Jan 26, 2018

Literacy Specialties in Mythras

I want to apply the specialities concept to the Literacy skill in the Dawnlands (my Mythras iron-age central Asian-inflected setting), but without simply having it be a repeat of the specialities of the Language skill. A simple repeat of the same specialities would just turn Literacy into a skill tax imposed on PCs. I also think it's pretty boring.

I also think we need to avoid the obvious extension of it, which is to separate the ability to interpret and decipher writing in a particular form into speech. I initially made this error and had five different alphabets, syllabaries, abugidas and pictograms, which Literacy would let you turn into something you then needed a Language skill to make sense of. I think this would increase referee cognitive load in planning and preparation, without adding much to the game.

You, my well-educated audience, may have already encountered the idea of "literacies" in contemporary educational theory. This is often used in the context of explaining various digital media competencies, but I think elements of this can be projected backwards in time, and laterally, for our purpose, to make the Literacy skill interesting and fun. To tip my hand, I want to expand the Literacy to cover a variety of hermeneutic practices, of which reading plain text on a page is only one example. Literacy now becomes the skill of interpreting symbol sets other than speech. I do want to be careful not to step too far into the domains of other skills and replacing the need for Customs, Culture, Lore or Art, but I think there are a few pieces that could fall under Literacy or one of these skills that we ought to bring under the Literacy skill.

NB: Along with allowing you to decipher the types of texts below, I think that in many cases Literacy should also cover producing examples of them.

Here's a brief list of ideas of interpretive practices that might be important to someone in a fantastical pseudo-ancient or pseudo-medieval setting.

1) Reading out loud
2) Codes and ciphers
3) Dreams, omens, oracles
4) Technical, mathematical, and scientific jargon and diagrams
5) Financial and legal records and accounts
6) Reading silently
7) Magical writing (or this may be a subset of #4)
8) Maps & calendars

A brief justification for each of these as ideas:

Reading out loud and reading silently are separate developments historically, as weird as it may seem to a modern person trained in doing both from a relatively young age. It seems like in the Western world, reading silently emerges shortly after monasticism, as part of the contemplative practices of monks. Until that point, so far as we can tell, people mostly read things aloud, even when they were reading for themselves. Breaking them up as specialties is a minor but fun idea with the effect of estranging the setting in a subtle way for players.

Codes and ciphers represents the ability to encipher and decipher texts written in codes and ciphers. It's handy and it doesn't cleanly fall under any other skill unless you make up a Lore speciality covering it. If you have "thieves guilds" or the like, you might want to make up a separate speciality for their specific codes, but I think the narrower this speciality, the less useful it is.

Dreams, omens, and oracles are in the representations we have from the ancient world almost always vague, riddle-like things that require expert interpretation, and dramatically much can turn on the ambiguous possibilities of an oracle or omen. I think this should also cover things like astrological charts, hexagrams from the I Ching, and the markings on the intestines of sheep. I think this is, like literacy in codes and ciphers, rapidly becomes less important or useful the more narrow it is (i.e. just interpreting dreams or just interpreting sheep intestines or just looking at chickens pecking grain out of a grid).

If you've ever tried to read an old mathematical or technical manuscript, you probably understand why this is distinct from one's familiarity with the scientific concept under discussion, or one's ability to read the plain text of the manuscript. For that matter, if you've ever seen two people quibble over what a blueprint means, you've probably had the same experience. Diagrams can be surprisingly ambiguous, especially if it's stylised so that particular design choices are intended to cover specific information rather than serve as a picture. It's also less relevant in an ancient or medieval setting, but I think reading graphs probably falls at least partly under this speciality as well. Whether you want to make a "high-falutin' writin'" speciality that combines this with the no doubt extremely similar problems of interpreting magical writings is your preference. I would separate them into two specialities mainly as a matter of personal taste.

Financial records and accounts remain a specialised form of literacy with entire certified professions dedicated to them (accountants, stockbrokers, etc.). Understanding them is distinct from mathematical knowledge per se (which I think is properly one or more Lore specialities). Historically, this type of writing precedes the others - records of debts and receipts are the oldest writing we can find evidence of. Legal records and documents, which are often tax records of some sort historically, are similarly obtuse and impenetrable even if one has a rough and ready sense of what the actual law applying to a situation is. You may want to roll these under the Commerce and Bureaucracy skill, respectively. Mythras doesn't have a forgery skill, and allowing this as a speciality allows you to make a forger, which I think is something PCs want to do often enough that it's worth having a special skill covering.

Maps and calendars are really two different types of literacy in real life (interpreting abstract spatial representations and abstract temporal relations), and understanding them were specialised skills historically. Thucydides found calendars in contemporary Athens so confusing that he simply invented his own method of tracking time in his historical work. How to calculate the exact date of Easter is a perennial dispute amongst the Christian sects even now. I'm not sure either kind of literacy is quite useful enough to be worth a speciality on its own, but together they're fairly handy, especially since having them as a Literacy speciality should allow a PC to produce them.

