Strange Ecology – Starting Small

Ever since Exchange of Realities focused on various Ecology For World Builders articles all this past week, I’ve been thinking about how to implement her ideas in my own setting.

There is a region of Memory Fading where the ecology is strange. Animals are deformed or monstrous, and most are quite dangerous due to the amount of natural defenses required just to live in the Chulgeth. Things here run the gamut from mutated wildlife (e.g., the massive spineyback bear, with bony protrusions growing from its back) to occasional Monster Manual creatures (oozes, yrthak, various plant creatures, etc.). The general idea is that nothing here is really sentient, and that everything fits into a hot, humid jungle/swamp/marsh sort of habitat, and most things are clearly wrong in some way: twisted or deformed by mysterious local phenomena.

Anyway, I thought I’d share my thoughts so far on one of the smaller and more common creatures of the Chulgeth. I’m not really good at statting out monsters or anything, so here’s the brief text version:

Unnamed Amphibians (small-sized animals, or perhaps magical beasts?)
These salamander-like creatures are as long as a human’s forearm and twice as wide, with flat, spade-shaped heads and tadpole tails. Their membranous skin is oily and mottled black, and the webbing between their fingers and fanning out on both sides of the tail is a translucent, sickly yellow-green.

These amphibians are numerous in the Chulgeth, but no two seem alike. Most seem to be suffering some sort of deformity: wrong numbers of legs or eyes, a missing or truncated tail, misshapen or lumpy “collars” around the neck and shoulders– rarely even something so drastic as an extra head. The sirish scholars known as the Feng Tower is studying the creatures’ deformities, but the project is low-priority and underfunded, and has produced no conclusive results.

All noted varieties of the creatures are highly toxic to the touch; the slime that lubricates their membranous skin is a dangerous contact poison that causes spreading numbness and muscle paralysis. In some cases, the poison has been lethal, over large amounts of exposure. Some Chulgeth explorers have claimed to have seen the creatures spit their poison, or perhaps squirt it from glands in the flesh beneath the jaw; these claims are unverified.

When alone, these amphibians will typically flee from larger creatures. When in groups, they tend to attack intruders to defend their territory.

For now, that’s all I’ve got. This is my first attempt to pin down this particular area’s ecology system, which has been bouncing around the inside of my skull for about a week now. Thoughts?


Unexplored Genres – The Progressive Apocalypse

This is the first post in a series I plan on working on. I will be focusing on what I’m calling “Unexplored Genres,” but what would much more accurately be called “Non-Typical Genres.” It’s not so much that these genres don’t exist in RPGs, it’s just that they’re so rare, and so … undefined that they could use a little bit of attention. Without further adieu, I present, the Progressive Apocalypse.

What is a Progressive Apocalypse? A progressive apocalypse follows one of two basic premises for the story, though variations are possible: Either the world is undergoing an apocalypse over a slow and drawn out period, or their was a cataclysmic event, followed by a prolonged period of decay. Either way, the defining aspect of the genre is a sense of near hopelessness – although it may not happen for a few hundred or even thousand years, the world is dying slowly but steadily. There is little to no chance of averting the apocalypse.

What makes Progressive Apocalypse different from post apocalypse? Because progressive apocalypse happens during the apocalypse, and creates a sense of decay, urgency, and despair, it works best with settings that have darker themes. The interesting aspect of Progressive Apocalypse settings is that everything will end, no matter what. This may or may not be known to the people who live in this world, but it still shadows the setting, creating a feeling that permeates the air.

How does one play in a Progressive Apocalypse campaign? The way I see it, there are two ways to play in a Prog’Poc campaign. The first, and more obvious way, is to play it much like one would play a Post Apocalyptic campaign – the heroes can change nothing, they can save no one and nothing, and all they can do is make people comfortable while awaiting the inevitable end. The second way is the one in which there is still hope that the apocalypse can be stopped in some way – either through powerful magicks and sciences, or through the fortune of misinterpreting the signs (“Oh, the asteroid was heading for Mars, not for Earth after all! Sorry for the panic!“). This seems to me the more logical choice, but of course, that all depends on the style of gameplay you like – hopeful and inspiring, or dark and dreadful. One can also certainly make the distinction between man-made apocalypses, and natural apocalypses. Generally, I prefer it when the slow decay is human-engineered, and they have only themselves to blame for the slow entropy of their world, but picture our own planet earth 5 billion years from now, as the Sun is expanding and burning out all life on earth – how would you roleplay in those situations?

