Friday, 4 May 2018

Origins of the Drow

 No coherent or comprehensive history has ever been penned for our subterranean cousins, the Drow, and it is unlikely in their world of darkness and desperation that it will ever be so.  On the scant occurrences when Drow have once more been seen by surface-dwellers they are oft dismissed as legend or mistaken identity – an influential school of Dameshti historiography dismisses the of possibility the existence of the Drow as myth.

And yet, miles beneath our lackadaisical wandering they live their lives of leanness and cold valour.

The origins of this mysterious people lie within Idrlyn the Ashborn’s conquest of Damesht, seventeen years after his initial subjugation of the human cities of the Western and Southern sides of the continent, when his war to subjugate the Ordning of Zunya was in full-swing. Crossing the mountains on campaign, he encountered a network of tunnels (believed to be the current Titanheart Mountains) of dazzling, labyrinthine complexity and chilling depth. Those scouts that returned from what is now known as the Underdark returned with stories of twisting tunnels, caverns vast as any palace, and horrors that crept and feasted in the forgotten world below. Tantalisingly, they uncovered that beneath the soil Idrlyn had claimed other nations existed. Whilst the Troglodytic peoples lacked even the rudimentary civilization of their human surface cousins, they had a clear intelligence and therefore the ability to benefit from Elven stewardship. Idrlyn selected from among his champions two thousand soldiers who would subjugate the peoples of the Underdark and bring their tribute to Damesht.

 To understand the change that this wrought on those plucky Elves, veterans of a decades-long campaign of conquest, is staggering. They had known only warfare on the surface, relying on their advantages in weaponry, cavalry and magical ordinance to shatter human and giant hosts. In the strangely linear world of the Underdark, such tactics were folly. Early in the Endeavour of the Underdark, the Elves cast aside their lances and slaughtered their stallions (for meat was worth an emperor’s ransom in such darkness). They left their filigreed armour unadmired in the dank caves they traversed. Their footmen and washerwomen were armed – their luxuriant muscle grew lean and cold and hard as they adapted to war in the endless darkness. After initial victories and adaptation, they realised a tantalising second truth: the Underdark was yet more vast and rich than they had ever imagined, and they might have the opportunity to plant the banner of the Ashborn in the very roots of the world. The troglodytes were easily vanquished, and still they descended: to strange blind nations of rat-men and goblins; twisted part-dwarves who devoted their lives to endless toil; an empire of silken warrens presided over by chittering half-man spiders. 

 Soon, the prospect of resupply became impossible. No regular contact could be made – there was no quarter master, and lamp-oil became a fevered dream. There was only the dizzying prospect of a conquest that would never end: The Endeavour of the Underdark.  The Drow blacked their faces with cave-dirt; abandoned eyesight for the more primal senses of smell and touch and proprioception. They grew lean on a diet of grubs and lichen and the guilty meat of their fallen dead.  It is said that in some deep cavern they realised the true price of being so far from the sun, and their beloved Emperor. They let their plunder fall into the Abyss: gold and silver and platinum tumbling to lie among guano and teeming, blind insects. Their newly conquered people descended from subject to slave to pack animal as the Drow wed desperation to victory and birthed a grim calculus of survival at any cost.

It is said that in a cavern they came across some discarded trinkets they had early thrown into the abyss – what had started as lighting their load had become something like a ritual: to cast out the imperfections; the fat and indolent trophies of the surface world. They looked around at the baubles and trinkets twinkling in the filth and laughed like mad-men at the irony of it at all.  They had filed their teeth and shattered the nerves of their body so that they could slide and climb and root through the earth, plucking strange bony fish from the occasional streams and eating them raw. They had drank the blood of spiderfolk and goblins for moisture; they had thrown aside ancient treasures to make room on their person for bone-shivs and cruel jabbing spears.  The flower of Elven chivalry had descended into the heart of the world and they had become monsters. They knew this and exulted: for were they now not the most fearsome horrors in the endless dark? They knew that when the Underfolk saw the flash of their knives and the cruel sinew of their bodies they grew cold with fear. They had honed themselves and become predators, not prey.

