Sunday, 23 December 2018

Saving Spelljammer


So in 1989 TSR – then-publisher of D&D – released their first “weird” setting for 2nd Edition AD&D. It was a setting that linked their three existing “full” settings (Greyhawk, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms). It was a science fantasy setting – SET IN SPACE. It had some marvellous new monsters and concepts for settings. It was called Spelljammer.

It was kinda lame.

I should qualify that. Let's say you get the Spelljammer boxed set, the original release. There's loads of great stuff in it, and it looks very promising. Full-colour ship data cards! Paper miniatures with stands to allow you to simulate space combat on the board! Two books and two full-colour maps of a the iconic “Spelljammer” and a typical asteroid spaceport!

                                                             And cool art like this by Brom!

The writing by Jeff Grubb isn't bad, either, if a little hyper-technical in that 2nd Edition house style. The ships and their datacards are great. There's some good but short adventure seeds to get your “groundlings” into space, and perfectly reasonable rules for travelling in both “Wildspace” (the solar system within a specific Crystal Sphere) and the “Phlogiston” (the Ptolemaic substance between the crystal spheres hanging in the heavens). They're maybe heavier than I go for, but that's fine. There's a few cool monsters/races in one of the books.

But that's kinda it. The setting information (beyond some overwritten high-angle stuff on the nature of civilization in space) is very sparse. There are minute gazeteers of the three main “systems” (Greyspace, Krynnspace, Realmspace), with each planet within each of those systems getting three or four generally bland paragraphs. The Rock of Bral, the asteroid which provides a perfect “starting” spaceport once your guys are in space, gets three pages. There's virtually nothing on the Spelljammer itself. There's similarly little on structuring and running a campaign in space.

The other three boxsets that came over the next few years were of mixed use – the one on the eponymous Spelljammer is considered pretty bland, there's a decent one on space combat, the campaign boxset gets startlingly mixed reviews. A few of the individual books were pretty good depending on what you wanted – SJR1 Lost Ships has been called “the third book that should have been in the first boxset”, based on its wealth of interesting encounters and locations, whilst SJA2 Skulls and Crossbows similarly gives a lot of adventure ideas. The three setting books for the three core systems, and the one for the Rock of Bral, are useful if you're running in those settings.

You probably get the idea. Missed opportunity writ large. It took til Planescape came out, 6 years later, for D&D to have its “iconic weird setting”.

But Spelljammer is worth saving. It's a setting about wizards using their brainmagicjuice to fly butterfly- & squid-shaped ships through spacelanes made of magical oil, inhabited by spider-people slavers and star dragons. I'm sure plenty of individual DMs have salvaged it for themselves before; this is the start of my attempt. It's an attempt which emphasizes the “OSR” elements of Spelljammer.

What is Spelljammer, fundamentally, about? Well it's partly about cool ships; certainly a lot of the published material emphasized galactic trade and high politics; but fundamentally, it's surely about exploration and discovery (in a cool magical ship!). I think it's like a lot of D&D in that way, especially OSR D&D. You fly around going to weird new places, which may well be full of traps and monsters and treasures. You find strange Ancestries with complex objectives, which you can help or hinder. In many ways, the key distinctives are that it's a 3-D Island Crawl, and that it's got Science Fantasy elements. That's what should make the setting feel different. I'll expand on those a little, and then add a few more key categories and concepts to my conception of the setting.

3-D Island Crawl
Think of Skerples' (http://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com) island crawl. There's cool locations spread across your hexcrawl, with seas and attendant dangers in-between. Think of Ben L's (http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com) Zyan Below Inverted Junglecrawl – you can move vertically as well as horizontally on this hexcrawl. I've done this 3-D hex-mapping myself a little, for my Out of the Abyss campaign. That's what the Spelljammer universe is – both within a crystal sphere, and between them, is a 3-D map your player travel around. In so much as the game is one about exploration, functional mapping (hexcrawl, big pointcrawl, whatever) is vital. Your players have to be able to make choices between different targets, and “travel costs” have to be paid to make that choice meaningful.

