Monday, September 22, 2014

Undead revisited

Although DARK•HERITAGE is, of course, a setting that purposefully eschews some of the standard conventions of fantasy, it doesn't abandon them completely, and there are a few that I really like and can't help but put in place.  A lot of these come from D&D which makes sense since my setting is an evolved cadet line of D&D, if you will, in the first place.  I'm also a fan of a lot of the stuff found in Warhammer (as a setting) however, as well as stuff found in Iron Kingdoms.

I stumbled into a game store on Friday afternoon--the first time I've been in one in months--with the intent of flipping through the 5e books.  I did do that--the Monster Manual in particular--but what really caught my eye was stuff going on in Warhammer that I hadn't been aware of, namely the return of Nagash and the End Times supplement.

Sauron is, of course, the original Dark Lord of modern fantasy fiction, but Nagash is probably the original Dark Lord of the Warhammer setting, at least, and a great classical expression of the Dark Lord motif.  I've long been a fan of Nagash.  Of course, it's a lot easier now with really cool new art and really cool new models.  There are other cool models released recently too, Arkhan and others on Dread Abyssals, some kind of undead creature that looks sort of like a short-nosed dragon skeleton with the ribcage completely filled up with ethereal skulls.

I don't play Warhammer, nor do I have stats for a lot of these monsters, but I love the visuals and the concepts behind them.  Not just the dread abyssals, but all kinds of critters from the Tomb Kings and Vampire Counts armies--I've long been tempted to stat up a terrorgheist or a necrosphinx in m20.  This latest batch of releases will probably be the tipping point that causes me to add some of these Warhammer monsters to DARK•HERITAGE, at least as options.

Of course, while I'm at it, it's not like the Undead are the only Warhammer armies that I like.  I'm a big fan of both skaven and the beastmen, and for that matter, the Chaos daemons are philosophically very interesting (although when it comes time to advance specific daemons, I tend to fall back more on D&D conventions than follow Warhammer notions.)

But if I'm going to be statting up Warhammer undead, why not add some of the Cryxian undead from Warmachine while I'm at it?

Last night, I made a list of troop types from both armies, based on what was available on their online catalog of miniatures (minus actual warmachines--those are too specific to Iron Kingdoms to be able to translate well into any other setting without being obvious that they're "stolen.")  Over the next few days or weeks, I'm going to stat up some of these critters as m20 monsters, usable in DARK•HERITAGE.  Of course, I haven't really developed the concept of undead in DARK•HERITAGE very well yet, other than establish that Tarush is some kind of slumbering undead god under the capital of the nation of Tarush Noptii, which is ruled by vampires.  Does that mean other undead would be in Tarush, or be rivals of the Tarushans?  Don't know.  I've only obliquely mentioned undead in the setting so far.

I do have a few ideas, but let me stat some guys up first, and then I'll worry about exactly where they fit in after that...

Bounded Accuracy in MyM20 doc

I am not updating the MyM20.pdf file at this time.  However... if I do at some point decide to do so, it will roll from 1.1.6 to 1.2 due to this change, which although somewhat small in nature would also be fundamental in impact.  So for today, all I'm doing is noodling with the concept of how I might implement it, rather than actually doing so.

The biggest single change I have to make--or at least by far the most work to implement--is reworking the monster list so that it is geared towards a bounded accuracy paradigm.

You may ask (I know I did) what exactly is meant by bounded accuracy.  Unless you've been following the development and launch of D&D 5e, you probably haven't heard the term.  The concept is simple: flatten the power curve.  Characters no longer have runaway growth in all stats, to-hit rolls, skills, etc.  Characters may grow into being able to face new challenges, but they never completely grow out of being challenged by prior challenges.  In D&D of editions past, the notion of 4th or 5th level characters--to say nothing of higher level characters than that--being challenged by even large groups of kobolds or goblins was ridiculous.  Under a bounded accuracy paradigm, all characters, regardless of level, have to watch out for these challenges, at least in large numbers.

How does this work?  Mostly by shifting the To Hit and Armor Class escalation as level goes up to one of hit points and damage.  If characters have only very modest increases in To Hit and Armor Class scores as they increase in level, then goblins will always be potentially challenging if you run into enough of them, because they can always hit you.  However, if your hit points and damage output go up, then goblins become minions (if they weren't already) and you can, at least, face larger numbers of them, because the ability of any one given goblin to wound you in any significant way is reduced.  You hit and are hit more often, and do more damage with each hit you do.  In this way, larger and more dangerous monsters are more dangerous because they also have higher hit points and can deal more damage per attack, not because their To Hit and Armor Class scores are necessarily really high (although for challenging opponents, that may well be true as well.)

By the same token, Skill checks and saving throws (both in m20 implemented by a check of your relevant Ability score + relevant skill bonus + d20 vs. a target Difficulty Class, or DC) don't really change too much as levels increase either.  For a d20 Rogue at 1st level, a DC 15 Lock that he wants to pick is a standard difficulty lock.  For a 10th or 15th level Rogue, a DC 15 Lock is childishly easy.  This is verisimilitude breaking; under a bounded accuracy paradigm, a DC 15 Lock is always a standard DC lock.  And while a higher level character might be expected to pick it more easily than a lower level character, it's never trivially easy, because DCs are more static as well.

