Saturday, November 5, 2022

Commissioned Post: Eberron's Mark of Death

"Any thoughts on the Mark of Death in Eberron?  If true dragonmarks are "creative" forces - as opposed to the destructive aberrant marks - how do you think a Mark of Death might be implemented (mechanically) in a 5e game if one were to manifest?  Also open to adventure hooks!  What's Erandis been up to for the past 3500 (ish?) years?"
— M. Gondsman

You got it!

For the subrace, I decided I'd closely follow the structure of the 5e dragonmark subraces presented in Rising from the Last War, with the addition of some extra character fluff. Death used to be their 13th member, so I think it should have a certain familiarity to it, even as it's doing stuff that is quite different from any of the other marks.

For the dragonmark abilities and spell list, I tried to stay close to the concept of being creative as opposed to destructive, as you mentioned. That was a bit of a challenge, considering how narrow in scope the Necromancy school tends to be. Still, I was able to create a list that is mostly filled with buffing and utility spells that represent a less violent manipulation of life, death, and negative energy. One or two debuffs and combat spells did end up making the cut, but I think that's permissible in light of some of the other dragonmark lists: Making has conjure barrage and Scribing includes confusion, for example.

The adventure hooks were fun to come up with, though they ended up becoming a bit more like adventure harpoons. I see Erandis' schemes being multifaceted, and sometimes disarmingly benign. Make of those what you will.

I know lots of people have taken a crack at this dragonmark over the years, so doing the research without getting influenced by other people's original work was tricky. I hope I did well enough. Enjoy!


Apparently this is the Mark as it was depicted in that Lost Mark trilogy,
which Keith Baker didn't agree with, but it's still a damn good logo.

House Vol

Leader: Erandis d'Vol, at least in spirit.
Headquarters: Illmarrow Castle (Farlnen, Lhazaar Principalities)

The bearers of the Mark of Making are great crafters. The heirs of the Mark of Shadow are expert spies and assassins. The Mark of Healing, healers; Handling, handlers; Scribing, scribes. And so on, and so forth. In a way, it is only appropriate that the bearers of the Mark of Death are all dead— dead, or something close to it.

    But once upon a time, that was not so. House Vol was once preeminent in Aerenal, poised to lead their people against the dragons into a new era of peace and prosperity thanks to their unconventional knowledge of life, death, and negative energy. But those hidebound carcasses in the Undying Court, for all their wisdom, could never stop staring down their withered noses at House Vol long enough to step outside their narrow comfort zone and see the truth of things; that if the elves were to survive, they needed to consider all options with an open mind and eyes unclouded. So what if they reanimated a few corpses, if it meant they survived the onslaught of the dragons?

    Ironically, it was not death that made the Aereni elves condemn their fellows, but life. The life of a child, born out of love and such grand purpose. When Matriarch Minara Vol eloped with a rogue green dragon to produce a hybrid daughter named Erandis, it was out of hope that the union of species she embodied would bring an end to hostilities.

    Minara was right, after a fashion. Horrified by this genetic project and the potential power held within it, dragon and elf united to exterminate every last member of House Vol, right down to mother and child. What survived of the house's allies and servants when the smoke cleared were allowed to live, banished to the bitterest reaches of distant Khorvaire. The dragons and elves did not know that they took with them Erandis' corpse, reanimated by a mother's desperate love, and the power of the Mark of Death.

    Now, the half-dragon lich "lives" a life of bitter secrecy. She has sworn to manipulate events through her many cults to one day unite dragon and elf kind in death, for having refused it in life. Her dragonmark lies useless upon her undead flesh, and her relict house begins and ends with her. And she knows that. No amount of cold, ashen revenge will bring back what was lost.

    Truly, there is no soul on Eberron more marked by death than her.


Variant Elf:
Mark of Death

... And yet here you are, with all the questions and grim implications your existence entails. Perhaps some long-forgotten extramarital dalliance spawned the bastard bloodline of your parentage by mere chance. Or perhaps destiny itself willed you into being; not even Death may die until it has served its purpose. The Draconic Prophecy is as cruel as it is inexorable, it seems.

    There is much you do not know about yourself, least of all your birthparents. People used to say you were orphaned by the Last War, and for a long time you believed that, without even wondering whose side, if any, your parents had been on. The Last War made a lot of orphans, after all. You made your peace with it, and tried to appreciate the life that had found you.

    But then came adolescence, and puberty hit you harder than any other elf in the past three millennia. Your dragonmark appeared in a traumatic near-death experience that left you suddenly, painfully aware of the weight of ages on this world, and your own utter insignificance in the face of eternity and oblivion. And as if that wasn't bad enough, people started to avoid and persecute you. Aberrant, they called your dragonmark. Dangerous. Bad luck. Only one of those was wrong.

    Now, you do best when you're alone and on the move. You hide your mark from others as best as you can, especially from those men with the Karrnathi accents and the green claw amulets who say they have such wonderful things in store for you. You know you won't last much longer without some answers, but where is one to even begin?



If you're an elf with the Mark of Death, you have this subrace, with the following traits.
    Ability Score Increase. Your Intelligence score increases by 1.
    Deathly Intuition. When you make an Intelligence (Arcana) or Intelligence (Religion) check, you can roll a d4 and add the number rolled to the ability check.
    Favored by Dolurrh. You know the spare the dying cantrip. You can also cast false life once with this trait, requiring no material component. Starting at 3rd level, you can also cast gentle repose with it. Once you cast either spell with this trait, you can't cast that spell with it again until you finish a long rest. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for these spells.
    Touched by Mabar. You have resistance to necrotic damage.
    Spells of the Mark. If you have the Spellcasting or the Pact Magic class feature, the spells on the Mark of Death Spells table are added to the spell list of your spellcasting class.

