Saturday, February 25, 2017

Divinity as a Function of Belief; Geography as a Function of Divinity

In my current setting, Ánemos...


Ánemos (άνεμος) is Greek for wind (thanks google translate!). I have named my two most developed settings after the wind, Ánemos and Vindjord (which is literally wind-land from the Norwegian and Danish). I think it has to do with the landscapes I picture the PCs being in at the beginning of the writing process. Vinjord's aesthetic is strongly influenced by the amazing art from the Banner Saga.

Get it, love it, look at really beautiful game art.
For Vindjord I imagined stoic warriors and bearded wizards cresting a snowy hill, looking down on a green and untouched vale, wind dramatically tugging at their sweet cloaks...

And so too with Ánemos the Windswept Isles. I saw men and women in loose and airy clothes, jumping off a trireme onto a white beach below parched and scrubby cliffs with the ever present wind whispering across the azure sea...

***End digression***

... there is a funny medley of the idea of little gods and powerful nature spirits. I have been running games with one of my D&D groups in this setting since June or July, and as we have been exploring it together we have been flirting with some deep questions about the nature of divinity. One of my players is a demigod (using stats as an Aasimar), in the tradition of Greek mythic heroes like Hercules.

In the last session we played they met the closest thing to a "real" god in the setting, the God of Minoa. He revealed that the players had accidentally kidnapped (godnapped?) a god from a small but bustling smuggling isle just outside of the Minoan Republic's military control. This god was quietly locked away in depths of the Obsidian Bank's vault, presumably for decades.  As a result it is little better than a beast, barely capable of language and understanding. The God of Minoa, Minoa, revealed its nature to the party and hinted at some of the stuff below.

Minoa is basically Zeus. Definitely the most generic god ever. Tropes have their uses though. (I also love this video game)

Divinity as a Function of Belief:

Unintentionally borrowing the concept from Discworld (one of my players couldn't believe I hadn't read any of it), gods operate as a function of their believers faith. The do not exist in a vacuum, indeed it seems that they would not exist at all if they had no one to believe in them. In my myth about mermaids I flirted with the idea of the "birth" of a god: "And so Várdana, the Queen of Poetry, was born along with her first believers deliverance..."

It seems to me that the birth of a god needs three things in Ánemos:
  • A spiritually blank piece of land (more on that later)
  • People ready to become believers
  • Praise, or put another way, to be spoke into being (the animating breath, the same root word as Ánemos)
Using the story of Várdana as a template we can see the elements at work: a rocky little island in the storm struck sea devoid of spiritual inhabitants, desperate victims of a ship wreck looking for a savior, and their cries for deliverance. The result is that a goddess manifests to accept their praise.

Born with a clarity of purpose, sprung from a thought...
The beliefs of mortals in an immortal being are fickle, as the centuries grind by even dwarfs' and elves' attentions flow and warp. So is the birth of a god's personality tied to the passing interests of their believers? Is Várdana the god of poetry because her first believers had been writing shitty rhyming couplets the day before their ship wreck? Or did she only save the couple because they had the capacity for poetry in them, and being the god of poetry she would of course intervene?

The question boils down to this: do the gods of Ánemos have some animating spark of character that is immutable and is given the chance to flourish if believers are found OR are the gods mutable to the interest of their islands inhabitants? It is a chicken and egg argument that philosophers and theologians alike have argued about for the long history of the islands. Few even recognize that the gods change through time and history with the whims and beliefs of their followers. drift and flow with the wandering hearts of their believers.

Geography as a Function of Divinity:

In Ánemos land is life, the ocean is a desert of salt. So the beings that are attributed with creating the many islands of the archipelago are of course revered as gods. There are countless islets in the wide Sea, and non-has yet been found that doesn't appear to have a the chance to have a god be born. Some of these spits of land have never had a thinking being set foot/paw/fin upon their shores and their gods are brute beasts of thought, really more the potential for a god than a god.

Introspective giant mushroom thing? Probably a god
Large islands do not necessarily beget large of powerful gods. For example the first god my PCs interacted with was Mother, on the remote frontier island of Voskó. The god manifests as a silent jackal headed pregnant woman, who slowly walks the island with her stave in hand, and where she does the jungle withers and green pasture springs up. The people call her simply Mother, and they drive their herds of sheep behind her in fresh pasture. The indigenous centaur population who have been in conflict with the human settlers for a few decades now worship her as their Shepherd.

