Saturday, July 20, 2019

Dynamism and the Generic Optimum

Gotta admit: I love squeezing out new jargon.

The Generic Optimum

The generic optimum is the best plan that's printed on your character sheets.

If your party was dropped into a blank 20' x 20' room and forced to fight a level-appropriate assortment of boring enemies, you would adopt a specific strategy.

You'll put the fighter up front, open up with your best moves, set up your combos, while saving your daily abilities for when you really need them, and saving your single-use items for when you really need them.

This is your generic optimum.

Some optimums are more generic than others.  4e had a very dry generic optimum, while I can imagine a 5e party of wild magic sorcerers having a more dynamic fight, since there's so much chaos baked into them.

Dynamism

Dynamism is the opposite; it's how much you have to change your plans each round.

On the first round of combat, this is how far you have to deviate from your generic optimum.

Encountering a nilbog, realizing that it is healed by damage and harmed by healing, is a very simple example of extreme dynamism.  It forces you to invert your usual strategy.

It isn't necessarily complex, since it's not hard to figure out.  And it's not challenging, since the cleric has no problem dropping a heal on the little bugger.  But it is dynamic--out of the ordinary.

Changing tactics as you deplete spells over the course of a day isn't really dynamic.  You knew that would happen the moment you rolled a wizard.

by Line Beinkamp

Chaos and Law


Players tend to love dynamism.  It's literally why we roll dice--to inject a known quantity of unpredictability into our games.

When people say that they don't like a system/class because it's boring, they're usually talking about a lack of dynamism, and a lack of ways to respond to dynamism.

A chaos sorcerer (all spells chosen at random each day) is dynamic since she wakes up surprised every morning, and can respond well to dynamism, since wizards (as a group) have a very wide array of abilities open to them.

The humble fighter is often lamented as the most boring class because they are not very dynamic (they don't have to roll on a d20 table of mutations as part of their class).  In fact, they are usually the opposite.  They are a reliable extension of a character's mundane abilities: fighting, leaping, surviving.

Depending on the system and DM, though, fighters can respond to dynamism quite well.  They have a better attack bonus, more survivability, and often better physical prowess than their peers.  This means that they can attempt, succeed, and survive more shenanigans than the other classes.

People who are bored by fighters are often bored by either (a) the lack of respondable dynamism in the dungeon, or (b) the lack of their creativity in responding to it.  (By respondable dynamism I basically mean how much weird shit the fighter can interact with.  A fighter has many ways to interact with an alcoholic door.  A fighter doesn't have many ways to interact with force field that can only be dispelled by magic--but this is just poor dungeon design, and I won't consider it any further.)

Having fun with a fighter in an OSR game requires you to be creative with it.  You are in a uniquely stable position--use it to attempt destabilizing things.  Players who don't realize this are apt to be frustrated by the apparent lack of options.  Fighters don't get new buttons to press, they just get better at pressing the old buttons, and its easy to undervalue that.

Sources of Dynamism

Nearly all games would benefit from more dynamism.  Let's talk about where it comes from.

The OSR love difficult enemies, because difficult enemies are inherently dynamic.  They're too tough to be overcome with the generic optimum.  A creative solution has to be found, or a precious single-use item must be used.  An enemy that can't be solved by the generic optimum is a puzzle.

Wizards are not inherently dynamic.  If the DM keeps putting dispel magic doors in the dungeon so that the wizard will "feel special" by casting dispel magic to help his party through, then both of them will only succeed in boring each other.  Never write a dungeon that expects a certain spell.  Keep your puzzles open-ended.

A series of unlucky rolls can cause the combat to unfold in ways that you weren't expecting.  This causes people to change their plans, which is more interesting than just trading attack rolls.  We want combat to be a little uncertain.  Consider putting more randomness in your environments, e.g. in the windy room, there is a 1-in-6 chance that everyone's torches are blown out.

Like the nilbog example, another way to insert more dynamism into your game is to attack all parts of the character sheet.  Destroy equipment, steal money, switch stats, switch character sheets, teleport them into an unexplored part of the dungeon.

Dynamism usually comes from the monsters.  The players usually choose their fights, and so they choose things that they can win as long as nothing too unexpected happens.  Dynamism occurs through randomness ("another crit--fuck!"), discovery (the man is actually a magic-immune golem), and behavior (instead of fighting, the orc king jumps on his dactyl and flees).

And an obvious source of damage is a boss that changes form/tactics when its HP is depleted.  Adds can join the fight, etc.

