Friday, February 28, 2020

OSR Discussion: The Fighter Lifestyle in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I just saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the first time. Yeah, I'm late to the party, sue me. Besides providing context to all the wuxia tropes I had absorbed in my childhood, it gave me some more thoughts on how we treat fighters.

I guess the fighter has been a hobby-horse of mine lately. The image of the 'fighter' both in old-school and newer editions is distinctly lacking; the attitude that 'human fighter' is a bland, vanilla default is fairly prevalent, and I think it's the result of lacking imagination instead of some deficiency of the class or role.

There's a line in CT,HD (actually, the Netflix subtitle translation of the line, so I can't speak to original Chinese). Two of our protagonists, the warrior Shu Lien and the Yu princess Jen discuss the fighter's lifestyle.

Jen: It must be exciting to be a fighter.
Shu Lien: Fighters have rules too. Friendship, trust, integrity. Always keep your promise. Without rules, we wouldn't last long.

Image result for crouching tiger hidden dragon shu lien and jen

I couldn't tell you exactly what 'fighter' means in the original, but I feel correct in applying the word here. Fighters, as shown in the movie are almost supernaturally powerful; our protagonists can run on the treetops, take down dozens of lesser warrior in combat, crack the earth with their strikes. Yet they're still vulnerable, not only to each other's combat abilities or the Jade Fox's poisons, but to external forces that don't go away if you punch them in the face.

If you squint, CT,HD is a candidate for Joseph Manola's Romantic Fantasy; there's a bunch of epic fights, but they rarely solve anything on their own. There's a revenge plot, but it (predictably) doesn't turn out very well for any of the parties involved.

Real improvements come from bonding, talking, offering mercy. In this context, the fighter's rules make a whole lot of sense: friendship, trust, integrity. If other fighters can't depend on you, if you can't depend on them, it doesn't matter how good your mastery of Wudang is, you're going to end up on the floor.

In such a world, a fighter's goal isn't just to kill things, but to make strong allies, find trustworthy friends and become somebody worth trusting. That, not just beating the shit out of people, is the fighter lifestyle

In CT,HD, that fighter lifestyle is the domain of a very few; in your world, that may or may not be the case. But unless you're running a romantic fantasy game, or otherwise one in which most people are not involved in fighting, the default assumption in fantasy RPGs is that everyone does some share of combat. Capital-F Fighters are the most specialized, but all sorts of people can hold their own in a scrap. This is especially true for PCs, in particular those in later editions of D&D. Fighting isn't the domain of the fighter anymore; every wizard, rogue, cleric, sorcerer, warlock etc. is built with combat in mind.

From this, we should expect that everyone participates in the fighter lifestyle, which is defined by the routine exposure to life and death conflict rather than any specialization in non-magical fighting. Friendship, trust, integrity, keeping your promises. These are essential for characters in the violent worlds they tend to inhabit. They will be judged on how well they keep to these rules.

How do you apply this to your game? I would start by reiterating that the PCs do not exist outside of society; they are not an island. There are consequences for their behavior, good and bad, not just from authority figures but from common people. If they are judged honorable according to this standard, people will seek them out for help, training, or just to meet them. If they are dishonorable, they will also be sought out, but for altogether less pleasant reasons.

In most campaigns, this can be brought home by making sure there are benefits for being in good with society. The option to become a murderhobo, to disdain the judgement of society and go out on one's own, will always be available, and always tempting. But don't make it an easy choice.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

OSR Kaiju Rules and Class: Kaiju?I Barely Know You!

ArkosDawn is asking for 'GLOG-compatible rules for playing as/fighting Giant Monsters! To go with the Mecha rules challenge done a while back.'

It wasn't explicitly designed with them in mind, but this ruleset can definitely be hacked to work with the Mech rules from the Discord Mech Challenge.

Image result for kaiju


Kaiju are GIANT MONSTERS! They have an array of pseudoscientific/supernatural powers, and often seem similar to regular animals. They're powerful, but must match their high performance with a special power source.

Kaiju get HP as normal in your system (I'm going to assume HP=CON).
They take and deal MEGADAMAGE (hereby abbreviated MDMG), which is equivalent to 100 points of normal damage. This concept is stolen from Mothership.

Normal weapons and attacks deal no damage to the kaiju. Giant weapons (Trebuchets, ballistae, anti-armor cannons, a ship's main guns, etc) deal 1 damage. Only other kaiju, or appropriately sized mechs, deal dice damage.

The Kaiju grows stronger by consuming more of a certain material or energy. If this is the same energy that your mechs are powered by, you have instant drama. Bathing in, absorbing a large amount of, or being deliberately fed enough of this material allows the kaiju to regenerate all of its lost health and level up.

Image result for kaiju

As Player Character

The speed at which you, level as a kaiju is directly proportional to how common your power source is. It's not enough to just nibble on a bit of radiation here and there, or scare someone moment-by-moment; you need gigantic, massive amounts or expressions. A whole nuclear reactor, or the fear of a whole city. This means that a kaiju player's leveling is largely controlled by the GM.

This works best if you're playing a game or campaign set mainly at a kaiju/mecha scale. Such a game would likely be action-focused, and the tone would likely be similar to mecha anime, Power Rangers and the Pacific Rim movies (the action scenes, not the exposition).

If you want to play a game primarily at human scale, then you had best expect combat to be a minority of the game, because the kaiju will stomp any human-size enemies, and the other PCs won't be able to do much against kaiju-sized enemies unless they get their own mechs.

Separating the human PCs from the kaiju for periods of time and making the game primarily revolve around issues that can't just be stomped are necessary to integrate a kaiju into a long-running campaign in which they are the outlier. Such a game would likely have the same tone as the Godzilla animated series, or those latter-day movies where Godzilla is followed everywhere by a pack of very determined children.

Image result for kaiju

You are a gigantic monster, with an odd power source and weirder powers. Really, what more is there to get?

You deal 1d6 damage in melee by default, Armor = Dexterity. Kaiju/mecha battles quickly devolve into grappling.

You gain +2 HP for each Kaiju template you possess.
Starting skill(1d3): 1. Urban Planning 2. Quantum Physics 3. Biochemistry
A: Gigantic
B: Impossible
C: Power Up, +1 Attack per round
D: Wonder

Gigantic(A): You take and deal MEGADAMAGE (MDMG), equivalent to 100 points of normal damage. However, you only heal 1MDMG when resting. You can heal faster (1d6HP) when supplied with your power source, even if it's not enough to level.
Impossible(B): You have a unique, special ability that requires no explanation. Roll on the table below or make one up with your GM.
Power Up(C): Reroll another special ability. If you repeat, choose the next up or down.
Wonder(D): You have reached the apex of your power, and have a shot at finally defeating your nemesis/bringing the apocalypse/creating world peace/ending pollution.

Multiclassing into Kaiju is unlikely, but theoretically possible. I can see a PC gaining a Kaiju template through a really bad (or good) mutation, or as a result of nearly dying under very strange circumstances. Good luck figuring out how your previous class abilities make any sense.

Image result for godzilla

As Enemy

What good are kaiju if you don't get to fight them (preferably in mechs)? Roll on the following tables to generate an enemy kaiju of your own.

A Kaiju may have 2, 4, 6 or 8 HD, with HD*5HP, 10+(HD/2) Attack and Defense.

(d8) Watch out, it's a giant...
1. Lizard!
2. Bird!
3. Insect!
4. [Mythological creature of choice]!
5. Dinosaur!
6. Robot!
7. Human!
8. Building!

(d8) From...
1. The gulfs of space!
2. The bottom of the sea!
3. The Earth's crust!
4. The ghost dimension!
5. An evil science lab!
6. The far future!
7. A child's imagination!
8. The virtual world!

(d8)That is powered by...
1. Radiation
2. Love
3. Fear
4. Magic
5. Life-force
6. Lightning
7. The Sun
8. Heat

(d8) Which can...
1. Breathe Plasma [level] times a day (1d8 MDMG cone)
2. Appear in the dreams of any or all creatures in [level]x10 miles
3. Communicate with any animal
4. Fly
5. EMP blast 1/day, [level] miles
6. Teleport [level] times a day, 1 mile
7. Swallow objects up to [level] times your size in an extradimensional stomach
8. Turn any creature it defeats in single combat into a steadfast ally

(d8) And wants...
1. To be taken to your leader.
2. To bring world peace.
3. To bring the apocalypse.
4. To eat some humans.
5. To end pollution.
6. To flatten your cities.
7. To create more of its kind.
8. All y'all to quit nuking the sea floor.