MARK OF DEATH SPELLS

Spell Level

Spells

1st

detect evil and good, false life

2nd

gentle repose, ray of enfeeblement

3rd

animate dead, speak with dead

4th

death ward, shadow of Minara (shadow of Moil)

5th

raise dead



Volal (Volite? Vollish?) Adventure Hooks

1) A small, clandestine group of Seekers led by a mummy abactor has begun a secret war with the Cult of Life. They cannot abide by the use of other people's lives in the Cult's schemes, because it denies them the pursuit of the Divinity Within that they believe everyone should aspire to. It remains to be seen how the Crimson Covenant will react to this sectarian strife.

2) The ranks of the Hornblade Clan have swelled since chieftess Janilya's miraculous and violent ascension. The half-orc's acceptance of outsiders devoted to the Blood of Vol has created one of the most ethnically diverse populations this side of Khorvaire, while their spartan unity of purpose puts the feuding warlords of nearby Droaam to shame. The Hornblades seem intent on proving themselves peers to House Tharashk. But are they a threat, or a chance at stability in the region?

3) A most curious interfaith dialogue is about to occur on the edge of Sarlona. An embassy of Seekers has come to the shores of Adar to speak with several prominent yannahilath of the Path of Light. Despite their many incompatible views, the Seekers maintain, there are strong core values like individual action, transformative change, and community-mindedness that their faiths share. The Seekers have also expressed a desire to learn about kalashtar meditative techniques, and the lightspeakers are eager to spread the Light wherever it may find a place, despite their misgivings. But why here, why now? And does it have anything to do with recent rumblings from Adar's northern neighbor and foe, the Unity of Riedra?

4) Adventurers and government agents in major cities across several nations are reporting on a disturbing trend: some cults of the Dark Six that are occasionally rooted out and dispersed have added a seventh object of worship to their pantheon in the form of the Blood of Vol. Authorities call for investigators willing to go deep undercover in the seedy underbellies of Khorvaire to see what these syncretic "Keepers of Blood" are up to.

5) The Karnnathi fleet recently repelled a large Bloodsail raid and took from it grand trophies indeed: the ships' eponymous blood sails, full of elf ghosts screaming to be returned home to the black shores of Farlnen. Out of personal spite, or perhaps seeking to provoke the Bloodsails, the victorious fleet master refuses to hand over the sails, and is instead agitating populist support along the coast. As the elves' alliance of pirates across the Lhazaar Principalities rattles its sabers louder and louder, an unlikely alliance of Sentinel Marshals and sympathetic Seekers rushes to reclaim the sails and prevent an international crisis.

6) Dolurrh is on the verge of becoming coterminous again, and a powerful new manifest zone has unexpectedly formed in a populated area. Bands of fiend-slayers rush to prepare for the inevitable waves of nalfeshnee demons and worse, while Seekers try to push through the filmy boundary between planes and rescue souls who would otherwise be doomed to oblivion by all the interference with resurrection magic.

7) Several Aereni wizards have been caught dabbling in negative energy magic and undeath. Fearing more necromancy cells and the unknown player who established them so deep in Aerenal, the Undying Court has ordered a sweeping investigation of the islands. Can their agents cut the rot out in time? Will the pursuit of knowledge win out in the end? And what power instigated this?

8) A series of sporadic thefts and raids on libraries and magical archives across the world begins to point toward the Order of the Emerald Claw as the culprits. They seek something deceptively simple: the long-lost name of a rogue green dragon...

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Furt Digs Into: Against The Wicked City

Some years ago I came across Joseph Manola's post on why Central Asia is so good as an inspiration for a fantasy setting. Unsurprisingly I quite liked it, and even commented on it- I can't believe I was entertaining the notion of running a game back then. But then I promptly forgot all about it and the blog.

Fast forward to our calendar year of 48 (goblins are bad at maintaining institutional knowledge, don't ask) and I was Googling around for advice on the exact same subject. I'm a bit of a broken record like that. Fortunately I rediscovered that old post, and by extension the entirety of the Against the Wicked City campaign setting.

The blog bills itself as Romantic clockpunk fantasy gaming in a vaguely Central Asian setting, adding that it might also feature killer robots. That is a factually accurate description, but it only scratches the surface of what it offers, to the point that I think it undersells the whole project a bit.

For one, while the game's influences are ultimately mutable in the hands of anyone who chooses to use them, the word "vaguely" doesn't cut it. Or maybe I'm being a bit of a pedant. To me, being vaguely inspired by a historical era means it is chiefly an aesthetic inspiration, one which can (but doesn't necessarily always) run the risk of being superficial, misleading, or perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

The depth of research into Central Asian histories, cultures, and mythologies is evident here, however. There are several posts on spirits and shamanism (and a shaman class!), all written with a cautious awareness that they are engaging with a still-living continuum of peoples and religious traditions. There is thought given to the vastly different landscapes including steppe, desert, tundra, taiga, etc. and the societies and things one may find in each. There's a list of creatures from Central Asian myths and those of surrounding regions that made me realize how little I know (though I would personally supplement the hortlak with the chotgor that I am more partial to, and swap the shurale out for a playable almas race/class).

I use the awkward conjunction "race/class" because AtWC is designed with B/X D&D or similarly styled OSR games in mind (mixed with one or two 3rd & 4th editionisms like fort/ref/will saves and simple/martial weapon categories), which is the next part I want to talk about.

You all know by now that I turn into a wibbled little ball of stress when it comes to the prospect of character death or bringing the group down with my own personal lack of skill. But AtWC's deliberate merger of B/X systems with the violence-as-a-last-resort hopefulness of capital-r Romantic Fantasy both assuages some of that fear and leaves me feeling strangely compelled. I've touched on Romantic Fantasy here before, after all. It turns what I normally consider to be the engine of countless highly martial dungeon crawls into a vehicle for nonviolent, clever, or even compassionate problem-solving.

It was something I never thought about before, but now that I do it makes fairly plain sense. Why wouldn't you try diplomacy to misdirect or even find some possible common ground with the beleaguered bandits when you know that the narrative has probably supplied them with some names, scars, and humanity, and when you just know that their blunderbusses will evaporate all of your hit points and most of your torso at the onset of combat?