With time, even the memories of sunlight faded, as new generations were born in darkness. They had set out to plant the Swan-Banner in the depths of the Underdark and yet none among them could truly say what a swan was; and in the darkness the colours of the banner meant nothing, symbols meant nothing: there was only the Drow and their war against all. The written word was one conceit of civilization that was soon cast aside: a language for the sunborn. They threw aside their books, ancestry scrolls: and created a new, tactile tongue of feel: a Drow spellbook is more a sculpture than a book. They spoke of their fat, cowardly and weak cousins who cowered from the sun with baffled contempt: wo would choose to live so close to the tyrannical sun and its endless fire? They told legends of how the sunborn even built makeshift caves and warrens on the surface and cowered in them to escape the heat and pain and the madness of water that fell from the roof. The Drow shook their heads in solemn disbelief that anyone would choose such a life. The God of the Elves became meaningless, and their worship was quietly abandoned as a shameful reminder of descendent who spent their lives cowering from ‘weather’. Colour too was abandoned as they became accustomed to a life of grim chiaroscuro.

Their society retained its military structure and absolute insistence of discipline, and all other creatures were viewed as slaves or meat. The Drow rove the Underdark now seeking their lasting dominion, and exert a rough-and-tumble hegemony over a number of nations, who pay them tribute in goods and labour and flesh. For millennia in the depths they fought their strange wars over caverns and cliff-faces ignoring the surface just as no surface nations seeks to colonise the depths of the ocean or the endless skies. In the past few years however, Drow have been found lost and disorientated, nearer the surface. In their grating, fearful way they discuss a doom that hunts them in the darkness, and some few souls have even braved the tyranny of the sun to beg aid of the descendants of the Emperor who ordered their grim descent millennia ago.

Scribe Rogier. 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

"I’ve given my party a powerful magical item and now my campaign is ruined."

I’ve given my party a powerful magical item and now my campaign is ruined.

This is one of those complaints that I see all over Internet forums and on Podcasts and in blogs – that they’ve given too much agency to their players and their players are gleefully shitting on the setting you’ve carefully constructed.

Traditional advice ranges from a mature discussion about campaign expectations (what did that ever solve?) to magical theft abetted by DM fiat to restore the apparent balance of power. These are solutions that go against then spirit of the game in my view, and I would advise simply that you embrace it and build it as a seed for future adventures.

If they have time travel, cool, your campaign is some kind of murder-centric Quantum Leap. If they’re immortal, rad, so are a tonne of other people. If they’ve set themselves up as kings, being a kind is not fucking easy.  In a world where the potential power level of a being ranges from Goblin to Godhead, there will always be challenges. (Whether D&D remains the system of choice is debatable).

If it’s a single player-character resource (you gave the party Barbarian a really powerful magic sword and now he’s wrecking everything and overshadowing the other players) that can be more difficult, but there are challenges that a magic sword can’t fix that a barbarian won’t be much good at.

Here are three examples of grossly overpowered things my players ended up with with potential game-breaking consequences:

A fucking castle.

My party – The Company of the Noose – are movers and shakers. They have an island fortress named Soltenpet and their own Warship named Destiny’s Edge and they’re not even level 10. They are upwardly mobile socially aspirant murderers. This comes complete with feudal rights over some unlucky peons and a small army of their own to command.

Now, this could elevate them beyond the petty concerns of dungeoneering, but for two things:

1) They’re obsessed with upgrading their castle.
Now, normally my story-focussed group are a bit beyond lucre as a motivation (despite that being the standard assumption of the whole game) but they’re obsessed with a paranoid desire to make themselves unassailable my building siege engines and holes. They have struck a deal with pirates to launder their ill-gotten gains through their ports, and are going to expand their dock accordingly. They’re seeking an arcanist to repair magical artefacts they’ve recovered. This has created a whole host of castle-related quests hunting monsters and plundering tombs and politicking with pirate-kings – standard fare.

2) Baddies have castles too.
This should be self-explanatory.

A maguffin that makes them immortal.

The Company recovered The Hourglass of Ages, a device which allows you to siphon life from one person into another. Capture enough hobos and orphans and you can live free from the vicissitudes of time. This is obviously much desired by various morally dubious personages. If they got it into their heads to flog it, the Kings and Emperors of the world would offer a pretty hefty price. Technically, this is an enormously powerful artefact, but a basic moral principle prevents them auctioning it off, and player characters don’t die of old age, so they can’t use it personally.

A really powerful magic sword

 My players were given Voidwalker, an epically powerful sword which was pretty obviously bad news.

Greatsword * 2d6
The sword is a single hilt of bone. The blade is not visible. When held aloft in darkness, a series of glowing runes are visible on the blade. In Infernal, they read: THE GREATEST WARRIOR FIGHTS AS THOUGH ALREADY DEAD. 
 On a critical, Voidwalker works as Power Word Kill unless the target has over 80hp.
Stillness: Once per day, the wielder of Voidwalker may use his move action to make an additional attack with Voidwalker.
Brightest Candle, Longest Shadow:  If the wielder of Voidwalker hits 0 hit-points, they may instead choose to stay standing at 1hp and gain a random curse. 

