Monday, October 27, 2014

New Biome: Brimstone Waste

Also called the Grey Waste, The Brimstone Waste is a biome dominated by hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, geysers, sulfur fields, thermal vents, and char belchers.  The only permanent inhabitants are orcs.

In Hesaya cosmology, the Brimstone Waste is believed to be the literal entrance to hell.  The souls of the wicked are carried there by birds, and are then deposited in the Great Caldera, where they pass on into the afterlife.  (Compare this to the souls of the virtuous, who are carried out to sea along Greywing Bay.)

There are two commonly known facts that inform all aspects of the Waste.  First are the clouds, smokes, and fogs.  Visibility is highly variable, and while some days might bring blue skies (that allow you to see the pillars of smoke and steam emerging across the landscape), on other days the air is filled with ashen smoke, boiling steam, sulfur clouds, or poisonous gases.

Secondly, the food chain begins with bacteria, rather than plants.  Most of the Brimestone Waste is too dark, too hot, too saline, or too sulfurous for plants to thrive there.  And while the Waste is incredibly varied on a bacterial level, the average traveler will only notice the grey flakes atop another rippling mile of volcanic morphologies, or the yellow crust that dapples the side of tufa pillars.  It's not a desert, but it looks like one.

The Great Caldera is a boiling lake.  Well, that's not true.  While it certainly has boiled in the past, it usually remains several degrees below.  The water is sulfurous and pungent, and while it can be safely consumed, it tastes foul.  Additionally, the water is believed to be corrupting (since it boils up from the pits of hell) and is sometimes exported for use as unholy water around the world.  In the center of the lake is an island, which contains the Sealed Temple.

The Sealed Temple is believed to hold back the literal forces of hell.  The temple itself is not large, and resembles a five-sided mausoleum, built from black marble, knotted and tense beneath the sloping shoulders of its pillared sides.  Every year, the First Servant of the Authority ventures inside the Sealed Temple, reconsecrates it, and re-applies the white lead that holds the Great Seal in place.  According to doctrine, the End of Days will begin with the opening of the Great Seal.  The First Servant of the Authority has the crucial task of postponing the Apocalypse.

The Sarcophagus of the Great Seal is a metal dome that has been built around the Sealed Temple.  It also includes the docks (full of steel-hulled boats), chapel, and knight's quarters.  Traditionally, the Sarcophagus was home to a very small order of paladins, called the Leaden Order, but it is now believed that the Church has begun using golems to guard the Great Seal, and has begun relying less and less on the paladins.

The Hell Road was once a sort of aquaduct that traversed the Brimstone Waste.  Back when the church had more financial solvency, it was able to keep the road in good repair, and it was a simple affair to travel to the Sealed Temple, simply by walking above the floods of poisonous foam and yellow banks of sulfur clouds.  But now, orcish vandals have knocked down large sections of it, insane pilgrims have occupied other parts, and carnivorous birds have colonized other parts of this ruddy, stone road.

Pilgrim Enclaves are also common in the Brimstone Waste.  For whatever reason, visiting the actual door to hell is an attractive proposition for all sorts of crazies, and numerous communities of the mentally ill dot the hellish landscape, ekeing out of a living by trawling for foamfish, and by licking the nutritious slime off of rocks.  Enclaves tend to be full of millennial doomsday cults, would-be messiahs, or would-be antichrists.

Brimestone Orcs are also common.  Their strong constitutions protect them from the worst of the heats and acids and blow through the Waste, and their short lifespan insulates them from the degenerate respiratory diseases that long-term inhabitants of the waste normally develop.  Like all orcs, they are brutal and disrespectful.  They sometimes fill hotsprings with blood, and then bathe in the boiling result before battle.  They're also the only orc clans to practice execution by geyser.

they also call it the Grey Waste
but the bacteria make many parts very colorful
Titan's Field is the largest settlement of Brimstone Orcs in the region.  A long time ago, a bunch of titan skeletons (a hypothetical type of largest giant) were found buried.  It was assumed to be a burial site, but before it could be fully explored, it was captured by the orcs.  Since then, the orcs have turned it into a strip mine (where they mine for burial goods) and a city.  The titan skeletons are either discarded or used as decorations.  For example, a titan skull makes for a very intimidating doorway.  Supported by ancient titan wealth, the city continues to thrive, even though the central pit of the strip mine-city is a small lake of poisonous, metallic sludge.

Mesas are the only places that are truly safe from the poisonous billows of the low lands.  The tops of the mesas are lush, isolated, and home to a surprising amount of biodiversity.

Belchers are caves that spew black smoke.  You'll hear lots of rumors about them, but they are devilishly hard to explore.

Chimneys are pillars of sulfurous accretions that tower over the landscape.  Volcanically-heated water runs down the sides, full of dissolved minerals and heavy metals.  They are easy to find, given the large amounts of steam that they give off.  Bacterial forests are thickest here, and the jagged landscape is home to multitudes of small crabs that graze across the rocks.

The Church of the Old Earth is a small church, built into the side of a hydrothermal vent.  Like the rest of the church-occupied Waste, it is intermittently staffed, and goes through cycles of abandonment and frugal repair.

The Choking Mountain is a landmark in the Waste.  It's visible on windy days, but on most days it is obscured by the huge amounts of smoke the seep out through it's sides.  Climbing a mountain is difficult, but climbing a smoke-covered mountain is nearly impossible.  Which makes the metallic structure at it's apex all the more perplexing.

The Midnight Waste is formed by the smoke-shadow of the Choking Mountain.  The mountain's smoke and local wind are so reliable, that the area downwind is plunged into permanent midnight.  Frost covers the soot-stained stones, and black ice chokes the ravines.  Nothing lives here except a clan of naus-garants, who have acted on the instructions of the Great Architect and built a alchemical laboratory-city inside the black ice.

The Sea of Foam is small, but it is notable for being the only stable source of the brown foam that periodically floods the mudflats.  The Sea of Foam has some interesting things living on the bottom of it, that sometimes venture out when they get too hungry.  The Sea of Foam is actually more dangerous than water, since you cannot swim in it nor breathe it.  The orcs sometimes use specialized boats to traverse it.  With a huge length and depth, the boats have a massive displacement.  The orcs mostly use them to assist in small raids.

The Sky Reef can be found on one of the mud-flats near the Sea of Foam, where it is subject to almost-daily floods of foam and water.  It resembles a marine reef, with calcified structures resembling fans, brains, ridges, and gnarls.  The bacterial colonies that built this place are tended to by 1d6 druids of exceptional temperament.  There are other small reefs on the flood plains of the Waste, but this is the largest one.  There are other bacterial towers, too, but the largest ones can be found here.

Exports of the Brimstone Waste include: sulfur, mercury, lead, and titan gold.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Longstriders (a.k.a. longlanders) are either very tall people or very skinny giants.  In fact, scholars refer to them as common giants.

They look like humans whose arms, legs, and torso have been doubled in length without getting much wider.
Common Knowledge

Longstriders are wanderers, and so you'll find them around the world, traveling in small bands or families.  But a great deal of them also live around Revanwall, where nearly all of them have been forcibly integrated into human cities, where they serve as prestige slaves or honor guards.  Their culture, names, and religions are the same as their master's.

In the past, they were the victims of a brutal genocide that killed over 60% of their numbers, with the remainder enslaved.  But those days are mostly past, and enough longstriders have purchased their freedom in those centuries that they have sizable communities elsewhere, far from Revanwall.

