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.