Friday, June 7, 2024

The Lukkawei (Troika! Community Jam: Bestiary 2024 Submission)

I had been considering making a monster for a bit, and it just so happened to line up with my friend TLN sharing the newest Troika! jam hosted by the Melsonian Arts Council. So, I decided why not?

Click here for the Community Jam!

Click here if you really want this mess in PDF form for some reason.



The Lukkawei

SKILL: 10

STAMINA: 12

INITIATIVE: 4

ARMOUR: 5

DAMAGE: Frantic Flailing (As Small Beast)

A drawn, vaguely pellicular creature at home in the shadows like a fish in water. They are normally content to lurk in the deep caverns, ancient ruins, and neglected cellars that spawn them. The unbearable agony of being perceived is lethal to them, so they try stay hidden at all costs, swathed in onion-like layers of shadow. They are not violent by nature, but being intruded upon sends them into a panicked frenzy in which they will attempt to scare away or run away from all observers. They are named for the shriek they emit when startled.

Lukkawei! Lukkawei!


SPECIAL

Once per Round a Lukkawei may send out sheets of tepid darkness to quash all light in a 100 foot area. Anyone holding a torch, lantern, or other personal light source may Test their Luck to keep it alight.

If a Lukkawei is exposed to bright light for 3 consecutive Rounds, its Skill, Initiative, and Armour are reduced to 0 as its protective shadows peel away.


MIEN

1: Paranoid

2: Agoraphobic

3: Bleakly Serene

4: Consternated

5: Anemoiac

6: Exhausted

Friday, May 31, 2024

The Book of Shamans (1978)

Until recently, I was ignorant of just how many games and game-adjacent products besides Dungeons & Dragons already existed in the 1970s.

Before D&D reached mainstream recognition in the '80s, countless small independent creators were publishing zines and digest-sized books about gaming in fictional worlds. They ran the gamut of science-fiction, horror, military fiction, and vaguely medieval European fantasy, but they were all typically lumped under the umbrella of Fantasy Role-Playing, or FRP. The term FRP was broadly used throughout the '70s and '80s until enough people knew what the heck an RPG was that we collectively shifted over to using that instead.

Even more surprising to me is that among these dingy little cardstock volumes were some of the first third-party rules supplements in the hobby. After the first wave of legal spats with TSR, most of these books erased any name reference to D&D or similar games, but it was usually pretty obvious what game and edition you were meant to use them with. A rare few were self-consciously system-agnostic products meant to be employed with any game on the market; or at least any game that chiefly used a d20 or d100, as the case often was.

To close out one of my most weirdly productive blogging months in years, I want to share one of those supplements with my Burrowers today. I chose it because it is an almost suspiciously convenient confluence of my interests: The Book of Shamans.

Pictured: Not mine, because I don't have
~$200 to gamble on an eBay purchase.

The Book Itself

The Book of Shamans was written by Ed Lipsett, illustrated by Robert N. Charrette, and published in 1978 by Little Soldier Games, which was at the time an imprint of Phoenix Games. It was the last in the Book of... series of supplementals published by Little Soldier before it and Phoenix went out of business, as so many small publishers of the time did. The books were later collected and reprinted in 1983 in the 54-page The Fantasy Gamer's Compendium by Gamescience, which to my surprise is still in business. That collection is the only reason I'm able to read this book today, thanks to some kind soul who photocopied and uploaded the whole thing.

The pages of this book are thin, so thin that you can see ghosts of the text and black-and-white illustrations hiding on the other side. Even without a physical copy in front of me, I can perfectly imagine the feeling of the paper beneath my fingertips; the same as the pages in that old Webster's dictionary with the tearing blue cover that's collecting dust somewhere in my closet right now. Perhaps it's good I don't have a physical copy, or else my scrabbly little fingers so prone to creasing and wrinkling things might rip the pages.

There was apparently a nicer Revised & Expanded edition of the compendium released in 1990 that I don't have access to, but the actual differences in text seem to be minimal, so I don't have any qualms about carrying on with the first edition.

The Classes

The Book of Shamans offers a pair of alternate character classes for players, and rules on how to play them; The shamanic Warrior, and the Shaman proper. They are both members of a tribal society steeped in the natural world and the world of spirits that intersects it, able to call upon the powers of both to overcome challenges faced by their tribes, or their own souls.

Prospective members of either class must first undergo an extensive vision quest. First they fast and undergo a purification ritual, before journeying into the lonely wilderness for weeks on end while working to clear their mind of all worldly thoughts. If they're ready, a vision will appear to the would-be shaman and reveal their animal spirit, and their True Name. The spirit then tears their soul away from their body in a flight through the soul plane that ends in the so-called "spirit-of-spirits" weighing the shaman's soul to decide its fate.

Once that fate has been decided, the shaman's soul is placed in a nest in a seven-branched world tree of sorts, where it meditates and shrinks under the care of the shaman's animal spirit, who is now a sort of "foster-father" to the shaman. Once the soul has shrunken down to the size of a doll after months of meditation, the shaman's body and soul are reunited and they return to their tribe, where they may be inducted into a brotherhood or shamanic society if one exists in their culture.

As esoteric and involved as that all sounds, the actual mechanics of the quest only involve a few rolls on some tables during character creation.

The Warrior is essentially the Fighter class of D&D, with the addition of a shamanic animal spirit whom the warrior can call upon for assistance once per year. This assistance is determined by rolling on a d100 table that includes summoning the animal to your aid, chanting to make everyone nearby believe your words, chanting to control the weather, or getting a sweet new magic weapon made out of natural materials like bone or stone.

This rendering of aid assumes the character rolled well enough on the table for a vision quest to acquire that animal spirit: failing the quest means you have to wait 1 month before trying again. Failing to see a vision is also a traumatizing experience that requires an Intelligence check to avoid committing suicide over, meaning that you can theoretically die during character creation if you roll poorly enough.

The Shaman takes the rite of passage a step farther. They roll for an animal spirit the same way, but only after sacrificing all but 6 of their Intelligence and Psychic Ability, an ability score used in the preceding The Book of Sorcery. The reduction in Intelligence seems to be an implicit sacrifice to the spirits after having their soul and body remade, since shamans can also transfer points from their Dexterity score to Strength and/or Constitution upon graduating into the role. It still comes across as a mechanical way of enforcing the perceived primitivism or hidebound adherence to traditions that the book paints shamans with, though. Adding to that idea is the fact that it's almost impossible for shamans to learn to read here. (As an aside, it also makes rolling on the animal spirit table even more risky, because if they fail, their Int check vs. Suicide is now a 6-in-20 at best.)

Any excess ability score points you're left with after reducing Int and Psy to 6 are transferred to yet another brand-new ability score, this one unique to the shaman: mana. Mana is the resource that shamans spend to use their magical abilities, in favor of traditional Vancian spell slot preparation.

That Big Blue Bar, Mana

On the topic of Mana, it's a good time to talk about this book's influences.

Most of you probably know 'mana' from fiction. It can be used as the name for a magical force, a blue energy meter, or part of the title of several video game franchises. Most people (myself included) didn't know about the term's origins or how it came to be used so ubiquitously in video and tabletop games until fairly recently, and I'm glad that lack of knowledge is reversing course. I'll still take a second to soapbox about it to you though.

Mana is the name for a weirdly diverse range of religious and mythological concepts from across the world, including an old spelling of the Biblical and Quranic manna, a conception of the soul in Mandaeism, and an alternative name for the Finnish underworld. But the usage that made its way into popular culture is the Mana of the Polynesian and Melanesian cultures of the Pacific.

I don't want to risk falling into the trap of pop-anthropological misrepresentation that landed us in this situation to begin with, so I'll be broad: traditionally, mana is a supernatural force that permeates the universe in  many Oceanian worldviews. Sometimes it is a power that can exist in nature, but sometimes it can also be cultivated within oneself, and the possession of mana can confer qualities like authority or strength, making it a component of traditional power structures. It can mean a lot of things; the linguistic uses of mana are almost as diverse as the Oceanic cultures who have a word for it.