In the Revanwall cities, you can still see their unmistakable bones used in various employs.  For a brief moment, it was the height of popularity to have a scabbard made out of a longstrider's 3' long femur.  Like coming back from from WW2 with a Luger.  You'll also see their blue-tinged bones in walking sticks, pipes, sword-grips, chandeliers, scrimshaw . . . everywhere, really.  Even ancient longstrider burial grounds have been exhumed, with the long bones harvested and the rest scattered.

Outside of Revanwall, most people know longstriders as travelling merchants.  When they settle down in villages they tend to work physical jobs, like construction.  Established families usually get into moneylending.  They ride around on lightly-reskinned giraffes called longlander horses.  

They are known for their sharp business sense and affability.  They are so affable, in fact, that they won't even flinch when you bring out a scabbard made of longstrider bone and offer to sell it; they'll just start talking price, like any good merchant.  People will tell you that they're completely honest, or they'll tell you that they're the greatest liars the world has ever seen, but no one has a moderate opinion of their honesty.

I assumed this would be a common fetish, but I was wrong
there's very few pictures of massively elongated people out there
Uncommon Knowledge

The longlanders are a people without a history.  Are they interested in investigating their old cities, trying to reclaim their lost culture and language?  Nope.  There isn't any old culture or language to discover.  Anything to that effect was destroyed in the years since their enslavement.

This isn't to say that the longstriders haven't had "messiahs" or charismatic leaders that argued for a longstrider nation.  But these calls for homeland and history have always ended in violence, genocide, and persecution.  It is no wonder that modern longstriders have sought to distance themselves from these notions.

And so longstriders seem oddly incurious.  If you ask one, "Don't you want to know where your family came from?  Or where your home is?"  The longstrider will answer, "My family are those around me that I trust, and my home is where I wish to sleep tonight."  This is an answer which is both unusually tolerant and sadly close-minded.  It's the response of a people who have fled their history.

bayonetta is like 10' feet tall
Secret Knowledge

But there is something buried deep in the history of the longstriders.  Something that they don't understand and don't trust.

Longstriders can transfer curses with their breath.  They can literally inhale someone's curse, transferring it to themselves.  And they can transfer a curse back into someone else just as easily.

This power is never discussed openly, and it is only used with great reservation.  Many longstriders are ignorant of it themselves.

And when a longstrider eats the hearts of greater giantkin, their body undergoes a strange metamorphosis, and they develop potent powers.  There are a few longstriders who mutter that these powers mean that they were meant to be rulers among giants, but they are quickly silenced.  There is no suggestion more distasteful to the average longstrider than the notion that they are destined to be rulers.

Longstriders are humble with a passion and broadness that is incomprehensible to other races.  This is because, wherever their long legs carry them, they are always guests or slaves.  And arrogant guests do not survive long.

robert wadlow
  • Like a normal human, but stretched.  2x the height, 3x the weight.
  • Most rooms and passages sized for humanoids count as cramped (-2 to hit).
  • +100% range on thrown attacks.
  • Can transfer curses to/from themselves via breath.  Can inhale a curse from a target's lungs, or exhale a curse into a target's lungs.  Unwilling targets must be restrained/asleep/unsuspecting, and get a save to resist.  The first time an unwilling target makes a save, the curse is effectively locked in place (as far as this longstrider is concerned; other longstriders can still attempt).
  • Metamorphosis.  See below.
  • Lifespan as human.
Metamorphosis: The first time a longstrider eats the heart of a giant with 4 HD or more, their eyes turn completely blue (pupil, iris, and sclera) and they can identify magic items as if they were a wizard of equal level.  If they are already a wizard, they can identify magic items as if they were a level higher.  Lifespan 2x human.

The first time a longstrider eats the heart of a giant with 7 HD or more, their hair falls out and their mucus membranes (lips, inside of the mouth, tongue, inside of eyelids, etc) turns milky white.  They gain the use of a secret chest, which is more or less like the spell.  It lets them store up to 5 items in an extradimensional bag inside their forehead.  Lifespan 3x human.

The first time a longstrider eats the heart of a giant with 10 HD or more, their skin turns pure blue and their eyes glow as bright as a candle.  They get telepathy with a range of 100'.   Additionally, their breath can transfer all enchantments, not just curses.  Lifespan 4x human.

Note: Think of them as fragile ogres.  They have long, thin limbs that tend to shatter after falling, and they lack the great strength of their giant kin.  Still, it seems a little odd to have 1 HD giants out there, so assume that any longstrider that you'll see in Centerra is a 3 HD peasant, at least.  If one of your players wants to roll up a 1 HD longstrider teenager, let them.  Option: add the caveat that three years need to go past before you can level up to 2 HD, and another 3 years before you can read 3 HD, or something like that.

This book cost a dollar at the Dollar Store when I was a kid
Fuckin' loved it
Thanks for buying it for me, Mom.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Least Priests, Pantheism, and God-Prisons

Isn't it cool how gods all seem to conflate power, worship, mythology, immortality, and a moral system?  What happens if a god is lacking one of those elements?

That doesn't have to be the case, though.

A Partial History of Religion in Centerra

Before Hesaya became the dominant religion of Centerra, the continent was mostly pantheistic.  One city-state would worship Magnificent Yakul, while the neighboring one would worship Grandfather Count-the-Days.

It is important to realize that, prior to the Advent of Hesaya, religion, ethnicity, and location were all tightly interrelated.

Every Land had a People, and every People had a God.

Some People had several Gods, sometimes People worshiped their neighbor's God, but each God was localized.  Each one had a home.

It is also important to realize that a temple wasn't just a place that you go to worship your god, but is literally where your god resides.

Every temple has an inner sanctuary where the god lives, and from which the entire religion flows.  And while a People/City/Relgion might have smaller, satellite sites of worship, there is never confusion that these are just shrines to the god, but not actual connections to the godhead.

In those days, most people didn't know what sort of land was over the next mountain range.  It was understood that each land was a new one, with a new people and a new god.  And each city's clerics performed miracles, so how could the divinity of their god be denied?  And so most people were pantheists.

Religion wasn't something personal.  There was no such thing as one's faith informing one's morals.  Worship was a matter of politics and politeness.  When in the city of Yakul, you worshipped Yakul.  When in the city of Grandfather Count-the-Days, you worshipped him.  And if a common man abandoned his city, his land, and his people, he rarely took his gods with him.  How could he, when Yakul lived in his shrine in the mountain?  And even if he did insist on worshipping Yakul in his new city, he would be far from the mountain, and Yakul would have difficulty hearing him.  And so immigrants would always adopt the religion of their new city, at least partially, so as to avoid offending the god.

Religions didn't dictate morality.  Or, if they did, it was usually couched in non-judgmental language, such as "Yakul is disgusted by thievery and the wearing of the color blue.  Those who practice either will suffer his displeasure."

Likewise, old religions didn't have much truck with ontology.  Although they often include creations myths or divine lineages for their people, they almost never attempt to explain the creation of the earth, nor what came before the world, nor the the afterlife.  A religion was simply a formal system of observances that formalized the interaction between the god and the people, usually based on respect.

Old gods did not want worshipers.  Why would they?  What worth is the chatter of a few monkeys?  Old religions did not proselytize, did not seek new converts.  Your religion was your skin color.  Your religion was your home.

And that was the state of the world until the Prophetess received the Command.

Honor the Authority, the God of Gods, from Whom all Truth flows.

The Authority is the One True God, from whom all authority and truth flows.  The Authority does not caution us from a sin because it is harmful for our souls, but instead a sin is harmful because the Authority has cautioned us against it.

