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Friday, 17 November 2017

Dealing with demons - part 1

"Dealing With Demons" appeared in White Dwarf issue 44 (August 1983) and was to be an official part of Games Workshop's Questworld pack, except that Questworld never happened. It was later adapted to Dragon Warriors in James Wallis's gorgeous but elusive In From The Cold book, but the translation didn't really work because you can see from the demons' names that they were intended for a culture far less Eurocentric than Legend.

For this post I've reverted to the original Runequest rules. Today we've got the basics of demonology. Come back in a week for the demons and demon lords.


To the superstitious, a demon is any obviously powerful supernatural being. The word is even used to describe unusually malformed Chaotic creatures or the less familiar elementals. In the precise sense, however, a demon is a being which usually lives on another plane of existence, but which is capable of acquiring a physical presence in the mortal world. The demon’s native plane must be one that to the demon itself constitutes physical reality. For this reason the spirit plane does not qualify, so embodied spirits such as dervishes or elementals are not true demons.

It is fairly well known among those with more than a passing understanding of the subject that the demonic hierarchy consists of sundry demon races ruled by ascending ranks of nobility up to the demon princes, each of whom may reign over several different planes of existence.

The categorization, study, and control of the many demonic types comprises Demonology, a Knowledge skill with a base score of 0%. Familiarity with Demonology means that the character knows something of the relationships, powers, and Runic associations of the various demons. From this, he or she may be able to infer their weaknesses, if any. The Demonology skill does not include summoning techniques or other magics, although it is useful to know something about demons before you start trying to summon them.

The Pentacle of Protection
In case a demon turns out to be hostile, the Pentacle of Protection is a useful defence for the summoner. The Pentacle must be drawn out with various substances on some hard surface around the summoner. This takes several minutes and so must be prepared before the Ritual of Summoning is begun. When the Pentacle is complete, the summoner casts a point of battle magic POW into it, thus activating it for the next hour. So long as another POW point is cast into the design before the hour has passed it will remain active. Once the Pentacle’s power is allowed to lapse, the design smoulders away into fine ash.

A hostile demon cannot cast spells into nor enter an active Pentacle. Neither can it use summoned minions of its own to attack the summoner. There are minor design differences between Pentacles according to the type of demon the Pentacle is intended to ward against. If the wrong demon materializes, the Pentacle is useless.

It takes only a few hours to learn to draw a Pentacle. Draw Pentacle is a skill with a base score of 70% adjusted for characteristics as follows:

Increase in the Draw Pentacle skill is by experience only. Remember that the summoner won’t know whether he has drawn out the Pentacle correctly until a hostile demon tries to violate it. Also, one Pentacle cannot be drawn inside another, so characters cannot double their insurance that way.

Pentacles are not the summoner’s last line of defence by any means. Common sense and a good grounding in Demonology can provide a beleaguered summoner with further wards (special herbs, words and spells that the demon will retreat from, etc) to slow a hostile demon’s attack until it can be dispelled.

The Ritual of Summoning
This is the form of magic most people would think of in connection with demonology. The Ritual of Summoning is a skill that can be practised by anyone with POW of at least 10 and with INT and DEX both 12 or more. It has a base score of 0%, modified as follows:

The Ritual of Summoning takes fifteen minutes to perform and requires several rare components such as incense, chalks, paints, and certain powders and distillations. These components are used up in the Ritual and must be prepared for each summoning, at a cost of 2d4 × 10 Lunars. As the evocator completes the incantations he rolls against his Ritual of Summoning skill to see whether the demon appears. Many demons have an innate resistance to summoning which acts as a negative modifier to the character’s chance of success. Critical and fumble rolls usually have no special significance, except that on a roll of 00 some other demon than the one intended will appear.

Bringing the demon into being causes a drain on the summoner’s life force. At the moment of completing the Ritual he loses ld3 points of CON, later recovering at the rate of one point per week. Once the demon has been evoked, it remains on this plane of existence for 1-4 hours and then returns to its own world. Only the Ritual of Binding will prevent this.

Simply evoking a demon does not give the summoner any control over it, and if he does not use the Ritual of Binding he will have to bargain for its services. In this case, use the response table in Appendix J of the Runequest rulebook. A demon that takes an active dislike to its summoner will attempt to kill him; if thwarted in this (by a Pentacle of Protection, for example, or if the summoner is obviously too powerful) it will depart. A moderate response indicates that the demon is prepared to serve, but may drive a hard bargain; if offered significantly less than it would normally expect, it may become enraged and attack (check response again at -10) or simply depart. A friendly demon will probably settle for a deal close to the summoner’s first offer, as long as this is not wildly short of its expectations. In the case of NPC summoners, Bargaining rolls can be used. If the summoner is a player-character, however, then the referee should take the role of the demon and haggle.

Once the deal has been agreed and the demon has received its payment, the summoner must say, ‘Here then are my wishes...’ and go on to describe the service he wants the demon to perform. This must be concisely and carefully worded. Demons are adept at twisting the meaning of a casual phrase and at following the letter of an agreement in order to discommode their summoner. The demon will then embark on the task set and continue until it has done what was asked of it or until the time limit on its summoning runs out, whichever comes first. Demons are typically quite happy to undertake suicidal missions because the destruction of their physical form only returns them prematurely to their own plane. If the demon’s spirit or freedom of action is endangered, however, it will be considerably less enthusiastic about completing the task. If it voluntarily backs out of an agreement, the demon must return 90% of its payment to the summoner.

The lesser demons are usually called upon to kill, spy or steal in their evocator’s service. Although the demons may have special skills which make them excellent for such activities, it is after all much the same sort of thing for which common thugs or mercenaries might be hired. Demon lords and princes will not stoop to menial annihilations and the like, but may be persuaded to use their grand supernatural forces, sometimes to the summoner’s lasting benefit. The demon Lord Kesh, for example, can teach a character to brew venoms and acids. The exact services available from the various demons, and the payments they might ask in return, are described later.

Banishing a Demon
For a number of reasons the summoner of a demon may want to banish it before it would normally fade from this plane of reality. Banishment requires the demonologist to chant a mystic phrase. This takes five rounds, during which time he can defend himself but not attack or cast spells. When the chant is completed, the summoner rolls to see if his attempt is successful, the chance of success being the same as his chance of summoning it in the first place. If successfully banished, the demon disappears immediately. Only one attempt at banishment can be made; if that fails, other means must be used to destroy the demon.

A character skilled in demon magic will also be able to use banishment against a demon summoned by someone else. In this case the chance of dispelling the demon is half what the character’s chance of summoning that demon would be. As before, the character has only one opportunity to make the banish roll.

The Ritual of Binding
Binding eliminates the necessity of bargaining with a demon but it has its drawbacks in that attempting to bind a demon without its consent will certainly enrage it. The Ritual of Binding takes only one melee round to perform, but to stand even a chance of success the caster must expend battle magic POW at least equal to the demon’s own POW. The caster can spread the load over all his bound spirits and POW storage crystals. The POW points are committed without the character knowing the demon’s exact POW, of course. It is a good idea to overestimate.

The Ritual of Binding is a Knowledge skill with a base score of 0%. If the character succeeds then the demon is bound in his service. Instead of vanishing after a few hours, it remains on this plane until killed or banished. A bound demon cannot directly harm the one who bound it, nor can it deliberately kill itself in order to escape from this plane. The binder can give it one command of up to thirteen words, and the demon will obey this command literally. Commands such as ‘Obey all my future commands’ or ‘Serve me loyally’ are not effective, and immediately free the demon if tried. That is, the command must specify particular services and actions rather than establishing conditions or attitudes for future behaviour.

Bound demons are not like bound spirits. The binder cannot see through their eyes, nor use their INT and POW for spell purposes. A character cannot have more than seven demons bound on this plane at one time; if he tries to bind an eighth, all are freed.

Some demons have a special resistance to binding, which works like Defence against the binding Attack. With enough POW (and guts) a character could try binding a demon lord, but their resistance is likely to be 80% or higher.

