Jul 24, 2020

A Brief Response to My Last Article

Sorry, for some reason my ability to comment on my own posts has been missing this past month and a half, possibly due to Blogger's new interface. I'm still sorting out the details.

Rather than leave people hanging, I thought I'd respond using my ability to post.

Pilgrim's Procession said:
Very interesting, if a bit problematic. Perhaps a little too protestant for a game set in fantasy italy. Placing legalistic religions (most notably Judaism, and ostensibly Catholicism) in league with devils and Pantheistic religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) in league with demons seems a little over the top. As a protestant I'd agree that these are false philosophies, but it seems a little rude.
(I hope I haven't misunderstood you, please forgive me if I have)

My inspiration for these was mainly various controversies surrounding Augustinianism in Christianity, rather than to draw parallels between other religions and the positions of the devils & demons. The Augustinian focus is probably what you're picking up as Protestant here, tho' I personally am more familiar with the Catholic and secular philosophical legacy of his work than the Protestant reception.

Angels are broadly Bonaventuran, a robustly mystical late Augustinianism. You can read his mystagogical work "Journey into the Mind of God" here. I think you could also portray them within the normative theology of Eastern Orthodoxy, particular its mystical tradition as expressed by the Philokalia

The other thing I'd emphasise is that there are multiple churches in Verra following the angelic account of the Hidden God. There are equivalents of Catholic, Calvinists, and Hussites mapped out in setting as major religious factions, and all associate most strongly with the angelic hierarchy. Most of the Sufi equivalents in setting are also associated with the angelic hierarchy.

The devils are inspired by divine command theory, and a very loose reading by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Marsilio Ficino, both of whom emphasise the majesty of God and His distinction from His creations. I also took a bit of inspiration from the Islamic folk tale where Shaitan's sin is to refuse God's command to bow before Adam and to insist that it is only correct to offer obedience to God. 

(Fun historical fact: Pseudo-Dionysius invented the word "hierarchy". Giorgio Agamben writes about how this goes from a theological to a secular concept in The Kingdom and the Glory)

The demons are basically a mishmash of all of the above with the neo-Platonic concept of henosis and some of the claims of libertinism made against the Carpocratians, Borborites, and other early antinomian sects.

Anyhow, I hope that clears things up. My own religious upbringing is as a neo-Thomist Catholic, tho' I am an atheist currently and have been for several decades.

Jun 30, 2020

Angels, Devils, and Demons in Verra

One of the things that will feature quite a bit in the Verra campaign are devils and demons. The sovereign of Urbino (fantastical Corsica), the island the campaign is starting on, is the Banco di Asmodeo (the Bank of Asmodeus), a fantasy parallel to the real Bank of St. George. The paramount god in Verra is the Hidden God, a fantastical parallel to YHVH, so I thought it was probably worth explaining why and how demons and devils have cults of worshippers and what those worshippers think they're getting.

Angels

Devils and demons in Verra are basically an alter-angelology to the traditional angels. The angelic and devilish hierarchies each claim to be the true messengers and interpreters of the otherwise inscrutable will of the Hidden God, and that the other side is deeply mistaken, to the point of near-blasphemy. 

Angels stress the goodness of the Hidden God's will, both in Its role as the determiner of what is good and in its role as the force that actively realises that goodness in conjunction with the free will of sentient beings. While bad things might happen to people, these are part of a larger, indescribably complex, plan for realising the maximal goodness of the world. 

They also believe that what the Hidden God finds "good" is univocal with, or roughly equivalent in meaning to, what an ordinary speaker means by the term. So long as one faithfully believes in the Hidden God and tries to follow and realise its desires as communicated by its church (which church is a difficult question the angels refuse to answer), one is guaranteed salvation.

Devils

Devils disagree, obviously. They believe that the power of the Hidden God is not constrained by mere mortal conceptions of "goodness". Good and evil are terms that mortals apply to try to rationalise the Hidden God's divine will-to-power, an insult to Its omnipotence and omniscience. The Hidden God is "good" insofar as it determines utterly what is good simply by willing it, without reference to fleeting mortal illusions about what that might look like. 