<digression> The name of the Authority is Akatom, but it is only invoked in the most sacred of ceremonies.  A more common name for him is Dumadiyei.  But most folks call him the Authority.</digression>

The Birth of the Church

Unlike the other religions in the world, Hesaya worshipped an abstracted god.  The Authority didn't have a shrine.  The Authority didn't have a location, or a people.  It was a perfect circle with no center, that encompassed everything.  (This symbolism is why priest of Hesaya have black circles on the backs of their hands, either through a tattoo, henna, or a carefully embroidered glove.)

And while several other cults had emerged that had a similar theme of decentralization, Hesaya was the first one that actually caught on.  Part of this had to do with how Hesaya treated other religions.

Most gods are jealous gods.  Conquering a neighboring city-state invariably involves destroying their temple and destroying the idol in which the god lived.  As you could expect, this was dangerous business.  Genocide requires swords, destruction requires fire, but killing a god requires another god.  And even then, the iconoclast is at risk from curses, infirmities, insanity, and death.

Hesaya was remarkable because the Prophetess taught that all gods were merely aspects of the Authority.  Competing gods should be worshipped, rather than destroyed.  It was a sin to kill a god, even one that opposed the Authority.

With this message of peace and assimilation, Hesaya quickly became the dominant religion on the continent.  (Also banking and prophecy, the two most profitable industries in the world.)

This isn't to say that the early church was peaceful (their paladins filled many mass graves) or that they assimilated all the gods they came across (the Hammer of Iconoclasm has supposedly killed 777 separate gods by smashing their idols).  But tolerance was the rhetoric, anyway.


The city of Coramont was where the Prophetess was born, and now it has become a metropolis of its own, an economic and military powerhouse.  No king is crowned except with Coramont's permission.  There is a street in Coramont called the Street of Lesser Gods.  This is where all of the defeated gods reside.

(It's also where the living reincarnation of the Prophetess Essa lives, may we be worthy.  She's ten.)

When a city/people/god bends its knee to Coramont, and swears eternal loyalty to the Authority, the Church consolidates that pledge.  The god's church is taken apart, stone by stone, and shipped to the capitol of Coramont.  The defeated god's idol is taken into the city, where it is honored.  It is paraded through the streets and anointed with oils.  Huge banquets are held, and at the head of the table is placed the idol (and therefor the god who lives inside it).  Even the patriarch bows to the least idol.

And then the defeated god's temple is rebuilt on the Street of Lesser Gods, and the idol is returned to it's place inside the sanctuary.  The temple is reconsecrated.

But there are still people that say a god belongs with its people, and that it is blasphemy to remove a god from his land.  Those people are quietly executed and buried in unmarked graves far from Coramont.

The purpose of this is political as well as religious.  The defeated god has become a hostage.  If the defeated city wishes to worship their god, they must come to Coramont to do it.  Aside from the taxes and levies imposed on the client state, the Patriarch can now keep a close eye on the lesser priests.

And in the space of a few generations, the priestly family of their client states became urbanized.  The priests dressed, spoke, and socialized as if they were from Coramont.  Any further rebellions from the outlying cities would have no support from their own churches.

In the 800 year history of Coramont, the city has managed to collect quite a number of gods.  The Street of Lesser Gods contains no less than 1404 "official" gods.

(Digression: for most of it's history, "Coramont" was synonymous with "The Church", but now a very quiet schism is dividing the church.  Coramont and the Prophetess frequently disagree with the Patriarch in Kaladon.)

But years are long, and memories short.  As incredible as it may seem, entire temples and gods seem to have disappeared over the centuries.  After a bloody war with Coramont, after thousands of young men have been laid in the earth, after noble speeches about pride and patriotism, entire cultures have vanished without so much as a whimper.

And the idols turn up in the most unlikely of places.  If you go into the Lucky Duck tavern in Coramont and sneak into the basement, you'll find a small shrine to Devonura, Who Makes the Green Things Grow.  And at the intersection of Bassinet and Bane, you'll find a snow-white boulder whose surface has been carved out into a maze of alcoves and short tunnels filled with figurines.  This boulder is the home of Rashimar, a river god associated with towers and poisonous fish.

(Digression: In Hesaya, lesser gods are respected, and they are sometimes even honored by ritual or song.  It is even permissible to pray to a lesser god, with the understanding that the lesser god will act as an intermediary.  But only the Authority has the authority to grant prayers, and only the Authority is worshipped.)

The religions of these client gods have withered.  Their priesthood has atrophied.  Sometimes, a lesser temple will be tended by a shriveled old man and his inbred nephew.  Or it will be tended by a toothless immigrant, who doesn't speak a word of Common.  But just as commonly, the lesser temple will sit empty.

Least Priests

But every god must be worshipped.  This was the covenant that the Patriarchs made so long ago.  And so the empty shrines are tended by least priests.  Their job is to go to an abandoned temple, perform the rituals, pray to that forgotten godling sincerely and fervently, and then go on.

Least priests are bit like those home care workers, who go around bringing groceries to retirees too fragile to leave the house.  It's a tough job.  They need to clean the place up (no one else will do it) and explain to the god that it's okay, your grandchildren are probably just very busy--it doesn't mean that they don't love you and think about you.

It's a bit sad, but it's also a bit weird, because of the diversity of gods involved.  It's also sometimes exhausting.  Example:
  • On Monday, you spend ten hours imbibing hallucinogens and writhing in ecstasy beneath Hakum-Keth, the snake god.  You spend your day's earnings on a massage afterwards.
  • On Tuesday, you cover yourself in honey and walk figure eights between the stone hives of the Nameless Insect.  Although there are no insects (apparently), you still wake up with bites covering your body in auspicious patterns.
  • On Wednesday, you meditate at the bottom of a well while tolling a bell every six minutes, for three hours.  You would have finished quicker if you didn't fall asleep and have to restart.
  • On Thursday, you meet up with your partner to glorify Hasdrubal the Pugnacious with five hours of valiant combat (with padded swords).  By nightfall, you'll have a new crop of shiny bruises.
  • On Friday, you meet up with the same partner for six hours of tantric sex atop a wooden elephant.  You curse the priest you decided that sex-day should come after combat-day.
  • On Saturday, go to the Grand Cathedral to worship the Authority directly.  Before you can go to sleep, however, you must light six candles made from six different substances for six different forest spirits.    
  • On Sunday, you stay in bed, because you're exhausted.  But what can you do?  The gods must be honored.
Among the clergy, becoming a least priest is considered a bit like being exiled.  There's not much to look forward to, except being put in charge of more forgotten godlings.  Quite a lot of them become adventurers.

Metagaming: Since a least cleric might find their prayers answered by any of the various gods that they worship, a Hesayan cleric PC can be snake-themed or sex-themed or whatever.  The Authority has many incarnations in the world.  It also explains how you can have a snake-cleric and a sex-cleric in the same party together.  Players can even make up their own client gods.

Digression: Training to be a Hesayan cleric often includes praying to all sorts of client gods, in order to find out if any of them can answer your prayers with appropriate miracles.  Or, technically, relay the Authority's miracles.

The Desmoterion

While cooperative gods are given places of honor on the Street of Lesser Gods, and rebellious gods are shattered by the Hammer of Iconoclasm, sometimes neither of those solutions is ideal.  Every god is unique, after all.

Sometimes the Church fears the retribution that would arise from destroying the god's idol.

Sometimes the Church wishes to punish a god for rebelling, or for heresy.

Sometimes the Church wants to keep a god isolated until it can be convinced to join more willingly.

Whatever the cause, there is a place beneath Coramont called the Place of Chains, Desmoterion.  It has been built in secret over the centuries, bits and pieces.  Some parts are precise and carefully engineered.  Some parts are haphazard and chaotic.  All of it was built under the orders of different Patriarchs, in different eras, in order to imprison gods.

