Sunday, 29 May 2016

Kill Six Billion Demons

The webcomic Kill Six Billion Demons (K6BD) starts absurdly: a bulky masked figure from nowhere crashes Allison's first nervous sexual tryst in her college bedroom, pursued by spiny fiends who decapitate him and bear away her boyfriend of three weeks -- but not before the masked one can implant a regulation-issue Power Macguffin of the Chosen One in Alli's forehead and tumble her across dimensions into a sordid hub-city of the multiverse.

If you haven't read the comic but are intending to, it might be best to stop now  with this review and head on over, if you've got a few hours to spare. The setting that ensues is probably best appreciated through the revelations of the story itself. Spoiler warnings apply more to the details of this world than the "hero's journey" chassis of the plot. If that doesn't faze you, read on.

Gradually, through art dark and luminous, punctuated by enormous teeming panoramas, we see the many orders of angels, devils, humans, demigods and stranger sorts in this universe of 777,777 worlds. Through exquisitely stylized dialogue and accompanying didactic texts, we learn the rules, stories and power relations that our heroine must navigate - at first as a screaming, near-catatonic wreck, but gradually gaining confidence in the role she is to play. Currently the series is finishing up its second book and, if the schematics of the plot tell true, there is a great deal of ground left to cover yet.

The setting calls to mind a Planescape built on Empire of the Petal Throne instead of D&D. A wholly original mythos nonetheless mingles recognizable names and themes from Buddhism (Mahayana and Zen alike) and Near Eastern mythology. Deftly balanced with the cosmic ponderousness of angels, gods and worlds in the balance we find sardonic and self-aware touches. These mainly come from Allison's foothold in the mundane, and from a wisecracking blue-masked imp she acquires, Cio, who fancies herself a writer of fanfiction, Allison her Mary Sue.

Rhombicubooctahedra make the best angels
The comic's creator, "Abaddon" (Patreon), has a strong eye for systems of magic and metaphysics, expressed in vigorous visual metaphors. Cio works magic by way of paper: a business card that marks an unwilling pact onto the recipient, a wall of giant paper dolls, an origami flying mount. The system of binding demons involves a hierarchy of colored masks and human-added names: the fewer names a demon is bound by, the more powerful. Landscapes are more often than not dotted with the towering, frozen or ambulatory, bodies and husks of expired gods and angels. This is a fallen cosmos where God is dead, and lowlife and oppression are everywhere. Perhaps not by coincidence given our heroine's sexual jitters, her first otherworldly destination is a lurid bordello district where desires worse than carnal lust are evidently slaked.

As far as gameable content, an official RPG for the setting is in development. In the meantime, I've worked up an old-school compatible set of spell adaptations for paper magic, adding a few effects not shown in the comic.

Paper beings are AC as unarmored, take double damage from fire and cutting weapons, none from blunt, cold or piercing. Spells are cast with appropriate paper materials and a rhymed couplet containing the numbers five and two.

Caster level
1: Paper servant. Paper doll becomes "seen" servant with 1 HD that acts as unseen servant, can become invisble from a particular vantage by turning sideways.
2: Paper planes: Fold (1 round) and throw a paper plane dart up to 30', never missing, doing d6+1 damage. Can repeat once n a row per caster level above 2.
3: Calling card: Caster always knows the location of a card engraved with his/her name, 1 day/caster level.
4: Paper wall: Dolls multiply and grow forming a whirling wall of 20 2 HD 5-foot paper soldiers up to 10' across or 30' long.
5: Origami mount: has 5 HD, up to 3 human sized persons can ride, flies at 18"
6: 52 card pickup: Sharpens and scatters a pack of cards through a 30' x 30' area, doing 4d6 damage, minus one d6 for every 2 points of armor protection.
7: Paper oracle: Pose a question with up to 4 answers, folded finger oracle over 1 round chooses the most correct one.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

One Page Contest Entry: Gripped in the Hands of Time

I had doubts, this year. Didn't think I was going to do the One Page Dungeon Contest. I had some vague idea about a dungeon with a time travel gimmick, but nothing definite. Besides, all my game design time was going to writing rooms in volume II of my megadungeon. Getting nigh on 50 of them.