In fact, devil theologians hold that God's goodness is not necessarily comprehensible to mortals, and that what they call good are at best superficial conjunctions with a deeper, more comprehensive, and more worthy notion that exists within God's mind. The best mortals can hope for is to follow God's commands (as transmitted by the devils) whether they understand them fully or not. To obey these commands is the surest route to salvation, while refusing them is a guarantee of damnation.

The devils see themselves as taking God's night-inscrutable desires and translating them into senses comprehensible to mortals, which they structure as laws, agreements, contracts, and other strictures which bind mortals' behaviour. Most mortals will of course fail to uphold the law that allows them even the briefest and most superficial alignment with God, and thus will be damned.

Without devilish intervention the only punishment the wicked dead receive is separation from God for eternity, but this is too abstract for most mortals to serve as an adequate incentive. So the devils take on the onerous duty of punishing them in more vivid ways that terrify them into obeying the will of God. They see the angelic hierarchy as shirking their duty to God in this respect, and are appropriately contemptuous of them for it.

In addition, the devils must ensure that this system of rules is truly effectively sorting out the wicked who deserve damnation from the innocent who deserve salvation, and thus must often tempt mortals to disobey the same system that they ultimately enforce.

Angels and devils fight one another in the spiritual realm, not in warfare but in complex theological confrontations taking place in synods called by one side or the other. While the angels win slightly more of these synods and councils than the devils do, the devils remain a significant minority party and their prerogative over the damned is unquestioned and frankly, unwanted, by the angels.

The devils are led by Asmodeus. His most prominent cult is the Banco di Asmodeo in the Broggian city-state of Gorga, which uses debts, contracts, wages, taxes, and other financial mechanisms to create an economic system for regulating lives. The cult believes that the organising logic of what some future philosopher will call "capitalism" is the earthly representation of the sublime nomological structure that best aligns humanoids with God's will. They are most certainly cruel, but each cult member - typically chosen from the most elite families in Gorga - knows that what they are doing is God's will, and that they will be rewarded for their service with salvation.

Demons

Demons believe that the separation between the Hidden God and Its works is a paradoxical illusion - how could a ubiquitous being not be found equally in every object that exists? Moreover, God is omnipotent and capable of changing anything and everything at each and every moment. Therefore, everything they desire, everything they do in pursuit of those desires, must possess the Hidden God's sanction, and in fact, be a part of the Hidden God Itself.

The demons assert that "good" and "evil themselves are inadequate terms for the Hidden God's will - that a being capable of anything and knowing everything must know both everything called "good" as well as everything called "evil", and clearly it must encompass the power to do both, and much more. In fact, insofar as the Hidden God encompasses all possible things within itself, it must necessarily be both good and evil. 

The demons are content therefore, to act on their desires, which are intense, and insatiable. If God did not want them to, It would simply sate the urges that drive them to do horrible things, or stop them from accumulating personal power, or it would never have allowed them to exist in the first place. Within this, a particularly powerful subset of demons are actively interested in seeing where the limits are on what God will allow them to do, and consider themselves explorers of possibility. 

While this is often as horrible as one might imagine, the most notable example of a demon and its cult in Urovia is Demogorgon. The Demogorgon cult claims that the arch-demon will transport the soul of any of its worshippers to a paradise it has built to store them upon their deaths. Thus, true believers can commit whatever blasphemies and crimes they please against the laws of God and country without consequence (and it encourages them to exercise their imaginations). So, while their cult is small and disorganised, outlawed in every place that knows of its existence, Demogorgon's followers tend to be particularly malign, committed, and willing to give their lives to advance the cult's goals, secure that they will go to paradise after death.

Jun 20, 2020

Orcish Genocide and the Reaction Roll

No mechanic can prevent people who are committed to playing orcish genocide, but I do think that one of the reasons it has remained a constant problematic possibility within D&D is the abandonment of the reaction roll

The reaction roll is a useful tool that pushes many potentially violent encounters to at least start off nonviolently. Without it, experience shows that many referees, especially newer ones, will default to encounters that are automatically hostile. 

This automatic hostility then has to be rationalised, and the intellectual prop that is leaned on to explain it is "racial alignment", one of the stupider notions ever to occur in the game. "Racial alignment" as a concept, in turn, is shaped to serve this need and becomes ever more rigid and universal.