The Desmoterion is secret and it is full of traps, treasure, forgotten gods, and even a few political prisoners.  This dungeon contains the Hammer of Iconoclasm, immortal paladins, and a tentacled monstrosity that you can't help but feel sorry for.  I want it to be a dungeon for level 1 PCs.


Only a fool mocks a god.

Whenever a player openly insults a god by cursing them, doubting them, or ridiculing them, they have a chance to suffer a curse.  The chance of suffering this depends on how close they are to the god's location.

  • In god's own temple: 70% chance of curse
  • In god's own city: 50% chance of curse
  • In god's own land: 30% chance of curse
  • Anywhere else in the world: 10% chance of curse.

The the blasphemy was insincere or accidental, the chance of suffering a curse is halved.  There is also no chance of suffering a curse if the speaker is currently protected by another god.  Therefore, clerics can curse other gods without fear of repercussion, and any who is inside Yakul's shrine can curse the enemies of Yakul.

If a person is in Yakul's shrine and curses a god that Yakul doesn't feel strongly about one way or the other, they will not be protected against the insulted god's wrath.

Curse Table
1 Baleful Polymorph
2 Blindness
3 Crippled Leg
4 Withered Arm
5 Marked (no religious person will help you, sell to you, buy from you, or serve you)
6 Cannot Gain XP
7 Permanent Insanity (traditionally, this is a thematically appropriate phobia)
8 Leprosy (or other horrible, permanent disease)
9* Loss of All Wealth (occurs in the next 7 days, even if wealth hidden or transferred)
10* Loss of Favorite Family Member or Animal (traditionally death)
11* Attacked by Divine Agent (occurs in the next 7 days)
12* Save or Die (traditionally, this is a lightning bolt)

*Results 9-12 are not permanent curses but instead single, horrible things that happen to a PC.  They don't linger.

This curse can only be lifted by a cleric.  The cleric can see that the curse is divine in nature, and that the person incurred it by blasphemy.  The cleric will also know that they can invoke the punishing god's anger by extension if they remove the curse, and although Yakul will not strike the cleric dead for removing Yakul's curse, this expenditure of divine currency will echo in the spirit realm.  Remember that the cleric didn't remove Yakul's curse--the cleric's god did.  This has political implications between the two gods, so the cleric may be unwilling to remove a divine curse.  Remember that all clerics respect all gods, even the gods that they hate.

A cleric can also be cursed by their own god if the offense is large enough.  This doesn't necessarily mean that the cleric loses their powers--sometimes a god needs to punish its agent without removing it.

Clarification of Terms

For the purposes of this discussion, I've used the word "god" to mean anything that is worshipped and has the capacity to grant clerical powers.  In Centerra, that's a pretty loose definition.  There are even nature spirits who meet those definition.  Hell, there are even mortal humans who can meet that definition.

Outsider of the scope of this article, there's much weirder stuff in Centerra there that could be called a god.  Some of those things shun worship.  Some of them shun clerics.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Expectations and Entitlement Among Millennial Roleplayers


We're the kids who were born between the advent of AIDS and 9/11.  Supposedly, Facebook has made us narcissistic and envious, while the culture of giving every kid a trophy for participation has made us self-entitled and prone to over-valuing our own opinion.

If you want to read up on it yourself, there's plenty of opinions out there (1 2 3).  Just remember to (a) check your sources, and (b) look for statistical trends, not just anecdotes or stats about a single generation.

Anyway, here's my idle, purely speculative hypothesis: these same generational trends have been shaping how we play our RPGs, too. 

Is player entitlement a new thing?  Do players show up and expect that. . .
  • their character will be treated like a hero?  
  • their encounters will be balanced to their level?  
  • they'll all get equal spotlight time?  
  • they'll all get equal loot that's also class-appropriate for them?
  • the campaign will revolve around them and their story?  
  • . . . and does that include some insurance against permanent character death?
  • . . . and the stakes are plot elements, rather than player death?
  • they'll have opportunities to take a more literal hand in telling the story (fleshing out scene details, deciding backstories for minor NPCs)?
And if so, are these new trends?  I'm going to argue Yes.


I think these are all expectations that cater to player entitlement.  Convenience, respect, control.  These are concessions to player expectations.

Numenera lets players bid on the fiction using Intrusions and XP.  Dungeon World offers players more literal ways to write their own story, aside from just the actions of their character.  Later incarnations of DnD have made recovering from permanent death a trivial task.  Some 4e DMs allow players to pick what loot is in the next treasure chest, since character builds are so important.  Games have a specific calculus that they use to ensure that a particular combat is level-appropriate.

I know a lot of grognards sigh and shake their heads at this stuff.  Well, cut it the fuck out.  There's no wrong way to have fun.  These are just signs of a changing time.  So what if players demand a more personal level of customer satisfaction these days?  These are great innovations that I'm glad have been added to the repertoire of tabletop RPGs.  There's a reason these games have gained in popularity.

These trends don't really become odious until they fall into the deepest abysms of player pandering, when the game becomes a power trip for the players, and the DM is probably better off just giving everyone a hand job.

But remember that the inverse has also been a criticism of our hobby.  Callous DMs who didn't care about the players at all.  Cheap, meaningless deaths.  Insurmountable results from the wandering monsters table.  Illogical traps that killed without so much as a saving throw.  DM NPCs that overshadowed the players at every step of the way.

So it swings both ways.  And everyone is going to have a different equilibrium within that spectrum, somewhere between "my character chooses to spend a plot point to avoid dying, since she hasn't avenged her family yet" and "hahaha give me your character sheet so I can eat it".

My Personal Preferences

As for me, I tend to shy away from games that offer too many of my bulletpoints, above.  I like old-school.  I don't want to be a special snowflake.  I want to be a pebble.  I like save or die mechanics.  I like roguelikes.

Roguelikes, by the way, are almost the direct opposite of modern trends towards player entitlement.  Everything is random, difficult, and utterly unsympathetic.  But that's part of the appeal.  All those brutal failures make victory so much sweeter when it finally occurs.

I remember playing in a game of +Courtney Campbell's where we were forced to lick a demon's boot.  That's about as far from playing a power fantasy as you can get.  It's funny--it didn't cost me any HP or GP to say, "I lick the demon's boot and beg." but I still found it distasteful.  (Too much empathy with your PC is always a dangerous thing.)  I wonder how many players have chosen to fight a doomed fight rather than merely swallow their pride?  Or more accurately, the imagined pride of an imagined avatar?

But looking back at it now, it was a pretty cool part of the game.  Heroes are never forced to grovel, nowadays, and that scarcity made it dramatic.  And in a callous way, realistic.  Outside of idealized fantasy, sometimes a dude needs to kiss a lot of ass.

(Out of curiosity, are there any videogames where the protagonist has to humiliate themselves?  Not just some cut scene where the PC does something humiliating, but an actual choice that the player makes to humiliate themselves?  Like, do you lick the warchief's boot clean or lose all of your money?)

Anyway, this might be one of the roots behind the old/new school schism.  But if so, that's great news, because it's just a matter of player+GM expectations.  And that means they can be discussed and agreed upon, because that's something that adults do.

UPDATE:  There's a good response to this post over at Incredible Vehicle that's gives some thoughtful criticism.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Monsters of the Great Rot

Yesterday I wrote about the Great Rot.  I've already written about the ubiquity of oozes there, so this is where I'll detail some of the other unique fauna.