The eponymous Wicked City is an awful place. Founded by a truly evil monarch who may be dead or just abiding in his ominous tower, the city is choked by fear, conspiracy, and the palpable miasma of despair. The land itself is sick and gone Weird in places. Things and buildings move around when they think no one's looking. The city is the near-skeletal husk of a body suffering from the late stages of a metaphysical disease called authoritarianism. Most of its people's hopes were long ago ground down under the endlessly spinning gears of the city's clockwork machinery and the bootheels of the Wicked King's secret police- but only most hopes. The city, or at least the people trapped within it, can still be saved. And you'd be a fool to think its stagnant, systemic violence can be defeated with a liberal application of slightly different, more targeted violence on the part of the heroes. You have to put in the work and fix the broken people, not break them more.

The blog makes a direct reference to studio Ghibli protagonists as the ideal hero for this type of game at times, like Chihiro from Spirited Away. She confronts a strange and hostile new world and rescues her loved ones not by lashing out, but by being crafty, making friends, and practicing humility and compassion. Heroes standing against the Wicked City would ideally be just like that- albeit a bit older, and also equipped with flintlock guns and magical abilities as backups just in case. So maybe they're closer to Princess Mononoke than Spirited Away, but I'm splitting hairs at this point.

That refusal to bend to authority, as well as the refusal to stoop so low as to use authority's tools of force and cruelty, is what really puts the -punk in the clockpunk of this world, which I realize I haven't actually talked about until now.

Yes, there are indeed killer robots. Some of them are small and animal-like, operating on primitive programing not unlike the instincts of flesh-and-blood creatures. Others are more readily identifiable automatons, whether they be intelligent, willed, or servile. Others are truly massive and destructive war-hulks held in reserve like tactical nukes. Still others are brains in jars, or zombies puppeteered by clockwork brains- not even death will prevent the Wicked City from using and abusing its unfortunate denizens to their maximum utility, even if that utility goes toward more senseless misery and waste.

But there's a good deal more tech than that.

There are also gyrocopters, airships, autowinders, repeater crossbows, submarines, calculators, computerized brain implants, and even pocket watches. Primitive steam engines power some of these devices, but not to any extent that the truth of the subgenre tag is threatened.

That all of these outlandish and occasionally very real gadgets exist alongside more-or-less medieval technologies elsewhere in the setting might seem like a case of generic fantasy schizo tech. But against the backdrop of vaguely Early Modern Central Asia, it actually feels like a good bit of historical verisimilitude to me- assuming I'm even using that word correctly.

Central Asia has historically been a crossroads for cultures, which means it has always been an unironic land of contrasts. These contrasts can be social, religious, and political, but they are also material. The Silk Road once spread some of the most state-of-the-art technology throughout the continent and fostered diffusion between the massive states that tried to dominate it. But just a few hundred miles off those trade routes were tribes who lived much like their ancestors did hundreds of years earlier. Russian Cossacks invaded Siberia with muskets and cannons, and Siberia put up stiff resistance with swords and bows; just so, the Wicked King's legions of clockwork mechs must contend with the heroes' grit, pluck, dinky little 1d6 damage weapons, and occasionally a talking bear.

AtWC got some actual play back in the days before the end of Google+, but I haven't found much usage of the setting in the 2020s. Joseph apparently transitioned into working on a similar but distinct sci-fantasy setting called the City of Spires after he realized that, in addition to a number of logistical issues, some of his new gaming group's players had already read all of AtWC and learned secrets they shouldn't have. (Guess I kinda spoiled myself as a player by doing all of this, didn't I?)

I might not ever run a game, but I will probably find AtWC inspiring my own material in the future. It's too good not to let seep in.


There's another reason why I've latched onto the setting like this, if you'll allow me to be a little too real for a moment.

I just really want the setting's optimism to be true.

Central and Inner Asia are in a bad way right now- both the land and the people who live there. The heads of state in Post-Soviet republics fight to maintain or expand their autocratic powers at the expense of their citizens, confident that the only real limit to their behavior is whatever the looming Russian Federation finds inconvenient for its own ambitions. The Aral Sea has shrunk from the fourth-largest lake in the world to a brackish puddle whose main exports are rust and poverty. Deserts are expanding everywhere along the steppe belt. Afghanistan and Iran languish under oppressive regimes inflamed by my own country's equally backwards foreign policy. Lake Baikal, home to the deepest and purest fresh water on Earth, grows increasingly polluted by industry. The ostensibly communist ruling party of the People's Republic of China wields state capitalism like a cudgel to pacify the outside world while it researches new and inventive ways to dominate its own citizens and annihilate the Uyghur people. Mongolia is facing the worst dzuds in decades because of climate change. And most of the international community either doesn't care, or doesn't have a goddamn clue.

I wish some plucky kids would come along and Studio Ghibli things better. We already need a miracle.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Mechanical Musings: A Couple Random House Rule Concepts I've Never Used

Title says it all. I don't really play games, but I often think about playing games, and these are some ideas that have crossed my mind in those times. I haven't experimented with any of them or fleshed them out into tables, and you can probably find a half-dozen other blogs that go into much better and greater detail about any particular one of the concepts I play around with, but it's my show damn it.

Combat is Terrifying:
When the characters aren't starting off as experienced combatants, or when your game is intended to be low-combat but still dangerous, consider emphasizing how frightening combat and both sides of violence really are.

Force attacking PCs to make wisdom/will/vs paralysis/etc. saves before they even roll to hit AC or cast an overtly harmful spell, because sudden and decisive violence is not a reflex most people exercise regularly. Failure means they hesitate or even freeze. And if they are themselves the target of an attack, a certain amount of damage or debilitation suffered should call for a save vs. fear because holy crap that hurt and that's your blood!

