Saturday, February 17, 2018

RMPIHEIAFA: Necromantic Fasciitis

Jan Brems
Welcome to the latest in a series I'm calling "Real Medical Problems I Have Encountered, Interpreted as Fantasy Ailments" or RMPIHEIAFA (rumpy-HAY-fah). Each entry will cover a real-life medical condition I have encountered in the American health system, adapted to suit the world of your fantasy RPG campaign.
Necromantic fasciitis is a thankfully rare but troublingly serious condition. Infection typically follows a botched resurrection, although the patient may not show immediate symptoms for several weeks.

In cases where a Raise Dead spell is performed by a cleric of insufficient experience, or the spell is interrupted at any point, the soul may not be fully reintegrated into the body. Any part not fully integrated is, for all intents and purposes, undead. In mild cases, this undeath may be confined to a small area, such as a finger, toe, or facial extremity. Affected areas do not give the appearance of dead flesh, so cases can go unnoticed for some period of time.

Symptoms of necromantic fasciitis begin with itching and muscle spasms of the affected area. Numbness is present in some cases, and wounds suffered in affected areas will neither bleed nor heal, either naturally or through magical means. Because the infection rests within the fascia, the thin sheath that connect and stabilize the muscles and organs, it will spread unchallenged throughout the body if not arrested quickly.

As the area of undeath expands, so too does the range of possible effects. Affected limbs may begin to take on a mind of their own. Hands will grasp and ungrasp at random, often dropping weapons and items intended for use. Legs may splay out in strange ways, ankles turn painfully, and joints swell. In the case of facial infection, grimacing, gurning, and twitching are most common.

What happens next should be familiar to anyone with sufficient experience in the necromantic arts. The undead have a natural hatred for the living that borders upon instinctual, and as more of the body is corrupted this hatred will manifest in every way it can find. Stories abound of veteran adventurers found dead in their tents, strangled by their own, still-flailing arm. Infected legs will throw their victim over cliffs or onto swords, infected tongues will sever and force their way down the victim's throat. At this stage, the victim is a tremendous danger both to themselves and those around them, and should be quarantined accordingly.

In death, the disease progresses unimpeded until the entire body is under its vicious control. Here is a true undead, under a new name: zombie. Now a full-blown carrier, the zombie is intensely contagious, and even so much as a scratch or bite is enough to spread necromantic fasciitis to a new host. The process begins again.

As mentioned before, treating necromantic fasciitis is difficult, as undead tissue naturally rejects any attempts at mundane or magical healing. The only known cure is amputation, liberally spaced from the area of infection and flawlessly executed. If there is even one square centimeter of corrupted tissue left upon the victim's personage, the risk of reinfection is high. Some success has been found with judicious use of anti-undead clerical magic, meant to stop, hold, or "turn" the hordes of the damned. However, evidence for this is scarce, and some suggest it may do more harm to future attempts to pacify the victim in the case that they build up a tolerance to the spell.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Your RPG Is Great: On the Shoulders of Giants

Kickstarter-exclusive cover

On the Shoulders of Giants is the breakout supplement from 15-year old RPG wunderkind Chance Phillips. After a tremendously successful kickstarter campaign (1337% funded), OSG was released to the world in full-color pdf and print-on-demand, which I am happy to say is fully worth your money.

OSG is a difficult book to summarize, because it manages to cram a lot of content into its slender bindings. I would dare say that not since Vornheim has so much been said in so few pages, which is all the more impressive for the sheer amount of art that designer Glenn Seal has managed to cram in. Within this module are 18 unique pieces by the eminent Scrap Princess, ranging from the macabre:

Dinner time in the tunnels.

to the strangely beautiful:

This deserves to be framed.

to the nightmarish:


If the pictures above haven't given you an idea of what this is all about, let's start again from the beginning. OSG posits a world wherein the Greek pantheon Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and Dionysius have waged war upon each other, to their mutual destruction. From their godly carcasses were born maggots, and from the maggots Men, each inheriting an aspect of the god they live in and feast on. It's all very Lamentations in that dark fantasy/grindhouse way, so fans of other such works (Fire on the Velvet Horizon, Veins of the Earth, and Carcosa come to mind) will find quite a lot to love here.

So far as interacting with the world, the book offers four new character classes (the Conspirator, the Corpse Worker, the Prize Fighter, and the Witchdoctor), who for the most part  play surprisingly different from both each other and the existing LotFP classes. Conspirators are your conmen, your masterminds, your big-picture guys and gals always three steps ahead of their opponents. Prize Fighters are your glass cannons, strong but fragile; that makes Corpse Workers your tanks, hardy but lacking punch. The real cream of the crop here is the Witchdoctor, which uses a new system of magic titled "Experiments," allowing them to perform terrible atrocities for the sake of power. The interesting thing here is that experiments require materials, and that nearly all of the experiments must be performed before combat begins (preferably before you begin your expedition!): of the thirteen experiments detailed here, only two can be performed in a single round, and of those one must be prepped beforehand.