The Smell

The Great Rot stinks more than you can believe.  This is because it's literally 24,000 square miles of constantly decaying biomass.

First time visitors usually spend their first couple of days throwing up.  Use Con checks to see how fast the PCs acclimate, and how fast their penalties recede.  Eventually they'll get used to it, but if they've got two weeks to cross the Great Rot, how many days do they really want to spend in the fort, nursing their stomachs?

Yeasts and other fungi cause a lot of respiratory and skin diseases, but they'll be fine as long as they don't remove their mouth protectors, expose any skin, or submerge themselves in water.

hahaha I could have posted much grosser pictures
Catapult Slime

Instead of dividing when hit by a slashing weapon, this slime is instead capable of throwing half of itself up to 50'.  Since it's aiming by scent and vibrations, it gets -4 to this attack roll.  On a miss, it lands near its target.  On a hit, the target is engulfed.

Faffernacky Pudding

This sedentary slime preys on animals.  It smells supernaturally delicious.  It tastes supernaturally delicious.  And eating it is invariably fatal, much like swallowing green slime.  It looks like molten caramel, and anyone who smells it must make a save to avoid walking over to it and eating it (with some hesitation).  Anyone who is hungry (hasn't eaten today) automatically fails this save.  This is why Rotsmen never skip meals.

It's also an intermittent-but-significant source of income for the Rotsmen, since it is also a delicacy that often graces the tables of the rich.  The trick is to gently boil it, which gently disintegrates the slime but preserves the aroma and flavor.  It tastes fucking delicious.  Anyone who has eaten faffernacky pudding and survived must make a save or become obsessed with tasting it again.  They'll do whatever it takes to get more faffernacky pudding in their lives, and only get another save after a week has passed or they've eaten more faffernacky.

And of course, people have died by eating what they thought was boiled faffernacky pudding, either through incompetence or assassination.  But that's only served to make the stuff more popular.

It is rumored that the mischief people, the babarukhs, are immune to acid and slimes, and so serve live faffernacky pudding at their clandestine parties to ensure that everyone present is one of them.  (As a race of shapeshifters, they are understandably paranoid at times.)

this is slime mold
it can solve mazes

Everyone hates a fyrinx.

They look like small lobsters, except that they have long legs that allow them to scuttle and jump and climb and latch onto faces.  They have scorpion tails that contain a poison (save vs. paralysis for 2d6 rounds).  Both genders are bone white.  They are omnivores, but prefer rotted meat.  They usually avoid hunting live game unless they are starving, or they stumble across easy prey.

They're about as intelligent as nine-year-old children, except without any of the playfulness.  They can speak to each other in a language of chitters, but cannot make themselves understood to humans.  Combined with a penchant for eavesdropping, their linguistic abilities allow them to understand--but not speak--the common human tongue.  No mere vermin, this one!

Fyrinxes are always found in mated pairs.  They form these pairs even before they are sexually mature, so the lovebirds usually grow up together.  They are loyal, and would each sacrifice itself for the sake of the other.  Poets would compare their love to the love of fyrinxes, if the latter weren't abominable little spider-lobster-scorpion monsters.

So unless adventurers mess with their cozy, mailbox-sized lairs, fyrinxes are content to avoid adventurers altogether.  This changes when the loving couple decides to have babies.

The male fyrinx will sting a large animal (halfling-sized or larger), and while it is paralyzed, the female will crawl down its throat.  The pregnant mother will settle down in the stomach, and begin the feng shui required to turn it into a nursery.  She will birth one baby a day for the next 2d20 days.  Each live-born baby will exit via the anus and scuttle to safety, all while making "safety peeps" to let mama know that everything is alright.

Because here is the trick of the fyrinx mother: she puts her ear right up to the bellybutton, so that she can hear everything that is going on outside (and remember that she can understand words just fine).  Then she wraps her barbed tail around a tender organ (liver, heart).  Whenever something happens that she doesn't like, she stabs the offender's organ.  Organ stabbing deals between 1 and 3d6 Con damage (the lady picks) and she is fast enough to do it as a reaction (since she is just sitting there with her hand on the trigger).  The pain is enough to incapacitate a grown barbarian, although they can do simple things (pull a lever, drink a potion) if they make a Cha check.

Things mother fyrinxes hate:
  • Sounds of her mate or children being killed.
  • Attempts to remove her from her stomach nursury.
  • Insufficient flow of food into the stomach nursury.
  • Other stuff, like off-key singing and bad puns.
Food is an important one.  The babies that the mother births are huge, ideally about 1/3 of the mother's full length.  This requires a constant and intense flow of food.  She usually lets her displeasure be known after a meal.  A person eats a dinner (which she then eats) and afterwards she throttles their liver to let them know HEY that wasn't enough.  Keep feeding me.  She's only satisfied once the person has eaten 5x the normal amount of rations.  (In case you haven't noticed, the proper food management and preparation is one of themes of this place.)  In the middle of this shared pregnancy, the landlord can have a distended belly, which looks almost exactly like a normal pregnancy.  

She can express her displeasure via pain, which can range anywhere from a -1 penalty to all actions, to a -4 penalty, to a -whatever because she can just squeeze as hard as she wants, even enough to shred a grown man's heart.

At the end of the pregnancy, she'll paralyze her host with a sting, crawl out of the mouth, and rejoin her husband, who has missed her very much. 

The male usually follows his wife around, just to make sure that she's okay.  He'll stay out of sight for the most part, trying to be stealthy (and they are quite stealthy).  His job is to collect the babies and keep them somewhere safe.  

Could a resourceful party capture the father and use him to hostage his wife out of her cozy home?  Yeah, probably.  Can a baby survive on its own if the father isn't there to gather them?  Yeah, probably.  Could fyrinxes form a society where they enslave humans?  Not normally, since mated pairs don't get along very well with other mated pairs.  Could the PCs befriend a mated pair and have some sweet monster hirelings?  Yeah, probably.

Fyrinxes are 2 HD monsters with a very good AC (tough shell + small size+ agility).  They have 4 special abilities.  Leap!  Paralyzing Sting!  Acid immunity!  And the whole crawl-down-the-throat-business!

Sludge Vampires

Fungal Giants and Moss Men

Tubular Peacocks


Fungal Demons (Fungal Angels)

These are weird motherfuckers that are, blessedly rare.  No one is sure which part of the ecology they fit into, since they don't behave like either wild animals or civilized ones.  Most people assume that they're demons or angels or nature spirits, or at least servants of those things.  

Digression about the setting: Demons, angels, and spirits only differ in their role, not in their essence.  Like a murderer, a policeman, and a baker, respectively.  Once you strip away their costume and motivations, they're all the same underneath.

Fungal angels tend to be humanoid-sized and humanoid-shaped, but it's a pretty broad bell curve.  Roll 2d6-3 to see how many limbs they have, and roll something similar to figure out their size.  They fly magically, without wings.  They are mottled, bulbous, suppurating masses, topped with a fungal bloom that doesn't even approximate a head.

They despise symmetry, and seek to destroy it whenever they find it.  They leave vast swathes of destruction through the Rot, where they have been "sculpting" giant mushrooms into more pleasing examples of asymmetry.  This appears to be their only motivation.  

They attack with 20' whip tendrils that can disembowel a man with a single stroke, but have a hell of a time getting through armor.  (Two attacks per round for 1d8 damage each.  They get +4 to hit with each because they are like ninjas trained by a ninjas trained by a cat.  However, the damage is reduced by an amount equal to the armor bonus, so if a paladin is wearing plate that gives +6 AC, the lash damage is 1d8-6.)

