Hideous dark secrets await...

I received the pdf version of James Raggi’s re-release of Geoffrey McKinney’s infamous Carcosa “supplement V” two days ago, and have been reading it voraciously since. I haven’t received the physical version yet, so can’t comment on that, but my main interest was the content so I’d like to give a review of it here. It’s my first reading of Carcosa – I missed the original version and the controversy surrounding it – so I’m going to review it as if nobody knew what it was. I have wanted this product since I read the controversy, since much of the material contained within it is relevant to my own campaign ideas, which can involve a certain amount of ritual sacrifice and happen in worlds with an underlying morality that I think has similarities to that of the “lawful” or “neutral” residents of Carcosa – that of sometimes making very unpleasant bargains with evil powers in order to further a greater good.

Background

Carcosa is a science-fantasy/swords and sorcery setting, a planet far from earth in which the ancient gods of the cthulhu mythos slumber (and sometimes wake), and humans live in small and scattered settlements, terrified of the evil powers that dominate the world. The appendix to this edition describes the state of Men[sic] nicely thus:

Man has not populated the world of Carcosa with the monsters of his imagination. Instead, the monsters of Carcosa infect the nightmares of man. Nor has man imagined mythological spirits and projected them upon his surroundings, later refining his mythologies with philosophy and theology. The world of Carcosa is fraught with the like of the Old Ones and their spawn, the legacy of the extinct Snake Men, and Sorcery.

Humans were created by the Snake Men and placed on Carcosa as slaves and chattel to be used in vile sorcerous rituals by which the extinct Snake Men summoned, controlled or banished the Old Ones and their related entities. The Snake Men are long gone, but their legacy remains in the world that is presented to us: Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, the Old Ones, strange mutations and sorcerous effects, and lesser and greater Old Ones who are either imprisoned within our outside the planet, or roaming the planet itself looking for prey. The planet also hosts some Space Aliens, whose artifacts and high-tech items adventurers may be able to find and use.

In this world there is no magic, though there are some psionics. The only magic available to humans is that of sorcery, which enables one to summon, bind, imprison or banish evil entities. However, aside from banishment these sorcerous invocations depend upon rituals which invariably involve the degradation, torture and murder of humans. The 13 races of humans come in distinct colours, and these colours are coded to different rituals; in order to gain power over the elder gods one must find a suitable number of the correct humans of the right colour, age and sex, and then do what is necessary to raise the entity, in a ritual whose contents are themselves difficult to learn, and require precise ingredients collected from rare locations across Carcosa. Being a sorcerer is neither easy nor sensible. Being a sorcerer’s chattel is far, far worse.

So, the world of Carcosa is a brutal and nasty place, where humans were invented to be used, and continue to use each other in the manner that their extinct progenitors planned for them. It is a world where moral decisions are made in a very, very different framework to that of many other fantasy worlds; but it is my contention (and I’ll outline this below) that the moral framework for decisions in Carcosa is simply reflective of a different period in our own history, and the decision to play in Carcosa will simply represent a preference for playing in a different historical milieu to the one we’re all used to. No big deal, really, right?

The Rules

Carcosa is presented as a supplement to Original D&D (OD&D), so it doesn’t present a system per se. Rather, it contains a new character class, the Sorcerer, and some kooky ideas for dice rolling and determining hit dice that I’m not sure I’ll comment on until I’ve played with them. It also presents a wide range of new technological items (of the Space Aliens), new monsters (connected to the Old Ones) and a set of rituals for the Sorcerer. The book also makes clear that on Carcosa there are no PC classes except the Fighter and the Sorcerer (and the Specialist, if you want). There is no magic but sorcery, and no clerical magic of any kind. If you want magic on Carcosa, you have one choice: summon an entity of purest evil, and bend it to your will.

The Sorcerer character seems little different to the Fighter, though I don’t have any OD&D rulebooks so can’t tell the details. Perhaps its XP progression is slower and its saves slightly better, but otherwise it seems broadly similar. In my opinion (and I think Grognardia agreed with me on this) this is a big weakness. The sorcerer is basically a slightly inferior fighter who gains levels more slowly, and can only differentiate him or herself from the Fighter through the long and arduous task of learning a ritual and then binding an entity to his or her will. At this point the sorcerer becomes almost invincible, or dead. I think it might be better if the Sorcerer started off with some differentiating power, such as e.g. a single banishment ritual, or psionic powers. The way the rules are structured, they open the very real possibility that you could start play as a sorcerer with no special abilities or powers of any sort, while your fellow player started off as a fighter with psionics! If, on the other hand, Sorcerers gained psionics from the start and advanced in them slowly, they might be more … enticing. The possibility that one day you can summon Cthulhu and maybe, if you’re lucky, he won’t eat you but will serve you for 72 hours, is not a great lure for the average player. Especially if summoning Cthulhu means you have to rape a couple of children and murder them in a pool of acid.

Also, learning rituals appears to be very difficult, so it’s possible you could play a sorcerer for a lot of levels and never get to use any special powers. So, I can’t see the point of distinguishing the sorcerer from the Fighter.

The Rituals

In truth, the rituals are one of the main reasons I got this book. There are six types of ritual, and only one of them can be conducted without doing something nasty.

