Monday, 7 December 2015

The Horus Supremacy

It is the 41st Millenium. For ten thousand years, the Emperor has led his grear war-fleets from the Silver Throne of Luna. He is the master of mankind by the will of the sword and the storm, and master of a million worlds by the might of his indestructible armies.  He is a deathless vampire, writhing visibly with the untold powers of the Red Age of Sorcery. He is the Wolf Khan of the Experium, for whom ten thousand souls are impaled every day, so that he may continue to ride out against the enemies of man.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor's vigilance fades. Mighty battlefleets struggle through the demon-infested sargasso of the Immaterium, the only route between the bleeding stars, their way lit only by the baleful light of the Unblinking Eye. Vast armies battle in His name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his scions are the Adeptus Cicatrix, the Scarred Marines, chaos-warped super-warriors. Their servitors and sometime foes include the Principalitans and their cults and armies, the inescapable Guild of Shadows, and the Tech-Sorcerers of the Arean Cult, to name but a few. But for all their multitudes, they can rarely hold together against the ever-present threat from aliens, traitors and marauders - or worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the midst of the cruelest and bloodiest war imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

Horus prevails.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Planarch Effect

Planarch Effect is a campaign setting I have dreamed of for some time. Drawing together Planescape with Mass Effect, along with a host of other influences, it has lately become the default world for my thoughts and feelings around Dungeon World.


The Great Wheel is the whirling mass of the many planes, consisting of worlds beyond counting, each suspended within its own crystalline sphere. Every plane has its own character - from hyperboreal ice planes, locked in the eternal grasp of an endless winter, to the bizarre spinning and colliding cubes of Acheron, home-plane of the Urukai.

Crystalline spheres are all that protect a plane from the roiling dream-currents of the Astral Sea, the void between worlds, where words can wound and thoughts can kill. Traveling between planes unguided is a dangerous art, practiced only by a few foolish mages known as planarchs who pilot their spelljammers between the worlds. Most choose instead to travel on more limited gatejammers, which utilise the ancient dragon-gate network that links the many planes together in an immense web of worlds.

The nexus of the dragon-gate network is the Spire, an impossibly tall tower-city perched on the edge of the whirling elemental vortex known as the Mouth of Pain. As the centre of the dragon-gate network, it serves as a gathering place and seat of government for the interplanar civilization known as the Sigillium.

The Sigillium

Established in the aftermath of the Draconic Crusade, the Sigil Council is, in theory, the ruling body of much the Great Wheel. The Sigil is the universal term for the sign that binds the Sigillium together - three small circles arranged equally around a larger circle. In one symbol, it represents a compact made millenia ago by the three Council Races - the Eldarin, the Myrmidons, and the Urukai - to preserve balance in the universe after the fall of Dragon-kind.

Worlds that accept the Sigil are granted the protection of the Council Races, at the cost of buying into an arcane and ancient series of laws, trade restrictions, and commandments that the Sigil Council has established over the centuries. To enforce these laws and the balance of peace across the Great Wheel, the Sigil Council appoints Wardens of the Sigil, elite agents entrusted with extraordinary authority to take any action necessary to preserve balance in the name of the Sigil. Wardens are generally considered to be above any law or sanction beyond that of the Sigil Council themselves.

Most races within the Sigillium have no representation on the Sigil Council themselves. An arcane system of patronage governs the interrelationship between races within the Sigillium - races that have not developed planejamming arts themselves must serve as clients to one of the Council Races. Humans of the world of Urtha, the first race since the Council Races to have developed planejamming arts without the intervention of others, serve as a challenge to the whole structure of the Sigillium as it stands today.

Locales of Note

The Mechanus Veil is a blanket across the edge of the Sigillium where the dragon-gate network has been disrupted by the actions of modrons, ancient machine-beings of unknown origin that once marched across the stars and were only pushed back by the combined efforts of the Council Races. There are rumours that they have grown in activity

Arrathoom is a desert plane near Urtha, peopled by insectoid nomads known as the Tharkeen. In the distant past, it was a lush and pleasant world, but the Dragon-empire defiled it with horrific magical experiments. Now, it is a priceless source of the magical residue known as irradium, an addictive substance which can empower its users with incredible supernatural powers.

The Urukai home plane of Acheron is not a single world - within its sphere, a thousand thousand spinning cubes of metal and iron clash endlessly in the eternal dusk. Within Acheron itself, the Sigil is partially broken - even as they present a united front to the rest of the Sigillium, the five Great Hordes of the Urukai war amongst themselves for honor and a chance to win glory in the next life.

