Tuesday, November 27, 2018

why are these undead such a-holes

So why are undead so prone to attack on sight anyway if they're just dead people?
Well it so happens that the gibbering corpse-puppet in question is...
  1. Incredibly racially prejudiced against someone in your party on account of whether their earlobes are attached or not, a form of discrimination quite widespread thousands of years ago
  2. consumed by an unholy hunger for flesh/blood/cock/souls/delicious babies which supersedes any desire for rational discourse
  3. a Skeleton War recruiter agent, needs to free your skeleton and draft it into the Skeleton War
  4. covetous of your treasure, just like you want theirs
  5. terrified of the undead it keeps hearing so much about. Has mistaken you for this alleged undead menace in dim dungeon lighting.
  6. an eternal nemesis of one of your great-ancestors, whom you superficially resemble
  7. grinding for XP souls to level up transcend into a higher form of undead
  8. enraged that you've violated the NAP by trespassing on their property
  9. bumbling minion of unrelated, possibly already deceased necromancer
  10. lonely, wants friends, believes you will rise from the dead as friendly spawn once slain
  11. trying to make sure there are no witnesses to its unspeakable crimes
  12. possessed by the spirit of an enthusiastic but clumsy puppy trying to be affectionate
  13. possessed by the spirit of a territorial and generally unpleasant ancient animal
  14. a fanatic who wishes to send you to heaven before your sinful adventuring ways ensure you are hell-bound
  15. blind as a bat and deaf as a post, and under the impression they're still fighting in an ancient war 
  16. sick of living in a shrivelly old corpse and wants to move into yours
  17. only able to derive intellectual satisfaction from high-stakes tactical problem-solving on account of lacking the pleasures of the flesh
  18. wishing for true death, but not wanting to die at the hands of anyone who isn't badass enough to defeat them in pitched battle
  19. just trying to scare people off from the real terrors deeper in the dungeon/wilderness
  20. double the asshole they were in life, and they were assholes back then too

    Friday, November 16, 2018

    d20 Fantastic Skies

    In real life, the sky isn't really a thing.
    pictured- a clammy gulf of nuthin and things too far to reach

    How about in your game?
    Sure, weather is a thing. Clouds get some love. Maybe your sun and moon are allegedly gods, but do they act like it, or do they act like distant balls of rock and/or fire made of physics?
    pictured- an interpretation of the sky that's a lot more gameable than 'clammy empty gulf'
    So here's some fantastic skies that might actually be relevant to actual gameplay. Some are even compatible with each other.
    1. The sky is a giant rock, just like the earth. Clouds and moons and stuff float between the sky and the ground, and might collide with tall or flying objects. The highest mountain in any given region is sacred, because it holds up the sky and stops it from falling and crushing that region. In mountain-poor regions, trees have to bear the burden of the sky. Either way, you can reach the sky and mine it, looking for stars (glimmering gemstones) or star-metal (regular sky stuff is just rock colored like the sky and it looks pretty lame up close, you gotta get the good stuff).
    2. The sky is like a giant tarp, a flexible membrane. If you cut it open, stuff escapes into the Void in catastrophic decompression hurricanes. Eventually the hole seals. Sometimes things from the Void get IN though. If you get sucked into the void, you'll find the outer shell of the sky is grizzled and tough and much harder to break through, and littered with debris from past punctures. And also Void stuff, which you don't need to see much of to be glad it's in the Void and you're under The Sky. "Splitting the sky asunder and ushering in the Void" is every other doomsday villain's plan.
    3. The night sky is Nut. Nut is that there egyptian goddess featured above. What she does is tiptoes around on fingers and toes, careful not to crush things, round and round the world, bringing a respite from the sun.  Stars are her jewelry, and the King of Thieves is coming out of retirement one last time and putting together a team to steal her nipple piercing, and there's just one question you should be asking yourself right now- Are you in?
    4. There is no sky- blue is just what light looks like when bounced through the atmosphere, and stars are just other towns seen on the far side of the world, because you're on the inside of a sphere, not the outside. Legendary archers can shoot all the way across, and the Ancients built a tower that spans the gap, now a forsaken ruin squatted in by pretender kings and forgotten horrors.
    5. Each day's sky is a different giant whale- typically blue whales, but there's a lot of whale species you know, one for each type of sky, except night skies. Each night, the whale dies, rots, turns weird bruise colors(the sunset) then turns black (Night), and is devoured by the Star Brood. Stars are just huge glowing maggots. Sometimes they fall out of the whale and cause trouble. Sometimes hunting the sky-leviathan for its incomparable bones and flesh gets the whales before the maggots do, but it will require a certain ship, and a certain expertise, and a certain harpoon
    6. Stars are all suns and also sons, but they're banished from the court of the Celestial Sun Emperor. Every year or so they try to stage a coup and earth becomes eternally day and way too hot (this is known as War Summer), so the Sun Guard have to assemble to slay or drive off the sun or sunS. Some disgruntled rebels even side with the would-be usurpers and the Sun Empire is wracked by civil war, while those less honorable still take advantage of the disruption in social order via banditry.
    7. The sky is the ocean, obviously. The ocean is blue during the day, like the sky. The ocean is black during the night, like the sky. This ain't rocket alchemy. As such you can sail through the sky just as you can sail through the ocean, though since it's upside down, only dead people can stand it for long periods of time. Stars are the boats of the dead and their corpse lanterns, and the sun shines on the Dead Ocean and the Live Ocean equally.
      and cloud krakens mostly eat people on the Dead Ocean but don't you trust fog banks

