Monday, April 25, 2022

Potpourri

Artist Credit: Kieran Yanner
My blog output has been slow this year. Partially this is because I've started several very long posts that are each taking a while to finish, but mostly it's because I spend most of my time working now and have very little time left each day to do anything. I wanted to come up with something a bit smaller that could work as a good blog post to get out before the end of the month that isn't one of those huge posts, but I struggled. Everything I came up with was too small. So why not just offer all of them at once?

In this post you'll find seven really small RPG-related things I'd like to share which are all completely unrelated to one another. I hope the comments are chaos. They include:

  1. An idea I had for a particular take on the "Grit vs Flesh" mechanic
  2. A weird experimental PC I recently tried
  3. Possibly the most famous example of the power of tactical infinity in RPGs
  4. A world map I've slowly been working on
  5. An idea I have for a new monster type to fit into the traditional D&D schema
  6. How I would run a sandbox in a superhero game
  7. Doppelgängers


1. A Grit vs Flesh mechanic idea

So, firstly, I gotta explain what "Grit vs Flesh" means if you aren't familiar with the concept. Skip ahead if you are. I'm about to steal this from a description I recently wrote for an "OSR Dictionary" project that Ben Milton is working on (if you aren't in the know, don't worry. I'm sure you'll hear more about it soon enough).

A popular way of resolving a common debate about how to interpret Hit Points (HP) in D&D and derived games. It's understood that HP is an abstraction of something related to survivability, and running out means either death or the risk of death. But people often disagree about whether HP represents actual physical injuries or if it's an abstraction of a character's fighting skill and luck that gets worn down as they defend themselves. Those arguing for the former will cite the fact that HP loss is often caused by things which aren't "manuevered around" using fighting skill, such as drinking poison or falling in lava. Meanwhile, those arguing for the latter will cite the fact that HP increases as one gains experience as an adventurer, inflating beyond anything that can be explained by mere muscle growth, as well as the fact that characters can lose HP from exhaustion, psychic damage, and other non-injurious attacks.

The simple reality is that every edition of D&D has textual evidence in support of both arguments, so there is no answer. But popular in OSR design is the trend of embracing this and splitting HP into two categories: Grit (abstract fighting spirit) and Flesh (physical meat points), which can be tracked separately, reduced by different effects, and interact with the fiction in a more sensible way. A common way of using this might be to have PCs reduce a large pool of Grit first and then begin reducing their smaller pool of Flesh once that's run out. Death would only occur once Flesh is gone, but the Grit buffer refills quickly between fights.

Alright, now that you're caught up, we can talk about my idea. This is one of those things that I came up with but it feels so simple than I'm convinced it must already exist somewhere. I'd hate to try passing it off as something revolutionary only for everyone to go, "that's already how it works in X, ya dingus," so if anyone recognizes this then please let me know. I asked the NSR Discord and all anybody there could offer me were other games that used Flesh vs Grit systems, but nobody came up with anything that used this specific system.

Here's the idea: you have a pool of Flesh points (probably smaller) and you have a pool of Grit points (probably larger). Like in most games, you roll to attack and then you roll damage, which is reduced from the HP pool. However, in this game, you always roll damage. It's kind of like Into the Odd in that way. So why do you still roll to hit? Because that's what determines which of the two HP pools gets reduced by the damage rolled. If you succeed on the attack, reduce Flesh. If you fail on the attack, reduce Grit.

Of course, once Grit reaches 0 you just start taking Flesh damage (making attack rolls unecessary, like in ItO), and when Flesh reaches 0 then you're dead. And as with most Grit vs Flesh systems, you can look at the source of damage and make an ad-hoc ruling if it should simply bypass Grit entirely, like if the PC jumps into a pool of lava.

I like this for a few reasons, and I think it has some strengths over the most common versions of Grit vs Flesh.

  1. The main difference between this and something like Knave 2E or a Death and Dismemberment system is that you don't have to completely reduce Grit before you can deal any Flesh damage. It isn't a perfect buffer, and a really good attack and damage roll could hypothetically immediately kill an opponent without them losing any Grit, like in some kind of sneak attack assassination. Which, by the way, can we talk about that? Isn't it weird that it's so rare that any combat focused games have a Hit Point mechanic that smoothly accomodates assassin-style instant kills? You can't "slit someone's throat" in most combat games. At best, they might allow you to do a Sneak Attack, which is just a normal attack but with a damage multiplier. That feels ungraceful to me. Well, this system would fix that.
  2. It speeds up fights because you are always burning through HP whenever you're attacked, not just when you're hit. Plus, you have a good excuse to use that really really really common piece of advice people like to give about speeding up combat by "rolling your attack and your damage at the same time," since in this system you know that your damage roll will definitely be necessary even if you miss.
  3. It resolves one of the arguments some people still raise in favor of a "Flesh" interpretation of HP: the language we use when describing these things. Even when we do say that "HP represents Grit," we nonetheless still describe a hit as, y'know, a hit. If you "hit" a target, that implies that your weapon made contact, not that it was parried. And when you hit a target, you deal damage, which, again, implies tangible harm rather than merely reducing morale or luck or stamina or something. Well, in this system, a hit actually is a true hit once more, and a miss is a miss. It's just not a meaningless miss, like in vanilla D&D. Which brings us to...
  4. Every attack matters. This is why people like Into the Odd's "all attacks automatically hit" rule, which I respect and seek to emulate here. But that rule is a bit punishing without the nice "Grit pool buffer" you get in a Grit vs Flesh system. This does both. When people try to describe the more normal way of interpreting Grit HP, they say that, "when your PC is hit, it's implied that really they've just parried a blow or dodged out of the way or deflected it with their armor or something. But when the monster misses your PC, that just means that they swung way out of the way." Frankly, I find that a bit disatisfying as an answer. I feel like anytime someone is trying to kill you, it's stressful and will reduce your composure. To me at least, when it comes to "things that reduce your Grit," I see no meaningful difference between catching an axe blow with your shield vs them swinging it right beside you. They're both scary enough and take enough out of you to reduce your Grit.
  5. Any combat that goes on long enough will inevitably result in someone getting seriously injured or dying just because combatants will get exhausted. There is never a "meaningless round" caused by every single character missing on their attack. There is always progress towards an end point, and trying to simply stall forever won't work. Any build that maximizes AC or dodging ability or otherwise cheeses mechanics that let them avoid taking damage will no longer be viable.

