Dec 30, 2020

Trapplications II

Five years ago, I wrote the original Trapplications post. After years of updating it based on use, it's time to present the more streamlined version I've adopted. This version is better for stocking and restocking dungeons, while also remaining usable in play as a "wandering trap" table.

To recap: To use this table, you roll 2d6 and 1d6 at the same time and the results determine which entry on the grid occurs. If using it during play, I roll about once per 10-minute exploration turn because it's easier to remember to do it that way. If I'm using it for stocking, I roll it once per room, and then once more per room every time I restock the dungeon, and occasionally for corridors with prominent room-like features.

The big update is the categories for the 1d6. I redesigned them because these ones are easier to understand and less work to create than the old set, with a clear progression in proximity, danger, and imminence between the three options on the table, and the need to only create 3 columns of content instead of a full six.

They are now:

1 - Null
2 - Null
3 - Null
4 - Signs
5 - Danger Zone
6 - Trigger

"Null" results mean nothing - no trap, no problem. These results help with stocking by ensuring that some rooms lack traps. 

"Signs" means indirect signs of the trap's operation - corpses strewn around, poison darts littering the floor, the sound of grinding gears or whirring blades far ahead. The intent is that they can be spotted ahead of the trap being an actual danger.

"Danger Zone" means one or more PCs find themselves in the area of effect of a trap that has not yet activated. When stocking, it means that trap has an area of effect that one can enter into without automatically triggering the trap. If the PCs freeze in this state they'll be fine, but the challenge is to extricate themselves without triggering the trap (perhaps by dismantling or jamming it?).

"Trigger" means that a trap triggers or is about to trigger with a PC in its area of effect. When stocking, it means a trap that can't be noticed through passive observation until it's triggered (a careful search of the area might reveal it ahead of time). 

I tend to make the entries here the actual triggers of the traps, even tho' this will require a bit of adaptation if you're using it in play when the specific object isn't necessarily present. Reusing triggers for traps helps PCs learn what kinds of things in this dungeon are likely to be dangerous and gives them an extra chance to avoid them, while also bringing a certain conceptual coherence to the traps.

The probability here is that 50% of rooms will have traps, and only 1 in 3 traps will immediately trigger without warning, which I think is frequent enough to be dangerous but not frequent enough to slam a halt on exploration. I recommend attaching "Trigger" results to interactable objects whenever possible

If you feel that's too many, I'd use a d8, push "Trigger" to 8, "Danger Zone" to 7, "Signs" to 6, add a "Broken" column at 5, and leave the rest as nulls. That reduces the number of traps that are difficult to discover beforehand to 12.5%.

"Broken"
implies a trap that's been activated and not reset, or that has broken down from age. Broken traps are a great way to telegraph that there are traps around, and create a sense of danger without actually requiring time to resolve in any detail.

Here's an example of this larger table:


Happy new year!

Dec 14, 2020

Brief Pandemic Update

My offline 3.5 campaign shifted online in April and then came to an end in late August with a TPK and will be rebooting as a 5e game sometime in 2021. I've been invited to the same group's alternate 5e campaign, and will be joining sometime in January 2021. 

By request of several PCs, Verra is on hold until we can launch it in person (so probably spring 2021). I am floating the idea of an online Planescape-themed Pathfinder 2e game with some people on a private Discord but am currently experiencing some difficulty writing an inspiring campaign pitch for it.

I work for an organisation that does education reform and health education in low and moderate HDI countries, so as you can imagine, the past year has been a somewhat busy time for us, exacerbated by staff burnout as they go through lockdowns and quarantines, and the bulk of my writing energy during the pandemic has been going to that situation. I am a graphomaniac (a compulsive writer) so there is some leftover energy even after that, but then socialising is almost entirely text-based at this point as well, other than the occasional video call.