So, how would this be implemented?  In my standard m20 game, a character at first level has hit points equal to his STR score + 1d6 and gains an additional +1d6 at each level gained.  On leveling, a character also gains a +1 to his skills and to his To Hit roll.  He gains a bonus to his AC equal to his level divided by 2 (rounded down), or +1 every other level.  He gains a +1 to an ability score every three levels.  Fighters gain an additional +1 to To Hit and Damage at levels 5 and 10 (in addition to what they gained at 1st) and Experts gain a new Affinity every three levels.  The maximum level supported by the system is 10th level, which forces a kind of bounded accuracy of sorts.

Under a new bounded accuracy paradigm, characters would not gain all of these bonuses each level.  Instead, they would gain them according to the chart below.  Fighters would continue to gain an additional +1 to Hit and Damage at 5th and 10th level (and also, now, at 15th and 20th.)  The Expert affinities would slow down a bit; every four levels (there's only so many affinities after all), so in addition to the 2 he gains at 1st level, he would gain an additional one at levels 4, 8, 12, 16 and 20.

All characters gain an additional +1d6 hit dice per level (although they would no longer gain the additional +1d6 at first level.)  Characters will gain a bonus to their To Hit according to the chart below.  Characters will also get additional damage dice (not unlike a Rogue's Sneak Attack skill, although it would apply to any attack; melee, ranged or even magical) at certain levels, as indicated below.

Characters will also gain more than one attack as they progress; eventually being able to attack up to 4 times per round.  However, GM's need to be advised that this doesn't mean that characters are moving across the battlefield like the Flash, at super speed, hitting tons of enemies all at once.  Most of the time, these additional attacks can only be used against a single opponent, although occasionally a GM could rule that bunched characters can all be attacked in a single round, since they're standing around next to each other.

Characters also gain a bonus to their Skills, but no longer at every level--it follows the progression listed below.  And characters gain additions to their ability scores.  This is a little different than what was done in the past; characters get two points to spend.  These can be spent on one ability score (to therefore bump the bonus up +1 reliably) or they may be split across two abilities.  No ability score can be increased above 20 using these; if for some reason a character has a 20 in all three scores--first off, wow, that was some excellent stat rolling at character creation, and secondly; any ability score increases are now lost.  You simply can't go above 20, full stop.  Sorry.

Level HD To Hit AC Damage Attacks/rnd Skills Ability
1 STR +1 +0 +0 1 +1 +0
2 +1d6 +1 +0 +0 1 +1 +0
3 +1d6 +1 +1 +0 1 +1 +0
4 +1d6 +1 +1 +1d6 1 +1 +2
5 +1d6 +2 +1 +1d6 1 +2 +2
6 +1d6 +2 +1 +1d6 1 +2 +2
7 +1d6 +2 +2 +1d6 2 +2 +2
8 +1d6 +2 +2 +2d6 2 +2 +4
9 +1d6 +3 +2 +2d6 2 +3 +4
10 +1d6 +3 +2 +2d6 2 +3 +4
11 +1d6 +3 +3 +2d6 2 +3 +4
12 +1d6 +3 +3 +3d6 2 +3 +6
13 +1d6 +4 +3 +3d6 3 +4 +6
14 +1d6 +4 +3 +3d6 3 +4 +6
15 +1d6 +4 +4 +3d6 3 +4 +6
16 +1d6 +4 +4 +4d6 3 +4 +8
17 +1d6 +5 +4 +4d6 3 +5 +8
18 +1d6 +5 +4 +4d6 3 +5 +8
19 +1d6 +5 +5 +4d6 4 +5 +8
20 +1d6 +5 +5 +5d6 4 +6 +10

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Legacy of 4e

I never played 4e.  I never bought 4e.  I never even really properly read a 4e book (although I did flip through some of them and read bits and pieces of some of them.  And talked a fair bit with gamers who did.)

In general, I say that the legacy of 4e was the Great D&D Schism, wherein D&D players, who were already bleeding severely away from 3.5 as it was near the end of that particular era, were split into various groups that seem to be pretty much irreconcilable.  Enough moved to 4e to make that a significant faction of the former D&D player base.  Enough moved to the OSR (although frankly, they were probably already doing that prior to the release, or even the announcement of 4e.)  Enough moved to Pathfinder when that option became available.  And, frankly--a fair number stayed with d20 even though it was no longer current or supported.  It is, after all, fairly compatible with Pathfinder material still, and there is tons of stuff in print available to use that you shouldn't need to always need something newly released to have more than enough information to keep gaming indefinitely.

Personally, 4e exacerbated a lot of the problems I already had with 3e.  30 levels instead of 20?  I'm already only interested in about 10 of them as it is.  Tactical gameplay that turns into something that feels like Warhammer Fantasy Quest, or some other token and board game instead of an RPG?  Big lists of character powers?  Literally printed on cards?  No possibility of "theater of the mind" combat?  Blegh.

But I'm not making this post to rag on 4e; rather, there are at least two innovations that 4e brings to the table that (hopefully) will be around improving D&D games from here to the end of time.

First; the concept of the minion.  I had independently stumbled across the concept of "Schrödinger's stats"--a necessary innovation for my winging it style of GMing.  In this paradigm, you don't need pregenerated stat-blocks; you can simply make up stats on the fly for many opponents.  I had also independently stumbled across a future development of that; the notion that you don't even need to track hitpoints; whether you just made them up on the fly or not.  Rather, you can have opponents go down when you start to feel like the combat is wearing on the players and it's not fun anymore (actually; hopefully right before that happens, if you're perceptive enough.)  I hadn't yet, however, come up with the notion that they don't even need hitpoints at all, and the idea of minions that automatically drop if they're hit hadn't quite occurred to me yet.