Image result for kaiju

Monday, February 24, 2020

Volume of a 4-D pyramid in a 4-D cube

If you clicked on this post wondering how I'm stretching pyramids and higher dimensions to apply to old-school roleplaying, I'm afriad you will be disappointed. In addition to role-playing, I'm an amateur mathematician in real life, and recently made my first original proof (not original in that nobody has ever shown it before, moreso that I didn't look it up on Wikipedia). This blog will today, and intermittently in the future, become a low-level mathematics blog.

If your first reaction to mentions of mathematics is, 'Ugh, math is stupid and boring,' then I invite you to read A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart, who agrees with your assessment and shows why math is actually fun.

Everything from this point on is very basic, involving very little computation, and what there is is only trivial integration, which you need not understand to get the proof. It, like most proofs in basic mathematics, can be shown with natural language and diagrams. Now, on with the show.


Question: What ratio of the volume of a 4-D cube is taken up by the largest 4-D pyramid that fits inside it? If possible, what is the general expression for the same problem on all dimensions n?

Guess: Without working out a proof, I posit that the answer is likely to be ¼. This is extrapolated from the n=2 and n=3 versions of the question, for which the answers are ½ and ⅓ respectively. These facts are embodied in the formulas for area and volume of a triangle and pyramid: lh/2 and lwh/3, respectively.

In his open letter A Mathematician's Lament, Paul Lockhart gives an elegant visual proof of the n=2 answer. Drawing a line through the top vertex of the triangle gives us two new rectangles, each of which is clearly half filled by two new triangles. Thus, the whole triangle is half the whole rectangle.

Let us assume from this point that all squares, cubes and hypercubes in our examples are in their unit form; all sides equal 1.

While the 3-D version is subject to a similar visual proof, by splitting it into 4 segments along the z-axis centered around the top vertex, it is much less useful, as these objects are much less obviously one third of their respective cuboids. If the 3-D visual proof is not self-evident, we may assume that the 4-D version will be less so.

Back to the drawing board.

Idea: We can reach ‘up’ a dimension without straining human intelligence by using time as the 4th dimension.

Proof of concept in 2-D: We can adequately represent the 2-D version of this problem using only a single spatial dimension, and one temporal dimension. Consider that the ‘base’ of our 2-D pyramid is a line, which coincides exactly with the bottom side of the square.

We may draw horizontal lines across the figure, and in the process take a cross-section of the triangle. This cross-section takes the form of points on a line. Consider the cross sections taken at the heights h=0, h=½ and h=1

The first has the triangle points coinciding exactly with the bottom corners of the square. The second places them at ¼ and ¾ on the line [0, 1], leaving exactly half the line between them. Finally, the third has a single point the center of the line; the top vertex of the triangle.

But what use are these? These segments, when laid out, are precisely the 1-D representations of the 2-D figure in the temporal dimension, at t=0, t=½, t=1.

Proof of concept in 3-D: We may expand to the 3-D version, replacing the height dimension once again with time. The cross-sections are now taken by horizontal xy planes at z=t, and the pyramid is adequately represented by a shrinking square set within the static square of the cube.

Proof of concept in 4-D: The method holds, and so we export to the fourth dimension. The cross sections now take the form of growing cubes, set within static cubes. These, of course, represent cross-sections taken of the hyper-pyramid by R^3 spaces in R^4 space (my non-specialist vocabulary breaks down here, but the metaphor yet functions) at א=t.

(I use the א though it has other meanings in higher mathematics for two reasons. First, it allows me to flex my usage of a Hebrew keyboard, a rare event indeed. Second, on such a keyboard, א is in fact tied to the t key, which I consider kabbalistically appropriate).

Now that we have a robust model for pyramids in cubes in higher dimensions, how can we calculate their exact volume? My calculus professor, Shiva Chidambaram, encouraged me to try using integration to solve the problem, since we are currently learning multivariable integration. However, he also informed me that there is a simpler proof that requires only single variable integration.

Going back to the 2-D example, we can backfit a simple solution.

Our slope for the pyramid, as shown here, is y=x. Replacing height with time, and redrawing our triangle for simplicity, we can show simply that f(t)=x.

The general integral is trivial: F(t)=(x^2)/2. We can integrate on our bound of [0, 1] with similar ease, and the result is ½, as expected.

Scaling up to 3-D, we find ourselves now calculating the volume of the pyramid from square cross-sections. By redrawing the examples shown previously, it is clear that the area is given by f(t)=x^2.

Our integral, similarly trivial, is (x^3)/3, and on [0, 1], integrates to ⅓.

Having shown the above, I am confident in scaling this approach up to 4-D. The size of the cross section cubes is given by f(t)=x^3, the integral by F(t)=(x^4)/4, and on [0, 1] is equal to ¼. This confirms my original guess. Score one for intuition.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Further, I am confident in scaling this approach up to all dimensions n. For the volume of an n-dimensional pyramid set in an n-dimensional cube, the volume may be given as (s^n)/n, where s equals the length of the cube’s sides, and the ratio of volume is simply 1/n.

So for a 3-D cube of side length 4, the pyramid’s volume is 64/3. For a 5-D cube of side length 3, the pyramid’s volume is 243/5, and so on.


Remaining question

All this begs the question. Is there a simpler proof that the one outlined above, preferably one that does not require even trivial integration? That is yet to be seen, and I refuse to look up the answer.

Musical observation

Mozart’s Don Giovanni is perfectly adequate listening material for composing mathematics. Madamina (tin tin tin) il catalogo e questo...

Sunday, February 23, 2020

5E Play Report: The Lost Factory of Willy Wonka

A friend of mine, actually the player of The Batman in my TotSK sessions, decided to try his hand at GMing for the first time. The system of choice was 5E; my first time with the system, but I was willing to give it a shot.

We were told to prepare 10th level characters for a one-shot. I ended up making a hill-dwarf cleric of Moradin. Absolutely cliche, I know. To inject some fun inot the character, I decided that hill dwarves have Appalachian accents. It makes perfect sense. Further, I decided to not prepare Revivify or Raise Dead. This was a one-shot after all.

Though it was originally meant to be a 5 hour session, it quickly ballooned to more than eight. As an entry into GMing, it was a gigantic, high powered marathon, and I can only hope I can bring across some of the fun I had playing it.

The cast

Krellis, Tiefling Shadow Sorcerer

Doctor Aegon, Dragonborn Fighter

Suske, High Elf Rogue

Adam Beharim, Hill Dwarf Cleric

Edgelord, Tiefling Warlock

The Game

  • The game opened with each of the characters receiving a gold-filigreed letter, informing them that great riches awaited them at at a certain mountain pass, at high noon on a certain day. The characters encountered each other for the first time, exchanged names. The warlock introduced himself as the Nameless One, and I thereafter named hi Edgelord.
Edgelord's player: I swear if you call me that one more time I'm going to summon a demon with your name on it.
  • They found themselves standing in front of a giant door, engraved with giant dwarvish letters, along with a message, "Enter, if you can, by entertaining me with a little jam."
I've used the cursive Hebrew alphabet for puzzles before,
and it works quite well. Most people can't even identify it.

  • The party deciphered the runes, and found they were music notes. The party hummed them together, producing a familiar melody as the doors swung open. They opened to reveal a long, dank corridor, reaching into darkness well beyond even the warlock's darkvision. The party arched through, avoiding holes in the floor, until the fighter at the back fell through one. He cut his foot on a spike at the bottom and made a save against poison. On closer inspection, it wasn't a spike, more like a striped cane... and it smelled distinctly minty. 
  • A voice spoke in the party's mind, deep and unsettling. Under interrogation,it introduced itself as Willy... Willy Wonka. The warlock tried all of his languages, eventually hitting the nail on the head with Deep Speech. They carried on a short conversation, to which the rest of the party was not privy. 
  • The tunnel ended in a deep pit, at the bottom of which was something soft. The party was forced to tie all their rope together and rappel down. They landed on grass, and a tunnel leading in the other direction. 
  • The party emerged into a widening cavern, which suddenly exploded in light. Before them was an unimaginable sight; a green and inviting landscape of candy, marshmallow bunnies hopping about, gummy bear trees shading a chocolate river. And on the bank of the river, a gondola, just large enough for the party, which they obviously took.
  • The current of the river slowly sped up, until the party reached a lake. No, not a lake. A whirlpool! The voice returned, singing a distressing tune. The party panicked. Adam, whose goal I had now decided was to seek a maximally honorable death, was ready to follow it down. The edgelord desperately wanted off the boat. At the last moment, Aegon slammed his greatsword into the river and anchored it, while Krellis froze it over with a spell. 
  • After further conversation with Willy, the party, sans warlock, decided to follow the waterfall down. Adam melted the frozen chocolate with sacred fire, and the party tumbled down.. to safety. The warlock, after sending his imp to scout, subsequently jumped into the river and was similarly unharmed. 
  • The party continued down the next tunnel, and found a room, before which was another dwarven rune puzzle; several letters with numbers attached, in a cubing parenthesis. Using in- and out-of-game knowledge, the party identified this as the chemical formula for gelatin, matching the jelly mushrooms visible in the tunnel. However, the party forgot about the cubing...
I wonder what this could mean?