Therefore, it's been a perfect storm to keep the blog quiet - my gaming has been very minimal since August, and I haven't had much time or energy to write outside of work and the occasional email or Discord chat with friends. I wanted to make a short post to let people know that the blog is not dead, and will probably become more active in 2021 as my gaming picks up again. 

I'll try to get some updates in over the holidays as well. I've been thinking a bit about how Openquest is an ideal game for running a Bloodbornesque game because the active defense and short list of possible attack moves in combat match up well to creating the sort of dynamic, mobile combat that game aims for. I think with a few tweaks to the spell system, the inclusion of guns, and a modification of the basic weapons and armour list, you could probably put together something that captured its feel very well. More on that some other time.

Nov 17, 2020

Using 2d4 for Hit Locations in BRP

I haven't yet, but I'm going to experiment at some point with using 2d4 for hit locations in Mythras. It has seven results on a bell-curve, to match up with the seven hit locations of a character. I think you could use this to emphasise armouring certain parts of the body that are likely to be the target of strikes, without requiring a full suit of armour. 

I think this might work particularly well in games where you wanted a gladiatorial feel where a combatant has one armoured arm and leg, but it could also work in a campaign where characters were scavengers who needed to eke out combat with only a few scraps of armour. I also think this is probably easier for people who have trouble remembering the d20 table from Mythras to keep in their heads as well.

For the system I'm thinking of, you'd decide at some point before a fight which side of a character is "dominant" (the right side in right-handed characters), and thus is more likely to extend towards the enemy at any given point. The other side is the "trailing" side.

Then, the distribution would go:

2 - Trailing Arm
3 - Dominant Arm
4 - Head
5 - Chest
6 - Abdomen
7 - Dominant Leg
8 - Trailing Leg

This would make wearing a helmet and cuirass (chest and abdomen-covering) particularly valuable since about 62.5% of all hits would land on one of these three locations. This would direct most strikes to the centre line of the person. The dominant side is more at risk (25% of all hits go to it - 12.5% to the arm and the same to the leg on that side) thus motivating the next heaviest armour to be placed on it. The trailing side's limbs each only have a 6.25% of being hit, representing them being both mobile and placed furthest away from the attacker. 

If anyone has experimented with this, I'd love to hear about it. Otherwise, I'm currently on hiatus from roleplaying and when I do start up again it'll be as a PC in a 5e game, so it'll probably be in 2021 at the earliest before I can test it out.

Sep 29, 2020

Last Chance for the Openquest 3rd Edition Kickstarter

The Openquest 3rd Edition Kickstarter is in its last 40 hours. The PDF + POD coupon level is super cheap, at around 12.85 USD at current exchange rates. If you haven't tried Openquest before, I would suggest picking it up while you get the chance (I am not being paid or otherwise compensated for this post; I don't have an "affiliate link" or something to click on; I think I mainly bring grief rather than pleasure to the creator's life; I am doing this because I like the game and want to encourage others to discover it).

Openquest has always seemed to be criminally underrated and ignored as a game despite being one of the most mechanically straightforward versions of the Basic Roleplaying (BRP) system that runs Call of Cthulhu, Mythras, Runequest and other games. It's been around for over a decade now, and I'm really amazed more traditional players disgruntled with D&D & Pathfinder's moves towards superheroism haven't converged on Openquest. 

I think Openquest sits at a really sweet spot between the possibilities of "trad" and "OSR" styles of play, and I've used it for both successfully. Because of the variety of options for magic, it's considerably easier to "tune" it to run either high magic fantasy and low magic fantasy settings that diverge from D&D's baseline. The lack of exploding hit points means that even very weak enemies remain potential threats for much longer than in D&D. The focus on skills and the lack of classes means that a wider variety of character concepts are playable than in stock D&D. It's also humanocentric by default, which I tend to prefer in my fantasy games.

Anyhow, if you haven't previously checked out Openquest, I strongly recommend you do, and this Kickstarter is a good chance to do so very cheaply.

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.