This necessary foresight lends a deliberate and cautious tone to adventures. It is entirely possible to plan several expeditions for the sole purpose of obtaining the materials needed to perform the necessary experiment to proceed further. In a video game this would be meaningless grind; here it's progress through gritty resolve.

The next two chapter revolve around equipment (mostly maggot-based) and monsters, each distinct and unique to the setting. Once again, fans of VotE and FotVH (god these acronyms) will be pleased with the offerings. Of the three pictures above, the second illustrates the Sky Squid, a living, fungoid transportation device. The third illustrates the Maggot. I hate it. I hate its face, I hate its tiny arms, I hate that they function as infants in this world. If the word "hate" was engraved on every nanoah, ignore that.

The penultimate chapter is devoted to an adventure outline, "The Gray Pools." This lays the groundwork for a campaign based around finding and exploring the titular pools, areas of intense magic activity that warp and distort anything that enters them. It also introduces that most beloved and maligned RPG mechanic of all: psionics. While not my thing personally, I must say the system here is one of the more elegant I've seen. I'll need to run it in order to see how it plays at-the-table. The book ends with a brief Appendix N (I'm a fan), and the hope that I can find time to run this with friends.

Though it is slightly against my intent for Your RPG is Great, I do have two small gripes with OSG. One is the file size: even the printer-friendly file weighs in at 33 MB, and the regular file clocks in at a hefty 113 MB. That is nearly 3 times the size of VotE for a document 1/6 the length, and it might be frustrating for those like me who generally keep their RPG collection on the cloud to have to download it every time. The only other complaint I have is that some of the writing comes off as stilted. The talent is clearly there, it simply lacks the polish that invariably comes with experience and a keen eye for flow. As I said, minor gripes.

I would be happy to see an expansion to On the Shoulders of Giants. What it has laid the groundwork for is impressive, and where it has striven to distance itself from other, similar products the classes, monsters, bloody psionics it has shown great promise. Get yourself a new editor and someone who knows how to optimize pdfs (my door is always open) and you've got a great career ahead of you, Chance, because Your RPG is Great.

Friday, February 9, 2018

On Absolute Evil

When Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, he was careful to leave the actions of the ghosts Quint and Jessel unspoken. Their relation to young Miles and Flora is never detailed, nor is their ultimate goal any less a mystery to the readers as it is to the characters in the story. A lot of ink has been spilled over the past hundred years because of this — some believing the ghosts to be child molesters, some forsaken lovers, some as wanting to possess the children in an effort to return to this world — and most of it misses the point entirely. They attempt to assign mortal logic to extra-mortal beings. They fail to understand the essence of absolute evil.

Iago. Judge Holden. Morgan le Fay, to a lesser extent. Three characters from three wildly different genres of fiction, and yet they all serve much the same purpose to the reader. They are conniving, clever, able to be bargained with but never safely. Because their motives are never known, their potential is functionally infinite: far from being evil for the sake of evil, their characterization hints at a greater purpose beyond the reader's comprehension.

Another good example of this would be Kefka, the psychopathic, nihilist nemesis from Final Fantasy VI. Kefka is not a tragic villain, to be pitied. Nor is he simply a lunatic murderer; there is intellect and design in his machinations throughout the game. But his greatest strength as an enemy is that he is never given a clear motive for what he does. Even after killing millions, ascending to godhood, and nearly destroying the world itself, his purpose remains unknown. The player defeats him, and is left with a bitter thought to comfort them: what caused this? Could it happen again? Could it happen to me?

Absolute evil is a hard-but-rewarding topic to confront in your game. If the evil character is too transparent or emphatic, they can come off as nothing more than an agent of chaos. Conversely, if the evil character is too strong and unknowable, they become Lovecraftian: a force of nature, outside of mortal influence. That's no good either. If you're doing absolute evil right, your PC's — and the players themselves — should be anxious. They should feel like they've only been given a piece of a grand puzzle, or like they've been thrown into the deep end without knowing how to swim. You've brought something upon them that is so unlike everything they've faced so far: beasts driven by instinct, rulers lusting for power, mad wizards seduced by curiosity. Your players should be asking themselves and each other the following questions, without clear answers:

What is this creatures purpose?
What is this creatures next move?
What is this creatures end goal?
How powerful is this creature?
Can this creature be stopped?
Can this creature be bargained with?

Once they've started asking, the hard part of your job as a DM is done. Now, all you need to do is resist the temptation to answer them.