  • Suske snuck into the next room, only to find his feet sticking to the ground. Looking down, he found he had stepped in a Gelatinous Cube, which rose up to engulf him. Cue combat, with the party trying to defeat the cube without killing the rogue inside, who was quickly taking acid damage. The warlock kept wanting to summon a demon. Adam ended up getting the killing blow here, summoning a Spiritual weapon on the other side of the cube, which punched right through it and returned to his hand. 
Boo yah!

  • Emboldened by this victory, the party continued forward down a steep slope, which the sorceress frosted over to create a slide. At the bottom was a laboratory, replete with glassware and alchemical agents. An exit led out, and sounds reminiscent of dwarven work songs, but twisted, came from that direction.
  • Blocking the exit were three candies, green, blue and red, which Willy's disembodied voice told us he wanted us to test. After protestations from the warlock to let the imp eat them all, the sorceress tried the green one. It was the Everclear, and it turned her skin invisible... and nothing else. 
  • The fighter stepped up to try the other two. The red one was red-hot and cinnamony, and on a failed save, he became irrationally angry at the party. He slashed at the warlock, but managed to return to his senses immediately after. After the party prevented the warlock from frying him, he also tried the blue one.
  • It was Laffy Taffy. He failed his save and started to laugh uncontrollably, attracting the attention of the voices in the next room. Duergar, but even further twisted, with orange skin and green hair, marched in formation into the laboratory. 
  • The warlock, with an incredible initiative roll, drew a magic circle on the ground in front of the entrance, and summoned a demon. A Vrock manifested, his wings scraping the low roof of the lab. A long combat ensued, with the party trying desperately to attack without leaving the tiny circle, while the demon ripped and tore the creatures apart, and wrestled with one which had Enlarged itself. 
  • The warlock ended up losing control of the demon over the course of the combat, and the party booked it back through the tunnel entrance as the alchemical ingredients mixed into a toxic cloud. Luckily, the positioning of the circle prevented the demon from following. 
  • After the cloud and demon vanished, the party moved on to the room the Duergar came from. A great factor with sloshing rainbow liquids, evaporating and condensing, conentrating themselves until drop after drop fell on a single candy, sitting on a pedestal in the center of it all. 
  • Willy Wonka's voice reappeared, and called this candy, the last he wanted us to test, 'The Jaw Breaker.' Once again, Doctor Aegon took the lead and swallowed it. One more failed save, and the blue dragonborn began to expand. He swelled to immense size, and the intense internal trauma nearly killed him before the party, mage hands and all, succeeded in giving him the mother of all Heimlich maneuvers, concentrated chemicals literally seeping out between his scales. 
  • After a breather, the party found themselves down another slide, and in a dome-shaped cave. Stalactites covered the entire ceiling, and the exit was a pit going straight down. Two potions, one red and one blue, sat on a table, with another message from Wonka, "One is poison, one is not. Choose wrong, you drop. Choose right, rise to the top."

  • Deciding that rising to the top in this room would be a bad idea, and dropping may be useful, Adam took the plunge and tried one. After all, his resistance to poisons made him the best candidate. He inspected each, and finally downed the red one. 
  • He chose wrong. He immediately began to levitate uncontrollably, and only the fighter's immediate grapple held him down. Downing the blue potion, the party was able to feather-fall down the pit, while Doctor Aegon and Adam combined their newfound position to gently fall, like a child holding onto a balloon. 
  • The next section was a narrow tunnel, pervaded by the smell of dank water and a sense of general unease. Crawling in single file, the party came to a fork. A wider tunnel led to the left, but was covered in guano, while the narrow tunnel continued to the right, which they took. 
  • The party found itself dodging small holes in the tunnel floor, until the rogue once again stepped in something... a Black Pudding, which slowly crawled up his leg. 
  • The resultant panicked fight was less about killing the ooze (which they succeeded in doing, though only half got incinerated) and more about getting past each other in a tiny corridor to escape a creature with spider climb. Eventually, the party managed to delay the pudding and book it.
  • The party then came to a wider cavern, a pool at the center. Force fields came down on the exit and entrance, and the cause of the bad feelings on this level was discovered; an Aboleth. It singled out Adam, whose sailing background (a sailing hill dwarf, chew on that) and desire for an honorable death found its climax here. The warlock wanted to parley and find some way to sate its hunger and bring down the field, but Adam was having none of it. 
Uh oh

  • He railed at the creature, dared it to do its worst. It reached up and grabbed him with its tentacles, which he successfully escaped from. Before diving back in to do battle with the creature, the texture of the water made him suspicious, and he cast Detect Magic. The whole thing was covered in illusions and it became clear that the aboleth was a fake, though the tentacles were real, but mechanical. 
  • Continuing forward, the party now found themselves in a room with a multicolored pad and a circuit box. The voice of Wonka reappeared, telling them to step of the platform, which would bring them to the end of their journey. The party, obviously skeptical, broke into the box to examine its mechanism, and determined it was a mechanomagical apparatus maintaining a sealing spell. Tired of waiting, the warlock stepped up to the plate and... stepped on to the plate. 
  • A beam of energy shot out towards him, and he succeeded his save. That may not have been good news, however. Without a target to absorb the excess magical energy, the sealing spell broke, and so did one wall of the room. Jumping into the fray like the Kool-Aid man, a twenty-foot rock candy golem assaulted the party. "This is Brutus," said Willy. 
  • The ensuing combat was long and hard, as the rock crystal golem was resistant to most physical damage, and had over 300HP. The party got lucky, avoiding most of its hits. Adam was doing some real haling for the first time, Agonizing Eldritch Blast remained a sturdy damage dealer, and Suske found new and inventive ways to use the Hide action in an empty room. 
  • Finally breaking the golem down, the party was surprised when the floor immediately gave out beneath them, and they found themselves in a giant underground dome, with 'Thunder' written in neon above it. In the center of the arena was Willy Wonka, who berated the party for killing his minions and golem, and gave his intention for bringing the party here. He was to find a good successor for his factory, which he grew tired of, but only one could survive to inherit it. Oh, and did I forget to mention, the candy cane carrying and top hat wearing, purple bedecked Willy Wonka...

Me: I knew it!
  • The boss fight began. Adam rolled high on initiative, tying with Wonka and going first by fiat. He let go of the spell slots he had been holding on to the whole session, even when the party went without full health. Insect Plague on Wonka's position, Spiritual Weapon at 4th level to knock him in the head. If he could just get in close, he as going to inflict fistfuls of d10s in necrotic damage on this bastard. He charged forward, just outside of the anti-magic cone and... got petrified by a legendary action, turning fully to stone in the second round. 
  • Uhm. Crap.
  • The fight was a sure TPK. The sorceress was put to sleep. The rogue was lifted telekinetically into the air. The cleric was as good as dead. The fighter was busy moving people into the cone to remove status effects. The warlock was only good for Eldritch Blast. I had come into the game with a character and player attitude prepared for death, and it looked certain. 
  • Then, all of a sudden, it wasn't. In the face of immense odds, the party came together to kill Willy Wonka (new sentence! woo!). The sorceress was the standout damage dealer. The warlock had been tossing 30-40 damage cantrips all day, but she hadn't done anything flashy. That's because she had been saving her spell slots, and now she unleashed all of them. 
  • Twinned and Quickened Cones of Cold, which Wonka failed his saves against, dealing 100+ damage every round. She cast these three times in as many rounds, dealing ~350 damage. That would have been enough to kill a regular beholder on its own (max 266HP rolling), but Wonka had his health just about doubled. 
  • The warlock kept putting out the reliable damage. When he got charmed, he transformed the fighter into a young gold dragon, who drowned the beholder in fire. Even the cleric's statue got in on the action, serving as a hiding spot in the arena for the rogue to get several sneak attacks from. But in the end, the killing blow did go to the nameless warlock, who capped off the night with just the right quip. 
  • "When you see my boss, tell him Zachariah sent you," as he blasted Willy Wonka with infernal fire. And there was much rejoicing. Wonka's staff was an extra rod of anti-magic, with which the cleric was depetrified, and much healing was had that day. 
  • His hat held the key to a door at the end of the dome. Beyond it, were piles, and piles, and piles of treasure. 