They can also breathe out clouds of decay that rot any flesh that they come into contact with.  (Treat this as cloudkill, but only if it is inhaled.  People who hold their breath will do fine.  Rotsmen helmets give a bonus to this.  It also does some passive rot damage each turn, as the PC's skin will turn wet, black, and begin to slough off.)

They can cast a few druid spells, too, but really they prefer lashing the limbs off unarmored foes, and rotting their face into something less symmetric.

The Dweller-in-Soil

This is an enormous network of mushrooms, connected by a vast network of underground mycelium.  It covers the entire central area of the Great Rot.  Ten thousand miles of creeping tendrils below and above ground (where they look like black shoestrings, rooted to the mulch).  He hear out of little clusters of pale mushrooms, which look quite innocent at first glance.  If he wants a better look, he'll grow an eyeball on a stalk, and use that to get a better look.

While the Rotsmen act in the interest of civilization and the October King acts against them, the Dweller-in-Soil is a third, more neutral party.  The Dweller-in-Soil is intelligent and has goals of his own.  The Rotsmen suspect this, but so far the Dwell-in-Soil has been content to let them remain ignorant of his presence.

It takes a full day for a thought to get from one side of the Dweller to the other.  He doesn't have myelinated neurons, after all.  His thoughts are conducted along chemical gradients.  And so his "mind" is a slurred, fractured thing.  Memories come slow and irregularly.  Motivations are sometimes obscure, even to the Dweller.  The larger he gets, the stronger the tides of dementia are.  But it is a peaceful and slow madness.  The dweller hesitates when he recognizes irregularities; he doesn't act on them.

The myconoids serve him, although he did not create them.  They came to him from underground.  With their spore-based method of communication, the Dweller struggles to understand his servants.  He has come to the conclusion that they are a divine being, and suspects that they are a hive mind like himself.  He has begun to worship the myconoids, and sees secret intentions in all that they do.  For their part, his myconoid benefactors work in his interests.

The Dweller believes that humans are a hive mind, too.  (And in a way, he's right.)  So, he doesn't feel bad when a single human dies.  Extinction is the only real death, and death is his only real fear.

And it is a logical fear.  Each year the Great Rot shrinks.  The frothy pulse of loam slows, and each generation of spores finds live more difficult than their ancestors.  In decades or in centuries, the Great Rot will have rotted away.

I'm not even going to give stats for the Dweller-in-Soil, because fighting him would be more like fighting a kudzu infection.


The Rotsmen want to do their job.  This means keeping the roads open and the Great Rot contained.  Although, in their own way, they'd be sad if the Great Rot disappeared, since this is the first place where most of them have found noble careers, recognition, and a institution where they felt they belonged.  However, there are elements within the Rotsmen that hate the Rot, and want to see the whole damn thing burned to the ground.  This is certainly the opinion of their patron state, Asria, who has to pay for all this shit.

The Dweller-in-Soil wants life.  It wants to continue living.  It wants to see the Great Rot continue, or expend, or at least not wither away to nothing.  It wants its god, the Myconoids, to be pleased with its service, and thinks that this is what is desired.  It is afraid of death, even though it feeds on it.

The October King and the Druids of Decay are the last remnants of Roa Junyo, the gang of druids (and dragons) who tried to destroy all civilization.  And although most of these druids aren't even human any more (reincarnation gets messy, sometimes), they haven't given up on their original goal.  Their intermediate plan is to reincarnate Aglabendis, probably as a giant mushroom this time.  (See also, +Matt Finch's excellent Demonspore).  This would have the effect of sucking the magic back out of the surrounding countryside, and destroying the wilderness of the Great Rot.

these are polypores
The October King and the Druids of Decay

Y'know, there's already enough stuff swirling around in my head for these guys that I should probably give them their own post.  If this ever becomes a hex crawl, they'll be the obvious probably-bad-guys faction.


Scarecrows.  Scythes.
Every druid is different.
What would a human spore do?
Crown of Rot.
Swarms of dead leaves, hungry and grasping.
Rib cages filled with rot and dead leaves.
Weevils.  Borers.  Fattened on divinity.
A vast black ocean of ooze, transport.
Sludge dragon.
Wet bark, teeming with insect life, like a subway station.

They live inside the Stump, which is all that remains of the great tree.  It's about a quarter mile in height (400 M) and the same in diameter.  Water constantly flows from cracks in its wet, black bark, and the surface is studded with gargantuan polypores.  Clouds of flies surround it, and you'll hear it before you see it.

these are also polypores

New Biome: The Great Rot

Not just a giant mushroom forest but possibly just a giant mushroom forest.

So this one time, a bunch of druids decided to save the world by destroying it, and so they grew a giant tree that would pulverize all the cities of the world between its roots.  It would take a hundred years--it almost lasted a hundred years--but in the end, even the god-tree, Aglabendis, fell.

Aglabendis was over a mile tall.  It's bark was thicker than city blocks.  It's leaves never turned brown or fell.  Instead, a constant rain of petals fell, tumbling from the billions of flowers that covered it.  Each flower was unique, like a snowflake.  Aglabendis produced all possible flowers because it was all possible trees.

It was not a tree of wood and sap.  While your axe could bite into its grain, and your fingers become sticky from its sap, the deity was not composed of these things, in the same way that a human is not composed of their clothing.  The poet Uman ko Ayam claimed that "all we perceive is paint upon the veil, when the Immortal is merely air and scent".

It was a god.  Not because it was worshiped (it wasn't) or that it granted prayers (it didn't).  It lacked an agenda.  It even lacked anything we'd recognize as a mind.  It was a god because it was a piece of a higher reality.  It was a thousand times more real than the world around it.  If the world was a book printed on rice paper, Aglabendis was an iron spike that nailed it to the table.

So it was all the more surprising when the tree was killed.  Poisoned.  By forces of Civilization.

But the tree couldn't die.  It was, almost literally, a Platonic ideal of Life.  But it couldn't live, either, not with poison filling its phloem.

Removing a god of Life by killing it is a bit like removing a water fountain by drinking from it.  It's possible, but you need to empty the reservoir that the fountain is connected to.  This isn't to say that there are any parts of Aglabendis that are extra-dimensional (none are), simply that its definition was too big for our world.  That's sort of what transcendent means.

When it was alive-alive, it grew constantly and impossibly.  Now that it is dead-alive, things grow upon it, constantly and impossibly.  And this will continue for as long as it takes for the reservoir to run out--sometime between 50 and 500 years, according to scholars.

And so now, the great trunk of Aglabendis rots, but does not vanish.  It is eaten, but it is not consumed.  This is the Great Rot, 24,000 square miles of mildewed hills.

this is pretty close to what I imagine
except this picture doesn't look cramped enough
or smelly enough
The Road

This is not some untamed wilderness.  55 miles of the Rumhoney Road passes through it, itself part of a major trade route.  Asria maintains a fort on the northern boundary, and claims the whole Rot as part of its domain (a completely pointless and untested claim).  And the client-state of Truaga maintains a much smaller fort at the southern boundary.  The Rumhoney Road runs along the eastern boundary, along the shores of the Saltsea, while squinty-eyed mountains mark the western boundary.

The road has wardens who maintain it, drawn from Asria's exiles, criminals, and lepers.  The Rotsmen, as the wardens have come to be called, are a severe, penitent group.  The work is dangerous and brutal, and any recruit who does not adopt a strict code of honor and brotherhood is quickly swallowed up by the hills.  As a result, the leprous Rotsmen behave with nobility, professionalism, and loyalty.  (Except for the newest class.  But they'll be dead soon.)