Arcana (22) Voidwalker is cursed and will compel the owner to accept any offer of a duel as though under the Geas spell. 

A History (25) will reveal Voidwalker to have been the sword of Musashi, who founded the Dameshti Swordfighting college that offers the swan-pendant for excellence in combat. Musashi was gifted Voidwalker by a representative of Dispater after triumphing in 66 duels to the death. A great reward would be offered if it was returned to the College. 

Vaina Moynen, our barbarian-fighter and resident killing machine, rampaged across every combat encounter using this thing. The avalanche of half-Orc, Reckless Attack criticals would decimate mooks in most encounters, and the party felt grossly outmatched as he sliced through most boss fights too.

This bred a touch of resentment, until an end-of-story-arc boss used the curse to force a single duel (the player obviously felt I’d never use that) to slaughter Vaina. When there’s an obviously powerful weapon, I always accommodate choices (ie a one-off nova ability with a trade off) as these make the weapons complicated. When Vaina was duelling, the players weren’t quite rooting for him…

Monday, 12 June 2017

That Old Time Religion Part 2: Cults

 Fifth Edition D&D’s published adventures are as fixated on Cults as a seventies Evangelist. This is obvious; Cult is a word rich in visceral associations: a religion dominated by secrecy, and arcane mysteries, and an esoteric cosmology. Somehow dirtier and naughtier. The Church of England is a religion. The Nation of Islam is a cult.

As with many WOTC creations, the effort to be inoffensive and to fit the assumptions of a million potential worlds have led to an inert blandness. The core question of a cult is of course, why worship that? WOTC’s adventures see people worshipping Dragons or ‘Elemental Evil’ but there’s very little indication of what exactly predisposes someone to this school of thought. We explain it with the easy crutch of mental illness: people joined Heaven’s Gate because they were crazy.

But there’s more to that. Some people join Cults for reason of status, or to belong to an elite society with connections despite nebulous objectives, be they Scientologist or Freemason or Young Conservatives. Others join because their life is otherwise empty: studies show people in fringe religions tend to leap from faith to faith with heady abandon. Some people, I think, rise a little, and grow to love their secret power. Other people stay for the virgin sacrifice – it takes all kinds.

I’ve tried to drill this flavour into the major cult in my setting, The Cult of the Ouroboros.

The principal cult for my setting will become very prominent in the next few sessions as my players infiltrate it . They’ve had numerous run-ins (even in the antediluvian days when this campaign was a one shot called North Corner) and I think they’ve come to believe that the Cult is made up of mighty wizards and vampires and liches and whatnot. They’ll soon learn that every faith has its bootlickers, and that a huge proportion of the Cult are in it to network (To some degree, The Cult of the Ouroboros is the golf club of The Last Day Dawned). I wonder how they’ll treat these people.

The Cult operates in a completely opposed way to the worshippers of The Iron Tyrant: their game is conspiracy, and they lure the wealthy and powerful with promises of everlasting life. Accruing a backlog of favours, they wield power in secret. When the Company clash with the Cult, a multitude of proxies can be tapped to make trouble. Killing some Vampire in the wilderness is one thing – but its less easy to fight your way out of being arrested for treason because the Cult has the ear of a powerful Duke.

 They see blasphemy as a simple extension of their principle aim: to conquer death. If this means killing the gods and toppling their thrones, so be it. 

Here’s the setting document for the Cult:

The Cult of Ouroboros

The Cult of Ouroboros is a strange collection of mystics, academics, necromancers, hermits, vampires, undead, cultists, aberrations, monks and bodhisattvas, connected by a singular purpose: the path of perfect immortality.

The final aim of a Cultist is true immortality: a perfect circle where a being can subsist completely on their own energies for all time, represented by a serpent eating its own tail.
Lesser forms of immortality – such as vampirism – are seen as imperfect due to their dependence on of consuming blood, or souls, or other miscellanea, to feed their immorality.

