Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Chthonic Entity: The Sea

The Sea replaces any aquatic nature gods in your world, because it is the ur-concept, the living embodiment of itself, because it is itself. 

It would be foolish to think of it as anything else, but men do. 

Some think of her as a treasure-keeper, a goddess of horizons because she alone can touch the distant sky, and she alone binds the earthen parts of the world, her flexible strength mightier than that of stone. Always with the promise of something new, something unseen, something unknown. Something precious, something dear. Promises, promises. But nothing is free.

Some think of her as a sister to the moon, their cycles of rising and falling, ebb and flow not synchronistic, but so very close, how could they be anything but related? Would that the Queen of Night step forth from her home, certainly her silver-lined hem would be made of sea-foam, whitecaps spun with starlight to gossamer fringes that sing of summer nights on the open sea, the heavens above revealed in all their glory while her glass-still reflection drinks deep of the sky like a mirror. And how she comes alive when the sun rises and sets, her own attire changing to match the tropical wine glows and gilded rays that burn like god-gold from the heavens. Certainly her beauty is incomparable to anyone else’s, and some chase that, fear spotting their eyes with tears as joy and peace takes their soul in a manner no human dress could.

Maybe the most apt comparison is to a bride, which is why sailors use female pronouns to describe her, and say that they are “married to The Sea”. Certainly, it would give credence to their belief, however wrong or right, that women are bad luck underway. Those forever tied to the sea would say that she is a jealous lover, and that any attention shown elsewhere in her presence would draw her ire. That thing they do fear, and speak of in hushed tones. 

They’ve seen her split a mast with a thunderbolt, and splinter a hull with a curl of her saltwater hands as effortlessly as a maid wringing a rag free of the dirt that plagues it. They’ve seen her mood change with a breeze, some little slight provoking her wrath, and prayed forgiveness and mercy from her horrors, only to return to her after the briefest stays ashore. They’ve seen the faces in slate-grey waters of freezing liquid iron, pale and ghastly staring back at them. Because what The Sea takes, she keeps. 

Those that sink below are not given the respite of paradise, nor are they doled out their just-desserts in the underworld, nor sent to moil in some purgatorial limbo. Theirs is a fate far worse than death, for they join the ranks of that morbid locker they call The Deep. For what purpose could she call them there? Why keep them at all? Sailors ask not, and wonder not, lest they go mad. 

Only fools would try to steal from such a thing as powerful, or as fickle. 

But some they say have. Or perhaps, more accurately, she has allowed. A young man weeps at the docks as his lover departs, his tears pure and meeting the sea. He will always return to him, even beyond the Veil. A young woman picks up a shell on the shore, an early dowry for her sailor son. A warrior rinses blood from his hands by the tiller, and the goddess below him drinks it like wine. He will never be defeated on board a ship, so long as he pays tribute. An old captain knows the waters around the rocks with preternatural grace, and years from now when his heart stops he will fall into the arms of his beloved one last time. They dressed in mens’ clothes to work the rigging, and fell in love with one another again under strange stars. Their love will leave a wake of blood and bodies overboard as they chase the gold promised on the map, never knowing who blessed them with it. 

There is no formal church to The Sea. No ritual worship. There are only sailors, and land-lovers. Those who have seen her beauty, danced on the waves, or tasted her sea-spray kiss and yearned for more. This is because The Sea is The Sea, and it is itself.

It has always been, and always will be.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Keeping Monsters Fresh

A topic I keep seeing brought up in some social media groups is one along the lines of letting players have access to the books filled with monsters, or dealing with players who know monster abilities/quirks and if their characters acting on this is meta-gaming. 

Most people playing Fantasy RPGs, especially the oldest game, know how monsters work (by the book anyways). Even if we aren’t familiar with the numbers, most players are keen enough on Hollywood creature features to know how to take down vampires and werewolves. If our characters encounter a troll, whether we want to or not, players start looking for acid or fire to combat the regeneration that trolls typically have. Whether our characters know this weakness or not is another matter entirely.

This meta-knowledge touches on a key aspect of older games and home-brew games that other games won’t or don’t have: monsters as puzzles, and a particular sense of discovery. 