Of course, when a couple of Western academics learned about the concept in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they found that with a little bending, it could be slotted rather neatly into a theory they were developing. Anthropologists of the era were looking for the universal origin of religion that explained what they saw as a linear progression from simple or primitive beliefs toward complex, civilized beliefs. The idea of mana as a latent spiritual power recognized by so many cultures over such a large area of the planet caused some to believe that mana was the first step in that chain; a kind of primeval pre-animism that they began to connect with separate ideas from elsewhere around the world, like the Haudenosaunee concept of orenda. Needless to say, this theory is kind of garbage and full of false equivocation and Eurocentrism.

Thankfully, the inherent bias and absurdity of a linear evolution of human religion was eventually recognized and those theories were largely abandoned by academia. But by that point the idea of mana as magical power had been injected into pop-culture, and the fiction writers of the mid-to-late 20th century took it and ran with it. Thus today we get mana bars, blue potions, Secret of Mana, etc. and so on. D&D might well have done the same, had Arneson, Gygax, & co. not been infatuated with Vancian magic at the time. 

If you'd like to know more or see the actual bibliography backing these ideas up, I first learned about the subject from this older ReligionForBreakfast episode.

The Book of Shamans fell right into that era of fantasy fiction, and it shows. As I and the few other places online that've reviewed this book like to point out, you don't see many RPG books with bibliographies these days. It's a short list of 9 sources related to world religions and shamanism in some way, including a Funk & Wagnalls' dictionary of mythology, a history of shamanism by that one Romanian fascist who just kinda made things up while he was hiding from the communists, two books by Joseph Campbell (including Hero With a Thousand Faces, naturally), and two texts on "American Indians", among others. And while I think the list is flawed (no indigenous voices, spotty empirical evidence, the aforementioned Iron Guard-lite doing vibes-as-history while hanging around postwar Paris), I still find the writer's effort to ground the fiction in a well-researched and plausible mythological basis admirable. It's more than I think you could expect of an amateur RPG writer in the '70s. We should do more of that, where it's both appropriate for the story being told and responsible toward the people experiencing it. Just, ya know, do it better.

But I was talking about mechanics, wasn't I?

Shamanizing

The shaman class uses a mana pool similar to the power points used in AD&D's psionics, although thankfully they aren't as annoying to calculate as 1E psionics rules made them. Each ability (not explicitly referred to as spells, but effectively acting that way) cost varying amounts of mana to cast. There are 27 abilities in total, divided up by power level from 0 to 9. Each typically has an elaborate ritual, magical implements, or other necessary prep work involved, so you can't cast most of them in the middle of combat unlike a priest or wizard.

The book repeatedly places shamans in contrast with the more established clerics and magic-users of D&D and other games of the time. They contrast both for the mechanical differences in the way they exercise their powers, and for the ways they exist in the fiction. Clerics and magic-users are "normal" and "civilized" and get their magic from a known source which is supported by a huge corpus of arcane or religious knowledge to rely upon. Shamans, meanwhile, embody the noble savage stereotype. They get their powers from the strength of their own soul, intuitive knowledge of nature, and direct contact with the spirits. They're outsiders to the existing magical paradigm whom nobody can really pin down, and that breeds a lot of mutual distrust between them and Vancian casters.

I would have liked it if the book described the relationship between shamans and druids, which I think would be a lot more nuanced. But that might have been signposting a little too hard that this book is literally just a D&D class masquerading as a system-agnostic supplement at a time when TSR was first earning its chops in suing over copyright infringement.

The effects of the shaman's powers are all over the place, both mechanically and inspirationally. Every belief system on every continent that can be glossed as "shamanism" has a gamified spell or effect somewhere in this list attached to it in some way, although you have to go digging deep in the bibliography to find a lot of the source myths. A smattering of Native American beliefs are the most visible, but there are also a significant number of Aboriginal Australian influences, as well as those from "shamans" from across Afro-Eurasia. There are also a few other concepts thrown in from other belief systems like various ancient paganisms or Greek philosophy of all things, for good measure.

There is a massive academic debate over the proper definition(s) for shamanism that has been raging for decades. Eventually I will touch on it, once I've completed one of my biggest background projects to date. But unless I want to double the length of this post after just finishing with a history of mana, I better suffice it to say that The Book of Shamans uses the very loose, broad, and vague definition of shaman that you see in many pieces of fiction, as well as older anthropology. It's used more as a bundle of connotations to animism (another controversial term), tribal cultures, "primitive" peoples, and a certain religious aesthetic than it is used with a clear definition in mind.

The one common thread through all of these abilities (besides mana) is the theme of ritual purity. Shamans often have to spend days fasting or otherwise purifying their bodies, and many spell components or creations can be ruined forever by a single touch from another living being. It encourages the shaman through game mechanics to be secretive and standoffish even among their own allies, because even a well-meaning accident can destroy that bird feather cloak you spent literally a year making and gods damn it Todd, look don't touch!

There are surprisingly low-level abilities to challenge someone to a soul duel, or to control a being using its true name. At higher levels, shamans can divine the future with scapulomancy, cure disease using a mannikin, astral project into the netherworld, fly like a bird, retrieve the souls of the dead, transfer their own souls into other people, clay dolls, or their own shadows to avoid damage, etc. Most of them are poorly suited to the minute-to-minute rhythms of dungeon crawling, but can be extremely powerful in a larger campaign where one can use them to control and negate entire encounters or plot beats the way a 3E Batman Wizard might. It makes up for the fact that shamans gain hit points as magic-users in whatever game they're used for, despite starting off as 'warriors'.

... Did I mention the solid quartz intestines yet? That's also a thing.

Shamans don't get the once-a-year boon that Warriors do. Instead, they roll for extra mana points at creation, landing them on one of the branches of the spirit tree. Members of the highest 6th and 7th branches, a 96-99 and 00 on a d100 roll respectively, get the highest bonus of +6 or +7 to mana. They also get their intestines remade in quartz by the spirits. This is done so that the shaman is always in touch with the earth that grants them their power.

I thought this was 100% invented by the writer, but as it turns out it's a real belief, or at least it was written about as if it was one by Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen in their 1899 book Native Tribes of Central Australia. It's one facet of the beliefs surrounding the ritual passage of medicine men among the Arrernte (often written as Aranda) peoples of north-central Australia. Other aspects of that spiritual journey not included in The Book of Shamans is getting stabbed by spirit lances and having your tongue pierced wide enough to fit your pinky finger through the hole. I learned a thing.

Resource Management

Silicate digestive tract or no, mana regenerates at a rate of 1 point per every 12 or 24 hours, depending on if the shaman is standing on "home soil" or not. That's pretty slow for a resource that you gain 1d6 of per level but have to spend dozens or even hundreds of in order to use bigger abilities. Mana costs are further multiplied when you're trying to use abilities it in cities or when not in contact with natural earth or water. There are other means of acquiring mana, but they are... particular.

Probably the most versatile method is to carry extra mana on your person by collecting power objects. These are essentially batteries of mana created from spiritually significant remains of powerful foes that the shaman has slain using their powers (rather than plain old physical combat or letting someone else in the party get the killing blow). These trophies each hold up to 5 mana points which replenish every full moon on their own, which creates the first player resource economy designed around the lunar cycle that I've ever seen.

Does Werewolf: The Whatevering do something similar? I've never read anything by White Wolf.

Naturally, these power objects are also ruined if anyone other than the shaman touches them, so expect any high-level and well-established shaman to be extremely protective of their ever-growing hoard of claws, teeth, and fingers. I feel a weird sense of kinship with that last part, as someone who's had their baby teeth suspended in a jar of vodka on the shelf for decades.

The second method is less portable but possibly more powerful. The shaman may double or even triple their mana pool as long as they stay in physical contact with a place of great natural power. Because of how many shamanic abilities are used at a great distance or many days in advance of what they're being prepared for, this is actually a pretty fair deal that can lead to a lot of creativity beyond just the dramatic set-piece moments you'd expect to go down at a place of power in a shaman-focused game. There's no rule saying you can't permanently set up shop on one of these sites and use it as your base of operations after you find it, but I expect there'd be complications related to taboos, angering spirits, or keeping the site pure the longer someone inhabits it.

The third method is severe, and probably reserved only for emergencies. A shaman may sacrifice one of their limbs or both eyes. Obviously the shaman loses use of the sacrificed body parts in the physical world, but they retain full use of them on the soul plane, where they also enjoy 10 to 20 permanent bonus mana, depending on what was given up. No word on whether or not you could have someone regenerate the lost parts after the fact and keep the bonus mana, but I expect the spirits would frown on that.