The Cult possesses little formal organisation, or doctrinal orthodoxy, and is seen more as a Path than a religion. To that end, members of the cult often form relationships with or worship other deities or patrons. Additionally, whilst a standard world-view of the Cult would see no intrinsic value in another mortal’s life, and believe wholeheartedly that establishing immortality of the truly great is worth any sacrifice, there are subsections of the Cult who live more harmoniously. Their unifying principle: to move towards perfect immortality, and aids others in the Cult. Whilst it has no leaders, it has a number of spiritual leaders or gurus who are considered further on the journey than their compatriots. To protect the organisation, many share their secrets with nobles and ruling classes who cover their activities.

The most prolific enemies of the Cult are servitors of The Raven Queen; The Morrigan; Chooser of the Slain, or the crusading knights of The Order of the Resplendent Star. 

Known members:

Beautiful Lathander
An incredibly vain and impious wizard from the Dameshti Collegia Aracanum. He was researching true immortality and its link to the Titans who once gave battle to the gods in the vast catacombs beneath North Corner. Aligning himself with Orcus, he used shape-shifting fiends to infiltrate the town and hordes of undead and a mercenary company known as The Red Tide to claim the catacombs for himself. Due to the actions of The Heroes of North Corner, his dominion of the catacombs was ended and he was vanquished at great cost to the town.

Nicodemus, The-Worm-That-Walks.
A vampire who had once aligned with factions among Loquista’s noble families and whose conspiracy had made him and his organisation the shadow government of the city-state: feeding as they pleased. He would eventually be overthrown by the actions of Teshei, a Rakshasa adventurer working with a company known as The Wandering Wolves. Teshei would soon exploit the power-vaccuum and wave of proscriptions and purges to place himself in control of the city, leaving the lingering matter of Nicodemus to reform in the sewers as a hideous Worm-That-Walks. Whilst he conspired with the Resistance and The Company of the Noose to gain vengeance against Teshei and his brood, he would be betrayed by The Company of the Noose and vanquished in the sewers, unmourned.

Arch Magi and Dean of the Loquistan College of magic, the esoteric occultist Cerelesta took little part in the day-to-day governance of the city despite her position in the Council of Ten and her relationship to the Despot Teshei. She conspired with the Company of the Noose to claim The Hourglass of Ages, but they later chose to assassinate her to precipitate civil war. Her connection to the wider cult is unknown.

Valakashanya, The First Vampire, Queen Under The Mountain.
The Company vanquished this foe on the rocky precipice of The Bleeding Mountain after adventuring to the heart of Zunia to cut her down. Delving into her lair, they saw only sad reminders of Valakshanya’s descent into madness as the millennia lay heavier and heavier on her brow.  Feral and mindless, no one will lament this last gasp of the antiquity of Damesht.

Ashoka, The Undying Monk.
About this foe, the Company know nothing.

Numines, The Broken Druid.
About this foe, the Company know nothing.

Koscheibog, Deathless Terror.
About this foe, the Company know nothing.

The Champion of Nerull

About this foe, the Company know nothing unless they metagame Phil.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

A Cosmology for The Last Day Dawned: Part 1: The Infant Demiurge

I have mixed feelings about cosmology in games. Most of the time, I think its irrelevant (your world was birthed from the skull of the dragon that ate the last universe? Pretty cool, but will it ever be relevant in a game session?) and a little self-indulgent. It is useful, I think, for establishing the tone of a setting. I also prefer that there be essentially conflicting verdicts in the world about how, why, and by whom the world was created.

Here is one such verdict.

The Infant Demiurge

For infinite kalpas, there was only Void and The Infant Demiurge. Both infinite. Demiurge dreamed of every dream that can be conceived, and was content with the majesty of this purpose. Void continued, unthinking, wrapping Demiurge like a blanket.

When Demiurge had dreamed every dream that could be conceived, he was dissatisfied.  Demiurge looked around Void, and her brow furrowed and her feet stamped and she struck at Void in a most unbecoming display. Demiurge howled and roared at empty Void; and was greeted with silence untainted by causation. The Infant Demiurge looked to her dreams and looked to Void, and began to ponder.

Thus Demiurge spent ten thousand kalpas erecting a palace for his imagination: a perfect labyrinth of inspiration: gardens and artworks and landmarks, all finely carved from the bones of the Void. The Void, uncaring, receded from this point of light. Demiurge grinned the madly satisfied grin of a toddler and called his new palace The Hundred Thousand Heavens. Licking her lips, she lay down to dream.

And found she could not.

