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.


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 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 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.