Granted, if you do use "theater of the mind" style combat, as I prefer, then it's a little harder to utilize big hordes of minions (although not impossible) but smaller swarms of minions is still a very useful tool.  This is one aspect of 4e that I hope to see more of as editions continue on.

The second notion is the healing surge.  In d20, I'd utilized action points as healing surges, or rather, one of the potential uses of action points mimicked healing surges by functioning as an instant potion of cure light wounds, essentially.  Since my setting doesn't have clerics or potions, this was even more useful to me than it was to a standard D&D player--although it was a useful use of action points in any game.  When I input Heroism Points into my m20 game, I did something different.  However, I wasn't really super happy with the results.  On further thought, I've updated my m20 file (again--now at version 1.1.6) to have Heroism Points work pretty much exactly the way Action Points used to work in my old d20 houserules document.  Bingo!

Now, an early contender for an innovation of 5e that I hope is implemented as well as promised, and which I hope (if so) becomes part of the core DNA for D&D going forward is "bounded accuracy."  Of course, other games besides D&D already had this in spades, but it's a new feature to the specific lexicon of D&D.  But that's a discussion for another post sometime.  And my m20 doesn't do anything to address bounded accuracy other than arbitrarily cap leveling at 10th instead of allowing it to go farther.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

DM songs

Yeah, yeah... the title of the blog is DARK•HERITAGE but not all that often does it come out that that's partly because I'm a huge fan of Depeche Mode!


The DM facebook guys have been hosting these interesting polls; pick your favorite five songs from two albums at a time.  So far, they haven't gone farther than four albums, but I decided to go ahead and pick my choices now.  Just in case I forget to vote later.  I can't remember if b-sides or other non-album tracks from the same era are counted, but I'm going to throw them in regardless.  They are, after all, included on the re-release bonus versions.

Poll #1: Speak and Spell and A Broken Frame

  1. "Just Can't Get Enough"
  2. "Ice Machine"
  3. "Leave in Silence"
  4. "My Secret Garden"
  5. "The Sun and the Rainfall"
"New Life" and "Photographic" are runners-up.

Poll #2: Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward
  1. "Everything Counts"
  2. "Lie To Me"
  3. "People Are People"
  4. "If You Want"
  5. "Blasphemous Rumours"
A number of CTA era tracks make the runners-up list, including "Fools", "And Then..." and "The Landscape is Changing."

Poll #3: Black Celebration and Music For the Masses
  1. "Stripped"
  2. "But Not Tonight"
  3. "Never Let Me Down Again"
  4. "Sacred"
  5. "Behind The Wheel"
This one is--by far--the most difficult for me, as I have to cut songs that I really, really like--better than the favorites I picked for earlier albums.  Runners-up include "Black Celebration," "A Question of Time," "World Full of Nothing," "Little 15."  It felt odd to not pick "Strangelove" but I have to admit that it doesn't do it for me like it used to.  Over-exposure, I'm guessing.

Poll #4: Violator and Songs of Faith and Devotion
  1. "Waiting For the Night"
  2. "Enjoy the Silence"
  3. "Dangerous"
  4. "In Your Room"
  5. "Mercy In You"
No runners-up.  Barely got five that I could pick as it was.  

Poll #5: Ultra and Exciter
  1. "It's No Good"
  2. "Insight"
  3. "The Dead of Night"
  4. no vote
  5. no vote
Can't think of five that I would pick.  I only got three.  Sorry.

Poll #6: Playing the Angel and Sounds of the Universe
  1. "John the Revelator"
  2. "Precious"
  3. "Lillian"
  4. "Wrong"
  5. "Oh Well"
Biggest runner up was "Martyr" but "Suffer Well," "A Pain That I'm Used To" and "The Darkest Star" make the list too.  Other than that, I didn't like Sounds of the Universe much anyway.

I don't know what the DM facebook guys will do when we get to Delta Machine since they can't pair it with anything.  That's OK; it's not that great anyway.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Pantheon remodeled and expanded

So, I'd like to further explore the pantheon of DARK•HERITAGE.  This isn't strictly necessary, since I downplay both religious and mythological elements in actual play, but at the same time--I love a good fantasy mythology, so I can't resist.  First, let me redraw the pantheon and other mythical or semi-legendary figures.  Then, let me add additional members, myths and elements to it.  For today, I'm only going to expand on one, but eventually I'll add more.

The Four Horsemen
  • Ciernavo (Chernavog) - The Black Pharaoh
  • Peronte (Perun) - The Thunderer
  • Culsans - The Judge
  • Caronte (Charon) - Death, with Orcus (Hell) behind him
Other Major Deities
  • Istaria (Ishtar) - The Heirodule
  • Cathulo or Dagon (Cthulhu) - The Sleeping Sea God
  • Susnacco (Susinac) - The Traveler
  • Selvans - The Hunter
  • Surturo (Surtr) 
  • Pan - The Beast of the Forest
  • Huudrazai - The Blind Idiot Stargod
  • Yog-Sothoth - The Gate
Lesser Deities
  • Grigori - The Watcher
  • Samyassa - The Fallen
  • Herne - The Master of the Wild Hunt
  • Dog
The Heresiarchy (not actually deities, but demigod-like characters)
  • Bartolommeo, the Many Angled
  • Esmeraude, She Who Ushers the Apocalypse
  • Sébastien, He of the Beast Aspect
  • Kefte Taraan, Mistress of Forgotten Secrets
  • Kadashman, He Who Peers Into the Void
  • Djemaa Mennefer, the Gnomic
  • Amrruk the Ancient
  • Jairan Neferirkare, the Soul-less
  • Arzana, Clad in Black
  • Siggeir Sherihum, the Sangremancer
  • Shimut the Flesheater
  • The Master of Vermin
The Great Beast Pan is a deity that is poorly known among the more civilized peoples of the Three Empires, but some few call on his name.  Among the barbarous apes and monkeys of N'gah, he is the patron deity and the King of N'gah resembles him in most respects.  The apes of N'gah are more anthropomorphic than gorillas or chimpanzees, being better at bidepalism and capable of using tools and their hands more like a person.  The same is true for the larger monkeys that make up the intelligent (yet savage) populace of N'gah, which resemble baboons that are more anthropomorphic.  The King of N'gah is, however, an icon if Pan himself, a savage god that resembles a gigantic human-like mandrill covered in spikes, with steel-clawed hands.  The King occasionally uses weapons, but given his steel-like claws, he usually doesn't need to.