  • Banish: these drive a specific entity away, for varying times, and are usually quick and easy to perform
  • Invoke: these put the sorcerer in contact with some horrific extra-dimensional being that will answer questions that the sorcerer puts to it
  • Bind: these grant complete control over the subject entity for a given period of time. At the end of this time, it’s wise to have your banish ritual ready
  • Imprison: these trap an entity in some extra-dimensional or subterranean prison, possibly forever, and are the surest way to ensure that it doesn’t come back without the intervention of another sorcerer. All imprisonment rituals seem to involve human sacrifice.
  • Conjure: these summon an entity, either from wherever it is now or from its prison. They don’t guarantee control over the conjured entity, however, so it’s a good idea to bind it first
  • Torment: these cause a chosen entity to suffer horribly, reducing its hit dice and/or forcing it to obey the sorcerer and/or answer questions

So, it’s possible to see that there are ways in which these rituals, even though they involve human sacrifice, can be for the good of all. In fact, one can imagine a “lawful” sorcerer traveling the earth, forcing every sorcerer he finds to teach him their rituals, then killing them and imprisoning any deities they had the power to conjure. This would involve a lot of pain and slaughter but at the end of such a successful campaign the world would be free of deities and no one but the PC would be able to conjure them again. Is this worth a bit of child murder? Don’t answer me unless you live on Carcosa.

The rituals themselves are very nicely written, in a portentous style that is very evocative of the Cthulhu ethos, and involves a lot of words like “blasphemous,” “ineffable” and “canticle.” The descriptions have an underlying sense of horror, but are themselves clinically written and detailed, capturing both the mechanical elements of the ritual, its arcane meaning and its horrific consequences in just one or two concise paragraphs. They’re also key to establishing the philosophical and theological background of the world of Carcosa, and in my opinion one can’t really properly describe the world without reference to these rituals. Once one has read this tome of rituals, the descriptions of the communities of the world – tiny enclaves of humans, largely the same colour, suspicious of outsiders and often treacherous and warlike – make a great deal of sense. It also sets the tone for a world steeped in horror.

My main criticism of the rituals would be that it’s not clear how they mesh together – does one bind a creature before or after conjuring it? Why would one torment an entity, and what are the key differences between banishment and imprisonment? Ideally, I would have liked a couple of examples of rituals in use: perhaps a description of a sorcerer’s attempts to conjure a particular entity – how he found the ritual, the order in which he enacts them, and the benefits. For a GM’s section this would be particularly useful, since it would enable a GM to work out how to mesh the quest for and consequences of a ritual into adventure planning. Without this we have to work out the details ourselves, which is fine, but I paid 35 euros for this book so I could read the ideas of the person who wrote it, so I’d have liked a few examples or ideas to support the use of rituals in the game. Also, I would like to know more about what one gains from summoning the entities. The entities all have their stat blocks given, but they are largely for combat, and this means that really the sorcerer seems to be just taking a great deal of risks to invoke a great big weapon. It would be nice if conjuring a given beast gave the sorcerer some benefits (like a kind of familiar), so that even without going into combat the sorcerer got some non-Fighter-oriented benefits. Otherwise, why not just go to hex XXXX and grab the Space Alien Tank there – a much safer way to do 4 dice of damage than summoning It of the Fallen Pylons, which, incidentally, requires casting eight Red Men through an extra-dimensional vault into outer space, and making a save vs. Magic at -4 to avoid joining them yourself.

Despite these limitations, the rituals lend the world of Carcosa a particular feeling of grim horror and foreboding that is both very Cthulhu-esque, and very atmospheric even if, like me, you haven’t read much Lovecraft.

Entities, Monsters and Maps

I really like the entities and monsters presented in Carcosa. The entities have evocative, sinister names and are very, very nasty, and the main monsters arise in almost infinite variety through the random generation tables. Robots and cyborgs follow a similar range and would make both interesting allies and formidable adversaries. The book comes with a hex map of a section of Carcosa with two possible encounters for every hex described. Some of these hexes offer opportunities for further adventuring in dungeons or castles or forests, and give simple adventure hooks; others present towns to explore and conquer, or simply monsters or the opportunity to learn rituals, find ancient technology, or uncover strange objects. It’s a really weird and compelling map that sets out a world completely different to the average D&D setting. This world is definitely not to everyone’s tastes – brilliant Yellow-colored men carrying laser pistols and riding mutant dinosaurs to war against Cthulhoid entities is maybe not everyone’s cup of tea – but if you like science fantasy then it has a lot of material to explore.

Presentation

I can’t comment on the physical book, since I haven’t received it, but I certainly can commend the presentation of the pdf format. I’ve been reading it on my iPad, and it’s a joy to use. The pdf is extensively hyperlinked, so if you’re reading a ritual and want to know what the creature it summons is, you can jump to the creature; then you can use the list of rituals related to that entity to jump to a different ritual, or to go back to where you were. Ingredients that can be found in certain hexes include a link to those hexes; if a particular hex in the map is related to other hexes, those hexes are listed next to the text, so you can jump to them. The hex map itself is hyperlinked, so you can click to the description of any hex – sadly, on my iPad the bit of the map I tap doesn’t work, and I get directed instead to the column left of where I wanted to tap, but this is not an insurmountable problem (I just tap slightly more to the right) and I don’t know if it’s a problem in the original text or in its translation to my iPad. It would be nice if the hex descriptions included a link back to the map (perhaps in their name?) so that one could explore the map more rapidly, but this too is not an insurmountable problem. The linking is an excellent idea and really makes the pdf useful.

Other elements of the presentation also really appeal to me. I like the font and the style on the edges of the pages – perhaps the patterns at the top of the page are a little overdone, but they suit the theme. I like the layout of things like rituals and monster descriptions, with the text next to the title and then all the hyperlinks below the title, next to the text; and the artwork suits the world very well. Unlike usual OSR artwork, it’s actually good, and the sketch-like style gives a sense of hurriedly glimpsing horrors, like seeing a massacre through grainy camera footage rather than being a direct eyewitness. This suits the content – especially the rituals and monsters – very well. It’s a very well-presented and laid out text.