There are basically two ways to handle this. The first is to let the players use their meta-knowledge in combat. The second would be to alter monsters in a way that feels natural, but don’t tell the players, letting them figure it out as they fight. I would suggest in either case maybe taking a nod from the GUMSHOE system in that, different characters should decipher different traits about different monsters, based off of class or background. A magical spy should know about doppelgängers, and an ice-age warrior know about dire wombats. A warrior-priest of The Warding Eye should recognize a basilisk’s dread gaze, and a ex-cultist thief a rudimentary understanding of altar-ghosts’ dirge chants.

The trick here is, in the latter case, to give them clues without revealing the solution. It also serves as an additional “what if” players must consider before engaging in combat. What if this mega-marsupial is not 100% like the book says? What if the DM has altered it?  What if it’s pouch is a bag of holding, filled with smaller, angrier wombats? 

Monsters once familiar lose some of their fright. It is why some of us research the things we’re scared of. Because if we understand it, we become less afraid. We learn that, should we encounter cube shaped poop in the outback, we are within the territories of our nightmares. 

What’s more, for a game with a sense of exploration and discovery, knowing all the details of the creatures there-in removes their alien aspect, especially for those which are meant to seem completely foreign, like aberrations. That, I feel, takes away a lot of the “aha!” element of being the first to set foot in uncharted territory, or defeat an as-yet-unknown megafauna. Which is what fantastic adventure gaming is about: the weird we haven’t seen yet, and the familiar cast through a scrambling lens. 

So, how do we change monsters to make them different than what the book states, while keeping them familiar? A fresh remix, or a well-done cover song? 

The first way to do so is to steal directly or indirectly from other monsters, adding powers or body parts. An example would be, that in my home-brew world, dragons must be permanently killed in a ritualized occult manner, such as vampires being beheaded or having nails driven into them. It isn’t the exact same as the parent creatures, sunlight and holy water will provide no benefit, but it is terrible when they return years later full of fire and thirsting for their missing gold. When skeletons start having multiple heads and arms, none of which look grafted, we start asking ourselves as GMs and players “what did this belong to? How did something else defeat it initially?”

The second way would be to fixate on one aspect of the monster and add new abilities that make sense. A gorgon can freeze adventurers to stone, but what if we changed them to an ice-themed villain, making them like Sub-Zero, but also a great crystalline yak instead of a metallic bull. Or another example is that Beholders in my setting are literal Eye-Tyrants: if you see them, they see you. Across planes and planets, as they have given a command as the Kings of Eyes. Then we could even completely invert the powers of the monster: instead of an ooze that is a sentient blob of acid, it’s instead a sentient blob of sovereign glue, probably with a clingy ex-boyfriend personality and separation anxiety. Instead of taking your character apart molecule by molecule, perhaps it’s bonding them quite permanently to whatever else it was touching. 

I’m sure there are other ways and thought processes for refreshing monsters to jaded players, or adding new facets to them to keep them interesting. This is, of course, dancing around but not acting directly with just making your own creatures, then populating your world or dungeon with such. Why not? Because I am lazy sometimes, if not most of the time. Sometimes it’s ok to just go buck wild and make up something new or slap-together a critter or two, see how it works. But also sometimes it’s good to use what’s already been written, just tweaking or re-skinning it as appropriate, and trying to make an old story new. Especially when it’s man versus beast. 

Friday, March 22, 2019

Languages Are Also Complex

So, before I begin effectively putting my foot in my mouth, I should point out that I know at least one blogger, Graven Utterance, has a background involving linguistics. I barely have a high-school education. So I’ll defer to their wisdom when it comes to this subject. I’ve also not spoken to them at all about this idea.

When it comes to RPGs, languages are a large point of contention for me. It seems like, at least in modern interpretations of the oldest game, Race=Language, plus “Common” which is what everybody is speaking at the table. Also, everybody chooses to speak elvish and no monsters speak that. That’s anecdotal, I know.

But like... that isn’t how languages work in real life. And a lot of you may be groaning at that last sentence, especially as Gygax himself wrote that the game isn’t about simulating the real world in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. And sure, if you don’t want to ground your world in this level of realism, that’s ok. Nobody asks how Rocket Raccoon and Drax both talk to Starlord. You can effectively hand-wave that and still tell a good tale and have a good game. Hell, mere paragraphs before advocating that the game isn’t simulationist, Gygax basically says (paraphrased) “If it isn’t fun, get rid of the rule.”