The last way for shamans to gain extra mana is the most unexpectedly skeevy. You can permanently drain 1 point of mana from a person and add it to your pool by "sleeping with them" without the person or anyone else knowing it. At the same time, the book specifies that it can't be done using coercion or drugs, so I think the implication is that you just kind of lurk next to the person while they sleep like some kind of bogeyman or memetic sleep paralysis demon, rather than the sexual assault that the language of the text evokes? Not that that interpretation completely absolves it; it's still an act of explicitly gendered violence, with male shamans draining women of their mana and vice versa.

After doing this to a person 5 times they also die, so go ahead and add first degree murder next to serial breaking-and-entering and being a creep onto your list of possible charges if you go this route. I suppose it could make for an interesting murder mystery villain in a dark, low-fantasy game. Townsfolk keep waking up dead after reporting the feeling of being watched, friends and family find signs of burglary but nothing stolen, the current victim-in-progress is wasting away or seems almost metaphysically tired, etc. It's a very vampiric take on a shaman you don't often see.

You can also pool your mana together with other people by directly transferring it into another shaman. This can refill your depleted mana, or allow you to go over your normal maximum limit for "a few minutes". The time limit is brief, but can potentially allowing a group of shamans to work together to perform a ritual with a cost that far exceeds what any of them can do individually, which also makes for a great cinematic moment, whether you're part of the ritual or trying to stop it.

Uncommon Experiences

One last bit that sets the shaman apart from other classes, even its cousin the shamanic warrior, is how they can acquire the experience to grow in power.

AD&D 1E is the closest thing to a natural fit for the Book of... series, including Shamans. It was also adamant about keeping XP gain a factor of money pocketed and monsters murdered to the point of taking a quick aside on page 106 of the Player's Handbook to argue about it. It explicitly brings up all the ways in which the different classes 'realistically' should gain experience (fighters training, thieves being sneaky and skillful, magic-users plumbing the arcane, clerics doing their gods' work, etc.) and then rejects them as being downtime activities unsuitable for gaming. I personally see that as awful and backwards design, and several innovations in tabletop gaming over the last 20 to 30 years agree with me there, but Gary and company were resolute in their creative vision that D&D was a game of fighting and looting.

But even in '78, some folks didn't agree with that.

"The shaman gains experience at one half the rate of a fighter, but he also gets full experience for certain specialized tasks", as the book reads. The way I interpret that sentence is that when doing normal adventurer stuff they suffer a -50% XP penalty, and that sounds absolutely miserable and crushing to actually play through, like a multiclass demi-human with even less to show for it at low levels.

But, the book then offers a host of other actions taken during play that can result in a discrete XP award.

And wouldn't you know it, they all involve the shaman doing shamany stuff!

Shamans get XP for learning the true names of things, for traveling to the netherworld and back, for engaging in soul duels, crafting items like soul-eating stones and cloaks of flight, discovering natural places of power; they even earn XP if they transfer their soul into another body and their original body is destroyed. And all of these awards are given a suggested scale depending on how big the particular risk taken is. You're mechanically incentivized to play to your class's strengths and use the shaman's powers cleverly in order to keep up with the pack, and maybe even get ahead.

It's another nod toward shamans being weirdo underdogs and outsiders to the established game. It's also kind of like some primeval, fossilized ancestor of that PbtA mechanic where if you do something appropriate for your playbook, mark XP. And I find that so compelling that I don't completely hate it for requiring even more individual XP tabulation with percentile modifiers on top. The hate is there though- just a little bit.

Were I to run this class in anything I'd throw out the 50% penalty, keep the list of bonus XP objectives, and add in lists for all the other classes being played. I feel like it could only add to the possible fun and hijinks players get up to. At worst, they inch closer to 1,000,000 XP in a slightly shorter span of time that can't be measured on a geological scale.

Closing Thoughts

I'm always excited to read shaman class supplements for any system, and I'm glad that while in the process of getting hopelessly lost looking for the free PDF versions of the old Red Steel campaign setting (which you'll hear about from me soon), I happened to stumble into what might very well be the oldest shaman class in the hobby. I'd pick it apart and clean up the remains if ever I played it, but I suspect nobody from the time it was published would bat an eye at me doing that.

The Book of Shamans is another fascinating artifact of its time. Like many indie books from the era it has a lot of cool ideas with some occasionally very rough edges, indicative of that time when many decentralized scenes of gamers were still largely doing just whatever the hell came to mind, before the market was dominated by a few deeply ensconced names and types of games- before there even was a market, really.

I hate how we tend to describe the early phase of any given thing as the "Wild West of X" because it gives such an ahistorical impression of the Wild West, but the sentiment behind the saying is kind of appropriate here: there were few formal rules for making an RPG at the time, and as long as you didn't get sued over copyright, anything was free game with the chances of success or failure up in the air. But at the same time, the system this class most closely conforms to lets you see where things were already headed. It was far from preordained or inevitable, but still damn hard to shift the powers that be away from. D&D was already getting big, and the West was being "tamed". It makes me happy that we've still somehow wound up with a hobby that's more diverse than ever before.

I have to go look up modern scholarship on the Arrernte people now. The solid quartz intestines left me with so many questions.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

1d20 Nonmechanical Curses

Maybe the maker of that ancient artifact phoned in the work that day. Maybe that witch was in a real hurry to get to their broom cycling class. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: you've been cursed, but not detrimentally. It won't kill you, or severely hamper your rolls and abilities from moment to moment during an adventure. Heck, it probably won't physically hurt you all that much. It can even be dispelled with whatever means to Remove Curse you have access to.

But until then, it is going to be one hell of an annoyance.


