Friday, February 17, 2017

The Saints Have Turned to Crime: secret wars, sanity, and moral fiber in Arthurian D&D

So I was at work the other day doing a routine and boring task, and my mind was wandering. I was moping around about the hideous and depraved life I live, when I had an inspiration: I decided to try thinking about D&D instead to cheer myself up. Almost instantly I felt better, and I began wrestling with a somewhat knotty problem: how to reconcile all the aesthetic elements of my setting?

After seeing my inestimable comrade N. Manscorpion's beginning work on his own megadungeon, I was forced to conclude that my setting is too fractured. I can hold his whole setting, in terms of look and feel and vibe, in my mind all at once. I can't say the same for my own. Depending on where I turn it's grim black metal album covers and beheadings, or faeries with pointy hats sitting on toadstools conversing with guys in platemail and fair maidens. There's nothing wrong with having both in your game, but I really want something that I can visualize in its entirety. It helps with making decisions if I can instantly say "this fits, that doesn't."

False Patrick has written about the difficulties of D&Ding in Arthurian England before (I have read this article a million times). I am sidestepping some of these concerns by placing my game in a "slightly more realistic" era, after the Roman occupation ended (somewhere in the late 400s/early 500s). I will be adding in anachronistic elements because it's not D&D without some of those (plate mail is still available, but insanely expensive and hard to find), but there is no renaissance fair, shining castles, bards in tights stuff going on. It's closer to Middenmurk (actually I will be shamelessly using 80% of that page in my game) than Camelot as it's usually depicted.

Even so, we have King Arthur, magic swords, ladies of the lake, wizards in towers, goblins, dwarves, pixies, griffons and giants. How do I reconcile those with the fact that, a mere 50 feet underground, you can do battle with horrors from beyond the stars? Why don't those guys run the whole world? More importantly, why doesn't anybody talk about them, and what would life be like if they did?

So there I was at work, doing something boring, when I flashed on it:

Final Fantasy Tactics.

For those who don't know, Final Fantasy Tactics was a classic Playstation game that succeeded the obscure gem Tactics Ogre, which itself was a sequel to one of the greatest goddamn games ever made: Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen (if you have some spare time and like strategy games, all three of these are highly recommended).

Anyway, I remember the storyline of FFT being really political (boring). The general thrust is that the main character, Ramza, leads a group of scruffy cadets to stop a world-destroying bad guy, you get the idea, regular stuff. While his childhood friend Delita commands the army, marries the princess, becomes king, and goes down in the history books as the hero of the Lion War, Ramza (whose eyes the player sees the story through) fights in utter obscurity. One of his comrades' diaries is discovered generations later and "the true story of the Lion War can be told."

This is an easy one to translate! As long as those rugose cones, goatmen, and brain-eating jellyfish never venture above ground to threaten our existence in public, nobody knows or talks about them. The characters can fight, die and (maybe) win, gain experience, get rich and have cool adventures in the otherworldly hells of Annwn, but they won't ever get famous for it.

To get a reputation, they have to do things outdoors in the open. Winning wars, slaying big classic monsters (ogres, giants, griffons, etc), bringing bandits to justice, fighting in tournaments, paying bards to sing songs about them and the like. This makes me think that instead of rolling "Wyvern" on the wilderness encounter table, it should be "The Winged Terror of Whatevershire." Something that relates to the social world where the PCs live, in a way that dungeon encounters don't.

Only Warhammer Fantasy has the pictures I need.
The fun thing about thinking along these lines is: if nobody talks about it, who's to say Arthur's knights didn't all gain their early levels in dungeons too? Lancelot can fight 30 men at once because after "Wargoat Fight Club" in a pool of boiling acid, everything else gets the volume turned down. Maybe he wanders the kingdoms alone "on quests" so often because he has fucking PTSD from his experiences, not to mention all the friends and comrades that he must have seen die down there?

I had been thinking about using a sanity or horror system of some kind to represent the otherworldly terrors that the PCs will come in contact with, but haven't settled on anything good. The fear aura of some dragons or powerful undead is a good start, but I wonder if some kind of permanent 'mental scarring' can be made to work. I have no qualms about characters being permanently changed (in ways other than dying, HA!) from their trips to the dungeon, and I like the idea of going underground a wet-behind-the-ears 1st level pissant, and coming out rich, powerful and geared-up but with a 1000-yard stare, a few missing fingers, and no pancreas. Beedo's article on the subject from back in the day seems like too much for me: the PCs will be throwing down with hideous horrors a lot, and not everything they see should blast their minds. Nevertheless it's something that I'd like to bring into play somehow, especially as it relates to the "secret dungeon war." (I have also been thinking about player character mutations, but that really just requires a giant random table and a few failed saves.)