Eventually, you end up with nonsense like "all orcs are innately evil" with some shady reasons why, mostly either racist 19th-century biological nonsense or the same thing but with "magic" in place of the actual "race science". In-game, this translate to the orcs show up, automatically attack, and get killed by the PCs without remorse over and over again. 

Throwing out the reheated "race science" is a good start - you can simply have some orcish polities that encourage selfish, cruel and violent behaviour and focus in on these as the source of antagonists without needing every orc everywhere to sign off on this behaviour (even within the polity itself!). This opens up some interesting and fun strategic options beyond orcish genocide. 

But, this change won't make much difference without some mechanical supplement. Saying "Not all orcs are bad" but still having every orc who appears in-game automatically charge in to slay the PCs just means that the PCs will nod their heads at how enlightened they are while still committing orcish genocide. This still represents an imaginative failure, but one the PCs can't really be blamed for.

One mechanical supplement that I think can help people break out of this rut is consistent use of the 2d6 reaction roll, or a similar kind of check of attitudes at the start of the encounter adapted to whatever system. This system should be set up (and is, in most old school versions) so that a simple failure doesn't lead to automatic hostilities (that is, there should be at least one unfriendly-but-not-trying-to-kill-you state). 

One of the functions of rules is to define the incidence of various possibilities. A rule or mechanic where the rest is that the vast majority of the time the enemy will not immediately charge to attack is far more useful for shaping PC behaviour and opening up possibilities beyond mass murder than simply verbally rejecting the bioessentialist fluff is. 

In my old Necrocarcerus campaign, the PCs at one point encountered some Inhumanoids, which are basically vat-grown cannibal soldiers who are brainwashed into serving their evil creators. Necrocarcerus parodies regular D&D tropes, so Inhumanoids basically dial-up all of the bioessentialist / evil magic nonsense about orcs to 11. 

But, in the sessions where the PCs were dealing with them, I just consistently rolled for reaction rolls every time the PCs encountered a group of Inhumanoids. This resulted in far more positive encounters with the Inhumanoids (thanks to some good rolls) than I would have ever planned, and more importantly, the possibility of positive encounters incentivised the PCs to adopt a strategy that didn't require them to kill more than a handful of Inhumanoids at the very start. 

One of the PCs gave a performance to an indifferent group of Inhumanoids, who shifted to being friendly since they'd never heard music before. They kidnapped him, he gave the performance of a lifetime to distract the entire Inhumanoid guard force, and the rest of the PCs used the distraction to steal the nuclear reactor fuel they were there for.

All of this was emergent, rather than planned, of course, but I think that without the reaction roll system working its magic, this adventure would have turned into a fairly typical "orcs in a hole" murder march.

So in brief, while changing fluff to avoid regurgitating inane 19th-century nonsense is good, and worth doing, using mechanics like the reaction roll or similar mechanics that interrupt the automatic leap to hostility are actually just as important for getting to a kind of play that offers more options than just murder simulation.

Apr 17, 2020

Verra: Ancestries, Nations, Languages, Religions

Broggia is fantasy 17th century Italy, and it's where the start of the Verra campaign is going to be set. The campaign will take place on the island of Ursino, which draws elements from early modern Corsica under the Bank of St.George. The equivalent of Catholicism is the Holy Krovian Occulted Church, which worships the Hidden God.

Broggia is part of humanity's heartland, so there are few demihumans, but the neighbouring state of Verloi (Savoy) is host to the largest populations of elves in southern Urovia, and the Canton of Serich is the southernmost of the dwarven communes in the foothills of the Bol mountains of central Urovia. Here's a few details useful for creating PCs:

Nationalities, Ancestries and Languages

Allowed PC Ancestries
NPC Only
Humans (incl. half-elves and half-orcs)
Hobgoblins
Elves
Dhampir, Vampires, and Tieflings
Dwarves
Ghouls and Gnolls (Both caused by curses)
Goblins
Orcs