NB: I considering reading maps quite different than the Navigation skill, since the later covers going to places, and maps do all sorts of things other than guide you somewhere (here's a neat one that's useless for navigation).

Some of these might reasonably be Lore specialities instead of Literacy specialities. But, I think one thing to bear in mind if one is using the specialities system is that getting more than 5 specialities in a particular skill is a challenge because of the difficulty of acquiring skill ratings above 100%. So loading some potential Lore capabilities onto Literacy means that characters don't have to sacrifice one of their Lore specialities to get ahold of them, and can instead raise their Literacy skill (which is often surprisingly low).

Other than the ones listed above, I'm open to suggestions for other Literacy specialities.

Jan 23, 2018

Self-Plug: My Essay in Megadungeon #2

Courtney Campbell's Megadungeon #2 zine is out. I contributed an essay that's basically a cleaned-up and consolidated version of my blog posts on wandering monster tables and restocking dungeons that should be easier to follow and use. If you're looking for all of that in a single easily-referenced spot, you might want to check out the zine (it's got a bunch of other good stuff in it as well).

I got paid (very fairly) a per-word fee for the article, so sales won't benefit me, but I think Courtney's doing good work with the Megadungeon series (issue #1 here), and I'm probably going to be contributing to future issues as ideas come to me, so I encourage you to check it out.

Jan 8, 2018

The Disruptors' Plans

One of the great mysteries left to referees to decide on in Luther Arkwright campaigns is what the larger master plan of the Disruptors is. This is partly because the source material doesn't specify it, and partly so you can make it whatever you want it to be in your own campaigns. I did some thinking about it based on playing a bunch of Luther Arkwright and planning a bunch of one-shots, and wanted to lay out what I decided what I think makes sense in the sort of games I'm interested in running. The idea of all of the following is to give one ideas for Luther Arkwright plots that Valhalla agents can stop, in case that isn't apparent.

In broad strokes, I see the Disruptors are trying to collapse all of the infinite possibilities of the multiverse into one parallel, one where they are utterly triumphant and all-powerful. Once they have discovered this parallel, they will destroy all other parallels and become gods in the remaining universe.

To do this, they undertake several kinds of large-scale missions and campaigns.

1) Destroy parallels with a low-probability of becoming the "right" one, ideally after first harvesting all useful resources from them. This releases the psionic energy bound up in the parallel and distributes it back across the multiverse. These sorts of parallels are also probably the ones where they're doing their most strenuous and large-scale experimentation, like running genocidal eugenics programs on entire worlds to see if they can improve the rate at which psychics are born, or

2) Testing different historical developments to see which increases the probability of a parallel becoming their ideal-universe. This means both encouraging convergent developments that they know increase their possibility of success, while experimenting with new developments and new parallels to ensure they are not stuck in a local pseudo-stable maxima (that is, a course of development that seems to be progressing in the right direction but which ultimately turns out to plateau before success is reached).

3) Experimenting with the occasional high-risk, high-reward, parallel in case doing so pays off (parallels where aliens powerful to challenge them exist, parallels with lots of psionically-aware people, technologically advanced parallels sufficient to compete with them scientifically and militarily, etc.).

4) Infiltrating parallels where their enemies, potential competitors, or serious resistance to them is available, undermining the capacity of these forces to fight them by destabilising these parallels politically or otherwise, and eventually either destroying or isolating them from the multiverse.

To break these down further:

Destroying low-probability parallels

These operations first require an assessment of the situation culminating in an analysis of its probability of Disruptor success. After that, the Disruptors will attempt to strip the parallel of any useful resources, and neutralise or avoid any major threats to doing so. After that, the Disruptors must destroy the parallel, which means somehow causing the psionic energy that maintains its existence to disperse.

Dispersing the psionic energy can be done in a variety of ways. The first is to find some highly psionically active and powerful entity or object, perhaps a multiversal constant or a powerful spirit, and cause a psionic energy feedback loop that "explodes" the parallel. This might involve importing additional psionic energy from another parallel, or concentrating much of the psionic energy of a given parallel into a small area. The second option is to construct some device, or bring in some psionic entity, that will drain the parallel's psionic energy back into the multiverse. The device might operate according to impossible physical laws that the host parallel can't accommodate, or it might link two parallels and transfer the energy from one to the other. A third would be simply to kill every psionically active entity (every living thing) in a given parallel, and then simply wait for it to dissolve.