If your absolute evil is undead, demonic, or otherwise divorced from the mortal coil, then their plan may simply be too complicated for mortals to understand. In D&D, as in real-life, there is an upper limit to intelligence; perhaps your characters can no more comprehend the machinations of a demilich than a guinea pig can comprehend calculus.

If your absolute evil is human/elven/dwarfen/other intelligent mortal creature, then its motives need not be explained BUT they should be hinted at, in addition to other, unrelated motives. The party finds out that the witch that's been casting a blight on the land was once scorned by a lovely princess, and sets out to reunite them... upon which the witch casually murders her in cold blood and mixes her corpse into the pudding. You must keep them guessing, but never fall back unto mindlessness! A creature without a motive is boring.

In playing the villain, be cagey and strange. Embrace the chaos that invariably stems from PC behavior. Make them fight for every inch of ground, then take it away from them in a cunning reveal that what they were doing was exactly what you planned all along. Toy with them: you are all of the worst aspects of Littlefinger and Strahd combined, an unholy amalgam of every conniving little shit that ever ruined your day in real life. Gloat, as loudly and often as you can. If the PCs don't hate you — personally, as a living (or nonliving) creature, if they don't crave your destruction not for its practical benefits but just because you are too monstrous to live — then you have failed.

A good absolute evil can cause a PC to lose faith in themselves. A great absolute evil can cause a PC to lose faith in the world.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Maze of the Blue Medusa: Session 3

Our heroes once again stepped through the moonlit painting into the chambers of the former Ashen Chanterelle. It had been an eventful month. Their last excursion had led them straight to a powerful demon who could stop their heart or catch their breath in their lungs with a snap of fingers. They would have to be more careful if they were to survive this.

DMs Note: In this session, I implement a new downtime mechanic I've been working on. Because there's a solid month between each foray into the maze, I asked each player what their character did in that month, and gave them mechanical advantages for creative ideas.

The party had been busy. Kali, knowing their next journey was to a place known only as “the Dead Wedding," decided to spend the past month in Erebus, conversing with the souls of the dead [in-system: her summons' damage is rolled straight]. Eizen had been training, pushing his muscles to their limits for weeks on end [in-system: his STR score increased by 1]. Mr. Nancy, the dashing rogue, had been partying and spreading raucous stories about how Nemora romanced a vine. His tales became part of the collective consciousness, to the point that “screwing the plant" has become a common idiom for foolish behavior, though nobody knows quite where it came from [in-system: his carousing meant it was plausible that he would have seemingly-random items on his person]. Nemora, however, was hard at work in the smithy, crafting a pair of magical swords hewn from the very rocks that formerly trapped him [in-system: +1 swords, able to create a burst of bright light by hitting them together].

The heroes head to Lady Capilli's room, and from there to the Escher Stairs. Instead of heading north, as they had done previously, they use the key given to them by the dark lady to access the previously-locked East Wing. Stepping forward, they enter what appears to be a coat room, with capes, cloaks, and furs lining each wall. Nemora, wearing nothing more than the stony protrusions that maintain his modesty, decides to update his wardrobe. Reaching out to take a coat from the rack, he is startled when he instead finds a large peacock hiding amongst the clothes.

The peacock introduces himself as Zacchaeus, and immediately begins eyeing the party up and down with a discerning gaze. Nemora in particular is the focus of his ire, and he immediately demands the strange man clothe himself before he enters the wedding. Zacchaeus begins throwing random clothes at Nemora, who graciously adorns himself with a floor-length leather opera coat, velvet slacks, and a feather boa. It suits him wonderfully.

After the clothing situation is dealt with, Zacchaeus remembers his real duty and staunchly asks for our heroes invitation to the party, “presided over by Chancellor Sophronia Wort herself!" When pressed, the peacock refuses to give any more information, but luckily Mr. Nancy manages to fish a tattered ticket from his inner pocket and presents it. Satisfied that the group don't appear to be wedding crashers, Zacchaeus instructs them to head forward to catch the end of the ceremony.

The next room is a nightmare come to life. Burnt, desiccated corpses float between rows of empty chairs. Ash falls from their blackened skulls as they wordlessly converse. One floats to Eizen and extends his hand in a conventional greeting, but when Eizen takes it, the figure disintegrates. The party notices the buffet table on the side of the room, but upon realizing it is devastated -- with the exception of an eerily-pristine wedding cake -- decide not to fool with it. The four agree that this silent procession holds little prospect for them, and head south into a small side room.