The content is also very well written and maintains its Cthulhoid theme pretty much seamlessly across the whole book. This is a fine achievement and really makes the book stand out as a work of fiction as well as a gaming supplement. It’s rare I think to find a world setting that maintains a coherent theme across world content, presentation and writing style, and through the combination of the three builds up a distinct atmosphere. This book does that, in spades, and in that sense I think it’s a masterful work.

I do have some complaints about the content, though. In addition to wanting more detail on the mechanics of rituals, I would have liked more context to the world as a whole. After just a page or two of introduction the book jumps straight into the rules, and further exposition of the background to the world only comes in an appendix, which is very short. Even though the rationale for this – not wanting to bias the Referee, so that they can be free to interpret Carcosa as they like – is perfectly understandable, I’m not into it. I want Geoffrey McKinney’s bias in my interpretation of his world, and I’m adult enough to get rid of what I don’t like. I would like his bias at the beginning, because as it is I have waded through the whole book before I discover why certain rituals use certain colors of human, etc. This problem is even more pronounced in the sample adventure, Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, which is not really an adventure at all but a more detailed exposition of a single hex in the map. Some context to this adventure, perhaps background details to the tensions and regions of the hex map, how PCs might be drawn into differing factions or adventures, and what the political circumstances in the region are, might help. The motivations and perspectives of the various denizens of the map are not clear, and the reasons for selecting it as an adventure are just not there. It’s usable, but it doesn’t add anything to the main hex map except more detail. I would say this is a general structural problem in the text: it isn’t set out in the flow of Introduction/Body/Conclusion, but just as a random scattering of information with a rough flow. Even the appendix setting out the basic circumstances of humans on Carcosa is missing a conclusion: it just ends with a description of the uses of Space Alien technology. Repeatedly missing this structure means that the work is sometimes contextless, which is a shame given the depth of its actual content.

The layout, though generally excellent, suffers some minor flaws and I think James Raggi may have been guilty of over-egging how much he has added to the original. The editing is sometimes a bit weak, with obvious errors in presentation (such as italicizing a book title, then putting other book titles inconsistently in quotes, in the same paragraph of the introduction). Indeed, there is even an error in the preview – e.g. page 129, Hex 0502, has inconsistent pronoun usage (it and he to describe the Mummy). Also I think the linking is incomplete – sometimes a description will say “cf. [ritual name]” where it would have been much better for it to have the link to [ritual name]. Of course I’m happy to forgive tiny errors, because overall the layout is excellent and the writing very concise and clear.

The Controversy

This review isn’t meant to be about the controversy, but I guess I should cover it. Two (?) of the rituals involve the rape and murder of children, and most of them involve the torture and murder of humans. This has led some to say that Carcosa goes too far, that it brings disrepute onto the gaming world, and that it is itself a morally repugnant work. Well, it’s certainly morally repugnant, but much of what happens in role-playing is morally repugnant. In standard D&D most adventuring parties happily torture and murder captured enemies, and exterminate without mercy those who are racially different to themselves, on the very dubious moral assumption that our enemies have no humanity of any kind. D&D explicitly states that elves have no soul. This is a moral framework that is taken pretty much straight from the playbook of 19th and early 20th century western Imperialism[1], and although we are supposed to believe that our D&D worlds make these ideals objectively true, rather than subjectively true, I don’t think this really exonerates the worldview contained therein.

So the world of D&D as most of us are used to playing it is pretty morally repugnant as well, and it explicitly allows for or describes the use of human and non-human lives as tools for the benefit of the PCs. What else is necromancy but the most horrific misuse of humans? What about the Imprisonment spell, or Dominate Monster? Sure, the Player’s Handbook doesn’t say “You can use this spell to rape anyone you want,” but it’s pretty obvious that this is what evil people will do. And most PC groups at some point have used enslaved/captured/charmed/dominated NPCs as meat in the grinder – for trap finding, for attracting the monster’s first, worst attack, etc. I think the old school blogosphere makes quite a point of doing this with henchmen and hirelings.

So what is the difference with Carcosa? It makes the moral framework of D&D explicit, and I think this offends a lot of people who would otherwise have enacted many of the components of the rituals in their ordinary play. But in presenting this moral framework explicitly, is Carcosa asking us to play in a world that is any different from 15th century Europe, which is the moral exemplar for much of our gaming worlds? What distinguishes a sorcerer in Carcosa from the leaders of the USSR in Afghanistan, any of the players of the Great Game, or the British in India? D&D’s implicit morality is, largely, that of 19th century colonial Europe; Carcosa’s implicit morality is that of crusader Europe or the vikings. If we can accept one, and play it at its most invidious, then we can surely play in the other without compromising ourselves overmuch.

Furthermore, I don’t think these rituals need necessarily be construed as irredeemably evil. In Hex 2013 of the Carcosa map is a village of 497 Jale Men ruled by “She of the Lake.” She is slowly building up an empire and “her hunger for slaves and captives to fuel her sorceries is bottomless.” So if my PC summons the Lurker Amidst the Obsidian Ruins through the murder of four Black Males, and binds it to me using the horrific Primal Formula of the Dweller (which requires my PC to kill 101 Dolm Children with an axe), then sends the Lurker to kill She of the Lake and her main minions, have I not done the world a great service? And what harm have I done to the world if instead of killing the two Yellow Men bandits who survived a bandit attack on my party, I inflict them with a fatal disease and sacrifice them in the ritual called The Encrusted Glyphs of the Deep, which imprisons the Leprous Dweller Below in a primordial city in the Radioactive Desert?