As a first go at GMing, this was ambitious and flashy and very, very long. An eight hour session is nothing to sneeze at for any GM of any level, and for a newcomer it's altogether inadvisable. Likewise with the sheer number of encounters. Still, our GM handled it all with a good deal of grace. 

Since this is an old-school blog, I should put a few words in that direction. This first experience with 5E has confirmed much of what I had heard of the system, and I now understand that Eldritch Blast is not simply a meme, but a way of life. I'll put a more focused post out later on my full thoughts from an old-school perspective. 

One place where the design of 5E was stark was in its difference to OSR was in the fights. For one, they were very long, and the analysis paralysis of brand new tenth level characters did not by any means help. But more importantly, they were instant and to the death. I had heard all this before, but now I'm seeing it with my own eyes. With the exception of the aboleth, which the party was obviously suspicious of, no attempts were made to negotiate with the Oompa-Loompas, or to get the cube to release the rogue without killing it, or to convince Wonka his plan was flawed, except for a wayward persuasion roll. 

Actually, even starker was the way fights ended. No effort was made to flee to live another day, or retreat to a more advantageous position, or surrender. Enemies in 5E don't seem to value their lives, and I'm convinced this is an issue with the design, not just a new GM. It's also related to the fact that all characters, including support, are really built around combat, and nearly all the excess time spent in character creation is related to combat options. 

Still, I had a great deal of fun, though I now have a great deal of work to catch up on that I thought I could get done yesterday. I've met a couple more great players, who I may rope into my playtesting for my underwater campaign rules in the coming months. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Elder Scrolls GLOG Report 4: How to Skin a Cat

Where last we left off, the party had infiltrated the Caldera Mining Company as workers and guards, under orders from the Balmora Hlaalu to find out where Odral Helvi had been selling extra ebony and embezzling Company profits. The party did their best to maintain cover, but several incidents forced them to stick their necks out.

Vilamon risked his cover as a guard helping a slave escape the mines. The party investigated the disappearance of a miner, without finding a trace. They saved the overseer's children from a grisly death in the mine shafts, but left them injured. Finally, Hama'ak joined some would-be thieves in an ill-fated burglary of the Governor's Mansion, from which only he returned safe, and with loot.

However, the party may find their rest disturbed...

The Cast

Vilamon Hawker, Redguard Destruction Wizard - kahva

Gwynabyth Muriel Ysciele, Breton Conjurer - retrograde tardigrade xenograft

Riadell Fernhollow, Bosmer Knight - mtb-za

Verdgrss-Wears-Copper, Argonian Hunter - grimlucis

Hama'ak, Khajiit Thief - Walfalcon

J'Hanir, Khajiit Soldier - Hireling

The Game

  • Vilamon and J'Hanir, acting as guards were woken up after the burglary. Supposedly, there had been a break in by some assassins. They were foiled, but their leader was ratted out: a Khajiit named Hama'ak, in the employ of the Redoran. 
Walfalcon: Hmm. Maybe I shouldn't introduce myself to random criminals by name. Oh well.

Image result for morrowind landscape art
Oil painting, u/Kreatio

  • The company guard surrounded the boarding house at dawn, with Vilamon, J'Hanir, and two other guards entering to find and arrest Hama'ak. Vilamon made a ton of noise and loud threats to warn him, and the thief made his escape by climbing out the window while invisible (the Shadow birthsign is a hell of a drug). One internal monologue later, he hides in an attic across town.
  • The other guards, Helga and Naral, burst into the party's common room looking for Hama'ak. The party pretends innocence, Hama'ak's footlocker is confiscated (luckily, his stolen jewels weren't there) and they are left otherwise unmolested. 
  • The party receives a letter from their Hlaalu handlers. Their spies have located the destination for embezzled ebony; a smuggler hideout named Shushishi, a day's march from Caldera. The party's new mission, which they don't have much of a choice as to accepting, is to travel there, assault the hideout and pacify its inhabitants. Recovery of the ebony itself and capture of some smugglers is an extra. 
  • The party relocates Hama'ak and heads out of Caldera on foot at night. Hopefully leaving their guar will help their covers hold for longer. They pass through the border to the Ashlands and find Shushishi. 
  • The front door to the cave has a note on it which reads, “Yell GUAR BALLS for entry.” Hama'ak, of course, immediately does this. 
RTX: Uhm. Fuck.
Verdgrss: "I hope that is not a local delicacy."
Gwynabyth: "No, it's a trap"
  • The party scouts around the hill, and locates a top entrance, successfully ambushing a smuggler on lookout. He's left on the brink of death, and interrogated by Vilamon. As the smuggler begs for help, Vilamon (who has a healing spell) drives his spearhead through the helpless elf's heart

Image result for straight through the heart

  • Hiding the corpse and continuing down the upper entrance, the party comes to a nexus. The ground entrance leading outside is, from the inside, clearly trapped. A long tunnel leads down into darkness. A short tunnel leads to a rickety door covered in padlocks. A carpet in front hides a note: "10 boxes, 10 stone each. Reminder to Teren. Sticking your hand in the fire doesn’t fix frostbite. You have to soak a towel in hot water and wrap it."
Verdgrss: "Already are we forgetting the poor sschmuck Vilamon just murdered in cold blood."
Riadell: "Wait, what?"
  • J'Hanir takes the lead going down the long tunnel with Gwynabyth's skeleton. Verdgrss lights a torch, but just too late; J'Hanir trips a wire, and gets himself caught in a net. The party proceeds to completely lose initiative to the smugglers, who drop to J'Hanir to death's door with a spell, restrain the skeleton, and back the party into the tunnel. Their leader, an armored Cyrodiil with a silver mace, grabs J'Hanir. "One step forward and I break the cat's head open like an egg!"
  • From this rather fragile situation, the party manages a surprising recovery. Riadell and Verdgrss pretend to be Redoran operatives, cleaning up the remains of the found-out smuggling operation, and offer the smugglers amnesty if they come forward and help indict the Hlaalu. The smugglers ask about their companions outside. A plausible lie and a critical Charisma roll later, the smugglers lay down their arms. 
  • The Cyrodiil isn't so easily intimidated, however. He steps back and tries his hand at negotiation, but the party launches a coordinated attack on him. The skeleton body slams him to the ground, Riadell catches him in the net, Hama'ak rips up his arm, and J'Hanir takes his weapon. 
  • So pacified, the party takes a closer look around the cavern. The Cyrodiil (one Martin Severus) has a desk full of papers detailing the ebony sales. The buyer is one Hanarai Assutlanipal, and the next transaction is supposed to happen tomorrow. Strangely, the amounts of coin exchanged for large amounts ebony are tiny; even if Helvi were pocketing all of it, hardly worth the risk of smuggling one of the most controlled materials in the Empire. 
  • The party deliberated their next move before opening up the vault. Do they wait a day and ambush the buyer to tie up loose ends? Skip out now back to Caldera? Head back to Balmora? Stash the ebony in a secure location? Intervention back to Balmora to inform their patron, splitting the party hundreds of miles apart?


This is just the second time the party has rolled initiative in eight weeks of gaming. Regardless of how the online pace translates to regular games, that's quite a while. Part of this is due to the fact that the campaign has just begun, and a lot of time has been spent introducing mechanics and getting the PCs set up in their new lives. Further, the players have spent a good deal of this time without solid equipment, so going and looking for trouble isn't advisable. They're going to level pretty soon, and their options for travel and jobs are going to open wide. 

It's good to remember just how fragile PCs can be. J'Hanir, a hireling with 5HP, got dropped to exactly 0 by a first level wizard as a result of being ambushed. If he had been reduced to -1 or less, I'd have started rolling for injuries or death. This is good to remember, especially because, at this stage, two of the PCs have even fewer hitpoints, 2 and 3. They're wise to avoid combat where possible, and use every dirty trick in the book otherwise. 

This is the first time since the intro to the campaign that they've been in anything resembling a dungeon. They were suitably paranoid, especially about the carpet in front of the vault. I like making some red herrings and fake traps right before placing a real one. That one might just be schadenfreude though. 

Related to the first point, the PCs aren't hardened killers by any stretch. They've tangled with slavers who were between them and freedom, but they're more than willing to take prisoners and negotiate when they have the wiggle room. 

Friday, February 14, 2020

Alternate Alignments: Down with the Law/Chaos!

In June of 2012, Michael Prescott wrote a little stub post over on his blog called, 'Alignment in Allegiance.' It was an off-the-cuff post pointing out that the traditional alignment axes really reflected the core themes of the game; in the earliest editions, Law vs Chaos, with Good vs Evil thrown in after.