I don't currently have plans to use this anywhere. It won't be replacing my Death and Injury system in Brave, which I quite like (and also happens to be a fairly novel method of applying the Grit vs Flesh model of HP). But I would like to see it pop up somewhere.


2. My Master Blaster

In the 1985 film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, there is a minor-yet-extremely-memorable villainous character called "Master Blaster." Actually, no. There are two characters: Master and Blaster. Blaster is big and strong and dumb and walks around smashing. Master is small and weak and slightly-less dumb and rides on top of Blaster, directing him around. They look like this:


And I wanted to play as that in D&D. Wouldn't you?

If you'd like a less ableist example, you could also think of the character Alchemist from DOTA 2. The actual specifics didn't really matter to me, I just knew I wanted "small, clever guy who rides on top of big, smashy guy." My mechanical solution was a weird one.

In Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, 5E added some rules for playing as a "sidekick." If you have a younger kid or maybe just a guest who wants to join in on the fun but you don't want to spend hours making a character with them that's too mechanically complicated to be worth it anyway, then you can use this system. The gist is that you take an existing monster or NPC statblock of Challenge Rating 1/2 or lower and start slapping on levels of one of the three sidekick classes: Warrior, Spellcaster, and Expert. So I pitched to my DM that I would play as two sidekicks rather than one full PC, arguing that it might be roughly equivalent in power, yet also have a much simpler and yet more novel playstyle that I enjoy.

The result was kinda disappointing to be honest, but I'm glad we ran the experiment. Please say hello to the Beckett Brothers:


These two dwarves are twin brothers who were abandoned to the circus when they were young because of their deformities. Hammond ("Ham") on the left has gigantism and Diggory on the right has alopecia, which are two conditions which are especially stigmatized among dwarfkind. Ham is of course an acrobat while Diggory worked in stage production, but he always aspired to be a beloved showman ("The Great Doo-dad"). He believed the head of the circus was holding him back, but in reality he just has awful charisma. Nevertheless, he took Ham and broke away from the circus to make a name for themselves on their own, believing that he can substitute good stage presence with fanciful pyrotechnics and special effects (AKA, my DM asked anyone playing a spellcaster to reflavor their magic as technological somehow, so this is me saying "his Color Spray is a confetti cannon and his Silent Image is some smoke and mirrors + puppetry."). In the meantime, they network and make money taking jobs as handymen and mechanics.

I guess that gives you an insight into the kinds of PCs I make when I play 5E. A little goofy but not an outright joke, have their own motivations but are highly comptatible with adventure, flawed but easy to root for. Now for the actual results in play.

Honestly, it just wasn't that fun to try to juggle two characters. Neither got to shine that much and mechanically it ended up not being all that exciting in combat. As I've said many times before, I enjoy a good funnel adventure and I usually have a hireling or two behind me when I'm a player, but there's something different about that. There's no expectation, from either the GM or yourself, to make sure your little knaves are earning a top billing spot. Most of the hirelings I play are intentionally quite one-dimensional and joke-y, so it's easy to throw them a goofy line that seems in-character every now and then. It's another thing to have two whole voices to keep speaking up during every party conversation, and to make sure each one is at least two-dimensional (preferably three).

In combat, they both had way more HP than any other PC (quirk of the sidekick rules, at least in the early game of 5E), which meant that we ended up tanking most of the damage dealt even though that was not at all my intention. I found that my fantasy of having them do some fun combos or complementary actions didn't really pan out, nor did the simpler image of Ham wrecking things on his own while Diggory rains madness from above in a cackle. Instead, it was basically like playing one low-level character who got several attacks per round. The sidekick classes appealed to me because I don't have the energy or focus to play a 5E spellcaster long-term but I've tried out most of the martial playstyles. I thought these would be simple enough to not be burdensome while still having some toys to play with, justifying my participation in a crunchier system than I normally prefer. Turns out, they're just kinda boring. Which I guess was the goal, and it's my fault for using a system for something other than what it was designed for. But it's a bit disappointing all the same.

Maybe there's a better way to achieve the Master Blaster build, but just the roleplay clunkiness alone has soured me a bit on the concept. It was a struggle for the DM and the other players to even consistently refer to me in the plural, always mistakenly saying "the three of you" instead of "the four of you" when talking about the party. Hell, when we were personally being addressed, it often got reduced to just "Ham" even though Ham is arguably the lesser of the two.


3. Tactical Infinity and the Millennium Challenge 2002

Throw this onto the pile of stories that illustrate the FKR playstyle, what's so special about it, and why it gives you an important insight into the nature of RPGs.

The modern US military makes extensive use of wargaming simulations, and so there's not much that, structurally, is innovative about this example. Rather, it's illustrative for someone learning about freeform gameplay because it brilliantly shows off the friction between "players who are thinking entirely in constrained possibilities" versus "players who're thinking wildly outside the box." I've experienced this countless times with people who have too strong of a background in video games. They don't really understand that there are infinite possibilities in RPGs. They're used to rules and buttons to press. They have difficulty thinking of something that wasn't already in front of them. But one of the most satisfying experiences you can have in an RPG is when someone keeps outsmarting the scenario and coming up with viable alternatives that aren't within either the rules, nor anyone's expectations. The following example is pretty infamous in the military world, and it makes for a great story.

Millennium Challenge 2002 was a notorious wargame conducted by the US armed forces in 2002, its sporting integrity generally agreed to have been completely tainted by referees who were not even slightly impartial and were instead aiming for a specific outcome that would "prove" what they wanted it to. You see, most people nowadays don't realize that GPS was actually originally invented for military applications, and was first used in the 1991 Gulf War to absolutely whup Saddam Hussein's ass in ways that no one had thought possible in warfare. The advent of the internet and more sophisticated information systems, along with more expansive and refined intelligence networks, were all pointing in the same direction: the future of the US military was perfect technological supremacy. "Network-centric warfare" that takes advantage of computer networking of vast amounts of intelligence seemed like the path towards being able to systematically defeat any opponent of the US. To defeat "fog of war" itself. Millennium Challenge 2002 was entirely motivated by the higher-ups' desire to demonstrate this, arranging a game between a US "Blue Team" player with the full force of modern military network systems and a "Red Team" player who'd be controlling a fictional Gulf country that's really similar to Iraq or Iran. It was the largest and most expensive war game up to that point in history, and was approved entirely on the basis of there being a fixed outcome.

