Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Bring Back the Malice Fund Commences!

From the Desk of Valentine MacGee, Great Kami Guru, Archmage Supreme, and Channeler of the Primal Chaos
Public Relations, Akenian Branch

(Image Source)

Greetings, troubleshooters and treasure hunters. I am Valentine MacGee, Archmage Supreme and Sage of 7 Worlds, speaking to you today on behalf of Malice Afore Thought. As many of you know, the late and great Malice was seemingly wiped away from existence due to a tragic accident on the Cubed World. HOWEVER, FRET NOT, for I have discovered a way of resuscitating him!

Through the miracles of CLONING, we can restore and regrow everyone’s favorite assassin to as good as new.  All this miracle will cost is a mere 57,000 gold pieces. This is where YOU, YES YOU, can help a (formerly) living legend. Starting immediately, we will be taking donations from the general public for his rebirth with the BRING BACK THE MALICE FUND!

How much are you willing to give to see Afore Thought? Donate to the BRING BACK THE MALICE FUND today!

Caveats and Risks:
This procedure will require the remaining blood of Malice.
There is a small chance he will come back as part fungal zombie.
Generally allow for ten weeks for new Malices to be grown and delivered.

All donations, once spent, are nonrefundable.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Few Words on the Life and Death of Malice Afore Thought

A Few Words on the Life and Death of Malice Afore Thought
Delivered by Joe C. Dunnyman, Priest of Antiseptis

Hi there, I’m Joe Dunnyman, servant of Antiseptis and the Gods of Clean, and I’m here to talk to you today about the dangers of green slime- what, who? Malice? Oh, right! Okay, let’s start again

However much it may smile or make funny noises,, DON'T trust it, kids!
Hi there, I’m Joe Dunnyman, servant of Antiseptis and the Gods of Clean, and I’m here to speak to you about Malice Afore Thought.  He usually hung around with a gang that included Dread Noslum, Nack, Fiddlin’ Joe (not me Joe, a different Joe), Elsjin, Manning, and Pete Loudly. He also knew some paladin guy named Sir Ward. They were apparently big pals despite havin’’ totally different “alignments”. It’s been said that Malice didn’t truly represent this thing called “Chaotic Evil”. But he’d always say he just played things for the long game.  Anyway, reason why I’ve been hangin’ out with this group is because my boss in the sky, the Spotless Lord, has ordered me to clean up after ‘em and minimize the mess they make. Yeah, fat chance of that.

I understand he was something of a celebrity with flail snails around these parts.  I don’t know much about snails, other than they can wreak havoc on yer garden. Some people race ‘em, but I don’t like that sorta thing. They leave this really nasty slime trail behind them. Kinda like Malice did right before he croaked. Just the thought of it makes my tummy a little urpy.

Not sure what attraction he holds to these guys

Oh yeah, we were talkin’ about Malice, right? Well, he was a thief or bounty hunter or somethin’, I think, moonlightin’ as an assassin. I don’t recall if I ever saw him actually assassinate anybody, although I think he did backstab a few fellas, when he could stand on his own two feet. Anyway, I think he’s also a white elf. When I got croaked and reincarnated in the skin of one of his kindred, he was always a real pal in teaching me the ins and outs of being an elf.  Apparently you’re supposed to be all high and mighty and smugly superior and stuff. Although I guess he could even be snooty to other elves, given how he was nobility or something fancy-pants like that. I think he was from the Cubed World city of Nornrick. Not that he was ever openly smugly superior, like a said a real good Joe, well, not a Joe since his name was Malice, but ya get the point.

I don’t have the history with Malice that a lot of THE old hats do. I’ve only known him for about a year and a half. I think the first time I met him was during some high seas adventure.  (Ya could tell it was high seas adventure because it was right in the captain’s name- Albrecht of the High Seas, a friend of Malice and the rest).  O’ course, I was still wet behind the ears carryin’ the robes back then, just outta my first adventure in the Doom Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children.  But Malice, he was already old hat at the thuggery thing he does.  Anyway, we got in a heap of trouble, since this big shot librarian guy got really, really mad at us for… I think it was not returning the library books on time.

We used to have this ship that was also a library.

Since then, I’ve been on lots of adventures with Malice and his gang. Malice is something of a character; I guess what one could call an “elegant mess”.  He’d come up with some great fancy pants schemes, but then a lotta the time they’d become unglued by some fundamental, dumb mistake he made or just dumb luck. (Sometimes with Malice, it was hard to tell the difference.)
 For instance, there was this one time we were fleeing for our dear lives from the Giant of Hate Mountain (as in, the Giant WAS the Mountain). We had to escape the mountain range lickety-split, so Malice suggested we snowboard our way down usin’ our shields. Somehow I made it all the way down. But Malice musta tripped over his own two feet because early on he tipped over, and he bounced the rest of the way down the mountain.