Complexity vs Dynamism

A common mistake that DMs and game designers make is confusing complexity and dynamism.

Imagine a lich with a bunch of spells and abilities: fireball, finger of death, teleport, disintegrate, counterspell.  It has a bunch of legendary actions each turn, paralyzing people and using cantrips.  As a monster, the lich is fairly complex to run.

And yet, despite that complexity, the lich is not very dynamic.  A party facing a lich expects to take a lot of damage every turn.  Most of the lich's abilities do not disrupt the party's plans.

A fireball goes off.  They heal and carry on.

A PC takes heavy damage from disintegrate or finger of death.  They heal and carry on.

The cleric's spell is countered.  The party carries on.

A PC is frightened or paralyzed.  The party heals them, or they don't.  In any event, they usually don't have many options between "keep fighting" and "run away".  Their tactics don't change significantly.  (The paralyzed character has even fewer options.)

Even the lich teleporting can be a static tactic.  If the lich uses it to flee somewhere the party cannot locate or follow, it doesn't do anything except give the DM a chance to save the BBEG's life.

A lich is more dynamic than a bunch of orcs, yes, but it's not as dynamic as it's complexity warrants.

In this case, the DM has failed to provide the players with a dynamic challenge.  There was never a moment in the fight when the party realized "shit, our generic plan isn't going to be enough, we need to come up with something new", and those are the most fun parts of any combat.

In contrast to the lich, I present a couple of counterpoints.

A skeleton jelly is a low-level undead that is completely immune to damage.

A candy fairy can cast invisibility, swords to sugar, and charm.

These are examples of monsters that have a very high ratio of dynamism to complexity.

Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good

I'm not trying to argue "dynamism good, generic optimum bad".

Too much dynamism leads to gameplay that is very loose.  The stuff written on the character sheet tends to become more meaningless.  (If the PCs in the Dungeon of the Thief God die when all their possessions are stolen, and in no other way, HP is meaningless.)

And a simple fight can often be a palate cleanser after a particularly dynamic fight.  It gives the brain a chance to decompress.  Fights where the party realizes that it's not going to work, that they'll have to come up with something new--those fights are stressful and they require a lot of player attention.  Don't burn your players out with a long series of dynamic, high-stakes challenges.

Fights that follow the generic optimum also gives players a chance to use their abilities in a straightforward way, which is good for players who want to realize their character concept along the lines they originally envisioned.  (For example, the player who rolled up a barbarian probably wants at least a few straight-up fights where can wade into a bunch of skeletons and let loose with their rage.)

And of course, when a player chooses a class, they are (partially) choosing how dynamic they want their gameplay to be.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

New Wizard: Baboonist




This should come to no surprise to anyone, but nature never gave us the baboon.

How could they?  The face, the teeth, the genitals, the cruel intelligence of the baboon--these things set it apart from their fellow beasts.  They are artificial, as false as any other chimera.

Image result for mandrill angry
Technically not a baboon.
You'll find most baboonists among the nobility.  Baboons require a large amount of space and food, and require a large amount of resources.

Besides, many noble families enjoy employing the baboons as thugs--equipping them with blackjacks and matching vests.

Baboonist

Restrictions

You may never employ any hirelings except baboons.  You may never use any mount or war beast except a baboon.  If you break this rule, your baboons will realize your treachery as soon as they see you or smell you, and they will immediately revolt and never again obey your commands.  Your baboons are assholes.

One of your starting spells is always create baboon.

Boons

You can command a number of HD 1 baboons equal to the size of your liver.  To increase the size of your liver, you must eat livers from magical creatures.  Each liver eaten this way increases your liver by 1 size, up to the HD of the magical creature minus 1.  You start with a size 1 liver.

Baboons

The name is a misnomer.  A baboon can be a baboon, mandrill, or various mandrilloids (permutations of the mandrill schema).  The provenance of the liver determines the type of primate produced by the create baboon spell.

You can only give your baboons commands as a group.  They will not allow themselves to be separated or to be commanded separately.  Treat your baboons as a single pile of HP.  For every 4 points of damage the baboons take, one of the baboons dies.  the horde makes a single attack, with +1 to Attack and damage for every baboon beyond the first.

The baboons will not do anything helpful unless commanded to.  This means that your first round of combat is usually spent telling you baboons what to do.  They can understand up to three words, optionally accompanied by you pointing at something.

