Tuesday, 11 December 2018

On Character Backstory and Character Death

There's a contradiction at the heart of the implied “game” at the heart of Fifth Edition. This is an edition greatly influenced by the old school – two major OSR figures are consultants on it, after all. There's an adventure that's an arguably superior reboot of Tomb of Horrors. There's these three pillars of gameplay. Dungeon situations can be solved in many ways. Smart play is rewarded; without it, your character may die.

This is also the edition where the pretty good Starter Set immediately railroads the party into some bland roadside encounter, the edition that fastforwards the first two levels where characters are genuinely fragile, the edition where in the Tomb of Horrors III adventure you're told to give players a way out of hard random encounters right after being told that random encounters shouldn't be levelled for difficulty.

Not all of Fifth's weaknesses have to do with the tension I'm going to identify, just as not all of its strengths comes from Mike Mearls' OSR roots. But a lot of the problem comes down to this:

Your new character matters too much.

You've written a couple of pages of backstory. You've done a bunch of character-build nonsense, picked the right spells, the whole shebang. You've legitimately invested in the process of even getting to the table. Your character is awesome, and they have a great quest.

It would genuinely suck if they died during Session 3, when falling into a whirlpool trap activated by a Twig Blight.

On the other hand, if that happens to some guy you rolled up a couple sessions ago, maybe it's just funny, or a useful learning experience about the combat behaviour of these little plant dudes.

Fifth Edition nobly attempts to meet two assumptions of play here – the epic hero of storied past, and the nobody who rises to be somebody through their adventures. It fails in part. This is somewhat genetic – there's something bred in the bone as far back as First Edition, and certainly Vampire the Masquerade has had a significant impact. But the buck stops here. The implicit assumptions of Fifth, and even some of the mechanics, create an impossible tension. Characters dying is a waste.

But what if the real, active possibility of character death – round every corner, at every potentially trapped door – made everything else sweeter? Every victory, every escape from catastrophe, every friend made and enemy defeated, all made more ecstatic by the fact that even at 5th Level, you can just straight up die from fighting the wrong monster at the wrong time. To quote Shadowlands, “the pain now is part of the happiness then – that's the deal”. Life and death are interlinked.

Take this example of an old school DM talking about a character death: http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com/2017/06/sir-tresken-vigilant-rest-in-power.html. Now bear in mind Sir Tresken will likely have been rolled up pretty quickly, with little optimization. A character was needed for a session, and lo, one emerged. One day, Sir Tresken died. Others had died before, but hadn't received such an obituary from the DM. I imagine some of them “get capped pretty quick” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bR3T1eThJU), too. After all, at first glance, in the old-school game, “the king stay the king”.At first glance.

But what about Sir Tresken?

Sir Tresken also won the Twin Saddle of Vyanir, fashioned by Saint Garanax, the founder of his order, the dread Storm Riders. Garanax had used it to break the first of the war crows, leading them from the inverted White Jungle to the waking world. Sir Tresken followed in Saint Garanax's footsteps. Each traveled to Wishery from Rastingdrung through a shimmering door. Each served the same two mistresses. In the waking world, Tresken was the sworn servant of the Chatelaine of Storms, the witch queen from whom he drew his powers. But in Wishery, the Petal Blade bound him to the memory of the Lady Shirishanu, legendary poet-warrior paramour of the last of the Incandescent Kings. Had he lived longer Sir Tresken too would have broken wild crows and been the stuff of fairy tales.
At that same moment, in Wishery, as Tresken's life blood poured from a mortal wound onto the dueling ground, the Petal Blade gave a keening cry, a wave of raw grief that burst upon all at the pagodas of the hanging merchants. Fat Malichar burst instantly into tears, and even Nekalimon who hoped against hope that Tresken would be slain felt so sickened that he spilled the precious moonstones he was counting into the chasm below. The Petal Blade grieved on behalf of its mistress, and all of Zyan, for the waning of the hope that had begun to dawn in that hopeless place.

Sir Tresken died in the forty first session of our campaign. May he rest in power.”

Sir Tresken earned every moment of that. Forty-one sessions of ruthless, cutthroat play. That chump barbarian who died two sessions in, even the magic-user who went down after nine sessions – sure, they might have been fun, but Sir Treskens had created a legend. Not based on his backstory. Just based on – well – his story. And that makes his death tragic.

But what if he had survived? Well, keep playing, and you'll find a character like Sir Tresken.

That's the issue with a gameplay style which emphasizes pre-game prep – not just pages of backstory writing, but, and perhaps this is more to the point, one which also rewards serious pre-game statistical planning. The game becomes about efficiently utilising the optimised device, or experiencing the ramifications of the backstory, not about exploring a world and creating a story. It becomes actively obnoxious to let characters die – the characters, and the work put into them by the player, becomes the point of the game, rather than the gameplay itself. The effort you've put into backstory and character builds means it seems less fun for the DM to let your character die.

I'm not saying that's bad wrong fun. You do you. But I suspect it's not the best use of an engine like D&D's.

D&D suits emergent backstory best, is my contention. It's a game about exploration and discovery as much as it's a game about killing stuff. At its best, it's also a pretty simple game, where rolling up a character is quick and no-fuss. Given that, why not discover your character along the way, too? Again – I'm not saying that it can't be fun for the DM to create elaborate interlacing plot-threads based on your complex backstory. I'm saying it might be funner to think up a sentence summarising your guy or gal and then crash them into the world. See whether they become worthy of a backstory or not. Do you know what the backstory they'll get is? The game you actually play.

Maybe that backstory is you being turned into a tapestry by a Fungal Artisan two sessions in. But maybe it'll be like Sir Tresken, and a living sword will wail your death across the land, causing even your enemies to weep.

