Thursday, October 16, 2014

Azer--"…as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff"

-Isaiah 5:24

Aaaaaaaaaaaanother sucky "A" monster. Possibly the absolute bottom of the barrel, the Azer is supposed to be a flaming beardy dwarf from the plane of fire. It's like the kind of idea a disembodied butt with wheels would have if that butt worked for TSR in the 80s and hated people who played D&D and could hold a pen and sucked.

Anyway, here's mine:
Click to enlarge
The Azerites are the victims of a cruel and innovative goblin joke dating from the 8th Agon: dwarf prisoners were given a hallucinogen that made them both susceptible to suggestion and immune to flame, then set their faces alight and sent them charging at their fellows.

While under the influence of the burning Serums of Liao, the Azerite is not only borne into a manic fury, but perceives all non-dwarves as goblins.

The early Azerites became addicted to the Serums, as did their descendants. These pyrolatrous tribes have only two moods:

1. Berserk
2. Quiet, tragic, coal-socketed staring at anything inert enough not to drive them berserk.

On the right-hand half of the yellow statblock you'll see d4 things that happen while you fight ignited Azerites (wood things explode in sparks, etc) next to that you'll see a list of 8 titles of various Azerite warriors, the 8th is simply called "Serums of Liao" because the serums are actually more important than the identity of the dwarf who bears them. "The Path" is likely the honorific for their Bad Fire Wizard. The rest maybe have extra weapons or drugborne powers related to their names.

Below that is a list of short term goals for a randomly encountered group of azerites-- 1-4 are things they want to sacrifice to the flames, 5 and 6 ("all die in flames and battle"(including them) and "convert infidels" are self-explanatory.

The "Lair Actions" beneath are proper Lair Actions but also just things you might find going on in there. I suppose I could call them "Lair Features" but it's my monster manual so whatever.

Also replaced the hammer with an axe because why would you ever not?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fucking Cutting Edge Tabletop Jetset Here Y'All

Long weekend. Hit Little Tokyo...

… then over to the Indiecade convention

It's Dungeons & Dragons' 40th anniversary so Jon Peterson (author of Playing At The World--the only not-unbelievably-shallow book about the history of Dungeons & Dragons and the only one written by someone whose favorite band is Shellac) and Jennell Jaquays were up on stage talking about the early days of gaming and the explosion of little zines that came out after the D&D rules.
Jennell and Zak
Jennell is awesome--she did Caverns of Thracia and Dark Tower--and then went to video games and basically got in on the ground floor there, too--working a lot of the seminal stuff in the field

Indiecade is largely a videogame convention and even some of the heavy hitters there had no idea how important Jennell had been. I had to be all "DO YOU FUCKING KNOW WHO THIS IS? PAC MAN! QUAKE 3! COLECOVISION! FUCK!"

Then I fanboyed:

Zak: "I'm totally missing my Dark Tower game this morning so I could be here"

Jennell: "I'm sorry"

Z: "After you did Thracia and Dark Tower it seems like everybody else just dropped the ball on big dungeons and started doing nothing but, like, monster-in-a-room and funhouses and…"

J: "It was funhouses and Here's A Story You Have to Run Through In This Order."

Z: "And you came back later after you'd done video games but you didn't do more design?"

J: "Well I stopped because I thought I was repeating myself."

Z: "So it wasn't an external thing?"

J: "No, I just didn't want to do the same thing over again, I wanted to move on."

Z: "That's so cool."

Historical tidbit: Jon told me that this picture from the original D&D "Men & Magic" was done by a woman named Cookie Corey:

Then I got to run some of the adventures from Red & Pleasant Land. This is what I look like when I do vampire children voices...
I had to run it off my laptop because the printed book hasn't shipped yet.

I had this conversation 1000 times at Indiecade:

"Is Red & Pleasant Land out?"

"Nah James wanted to ship it with Death Frost Doom and he sent Death Frost Doom back to the printer because it wasn't black enough"

"That's so James"

The game was fun though. First group killed one monster and escaped with a 300 gp chafing dish and the otherpretty much got Total Party Killed by vampires.