Binding can in some cases be to the demon’s advantage. It may want permanent residence on this plane. Demon lords invariably desire to return to their realms as soon as possible, but some of the lesser demons lead a difficult existence in their own world and would prefer being bound to this plane. The problem is one of trust. There is nothing to prevent a summoner from agreeing to bind a demon ‘as a favour’ and then giving it any order he likes. There is thus only about a 1% chance of a demon asking to be bound. If you then actually keep your word and bind it without giving it a command, you will have that demon’s eternal gratitude.

The Pact of the Dark Companion
After successfully bargaining with a demon its summoner can, instead of requesting a service, offer the Pact of the Dark Companion. This applies only to lesser demons—demon lords will not even consider making the Pact with any except the mightiest human heroes. A character can have only one Pact operating at any given time.

For the demon to accept, it must already be very well-disposed towards the character (an ‘extremely friendly’ reaction on the response table). The Pact is then sealed in any of several revolting ways, the result of which is that the evocator gives the demon some of his own life and soul: his POW and CON both drop permanently by 1 point. They can still be increased in the usual way, but the character’s maximum possible score is also reduced by one. After sealing the Pact, the demonologist receives the demon’s mark and the creature departs.

Thereafter the evocator can call on his Dark Companion at any time. The normal summoning procedure is unnecessary. There is a 20% chance each round of calling the demon’s name that it will hear and come to aid him. It will always serve to the best of its abilities, but cannot remain on this plane for a total of more than twenty-one Combat Rounds in a single day. If slain, it vanishes and cannot rematerialize that day.

The Dark Companion must slay at least one sentient being each month as it feeds on the release of life-energy. If prevented from doing so it will end the Pact and then seek to slay the evocator before returning to its own world forever. The evocator can thus force a conclusion to the Pact by withholding victims. Other methods are to try banishing the demon, dispelling it using the Curse of Asterion, or destroying it in spirit combat.

The Curse of Asterion
Also called the Curse of Binding Energy, this is a technique for dispelling a particular demon for all time. It is usable only once in a character’s lifetime (for reasons which will become obvious), and in fact only two cases of its use are recorded—once when the noble Asterion employed it to save his daughter’s life, the other when the lunatic mage Athat turned it against a demon lord in a moment of arrogant pique.

The Curse is learned by a character reaching 85% in Demonology. A fairly short phrase, the Curse is only effective if the character follows through the complex logical arguments associated with it as he speaks the words of the Curse. This is represented by a roll of INTx5 or less on percentile dice.

The procedure is as follows: the character must touch and grapple with the demon as he (or she) activates the Curse of Asterion. If successful, both the demon and the character disappear forever from this world. Are they both disintegrated by the power of the magic? Or transported to a dimension of their own where they battle on together throughout eternity? The truth is unknowable.

The possession spells are a group of enchantments for possessing people (usually the caster's companions) with the spirit-essence of a demon lord. The demon is not summoned by the spell. The effect of a possession is to enhance the recipients' fighting prowess or other skills. The exact effect varies according to the demon invoked.

Possession spells take five rounds to cast and have a duration of fifteen minutes. Although they cost battle magic POW to cast, possessions do not have to be memorized within the caster's INT limit like battle magic spells. Instead the caster must make his roll in the Cast Possession skill for the spell to work. If he fails, he loses half the POW cost of the spell to no effect. Cast Possession has a base score of 0% with these characteristic adjustments:

To cast a possession spell one must also have the talisman appropriate to the demon lord invoked. This could be a mask, wand, bell, gong, amulet, or one of several other items. The caster must prepare talismans for any demon lords he wishes to invoke at a construction cost of 3-18 Lunars each. Alternatively, he can buy or otherwise obtain talismans prepared by another demonologist. The character must make his Demonology roll to see whether he has properly prepared a particular demonic talisman, as Cast Possession will always fail if the talisman used is defective.

A single casting of possession affects up to three people. To be affected they must be conscious but passive – the spell cannot be applied to a character in combat. Possession can be directed at subdued or harmonized enemies of the caster, but he must overcome their POW for the spell to take effect. Also, possessions do not give the caster control over the spell's recipients – the possessed characters retain their own normal aims and motives. However, they cannot under any circumstances harm the caster so long as he carries the proper talisman.

The average POW cost of a possession spell is some 12 points. Exact costs and effects are given later.

Campaign notes
You cannot just walk into a Lankhor Mhy college and enrol in demon magic classes. Demonologists tend to be scarce and reclusive for several very good reasons. One is the fact that they occasionally indulge in human sacrifice and other practices not widely approved of. Another is the very high risk taken by the habitual summoner. Most telling of all, the priests of established temples consider demonology synonymous with demon worship, a threat to their own authority, and so the practice is universally frowned upon if not actually outlawed.

How then is a character to learn the demonic arts? There are two ways. Either collect the rare books and study them, or else seek out one of those reclusive masters and convince him that he needs an apprentice. Both may well be expensive, but the crucial factor in the character's study will be one of time. The Skills Table reflects this.

Friday, 10 November 2017

How to stop your RPG sessions turning into Thor: Ragnarok

I’m glad it’s not just me. In this episode of the Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice podcast, Messrs Cule and Bell-West talk about how irritating it is when players break out of character for jokes and facetious banter.

Most definitely I’m not against joking at the table. In-character humour is not only essential and lots of fun, it’s pretty much the Turing Test of roleplaying. If you can see things from inside your character enough to crack a joke like him or her, you’re doing it right.

That's like the first Thor movie. All the humour there was great because it came from character. Later the film-makers saw that they’d get more tweetage if all the characters spoke like Joss Whedon was writing their lines – which in many cases he was. What even Joss forgot was that flip, high-school comedy shtick made sense for Buffy and the Scooby gang because they were high-schoolers. Coming from Thor or Captain America it’s just dumb. If it were a roleplaying game not a movie, that would be their players just not bothering.

But what do you do? Michael Cule asks if you should bang on the table. But you have enough on your mind running the game without taking on the role of kindergarten teacher as well, and as Roger Bell-West points out, once the suspension of disbelief is broken it's a bit late to get it back. Maybe instead we need to look at why players might want to break character. It means either they’re bored or else they’re embarrassed by the make-believe and need an escape. Listen to the podcast, it’s all discussed there.

Maybe part of the problem is the trend in modern drama for every character to behave like a teenager with ADHD. And maybe that is caused by the tweetability of 21st century life. People talk all the way through movies, TV shows and roleplaying games now because they’re accustomed to providing the world with a streaming commentary of their entire lives. Sitting still and concentrating on one thing for a chunk of time measured in hours must seem like Swamp Thing waiting for a judgement from the Parliament of Trees. I’m a lot less connected than the average person (you should see my cellphone) which may be why I’m mostly happy to stay in character for the evening.

Incidentally I'm not discussing this because my own players are offenders. We do have a lot of humour in most sessions, but it's almost always in character and we don't, thank goodness, have one of the compulsive comedians Mr Cule describes in his groups. That said, I've noticed that when side discussions spring up between a couple of players, time was they'd be talking about something in the game (very often in character, too) whereas these days it will likely be something they're watching on TV or saw on Facebook. Attention spans are rotting away the world over, or so the anecdotal evidence goes.

Cnut couldn’t stop the tide. All you can do is make your games more engaging so that players don’t feel the need to step out of character and make jokes. Throw in more outrageous surprises, and be less forgiving if players were nattering and missed what just happened. Or you could have NPCs react to all those funny meme references as if the character really said them out loud. A little time with the Inquisition (or your world’s local equivalent) is a surefire cure for compulsive hilarity.

And if that doesn't work, switch to playing boardgames, where there's no suspension of disbelief to break. In which case, here's just the thing.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Tékumel – Powered By The Apocalypse

It’s certainly not want of rule systems that’s responsible for the obscurity of Professor MAR Barker's world of Tékumel - an obscurity that is unjust and tragic too, because not only did Prof Barker create a fascinating and intricately detailed world, he also designed it from the outset with gaming in mind. Which is why it works much better as an RPG setting than worlds that were designed to tell a story – Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, say, or Vance’s Dying Earth.