It is unclear why this race of Pan-worshipping intelligent apes and monkeys exist, or why their range is so constrained.  Pan's motives are inscrutable.  However, sorcerers and others occasionally worship Pan, especially if they desire vengeance.  The dominant theme of Pan is anger, rage and ferocity, and such is the society of the apes as well.

The current King of N'gah is Kivili.  He would best be represented in d20 as an awakened dire ape with some class levels.  In m20, he'd be similar (although obviously less complex in terms of what rules to use.)

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

New m20 Iconics: Eitel Ibrâileanu

Eitel Ibrâileanu is a back-country "swampy" stranzero who now lives in Porto Liure.  While a young man, his family was singled out as harboring bokor sorcerers.  Eitel got to watch as his parents, his brothers and his sisters were lynched by a mob of panicked swampy villagers.  A sympathetic family friend helped Eitel himself escape, and he made his way to Sarabasca.

Bitter, poor, and unused to the rough urban culture of the port, Eitel fell in with a bad crowd of urban stranzeros who were more interested in taking advantage of him than helping him.  He soon saw even more of the dark side of Sarabasca than he ever knew could have existed--information that left him questioning much of what he thought he knew.  I discovered that his parents probably actually were bokor after all after a number of bad deals with local Sarabascan sorcerers, he could recognize the accouterments of magic.

After about a year and a half of the seedy underside of Sarabasca, his "patrons" tired of him and conned him, essentially selling him to a press gang.  He sailed with the pirate captain Piero Daumat, who made berth at both Sarabasca and Porto Liure.  The pirate wasn't a bad fellow to his crew, however, and Eitel found that the sailing life wasn't so bad.  He even made a bit of money and some actual friends in the few months that he sailed with them.  If he was robbing, pillaging, killing, and selling the odd innocent victim into slavery, he was able to overlook his scruples for a time.

Then Piero Daumat crossed the wrong guy.  A mercenary sorcerer cursed him.  Piero Daumat is now even more infamous than as a mortal pirate--a ghoul pirate who eats his victims, along with a feral crew that is more ferocious and bestial even than he is.  Again, Eitel made a narrow escape by virtue of being too inebriated in a cheap saloon in Porto Liure to be with the crew when the curse was foisted on them.  His past as a pirate is now behind him.  It is clear to him that the supernatural is a vexing problem that has--twice--come within a hairs-breadth of ending his life dramatically.  He retains his bitterness at his lot, but rather than take that bitterness out on all around him via piracy or organized crime, he's focused his bitterness on eliminating the Shadow of the supernatural.

He doesn't get along well with the other guys in the iconics group, necessarily, but they value his skills,  Prior to his removal from back-country Sarabasca, he was a talented hunter, trapper and guide through the wilderness.  Even now, Eitel does not come into Porto Liure often; he lives in a small hut outside of town, and checks in weekly to see if there are tasks that need doing.  Although he does take a small stipend from his patron, and is happy to see his gear kept in tip-top shape on his patron's piece of eight rather than his own, he's still self-sufficient, and lives mostly off of fruit, berries, herbs and plants that he grows in a small garden or gathers in the woods, as well as meat that he traps or shoots.

Eitel also uses an unusual double-sword as a weapon.  This was a favored dueling weapon among Hasparans two hundred years ago, and although it's fallen out of favor, it's still seen as a highly traditional weapon.  Eitel has learned to wield it as a hobby.  Only fairly skilled fighters use double-swords as it is very easy to injure oneself if you are careless or even simply unlucky.

Character sheet:
Name: Eitel Ibrâileanu
Class/Level: Outdoorsman 3
Race: Human (Terrasan-eastern)
Sex: Male
Height: 5'8"
Weight: 150 lbs.
Hair Color: Black
Eye Color: Dark brown
Skin Color: Dark olive
STR: 14 (+2)
DEX: 12 (+1)
MND: 11 (+0)
Hit Points: 29
Armor Class: 16 (medium armor)
Athletics: +4
Communication: +4
Knowledge: +4
Subterfuge: +4
Survival: +7
Melee To Hit: +5
Ranged To Hit: +5
Magic To Hit: +3
Wealth on Hand: 12 gp, 35 sp, 14 cp
Weapons: Double sword 1d8 + 2 damage
Bow 1d8 damage 500 ft.
Tomahawk 1d6 + 2 damage 50 ft.
Other Equipment: Chainmail (medium armor), backpack, bedroll, winter blanket, fish hook, fishing net, flask, rope (50'), cold weather outfit, explorer's outfit
Spells: None
Notes: Raccoon animal companion.  AC: 13, HD: 2d6 (8 hp), AT: Bite +2 d6), climb

Dark•Heritage m20 v 1.1.5

Well... as soon as I thought I could rest on my laurels with 1.1.4, I printed the document out and decided to read through it one more time.  Luckily I did, in printed format, with a bit more leisure to pay attention--I found a number of errors.  Most of them are merely minor errata or clarifications, but I did find one very egregious error.  It was so bad, I had to fire my QC manager.  (I don't have a QC manager.  I do all of this myself.)