Anyway, the guy they got to play Red Team kicked their asses.

I mean, he was a thoroughly-experienced Marine Corp Lieutenant General already. But he also very elegantly demonstrated the limitations in approaching a simulation with your head stuck in a mindset of rules and approved methods. Blue Team knocked out their microwave towers and cut their fiber-optics lines so that Red Team would be forced to rely on communications that could be monitored. In response, he set up a nationwide courier system of messengers on motorcycles, with messages hidden inside local prayer broadcasts. The US was sending their fleet and put forth an ultimatum, so he scoped out their position not using warships, but instead using a bunch of innocuous fishing boats around the gulf that relayed the info from one to the next all the way back to HQ. They launched planes using WWII-style mirror signaling rather than anything you can pick up on radar, and they used their clever surveillance to anticipate the US fleet position and sent out their own fleet of equally-innocuous-looking speedboats loaded up with explosives. They spent a while luring in the fleet by instructing the small boats and planes to move around in apparently aimless circles until the US fleet got frustrated. Once that happened, Red Team launched a surprise preemptive attack using ground-based missiles, commercial ships, and low-flying airplanes without a radar signature, as well as having the speedboats kamikaze into the American ships, killing thousands. His signal to initiate the attack was a coded message sent from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer. Genius, right? No amount of sophisticated detection systems could get around this guy.

Anyway the referees got pissed and started the simulation over but handed Red Team a script they had to follow instead, and they got the results they wanted this time. It literally consisted of restrictions like, "you aren't allowed to target these new aerial units we're deploying" and "you have to have your surface-to-air missiles out in the open where the Blue Team can hit them" and "you aren't allowed to use the chemical weapons that we told you are in your arsenal for this simulation." It was bullshit and once the news got out, the whole thing was exposed for the sham it was. But for a brief moment, that Red Team leader just knocked it out of the fucking park. And for what it's worth, the Blue Team leader also said he felt like getting his ass kicked was a huge eureka moment and is now a big proponent a proper Red Teaming procedures in war games.

Alternatively, you could take this as a lesson in why chaotic evil PCs have the advantage because of their lack of inhibitions towards fighting dirty.


4. A world map I've slowly been working on

Warning: the image below is pretty big. Go ahead and open it up to view in detail.


This is the work-in-progress map for the Overworld of my home campaign setting and the default setting of Brave, which I call Underworld. Almost everything here is subject to change of course. The main thing that slows my progress is coming up with names that I like, which I have extremely high standards for. I'm not even satisfied with half the names on here, so feedback on that is appreciated. One litmus test I routinely run is having a friend look through the names and try to spot any that are obvious targets for players to make stupid jokes about. You might come up with a name and think it's cool and then when you show it to your group then say, "hahaha it sounds like 'diarrhea'."

Here's an additional key that might be helpful:

To answer some questions I'm anticipating:

  1. These are presumed to be 24-mile hexes, which will correspond to 1 day of travel each. As I've said on my blog before, I feel that stipulating on travel speeds with high granularity is possibly the least interesting direction to explore when designing hexcrawl procedures. Most of the hexes won't be especially dense with content by default, because I'd prefer a game in which the players narratively get to explore whole countries and continents during their adventures but without actually having to trudge through all the realistic amount of detail that would imply. The overland travel procedure becomes especially streamlined when traveling by roads (not seen here) so that way players can feel relatively comfortable going from settlement to settlement without being stuck with "wilderness survival" gameplay for the next few sessions. But of course, all the best adventure goodies are deep in the wilderness away from the roads, so they will need to engage in the wilderness exploration procedure in the part leading up to their dungeoncrawl.
  2. There are three major continents (Andolia, Menodora, and Gavallont) and plenty of islands, and between them the Seven Seas of Rhye (named for the seven classical metals). Most of this is very high medieval (11th or 12th centuries) except for Andolia, which gets into the 14th and 15th centuries because I like knights in plate armor. Andolia is mostly inspired by Great Britain and has a focus on chivalric romance tropes and fairies (the main Neutral monster type). Gavallont is mostly France, partly Germany, the stuff in between them, and a dash of Spain down in Riviera. It's a bit more Gothic fantasy than the other two (in a Dark Souls way, not a Bloodborne way), and so it features a lot of undead (the main Chaotic monster type). Menodora is mostly the Middle East, with a bit of Morroco on the tip, and features a lot of... well, this third category of creature I made up so that Law would have an equivalent to the other two. They're called prometheans, and I'll explain them later.
  3. These are the parts that belong to Gartonica
    This is a political map, not a terrain map. That'll come later, although a few geographic features are sort of implied. For example, there's a long stretch of vertical wilderness hexes in Gavallont that represents a huge mountain range where there are no settlements. The different colors roughly denote different polities, although sometimes a single polity has many sub-regions that each get their own color. It's a bit messy. For example, every color on the continent of Menodora represents a different country. But all of Andolia is one kingdom, so each color represents one of its duchies. Gavallont is the trickiest, because most of the colors represent different kingdoms... except for a handful that are each the different territories making up the Kingdom of Gartonica.
  4. Yes, there will be a corresponding Underworld map, which is where I'm saving all of my juiciest ideas for. It probably won't be as dense with settlements though, because the Underworld is less hospitable in general and because it'll have verticality as well.
  5. I know, this looks like an awful lot, but I wouldn't expect anyone to concern themselves with more than one corner of a continent in their typical game. The reason I feel the need to make three continents instead of being satisfied with just one (like most campaign settings) is because I want there to be plenty of ocean that sailor, explorer, and pirate PCs can travel if that's what they want the campaign to be about. Too many settings are just a big hunk of land with no opportunities for travel by boat or naval warfare, you know? I think a fun campaign could be set in the triangle between the Earldom of Lynnshaw, the Archclericy of Helena, and the Northern/Southern Marches.
  6. It's called the Northern/Southern Marches because it passes ownership back and forth between Andolia and Gartonica with some frequency. When Andolia owns it, it's the Southern Marches, and when Gartonica owns it, it's the Northern Marches.