    8. The sky is a facade concealing the TRUE SUN from the world, set there by the FALSE SUN. The TRUE SUN's light shines through holes in the facade, so brilliant that the light of the FALSE SUN looks like darkness in comparison. The MOON is the FALSE SUN when seen in the light of the TRUE SUN shining through the STARS, which are holes shot by arrows of heroes who tried to fight the FALSE SUN, but the cowardly FALSE SUN ran away and so the arrows struck the facade instead.
    9. There are a seven or so skies, each a different color, layered atop each other like a rainbow. Currently, Sky Blue and Sky Black own about half of the sky, and take turns shuffling over. The sunset are the lesser skies revealing themselves in the shuffle. The ocean and land were once skies that retired to lounge around the ground, and sometimes are visited by the lesser skies. To land and ground dwellers, this is like another dimension overriding their familiar landmarks, and so there are 9 worlds, one for each sky color and also land and sea, layered and overlapped.
    10. The clouds were the color of a hooker's bruised eye, and the rain beat down like the john's fists responsible. The streetlamps bled red into the gutters next to the American dream. The dame who had walked into my office was a rosy-cheeked thing called Dawn, and she was looking for a golden ball, and after asking all the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and the worms of the earth, it was my turn to ask a few questions. Who hired these stormclouds? What's a east-rising Dawn doing with a West-side private dick like me? And most importantly, where the hell had the sun gone?
      I had a feeling before the end of this, I'd be sorry I asked.
    11. The sky is the chariot-track of the gods, and the race and the bets occur every night. You can make a fortune betting on what star will rise or set first, but with a thousand thousand stars and a hundred hundred astrologers, there's no such thing as a sure front runner. Get yourself a gleaming steed and you can even race yourself, but there's a catch- the gods can survive the coming of the Sun but any mortals laboring along the track will burn come dawn.
    12. The sky is a lens over the City and the Desert, through which the great and terrible One-Burning-Day glares and judges individual deeds, and the cold and merciless Trillion-Eyed-Night judges the context of those deeds. Those who do something out of character are cursed by Day, and those who do something in violation of cultural norms are cursed by Night. Only those who hide indoors and underground are free from judgement, and so it is only the nobles in their palaces who know only the light of Flame who may do as they please. Those who wear no clothing have nothing to hide, but those swathed in garments are surely trying to evade judgement. Some people claim that if you reach the horizon you will find the glass of the Lens blocking escape, but others say if you can escape the Lens, so too will you escape the twin tyrants of Night and Day.
    13. The sky is a book, and every day, a new page. The deeds of the day are written in the sky until it is black with ink by a scribe, and then the page is turned to begin anew. The wise can read the sky to determine what happened or even is happening in distant lands. Some pages have been stolen from the library of the scribe, and a single page contains more knowledge than a human mind could learn in a thousand years, though it describes but a single day.
      If you destroy a page, everything of that day will be forgotten.Will you brave the library to kill the past, or to remember what only the scribe knows? Either way, the scribe could use a new roc-feather quill...
    14. The sky is the world to come, and the world that was. Clouds are prototype animals, land-masses. You can catch them and they become real, or rather they were always real, but they gain substance and detail. At the Edge of the World, Horizon, the clouds become new lands and frontiers, and old, worn out lands and animals become clouds. Dead souls become clouds, and you can visit them and they you, all vague and white and fluffy. However, there is a balance- for every cloud given substance, some substance must lose itself to the half-imagined cloud realms. 