One group got put on trial for being too good at croquet and ran from a pudding--the other tried turning the Queen, then blackmail, to no avail.

with Anna Anthropy/Auntie Pixelante

Then back home to play D&D with the usual suspects:

"Instead of trying to deceive him, can i just, while he's confused, hit him in the kneecap with a hatchet?"

Then I ran my game after and the players decided to sleep under Deathfrost Mountain. 3 are insane, 2 are blind.

Then we went to the USC Playthink salon and they talked about putting more games in art museums and I was like Yeah hurry up.

Next up tomorrow probably I sow you what I did to the Azer which, seriously, I had to because Azer is the dumbest monster.

Monday, October 13, 2014

(sigh) Ankhegs

First, obligatory Red & Pleasant Land preview. It is actually back from the printer...

…not quite available to order yet--but soon. Soon. Sooooon.

Anyway, on with fucking up the Monster Manual...

So obviously: fuck ankhegs.

They're big boring insects, in every sense. Unlike real animals or mythical monsters, it hasn't got a stable, imaginable core and unlike other totally made up Gygaxian monsters like the beholder it's never had an illustration that stuck this particular image and not that one into anybody's brain. It's a handful of minor gimmicks glued to a pair of awkwardly mated syllables.

But, again, I got this. Check it:

So I changed the name because "ankheg" sounds like the last name of a session keyboardist in an 80s band with a yellow and dark blue album jacket. Rick Ankheg from the Wild Shoulder, y'know, the guys who did "Domes of Passion"? No? Anyway now it's Ankhara.

I made them non-boring so they'd be less boring and obviously redrew them as riding beasts which you can see and why am I even telling you that. But ok, here's the main thing:

The riders are not masters of the beasts, nor even are they Bravestarr-and-Thirty Thirty-like equals: the ankheg controls the rider. Like so many insect empires, they seek to enslave humanoids--uniquely, however, they don't want anyone to know.

So for all your party knows, there's just a ranged panoply of warriors striding boldly across the weatherbeaten plateau atop their chitinous mounts, rearing headlong at the face of a twisting column of  bleak, grey dust. And a violence rings out as the party and the strange cavalry join and mutually assail each other. Then the party slaughters the warriors smugly, but are left tired, bleeding, needing aid. Then and only then do the insects reveal they were the masterminds all the time.

They drag you back to their immensely-sophisticated cave-temple (they can't do the fine carving, so they rip human arms off and slide them over their own pokey arms like gloves) and then let their young batter you psychically by turning your own spoken language into awful insect reverberations (like  locust sounds in a night that only happens between your own ears). If you escape you might walk into sticky honeywax muqarnas falling from the ceiling or a pit where rival subqueens fight using only the limbs of men or find the precious paper they make from spit.

They are at war with driders.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

John Wick's 'Chess Is Not A Roleplaying Game' Does Not Necessarily Indicate He Is Psychotic

First, old business:

1. More preview art for Red & Pleasant Land, available here in the next few days.
click to enlarge

"God, it's so beautiful, I love this. It just makes D&D look so fucking now"
--Molly Crabapple

2. Yes, I got paid in actual money for consulting on D&D. Thousands of dollars. Ask them.

3. No, I don't think there's only one way to enjoy playing role playing games. The internet is just dumb and interprets "Here's how I like to make pizza!" as "Only ever make pizza." Remember the Golden Rule of Internet Shit-Talking: Ask anyone who says otherwise for a quote.

Now, new business:

Like everyone else I know, I saw John Wick's "Chess Is Not A Roleplaying Game" essay and was like "Ok, that's crazy…next".

Someone then plussed John Wick into the conversation where I opined that John saying stuff like  "D&D is not a role-playing game" and "Just a moment ago, I called weapon lists one of the most common features in roleplaying games. These things are not features. They’re bugs. And it’s time to get rid of them." as evidence of a highly advanced state of degenerative lunacy on John's part and John showed up and argued with me.

Then, eventually, he was like Ok, let's actually talk (like, with speech) about this.

So we did. Here's a video of us debating what John said.

For the kind of people who actually care about this kind of nitpicky RPG-definition argument, it was really good. It was an actually interesting conversation. There should be more of these.