Carcosa presents us with a morally repugnant setting, but as mature adults we can negotiate it in a more sophisticated way than merely averting our eyes and declaring it wrong.

Conclusion

If you like your worlds to be dark, cruel, primitive and full of evil and hard choices, then Carcosa is for you. If you want to play in a Science/Fantasy Swords and Sorcery setting with or without bizarre and evil sorcerous rituals, this book is a great starting point and will give you endless hours of crazed sandbox adventuring. It’s a very nicely laid out, excellently written and well-crafted addition to the gaming world, and I think James Raggi should be encouraged in his efforts. He brings a huge amount of energy and creativity to the OSR, and should be justifiably proud of his achievement in presenting this setting in this format. But of course the ultimate credit should go to Geoffrey McKinney, who has crafted a genuinely disturbing, morally dubious, occasionally repugnant, but very well-written and ingenious world setting that, while not to everyone’s tastes and a little more controversial thank I think is warranted, is definitely a brilliant and amazingly creative work. I hope that he and Raggi will work together again in the future to produce more material of the same high quality and style, and I would definitely like to see more material for the Carcosa setting – whether or not I ever get a chance to play it.

fn1: please do not take this to mean that I think only Imperialists believed these things; this is the particular historical framework that western Europeans draw upon when they make these moral statements.

The Chief Whip insists you toe the party line...

Yesterday Australia passed a carbon pricing scheme, over the strenuous objections of the opposition. In fact, the opposition’s objections were so strenuous that their leader, Tony Abbot, has promised a “blood oath” to revoke the legislation.

I guess he’s thinking of a blood oath in the demonological sense of signing a contract in blood to make it more binding. It’s the natural extension of Tony Abbot’s rather unfortunate recent admission that the only promises he makes that can be trusted are promises that are written down. This surely means that promises written in blood are much more manly and believable than those written in mere ink.

This opens up a few worrying questions for me:

  • Does Tony Abbot secretly believe that contract law should be changed to make blood-based signatory agreements more powerful, and if so how?
  • Is this an extension of his willingness to “sell his arse” to a willingness to “sell his soul”? And if so what kind of policy-making process does this represent?
  • Given the paucity of soul in the nasty little blighter, and given he can only sell it once, how much policy benefit can we gain from a government that functions in this way?
  • Given he used to be a monk and now he’s become a demonologist, is this further evidence that he’s not really very trustworthy?
  • Given he used to be a monk and now he’s become a demonologist, is this more of an indictment of him or the catholic church?
  • This kind of language seems very fitting for a role-player, something I never suspected Abbot to be capable of. Is he actually a fantasy role-player, and if so is his party aware of how damning this is for his electoral prospects? Do they seriously think the mortgage belt is going to vote for someone that nerdy?
  • If he’s a role-player, what system does he use, is he a GM or player, and where does he fall on the Gamist-Narrative-Simulationist debate?

The obvious good point of this “blood oath” is that he has finally made his position on demonology explicit. The current minority government is in the hands of the Australian Labor Party, who are widely rumoured to have sold their souls en masse to satan in order to gain admission to the party (or at least, to get the numbers for pre-selection). It’s also generally accepted that they will eat their own young and no act of treachery is too low for them. Of course rumours have long abounded that the Liberal Party are just as bad, but their god-fearing family-loving image has saved them from general acceptance of this rumour. At least now Abbot has admitted that, yes, shock! everyone in politics is up to their necks in satan’s semen, and we can all heave a sigh of relief and get back to analyzing the polls.

Politically this pledge could be a disaster for Abbot. As if suspicions of satanism and (omfg!) role-playing were not bad enough, it will probably be very hard to undo the legislation without revoking the tax cuts that came with it, which is obvious political suicide. Furthermore the only practical way he can revoke it is to get it through the Australian Senate, which is currently controlled by the realms of faerie (the Greens). Long-standing agreements between the Seelie Court, the CIA and Rupert Murdoch mean that the only way that Abbot will be able to drive through his legislation is likely to be a double-dissolution election, which means that Abbot will have to go to the next election with the pledge that he will “hold another election within 6 months of this one.” That’s not going to be popular in a country where only two things are compulsory: apathy and voting.

While overall it’s nice to see Abbot finally embracing the inevitable spiritual compromises necessary to succeed in Australian politics, and being so open about it, I don’t think this is going to be good for the party. Also, how is he going to manage to resist Satan’s demands for compulsory abortion and gay marriage?

Defective young men and women...

So I was at the gym this morning doing a quick AM session before heading off to see the Ghost Scrolls, when I saw a daytime TV show doing a special report on the “London NEET Riots” (イギリスニート暴動). This was a classic daytime TV formula, consisting of a studio set with a panel of 3 pretty young women, a slightly older female host, and an expert (in this case, male) drafted in to explain the situation. Like most experts on Japanese TV, he had a whiteboard divided up into many small segments, with which he would explain various aspects of the troubles. Each segment contained a question or quiz to be asked of the panel, who would attempt to guess explanations. Sometimes there would be footage from the riots, with a little cutaway showing one of the panel-members nodding and ooing and aahing. So this is how the discussion unfolded, after the initial background report.

Child Rioters and The Police Commissioner’s Quiz

First the expert discussed the presence of teenagers in the riot. The teenagers were presented on the whiteboard, of course, as cute little anime-style pictures of two archetypal hoodies, one white and one black. They were both wearing masks, dark hoodies, and they had their hands tucked into the pouches at the front of the hoodie. Both had the faces of children, but wearing the kind of ferocious frowning expression one sees on angry anime children. The panel were of course shocked that such kids would be involved, especially when the presenter revealed that about 10 primary-school children had been caught. The expert then went on to describe the Police Commissioner’s request for all parents to find out where their children are and not let them outside, and asked the panel why they thought this was. He unveiled two possible answers, one at a time: “because the children might run into danger” was revealed first, and the panel asked if it was true or false. He then revealed the red cross for “false” and followed this up with the next option: “because the children might do something dangerous,” followed by the green circle for “true.” There was, of course, stunned incomprehension on the part of our panel.