Resting within a lake of fire on the hell-plane of Ignos, the City of Brass is the greatest city in the Great Wheel beyond the reach of the Sigillium. You will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy anywhere in the universe. Within its brass walls, slave-traders, pirates, necromancers, raiders and criminals of every description come to meet and trade under the watchful eye of Al-Jabbar, the Efreeti lord of the city.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Jonathan Walton's Guide To Writing AW Hacks

Jonathan Walton wrote here:

If you are designing a game with a GM-like role...

1. Start with AW, but with no PC moves. Just the MC stuff.

2. Alter MC Agendas/Principles/AlwaysSays/MCMoves to reflect the style of play you have in mind.

3. Recognise that this is a completely functional game. Consider playing it. Maybe the game is done now.

4. Distill categories of player actions into principled freeform moves ("when you do x, it turns out like y"), no dice and no mechanics, just descriptions ("when you inflict violence, it's messy, complicated, and unproductive").

5. Recognise that this is a completely functional game. Consider playing it. Maybe the game is done now.

6. Begin turning principled freeform moves into other types of moves if the moves are not fully satisfying. Probably only do this a few moves at a time so that you can...

7. Test the moves in small batches by continuing to actually play the game. Sometimes one new move may render previously "finished" moves to be less perfect. Game design is hard. But the simpler and fewer your moves are (and the better thought-out they are) the easier it is to avoid these kinds of upsets. Sometimes it's necessary to shake the foundation, though. Or replace an established move with a principled freeform move and start over.

8. Eventually you can declare the game "done" or stop working on it. But your players and fans will probably continue the above process without you, either way.

Notice that at no point in the design process is the game not completely playable. This is critical. My advice: keep releasing playable drafts so other folks can enjoy your game while you continue to work on it. 

Also: you now have no excuse not to be playing your game, if that's what you really want to be doing (and, really, why else design a game?). "It's not done yet" doesn't cut it anymore. If you don't like some things and can't think of anything better yet, just replace those portions with principled freeform moves until you get a new brainwave.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

[Dungeon World] Martial Arts Styles, Part 2

Black Swan Style

Emphasizing the unexpected movement and putting your opponent off-balance, this secretive school was developed by members of the Black Swan Triad. Using the techniques of this school will instantly mark you as someone with deep and close ties to the Jade City's youngest criminal organisation.
Basic Techniques:
  • Swooping Hawk Strike: Suddenly move across a distance and attack an enemy before they expect it.
  • Solo Swan Sweep: Trip your foe, either putting them on the floor or off-balance.
  • Unbalanced Equilibrium Stance: When an enemy attacks you, redirect their attack against something else.
Preferred Weapons: Butterfly knives, chains.
Weakness: Unpredictability

Falling Leaf Style

The Falling Leaf school is one of the less common martial arts practised on Chennai. Once popular in the old Empire of the Many Heavens, it has lost traction over the centuries as its practitioners have died off or associated themselves with unsuccessful regimes. Built on the principles of balance and subtlety, it is not an easy style to learn, but those who master it can still be highly effective in battle.
Basic Techniques:
  • Subtle Breeze Movement: Defy gravity for a few moments.
  • Gentle Inertia Tap: Knock an enemy off-balance and force them into a position where you have the advantage.
  • Balanced Awareness Technique: Avoid being surprised and instead act before your opponent.
Preferred Weapons: Staves, swords.
Weakness: Lack of fortitude

Flying Horse Style

The ghazi-warriors of Shatranji are masters of the martial sphere, and have developed several different schools of combat. Flying Horse Style emphasizes the bravery of the charge, the sheer courage it takes for someone to throw themselves into battle and risk death for their beliefs.
Basic Techniques:
  • Headstrong Stallion Charge: Leap at an opponent, ignoring any obstacles, and strike them with terrible force.
  • Implacable Courage Spirit: Ignore fear, terror, or a supernatural assault on your mind.
  • Terrifying Hooves of Destruction: Make an attack against your opponent that is particularly terrifying or awe-inspiring - lesser foes may flee in terror.
Preferred Weapons: Spears, maces.
Weakness: Unsubtle