A new set of rules for Tékumel roleplaying comes along every few years (I've only contributed to the glut with my own Tirikelu RPG, though I happen to think it's rather good and has the added advantage of being free) but conscpicuous by its absence is Powered By The Apocalypse (aka the Apocalypse World Engine, or AWE).

So, in for a qirgal, in for a kaitar. This is not by any means a complete hack of the AWE system for Tékumel. That would take fifty pages or more. But it should be enough to get started with.

To a Tsolyani, each person has five selves. The body (bakte) is the physical being. The mind (hlakme) is the reasoning entity. The shadow (chusetl) is the dream self. The soul (baletl) is the immortal essence of the person. And finally the id (pedhetl, literally “enemy”) is the infantile self of instinct, desires and fears.

The point isn’t simply that we have multiple flavours of soul. As Patrick Brady’s article on Tsolyani metaphysics makes clear, we exist in five overlapping worlds and we have an identity in each of them: the physical world, the conceptual world, the social world, the dream world, and the world of primitive drives and animal needs.

With a little licence we can translate the five selves into AWE stats:
  • Body = physical attributes; health, strength, and reflexes
  • Mind = conceptual attributes; memory, intelligence
  • Shadow = imaginative attributes; inspiration, creativity, intuition
  • Soul = social attributes; how honourable, balanced, confident a person is
  • Enemy = basic emotions; aggression, selfishness, lust, etc; a person with strong pedhetl is forceful and likely to be noticed – whether as a trouble-maker or as a hero depends on other attributes.
One option is to assign values to the five stats (+2, +1, +1, 0 and -1) at the start of the game.

Alternatively, you could play through the characters’ childhood allowing them each in turn to “remember” early escapades. What the players do in those episodes will decide their adult stats.

Tsolyanu has a rich and complex social system which does not readily reduce to a few numerical values. For example, in a pinch any of these characters would be expected to put other family members first, whatever their personal friendship with another character from outside the lineage.

With that caveat in mind, each player assigns relationship values (History, or “Hx” in the AWE system, as in “this character has history with me”) to reflect their character’s attitude to each other PC: +2 for the character they have the closest link to, -1 for the one they know least, +1 for other members of their own lineage, and 0 to all others.

Note that having History +2 with another character doesn’t have to mean you like them. Maybe they once humiliated you in front of everyone and you’ve never forgotten it, even if they have.

In the PbtA system any character can attempt a basic move.

For example, aiming to wrestle somebody to the ground would involve rolling 2D6 and adding the appropriate stat (Body in this case). If you score 10+ you’ve done it just like you intended. On a 7-9 you’ve achieved a qualified success: the referee will offer a cost (maybe you sprain your shoulder, which could be reflected as Harm taken or an ongoing -1 modifier) and if you choose to press ahead you succeed but pay the cost. On a roll of 6 or less you fail, and ideally the referee will use that failure to set up something else (“you slip, end up flat on your back, and you’re the laughing stock of the island; get the nickname Yojo, which means Wobbly”).

I already said that this isn’t supposed to be a full Tekumel hack of Powered By The Apocalypse, but here are a few basic moves:
  • Intimidate (2d6 + Enemy)
  • Charm (2d6 + Shadow)
  • Convince (2d6 + Mind)
  • Inspire (2d6 + Soul)
  • Seduce (2d6 + Body)
Those can be applied to player-characters, but of course a player isn’t obliged to have their character behave in any way other than what they decide. So you can refuse to give in to a convincing argument even if the other person rolls 10+. However, if you do play along with it you gain experience.

Other basic moves for the Falesa islander characters featured in this scenario:
  • Swim
  • Fight
  • Read a person
  • Hide
  • Cook
and so on. In all cases the player should describe what they’re actually doing, not simply say, “I’m using such-&-such a move.” Be careful or it can get abstract and boardgamey.

A basic move that deserves some discussion is the art of the well-mannered insult. I can give an example from our own campaign. Karunaz (played by Paul Mason), a low-born foreigner, had bad history with Lord Káshu (played by me), a Tsolyani of high status. He greeted him as “Lord Kárshü” – which actually sounds a lot like “Lord Bald” in the Tsolyani language, and Káshu is in fact bald, yet it could conceivably be Karunaz’s atrocious accent rather than a deliberate slight. In this case, if Karunaz scores 10+ then he gets away with it – Káshu is left fuming, but realizes that to make a point of it would look petty and expose him to more ridicule in everyone else’s eyes. If Karunaz gets 7-9, the insult stands but Káshu demands shamtla (monetary compensation) or, if Karunaz weren't of such low status, might insist on a duel. If Karunaz gets 6 or less, the insult backfires – everybody regards him as an uncouth foreigner who can’t behave in civilized society.

Another example of that: when Lamont Cranston calls Shiwan Khan a barbarian. This clip cuts just before Cranston rolls the move (he gets a 10+ btw).

Special moves in AWE are specific to a character or class of characters, and provide a bonus when those actions are undertaken. For example, hunters get Stalking, which adds +1 to any roll made when tracking prey. Bear in mind that the characters given for this scenario are not necessarily archetypes of Tekumel at large (those would be: scholar, official, heavy infantryman, wizard, priest, bodyguard, thief, etc) and in some cases are not even types but rather specific roles.
  • When any character attempts something that is in keeping with their family’s traditional traits, they get +1 ongoing as long as it remains applicable.
  • When any character achieves a goal reflecting their family traits, they gain experience.
For example, Goreng hiLanaka stands up single-handed to three Mu’ugalavyani sailors who are trying to molest his sister Karisa. The Lanaka are famously brave, so he gets +1 on all rolls while trying to deal with the sailors. If he succeeds in protecting his sister from them, he’ll get XP.

For more on how to run a Powered by the Apocalypse game, take a look at the TV Tropes page. No, really.

Campaign themes
If you want to get self-conscious about themes, there's plenty here to explore. Roots v new beginnings (local god v the Tsolyani pantheon, old ways v civilized customs, etc). Also family ties v new loyalties. The perennial choices of immigrants in a new land, or indeed simply of the backwoods boy or girl who goes off to make a new life in the big city.

Personally I don't much care for imposing themes on a roleplaying campaign. If you look for them you'll find them, and that's more satisfying than trying to wrangle events into the shape of a TV season – but hey, it's the fashion, so do what thou wilt.

If it helps to have a list of refereeing principles, I suggest the following (taken from Joe McDonald’s Simple World rules).
  • WONDER: sprinkle evocative details everywhere.
  • ATMOSPHERE: make the world seem real.
  • SCOPE: build a bigger world through play.
  • CHARACTER-FOCUSSED: create interesting dilemmas, not interesting plots.
  • IMMERSION: address yourself to the characters, not the players.
  • PLAYER-LED: give the players freedom to explore; the story is what they choose to do.
OK, so now let's apply all that to an actual scenario...

Just Off The Boat:
a start-up campaign for players new to Tékumel

The player-characters come from Falesá, a coastal village on a small island of the same name that lies just north-east of Ssámris Island. Life has been getting harder for the islanders. Game and fish are less plentiful, and several raids by Mu’ugalavyani pirates have taken their toll.

Matters come to a head and a group of strong young people will shortly be sent off to seek their fortune on the mainland. The hope is that they will be able to bring wealth back to the island, though some of the more far-sighted elders realize their best hope is to establish a new home in the Tsolyani city of Jakalla.

Players start by determining their lineage, then choosing a role, then deciding their stats.

Players roll for status using a six-sided die. A roll of 1 indicates you belong to the Konumra lineage. A roll of 2-3 means the Lanaka lineage. 4-6 is the Shathirin lineage. In the Falesá community, the Konumra are the highest status, the Shathirin the lowest.