The Cause of the Riots

The expert characterized the riots as being the work of NEETS (Not in Education, Employment or Training). This is tying the riots straight back to the biggest fear of Japanese society, that sometime in the future their own pool of NEETs may grow in size and troublesomeness. Given that the current stereotypical Japanese NEET is a nerdy kid who stays home and refuses to leave his or her room, it seems they have a long, long way to go before they become a London-style not-so-neat NEET. But given the gulf in culture between Japan and the UK (oh god, looking at these riots the gulf certainly seems very wide!) this characterization probably gives the average Japanese person a reasonable point of reference. For most Japanese, the UK is a distant land of beautiful buildings and gentle manners, so they probably find it very hard to comprehend this current spate of ungentlemanly behaviour. Enter everyone’s bogeyman, the NEET… but more information than that is needed before the Japanese can understand the difference between the British and Japanese conception of the NEET.

Who is Doing It, Anime Style

The expert then produced a hilarious graphic depicting the three main identifiable groups involved in the rioting – or perhaps the three main types of NEET (I didn’t stay long enough to see him explain anything about organized crime). Again, the anime graphics come out, first the graphic describing the two teenagers, then a graphic describing “second generation migrants” (移民2世). These second generation migrants were depicted as a black kid, a Sikh kid (Japan always represents India symbolically as a turban), and a white kid (maybe European). They weren’t wearing particularly street-y clothes and didn’t have quite the same ferocious expression as the previously-mentioned schoolkids. Then the expert moved on to the third graphic: The Chav. That’s right, I just witnessed a whiteboard, on TV, in Japan, with the word “Chav” written on it, beneath a picture-perfect depiction of a male and female Chav. White, the man twice the size of the woman, his fist pointed out of the picture with dollar signs tattooed on it, his hair disarrayed, a stupid and slightly confused expression on his face. The woman was looking hard-faced and a bit slovenly, her hair tied back tight and up, both of them wearing jewellery and sports suits. Perfect! Next to it the translation: delinquent young white men and women (不良白人少年少女)。Perfect!

Beneath each picture was an explanation of their basic lifestyles in terms the Japanese can grasp easily: The teenagers aren’t in school or work; the second generation migrants aren’t going to school; the Chav’s are not in regular or stable employment. The panel had to guess each of these categories before the expert revealed them.

So there you have it, a canned description of the state of English society for those of you who live somewhere civilized. Given the events of the last 24 hours I’m not sure if you could characterize second-generation migrants as a big part of the riots (unless being killed by rioters in a hit-and run accident counts), and I’m not sure if “delinquent” is the best description of a Chav (or the best translation of 不良 in this instance; “inferior” or “defective” also applies, haha). But I think we see here the essence of the problem. Get an education and a job, you arseholes.

Update: I found a screenshot of the picture of Chavs on Reddit…

 

Woe to you oh earth and sea, for the devil sends the beast with wrath

 

About a month ago, our little foundling Arashi chan finally recovered from his severe car-related injuries, and I present to the world this picture as proof that his recovery has been spiritual as well as physical. He’s not so little anymore, and definitely not so immobile…

Here are a couple of examples of “actions” based on the skill-based d20 system I developed a while ago, combined with the Actions framework discussed yesterday. One is a spell, one a “supernatural ability” and one a “mundane” (and hideous) special ability. The Cost line in each description gives the attribute against which damage is done if the action fails. The cost is always 1 wound. In my conception of magic, arcane magic incurs a physical cost (it is exhausting) while divine magic incurs a mental cost (it drives you a little bit.. irrational and loopy). So failed arcane spells incur a wound against strength, while failed divine spells incur a wound against intelligence. In this system, a critical is achieved by a roll of a 20, at which point 2d10 are re-rolled and added to the previous roll to get a new total. On rolling a critical, all maximum effects (damage, rounds of duration of effect, etc.) are increased by some amount.

Grendel’s Demise

Type: Spell

Level: 7

Cost: Strength

Conditions: Must have one hand free and be unencumbered, not wearing metal armour. Target must be within sight, and have at least one arm or other limb.

Skill check: Intelligence (Offense) vs. Target Strength (Defense)

Critical: Yes (Double)

Effect: This spell attempts to tear off the target’s arm. It does maximum damage 7, and the target is stunned for one round plus one round per point of success (maximum 7, double on a critical). The target is also bleeding (1 wound/rd) until healing is administered. The target loses all use of one arm, either temporarily (due to massive injury) or permanently (due to amputation) at the GM’s discretion.

Hideous death

Type: attack, reaction

Level: 1

Cost: Charisma

Conditions: Attacker must be visible to the targets of the action, who must be allies of the target. Target must have been reduced to 0 hps in this round, by the PC or one of his/her allies.

Skill check: Charisma (Offense) vs. Charisma (Defense)

Effect: The character turns an opponent’s death into a lurid display of horror and gore. Any ally of the dying enemy who witnesses his/her/its death is shaken for 1 rd plus 1 rd/point of success. The target experiences a -2 penalty on all actions and will attempt to avoid combat with the character if possible. If the target is already shaken due to witnessing a hideous death in this engagement by this character, they move from shaken to terrified, and will immediately attempt to flee the battle.