And maybe your tale will be greater yet.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Great Valley: Gronk's Crossroads and Rumour Table

Alongside developing Talon's Height (I now have two tables playing it, have run a one-shot out of it, and a friend has run a two-shot out of it), I've begun writing up a slightly less traditional setting - the Great Valley. This is influenced by an odd mix of things - Vance, the Exalted RPG, faery myths, the sport of cricket, south-eastern England. Distinctive races (which I'll be designing race-classes for) are the Pigman and the Bombid/Beefolk.

This is the outline of the "starting town", Gronk's Crossroads, along with a rumour table for use there. Tell me what you think.

Gronk's Crossroads
A village in the Great Valley has grown up around a waystation run by the pigman Gronk, who serves as an unofficial and thoroughly reluctant mayor. It is in the midst of a strange landscape, dotted with mysterious ruins. It has recently developed into a major cricket venue. Gronk's Crossroads has a population of around 300, including the nearby farms.

The Waystation
An inn-cum-general store run by the pigman Gronk (2nd Level Pigman, grumpy, taciturn, acts resentful of the villagers but is quite protective of them). A bunk can be had here for 2cp a night, whilst a private room is 3sp. Stodgy, filling meals involving suet and cabbage cost 4cp, imported ale costs 2cp a pint, whilst wine is 1sp a bottle. Gronk's decade-spouse recently visited for a month, and left behind 10 manpiglets on her departure. One regular is Gibly (0th Level Magic User, only knows a cantrip to help crops grow, overchatty and boring).

Market “Square”
A rough triangle of dusty ground, local farmers and travelling tinkers sell their wares here. Metal weapons and armour are unavailable, being a monopoly of Mobbs the Smith; however, there is a 2 in 6 chance of shortbows and leather armour being available, and hunting snares and slings are always available. There is a 2 in 10 chance of strange or unusual goods – bezoars, mancatchers, faery fiddles, etc – being available.

The New Smithy
There was no Old Smithy. Mobbs (quiet but amiable human, surprisingly skinny for a smith) lives and works here, producing most ordinary metal goods someone might want to buy, including metal weapons and armour. He also brews his own beer, and serves it from his front rooms some evenings to anyone who visits (mostly his neighbours). He charges 1cp for a pint, which, depending on the batch, either tastes of soggy biscuits or tastes mostly normal but is slightly psychadelic.

The Oval
A great green oval, strongly contrasting the dry scrubby ground around it. A cricket wicket is in the middle. Crossroads Cricket Club (CCC) play here, hosting travelling teams from other places in the Valley and beyond. There are enough locals who play cricket for there to be a match even without visitors – about 30 locals play, and a team is made of 11 players. The club captain is Vimy (arrogant human, tall and blonde, think Disney's Gaston), whilst the groundsman is Philbert (halfling, too short to play, enthusiastic and skilled at groundskeeping).

The Catamite's Tomb
No-one locally knows what a catamite is, and no-one knows how to unlock the puzzle-door, so no-one has been into this ancient building just south of the Crossroads. It is built out of one piece of transluscent light blue stone, cool to the touch even on the hottest summer's day.

The Generic Shrine
Carved into a great grey stone protruding from the earth east of the Waystation, this small underhang is blank and empty except for a plinth, which the inhabitants of the Crossroads leave offerings on or pray at – to whichever God or gods they follow. At any time it is likely to contain 2d6x10sp worth of precious gems, fine spices, hand-crafted ornate candles, and the like; stealing them and getting caught would be a good way to observe how lynch mobs form.

1d20 Rumour Table
1. The Catamite's Tomb is full of the treasure of an ancient wizard, but is full of traps. (Misleadingly True)
2. There are strange animalfolk up at the Golden Mere who are master builders. Underneath the water, though, lurks death. (True)
3. The Generic Shrine was originally dedicated to a trickster god who blesses those who steal from it. (Potentially Fatally Untrue)
4. Though King Chegwin's Gribbles claim the Fort for their own, there are many levels still locked beneath them, where the true masters of the place sleep. (True, though how anyone knows this is a mystery.)
5. The Old Woman loves to forge powerful magical weapons for the heroic-hearted. She welcomes any such seeker at her hut. (True, But Not In The Way You Think)
6. Faeryfolk rule Old Eaves Wood; apparently there's some civil war betwixt them, and they sometimes hire outsiders to aid them in their strange battles. Be careful, as these aren't always solved by combat. (True)
7. Shallow Hall, the seat of Lord Russet, sits next to many barrows of the olden times – full of treasure, but dangerous. (True)
8. The people of Coldmeadow are strange and distant folk, courteous to outsiders, but secretive. They must be hiding something. (They Are!)
9. Gronk slew a wyrm and sold its hide to fund building the Waystation. (True, though it was only a small one, and he doesn't talk about it.)
10. There's money to be made in playing as a club professional in cricket. It's also a good excuse to travel and see the Great Valley. (True)
11. The Longtrees are inhabited by fuzzy, cuddly flying people who dole out honey to the cheerful. (Essentially False)
12. The hedge wizard Gibly pays for herbs, mosses, and fungi from the Golden Mere, Greywallow, the Longtrees, and Old Eaves Wood. (True)
13. The Impossible Tower contains marvellous artefacts of the Olden Times; if only it was easier to get into! (True)
14. The Order of the Old-Delvers are headquartered in their great Monastery-Cathedral. They pay generously for evidence about the olden times, especially relating to religion. (Mostly True, Except They're Not That Generous)
15. There's apparently a village hidden away in the Longtrees where everyone lives to one hundred years old. (There is a village in the Longtrees, but the rest is garbled.)
16. Cedd's Isle is named after a strange monk who lives there, alongside great sentient hermit-crabs. He is a kindly host to travellers, especially seekers of truth about the olden times. (True)
17. Greywallow is dangerous place; the marshes are rife with giant amphibians, and there are robbers hidden there. There are valuable herbs here, however, and rumours of sunken treasure. (True)
18. Lord Russet is a power-hungry madman, and has his greedy eye on adding Coldmeadow and Gronk's Crossroads to his little empire. (Vicious Slander)
19. If you meet a faery, speak courteously about the Kind Masters, and they shall treat you as a friend. (Debatable)
20. You may find great wealth at the Concrete Horror House, but at risk of your sanity. (Painfully True)

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Fantasy RPG Religion Sucks

Religion in most fantasy settings, and therefore most fantasy RPGs, sucks.