But as far as most Tsolyáni are concerned, the islanders are all of negligible social standing, barely above barbarians. That may not be clear to the PCs until they arrive in a mainland city.

This choice determines the character’s initial skills. There is one each of:
  • Acolyte
  • Athlete
  • Black Sheep
  • Outsider
Those are unique characters. The rest of the characters should be either
  • Fisherman or
  • Hunter
Players should make their selection based only on the role description, without seeing the skill-level allocations. Note that some roles have a prerequisite status.

The Acolyte has studied under the priest of the village. He/she must be a Konumra or Lanaka.

The Athlete is the village champion in the annual wrestling and acrobatics contests held against other islands. He/she must belong to the Konumra family and will have often got out of humdrum chores so as to train, possibly to the envy of the other characters.

The Black Sheep can be of any lineage. He or she has had a misspent youth, having run away to Ssámris Isle for several years. He/she begins in low esteem but has picked up some interesting skills.

The Fisherman, a standard island character, can be a Lanaka or Shathirin. Any number of players can select this role.

The Hunter is another standard character, but this time must be a Lanaka or Konumra. As with the Fisherman, more than one player can take this role.

The Outsider is of lowest status. He or she is not one of the Falesá villagers by birth, but a Nom merchant who arrived penniless and decided to stay.

Each character (except the Outsider) must be fitted onto the family trees provided. A player who objects to being assigned a first name may change it, bearing in mind that these are the characters’ formal names and they would have other informal names for use by family and close friends.

HANDOUT: PC background
(You can give each player a copy of these notes after he/she has generated a character. That’s if they want to plunge straight into the “real” campaign. Personally I think it’s more interesting to develop their life on the island first, especially as you can contrast the idyllic days of their childhood with the much harder times they’ve fallen on of late.)

In former times, life in Falesá was not so hard as now. Historically the island of Ssámris has passed between Tsolyáni and Mu’ugalavyáni hands several times. Your families sided with the Tsolyáni in the dispute of 2020 AS. Now Ssámris is back in Mu’ugalavyáni hands and you are paying the price. Settlers have come to your little island. The Mu’ugalavyáni government favours them in trade and legal matters, leaving you in straitened circumstances.

You have decided to leave and seek your fortune in Tsolyánu. Perhaps you can return with wealth to help your families; perhaps you can pave the way for them all to enjoy a new life on the mainland. Perhaps you will even rise to prominence as admirals in the Tsolyáni navy and come back to displace the Mu’ugalavyáni from your home.

The Konumra family (high) are considered wise and generous. The Lanaka family (medium) are noted for their bravery and honesty. The Shathirin family (low) are thought energetic and modest.

Falesá reveres Pavar’s gods, most notably specific aspects of Hnalla, Hrü’ü, Belkhanu and Karakan. Also important is an aboriginal deity called Bithra who has a fane in a stand of bamboo on your island. The Shathirin family are keepers of the fane, and only the older women of this family take offerings to Bithra. However, Bithra is the tutelary deity of all Falesá and it is the custom among all the islanders to call on him first when in trouble. He may only be a minor deity, but he is more likely to help you than those mighty Lords of Heaven.

You each have some money. Also you have a yacht. This is jointly owned by all of you but technically subject to the disposal of Konumra family members.

(Give a copy of these notes to the Outsider player.)

The Nom are a seafaring race (black-skinned than brown-skinned like the Tsolyani) inhabiting a number of city-states spread throughout an archipelago of many islands and coral atolls far to the east of Falesa. The economy is based principally on fishing, with some agriculture on the larger islands, and other commodities traded overseas with Salarvya and Haida Pakala. (Property is less important than custom: the right to fish in a certain bay, etc. Property can be lost, but such rights—which descend through the female line—can never be taken away.)

The Nom gods are:

Lord Done, who sends fair winds for ships.
Lord An Hu, who gave the gift of fire; he oversees metalworking and the exchange of hard currency; he is invoked when making pacts because he abhors an oathbreaker.
Lady Jiu, lady of the sea, who protects children and pregnant mothers.
Lord Kaa, who rewards bold men with the courage to fight and win in battle, but punishes cowards with slow death.
Lord Ne’en, terrible harbinger of violent storms.
Lady Pei, goddess of luck.
Lady Chi’nh, spirit of night and mother of the moons, who brings the tides that give fishermen their catches.
Lord To’u, who is Death.

The Nom have a shame-based culture (even more so than the Tsolyáni). Simply to refuse to accept a Nom’s word on a matter is to shame him. To avoid disgrace a man will choose exile or even death. Nom who have been shamed say "Pei has turned her face away" and become fatalistic until some happy stroke of luck restores their belief in the chance to redress their shame.

Nom society is matrilineal. This does not mean it is a matriarchy, however. Men still rule, but inheritance is through the female line. A man is therefore often closer to his sister’s children than to his own; they are the ones who will inherit his family’s responsibilities, rights and property.

Several lineages make up a clan. Each city-state has members of all twenty-four Nom clans. Nine of the clans comprise the Sea People and fifteen are the Land People. The names of these two factions indicate their different areas of authority: fishing & overseas trade in the former case and farming, crafts & markets in the latter. The paramount lords of the two factions rule the city on alternate days.

The clans themselves are exogamous. Men marry outside their lineage and clan, and then go to live with their wife’s family. Each clan is responsible for certain rituals. For a city-state to declare war, for instance, requires twenty-four rituals to be performed and therefore cannot happen without the consent of all the clans. But a lesser state of aggression can be declared by only nine Sea People rituals, giving those clans considerable sway in matters of minor foreign policy.
There are serfs, but the caste is hereditary and the Nom view the enslavement of free men as a barbarous practice. In general Nom society is very cultured. Oaths made in the name of An Hu are always honoured, but An Hu is only invoked if the pact is a matter of great weight—to mention him in the same breath as a simple promise would be disrespectful.

Special moves
You should decide on some special moves for each character type. For instance:

The Acolyte
  • Scholarship – for all rolls involving history, theology, geography and languages add +1.
  • Divination – read somebody’s skein of destiny; you need to construct their birth chart, then it’s a basic move using Shadow.
  • Petition the God – You know enough not to bother the great gods such as Hnalla with your troubles, but you can ask Bithra for a favour, a basic move using Soul. (-2 anywhere but the island itself, -1 if not at Bithra’s fane.)
The Black Sheep
Special moves depend on what the Black Sheep character has been up while away from the island, so those missing years could be played out one-on-one with the referee.

The Outsider
  • Well-travelled – when being street-savvy in the Foreigners’ Quarter of Jakálla, add +1.
  • Foreign languages – make a Mind roll to understand non-Tsolyani speakers.
The Athlete
  • Winner – add +1 in any competition
  • Peak Fitness – add +1 to any roll involving Body
  • He/she should roll 1D6 for performance in last year’s all-islands contest: 1-2 = no distinction; 3-5 = performed well; 6 = outright winner.
Any Fisherman character
  • All rolls involving sailing and swimming, add +1
  • Hold your breath – basic move using Body
Any Hunter
  • Stalking – whenever you’re tracking prey, add +1
  • Danger Sense – basic move using Enemy
Family relationships
In Falesá, as in mainland Tsolyánu, your true mother’s sisters (and your father’s brother’s wives) are all your “mothers”. Likewise, your true father’s brothers (and your mother’s sister’s husbands) are all your “fathers”. Children of these people are your brothers and sisters. Your true mother’s brothers (and true father’s sister’s husbands) are your “uncles”, and your father’s sisters (and your mother’s brother’s wives) are your “aunts”.

Thus many of the player-characters are related. Shiwan, for example, is the younger brother of Goreng’s and Etmesh’s mother, making him their uncle. Areli’s mother is the sister of Timung’s and Tamkade’s mother, so the three of them are siblings. And so on.