  1. Power Word: Faucet Nose - Whether it's a localized area of damaged capillaries or an incredibly minor bleeding disorder, nosebleeds have gotten much more common for you. The constant, red seepage is a bane to your wardrobe, a pain to stop, and it can be caused by the most insignificant stimuli: sneezing, chewing, rubbing your eyes, looking down too hard to tie your shoes...
  2. The Feeling of Spiderwebs - You constantly get the feeling that spiderwebs and other creepy, clingy things are surrounding to you. Tickling your earlobes, tangling around your fingers, working their way under your clothes and then surprising you when you move. Sometimes they even skitter, and then people look at you funny when you start to flail and pat yourself down.
  3. Fungus - A puffy, discoloring fungal infection takes root in your body. Hands, feet, scalp, any and/or all of them are affected. Skin scars, nails crumble and split, bubbles of empty skin rise here and there, and your body's pH gets all kinds of out-of-whack. Topical solutions help for a few minutes at most. In hotter weather, you even start to reek of vinegar.
  4. Botched Speaking Cues - Communicating with people is hard for everyone; especially for you. You're always about a quarter of a second off from everybody else, either cutting people off without meaning to or interrupting them just as they begin to speak again after a lengthy pause.
  5. Ichthyosis Vulgaris - Your skin dries and cracks into a mosaic of tessellations resembling fish scales. You flake constantly, and often grow raised patches of accumulated dead skin that look scabrous and dirty. No amount of exfoliating and moisturizing will hide this for long, and you leave a little dusting of human detritus wherever you go. If the climate is especially dry, you can even split open and bleed during vigorous activity. Despite the name, it does not give you a fish's swimming or water breathing powers.
  6. Always Slightly Tilted - Maybe it's your brain, your terrible posture, or the room you're in. Everything feels off-center, tilted, wrong. And no amount of fidgeting and adjusting will fix that. It doesn't significantly impact your proprioception, but can you really trust your senses as much as you used to?
  7. Unspeakable Names - Let's face it, you were never good at remembering names. But now the universe is conspiring to put you in situations that highlight that inability. Whether it's shouting them across a battlefield or announcing them at an award ceremony, you're drawing a blank, and someone is already slightly offended.
  8. First Place You Looked - Whenever you lose something, it is invariably in the first place you looked. But you don't realize that until you've gone back over every spot on the list two or even three times, scouring every inch in increasing desperation until you move one incidental little object aside and realize the lost something had been there that entire time, in the face of all logic.
  9. Temperature Sensitivity - You know that one friend who's always just a little chilly, even in the dead of summer? Congratulations; that's you now. Your body has embarked on a lifelong war against the thermostat and the consensus of everyone else in the same space as you. Sure, it's still possible to feel comfortable, but those moments are fleeting and hidden in the paper-thin margins between extremes.
  10. Constantly Shedding - You start growing a lot of hair very quickly, even if that's something you shouldn't be physically capable of. But dashing your dreams of lumberjack beards and/or Rapunzel hair is the fact that it breaks or falls out just as quickly. Everywhere you go, you walk amidst a halo of broken ends fluttering in the breeze. You leave a trail of hair that collects into tumbleweeds if you aren't on top of cleaning up after yourself. And it will catch and snag and rip on everything.
  11. One Leg Longer - One of your legs lengthens ever so slightly, after a few hours of accelerated growing pain in your shin. It only grows an inch or so; not enough to see at first glance, but enough to disrupt your locomotion. You walk with a pronounced up-and-down bob that can be mistaken for a pretentious swagger, and it always puts more stress on one knee and shoe sole than the other.
  12. Noisy Joints - Heyyy, what's poppin'? It's your knees, pal. Your joints snap, crackle, and pop more than mediocre breakfast cereal with every move you make. It doesn't exactly hurt, but the feeling is unpleasant; as are all the younger people around you suddenly asking if you're alright (read: too old) to be doing this by yourself.
  13. Wandering Food Allergy - First it starts with a pit in your stomach. Then it progresses to cold sweats. Finally you embark on a night-long adventure in nonstop infinite bowel-voiding. And here's the kicker: the thing that causes it changes randomly, day-to-day, week-to-week, maybe even midmeal!
  14. Manual Breathing - Every moment of every day, you have to breathe manually and consciously. You're fine while you're asleep; no sleep apnea here. But as long as you're awake, it's up to you to keep resetting that 3-minute timer until brain death. Which means that you often forget while you're busy, and then you have to suck in great gasps of air during such laborious tasks as sitting still and thinking.
  15. Smell Your Own Nose - You become acutely aware of the smell of your own nose. No, not something in your nose, but the interior of your nostrils themselves, suddenly risen up from the background of your body's ambient odorscape to contend with all other smells. And it is as unpleasant as it is difficult to articulate to other people.
  16. Transcended Spotlight Effect - That old comfort, the idea that everyone else is too preoccupied with their own nonsense to care about yours, is dead. Staring at you gives everyone sudden, epiphanic clarity into just how fine they are, and how okay this all is. It's just you who's freaking out. You're the only one. And they're judging you for it. What the hell is your problem?
  17. Lightning Limbs - Your extremities fall asleep so quickly and easily, you think they might each have a case of narcolepsy with separate triggers. They don't sleep for long, and you're unlikely to trip or drop anything from it. But the waves of cold pins and needles are an unwelcome wakeup call most times.
  18. Bibliophobia - You feel an acute sense of anxiety, worthlessness, and borderline dread whenever you have to read something longer than a few paragraphs. You remain as capable and able to read as you were before, but now the whole experience is a painful chore. What if you interpret the text wrong, or forget everything you just read?
  19. Creative Tinnitus - Buzzing, humming, chirping, squeaking, rattling; all manner of different sounds, and none of them real. For whatever reason your brain has decided things get too quiet, and will on occasional supply noises of its own. The plain old ringing of yesteryear was obnoxious, but at least it was predictable and recognizable.
  20. Nonsense Homophones - Your first language starts to feel... not so first. Words begin to stick out at you as strange jumbles of phonemes and conjugations. Was that person saying things were wonderful, or were they asking for 'one derfle'? Why do they give you funny looks when you say you 'derstand' and need things repeated? Perhaps you need a resher for your reef.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Let's Dig Into: ArcticMUD

Since my late teens or early twenties, I've looked at text-based video games with a curiosity born of novelty. I was too young to play text-based adventure games during their heyday, so the idea of manually typing out your character's actions was always a strange one to me. It was like some lost artifact of a bygone era, so obscured by layers of electronic sediment that it wasn't even preserved in pop-culture's folk memory of what old school video games were like, what with all the beeps, chirps, joysticks, high scores and such.

Some of the first text-based games were mixes of exploration, puzzle-solving, wry humor, and occasionally bizarre logic, like Zork and Colossal Cave Adventure from the 1970s. They helped birth the adventure game and RPG genres, and their influence continues to be felt to this day, both in the inherited tropes and language of gameplay and in the continuous reference to old early memes like the Grue that have never fully died out in nerd culture.

Multi-User Dungeons/Dimensions/Domains/Detcetera (MUDs for short) are a multiplayer genre of text-based games that branched off from their single-player ancestors in the 1980s when enough nerds who weren't busy playing chess or Roguelikes got together and figured out how to use their college campuses' computer networks for video games. A MUD is basically a series of self-contained rooms that players can guide their avatars through independently of one another, each populated with its own NPCs, tasks, interactive objects, or flavor text. Under the hood, the game world is just a disjointed series of flowcharts, but with care and craft it can be presented as an engrossing, living world that knows how to get your imagination going.

MUDs started off limited to whoever was on a given internal network at an institution, but with the emergence of the Internet they began to catch on wherever someone could afford both a connection and a personal computer. MUDs were, in essence, the first Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, depending on how strictly you define the word "massively"; dozens, even hundreds of users could be logged onto a MUD at a time, depending on how popular and stable the server was.

MUDs exploded in scope as their popularity grew. The first few were Tolkienesque fantasy or science-fiction in theme, but others soon came along that delved into horror, Westerns, film noir, post-apocalypse, erotica, and just about any other genre people experiment with when a new medium of artistic expression comes along. Many MUDs hosted user-generated content as well, which gave a game's fanbase real influence over the thing they shared an interest in. That bit might be the sharpest differentiation between old MUDs and modern MMOs, because rather than being a customer or consumer of the game, you were often a collaborator with it.

Countless ephemeral clones and spin-offs were born and died according to the whims of fate, community fracture, and occasional license disputes. The '80s and early '90s were a crucible of MUD creativity that is in many ways forever lost to those of us who didn't live to experience it firsthand: like pieces of tectonic plate subducted into the mantle and melted down to their base elements, most of these early games are for all intents and purposes gone forever, but little pieces of them exist everywhere in the bedrock and bones of online communities and gaming culture.

I've dabbled in a handful of MUDs over the years. Most of them were LotR- or D&D-inspired, as well as one Discworld-themed game I could never figure out how to finish character creation in. What they all have in common is that they stood the test of time long enough to appear on my radar, which means 20 or even 30 years in operation. Usually I'd either fail to get very far, or get into the groove until I ran out of easily accessible content to experience before one of the semi-regular server wipes hit, at which point I'd move on. Many of the MUDs I've played owe their existence and rhythms of gameplay to one particular MUD that had an outsized influence among its contemporaries: DikuMUD.

Diku, named for the computer science department at the University of Copenhagen where it was created in 1991, is in many ways the archetypal hack-and-slash MUD. You crawl through dungeons fighting monsters and collecting loot, with or without a party of friends, and it have stats, mechanics, and combat inspired by D&D, although technically the game uses a d100 behind the scenes. Diku was a massive inspiration for 1999's EverQuest, which some of the designers including Brad McQuaid played. It was so inspiring in fact, that there was a brief legal kerfuffle where the folks at Verant/Sony had to swear they didn't outright steal some of Diku's code.

The DikuMUD spinoff I'll be writing about today is ArcticMUD, a 1992 community project based on AD&D and in the Dragonlance setting. I played it fairly regularly between Summer 2022 and Winter 2023 the same way I play most MMOs: solo, and very poorly.

ArcticMUD starts with character creation, which is heavily but not completely based on character creation in AD&D tabletop. You choose from a surprisingly robust roster of species and classes, from kender and minotaurs to dark knights and scouts. Naturally, I rolled a goblin shaman self-insert named Furt.

You also pick your character's alignment, which is slightly different from the classic 9-point spectrum from tabletop. The game accounts for some amount of nuance and variance within the classic alignments, so Lawful Neutral and Neutral Lawful are separate options you can select, for example. I thought I was going cross-eyed the first time I read that. Alignment is limited by class and species, although not to the same extent as some other MUDs, so I considered myself lucky to get away with a Neutral alignment as a goblin. Better off grillpilled than chugging the Takhisis Kool-Aid, I suppose.