Another feature of this being an “Island Crawl” is that it's arguably more exploration-focussed than most other settings, or should be. Of course, any game can be exploration-focussed, but when you're on the high seas, the sense of adventurous discovery may well be the primary emotional resonance of the game. So travel between planets, or between spheres, should be hazardous, but rewarding – each location should be fresh, and distinct from other places the players have been. The nested argument should be that each location should be more distinct from each other than in a landcrawl. Dolmenwood or Slumbering Ursine Dunes are obviously very fresh and vibrant settings, without much sense of replication between hexes/points – but there's a thematic similarity between locations within them. That's a softer requirement in Spelljammer. It's legitimate for one world to be the high/epic-fantasy Forgotten Realms and another to be the picaresque, slightly grubby Hill Cantons.

Finally, consider the relationship between “Crystal Spheres” (semi-sealed solar systems) – think of them in terms of oceanology. The individual Crystal Sphere has many islands or continents dotted around an interior sea, like the Caribbean or Mediterranean. Between the Crystal Spheres is the Phlogiston – the dangerous high seas! This both gives a particular “feel” to each type of ocean-terrain, but also informs potential factional relationships. It should be complex for one sphere to major influence or dominate another sphere. The massive web of empires and wars presented in the books doesn't work for me; they clog up the “map”, and make space seem a lot smaller than it should.

Science Fantasy
One element that links subsidiary locations, and is the broader texture of the setting, is that it has pseudo-science at the core – magi-tech is basically how you get around. It's very much fantastic, though, rather than speculative – magically-talented characters give up their spells for a day to pilot the ship, the ships themselves are all sorts of implausible but cool designs, and so forth.

This should certainly influence many of the nodes or hexes the characters explore. One planet could be a giant air bubble with hundreds of floating asteroids within it, inhabited by “Polynesian” plant-men paddling flying canoes. Another could be a sentient, largely benign, incredibly complex bacteria that covers a core of solid adamant.

Similarly, this means the technology involved should be fun and a potential attraction for players. Put time into making running a ship simple but genuinely enjoyable (and sometimes challenging). 2nd Edition will normally overload this; make this many percentile rolls, check this table and then this one. A small modular system for this, with a way of integrating NPC crew as hirelings, seems very doable and fun.

The Adventure
For me, a key concept in how I run D&D is emphasizing player agency over the direction of the game – which leads will they follow up on, which dungeons will they explore, and so forth. I don't need, then, to have a series of fully-developed, plot-heavy adventures on hand; but that doesn't mean the players aren't going to go on adventures, and that there isn't a functional mechanical concept of “The Adventure” in play. Once they go to a place, and as they go there, stuff is going to happen. How?

One, have weird locations to travel to that have volatile situations ready for the PCs to mess with – this is basic D&Dcraft, but if we bear in mind that this is a 3-D Island Crawl, the self-contained ready-to-blowness of a location becomes more clearly important.

Two, if you're running a crawly-style exploration game, there need to be random encounter tables to introduce unpredictable danger or opportunity.

Three, you need to be able (via random encounter or organic story development) to create “bottle episodes” - things that can happen just on the individual jamming ship. Some DMs may be happy to make this happen by fiat, though my own taste runs to random or organic. This sort of story adds a third string to the bow – there's the stuff that happens on nodal locations, the stuff that happens to the ship (Goblin pirates attack! The ship gets stuck in space sargasso!), and the stuff that happens on the ship. Crew morale is low because of recent casualties – there's risk of a mutiny. A random encounter they rolled on the Rock of Bral four sessions ago comes to fruit as the stowaway flower-person tries to release their seeds into the Phlogiston. You get the idea.

(Idea in respect of stocking encounter tables or worlds – rob Star Trek and the Star Wars Expanded Universe for ideas and then spin them as fantastically as possible.)