Some marriages are pending. Shiwan hiKonumra is betrothed to Karisa hiLanaka, Etmesh hiLanaka to Ji’una hiShathirin, and Timung hiShathirin to Darsha hiLanaka. It has not been possible to hold the marriage ceremonies for want of the wealth needed for the appropriate gifts and ceremony.

Money and belongings
Shathirin family members start with 20 silver hlash, Lanaka family members with 40 hlash, and Konumra family members with 60 hlash. The Outsider is equipped with a spear and light leather armour. Shathirins have two weapons. Lanakas have three weapons. Konumras have light leather, a small shield, and four weapons. Anyone taking a bow as one of his weapons also has twenty arrows.

History of the island
These are the major events which have provoked gossip, speculation and daydreams over the last quarter century. You could play these out as an introductory session as players develop their characters.

Twenty-five years ago: A Tsolyáni priest from Jakálla visits Falesá on his way to Khéiris. He ends up staying a month and blesses the fishing boats before going on his way. At the next catch, the nets fill with fish and there is feasting for a month.

Twenty years ago: Mesmei hiKonumra becomes pregnant but refuses to divulge the father’s name. The child is called Ngemu hiCheshna – “the son of the unknown”.

Eighteen years ago: A strange creature, said to be a hlüss, is washed up dead on the beach. It is buried under a pile of coral rocks at the mouth of the lagoon.

Sixteen years ago: A Livyáni ship puts in for supplies. Its crew (including a shen) terrorize the village until Chondrek hiLanaka wrestles with and beats the shen.

Fifteen years ago: Tsolyáni sailors press-gang Chondrek hiLanaka while he’s trading in Ssámris. He is destined to return later after many adventures.

Thirteen years ago: A rock falls from the sky onto the beach and emits a yellow vapour that kills Chondrek hiLanaka’s old dog.

Twelve years ago: Hukel hiLanaka signs on aboard a Salarvyani ship. He has not been seen since.

Ten years ago: Gimangresh hiKonumra is drowned when his boat is caught in a squall.

Nine years ago: A gang of boys pelt Ngemu hiCheshna with pebbles while he is walking on the hillside. Later, two of the boys are badly gored by an unidentified creature while playing in the forest.

Eight years ago: Chondrek hiLanaka (now missing a leg) returns from his voyages. He is a drunken hulk of his former self and sits on the beach all day telling wild stories.

Seven years ago: Ngemu hiCheshna disappears.

Six years ago: The great storm, in which the houses lose their roofs and half the island’s fishing boats are washed away. Ashinra hiShathirin tells everyone: “It is Bithra, out searching the bay for Ngemu hiCheshna.”

Five years ago: A traveller from Tsolyánu is washed ashore after a shipwreck and spends a month recuperating in the village before travelling to Ssámris. There is a plentiful catch after he leaves and the elders are reminded of the priest who stayed with them twenty years before. Later it is discovered that the Black Sheep character has left, presumably having stowed away on the boat that took the Tsolyáni back to Ssámris.

Four years ago: Ashinra hiShathirin sees a chashkeri ("mermaid" – actually a sea creature that close-up bears no resemblance to a human, female or otherwise) washing its hair in the lagoon. She never speaks again.

Three years ago: Domandoi hiKonumra wins the all-islands athletics trophy and there is joyous feasting lasting for days. As the feasting ends, the Black Sheep character returns from his wanderings.

Two years ago: The Nom outsider arrives on the island. Penniless, he is given hospitality in return for helping with odd jobs.

Last year: Mu’ugalavyáni sailors put in at the island and take Ssaria hiShathirin to the god Bìthra’s fane and rape her. They all die of fever a few days later.

It is now 2368 AS. Dhich’une has been deposed and the new Dra-worshipping Emperor Neshkiruma II, “the Conciliator”, has taken the throne. A Ditlana has been announced for Jakálla. The Empire looks forward to a period of renewal, but the prospect on Falesá is bleak.

If you’re playing through the characters’ childhood, early threats should be scary but not serious. It’s only recently that truly hard times have come to Falesa. Some options:

The beast in the jungle – part I.
A part of the island that they all know to avoid. Game is scarce because something that lives here is hunting for itself. A dnelu? A zrne? A feshenga? Nobody knows because they have the sense to steer well clear of it – until the day that one of the younger children wanders off while their mothers were on the beach fixing nets. The PC youths hastily assemble a rescue party, venturing closer to the beast’s lair with mounting dread. And then – defuse the tension with the joyous cry that the toddler has been found playing in a rock pool. The PCs are able to turn back.

Shipwrecked sailors
A few desperate fellows are hiding out on the far side of the island. They needn’t be real troublemakers. Maybe they’ve stolen some food. Maybe one of their number is injured or sick. A chance to make a friend who will help the PCs later in Jakalla?

The volcano
The peak can smoulder and rumble from time to time. It needn’t erupt – the characters don’t even know that it can, probably – but it might suggest to them that the gods are angry.

The beast in the jungle – part II
This time it’s not a child that’s gone missing but one of the hunters’ dogs, Pagi (= “pal”) and for somebody, hopefully a PC, that’s the last straw. They go off to deal with the beast once and for all. Having built enough of a sense of dread around it, you might go with an anti-climax. The beast is old and not nearly so dangerous as they expect. They take its head, and possibly even rescue Pagi (who might be wrapped up in a web, injured but as yet uneaten). But that’s not the real problem…

The real problem
As they return from killing the beast, a sharp-eyed hunter character looks down the hillside. “Smoke!” A thread of smoke is visible, and is quickly joined by more as they race back through the forest. They arrive to find the village huts on fire, several people dead, the livestock plundered. Broad-sailed ships are sailing away. A pirate raid! There’s not much the PCs can do, but here is an opportunity to impress with leadership as they help the wounded.

The elders’ moot
In the aftermath of the raid, it’s finally decided to send a group of young people away to find a better life. “If we stay here, our families are doomed,” says old of the elders. You could add an extra hook by having had one of the characters’ brothers or sisters carried off by the raiders. Their search for the lost character could then be a thread driving their early adventures in Jakalla. Possible leads: the insignia on the raiders’ sails; a comment made by one of the raiders; an item dropped by a raider or found on his body if he was killed during the attack (a possible heroic death for Chondrek hiLanaka?).

Clan and nationality
The following is strictly for the referee’s eyes only.

The player-characters are not recognized as Tsolyáni citizens, nor do they belong to a clan. However, if one or more of them eventually acquire citizenship then by implication it would be possible for the whole island to become known as the Falesá clan.

Another route to acquiring citizenship is by precedent. Back in 2020, there was a period of some fifty years when Falesá island served as a depot for the Red Flower clan. The Shathirin family are in fact direct descendents of the Zanirin lineage of that clan. (The spelling differs because literacy is low on the island.) The others are collateral branches of lineages no longer represented in Red Flower, but known in other clans. If the characters discover this fact (which is not widely known) then they might be able to petition for the clan to recognize them.

Divine intervention
Being only a minor demon, Bithra is very interested in his few worshippers and is relatively likely to render them aid. Failure when asking for his aid results in the character getting a rash, a cold, or some other petty ailment, such things being known as “Bithra’s chastisements” – though sometimes you get both the chastisement and what you asked for.

Setting forth
The yacht that will take them to Jakálla is a single-masted vessel large enough for ten people. The whole village gathers on the beach and, after a final pep talk from the elders, they are ready to set sail.

The voyage starts well, with a fair south-westerly breeze making for good headway. One course is to steer due north until they reach the mainland, then follow the coast around to Jakálla. More daringly, they could strike out directly east for Point Küne. Assuming the yacht covers 100-150 kilometres a day, landfall will optimally occur after three or four days on the former route, ten days on the latter.

Navigation is a possible source of dispute if more than one character fancies themself as the best sailor. Once within sight of the coast, navigation rolls need not be made except in fog or heavy rain.

Possible threats:
  • Damage to the yacht; reducing speed and resale value
  • Man overboard; rescue attempts may be modified in stormy weather
  • Accident; character is injured for 1-3 Harm.
The yacht has fresh water and food for two weeks. Once this has run out, they can keep on for another couple of days at best.