Places to Be From
Language 
Description
Canton of Serich
Dwarven
Autonomous dwarven mountain commune
Duchy of Burgunta
Broggian
Wealthy, artistic police state; the oldest university in Urovia
Duchy of Montero
Broggian
Impoverished, honourable, wracked by civil war
Duchy of Verloi
Haranais
Home to most of the elves in southern Urovia
Empire of Yadia
Castido
The most powerful state in the world; vast overseas empire
Kingdom of Haran
Haranais
Scientific, cultural and magical powerhouse
Krovian Papal States
Broggian
The religious centre of the world; city of monumental ruins
Province of Ursino
Broggian
Chaotic backwater; owned by Gorga; valuable resources
Reggio Nerrali
Broggian
Multicultural pirate and criminal haven; subjects of Yadia
Republic of Gorga
Broggian
The wealthiest city in the world; run by the cult of Asmodeus

Other Major Nations
Languages
Key Features
The Berenthian Union
Anthic
Island kingdom ruled by a ghoul queen
The Emirate of Kanna
Alav
Trade entrepots ruled by sorcerers
The Free Provinces of Vroostland
Nedens
Pirates and imperialists
The Holy Krovian Empire
Larnic / Czeyenk
Disintegrating through civil war
The Kingdom of Ulthend
Ulthendic
Brutal northern orcish military
The Sultanate of Chekevana
Thultikanish
Cosmopolitan eastern empire

Other Languages
Description
Abaki
Most widely known Arkheshi language. Spoken by the Ten Islands Alliance.
Barbelo
The language of demons, devils, and the like.
Carcano
The Urovian elvish dialect. Related to the ancient tongue of dragons.
Dwarven
Spoken in dwarven communes, descended from ancient Giantish
Farishtan
A major trade language of central Ethia. Used widely in magic.
Gargansh
The main goblinoid language in Urovia and Rafiya.
Gellasian
Greek-equivalent. Used widely in magic and philosophy.
Krovian
Latin-equivalent. The language of religion, science, and often magic.
Pturian
Extinct lizardfolk language. Mostly known by scholars.
Rathulusk
Language of ancient orcish pagans in northern Urovia and Ethia.
Suluuran
Most common language in western Rafiya.
Temmenic
Most common language in eastern Rafiya.

Religion


The Holy Occulted Church (the Krovian Papacy) is the oldest and most widespread human church worshipping the Hidden God. Most humans in Broggia are members. In broad strokes, it’s organized like Catholicism with priests, monks, nuns, bishops and a pope, except all offices open to both genders. Most of its priests can perform a few magical rituals but are not spellcasters. Spellcasting is mainly the responsibility of specialized orders, and the church has orders that produce champions, clerics, and monks. There are no alignment restrictions on belonging to any the churches of the Hidden God.

The Society of Mattens are scholars, seers, and missionaries who contest the mortal enemies of the faith. They are famous as their debaters, historians, theologians, lawyers, diplomats, and spies. Most members are clerics.
Divine Font
Heal
Divine Skill
Society
Divine Weapon
Dagger
Domains
Ambition, Knowledge, Perfection, Truth
Spells Granted
1st: Charm 3rd: Mind Reading 4th: Suggestion

The Friars Minor of the Rule of Liddora (Liddorans) are a popular group of mendicant friars and mystics who wander Urovia (and further) helping the poor and innocent. Most members are either clerics or monks.
Divine Font
Heal
Divine Skill
Medicine
Divine Weapon
Staff
Domains
Family, Healing, Protection, Travel
Spells Granted
1st: Longstrider 2nd: Animal Messenger 4th: Shape Stone

The Office for the Expulsion of Anathemas is a militant order charged with the exorcism, banishment, and destruction of undead, fiends, and abominations who challenge the church’s rule. Most members are champions, though they do have a few clerics.
Divine Font
Heal
Divine Skill
Athletics
Divine Weapon
Battleaxe
Domains
Destruction, Might, Sun, Zeal
Spells Granted
1st: True Strike 2nd: Enlarge 4th: Weapon Storm

The Cabernensians are the largest Disputant sect with councils of presbyters across northern Urovia and overseas. They’re fantasy Calvinists. Their presbyters (elders) are clerics, and they are starting to train champions.
Divine Font
Heal
Divine Skill
Society
Divine Weapon
Halberd
Domains
Cities, Fate, Perfection, Wealth
Spells Granted
1st: Soothe 3rd: Enthrall 6th: Phantasmal Calamity