Factions
Even wilderness settings – and Spelljammer encompasses those – can benefit from “factions”, whether an individual wizard in an isolated tower or a city-state government. Factions can serve two purposes in Spelljammer games, I think.

One is political – some players love political games, so let them mess around with the factions you're using on that basis. The gigantic empires Spelljammer canonises aren't to my taste, but I can definitely see Neogi slavers and ancient dragons and planet-hopping archmages being major players.

The other purpose that comes to mind is as sources of regular interaction. It seems natural that Spelljamming parties may engage with the same NPCs less than some types of party – there's so much travel that you might only engage with a set of significant NPCs for a few sessions before leaving them for a year or two of real-time play. Having NPCs that the PCs regularly talk with can give a sense of setting density and investment. These NPCs have their own interests, naturally, and want the PCs to advance them. The elven Priest of the Observer God who travels with the PCs is both full of wisdom and secrets, but also is gathering information – perhaps quite sensitive stuff. The bartender at the place in the Rock of Bral the PCs always go is a loyal friend but also a nascent crimelord who's likely to clash with other local bosses.

What Next?
I think I need to develop a map of a starting sphere and stock it with cool stuff and then throw some players into it to see if the above principles create a more functional Spelljammer setting. That could, if successful, turn into some useful stuff to put up here (I guess either way there might be some cool locales or monsters that could end up here).

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

B/X(ish) Class - The Fungal Artisans, Part 1


A new race-class for my hack of B/X. For those unfamiliar, in “Basic/Expert” D&D and the other Starter Sets of the late 70s and early 80s, there was no distinction between race and class; Clerics and Thieves were humans, whilst Elves were...uh...Elves, and similarly for Dwarves and Halflings. The demihuman race-classes had a bunch of funky gimmicks that set them aside from the human adventuring classes. There are arguments for and against, for sure, but I like relative rules simplicity, love class specialization/character niches a lot, and also approve of customizability within classes, so race-classes fit well with me. 

The class description below includes a few rules mentions relevant to my B/X hack which you can, I'm sure, easily translate – for instance, Saves are modelled after Against The Wicked City/3rd Edition, with Fortitude, Reflex, and Will Saving Throws, affected by Constitution, Dexterity, and Wisdom respectively. The number given in the table is what they must equal or beat on a d20 to pass the given Saving Throw. Similarly, Fungal Artisans are usually better at foraging than other characters, who generically have a 1 in 3 chance of finding food for the day if they travel at 2/3 speed.

The Fungal Artisans are an Ancestry in my nascent Borderlands setting – an in-between zone, between our world and the true Land of Faery. Think Stardust, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Elidor, Neverwhere, Narnia, and the two Labryinths – Jim Henson's and Pan's.

Here is their one-paragraph summary:

“The Artisans are in fact only one group within a wider race of technicoloured mushroom-people, but outsiders name the whole Ancestry for them. They are usually nomads, seeking sustenance from decay as they travel. Sometimes these bands go wild and seek to create new dead matter from whatever is nearby. The Artisans make startling art out of dead matter, transforming it into bizarre, innovative sculptures and paintings - their most skilled members can even create animate constructs.”

Myconids, by Hector Ortiz

A player choosing to play a Fungal Artisan may either choose to play as a member of the Artisan caste itself, or as one of the forager-warrior caste. Twoclass features are shared by both castes:

Fungal Feeding: Fungal Artisans consume decayed organic matter for sustenance – rotten wood and meat, for instance. Few other Ancestries have the tolerance or digestive tract to handle the ordinary food of these mushroom-men. Such matter can usually easily be bought as a Rations-equivalent in settlements at 50% of the ordinary price. Whilst foraging in any suitable environment, the Fungal Artisan increases their chance of finding sustenance for the day by 1 in 3 – so in a normal environment, they have a 2 in 3 chance of finding sustenance when travelling slowly enough to forage.