The PCs have to succeed (or maybe fail) a certain number of saves or endure enough rounds of combat overall to get desensitized to inflicting and being subjected to violence, and thus stop having to roll. Martial characters like fighters might get a bonus to these "ruthlessness" saves according to their to-hit bonus, or they might automatically desensitize at a certain level. And even when a character has reached that point, consider the mental toll it takes, and the stress it causes long-term.

Make sure enemies that aren't all battle-hardened or utterly single-minded automatons also deal with some of this in the form of morale checks for major setbacks or just for being green recruits. Remind players of the NPCs' human(oid)ity, and offer avenues for diplomacy or escape often.

Obviously don't do something like this without the whole group's consent beforehand. As I write this, I realize it might cleave too close to PTSD, which is very real for some people.

Journey and Destination: Instead of leveling up according to the number and lethality of the things you kill, the value of stuff you steal, or the narrative beats of a GM with more important things to do than balance an EXP checkbook, you gain experience by the literal milestone. This is most useful when travel and discovery is the central thrust of the adventure. Leveling up can happen overnight while camped, or maybe take the form of sudden insights of "road wisdom" as they leave an area.

Requiring that the party keeps moving in order to keep (mechanically) growing discourages them from settling down in one place for too long and becoming stale, stagnant, and/or feudal tyrants. Either give XP per the kilomile or other unit of measure traveled, or grant it in larger chunks depending on the length or difficulty of the paths the party chooses (or is forced) to take. In the event that they're moving over trackless wastes or acting as the trailblazers, consider awarding XP per region/landmark discovered, or map hex explored. Retreading old territory doesn't grant any experience unless they make a discovery they missed before.

If you need to positively incentivize them sticking around long enough to actually do stuff in every area instead of just scratching the surface like highly armed tourists, grant bonus experience for fully delving into the area's subsites, like ruins or a cave system, so that it guides them toward quests or bonus objectives. Finding the magma antechamber gets them the experience, but solving the fire lich's chronic loneliness gives that experience satisfying meaning. Or to give a negative incentive, slap the party with a stacking road-weariness debuff if they're being too shallow or moving on too quickly.

Communal Leveling: You're only as strong as the community you help cultivate and protect. PCs don't directly power up from doing or experiencing anything out in the field. Nobody levels up. Rather, they bring their experiences and resources back home to their base (or their caravan/nomadic camp if you want to use this with the above travel rules) to help it grow and prosper.

Different specialized buildings can be constructed, NPCs are attracted to the community, and existing relationships strengthen over time. From these, the PCs will gain their information, equipment, upgrades, training, etc. that were previously gated or inaccessible. And if the PCs ever start to neglect their community or take its services for granted, they risk misfortune befalling the place and/or its inhabitants, and making those services unavailable again.

And unless it's part of a big, endgame culmination of plot and progress, don't let the characters outright take control of the community. Doing something like taking public office and greater responsibility in recognition of their contributions is fine, but make sure they remain accountable to their fellows- fantasy is one of the few places where we get to make that happen without a lot of canvassing and/or revolution, after all.

The PCs are important, even vital organs of the whole, but this is not another stronghold for them to rule over. These are friends, family, and neighbors.

Moar Depletion Dice!: Instead of just making a sword break on a Nat 1, have the blade chip or bend first so that it's still usable, but not as effective until it gets a serious whetstone'ing. To-hit can take a penalty, but also that d8 damage drops to a d6. If the game uses a hit dice recovery during rest mechanic, maybe suffering some critical hits slashes those dice until the PCs manage a very long rest. Interrupted concentration or fizzled spells reduce their numerical effects by dice sizes, too. And all of these stack, to create an experience of gradually rising desperation as abilities and resources are depleted.

Basically anything that isn't a d20 has the potential to get reduced through injury or wear and tear. An entire mishap table can be constructed from these, offering a less permanent and gruesome alternative to the detailed maiming of some injury tables- or a complementary system to integrate into them, if your players are Hidetaka Miyazaki-level masochists.

Unless something obvious escapes me, this rule leaves most non-variable utility, save-or-die, or save-or-suck spells and effects unaffected, since there are no dice involved to deplete. It can still impact other facets of the characters or creatures who use those types of abilities enough to not be an all-the-time issue, but keep in mind that specialist wizards and their ilk might stand out as even stronger than usual.

Natural; Not Divine: The source of power that rangers, shamans, druids, et al draw their magic from is categorized as primal rather than divine.

... That's basically it, I just want it treated as unique and special.

I had forgotten all about the D&D 4E power categories until I started reading Keith Baker's old Eberron backlog and found that he has continued to apply the primal distinction to druids in his version of Eberron, not as a mechanical label but to help characterize a very distinct set of animistic practices and traditions as separate from the usual monolatry and organized religion you find in a D&D-inspired world. I just find it neat and wanted to share that.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Ivory Tower University: A Soft Reboot?

Hey there, Burrowers.

If you've been following my blog since the beginning, well, I am kind of underserving of that crazy dedication. Thanks for that.

But more relevant to this topic, if you've been following me since the beginning, you know one of my earliest long-term projects was world-building through cheeky academic article snippets written in the Ivory Tower University setting (ITUniverse for short).

Typically I'd write from the perspective of Roberick Bertrum Litte, the reluctant bearer of the most snobbish name I ever conjured, as well as my paper-thin author avatar for when I want to mix academic cynicism with humanistic idealism. He'd write up a paper from his supplies office under the staircase, scribble in his own snarky footnotes, and then send it into circulation among a readership that even he wasn't convinced of the existence of. And for a while it was pretty good times- for me, at least.

Of course it's been years since I regularly made posts tied to the ITU, excluding occasional shout-outs in my belabored but ongoing Troika! character background series.

Some of you may have wondered "what gives?" I know I did. And I think I've finally figured out what, in fact, is giving.