He argued that in other settings with other themes, those axes just just as easily be replaced. In a game set in Revolutionary America, for example, you could replace one of the axes, say, law/chaos, with Royalist/Republican. So you'd have Republican Neutral, and Royalist Evil etc.

I've heard similar points made before, but this time it really clicked for me. I wonder if we haven't been going about it wrong all these years. The early D&D Law/Chaos dynamic was clearly inspired by appendix N literature (Elric being the chief culprit) and made sense when Law and Chaos are Capital-Letter forces of the universe.

But if you don't have those forces in your world, the whole dynamic falls flat. Then you get arguments about what it means to be Lawful or Chaotic or Neutral among the players, because there's no unifying understanding anymore.

The Law/Chaos axis is the most easily replaced, since Good/Evil is much less grounded in a particular setting, and players generally agree on what Good and Evil are. Still, it wouldn't be beyond the pale to exchange it, or exchange both.

Single or Double Axes

A question which pops into my mind, especially after rereading my previous post on alignment, is whether to use a single, thematic axis, or to use two, by default adding Good/Evil on top. The benefits of the former are to leave the field open; people are characterized by their place in a particular struggle/controversy/disagreement, and morality is incidental. Being good or evil is unrelated to alignment. The latter is more familiar to many people. I'm obviously not giving the two an equal representation, since I greatly prefer the single axis, but do let me know if you prefer the double axis and why.

Here are a few alternate Alignments you can use in various games:

Eugène Delacroix - Le 28 Juillet. La Liberté guidant le peuple.jpg


Let's flesh out Prescott's original suggestion. We can use this axis, replacing Law/Chaos, in games set in historical moments of revolution against a monarchy, or in fictional settings patterned after them. Revolutionary America and France are obvious examples. Royalists are characterized by a desire to maintain the power of the crown, and are associated with tradition, a conservative ethos, etc. Republicans are characterized by a desire to get rid of monarchy, install a new form of government based on a humanistic ethos, etc.

There's room for disagreement within the alignments here. Republicans may be split on whether to use a violent overthrow or to use social and political pressure. Royalists may be split on how to deal with the would-be revolutionaries; try to maintain power here, or move to friendlier climes and maintain the aristocracy elsewhere? Likewise, there is room for good and evil people. It's a political and ideological divide, not a moral one.

Image result for morrowind tribunal art


This one is from my Elder Scrolls Morrowind Campaign. The Septim Empire is a colonial force in Morrowind seeking to enforce its laws and customs on the native Dunmer and acquire the continent's immense natural resources. Imperials are associated with military occupation, evangelism of the Imperial Cult, the abolition of slavery and the exploitation of natural resources. The Tribunal is a trio of living gods whose Temple is the dominant form of worship in Morrowind, and around whom Morrowind's government has been organized for centuries. Tribunals are associated with traditional faith and culture, the promulgation of slavery, and Dunmer supremacy.

I'm considering dropping this into my current game once my players get to level 2 (should be quite soon, they've been patient) and letting them choose between Imperial, Neutral or Tribunal. I expect the choice to be interesting, since the party are escapees from an Imperial prison camp, they are being actively hunted by the Empire, and one of the characters has converted to one of the Tribunal saint cults. However, the party is vehemently opposed to slavery and Dunmer supremacy, and have tangled with slavers before (two players and one hireling are beast-people, looked down on in traditional Dunmer society).

Image result for west indies pirate art


For games based on the 1700s West Indies. By which I mean pirate games. The Navy wants to keep the law and order of the sea, regardless of whether or not it is just, catch and punish pirates, and please the officials back home. Pirates want to carve out their own lives, acquire wealth and influence through whatever means available, and escape the navy.

This is very similar to Law/Chaos, but we define it more strongly by associating those forces with specific, grounded factions and interests. While pirate games tend to assume players will take the piratical route, I like the idea of letting them interact with both the pirates and the navy, giving them some incentives for both before they inevitably choose piracy. Because PIRATES.

Image result for lovecraft


The world is a placid isle of ignorance in the black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. In a world that totally defies comprehension, people tend to cluster in one of two camps. The Ignorant keep themselves at arm's length from the secrets of the universe, cast books of cosmic importance into bonfires, and would destroy all of modern science and return us to a new Dark Age given half a chance. The Mad dive headfirst into the unknowable, seek out mind-warping secrets, and deal with entities from beyond the veil. They are this close to just becoming cultists.

This alignment is, obviously, for cosmic horror games, and builds on the choice of 'go mad from the revelation for potentially cool shit' or 'play it safe and destroy anything supernatural with extreme prejudice.' The vast majority of people would be Unaligned in this case.

Image result for greek barbarian


'But wait!' you cry. 'This is just Law/Chaos again, you utter hack!' Ah, dear reader, but it isn't. The distinction between civilization and barbarism isn't about one following rules, the other doing whatever they want. It's about the organization of society. Civilized people organize themselves into the polis, the state, and have a strong focus on agriculture, sedentary settlement and central authority. Barbarians organize themselves into smaller, decentralized structures, disdain sedentary agriculture in favor of a ranging, hunting, nomadic lifestyle. Barbarians may well have strong laws, traditions, and authority figures, but the structure they exist in is very different.

I would use this for a campaign set in ancient times; classical Mediterranean civilization, or earlier. If you dig into the history of early city states, especially those first in the Fertile Crescent, you find that the warring between them was in large part a bid to capture slaves for the city's workforce. This wasn't just to expand labor, but because lots of people, including full citizens, would often flee the city to join the barbarians. The walls of Uruk were as much for keeping people in as out, as early urban dwellers didn't especially like being forced to work the soil for others.

Alignment Languages

The big mechanical bit from my last post was reworking alignment languages to serve as a common culture or religion; not a different tongue only people of that alignment can use, but a set of assumptions, body language, in-group references and knowledge that lubricate social interactions between members of the same alignment, and make interactions between people from different alignments more difficult.

This translates over quite well from Law/Chaos to other domains. Royalists know how to properly genuflect, how to properly address a person from every class and rank, and how to make hierarchies work for them. A republican will reject that hierarchy, and will be right at home rabble-rousing, giving impassioned speeches on individual liberty, whether on a stool in a dingy bar or on the floor of Congress.

I've though more about the system since the last post, and I've settled on the second variation of the rule: you only add your positive Charisma modifier to morale and reaction rolls when dealing with members of the same alignment, and only subtract a negative modifier when dealing with members of the opposite alignment. Unaligned and Neutral parties attach their Charisma modifier regardless.

Much Ado About Neutrality

Given all the above, it's worth revisiting Neutrality. In my previous post on alignment, I distinguished Neutral from Unaligned: The former refers to people who consciously choose a sort of moderation or 'middle path,' while the latter includes entities that exist outside of alignment on this issue; animals and non-thinking monsters, but also druids and others that deliberately reject society.

How do we reinterpret Neutrality in terms of these new conflicts? There are obviously people who are neutral in a struggle, but what role do they play? Does it take a Neutral party to serve as negotiator between the two sides? Does it take a Neutral shopkeeper to hold together a community racked by division? The Neutral position is potentially interesting, but not well fleshed out at his time.

Still, there's a small issue there. If the player has a negative score, they'll want to associate with one alignment and stick with them, to dull the disadvantages. But if they have a positive score, they'll want to remain Neutral to use it as much as possible. So what are the benefits to keeping an alignment?

Certainly, being Neutral can be safer, but there's a whole lot less opportunity. Neutral factions don't really hold much water; most factions, at least those with substantial power and reason to join, are going to align with one side or the other.

Choosing an Alignment

Depending on the exact setup, the PCs need not choose their alignment at character creation (and I don't just say that because I'm making up the system two months into a campaign). If the PCs are natives of the area/culture that the alignments are built around, then they should have opinions and standings from the beginning. But if they're travelers, or rubes, or otherwise not involved, learning about the conflict along with the players, then they should spend some time Unaligned before choosing their alignment.

Maybe when they first level up (which my players should do quite soon), or after they've gotten to know each side (probably from tangling with them), the players look back on how their character has interacted with the world around them, how the character is informed by it, and what they pledge their allegiance to.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

OSR Rules for Underwater Play: Light and Pressure

Pkdragon of the Wyvern Moon blog has made noises in the Discord about an undersea hexcrawl. I found myself excited by the idea, but I couldn't find much support for it online. So I decided to do some research of my own, and figure out some quick rules for light and pressure underwater.