Next time I'll ask John what's up with his whole "Indiscriminately killing orcs is bad" thing.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Animated Objects Re-Done

My D&D book--Red & Pleasant Land is going to arrive back from the printer Thursday or Friday, at which point it will be available to buy from here. It's something like 200 pages Some preview pages...

More on that project here.

I was going through my 5th Ed Monster Manual, fixing it up. These entries are grouped under this here tag.

Today's monster, the Animated Object is entirely suitable for a Red & Pleasant Land game, both being pretty Alice In Wonderlandy…
Click to enlarge

The thing about Animated Objects is they get goofy real fast. In the 5e Manual they've got animated armor (which is fine, sure), flying sword (guh), and rug of smothering (kinda dumb but the mechanics are fun because it's hard to get your friend out without accidentally stabbing them--which the rules acknowledge).

A good animated object scene is at the end of Willow when Bavmorda or the goat witch accidentally animates the table and it's all wrought iron and creepy.

In addition to the Donald Barthelme passage--which I think is more about the psychology of the psycho wizard who makes animated objects than actual animated objects--I also tried to list off all the good ones:

. Chandeliers: Man, the chandelier is the whole package--attacks from above, crawls around like a big lobster, sets you on fire, multiple attacks including grapples. Don't fuck with chandeliers, man. Still a little goofy though.

2.Teacups on the other hand suck. They're just included because in any situation where stuff starts talking teacups seem to talk a lot. I gave them Int 16. Maybe teacups are smart because they're always listening while people chitchat.

3. Armor: Classic

4. Axe: I figure it  has a real big blade and rolls across the floor. That's not too goofy.

5. Lantern: It rolls up, then explodes.

6. Bola: The step over themselves like daddy-longlegs then hurl themselves at your feet as you flee.

7. Clothes: Sounds silly at first but this is actually pretty horror movie if it animates the clothes you're wearing--or your hair.

8. Chain: Another classic.

9. Bottle: It rolls up and explodes, too. Maybe spraying you with glass.

10. Shoes: Again, if you're already wearing them: horror movie. You will pay an executioner to cut off your feet.

11. Jewelry: I figure jewelry is a stealth killer. You find it in some pile of treasure then it waits until you're asleep and rips one of your nostrils open.

12. Belt: Deserves a special mention because it can cut you in half.

13. Rosary: Cheap irony is still irony and iron is fucking metal.

14. Pack of cards: They probably just know stuff--like who won all that gp in the last poker game. Plus paper cuts.

15. Chess set: A stealth killer, like jewelry. They crawl down your gullet if you snore.

16. Orrery: They roll up and grab you like a bear trap.

17. Net (with hooks): a little less goofy than a rug of smothering.

18. Ring: Lose a finger.

19. Glove: Lie low until they make you cast the wrong spells.

20. Stained glass window: The two-dimensional figures strain forward into scraping assassins. Like that scene in Young Sherlock Holmes.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

…and Gygax Saw The Angel

"...and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face."
-Numbers 22:

Redoing the Monster Manual some more…
click to enlarge
Angels (split into deva, planetar and solar and all barely distinguishable) come right after the aboleth in the manual and have a similar problem--since they, too, strongly rely on a monotheism for their impact. Plus they're good which means there aren't a lot of reasons to fight them. But I got this.


Our plane of existence is sentient. It knows it exists and can see itself.

It's also, naturally, 4-dimensionally aware--it can see all of time at once, and thus all of cause and effect.

So there's none of this "noticing something's wrong and sending an angel down from heaven to address it" that's strictly 3-dimensional thinking. The Prime Material Plane is and has always been aware of any potential problems.

What possible problems could there be? The Plane is existence itself, right? (Echo of an old philosophical problem: why would God need to do anything like a miracle or sending an angel down if the universe works exactly how he wanted it to work?) Surely everything that happens in it is part of the Plane.

Well, almost: The Prime Material Plane can see all of itself as a kind of 4-dimensional sculpture from the inside, with breaks in it where threats from other planes intrude on or threaten it. It can't see those other planes directly, they are not of its substance). The plane can just see where they are interfering with it--the same way that from the inside of a tin can you can't see who's kicking it, but you might see the dent.

So, from the beginning of time, angels have been seeded by the Plane itself to be in exactly the appropriate moment in space-time to address these "dents". Angels are not sent, they simply arise at the right moment.