Demiurge tossed and turned. Demiurge bit her lip. Demiurge ruefully stared at her ceiling of boundless and impossible beauty with a knowing, guilty frustration. Demiurge kicked the tiniest vase self-consciously, and shattered it. Emboldened, Demiurge kicked and shouted and punched and screeched so loud that even unfeeling Void felt the first feeling of concern. Thus was born EMPATHY.  Void fretted. Void frittered. Newly cognizant Void turned an infinite intelligence to the dilemma and found it wanting. For one kalpa, Demiurge shattered The Hundred Thousand Heavens, kicking down her palace with a bull’s abandon, and Void glumly whirred with ideas.

To dream a new dream, Void concluded, there be must new things. Frantically, she shared this wisdom with The Infant Demiurge,

The Infant Demiurge, eyes wide with wonder, picked a shattered fragment of Heaven, and breathed life into it, and set down her creation: The First Titan.  Demiurge watched with an appraising eye as The First Titan wandered the ruins of Heaven: inspecting a balustrade here; a shattered armoire there, a broken staircase further. Curiously, The First Titan started to build and produce and learn and be. With immense glee, Demiurge leapt across the ruins of Heaven and created a vast legion of Titans, who wandered the ruins of Heaven in an orgy of fecund creation. Demiurge’s eyelids fluttered, and she slept for ten thousand kalpas of blissful dreaming right there on the floor.

When she awoke, Void had receded too far to see, and Demiurge felt a pang of loneliness and panic. All around her were the creations of the Titans: worlds of fire and ice and rock and salt and dreams and terror and amber; and each teemed with the multiplicity of their inhabitants. Demiurge looked on the chaos that had unfolded in the ruins of heaven with a grim determination. Feeling into the void, she erected a new Heaven, with a mighty throne to appraise this confusing multiverse that had grown up like lichen on her perfect creation. As it teemed and roiled and grew, endlessly consuming Void to further its limitless creativity, Demiurge knew she must impose order somehow.

Thus Demiurge spoke the First Law, and its name was DEATH.
The thronging multitude was thus limited, as the older mortals were now age and die. Content, Demiurge nodded to herself.

But the Titans looked up at Demiurge on her mighty throne in her new heaven, and wept.

Demiurge beadily appraised the mortals who now feared the First Law. Eager to avoid DEATH, many turned to theft or murder or savagery and most unbecoming behaviour in the ruins of heaven. Demiurge’s eyes narrowed with purpose, and she spoke the Second Law, which is JUDGEMENT.

She raised up two tribes from the ruins of heaven, and set to them oversee the Laws.

The Titans saw the infinite cruelties of Hell. The Titans saw everywhere the erection of temples; the shackles of priesthood; the tyranny of the soul, and they were greatly angered. They whispered a few syllables of their song, Demiurge’s song, into the ears of ambitious mortals. These mortals, singing with the voice of god, tinkered with the foundations of all the worlds; and goaded each other endlessly to greater sacrilege and blasphemy, as they turned magic – the song of Demiurge – to their own purposes.

Some even looked at Demiurge dreaming on her mighty throne, and conceived of that most sovereign of sins.


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a cryptofascist masturbatory homage to Brexit Britain. Here's why.

So last night I had the dubious pleasure of viewing King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, which is basically everything about a Guy Ritchie movie (sweary dialogue, montages, rogueish lads) but at some kind of cosplay convention where they wear historical costume derived from almost every historical period imaginable saving the Romano-British one in which the legends of the King Arthur are mostly set. There is even a scene where David Beckham, yes that David Beckham, roars defiance with a CGI-burned face whilst wearing something from a Mordor Primark. Mostly though, it’s a sort of cryptofascist masturbatory homage to Brexit Britain.

What I fixated on, beyond the terrible plotting, over-editing and crap dialogue with all the verisimilitude of a Year 6 School Play, was how bizarre the assumptions the film made about power,  righteousness and leadership were. Whilst the core story of Le Morte de Arthur and Arthurian romance revolve around chivalry and principle and the tension of being both a Christian and a worldy knight, and the contradictory loyalties of feudalism, the fundamental themes of Legend of the Sword are a bizarre stew of prejudices about education, class and masculinity.