When I added the monster section, I mostly cut and pasted and mixed around a bit a number of monsters from a number of m20 sources.  It was always my intention to go in and clean that up, make sure that there was common formatting, make sure that all the stats were aligned, etc.  But I got distracted, didn't do it, forgot I hadn't done it, and didn't look over the monster list again.  D'oh!  I found references to D&D-style spells that I didn't have, I found monsters with extraneous stats, I found that none of my monsters actually had hit points (just hit dice!) and I found that my list needed some work (I had too many various version of "ghost" for example--spectre, wraith, ghost and more.)  I still had some monsters that didn't really fit the milieu as well.

So, for my 1.1.5, the current update, I've mostly fixed the monster section.  It's a significant fix to that section of the document.  There are, however, a few minor typographical fixes and a handful of clarifications and minor rewrites of a sentence or two here and there scattered throughout the rest of the document.  Heck, I even found an error on the character sheet!

A few notes about the monsters.  The list is somewhat abbreviated, but it shouldn't be hard to make your own, or convert from other d20 sources.  In fact, I prefer the latter especially--for the most part, if you have the basic attacks and damage, hit points, and armor class, you're good to go--all you need is a couple of special abilities to make the monster interesting.  This extremely abbreviated format means that it's really easy to mix and match special abilities with a monster that otherwise can be modified or adjusted on the fly to be appropriate for any range of desired challenge.

By far the most "difficult" monster on the list is the Angel, which I included more as a point of reference rather than because I expect to use one.  At 20 HD and with a number of special abilities, it should be out of reach of even a party of 10th level PCs in most circumstances (the highest level that the game supports).  Angels, as they are in Campbell's Deepgate Codex, are most likely fallen and scary... and can take on small armies in combat without being overly worried.  But like I said, I really only included it for reference.  A minor god, like Herne of the Wild Hunt would be an order of magnitude more fearsome in combat--probably twice the HD and twice the special abilities.  A major god, like one of the Four Horsemen would be an additional order of magnitude more powerful--60-100 HD.

The notion of a PC ever taking on even the lowliest of these, the angel, is barely feasible.  Anybody beyond that is absurd.  But the monster list is relatively short.  Rather than add more monsters to it, however, I'll probably leave it up to you if you want more.  They're farcically easy to create.  I'll probably also add them here and there on the blog, as inspiration strikes me.

Friday, September 05, 2014

New m20 Iconics: Manoel Vaz do Camões

I'm creating a new set of Iconics, now that I've really and truly settled on a preferred system.  In the past, my Iconics were somewhat systemless; these new Iconics will be characters created specifically with regards to the m20 system (version 1.1.x where the x represents minor errata, fixed spelling or other errors, not actual changes to the system itself--that would require a bump to 1.2!)

This entire group of Iconics I see as a motley crüe... er, excuse me, crew that has attached themselves together of necessity as an "ensemble cast" not unlike a small group of PCs.  Although my own personal preference for running a game would be only three or four PCs, I'm going to whip up six Iconics--but it's my expectation that if they're ever used for anything, they break out in teams of 2-4; they rarely go all out together to resolve anything.

The Iconics will all be 3rd level to represent their past experience, which I'll only hint at.  All of them have been touched by The Shadow in one way or another, and the experience was either traumatic or tragic or both for most of them.  Because of this, they are able to put aside substantial differences in culture, upbringing and whatever else to work together to counter what they see as significant potential dangers to their home, the cosmopolitan laissez-faire "pirate" paradise of Porto Liure.

Because they have the unofficial backing of a minor noble who's own tragic brush with The Shadow is what prompted him to sponsor this small group, they have access to a small brownstone on the Rua de Xavier.  Some of them basically live there, although several do not--and they use the building as a headquarters for investigation into threats of the more occult variety that they hear rumor of.  Because of the sponsorship--although somewhat scant and off the books--by a minor noble, they don't have to work to support themselves (although some still do.)

Manoel Vaz do Camões is the first of these new iconics.  Formerly an Inspector with the Watch, Manoel was a professional in an outfit that is mostly made of semi-official thugs and uneducated muscle who keep the peace more by brute force than by any ability to actually investigate crime.  The professional investigators were a rare and unusual breed, highly in demand, and Vaz do Camões was successful and highly sought after, having made a name for himself after solving several unusual and highly public cases.  He had the wary respect of the crime families, and the more solid respect of the gentry and even some of the common people recognized his name, if not his face.  This came to an end several years ago when he was part of the investigation of the Church of Starry Wisdom, near to where he currently lives in Rua de Xavier.  That investigation was infamous, and many heretics and witches were put to death.  Little of what really happened was ever made public, and Vaz do Camões slipped quietly out of the public eye following the investigation, resigning his post on the watch and going private for a time until his current sponsorship.

Manoel is a confirmed bachelor, with no known family that he remains in contact with, at least.  He's not a native of Porto Liure, however, having moved here as a young man from Terrasa itself, where he was a student, apparently, before being drawn into the investigator profession.  He still presents a cultured and studious demeanor, and enjoys quiet socialization at times among the scholars of the Academy.  A famous teetotaler with little in the way of a sense of humor, he is serious, erudite and extremely observant.