The aim is not to kill off the characters before their adventures even get started. If they get into real trouble there are plenty of alternative fates you can throw at them. They could be wrecked on an uncharted island, picked up by a passing ship, or beached in the mangrove swamps between Penom and Point Küne. If they reach Jakálla without the yacht, they lose face and have the task of making do without the money they would have got for selling it.

Seeking their fortune
On arrival in Jakálla, the characters first task is to find themselves accommodation. Staying at a hostel in the Foreigners’ Quarter costs them face (they don’t think of themselves as foreigners in Tsolyánu) but is at least cheap – say 20 Hlash a day for the whole group. Alternatively they can find a squat in the Jakállan slums. Either option is dirty, smelly and generally a far cry from life on their tropical island home.

The Konumra family members have the final say on whether or not to sell the yacht. They should be able to get 80 to 150 Kaitars for it, assuming they are sensible enough to trust the advice of the most street-smart characters. Otherwise they’ll probably be tricked with clipped coins or some other ploy and only get half the yacht’s true value. (Clipped coins also have to be handed in to the Imperial Mint on pain of execution, and it might then be months before they got back even a fraction of their money.)

Heads held high
A theme of this campaign is the struggle of the characters to achieve wealth and recognition without betraying their principles. They have been raised in a close-knit community that (in common with most of mainland Tsolyánu) sets great store by honourable behaviour. Thrown into the urban jungle of Jakálla’s slums, can they maintain their dignity or will they soon resort to crime?

As referee, your task is to present the players with scenarios that will challenge their moral values and present difficulties for them to either triumph over or give in to.

The first mission
The characters are visited by Mirizhan hiTathlua of the Blazoned Sail Clan, steward of Nokesh hiPayuli of the White Stone Clan. He offers them 5 Hlash a day each to protect Nokesh, with a bonus of 50 Kaitars if they deal with the person who has been threatening him.

Nokesh lives in a villa along the coast, about eight hours’ walk from Jakálla. The characters are told to present themselves there the following day. When they show up, Mirizhan passes them on his way out. He has packed and is leaving, he says, now he’s done his duty and arranged for his master to be guarded.

Nokesh is blind. He keeps to a locked room at the back of the house. He opens a panel in the door before unbolting it to admit anyone. He conducts his arrangements entirely with the character’s leader (the eldest Konumra family member).

Nokesh’s room is a musty book-lined study. Doors open onto the garden patio, but they are shuttered and bolted. As they cross the room to a table where there is a bottle of brandy waiting, Nokesh makes some comment about the player-character’s physical attributes – “Ah, you are a strong man,” or something like that. How did he know? He chuckles before explaining that the steps dividing the antechamber from the main room creak under a person’s weight. He can tell how tall a person is when they speak, so their weight lets him estimate how muscular they are. Nokesh is quite pleased with himself when he manages a little trick like this.

Nokesh is willing enough to tell his story over a goblet of brandy. He was a captain of marines in the Flotilla of Hagarr. Twelve years ago he and his lieutenant, Thojeng hiDresak of the Red Sky Clan, won a hard battle against the escort of a Mu’ugalavyáni ship. They discovered a treasure worth many thousands of Kaitars which they buried off Ngeshtu Head, knowing they could come back for it when their term of service was up.

Nokesh and Thojeng were subsequently captured by the Mu’ugalavyáni and imprisoned. During an escape attempt they got separated. Thojeng was recaptured; Nokesh escaped into the backstreets of Khéiris where he was press-ganged by Livyáni pirates along with his steward, Mirizhan. He later became blinded by a Doomkill explosion. Three years ago he and Mirizhan got their freedom and made their way back to Ngeshtu Head, but the treasure was already gone.

Nokesh learned that his family had perished in a Mu’ugalvyani raid on Penom. He retired to the family villa near Jakálla, where he lived in lonely isolation until a few weeks ago, when he received a message from Thojeng demanding a large sum of money.

“Isn’t it enough that he took my treasure?” laments Nokesh. “Why does he come to persecute me now?”

The truth
The treasure wasn’t taken by Thojeng but by Mirizhan, who was lying when he told his blind master it was gone. Mirizhan has moved his family off up north and has been slowly preparing for the move himself, intending to retire to a life of luxury, but Thojeng’s arrival on the scene scuppered that plan.

Thojeng thinks Nokesh has swindled him. After spending six years in the Mu’ugalavyáni prison he was sold into slavery in Ch’ochi, escaped, and ended up leading a band of brigands in the Tlashte Heights for three years. When he finally got to Ngeshtu Head and found the treasure missing, he came gunning for his erstwhile captain.

What happens
Mist begins to roll in off the sea, advancing up the garden like a solid white wall. Towards dusk, an old man with a wooden leg comes hobbling up to the house. His ragged clothes, staff and backpack make him look like a traveller. But he is no pedlar or wandering lay priest. He says his name is Ssunruel of Tumissa; “Thojeng sent me. I’m here to parley with the master of the house.”

He is admitted to the study and spends some time talking with Nokesh. Voices are raised, then Nokesh summons his manservant and has Ssunruel put in a guest room. “We’ll speak again in the morning,” says Ssunruel.

Nokesh snorts: “Why bother?”

The next day Nokesh will not let anybody into his room. By mid-afternoon Ssunruel decides to leave.

That night, assuming the characters get suspicious and force an entry, Nokesh is discovered dead. He has obviously been dead for hours. The room appears to have been searched.

Failing to protect Nokesh causes the characters great discredit. Make a hard referee roll for each character with Soul as a bonus. Success means they feel the shame -- though it's up to them what they do about it. The honourable thing would be to remain and if possible bring the culprit to justice. Or they could just scram with their money and leave Nokesh’s servants and distant clan-cousins to sort things out, but inevitably they will be questioned by the police and there is a strong chance they’ll be blamed for Nokesh’s murder.

How it happened
Inside Ssunruel’s backpack hid Chikattag, a tinaliya with a gift for ventriloquism and mimickry. Posing as the characters’ leader, he got into Nokesh’s room during the night and killed him, but could not find the money. To buy more time to search the room he mimicked Nokesh’s voice and told people to keep out.

Clues to look for
Nokesh was murdered beside the creaky steps. (That was when he realised it wasn’t a human that had entered the room, but something much lighter.) The wound was a stab upwards into his abdomen. (Hence a very low blow.) There are tiny scratch-marks on the polished floorboards (caused by Chikattag’s hard chitinous feet).

After hearing Ssunruel’s report, Thojeng assumes the characters are the ones with the missing loot. He comes in force with his men to issue an ultimatum. They must convince him they don’t have the treasure (or agree to a strip-search and then vamoose). Otherwise it’s clobbering time.

Various outcomes
The ideal situation would be if the characters guarded Nokesh well enough to prevent him being murdered in the first place. This will be quite hard, because Chikattag is stealthy and cunning.

The characters ought to be given time to get suspicious about “Nokesh” refusing to let anyone into his study the next day. If they listen at the door they could hear boxes being opened and cabinets moved around. They don’t have much chance of catching Chikattag even if they decide to break the door in – since the fire has burned out overnight he can escape up the chimney.

Even if the characters have figured out everything when Thojeng shows up and tell him that Mirizhan must have the loot, they still might feel obliged to do something about Nokesh’s murder. They can wipe out most of that dishonour by taking revenge on the tinaliya (who is not a Tsolyáni citizen) or by insisting that Thojeng makes a payment of shamtla and half the treasure to Nokesh’s clan. They’ll still be left to reflect their failure to do the job they were hired for.

You can download a PDF of this article here.The original version of the Falesa scenario (for Tirikelu rules) is here. Inspiration for the setting comes from Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "The Beach of Falesa". The illustration at the top is by Martin Helsdon and appears in The Eye of All-Seeing Wonder for spring 1995.