The main character (played by a budget Tom Hardy chap with an undercut) is a swaggery, macho male power fantasy – hardly rare as Hen’s teeth in a low-brow action film – who initially is some sort of low-key gangster in ‘Londinium’. Despite the fact he is a violent-to-the-point-of-sociopathic brothel-owner and small time thief, we are supposed to embrace this character as a standard square-jawed hero. The chivalry of Arthur here extends to violent repercussions against Viking Johns who take allowances with ‘his’ womenfolk. Here, masculinity – even heroism – is expressed as the violent defence of women that are fairly explicitly owned and exploited for sexual labour by a swaggering male authority figure. (The only other female in the plot is some kind of witch
). He is contradicted of course with his foil, the usurping Vortigern. Vortigern is soft-spoken, intimidating and aristocratic: the dialogue between him and Arthur impinge that is his very education and social class which cut him off from being authentic in his relationships, or in his drive.  We know Vortigern is evil because he has usurped the natural order by taking his brother’s throne from the ‘born king’ – the conceit of legitimacy by blood being instrumental to all these stories – and because he has sacrificed his children for supernatural powers. Let’s dismiss this as meaningless moustache-twirling which was clearly a plot afterthought or pantomime homage. Whilst Vortigern is tyrannical, it seems to only be in response to wide-scale dissent in support of The Born King, and his reign otherwise seem orderly and successful. Arthur is a tyrant, too, and also solves his problems only with the application of violence. The only difference is their relationship to the women that make up their household: - Vortigern sacrifices his familial bonds for greater power, Arthur sacrifices power in order to protect his intimates. Two roles are juxtaposed: leader as interested in the preservation of the state, or leader as invested in the preservation of his family. Would Arthur be any less murderous and tyrannical should his legitimacy be challenged? From his conduct as brothel-owner, it seems not. The legitimacy of his reign is explicitly based on his use of violence being more effective. There is a scene where he is basking in the adulation of the crown, the camera fixates explicitly on the sword, not the man himself. And yet, his masculinity, swagger and physicality is what is meant to establish this man has a right to rule to the modern cinema-going audience as well. 

The bonds of fellowship which underpin Arthurian romance are also present, in that Arthur is fanatically, stupidly, idiotically loyal to that fat bloke in the yellow coat from Utopia and a group of ethnically diverse cockneys where every corner of Earth, including several thousand miles beyond the greatest extent of the Roman Empire under Trajan, but let’s not go there. This is supposed to the Round Table motif, and that homosocial bonding element is meant to establish Arthur as definitively heroic and relatable. Vortigern possesses no male relationship which is not with an underling or enemy. Despite the Round Table motif from Arthurian romance, there is no equality here, and the others are merely minions of Arthur, who orders them around with the smug self-assuredness of a bullying older brother (again, this man is inexplicably supposed to be the righteous hero of this film). In fact, this routinely impinges his ability to lead. When a comrade has obviously been captured, and the whole party needs to escape, Arthur announces “We’ll wait until first light” – abrogating the responsibility for decision-making and risking everyone’s life to demonstrate the importance of those homosocial bonds.  This laddy, fraternal conceit goes on to the basis of his regime: his coup is followed by the placing of his completely unprepared mates into positions of supreme power and authority. This will be ok, because…

….this film has some weird class politics. There’s this standard ‘you’re only a real person whose experiences matter if they’re authentic – authenticity being defined by being poor’. Now, I don’t normally object to this: it works for tonnes of characters and I’m a commie who grew up on a council estate so it appeals t the chip on my shoulder. This of course makes Arthur innately a great monarch in waiting – the perfect place to learn the ropes of medieval kingship is in petty criminality, apparently. In the picaresque worldview of the films, just like in Lock, Stock, the educated, middle-class or soft are a liability whose conceit makes them incompetent, whereas the rough and tumble characters from the streets are innately super-competent. (The fact Guy Ritchie is a posh southerner and related to aristocracy complicates the psychology of this considerably). This bizarre creation – the lumpenprole king – saunters through a diplomatic meeting with simple assertiveness to make decisive policy. This policy involves a speech about how no-one should fuck with ‘England’ (Where’s that, Arthur? There aren’t any Angles here yet) and reduces decision making to the simple pronouncements of intent. The details of being blockaded by a hostile European power following this decision are not explored, but I do look forward to watching Arthur launch Article 50 and call Merkel a ‘silly mare’ before nutting Jurgen Klopp.  

