Thursday, 24 November 2016

Monster Worldviews

It’s funny how much what you read can affect how your thinking. I finished John Gardner’s Grendel this week, and like a Twilight reading teenage girl, I feel a slavish devotion to our anti-hero – #TeamGrendel! Grendel’s nihilistic, solipsistic, misanthropic asides - his utter contempt for the hubris of Hrothgar, the braggadocio of Beowulf - make him a charming poster-boy for any of my fellow English graduates who secretly knew Beowulf was a Mary Sue twat.

Returning to D&D, though, it is a novel rich in poetry (although Grendel might hate the term) and the worldview of a creature that is inimical to civilization and kings and heroism and narrative and almost everything else that could be characterised as ‘Lawful’ or ‘Good’ in the masturbatory cosmology Westerners thought of for their elf games.

Here’s some snippets:

“I understood the world was nothing: a mechanical chaos of brute enmity on which we stupidly impose our hopes and fears.”

And a conquered meadhall:

“None had been eaten. The watchdogs lay like dark wet stones, with their heads cut off, teeth bared. The fallen hall was a square of flames and acrid smoke and the people inside (none of them had been eaten either)) were burned black, small, like dwarfs turned dark and crisp.”

And at nationalism and narratives:

“ the howling and clapping and stomping of men gone mad on art. They would seize the oceans, the furthest stars, the deepest secret rivers in Hrothgar’s name! Men wept like children, children sat stunned. It went on and on, a fire more dread than any visible fire.”


“Theology does not thrive in the world of action and reaction, change: it grows on calm, like the scum on a stagnant pool..”

Your traditional D&D foe, even those Orcs who have their first literary mention in Beowulf, aren’t truly chaotic or inimical to civilization. Orc culture is normally based on raiding and pillage and combat – nothing separates an Orc from an Anglo-Saxon but perspective (“…that those wild Saxons, of accursed name, hated by God and men, should be admitted into the island, like wolves into folds…” – Gildas). Grendel thinks everything: from law, to poetry, to kingship, is a sort of enormous lie painted on a world that is truly about opposition (to each other, to the world). Grendel even takes a dim view of heroism as an act, a performance.

This is the perspective of a monster – Camus with teeth.  A monster that actively wants to oppose heroes and everything that stand for. This is chaotic – Grendel lurking at the rim of the world.

As I metaphorically closed the book on my Kindle, I immediately added to a mountain range of my game world a fecundity of Grendelvolk, waiting for heroes to oppose.

In contrast, I watched American Horror Story: Hotel around the same time. In the world of AHS, there is a persistent post-modern drive to humanise perspectives. In the initial few episodes, Countess Gaga is an immortal, ineffable monstrosity who rules the Hotel Cortez with the unthinking feline cruelty of a tigress. By the end of the season, she’s a sympathetic, lovestruck teenage, and has been metaphorically defanged. She ceases to be a monster and becomes another person to identify with.

Whilst most of my players enemies, rivals and allies are human-like beings with recognisable, relatable motivations…..I think a capital-‘M’ monster should be a monster. It is what you are not. It exists to oppose you. “Poor Grendel’s had an accident. I whisper. “So may you all.”

Thursday, 3 November 2016

"Who is Black Annis?"

In the latest session recap, the party vanquished Black Annis. Here's her backstory:

The Tragedy of Black Annis

The Elves had come from across the sea. That was all anyone had known : an empire of splendour and magic across a thousand miles of salt and spray  - if you sailed to the very horizon before God’s baleful eye rose, they said, you’d see the Elven  homeland where people lived forever and every man ate his fill. Beasts could speak, and even paupers lived for a thousand years.

It was a second son who came to this island with glory in his heart and a sword in his hand – and they called this land Damesht  - High-Elven for ‘across the sea’. The Kingdoms of Man were small, and divided, and one-by-by the Elves conquered them with sorcerous might and utter ruthlessness. Their thunder-loud voices had sounded across the farmland, and announced that they were as gods, and we as ants, and that the men of what now was Damesht should be rapturous to lie at their feet rather than be exterminated.

But the Second Son and First King, who took the name Idrlyn, knew his numbers were few. As the North and West of Damesht were subjugated, he knew that every Elven life lost was like a hundred men, and that war was not the only way to bring the human ants to heel.

As he pursued his war against the Giant-Chiefs of Zunia, he offered his fourth daughter: gentle Annis, to the king of Loquista. Should he take the Swan-Emperor’s daughter to wife, he would accept vassalage and rule as a chosen king. His line would grow strong with Elven blood, and sorcery would run in the veins of his descendants until the end of time. King Bedergeid eagerly accepted, and the wedding was planned outside the city walls, in full view of a the marshalled might of Idrlyn and the assembled forces of Loquista – Bedergeid’s army preparing to join the Swan-Emperor’s crusade against the Ordning of the Giants – titan-worshippers and bringers of chaos – as soon as the marriage was consummated.