These rules assume Earth-similar undersea conditions (the marine world is strange enough before adding magic and monsters) and can accommodate a variety of settings, magic and technology levels. They assume readily accessed, but limited, water breathing; magic pills, Diver's Gas tanks, symbiotes and mutated gills are all fair game.

Further, these rules assume PCs spending long periods of time underwater. Less like diving to the bottom of a pool, more like a multi-hour scuba expedition. In the kind of undersea crawl I'm imagining, returning to the surface will be rare. Learning to operate for extended periods of time underwater, acquiring equipment suited to marine use, creating a base of operations hospitable for air-breathers at the sea bottom and exploring diplomatic relations with the strange sapiences of the ocean is what I'm imagining. You could run a whole campaign without seeing dry land.

I don't assume PCs will be of races automatically suited to living underwater, as it renders many of the challenges toothless. However, the players may seek out magic items, ancient technology, or use forbidden alchemy to modify their own bodies for that purpose.

The rules below are based on real world physics and scuba research, though some figures have been fudged for convenience, and there's not too much granularity. Unless you're playing with a table of oceanographers and scuba divers, their verisimilitude holds up.

The rules below are stripped down for use at the table. I explain my reasoning in the section below.

Image result for fantasy diver
Pictured: a high-level PC



There are four zones: daylight, evening, dusk and midnight. These have effects both on available natural light and pressure.

Daylight (0-600'): Long-term freediving with the right equipment is possible.
Evening (600'-1500'): Diving is possible for several days with specialized equipment.
Dusk (1500'-3000'): Short-term diving is possible with the right equipment. Extended exposure leads to insomnia, fatigue and hallucinations.
Midnight(3000'-???): Utterly hostile. Pressurized suits or vessels are necessary for survival.

Measuring Depth

Just as keeping time is necessary in a dungeon, and keeping track of light and food is necessary in the Veins, keeping track of depth is necessary for an underwater adventure. For the sake of simplicity, measurements of 300' are ideal. That's the maximum amount you can ascend in a ten-minute turn without substantial risk of the bends. It's about ten rounds, or one minute of movement.

Light and Visibility

Water quality: Dependent on the properties of surrounding water.

Extremely Clear (super-pure water): 150'
Clear (no particulates, open ocean): 100'
Moderate (some particulates, near seafloor): 60'
Poor (algae bloom, murk, salinity changes): 30'
Very Poor (recent storm, fine sand): 10'
Nonexistent (dense particulates, clay deposit): <5'

Natural light visibility: Values below reflect visibility in various water qualities in the daylight zone in full sunlight. As the surface light fades, reduce visibility appropriately. In the daylight zone, visibility in the evening is 2/3, and 1/3 around dusk, and near nonexistent (moon and starlight) at night. Visibility in the evening zone in the evening is 1/3. Around dusk in the Dusk zone, it's effectively pitch black, etc.

Base(Daylight): As above

Evening: Reduce to 2/3 of base value.

Dusk: Reduce to 1/3 base value.

Midnight: Base visibility is 0. All light comes from artificial sources or creatures.

Artificial light: Bioluminescence, specialized lamps, rare crystals, etc. These have their own values for light distance, and are applied regardless of depth. It is still affected by poor water quality, however.

US Navy Air Dive Table 7”x9” sold by LeisurePro
Real world dive tables give AD&D a run for its money

Depth Pressure

Gas Narcosis: Occurs when divers descend too deep without the right equipment or adaptations. Can be cured quickly by returning to a lower-pressure area. If breathing compressed air, moderate symptoms kick in around 100', and by 300' progress to hallucinations, terror and death. Breathing Diver's Gas, using gills or other methods allow for deeper diving. With those methods, progress a stage along the below scale for every 300' below their listed depth.
No effect > Mild impairment > Delayed responses and overconfidence > Hysteria and hallucinations > Confusion and terror > Blackout, death

The Bends: Occurs when divers ascend too quickly. If you're not careful, trying to cure your narcosis will lead to this. After ascending more than 300' in 10 minutes, you will contract the bends. The symptoms will manifest in 1d6 hours. Roll 2d6 for the severity of the effect. For each additional 300' ascended, add +1 to the roll and subtract -1 from the time. Mild cases can be treated by returning to depth, more serious cases will require high-tech or magical cures.

2-3: Discomfort and pain, without long-term effects. 4-8: -1d4 HP and +2 fatigue. 8-10: -2d4 HP, +4 Fatigue and disorientation. 10-12: -3d4 HP, +6 Fatigue, Save vs Paralysis. 12+:  As previous, plus lung decompression, Save vs Death every minute until treated.

Fatigue: In the dusk zone and below, the effects of gas narcosis become apparent regardless of what equipment you have. Every 6 hours spent below the dusk zone without pressure suits, add 1 point of Fatigue. For every additional 300' of depth, add an additional point of fatigue each time. Spending a period below 1500' adds 1 fatigue. Descending to 1800' and spending 6 hours there adds two more, etc.

Crushing: The human body can withstand substantial atmospheric pressure. The possibility of being physically squeezed or crushed only appears well below the midnight zone. Fatigue, insomnia and fatal narcosis will occur far before physical injury from pressure becomes a real risk.


Light is a substantial concern at depth. The 'Sunlight' or euphotic zone, where light penetrates easily during the day, goes down to approximately 200m, or ~600'. The 'Twilight' or dysphotic zone, where sunlight decreases rapidly with depth and photosynthesis is not possible, goes from 200-1000 meters, ~600'-3000'. Below 1000m, ~3000', you enter the 'Midnight' or aphotic zone, where no sunlight penetrates and the only sources of light are those generated by the local fauna and flora.

illustration of how far light travels in the ocean.

For our purposes as game/adventure designers, this provides quite a neat structure. The deeper = more dangerous assumption is already built into dungeoneering and popular consciousness. But now, depth isn't just for dungeon anymore; it's both dungeon and wilderness.

The daylight zone might be the top levels of the dungeon, where the threats are minimal and are easier to spot, but it's also like the area near a town. Underwater settlements, especially those of air-breathers accustomed to a circadian cycle, will be built here. Extended freediving is possible, and with special gas mixtures/magic humans can survive here almost indefinitely, assuming their other needs are met.

In the twilight zone (laugh it up...) sunlight becomes scarcer, visibility lowers, pressure concerns become serious, and more dangerous, alien creatures are encountered. The most experienced human freedivers can dive into the dysphotic zone, but only just. To explore this place fully, you need special equipment to combat gas narcosis. At the lower depths of this zone, the human body reaches its natural limits. Not only does gas narcosis become severe, exposure to these depths for more than a few hours produce fatigue, insomnia and hallucinations.

I split the twilight zone into the evening and dusk zones, to distinguish between the pressure effects across the zone.

In the midnight zone, there's no sunlight anymore, just whatever you or the monsters can make. Humans can't even get to the border on their own power. To breach the barrier of darkness, you need pressurized suits or submarines. The nastiest, most alien of creatures live down here. There may be uncounted treasures, or there might be nothing. It's Veins of the Earth, except a wrong move will suffocate you. The environment is utterly hostile.


Under clear conditions, visibility underwater should be approximately 100'. In extremely clear areas near the surface, effective visibility may extend to about 150'. These figures assume both full daylight and lack of particles/pollutants. Visibility in the daylight and twilight zones takes a sharp dive at night. You can get around this with your own light sources, but particles are more challenging. Some areas are choked with algae at all times. Others are periodically blocked by sand, whipped up by currents or incautious divers. Clay is the worst. Sand will settle back down in a few minutes undisturbed, but loose clay will jump at a moment's notice, and can choke an area for hours.

Depth Pressure

Under Earth-similar conditions, you gain an additional atmosphere of pressure for every ~10m (~30'). This figure is already familiar to RPG aficionados.

How much pressure (critically, how far down) can humans survive? Surprisingly, quite a lot. The limit for recreational diving is 40m, ~120', well shy of the dysphotic zone. Between 40m and 60m is the domain of technical, non-recreational divers. Anything greater than 60m is commonly termed a deep dive. But the actual limit for human freediving goes much deeper.

The current world record holder for freediving is an Egyptian man named Ahmed Gabr, who used a scuba system to dive to a depth of 332 meters, or ~1090'. Still well shy of the aphotic zone, but getting closer. Notably, the greatest obstacle to deep diving is not pressure on the human body, crushing ribs and muscles, but the effects of pressure on internal gas exchange.

Two effects; decompression sickness, also known as the bends, and gas narcosis. Gabr's record dive took only twelve minutes to make, but he took 13 and a half hours to return to the surface. If he had risen quicker, the change in internal pressure of gases in his body would have resulted in hallucinations and drunkenness at best, death at worst.