Spell List

  1. calm
  2. create baboon
  3. rage
  4. Shadoom's serpecation
  5. speak with beast
  6. weigh heart
  7. psychography (variant: your baboons do the writing)
  8. spider climb
  9. overload baboon
  10. secret beasts
  11. golden needle
  12. possess baboon

Legendary Spells

  1. wild polymorph
  2. elevate beast
Mishap
You take damage equal to whatever the doubles showed (1-6), and. . .
1. You are silenced.  (Int check at the start of each round to end; lasts at least 1 round.)
2. You are blinded.  (Con check at the start of each round to end; lasts at least 1 round.)
3. You lose all prepared spells except one, randomly determined.
4. You cast a random prepared spell at a random target with a random number of MD.
5. You start turning into a baboon.  Body party chosen at random: face, tail, hands, fur.
6. You learn wild polymorph.  If you've already gotten this result in the past, wild polymorph is instantly cast on you.

Doom
You turn into a foul-tempered baboon for 1 hour.  You, and all of your baboons, go on a rampage.  They will flee difficult combat in favor of easiest targets and/or rampant vandalism.  You forget that you were ever anything other than a baboon.
2. As above, except for 1 day.
3. As above, except permanent.

Also not a baboon.
Appendix A: Spells and Shit

New Rules: Mixed Success in Spellcasting
Some spells have graduations of success.  You invest your magic dice normally, but only the highest roll counts for the result.  The more dice you invest, the greater your chance of a critical success.

1-3 = Mixed Success
4-5 = Full Success
6   = Critical Success


Create Baboon
R: touch    T: primate    D: permanent
The ingredients required to make a baboon are 8 hours, a fresh liver, and a live mammal.  The animal must be fed a large amount of the liver.  (Rats can be purchased in a major city for 1c.)

Mixed Success -- Disfigured baboon causes you 1d6 Cha damage.
Full Success -- You create a normal baboon.
Critical Success -- Brilliant baboons allow you to give more complex commands.  (+1 word)

Shadoom's Serpication
R: touch  T: creature  D: permanent
Target is cured of a poison, which they vomit out in the form of a serpent.  The form of serpent depends on the type of the poison.  Although they look exotic, these new species behave like normal snakes.

Mixed Success -- Serpent immediately attacks you, and acts normally afterwards.
Full Success -- Serpent acts normally.
Critical Success -- Serpent is nonaggressive to you and will obey one command, once.

Weigh Heart
R: touch  T: heart  D: instant
You hold a heart in your hands.  The creature does not get a save, but [sum] must equal or exceed its Level.  You learn the best and worst thing that the creature has ever done (in the creature's own estimation).

Psychography (Baboon Version)
R: 50'  T: baboons  D: 1 hour
Ingredients: writing utensils and appropriate surfaces.  After one hour, one of your baboons will bring you the best piece of writing they've accomplished so far.

Mixed Success -- Pure gibberish.  Eroded Shakespeare.
Full Success -- The last interesting thing that happened here.
Critical Success -- The last two interesting things that happened here.

Overload Baboon
R: 50'  T: baboon  D: permanent
Each round, target baboon gets +1 to Attack and Damage.  At the end of each round, the baboon has a 1-in-4 chance of exploding.

Secret Beasts
R: 50'  T: creature D: permanent
Up to [dice] willing creatures are hidden inside of your body for [sum] hours.  (If you are a baboonist, up to [sum] baboons can be hidden this way.)  This lasts until either you or the creatures wish to be ejected (a free action).  Creatures hidden this way manifest on your skin--for example, a blond person will put blond hairs on your skin.

Golden Needle
R: touch  T: creature  D: 2 * [dice] rounds
Target creature takes Xd6 damage once the spell dissipates, where X was the spell's duration.  You can end the spell early as a free action.

Possess Baboon
R: 50'  T: baboon  D: [sum] rounds
Exactly what it says on the tin.  If the baboon is your baboon, it gets no saving through.

Wild Polymorph
R: 50'  T: creature  D: [sum] rounds
Look up [sum] random creatures (use the index in your bestiary) and choose one.  The target turns into the chosen creature.

Elevate Beast
R: touch  T: beast  D: permanent
Touched beast immediately turns into a beastman with an intelligence of [sum]-[dice].  You permanently lose 1 Wis and 1 Cha.  You choose how much of your memories, knowledge, goals, and personality you want to copy into the beastman.

Friday, May 31, 2019

The Fire Cults

Although most of the world doesn't differentiate between the various Fire Cults, they are quite different from each other.  Even discussing them under the shared heading of "The Fire Cults" is misleading.

Just the same, the Fire Cults can be defined as the various local religions that existed on the continent of Centerra prior to the ascension of the Church.  They have been utterly extirpated since.

