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.