Forever alone.
Maybe all the "evil knights" are such dicks because once they got deep into the dungeon, they saw that not only is Jesus not the supreme deity, not even in the top three, but we live in an amoral mechanistic universe? Maybe Sir Meleagaunce went into the dungeon with Alignment: L on his character sheet, and came out C? Maybe he decided if he couldn't beat the eldritch horrors, he could still cut a deal? Maybe under his helmet he isn't entirely human? He can't look like the full-on Warhammer chaos knights, because then we may as well just play Warhammer and it makes things too obvious. Maybe just a weird mole or birthmark, a gross scar, something that sets him apart as weird or unnatural that you wouldn't necessarily see or notice.

It's also worth noting that this is pretty close to what happens to Solaire of Astora in Dark Souls, so it's right where I want to be tonally.

Maybe the reason Arthur is so perfect and good and has the best judgement and stands apart as kind of inhuman in his reasonableness and fairness (White touches on this in The Once and Future King) is that he gained all his levels at once from pulling the sword out of the stone, and he never had to go into a dungeon and watch his friends die and his dreams get slaughtered for a few gold pieces more. Sure he wages bloody wars against the Saxons, but everybody does that anyway. What makes the rest of the round table knights such good guys, and how do they rise up from being scruffy adventurers to the leading moral figures of the age? Lots of different ways. Some had prophecies going in their favour, some just grew up fighting wolves in the snow and never had to breathe in radioactive mists while the Cthulhu Cult stabs them with hot pokers, and some just made all their saving throws. As a wise friend of mine once said: "Being the good guy just means waking up better than everybody else."

*****

Anyway, this has been a productive piece of musing, but now I have to go redo all my encounter tables and double the square footage of level 1. Play this the next time you need a bit of pagan pessimism in your game:


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Nameless Cults IV

Here is another fun one. A bit simpler than the other cults so far, but "the old jokes are the best," as they say.

THE ESOTERIC ORDER OF DAGON, or The Pelagic Knights of Y'Ha-Nthlei

You knew this was coming eventually.
No. Appearing: 1d6
Alignment: Chaotic 
Move: 120’ (40’) 
Armor Class: 14 
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: 1
Save: Fighter
Morale: 10
Experience: 29

Serving one of the... ickier Ancient Ones, Lord Dagon of the deep kingdoms, the Esoteric Order is composed of former fishermen, captured and hypnotized sailors, the "mates" of the Deep Ones, and their Sea-Blood offspring. You know what they're here to do: get fresh with your human (or dwarf, or elf - they aren't picky) women and breed a vile half-aquatic replacement for mankind! Are you gonna let them do it, hot shot?

They come armed with scraps salvaged from the deep, or tools of their former lives: tridents, cutlasses, nets, spears, marlinspikes and any other aquatic-themed weapons and rusty patchwork armour, dripping green with algae. This also means sometimes they carry fantastic treasure from sunken ships or old hoards fallen under the waves: maybe the jewelled cutlass of a pirate king, or magic items from fabled Atlantis. If parley could be made with the Order, they might show an enterprising adventurer the way to these treasures lost under the waves. Then again, they might just give them directions to a nearby pod of sharks, or a colony of hungry Deep Ones. 

Sorry mom. Sorry dad. Sorry HPLHS.
The Order have dredged up many secrets from the deep, one of which is the terrible magic of unlife (most clerics and wizards don't know animate dead in my game). They frequently enter battle with the shambling corpses of drowned sailors and fishermen as shock troops (skeletons, zombies or maybe you have a favourite water-themed undead?). The Order's knowledge of these outre magics makes membership highly sought after in some quarters, although anyone willing to pay the costs of entry must be desperate or mad indeed. 

These undead servants will always be dripping with water and covered in seaweed, even if they've been standing guard in a dungeon for years. Make sure to mention the puddles of water spreading underneath them (just the thing to trip up a careless adventurer at the wrong time). They usually carry the tools, weapons and gear they did in life, having risen from the muck of the sea-floor exactly as they died. I am thinking that some clerics of the EOoD maybe have a forbidden ritual that turns them into some kind of aquatic vampire or saltwater lich, although what those might be I can't yet imagine...