Bedergeid had made his agreement for his city and his line – but as he wandered the swamps the night before his weeding, he came across his betrothed. Whilst there were miles of fen and mire and covered in pavilions where the finest Elven wine and Loquistan rum could be drank, and raucous parties occurred – Annis had chosen to come here, a glade, and there tend to the wildlife. Even though she had a mastery of terrible magicks, she spent her sorcery on the wounds of sparrows, the distress of newts and the palsies of murk-fish.

Bedergeid fell in love then, and they lay together in the swamp, and Annis exhalted, for her husband was kind, and she was with child.

As they wandered to the pavilions, Bedergeid noted he a group of men silhouetted against the festivities. These were all warriors and knights of his army, standing still with dreadful purpose.

“Never shall Elf rule over man in Loquista. We will not bow to your foreign whore.”

Bedergeid realised too late that he faced true steel, and he was cut down before he could reach for his sword. Annis was thrown to the ground and beaten and raped, and left to the mercies of the swamp.

When morning rolled around, the Swan-Emperor awoke to a declaration of war from the Eternally Free City of Loquista. First, his army rampaged through wedding party, cutting down the flower of Loquistan nobility as they awoke from sleep. His army surged over the city, which now bristled with the traitor’s forces, and crushed Loquista. As he watched the city burn, and saw the inhabitants slaughtered in the street, he spoke a baleful curse on the city:

Let them know only tyranny. Let them always feel the agony of their children’s death. Let them fill the seas with their blood.

Deep in the mud, a distended eyeball floated on an oracular stalk – a satellite to a broken face. A quiver of consciousness, and a single thought:

“Yes, father.”

Loquista Session 5 - "Something Wicked This Way Comes."

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Dramatis Personae:

Callie Tealeaf, Halfling Ranger and demon-hunter.
Kavarus, Tiefling Bard and social butterfly.
Eoighan, Order Fanatic and Dwarven Druid.
Landar Farshield, Half-Elven Rogue/Fighter, spook and unknowing pawn of The Morrigan.

Out of character: Thanks to a blown fuse, an enormous chunk of this session occurred in pitch darkness. This was atmospheric but also bloody inconvenient.

With a drastically reduced party strength, the Heroes of North Corner had bedded down and made camp in the swamps of Loquista to face off against Black Annis – luring the monster with Sessassurak, son of the Lizardfolk Chief, as bait. Their base was a ruined watch tower suspended on an outcropping in the mire – traversing the mire was a struggle so they wanted dry land in which to do battle (the mire is difficult terrain, and if you end your turn in it you need to sacrifice your standard to move again).

As night descended, silence fell over the camp, and the scattered Heroes of North Corner glimpsed, standing atop the tower, the ethereal figure of Black Annis stood, grave-quiet and presiding over the scene with the predatory splendour of a hawk.

The party readied their actions for violence, and Annis jaunted – moving as a ghost through any solid object in her path, to the very centre of the party, where she unleashed her Banshee’s Scream. A noise as solid as granite burst the skulls of our Heroes, and Kavarus and Landar succumbed, falling unconscious instantly. It was at this point the party realised two other threats – that the murk and ire around them was growing and overtaking dry land, and that in the dark a horde of undead shapes were making their inexorable march towards the party.

Finding their mortal arms barely affected Annis’ spiritual form, they looked on in horror as she grasped Sessassurak and moved, incorporeal, past the party to the tower. Desperation set in as the party scrambled to rouse their downed allies and rescue Sessassurak from the clutches of the hag-queen of the Loquista mire. With the party ranged on one side of her, Annis unleashed her foulest power – turning the very air into a choking miasma of death with a Cloudkill spell which enveloped most of the party.

Landar sprung to action duelling Annis with his serpent-quick blades – they had cut an Arch-Fey after all! Whilst his blades did little but inconvenience Annis, they allowed Sessassurak time to escape. At this point the party realised that Annis has set her heart ultimately on claiming the young reptile as she had countless other children, and quickly put themselves between the mire witch and her prey. Noting that Annis would not harm Sessassurak, they also endeavoured to prevent the dreaded Cloudkill rolling over the party by keeping Sessassurak tactically nearby. Sessassurak himself, eager to show his mettle before the envoys of the gods, and buoyed by his friendship with Kavarus, struck mightily with his spear. Meanwhile, Callie rode her panther across the mire, keeping Anni’s resurrected Dameshti wights at bay before the swamp embroiled her precarious footing.

As the rising swamp waters devoured the camp, the party held strong in the ruined tower in the midst of the swamp, and there defied Annis’ might and magicks. Kavarus fell in the retreat, his unconscious body almost overwhelmed by the Cloudkill before Eoighan cured his wounds. With just twenty feet of dry land remaining, the party traded blows with Annis, eager to bring the fight to a conclusion before they disappeared beneath the murk.

