Boons of Ares

One of the base features of the Copernican Sovereignty setting is that characters can form covenants with any god to gain access to the deity’s boons. Clerics begin covenanted, but other characters may opt to form a covenant during play (though no more than one), if they have an exceptional Devotion* (3 or higher). Each god has a specific set of aspect-relevant boons.

Here is a list of boons from Ares, war god.

  • Recruit: weapon becomes hovering minion (L1, A1**) until end of combat.
  • Withstand: cancel up to 1d6 incoming damage (reaction)
  • Smite: add 1d6 damage to successful blow
  • Fortify: a failed morale check becomes a success
  • Persevere: slain combatant fights for one extra round***
  • Arm: conjure a mundane weapon (persists until next resource result)
  • Ignite: wreath weapon with magic fire (persists until end of combat)
  • Encourage: allies inflict +1 damage this round due to war drums

Given the multitude of deities, it would be impractical to create boon lists for every potential god. However, they can easily be created as needed using the existing King of Life boons as guidelines.

* Devotion is one of the six abilities in Hexagram and is kinda sorta like charisma.

** L1, A1 means level 1, armor 1. Traditional equivalent stats are roughly HD 1, AC as light armor.

*** For best effect, the boon caller should shout Fight On!

Daniel Sharman as Ares in Immortals (2011)

Daniel Sharman as Ares in Immortals (2011)

Defeating gods

Following the Great Conjunction, deities can be confronted and defeated in material combat as any other creature. Though embodied gods are extraordinarily powerful, they are also conceptually myopic, limited in their thought to ideas and plans consistent with their aspect, and often arrogant. They have the ability to, through covenants, grant boons to devotees and so are often served by fanatics. Bound gods retain their ability to grant power via covenants. Most clerics of bound gods seek primarily to free their patron.

When a god is defeated (reduced to zero hit points), the victor may either destroy the god and diminish the associated reality principle, collect the remnants as a deindividuated talisman that can be incorporated by another deity, or bind the god to service (though this requires magics known primarily by the Copernican Magisters). Bound gods can then be used to power Copernican devices or spells. However, bound gods remain sentient and wrathful, and until destroyed continue to be connected to any covenanted clerics (considered power thieves by Copernican law).

Given that no god is now safe from direct assault, many deities also scheme against each other, seeking to become sole claimants to ideal offices. In this way, for example, Zeus may seek to defeat and incorporate reality principles currently presided over by Thor, since they both claim the endless principle of Thunder. Gods of opposed concepts, such as darkness and light, also are often at odds.

Hexagram reborn

Adapted from Wikipedia

Image adapted from Wikipedia

The working title for the dark fantasy rule set that I have been working on for a while was The Final Castle, after the tentpole dungeon of its default setting. However, for some time now I have been thinking that it would be better to give the base rules a different name and perhaps work on the setting and module part separately if for no other reason than to expedite finishing the rules (which are very close to being done).

I still like the name Hexagram (based on a previous, incomplete rules experiment). Parts of it influenced work on The Final Castle anyways. Also, as a potential base to build from, Hexagram has a more pleasing ring than The Final Castle.

So, The Final Castle is a setting/mega-module. Hexagram is a rule set built around the Hazard System and a flexible, classless character progression system. Hopefully the change in naming is not too confusing. I am not sure exactly what to do about the blog tags but whatever.

The Great Conjunction and Copernican Sovereignty

In the old books of magic, learning was esoteric. Magicians immersed themselves in study and long practice. Through gradual enlightenment, a magician was able to work their will upon reality, sometimes unearthing lost secrets, sometimes creating new formulas. Those who wanted an easier way, the oath-breakers, bargained away their humanity or the souls of others and welcomed other powers into the world. Wiser (or perhaps more cautious) thaumaturges petitioned divinity for a sliver of power in return for furthering an aspect’s ideal. The many principles of creation thus ebbed and flowed with the strength of mortal devotion.

Then, during the Grand Conjunction, the First Copernican Magister called forth in service all the spirits of hell and heaven at the top of a great great tower constructed as key to the divine mystery. On that day, many suns rose. The night following lasted for a week and skies hosted strange bodies. The Magister opened a spiritual door through which to welcome a divine legion. However, the Magister’s calculations were incomplete or the beings invoked were beyond mortal comprehension. Whatever entered the world that night consumed the Magister. Shadowy giants stepped from this door at the top of Conjunction Tower and were seen walking across the mountainous skyline. The great door remains open.