5. What's a Promethean?

Fair question. I've already snuck a few references to them in some of my Brave content that you can find on this blog but I haven't explained them before.

I like having a typing system to monsters. When a whole category of monsters all have a few traits in common, then players can go into a fight against a brand new monster still armed with a bit of knowledge to help them out. If you know that undead generally don't need to breathe, eat, or sleep and can't be poisoned, then you can use that to your advantage when you first encounter something you've never seen before but which you can tell is undead (e.g. a draugr or a dullahan). Players are rewarded for acquiring generally applicable knowledge over the course of their adventures while the DM still gets to throw fresh and novel things at them. Unlike most editions of D&D, however, I don't see any reason why a monster can't have multiple types. A dracolich is both undead and a dragon, y'know? And sometimes there's an exception here or there that keeps you on your toes. Yes, most fairies are weak to iron... except for REDCAPS!

Which brings us to the monster types I'm generally using in Brave. It starts out by drawing from some lists in other games that I like and adapting them. Here are the basics:

  1. Humanoids/demihumans (not even exactly a monster type)
  2. Oozes
  3. Constructs
  4. Plants/Fungi
  5. Beasts (i.e. mundane, real-life animals. Again, not even really a monster type)
  6. Arthropods? (mechanically distinct enough from most other types of animals, has way more entries than any other "animal-like" type, and something which I think I could justify as a whole category since the setting is very focused on subterranea)
  7. Giants
  8. Dragons
  9. Monstrosities? (borrowed from 5E, this is the catch-all "monsters that are fantasy but don't fit into other categories." My reservations are that it seems ungraceful and I should be able to fit any monster into the other categories. But then again, sometimes you just get something like a roper or a hook horror. Maybe if it had a stronger definition, then it could frequently overlap with other monster types, e.g. a remorhaz is both an arthropod and a monstrosity)
Then we get to the monster types that are more strongly associated with alignment and the cosmic powers. These are pretty important to include. Since I'm using my own 3-alignment system, we start by according a type for the general divine forces of each faction:
  1. Celestials/Angels (Law)
  2. Fiends/Demons (Chaos)
  3. Elementals (Neutrality)

    Then, because Neutrality has its own rival that isn't considered a player-available alignment, we add in:

  4. Aberrations (Anti-Neutrality, AKA the unnatural things that don't belong in the world)
But we aren't done. You know there are two conspicuous absences. I see both of these as being related to a couple alignments, but not necessarily something that is a direct servant of those cosmic factions, nor something that really only hails from their planes of power. In fact, they aren't even always aligned with their associated alignment.
  1. Fair Folk/Fey (Generally Neutral)
  2. Undead (Generally Chaotic)

And now you see my problem. There should be a corresponding one for Law in this last category. Creatures which tend to be lawful and are somewhat intrinsically magical, but which aren't necessarily angels or anything. Something you could find in a regular, low-level dungeon like a ghoul or a leprechaun. Which is where we get:


Prometheans!

This is a weird idea and it's intimidating trying to come up with something from thin air that's meant to have the same mythical power in the imagination as "the undead" or "fairies," y'know? But it is drawn from a pattern of common ideas and tropes I noticed in a lot of mythology that I think I might be able to credibly thread together.

Undead are defined as "things which deny death unnaturally" in some way, and are generally Chaotic because they undermine God's designs for mortalkind. Fair folk are defined as "the most powerful parts of our collective dreams and nightmares" or perhaps "the parts of your imagination that are able to creep into reality," and are generally Neutral because they emanate not from gods, but the natural creative energies and forces of the world at work bringing things into existence on its own. Plus, they certainly aren't concerned with morality or ethics. So what defines a promethean?

Well, they are the oldest of all creatures, and the ones who were loyal to Heaven in the beginning times. The early history "original sin" of this setting is that many of God's creations (such as humans) were tempted down into the Underworld, where they lived for most of the last few millennia (up until a couple hundred years ago).  But the things that didn't go are both free of sin and have been living up on the Overworld all this time.

So what else can we determine about them? Well, like fair folk and undead, they're generally immortal. Like how fair folk are weak to cold iron and undead are weak to silver, we can assign something to prometheans. I decided on "stygium," a fictional red metal that comes from the banks of the River Styx. And we know that most fantastic things in the setting come from the Underworld, or at least the borderlands between civilization and the Underworld (such as the deep wilderness). In this case, that might not make much sense. So instead, prometheans are closer to heaven. Their native realms would be cloud kingdoms, auroras, lightning storms, and rainbows. They might also protect primeval places "untouched by sin" which are rapidly disappearing from the world.

Because they generally live in the sky, they are also oftentimes bird-themed. This is inspired by a few things:

  1. Bird parts are a very common motif in monster types and it would be cool if there was a unifying reason for it.
  2. Bird creatures are especially common in different Middle Eastern mythologies, which is where the highest concentration of prometheans will be found.
  3. Birds were the first creations of God in Genesis.
  4. Birds are oftentimes characterized as divine in medieval Christian schemes of the natural world. Something I'm stealing whole-cloth is the "language of the birds," an idea that shows up in several mythologies and folk traditions.
And once I drew the connection to the language of the birds, I was reminded of a source of inspiration I really wanted to tie in.

I think most fans of history, fantasy, or D&D people in general who go beyond your standard mythologies (Greek, Egyptian, Norse, Celtic, etc.) have at least one historical religion that they really, really like. For many people it's Zoroastrianism. For some, it's the Mithraic Mysteries. Obviously Gnosticism is really popular. Kabbalah is an excellent one. I'm a huge fan of Hermeticism. But my own personal favorite is probably the Cult of Pythagoras. Yeah, that's right, the triangle dude.