There are exceptions to all of these rules, but generally:

1. Fire Gods weren't especially focused on fire.

This is probably the greatest misconception.

It was the Church that first started calling them fire cults, which served to describe them as primitive and illegitimate.  The label stuck.

The prophecy has become somewhat self-fulfilled however, as the only living branch of the fire cults is the Vincular Cult, which can be considered an arm of Zala Vacha.

2. Fire cults were intensely local.

The forces that fire cults worshiped were usually bound to a particular location (or more rarely, a bloodline).

We might think of gods as having a particular portfolio (e.g. the God of Waterfalls and Assassins) but the Fire Gods were defined according to their location (e.g. the God of Poplonda Swamp).  Within this domain, they were everything.  Outside of it, they were nothing.

The god of a fire cult usually lived in its shrine.  They were as invisible and as intangible as any divine, but their shrine was their literal home.  They occupied a very specific space.

If you were travelling, it would be important to learn the names of the gods whose territory you would be crossing, and how best to placate them.  This was considered to be more important than actually learning the geography.

They usually shared a name with their location.  Many of the names on the map of Centerra are the names of dead gods.

It is sometimes necessary to differentiate between a location and the regional deity.  In this case, the convention is to terminate the deity's name with a capitol letter ('BosperO') while the location's name is written normally ('Bospero').  I won't do this to you (since the context is usually clear) with only one exception.

3. Many fire cults were associated with volcanos.

Volcanoes were common in Centerra at the time.  As their cults fell silent, so too did their volcanos.

The Church teaches that this is because volcanoes formed a conduit to Hell, and the fire gods were all demonic spirits of earth. 

4. The gods of fire cults were usually defined around a duality.

We are used to thinking of a God of War who exists in opposition to a God of Peace.  But the fire cults usually had only a single god that they prayed to, and so that god must be an entire pantheon unto itself.

And so there was Gadrium, God of War and Peace.

OmO, God of Wisdom and Foolishness.

Patra, God of Drowning and Birds.

Meltheria, God of Gold and Lead.

by Kalen Chock

The Quendian Cult

For most people, the Quindian Cult is synonymous with the Fire Cults.

They have two gods.

Quen is the God of Flame and Darkness.

Masaat is the God of Masters and Slaves.

There is something of a revolution occurring within Zala Vacha right now--Quen and Masaat are beginning to be worshiped as two aspects of the same god.  Since Darkness surrounds all Fire, Darkness is the Master of Fire, just as all things that are Learned will eventually be Forgotten.  This is an ongoing matter within the Cult, and the source of extreme friction.

Politically, Quen is an extreme proponent of the right to privacy.

The politics of Masaat are a bit more convoluted, but they boil down to the idea that the master-slave dynamic (or by extension, any position of power) is a divine privilege, with specific rules governing the formation, execution, and dissolution of dominance, of all forms.

As a result, the fire cult is known for their defiance of authority (even more than the other branches of Zala Vacha).  They see all forms of authority as illegitimate unless they willingly enter into such a relationship, and value their privacy and independence above all.  The Church is condemned as intrusive and domineering, while kings are seen as no different from gang leaders.

Fire Cult Cleric

This is how clerics work.  They all have different rules to follow (strictures), temples, and methods of divination.  These have various pros and cons.  For example, clerics of the Church have churches available to them at every town, no matter how small.  But clerics of Zala Vacha can build their own temporary temples by making bonfires, which is something that clerics of the Church cannot do.

Portfolio

learning, forgetting, sight, fire, privacy, secrets

Strictures

If you agree to keep a secret, then you must keep it.
Allow no one else to carry a torch unless you are also carrying a torch.
Do not betray those who serve you willingly.

Temples

By default, a city will have a temple hidden somewhere.  The faithful can find it by blinding a cat and then following it.  It will always be underground.

By default, a town will not contain a temple of Zala Vacha.

Alternatively, you can construct a temple in the wilderness by building five large bonfires.  The space between the bonfires counts as a temple for as long as the bonfires burn and there is no sun in the sky.  Collecting sufficient wood takes about 36 hours of labor in an average forest.  Logging tools allow a laborer to be twice as efficient.

Divination

You must sit in a perfectly dark room and gaze into the darkness for 1d6 hours.  Images will come.  The perfectly dark room must be underground.

Transfigurations

When clerics roll triples on a casting die, they gain something.