I don't mean it morally sucks. It might well be portrayed as wicked. On the other hand, all those Lawful Good clerics running around the Forgotten Realms seem alright. What I mean is this: the portrayal of religion sucks. This isn't just a problem unique to fantasy or RPGs, of course, but it's particularly notable when we play games wherein divine power is a mechanical fact.

Religion in most fantasy RPG settings is entirely inorganic. It is pasted on. There is often a vague pantheonism, with a number of gods knocking around acting as patrons to different clerics or paladins. That's their main function, in fact – gods exist in most D&D settings (for example) so that there is some sort of patron to whom your heroic paladin can swear an oath. As a secondary purpose, it's great to have a shrine of Lathander or whatever where you can go get healed – or perhaps get a quest to kill some kobolds.

Of course, aside from the divinely-backed PCs, no other character pays any attention to religion in most of these games. Religion isn't a major part of the texture of the game. In one way, this is fine, if it's fine for your game; who cares, right? But if there's any attempt at simulationism – as there is many OSR settings, and which is a sort of prerequisite for the massive worldbuilding projects undertaken by so many DMs and players over the years – then it's weird that one of the great concerns of actual people both past and present is so poorly presented. Throw some generic pantheonistic gods (“one god of thunder, hmm, now I need a goddess of death”) in a pot, stick some temples in your town, and you're done. Maybe people go there to pray for something. Who cares? Save your energy for your complex numismatic system and the detailed history of the orcs in the mountain.

I think there are probably two broad reasons for this. The FIRST is the simple fact that many fantasy writers and readers/players have little personal sympathy with organised religion. Yes, most people who have ever lived have engaged with organised religion, largely with some degree of sincerity; but most Westerners now are at least sceptical if not outright antagonistic, and it is Westerners, largely, who write and consume the material under discussion. This trend is likely to be more pointed in the fantasy RPG genre itself, given the alt-culture traditions involved. (There's an interesting historical essay for someone to write about that – the ways in which the conservative sources of Tolkien and wargaming melded with the more ambiguous Vance/Howard tradition to create the ingredients of the Satanic Panic.) What this means in practice is that religion in fantasy settings is often either strictly functional (“it powers clerics”), or where developed in any way still misses the essence of religious development and observance as it actually exists. It's hard to see how the religions in certain fantasy worlds could come to exist or gather and keep followers thereafter. It may, of course, be that we conclude people are religious due to fear or foolishness or whatever other negative motive; even in that case, if we want some degree of reality in our settings, we have to consider what the believer themselves thinks they are doing and why. No-one thinks they're a sucker. No-one thinks they're backing an objectively evil lunatic cult. We might even concede that they may know their own heart better than us.

The SECOND reason religion in fantasy RPG settings struggles is, I think, simply the force of cliché. Gygax put together a wonky pantheon (with saints, too) as the pulpy religious context of Greyhawk's relatively simplistic setting. It worked for him. Greenwood did something similar, with a little more nuance, in his fantastically overwritten Realms. There's some certainly some memorable stuff there (if nothing else, from the Baldur's Gate PC game!). The religion of the Realms and of Greyhawk leave me cold, for the first reason given above, but I won't deny that they have cool bits or have been greatly enjoyable for many players over time. Their effect, though, is deadening; to give an example of a better work with a similar effect on the genre, look at Tolkien. T.S. Eliot remarked that Shakespeare and Milton accomplished the same for verse drama and epic poetry, respectively – Hamlet and Paradise Lost made it more or less impossible for others to write top-tier examples of the form for centuries afterwards! It's not simply about the gap in quality; it's also that much in the genre thereafter looks too much to the great conquering work, or relies too much on its tropes and themes without carrying across its originality or energy.

We have that in many RPG fantasy settings. Gygax and Greenwood created the most notable RPG settings from the first two decades of the genre existing; they naturally loom over all subsequent work. It's hard for later writers to get out from under them.

I'm going to go a bit rogue, and save my two points of “advice” - that is, two broad principles to follow when constructing fantasy religions – for the end. First, I'm going to give a few examples of some settings which to (partially or fully) escape the trap of sub-Greenwoodist religion – that is, religions which no actual person would practise, and which largely exist to fill the religion-shaped gap in a setting. To start with, let's look at two examples which solve the problem by bypassing or reframing it.

ONE. Dark Sun. A post-apocalyptic D&D setting from the mid-90s where overuse of magic has ravaged the environment and most of the world is ruled by evil sorcerer-kings. The pantheonic gods are dead, and worship is now directed either to the sorcerer-kings or, in a more pantheistic manner, the world itself. Of course, there are still pantheonic gods, so the question of how and why people used to worship them is open, but it's irrelevant to the setting. Religion here is either the “false religion” of the sorcerer-kings, or a vague and nonspecifically positive environmentalist worship. We can see a philosophical juxtaposition here – organised religion in the hands of power vs 1990s hippieism. It may not be in some respects a convincing account of religion – except that it does communicate something quite sincere about the beliefs of many who might play in the setting. Religion is still painted broad-brush, is still unnuanced as an account of actual beliefs, but has a degree of vibrancy and vigour lacking from most Realms-clones.

TWO. Anomalous Subsurface Environment (ASE). A science-fantasy gonzo setting coming out of OSD D&D. Really great fun. The three main religious groupings presented are Cthulhu cultists, a demi-Catholic church that actually worships and loves (but does not at all understand) science, and the Orbital Gods – satellite AIs capable of blessing their followers in return for worship. This moves strongly away from cliché and immediately excites the imagination. There is a pantheon – but of artificial intelligences with no reasonable right to worship. This is a satire, of course, and one that connects into the wider setting well. This reframes the problem of cliché fantasy religion by making fun of it. That's just fine, and enjoyable – but it doesn't offer a solution to those who want their fantasy religion to be as simulational as they want other elements of their world to be.