Unlike in AD&D, you don't roll your ability scores at character generation. Sure, the game rolls them behind the scenes, but the results are hidden from you at creation in order to discourage people from spending hours rolling and rerolling for the optimal stat array like some of us have done with the first few Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale games. You have to spend a bit of time playing and getting invested in the character before you can drink a potion that gives you full knowledge of yourself and all your stats.

I was a weirdly slim-buff gobbo.

Arctic actually hides a lot of the inner workings of the game from you. You rarely see a die rolled or referenced in-game, unless you do something like successfully identify a magical weapon at the shop, in which case you'll see the damage range but that's it. You aren't given a clear idea of your AC, saves, or really any statistic beyond the HP and Vitality points displayed down in the corner at all times. You are given even less information for NPCs and monsters, forcing you to approach potential challenges cautiously and with /consideration like in old school EverQuest. You don't even know for sure what your own variable spell effects are, which makes prepping them Fun™.

This constant, deliberate obfuscation of mechanics is part of the game's design philosophy, believe it or not. The designers don't want you to attain full knowledge and mastery of the game or its systems. They want you to always be in a state of guessing, whether those guesses are educated or truly blind. They want players new and old alike to have to feel their way through everything organically and authentically, like the entire game is under an aggressively enforced spoiler warning. They go so far as to delete posts on the forums that reveal too much about the game or one of its secrets- or at least, they did before they deleted the forums entirely a little while ago, apparently because the mods couldn't keep up with the number of spam bots flooding the place. The wiki and other officially-sanctioned gameplay guides are similarly sparse on details.

Assuming something does leak out and become common knowledge, even just through in-game player word-of-mouth, that thing won't stay the same for very long. Arctic does a yearly server wipe in which all characters are deleted, like many MUDs do to prevent too many characters accumulating at the very top of the game's content and ruining the ecosystem. Years before Diablo II was doing seasonal ladders, MUDs were coming up with their own multiplayer refresh mechanics.

But Arctic takes it a step farther by remixing pieces of itself with every wipe, changing small aspects like how a quest works or where to find a particular item. When I started playing for example, one wing of a low-level dungeon commonly recommended to newbies was completely sealed off and inaccessible, meaning I had to go elsewhere while it was under construction. This significantly altered the roadmap of my early playing experience, and pushed me into different areas at weird times.

I've never seen anything quite like this before or since playing Arctic. The game is in a state of perpetual New Game Plus, by and for the small handful of regular users who still play the game after 32 years in operation. The tiny trickle of tourists and new players like myself are expected to just kind of go along with it, or perhaps we're not really considered at all. It's a certain kind of charming to me, I suppose.

Gameplay begins with your newly-created character zipping down from the heavens into a city of your choosing, which for newbies is usually the town of Solace, forever frozen in time immediately before the events of Dragons of Autumn Twilight. The game has a day/night cycle, but technically it's always the morning before the imperfect reunion of the Companions. You can even find Tanis Half-Elven moping around in the Inn of the Last Home, while Tika serves up some drinks and Otik's spiced potatoes nearby.

You're walked through a brief tutorial by an NPC who teaches you the basics of the game and guides you through Solace. Solace is a city that really needs a guide, even after the first few levels, because it is a very vertical and sometimes disorienting starting city, replete with multi-level vallenwood tree buildings and aerial walkways between them. I almost always had a .png of the official site's map up in the background while I was playing. After you've gotten your bearings as well as you can, you're encouraged to head down to the dump where you can muck about in the sewers for your first few levels killing vermin, but otherwise the game takes its hands off and leaves you to get lost in the world.

And it is a dang big world to get lost in. Huge areas of the continent of Ansalon have been rendered in-game, and I can only say that they didn't recreate the entire world because I couldn't personally reach every area during my relatively brief time with the game. You can spend hours wandering in any direction, and you're bound to run into towns and dungeons (as well as a few maddening dead ends or loops) along the way. You don't have to hoof it everywhere, though: an all-terrain caravan added in one of the content updates in 2004 regularly makes the rounds through every major city in the world for a reasonable fare. There are many ferries connecting the coastal and riverine areas of the world, too. It's faster than walking, and safer. As long as you don't say anything about the upholstery.

I read this just as we hit some rapids and I thought I was
being transported straight into "The Most Dangerous Game".

My personal journey saw me wandering around in the forest beyond Solace once I outgrew the sewers a few levels in. Mostly animals and a few of my larger cousins turned to banditry could be found out there, as well as some very random touches of personality that the game threw in. For example, every sign that isn't a big official road sign between cities tries to simulate the scrawl of an inexpert hand by using mixed caps, which leads to warnings like this:

I can't not read this in the mocking Spongebob meme voice.

Other times, looking more closely at a bit of wildlife will reward you with a surprisingly competent bit of ASCII artwork in a game that is otherwise completely devoid of visuals.


After I wandered too far out and got overwhelmed a few times, I made my way back to Solace and ground the sewers again until I made up my loss of XP and gear, which gets left behind on your corpse when you die, also very EQ-style. It was around this time that I actually met another living soul.

Sure, I'd seen a handful of other players in town or in the /who list, but up to this point I'd never interacted with any of them. They were all seasoned veterans doing their own circles and their own things by my guess, and even though there's a chat channel specifically designed for them to help newbies out, I felt too intimidated to approach.


But eventually at the surprisingly easy-to-reach level of 16, someone named Hippy reached out to me in PMs. They asked me what I was up to and inadvertently offered some good advice when they found out I was new. Turns out I was playing my class all wrong. Shocking, I know!

Or maybe you could be generous and say I was playing hardmode. To start off, my alignment put me at a disadvantage. You get more XP for killing creatures of your opposite alignment, because character alignment is mostly expressed through violence and magic in this game. Being neutral, my goblin was essentially running around with a permanent XP gain penalty compared to everybody else... also a lot like EQ. Wow, learning that tidbit really opened my eyes to a lot of things here.

I don't really begrudge that part, though. I couldn't start off good as a goblin, but I wouldn't have wanted to go evil either. Especially once I learned that a lot of what constitutes evil character XP grinding is just slaughtering townsfolk wholesale.

Butchering them into meat was just for fun, apparently.

The other major inefficiency was in my loadout.

Up to this point I had been spending all of my steel coins on whatever weapons and armor I could afford off of either basic vendors or the shared market auction house style thing which I currently forget the name of. Sometimes I'd live long enough to turn a profit on those pieces and sell them in favor of upgrades, but usually I'd lose them from death or forgetting to repair.

Shamans don't need weapons, though. They can make their own, as the other player explained. I was aware of the Bone Shape spell they were talking about, which creates a club, staff, bow, or arrows out of the bones of a slain creature (even if the creature doesn't have bones, amusingly). But because of the paucity of details given by spell descriptions and the very low level I had tried the spell at, I assumed that the weapons created by the spell were low-damage and completely nonmagical; weapons of last resort to be quickly replaced by 'real' weapons.

I was very wrong. The weapons made from Bone Shape scale with caster level, and actually outclassed anything I could buy with my half-empty wallet. What's more, the weapons' power stacks with the Ancestral Blessing spell that buffs a weapon with scaling hit rate, saving throw and healing bonuses, and a chance to make extra attacks every swing. In essence I had an uber-Shillelagh sitting in my back pocket at all times, and all I needed to cast it was to have a dead centipede handy. This was on top of a plethora of other self-buff spells I hadn't been taking full advantage of, because I was spending most of my memorization slots on healing and status effect cure spells for when my weakness inevitably caused a fight to drag on too long.

This was that moment of mechanical satisfaction that I was waiting for. The synergy hit, and what followed was one heck of a dopamine rush. Which is ironic, because I can't write any accurate description of my next few levels of gameplay in a way that doesn't come off as incredibly boring and grindy.

What I did was make my way into the higher-level dungeon located in Solace; a burned-down school filled with the restless ghosts of the students and teachers who died there, only visible and hittable with the aid of magic items or spell effects- spells my shaman just so happened to have, but which I couldn't really do much with before I had the DPS for the task.