Gas Narcosis: Occurs when divers descend too deep without the right equipment or adaptations. Can be cured quickly by returning to a lower-pressure area. The effects are similar to drunkenness. In the early stages, the diver feels empowered, masterful, euphoric, while losing minor motor and sensory function. As the narcosis progresses, the diver is subject to impaired judgment, mood swings and loss of coordination. In extreme cases, paranoia and hallucinations set in. A diver may be taken with the 'rapture of the deep' a narcotic self-confidence that drives them deeper and deeper, until they finally die.

The Bends: Occurs when divers ascend too quickly. If you're not careful, trying to cure your narcosis will lead to this. As you dive deeper, the nitrogen in your blood is absorbed into your tissues. In itself, this isn't dangerous, and when you decrease pressure, the gas is released again. But if you decrease pressure too quickly, the nitrogen will form bubbles. Your blood will literally fizz like a soda. Symptoms include joint pain, exhaustion, phantom itching and, in extreme cases, difficulty breathing, quickly leading to shock. There is no way around the bends; you have to slow your ascent, or go deeper if you already have it.

Image result for fantasy diver

Even so, if we can get past the issues of breathing and internal gas transfer, we can go a lot deeper. While Gabr's 332 meter dive is the world record, subjecting him to over thirty atmospheres of pressure, humans have survived much more. In a simulated dive inside a barometric chamber, breathing hydreliox, a mix of hydrogen, helium and less than 1% oxygen, Theo Mavrostomos survived 2 hours under seventy atmospheres of pressure, equivalent to being 701 meters or 2100' down. Much closer to the aphotic zone. This is the world record for human high-pressure survival, and this upper bound seemingly isn't related to the durability of the human body, just gas exchange.

But even though the human body isn't physically crushed at those depths, consistent fatigue and insomnia render long-term operation at those depths difficult, and likely damaging in the long run. Still, we've shown humans can at survive brief periods quite close to the aphotic zone, when narcosis and oxygen toxicity was taken care of.

I would go as far as to say that gilled humans, whether native or mutants, would be capable of diving to these depths without worrying about narcosis or DCS, but likely couldn't operate for extended periods of time without insomnia, fatigue and long term damage.

So how to we get to the aphotic zone, where all is eternal night and the greatest horrors may be found?

First off, pressurized suits. This is a fairly high-tech solution that gets around several of our depth problems, allowing humanoids to extend their operating capacity. They act effectively as heavy armor, but can be compromised. A suit losing pressure over a very short period of time is not fun. These might be magical in nature, the rare remaining construct of an advanced lost civilization, or most likely, a bit of both. Still, like heavy armor, these suits are bulky and slow.

Second, submarines. Because what's an underwater campaign without submarines? Most of the rules above assume players are moving about underwater on their own power, or possibly on a mount. PCs are exposed to depth pressure at most times, unless in a special suit or in a pressurized location. But in a fully pressurized closed vessel, there's none of that. It's like being back on land for a time. Functioning submarines exist as relics of the above long-lost civilizations. They're rare and valuable, and great loot at the end of a dungeon, if they can be fixed up.

Image result for underwater adventure

Final Comments

The gameplay potential of several of these mechanics is apparent. The Bends discourages going up, that is, to safety, too quickly. This strongly encourages planning ahead, and means the party can't just ascend to escape a nasty encounter. The four zones create clear demarcations for adventuring environments, and the players' latitude to explore them. There are no shortage of environmental obstacles in our real world oceans that can fuck up the PCs day, before factoring in any kind of combat.

The kind of game these rules create is gritty, dark, survival and logistics focused. It's Veins of the Earth underwater. The environment is hostile and strange and god knows what's down there. Survival is not at all guaranteed.

If you want an underwater adventure without those elements, where the party can explore as they please, these rules won't do that for you. For me, the main attraction of this kind of adventure is the alienness and danger. Getting around the restrictions of a place that absolutely does not want you there is the big challenge, and it means that a party that has learned to conquer the deep has truly engaged with the environment, instead of just passing through.

Note: OF COURSE I find a post on the OSR subreddit made just hours before I post this. Though it doesn't quite cover the same things. Go and check it out on Malcon's blog.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

OSR Discussion: Not Everything Needs Big, Sharp Teeth

I had the occasion to make and stat a monster last week. More specifically, a centipede-ized beholder for the upcoming centipede zine by Chuffed Chuffer, of the blog that must not be named in front of the squeamish.

I was giving it a physical description, and was about to write, 'with big sharp teeth,' when I stopped myself. Why did it have big sharp teeth? Why did it need to? Could I get a better effect with a more detailed description? Or with something less typical?

Image result for big sharp teeth fantasy"
WHAT did I just say!

I settled on instead writing, 'a great gummy, toothless mouth.' I preferred the image. Instead of coming at you with big teeth, the standard predator fear, its lack of teeth implies another modus operandi. It stays back, speaking to you through a lisping maw, saliva gushing over its gums. If it were to attack you, you would not be sliced and torn, but crushed between moist, soft gums, suffocating you as your lungs fill with sickeningly hot fluid.

Disgusting? I hope so. I don't know what else you expect from an STC reader. But it got me thinking on another tangent.

If you take a moment to really, really think about creatures with big teeth, they're absolutely terrifying. It's a deeply embedded primal fear. Being stuck alone, in the dark with a pack of wolves silently stalking you, unable to see or hear them except for the snap of an odd twig, until they jump on you. If you're lucky, they clamp their mouths around your throat, tear it out with a strong neck motion, and your brain loses all sensation before they start to eat you. If not, they'll cripple you, pin you down and cut through the skin of your belly and eat your intestines, pulling them physically out like sausage links.

Again, that's terrifying. But do you anticipate that when your party is faced down by a pack of wolves in a game? Probably not. The visceral image and the terror is distant from most of us. Part of that is because, thankfully, most of us have no firsthand experience of being hunted and eaten. But it's also because the level of description in a standard monster in a combat goes no further than, 'and it has big sharp teeth.'

There's nothing visceral there. More importantly, it's done to death. It's an assumption. Why is this monster scary? Ehh, it has big sharp teeth. That works with folklore monsters because ancestral people lived in close proximity to creatures that could kill and eat them, and the threat was close to their minds. Not so today.

When that description, that fearful attribute becomes, first, banal, and second, an assumption, it loses all power. That can be circumvented by going into detail, as above. Instead of just 'big sharp teeth', they're needle-like, crushing chompers, or row on row. It can also be circumvented by changing the description to something less typical, something not already included in the listener's brain cache.

'Great gummy toothless mouth' is one option, though not an especially original or distinct thought. I've been working on an Elder Scrolls Bestiary as of late, and one of the weirder, iconic Morrowind monsters is the nix-hound. Imagine a locust, blown up to the size and body plan of a wolf. Then replace its head with the proboscis of a butterfly. It hunts in packs, and instead of tearing you apart with teeth, it mauls you to death and uses its proboscis to drink your moisture. That's a distinct, strange image.

Other go-to options far enough from sharp teeth to be affecting, but close enough to not be incomprehensible, are sucking lampreys, centipedes crawling up your nose and licking your brains, crocodiles clamping down on your body and entering a death roll, parasites being intentionally eaten then poking through your stomach line, and so on.

It only takes a few of the above, interspersed among more typical threats, to create a sense of body horror, fear or disgust.

If I've done anything of value here, it should be clear that this issue goes far beyond the subject of teeth or the lack thereof. It goes beyond making something horrific or scary. Another major example of this is with room keying and description. All Dead Generations' discussion of Descent into Avernus brings up a room dominated by an open sarcophagus filled with blood, in which cultists bathe, and one hides behind it, literally blood-soaked, when the party enters.

If you take a step back, it's a pretty evocative, horrible image. But it's paired with so much 'generic black-robed death cultists' and the relevant elements of the room are so under-emphasized that my immediate reaction isn't, 'Gods above, the horror!' but instead, 'Sounds about right.'

Another example from the same post, regarding Arneson's classic Temple of the Frog. The description here is on the minimal side, and largely predictable at that, in particular the giant stone frog statue on a pedestal.

Again, stepping back, a bunch of frog-worshiping cultists and their frog idols should be weird and evocative. And it certainly was when it came out in 1975. But today, the idea of a stone statue on a pedestal is pedestrian. I'm pretty certain you can short-circuit that reaction with fairly minimal changes. Say, maybe it's a mosaic made from small colored rocks on the floor instead. Maybe they're gems. Maybe it's a crude wooden effigy the cultists periodically burn in rituals. Maybe the statue appears to just be well-painted stone, but at a touch is slimy, and slowly breathes.