I created the world that houses Deneroth and the ITU as a home for my own very, very, very modestly different take on orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins. That was the impetus for starting all of it. My first-ever post about the Fokari was meant to get the ball rolling on that. But of course you don't see any of that in the full scope of my ITU posts. Even the Fokari are just a blip on the radar compared to my lengthy and scattered writeups on life in the safely generic Ersuunian Basin (assuming Iron Age societies with 20th century social sciences still count as generic). Because every time I leaned toward writing about those cultures directly, I felt the need to justify their existence first, by creating the world around them, and then finally, hopefully placing them in the perfectly humanoid-shaped hole that would be leftover.

Basically, I fell into the trap of writing what I felt I needed to write in order to set things up, before I could get around to writing what I had wanted to. A slow accumulation of layers of stuff to get ready for the even slower peeling-back of those layers, so that I could ultimately reveal the thing I had in mind when I started my blog one summer during college.

That's a totally valid strategy for writing fiction and it can lead to a really good payoff, don't get me wrong. But I was just doing mundane, unclever worldbuilding in order to get around to the slightly less mundane and unclever worldbuilding, and at the pace I write stuff it was going nowhere fast.

It was very fatiguing, and it felt pointless sometimes, but the compulsion returned every time I returned to the ITU. Even after I took a long break to do cringy audio logs, or to write more TTRPG-related stuff and accidentally become a member of the artpunk OSR blogosphere.

A visual map of OSR blog links, traffic, and interconnections aggregated through Discord.
Somehow I wound up visible on it. I don't know who the original creator is.

Now that I've identified the issue, it's probably good to work on it. That's what my therapist usually said to do, anyway. And I think there's some old self-help saying about writing a thing down to make yourself more likely to do it?

I've decided to give ITU something in between a soft reboot and a time skip.

RBL will still be my vehicle for most of it, and pretty much everything he's touched on remains canon. But rather than writing about his subjects from a great distance of time or space like the armchair scholars he so despises, he'll be far more mobile, and focused on bringing other voices to the fore. He'll come out the gate doing what I was inching toward with my aborted Looking Southward and Backward travelogue all those years ago.

I don't want him to be like one of those YouTube personalities who give a shallow and sensationalized account of whatever "exotic" historical or geographic topic they're covering- we have enough of those in real life. Hopefully he never actually came across that way to any of you readers. But even if he didn't, this change will help me quell that minor, personal quibble about him that I've had since I started meditating on all this.

The biggest mechanical change will be that the average post reads less like a micro-article and more like an interview transcript. I wouldn't dream of getting rid of the margin notes and fictional citations, so those will reappear in some form too. The posts will also just be longer in general, both as a natural outgrowth of my increased comfort with rambling since the beginning of my blog, and as a way to cut down on the overlapping multipart numbered series that wore me down the first time around.

So, yeah. I hope to start work on ITU posts again soon, and have one out for you to read within the next few [units of time of your choosing]. I hope this little aside made sense, and I hope we both enjoy it again.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Falling City

"The Falling City" is just one of several descriptive exonyms used by travelers and scholars. Others include Fallingrock, The Howling City, The Agglomerate, The Boulder, The Pebble, etc. None of them are especially clever, but all are true in part. For what it's worth, the city's denizens (commonly dubbed "fallers") merely call it "home", or "The City" at most.

The aforementioned rock is a collection of natural stone and mortal-made debris several kilomiles in diameter. It is approximately bullet-shaped, with a flattened top and tapering bottom. The "city" portion of the Falling City is located on the flattened top. The whole thing is held together by a small well of artificial gravity constantly maintained by the city's magic-users.

Without that, the City would be torn apart as it falls through the Chasm.

The Chasm is several times wider than the City, and by most accounts infinite in height. Most of the time it resembles an approximately circular rock tunnel, but it is known to deform into more jagged or esoteric shapes and materials at times. Rarely, it will widen out into massive vaults that offer strange and alien vistas before inevitably tapering back inward. Dim, ambient light comparable to an overcast day seems to suffuse the whole Chasm without source- nothing outside of the City casts a shadow.

It is unknown what, if anything created the Chasm, or if it even exists in a conventional sense.

The City perpetually falls through the Chasm at several times the terminal velocity it should be- what limited observations that can be made from the City suggest that its underside glows orange-hot from friction. The same blanket of spells that keeps the rock together also keeps a breathable atmosphere on top of the city, though the bubble is not thick enough to block out the low, constant howling of the wind whipping past the edges of the rock. Toward the middle of the rock it's little more than background static like any city has.

Under ideal conditions the City is stable and centered in the Chasm with no wobble, tilt, or rotation to its fall. As gashes and scrapes along the rock's flanks can attest, ideal conditions are not always met. Course correction requires immediate and immense effort on the part of all able spellcasters lest the City be dashed to pieces.

There is no way in or out of the Chasm—and by extension, the Falling City—except by way of teleportation spells (oftentimes a misfiring one, at that). The fact that it doesn't seem to connect to any other plane in the multiverse supports the argument that it is its own self-contained demiplane. Where on the "map" that is, is a mystery.

How it remained unknown by the larger multiversal community up until fairly recently suggests that the plane was either created recently, or is just very well hidden. This is reinforced by the fact that divine magic tends to fizzle out in the City- not even the gods seem to know where it is. Meanwhile, arcane and primal magic work more-or-less normally.

The citizens of the Falling City maintain that the City has been around for millennia at least, epochs at most.

Every neighborhood seems to have a different origin story for the City and the Chasm, influenced by local culture and history. Some believe that both have existed since before the dawn of time, and will continue to exist after all else has ended. Others maintain a small hero-cult dedicated to the original mages and geotheurges who either created the City and the Chasm or transported the City into the Chasm in order to save it from some impending disaster. Evidence for each is murky enough that many choose to believe whichever they fancy.