In it is a table, and on the table is a small key. The key is attached to a string, which trails forth into a darkened room. From within, they hear childish giggling. Eizen, bright as he is, illuminates the room to reveal a crouching, sallow child with coal black eyes and a sadistic smile. Adorning the child's room are the skins of (presumably) other adventurers, stretched and pinned to the walls. The child lunges at the party, but Eizen manages to pin him with a well-executed grapple.

However, the wight will not be bested so easily. Its fearsome teeth dig into the flesh of Eizen's arm, and the son of Atlas feels his strength draining by the second (DMs Note: EXP drain). But the abomination can not long sustain the combined effort of four demigods with a purpose, and soon it falls. The party takes a moment to catch their breath before examining the strange display of skins. Each was pinned with several needles, and have what appears to be braile dots poked through. None of our heroes can read them, although they do make a note to return once they've done some more research.

Fishing the key from the dead boys hands, the party returns to the reception hall, where they immediately get the feeling they are being watched. They turn to see a small boy, translucent but otherwise identical to the one they just fought, staring at them. Mr. Nancy steps forth bravely, but the child is not here to fight. Instead, he simply holds out his hand, pointing further east. The party follows his lead into the next room.

They are led into a grand altar, empty save for two well-dressed, lovely figures They are caught in a timeless, frozen embrace, mere seconds from their first kiss in marriage. Dust specks lay motionless in the air, and a pebble tossed by Mr. Nancy slows, then stops before it even approaches the bride and groom. They are trapped in a bubble outside of time, and it's clear nothing can affect them until it is broken. The ghostly boy points up at the couple, and then sits down before them. He is unable to communicate further, but it's not long before the silence is broken by an unearthly shrill scream from ahead.

Suddenly, the party is confronted with what they can only assume are wraiths composed entirely of gold dust. What they had assumed was a scream was, in fact, the grinding of metal-on-metal as the forms flew around and through each other. They turned to our heroes, and we were in intiative.

Despite having first actions (in Godbound, players always win initiative unless facing other demigods), not much was accomplished in the first round. Mr. Nancy, the smooth talker, has next-to-no combat capabilities, relying on his foresight and manipulation of luck to see him through encounters. Eizen attempted to trap the wraiths in a cage of stone, but their gold-dust forms slipped effortlessly through any crack. Kali, with her dominion over death, managed to enslave a spectre, raising it as a solid-gold skeleton under her command. Ever eager to try out his new swords, Kellen attempts a strike. Though merely a glancing blow, the wraiths do recoil from the powerful magic contained within the blades.

The wraiths mount an unconventional counterattack. Two of the four rush towards Eizen's face, smothering him with a cascade of molten gold forced down his throat. His body spasms in the throes of his heroic resistance, but it is for nought. The spirits have possessed him, and immediately turn their attention to the rest of the party. The other two wraiths attack Kellen and Mr. Nancy with whirlwind-spins that strip flesh as easy as a sandblaster.

Beaten but not broken, Kellen realizes his friend Eizen has set his sights on the party. Kellen jumps to pin the giant to the ground before his mighty stone hands can close around Kali's neck. Kali in turn commands her skeletal guardian to attack while simultaneously reaping the very life from a wraith with her scythe.

Mr. Nancy picks up a stone and throws it.

Eizen's eyes and mouth are starting to bleed liquid gold as Kellen drives his fists into the titan's back. Kali looks to the remaining wraith, already weakened by her summons' attacks, and raises it as another. With a final push the last two specters are expelled from Eizen and he stands to join the party.

Mr. Nancy goes back into the wedding hall.

The combined efforts of three demigods (and two golden skeletons) makes short work of the last two wraiths. Victorious, Kali dispels her necromancy and Mr. Nancy strides forth to rejoin his compatriots. Sensing further danger deeper within the Maze, the party takes a moment to catch their breath and lick at their wounds before proceeding south.

This room is mercifully free of dangers. A single white swan floats lazily along a river of wine. The party exchanges glances and shrugs, but continues past it (making sure to disturb neither it nor the river) into a large room dominated by a brilliant crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Pushing past the broken and discarded gift boxes that litter the floor here, they enter another room that has been completely impaled vertically by a vine thick as an oak tree. Kellen drops a coin past the vine, but no impact is ever heard. Eizen volunteers to climb down, and is met with a familiar sight: he is standing outside of the Rat King's chambers, deep within the garden.

In heading east, they have ended up above where they started.

Ever the opportunist, Kali marks the convenient shortcut on her map. Eizen returns to his friends, and the party continues north.

The golden engine. Designed and built by Torcul Wort as punishment for an abstract crime, the very thing that gave the dead wedding its namesake. It stands in the center of the room, formidable even in its stillness. Its purpose is to turn anything its fed into gold. It is alive, and duplicitous, and hungry.

In this room is the biggest threat our heroes have faced so far. In this room, a demigod will die.