So I started clearing out the rooms of the school again, and again, and again, wielding nothing but a centipede bone staff and presumably wearing only a loincloth, because I began selling every single piece of armor that I could. Once I was finished whacking ghosts and nuking the area's unique enemies (a renegade mage, a pit fiend, and the wraith of the man who caused the whole mess) with a health-leeching spirit blast, I went back to central Solace to deposit all my earnings and occasionally check in with the eccentric shaman class teacher Foghorn for a shot at spell and skill upgrades.

You don't lose money that you have set aside in the bank, and so that's what I began to judge my true success by: an ever-growing bank account that I could eventually invest into something meaningful and more permanent once I reached a high-enough level.

Once I had outleveled the school I struck out west into the wilderness, skirting a lake until I reached an old copper mine filled with kobolds, myconids, rats, giant crawdads, a giant snake, an owlbear, and a very deadly giant spider at the bottom of a hundreds-of-feet-deep pit of no return that is frustratingly easy to accidentally walk off when your mental map of the area is just 1 room off. There I got used to the new rhythms and finally started to use scrolls of recall to cut down on travel, before settling into the grind all over again and soon surpassing 20th level, at which point I began acquiring a secondary advancement resource called Rank Points, used to purchase small permanent boosts separate from character level, yet again like in later expansions of EQ.

In essence I turned a party-centered game about socialization and exploration into the least compelling elements of a roguelite mixed with a dash of sigma grindset.

Yet I was having fun, and every level where I didn't fail my rolls to learn new spells, I gained new tricks that made my cup runeth over with options from moment-to-moment in combat. On top of all of my self-buffs and curses, my shaman could also hex a target, cause fear, enter a berserk rage like a miniature barbarian (pun intended), and bind the spirits of slain foes to myself or my weapon as combat minions/buffs. The only thing that stopped me in combat was my ability to type fast enough.

Which did become a legitimate issue for me, later on.

After a certain point, combat on a caster has so many moving parts, and can involve as many as a dozen participants at once, depending on the dungeon. When this happens the text scrolls very, very quickly and it was easy for me to miss important details like what had died, when a buff ran out, or what special attack an enemy just used. I would often try to cast a healing spell only to realize I had been sitting on my butt for the past few rounds after someone roundhouse kicked me off my feet. And then when I did stand upright again, I'd lose another precious few seconds misspelling the spell shortcut.

The game does have an answer for this, but it's not something I ever brought myself to use.

In most modern programs that run MUDs, there are options to create aliases, highlights, substitutes, and triggers. These are tools to allow you to navigate and respond to the game easier and faster, such as by condensing long typed lines of text into very short macro commands, highlighting or changing the language of important notifications, or just outright automating certain parts of the game by setting the program to run background commands that activate when X event happens.

It's enormously useful for standing up when you're knocked down, resting and preparing spells, and doing busywork like looting corpses after battle. And as long as you're not completely automating your character or turning them into something like a healbot, you don't run afoul of any of Arctic's policies. But it's a hell of a lot of coding for a tourist like me, so I never committed to it, and eventually that led to me hitting a skill ceiling of sorts, where if a battle was too hectic I just couldn't keep up and only pulled through thanks to lucky crits.

I wonder if combat was easier back in the '90s when everyone had dialup and you had more time to think in between ticks?

I also had a few unpleasant run-ins with people who did use all those commands, or at least that's what it looked like to me. Arctic is a server with PvP enabled, although you're discouraged from using it to grief specific players. But out in the world you're always vulnerable to attack from other players, and I was PK'd a few times during a run. Invariably, what would happen was I'd be engaged with a monster when the other person or party entered the room, evaporated me and everything else in the room into a red mist with AoE spells and crushing melee attacks, rapidly looted anything of value, and then moved to the next room like a tornado of death and avarice. Within 10 seconds I'd go from having a handle on a slow, tedious fight to sitting on the menu screen wondering how I'll pay off the new XP debt.

That would usually kill my motivation to pick back up where I'd been, and revenge was as impossible as it was undesirable, so I took frequent breaks and then went off in some other direction instead. I took advantage of the transportation system to find some of the more far-flung areas where I would be the only player-controlled soul for miles. I wandered the Plains of Dust in the shadow of Icewall Glacier, got extremely lost in some mountains, ran from trolls in Thorbardin, visited Pax Therax and other locations from the trilogy, undertook a vision quest with a Qué-Shu shaman, discovered tiny out-of-the-way hamlets that probably exist in one of the other hundreds of Dragonlance novels, and even stumbled upon a war crime or two.

I no longer feel so bad about the kender-skin sofas.

Eventually my wandering in search of secrets stranded me far from home with little to show for it, though I probably could have paid my way back to someplace more familiar thanks to the weirdly globally-connected banking system Krynn has in this game. But by that time it was getting late in the year, and the server wipe was on the way.

Nothing, not your bank account, character, or rank abilities, survive the great reset, so I was faced with the prospect of restarting from scratch, or not at all. I took a lengthy break and picked back up early in 2023, at which point I was able to smooth out my early leveling experience considerably using all that I had learned the first time around- and I finally got to access that part of the sewers that I'd been barred from entering. But I was still enough of a noob to forget that part of the Inn of the Last Home is an anti-magic safe area, so I spent a good fifteen minutes fizzling my hunger spell while angrily shouting "SATIATE!" at the wall- which is weirdly true to life when lunch rolls around and I don't want to spend so much time and effort feeding this carcass of mine.

I ended up focusing on Bridgetown for much of that year though, so I played little beyond that, and in time another wipe came. I've yet to partake in 2024.

I don't know if I'd recommend ArcticMUD to anyone who isn't already pretty into MUDs in general, which I imagine is a pretty small segment of people who read these posts. But my time with it has been entertaining so far, and if you are interested I'd recommend jumping in during one of the occasional special events that they host throughout the year, which often involves unique quests or bonuses to XP and other stuff. Sometimes they're purely focused on in-game lore, other times they commemorate real life events in some way.

Hey, maybe monarchs are good for something!

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

TROIKA! Background: Corpse-Cutter

Sky Burial by Ronan Boyle

You are a constant companion to death. Not the process of it; that usually runs its course on a battlefield or in a bed miles away. But the state of death, the decaying evidence of it, is your life and livelihood.

It is your duty to bear mortal remains up to those high, lonely places where they may be returned to the elements from which they came, in as efficient a manner as possible. The body is just an empty vessel now, after all- best not to let something else fill it. In this arduous task, you have companions of your own: your tools, and the vultures.

Your tools are many and varied. Knives to remove the flesh, cleavers to disarticulate the limbs, a mallet to pound the bones into pulp. According to best practices, each should be used no more than once, then destroyed and purified. Bereaved families and monasteries rarely pay you enough to buy frequent replacements though, so you use each for as long as you can. The grizzled, rusty accoutrement doesn't do your public image any favors, but it marks you as a seasoned officiator.

Most people find the vultures to be foul, noisome creatures. In your experience they are quite decent, resourceful, and polite. They occupy an important role that no one else is willing to take; just like you. The worst you can say about them is that sometimes, a few members of the wake get impatient and try to make off with the flesh before you're finished processing it. You just shoo them away until they wait their turn.

Some people afford you great respect and reverence for your service. Others, mostly outsiders, consider you unclean—even untouchable—by association with your work. Others still don't say anything; they just come to gawk and stare. You don't pay any of them much mind anymore.

You know when to crack jokes and laugh as you work, so that the spirit is reassured and convinced not to return to their empty shell. You know when to stay solemn and silent for grieving family members of the deceased who may be in poor humor. And above all, you know that your actions help this great, groaning wheel turn a little more smoothly.


Possessions

  • A set of pitted and worn Knives.
  • A cracking wooden Mallet.
  • Bloodstained Apron & Gloves.
  • 1D6 uses of Incense (more for the burial attendees than yourself).
  • 1D3 Sin Cakes from a curious funeral you recently attended (count as Rations but makes you feel vaguely uneasy while eating).

Advanced Skills

3 Funerary Rites
2 Etiquette
2 Strength
1 Knife Fighting
1 Maul Fighting
1 Mortuary Science

Special

You have an unusual rapport with scavengers everywhere. Vultures behave, hyenas act playful, even flies avoid buzzing around you. This friendship effect extends to nearby allies of your choice, and breaks for 1 day if any of you harm a scavenger.

Additionally, you are thoroughly inured to the sights and smells of death and decay.