This post continues a line of thought that I pull from Fighting Goblins in a Creative Wasteland and Conceptual Density. The first because cliche descriptions take away player curiosity, as well as a real sense of danger and the unknown. In Gus L's words, "the wonder and potential terror that is implicit in a small horrible person/not-person thing trying to kill you with a rusty knife in a dark cave."

The second because these descriptions take up space, sometimes a lot of space, to tell you something you either already knew or could have made up with zero effort. If you have a frog-god shrine with a stone statue of a frog on a pedestal, it's going to feel less wondrous and terrible, and more tongue in cheek at best, or lazy at worst. Whenever any significant element of an encounter, location or character is exactly what any of your players would have made up on autopilot, you lose some sense of a complex world beyond your ken.

So, should we replace everything familiar in our games with gonzo and totally original parts? No, not in the least because that would be exhausting. Instead, a general principle. If you spend more than a sentence on any description, give it some little twist. Add an extra, unorthodox descriptor. Replace it with something adjacent, but less expected.

Not everything needs big, sharp teeth.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Elder Scrolls GLOG Report 3: Of Orcs and Opera

The Discord #to-morrowind campaign is chugging along, and I'm bringing you the fortnightly report. When last we left off, the players got a cover as traveling merchants, and brought an illicit shipment of whiskey to the big city of Balmora. After learning they had bounties on their heads and getting involved in a spy-thriller conspiracy, they've agreed to become spies for House Hlaalu in exchange for protection. Their next stop is the corrupt mining town of Caldera, where the governor is embezzling massive amounts of ebony, Morrowind's most precious export.

To recap, our cast

Vilamon Hawker, Redguard Destruction Wizard - kahva

Gwynabyth Muriel Ysciele, Breton Conjurer - retrograde tardigrade xenograft

Riadell Fernhollow, Bosmer (Wood Elf) Knight - mtb-za

Verdgrss-Wears-Copper, Argonian Hunter - grimlucis

Hama'ak, Khajiit Thief - Walfalcon

The Game

After spending a week in Balmora resting, getting covers, making friends and joining cults, the party joins a caravan to Caldera. They already have a friend among the new miners; a Khajiit named Mahmoud and his crew. The journey there is largely peaceful, with the exception of a singularly bizarre encounter.

While riding through the West Gash, the caravan hears a piercingly loud, supernaturally powerful shout. A Nord warrior bursts from the bushes and rushes them, yelling, "WHERE IN ARKAY'S BOUNTIFUL ARMPIT ARE MY FUCKING CLOTHES!?" Did I mention he was naked as the day he was born?

In the face of a giant screaming barbarian, Verdgrss' quick thinking saves their skins. He points in a random direction and tells him 'Yarub has them!' One heavily penalized Charisma check later, the barbarian is utterly convinced someone named Yarub is in league with the witch who stole his clothes, and runs off in that direction, leaving a trail of dust in his wake.

While they recover their wits, a pile of fine Nord clothes land in Verdgrss' lap. A witch appears from under an invisibility spell and congratulates the caravan on their fast thinking. She then disappears again and cackles.

Verdgrss: "I don't understand this island."
Gwynabyth: "I don't think anyone does, sweetie."
Verdgrss: "These are some good shoes, shame I don't have the feet for them."

Image result for fantasy mining"
Ah, shit. Here we go again.

After a week of travel, the party finally arrives in Caldera. They distribute their contracts. Between the five of them and J'Hanir, they've got two guard contracts and four laborer contracts. They decide to give the guard positions to J'Hanir, who has some experience with the gig, and Vilamon, who is the beefiest among them. The rest will have to do with hard labor again.

They get acquainted with the town. It's dead silent in the afternoon, when most of the population is off at the mine. The governor's manor, a great stone castle in the north, looms over the other buildings, and the trail leading up to the mine snakes away to the west. The party gets to know the local pawnbroker, and their attention turns to the abandoned mansion in the center of town, which the locals avoid and from which strange music can be heard. Standing at the front door, a smell like a boys' locker room wafts out.

They open up the front door, disarming a crude alarm system. They find a guardian inside, however; an orc named Gulfim. She demands to know who enters the domain of Ghorak. Riadell's customary flattery gets her to open up about the nature of the house. It's the refuge of Ghorak and his followers, orcs who exist outside the Imperial capitalist machine, and focus their art instead. Joining the house requires defeating a current member in single combat and taking their place, to keep the strength of the tribe high. Yeah, they're anarcho-syndicalist hippy orcs, sue me.

It just so happens that Gwynabyth (through player knowledge of Hegel) is very knowledgeable about the philosophical doctrines of the orc philosopher Gorg With-Helm Haggle. Gulfim is impressed, and allows the party upstairs. It smells worse than they expected, and the orcs within seem to all be focused on their chosen art; music, sculpture, poetry, painting. Gulfim shows them her collection of books, such as The Edge of Thaumaturgy, by Yoks the Derider, Self and Duration, by Martus High-Legger and Sexuality in Cyrodillic Theater, by Mai-Shel Fu-Ko.

The orc philosopher Gorg With-Helm Haggle, best known for
his book Phenomenology of the Magna-Ge

At that moment, a tall, bearded orc comes down the stairs, clutching his side. The whole floor starts playing instruments as this orc, clearly their leader Ghorak, begins to sing in a rumbling basso. One theatrical stage death later, the party talks to him directly, getting to know more about what the orcs are doing there, and the potential perks of joining. Having secured friendly terms with the orcs and explored the town as they liked, the party gets down to the hard work of mining and guarding, while being spies for a rival faction.

The next week passes quickly, with small moments of drama risking their cover. In addition to the paid miners, the mine is also operated by Khajiit and Argonian slaves. During one of his night patrols, Vilamon encounters an escaped Khajiit. Convincing him that he wants to help, Vilamon supplies him with fishing gear and rations and frustrates the other guards' efforts to track him down. He suffers a dock in pay for his failure, but regrets nothing.

Verdgrss investigates the disappearance of Tuvese, one of Mahmoud's mining crew, who was known to remain in the mine longer than normal, and made her own wooden Tribunal shrine. Even with Vilamon asking the guards, they fail to figure out her location, and she remains missing.

Hama'ak spotts burglars breaking into the governor's manor late at night, and offers his own services to them. He helps them infiltrate the mansion via a window, and gets to the governor's office. The thieves are clearly looking for a special item, and begin to pull the room apart, shattering an inkwell on the floor. Hama'ak hides behind the door when an elderly Dunmer man walks in, spots one of the thieves and takes him to task.

Image result for od&d thief illustration"
Just thief things

Hama'ak sneaks into the governor's bedroom and quickly burgles a handful of jewelry. Meanwhile, the old man is beating up the thieves in the next room and casting spells. Hama'ak makes a quick escape through the window, returning to town with pocketfuls of valuables undetected, and his woud-be partners probably captured.

While leaving the mines one day, the workers in the party realize that the children of Stlennius Vibato (the mine overseer) have gone missing in the mines, and their governess is giving the guards hell. They risk their own necks going back inside. The young boy is balancing on a weak beam over a mineshaft when the party finds him. Hama'ak ends up diving into the chasm after him with a rope attached to his waist, saving the kid's life but injuring him in the process.

The elder girl is atop rotten scaffolding in an abandoned tunnel, abandoned due to the prevalence of dead air, reading a book full of letters. She falls unconscious, so Vergrss and Riadell get her out and into fresh air as the tunnel collapses.

The in-game week ends with Vilamon suffering docked pay, and the rest of the party getting on the bad side of some poor-tempered children. The players express they would much rather get paid if they're going to risk life and limb.

And that is where the game left off as of writing. For the moment, these poor characters get to rest. They may find themselves in quite a pickle when they next wake up.


These couple weeks were full of lessons in GMing for me. I've also dropped in-person games due to midterms. This online game style fits my schedule much better.

The orc manor encounter was fun, and sounds good when written here, but I didn't handle it very well in play. I intended it as a little side-spectacle to add some wackiness and flavor, but when you're running a PbP game, you need to include frequent decision points. Most of the encounter, especially after they were allowed upstairs was just a scene playing out in front of them with little interactivity and nothing much to be gained. It's a standard failure mode for social encounters, and I fell right into it.

I wanted to sell the idea of getting embedded in the society of Caldera in the course of spying, so I advanced the speed of play. Instead of playing through each day, characters were assumed to be working and ingratiating themselves to the locals. Then, when unusual or risky circumstances came up, I presented them to one or two players at a time, getting their own scenes to define their characters and take risks. The idea needs to be developed more, but I think it's a valuable one. I need to define the parameters for a good mini-encounter more clearly, and may write that up as a proper post.