The other terrible thing about the EOoD is that they know where the Deep Ones make their lairs, and tend to build their temples nearby (usually in caves or grottoes accessible to the ocean) for ease of human sacrifices. A given temple will be led by a sea blood of level 3-6 and two sea blood acolytes of levels 1-3, all equipped with the best treasure and magic items the cult has scavenged. Remember: these dudes don't play around, and it could get real grim. Keep that in mind when you're running your own game huh?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Manscorpion / TERMINAL GODS


In case anybody was wondering: I still get to name the blog posts. Now sit down as N. Manscorpion grapples the mic once again. I really wish I could add more pictures to these posts, but the interface keeps fucking with me and it won't work. Oh well.

*****

The Crater of Termination: Gods and Religion

The Chain has no shortage of gods, from the ancestor cults still popular amongst certain of the nobility of Xish, to the bloodthirsty warrior-gods, beloved of many of the wildermen tribes, whose worship is said to have gone on in one form or another since time immemorial.

But all know the true Gods, even if, out of misguided fealty to lesser deities, they deny their supremacy. Their signs, or in some cases even they themselves, can be visited and witnessed (though only the most devoted or foolhardy would go looking). But the greatest proof that they alone of all gods deserve the name lies in the power granted to certain of their worshippers, a power which none of the followers of other so-called deities can claim: sorcery.

Such magicks as these chosen few wield are even more terrifying and strange than those pursued by wizards in forbidden tomes, for they are bestowed through direct, mind-blasting contact with the god itself, and amongst the effects are unnatural power over the very forces of life and death.

Clerics must choose a god from the below list, which also includes the most common or popular cult, church, or order devoted to the worship of each. Note that these are not the only options: many smaller sects devoted to each of these gods are spread throughout the islands. A cleric need not even belong to any order – the gods bestow their favour upon few, but their motives in choosing the ones they do are inscrutable. Anyone, from the most fanatical zealot to a casual fan, might be granted the powers of a cleric, and whether or not one belongs to any kind of organized worship appears largely immaterial. Occasionally, a complete non-worshipper, or even the devoted worshipper of another (lesser) god will receive the gift, accompanied with sanity-wracking dreams of visitation, alerting the hapless beneficiary to his new fate.

Clerics are always Chaotic; all whom the gods touch are, in some way, tainted or corrupted. There is no distinction between Cleric and Anti-Cleric (as outlined in the OD&D rules) and as such no restrictions on Chaotic clerics (i.e. they can still turn undead, are able to cast all cleric spells, etc.).


Null, the Devouring Star, the Annihilation Whisperer.

The most widely-worshipped god in Xish, thanks in large part to the infamy of the Crater of Termination. Most worshippers hold that Null is literally a star: a particularly bright, red-tinged one which always appears in the same place in the sky, and can even be seen faintly during the day. A small minority believe that the star is not Null itself, but either the place where the god resides, or very close that place. Many worshippers, and even some non-worshippers, report visitations by Null in their dreams, where it always manifests as an almost physically tangible sense of hatred and contempt, accompanied by a dry, disaffected whisper. The message of Null, while often tailored to the individual recipient, is always, at core, the same: living beings’ right to exist on Null’s earth has been revoked, and they will all shortly be extinguished. Accordingly, worship of Null tends to coalesce around one of two poles: those who strive to placate the deity and thereby save life on earth, or at least themselves; and those who celebrate the imminent end of wretched existence, and venerate Null’s wisdom in choosing to bring it about.

The Cult of the Devouring Star. This group falls into the latter of the two categories, and as such predates the current vogue for apocalyptic doom cults by a number of decades. But only since the revelation of the Crater of Termination, a handful of years ago, have their ranks truly begun to swell. As such, they are one of the wealthier sects: thanks to careful investment of donations and tithes, they own all of the land around the Crater of Termination, which contains a lavish temple and various farmland, and several other estates around Xish. Many see something hypocritical or contradictory in the building up of material wealth given what worship of Null seems to entail, but the Cult themselves respond that this wealth, by its very absurdity and ephemerality in the face of the incoming extinction of humankind, is perversely pleasing to the god. Generally speaking, they are a friendly and gregarious bunch.


Mahelgog, the Mouth of Time, the Living Island.