    15. The sky is the dream-realm. That's why humans so often fly in their dreams you see, and daydreaming is sometimes called having your head in the clouds. It is also the nightmare realm, as so often humans fall in their dreams and wake up- that's their souls falling back into their bodies. Your limbs feel heavy when you're tired because you long to return to the weightless dream-realm. Your dreamself is usually quite similar to your waking self, but idealized. But as you ascend past the sunset cloudlands of dreams and into the dark heights of nightmare, problems occur- missing pants, slow-footedness, teeth falling out. The dream world copies the real world in golden clouds and blueness, and high nightmare in blinding whites and shades of darkness. Dreamers can retrieve items from the sky- gluttons retrieving remembered pies, adventurers dreaming of failed dungeon heists turned successful- but these items are accursed, causing insomnia, amnesia, madness, and drawing attention from the dreamrealm even in the waking, or the thieves being denied access to further sleep by screaming storms and lightning.
    16.  The sky is much like the sea, which is much like the land. The land has kings, the sea, sea-kings, and so the sky, sky-kings. Sure, the sea-people are fishy and the sky-people are birdy, but it's all the same really, just another strange far-off country, a palette-swap parallel. Concern arises of course when a realm of land, sea, or sky unites to war against another realm, for princesses or honor or whatever foolish notions cause men of sea or land or sky to war.
    17. The sky is forbidden. People wear huge-brimmed hats that droop down to obscure the horizon, aware of each other mainly by their feet.  Sun and stars and rain and shine all fall equally upon the wide wide hats. Of course some people have looked, been punished. They tell you they wish they hadn't and they seem sincere in their downcast way. Sometimes there are strange lights and noises from above, and staircases to thin air that would take one above the hat's power to hide the sky above. But forbidden, always forbidden.
    18. The sky is fire, a blue fire, and a distant black field of ash. The fire comes and goes, and like fire, it puffs smoke that we call clouds, and melts aether into rain, and has glowing embers called Sun and Stars. Sometimes, you can get a hold of sun-shards and star-metal and make something of the True Flame, but sometimes, a cold greedy animal of our cold, greedy world eats True Flame and turns into a dragon. And once something has the True Flame inside it, only the True Flame can stand against it- our shadow world, our ash world, has but false red flame that's nothing compared to the blue.
    19. The sky used to be all white, until the gods hired nymphs to paint it. The nymphs started painting the whole thing blue, until the gods complained it wasn't different enough from before, so the nymphs started painting the other half black because black is the most different from white, yeah? The gods realized these nymphs, despite being beautiful themselves, were not good at making other things beautiful and called them off, leaving small specks of unpainted white in the black side of the sky. Now mortal artists are called in to paint the sky, but there's so few of them and they can only paint a small portion each sunset and sunrise, which gets lost in the tide of blue and black paint the nymphs left behind. Water and Darkness, the Blue and Black, the paint that dripped down, is collected and used to paint things into reality, provided they be black and blue alone. Collect nymph hair for brush, and you too can try your hand at Painting.
    20. The world is a bubble adrift in primordial chaos, and the sky is a great wall constructed by the pantokrator to keep chaos out, and you approach it by walking clockwise, and leave it behind by walking counterclockwise, adding a few extra dimensions to dungeon castle design and travel planning. Metaspatial geometry aside, leading theologians have discovered that contrary to previous thought, we're on the chaos side of the wall, but no one is sure if humanity is the equivalent of peasants working the fields outside their lords stone castle, or if we are the barbarians at the gate of law. Investigating the blue castle that is the sky and its hordes of defenders, visible as stars in the night, will be the only way to know for sure.
    4:06AM plz kill me