Dark Sun removes the gods and substitutes, at a fairly nominal level, a religious landscape that likely matches some of the authors and certainly many of the readers/players. ASE parodies the traditional RPG religious tropes. Neither of these offer a textured view of religion's role in a world, nor do they consider the interior life of the (presumably numerous) people in those worlds who are religious. I can't remember a Dark Sun product with a warm and generous NPC who loved her sorcerer-king sincerely and deeply and in a rather admirable way, but found her own decent nature clashing with her rather impressive (if ill-founded) faith when it comes to the treatment of slaves assigned to her; or another who had a serious regard for “Mother Athas” but considered using massively environmentally destructive magic to defeat the bad guys.

There are other settings which address the question more holistically – that is, in a way that appeals to the simulationist (and religious person) in me. They do so because they address questions rarely addressed seriously in other settings (how do religious structures and beliefs form? and why do serious people hold them?), and do so in a sympathetic manner – actually interested in the beliefs and their holders in themselves.

Some honorary mentions before I offer some detailed examples. Brandon Sanderson's fantasy fiction includes about the most thoughtful representation of religion in the modern genre that I know. As a way of understanding human ethical standpoints, the Path system in the Vampire: The Masquerade is surprisingly robust (your vampire has a code, usually that of “Humanity” but sometimes something stranger; holding to the code prevents you from becoming a mindless beast; your character gains or loses points in it based on whether their actions match up to it). The Underdark societies outlined in Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth have compelling and engaging philosophies that are coherent on their own terms, if mostly relentlessly (and fittingly) dark.

The two examples I have in mind of good practise, however, go a little further than Vampire or Veins, and are embedded in actual gameplay, unlike Sanderson.

THREE. Dolmenwood. Dolmenwood is a fantastic setting, largely set out in the Wormskin 'zine (with a campaign guide book coming soon). It's a Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell kind of setting, heavy on British folklore and the Faery mythos. There are two things that are particularly praiseworthy about Dolmenwood in respect of religion, aside from the exceptionally good writing: (1) it's part of the texture of everyday life, and is written as such; the stand-in for the Catholic Church (which is even described as such) has churches and monasteries which fulfil particular functions in people's life, which are embedded in their communities, which you can imagine the populace congregating at, which you can see PCs feeling some sort of tie to. Meanwhile, the weird local mystical groupings fit into their own zones of influence, with the mysterious sect of the Drune having a coherent philosophy and naturally fitting into the setting. There's even a serious consideration given to their family life! (2) The motives of those who might practise a religion are comprehensible, and the beings (real or imagined) they worship or follow or deal with resemble real gods and godlings, with authentic-sounding mythologies (where even Corellon and Gruumsh, one of the better examples from the Realms, is a bit sterile and formulaic). I think particularly of the witches and their forest-gods in this respect – though more of a cultic sect than an ordinary mass religion, the witches' mystic beliefs are both original and fresh (to me) but also resonant of real mystery religions and lesser-known pagan faiths. To give some two short examples from Dolmenwood #8, when discussing the forest-gods:

The gods of the witches are entities that have dwelt on the astral fringes of Dolmenwood since the dawn of time. They are seemingly a manifestation of the spirit of the forest itself (or, seen the other way around, the forest is perhaps a physical manifestation of the gwyrigons). Though it is impossible to truly comprehend the motivations of such entities, they in some way feed off of the connection that witches establish with them.

Limwdd the Quiet Brother: Has dominion over stasis, growth, and rejuvenation. Limwdd is associated with seeds and the depths of the earth. Witches bound to this wood-god can feel the pulse of its energy in the ground when walking barefoot. Limwdd’s primary locus is in hex 1006 (see Wormskin issue 6).

FOUR. Against The Wicked City. The star of the show, to me – also, generally an excellent setting, and FREE. Find it in the links on the sidebar. In Against The Wicked City, there are a couple of ways religion is presented – in individual sections on a given group, and via a big random generator chart for “Religions of the Great Road”. The idea of the latter is to offer a way of finding innumerable peculiar grouplets, echoing its real world inspiration of Central Asian religion.

For the former, let us consider the official religion of the Wicked City, the Way of Light, which follows the Full Moon Sage. It was once a popular religion in every sense of that word, but has long been corrupted and hollowed out by the endemic and incipient banal evil of the Wicked King's state apparatus. To quote:

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

There is a hint here of something promising; yes, it's another Eeeeevil state religion, but by dint of a particular set of historical events. Other settings see the Eeeeeevil state religion as a Platonic state; it's organised religion, which means it's evil by nature and exists to support established power. Here we see that actual motives and sincere belief are part of religious practice, and that historical development affects religion – not as an “evolutionary” force, but as a fact. This texture is followed through by a d20 table of things priests might be found doing. So there are results which highlight the corruption of the clergy and church: Taking advantage of the fact that this is a holy day, when every respectable citizen in this part of the city needs to show their face in the temple, to harvest 'donations' from their captive audience.” or “Carrying out creepy rituals designed to terrify new initiates into obedience. Darkness, masks, flames, blades, blood, chanting men in black robes - the works.” But others hint at something else: “Actually reading the scriptures for once, and getting increasingly worried by what they find in them.” or “Secretly running an illicit school for local children, teaching them the actual doctrines of the Way of Light in order to keep some remnant of the true faith alive for future generations.”. Now, the Full Moon Sage may or may not be worthy of worship; even the pre-Wicked King Way of Light will have had its problems. But these feel like real people with real beliefs and motives. Some are simply corrupt, but others are sincere; we can think what we like of their belief, but there is an obvious sympathy here, if not agreement. And it's gameable! Those are all things that could be cool in your game, and your players could be involved in, and it'd be cool – way cooler than a priest of Pelor wanting to kill some undead.

