festival to bring the blessings of heaven upon his newly-built navy. It's going to cost him a fortune, and he needs to be sure that he's getting the maximum bang for his buck. Your job is to roam the remote storm-wracked islands and pirate-haunted headlands where all the best gods/saints/spirits of the sea seem to have their shrines, and find out which ones are most worth honouring in the festivities. Expect every single priest you meet to try to hustle you about this.
  8. There's been a disaster - but all the priests insist that they've been carrying out their ceremonies perfectly! Clearly some unknown god/saint/spirit is offended - but which one? Your job is to divine which obscure spiritual entity has been neglected, make a pilgrimage to their remote place of power, and make whatever offerings they require in order to slake their wrath before the kingdom suffers even further calamities.
  9. Sometimes the god/saint/spirit you need to pray to has their holiest shrine in a really inconvenient place, like the other side of a monster-haunted wilderness or the middle of an enemy kingdom. Your job is to undertake the perilous journey there to make offerings on behalf of your king, so that he can win their favour for his latest scheme.
  10. Out in the wilderness the remains of some forgotten shrine to a god/saint/spirit have been discovered, but no-one recognises the names carved on its ancient stone. Is it holy or unholy? Does power still reside here, and if so, is there enough of it to make it worth re-establishing whatever vanished cult once built this place? Best do your research first: trial-and-error offerings may risk causing offence that your kingdom can ill afford...

Saturday 14 August 2021

Elements of incongruity

I've written before about the dangers of simply doubling down on the same ideas ad infinitum, leading to extremely one-note characters, settings, and situations: barbarians primarily characterised by their barbaric barbarism, rogues notable for their roguish roguery, and so on. Not only does this tend to make scenarios more boring on a conceptual level, it often also leads to less satisfying actual play. If the Pyromantic Fire Coven of the Burning Flame Witch are totally all in on fire magic, then once the PCs have developed viable anti-fire-magic countermeasures they really have no reason to respond to each thing the Coven throws at them with anything other than 'the same again, but more'. But the best play thrives on complexity, on situations fraught with tensions and contradictions that the PCs can get their claws into and turn to their advantage. 

One easy way to create this is to ensure that each creature, community, organisation, or whatever includes at least one element of incongruity. This is the wrinkle in their otherwise smooth conceptual facade: the thing that not only makes them more interesting and memorable, but also provides hooks for more nuanced play, making them resistant to the overconfident and vulnerable to the well-prepared. 

So here are some examples. To come up with one for your next NPC or faction, try rolling 1d3 and 1d6...

Incongruity type (roll 1d3)

  1. Incongruous character trait.
  2. Incongruous individual.
  3. Incongruous nature.  

Incongruous character trait. Children's fiction uses this sort of thing all the time. ('It turned out that the dragon secretly loved dancing!') This sort of thing can serve to trip up players who make over-hasty assumptions about how such characters will behave, while also providing resources for those who bother to get to know them properly, allowing them to be more easily befriended or manipulated by the PCs.

Assign an incongruous trait by rolling 1d6:

  1. Incongruous belief. This person has one sincere and deeply-held belief that could not easily be predicted from their general worldview or ideological position. Maybe an otherwise-rational person has one superstition they take really seriously, and cannot be argued out of; maybe an otherwise-conservative traditionalist has one topic on which they have surprisingly liberal views, or vice-versa. An important sub-type is the incongruous moral position, whereby an otherwise-decent person turns out to harbour some horrible prejudice or moral blind spot, or a seemingly-wicked or amoral person turns out to have at least one moral line they genuinely will not cross.
  2. Incongruous personality trait. This person has one character trait that is apparently out of keeping with their social role. Immense personal vanity is predictable among aristocrats, but perhaps more surprising in an orc raider; tremendous interpersonal aggression might be common among street thugs, but is more unexpected in a librarian. They may have found a way to make this trait work for them - maybe the librarian has terrorised all his rivals into submission! - or it may form a barrier that they need to work around in order to fulfil the role expected of them. 
  3. Incongruous interest or hobby. This person is fascinated by something unexpected, like an absent-minded sage turning out to be a bare-knuckle boxing enthusiast, or a brutal ogre who actually has a deep and genuine appreciation for music. They may be ashamed of this interest and keep it secret, which will only make them more eager to share it with non-judgemental fellow enthusiasts.
  4. Incongruous background. This person wasn't always the way they are now. Maybe they've experienced a massive rise or fall in social status (e.g. the street thief was actually born into a noble family, or vice versa), or maybe they've undergone some huge cultural shift, moving into a religious, cultural, or ideological position very different from the one they originally held. They consequently possess a body of skills and knowledge incongruous with their current position - that street thief may actually have a surprising knowledge of aristocratic etiquette left over from their privileged childhood!
  5. Incongruous relationship. This person maintains a relationship (personal, familial, or romantic) which connects them to a sphere of life otherwise remote from their own. Maybe the bandit chief's sister is the city archivist. Maybe this weird, smelly hermit was once the baron's childhood friend. The relationship means a lot to both parties, even though they might feel some embarrassment about it. 
  6. Incongruous ambition. This person has always aspired to something utterly different to their current life. Maybe they wanted to pursue a very different career, like a sailor who always wanted to be an artist instead, or vice versa; or maybe they harbour a secret crush on someone from a very different social sphere, and dream of running away with them and living happily ever after. Depending on context, this ambition may be something they talk about all the time, or something they keep carefully hidden. 