Have you used Prog’Poc before? How did it work out? Does your setting (or any settings you know of) use this premise as part of the overall theme?

Racial Archetypes as Caricatures of Humans

It seems to me that fantasy races often take on caricaturistic qualities in many (or most) fantasy RPGs. A lot of this comes from the tropes and clich├ęs that have hidden within RPGs for many, many years, but I do believe it runs a bit deeper than just, “that’s how things came to be.”

I was thinking about this on the way home from work yesterday, and it struck me as a discussion that could possibly be entertaining (as well as educational?) to the RPG community. Keep in mind that all of this is strictly conjecture, and I don’t have any kind of evidence to back it up… I’m basically just thinking out loud here.

Note that I’m using basic, general, stereotypical renditions of races for the purposes of this discussion, and I’m using general, stereotypical ideas about real-world people, too.

I’m playing with the idea that many of the features of “standard” fantasy races are exaggerated and magnified versions of specific human traits.

For example, dwarves are pretty much caricatures of masculinity. They’re tough, they can take a lot of pain, the hold their liquor pretty well– the “tough-guy” types. They’re obsessed with their beards. They’re excellent craftsmen of utilitarian things: the fantasy equivalents of modern auto-mechanics, construction workers, architects, and engineers. They’re usually depicted as martial if not aggressive– no invading army is going to catch them unprepared. They’re stoic and reserved, not showing a lot of sissy emotion. This theory also explains why female dwarves are so rarely encountered– if dwarves are a magnification of masculine caricatures, feminine versions of them are almost counterintuitive.

I think halflings, gnomes, and the other smaller races are derived in a similar way from children. Their size was the hint that tipped me off, but their behaviors are often similarly childlike. Two of gnomes’ most strongly represented characteristics are ill-advised, obnoxious, or inappropriate senses of humor, and a tendency to build stuff that doesn’t work. (O, when I think of all my magnificent, ill-fated childhood plans and inventions!) Halflings are the lovable little scamps that can’t keep out of trouble. Goblins are the playground bullies: violent and brutish, but small-time and easy enough to take less-than-seriously.

I was wondering what you all think about this sort of dissection. Any other races jump out at you with a similar analysis?

I think this is, in general, a pretty unuseful thought exercise, though it does seem to explain certain things about the status quo. For example, humans are almost always portrayed as “the adaptable ones” or “the versatile ones”, with no other overarching cultural detail. But that makes perfect sense if you consider that in-game humans are modeled closely after real-world humans and the full spectrum of their personalities and experiences, while every other race in our general collective vocabulary is allegedly modeled after one specific aspect, focused and magnified, of real-world humans’ personalities and experiences. Of course humans are “the versatile ones” if they’re the only ones whose nature has not been defined by a limitation!


Learning History from Weapons

I was watching the Lord of the Rings recently on a day off, and something occurred to me. It struck me as interesting that the major treasures of the world often seem more significant for their historical connections than for their concentrated badguy-whomping power. A highly-treasured sword is highly-treasured not because it’s +5 and Vorpal and Slays Evil With A Single Touch (in fact, it may or may not actually be any more combat-effective than your average weapon), but because it was worn into battle by a king a thousand years ago. Even some of the really powerful artifacts in this mythos (say, the Three elven rings) are practically never used at all, and seem to serve primarily as status symbols for the individuals and nations that control them– by dint of historical inertia, I’d wager.