Shifting Crab Style

Another technique wielded by the warriors of Shatranji, this school emphasizes being where your opponent is not and moving around their defenses, rather than attempting to strike them head-on.
Basic Techniques:
  • Devious Sideways Step: Suddenly move to where your opponent would not expect you to be.
  • Penetrating Pincer Attack: When you have an advantageous position, strike at your foe's weak points and inflict terrible damage.
  • Unorthodox Motion Defence: Avoid an attack or danger by moving in a surprising way. 
Preferred Weapons: Nunchaku, fans, claws.
Weakness: Arrogance

Monday, 6 August 2012

[Dungeon World] Martial Arts Styles, Part 1

The kung-fu moves I wrote about earlier have become central to my Daojin City Blues campaign. Each of the major mortal planes known to the denizens of Daojin City, including its home plane of Chennai, has been established to have a dominant martial arts style.

Dominant Styles

Jade Mountain Style

Perhaps the most well-known style in Daojin City, the school of the Jade Mountain Style was established during the Empire of the Many Heavens. Its practitioners learn to hold their ground against any foe, and to bolster their strength as if they were a great mountain, stern and implacable. 

Basic Techniques:
  • Jade Armour Spirit: Ignore any damage from one attack.
  • Pillar of Might Stance: Resist any forced movement or push attack.
  • Bolder-Crushing Blow: Deliver an unstoppable blow.
Preferred Weapons: Swords, shields, spears.
Weakness: Inflexibility

Flowing Water Style

This style was devised on the paradise plane of Bakuyeo, and it fits the relaxed denizens of that plane well. Techniques focus on being like the water, on avoiding blows rather than resisting them, and on using an enemy's own momentum and energy against them.

Basic Techniques:
  • Rippling Wave Escape: Move swiftly out of the path of danger.
  • Divergent Stream DefenceRedirect one foe's attack into another opponent.
  • Flow Reversal Technique: Use an enemy's momentum against them.
Preferred Weapons: Nunchaku, whips, nets.
Weakness: Softness

Deadly Blossom Style

The Peach Kingdom of Kimoko values peace and order over all other concerns, and thus the dominant style of its poet-knights emphasizes ending battles before they even begin. Practitioners of the Deadly Blossom Style learn techniques that will allow them to strike quickly and return to peaceful existence as swiftly as possible.

Basic Techniques:
  • Uncanny Scent of Danger: Avoid being surprised.
  • Sudden Blossoming of Blood: Strike an unsuspecting foe for double damage.
  • Instantaneous Strike of Cessation: Draw your weapon, strike, and return it to its scabbard before anyone knows you've attacked.
Preferred Weapons: Swords, knives, fans.
Weakness: Lack of endurance

Celestial Fist Style

The Godhead monks of Tianguo learn that the first enemies of the holy are the corrupt spirits and demons that fester just beneath the material plane, lurking and hoping to pervert the pious at every moment. Every element of the Celestial Fist Style is designed to defeat such opponents, who laugh at the laws of creation and defy mortal means.

Basic Techniques:
  • God-Blooded Fist: Smite an unholy foe for double damage.
  • Inescapable Blow Technique: Strike any enemy, even the incorporeal or spiritual.
  • Glorious Leap of Faith: Defy gravity for a few moments, the better to fight foes that do the same themselves.
Preferred Weapons: Fists only.
Weakness: Arrogance

Moving Fortress Style

Ghazi warriors of the Seven Witch-Queens of Shatranji have been known to use many martial styles, but dominant amongst them is the Moving Fortress Style. Like the chromatic moving castles of the Witch-Queens, the Moving Fortress Style emphasizes maintaining a strong defence while shattering your foes' own defences.

Basic Techniques:
  • Shield-Breaking Strike: Destroy an enemy's armour or shield.
  • Inevitable Castle Motion: Push forwards, driving your foes backwards.
  • Unyielding Rukh Defence: Ignore an enemy's attack.
Preferred Weapons: Maces, hammers.
Weakness: Rigidity 

Shadow Dancer Style

The travelling performers of Transantiago often come under threat from the many dangers of the Shrouded Land, from the agents of the inhuman Barons to bandits and monstrous creatures of the deep woods. Their own martial arts emphasize deception and movement, avoiding an enemy's attack and striking only from a position of total superiority.

Basic Techniques:
  • Shrouding Shadow Step: Vanish quickly into the shadows.
  • Instant Insight Impact: Strike without warning at your foe's weakest point, dealing terrible damage.
  • Death Defying Dance: Dance out of the path of danger.
Preferred Weapons: Daggers, staves.
Weakness: Fragility

Burning Sands Style

Harsh and unyielding, the desert sands of Haemyin do not admit those who are not willing to fight to survive. The sandslingers of the Shifting Sands are notorious for their willingness to go to any end to win a fight, regardless of honour or fairness.