Caveat 1: the Apocalypse system is built around stereotypes (not even archetypes) drawn from modern genre movies/TV (Mad Max, Buffy, etc) and is designed to shape player-characters' behaviour to fit the tropes of those shows. It's certainly not about thinking your way into the mind-set of somebody from a very different culture, nor indeed about creating stories that deviate from the standard forms of 20th and 21st century pulp. That would be selling Tekumel short -- it's a setting that's lushly detailed, exotic, nuanced, and far deeper than "I am an X who does Y". If you used PbtA rules for my Tsolyani police campaign, for instance, you'd end up with something that had the vibe of a typical modern cop show; the Tekumelani aspects would only be cosmetic. Still, as means of introducing players to Tekumel you could do a lot worse than PbtA. I started out playing Empire of the Petal Throne, for Pete's sake, and that was barely one step above Basic D&D.

Caveat 2: I haven't come close to doing justice to the Apocalypse system here. That would take a lot more work and, since I couldn't get the Tekumel PbtA rights, it wouldn't be worth it. It's a shame because Professor Barker wrote the original EPT rules in six weeks having played in one D&D game, and that's about how long it would take to write a publishable Apocalypse variant. EPT is still the best possible introduction to the world of Tekumel but nobody under retirement age would dream of playing those creaky old mid-seventies mechanics; it exists now as merely an historical curiosity. So it would be marvellous to have a rebuilt version of EPT using the Apocalypse system, as that would provide new players with a set of conceptual templates for the kinds of characters and quests you might encounter when you're fresh off the boat in Jakalla. Take a look at Gregor Vuga's splendid Sagas of the Icelanders and then imagine that same panache and vigour rebooting Empire of the Petal Throne. I can dream...

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Butt me no butts

My gaming group recently got a rules mailout from our current referee:
“If you have Brawling, it includes punching, kicking and headbutt, but as with kick, there is a minus for this last. As with grappling rules, we apply half the penalty on specific hit location, the skull, -7. So rounding down -3 and you need to be in the same hex. Both skulls get DR2 as in the rules. Headbutt damage is like Punch Thrust -2 crushing. Critical Head Blow Table applies (p 556).”
This is the kind of special case rule that makes me want to rip off my clothes and run gibbering into the sea. But I’m not about to launch into another of my Gripes About GURPS TM. It’s just that it highlights the two approaches to handling combat in roleplaying games.

In highly simulationist games, you decide precisely what manoeuvre you’re trying to implement. In the case of GURPS, you then refer to the two core books (a total of 570 pages), the ridiculous Martial Arts supplement (another 250 pages), and possibly the Power-Ups books too (a mere 72 pages there). You’ll spend a few minutes adding up a stack of modifiers that you’ll find scattered in multiple different sections (be sure to get PDFs of all the books so you can search them) so that finally you can make what purports to be an accurate assessment of the chance to hit and do damage. That's for one round.

And as we know with systems like that, ten minutes after the fight somebody will say, “We forgot to allow for rough terrain modifiers,” with the result that the whole outcome of the fight should really be retconned, but as nobody wants to do that you just let it go.

The other approach, which you may very well sense I am slightly biased towards, is to abstractify the brawling rules, make the roll, and then let the player interpret the result. Something along the lines of:

Referee: “You made your Brawling skill. Roll hit location.”

Player: “The head, and I do 4 damage.”

Referee: “He fails his knockdown roll. He’s stunned.”

Player: "What happened there is I nutted him."

That’s the approach I advocate in the Tirikelu RPG. It’s also how all the best games of GURPS I’ve played in have actually run it. I’m not convinced that it’s good game design to have 900 pages of rules that you mostly disregard in play – that’s almost as arbitrary as having no rules whatsoever. But I said I wasn’t going to turn this into a GURPS gripe, and in any case I’ve lately been more interested in Powered by the Apocalypse. More on that in tomorrow’s post.

Friday, 27 October 2017

How rules shape the game world

Occasionally in comments on this blog I've mentioned the idea of myth levels as a way to represent a step-change in capability between characters in a role-playing game. As a fan of Sergio Leone movies it seems only natural to devise rules like that. In this 2001 discussion (from Annwn magazine, by the way) between Tim Harford, Paul Mason, Ralph Lovegrove and me, we touch on that and other disconnects between how the role-playing world ought to be and how the rules actually shape it to be. I've seen a fair few role-playing games where the designer tells us how the game should be played, and what the resulting game world ought to be like, but the system they give us (when gamed, as it will be) doesn't lead to anything of the kind. Designers, it's like being the Founding Fathers - you want the game to turn out a certain way, you have to do the work.

Tim: The trend throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s was towards more rational, logical, modular and universal systems. The idea was to provide a simple but realistic means of resolving the usual game questions about combat, success rolls, and so on. Some did fairly well at this task, others didn’t. Along the way, something was lost. Perhaps the problem was with the idea of “realism”. Different games have their own reality. A system like GURPS, for example, is necessarily atheistic. Characters are defined in modern terms, and GURPS handles fate, luck, magic and so on rather clunkily. It’s just a patch, and in a “universal” system it’s hard to see any other way of doing that. In DW, we need to capture the spirit of the time and the place and build it into the rules from the ground up. Heroes can wrestle with giants because they have great spirits. Hannibal could freeze a man into an ice statue [a reference to Knightmare 4: Fortress of Assassins], not because he was a sorcerer, but because he was Hannibal. “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure,” should be in the rules from the start, not as a “Pure of Heart” advantage (gives x10 ST). The best example of this, for me, was the Judge Dredd system. It was simple, it was stripped down, it gave everybody a special angle or talent, and it captured perfectly the “reality” that an unarmed Judge can take out a dozen thugs with tommy guns any day of the week. That’s the advantage of a focused system done well.

Dave: Or another example from Robin of Sherwood... Little John is wrestling with a stranger. It’s an edgy situation, a “friendly” match but not very friendly, as they don’t know who the guy is and they may very well rob him later. Then, angered by something or other, the stranger suddenly lifts Little John clear of the ground and throws him down. A conclusive victory (and very effective visually, as I recall, because of the sun behind them as the stranger lifts Little John aloft). Everyone sees this and, stunned, they go down on their knees, now recognizing the stranger as Richard the Lionheart. At the time, we talked about this kind of thing being represented by “myth levels”. If I’m myth level 10 and you’re myth level 1, you will not beat me in a fight even if you do have a much higher weapon skill. It’s back again to the idea that characters must be able to affect the narrative directly.

Paul: What’s the “narrative”? I think it’s dangerous to refer to characters affecting the narrative, because it seems to get people thinking in terms of manipulating their characters to make a story, which is different from immersing yourself in the character in the setting, and trusting in natural human processes to sort a narrative out of what happens.

Dave: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Instead of “affect the narrative”, I should have said “characters affect reality” – sorcerers and notable or mythic types especially. In fact, one thing we could say is that there is no difference (as Tim pointed out with the Hannibal example) between a mythically important character and a wizard. They can achieve the same results, even if apparently by different means. So maybe all magic-using characters should start at myth level 2?

Paul: Might it not be best to start off by talking about the spirit of the time and place, using whatever metaphors and references we can, before even starting to consider mechanics? To build up some kind of corpus of things we want the game to do before thinking of how to design rules that encourage those things to happen?

Dave: Agreed. Design should always begin with a feature-based description of the end product you’d like to have. Then we can start thinking about the way to achieve it.

Tim: If you look at the sources of inspiration for games like Dragon Warriors, you find that it doesn’t work the way it does in games. The effects are arbitrary, the limitations whimsical. Some great sorcerers never seem to cast a spell, while others never cast the same one twice. To a certain extent that’s inevitable: a storyteller can be creative and never needs to explain. A game designer is supposed to produce some kind of logic behind everything, for the sake of simplicity if nothing else. The lazy way out is to delegate all responsibility to the referee and players. That’s fine as far as it goes: they have far more responsibility for having a good time than any game designer. But professional (!) pride urges me to provide some framework to help this creativity, and to provide boundaries which are there to guide rather than constrain.