Manoel was also the first to be recruited by the minor noble who sponsors this small group, and is the unofficial leader of the group.  He is the one who maintains contact with the sponsor, who he refuses to name to the rest of the group out of concern for his anonymity, and he is the one tho directs the majority of their investigations.

Manoel is a middle-aged, bronzed and cultured Terrasan with gray at his temples and is relatively clean-shaven, although he often misses several days at a time.  He is thin and fairly athletic, and although not as powerful or dangerous as his friend Ottvar Golovskin, he is still a skilled fencer with a side-sword.  He also carries at least two daggers and a pistol with him wherever he goes, and is known for donning thick black leather clothing and a cloak (the equivalent of light armor.)  A long scar adorns the left side of his face, although it is now faded to a small white line.

Manoel is conflicted by the use of magic.  He knows first-hand its terrible cost, but he also knows first-hand the benefits it can bring to its users.  He's a cautious student of arcane and forbidden arts, perhaps still lingering with the lawman's distrust of illegal sorcery, but he does know a few small spells that are useful in his chosen profession.  He's very discreet in their use, of course.

Character sheet:
Name: Manoel Vaz do Camões
Class/Level: Expert 3
Race: Human (Terrasan-southern)
Sex: Male
Height: 5'10"
Weight: 175 lbs.
Hair Color: Slightly graying black
Eye Color: Brown
Skin Color: Olive
STR: 14 (+2)
DEX: 12 (+1)
MND: 16 (+3)
Hit Points: 24
Armor Class: 14 (light armor)
Athletics: +4
Communication: +4
Knowledge: +7
Subterfuge: +4
Survival: +4
Melee To Hit: +5
Ranged To Hit: +4
Magic To Hit: +6
Wealth on Hand: 4 gp, 9 sp, 5 cp
Weapons: 2 daggers -- 2d6 +2 damage, range 50 ft (if thrown)
Side-sword (spada da lato) 1d8 + 2 damage
Flintlock pistol 2d6 damage, ranger 100 ft.
Other Equipment: Leather armor (+2), travelers clothing, candles (5)
Spells: Cackling Breath of Moloch
Light of Kuranes
Unerring Vision of Istoria
Notes: Has Investigation and Deception affinities

Microlite 20 Dark•Heritage revisions

I've released a new version of the m20 DARK•HERITAGE rules.  You can download the 27 page pdf on the DARK•HERITAGE page of this blog, clicking on the m20 logo on the side (it looks like a d20 landed on 20), or by simply following this link.  I've actually shortened the document slightly (although some of that may be due to formatting.)  The following bullet list summarizes the changes made:

  • Sorcerer class was removed entirely.  Instead, I've added the Expert Class (which I already used in my m20 STAR WARS game, with "fantasy-ed up" affinities replacing some of the sci-fi ones.
  • Magic is now available to anyone of any class who chooses to learn spells.  This format was borrowed more or less as is from the d20 Call of Cthulhu book, and it works very much the same way, although spells still have levels, because it's easier to do it that way then to customize the Sanity cost of each individual spell.  This means that "eldritch tomes" like The Necronomicon or The Book of Eibon had to be introduced overtly into the game rules.  That's not a bad thing at all.  The game retains it's "swashbuckling horror" vibe.  PCs can, of course, choose to forego magic altogether.  It's a much more cautious and sensible approach, in many ways.
  • Fixed the ranges on ranged weapons.  Reading through them, it struck me how ridiculously short the ranges were in the prior version.
  • Improved the use of Heroism points.  They were practically useless as they were at lower levels.
  • Removed a small handful of spells and monsters that felt "too D&D" to fit the DARK•HERITAGE milieu.
These changes, other than the fairly significant upheaval in how magic works and the class associated with it (or not, as the case now is) don't change the game all that much.  For those who pay attention to that kind of thing, I consider it a revision, not a "new edition."  The previous changes I've made would be considered minor errata, not worth even a full decimal point; this revision would make it m20 DARK•HERITAGE v. 1.1.  I've fixed a few minor typographical errors and other changes, and for version control, I'm adding them as a second decimal point.  As of this typing, we're actually on version 1.1.4.  I don't anticipate that it would ever roll all the way to 2.0, and unless I think of something significant to change, I don't even anticipate a revision to 1.2.

A few developer comments on the changes.

The Heroism point change (and the ranged weapon change) make combat a little bit more effective and swashbuckling in feel.  On the other hand, the elimination of the sorcerer class and the adoption of a Cthulhu-like magic make magic less predictable and therefore a little bit scarier.  That said, for folks who like playing sorcerers, an Expert with a jacked up MND score (therefore, a nephilim would be best from a stat perspective) and the Sorcery affinity (maybe even taken more than once) is arguably actually better at casting spells than the Sorcerer would have been.  However, depending on your GM, you don't know for sure what spells you'll have in your repertoire.  It's not as simple as always counting on having magic missile or whatever, as you would in D&D--you may end up with an odd and eclectic spell list.

Anyway, check it out.  The entire document is only 27 pages (and that includes a page of OGL, a page of character sheet, a table of contents, a title page, and 3-4 pages of "discussion"--the rules themselves are fairly short.)  I'm always curious about feedback.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

"Lovecraftian style"

Today, I'm going to "punt" and quote myself from an online discussion.  Of a while ago, sure.  But thematically on topic for this blog, nonetheless.