If this action is being used on an enemy the character did not kill, apply a -2 penalty to the skill check.

The GM may choose to allow the player to describe the type of hideous death for an attempt at a bonus on the skill check. This is strongly advised! Note that failure to successfully terrify the target merely makes the PC look like a bloodthirsty maniac (charisma damage).

Infernal Essence

Type: Ability

Level: 1

Cost: None

Skill check: Wisdom (Use) vs. DC 20

Effect: The PC conjures an infernal essence to enhance their weapon or armour, giving a +1 to maximum damage or damage reduction for 1 min + 1 min/pt of success (maximum=character level). This is an infernal effect, so can be dispelled by demon-binding or abjuration effects, but not by magic-dispelling effects. It is usually visible as a faint glow and/or feeling of discomfort or unpleasantness surrounding the PC.

Higher-level versions of this effect are possible, and give an effect equal to the level of the action.

Fame & Fortune is running this month’s blog carnival on the theme of preparation, which has inspired me to do something I had been thinking about for a while but never got around to – posting up the contents of one of my session preparation documents, in order to show what I do to prepare for a session. Unfortunately most are too long or involve too much knowledge about prior events in the campaign, but I have managed to find one from late in the Compromise and Conceit campaign which provides a reasonable example. I may put up some other background material too, for the players of that campaign to see how I planned the final stages of the campaign, and also to share some ideas I had that I’m quite fond of.

My preparation typically consists of writing a single document that covers the main goals of the adventure, with an introduction linking it to any campaign arcs, and sometimes some material on key scenes I want to describe. I plan adventures from 3 main starting points:

  • A simple cog in a campaign that needs to be turned
  • A set of scenes that I’ve had in my mind and want to play out
  • An idea for an adventure setting that occurred to me and that I want to run

and usually a bit of all 3. The adventure given here is purely a cog in the campaign, but easily worked up into some quite frightening and ferocious scenes. Here is the essential background:

The setting is a magical colonial America, in about 1770. The characters have previously established that there is a sinister fourth force at work in America, and that it employs Irish mercenaries to help it fight. Following the trail of a dragon bone they stole from this group, they learnt from a Dragon in Greenland that the bone came from a Dragon in Ireland. Since dragon slayers tend to be unforgettable, they travelled to the Irish village to find out what people there knew of the dragon slayer, and discovered upon arrival that the village had been enslaved and all the men-folk turned into mercenaries; the womenfolk were trapped there and doomed never to die. This magic was invoked using a powerful ritual based on a dragon’s corpse, the dragon having been killed nearby and dragged to the town. The characters also happen to have a special summoning book that enables them to summon a powerful demon of Lore, and that Demon can tell them what to do to reverse the dragon ritual and free the Irish mercenaries. This will significantly weaken the mysterious fourth force, and they can then travel to its hideout and learn what its goals are. They know where its hideout is because they caught a wizard who works for this organisation, and it just so happens that a wizard “not yet in the fullest of his powers” is a good sacrifice for the Demon of Lore ritual. The players have decided that they’re going to go through with the ritual (and boy aren’t they well placed to do it!) so the adventure is about the ritual, its consequences, and their subsequent journey to Bodmin to infiltrate the fourth force (called The Iron House).

The preparation document follows, and constitutes the background material for the adventure written up here. I think some of the information had been shared over email ahead of time (my players could be a little bit dithery, so I got them to discuss some decisions in between sessions).

Introduction

In this adventure the characters enact a reversal of the ritual of the dragon, to free the men of Killarney from service to the Iron House; in order to do this they enact a ritual of Lore Demon Summoning, which will involve killing the mage they hold captive. First they may want to question him, to find out what he is doing. They will then travel to Bodmin to infiltrate the newly-weakened base of the Iron House and learn more about its purpose. By the time they arrive the land around Bodmin will be in uproar, as the newly-freed men of Killarney go crazy trying to find their way home. The characters can perhaps lead the way.

Summoning the Lore Demon

First the characters will have to summon their lore demon, using the book they obtained from the lich and the mage they captured. The Lore Demon will be able to tell them what to do to complete the ritual, and they can choose to use the existing magic circle (though they will need to refresh it). The characters can decide the content of the ritual, the key points being:

  • The mage must die, preferably horribly (Dave Black’s responsibility – base DC 22)
  • A priest must conduct the ritual

The base DC is 30, with every point above the target giving a +1 to the roll in the subsequent dragon ritual. Dave Black’s success grants a +1 on the priests’s roll for every point above the killing target (to a maximum equal to his level)

The Dragon ritual

For the dragon ritual:

  • A part of the dragon must be used (they need to remove a rib from Anna’s corset, -1 DR on her gear)
  • A priest and a mage need to conduct the ritual together (Anna and David – the better each of their DCs the more powerful the effect)
  • The circle needs to be imbued with infernal essence (Ganymede – base DC 17)
  • It is better if the ritual is conducted in a storm (+5); perhaps Brian can conjure this

Every point of success on Russell’s roll increases Cantrus’s roll by 1 (to a maximum equal to his level). The information gained from the lore demon gives a bonus to Anna’s roll (+1 per point of success, maximum equal to her level). Anna’s roll determines what proportion of the soldiery is affected; Cantrus’s roll determines the means by which they are freed and their degree of lucidity:

DC Anna’s effect Cantrus’s effect*
20 Failure Death
25 25% Frenzy: 2 days/pt below
30 50% Confusion/lethargy: 1 day/pt below
35 75% Suggestibility: 1 day / pt below (contest against Cantrus’ roll)
40 100% Clear

*Cantrus’s effect only applies if Anna is successful

The effects are cumulative, so after frenzy comes suggestibility, etc.