Pythagoras began a circle of academics in Ancient Greece consisting of mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers. They came to form their own religion based around their studies. Some of the core ideas were this:

  1. The universe is ruled by laws, and discovering more about the nature of this universe brings one closer to the divine.
  2. Numbers are divine. Each number from one to ten was given a very special significance. Odd numbers were thought to be male and even numbers female. They could even help to resolve philsophical problems, too. To quote Wikipedia: "The one was related to the intellect and being, the two to thought, the number four was related to justice because 2 * 2 = 4 and equally even. A dominant symbolism was awarded to the number three, Pythagoreans believed that the whole world and all things in it are summed up in this number, because end, middle and beginning give the number of the whole. The triad had for Pythagoreans an ethical dimension, as the goodness of each person was believed to be threefold: prudence, drive and good fortune."
  3. All natural phenomena can be explained mathematically. The motto above the entrance to the school was "All is number." This is still the same idea that underlies our modern approach to physics, as we treat mathematics as being "the language of the universe." This belief extends to practices that we might anthropologically characterize as "magic," fitting for a society that sounds like a bunch of wizards. To them, "magic" is using numbers and math (an imaginary thing, an unreal thing) and changing reality with it. But it's also about perceiving reality more fully. These are the first folks in the Western world who suggested that the Earth is round.
  4. The universe itself creates music. Or perhaps, it is music? You see, the Pythagoreans (particularly Plato) became very interested in the connections between mathematics and music, and invented Western music theory and the 12-note chromatic scale. Musical harmonies are the perfect expression of the flawless universal design of mathematics. And of course, they believed that the proportions in the movements of celestial bodies (the Sun, Moon, and planets) form music that can be heard by the soul.

Of course, they also had plenty of beliefs that didn't have much to do with all that. They were pacifists and vegetarians and had a very strict prohibition against eating beans. You must wear white, you must be sexually pure, some other weird stuff, etc. Wizard cults, y'know? Here's some more good reading if you're interested.

So yeah, I've always thought this was a fascinating religion, and even more fascinating as a philosophical thread that weaves its way into a lot of things. And so I will steal ideas from it for prometheans. In particular, they like music, astronomy/astrology, and math. Puzzles, magic spells, special abilities, dungeon themes, cultural practices, etc. that can tie into those three motifs are favored. It also tells us that prometheans probably organize themselves into strict hierarchies, which is always a good monster trait that PCs can grab onto and maybe manipulate. And anything that deals with astrology probably favors divination magic as well, so that'll be another common ingredient (compare with fair folk using illusions and enchantment and undead with their necromancy).

And as I said before, the most likely sort of adventuring site you'll find one at is a primeval place of power, which they're likely protecting. They like to challenge people with a specific test of some kind. So whereas you have to beware fairies kidnapping you in the woods and messing with your sheep, or undead haunting ruins and battlefields and aiming to convert you, prometheans will be guarding things like pyramids, obelisks, towers, and other ancient architecture designed by philosophical/mathematical types and then testing you to see if you're worthy. It could be a moral test of course (appropriate for sinless creatures of God), or a test of wisdom (like the Sphinx's riddle), or maybe just a mathematical puzzle (going off of the Pythagoras stuff).

Here are some examples of prometheans I've identified. I'll note the ones that are especially appropriate for the Middle East, since that's the area where I need this to really work:

  1. The castle from "Jack and the Beanstalk"
    Pegasus
  2. Sphinx (Egyptian)
  3. Griffin (found throughout the ancient Middle East)
  4. Manticore (Persian; a creature I occasionally enjoy making Lawful rather than Chaotic)
  5. Lamassu/shedu (Mesopotamian)
  6. Harpies? These might be the rare Chaotic promethean
  7. Peri (Persian)
  8. Maybe some other basic bird-person race? Like the Rito from Zelda. Always a good thing to include if you're adding new humanoid species into the game.
  9. Cloud giants (something I've always tended to flavor in a Middle Eastern way)
  10. Heavenly dragons
  11. Star/celestial nymphs
  12. Icarus, borne on wings of steel
  13. Laputa, the Castle in the Sky, full of scientists
  14. Buraq (general Islam)
  15. Haizum, the flaming flying horse of Gabriel in Islamic tradition
  16. The Simurgh (one of the most important creatures of Persian myth)
  17. The Anqa (an Arabian myth that's probably related)
  18. The Roc (another related Arabian creature that's more familiar within D&D)
  19. Konrul (Turkish, similar to the Phoenix except I can squarely fit it into this type rather than needing to make it an elemental)
  20. Chalkydri (Jewish apocrypha, one of the best sources of good Middle Eastern fantasy content)
  21. Anzû (Mesopotamian)
  22. Coatl (definitely far outside the cultural influences I use, and not one of my favorite monsters anyway, but if you were gunna use it then it definitely fits as a promethean)
  23. Iris, the messenger of the heavens who travels by rainbow (hey, sometimes I plunder whole figures directly. You do it with Baba Yaga and Cthulhu too)
  24. Dinosaurs?? No, seriously, maybe dinosaurs! Think about it. They're literally just prehistoric birds. The first creations of God, forgotten by time after the Flood, can be put into a bunch of Middle Eastern dungeons as monsters and it'll be fucking cool.

    And of course, a few that work in Andolia and Gavallont

  25. Magonia, the aerial sailors
  26. Tempestarii
  27. Swan Maiden
  28. Knight of the Swan
  29. The Firebird
So you tell me. Do you see this monster type working for you? Does it have any kind of staying power?


6. Superhero Sandboxes

There is very, very little overlap between the OSR and superhero games. There's plenty of reasons for this. For one thing, superheroes are usually pretty powerful, while OSR folks tend to prefer low-magic, high-lethality play. It's very much focused on the PCs as the special and fantastic thing, rather than the world around them. And it tends to focus gameplay on 1) combat, and 2) interpersonal drama, which are two things that the OSR generally doesn't like focusing on as much as other gaming philosophies do.

But one thing that has long held my attention is the sandbox problem. The most important trait of OSR play, to me, is player agency, exploration, and freedom to drive the campaign where you want to take it. This is often incompatible with traditional superhero narratives for a reason that I've talked about on this blog several times before: "Villains Act, Heroes React."