Originally Posted by pemerton 
I agree with this. I actually think even core D&D sometimes has problems in respect of scale - for instance, many D&D worlds involve maps done on the scale of actual Earth geography. But classic fantasy stories, even ones with mythic or legendary overtones, often do not require a large geographic area, or at least not an area that exists in any sort of actual detail (there can be journeying for many days and nights, but there is no actual concrete reality to those lands journeyed through).
I've been tinkering with a setting for years. Although I sketched out in very vague terms a global geography, I've really only detailed an area about the size and scope of the circum-Mediterranean. There's enough variety and geography there to keep me busy indefinitely.
 Originally Posted by pemerton
This also brings up another difficulty in my personal ability to really be moved by Lovecraft - I don't understand the aesthetics of asserting the impersonality and inhumanity (or perhaps non-humanity) of the cosmos, but then personifying it via all these beings who are in many cases quite anthropomorphic. I think you are right about Odin and Thor, but I think any personification in an anthropomorphic fashion produces that sort of outcome, if only by confining the sphere of perception and the sphere of causal influence. (In other words, for me Cthulhu can have the same problem Odin and Thor have, whom I agree with you are at odds with the Lovecraftian project.)
Well, keep in mind that the so-called "cosmic horror" being strongly attached to Lovecraft was a posthumous development; a work of interpretation by his fans and later scholars. Clearly Lovecraft himself didn't continuously and consistently use it. Although there are common threads through most of his stories, even then he used those same threads to weave all kinds of themes and tones, including Dunsanian fantasy, ("The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath", for instance), more traditional horror/witchcraft stories ("The Haunter in the Dark" and its sequels, "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," even "The Dunwich Horror," etc.), localized monster stories ("The Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Colour Out of Space." etc.) and straight up science fiction with only a thin veneer of horror ("At The Mountains of Madness", etc.)

And in most cases, Lovecraft was writing openly imitative works--"Kadath" can almost be considered a pastiche of Vathek, "The Dunwich Horror" can almost be considered a pastiche of "The Great God Pan," etc. So while the notion of cosmic horror crystallized under Lovecraft's watch, and he's rightly given credit for clearly articulating the notion first, not every story that has a mi-go, a Deep One, a vague reference to The Necronomicon, Cthulhu, or the Plateau of Leng is a story of cosmic horror. This is clearly true for even the body of work of Lovecraft himself, and as @fireinthedust pointed out, once you step into fellow writers of the Mythos circle, that is true even more strongly.
 Originally Posted by pemerton
From memory, this is more-or-less how the option is presented in the "play this with D&D" notes for d20 CoC.
More or less, but the d20 CoC book strongly buys into the concept of the cosmic horror and bleakness side of Lovecraft's writings, and de-emphasizes (or even completely ignores) the many other times when Lovecraft referred to "Yog-Sothothery" as little more than a somewhat whimsical in-joke and reference tagging between him and his friends in the Weird Tales writers circuit. That gives the book a much better sense of thematic unity, and I'm sure it would have been a mistake to do otherwise, but at the same time, it kinda misses the point that to Lovecraft and his friends would have been much more obvious.

Originally Posted by pemerton 
Of that circle of writers, the only two whose works I know are Lovecraft and REH.
Which, sadly, I don't think are the best writers in the group. Although they are often more remembered because they articulated philosophies, which are often seen as as memorable as their stories. REH actually wrote a whole series of stories that were even more overtly Lovecraftian than his Conan stories (although for some reason, "The Black Stone" is the only one who's title I can think of off the top of my head.) Some writers like Henry Kuttner, E. Hoffmann Price, Frank Belknap Long or especially Robert Bloch went on to bigger and better things after they stopped dabbling in Lovecraftian style horror. August Derleth is nothing but derivative, although he added a number of new elements to the tone of the ouvre.

But the best writer of the group is almost certainly Clark Ashton Smith. He was already a successful and widely renowned poet before the market for his poetry kind of dried up and he turned to pulps to pay the bills. But he could write circles around Lovecraft or REH, easily. 

And he should be familiar to old-timey D&D players, since some of his work was specifically pastiched (if that's a verb) in the X2 - Castle Amber module.
 Originally Posted by pemerton
There is the same idea of "a new dark age", a de-intellectualisation, as the way of coping with the knowledge that modernity brings.
Which you could arguably say has happened, although I think it's more fair to say that as our total knowledge base as humanity continues to grow, it just grows beyond the ability of any single person to really follow in all fields very well.

Although the notion that our knowledge of the scope of the cosmos will cause us to retreat in fear to anti-intellectualism seems... quaint, at best.
 Originally Posted by pemerton
I don't see REH as denying the bleakness so much as putting forward a different response, closer in some ways I think to Bertrand Russell's (and also, I would say moreso, Nietzsche's): that while the cosmos itself is valueless and empty, human self-creation - including moral self-creation - is a self-generating source of value. (I think there are also hints of vitalism in REH - down to his obsession with thews and sinews - so this moral self-creation is seen as part and parcel of the being of living creatures. This is another similarity to Nietzsche.)
Here, I'm talking more about tone than theme. I'd agree that Lovecraftian themes are frequent in Conan stories, but the tone of the stories is totally different, which was really my point in bringing them up in the first place. Fighting Cthulhu as high level D&D characters isn't inherently anti-Lovecraftian, because the themes can certainly be there, if the monsters are. I've also argued that fighting them isn't necessarily anti-Lovecraftian in tone either, but it certainly isn't if you look at REH's Mythos stories, for example. As you say; that's exactly what REH's characters do to them!
 Originally Posted by pemerton
In the first page or two of CoC, Lovecraft makes a passing reference to the vagaries of futurism and cubism. I think that the "cosmic horror/fantasy" of both Lovecraft and REH really is another expression of those sorts of modernist sensibilities that had been building up in the latter part of the nineteenth century but really peaked between the wars. @Celebrim has suggested that I have a failure of imagination, and that may be so: intellectually I can understand what was going on, but I find it hard to be correspondingly shocked or otherwise moved.
Then I don't see how that could be a failure of imagination. I can imagine Lovecraft's point of view. I can understand it. But that doesn't I mean I don't think it's a load of rubbish. Being frightened of non-Euclidean geometry is complete rubbish, unless someone were to put some problems in front of me and demand that I show that I remember how to solve them. If anything, the scope of the cosmos as we now understand it is so much vaster and more complex than even Lovecraft could possibly have imagined.