When you think about it, this is a pretty neat way to connect characters with setting. An adventurer with a mortal’s lifespan has a limited amount of timeline he can really connect to directly. But if that same adventurer leaves home with his great-grandfather’s battleaxe (you know, the one Gramps used when he fought in the Orc Wars of 438?) he inherits a piece of setting history as well as a physical weapon, and connects himself, via the object, to a part of the timeline outside of his natural lifespan. That’s pretty neat!

If an adventurer finds an even more historically significant object (of importance to an entire culture rather than just a family), the “history effect” is magnified. If you are wielding, say, the Axe of the First King, which Kagren the Bold used to win sentience for mortalkind by severing the umbilical cord of the world at the dawn of time, you are wielding an item of unimaginably great importance and power– even if it turns out to be a “mere” masterwork axe.

Role playing games are typically balanced around the assumption that as they gain in level and in power, adventurers accumulate vaster and vaster collections of mighty equipment. You’re expected to replace your old and busted stuff– it’s tough to compete if you don’t. It’s extremely rare to see a world-saving hero at level 20 who still relies on the same sword he left home with at level 1, even if it is the one Gramps used in the Orc Wars of 438.

Heirlooms get set aside when shinier gear comes along, and to me, that’s a pity.

I think the problem happened somewhere along the line, when people were trying to recapture the feel of their favorite epic stories in a game format, and someone made the error of ascribing the mightiness of heroes to the qualities of their equipment. It’s a chicken-and-egg sort of dilemma: if we see a lone warrior stand against an army of thousands armed only with his trusty sword, and he actually survives, is it because he is an exceptionally talented warrior, or because he has an exceptionally nifty sword, or some particular balance of the two? Do adventurers become mighty because they acquire mighty gear, or does gear become coveted because historically it has been used by mighty adventurers to accomplish mighty deeds?

I think I’d prefer it if the balance between person and equipment were shifted a bit. I’ve always been fond of heroes who rely on personal skill more than special tools. (I always like the combat in Jackie Chan movies– hand the man an umbrella or a loaf of bread or a priceless vase, and he does just as well as any master swordsman. To me, that’s fun combat in a nutshell.)

And when power comes from the hand and mind of the adventurer, rather than from the adventurer’s collection of special gear, there’s no reason to throw away great-granddad’s heirloom axe just because you raided a dragon’s lair. Instead, keep the axe, and you keep the Orc Wars of 438 as a talking point that connects your character to significant events in the setting’s timeline.


Fear In Your Campaign

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear”
–H.P. Lovecraft

Fear and anxiety are two of the oldest, most instinctual emotions we possess. Survival depends on both. It overrides both reason and logic, which make it a powerful thing, especially in the experience of role playing. It manifests in several different ways; sometimes as an almost tangible force, such as athe aura that emanates from an elder wyrm. In D&D, there are saving throws to counteract fear effects. There are bards to sing songs of encouragement, and paladins to radiate courage. There are spells to help dull the effects of fear. Other role playing games (with which I’m a bit less familiar) have similar options.

It’s much different in “real life,” of course. Obviously, we don’t often find ourselves encountering fire-breathing dragons, but we do find ourselves encountering things that make us afraid. There are plenty of things that scare me. I’ve never particularly been fond of mirrors. Spiders and ticks give me the heebie-jeebies. I grew up feearing vampires in the night (and really, who’s to say they’re not out there, waiting for us to blunder down a deserted alley all alone? Not I!).

So with that all being said, what are the best methods of introducing fear into combat and other situations of role playing games? Combat tends to be the hardest part of most RPGs to keep scary – once players start dealing damage to the lich, it usually becomes more of a stat block than a fearsome enemy. Preserving a sense of fear through every encounter isn’t necessarily right for all campaigns, but most games benefit from the occasional infusion of horror and dread.