Then I came to the part in my map where I had a little suite of 4 rooms, earmarked for something secluded and weird. I cast some randomness on it and one feature - a clock - came up. And I started getting ideas. And pretty soon I realized those ideas would fit on one page, too...

The title describes each of the four rooms in a different way, but it was only an afterthought.My initial impulse was to fill in the blanks in the classic roleplaying madlib: _____ of the ______ ______. Then I saw an adventure that broke that trend and the title came to me.

It's conceived as a module, an abandoned hideout that can be dropped into any setting. The fight is probably going to need high levels and the puzzles are definitely going to need sharp minds. What I like is the way the different elements can interact in an emergent way without having to write it all out with "if-then" prolixity. The diary tells of the time sacrifices which gives you a clue what to do at the bas-relief. Bari-ritu's gifts can help you with the clock lock if you are stuck in there.


Bari-Ritu is played by the Burney Relief.

Enjoy! (link to pdf)

Thursday, 24 March 2016

New Edition of 52 Pages

I haven't been blogging, but I have been running the game every other week, squeezing out text for the ol' megadungeon, and putting the final touches on some revisions to the rules I use. They're now in a position to share at version 2.0, so you can download them from the link on the right, or here.

I'd say that after some five years of playtesting, the new version works pretty darn well, at least for the "basic" levels 1-3. There have been a few issues with higher level powers and spells, and some of the variant classes I want to release, but with more experience (now going on a couple of years, having run two higher-level campaigns plus a number of convention games) I think I can fix a lot of those issues.

Accordingly, things are looking good for releasing an extra "26 pages" soon, focused on character development and advancement for levels 4-6 and new classes. The other 26 would have been campaign development, but I find the campaign structure in 52PP is the thing I least use in actual play. So my ideas about wilderness exploration, city campaigns, etc. are probably best put in a different, system-neutral volume.

Anyway, enjoy!

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Sci-Fi World

Latest in a highly intermittent series of mix'n'match d20 genre encounter/feature/treasure tables. You got your sci-fi in my fantasy; you got your Barrier Peaks in my Temple of the Frog.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Star Wars, Dying Earth, and the Programmed Setting

This contains discussion of Star Wars VII, no major plot spoilers but some general criticism. (Also, it's five weeks in, so see the damn film already.)

Robin Laws' Dying Earth RPG is not just a role-playing game set in Jack Vance's literary world. It also tries to codify the essential elements of that world - game as criticism. According to Laws the elements of a Vancian picaresque tale are: odd customs, crafty swindles, heated protests and presumptuous claims, casual cruelty, weird magic, strange vistas, ruined wonders, exotic food, and foppish apparel. The system also handles such Vancian happenings as being persuaded against your better interest, and winning great wealth only to lose it all ("All is mutability!")

And Episode VII for me was also a recombination of the elements of "Star Wars": you could see the boxes being checked off, with "doomsday machine", "terrifying monsters", "lightsaber duel", "alien cantina" and so on. But really that is nothing new. I remember reading more than one Star Wars novel in the 90's that seemed like a reshake of elements from the first three movies. Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy featured a doomsday device called the Suncrusher. There were monsters, dogfights, lightsaber duels and star lowlife a-plenty.

Also: if you tried to do a love story, a police procedural, a picaresque in the Star Wars universe, it might work, but would it be "Star Wars"? The hesitation in the answer reveals that, like the Dying Earth, Star Wars is a programmed setting. It not only provides character types, artifacts and settings, but dictates the plot and action. Compare this to a setting that has become unprogrammed, like the Wild West. While at one time there might have been a stock plot for the cowboy yarn, over many generations its expansion and reinvention has left room for social commentary, horror, preposterous steampunk action-adventure, etc.