It's an old adage in storytelling that's especially associated with the Hollywood formula, and is nearly ubiquitous in superhero fiction especially. The activities of the heroes are usually just crime-fighting, and thus, responding to crimes being committed. In most heroic adventure stories, the conflict is instigated by the villain. A lot of the time, the audience is presented a status quo that is basically peaceful and just, and the villain is a disruptive force that must be stopped. Spider-man goes out "on patrol," and leaps into action once Doctor Octopus robs the bank. The Super Friends mind their own business until they get an emergency broadcast over the supercomputer in the Hall of Justice. It's hard to be proactive in the fight for freedom if your society is already perfectly free and just, right?

And of course, OSR play instead encourages roguish PCs who are seeking their own fortunes and glories, oftentimes acting quite villainous in their exploits. The entire incentive structure is backwards. You can pop a bunch of dungeoneering knaves into a hexcrawl dotted with dangers and ask, "what do you wanna do?" But you can't easily drop a bunch of superheroes into a city and ask the same thing. Every session has to start with, "Loki stole the Tesseract!" so they have something to go off of.

Of course, as I've also explained on my blog before, once a conflict gets rolling then the back-and-forth is (hopefully) self-sustaining. Maybe you just need to throw that initial villainous action at the players and then toss them into an open world, allowing them a lot of freedom to plan their approach and respond. Once they do, the villain reacts in kind, and then the PCs have a new open-ended problem to deal with. It becomes a cycle. But of course, superhero villains tend to be short-lived. How long can it go on before the PCs defeat the villain and we're back to square one? You'll have to keep tossing a conflict initiation at them.

That is, of course, unless you're dealing with Batman.

Batman is one of the only superheroes I can think of whose setup is perfect for sandbox play. But specifically the darker incarnations of Batman. While I love 60's Adam West Batman, that falls firmly into the "Villains Act, Heroes React" paradigm I was describing before. No, we need a Batman where the status quo is fucking awful. A Gotham City that is deeply entrenched in crime and corruption right from the get-go. There doesn't need to be supervillainy at first. As we know, most of the worst villains Batman fights are also inadvertedly created by his own actions, so supervillains only begin to arise once his career is already in full swing. But a superhero campaign that is largely just about fighting the mafia and corrupt politicians and cops, at least early on, is something I think we should embrace. Oh, and if there aren't figures of authority and morality that can be trusted, then it makes the players more comfortable assuming that role.

So I've decided that if I ever run a superhero campaign, I'd like it to be in a city about as villainous as Gotham. The villainy is passive, ongoing, routine, and permeates everything, giving the PCs many points of attack to disrupt it. I think I would prep it using Justin Alexander's urbancrawl advice of "layers of node networks," where each layer corresponds with a general plot/scenario thread. In particular, I want most or all of the layers to be a faction, since I really do think a dynamic landscape of competing factions is the key to this idea. This is especially because I think that urban adventure works best when framed as a social landscape more than a physical one. In fact, I've actually long wanted to have a superhero sandbox set in Los Angeles, possibly in the 1940s (since I like Golden Age comics) or maybe the 1960s (because I like Cold War drama). Here are some I think I'd start out with:

  1. 3 rival crime families
  2. A handful of street gangs
  3. The Law
  4. The media (2 big competing papers: 1 liberal and 1 conservative)
  5. Town hall (mayor is trying to get reelected)
  6. An evil wealthy corporation (e.g. LexCorp)
  7. Real estate mogul/land developer/slumlord (e.g. the Trump family)
  8. A pharmaceutical company that makes the super bad drug and, later, the super power-inducing drug that keeps producing new villains
  9. Movie studios/Disney/the porn industry (part of why I like the idea of an LA setting is that you get to play with this)
  10. The Ku Klux Klan (because superheroes should be punching racists)

    But of course, later we can add some higher-stakes ones too.

  11. The US military
    • And/or a super spy contingent of them, e.g. G.I. Joe or S.H.I.E.L.D.
  12. Goddamn NAZIS and/or neo-nazis
  13. Russian/Soviet spies + Cuban spies
  14. 2 rival religious cults (1 Satanic/Hermetic and 1 Eastern)
  15. Secret Society (e.g. the Illuminati, the conspiracy theorist's image of the Freemasons, etc.)
  16. Organization of super scientists
  17. Aliens
  18. Morally grey vigilante group

The plot can span months. While I would have plenty of random crises for the heroes to react to, the bulk of it can be driven by the players advancing their own schemes to interact with the factions. For example, they may try to bring down one of the crime families, which will end up being a months-long project that requires much investigation, collaboration with other factions, favors being done, and operations being set up.

And of course, as the campaign progresses you can also introduce big crazy traditional supervillains who accrue their own power, assets, HQ, followers, and schemes. Eventually, one or two of those crime families will get taken down, but the Joker or the Penguin will arise in their place with a much zanier criminal empire. But I don't see these as merely being replacements of eliminated factions. They should be introduced into the equation through big, high-stakes, crises that change the landscape. Because the campaign is open-ended and no single plot is being forced on the players, the story runs the risk of seeming directionless. After all, all of the factions’ plots will be advancing no matter if the PCs notice, but only by interacting with them will serious progress seem to happen. Thus, it’s important to punctuate the campaign with regular supervillain crises to take down so the players feel like they’re accomplishing important and dramatic things. Also, they can each feed further into some of the plot threads. And don't forget the lone actors who occasionally shake up the system in smaller ways. The PCs may occasionally engage with a Catwoman, Riddler, or John Constantine figure who is doing their own thing.

As I was wrapping up this section, I realized that this whole idea was almost certainly subconsciously inspired by Batman: The Long Halloween. I read it once many years ago and never thought much about it, but I'm now noticing that it went a long way in shaping my mental conception of the "conflict environment" that Batman is working within and how he operates over time.