Now I’m not saying that Malice was made of failure.  He’s pretty good at makin’ up plans involving other people. His recruitment of underlings helped us break through the Lair of the Jackalmen. And I’m pretty sure we escaped the Time Dungeon only because he used some magic candle to gate in his paladin sister. She helped our gang fight past all the evil alternate timeline Pete Loudlys.

Malice died as he lived. That is, working out one of his creative schemes. In the dungeons beneath the royal palace of Gaxen Kane, we were runnin’ around like chickens with their heads cut off. We managed to ditch the goblins that were hot on our heels. To get rid of a few of the little bastards in the next room, Malice thought it’d be great fun to use some of their own green slime against ‘em.  How would he do it? He attached a bucket to a string with the intent to swing the bucket into the next room. I remember thinkin’, “Who does he think he is? Some kid home alone tryin’ to make some bandits wets?”

When yer parents told you to eat yer greens, they weren't talkin' about green SLIME!
I warned him not to make a mess like this. Make a mess, and you start getting sloppy. Get sloppy, and bad things happen.  He didn’t listen and went ahead with his plan. So the others open up the door, and Malice swings his bucket almost blindly. There’s a “sploosh” sound, then it all went quiet.  Malice pokes his head into the next room to check it for gobboes. Then, POW, he gets harpooned by three goblins and paralyzed by the Goblin Pope’s tentacle hands. 

I hope I can get a hat like that one of these days.

The goblins proceed to drag him through the mess of green slime he made. Suffice it to say, we couldn’t get to him before it chewed him up and spit him out as another stain of green slime. Now, this reminds me kids, green slime is DANGEROUS! Don’t play with it; don’t try to make traps out of it unless under the supervision of a trained adult.

Oh yeah, it wasn’t the green slime that did him in for good. It was actually Fiddlin’ Joe and some spit from the giant of the Time Dungeon. This spit is powerful stuff, able to reverse time on whatever it coats. Kinda like cosmic stain remover. So Fiddlin’ Joe was panicking and he got sloppy and used too much stain remover.  Not only did Malice de-age all the way before when he was born, but he de-aged to even before the birth of his race. Now turned into pre-elf pond scum, he’s not just dead, he’s deader than dead.  Ya know, I really should look in my Book of Ritual Purifications and see what it says to do when ya use too much cosmic stain remover.

The time reversal went a bit too quickly.

Malice is survived by his little brother, Deeds, and his 53,000 year old, demon-god slaying sister, whom he was apparently very jealous of. Being in his sibling’s shadow all his life musta been a lulu for his brainpan. Maybe that’s why Malice always reached for the stars only for them to tumble back down upon him? In any case, Malice’s legacy (beyond the Aesop of not playing with fire, er, slime) is a void in the party. For all the messes he wrought, he was something of a balancing figure between the rest of the gang. He was somewhere between Knack’s circumspect reserve and Fiddlin’ Joe’s “Get to it, ask questions later” answer for everything.  He could sometimes even get Elsjin to focus and Manning to stop running away!

Plus, for a theoretical raving psychopath, Malice was always the “visionary” of the group.  He was always one of the big pushers for pokin’ out the Eyeball Golem of Vorn.  Ya know, the one that’s lordin’ it over Nizadd like a big jerk? Yeah, that’s why we were in Gaxen Kane in the first place. To swipe some tribal masks that would supposedly protect us from the Vorn Golem’s beholder eye rays. (Side note, I understand that the Eyeball Golem of Vorn got unleashed upon the world thanks to another failed Malice scheme.)

With Malice gone and the mission for the Masks of Eyeball Golem Warding botched, we have yet to find new direction. Malice’s replacement, Deeds Afore Thought, remains in his brother’s shadow as much as Malice was in their sister’s shadow.  Mostly he grunts and threatens and sometimes stabs things a little bit. Judging by all the shenanigans the alternate Malices pulled in the Time Dungeon, the rest of the universe is probably better off with him dead. But it sure makes life a pain in the buns for us.