The psyche's that molded Mother for centuries before the human settlers are centaurs, and while not city builders their needs demand open places and expanses of land to graze. So her island is large, her primary "function" is to beat back the creep of the dense forest to create fresh grazing areas. Similar function is desired by the new settlers, who are almost exclusively herders.  As such the geography is likely to remain intact who ever wins the war of colonization and attrition.

Voskó is a large island, but Mother/the Shepherd is a mute and inscrutable god. She is finite, she doesn't cure the sick or lay down holy doctrine, she just creates pasture. A human from the village has taken it upon himself to become her cleric, but has not had any success in securing her favor, perhaps because until then no one was interested in it. In a peace summit organized by the PCs the centaurs and humans successfully held her attention long enough to help ease tensions between centaur and sheep grazing rights by creating much more pasture. This was a jump in her nature, to answer the prayers of her believers, but still within the scope of her interest: pasture.

Chain Reaper? Totally a god too
The small god my PCs have taken from its home island is going to be the window through which they get to explore the mechanics of divinity. If they stay too long on a single island will their little godling cause a geological event (either consciously or not) to create a new land mass for his godhood to mount on? Perhaps the golding could kill and consume the godhead of the resident god, taking on some of their form. What happens to its original island, already little more than an atoll with less than a square mile of permanently dry land? Will it return to the Sea unless it returns or a new god claims it?
SPACE CENTAUR!!! (definitely a god)


I like these ideas because I am actually finding ways for my PCs to interact with them (which doesn't always happen with wacky ideas), and it gives them a lot of agency in literally shaping the world. Having a tangible effect on the very geography of the land is exiting, and the Spirit mechanics already give a good way to manipulate the ecology. This means that the PCs have the power to terraform (after a fashion), with the manipulation of belief in a god and the proper appeasement of the Spirits they could create island with ecologies that suit their needs. This has the potential to really change high level play when PCs begin to build their own domains.

I've already written a post on the birth of a god (which I discussed above) and an example of extreme Spirit deals, and these could be used as road maps to create quest for players. Wanna build a stronghold on an island? Cool! Find an uninhabited one, ship in some believers to sculpt the god, meet the Spirits and find out what they want in return for favorable conditions and create the island stronghold of your dreams! The converse could be happening, cults indoctrinating the public into new forms of belief in their god to shape the god's domains. Or rouge druids secretly out maneuvering the locals to bring ruin on the populous with the aid of the Spirits. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Important is an Actual Grasp of Medieval Warfare to D&D?

I recently (oh shit, this was like six months ago now) went to a music festival/renaissance fair in the town over and I was struck at the reenactors' commitment to authenticity. As someone who plays a lot of make believe informed by the folkloric traditions of Europe and elsewhere should I have a better grasp on how war was actually waged?

I am torn. So listen to this internal conversation:
ConBon: I think it's important that we understand the conditions and reality of combat in the Middle Ages. We want our games to reflect life, even when there are dragons and baby-wizard-clones.

CWilly: I disagree, an attack in D&D is an abstracted way of simulating the action of swinging a sword. We have precluded the need to understand the swing of the sword by having game designers and dungeon masters assign attributes to weapons.

CB: So? If one of our players wanted to use the pommel of his sword to bludgeon a skeleton I would probably let him do that with no penalty, though for less damage than a sword swing. The players understanding of how a sword was built and used improves their ability to use it in game.

CW: Fair point, but the player that doesn't know that may be at a disadvantage.

CB: Good! That will encourage them to learn about their weapons and skills and really immerse themselves in the setting!

CW: No, I think it introduces a layer of complexity and inaccessibility to the game that detracts from its enjoyment. We should absolutely want to encourage immersion and creativity, but never at the cost of penalizing players with less "Player Skill".

CB: Touché my dear fellow. But I still hold that the DM have at least some idea of the means of combat in the setting/era that the game is taking place in. They don't always have to use/include this deeper knowledge, but the ability to answer the PCs probing questions with logical and thoughtful answers is valuable.

CW: Oh absolutely, but the same could be said about having a coherent idea of how magic works in the world. As long as you have a good idea about how you want it to work you can kind of make it up as you go along. Magic laser tanks don't exist, but if a PC asks if their is a self destruct button in one then the answer will vary on what role you want magic laser tanks to play in your Campaign.