A Few Other City/Chasm Theories Include:

  • The Chasm is the intestine of a Cosmic Earthworm that devoured the City's world long ago. The day is eagerly awaited when the Worm excretes the City onto a paradise built on solid ground and/or midnight soil.
  • The Chasm is a very long circular loop that the City flies laps through. Glowing magical beacons are fired into the Chasm walls at intervals in the belief that someday the City will pass them by again and prove the theory true.
  • The City is the leftover pocket domain of a dead and forgotten god. The citizens are fated to reincarnate within it for all eternity until they achieve moksha.
  • The Chasm is actually an illusion projected around the perfectly ordinary City to keep its limits and its denizens imprisoned. Their jailors are an omniscient, vaguely malign conspiracy of NIMBY wizards and disgruntled suburban planners.
  • The Chasm is actually a one-dimensional string in the process of propagating itself into empty space to form a brand new universe, and the City is a proto-particle that will help form new matter there. There's more to the theory than that, but most people mentally check out here.
  • The City isn't falling down through the Chasm, the Chasm is flying up around the City, maaan.
  • The Chasm is not infinite in length at all, and in fact its end is coming up very, very soon.
  • Everyone in the City knows its history and the nature of the Chasm exactly, but refuse to give any details to outsiders because the mystique attracts tourists.
  • Once there were many cities and other islands of life falling through the Chasm. Now only the one City remains, and the council knows why.
  • All of these questions and more could be answered if one were to just ask the secretive natives hiding in the Chasm wall.
  • The City was once a piece of masonry connected to a "Bridge" before it broke off and slipped into the "Under". Whatever that means.

Whatever its origins or nature, the Falling City is surprisingly accommodating despite its eminently hostile locale. It is arranged in a roughly circular plan with a combination of wide-open common spaces and narrow streets with efficiently stacked buildings. Being unable to build outward, the city builds vertically to account for the slow upward crawl of its population, which is no more than a few thousand. High-rise buildings are cheap, but soundproofing them against the constant howl of the Chasm is not.

The city is divided up into a half-dozen districts, each of which has a seat on the council that gives the city its veneer of government. Since most citizens of the Falling City have at least enough magical talent to create matter from thin air and live self-sufficiently, there are few limited resources for a central government to justify itself by consolidating and (mis)managing. The council mainly exists to organize the will of its citizens to prevent or repair damage to the city, treat with visiting outsiders, and pass judgement on criminals.

There are two punishments used in the Falling City; community service, which is used for the vast majority of offenses and ranges greatly in length according to severity, and Unfettering.

Unfettering is quite simple: a group of the city's most talented mages stand in a circle around the condemned in an open space. The mages suppress the city's magical anchoring effect around the individual for several seconds; the individual then proceeds to exit the city limits in a very expedited fashion. A cleanup crew is typically kept on-hand, on the off-chance that anything is left of them afterward.

Unfettering is exceedingly rare, fortunately. It is meted out only by council consensus when an offender has been found guilty of premeditating grievous harm upon their fellow citizens, or threatening the integrity of the entire city- practically speaking, both charges are one and the same. No one has been intentionally ragdolled to bits upon the skyline in decades, and no outsider has ever been judged so, no matter how clueless or rude they can be.

And there have been many outsiders in the Falling City, ever since access was first accidentally gained during the Conjuration Crisis of █████████. Visitors are frequent, though few mortals stay long enough to acclimate to the extra atmospheres of pressure and the complete lack of a day-night cycle. The city tolerates these planar tourists and enjoys their business for the time being, so long as they can pay in magical curiosities not available in the Chasm.

Natives of the City don't much care to leave their home, meanwhile. They may visit other worlds and planes, but to date no fallers have voluntarily moved out of the City. It might be just a hunk of rock screaming through the abyss, but isn't that most people's homes at the end of the day?

Thanks to many tourists, a handy list of interesting places and sites to visit in the Falling City has been compiled. It is always expanding or shrinking according to whim. The current interesting sites include but are not limited to...

Visitor Center: An ornate, almost garishly decorated building quite at odds with its neighbors, located centrally in the City in order to attract even the shortest of adventurer attention spans. It is what the sign says in a dozen-and-a-half languages (the length of which is growing every week); City Visiting Center: Planar Visitors Please Register Within! Within, a large lobby plays host to staff offering local resources to outsiders or educating them on the finer points of city law and culture. A small group of abjuration and conjuration specialists nicknamed the Shunters also stands by to protect citizens and visitors both from any hazards of planar travel. They're the closest thing to cops the Falling City will tolerate having.

City Hall: Unlike the Visitor's Center, most outsiders can't find this place for the life of them without direction, and some citizens are even prone to forgetting its location. Not because it's hidden in any way, but because of how utterly unremarkable the building is. Only the crowd that gathers outside of it in anticipation of important or potentially amusing meetings is any indication that this is the seat of government in the Falling City.

Tiriyab's Twirls: An experimental entertainment house that operates within a warded zone of partially weakened tethering. This allows anyone inside to move around in a low- or even zero-gravity environment. Games, performances, and drinking abound. The different open-air levels of the establishment are serviced by "twirls", rotating rings that function like lifts or conveyor belts. All of this is overseen by the eponymous Tiriyab, who is otherwise known for perfecting (and closely guarding the secret to) an at-will short-range teleportation spell which they use to navigate their business quickly. A recent arrival in the city, a former contortionist and thief-acrobat, seeks to earn permanent residence and work as a performer under Tiriyab (and perhaps also steal the spell).

The Spiral: An access tunnel that winds down into the rock from the surface like a massive corkscrew. It houses a modest undercity that mainly services the ever-rotating staff of magic-users tasked with maintaining the integrity of the rock by channeling power straight into its floors and walls. It's also a pleasant little getaway from the (admittedly already pretty subdued) hustle and bustle of the city's surface. The tunnel supposedly goes all the way down to the "tip" of the rock, but the temperature is so high down there that none but the most skilled magic-users ever visit, and even then it's only to make sure nothing is melting or harboring unexpected trouble.