Magicians and their coteries were not the only ones affected by the Grand Conjunction. In one place, a wolf shaman may have called upon the strength of her patron spirit and rather than the expected rush of hunger and rage, found herself staring eye to eye with the god itself. The aspects of divinity, once abstract and distant, now are clothed in newly wrought flesh, still wracked with birthing pain and half blind in the weak light of constrained ontology. Their new home is strange and confusing, but they remain comparatively the greatest beings across the folds of time and space. The gods are like children walking in a garden of insects, crushing mortals mistakenly or maliciously, cultivating them like prismatic butterflies, surprised at the pain when sometimes stung or bitten.

After the loss of the First Magister, his students scattered from the tower across the land. Some are now mad. Others drive before them chained gods and angels. Many found their way to the old kingdoms of the listless lowlands. With their god powers they defeated the old authorities, and founded the new Copernican Sovereignty.

The Copernican Sovereignty is governed by a class, the Elect, that attempts to subdue and exploit this newly conjoined reality. Elect Citizenship requires demonstration of chained divinity. The ruling families and guilds of the Copernican Sovereignty hand down the god-binding and divinity extraction secrets. The Sovereignty is a loose confederation, led by the Copernicus Prime, a general with ultimate authority but limited to a single five year term. The Prime has no power over law. This power is reserved to representative gatherings of the Elect. While the Sovereignty is not explicitly expansionistic, in practice its influence has slowly spread beyond the lowlands despite the dangers of rogue gods escaping captivity and laying waste to mortal towns before fleeing into reality warped refuges based on their ideal, but now embodied, aspects.

Well-written RPG book survey

I mentioned this on G+ already, but I figure it makes sense to post here too.

Prompted by this post over at Monsters & Manuals, I became curious about what other people thought were examples of well-written tabletop RPG writing. So I put together a short survey.

Click here to take the survey if you have not already and feel free to share. I will probably leave it up for a few more days or a week and may summarize the results on my blog afterwards.

Kane ebooks

Image from Amazon listing

Image from Amazon listing

This is just a friendly note that all or most of the Karl Edward Wagner Kane books are available cheaply now on Kindle. You can get the whole lot of then for less than $30, if you are willing to accept the Amazon DRM. (That link is an ugly embedded search, so if it stops working just do a general Amazon search for Karl Edward Wagner.)

I just discovered Kane over the past few years along with some of the other swords & sorcery classics. For those not familiar, he is basically an antihero sorcerous version of Conan that is even more of a wish fulfillment fantasy, does not have the interesting flaws of the other anti-Conan Elric, but somehow still manages to be a fun and interesting character. My only real criticism is that the dialogue is a bit anachronistic to the point of being distracting, but I enjoyed the stories I have read anyways.

There are six Kindle books, and one is labeled book 7, so I guess the collection is not complete yet. But it still seems to be a good value for books that tend to be stupidly expensive on the physical secondary market.

Inverse swarm monsters

final_fantasy_vii_sephiroth_by_zonnex

I think this dude was an inverse swarm
Image source: Final Fantasy 7

In a swarm monster, multiple enemies are represented as a single monster mechanically. This is practical because it is easier to manage for the referee and also interesting on the player interface side because a swarm of flying demonic bells might be immune to most weapons but vulnerable to area effects and perhaps sweet singing. (I believe 3E should get credit for this innovation, though I am not sure about that.)

In a recent post, Gus catalogued a number of ways to make solo beasts more interesting and challenging. To this toolbox, I would add the inverse swarm, which is a single enemy represented mechanically by multiple monsters.

So an elder dragon might have head, body, two claws, wings, and a tail, each with a separate attack, different ACs, and its own HP total. This avoids the biggest weakness of beasts versus adventuring parties, which is the limited number of actions the monster can take (1, or maybe 3 for a claw claw bite routine) compared to the 6+ chances an adventuring party gets to take on the attack roulette wheel each round. It also allows interesting strategies, like disabling particular abilities.

The only real downside is that the referee needs to spend some thought on the monster, preferably beforehand (though it is possible to improvise a less complicated inverse swarm).

 

Ravenloft as setting

Image by Stephen Fabian from I don't know where.

Image by Stephen Fabian (unknown source)

I am conflicted. On the one hand, I do not think it is a good setting at all. The domains are single-dimensional. Like Megaman bosses. Frankenstein man. Dracula man. Etc. There is little mystery to uncover and minimal scope for players to affect the setting. There is a kind of metaphysical restraint.

I suppose a campaign could end with “beating” Ravenloft, with each domain as something like a level with a boss (thinking again in video game terms). I did not see that at all when I first encountered the setting in the 90s and I do not think it is really present in the actual materials (though admittedly I have not read them in a while). It is something that the referee and players would need to bring themselves (and could just as easily be brought to any other setting). The Hammer Horror cliches are a nice variation from traditional fantasy cliches, but are cliches nonetheless (and can easily result in similar saturation).