This conveniently means the angel isn't necessarily a totally useless good guy in the game so much as something dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the Plane. So if players are involved in anything that frays the barriers between planes, then they have to deal with an angel. For example, an angel might mature and manifest at the exact moment the players are about to cross a barrier to the Astral Plane or summon an particularly powerful elemental creature.

Notes in red on the picture:

1. Over by the red 1 I put the three most common manifestations--(i.e. where angels come from): a human can discover they are an angel (typically a paladin that reaches 21st level at exactly the right moment),  a statue can come to life (not unlike a gargoyle's relation to a demon), or an animal can evolve into an angel.

2. Angels in the game typically have a whole laundry-list of resistances and immunities which I simplified to a more mythic rule: Angels can't be hurt by anything from our plane. I'd assume most magic is mostly manipulating things from our plane (fireballs, shadows) but summoned demons (and the weapons they carry and that grow from their bodies) aren't, and a lot of magic items aren't. Clerical magic that manipulates stuff from our plane (lightning, ice) can't hurt them, but anything that channels divine power directly can.

3. Rather than use the Deva, Planetar, Solar hierarchy--which is just one of those "Remember when you fought these guys 4 levels ago? Well here's a tougher one!" hierarchies and replaced it with the Hebrew one--10 ranks of angels from Ishim to Chayot with corresponding HD levels. Added bonus is that tradition assigns many of these angels freaky characteristics like the Chayot has six wings and is covered in eyes. Bonus to using Hebrew mystic names: you can name them ominous things like "Angel of Six Roads" "Angel of Hypothermia" "Angel of Subtraction".

4. Angels carry shields (I know because St Michael does in all the paintings). The shield makes the angel immune to all divine magic. It only works for angels and demons, so stealing it doesn't steal the power, it just deprives them of it.

5. I also figure there are weird things that just happen around angels. Call them Aura Actions? Like animals start singing, etc.

Most of the given combat profile is fine as far as it goes (it's a tough guy with wings), though I decided the flaming arrows and sword that fights by itself were dead cheesy.

I think each individual angel should probably be custom-made with extra powers for its purpose and where it appears. Add slightly modified demon traits if the specific situation doesn't suggest abilities on its own.


Friday, October 3, 2014

The Metapsychotic System of the Aboleth

Still redoing my Monster Manual...
Click to enlarge
I never really liked the old aboleth, they seemed like ham-fisted attempts at Lovecraftiana, but I like the new illustration, especially when I added in a tiny guy for scale.

Other things:

-Beefed up the physical stats across the board and added a swallow attack to reflect the increased size.

-I never liked the "covers people in slime to enslave them" gimmick--it made it seem too much like the aboleth A) Gave a fuck either way about people B) Had physical tasks they actually needed people for--neither of which seems too Lovecraftian.  You don't want them to be just mean psychic whales. The Manual, however, has a schtick which suggests being unable to breath air is just a disease transmitted as a side effect of being near the aboleth-- which I like very much. I also decided that it drains color out of nearby fish.

-The manual has some good "regional actions" and "lair actions" (things you'd expect to happen around an aboleth)--slime everywhere and delusions--I transferred these from the next page so I could see them all at once plus added a few more.

-I gave the pools in the aboleth's lair the ability to dissolve people into liquid memories--stolen from a Legion of Super Heroes comic and Genesis Pits--stolen from the Invid.

-Noted also they're related to the Philosopher species somehow--mind flayers, etc.

-I added 4 kinds of possible lairs and some allied species--cannibal mermaids and sea elves.

I figure aboleths are some kind of lesser Old One or spawn thereof, not actually the big cahuna but something close. They probably each have names and take slightly different forms.

Interpreted as Lovecraftian, Aboleths (and, no matter how you interpret them, the next creature in the Monster Manual--Angels) introduce the concept of belief systems.

Now, systems...
There is a terrifying difference between strings of random phenomena and systems.

From True Detective:

Marty: Shit, man, this dude in New Orleans cut up his girl, felt remorse, tried to piece her back together with Krazy Glue.