Beloveds' Embrace: One of the small shrines dedicated to honoring some of the hypothesized founders of the Falling City; in this instance, the magical power couple known as Quy & Hnah. As the legend goes, when the arcanist and the geomancer married, they also wedded their arcane and earth magic together. This formed a potent mix that allowed them to raise and build whole continents in the mythic time before the Chasm, and ultimately led to the founding of the City. The shrine's votaries keep an extensive canon of Quy & Hnah's adventures for the public, mostly told in the form of parables on ethics, magical practice, and healthy partnerships. The shrine gets slightly more traffic than normal these days, after a popular albeit shallow and trend-chasing travelogue author mistakenly identified Quy & Hnah as the gods of the Falling City. Visitors typically leave the quaint little street-side alcove feeling slightly underwhelmed. A visiting cleric—exceptionally rare in the void of divine energy that is the Falling City—has recently arrived on what they claim is a sacred mission to preach about Quy & Hnah abroad. The shrine keepers are... perplexed by this.

"Wobblespike": A tower that has the dubious honor of being the tallest point in the City. Gravity is weaker and the atmosphere is thinner here. Unique within the Falling City's architecture, it is made primarily of metal. This allows the tower to bend slightly with the windy Chasm turbulence it is exposed to, rather than just breaking apart. Hence the somewhat silly nickname. The lower levels see small amounts of mixed use, while the top only ever has a motley assortment of researchers and/or diviners trying to learn more about the Chasm from that vantage point. An air elemental in a copper suit has recently taken up temporary residence on the roof, where they "record" the wind with the aid of a strange metal rod.

The Antiquarium: A shop that began as a modest establishment for hobbyists who collected and traded interesting minor magical items. Since the arrival of the first planar visitors, it has become a growing hub of people seeking grander and less cozy acquisitions. Up to this point all dealings and visitors have been peaceful, but the neighborhood around the Antiquarium grows antsy about the increasing numbers of traditional enemies and opposingly aligned outsiders, not to mention all the magic weapons and dangerous wands. The matter—as well as whether or not to post a few Shunters in the area— is soon to be brought to the City Council.

How Disenchanting: Much like the Antiquarium, this place unexpectedly earned a whole new life as more planar travelers trickled in. What began as a municipal box with a slot on the front for recycling magical junk has evolved into a thriving city-owned business. Adventurers, it turns out, tend to hoard literal tons of stuff in those Bags of Holding and Portable Holes of theirs. Many of them will gladly pay a small processing fee to have their old magic items broken down into raw magical extract, useful for spell components or item creation. The Falling City keeps a percentage too, of course.

The Meander: Vegetation and "wildlife" are present all throughout the Falling City, in private gardens and on more hospitable streets. But to get a taste of true envelopment in nature, most fallers take a stroll through this large park and garden. Named for its winding pathways, this park holds several plant and animal species unknown elsewhere in the multiverse, lit up and sustained by small artificial suns that lazily float through the groves. Since they can't survive in the Chasm, scholars theorize that they were originally taken from another world that has since been destroyed, or perhaps they were bred from wizard experiments like so many other monstrosities. A druid(?) who calls themself the High Orinthologue is squatting studying the local bird genera here.

The Scrape: Once upon a time during a particularly deadlocked and petty disagreement between districts, the City drifted slightly off course and struck an unexpectedly large protuberance from the Chasm wall. It cleaved off a chunk of the City's rim, taking streets and city blocks as well as all their occupants with it. It was the largest disaster ever recorded in the history of the Falling City. The site has since been reinforced to prevent erosion, but much of the visible damage has not been touched since that day. This shell of a neighborhood long-gone has had a memorial statue installed on its outskirts as a reminder of what can happen when the survival of the City is taken for granted.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

GLOG Class: Rambler

The freedom to roam. Everyman's Right. "Trespassing". Whatever they call it, you live by it. Some call you a hopeless romantic. As far as you're concerned, you've worn through enough pairs of shoes to earn that right. You've been to distant lands and seen wonderous things, but you're not some explorer with grand ambitions. Sure, you might fight to keep the world free and sacrosanct. But you also wander just for wandering's sake, content to exist.


Rambler

Starting Equipment: walking stick, weather-beaten coat or cloak and distinctive hat or scarf, pipe (for playing or for smoking), a brick.
Starting Skills: Foreign Parts, Wilderness. Also, roll on adjacent table.

A: Irrepressible Spirit
B: Friends in Far Places
C: Through Bramble, Over Hedge
D: Unfettered Vagabond

You gain +1 Movement and -1 Reaction Rolls against authorities and private land owners for each Rambler template you have.

A: Irrepressible Spirit
Years of traveling light over any terrain in any sort of weather have inured you to the mundane discomforts of life, leaving you implacable and serene even when you have nothing to your name but the experience of being alive. 

You can travel 3 hexes in a day while still benefitting from rest and having lunch. You also have +1 bonus to Save vs Fear and other negative emotions for every empty Inventory Slot you currently have.

B: Friends in Far Places
Wherever you go, you dispel the myths and negative stereotypes ascribed to vagrancy with friendliness and cleverness in equal measure. Most find you peculiar, some find you charming, but few can bear you ill will (or chase you down before you've moved on).

Once per day you can reroll the Reaction of peasants, villagers, or other ordinary folk to you (and your party, if you so choose) and take the better result. No matter where in the world you are, there's a 50% you know a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend in the nearest town or homestead who will let you stay the night.

C: Through Bramble, Over Hedge
Either thanks to years of rambling, or that one time you had a lovely spot of afternoon tea with a hedge witch, the land just doesn't try to inconvenience you very much. Rough terrain never slows you down, nonmagical thorns and briars don't hurt you, and once per day you can magically pass through any fence, hedge, or similar barrier.

D: Unfettered Vagabond
No man can keep you down- certainly not The Man. The land and its peoples should be free, no matter what arbitrary laws or lines on maps say. Once per day you can break any lock, chain, pen, cage, or other restraint that is keeping you or another creature wrongfully imprisoned.*
* Of course, all imprisonment is wrongful to you.