Basic Techniques:
  • Burning Hand Strike: Deliver a burning wound to a foe, igniting their own chi as a source of pain.
  • Sand-Slinging Gesture: Blind your foe for a few moments.
  • Blurring Sand Shift: Move instantly from one place to another.
Preferred Weapons: Spears, knives, scimitars.
Weakness: Overcommitment

Drunken Monkey Style

A school of martial arts developed by the brewmaster monks of Konguo, Drunken Monkey Style revels in the chaos of the world. Masters of the school are never obvious martial artists, most likely to be found dishevelled and drunk in the nearest watering hole. The style emphasizes tricks and chaotic movement to confuse one's opponent, and its advanced techniques are easiest to perform when you've had one too many.

Basic Techniques:
  • Harmless Humility Stance: Appear harmless and blend into the background.
  • Irresistibly Irritating Insult: Taunt an enemy, tricking them into moving into a disadvantageous position.
  • Divide And Conquer Defence: Trick one foe into attacking another.
Preferred Weapons: Improvised weaponry, barrels.
Weakness: Incautious

[Daojin City Blues] The Vanity of Yao Lin, Part 1

We opened with the gang of four making their way to the Long Sing Casino, the city's most decadent pleasure barge and a wholly incorporated operation of the Black Swan Triad. Sanjeev, using his contacts in the underground fight scene, had heard of an opportunity for a big job with the Green Spider, one of the Black Swans' up-and-coming operators. The PCs, all being flat broke, leapt at the opportunity.

At the casino, Xiao Hu used his Spirit Tongue move to make contact with the spirits of greed and jade that swarmed over the gaming floor like mosquitos. He learned the true name of the mightiest spirit, Leng Su, a bloated spirit-caterpillar who tempted him with the promise of wealth at the Mijatsu tables - a temptation that the impetuous Little Tiger was ill-equipped to resist. Only the wisdom and quick action of Nobunaga was able to drag him away from the tables before he landed himself in trouble.

In the private rooms, Sanjeev and Li Feng negotiated with the Green Spider, an elegant woman who had clearly mastered a martial-arts style unknown to them. The job on offer was a complicated one - stealing an idea. Yao Lin, a powerful archmage who commanded the secret of giving life to Porcelain Men, had vanished several weeks ago, leaving his secluded estate and factory open to a raid. The Black Swan would pay handsomely to learn the secret of the golem master's art. After a brief Parley, a price was arranged that was suitable to both sides, with a small payment of jade upfront and the rest on delivery of the secret.

Deciding there was no time to waste, the group hastened immediately toward Yao Lin's tower, whose flag fluttered above the city's wealthy Temple District. Xiao Hu, as a child of the tough streets of the Jade City, took point as they scurried through the darkening night. Unfortunately, he blew his Perilous Journey roll and led them straight into the rioting strikers of the Dragonside railworks, just as the city magistrates prepared to attack the unionists with alchemical weapons. Only quick action by Sanjeev saved them from a night in the Halls of Justice, leading the group down an alleyway and away from the blossoming clouds of pain-smoke.

They finally made it to the Temple District, gasping and panting, avoiding patrols of magistrates and house guards, only to find their way blocked by the high fences of Prosperity Garden, the city's largest park, strictly off-limits to those who did not hold property in the Temple District. Just as the would-be thieves prepared to climb the fence, Nobunaga used his Magnetic Detection Goggles to scan the fence for wards. A powerful anbaric field surged through the fence's iron pillars, with enough voltage to fry any foolish enough to touch the fence. Clearly, an alternate route was preferable - which Xiao Hu was quick to identify. The fence surrounded the park on all sides save on the side of the cliff overlooking the Jade Ward, where a picturesque waterfall from Prosperity Garden tumbled down to join the Jin River. By climbing the cliff, they could bypass the anbaric ward and much of the park's security.

Unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as that. Though Sanjeev was able to climb the cliff with ease, followed quickly by Nobunaga and Xiao Hu, the ranger Li Feng's endurance and strength failed him, nearly sending him plunging to his death. He was saved only by Sanjeev's determination not to let him fall. The Shatranji warrior was dragged over rocks as he clung to Li Feng's rope, suffering brutal wounds before he was able to anchor himself and haul Li Feng to the clifftop. 