Either breezing through or coming to a complete impasse is never fun. And making choices that have no impact is also not fun, which languages feel like. One of the tenets of Old-School dungeon design is “Maximize Impactful Decisions”, meaning that player choices matter, and I think languages are a fine place to re-vamp that. In my case, I’m making them both a little more realistic, and also, a little more... Weird.

First and foremost, “Common” is replaced by regional languages. The Swiss speak French and German, Canada speaks French and English, and Japan speaks Japanese, but Osaka has a regional dialect. Some nomadic peoples of Mongolia share some mutual intelligibility with Yupik and Inuit. My own language, English, is a horrifying Frankenstein of whatever it can get it’s hands on (“My bon-vivant friend gifted me a katana for Saturnalia last Thursday. YOLO.”). And this is just referencing speaking a language, let alone writing.

A halfling that grows up amongst a Dwarven mining camp that trades with local frog-men isn’t likely to use much Halfling-Language. A human that moves to a smoke-choked inner-city of automata is gonna know how to Beep-Boop her way to an Electrolyte Beverage at a Robo-Bar. Coastal Raiders will speak a different tongue than Kingdom sanctioned wizards.

This gets more interesting as you start thinking of other factors in your world: magic, monsters, and the influences they will have in language as a whole: Dragons have a language, but you don’t have a three-foot long face and a forked tongue combined with recycle breathing and sub-harmonic vocalizations to replicate the sounds. Your embouchure is off just a bit.

Or maybe they’re all psychic and communicate via telepathy. Maybe that’s why wolves hunt in packs the way they do, striking as one unit. Or maybe the owls and the ravens tell them where to strike, obeying ancient pacts and fulfilling promises your ears cannot hear. Maybe they can talk back, maybe they can’t.

How do elves, which live five-hundred-plus years deal with a language that changes as time goes on? With slang? My grandparents still call things “Neato!” instead of “cool” and people in the Ninties used the word “groovy” unironically for a while. I had to explain to someone what “Yeet” was the other day. Now extrapolate that by one-hundred times. It’s right poppycock I tell you! See how that last sentence sounded? 

So secondly, racial languages are out, unless there’s a decent reason, physically, culturally, magically, or otherwise. And if culture is a good reason to keep languages, then that means ones like Thieves’ Cant and Druidic are still in, as the language is part of the culture and thus likely evolves with it. I’m sure there are regional dialects in each (to say the least of parent languages for each of those), but I’m not stressing those right now. It could even just be something that a particular character notices. “He tries to mimic southern dockhand in his Cant, but he just can’t shake those Capital city terms for coded honorifics.” Something like that.

So what now? How do languages work? Well, you make up a bunch (I’m working on a few), and your players get to choose one for free (to replace “Common”) and then handle them in accordance with your version of the game, meaning let them choose more or have them make a check for it, or base it off of their Intelligence stat, or however.

Does this mean you could get a party where nobody speaks the same languages? Absolutely. Or even one party member that’s a little in the dark. Then again, that same player could feel completely left in the cold. I think that, unless the player wants that challenge, that it’s something to avoid. A best case scenario like that is a Rocket and Groot, where a player's character is translated for by a friend (with ample opportunity for bluff checks on either side). Or a “13th Warrior” scenario where they learn one language frequently spoken. The GM could also just “assign” a language to the party in place of Common, but keep it from being a ubiquitous language across the globe. That may help replicate the feel of travel in foreign cities, and gives a good excuse to pay a translator hireling. In any case, I think it’s important to have this discussed at the zero session among the players and the referee, as that will prevent any wild hiccups.

Faiths Are Complex

So, I was asked by a friend to write about Religion in RPGs. My main issue is that, most religions in major Fantasy Table Top RPGs seem to fall into this... broad pantheist pantheon similar to Greek and Norse gods. And it always seems everyone believes in all of these gods and just chooses their favorite, or whichever is in charge of their species.

It’s kind of a punch in my verisimilitude. Religion doesn’t work that way in real life. My friends who are pagan don’t believe in the same God as my Christian friends, and then some of my Christian friends believe that their God is the same as Muslims’ and others don’t. My Buddhist friends eat meat, and my agnostic friends don’t eat pork. Religion and being religious is complicated and varied. 