Utilising these parallels for the Disruptors probably falls into a couple of main methods. The first is grabbing or using any unique features of the parallel. Are there connections to more valuable parallels that can only be reached via this one? Technology from long-dead aliens? The second is running damaging and awful experiments. These are the sorts of parallels that are candidates for the Disruptors to use as vast eugenics farms to experiment with the birth rate of psionically active people, to test their most horrific and devastating weapons and tools on, and to examine the most dangerous unknown artifacts that they've recovered from the rest of the multiverse. The third is just straightforward economic exploitation - the enslavement of entire worlds to turn out the weapons of war for dominating the rest.

Valhalla is no doubt very interested in preserving these parallels, since they offer the least gain to the Disruptors' plans. Without the active interference of the Disruptors in exploiting and destroying them, these parallels get along just fine.

Converging and collapsing history

Boosting any given parallels chances of becoming the ideal-universe for the Disruptors probably take several forms. The first step is establishing whether the parallel is a good candidate for the ideal-universe. We know the Disruptors like powerful, hierarchical governments, preferably as few as possible, that they can take control of secretly. They also seem to prefer parallels where technological and scientific development can be made beholden to Disruptor influence. Worlds teeming with people, who produce a lot of psionic energy the Disruptors can utilise, are also ideal. The second is changing the world to better suit their needs. This means introducing various multiversal constants if they don't already exist, or aligning them with the ideal-form of each constant if they're slight deviations. It also means taking over the governments of the world. Chances are, the Disruptors also look for worlds with lots of psionic connections to other parallels that they can send psionic influence through. I figure there are probably "anchor" parallels that serve as the local node through which a series of parallels with minor deviations are connected (e.g. a bunch of worlds that are almost identical except for small quantum variations).

Once they have them under their control, the Disruptors are probably seeking to prevent them from deviating from developing into the ideal-universe. My basic assumption is that the Disruptors can't reliably see the future (except insofar as psionics allowed very limited precognition). So they don't know which one will pan out as the ideal, and have to constantly adjust and readjust their development in line with what they predict, but can't know, is the ideal course. Some will fail, of course - Valhalla or others will free them and drive the Disruptors out, asteroids will destroy others, and others will turn out to be pseudo-stable local maxima that will plateau rather than continue to develop into the ideal-universe.

I expect that ODIN, Valhalla's supercomputer, is pretty savvy to what these parallels look like, and can even guess how far along the Disruptors' plan is based on an in-depth study of its history. While these are the toughest nuts to crack, Valhalla gets the most gain when it manages to flip one of these from a high-probability parallel to a low-probability one, either by eliminating the Disruptors' control, or undermining their development and forcing them into pseudo-stable local maxima.

Experimenting with high-risk, high-reward parallels

These are parallels that are so unique or unusual that the chances of them becoming the ideal-universe are extremely low, but that can't be written off for all that. Worlds where the entire population is psionic, or powerful aliens friendly to the Disruptor cause are willing to trade unusual technology, or where technology is 10,000 years more advanced than our own world, or where some species other than humanity has dominated the planet. Depending on the multiversal savvy of the entities running these parallels and the resources they command, the Disruptors are probably more or less aggressive. Attacking an enemy who can chase you through the parallels with glowing clouds of mind force is stupid - trade or wary observation are more likely. On the other hand, even a galactic federation of energy beings can be conquered if you can simply retreat to another parallel and regroup safely whenever they start to make gains. Some worlds are also weird enough that the Disruptors probably have a small monitoring presence to continuously evaluate and nudge their development towards the ideal-universe, but little more.

This class also includes parallels like the one that Firefrost was found on, where the main interest is in some one thing that's super-powerful and is way more interesting and important than the rest of the parallel would be in its own right. In these cases, the Disruptors would only bother to get enough control to find and control that one thing, extract it to their home base, and then send a clean-up team to eliminate the parallel like any other low-probability parallel.

Some of these worlds will also be ones where a small group of Disruptors with a heterodox vision of the ideal-universe might be operating. You might have a small clique of knights and bishops who've taken control of a parallel (or at least a large part of it) and are using it to prove the superiority of their ideas versus the mainline Disruptor vision of development. If this parallel does well (by Disruptor standards) they'll be vindicated and rewarded, while if it deviates into a low-probability parallel or plateaus, they're liable to be punished for their heresy.

These are also the sorts of worlds that Valhalla is likely to send agents to for other reasons - trading with the aliens or super-intelligent chimpanzee empire, or whatever - who then stumble across Disruptor schemes. Or Valhalla agents might go on a variety of missions to deny the Disruptors whatever key resource they're drawing from this world.

Undermining the opposition

Parallels where the opposition to the Disruptors is organised and effective are no doubt their worst nightmare, with the absolute nadir for them being a parallel where the original aliens opposing them way back when succeeded without perishing. You probably see an escalation here, as the Disruptors go from identifying and analysing the opposition to adopting a plan to destroy them, and if that fails, seeking to destroy or isolate the parallel itself. 00-00-00, Valhalla's home parallel, is the most well-known of these in the Luther Arkwright universe, but we can assume there are others (heck, there's probably at least one more Valhalla out there).