    Friday, November 2, 2018

    The Deck of Many Things

    The Deck of Many Things gets a bad rap for eating campaigns, casting them into chaos and disrepair. I myself had this experience back when I was like 14, where our lust for those shiny promised rewards stripped away much of our achievements and our will to continue playing.
    One problem was this lust for the rewards in the deck without acceptance of the risks that came with, spurred on by the possession of forbidden knowledge of the Deck's contents gave us. And yes I say 'forbidden,' check this AD&D Dungeonmaster Guide quote from Gygax himself

    Personally I just excuse all metagame knowledge via 'prophetic dreams' but crusty ol gygax has a point about 'taking away some of the sense of wonder.'
    Don't take punitive measures against characters for player actions though
    That's classic passive-aggressive power-tripping bad-faith-GMing

    Another issue was overinvestment in our characters. We had reached level 7, finally! But my friend had died a lot and been raised a lot. He had like 2 constitution left. He couldn't let that character and his cool spellbook and his magic bow n arrows go. When all magic items were lost to the Deck, Friend A's character had nothing left basically, and we TPK'd shortly thereafter, this time with no one to revive us, or even to pick up our mantle and magic items and continue the adventure.

    That ended the campaign, and so began the DARK TIMES where we switched over to 3.5, I became the DM, and we never had nearly as much fun as we did in our buddy J's hella murderous AD&D campaign (except in HERO System ran with accidental OSR principles but I digress). The Deck ate the campaign and ruined everything!...Right?

    So, you might be surprised to hear that I threw the AD&D Deck of Many Things into my campaign a few sessions ago
    Firstly I tweaked the deck slightly, so that it had a limited # of cards rather than a constantly reshuffling supply that would vanish once a major catastrophe was drawn. Secondly, I decided its modus operandi was a collection of blesses and curses from gods- the blessings from a chaotic trickster god trying to enter the world, and curses from gods who liked ruling this section of the land. The blessing were bait, the curses were defenses. Once all cards were drawn, the god would be unleashed and made available as a cult.

    Here's what happened-
    The first to draw was resident screwball Cal, who  received a random magic item (a magic shortbow that makes you forget 1 minute per point of damage dealt, and also lightning damage) and a treasure map. The treasure map was a good excuse to point the players at a one-page-dungeon stocked with a plot-hooky piece of treasure.

    They then drew a card that caused enmity between them and a powerful demon. There's a two-faced evil church in the setting (a player suggestion) so this was a nice opportunity to have some factions step up into the spotlight by having the associated legions of hell turn against the player.

    A 'Get Out of Jail Free' card that let them undo an action they witness to not happen. A powerful tool... but one that would be spent on mitigating the awful effects of the Deck, in classic fairy-tale 'using wishes to undo bad wish' sort of fashion.

    -10,000XP and a mandatory extra draw- The character was low level and didn't have that much, but as this wasn't described as level drain, I just figured they went back to level 1, 0XP.

    The extra draw then netting them 5,000GP worth of amethysts. A bit yawn but hey, no one minds free loot.