Introducing a touch of terror into combat can be tricky. There’s a lot of building up of suspense to be done, but after the initiative is rolled, what do we do? My favorite trick is to isolate the characters from each other, giving them that nice ol’fashioned feeling of being alone. The players usually have a strategy of sending in the heavy hitter first, with the healer directly behind him. That way, the hitter can take abuse while dealing out damage, at the same time being constantly healed. They used the same technique one time against a vampire wizard I had introduced them to. I decided to spice things up a bit…

The party encountered the vampire while investigating the sewers system below a major city. Knowing they were in for a fight, the dwarven tank rushed forward to start the battle, with the cleric prepping spells. Vampire won the initiative competition and the first thing he did was plop a wall of stone between the dwarf and the rest of the group. Whoops! Suddenly, instead of a heavy hitter being healed by cleric, there was a very strong meat bag standing alone with a very pissed off vampire. Needless to say, Mr. Heavy Hitter had a rough evening. What was worse, Heavy Hitter could hear his comrades frantically trying to get rid of the wall while he was taking all kinds of punishment. Plus, the other party members could see nothing, and could do little as they listened to their teammate fight desperately on the other side. Fun, huh?

Isolating a character, heightening his sense of vulnerability, can be a great way to guarantee a little fear into the combat, but be careful of using tricks like this too often, les they become gimmicky. Using the trick sparingly preserves its impact, too – the first time a character has to face the vampire alone, it’s frightening. The second time, it starts to become routine. Also worth mentioning, an isolated player with a series of bad rolls suddenly becomes a dead isolated player, and sometimes players can take harshly to this kind of thing, believing they’ve been wronged or “cheated.”

How do you do it? How do you make the characters (and players) fear the enemies? What are your tips and tricks?

Thaelavan, the Hell Shark

In response to Uncle Bear’s”Dire Shark Week” currently taking place, I decided to up the ante a bit and go with something a little more dire than “dire” (not to mention, this is not poetry, as he was looking for on the first day, but hey, I’m no poet). I should first say that the entirety of Thaelavan, the Hell Shark, was inspired by the artwork below, originally found on the WotC Art boards. I do not know the name of the original artist, but his original name for the piece was “hell-squid-shark,” and he also had several other pieces that I have on my computer called, “Hellish_Aspect_of_Sekolah,” “Hellish_Hord_of_Sekolah,” and “Hellish_Deep_Cursed,” (he had a fascination with “hellish”) all of which were drawn in a similar style. If anyone knows this artist’s name, or his web site, I would like to place a link to it, because he does quite fantastic work. With that aside, I would like to present to you:

Thaelavan, the Hell Shark

Thaelavan is one of the duragni in Memory Fading, a group of creatures who were brought into the world of Ord eons ago by powerful sorcerers, but could never be controlled. Alongside Thaelavan came the duragni Imetraz, a giant arachnid with claw-like pincers, Cirooz, a giant flying serpent with a hundred human hands, and Beorkul, a castle-sized bear-like monstrosity with eight legs and spider-like mandibles. Of these, only Thaelavan has ever been confronted in any sort of battle. During the White Wars just thirty years ago, Thaelavan was spotted by Khandians in the Sapphire Sea several times destroying ships, and was fought by several Khandian channelers before retreating to its watery depths.

Thaelavan is fully three hundred feet long from the tip of its snout to the extended length of its man-eating tentacles. Each of the tentacles is as large around as a small house, and all flay viciously whenever the behemoth is in battle. Its massive maw can consume small boats in a split second, and its powerful jaws can break battleships in half as though they were kindling. During one of the battles in the White Wars, the creature was literally seen jumping from the water to capture a massive boat in its mouth, and taking the entire ship down beneath the sea with it, causing a surge of water that capsized four other ships.

None know the intelligence or true origin of the beast, but Khandians were able to figure out what caused the beast enough pain to retreat – intense heat. Fireballs thrown by the wizards did some damage, but it was when the combined might of nine channelers were able to harness a beam of concentrated energy from the sun that the beast, blistering and roaring with rage, swam beneath the depths and did not arise again during the war. Scholars are certain the creature is not dead, and will rise again someday. In fact, an entire Hithan ship went missing last year, and the blame is being put at Thaelavan’s mouth.

The Giant TICK

The Horror! Could anything be worse than a combination of arachnid and vampire? How about an arachnid/vampire amalgamation the size of a large dog?? I submit that literally nothing could be more terrible, and I dare you prove me wrong.