1 or 2 = Eyes turn black.  5' darkvision.
3 or 4 = Any light source you hold turns deep crimson.  Fire resist 6.
5 or 6 = Your skin turns black as soot.  If you hold perfectly still for at least 1 minute, you become shrouded.

Spells

Spells 1-6 are available at level 1.  Spells 1-8 are available at level 2.  Spells 1-10 are available at level 3.  Spells with asterisks are explained below.

  1. control fire
  2. darkness
  3. forget*
  4. heal
  5. bend light*
  6. lock
  7. shroud*
  8. suggestion
  9. freedom*
  10. room*


Legendary Spell 

Legendary spells are only obtained by doing some great quest in the service of your faith.

  1. disintegrate
Bend Light
R: touch  T: object  D: [dice] rounds
Object appears to be displaced a few feet to the left of where it appears to be.  Attacks against that object have a 50% chance to miss.  Creatures automatically make an Int check after each attack; if they succeed, they figure it out and this spell affects them no longer.

Alternatively, you can use this spell to see around corners.  Once per round, pick a place in your field of view--you can see as if you were standing there.  You can make multiple jumps this way if you are investing multiple dice.

Disintegrate
R: touch  T: object  D: instant
Touched object takes [sum] damage as it falls apart and dissolves.  If this is enough to destroy it, the object is utterly removed from reality.  
  • 1 MD is enough to disintegrate a skull or a wooden weapon.
  • 2 MD is enough to disintegrate a wooden door.
  • 3 MD is enough to disintegrate a metal weapon or bar.
Forget
R: touch  T: creature D: instant
Target forgets the last [dice] rounds.

Freedom
R: 50'  T: creature  D: instant
Creature immediately makes a free attempt to escape whatever bonds are restraining it with a +[sum] bonus.  If an creature would normally have no chance to escape (shackled, etc) it is still allowed an attempt anyway with a -10 penalty.

Room
R: touch  T: wall  D: 10 minutes
You create a door on the wall that leads to a 20' x 20' room.  This is actually a conjured pocket dimension that matches the rest of the dungeon thematically.  The door is just a regular door, and no stronger than wood (although it may appear different).  The room improves the more dice are invested.
  • 2 MD = lasts 30 minutes.  (Long enough to eat lunch.)
  • 3 MD = lasts 8 hours.  (Long enough to sleep.)
  • 4 MD = lasts 24 hours and contains a helpful occupant who matches the dungeon's theme.
Shroud
R: touch  T: object  D: 10 minutes  (splittable)
Target will not be noticed as long as they don't do anything suspicious.  An action is suspicious if it is something that is not regularly done by regular people.  

Walking past a guard is not suspicious because people regularly walk past guards.  Putting a grenado into a guard's pocket is suspicious (unless people regularly slip things into that guard's pocket.)


Sidebar: HD Limits

Remember that spells don't affect a creature if its HD is greater than [sum].

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Six Facts About Metal

1. There are many types of metal.

Rillerick Ingerwald is famous for categorizing the metals into groups based on their nobility.  He found that these groups repeated according to a periodic structure, which he used to map out all possible metals.  He discovered that there are an infinite number of metals, including some that are liquid, gas, and even (theoretical) plasma.

Although there are an infinite number of metals, they can still be ranked by luster, conductivity, nobility (incorruptibility), sanctity (impermeability to demons), and theoretical monetary value.

Ingerwald was especially interested in the last category.  Although he never managed to transmute any of the natural metals into gold, he did manage to transmute them into some of his newly discovered metals, and was greatly disappointed when few agreed with his calculated values of worth, although some of them should have been worth nearly as much as gold.

Some of these metals include:

Gordican, which can only exist in spherical shapes and was nearly useless except as a method of manufacturing spheres.

Cratium, which increases in mass as its velocity increases.  Very desirable for projectiles, but too soft to make effective arrowheads.

Zantium, which has a "grain", similar to wood.  This allows it to flex in one plane while remaining rigid in another.

Borboridon, a theorized metal which increases in both density and softness with time, as it captures radiation.

Gandium, a theorized metal which impacts all other solid and liquid materials as if they were crystalline. 

Praxium, a theorized metal of near-infinite sharpness.  It turns to lead if it ever stops moving.

2. The best metal is gold.

It is known as the most noble of all materials, because it cannot be stained, corroded, or debased.

Gold is what gives the world worth.  This is not a human opinion, but instead a universal law.  In fact, it is possible to calculate the gold required for an almost any physical process or reaction.  The universe can be described in milligrams of gold easier than it can be described in joules or electron-volts.