Incongruous individual. When it comes to individuals in groups, lots of RPG adventures tend to go for the 'chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce' approach: so if the group are violent savage, their leader or champion will be notable for being even more savagely violent. But you can get much more mileage out of having a difference, instead: something that sets them apart in kind rather than just degree, a difference which can serve as a source of strength or as a wedge to drive them apart. Assign an incongruous individual by rolling 1d6:

  1. Incongruous ideology. The group all do the same things - they wouldn't be much of a group, otherwise - but one of them does them for different reasons to the rest. Maybe, in a band of outlaws otherwise motivated by greed, one actually sees their criminal activities as a way to strike back against the unjust social order. Maybe most of the soldiers are fighting because they actually want to win the war, but their commanding officer is only here to pursue a private vendetta, or out of a sense of religious obligation. Whatever the split is, it's not enough to stop them from working together on a day-to-day basis (or they'd have gone their separate ways ages ago), but it might well come to the forefront in moments of crisis. 
  2. Incongruous quality. One person in the group is just much better or much worse than the rest in some significant way. Maybe the thieves are mostly mere brawlers... except for one of them, who's the best knife-fighter anyone's ever seen. Maybe the hobgoblins are hardened warriors... except for one of them, who's someone's little brother out on his first campaign. Either way around, this difference probably arouses a complicated mixture of positive and negative feelings in the others: unusually strong characters will be regarded with mingled respect and envy, while unusually weak ones may be viewed with a mixture of protectiveness and resentment.
  3. Incongruous culture. One individual in the group has a very different social or cultural background to the rest. Maybe they're part of a different ethnicity (or a different species, in a fantasy setting); maybe they follow a different religion, or were born into a different culture or social class (e.g. one member of a band of aristocratic rakehells who was actually born poor, and is extremely self-conscious about it). This difference may be a source of strength, providing skills and knowledge that the group would otherwise lack, but can also be a source of tension that scheming adversaries may use to pry them apart. 
  4. Incongruous ability. One individual in the group has some surprising ability that the others lack: a scholar in a band of beggars, a skilled diplomat in a gang of orcish raiders, a talented huntsman in an office full of bureaucrats, etc. For fantasy games this may also take the form of a magical talent. 
  5. Incongruous virtue. One person in the group has some important positive quality - e.g. mercy, loyalty, tolerance, courage, compassion - that the rest of them lack. This virtue can't be something that gets in the way of the group's day-to-day activities - a pirate who refuses to steal isn't going to be a pirate for long - but may well surface at crucial junctures, when one member of the group unexpectedly breaks from the rest to take some kind of moral stand.
  6. Incongruous vice. One person in the group has some important negative quality - e.g. sadism, cowardice, deceitfulness, addiction, greed - that the rest of them lack. Depending on the context, this vice may be something they perform openly or something they try to keep secret, but it's a big enough part of their personality that anyone who observes them closely is likely to pick up on it. As with virtues, such vices are particularly likely to reveal themselves at crucial junctures, when one member of the group abandons or betrays their comrades or otherwise gives way to their worst impulses. 

Incongruous nature. The character is not who they seem to be. The face they present to the world is a performance, but their true nature is very different to what they pretend, and at moments of crisis the real them shines through. Their true nature could be anything as long as it's sufficiently distinct from their public facade, but to pick one that'll work for almost anyone, roll 1d6. (And, yes, these are all Natures from the old World of Darkness system...)