But all’s not lost. We’ll survive and adapt. We always do (okay, mostly always). And I understand that idiot magician Valentine MacGee may be schemin’ up a few possibilities to bring Malice back, or a Malice back. Including one method created for a different hero but that never got used.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Empty Rooms and Dungeon Design: Negative Space Ain’t So Negative

Empty Rooms and Dungeon Design: Negative Space Ain’t So Negative

A recent conversation on G+ got me thinking (you could even say, room-inating) about the subject of empty rooms in dungeons.  (By “empty rooms” I mean empty in the sense of things directly relevant to what an adventurer looks for or tries to avoid- things like monsters, secret doors, treasure, or traps.) An empty room is a space with hidden potential, hidden by what is not there rather than what is there. Because we often look only for the latter and not the former, that potential can be quite difficult to find.

A concept that I’ll be borrowing for this discussion is the concept of negative space, the emptiness between and surrounding objects in the field of vision. In my discussion here, I will be referring to empty rooms as the negative space. Negative space is the interstitial tissue that links the positive (filled) space together (as in, rooms with monsters, etc.)

What does this suggest to you regarding airflow, temperature, and even emotion? (art by

 Hasegawa Tōhaku)

Appropriate use of negative space in the dungeon is important because it helps facilitate mental understanding of the dungeon’s positive space. The mental image evoked by suggestion can be more efficient and powerful than the image created merely by explicit statements.  Like letting the players imagine the horrible possibilities the DM might be up to rather than just stating it up front.
So with the approach that empty rooms are negative space, here are some further thoughts on how to use the empty room to enhance the full ones.

1) Build atmosphere and pacing

 Each dungeon has its own flow based on its nature.  This includes its population density. Enemy barracks will differ in spacing from a weird funhouse dungeon designed by a sadist. The former will likely have several clusters of enemies close together and be light on traps. In the latter the sadist will likely place negative space in between threats to throw his victims off guard and slowly eat away at their sanity. Empty rooms may appear as full rooms, and full rooms may appear as empty rooms.
Regardless of the design or layout of the dungeon, too much action without interruption can cause said action to become stale or even numb the experience. Empty rooms can allow for emotional catharsis through moments of calm and slow-down.  Conversely, ominously placed empty rooms can build tension or put the players on guard. Curious rooms can make everybody put their detective hats on, which leads to the next point.

2) Provide clues or implications about the dungeons and its denizens

The empty rooms of a dungeon can tell us a lot about what the dungeon is like, who designed it, and whom lives there. The WinchesterMystery House is a pretty obvious example: confusing winding passages, doors going nowhere.  It shows a mind preoccupied with something out of the norm, among a number of other possible conclusions. 

Where does this door go again? (Source)

On a more mundane level, even something as ordinary as a broom closet can give canny players a lot of insight on the creatures that live there. Obviously, these creatures are concerned with cleanliness to a degree resembling that of the human range. On the other hand, it would send a very different message if they carelessly tossed everything aside without regard for where they slept or ate.
Even an empty hallway can suggest something. If it’s covered in dust, there’s a good chance nobody has gone this way recently. Is it because it’s dangerous, or it is because it’s merely forgotten? A really loooonnng hallway might suggest that whatever is at the end of the hallway might be either highly valuable or highly dangerous, enough to warrant significant separation from the rest of the dungeon.

3) Emptiness is temporary.

Just because a room is empty now doesn’t mean it will be empty forever. Both the PCs and the dungeon denizens can proactively use empty rooms for places of ambush, chokepoints, shelters to retreat to, or other locations of strategic importance.  Not to mention, the next time the PCs return, the empty rooms may be full and the full rooms may be empty.

4) Emptiness is relative.

The mental understanding I mentioned earlier is important because it’s created in the minds of the players. As such, they may bring understandings of empty space that are completely unexpected by the GM. And whereas junky trinkets found in empty rooms may not have any objective value in the game world, such trinkets may have subjective value to the players and/or their characters. This may be because the trinket is just really cool, and the player wants to hold onto it. Or the player might envision a use for the object at some later day. 

Where is the positive space and where is the negative space here? (source)

  Case in point, in a recent game I played in I found some old beer mugs and wine classes that had no monetary value. However, I took a few of them anyway, thinking I might trade them to somebody for something at some unknown date later. Later I ended up trading them to an iron golem with an obsession with cups in order to get passage beyond him. One man’s trash is another golem’s treasure.

To sum up, there’s quite a lot to be done with empty rooms, both by the designer and the player. It just involves the use of implication to inform meaning created in the mind’s eye.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Rules Musings: The Arcane University and GP=XP

Rules Musings: the Arcane University and GP=XP

So I’ve been thinking about the strengths and constraints of using the GP accumulation as a measure of XP mechanic (henceforth referred to as GP=XP) a lot lately. The strength of the GP=XP model is it is a very quantifiable measure of XP that can observed and negotiated in the game world. If an NPC hires the player characters to perform a task, the reward can be haggled between the two parties.  With limited time and resources, players choose what loot to make off with based on value (or suspected value) vs. the costs or potential costs of making off with it.