Sunday, May 5, 2024

TROIKA! Background: Psammomancer of the Singing Dunes

Your people exist at the whims of the sand.

Sure, you do all that you can to resist the desert. You plant rows of saxaul trees to root the soil every year. You build windmills to spite the sandstorms and focus valuable labor elsewhere. Water conservation is built bone-deep into the beliefs of your culture. You survive the desert.

Some even dare to claim that you are taming it. Those people are fools.

Every year the dunes encroach a little closer. Your cough gets a little bit worse. Some of the saxaul grows, but most of it dies. When the herders come to market they tut and say you are planting next year's firewood, then do their business and retreat to greener parts. The inland sea your grandmother swam in as a girl has vanished, and the dust blowing from its salt-encrusted bed tastes like ash and death. You warn the children not to breathe it in.

You hold no illusions. You know you live because the desert has decided not to do anything about it. Yet.

That is why you go to the dunes for answers- you, and anyone else who realizes that the desert will betray its thoughts, feelings, and even the future through its endless, mindless mumbling. You need only listen.

Well, not only listen. Anyone can listen to the sand. How it sings, howls, moans, drums, and even barks as it slides and strikes against itself. No other sand in the world does it quite like this. Long ago, you're told, travelers even came from far and wide to hear the sand. A bygone epoch when the desert couldn't reach them fast enough.

But you are not some awestruck tourist. You have trained for years to listen, watch, and understand.

From the patterns of the sand particles drifting through the air off the edge of a dune, to the cadence and tamber of their call, you know that omens and portents abound. Sometimes the wind alone gifts them to you; other times you have to bribe a camel or a youth to run across the dunes and coax out the secrets of the sand. Always, you cut through the idle chatter for the truth of the dunes.

Maybe someday it will share some good news with you.


Possessions

  • Extra-Large Waterskin.
  • Saxaul Divining Rod (Damage as Small Beast).
  • Beautifully Beaded Headdress and Long, Billowing Robes (doubles as 10' rope).
  • Pocket Sand! (the stuff just gets everywhere).
  • Mild Silicosis.


Advanced Skills

5 Language - Sand
3 Second Sight
2 Awareness
2 Deserticulture
1 Survival

Special

You may Test your Luck to study the sights or sounds of blowing sand for hints of the future. Test Luck normally to divine a pertinent event that is currently destined to happen in the next week. Test Luck -1 for an event destined to happen sometime in the next month. Test Luck -2 for an event destined to happen sometime in the next year.

Additionally, your hearing and vision are not reduced by sandstorms and similar phenomena.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Spell-Handler's Guide to Magic

Howdy, 'zardner!

So you're lookin' to become a certified member of the Wizened Pardnership of Spell-Handlers?

Well you should thank your lucky stars, because you've come to the right place! With this handy little primer, you'll have everything you need to embark on your journey to become a trained spell-handler, breeder, or even arch-rancher!

Let's begin by going back to basics, and answering a few simple questions about the nature of magic. If you have any aspiring young buckaroos nearby, now would be a perfect opportunity to introduce them to the topic of spell-handling as well!


To start off, what is Magic?

Magic is a blanket term for the huge and diverse range of bodily functions produced by Spells.

What are Spells?

Spells are small, domesticated creatures belonging to the phylum carmenifera. Each species of spell produces a magical effect unique to itself. It is the job of the spell-handler to rear and harness spells for their magic.

What can Spells do?

Why, plum near anything! A better question to ask would be "what can't spells do?" Even then, the Wizened Pardnership believes that it should be even more precise to ask "what can't spells do yet?

What is a Spell-Handler?

Spell-handlers (also known as "wizards" or "'zardners" for their association with the Wizened Pardnership) are specialists trained to rear and care for spells. They are the foremost experts on the theories and applications of magic, and often serve as pillars of their community besides.

How do Handlers use Spells?

Spell-handlers form lifelong² bonds with their spells that grant them the trust, familiarity, and know-how to coax magic out of them. This is sometimes called "casting" because many magical effects involve the spell ejecting substances from its body, sometimes at impressive ranges. A skilled spell-handler knows how to get their Fireball to sneeze, how to shake their Daylight just right, how to stimulate their Cure Wounds' musk glands to express healing goo on their pals, and so many other marvelous tricks!

What is Spellcare like?

Handlers have a robust set of daily obligations toward their spells. They must ensure that each spell is given proper food, water, exercise, and attention. If they are adventuring together, the handler must also tend to any injury or fatigue suffered by their spells, and keep any others from befalling them. Proper spellcare avoids waste and ensures that spells and their magic can be relied upon when they are most needed.

Why do Spell-Handlers go adventuring?

There's only so much a body can learn in class or in front of books. At the end of each handler's initial training period they enter their Journeyman Years, in which they gain practical experience and know-how about magic in the real world. Oftentimes this may be done by working at a string of ranches away from where they studied. Less common but more famous are the handlers who go a-venturin', often for the same reasons anyone else does: for excitement, challenge, and opportunity!

How long do the Journeyman Years last?

On average, handlers-in-training spend 2-to-3 years on the road. Some prodigies may complete this period in as little as 1 year, while slow-goers may take as long as 3-and-a-half or 4 years, depending on the details of their contract.

Contract? What contract?

Every spell-handler-in-training negotiates an education and employment contract at the start of their career. The contract outlines a mutually beneficial split between training, and making use of that training. Teaching someone how to handle spells is an expensive process, after all, and the educating institution has to make a return on its investment somehow. And that is why after a gap period, all spell-handlers return to their alma mater to work and repay the awesome opportunity that has been provided for them, as set forth in their voluntary and mutually agreed-upon contract.

Isn't that kind of like Indentured Servitude?

Haha, what?

Nothing, nevermind. Do Journeyman Handlers befriend their Spells?

'Friend' is a strong word that has many connotations incompatible with the realities of spell-handling. Spells are not pets, and handlers are not pet-owners. It is a serious working relationship in which attachment is unbecoming of someone of the handler's office, which requires executive decisions in the interest of the whole community.

Do Spells grow attached to their Handlers?

Unfortunately the spell-breeders have yet to breed attachment out of most spell strains. They are prone to mistaking grooming and cordiality for affection, and may respond in kind, even to the inconvenience of its handler.

But there is a silver lining: this makes spells great for ranch-sponsored petting zoos. Bring your kids!

How many Spells can Handlers have at a time?

As many as they can handle!

C'mon now buckaroo, you walked right into that one.

Jesting aside, the number of spells in a handler's repertoire can vary greatly depending on their individual responsibilities and skill level. Many folks go their entire lives with just 1 or 2 handy spells by their side, while some mavens have been known to handle a dozen or more at a time!

How do Handlers carry all their Spells?

Spell-handlers invariably rely upon the invaluable spell-kennel for all their on-the-go magical needs. A spell-kennel is a container for a spell meant to be convenient and accessible for the handler carrying the kennel, and cozy for the spell inside. Anti-magic lining³ and a convenient feeding port ensure that no day is too long or too arduous for a prepared handler.

What do Spell-Kennels look like?

Spell-kennels may take the shape of backpacks, bandoliers, folding organizers colloquially known as "spellbooks", and many other styles depending on individual needs and preferences. They may project an air of style, confidence, or simple, workmanlike professionalism to suit the handler. The beauty of the spell-kennel is that it is whatever you want it to be!

While supplies last, of course.

Can't Handlers keep Spells outside of their Kennels?

Technically they can, but any handler worth their salt would know better than to let their spells flop around all willy-nilly. It poses a needless inconvenience and risk to the handler to have their spells not immediately at-hand and under their control. Besides, most spells would not be able to keep up on foot.

Why can't some Spells walk?

The marvels of selective breeding have only been achieved by making a few very carefully considered sacrifices across the many diverse breeds of spells. One consequence is that many breeds of spells possess vestigial limbs that are no longer functional for locomotion- which makes it all the more important that the world have plenty of licensed spell-handlers to help take care of them.

Where do Handlers get their Spells?

Most spell-handlers receive their spells from the spell-ranch where they were currently are employed. If that is impossible or impractical, such as the case is with spell-handlers working abroad, they may acquire replacement spells from any nearby ranches or independent breeders at their convenience.

What is a Spell-Ranch?