Sunday, 28 May 2017

That Old Time Religion (Part 1: Movement)

Religion in vanilla D&D is boring as fuck. There’s this big, boring list of Gods (I’m Pelor the Sun-God, I like ‘the Sun’ and grant some fire-related powers and I’m lawful boring) with no interactions. All religions have this generic ‘temple plus one priest in every city’ structure, and all the drama that religion should bring to your game: schisms, crusades, heresy, intolerance, unfailing belief, philosophy , reformation– is just absent.  Even when WOTC writers work to flesh out these religons, they offer meaningless detail in place of drama: the high priests are called such-and-such and they wear robes of blue and all shave their heads and an…

One reason is, I think, that the polytheism of vanilla D&D lacks interactions between the gods. What makes Loki a powerful architype isn’t that he’s Chaotic Evil and that he grants the Trickery domain – it’s the fabric of relationships and stories that define his mythos. Zeus sitting on Olympus being King of the Gods has no story, no conflict – Zeus leafing through an ornithological journal in order to get laid in animal form is interesting, and pushes the story.  If you have a Polytheistic ‘tight’ pantheon, make them have interrelationships of conflict, cuckoldry and conspiracy. Who fucks who? Who tricked who? Who bred a monstrosity that still lurks out there somewhere? Who ventured into the underworld? For every god, a story linking them to another. These can differ geographically or culturally, but they help give a character to these unknowable beings.

To improve this, ensure your religions are in flux. They must change and alter through geography, culture, time and class. The Christianity of a Roman legionary is not the Christianity of a Baptist minister; the Catholicism of rural Spain in the Renaissance is not the Catholicism of Tolkein; the Buddhism of a Sri Lankan farmer differs from that of an American Philosophy professor. Nuances and culture predominate; beliefs fracture; reforms crack up and are carried forward or suppressed. Two fantasy worlds do this extremely well: Dragon Age; Inquisition has huge detail on this, as do the Princes of the Apocalypse books by R Scott Bakker. Contrast to say, the otherwise intricate world of A Song of Ice and Fire where religious belief is a fairly tedious aspect of the world which doesn’t mesh with much else in the world. This ensures the religion is not wall-hangings; it is a sword over the fire: an instrumental part of the world and its evolving plot.

The major homebrew religion of the Company of the Noose/ North Corner campaign has always been the worship of the Iron Tyrant; a Brahma-like super-soulthat encompasses all other gods in the setting. In their doctrine, all gods, archfey and devils are simply aspects or guises of a schitzophrenic godhead.  This bring a nice monotheistic flavour which is lacking in vanilla D&D (and most major world religions are monotheistic for a reason).  As a god, The Iron Tyrant is boring. He’s formless, inert, unimaginable. So the religion itself has to be interesting to compensate.

The flavour is drawn from early Christianity and the millennial feelings around the crusade: to worshipers of the Iron Tyrant, the end of the world is imminent. The cause? Mortal sin, which manifests as monsters and disaster. This puts all their actions on a permanent clock, and makes vigilance, readiness and paranoia the order to the day.  To ensure the religion is in flux and altering, it has a structure. In Damesht, the home continent of the campaign, the organised arm of the faithful, the Order of the Resplendent Star, is organising to tie itself to power. The Dameshti Emperor, long politically castrated by the aristocracy of his realm, is a sympathiser: like Constantine the Great, a single Empire under a single God with a single ruler seems a logical way of ordering the universe, so he is a patron of the faith. But across Damesht (and this was a major plot-point In the first story arc set in the eponymous town of North Corner) the common people are conservative and hostile to this monopolising force and its eschatological fervour.

There are schisms in the Order: a faction believe the Order should proactively police mortal actions (there are men worse than any werewolf or hag) and achieve absolute, totalitarian dominion over the lives of its subjects. Some believe worshipping other gods as aspect is an abomination worthy of execution. Some believe the Order should be paragons of honour and be living examples of a life well lived – others believe their position in opposing the looming eschaton makes morality meaningless and the only recourse should be the sword. These factions vie for power, and the actions of players could easily raise one up over the others, and have had different interactions throughout their careers (they have murdered members of the Order, and they have assisted them in conquering Loquista, as circumstances dictated – they currently seek a working alliance.)

A religion must be instrumental to the story to matter. As myself and Gaz’s campaign have seen a number of characters opt to be worshippers of the Iron Tyrant, I feel that this shows a success in making a faith with some bite.  

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Records, Railroads and Rewards

I find one of the persistent issues that DMs - myself entirely included – find difficult to balance is the relationship between choice and structure. Ideally, you’d deposit your players in a multiverse of endless possibility and they’d gallivant merrily about pursuing their hearts desires. Realistically, you do need some structure to ensure something is happening. I personally as a player find little more frustrating that endless dithering over a quest or environment to undertake or overrun, and as a DM my eyes glaze over entirely.

To solve this I have three maxims:
- There’s adventure everywhere.
- All roads lead to Rome.
- Constraints power creativity.