Meanwhile, things might have gone differently if the second Star Wars trilogy's attempt to expand the repertoire with political drama, noir elements and romance had been at all convincing. But it wasn't. George Lucas caused a lot of buzz recently defending that trilogy and how he populated it “with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new.” It's a shallow view, but one that by omission acknowledges that the other "new" elements were failures, that the only things that stand up in those films are the laser duels, space battles, and spectacle. This is probably what sent J. J. Abrams running back to formula, from the potential of a universe to the safety of a program.

I think there's also a reason for the greater popularity of programmed settings over unprogrammed in roleplaying. The Standard Renfaire-Tolkien Setting, with its cozy taverns, dour dwarves, righteous paladins and hen's egg sized diamonds, is a convenient backdrop against which the slightest departure from custom - be it to invoke a different culture, a different genre or just something different - blazes forth like a star of creativity. And on the players' side, a solid and well-known backdrop gives a basis for their own creativity and improvisation.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Surprise Kills Obmi

Obmi is dead. That supervillainous boss of the third level of the Castle of the Mad Archmage, uncatchable nemesis of Gary Gygax's players, was rushed in his lair and taken apart by the terrible force of the Muleteers. And they weren't even at full spells and hits. Here's how (spoilers for CotMA obviously).

"Just go right at 'em" - Captain Aubrey
1. Strategic surprise. Good intentions paid off. Over the last few sessions, the adventurers had been probing and chipping away at the force of hobgoblins, bugbears and goblins in the northeast of the level. A rival party, the Lightning's Hand, had meanwhile fallen foul of Obmi; in cleaning out the last of the orcs in the southeast, they ran across the hobgoblins, with whom they thought they had a deal. But Obmi had been doing dungeon diplomacy to unite the humanoid groups, and the hobgoblins turned on the Hand, killing their main fighter with the aid of a hold person spell from their cleric. Fleeing, they ran into the conveniently placed Obmi and his minions, and (seeing as I rolled snake eyes for the success of this encounter, when playing through the actions of the NPC party) had to surrender after some brutal treatment.

The party was originally planning to go after the hobgoblins, at which point the tribe would have sent a runner to warn Obmi, who would have hooked around with his gnoll squad and a couple of other friends to block their retreat. Even with the aid of the Knights of Antonius, a group of holy warriors who were helping them out, this would have been serious Surtrouble for the Muleteers. But then the voice of morality spoke up in the form of Freya, the hermit, who reminded them of their duty to rescue the Hand.

In their reconnaissance the Knights had found a couple of passages forking off with the intersection marked with the dwarven rune for "O." It was there that dungeon doctrine was again ignored, and the Knights and Muleteers split up, each having one passage to search. Luck, too, came into it as the Muleteers picked the one that would lead them straight to Obmi's lab and lair.

2. Tactical surprise. Ordinarily on their way to Obmi's lair the Mules would have run across a small group of orcs, all that remained of the once mighty Grinning Skull tribe, who had be set by Obmi to patrol the maze. However, at the very same time, the goblin runner from the hobgoblins had been banging on one of the one-way doors into the maze, and the orcs were escorting him back to the door of the lair, which a gnoll guard opened.

Just then Titus the gnome and self-styled muleborne knight decided to try to sneak down the corridor behind them, wearing metal armor,and thus failing. "Hey!" The orcs swiveled around and everyone rushed forward, led by Titus, who started incanting the syllables of his Choke spell... only to fail and cast a different random spell of the same level instead at the targets (he must have mispronounced Choke as Shock) ... the most fortuitous Lightning Bolt. Bouncing around in the confined space, the bolt fried all the humanoids and miraculously stopped just short of hitting the caster.

The path to the huge lair room was now clear and everyone rushed in as fast as they could. Five gnolls were at various places in the room, Obmi was over by the wall tormenting one of the Hand party captives, who were all strapped and locked into various devices and tables. A huge swiveling brass machine with a pointy end was installed in the middle of the room. Bort the fighter, running to engage Obmi, placed himself in a position to fight the six remaining gnolls as they tried to come out of their adjacent barracks room. This was a crucial if unwitting decision that gave the party tactical control of the room.