Mahelgog makes travel through the western ocean impossible past a certain point, and while it is widely considered that this point is very close to the edge of the world, it seems unlikely that anyone has ever survived the trip through Mahelgog’s domain long enough to verify this. Those few who have seen Mahelgog and somehow managed to return (at present, only two such individuals are known to live, and both have since become high-ranking members of the Confessors of the Drowned) can only confusedly describe something like a large island, larger than any of the Chain, but which none would take for mere land: too smooth, too many wrong angles, and the unmistakable sense of a noxious, unfathomable life. Time and space are both said to show their meaninglessness in the face of Mahelgog – hence the legends of sailors returning from encounters with the god as decades older than when they set out, or reverted to drooling babies, or with memories of other men from other worlds in place of their own. Mahelgog rarely makes itself known to worshippers, and even its clerics generally only report a sense of nausea, disorientation, and (sometimes) temporary amnesia as the results of their daily communion. It is not clear why the god even empowers clerics, for it rarely makes any other sign that it acknowledges, let alone needs, worship.

The Confessors of the Drowned. Like the Cult of the Devouring Star, this group is organized around a message of imminent apocalyptic death – but, unlike the Cult, they have only become as such relatively recently. In the past, the Confessors of the Drowned led a more secretive and hermetic existence; for unknown reasons, they have become much more public and vocal, declaring to all who will listen that, any day now, the oceans will engulf all the islands of the Chain, and Mahelgog will once more have dominion over all of the earth. It is unclear from whence this new direction has arisen: all members assume, naturally enough, that it originates from a directive made by Mahelgog itself, but the sect is so large, widespread and loosely organized that no one is exactly sure who might have received the divine order. Perhaps no one did.


Akrillug, the Basilisk, the Destroyer of Ehkran.

There are still some withered old men who remember when the southernmost island of the Chain, once called Ehkran, was a verdant paradise. Now, it is a desert where nothing grows and no living creature stirs. If one actually dares to venture onto the island (and some, who one might call either brave or stupid, have), one can still visit the sites where once stood the sprawling cities and bejewelled castles of the Ehkranites. The structures are nothing but dust, but littering the spaces are millions of statues of humans with Ehkranite features, all cast in expressions of terror and anguish. At the very heart of the island, where once towered the Twin Palaces of the Two Kings, one can find statues in the likenesses of these very kings, the faces contorted with utter horror, and each standing on either side of a massive reptilian footprint. Some say that three identical footprints can be found at points far across the island, suggesting a creature large enough to straddle its entirety. The island now stands as a testament to all who would profane or anger the gods, though not a man alive, no written record, could attest as to how the Ehkranites might have done so.

The Church of the Stone that Wept. This is one of the oldest cults – perhaps the oldest, predating the destruction of Ehkran by many centuries, if their own records are to be believed. The Church, of course, holds that its god, Akrillug, is responsible for the Ehkranites’ fate, but there is disagreement over this. That a god called Akrillug exists is not in dispute: many, not just Church-members, have reported dreams or waking visions of a gargantuan, vaguely reptilian presence – in fact, similar reports are recorded in some of the oldest extant texts in the musty libraries of Xish. Yet it is not clear that Akrillug is the cause of whatever happened in Ehkran; the god itself has certainly never indicated this, given that in all known visitations, it never speaks or even seems to acknowledge the subject of the dream or vision. The Church points to the footprints, and says this is enough. All who disbelieve, so they say, will one day find themselves gazing into the eyes of the Basilisk: for, a crucial element in common between all known visions of Akrillug is that one never sees the god’s face. To do so, says the Church, is to gaze upon death itself.


Bone Jackson, the Goat-god, the Mother of Endless Blood.

The goat-men of the wild hills all worship this god, which they depict in their primitive paintings and effigies as a kind of impossible creature with countless limbs and mouths, the composition of which changes drastically across depictions except for two goat horns always protruding somewhere from the amorphous mess. The wildermen, whose tribes are sometimes enemies and sometimes allies of any the goat-men tribes, and who are the only ones who would ever bother to learn any of the goat-men’s language or customs, report that in their own vulgar language, the deity’s name translates loosely as “Mother of Endless Blood.” Because the name sounds vaguely like “Bone Jackson” in the wildermen tongue, this is what they call it, and what it has subsequently come to be widely known as. To the goat-men, it is female, and worshipped as a principle of fertility and generation: the god’s menstrual blood is held to be the very source of the goat-men themselves, and upon death their souls will return to choke in that infinite crimson river forevermore. Some wildermen have adopted the worship of the Mother, but cut most of the blood stuff out of it and worship it as a vaguely male Goat-god (generally depicted as a particularly monstrous-looking goat-man) which they continue to call Bone Jackson. The existence of wildermen clerics seems to suggest that, whatever the god might be called, it does not mind the worship, though no wildermen have ever accomplished the literal conjurings of the god which the greatest goat-man shamans of all the tribes are said to gather together to perform once every nine years, at a time and place unknown to any but themselves.