I know what some of you are thinking, “That’s way too hard and complicated, I can cut/copy/paste a pantheist pantheon and call it a day.” Sure. No need to stress yourself if this is a subject you’re eight-hundred percent sure won’t be a major factor. But for me having  “Human Religions”, “Elf Religions”, and “Orc Religions” feels about as weird as having race-specific languages (which I’ll write on later). 

People talk, and faiths proselytize. A relative dies and we’re left asking “what now?”. A friend has a near death experience in battle and says “where will I go?”. Someone breaks their dogma in the name of love and asks “did I really believe?”. Someone loses an argument. Someone realizes that their doctrine hurts others. Someone sees a miracle. 

This is vastly more complicated by the fact that, in Fantasy RPGs divine intervention is a very real thing, and the forces of both Good and Evil with capital letters is readily apparent in their divine and infernal agents. You cannot say “Your God is a false-god, Ben-hur!” when Ben-hur’s God literally steps down to punch you in the mouth. 

And then the scene is further complicated by the fact that gods are monsters, and not just posited by the excellent “Revelations of the Mononoke Hime” by Mastered by Marquis. The original game itself encourages such by giving them stat-blocks, a trait belonging to characters and monsters. Modern incarnations give them more vague statistical information, but it is still there. And it isn’t like people fighting with God or gods isn’t a story we don’t tell: The Odyssey and Evangelion both tell that kind of story in very different ways. 

For my home-brew world, I want a variance of religions and religious beliefs. I’m not gonna worry about how the Monothiest god of religion A interacts with the Pantheon of Coastal Region B. Not yet anyways. But I am gonna come up with 5 or so religions for my world, and see what sticks. 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Anglerfish Dilemma

So I read a lot of other blogs by better writers than me, and they’re smarter and more creative game-masters than me. So it only stands to reason I’m gonna take some of their ideas and concepts and make them my own. Here is one I call “The Anglerfish Dilemma”. 

So, a Dungeon Based Economy is the trope that dungeons are good or necessary for economic sustainment/boom, right? There was a post I wish I could find a while back explaining it, but basically the gist is, in a world where you have teleporting wizards and invisible wind-men, banks and treasuries just aren’t that safe. Hence dungeons to the rescue: wizards can teleport around, and inside of a dungeon, but not into or out of. So dungeons are effectively better banks. If you now see your adventurers as heist-planning bank robbers and all dungeon accoutrements as security measures, you’ve got the right idea. I mean, one of them is probably literally playing a Thief. 

And then there is another thought process: Dungeons are a malign reality invading our own. I don’t know who wrote it first, but I first bumped into the concept on a review of “The Nightmares Underneath” by Johnstone Metzger on another blog. I immediately fell in love with the idea: that there is another world pressing ever so slightly into ours, or maybe just... breaking down the walls a little. And that those who go through those gates step into a literal Hell fashioned to look like a dungeon. It explains so much. It’s like the movie Cube, and also Pacific Rim. It’s where monsters come from, and why. Why is the whole reality doing this? Who knows? Better question: why try to fathom an alien and extra-dimensional intellect?

Now for the real fun: in my homebrew world, both of these are true. Dungeons, especially Megadungeons, are a sadistic and utterly incomprehensible world testing the boundaries of our own. And you can’t teleport into or out of them. Because Hell is the best bank ever made. What’s even better is that this reality makes silver and gold and magic treasures. Literally baiting adventurers to become bloodstains and gnawed bones in mouldering crypts. So, there’s interest. Beautiful, shining, compound interest. And for those cunning or brave enough, they seek to cultivate dungeons, which is half of why wizards build towers. It’s why castles have (traditional) dungeons. It’s why the foolish and the insane take up torches and swords and climbing gear and start crawling through caves. 

Because the Anglerfish has beautiful, shiny bait, rats return to it. Some rats get lucky, some get smart, but the trap always has teeth and an appetite. And sooner or later, luck runs out. Plans fail, and when it does, the Anglerfish gets a meal.

One it’s waited for for a long, long time.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Dragon Names

About two years ago I was working with dragons in my setting. I loved the names “Charsaug” and “Everblight” from Iron Kingdoms, “Lofwyr” from Shadowrun, Tolkien’s “Glaurung”, and of course Dragonslayer’s “Vermithrax Pejorative”. All of these felt like dragon names to me: ruinous curses, biblical plagues, natural disasters, guttural god-wyrms.