Telepathic Spores: Fungal Artisans cannot speak, but rather communicate via telepathy. Any Fungal Artisan can always communicate telepathically with any other Fungal Artisan within 100-feet. They may also use telepathic spores to allow them to communicate telepathically with up to 6 other individuals at any one time. This telepathy similarly has a 100-foot range. If they are connected to six non-Artisan people already and want to connect to a new person (via infecting them with benign spores!), they must drop their connection to one of the pre-existing telepathic partners. Any new telepathic partner must be within 30-feet for the spores to be effective. Anyone seeded with such spores is seeded permanently, or until the connection is dropped by the Artisan, or if Cure Disease is used upon them.

Artisan Caste
The Artisan-caste class table is as follows (they are capped at 10th level):
Level
XP
HP
FORT Save
REF Save
WILL Save
Inspiration Points Per Day
1
0
1d6
12
16
13
2
2
1750
2d6
12
16
13
3
3
1500
3d6
12
16
13
4
4
7500
4d6
12
16
13
5
5
14000
5d6
10
14
11
6
6
28000
6d6
10
14
11
7
7
56000
7d6
10
14
11
8
8
112000
8d6
10
14
11
9
9
224000
9d6
8
12
9
10
10
336000
9d6+2
8
12
9
11

To Hit Bonus: +1 to Melee or Missile Attacks.

Mycological Artforms
Artisans utilise their Inspiration Points to convert dead matter into art – a form of material transmutation beyond the dreams of alchemists. They also complete these great works in speeds beyond even the most efficient human craftsmen.

At 1st Level, choose an Artform from the list below at Tier 1. At each subsequent level, choose either to advance an existing Artform up one Tier, or, if there is a teacher available (either another Fungal Artisan, or a supremely skilled artist of another Ancestry), gain a new Artform.

The five Artforms are:
Sculpture: Beginning with the creation of lifelike statues and the like, this Artform can progress to the creation of semi-sentient constructs. It can also be used for the creation of relatively simple tools and weapons.

Painting: This Artform is used both for fine art painting, but also for disguises and armour.

Architecture: More than a form of Sculpture, this Artform enables – with time, effort, and materiel – the creation of buildings, with masters able to create natural features and even wonderworks such as floating palaces.

Moving Pictures: A relatively new Artform, this allows the Artisan to depict moving but insubstantial images – perhaps via some stylized form like sand painting, or perhaps in a very realistic fashion. Advancement in this allows the Artisan to make the pictures more complex and interactive.

Chemistry: With practice, this Artform progresses from relatively simple functions such as the purification of water or the slow change of a wooden door into sludge all the way up to the creation of healing reagents and dark poisons.

Each of these Artforms has multiple Tiers, which require the expenditure of different amounts of Inspiration Points (more IPs for higher tiers)

Forager-Warrior Caste
The Forager-Warrior is capped at 10th Level.
Level
XP
HP
FORT Save
REF Save
WILL Save
1
0
1d8
14
15
14
2
2000
2d8
14
15
14
3
4000
3d8
14
15
14
4
8000
4d8
11
13
13
5
16000
5d8
11
13
13
6
32000
6d8
11
13
13
7
64000
7d8
9
9
11
8
128000
8d8
9
9
11
9
256000
9d8
9
9
11
10
384000
9d8+3
7
7
9

To Hit Bonus: +2 to Melee Attacks, +1 to Missile Attacks.

Psychotropic Spores: Once per day per level, the Forager-Warrior may target a non-fungal, non-undead creature within 20-feet. That target must make a Fortitude Save or be affected as per the spell Sleep (though strictly the target is conscious but catatonic). At 7th Level, the Forager-Warrior may, once per day instead of using a Sleep spore, instead force its target to make a Will Save or be affected as per the spell Confusion.


Next Time: Detailed rules for Artforms.

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?

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