 There, eager to stomp the life from her as resources were stretched thin, Kavarus and Eoighan both Polymorphed into Triceratops form, eager to trample Annis into the mire before the swamp consumed them all. In a final act, Annis became ethereal with Eoighan, and surged upwards, dropping the phantom dinosaur down in the midst of the party – only Landar’s quick reflexes saved him from death. Callie fired Yilidrim’s legendary lightning arrow which illuminated the whole scene before thudding uselessly into the tower’s wall as she missed. Fear rose like bile in the party’s throat as they looked upon the inexorable swamp waters closing in. In a last moment of desperation, Landar vanquished Annis with his sword, and the waters began to recede. As her hag-like, bestial features sloughed away, the ghost of an Elven maiden remained, who wandered sullenly through the swamp.

The party pursued, to find her weeping over a grave half a mile away. They quickly set about excavating the grave, to find Bedergeid, the last King of Loquista, lying in the murk. On his corpse were two objects: an enchanted ring and the hour-glass Cerelesta had bade them find.

The party identified both objects – Bedergeid’s wedding ring, which was also a ring of Spell-Storage, and that the hour-glass could take life-force from one being into another, making them young or older or extending life-spans at will – a gift from the Dameshti overlords to human servants to tie them to Elvish largesse.

Judging that Cerelesta could not be trusted with an object of such power, they returned to the city intending to deceive her.  Upon returning to her room, choked in opium-smoke, to speak with her imp emissary whilst she reclined, Kavarus lied: the hourglass was destroyed in the fighting and could not be recovered. Imperceptibly, Cerelesta’s right eyebrow arched cynically.

The imp grinned, and offered to make good on the bargain anyway. The Planar Orrery creaked and whirred, as the imp asked clarifying questions: “The man you seek’s destiny is entwined with your own. He fought monsters? He wields a two-handed sword? He is bold? He is lost on another plane? He is a warrior of the light?” Throughout, the party answered in the affirmative, as a shape formed in the smoky depths of the summoning circle. The imp giggled and finally said “Is he a righteous man?”
At the moment the party saw the shape that had been summoned into the circle: that of Righteous-Fire-Scours-Clean-The-World, once tyrant of North Corner and knight of the Order of the Resplendent Star, whom the party had banished to the Abyss after he tried to bring them to justice as North Corner burned around them.

The path to paradise begins in hell.” Dante Alighieri

Villains Vanquished: 11
Treasure: 0gp
Mighty Magi mugged off: 1

Magic Items claimed: 2

Making Languages Make Sense

This is not a set of rules I would use in my game, because I love simplicity, but something that has always baffled me is how D&D uses languages as it is so divorced from how languages function. Now, people in most of the medieval milieu that we draw D&D’s inspiration from are broadly mutli-lingual, with a degree of competency necessary for basic bartering or diplomacy, although this varies massively by region (Central Asia has a high degree of linguistic variety, Tang China does not). I’d only use them in a game-world languages are highly relevant and politicised as they are in reality (chiefly, one in which the lingua franca of Common does not exist). I consider myself to ‘speak Spanish’ – what this means if I can broadly (often with major mistakes) get my point across and be understood in most day-to-day situations, and can get by in a conversation. I can’t read Lorca or discuss anything complex or with specialist jargon or speak an obscure dialect.

At a stroke, of a fleet of fancy, my Gnomish Sorcerer knows Elvish. This entitles him to be able to speak to anyone who speaks Elvish in the universe; to understand Elvish texts that are millennia old, to joke in Elvish, to speak Elvish with exactly the same fluency as a native speaker.

In the real world, let’s say my Gnomish Sorcerer learns English. If we used D&D logic, he’d be able to have a conversation about the legality of Brexit without a Parliamentary vote, he’d be able to read Beowulf in the original text, he’d be able to chat up a barmaid or discuss Quantum Physics or order a drink – these are all represented as equal feats of proficiency represented as having ‘English’ on your character sheet. They can speak English to a speaker in Delhi as easily as in Edmonton. They can speak to a swaggering Brummie rude-boy and an Old Etonian without batting an eyelid.

This gets even more bizarre when the language can be Celestial, or Draconic. Who the fuck learns conversational Abyssal? These languages clearly have niche utility beyond the needs of esoteric scholars or cultists or some such. Clearly they needed to be handed differently.

Here’s how I’d fix it.

You have three levels of proficiency in any giving language.

Basic: You can discuss the weather and order a drink or ask for directions in this language. Anything else is beyond you, and Charisma checks are made with disadvantage if using this language. (1 point)
Fluent: You can make alliances, chat someone up and get by in almost all day-to-day situations. (2 points)
Scholarly: You can read ancient, academic or highly specialist texts in this language and understand them. Think reading Foucault in the original French. Only ‘scholarly’ classes (Wizard, Cleric, Warlock, Bard) or those with a relevant background (Scholar, Sage etc) may choose this option. (3 points)

Each class gets a number of points – let’s say ten – modified by double their intelligence modifier.  You’re automatically fluent in your mother-tongue. You can spend them as you wish  - be able to ask for directions in any region or be an expert in Elvish and Dwarven?

To fix the absurdity of street-rats gibbering away in conversational Draconic, exotic languages (Abyssal, Infernal etc) costs double points.