The other way religion is presented is by the big random generator table mentioned above (http://udan-adan.blogspot.com/2017/02/religions-of-great-road.html). This system basically inspired the “Alignment” system I use in my Against The Wicked City games, though it's also somewhat influenced by the Vampire system mentioned above. Basically, a PC holds a particular set of beliefs – which include social practices, importantly – to one extent or another: Devout, Semi-Devout, or Non-Devout. This isn't a straitjacket for the PC's actions, but it is a useful guide and a practical way for the DM and player to understand the PC's motives. I'll write about that in detail another time, but for now let's finish on an example of the generator being used. There'll be some random rolls for name, origin, and how it's perceived in its homeland, before rolling for the object of worship, d4 core beliefs, and d4 social practices. I've written it up as one coherent entry, and added a couple of details for flavour.

The Apostles of the Great Revelation (from the east)
Originally hailing from another land, the Apostles were persecuted into oblivion and are now extinct in their homeland, living on only amongst of the clans of the High Steppes. The Apostles worship one god (Goktanri, “Sky God”) – all others are false. They believe that if only the Reign of the Faithful could be instituted everywhere, then everything would be perfect!; that we are being justly punished for the sins of our ancestors; that the End of Days is upon us, and we must prepare ourselves for the final battle of good and evil! Due to the syncretic fusion of its teachings with the shamanic traditions of the area, the faith is actually mostly concerned with the management of troublesome spirits. The faith places a strong emphasis on the practise of silent meditation. Its holiest ceremonies are very quiet and very serious. Every faithful household maintains a small family shrine within its dwelling-place. The faith has exacting ritual purity requirements, which its followers are expected to observe scrupulously (although many of them don't).

That's nearly all randomly generated, with a few extra touches (God's name, the location of its worshippers). It sounds like a real religion – and certainly shares something with Tengrism, which offered some inspiration to me in the small details. You can imagine coming across the yurts of a clan who follow this faith; you can imagine a khagan rising and leading them down from the High Steppes, to institute the Reign of the Faithful; you can, perhaps, imagine a PC holding these beliefs, and carrying their family shrine with them in a wicker box. Its randomly generated nature should make it ridiculous, and some wag will surely say that's more or less how real religions arise; but to me it works, and makes an engaging and authentic group to put in my game. Moreover, it escapes cliché despite being so close to actual religions – some feat!

How has Joseph, the creator of Against The Wicked City, done this? I don't know; you'd need to ask him. But here are the two principles I'd suggest one might follow to achieve something of the same result.

FIRSTLY, and most significant in avoiding shallowness: when creating religions in your setting, imagine what their adherents actually feel, think, believe. You may have decided they're accurate or inaccurate in their beliefs, but come to the human level and engage with them sympathetically. If you are taking a simulationist approach to world-building, and you want your players to engage thoughtfully with things in the world, the belief structures and socio-religious practices of the majority of your NPCs matter! What your NPCs want and do will be as improved by giving them rich belief systems as by giving them strong personal motives. Studying real world religion will help here (just look at the differences between the closely related belief structures of “orthodox” Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and the accompanying social structures – incredibly rich); so will reading the fantasy and RPG authors who best deal with religion. (Incidentally, doing this when dealing with traditional fantasy religion helps, too – embedding the Temple of Bahamut in actual local social practice will make it massively more useful and compelling.)

SECONDLY, and helpful in avoiding cliché (though point Firstly will help with this too): having read about real world religions and looked at the best fantasy writers on the topic, write some stuff, and keep throwing stuff at the wall. Look for some conceptual density. Make it messy and confusing. Come up with ways the religion/mysticism you're creating might help or harm its adherents or opponents (if only in a promised afterlife!). Don't primarily think of it in terms of its strict game utility – don't make up something just because the town needs a temple. Of course, your town may need a temple, and you want it to be gameable – but step aside for a moment when creating the temple. Your setting probably doesn't need a generic sun god called Lord Sun who people go to for healing and (if you're pushed for more) bland high holy days with unspecified ceremonies. The sun, after all, is believed to be a telescope from the heavens, and the sun god is the telescope operator; he's a reverse-astronomer, and his gifts are chiefly to do with mechanical devices and intelligence-gathering. Right sacrifice to him is believed to aid the city's automaton defence force in combat, and so even poor families will donate annually, and everyone attends the feasts of his holy week in the summer, the Assembly of Cogs.

Hopefully that helps you. What is your favourite socio-religious material from RPGs?

Saturday, 22 September 2018

5 DnD Settings You Might Not Have Heard About

The topic of this post is quite explicitly stolen from Ben Milton's excellent video with a similar title (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4F67RFcW6E&t=4s). His version is more fun, better produced, and better thought-through than mine; but I'm lazy, so here we are.

If D&D is at its best – its very best, its primal best – when it involves players genuinely discovering the unknown, and DMs being spurred to real creative endeavour, then the world a game is set in is important. If every element of that world is predictable, then there is no discovery for the players, and the only creative impetus for the DM is one of rebellion against the staid world.

So here are five settings for you to get stuck into that will, I think, give players journeys of discovery and give DMs plenty to chew on. All five are nominally designed for old-school versions of D&D, chiefly versions of Basic/Expert (“B/X”) and 1st Edition AD&D; though you can fairly easily port a lot of that across to 5th Edition, it may be worth your while to get the free PDFs of B/X Essentials (https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/5606/Necrotic-Gnome/subcategory/28663/B-X-Essentials) and work from there.

(Yes, often the best setting is the one you design yourself. There's your caveat. But some poor uncreative types like me find the work of others a great aid.)

#1 – Hill Cantons by Chris Kutalik
Have you witnessed the pilgrimage of the Soldier Bears? Do you dare deal with the otherworldly Eld, those dreadful half-Eldar-half-David-Bowie fashion victims? And will you sell your loot to Fraza the Curio Dealer, who is entirely honest – good for pricing your goods, bad when his deep-seated racism has cause to emerge?