And they walk hand in hand into the sunset still arguing...

Some of this may also help make a setting feel more sparse and "gritty" (though I am hesitant to use the phrase). For example, swords were incredibly expensive to make and not very versatile in their uses. Should a fist level warrior-type just starting out on their adventure be able to even have access to a sword? Or perhaps you can have a sword if your daddy was rich, but you get a wood cutting axe or a sickle or a spear otherwise.

I saw something come out of the D&D 5e Homebrew Tumblr a few months back that had stats for Dark Age weapons like seaxes and such. While I like the commitment to the setting and creating usable tools/analogs for DMs to run games in Dark Age Europe, I don't think that it is important to stat a heavy seaxe any differently than a greatsword. Its the same problem I have with the near-fetish like attention D20Modern pays to different gun stats. I don't really care what model Glock I have, I just wanna shoot stuff.

Now when I think of D&D 5e players I think of a lot of young professionals (~20s and 30s) just trying out D&D for the first time. I assume I have a better grasp of medieval combat than they do. But does that mean that my games are more fun? Or does it even mean that my games are a more accurate simulation of what combat would be like if medieval folks where fighting horrible magical monsters? Are those desirable goals? I dunno. What do you think?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Ivory Island

According to the locals this is the resting place of all dead souls (and no one has been able to prove them wrong yet).

This island of marble has been completely carved into shrines to the dead.Centuries ago when they realized that the Spirits of their ancestors slept in the very stones beneath their feet they began to pay them homage with tombs. Back then they had the space for "true" tombs, and the monuments were magnificent in scope if rudimentary in execution, and even a modest man could buy his own sepulcher to lay his bones in once he died.

As time slipped on and more Spirits began to reside there in ever and ever more grand housing, the Tomb Builders reached the height of their craft. Indeed, many of the architectural advances of the modern Age come from the Tomb Builders being confronted with the challenge of cutting more houses for bones out of the living white stone of the island.

Almost fractal now in its complexity, every nook and cranny has been utilized and memorialized. The narrow pathways wander over hill and artificial valley, every step you take is on an intricately carved tile for the Spirit of some poor man or woman, around every corner is a little alcove with a hundred shelves where the ashes of those long dead are laid for eternity. Every fountain is an homage to the beauty of a youth cut down too soon, every column a solemn memory of a parent much missed, and every bench a tribute to the hospitality of a generous entertainer long dead.

Now the few living Tomb Builders that are left tend to the graves of their ancestors and quietly work on their own. All arable land has been dug out till good solid white marble was hit, the island is now devoid of vegetation expect for the lichens and moss that crawl on the older tombs. The water table now purely serves the ever murmuring fountains, and the Tomb Builders import all of their food from other places as the Sea around the Ivory Island is poison to sea life from the run off of the marble. Other than the Tomb Builders and visitors, this is truly an island for the dead.

How to Use the Ivory Island

Now in its waning days the Ivory Island has become quite the destination for tourists from the not so distant Chalcis Chain, many sages and sorcerers of considerable potency have been interred here from centuries ago when it was still fashionable lay your Spirit to rest on the island.

For this reason one of the many wizards of Chalcis may ask you to fetch them the pinkie toe bone of some ancient mage so that they can enhance their scrying rituals. And of course there are untold but well rumored whispers of riches laid to rest beside the bodies of the dead, and it is said some bold blasphemous soul could simply wander into their tombs and liberate their artifacts.

This is also a popular destination for the descendants of the many people that are buried on the island, they are given special attention when summoning and bargaining with the Spirits of the dead. It would really help your bandit prince's claim on the throne if you can convince his long dead great-great-great-great-great-great-grand pappy to say that he is the heir.

In summary the island can serve as:

  • A fetch quest destination
  • A megadungeon littered with undead (the Spirits of the dead do not like grave robbers)
  • A place to get information or quests from your ancestors
I like the Ivory Island a lot, I may write a follow up post if my players ever find themselves in that neck of the sea...
Drawn by reddit user /u/AxelAbraxas

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Creatures of the Deep

My players met one of the biggest baddest creatures on my random encounter table last session, "the kraken" (not actually a kraken, just had that name in there as a placeholder for giant squid beast.). They handled it amazingly well by fleeing to the nearest island with a shallow reef to get away from it. They then convincing a Spirit to help them distract it so they could sail away, by making up a song and building a small shrine in praise of the Spirit.