1d6

Rambler Skills

1

Everywhere you go, you take mementos of things you've seen and friends you've made. Gain a sentimental scrapbook and an aching nostalgia for a place you know you'll never return to.

2

You once did a brief stint in an anarcho-syndicalist union. Gain a random set of specialty tools and a pamphlet on wage slavery.

3

Surviving miles of trackless steppe or desert has left you well-preserved against dehydration. You need to drink half as much water.

4

You frequent colder, less pastoral climes than most ramblers. Gain a set of winter clothes and a bivouac sack.

5

That hedge witch really did take a shine to you. Gain a potion of antitoxin (lumpy and foul-tasting) and a dogeared copy of Dear Goody Mooncup.

6

Try as you might to avoid them, your many run-ins with guards and other authorities have left you well-versed in criminal procedure. Gain the "Law" skill and a wanted poster bearing your likeness (poorly drawn).


If you're basically playing Snufkin, you're doing it right.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Detritus

(I recently learned about the concept of "depletion dice" mechanics and decided to graft it onto an older idea I had. You'll probably see a lot of similarities between this quick draft and my Desolate Days post, another single(ish) page RPG, though I think Detritus distinguishes itself enough in tone to have the right to exist. You could also probably use this as the chassis for a Crypt-Cities game, too. Just swap constructs for corpses.)
FF1 Guardian by Yoshitaka Amano

Detritus is a game about loss. Not loss in the sense of just going along, making progress until you inevitably face something too great for you, or luck ceases to go your way- though that may also be the case.

Loss in the sense of constant, incremental decline. You do not level up in Detritus, you level down. Tools break as easily as your body. Wear, tear, and time force painful decisions on you, and the best you can do is cut your losses for the moment. You may get frustrated, or you may enjoy the challenge- both feelings are irrelevant. All is fleeting, soon to be dust.

In Detritus you play as a simulacrum cobbled together from scrap and garbage and endowed/burdened with a semblance of life. You are of approximately humanoid shape, lopsided and misproportioned. Your creators, and the means by which they created and repaired you, are long-lost.

You “live” on borrowed time as stone crumbles, wood splinters, and the gears in your head rust. You are soon to be nothing, and you have nothing except for one last order screaming over and over on a fraying ribbon inside your brain as you wander a dead, ruined world:

F̶̦͛Ḯ̴̦Ṉ̸͑D̵͇͝ ̸̯̐T̶̫͋H̴͙̉E̴͍̐ ̴͔͝A̵̩͘Ǹ̷͖T̵̤̈́I̷̪̍-̴͎̒T̷̯͆Ȍ̶̧Ŵ̶̤E̵̗̚R̷͙̈́

T̴̻̏U̶̫̾R̵̪̉N̷̛͔ ̶̉ͅŤ̷̞H̷̭̔E̵̪͗ ̶̤̒K̵̰̊Ě̷͔Y̴̹̅

Making sense of this agonizing geas, to say nothing of actually achieving it, presents you with an insurmountable task: survive in this world that is fast rejecting your existence. Brave continent-blotting sandstorms, plumb the hollowed-out shell of the planet, climb the shattered heights of the tetrahedral sky, all without your (mal?)functioning kin stripping you down for parts.


Simulacra have the stats Force, Finesse, and Focus.

  • Force holds things together or tears them apart.
  • Finesse navigates fragile things and deadly places.
  • Focus maintains your fraying mind and senses.

Assign d12, d10, and d8 to your stats. Smaller dice are worse. Everything will weaken and crumble.

Only roll dice when you want to do something and there is serious risk and meaningful consequence for failure, or when the world or its denizens have thrown something harmful at you. Roll the most relevant stat's die and test against the risk's Target Number, which can be anything from 2 up to ~14.

Roll sparingly and reluctantly, but remember that you will inevitably fail.

Roll at or above a target number to succeed or avoid harm. Rolling below the target number is a failure, and causes Breakage. Rolling a 1 is a critical failure, and causes double Breakage. Rolling the max number on a die is always a critical success regardless of Target Number, but also causes Breakage.

Breakage is the wear and tear on your body made manifest. When you suffer Breakage, reduce the rolled stat by 1 die size: d12 becomes d10, d10 becomes d8, etc. If you suffer double Breakage from a Natural 1, you reduce the die size by 2 steps. This reduction is permanent. Stats can break all the way down to d2. When a d2 stat is tested and breaks, your simulacrum breaks down into the Wreck it was always destined to be. When all simulacra wreck, the game ends.

You can stave off Breakage by using Tools, and Cannibalizing.

Tools are leftover machines, devices, and aids that can be scavenged from the dead world around you. If you're lucky, they make up for the resources you expend trying to get them. Tools come in d2 and d4 sizes and have an associated stat. You can choose to roll 1 Tool die alongside a stat and add the results together before determining if it succeeds or fails. Rolling the maximum number on a tool die is not an automatic success, but it does still break. Each simulacrum can carry up to 3 Tools each.

There's a rumor/theory/lie that better, less worn-out tools of d6 or even bigger size are somewhere out there, hidden by the Makers.

Cannibalizing is a bit like scavenging for Tools, except the heaps of rubble you rifle through are your fellow mismade simulacra. When another character (whether PC or NPC) is wrecked, you can harvest their body for repairs, spare parts, and the rare upgrade. Cannibalizing allows you to replace 1 or 2 of your stat dice with the dice your target had at the time of death, excluding the broken stat. Replaced dice must share the same stat; you can't replace your d6 Finesse with a d12 taken from a wreck's Force, for example.

You will probably happen upon the wrecks of your previous player characters and their Tools while on subsequent excursions, and should take advantage of any you find. Incremental progress measured in dust and failure.

At the end of every session (or with each major milestone reached), every simulacrum takes 1 step of Breakage in every stat from the inexorable passage of time, unless that would drop a stat below d2- that thread will break when its time comes.