    The mixed results were enough to encourage a retainer to draw ONE card to prove his barbaric bravery and so on. He got the one that gives you -3 to saves v petrification. As I have some medusa lurking about in the game, I figured a good explanation for this would be a portrait of one of them, and an accompanying desire to see said medusa in the flesh, damn the consequences. I was probably influenced by reading some arabian nights stories about princes mooning over pictures of foreign ladies.

    Anyway, this player has two characters currently, the other being Ankleshot Ayrani, a thief with shite luck. The NPC rival adventurers give her bad nicknames, no one ever wants to team up with her on 'find a retainer reaction checks' her attempts at being nice led to her working as slave labor for a few weeks/months and becoming traumatized and obsessed with stopping a doomsday scenario only to be largely ignored ala Cassandra... it's great fun. Anyway, the first card she draws results in
    'Ayrani draws a card. The earth opens up and the oubliettes of the Church of Janus open up below her to swallow her up. Was this the unfortunate occurrence Cal was warned of and given the power to prevent?'
    Ayup, it was, which was a little disappointing, as a jailbreak from the corrupt church that traps people in hell as slaves coulda been rad. This curse is retconned out of existence by Cal's previously drawn card, and the fun continues...

    The next card is a simple one, but a promising one- slaying the next monster you find garners you a level. I had hoped they'd meet something outrageous like the headless zombie Ancient Gold Dragon that's slithering around, and so be encouraged to come up with wild schemes, but it turned out to just be two Wights in an abandoned castle that were tricky to put down but eventually defeated by Teamwork. It also made me reckon that the Deck makes more sense as an immobile dungeon feature rather than something you use in the safety of town, but it worked decently enough there so whatevs. Also 'monster' could have potentially been defined as several other things, but I decided humans were exempt from the clause, no matter how mean they were. Maybe I shouldn't have...

    But before that occurred, she drew a card stealing 3 points of intelligence. I thought this was boring as heck, even with the appearance of the half-sealed trickster god appearing to steal some of her thoughts to help him think of an escape, but the player put a nice spin on it- They decided that this also stole their memories of them working as a slave for a wicked necromancer, therefore slightly changing their cognition. Player inputs great stuff I tell you wot- I was gonnna leave that as a boring penalty but this led to some jolly good roleplaying opportunities. It also gave another bonus draw..

    ...Which gave an image of someone planting a knife in her back. This turned the only henchman she'd ever managed to acquire, Gerome the Illusionist, against her. Gerome was a random hex filling I dug out of Skerple's Veins of the Earth and the situation where Gerome betrayed her was less tragic and more comical since everyone sorta suspected what was going on OOC but went along with in IC for laughs. Also,  Ayrani draws the last card...

    ...Which promptly stole all her magic items Deck not included. Maybe I shoulda had it be stolen too, to see if they'd quest to get it back, and to stop the cascade of awfulness the deck was unleashing. I had birds steal them physically, flying down the chimney and making off with 'em- they're not removed from the campaign, simply taken to an appropriate location. Try to put some adventure hooks into all these awful deck effects makes them more exciting for sure- similarly, those 3 lost INT points could be stolen back from the trickster god via trickery I'm sure.

    Ayrani predictably curses her luck, tries to get Gerome to draw, though as he's now plotting her death due to the cursed card she drew, he declines, plausibly pointing out all the ruin that came from this clearly cursed deck.

    Now we come to Pimpernell, a child TOTALLY a halfling thief who has survived a lot of shit and is starting to show it- old wounds, nascent mutations, curses upon curses- what you'd expect a high level OSR character to end up as, basically.

    His first card nets him 50,000XP and some magic boots. The unlucky players groan in envy, Pimpernell is filled with false hope, and continues to draw his four cards...

    He gets a card that doesn't translate super-well into my game- the 'Alignment Swapper.' I figure this will instead put him on the spot for all the various gods he's paid tribute to, forcing him to pick one and earn the enmity of the others. He picks the Undersun, on account of the other gods he's met being awful demons, and as such a simple-minded god of flame who likes volcano sacrifices and maximising fire damage to both its allies and enemies is the best option here. This boost of flaming favor will become relevant quite soon, for the next card...