The Ummah of the Final Revelation is the state religion of the Emirate of Kanna, the Sultanate of Chekevana, and much of near Rafiya and Ethia. It’s fantasy Sunni Islam. Much like the Holy Krovian Occulted Church, they have holy tariqa (orders) composed of murids who specialise as champions, clerics and monks

The most common tariqa encountered in Urovia are the piratical Baddawiyah murids from the Emirate of Kanna who master the wind and sky. Most members are clerics or champions.
Divine Font
Heal
Divine Skill
Society
Divine Weapon
Scimitar
Domains
Air, Moon, Sun, Water
Spells Granted
1st: Gust of Wind 2nd: Faerie Fire 4th: Aerial Form

The Servi di Asmodeo are the only cult of devil worshippers operating openly in Urovia. Membership is only open to members of the Broggian upper classes and is centred in the city of Gorga. The cult is firm believers in the Hidden God, etc., they simply think Asmodeus represents Its true will more than the orthodox church. They’re in control of the world’s most powerful bank (the Banco di Asmodeo) and have a concordat with the Krovian Papacy, though the circumstances of how they got it are very murky. They believe in the binding force of law over more abstract notions of justice. They produce champions, clerics and monks, just like the Holy Occulted Church but are not suitable for PCs.

Outside of the Hidden God, most elves, goblinoids and dwarves worship deified versions of the primordial dragons, spirits, demons, and giants (the so-called “Visible Gods”), as do smaller, mostly-rural human communities in close contact with them. They are known collectively as “pagans”. The priests of these religions are druids, not clerics. The most prominent of these cults in southern Urovia are that of Vorkallian the Father of Flame, an elvish dragon cult centred in Verloi, and the cult of Uker-Nahosh, the giant ancestor of southern Urovia’s dwarves. Almost all barbarians and druids in southern Urovia are members of one of these two cults.

Mar 25, 2020

Resources for Playing Online

I played in an online OSR group for about six years, refereeing for about two and a half of them. Since everyone is shifting their games online to avoid spreading coronavirus infections, I thought I would share some resources and suggestions to make that an easy experience. As always, all of this advice comes with the caveat to do it with charm and grace and not robotically.

Video Conferencing

I think Discord is the best videoconferencing software for gaming at the moment. Discord allows video chat for up to nine people via group chat with no time limit; asynchronous messaging as either a group chat or a private server; the upload of images under 10 MB, and is less of a RAM hog than Skype. You can also load in a dicebot (the one my current group is using is DiceParser) to handle dice rolling.

 I strongly recommend downloading the app instead of running it in your browser, since browsers' RAM usage surges and ebbs unexpectedly, which leads to very uneven video quality, especially when you navigate away from the tab that the video conferencing is running in. The app is much more consistent.

To get the best experience from Discord, I recommend you start about half an hour early for the first session to properly set things up. You should encourage people to shift to "Push to Talk" in their "Voice and Video" settings. This will mean that they're only transmitting purposefully and will eradicate the majority of problems with echoing and intrusive background sounds. I recommend keybinding the "Push to Talk" to an arrow key, since it won't interfere with typing text.

If people don't or won't use Push to Talk, then encourage them to practice good "mute etiquette" by muting their microphones when they're not speaking or getting ready to speak.

The biggest challenge with any online system is reducing cross chatter, which will cause most computer speakers to spit out gibberish and cause slower computers to lag. A related challenge is the pauses where a person has stopped talking and everyone waits a moment then suddenly starts talking at once because the nonlinguistic conversational turn-taking cues are suppressed in video calls. Push to Talk with help a bit, but you can also do a few things to reduce how often this happens.

My suggestions are to adopt gestures that:

1) People can use to indicate that they want to talk. Raising a hand and holding it up until called on by referee works well. Discourage people from flopping their hands up rapidly once hoping that you'll notice. Once the players are familiar with this, you can encourage them to actively "hand off" to the next person they see whose hand is raised.

2) Indicate disagreement or agreement with some proposition. Encourage players to ask simple yes or no questions instead of open-ended, convoluted questions that require several assumptions to hold. Then do a simple roll call and have people give a thumbs up or thumbs down indicating their assent or dissent.

3) Indicate that they're done talking or finishing up, or that you, the referee, want them to bring their comments to a close. I use the OK symbol or sometimes a horizontal hand slice at face-level (I know this as a "cut it off gesture" but these things are so regional).