We value it because the universe values it.

3. The hardest metal is adamantium.

Adamantium isn't just hard the way that steel is "hard", it is hard the way that the Pythagorean theorem is true.  Once a piece of adamantium has cooled, its atoms are (nearly) immovable with respect to each other.

Most items made of adamantium are thinner than you might think, since a small piece is just as strong as a large piece.  The size of adamantine items has more to do with the difficulty of forging them.

Let's get this out of the way: 'Adamantine' is an adjective.  'Adamantite' is an ore.  'Adamantium' is the finished product.

Adamantite ore is found only in starfalls.  Once it has been forged, the metal is beyond strength.  Many speculate that the metal becomes lost to time, impervious to any change at all.  An adamantium object will survive the heat death of the universe.  When the solar system collapses into a black hole, it will be covered with adamantine swords.

Speaking of adamantine swords: the best adamantine swords are mostly made from steel.  Only the merest sliver near the cutting edge is made from adamantium, since an adamantium toothpick is as strong as adamantium girder.  The steel is only there to give it weight, since a featherweight sword is still a poor cutting instrument.

Modern forging techniques has yet to replicate those swords, however.  The best that modern smiths have achieved are some (admittedly impressive) axes.

The cutting ability of an adamantium weapon is decent, at best.  Since the blade can never be sharpened, the edge can only be honed prior to quenching.  No one is certain how the ancient blacksmiths sharpened their adamantium blades to such a fine point, but that information would be worth a fortune if it were rediscovered in some ancient dungeon.

Adamantium makes for better armor than weapons, although it is defeated by its cost.  Any king who can afford a suit of adamantine armor can also afford an army--and that king is much better served by the army.

Because of this, newly claimed adamantite is usually destined for architecture or furniture.

There are a few different ways to forge adamantium.  The most commonly known way is use one of the dwarven lightning forges, a task that requires as much diplomacy as luck.  There is a well-known forge inside the Forbiddance, but securing the location is difficult.

It is also a perfect insulator, but few people care about the insulating properties of adamantium, since it isn't very relevant to swords.  Still, the thermal sensation of adamantium is closer to styrofoam than steel.

It is commonly believed that adamantite meteors are actually fragments of the original sun, which displeased the Authority with its blasphemy.

An advanced stage of the disease.

4. There are four adamantine superstructures in Centerra.

The Forbiddance is an enormous wall between Clavenhorn and Mondaloa.  It is about a mile thick and twice as high.  It is not known how deep it descends into the ground.  The inside is a labyrinth of passages which convene on the Forbidden Highway, a cylindrical tunnel 500 feet wide that eventually terminates above the Sea of Kaskala when the Highway abruptly terminates in the sky.

It is largely abandoned, its magnetic treasures long since stripped away.

The Bastion of Medurak is the dam that holds back the Saltsea.  It is difficult to reach the original structure beneath the salt deposits, but patient excavation will yield it.  The crystalline desposits grow in strange, repetitive patterns.  Many claim that they spell out words.

Near the Bastion is the Cloud Factory, by far the smallest structure on this list.  It captures the moisture that would form over the deserts of Fangol.  The resultant clouds are sent to the west, beyond the knowledge of our maps.  Their final destination is unknown.

Lastly, there is the Golden Road, named not for its material but for the toll to cross it.  It doesn't seem to have been constructed as a bridge, but that's what we use it for.  (It actually seems to be the rim of a ring-shaped object, now mostly buried.  Frustratingly, it seems to have doors on it, and yet lifetimes have been spent trying to pry up the least fragment.)

The Golden Road is large enough that entire families have been born, grown up, and died in its shadow.  Houses cling the side of it like barnacles.  Some are solid brick.  Some wicker shacks dangle like the nests of bowerbirds.  And two hundred feet below, the familial dhows pull up fat tuna from beside ramshackle quays.

At the south end is the city of Bospero, the greatest conurbation in the world.  The Glorious God of Golden Fish is usually moored somewhere in the middle.  And at the north end is the cursed city of Nibulum.

5. Immortality can be derived from metal.

Many people know of the Transmetallic Alchemists.  Very few know what they do.

They are a semi-secret society.  Their above-ground activities include alchemy franchises and an annual fair in Bospero that features fireworks, automatons (especially cuckoo clocks), and fantastic jewelry.  They also buy interesting objects from sketchy grave-robbers, no questions asked.

Their secret goals usually boil down to the accumulation of mundane power (usually through boring infiltration of established institutions) and the pursuit of immortality.