Like most DMs, I have a ball-park idea of what The Company of the Noose will one day do, but I wouldn’t railroad them into it. But to ensure action actually takes place there needs to be some overview of options. To this end, I regularly update my Quest Journal and endeavour to summarise options for the players to pursue. Constraints power creativity. If they choose to ignore the main quest, fine – that villain advances their quest correspondingly. The world is alive.

if you have a brief look over it, you can see a number of Main Quests, Side Quests and Personal Quests. You’ll also notice that most side-quests or personal-quests are linked explicitly to a Main Quest. If the players pursue Landar Farshield’s personal mission to slay Valakshanya, the Vampire Queen of the Bleeding Mountain, they will also be combatting long-time party foes the Cult of Ouroboros, and will no doubt stumble across clues related to other Cult of the Ouroboros quests, or even ones related to the main quest. This is not the Quantum Ogre – if the players had instead chosen to pursue Crown, Hourglass, Sword and adventured to Zunia they would have found entirely different lead to an entirely different aspect of the ‘main’ quest – potentially related to Pursuing the Metagnosis. The point is that wherever the players go, they find something pertaining to the larger picture: a lead, a rival, an ally, an item an artefact: a feedback loop to where there is more adventure to be had. All roads lead to Rome.

An example of this is when my players, disinterested in their ‘Main’ quest, endeavoured to instead build up the keep they’ve acquired, and strike up an alliance with a Pirate-King (Blind Agni Nine Fingers) of the acquaintance. Spontaneously, they decided to curry favour by setting out to humble one of his rivals, Rasselas.

They set out for the Sea of Desolation, and there I sketch out some made up locations. I’d dimly thought of the Sea of Desolation before, and had a gist (it’s magical so islands move and shift, there are gaps between planes so weird monsters can pass into the world here, and it’s got a Sinbad meets Stranger Tides meets The Scar vibe). One of the places I’ve sketched, The Weeping Isle, I tell them is a cursed island riddled with tombs. That piques their interest, and they presume it would pique that of Rasselas, so they set out. There’s adventure everywhere.

On the island, they uncover and explore a Duergar ruin – twist, it’s a millennia-old ruin only from the future, and the Duergar meet a horrible fate at some unspecified future date. Tom’s character Rongrim, previously uninvolved in the main quests, now has a connection to explore which will eventually lead him to having a connection to the main-main quest, Pursue the Metagnosis. Additionally, the players encounter the remnants left by a former rival and ex-PC on the very same island, and have another feedback loop to combating the Cult of Ouroboros.

The players are choosing their goals, their methods and their priorities, but there’s a reward for each avenue explored, and they’re never not pursuing their main goals. This prevents the strange situation common in PCRPGs like Skyrim or Dragon Age where players cease averting the apocalypse to help a farmer find his lost sheep or look up a companion’s poorly sister: they’re always combating their enemies or growing their organisation’s strength in some appreciable way. Additionally, no one is too bored pursuing that quest that’s the baby of a single player, because ultimately they’re always pursuing their own goals simultaneously.

Additionally,  I’ve found my players love reminiscing about that time they fought on a giant chain hovering over a cavern, or when they burnt a city’s grain supply to wreak economic hell, or when they slew Sheng-Lung, a mighty water-beast in Loquista’s arena. Now, I use milestones for levelling, but that only gives you twenty or so moments per campaign where you can acknowledge a victory or moment of renown.

So as an alternative, and to keep the players mid-level long enough to have a campaign, I’m going to introduce reward feats for completion of those endeavours, either for quest milestones:

Reaper of the Raven Queen
You have vanquished three of the abominations marked by The Chooser of the Slain. Faced with you, even dead hearts shudder with fear.
Once per day, you may make all undead creatures within 15 feet make a CHA check versus fear. The DC is 8 + your level.

Or just moments that inspire bragging rights:

You have slain an apex predator – a beast whose eye had appraised civilisation as a wolf watches sheep. All shall raise a glass to your name.
You have advantage on all rolls to track dragons, or knowledge rolls about dragons. If you are a Ranger, you may treat Dragons as your favoured enemy. You need never pay for a drink again.

Power Behind The Throne
I am altering our deal. Pray I do not alter it further.
You have played kingmaker – there is a crowned head who will always be accommodating to you.

I find these are smaller power-boosts than a level, meaning I don’t have to constantly readjust the scale of my campaign to accommodate players who can now throw around a Circle of Death or turn into an Elemental or whatever, and there’s something massively cool about fucking up an enemy using an ability you won with your previous badassery, and it gets players remembering their party’s shared history or achievement and loss – something key to cohesion.