This post was inspired by a recent post at Jeff’s Gameblog, in which Jeff found an old encounter sheet where a GM had scratched off the creatures on the sheet and provided his own (See the encounter sheet and blog here). There were a few comical entries, such as the random chicken on dungeon level 1, and the purple pigs on level two, but horrifyingly, on level three, one has an 8.5% chance (1 out of 12) of running into a “Giant Tick.” If you are not suitably terrified yet, allow me to continue. Also worth mentioning, Mike Mearls was inspired as well and wrote up some 4E Stats on a Giant Tick. Definitely worth reading that to use in your game.

What scares human beings more than anything? I submit, that often (but not always), it is the sense of alien and unknown. Unknown in the sense of non-mammalian is what I’m speaking of. Why do dogs, cows, horses, pigs, and other such four-legged creatures not terrify us as human beings? It’s because of their reasonable similarities to us as humans. They have four limbs (just like us), are warm-blooded, and have been proven to be domesticable (sometimes). Sure, we get worried when we see a dog foaming at the lips, a horse going crazy and bucking all around, or a giant jaguar staring us in the eyes (what, that’s never happened to you?), but it’s worry based around our uncertainty and the animals’ unpredictability. It’s the logical worry that “this creature may hurt us if we’re not careful and sensible in our next actions.” Why then, knowing that it can’t possibly hurt us, do humans run screaming at granddaddy long-legs creeping up our arms, or get literal shivers of despair when looking into the cold, calculating (and presumably malicious?) eyes of a giant octopus at the local aquarium? Why do horror authors use arachnids, cephalopods, and even reptiles and bivalves to terrify us in their stories? It’s because these creatures are inherently and obviously not like us. There are at least 1 (starfish), but in the upwards of hundreds (millipedes and some jellyfish) of extra appendages that we don’t know what they do! Combine that with the knowledge that the brains within these creatures (large or small) thinks and rationalizes in no way that we can comprehend as humans, and it leads to some terrifying perceptions.

An arachnid is bad enough, but an arachnid that drinks blood? Is there any other form of behavior that can be more dehumanizing to us? Blood is our life force, and in many mythologies, it is literally the physical manifestation of our soul. Without it, we simply cannot survive. You can take our limbs, you can even take some of our organs, but if you take our blood, we die. That’s it. Game over. Vampires have taken a much different role in our culture in recent years – we have a fascination with their thoughts, with their evil agendas, with their goth parties, but it’s because we know that, even as undead creatures of unadulterated evil, they still rationalize. They still think. Hell, in some modern interpretations, they don’t even have to be evil. Sometimes their rewards are not based on the pure sustenance of that which would kill us – sometimes they want money, fame, power, and all the other things that humans are greedy for. Vampires also have weaknesses. If a vampire is coming at you, you can throw up a silver cross, toss some garlic over your shoulder, run across a moving body of water, or just get inside a house in which they’re not invited, and you’re safe! All those failing, you may could at least convince said vampire that your friend’s blood is much tastier than yours, giving yourself an opportunity to escape while the vampire hunts down poor Billy. I challenge you to bandy words with a tick. I challenge you to come up with any way to rationalize what a tick is doing, other than your blood sustains it, and it’ll be damned if it’s going to die without getting a good bite in on you first.

Now, taking that cold, calculating, alien rationalizing arachnid that craves for nothing so much as your very essence, and multiply its size to something that you can’t just stomp on or pinch between your fingers. A tick the size of a rottweiler, eight legs scrambling up the frakkin walls, pinchers snapping, the blood of its last victim still dripping from its mouth. A tick that still has the mind of an insect, has no ambitions of power and glory with which it can be dissuaded, and that is hungry for your blood. Man, I’ve got to stop now before…

Minutes after posting this entry, Ishmayl was found on the ground in his office in a fetal position, sucking his thumb. We were advised to warn you that everything he spoke of in this article is fictional – we The People do not acknowledge the existence of vampires, reasoning cephalopods, or giant ticks. Thank you.