This was at a time that, dragon names by some major publishers just... didn’t whet my appetite. They didn’t feel like destructive forces of nature personified, or malign gods come to raze and torment. Most of the names I seemed to bump into were all Z’s, X’s, and apostrophes.

So I made this list to kind of slap around bits and pieces until you got a decent-sounding dragon name. Some work better than others, and it’s obvious that I put more thought into some colors than others. It should also be noted I didn’t include any metallic, or gemstone, or weird colors because in my home-brew worlds (typically) there are no “good” dragons.

Names for dragons

All Dragons:








Magic wands are sticks that shoot magical stuff out of them. Yes? Yes. You’ve all seen Harry Potter, so I’m guessing you have the general grasp. 


Magic sticks. The magic goes from wherever, through the wizard and into the wand.

Well what happens when you hack the branches off a whole tree and do that?

This is a Hexcannon, magical artillery. When mechanized magical warfare hits your world, it won’t be with giant robots, or powered armor. That’s insane. Instead it’s gonna be WWI style Shelling, with awful magical howitzers, and all the horrible associations that go with that.

They take the big wand, and they carve a small wooden chair at the back of it, and affix the orichalcum manacles to it, and the safety-collar of banded iron and pyrite. This is the mechanism that keeps it just from firing over and over. They latch the wizard in, and now he’s the firing pin. There’s a big metal sextant, and a manning crew that runs it, with hot brands who force the mage to use the wand over and over until the fresh, sigil carved tree is a used and blackened matchstick of what it once was. Wizard’s probably gone by then too. Only so much even a prodigious mind can take before they lose themselves to pain, and guilt at what they’ve been forced to do.

I know what you’re thinking: why are the wizards unwilling? Certainly they chose sides, or are fighting in the war, yes?

No. Wizards do not care about your petty mortal squabbles. Enough study of the arcane will render them deaf to the incessant ticking of their life’s clock, let alone to all the noise made by those maddened by it. When one has their third interstellar vortex anomaly to decrypt before transcending it’s Aeon Barrier, one does not care that hoary men with calloused hands are carving the trees outside your tower, and men with soft hands and greedy eyes are moving little figures on a map. They’re not even looking at a fully-rendered quasi-dimensional overlay. They are meat and bone and wizards are spirit and mind. Hardly do the twain ever meet.

Which is why when the armored vagrants come and kidnap them, it’s all the worse as a wizard who suddenly has lost his paranormal might. The fatsacks in pompous clothing should have offered riches, heaps of lesser treasures, but often it’s just mediocre pleas, idle threats, and of course, useless coin. Wizards always have enough coin.

This is why wizards stay away from society and study on their own. This is also why covens of them sometimes establish magocracies, or level cities. It’s not meant as an offense, but the wizards all confirmed that city’s 89% chance of sending a band of whiskey-soaked vagrants after them to kill them or rob their coin, or worse, use them up like a battery.

And if you think about it, how awful must it be to be the wizard to made the first of these? The last? To be the mage who first invented them?


What this is: this is a place where I’m dumping a lot of my table-top RPG ideas, and I decided for some terrible reason to make it public. I may also just scream into the digital void here about stuff that’s going on in my life, but will try to keep it related to gaming and creative pursuits.

What I want it to be: a big ol’ stack of nerdy pancakes that you all enjoy, just one delicious treat after the next that leaves you hungry for more. I also hope that more than enjoying my content, it gets your own imagination going. That it inspires you to come up with your own ideas. There will be some gaps in logic or even direct contradictions in the things I write. That’s ok: I want you to choose how to fix them, or better yet, ask your players how they work.

Why: Because I really wanna write. Fiction, honestly, but really if I’m not thinking of game-stuff, my imagination goes a little dry. I once tried to stop writing nerd-game stuff to take those ideas and make them “serious writing”, aaaaand promptly stopped writing. My good fiction story ideas come when I also have good game story ideas. I know the last thing the internet needs is another gaming blog, but this one is mine.

Who: I’m an early 30s nerd who likes old-school games, short speculative fiction, writing, and painting little figurines. I listen to a lot of punk and metal music.