Just as necromancy frequently culminates in lichdom, so does a Transmetallic Alchemist's career frequently culminate in the transmutation of their own body into liquid adamantium (which they refer to as the magician's metal).

While the Transmetallicum claim that the feat is possible (and was achieved in olden times), no recent examples of flawless success exist.  Most neophytes struggle to overcome the first step in the process, which is the consumption of large quantities of liquid mercury.

This is not to say that there Transmetallicum are not without their successes.  In their ranks, you will find alchemists with steel bones, plates of flexible armor beneath their skin, and monstrous powers of magnetism.  They know the secrets of azoth, aqua regia, and the alchemical oblate.  It is just that they have so far failed to capture their holy grail: to secret of transforming objects and creatures into adamantium.

6. Metal can get sick.

Like all other materials, metal can be poisoned, fall ill, and be possessed by demons (a cursed weapon).

The most common affliction of metal is rust, which is a disease that only metal can get.  It is commonly transmitted by water, which is why iron must avoid water, and why rust seems to spread from a single infection, much like a fungus.

Another metal-vector disease is soft rot, which eventually causes bones to become soft.  First like rubber, then like jelly.  Death can come early (from damage to the brain or heart) or late (from respiratory failure).  Soft bones flex painlessly, but the early stages of the disease are accompanied by shooting pains in the limbs.

Although the disease can infect humans, its real target is metal.  Afflicted iron becomes pale, loses its luster, and eventually becomes crumbly.  Small, spiral worms hatch from the quickening metal, each one small enough to fit under your fingernail.  They disperse by flying away in flocks, where they are usually eaten by insects.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Ghast

The process by which a person becomes a ghoul is poorly understood.

One popular theory is that ghouls are created when the higher souls are weakened by cannibalism.  According to this theory, the unnatural act of consuming one's own species is inherently repellent to the universal morals of creation, and so the higher souls divest themselves of the flesh that they find abhorrent.  In this power vacuum, the lower souls insert themselves, and then expand to fill the higher functions of the mind.  The hunger of animals, the uncaring mind of minerals--these become the new philosophy of the ghoul.

Another theory: it is well understood that certain sins are so repugnant that their punishment cannot be postponed to the afterlife.  Masturbation is punished by blindness.  Blasphemy is punished with polyps.  When viewed through this lens, ghoulishness is explained simply as the appropriate punishment for cannibalism.  A longer lifespan is no gift if there is no humanity, no satisfaction it.  Who cares how long a beast lives?

These theories explain the spectrum of ghouls, as it is usually described.

On one end, you have the youngest ghouls, the itinerant graverobbers who are fully alive, but have a ghoul's touch.  They are corpulent souls, who struggle to hide their hungers.  This is the most cosmopolitan time of their ghoul-life, when they seek out others of their kind, and cluster in their abominable enclaves.

A young ghoul might be a portly man in a top hat, with a wide smile and a warm handshake, charitably offering to pay for the funeral expenses of unknown paupers.

At the other end, you have the the cadaverous undead who have been so consumed by hunger that they have gnawed their own limbs to the bone.  They long ago abandoned the trappings of humanity in favor in favor of their bestial passions.  They usually lose all discretion at some point in the process, and are discovered and destroyed by witch hunters.

But those that retain some cunning still succumb to exposure and malnutrition, and usually die behind some parish kitchen, shivering from a fever that they no longer feel.  When death finally claims them, they do not notice it (and would not care if they did).  They only truly develop into the ravening, skeletal things of legend after suffering the madness and autocannibalism of long entombment (which is surpringly common among ghouls).

The autocannibalism is believed to be driven by self-loathing rather than hunger, since ghoul flesh is not usually appetizing to ghouls.

However, there is one creature that cannot be explained by either of these theories.

wrong genera but right ghast
by Richard Wright
The Ghast

Also known as elder ghouls, ghasts transcend the biology that spawned them.

Growth is normally impossible in the undead, but ghasts seem to be able to switch between life and undead at will, according to their needs.  This may even extend into true death, which ghasts may use as a form of hibernation.  There are stories of leathery corpses the size of horses, dredged from the peat, that have groaned and stirred once the sunlight warmed their black sockets.  If this is true, and ghasts can hibernate by dying, then perhaps they can never be truly killed.

And so ghasts grow through the dim epochs, assuming bestial forms more suited for their inclinations.