Rust: That's just drug insanity. Ah, that's not this. This has scope. Now, she articulated a personal vision. Vision is meaning. Meaning is historical. Look, she was just chum in the water, man.

I believe there's a plastic sack of thick and greyish liquid hanging from a steel pole at the foot of the bed. That's a belief.

I believe it's the nutrient gunk the doctors gave Mandy when she came out of the hospital and when she has her feeding tube in, she has to have it or she'll die. That's a belief system.

A belief just sits there. A system makes demands. You put in an input and out comes an output and you have to do it. So a bad system is very bad.

So they find the dead girl in True Detective, she's been systematized:
"Ideas what any of this means? [Scoffs] I don't know."

"And it's all primitive. It's like cave paintings. Maybe you ought to talk to an anthropologist."

"[Sighs] Lot of trouble this guy went to. Seems real personal."

"I don't think so. Was iconic, planned and in some ways, it was impersonal. Think of the blindfold."

…and that's why it's scary. The system the psychotic is working on here is bigger than a personal reason to kill one person. And that system is enigmatic. It implies two scary things:
-This could happen again
-You may have walked into the system and not even know it

What happens when you're in an enigmatic system? Well suddenly everything you do has a secret meaning you don't know about. Your every action is suddenly loaded with potentially awful significance. As is everything around you.

This is Lovecraftian--and Lovecraft was, as is often noted, not real great about recording or modelling the variety of human personalities. His creatures and intimations doom us all equally.

Kenneth Hite's remarks on such systems:
"…the purest form of cosmic horror, what Lovecraft summed up as the 'idiot god Azathoth,' or what Tim Powers evokes with the djinn in Declare— an intelligence so foreign, so inaccessible, that it can only appear mad or idiotic to us despite its immensity. "

The aboleth, being the closest thing in the Manual to an Old One, has to incarnate this immensity. This is much harder in D&D than in Call of Cthulhu. In Cthulhu there's already an implied understanding of the relevance of psychotic systems to the players: the players know they will discover a murder or a distortion in reality, the players know this will be the work of a thing or the agents of a thing, the layers know there will be knowledge (books, cryptic markings) and these will relate to the thing, and they know the thing, when confronted, will be terrible. A paranoia about being embedded in an awful system is right there on the character sheet from the moment of character creation: Cthulhu Mythos: 1%.

In D&D, the intimations that surround a Lovecraftian leviathan are cheek by jowl with intimations of marauding goblins and intimations of Tiamat and intimations of Loki and every other horror-myth-complex around. If the clues don't all point to Cthulhu, the cosmic horror loses its totalized and totalizing quality--its underneath-everythingness--which is the source of the horror.

And these systems don't match: Loki cares about humans (tricking them), so does Satan (temptation)--Cthulhu doesn't.

I can't think of any easy answer to write into the entry--the only answer would have to be in the GMing. The GM has to build up the alienness slowly, with attention to where the players are at, moodwise. 

Metaphysically, I have maybe the beginning of an idea--In A Storm of Wings, M John Harrison creates the Sign of the Locust, which seems to be an insect cult.

The Sign of the Locust is unlike any other religion invented in Viriconium. Its outward forms and observances - its liturgies and rituals, its theurgic or metaphysical speculations, its daily processionals - seem less an attempt by men to express an essentially human invention than the effort of some raw and independent Idea - a theophneustia, existing without recourse to brain or blood: a Muse or demiurge - to express itself. 

Which turns out to be what it is: there are alien insects from another world who are slowly supplanting our incompatible human reality with theirs--re-dreaming the whole world so it always was a different way.

True Detective also suggests the killers believe themselves to be in contact with another world--rather conveniently, Carcosa--which we have a supplement all about.

So the aboleth--unlike the demon, devil, quasit--does not belong. Not just to the planet, but to this version of history. It's an intrusion from a completely different interpretion of the planet--from a Carcosa-Earth or a Kadath-Earth.

The Old Ones are non gods, from the wrong Earth, and they are in a war of philosophy. The realm of their adherents--the sea elves and cannibal mermaids--is the water and there is more water than land. The sea is different, and divisions disintegrate there. The total incompatibility of the story of the aboleth-reality with what happened here in ages past during the long wars between all the bearded, spear-carrying gods is real--but they're working on it.