The Hill Cantons (available from Hydra Cooperative, https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/7124/Hydra-Cooperative?term=hydra+&test_epoch=0) is an acid fantasy setting designed for Labyrinth Lord. In the published range there are currently three books (Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, and Misty Isles of the Eld) and two cosmology PDFs. There's another one – the excellently-named What Ho, Frog Demons – coming soon (I think the art was fixed over the summer). What's so good about the Hill Cantons?

It's funny. The world will make both DM and players laugh. Everything is memorable, shot in technicolour. The locations are great – how about a crashed dimensional organic sailing barge made of gold full of religious ghouls? The NPCs are vivid – see Fraza above. The “monsters” are distinctive – do you even know what a Reverse Centaur is?

It's a world that's inspired me. I made a level of a dungeon set in this world, and it's about the most anarchically funny thing I've written. Twice players have assiduously sought out a hexagonal metal coin to activate the canopied table they found in the first level of the dungeon – and then laughing realization has dawned on them as a display lights up on the canopy, a drawer slides out with a disc and two flat-bottomed hand-tools, and the table begins to hum.

#2 – Veins of the Earth (and Deep Carbon Observatory) by Patrick Stuart
Veins of the Earth is the Underdark rebooted, turned into a mythic underworld. It's available in PDF at Drivethrurpg, and the printed version (a beautiful hardback) is available at a slightly above-the-odds price at Amazon. The book contains a lot of practical ideas and notes for running games in the Underdark, especially focussed round things like climbing, encumbrance in closed spaces, and generating caves as you go, but the “setting” is chiefly defined for me by the array of monsters and adventuring ideas.

Currency consists of light. Want to buy something? Away with your surface gold! That'll be 20 lumes, please – that is, 20 hours worth of light, in whatever combination of oil, torches, and phosphorescent fungus you like. Oh, initiative rolls are limited to those who carry light – those who are in the pool share that initiative. Everyone else is at initiative 0.

There are impossibly noble, chivalrous travelling knights who are also sentient humanoid trilobites. They cannot speak. There are sinister pseudo-humans with great knots in their stomach, offering fantastic loans at unconscionable prices, constantly seeking their “lost” children. The duergar are rebuilt as the model of an efficient work ethic, to the point of society-wide sociopathy.

This has become the default Underdark for my Haughty Fantasy games. I carry plenty of stuff over from other sources, of course – this is DIY DnD – but the idea of an alien, disturbing underworld is key.

I mention the standalone adventure Deep Carbon Observatory as well because it explicitly connects to a Veins-like Underdark, and the same brooding sense of sorrow intermixed with tear-inducing wonder runs throughout.

Also, the author can write.

A spider that walks across your outstretched hand might tell itself a tale of what you are. It does not know. There are veins beneath the skin it takes to be the whole. The world you think you know is nothing but a shell, a thin carapace over the skin of the, deeper, unbound world below.

You have existed, up to this point, on the illusion of a plane, bordered by mountains, rivers, seas or the politics of maps, and this life has been a lie. Its borders are made up, its seas are gateways, its mountains are cradles of deep life. There is no plane. You were raised within a history running
back through recorded time, written in ink, carved in stone, scooped from clay, hidden in songs. Your primal myths are an eyeblink of the memory of that place. Your history is a candle burning out.

The real world, the deeper, more true world, is bordered only by light above and fire below, and perhaps not even by that.”

#3 – Dolmenwood by Matthew Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk
Do you like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? What about Neil Gaiman? This is that. Currently published in 8 'zines – Wormskin #1-8, available in PDF and POD on DrivethruRPG – and in an adventure, The Weird That Befell Drigbolton, there's a campaign book coming soon. The zines are nice artefacts, and full of gameable material – though there's flavourful detail, the text is also as terse as it needs to be. Cross-referencing across 'zines is a little awkward, but not impossible. It's worth it.

The Dolmenwood is a mythic forest which can slot into your fantasy setting or into late medieval/early modern England or wherever else, really. It's full of alien and dangerous fae, strange forest glades, strange and wondrous magic treasures, civilised yet sadistic goatmen, and country bumpkins who know more than they're telling you. There are also sentient badger wizards, so...

The “monsters” are distinctive (e.g., Neutral-aligned undead people who are flocks of ravens but mostly just like collecting weird stuff), and as in all the best settings, you can talk to them all, pretty much. The old-school style leans a lot on interaction with NPCs, because combat is very dangerous (cf Combat as War vs Combat as Sport), and this setting builds very intentionally towards that. I can't think of a single forced combat across the 'zines, even in the two-issue dungeon (The Abbey of St Clewd).

The setting also is generally successful in walking a fine line over “weird stuff”. The setting is full of weird stuff, and bounds into that dark fantasy horror territory sometimes, but always with a profound sympathy for actual people. It's not gratuitous. This is rare, and important; and it's the sort of quality that translates at the table, when the DM is sensitive to it.

#4 – Against the Wicked City by Joseph Manola
None of this is formally published, which is a pity; it's all on Joseph's blog. The upside to the lack of books is that it's all free! You can find the collated information here: http://udan-adan.blogspot.com/p/against-wicked-city.html.

Joseph's own simmary:

ATWC is a fantasy role-playing game about adventurers struggling to free a city from tyranny and corruption. It’s about other things too – there’s a whole world out there, containing everything from underwater cities of green glass to killer robots built by insane toad-men – but the core idea is right there in the title. There’s a great city. This city has fallen into wickedness. It’s up to you to set the people free.

In terms of its thematic underpinnings, ATWC is a game of romantic clockpunk fantasy with a setting inspired by early modern central Asia.”