But this growth is not the growth of natural life.  No botanic soul dwells in their flesh, that guides and shapes the new vessel.  This is like the metabolism of a lich: no longer autonomous and entirely directed by the mind.  A lich's heart does not beat until the lich commands it; a ghoul's flesh does not grow until the ghoul wills it.  (And in fact, this may be what causes a ghoul to transition into a ghast.)

And with the transformation of long years, they regain some measure of cunning.  It is not a resumption of their human mind--that was lost long ago.  It is something new, a dark composite of those that they have devoured.

This is because the second defining feature of the ghast is the liver, an organ which has no true analog in any other animal.  A singular tissue, it alone is capable of turning flesh into memories.  It is perhaps related to speak with dead, as it involves that soul that lives in corpses (rather than the soul that continues to the afterlife), except that the soul is not conversed with, but devoured and internalized.

Ghasts trap the dead, but not in a conscious collection of discrete souls, but instead in a gruesome patchwork of overlapping memory.

And since it is the memory of the flesh, not the memory of the conscious mind, the content of the life is remembered without any of the emotion (except as the body remembers emotion: a flush of the face and a quickening of the heart, nothing more).

They can speak, sometimes very well.  (And depending on the evolutions of their verbal apparatus, they may have dozens of voices coming from one mouth.)  But the mind behind the voices is an abominable one.  Memories of a hundred people may blend together, sometimes in an irrational synthesis.  Parents are switched, blended, or remembered as a multi-headed amalgam.  When an ancient ghast was a child, it lost thousands of teeth, cried over the death of dozens of parents, and lost half-a-dozen limbs to accidents.

There is a famous ghast named Blackchapel, who is named for the town he devoured.  He is a mad thing, who haunts the necropolis he made, forever struggling to resume the lives that he ended.

And there is the Ghoul Worm, whose directed growth has taken a route that is very different from most ghasts.  He devoured the same death cult that he once led.  They still live in his belly, a groaning monstrosity that worships itself from its manifold viscera.  He is as cruel as any killer, and as wise as any sage.

The flush of knowledge is strongest after the meal.  There are stories of a ghast eating a child, only to come sniffing around the dead child's house, calling for its mother in perfect imitation.  It is not a ruse, though, and the ghast genuinely believes itself to be that child.  The dead live again in the ghast, and if that same ghast saw its mother, it would embrace her and kiss her and devour her alive.

And that is why you should never open your door if you hear your dead child weeping outside.

The liver is where flesh is converted to memory.  If the liver is extracted, it can be turned into a tincture called ghrism.  If drank, it confers the same ability to the drinker.  If it is drank, and part a corpse is consumed, the dead will live for a while in your body.  You will be supplanted, and then you will co-exist, and then the dead will fade until only a shade exists, a figment.  There may be times when you remember someone else's mother as your own, or feel surges of someone else's racism.

from Far Cry Primal
Using Ghasts in Your Game

Ghrism is obviously very gameable.  It's effectively a potion of speak with dead with more flavor, more drawbacks, and possibly more power.  It also turns a ghast nest into a valuable resource.  (And I love it when my players hunt monsters for their parts.)

It's also an opportunity for character development and roleplaying opportunities.  Your character is a little more interesting when pieces of the 2000-year-old princess mummy keep surfacing, perhaps.

I'd actually like to write a GLOG class based on a person who has eaten too many memories, to the point of forgetting their original identity, amid a swarm of transplanted memories.  (It might be as simple as rolling a randomly generated class every session.)

Do you need stats for a ghast?  Fine.

Ghast
HD 4+  AC leather  Claw 1d10 + excruciation
Move human  Climb spider  Int 10

Excruciation -- If the target fails a Save, they are afflicted by excruciation.  If they choose to spend their turn writhing in pain, they take no damage.  If they choose to act normally, they take 1d6 damage.  At the beginning of each turn after the first, excruciation has a 2-in-6 chance of dissipating.

Conversion -- As a free action, a ghast can choose whether to be alive, dead, or undead (with all the usual implications).

A ghasts liver can be harvested for a single dose of ghrism.  With access to a full alchemical laboratory and some successful skill checks, you can harvest as much as 2d4 doses of ghrism.

If you need a bigger ghast, just give it more HD and attacks.  Excruciation is just a bigger version of Agony (1d4 damage, 3-in-6 chance of ending), which regular ghouls have, and is better than paralyzation.

Bigger ghasts can also be exotic ghasts with unique abilities.  Some ideas: burrowing, barbed yoshi tongues, fear auras, regeneration, poisonous exhalations, blasphemy (blocks divine magic).  If they can cast spells (especially etherealness) let's just go ahead and call them a geist.