On the other hand, the mists are an atmospheric mechanical constraint and explanation. They provide a reason for the relatively static nature of the place and also serve as a form of magical-realist logic that can give the setting a dreamlike sense of archetypal reality (much like the mythic underworld or the setting of Dark Souls) if handled well. That is, the distinctive part of Ravenloft seems to be a good justification for having multiple, target rich environments. I am not sure that such justification is really all that necessary for a satisfying game though.

This reflection was prompted by Jeff R.’s recent posts on what makes a good setting.

Inventory v.1

Inventory v.1 is a small paperback by Sam Bosma with labeled illustrations of items an adventurer in a fantasy setting might carry. That is all. It is a nice mix between mundane and fantastic, humorous and serious, functional and superficial. Immediately, my mind went to using the book as a trinket table for starting PCs.

There are 71 items, and they are not numbered. This is a somewhat awkward total to use as a random table. One could always roll 1d100 and re-roll results above 71, but 29% inefficiency is unsatisfying. There is a solution, however: the d6-12 table. This is a variation on the d6-6 table, where one rolls 2d6 and reads the results as a number base 6. A d6-6 table has 6 * 6 = 36 entries.

Happily for my purposes here, a d6-12 table has 6 * 12 = 72 possibilities, leaving one extra for the blank page at the end. (I put “roll again or choose” there.) So, to determine an item randomly, roll a d6 and a d12 and look up the relevant page. Since the pages are not numbered, I wrote in the d6-12 numbers for each item (as you can see in the pictures).

In addition to use as a collection of starting trinkets, each item could come along with a characteristic ability. For example, beginning with the Giant’s Axe might grant the ability to wield gigantic weapons (OD&D rules: 5 encumbrance slots but a full additive 2d6 damage). Beginning with the Abyssal Bell might come with fluency in the language of demons (and the bell itself summons a demon when rung; consult either the AD&D DMG Appendix D or the LotFP summon spell).

You can buy Inventory v.1 here. As far as I know, it is only available in hardcopy softcover. Some sample pictures are included below. LotFP Rules & Magic (A5 size) included for scale. Sam also has an art tumblr. I have been thinking about putting together a basic, portable DM box for myself (something about the size of the original white box with a base rule set or two, dice, a Moleskine full of dungeons, etc). When I get around to that, I think I will include this little book too.

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Resonance and aimlessness

Prompted by nothing in particular, some thoughts about Game of Thrones.

At one level, Martin has an amazing accomplishment. His world is symbolically believable. Many of his characters have become almost iconic. Most creators never reach the point of establishing even one such character. In contrast, for example, Moorcock, despite all his creativity, really only has one or two (the character of Elric, the idea of Stormbringer; maybe a popularization of the struggle between the principles of law and chaos).

Consider in contrast the list of powerfully identifiable Game of Thrones characters. Circei, Tyrion, Brienne, Jon, Arya, Daenerys, Joffrey!, Petyr, Samwell, Davos, Melisandre, and that is just off the top of my head. “Winter is coming.” The new gods and the old. Wargs. The faceless men. Melisandre’s summoning. The wall. Even Tolkien might have fewer such characters and concepts. Bilbo, Gandalf, Golem, a realization of the Norse Ring mythology, Smaug, maybe Thorin, maybe the Steward of Gondor. There are probably a few more, but not that many and either way the contest is close.

Now, I am not really interested in arguing whether these characters resonate or not with you or any other person in particular; I think it would be difficult to reasonably claim, however, that they do not resonate more broadly. Madonna cosplaying your character is some sort of achievement unlocked.

Back in the late 90s, I read the first couple Song of Ice and Fire books and liked them well enough, but at some point Martin fell afoul of my Wheel of Time rule* to avoid multivolume doorstop fantasy sequences unless they are finished. So my experience with Westeros is mostly recent and through the HBO series.

In contrast to the power of his characters and setting, the plotting of Game of Thrones is muddled. Part of this may be decisions that were made for the TV adaption, but I suspect that this is true of the novels as well based on the few that I have read. When you have 10+ plot lines moving in parallel, it is difficult to make them all matter. For example, how can it be that Bran Stark has not showed up at all in the first five episodes of season 5? The story sprawls too large and loses its focus. It almost feels as if Martin himself sometimes forgets about what is happening to some of his characters. I find myself caring less about what happens, and this is not because of the low character life expectancy. Living or dying, the outcome just does not seem to matter all that much.

* Still active and broken only once for The Name of the Wind.

Ruins of Valeria (source via Google Images)

Ruins of Valeria (source; via Google Images)