This doesn't solve all problems with superhero campaigns. There's a reason why the Gotham City setup works so well for Batman, who has no superpowers. He has to make progress at a slower pace because of his limitations. Hand a PC the powers of Superman and they might go mad with power, disrupting the sandbox's ecosystem faster than you can update it. I do advocate for player actions having real consequences and showing how things respond to them. But for the sake of stability, their impact should remain relatively small at each step of the journey and instead grow larger as it accumulates over time. That said, I definitely think this can work with a power level between Batman/Daredevil and Superman/Thor.

And of course, relying on Alexander's node-based design, we can construct each faction as a small network of assets and intra-factional agents with their own internal relationships. A crime family would be: 1) HQ, 2) fancy lounge club where they bring in the politicians, 3) docks where they bring in trafficked goods (drug, arms, women, etc.), 4) the safehouse, 5) the Wolf, 6) primary hitman, 7) where they dump bodies/weapons, 8) their lawyer's office, 9) strip club/casino they own. The Law's would be: 1) patrol command, 2) courthouse and the big judges, 3) DA's office, 4) forensics, 5) coroner/medical examiner, 6) evidence control, 7) homicide 8) narcotics, 9) Major Crimes, 10) the FBI. 

In reality though, I think most of them would be much simpler than that. Hell, even the Law, which would probably be present through the whole campaign, could be streamlined. Better to have 10 factions with 3 nodes each than 3 factions with 10, y'know? This is also important because even a supervillain like the Joker usually runs a fairly small, tight operation.

Actually, this could probably be the right framework for most modern-day or near-future urban campaigns, regardless of the PCs' primary activity. The one thing remaining that you need to cement it as specifically for superheroes is lots and lots of encounters that are so disastrous, it would require someone with superpowers to competently address them. But I'm pretty sure most existing superhero RPGs already have that covered for you, so this is where my attempt at innovation runs its course.


7. Doppelgängers

I fucking love imposter drama. I love John Carpenter's The Thing, I love Clue-style Agatha Christie-like murder mysteries, I love double-crossing in spy fiction, I love Reservoir Dogs, and I'd probably love Invasion of the Body Snatchers if I'd ever seen an iteration of it. And as you can guess, I also fucking love social deduction games. Just yesterday I played Paranoia for the first time and it was superb. My favorite is probably classic Mafia/Werewolf, which I've had the pleasure of hosting many games of for large groups of people many times in my life. In the world of board games, I'm a huge fan of Secret Hitler and Deception: Murder in Hong Kong. I'm not as big a fan of Spyfall or Coup but I still recommend them because most people love them. I haven't tried Blood on the Clocktower or Inhuman Conditions but they both look excellent. As for video games, I actually think that Town of Salem is probably the best version of Mafia/Werewolf you'll find, if it weren't for the fact that most people aren't good enough at typing quickly in order to be really competitive. The other major one I've played is, of course, Among Us. And yes, I fucking love Among Us.

So as you could probably have guessed, I'm a pretty big fan of doppelgängers in D&D.

I've used them a few times before, to varying effect. Most notably, I once pulled a long con and revealed that a PC had actually been a doppelganger for 2 sessions without anyone knowing (including the player in question). It worked out pretty darn well but I don't think I'd do it again. But there are still a few important things I've learned.

Something that I'm often surprised many people don't understand is that the doppelganger isn't really a monster meant for fighting. I mean, don't get me wrong, there will be some bloodshed with them at some point. But it's one of the consequences of every monster in the manual having a statblock. It gives the impression that their purpose is for combat encounters, even though sometimes the statblock is just there "in case you need it for some reason." The doppelganger is a plot device. Or if you hate that word, a conflict device.

Now of course, every imposter story has its own "rules" for how it works. The Thing is not quite the same as the Body Snatchers, which are subtly different from the Reservoir Dogs. Here's the specific rules for how a doppelganger works in traditional D&D:

    1. Someone isn't who they say they are
    2. The "true" person is missing, probably kidnapped by the doppelganger somewhere so their mannerisms can be studied.
    3. The doppelganger was hired by someone else who is scheming against the heroes.

Number 1 is a given, but 2 and 3 are pretty different from the standard model. I really enjoy Rule 2 because it means that 1) the doppelganger actually has to care about the little details in their impersonation and put some effort into it, 2) the conspiracy will transpire over a long period of time, 3) the victim probably won't be dead, meaning that this monster doesn't automatically turn the genre into horror if you don't want it to (such as how The Thing does, for example), and 4) there's a chance the PCs run into the kidnapped victim before even figuring out there's a doppelganger!

Rule 3 is interesting because it means that there is some other motivation at play, and impersonation is simply a means to an end. It also means that dealing with the doppelgangers isn't the same thing as dealing with the problem. The Thing just wants to spread. But a doppelganger has a specific target in mind for a specific purpose. It also means that the PCs will probably try to capture and interrogate them afterwards, so the DM needs to be ready for that moment.

That being said, there are two additional rules that I feel are important to add.

    4. There are several doppelgangers involved.
    5. A heavy or deadly blow will reveal a doppelganger's true form.

The former is important because you 1) need to telegraph danger and 2) need to create a feeling of paranoia. If you have just one doppelganger, then when the reveal comes it'll feel completely random and out of left field. I mean, you might have done a good job laying clues that there's a doppelganger about through exclusively second-hand evidence. But it's much easier and more effective to simply have the players discover a dead doppelganger and then get warned by an NPC that they also just dealt with a doppelganger recently, thus establishing sufficient grounds to suspect that there could be any unknown number of doppelgangers involved by that point. It's kind of like Alfred Hitchcock's advice about surprise vs suspense. Sure, it can be cool if the audience is surprised when a long scene of two characters talking in a diner booth is abruptly interrupted by an unexpected explosion. But, it's a lot cooler and more satisfying if you instead pursue suspense by pointing the camera at the bomb underneath the diner booth early on in the scene, showing the audience the threat that the characters are unaware of and creating dramatic irony and tension.