The smoother you can make all of this, the easier people will find it to pay attention to what's going on and to follow the flow of discussion. The harder it is to follow a given discussion, the easier it is to drift off or become distracted.

Speed is less important than clarity and focus. I recommend supplementing the conversational component by writing out key decisions to be made, or resolutions that have been decided, in the text channel, and having people who have trouble speaking up write their responses there. Rather than handle it yourself, per se, I would recommend appointing either the Caller or the Notetaker to facilitate these discussions and bring them to the attention of the video conference as they think appropriate.

I recommend using the text chat element frequently. When people cast a spell that "lasts 24 hours" and like, have them type that fact into the text channel along with the estimated time of day they cast it. If the party develops a multi-step plan, have them write out the steps in the text channel. Use the text channel as a prosthetic memory so that you don't have to remember all of this stuff.

Whiteboarding

I also recommend using a digital whiteboard when you play. After trying a few options, I settled on Miro (it used to be called Realtimeboard). You can get a free account, but I actually pay for one that gives me extra space (I use it for work stuff and personal projects as well as gaming).

I like Miro because I think it's got the best and broadest set of tools for organising information, and because it gives you a lot of storage (especially with a paid account). I drag and drop images from around the web to create visual collages, and I toss up pdfs of errata documents, world write-ups, and the like.

With Miro, you can share links where people can only view but not edit the board, or you can invite them using their email address to the board which allows editing even if they don't have an account. I recommend using the latter, and make sure to set it up beforehand. Be warned that boards with lots of stuff that have multiple people logging in at once will be slightly slower to load than bare boards with only one or two people.

To use a digital whiteboard effectively for gaming, you should break up sections by function. I use frames for each collection of related items to aid navigation. I recommend at minimum the following sections:

1) A resources section that's mostly locked down so people can't accidentally move or delete stuff in it. These are your static images (e.g. the map of the campaign setting), errata documents, a document with the key stats for the PCs (like their saving throws), etc. Use Miro's "lock" function to prevent people from deleting, duplicating, etc. these pieces.

2) A "working files" section. This is stuff that you'll change or grab maybe once or twice a session but will need more than once. This is where you place comments or notes containing information the PCs discover about the world or NPCs, dump icons for enemies and PCs for battle map uses, and stick other reusable elements you might need.

3) A central working area where you'll be drawing battle maps, diagrams, and illustrations, moving icons around, sticking up post-its with NPC names during interactions, etc. This is where PCs should be drawing things and making their own notes before they're moved over into a more enduring section.

The real key to this is to use the whiteboard as much as possible to organise the presentation of information so people can understand things visually instead of verbally. This reduces the strain on your audio channel's bottleneck, gives people a different way to focus in on what's going on in the game, and lets you present information that might take a lot of speech to convey clearly, but can be conveyed very simply visually.

If you're just using it for combat, then two common outcomes are that in-between combats people will log out of it and lose their ability to navigate back to the link, or they will keep the chat program maximised on screen and only switch over to the whiteboard slowly and when explicitly told to. I recommend two practices to encourage more fluid switching between chat and whiteboard programs.

1) As referee, share your screen with the whiteboard on it directly into the chat to call PCs attention to it during deliberations, but not during combat. This lets them continue to use the visual signals established above to handle their deliberation, while also allowing you to focus them on the core elements you want to inform that deliberation (literally, by moving your screen to focus in on those elements).

If PCs want to focus in on something that's not on your shared screen during deliberations, encourage them to share their screen of the whiteboard while they talk (and possibly draw or type something out). It will help them capture the attention of other players.

2) Have them shift over to the whiteboard completely for combat. Start off each round with a call to attention for everyone who has drifted off since they last acted, allow them to briefly discuss tactics for the round, and then go through matters in a strict initiative order with the expectation that they won't interrupt one another. Encourage them to communicate with one another via sticky notes on the board, rather than talking out of turn.

Once again, this is the sort of thing that setting expectations at the start, consistently enforcing them, and investing a bit of time to build player skill and familiarity with these methods and the digital tools will make the whole experience much better for everyone.

I hope this is helpful in assisting you to play adventure games online. Good luck!