  1. Covert monster. Whatever the person pretends to be, the reality is far worse. If they pretend to be good, it's sheer hypocrisy. If they pretend to be normal, it's protective camouflage. If they pretend to at least be loyal to their mates, then they're actually just waiting for the right time to sell them out. Everything they do is actually intended to multiply their opportunities to benefit themselves at other people's expense. Even the things that seem most benevolent. Especially the things that seem most benevolent. 
  2. Covert caregiver. Whatever this person appears to be, they're actually a real softy at heart. They might still do harmful things, but it's only because they believe in tough love, or because they hope that the ends justify the means, or because they're trying to protect their friends or to teach you a lesson. At the end of the day they will always try to nurture their allies and minimise harm to their enemies, although they might pretend otherwise for appearance's sake. 
  3. Covert conformist. This person only acts the way they do because they feel it's expected of them. They might appear to be cruel, or kind, or artistic, or scholarly, or shy, or whatever... but it's all just a show, a performance for other people's benefit. Put them in a different social context and they'd act completely differently. Put them in no social context and they might even start the long and painful process of working out what they want, instead. 
  4. Covert judge. This person is actually a moralist at heart. They might pretend to be anarchic or forgiving or amoral or nihilistic, but secretly they are always, always judging. Everything they do is secretly a test, even when it's disguised as an act of mercy or sadism or hedonism or indifference, and when it comes right down to it, the way they treat you will depend on the secret score they've been chalking up for you in their heads this whole time. 
  5. Covert child. This person never really grew up. They can manage a passable performance of adulthood, including pretending to have proper adult motivations, but underneath it's all just childish curiosity and clinging and tantrums and I WANT THE THING NOW! Such characters will often gravitate towards substitute parent-figures, although they'll usually claim that these relationships are romantic or political or professional, instead. 
  6. Covert idealist. This person really, seriously believes in some kind of big ideal: Freedom, Justice, Faith, Honour, that sort of thing. They probably don't make a big deal of it, because they know most people will either laugh at them or assume they're lying, but when push comes to shove they are actually, genuinely willing to kill or die for their ideal, in a fashion that is likely to be equal parts inspiring and terrifying.

Incongruity in Action: the Backwood Bandits

Let's apply all these possibilities to that most uninteresting of fantasy cliches, the bandit gang. Hopefully it will be clear how any or all of these could lead to more interesting actual play! (And yes, if you wanted to, you could apply all eighteen at once...)
  • Boring version: The bandits are robbers who live in the backwoods. Their leader is the biggest, meanest robber of all.
  • 1.1: The bandits are, in their own idiosyncratic way, deeply religious. They refuse to rob on holy days, and will not harm members of the clergy.
  • 1.2: The bandits hate lying. They may kill and rob you, but at least they'll be totally honest about it.
  • 1.3: The bandits love music. Their rousing sing-alongs echo through the backwoods, and they'll go out of their way to steal musical instruments and kidnap musicians.
  • 1.4: The bandits actually started out as a bunch of university drop-outs who took to robbery after being expelled. For a band of forest-dwelling robbers they're a surprisingly learned bunch.
  • 1.5: The bandit chief is in love with a local cleric, whose temple he's been surreptitiously visiting by night, though both men are deeply conflicted about the relationship.
  • 1.6: The bandits actually intended to become legitimate merchants - the robbery was just intended to raise enough capital to start a business. But one thing led to another and now they're all wanted by the authorities and stuck living in a wood...
  • 2.1: Most of the bandits are just in it for the money, but one of them really believes that robbing people is her holy duty, and that she is the instrument of heaven's vengeance upon an unjust society.
  • 2.2: One of the bandits is so much better at woodcraft and archery than the others that it's positively obnoxious. All her comrades hate her.
  • 2.3: One of the bandits is a goblin, who acts as the group's scout, but is acutely conscious that the others will never really regard him as one of the gang.
  • 2.4: One of the bandits has natural magical talents, though he's totally untaught and has little control over how they manifest.
  • 2.5: One of the bandits is totally committed to the gang, and would happily lay down her life for them. (They would never dream of doing the same for her.)
  • 2.6: One of the bandits is an awful alcoholic, unable to resist the lure of alcohol even when he knows that he really should.
  • 3.1: One of the bandits is a sociopathic monster who is just biding her time, waiting for the chance to sell out her 'friends' and escape with all the loot.
  • 3.2: One of the bandits always secretly tries to make sure that no-one on either side gets hurt during their robberies - he claims his motives are purely pragmatic, but actually he just genuinely hates cruelty and violence.
  • 3.3: One of the bandits only got roped into a life of crime because of peer pressure. He talks a lot about the love of freedom and the injustice of the law, but would happily resume a blameless life of honest labour if given half a chance. 
  • 3.4: One of the bandits is secretly testing the rest of the gang to see if they're truly worthy of her loyalty, willing to dedicate her life to them if they pass, or to betray them to the authorities if they fail.
  • 3.5: Beneath his ferocious exterior, one of the bandits is secretly a mass of insecurities, clinging to the bandit chief for reassurance in a world he's never really learned to understand or deal with.
  • 3.6: One of the bandits is an absolute true believer in personal liberty, and would rather kill or die than accept any kind of restriction or restraint.