From a Twilight Zone episode I really like called "Mirror Image"
Now I'm not saying that doppelganger scenarios need dramatic irony, but they do need suspense. Set up the expectation that one will be just around the corner and the fear that you desire will naturally follow. Also, this rule helps in communicating all the rules to the players, since each doppelganger can be used as an example to illustrate something. One of the first doppelgangers they run into is disguised as a friendly NPC, and when the PCs find that friendly NPC kidnapped in a dungeon, then they'll learn "oh, so I guess the doppelganger kidnaps their victim to study them. That's useful knowledge." If they kill one doppelganger early on and find a letter on their body from their employer, explaining why they were hired and what they're to do, then the PCs will learn "so there's someone conspiring against us, this isn't over yet, and with this knowledge of their plan we may now be able to get one step ahead of them by inferring other pieces in the scheme."

The latter rule about a heavy or deadly blow is a bit harder to justify and is an actual departure from what the statblock says. But I think these stories are most effective when there's a tangible-yet-risky "tell." The victims need a reasonable chance to spot the imposter, and the imposter has to get more creative if they have some constraints to work around. I like the "heavy or deadly blow" constraint because it means that the imposter can't contribute in combat without putting themselves at huge risk of being exposed, which is highly suspicious if they're impersonating a PC or a combatant allied NPC. It's also a big risk for the PCs to "check" their suspicions against someone, because they have to be ready to commit to potentially killing the character who they think might be an imposter.

When I ran the 5E starter set adventure, The Lost Mine of Phandelver, I was struck by how it includes (if memory serves) two doppelgangers seemingly at random. They're both in the employ of the villain but they aren't really doing very doppelganger-y things and it's just kind of weird. So I added several more and made the villain's scheme based more on an espionage conspiracy, justifying their inclusion and creating some juicy drama and challenge. Certainly juicier than, "the villain is paying the goblin tribe so his dungeon has some goblin enemies in it for you to fight through."


Conclusion

This has been an experimental post, and I hope you enjoyed it. It was refreshing to feel like I just banged out 7 blog posts in a row, so let me know if you like this format. Also, y'know, feel free to engage just like normal. Every post is a dialogue, not a monologue. I hope my next long-form post is done soon, since I know I have a reputation for those. But it's also nice to try being a normal blogger for once.


-Dwiz

8 comments:

  1. Allow me to inaugurate the "chaos in the comments!"
    I always perk up when I see a new KatOpera post ... fwiw, I think any of these smaller bits would be fine as its own post. Over at my Gundo blog, I've been surprised how often what feels like a 'quick idea' post gets as much/more traction than a giant manifesto. :-)

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  2. Appreciate the post, having a grab bag of things to read was nice today.
    1. Grit vs. Flesh: Hit points are an abstraction my players have tolerated, or even preferred to more graphic violence. On throat-slitting, I think most games ignore it because it doesn't really need hit points. The target instantly dies, bleeds out, or escapes. 3e has Coup de Grace and OSE Advanced Fantasy has the Assassin class though.
    5. Prometheans: I agree with splitting Arthropods from general Beasts. Monstrosities as they appear in 5e are mostly pointless. If an owlbear or hook horror acts like an animal with a place in an ecosystem, then its a Beast. That said, if those creatures *don't*, maybe because they're mutants or cursed or created by wizards then making them different is necessary. Love prometheans, especially as monsters to encounter in more civilized parts. Also including dinosaurs subverts the expectation of all reptiles being draconic.
    6. Superhero Sandboxes: The only OSR attempts at superheroes I've seen were *Survive This! Vigilante City* and a Numbers Aren't Real's *Bayport Newyork* campaign. Both were about vigilantes mostly fighting villains for cash. I love the concept of superheroes as an investigative campaign trying to really change a terrible place for the better. I disagree with the idea of 10 factions with 3 nodes each though. At my table the players would be overwhelmed and confused by so many competing agendas and I would struggle to make such small networks feel fully realized or beating them to seem decisive. A middle ground, say 5 factions with 6 nodes might be my sweet spot.

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  3. Nice post.

    For another take on the Master Blaster concept, you might enjoy this: https://goblinpunch.blogspot.com/2015/08/new-class-brute-rider-and-rideable-brute.html?m=1

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  4. These could totally have been different posts and I wouldn't have complained. I'm tempted to only read one of them each day. :P

    Re: Grit vs. Flesh: I like this system. At this point I'm pretty married to death and dismemberment style rules, but I'd be curious to play in a game that used a system like this.

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    1. I have also really loved Death and Dismemberment ever since I began using it, but I gotta keep my options open for less-gruesome and gritty genres of game. Definitely keeping Brave as it already is, though.

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  5. This is covering old ground, but in case you aren't familiar, the history of HP is the history of the 1973 wargame "Ironclad" by Tom Wham and Dave Lowry. A game about Civil War era ironclads blasting at each other with 11 inch Dhalgren Guns.

    Manage to punch through 8 inches of iron belt armor and the Monitor is all squishy on the inside. Plus the range is so short the ships aren't going to miss much (assuming the cannon firing arc can reach the other ship). Conceptualizing this and AC and HP make more sense then it would for swording dragons. The AC is literally what it takes to get past all that armor, and the HP are a way of simplifying the interior damage to the vessel. At least that's my understanding of the rules, that Arneson says he adopting for D&D because Chainmail's rules were too deadly to players and didn't work to model so many different monsters.

    I take it from this that HP is basically pure gamification. A darn useful simplification to create a certain feel of vaguely heroic abstracted combat. This has also obviously been unsatisfying ever since, and it's been one attempt after another to rationalize AC and HP as somehow representing something specific int he fiction. Personally I think they work fine, nice and simple, but also can't resist the impulse to mess with them for something more visceral.

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    Replies
    1. I was vaguely aware of the background of HP but not in that much detail. Although I did know that "Armor Class" referred to ironclad armor, and the reason it was descending is because AC 1 is "first class armor" and AC 2 is "second class armor" and so on.

      In truth, I think that HP is a perfectly acceptable way of doing things, mostly because it is so stupid simple. I still default to it in most games I run, but I just love considering alternatives and tinkering with rules.

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  6. In regards to Prometheans, have you considered golems? Obviously, they already fall under Constructs, but I believe there's justification to have the two be somehow connected, though I'm unsure quite how. They also originate ultimately from Middle Eastern traditions, and as creations of artifice they have that link to science and geometry, plus they obey strict rules and "programs" if you reference the writing-on-the-forehead thing.

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