A possible constraint of the GP=XP model is that it might suggest a limited framework of gameplay based upon mercenary thievery.  (Not that this is bad, but sometimes a change of pace can be fun.)  In any case, I was pondering ways of how to use the GP=XP framework for alternate setups beyond the norm.

And then an unexpected source of inspiration hit me: research grants! Researchers and other academics are constantly struggling for funding that will breathe life into their weird projects. And what’s the weirdest thing of all? MAGIC!

Art cred: William Fettes Doughlas

The academic can be quite arcane, so why not have a set-up where the arcane are academic? Specifically, the competitive politicking for academic prestige and funding!

In this setup, players find patrons for their projects of thaumaturgy and try to shake them down for all the cash they can get.  How get those patrons on your side could involve any number of strategies- schmoozing your audience, sabotaging the competition, Faustian pacts, or even performing recognizably excellent work! (Of course, funding doesn’t grow on trees, so rival academics will try all sorts of tricks of their own to claim your hard-earned (?) lucre.)

Art Cred: Paul Kirby
Regardless of whatever strategy you use, there will always be the presentation to your peers, which may involve all sorts of shenanigans to get the Review Board on your side. To prove the rightness of your cause, you may have to prove yourself in a wizard’s duel, or, gods forbid, an actual debate!

The Wizard Funding Wars holds opportunity for standard fantasy adventures- traipsing off to alternate dimensions to find that McGuffin you need to finish your research, for example. And there’s even an equivalent to carousing- illicitly pissing away that funding on unapproved, personal pet projects!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gods N' the Godly (Relations Between Gods and their Servants)

God (Or the Space Probe that Ran into God): Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. Like a safecracker, or a pickpocket.
Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money!
God: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.
-          “Godfellas”, Futurama

“If God is a God of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. He can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better.”
-          Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

The couple of quotes above make for unlikely sources of gaming inspiration, but they exemplify some thoughts I’ve been having regarding deities in D&D and other fantasy roleplaying games. The conundrum I’ve been pondering is the presence of active gods in the world and how it affects player character agency. There are plenty of questions to answer regarding a god’s relationship to the world. Why would a god let his own clergy be infiltrated by imposters? Why does divination have a chance of failure? Why does a god say “I don’t know” at times with the commune spell? Why do supposedly benevolent gods allow evil to exist? Why do gods sponsor paladins (or even celestials) that fall from grace if they can predict the future?

The usual answer I’ve heard is that the gods are bound by a (formal or informal) Cold War-like pact between the forces of Good and Evil, Law and Chaos, to avoid mutually assured destruction through direct confrontation. If Good interferes too much in the life of mortals, Evil can step in to fill in the imbalance of power (and also with Law vs. Chaos). However, this doesn’t explain why the gods are fallible (see the divination and commune above, for example), and it also assumes a certain cosmological model that won’t fit some worlds.

My perspective of the gods in RPGs is that they aren’t omniscient or all-seeing nor are they all-powerful, at least regarding the finer points of the mortal world. Rather, the gods are far removed from mortals and their ways, only able to approximate a bird’s eye view but a faraway bird’s eye view. The vantage point of a god on the outer planes removes it from the down-to-earth perspective of mortals and the finer points of their lives. The greater the power of the god, the farther removed it is from the mortal perspectives. Demigods, god kings, and hero gods who exist on the mortal plane can directly interact with mortals. However, as the god becomes greater in power, he becomes further removed from mortality as his perspective is dispersed across a wider and wider area of the world (or even the multiverse). Thus, a god must use finesse in how he interacts with the mortal world. This is where the clerics and other divine servants come in.

Gilbert […] reached the highest ledge.
Louis Loeb, from Via Crucis : a romance of the second crusade, by Francis Marion Crawford, New York, 1889. (source)

Clerics, priests, paladins, and other divine servants do not merely spread the faith or serve the god’s interest. Rather, they also act as the god’s eyes and ears. Everything from prayers (in the most minor sense) to the creation of temples and (especially) divination spells can act as lightning rods for the god’s attention. They not only inform the cleric; they can draw the deity’s attention to a certain point of relevant interest. Thus, the god and the cleric have a symbiotic relationship in that they must work together to achieve the goals of both.