The Rotsmen wear leather armor and blue-painted horsehide capes.  Their headpieces look like the plague doctor masks, except that their masks are actually quite functional: the nose of the bird mask is filled with rose petals and other sweet stuff.  In addition to smelling super bad all of the time, the Great Rot will also give you lots of skin and respiratory diseases.

Also, a few of the Rotsmen elite wear metal armor, so I suppose their bird masks would be shiny bird helmets, yeah?

The Rotsmen work to keep the road open.  The obvious problem is that the Great Rot grows too damn fast.  10' tall mushrooms sprout, grow, and die all in the space of a month.  Any path that is cleared is overgrown in less than a day.

So the road is not a road.  It's a series of (12' tall) posts that run along the hilltops and ridges.  They have long top-beams pointing to the next post in the series.  Usually the next hilltop post is visible enough to keep navigation simple, but if posts all eventually become overgrown and must be replaced.  And of course, when the fungi are sporulating, you might as well be in a thick fog.

The posts nearer to the border forts have been replaced with metal, which is much more durable.  But iron is extremely expensive, while labor is cheap.  So not may posts, not many at all.

The pointing top-beams of the posts so long that they resemble gallows.  (They were made this long so that they would remain recognizable, even when they were covered with fungi 2' thick.)  And that's what the Rotsmen call them.  "There are 122 gallows along the road," a Rotsman might say, "and I love each one more than the last."

The Root Tunnels

There is an alternative to Rumhoney Road.  You could always go underground.

When Aglabendis was trying to turn the cities into gravel, it sent out its roots throughout the world.  Each root was wide enough for a grizzly bear to travel through it.  (This is how a stationary tree conducts ambushes.)  Those root tunnels persist, and the Rotsmen sometimes travel through them.

Compared to the above-ground, the root tunnels are somewhat safer.  Or at least, they are more consistent, compared to the strange seasons of the mushrooms, or the pulses of rot that sweep the bacterial prairies.

It is sometimes difficult to find the entrance to the root tunnels, even for experienced Rotsmen.  And it is easy to get lost once you are within them.  There's a lot of terrible things down there--the ruins of the druids' machinations, unquiet hives, jelly nests, rooms that are filled with 4' of maggots, and all sorts of restless spirits.


From border to border, the Great Rot is filled with oozes.  There are far too many to kill.  Rotsmen often joke that as soon as you leave one behind you'll come across another.  It is absolutely true.  Oozes, jellies, and slimes of all kind thrive within the Great Rot.  On days when the visibility is good, a traveler can stand on a hilltop and see dozens or hundreds of glistening gobs of color, squirming down below them, like watching traffic lights change from your hotel room balcony.

Surviving in this land of oozes depends on (a) not attracting their attention, and (b) not lingering in one place once you have it.  Since oozes are attracted by smells and vibrations, travelers are advised to carry as few rations as possible and walk lightly.  Rotsmen are experienced with oozes, and can confidently walk past them, just outside of pseudopod range.  Or at least they can when an ooze is busy eating a mushroom instead of just drying itself out atop of one (and it takes years of practice to tell the difference).

Mechanically: the more food you're carrying, the more random ooze encounters you're going to have.  The faster you travel, the more random ooze encounters you're going to have.  Horses are fast, but risky--the hooves will attract all the nearby oozes, but the horse goes much too fast for them to catch.  Of course, the horse will tire eventually, and that's the tricky part.

Resting within the Great Rot is usually accomplished by either (a) finding a safe spot in one of the root tunnels, or (b) camping out atop a large, gilled mushroom.  It is important that the mushroom is sporulating, since if the gills are closed, oozes will be able to access the top of the mushroom.  And since sporulation is sporadic, there are times when it is near impossible to find a suitable giant mushroom.  Ziplines are sometimes sacrificed to make a quick exit from a mushroom cap, since slimes sometimes gather beneath the mushroom at night.  (It's also a good idea to hang your rations from a separate mushroom.)

Although the Great Rot is immune to forest fires, it is vulnerable to slime waves.

Things That Aren't Oozes

Well, there's at least one ghost of a dragon somewhere around here.  There's also poison dryads (victims of the same poison that killed Aglabendis) and the Suppurations, which are pits in the ground where oozes behave weirdly under the influence of red gems.

There's the obvious stuff like giant rats, otyughs, and persuadable maggots (see: Book of Mice, pg 16).

Unquiet hives build themselves up, like vast termite mounds.  Hundreds of insect-sized holes are visible on them, and they are filled with buzzing--but there are no insects.  Looking directly at a hive gives people a sensation that ants are crawling on their skin, even though no ants are there.

Fungal angels wander the land, to whom symmetry is abhorrent.  They will undo symmetry wherever they find it.

Shaggy mycotheriums plod across the landscape like rhinoceruses.  They know no fear and will examine travelers by smell and by using their mouth-tentacles to palpate them.  Although they will eat rations, they have no interest in eating live creatures.  However, corporeal undead will be quickly pursued and snapped up, like a candy.

Lastly, there is the October King.  This is either a popular boogieman among the Rotsman, or some great opponent buried deep in the wilder parts of the Great Rot.  Rotsmen who have travelled into the foothills of the mountains, where the actual stump of Aglabendis still stands report seeing extremely strange things.

Most feared among the Rotsmen are the dead hands of the October King, which are vast swarms of dead leaves that move as fast as wind, slip under door cracks, and kill their prey through suffocation or millions of small scratches.

this is fungus
specifically, rotting wood

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Definition of RPG, Mechanically Encouraging Roleplaying, and Types of Player Skill

A bunch of people are talking about a thing that +John Wick wrote called Chess is not an RPG.  People have been talking about it.

So here's my thoughts on the matter, specifically on the part of what makes and doesn't make an RPG.

Then I ramble.

In Which I Quibble About a Definition

Roleplaying is when actors in a game assume roles (knight) and motivations (protect the king) within a certain context (a battlefield).  (The stuff in parenthesis can, so far, be applied to both chess and a story game.)  The moment when a game becomes a roleplaying game is when choices (and player fun) starts to come from the established motivations (or story) of the game's actors, instead of from mechanical considerations.

You'll notice that this is a definition based on player motivations, and not on the game's rules.  I am going to argue that what definese a "roleplaying game" is a result of gameplay, not of game design.

Chess can be a roleplaying game.  If both players consent to play chess as a role-playing game, they can damn well play it as a roleplaying game.  The black rook could court the white bishop, a pawn could agree to allow a knight past his defenses in exchange for surviving the war, etc.  None of this requires any changes to the rules, it just requires the two players to agree that the fun comes from roleplaying, not from strictly pursuing a mechanical victory condition, then they are now playing the game as a roleplaying game.

Storygames can also be stripped, and can be played as if they weren't roleplaying games.  Take a group of the most cliched, powergaming munchkins you can imagine and drop them into a storygame.  They are only here to kill the evil wizard and rescue the princess.  Everything else is just symbols for them to manipulate.  A munchkin might (briefly) talk to the NPC king about nobility and romantic love, but only if they think that'll give them access to their next goal.  Concepts like "nobility" and "romantic love" are just symbols that interact in a certain way, like choosing cards in Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity.

Another way to think about How to Take Roleplaying Out of a Roleplaying Game: Could a computer be taught to play it?  If we built a AI ("Deep Blue Book") to play a roleplaying game, could it take part of some activities that look like roleplaying, while strictly maneuvering for a campaign's final victory condition?  If it was 5e, the AI's character could have the flaw "rude to servants", and so whenever the DM mentions that there is a butler, maid, or linkboy nearby, the AI's character will say something rude to the servant.  It looks like roleplaying, but it's a mechanical calculated action.  There is no "role" there--it's just an internally meaningless manipulation of a symbol.  The AI's flaw could be "spouts prime numbers when HP = a member of the Fibonacci series" and the AI wouldn't care.  And if the goal-focused AI was playing with other goal-focused AIs, then the other players wouldn't care either.