Dave:  RPG designers have been trying since 1975 or whenever to create a set of rules from which dramatically satisfying results will emerge. Obviously this isn’t working – for instance, applying D&D experience rules to an online RPG like Ultima has just meant the unbridled massacre of new player-characters for their experience value. Taking Legend: we know we would like a world that is very like the Middle Ages but with a delicate flavouring of magic. But Dragon Warriors played strictly by the books would not deliver that world. Possibly we could get better results from rules that dictate the end result, not the way it’s achieved, as in Maelstrom. The special effects are left to the player and referee to agree. Eg, a wizard can exert an effect limited by distance, duration, and area, the degree of deviation from reality, and the degree to which other people’s wills oppose the effect. The last factor means assigning points from each person’s will into what they care about. Say my will is directed 30% into preserving my own life, 35% into immediate family, 15% into my lord, 10% into my church, 10% into friends. So churches end up very well defended from magic because lots of people care about them, even if only marginally. Subtle use of magic is encouraged – I might wait until you are sleeping, and your will is weaker, or I might find ways to distort your senses so as to trick you into walking off a cliff instead of zapping you directly. Or I might undermine your reputation with illusions so that friends and family gradually turn against you, thus stripping you of your defences. (The way Mastermind manipulated Phoenix in the X-Men, for those comic fans among us.)

Paul:  There is another consideration: there’s little point in reinventing the wheel. It’s unlikely that Dragon Warriors 2 can be the same game Dragon Warriors 1 was, in the sense that it won’t be a mass market paperback converting gamebook readers into role-players. Rather, I would suggest, it might be best to approach it for what it really is: the game intelligent Dragon Warriors would want to be playing, 15 years down the line. Thus the magic system should be an attempt to do something that hasn’t been done before: create a magic system that actually feels like magic. Of the previously published magic systems, I still have a soft spot for Chivalry and Sorcery, simply because it managed to be genuinely arcane. But even if that approach had not already been bagged (and duplicated, by Ars Magica), it would still not quite fit the Legend that Dave described. As I understand it, DW magic should be more Mabinogion than Paracelsus. So it might be worth to start off by bouncing around general ideas about the nature of this framework. Does it involve “spells”, for example, or is it going to involve a more freeform set of magical “skills”? Is there going to be any effort spent on play-balance for magic, whether that be out-of-setting (mechanical) or in-setting (folkloric defences and so on).Another important issue: how homogeneous is it going to be, system-wise? Is there going to be the feeling that magic is pretty much the same however you learn, it, with only the decoration different? or will there be radically different systems to reflect a sense of diversity? That’s assuming there are any systems, of course.

Tim: (I like the idea as magic as a battle of collective wills. It seems to capture a great deal.) Homogeneity is to be avoided. I see a world containing magical creatures - fairies and sandestins, for example. They have their own ways of casting magic, which need not be transparent in the rules. Human magicians can bargain with them, or try simply to compel them to service. So that’s one way to command magic: by proxy. But I could also imagine a highly doctrinaire school which depends very much on ritual and on discovered spells. Here, the very rigidity of the spell system is an advantage: it emphasises rote learning. But such tricks as the “Imp-Spring Twinkle-Toe” seem another way to power; and the use of magical paraphernalia one more again. This doesn’t seem to be a problem. I wouldn’t want to see an attempt to break this down into “character classes”. I picture the “average” wizard in haphazard pursuit of magic in any form. We need to make the following concession to play balance: characters of equal myth level should be on a reasonably even footing. So a Myth 4 knight won’t be overly troubled by the enmity of a Myth 2 sorcerer - unless the knight is unwary, of course. Incidentally, I hate the nomenclature but love the concept of Myth Levels.

Dave: Again, I fully agree. I’m using this nomenclature just as a “developer interface”. And yes, a Myth 4 knight is of course on a par with a Myth 4 sorc. That is tautological - it’s the very thing that Myth levels define - eg, can this jumped-up little git really beat Captain Kirk? Of course not.

Ralph: Magic that feels “like magic” is quite a subjective term, but to me it suggests a slightly more spiritual or academic approach than the exoteric “press this button for fireball” spell system like AD&D. In order for magic to be truly mystical, it needs a cosmology behind it. This doesn’t have to be a defined “spirit world” as in White Wolf’s Mage... it’s more of a system of approach. The best model for magic are the real spiritual systems of the Kabbalah and other esoteric doctrines. The human body is the lowest, most base entity in the hierarchy of the human existence, and married to it is the soul, which (very) roughly equates to the personality and individual consciousness of the body. The soul is then a vehicle for the spirit, which is the “higher man”, the divine spark within a human. (To the more learned scholars out there: please forgive my bumbling through the halls of the arcanum, I’m still learning).Okay, metaphysics aside, what you have is this: the Spirit of a mortal is their true nature on the higher Spiritual plane of existence. Magicians are able to work their magic through their awareness of their higher selves. This is a concept prevalent in all sorts of spiritual teaching, from Hindu Akasha to Hermetic lore and Shamanism (in its broadest sense, encompassing systems such as Wicca and Scandinavian myth). In order to make it useful as a conceptual tool in the game, the “higher self” should have a set of statistics that are analogous to the “mortal self” on Earth - for example (picking a much used stat template) the higher self’s Fire, Earth, Air and Water translate to the mortal man’s Social, Physical, Mental and Magical skills respectively. The upshot is this: as the mortal man’s Myth status increases, it increases one or more of the higher man’s stats. Those Higher abilities might then be interpreted on the Earthly plane as incredible fighting prowess (Earth), the ability to sway enormous bodies of men and reduce a man to a quivering wreck with a glance (Fire), etc. This is not a particularly new idea: Runequest included the shaman’s fetch in its rules for Spirit Magic; Mage has the Avatar; Nephilim made use of elemental “Ka”. I don’t think that any of these games used the concept in quite the same way, however. The whole “Mythical Warrior” game is in many ways about both player and character ego, and the “higher man” literally is the Ego.

Paul:  This also matches some of the early thoughts on the I Ching. Some writers argued that the oracle directly connected with a higher, simplified plane, and because the higher plane was simpler than our own, interactions between cause and effect were more amenable to comprehension and control. Thus, although the I Ching tends to be regarded as a means of fortune telling, to early Chinese theorists it was far more than that: more like poking around with the motherboard of existence. An adept was supposed to be able to use the I Ching to effect changes in reality. All of which suggests that this higher (Platonic?) plane may be a useful concept, if only by analogy, for the working of magic. How, if at all, does it relate to Faerie? It would be nice if not handled directly. In other words, a high ‘Earth’ score doesn’t just represent ludicrous brute strength, but the capacity to affect ‘Earth’ on the higher plane... which will in turn end up affecting the lower plane, in the same way that the ‘myth levels’ that have been discussed before do. Thus, a very strong enemy will be able to beat a weaker (but higher myth level) character if the contest is narrow down to the purely physical. The latter’s advantage would be, however, that their higher myth level enables them to find other ways of winning. This can be rationalised (within the game) in metaphysical terms as being the exercise of a higher, Platonic, potential. It also seems to represent the ‘genre’.

Dave:  I just watched A Chinese Ghost Story 2 and was reminded that it was one of the inspirational sources for the myth level concept. The sword-wielding general in it is no sorcerer, but he is able to hold his own (briefly) against an invisible demon by dint of sheer skill. One idea might be that myth level lets you use the wrong skill for the job and still somehow get an effect.

Paul: I like that idea: presumably myth level is also useful in carrying on after one’s limbs have been hacked off? The danger here is of ending up with something that appears very similar to Feng Shui’s genre convention of “mooks” (whatever the hell that means) and “named characters”. On a very trivial level of course, myth level was something that original DnD level was supposed to represent. I also incorporate the “use any skill to defend against magic” in Outlaws, but without tying it to myth level (which doesn’t exist in Outlaws, except insofar as heroes tend to have higher skills).