Part of their roleplay discussion with the Spirit was about the nature of the kraken and what it feared. It came out that the kraken is locked in an eternal hunt with what was implied to be a legendary Kētos. Both prowl the Sea looking for the other. This got me thinking about creating simple movement rules for the Kētos and the "kraken" to map and keep track of their struggles against each other.

In the amazing Joseph Manola's post about the Triple Crown he describes three cosmically damned beings wandering the world. The PCs have to find and interact with these beings in order to retrieve the Triple Crown, a stunning example of his romantic fantasy philosophy to gaming. This got me thinking about how one might keep track of these wandering agents on a hexmap as a way for players to concretely get and use information about their quarry, and so these rules for wandering titanic sea creatures were born...

But First, Some Lore!

So we have two ancient sea creatures hunting each other. One is squid like, the other is "The Great One", an ambiguous large animal implied to be one of the Kētos. Since Kētos already exist as an identifiable group with my players, I want to distinguish this as another creature, and my random encounter table says it should be a "dragon turtle" what ever that really is. So we have a "kraken" and a "dragon turtle", lets write something more interesting than their generic D&D counter parts.

Like this... this and massive and old.
The Great One:
This massive sea turtle is the last of its kind. It once had mates, brothers and sisters, but that was an Age ago before the world changed and before its ancient enemy ripped them from fin to shell. This relic of the ancient ocean cruises the shallow waters of Ánemos with powerful strokes of its fins, grazing on kelp forests and fish when it is not taking long naps near islands. Often mistaken for a reef or a small island the people of Ánemos have many stories of the "island that awoke" or the "reef that lived".

When it catches the scent of its enemy in the water it rises in a flurry of activity, bent on entering a final battle with its ancient foe. This has happened many times before, each ending in a draw were they both flee to lick their wounds and fight another day.

You know, classic kraken but....
...also horrifying gold worm beast.
The Tentacled Fiend: 
Resembling a giant squid or octopus in appendage only this fiend of the deep lays in wait in the deep ravines between the shelves of islands, letting its rubbery arms drift with the currents. Perhaps it slumbers, each tentacle with enough autonomy to grasp and wrestle whatever poor creature happens to graze it. Then the tentacle pulls the poor thing to the depths to its gaping maw, all with out the greater beast awakening. Few sailors have sighted the true beast, though the stories are many of the piece of drifting flesh that would rise up and drag men to their graves.

After its long months of quiet rest the Fiend again extricates itself from its deep crevasse in search of its ancient enemy, either in a deep-seated pattern of predator seeking natural prey, or ancient vengeance for broods lost to the fell beaks of a scavenging enemy.

Their "True" Nature

Legend has it that the Tentacled Fiend and the Great One are halves of the same whole. The Fiend is the incarnation of the terrors of the deep, the Great One the mildness of the shallows. They are the rent asunder Avatar of the Spirit of the Sea. Some say when they finally commit to it their final battle will be their reunion, and as they are locked in each others death grips their blood will mingle with the sea foam and the Spirit of the Sea will be whole as in the ancient world.

This must never be allowed to happen. As every channel, bay, reef, and shoal has a splinter of the greater Spirit, they are short sighted and self interested fragments. Would a unified Spirit of the Sea tolerate the presence of Civilization on her shores? Would she let people fish her bounty to eat her children? Could a man ever feel safe aboard a ship again? No, humanity would crumble underneath the fierce apathy of the Sea.

But these are just stories...

Tracking their Movements

So when the PCs encounter the Great One or the Tentacled Fiend on the random encounter table for the first time you start tracking their movements (or when they start caring, perhaps to hunt them or to commune with them). On your hex map they can move three hexes each week, rolling a 1d6 to determine their heading, discounting results that have them back tracking. They also have a 1 in 10 chance of settling down in a hex and "sleeping" for 1d6+2 weeks.

Information about their movements only reaches the PCs if they:
  • Enter civilized waters, there are sightings by trade/military ships
  • They encounter each other and engage in titanic combat, some poor fisher man is bound to see that
  • Get rolled on the random encounter table again
I like this system because its simple enough to keep track of, and should give the PCs enough info to track them, but still gives them an element of surprise with them showing up unexpectedly as random encounters. I'm implementing this system right now, so I'll report back with how it goes!