The above model of the cleric/deity partnership has an important practical element regarding player agency. The deity interacts with the world primarily through empowering her agents (i.e. PC worshipers and servants), thus putting the responsibility for establishing the connection to the players. It also enables a god to be true to his mythos yet flawed and fallible (thus needing his servants’ help to work his interests in the world).  Therefore, a cleric must depend as much upon herself as her deity. 

He held, while earth and sky whirled with him.
Louis Loeb, from Via Crucis : a romance of the second crusade, by Francis Marion Crawford, New York, 1889. (source)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Facts Behind Light and Darkness: Addendum to a Perspective of Dissent from Church Doctrine

NOTE: This is an addendum to my earlier treatise on the Churches of Light and Darkness, collecting the chronology of events I have gathered relating to the early history of Ancient Akenia (and therefore the Twin Churches). Being mindful of the folkloric historical traditions of Ancient Akenia, I have not assigned exact dates but rather have compiled a broad but accurate order of events. In addition, there is a quick-reference list at the end of this document.
-Ahonlo Limn Defray, Dissident Theologian of the Murean Seminary of Wisdom

Chronology of Ancient Akenia

The Creation of the World- At the behest of the Creator,  the Dwarves,  under instruction by the Unterkin, build the world into existence.

One of the earliest representations of a God King

Rise of the Iron King- The Iron King is the first mortal to commune with the Profound Darkness.

The Creation of the Twin Lands- The Iron King creates the twin continents. Eons later we would know them as Akenia and Calian

The Age of Gods and Kings- Humanity serves beneath, and worships, the God Kings, a race of once normal mortals now imbued with the power of gods.  Magical power is channeled through these God Kings, whom act as patrons to dole out as they please. Their servants petition them for power in return for service. Of their servants, the Jian-Sa are perhaps the most favored peoples of the God Kings. During this period, no great rift between churches of light and darkness existed as it does today.

The Age of Gods and Kings was an age of wonders.

The Sealing of the Dia-Mind- The God Kings seal away the Dia-Mind in Yeso Island.  

The Creation of the Iron Crown – The Iron Crown is forged by the Iron King. The Madokami (or the being we would know today as the Madokami) is a contemporary and philosophical rival (as a servant of the Invincible Bright) of the Iron King. She observes the Iron King’s rampant greed and arrogance in creating the Crown and strongly disapproves.

The Wars of Rebellion: The exact causes are unknown, but humanity rises up against the God Kings to gain its independence.  The God Kings and their servants remain united against humanity, except for two (apparently unconnected) traitors: Algarnan, the rogue deva, and the Madokami, the goddess of mercy. 

A soldier's costume of the time

The Creation of the Grandesh: Algarnan forges the Grandesh, the God-Killer Blade, on behalf of the separatist humans.

The Defeat of the God Kings: The Iron King is slain by the Grandesh Sword. Fearing the will be next, the surviving God Kings abandon Akenia for parts unknown. However, they leave Asmodal in charge of wreaking their vengeance

The Age of Light and Darkness begins: Research begins on light and darkness magic in the wake of the gods abandoning Akenia.

The Sealing of Asmodal- Using the Seal Items, four heroes seal Asmodal away in his tower.

The Church of Light is established: The Great Pyrus (creator of the Shield of Pyrus, one of the legendary weapons used to take down Asmodal) founds the Church of Light

The Great Schism: Kaius, Pyrus’ sister, disowns him and goes on to form the Church of Darkness.

A modern Akenian depiction of Pyrus and Kaius (source)

Figures/Terms Of Note

Algarnan- a deva (a celestial servant of the Bright) who threw in with the rebel humans. He forged the Grandesh Sword, the God-Killer Blade.
Asmodal, the Twilight Prince, half-demonic, half-celestial, master of both Light and Dark magic, servant to the God-Kings and their tool of vengeance against humanity
Iron King, The- Creator of the Iron Crown. Said to be the first (and greatest?) God King there ever was. Was slain by the Grandesh Sword.
Invincible Bright, the- fancy name for the Light side of magic.
Jian Sa – an indigenous people of Yeso Island
Madokami, the- Once a philosophical rival of the Iron King but still nonetheless closely involved with him. Broke away from the rest of the God Kings to support humanity in their rebellion. Sometimes thought not to be a Goddess of Hope but rather a “deva of hope”.
Kaius- Sister to Pyrus before she disowned him; rebelled against his Church of Light and founded the Church of Darkness
Profound Darkness, The – fancy name for the Dark side of magic
Pyrus- aka “The Great Pyrus”, forged the Shield of Pyrus and established the Church of Light