There is no single organized sect or cult of this god. Player-character clerics will generally be goat-men, who may or may not belong to (or have once belonged to) a tribe-specific, or even inter-tribe, cult. A few non-wildermen, non-goat-men worshippers can be found here and there, though they tend to be raving, flea-ridden lunatics.


I’d like to have a few more gods than these, but four is more than enough to get rolling with. Bonus points if you can guess which Cthulhu Mythos deity I had in mind when I was writing up each of these (except not really, because it should be pretty obvious).
-Manscorpion


*****


Not much more for me to say about this, except I cannot WAIT to play in this damn setting. We will have to set up some Google Hangouts or Manscorpion has to come back and visit for reading week! Now let's dance:



Monday, February 6, 2017

One of those days

Okay. I was thinking about this classic PSX game "Nightmare Creatures" the other day. This is a beast from said game that used to punk me pretty hard when I played it, and it fits in perfectly with an idea I had for the Spoils of Annwn:

THAMES MONSTER

This is usually as far as I got.
No. Appearing: 1
Alignment: C
Move: swim 60' (20')
Armour Class: 17
Hit Dice: 8+
Attacks: 5
Damage: 1d6x4/1d10
Save: Dwarf
Morale: 10
Hoard Class: XIX
Experience: 1560+

One of the many varieties of fiends that haunt the ruins of Londinium, the Thames Monsters make travelling by boat in the area a risky proposition. Lairing in any water deep enough to hide in, they have polluted the rivers of that cursed city with salt and slime. 

Nobody has seen the entire body of one of these beasts. The only parts that rise above the water are a giant serpentine head with a gaping toothy maw, and four long tentacles that pull victims in to be devoured. Normally the head is about the size of a human torso, and the tentacles can stretch about 50'. Larger varieties of these monsters do exist, though. The giant that lives in the Thames itself (15 HD) and is the namesake of its smaller cousins is rumoured to have tentacles snaking hundreds of feet down the streets near the river, feeling for prey.

The Thames Monster waits for prey to come close, and then reaches its tentacles out to seize it. Victims may not even see its head until it's too late! It can attack up to five times per round: four with tentacles and one bite if any being is close enough to eat. NOTE: grappling sucks. We all know this. What I would do is just have a tentacle pull the victim 10' towards the monster's mouth on a successful attack. If you are feeling especially merciful, or the particular Thames Monster is a weak or small one, maybe the tentacle deals damage OR it pulls its victim closer, but not both. The tentacles have the same AC as the Thames Monster itself, and will be crippled/severed if they take damage equal to 1/4 of the monster's total HP. If all its tentacles are damaged and it doesn't have anyone in range to bite, it will retreat beneath the water. If it isn't killed, its tentacles will re-grow at the rate of one every 1d6 days.

Like other unintelligent fiends from the outer reaches of existence, the Thames Monster is indifferent to treasure. The undigested parts of its victims, along with the cargo of boats it has sunk, will litter the muck of the riverbed all around it. In addition to its listed Hoard Class, you might want to add some equipment from dead travellers/adventurers: mildly chewed suits of armour, weapons, magic items, whatever. More victims would lie on the riverbed beneath bigger Thames Monsters.

WOLFBATS

Last night I discovered that He-Man is on Netflix. Digging deep into that bottomless pit of lunacy revealed these, just as I was looking for more ways to punish players for even showing up to game day:

You IDIOTS!
No. Encountered: 1d20 (1d100)
Alignment: N
Movement: fly 150' (50')
Armor Class: 14
Hit Dice: 1d3 hp
Attacks: 1
Damage: 1d4
Save: Fighter
Morale: 7
XP: 7

Similar to garden-variety bats, except with the slavering heads of wolves. You heard right. From a distance they sound indistinguishable from a huge wolf pack, which should be properly disconcerting to any adventuring party (especially in the dungeon). With their vicious wolf-bite, the only reason we don't call them "Sir" is their cowardly nature. 

When a battle is first joined, before any Wolfbat has been slain, they will swarm around their victims and try to distract and terrify them into fleeing or submitting (anyone in a swarm of 10+ wolfbats is at -2 to attack rolls and saves, and spellcasting is impossible) just like regular bats do in the Labyrinth Lord book. Except unlike regular bats, they follow this up by biting your face off. When one of their number has been slain, they make morale checks every round until they fly away in fear. Thus it's tough to eliminate a pack of these things completely. Keep track of how many Wolfbats are left, and the same number will come back if you roll them on the encounter table again on the same dungeon level. 


Now play this monster jam the next time your players feel the slimy tug of a tentacle around the ankle: