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.