[editor’s note: I actually meant by this that the soldiers have to step their way through the success grades, so if Cantrus rolled a 36, they would be frenzied for a day, then confused for a day, then suggestible for 4 days, then clear. In the event I think that’s what happened. But Death doesn’t step through anything – the mercenaries just die – and “clear” doesn’t step through anything. So really the DC for this roll is 40, and lower results are partial success. Also, I think that Anna’s player wasn’t here this night, and whoever rolled for her rolled up a fumble. We – the players and I – consulted extensively about this and decided that since this was a really important roll for her and she wasn’t there, it was unreasonable to keep her roll. The campaign could go on without her success (this was just a side adventure to weaken the Iron House) but they thought it was a bit cruel for her PC to screw up so badly the one time she wasn’t there. So I called her (she was studying) and got her to reroll the result].

What the mage can tell them

The mage can tell them that he was asked to keep an eye out for people journeying to Killarney on suspicious grounds, and paid with a piece of dragon bone which he has fashioned into an amulet, which he will one day use to make a powerful magic item (when he has more power – this day, obviously, will never come!) The man who told him to do this was called William de Bouverie, 1st Earl of Radnor, the seat of Bodmin. He pays the mage an annual retainer for the service, which he is saving to help him go back into training.

Bodmin

Having conducted their two rituals, the characters can travel to Bodmin, Cornwall, to find the home of the earl of Radnor, a stately home called Lanhydrock. Here they can enter the building and hope to find the truth of the mission of the Iron House. It takes about 3 days to sail to Newquay, and then another day to travel overland to Bodmin by fast horse, through Bodmin moor. On the outskirts of Bodmin the characters will find evidence of the movements of the soldiers of Killarney, depending on the results of Cantrus’s spell.

Death: the soldiers will be scattered in the lands around lanhydrock, in concentric rings, dead but peaceful, and strangely untouched by animals.

Frenzy: the soldiers will be scattered about the land in small uncontrolled bands, looting and destroying anything they find, in battle with the local constabulary or other soldiers of the Iron House (who are better, but in the minority). Signs of this battle will be clearly visible on the horizon as smoke.

Confusion/lethargy: the characters will find groups of the soldiers wandering confused through the area around Lanhydrock or on the moors. They can be gathered together, fed and watered but will not be open to any kind of orders or commands.

Suggestibility: Similar to confusion/lethargy, but slightly more active and they can be directed to, for example, travel overland to the boat at Newquay. They can also be suggested into becoming troops for the PCs. Suggestion is a social attack at -1 per target, lasting initially for 1 day per point of success (or 1 week per point of success if done magically). Note that other people can do this and the characters may meet groups of soldiers subject to the same effect.

[editor’s note: I think Anna Labrousse used the suggestibility effect on the first 4 soldiers they met to enlist them as assistants in an assault on Lanhydrock].

Those soldiers from Killarney not affected by the spell will fight their affected friends. They will be distributed evenly between Bodmin and the Americas.

Once the characters reach Lanhydrock they can try and invade the house, since they will find it largely empty and/or partially burnt. They should still have to deal with roving bands of Iron House soldiers.

You gotta ask yourself... are you feelin' lucky, punk?

I think this idea could work well with warhammer. I watched the 8th episode of the BBC documentary Oceans today[1], hoping to see video footage of polar bears killing whales, and the documentary featured a visit to the old whaling town on Svalbard. Apparently – according to the scientists who were chatting on the screen while something actually interesting happened in the water just out of sight – the whaling station was established in the 16th century and caused massive slaughter, whales being so plentiful that it was like shooting fish in a barrel. They would drag them onshore and boil the blubber down to fat, in a town called “Blubbertown.” This immediately conjured up an image of a group of people approaching that town, perhaps through a couple of scenes of horrific whale-killing, to a small and brutal settlement overhung with the foul stench of burning fat, its frozen streets piled high with bones and reeking smoke drifting across every rundown doorway. It would be a mixture of brutal environment and charnel house horror, all enacted in plain view on the beach[3].

Of course, this group of people would be our heroes, arriving in the small town on business. I imagine the town a bit like Deadwood, a frontier outpost still in the process of creation, its big men still forming and breaking alliances, and acutely aware of the risk to their nascent enterprise from the big powers in Europe. Their work is hard and brutal, the environment harsh even in its best season, and the future unknown – these would be the toughest of frontier workers. The setting offers some natural details which lend themselves to role-playing:

  • Omnipresent horror: the setting itself sets a grotesque and vivid scene, that lends itself to a natural atmosphere of horror and dread. The drifting smoke, the reek of fat, the cold hard winds and the continuous visual and olfactory reminders of the presence of death all combine to give a grim and unsettling feeling to the environment
  • The Environment as enemy: any expedition out of the town carries with it the risk of death just from the environment. A wrong path taken, staying away from camp that little bit too long, misjudging the weather – everyone would need to be on their guard, and it’s fine work for weather-witchers and charm salespeople. But you can easily turn even the simplest adventure (“that guy stole my walrus tusks! A gold for the man who stops him!”) into a death trap
  • Big nasty beasts: All those dead whales would attract a few polar bears, and in the water of course you have killer whales and some very large walruses. You can spice up any period of quiet by chucking a polar bear into the mix, particularly in the more brutal game systems where every encounter with a random polar bear is to be dreaded
  • Regular minor fracas: the whalers would of course be jealous of each others’ possessions and catches, and stealing whalebone, fat, etc. would be common, as would ships fighting each other over kills. So there would be regular simple jobs – stealing back someone’s goods, guard work on a whaling ship, tracking hidden caches, getting vengeance, etc. – in fact ideal for making a table of random minor adventures