In fact, it's not too out there to say that the notion of being afraid of the true knowledge of the cosmos is a highly traditionalist, and even unimaginitive point of view--the inability to imagine grappling with knowledge that now, after nearly a century of rapid scientific discovery, seems so routine.

Although that's not really fair to him, because it's much easier to say that with the benefit of decades of hindsight.
 Originally Posted by fireinthedust
Actually, what I was pointing out is that there are elements of Mythos horror in the fantasy writing of other creators. Howards stories have heroes in them. He doesn't do the frightened, frail intellectual that Lovecraft writes: he did a story for Lovecraft with such a character, but he was the companion of a cowboy-type who save the day.
Right; didn't mean to inadvertenty seem to mischaracterize you. Rather, I meant that there are different approaches in tone to dealing with the Lovecraftian. Even within Lovecraft's own body of work. Once you add to that the other authors in the ouvre, you get significant differences. The approach of a character of REH's or Brian Lumley to a Lovecraftian monster is going to be very different than some fictional tweedy New England intellectual.
 Originally Posted by fireinthedust
Keep in mind we're talking post-world war 1 fiction. What you folks are getting at here is NOT the horror of the cosmos or quantum physics. It's the horror of TRAUMA: something happens that you don't have the language for.

This is the horror of shell shock, of being failed by the institutions and leaders that you trusted. That's what the mythos represent.
Considering that neither REH nor Lovecraft served in the military, nor lived in an area that was occupied or otherwise directly influenced by the war, I'd find that interpretation a bit sketchy. If they were utilizing the concept of trauma, it was the kind of everyday exposure to change that has happened to everyone who's ever lived at any point of time in our world, more or less.

One could argue that both of them were ill-equipped personally to deal with trauma, and therefore "everyday" trauma affected them more than most, I suppose (actually, that argument would be quite easy to make for both of them. They both greatly feared and loathed the notion of change, in many ways.) But that interpretation of their writing requires building speculation on assumptions on a foundation of speciousness. It sounds logical, but it's ultimately completely undemonstrateable.
 Originally Posted by fireinthedust
Granted, Lovecraft believed that the savage was wrong, that civilization was man's natural state. Howard thought the opposite: barbarism = natural, civilization is corrupting. What Howard was really writing about was how his beautiful Texan wilderness was being taken over by these oil rigs and towns. The language he knew for life was being destroyed.

That's Trauma and that's the stuff of the Mythos.
Howard's approach to barbarism was more complicated than that, especially since the barbarians are probably best represented by exactly those rough and tumble oil field blue collar workers you're referencing. While the Picts are never presented as positive in any sense whatsoever, other barbarians such as the Cimmerians (obviously), the Aesir and the Vanir are portrayed as romanticized noble savages, not unlike the frequent 19th century romanticization of the Gauls, the Goths, and the other noble savages who brought down the corrupt and decadent Roman Empire. 

In any case, I think the trauma of the oil business coming to town is a way too simplistic interpretation of Howard's approach to the Mythos horror. Besides, the oil boom started when he was just an extremely young boy. It's unlikely that he even had any significant memories of a way of life prior to the oil boom. If he'd lived even five years later, he'd have seen the end of the oil boom, and then he might have been able to write about the completely different trauma of work and livelihood drying up for people all around him. But that's neither here nor there.

And I've been to Cross Plains and other areas around Abilene. It ain't no beautiful wilderness! Even back then, it was more empty ranchland and farmland than wilderness anyway.
 Originally Posted by pemerton 
@fireinthedust, I agree that the Great War is an important factor in the modernist outlook overall. For many, it kills romanticism dead. (Not all, obviously - eg Tolkien.)
Nor REH, for that matter. There's a strong element of romanticism inherent in Howard's work too--especially if you look beyond the Conan stories. Even Lovecraft wasn't immune to it.
 Originally Posted by pemerton
Not to mention the death of the narrator's grand-uncle "after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro".
That's a perfect example of the way in which Lovecraft's stories haven't necessarily aged well. While he thought that phrase might have been vaguely threatening or disquieting, "a nautical-looking negro" just makes me want to chuckle.

Lovecraft's philosophy might have been influential in its time, but I think it was more his approach to writing and his introduction of new themes that made him influential in literature. His philosophy is merely a window view into a very odd-sounding and short-lived approach to the world that can't possibly have much currency in a world in which secular humanism is relatively common--and which embraces almost the entirety of Lovecraft's philosophy without being afraid of it.

Rather, his approach to alien life as truly alien was a remarkable insight that has influenced horror and science fiction writers for decades (although it too has its predecessors like Arthur Machen or David Lindsay.) His approach of ancient secret histories of the world has been a lasting influence that has informed all kinds of work and can be seen as the foundation of stuff likeThe X-files and more. His influence was more about what he brought to the genre of horror writing in particular; taking it beyond the Gothic and into the modern, than it was about his philosophy.