With a few good decisions and strokes of luck the party had given themselves a huge positional advantage, which was to widen when Obmi, acting out a tragic flaw, chose to use his invisibility ring and boots of speed not to get away, but to make it to his pride and joy, the repulsor ray machine in the middle of the room. (This flaw was activated by some unusually high morale rolls I threw for Obmi.) The beam pushed back a column of party reinforcements as they tried to enter the room, but the energy wizard Orbit managed to get off a Shatter spell that blew a hose on the contraption. With most of the gnolls in the lair now dead, and the rest hemmed into their barracks, the party swarmed around the dwarf, cutting off his escape and eventually finishing him.

I could have further ruled that the invisibility and boots of speed would allow Obmi to slip past engaging enemies, but the result felt like a just reward for audacious action, phenomenal luck, and the folly of the usually slippery villain. Things would have been very different if Obmi had been shielded by a swarm of gnolls and able to pound the front line with his returnng hammer. What I observed years ago was borne out that day: the advantage of surprise is not always to the home team.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Interesting Buffs Are Visible Buffs

I've had enough experience now with the spell lists of D&D and with creating my own distillation and derivative to notice something. Prayer and Bless, spells that give mechanical bonuses to friends' die rolls, are boring. This is usually masked by the existence of more useful spells at their levels, so they are rarely memorized. But working them out for my own game,where B-list spells become useful due to the no-duplicate-spells rule ... yeah, there's still something tepid about mechanical bonuses.

Is it that spell-casters would rather strike with their own effects than throw buffs on friendly characters? Not really. Enlarge and Haste shimmer with awesomeness. In my own campaign, the lowly Shield spell conjures forth a short-range, moveable force shield that gives +5 AC,maximum 20, versus attacks from one direction. This has been most welcome.

No, the real problem is that bonus-giving spells are abstract, intangible, bloodless. They exist in the rules, not in the world that characters can see or interact with. Look at the difference between:

* A Bless spell that gives you +1 to die rolls for a given time .... and one that sets a guardian angel over you, who lets you re-roll one die affecting you at any time.

* A Strength spell that gives you +4 to the stat ...and a Strength spell that lets you bend iron like lead, lift half a ton overhead,  and wield a huge improvised weapon for d12+4 damage.

* A whammy that gives your sword a +2 enchantment ... or a mojo that makes it crackle with red fire for d6 extra damage, or glisten with arctic cold for+2 to hit and damage.

"Hey, but healing gives back abstract numbers - hit points -and it's highly desired!" That's true, but the exception proves the rule. Character types that do nothing but heal are derided as boring to play even if they're valuable to the party. Fortunately, the above examples give a formula to improve any boring effect:

Make it concrete. Make it material.

By creating a visible thing, rather than just tweaking a stat, you make it interesting. Let's apply it to boring, by-the-numbers healing.

* A healer who spins silk casts and bandages from her fingers like a laid-back Spider-Woman.
* A healer who blesses food to have healing properties, with the catch that there must be a different kind of food or drink in the feast for every 2 hp healed.
* A healer who needs to wash you in water for light wounds, a bath for critical wounds, and full Baptist immersion for the strongest effects.

* This dude from 3rd edition. He's great at regenerating limbs. If you're injured but not maimed, he'll grow you a new limb which you can use until the old one gets better, at which point it falls off.

One thing you'll notice about all these is that their presence in the material world starts sparking off ideas for creative uses, advantages and disadvantages, just like the Force Shield beyond giving an armor bonus can also be used to stop a door or carry a load. If something only affects the rules level, there is only one use for it. A big part of the old-school philosophy is letting things exist and work in analog simulation space: descriptive problem solving instead of (or at least in addition to) skill rolls. Making buffs (and magic item and monster effects) visible works with that.