There are some more detailed scenarios which I think could make for excellent adventures and campaigns in the frozen North, though:

  • Hidden civilizations: Much is not known about the North, and perhaps there are lost Elven kingdoms in Svalbard; or worse, dark secrets in deep holes in the ice… hidden chaos cultures, or maybe the secrets of cthulhu… this kind of stuff begs for a good, sturdy group of adventurers to go and find it, and come back mad
  • Horror: From the very mundane (ghouls picking over whale corpses) to the cliched (Vampire nests coming to Svalbard to take advantage of the deep night of winter) to the particular (ghost ships crewed by Undead whalers) the continual atmosphere of death and slaughter begs for horror.
  • Native incursion: Maybe there are a native people in Svalbard who were driven off by the first whalers, or who live alongside them, and take up arms against them. They could take up arms for venal reasons (they want their share of the loot), reasons of justice (they were pushed out) or environmentalism (the whales are gods) or all three. They don’t have to be human either. Imagine a scenario where a Northern Orc tribe were pushed into the wilderness, and the humans are killing off the gods they have always worshiped. So they take up arms out of a sense of injustice, to kill their oppressors, and also to replace them in business, so that the Orcs can kill their own gods and sell their fat to Europe…
  • The starving cult: an idea I got from the novel Sun Dogs, perhaps the characters on a routine mission stumble on a tiny settlement of crazy religious ascetics, who are living in the deep wilderness, fighting off native marauders and slowly starving to death, but who refuse to leave until their prophecy is fulfilled. Maybe a few of them want to leave secretly and ask the characters for help… or maybe the cult are really sitting on a magical source of great power, and great evil
  • Industrial rivalry: the classic, in which two whaling groups set out to destroy each other, and the characters get involved
  • Industrial takeover: the Whaling town is composed entirely of small operators, but a big company from Europe has sent agents with the intention of taking over all the operators and turning the whaling town into a plantation-style whaling factory. The characters find themselves in the middle of it, able to take sides – or take over
  • Industrial espionage: the characters are sent to the town by a wealthy alchemist in Europe, who thinks he has found a way to synthesize the key ingredients of the whales’ oil[5] but needs a certain amount of samples from a part of the whale not usually harvested. In doing so he will destroy the economy of the island, but he doesn’t care. A local interest finds out about his mission and sets out to stop (or mislead!) the characters, and they have a fight on their hands. The characters need to find a sympathetic whaler to help them get the parts while dealing with their enemies. Perhaps the aforementioned natives find out about the characters, and, seeing a chance to pull the bottom out of the market and stop the slaughter, they step in to help. Better still, to help they need to kill a certain number of the whales they revere (for the greater good!), a responsibility which creates splinter groups amongst the natives, and against a backdrop of armed insurrection the characters are in a race against time to harvest their whale parts through theft or slaughter…
  • Environmentalism: perhaps in killing so many whales the locals have aroused the ire of some local spirit, which turns the environment against the camp, and the characters have to help. Or perhaps the whalers turn their attention to a rare and supernatural beast, and arouse the ire of some sleeping avatar
  • Creeping chaos: perhaps Svalbard’s remoteness and potential wealth makes it a perfect target for chaos agents, who want to turn it into a secret settlement of chaos, trading oil to the enemies of chaos while building up wealth and land for their own purpose. Or perhaps the oppressive atmosphere of death and flensing affects the spirits of the locals directly, causing some to corrupt and become agents of darker powers. Eventually a witch-hunter arrives from Europe to investigate, and it all becomes very grim…
  • International conflict: several countries start a low-grade diplomatic conflict to annex Svalbard. The characters are asked by the independent locals to intervene in some way. But why are these nations suddenly interested? Is there something the locals don’t know about?
  • Oil: A gnome turns up with a lot of strange bunch of heavily-guarded equipment, which he sets up just outside of town. Someone discovers that he has found a new, vastly larger source of the same ingredients they are killing the whales to sell… perhaps something needs to be done about that gnome…

I might suggest this as a locale to my warhammer group. There’s a double element of peskiness in running a role-playing campaign for a Japanese group in a whaling station…

fn1: Which isn’t very good, by the way. What’s with the modern practice of making wildlife documentaries more about people than about animals? There are belugas hopping around in the background and the doco is focussing on some poorly-spoken British scientists telling each other how beautiful Belugas are. I’d know if I could see them, instead of seeing the stupid scientists. I blame it on global warming[2].

fn2: No really, I do. Before the general acceptance of global warming – e.g. back in the 70s – nobody believed that humans could actually affect nature. Sure, we were killing off the odd species here and there but nobody believed we could actually step in and change the work of nature itself, so all you could really do was stand back and watch in stunned amazement as the Earth went about its business. But now we know that actually humans can affect minor details like whether or not a planet has frozen poles, it’s pretty clear that all that shit happening in the background with polar bears and belugas and great big animals being majestic is a sideline to the central egotistical fact of the 21st century, which is that we can fuck the entire planet. Who cares if lions can fuck each other? Wildlife documentaries are now explicitly about the human race to understand nature, whereas before they were subliminally about that, and primarily about nature itself.

fn3: When I was in Langmuir in Tibet someone slaughtered a yak by the river. In the time it took me to have breakfast and lose at Chinese chess[4] it had been reduced from a fully functional and quite aggressive animal larger than a man to a blood stain.

fn4: an excellent game, incidentally, though fiendishly difficult to play when the locals are interfering with your every move and refusing to let you move a piece while they argue amongst themselves about how you should move.

fn5: Apparently Beluga fat can be turned into a lubricant for watchmakers. Who knew?