The most important word in there for me is “romantic”, which Joseph defines thus:

Romantic, insofar as this is fundamentally a game about love and hope and courage and our capacity to triumph over corruption. The Wicked City is a horrible, horrible place, and horrible, horrible things are done there; but ATWC does not assume that the struggle against such horror and evil is necessarily a hopeless one, and my expectation is that any long-running ATWC campaign will end with the liberation of the Wicked City from the bondage of evil which afflicts it.
As written, this is not a cynical game; but it is a game which is enormously sceptical of the redemptive power of violence. (That's why I'm running it with OSR D&D, which ensures that violence is usually a terrible idea!) The evil of the Wicked City cannot simply be stabbed until it falls over and dies; defeating it will require the ability to connect with and unite a whole variety of people and communities, all of them more-or-less damaged and mistrustful, and this in turn will ultimately be possible only through an effort of empathy. (There may also be quite a lot of stabbing along the way, though.) If you think all that sounds like feelgood hippie bullshit, then please feel free to run it as a grimy horrorshow in which evil always triumphs, or as a straightforward tale of national salvation through heroic bloodshed; but the assumption, throughout, has been that this is really a game about love.”

If I'm honest, reading that almost makes me cry. You can keep your stylish storygames with complex and intelligent mechanics for navigating teenage romance; I'll take my six boring ability scores and a random assortment of items, because, out on the steppes of the Wicked City, “this is really a game about love”. Magnificent.

The copious rules material supports that, by the way. You start with five classes available to players: the Fighter (the only person who's much good at combat, and who can automatically bust down any normal door); the Scholar (who knows any mundane fact required of her); the Traveller (who never gets lost); the Trickster (who is a bit of a rogue but can also charm his way into any party he wants); and the Noncombatant (who enemies always ignore til after they've smashed someone on the head with a vase, and who can nearly always escape imprisonment). You don't start with wizards and clerics. You start with classes that are 1) all just great at something – automatic successes at the thing they're expert at; 2) modelled towards social interaction and lateral problem-solving. Each class also has equipment tables, which you roll on to see what you get. Two examples from the d6 table for the Scholar:

*Clockworker's gear: Sturdy leather work clothes (treat as heavy leathers, +3 AC), locked box full of delicate tools, another locked box containing a half-finished machine that you're currently tinkering with, pocket watch, 3d6x10 sp.

*Historian's gear: Comfortable travelling coat (treat as leather jacket, +1 AC), 1d3 books, 1d6 tiny but intriguing ancient artifacts, locked box containing in-progress historical manuscript, charcoal for sketching, paper and ink, 3d6x10 sp.

No starting weapons for the scholar (other classes are slightly better off). Their equipment load, instead, all creates stories and hijinx. The clockworker's delicate tools have all sorts of uses. So does the pocket watch. And you need to complete that machine. The historian has charcoal and weird artifacts, and wants to find out stuff to finish their book. This is great. Proper D&D stories well up from a guy with no real combat ability and a random assortment of starting items.

There are other classes. Players unlock them. By becoming their friends. Want to be a Disciple of the Word, shouting words of divine power in service of your god? How about a Brass Man, a clockwork person following the semi-mythical Cogwheel Sage? Befriend them. Serve their needs, aid them in their hour of trial. This is a story about love.

The monsters are weird and inspired by Central Asian mythology. There are loads of tables to generate content on, including frankly the best, most sensitive presentation of religion in an RPG I've seen. There are two adventures – one is a dungeon environment which very much plays to the strengths of the setting, one is an investigation adventure. I've run both, they're both good. And all of this is free.

#5 – Ultraviolet Grasslands by Luke Rejec
Currently available as a limited overview document on DriveThru and for Patreon supporters of Luka Rejec (https://www.patreon.com/wizardthieffighter/posts). It's heading to Kickstarter. Luka does art for the Hill Cantons books, but he's also a marvellously creative writer. I haven't got UVG to the table yet, but I've loved reading it. This is Luka's summary:

The Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG) is a rules-light rpg pointcrawl module inspired by psychedelic heavy metal, the Dying Earth genre, and Oregon Trail games. It takes a group of ‘heroes’ into the depths of a vast and mythic steppe filled with the detritus of time and space and fuzzy riffs.”

Or again:

A world begins when it emerges from the mists of time. So it is with the civilizations of the Rainbowlands, which mark their count from when the Long Ago ended and the Now began.

The Rainbowlanders are the humans of a later era, undisputed masters of the fertile lands around the Circle Sea, dwellers in the Eye of Creation. They come in many shapes, colors, creeds, and faiths. They pile unkempt technology and misremembered lore together into a teetering whole. They rule the settled lands under their polychrome deities of ill-repute.

This story is not their story. This story begins at the edge of their world, at the Left End of the Right Road. At the westernmost outpost of humanity, the Violet City. Bastion against the hordes, entrepôt to the exotic sunset lands, and last port of civilization before the trackless steppe studded with the detritus of the Long Ago.

The last glimmer of the Rainbow before the skinblistering glow of the Ultraviolet Grasslands.”

So you travel long distances, possibly in futuristic RVs. You go to weird, confusing locales. You salvage ancient technology and try to piece together the past. You meet, uh, interesting people and try not to go slightly mad from the interaction.

On the Catlords of the Violet City: “The Purple God(dess), divinity of magic, and most prominent deity of the Violet City has a fondness for cats. Indeed, cats are the rulers of the Purple Land, running it through their doting human servants.”

The Porcelain Princes are “Not-quite-liches who seek immortality by spreading their vital cognitive essence among several bodies linked by real-time glandular psyche-to-psyche links. Customarily, they each polybody entity uses the same porcelain masks for every one of its drones.”

There are some great light rules for running your caravans on their long journeys – simple ways of dealing with rations and so forth. The locations are fascinating. How about the Grass Colossus?

“Crossing a last purple ridge, the wide vale promised respite from the harsh grassland. Trees dotted the courses of two rivers, and at their juncture prehistoric ramparts of pitted ceramic, traces of pre-wizard spell-arms on their ancient shellac surface.

Inside, on one of two hillocks, a great wicker-man of woven grasses, vines and thorn bushes. Shamans of many clans make their meets here, teach their memory chants, and welcome the clan mothers once a year for the festivals of the Circle of Grass.”

Which is as much of a proof as you'll need to know that some of the best writers of fantasy today are creating elfgames on the internet.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

How Do I Start A Campaign?