Interestingly, it seems like a lot of parallels with alien contact and/or powerful psionics probably fall into this category. Disruptor control is probably highly contested, though they may have footprints in governments or other power centres that allow them to strike out at the opposition. In some of these worlds, the Disruptors will be trying to "flip" their enemies into allies, or at least neutralising them, perhaps by offering them resources they otherwise lack. In others, they may be trying to destabilise the mundane governments and institutions of the world to gin up chaos and destroy the support system that their opposition relies on to be effective.

Valhalla agents are no doubt assigned to get out there and form alliances with these groups, as well as to study their technologies and methods that make them so dangerous to the Disruptors. Once they are identified and alliances made, agents will no doubt have to occasionally go and help their allies fight off Disruptor plots to undermine or destroy their parallels.

Mixing and matching ideas from the above categories can help you put together a consistent and interesting set of Disruptor operations that either span several parallels or deeply engage with a single one.

Jan 4, 2018

2018 Plans for Improvement

I find people often discuss campaigns they want to run, or games they want to play when they talk about their gaming plans for an upcoming year, so I thought I'd take a bit of a different tack. This is because in 2018 I want to be a player in more games, and run fewer - hopefully just one one-shot this summer, and one campaign sometime later this year, both using Mythras, a system I know well.

I think it's useful to take stock of one's skill at adventure games every so often. I'm a strong and adaptable player who is in high demand for games both online and off, but I've identified a few areas for improvement in my skills as a referee, and I wanted to take a year or so to focus on improving them. As part of that, I'm reducing my anticipated commitments as a referee, sticking to settings and systems I know well, reading about how to do what I want to do better, and thinking through how and what to improve.

Some areas of improvement I've noticed:

1) I'm bad at maps (specifically, indoor maps of things like dungeons and small-scale maps like battlemats - I'm actually quite decent at overland maps). I need to think through my production process for them, develop expertise in the tools I use to produce them, clarify my presentation and deployment of them in play, and determine what I'm hoping to do by using them. I got a drawing tablet for Christmas that I think will help, and I'm going to practice my whiteboard mapping on grids, as specific activities. I specifically need to improve my ability to do so using electronic tools, since much of my existing skill is using offline tools.

2) I have an easier time describing very weird things than I do mundane things, especially a bunch of mundane things in sequence. This is true even when the mundane things are important and interesting (e.g. the mechanism of a trap, the layout of a room, or what a sword looks like). I need to reinscribe a lot of vocabulary I haven't used in a while into my working memory, and I need to figure out how to take better notes that aren't overwhelming or disorganised that allow me to reference them fluidly and quickly. I need to construct busier, more sensuous scenes for players to engage with and practice structuring the flow of information to them about these scenes.

3) I need to work on developing more compelling NPCs with longer arcs. Some of the people I plan to play with in the upcoming year enjoy strongly narrative games, something I haven't run in a few years, and I need to make sure my skills here haven't become rusty. This is particularly true of twists, surprises, and other unexpected developments, which I need to practice. I'm often able to cover for this via good world-building and interesting character quirks, but I've been moving in an anti-dramatic direction for some time, and I'd like to have the flexibility to shift between the two modes rather than getting locked into only one style.

4) My campaign management skills are OK, but could be better. I have a tendency to prep a lot at the start of a campaign and then fail to keep up, using improvisation to cover the holes. This is partly because a lot of the things I've run in the past five years have been "filler" campaigns for other people taking breaks from their own campaigns that tend to be extended unexpectedly. I've picked up some books on campaign management that I hope will help, and need to commit myself to using the planning tools that I know work for me but that I often slack on actually executing.

I do think overall that I'm a fairly solid referee who runs games that the players enjoy thoroughly, but I think resting on my laurels or becoming self-satisfied is liable to lead to decline rather than improvement. Despite my preference for being a player, I would rather be an excellent referee than merely a solid one.

Beyond improving my skills as a referee, I'd like to make progress on the following projects:

1) I've submitted a draft article to Courtney for his Megadungeon zine, and have a solid idea for at least one more article on a related topic that I'd like to publish this year in an upcoming issue.
2) I'd like to revise Into the Depths based on my experience playtesting it over the course of this past year, including providing more guidance around magic, refining the experience system, incorporating the gear listings, and possibly creating a small monster listing for it. Once that's done, I'd like to upload it to Drivethrurpg and make it available to a wider audience.
3) I'd like to finish my revision of the Openquest SRD, including completing the basic redesign required to run a science fiction game using it and write-up a campaign setting to go with that.
4) I'd like to make substantive progress on finishing the Dawnlands campaign setting for Mythras.

So those are my plans for 2018. I'll check back in at the end of the year to see how they've gone.