Roleplaying among players comes about by agreement, moreso than rule design.

Yes, yes, of course some games are much better for roleplaying that others, according to how they are designed.  But if you can roleplay chess and powergame through Lady Blackbird, it's clear that we're talking about a gradient that depends on how much the players want to roleplay.  Actually, it's more complex than a simple gradient, since different players will react differently to different incentives to roleplaying.

Chess is tough to roleplay.  All chess brings to the table is a bunch of agents (the nouns that verb with intention) with evocative labels like "knight" and "queen", but everything else needs to be supplied by the players.  Checkers would be even harder to roleplay.

DnD is easier to roleplay because it gives you more context for the game's agents, so the players have to supply less.  Not only do they have an evocative label like "wizard", but they presumably have a comprehensible context, like "defending a village from miniature dingos" or "shipwrecked on an island".  Best of all, the humans playing the game have an understanding of all the symbols in the game, because the game's symbols mirror our own.  You don't have to explain how the symbol for "fire" interacts with the symbol for "unlit torch" interacts with the symbol for "darkness".

So with a stronger context for the actors and their motivations, you can quickly move onto the fun stuff like moving, talking, discovering, and learning.  Cool.

Encouraging Roleplaying

You can encourage roleplaying by a lack of tactical options, or by mechanically rewarding roleplaying.

Games like FATE or ICONS lack an abundance of crunchy tactical options.  Everything is more free form, so there is less calculation involved when a player decides what to do.  This leaves more room for the player's choices to be based on intuition, theme, or roleplaying concerns.

The opposite of FATE would be a game where each situation, after careful analysis, has one choice that is mechanically superior to all others, e.g. a situation where you'd always want to roll Intimidate instead of Diplomacy, which leaves less room in the decision making process for things like theme and character background.

There has been a trend in games to reward roleplaying with mechanical benefits, like XP, inspiration, hero points, etc.  This is popular because it helps bridge the gap between powergamers (who are here to fuckin' win) and roleplayers (who are here to explore character and story and stuff).  And it helps us, too, the people in the middle who want to both save the princess AND act as in-character as possible while doing it.  It helps pad out the difference between choosing the most mechanically useful option and the most in-character option, by making the most in-character option more mechanically appealing.  (Sometimes, anyway.)  I've seen some GMs only award Inspiration when they chose something that wasn't tactically ideal, and that seems like an appropriate way to use it.

+Jack Mack wrote a pretty good essay about this same thing over here, with a somewhat different conclusion.

But on the other hand, it's possible to extend these rewards to make roleplaying (and by extension, social skills) all about the numbers on your character sheet.  This leads to the rollplaying vs. roleplaying scab that people pick at every once in a while.

If people are only roleplaying because there are mechanical benefits to it, is it still roleplaying?  Well, sometimes.  Some players are doing what they think their character would do, and are enjoying mechanical benefits to that process.  Other players see roleplaying just as another system to be engineered, and so will munchkin their way through every social encounter.

One of the reason that munchkins get so much hate is because they're interested in victory.  It's like a chess game, where Black is interested in roleplaying and White is interested in victory.  White will win every time, and be confused/angry as to why Black played so poorly.  Black will be confused/angry as to why White kept shitting all over the story, because chess isn't about winning--it's about telling a story.

I'm not going to anything beyond that, but I just want to say that roleplaying tends to come out in social interaction, not during combat.  A prince and a dirty bandit might both fight with the same type of swords in the same type of way, and no one cares about that.  But we expect them to behave very differently in social situations, which is why any social mechanics need to be considered very carefully.

"Martial Artists Shouldn't Get a Bonus to Combat, so Why Should Articulate Players Get a Bonus to Roleplaying?"

Here's what I tell new players before I DM for them.

I don't care if you do funny voices.  I don't care if you went to acting school.  I don't care if you give hilarious speeches.  Those things are all awesome and make the game more fun, but they won't help you when you're trying to seduce a dragon.

All I care about is (a) what your character is saying, and (b) how they are saying it.  You can say: "I flatter the dragon and then ask the dragon if has a mate" OR you can say "Glorious exemplar of dragon-kind, your cavern is truly magnificent and more splendid than any mortal king's throne room, and yet your greatness exceeds even it!  This humble human cannot help but wonder if this is the chamber of you and your mate, or yourself alone?"

To me as the GM, both of these approaches will be handled identically.  I figure out if the dragon responds well to flattery and how it feels about being asked about its romantic situation.  Usually I have notes that make this less of a "DM whimsy" and more of a "deterministic result of a previously-established facts".  Then, based on that result, I will decide if the question automatically succeeds, automatically fails, or requires a Charisma roll (with or without a modifier).

I run social encounters this way because I believe that social skills are one of the things that DnD should test (which are distinct from acting ability).  Empathy; recognizing pride, fear, and love in other creatures; learning how to exploit those emotions; figuring out when to be humble and when to be ostentatious; etc.

I also think DnD should test creativity by challenging players to solve problems with no obvious solution (i.e. good ol'-fashioned combat).  I also think that DnD should challenge people's knowledge of the real world, but only a little bit.  Like knowing that lamp oil floats and is flammable.  I also think that DnD should challenge mechanical analysis of the situation; this involves math and tactics, and includes (but is not limited to) good ol'-fashioned combat.  There's lots of ways that player skills can be expressed in a game.

Player Skills

Where does player skill come from in a roleplaying game? (Skill as that stuff that leads to victory/goals, as opposed to the stuff that leads to fun.  Sometimes throwing a pie at the king is hella fun, but it rarely leads to victory.)

  • Book knowledge of the rules? (e.g. knowing that flesh golems aren't undead, or that you get -4 to hit if prone)
  • Real world knowledge? (e.g. lamp oil floats and is flammable)
  • Mechanical analysis of the situation (i.e. stuff a chess computer could do)?
  • Creativity? (i.e. thinking outside of character sheets and explicit mechanics?)
  • Social skills (e.g. learning motives, interpreting social cues)?

You'll notice that roleplaying isn't on the list.  This is because it's usually something that a player does for fun (not related to victory) or it's mechanically rewarded, and therefore part of the mechanical analysis bit.  (Social skills are only part of roleplaying.  A paladin choosing to abandon his god can be done for roleplaying reasons, but doesn't involve any talking.)

I'll be the first to admit that there is some overlap here between the last three things.  Calculating the damage that burning oil would do to friends/foes and the subsequent chance of death is mechanical analysis.  Thinking to go back for a barrel of oil is creativity, since the player is thinking outside of the character sheet.  And getting the oil imp to give you his barrel quickly is roleplaying, since it depends on talking and understanding the imp's motivations and fears.

Anyway, different games and different DMs will reward/test different skills differently.  I don't actually want to analyse this stuff (I want to go eat lunch), so I'll just leave it at that.

A FUN Question For DMs

If you think about DMing as giving a test, what skills would you be grading your players on?

Here's my answer.

Book Knowledge: 0% of the test.
Real World: 10%
Mechanical Analysis: 30%
Creativity: 30%
Social Skills: 30%

The 0% book knowledge is probably the iffiest one.  Can I really say that the PCs who've read the book ten times have no advantage over the ones who have never read it?  Maybe.  Maaaybe.  It's a goal of mine, anyway.