Spell ranches are the centers of all things spellish. They are where spells are raised, new spells are created, spell-handlers learn, and countless members of your communities work, all to build a better and brighter future together. You could call it a farm that grows spells instead of crops, but to call it just a farm is to sell it woefully short. It would not be hyperbolic to say that the modern spell-ranch is the cornerstone of society.

Non-Handlers work at Spell-Ranches too?

Of course!

Spell-rearing is a multidisciplinary market, and it wouldn't behoove a ranch to have nothing but academics running around the fields sweating buckets. Anyone from any walk of life has the skills necessary to help keep a ranch running. Many towns and villages receive the majority of their employment from nearby ranches, all of which are solemnly grateful and duty-bound to provide for them in turn.

It may be hard for the layman to see it, but ranch hands know that they are essential: every spell fed, ditch dug, and pen mucked is a step toward prosperity and magical progress, and it fuels each and every one of their boundless hearts with a burning purpose that the Pardnership is plum gobsmacked at, even to this day.

I heard some Spell-Ranch workers are trying to unionize due to alleged mistreatment.

"The Wizened Pardnership and its affiliated spell-ranches are not anti-union, but they are not neutral either. They will boldly defend their direct relationship with their workers as something that is in the best interest of the worker, the ranc [sic], and the community. They do not believe unions are in the best interest of the ranch, the community, or—most importantly—the worker.

Spell-ranches optimize themselves to work best according to the core values of dependability, innovation, and efficacy, without which the world would not have such revolutionary wonders as brand-new spells."

Hang on, let's back up. How do you create "new" Spells?

So glad you asked!

An important part of spell-breeding is selecting for desirable traits. By paring the right spells of the same species together, those traits can be brought out and enhanced, made even more wonderous than what nature endowed them with. This is how you get new, subtle variations between spells of the same class; the kinds of things an outside buckaroo looking in might call different "ranks" of spells, though the reality is far more nuanced.

Alternatively, a skilled breeder may hybridize two different spells together into an all-new spell that combines some of the traits of each parent, or even results in something entirely new to magic and science.

It isn't as simple as plopping two spells down in the same room and waiting for the magic to happen, of course. Conditions must be carefully controlled, and a lengthy period of stabilization and strict testing follows all successful attempts.

What is Stabilization?

Stabilization is the process by which a new spell's magico-genetic structure is made stable enough for the specimen to be viable, as well as safe to handle. Failure to run a new spell through proper stabilization protocols is dangerous: it may behave erratically, attempt to self-terminate, discharge its magic uncontrollably, or even spontaneously explode.

Do some folks still try it anyway?

Regrettably yes, there are some bad actors among us who would disregard the wisdom of the Pardnership and pursue their own agendas in spell-breeding without oversight, putting themselves and their communities at risk. We condemn them in the strongest possible terms.

What should be done about that?

It is for the stated reasons above that unauthorized spell hybridization has been made strictly illegal in most jurisdictions. It is your civic duty—as well as the professional and moral duty of all 'zardners everywhere—to report any suspected cases of spell-breeding or related activity to local law enforcement.

We don't want another Larrold's Ridge Incident, now do we?

What Happened at Larrold's Ridge?

The Larrold's Ridge Incident was a tragic ████████ ██ █████ ███████ ██████ ██████ █████████ at an uncertified independent facility rapidly █████████ ███████ ██████████████ resulting in large-scale destruction and the almost complete loss of all ████ ███ ████████ within a 3-kilomile radius.

For more information, contact ███████████ at ████████████████████████.

Wow, I feel kind of unsafe right now. How can we trust Magic?

By trusting the Pardnership!

The Incident was shocking in its size and severity precisely because of the efforts of the Pardnership; otherwise, it and events like it would be far worse and far more frequent. But by putting the best and brightest minds in spell-handlerdom together, we can work to prevent such things from happening. It is thanks to these fine folks that magic remains and will continue to be a net positive and a force for good, both in your communities and across the world.

Trust us. We will protect you.

I feel much safer now, but I am not a certified Spell-Handler. How else can I help support the Pardnership?

There are many ways to help support the Pardnership, and they can all be done at the local level. You can volunteer your time at a local ranch, support the Pardnership by purchasing some of its marvelous products, or just be a good citizen and attend to the civic duties morally incumbent upon all of us. Keep the world clean and friendly, and make sure to report any feral spells you find!

Feral Spells? Aren't all Spells domesticated?

Almost! While most spells have been bred in captivity and virtually all extant species have been selectively bred from their wild ancestors, there are many feral spell colonies across the world. These "wild magic" populations are the result of domestic spells escaping captivity or being abandoned by negligent handlers, then reproducing in the wild. Wild spells should only be approached by certified spell-handlers with trap-neuter-return training, as they pose a potential danger to bystanders and their communities if agitated.

If you believe there is a feral spell colony in your area, please contact your nearest ranch.

Wait! I saw someone using Magic without a Spell. How is that possible?

Easy now, buckaroo. There are many spell-based products commercially available nowadays. What you may have witnessed was the proud owner of a spell-egg, magical wand, or staff showing off their shiny little slice of modernity.

What is a Spell-Egg?

Simply put, a spell-egg is an egg laid by a spell!

More properly, commercially available spell-eggs are unfertilized eggs that contain enough residual magic from the spell that laid it to allow it to be used as a sort of disposable single-use spell. The effects produced by eggs pale in comparison to what a live spell can do in the care of a handler, but they offer a wide range of options and conveniences to the layman.

How does one use a Spell-Egg?

Simply break open the shell of an egg to activate its latent magic. This may be done either by throwing the egg at the spell's intended target or, in the case of spells intended for oneself, by cracking that bad boy open and sucking the yolk down like a real Hoss.

Always consult the expiration date on spell-eggs before use. Do not purchase if shell is broken. Report any health code violations to your local ranch.

What are Magical Wands & Staffs?

Wands are a spectacular invention designed for the discerning non-handler who wants dependability and scalability out of their magical products for the best price. Through generations of selective breeding, certain spells have been designed to fit inside an enclosed space as small as a piece of wood or ceramic tubing without food, water, or air for months on end before reaching a natural expiration date.

Staffs are functionally identical to wands, except they are enlarged to hold up to a half-dozen (or more!) spells at once.

How does one use a Magical Wand or Staff?

Wands and staffs need only be activated with the proper gesture or phrase in order to effect its magic. This may be done several times depending on the size and type of the product in question. Once the spell within has been fully discharged of its magic, the wand may be disposed of in any way that is safe and convenient for perishable goods.

Vendors are required by law to supply suitable activation instructions with every purchase. Do not attempt to open wands or staffs or activate opened ones. Check your local ordinances.

Are there any sources of Magic other than Spells or Spell-Based Products?

We understand that in this modern age there is a growing sense of conscientiousness surrounding the use of spells, stemming from ecological, ethical, and dietary concerns. For those whom it concerns, it may be pleasing to know that a group of researchers is hard at work inventing a synthetic form of magic for experimental use. But R&D is a slow process, and Big Egg has one hell⁴ of a wizard lobby. In the meantime, remember that all available spell-based products are guaranteed safe and sustainable.

This has all been very enlightening, but I want to learn more.

You're in luck! Chances are, you have a world-class education in spells just a stone's throw away from home. Every Pardnership-affiliated spell-ranch has an information and admissions office ready and waiting to receive you and all your questions, curiosities, or concerns. Take a guided tour of the ranch, join community outreach programs, or apply for preliminary screening interviews to become the spell-handler of your dreams.

You'll know you're in the right neck of the woods when you pass the statue of our beloved mascot, Blorpy the Excarnating Illiquation spell.

Have a good'un, 'zardner!


¹ Such as create gold. No known magical effect can as of yet spontaneously generate gold, nor convert another substance into gold. But the fine folks at R&D are hard at work, and thanks to their ceaseless self-sacrifice and the hard work of their communities, a breakthrough could come any day now! The cost will be worth it. Literally.

² Lifelong for the spell, that is. The average life expectancy of a spell is 6-8 months, depending on species. Particularly long-lived specimens can exceed 2 years. Parents are advised not to get spells as children's pets.

³ Made from only the most high quality spell stomach lining using state-of-the-art rendering and polymerization techniques.

⁴ Literally. Since they successfully bred the Infernal Gulper (binomial name pending), portals to the underworld have been opening left and right. Watch your step, pilgrim!