    ...Is Death. Yes, Pimp has escaped death too many times via his rolls on the Death and Dismemberment charts, and now a/the Grim Reaper itself has come to collect his soul. It asks if he wants it the easy way or the hard way, and of course Pimp opts to duel. In the meantime, Ayrani collects a crowd to root for Pimp. Since the Death in the book auto-hits each round for 2d8 damage and anyone assisting gets a Death of their own to fight, I assume Pimp is screwed.
    Pimp has a different plan- to immolate himself and Death with his hirelings bag fulla burning oil. The curse/worship/love of the Undersun causes him to always ignite if touched by the smallest flame, but also to deal and take max fire damage. With his  Ring of Fire Resistance he traded from another player, he hopes to outlast Death. Death is, in the book, immune to fire, but that seems pretty lame, especially since Pimp just swore allegiance to the Undersun, and I reckon the source of all magma in the land should have something to say about their #1 disciple being taken from them. So I rule the oil all ignites in a flaming sphere of doom, and both Pimp and Death are cremated and melt through the ground in a proper 'going out with a bang' style. This mighty display makes Pimp a Saint, and impressionable townsfolk immediately start a cult. The book says there's no chance of resurrection.

    A session or so passes. Ayrani dies due to PvP squabbling over political power. There is a general sense of frustration with the game and its unrelenting bleakness. The high level characters have been lost, but the high-level looming threats still menaced on the horizon.

    save us, arnold
     And so, having been wanting to run the Isles of The Dead, they ran through that, made a deal with a demon (who is also one of their swords) slew a heavenly protector, and so the Time-Locked Void Monk Bers realized she needed to obliterate her soul before true nothingness could be achieved, Pimp returned as a Saint and cult leader thanks to this string o miracles, and Ayrani decided that despite being the chewtoy of life, she wasn't ready to be dead yet.
    And a bunch of magic crap got removed from the game which is nice, it really tends to pile up.
    Anywhosawhatsit, my conclusion for the Deck is that it DOES disrupt campaigns. It DOES ruin characters. It DOES undo progress. It DOES swing things out of whack, balance wise.

    But that can be fun. It can shake things up a bit. And if you think about the bad cards in a sort of 'how can I make this campaign relevant and a plot hook' they become a lot more promising than if you treat them as simple 'the players meddled with something better left alone and now are punished for it.' That's unsatisfying, a dead end, a wasted opportunity.

    And this certainly isn't an 'Old School vs New School' attitude- I've heard stories about GMs with heavily railroady plots and players and their carefully constructed pet pathfinder characters falling victim to the various instadeath horrors of the deck, but the GM spun those events into compelling plot points, and the players pressed on and were enriched by the whims of fate, and I've heard ancient grognards swear off usage of the Deck with no room for compromise, declaring it a worthless campaign killer.

    Here's the lesson I feel I learned from the deck of many things- it's like the risk/reward of typical adventuring, cranked up to 11 and condensed into one simple question of 'do you press the shiny red button.' If you and your campaign and your players couldn't handle the chaos of the deck and your campaign fell apart... was it really going to last the trials and tribulations of a regular campaign? Thinking back to J's campaign the Deck killed all those years back, I feel like I recognize signs of DM fatigue, of a stagnation of our long-running two-player, two-character party, an aimless wandering from both the players and the DM looking for something we had lost along the way.
    The deck showed the players the highs and lows that could await them, and tested the GM's resolve to stay creative and nimble in the face of everything going upside down. Maybe the deck doesn't kill campaigns, but simply crystallizes the question of 'are we still having fun'  into a quick yes or no in a single flash of insight, and breathes, yes chaos, but also potential into the campaign. Using that potential is up to you, kid.

    it's a visual metaphor for this post or something
    it's 3:01am don't look at me