So, you have somehow found friends, bought dice, and been tasked with running a D&D campaign. How do you start running a campaign? Well, the first step is having some kind of campaign in mind. There's a number of questions you'll need to answer: what edition of D&D, what genre of play, etc, etc. I don't want to answer those questions; that's on you. What I want to talk about here is about building a world to run a campaign in. There are three meta-options for you to consider.

So, you can create languages from the bottom up, plan the geography of an entire world, create a fantastic Sanderson-esque magic system. That's good, and that's fun – though, of course, most of the fun to be had there will be by you, the DM, not your players. Most of the stuff you make will never transfer to your players. That's fine, just be aware your impulse to Play Tolkien is as much a way of you spending your own time as it is preparing a game for others to play.

Or you can create a little town and a couple of places for players to explore – there's a ruined Elf Tower (...New Mexiccoooo...) in the hills, strange tunnels carved out of onyx underneath the town, and nomadic boarmen crossing the plains nearby. Which empire is this part of? Who knows. In the marketplace, there's a birdmess-spattered statue of some old hero; who is it? We'll work that out later. Where are the boarmen going? Follow them to find out! This is a fairly simple way to start a campaign – sketch out a few “safe” locations and a few “dangerous” locations, drop the characters in it one way or another, give the players some rumours about the local area, and let them at it. Make more up as you go.

Probably actually the most common form of campaign; use a book or books published by others. Change it where you want to. Maybe glue bits from different books together (not literally, really damages the resale value). An example: I'm about to start running a game set in Chult, in the Forgotten Realms, using Chris Perkins' Tomb of Annihilation as a basis for it. But there's a number of issues with that book; some of them have to do with the expectations of a campaign (which I've changed), but some have to do with it being an exploration campaign with nowhere near enough locales. So I've added the two official-ish supplements to that, The Tortle Package and The Lost Kenku; but I've also thrown in James Raggi's Tower of the Stargazer, Kiel Chenier's Blood in the Chocolate, Ken Hite's Qelong, and a bunch of unofficial ToA supplements from the DM's Guild. Some of that stuff will need adaptation, for sure, but that's fine. Even the ToA supplements will be hacked to fit my version of Chult and my campaign needs; I don't need linear adventures, for instance. I need lots of adventure locations and dynamic environments, because that empowers player choice.

But whichever of these you do, you're going to need to end up with a place for your players to start, for them to adventure in, became heroes/villains of, etc. So whether you want to create the world top-down, bottom-up, or via the mash-up, there is a similar objective in mind. Now, one solution – a version of Meta-Option 3 – is just run your players through a set of published adventures, one after another. You set the scene: “you've been hired to do this...”, and the players function within the game as you've delineated. This is good for pickup play, for quite casual groups, and for very irregularly-scheduled campaigns; people turn up knowing they'll have an adventure. You'll need to pick interesting adventures (hint: don't play Pathfinder Adventure Paths unless you're using Joseph Manola's condensations of them – see his Against The Wicked City blog for more), but this is a perfectly reasonable way to run the game that probably reduces your workload.

But what if you want to emphasize player decisions at the campaign level? What if you want them to be the chief agents of change in a world, the architects of the rising and falling of kingdoms, even? Then you need a world with real choices for the players, even at 1st Level. They need to be able to pick which adventures to go on, and then allowed to determine their own objectives within that adventure location. So if you want to run that sort of campaign, here's what I'd recommend you come up with (by whatever method):

A REASON: This is simple and only matters for the first ten minutes of your first session, really. But why are your characters in the setting? It can be as simple as: this is a place where adventurers come; the characters are adventurers. It might help to establish why the characters are together before starting the game proper, too, to avoid confusion or the negative play habit of one character essentially forming their own party and doing their own thing the whole time.

THE TOWN: Doesn't need to be a town. Could be a yurt village, a strange and rambling inn and wagonhouse, whatever. The essential point is: there is a point of light the adventurers rest in, hear rumours in, may feel inclined to defend. There may be adventure locations in or beneath The Town, and you might have fun encounter tables for them as they spend their downtime there, but the key thing is that this can function as a home base. They're not constantly attacked by dragons when they're there. There are shops or traders or whatever. There are one or two “questgivers”; the weird shaman always wants ingredients from out of the way caves and bogs, and the Peace Chief wants the boarmen scared away from their current path without a proper fight.

DUNGEONS, PLURAL: By dungeon I also mean: bandit camp, strange outlying village, ruined observatory. Places that adventures happen. It can be a simple location with one puzzle or a multi-level, 159-room True Dungeon. A mix of size and type is good. This places are dangerous – hence why only adventurers would dare going – but they shouldn't be unrelentingly hostile, and solely full of combat. Make sure there are potential allies out in the wilderness. At least one baffling, strange, and slightly disturbing location.

A MAP?: Optional, but sometimes helpful for visualization, even outside of a proper hex-or-pointcrawl. Even if it's just a flowchart or set of nodes. The Yurt Village is in the centre, or at one edge; then there's the Puzzle Swamp, the True Dungeon, the Boarmen Stomping Grounds, and the Ruined Obsevatory. As there's a Dark Conspiracy at the Yurt Village, that gives you at least five adventure locations waiting for your players.

RUMOURS: You can just have an NPC hire the PCs to do something, or otherwise incentivize their action. But you might benefit from giving the group two or three “rumours” to start with; this lets them choose what seems most valuable to them. Maybe they start with these three:
The Peace Chief needs help with the Boarmen, and is willing to reward any who offer aid.”
She who solves the cog puzzle in the Putrid Swamp is sure to receive great riches...”
Some say there is no bottom to the Spiral Dungeon, until it meets the Fire Below. But the strange artifacts within are surely of some bygone race.”

With that, I'd say you're more than good to go.

On Character Backstory and Character Death

There's a contradiction at the heart of the implied “game” at the heart of Fifth Edition. This is an edition greatly influenced by the...