As the two lay gasping and bleeding, Xiao Hu attempted to channel his Chi Healing powers in order to aid his allies - but his youthful inexperience led him to disaster. Overcharging had drawn energy from the surrounding water spirits, driving them into a zealous rage. They summoned their servants - crocodilian beasts that lurked within the park's gentle streams and reflecting pools - and set them upon the trespassers. Though the adventurers were able to demonstrate their mastery of the martial arts and quickly dispatch the beasts and the spirits, they did not escape unharmed - no member of the party escaped the battle without a nasty scratch or two.

After making their way through a topiary labyrinth and a brief scuffle with the park's guards, the adventurers came to the foot of the cliff below Yao Lin's estate. No entrance was obvious, until Li Feng discovered a secret entrance through the cliff-face into a room with a pillar of water flowing upwards. Seeing no alternative, Sanjeev stripped off his armour and flung himself into the pillar, swimming up into a fountain that lay in the courtyard of Yao Lin's estate - only to be confronted by a horde of heavily-armed porcelain warriors.

The other three quickly followed, but it seemed there was no winning this battle. The warrior's mighty spear and the artificer's Etheric Emitter Glove dispatched several porcelain men, but they continued to advance implacably on the group. Finally, Sanjeev cried out to the others to flee into the tower, as he threw himself against the porcelain army in a sacrificial last stand.


We ended the session there - Sanjeev's player wouldn't be able to make it to any further sessions, so it seemed appropriate for him to sacrifice himself heroically against the porcelain horde - unfortunately, because he'd just gained a level, along with Nobunaga and Xiao Hu. Stay tuned for session two and the climactic resolution...

[Dungeon World] Daojin City Blues - Introduction

So, despite having followed its development from the earliest stages, it's taken me quite a while to actually get around to running Dungeon World game. One of the problems is that my mind constantly sails in nine different directions at once: one moment I'm desperate to run a Farscape-inspired space opera, the next a gritty Marxist interpretation of Planescape. Since I've spent the last year or so indoctrinating a new circle of gamers into the world of role-playing games, I've confined myself to running a relatively traditional game using Old School Hack, set in a reasonably traditional D&D campaign setting that a friend and I have been running games in for years (The Coin).

But this new campaign was going to be different. I've indoctrinated the new crew now; now I have the opportunity to move beyond the fun but rather staid elves and dragons of the Coin into the less traditional realms - but I still couldn't decide what that was going to be. Marxist urban steampunk fantasy built on the bones of China Mieville? Surrealist philosophical plane-jumping adventures in Sigil or Dis? Or some sort of epic wuxia fantasy inspired by Avatar and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?

After watching Legend of Korra, the answer became clear to me: I was going to do all of them at once.

Here's the pitch I sold this game to my players with: 

Daojin City.

Most people just call it the City, and it deserves the definitive article. There's no place quite like it, lying as it does in the interstices between the many worlds, towers stretching into the infinite unknown, canals crowded with gondoliers. Its portals and trade consortia services a thousand empires, its streets echo with the sound of a hundred tongues.

But it's a rough place if you haven't got two jade pieces to rub together. You came here to make it big, to show the universe what you're made of - but with the City squeezed from above by the plutocrats and sorcerers of the Jade Council, and from below by the mobsters of the many triads and tongs, there's not a lot of room for an honest adventurer to make a yuan.

A dishonest adventurer, on the other hand...


The DW basics are great, but they needed a fair amount of tweaking to fit in my urban kung-fu steampunk fantasy. 

Firstly, I ditched alignment and replaced it with elemental temperaments, which are essentially the same mechanically. Although the implementation of alignments in DW is one of the best I've seen, it really doesn't sit well in a revolutionary steampunk noir game.

Secondly, I ditched the concept of separate playable races: although the weird and varied races and crossbreeds of Planescape appealed to me, it's easy to overwhelm a setting with too many interpolating forces. Plus, I was already planning to have a varied array of cultural backgrounds to delineate characters - no need for those cultural backgrounds to be defined by biological facts. So humans and monsters.

Thirdly, I came up with the idea of each character having knowledge of a martial arts style. This mechanically replaces race moves, but mainly serves to enshrine the Avatar-like tone. Each character, even the slender wizard, is already a skilled martial artist. 

Finally, I messed with the classes to have them better fit my interpretation of the world. I removed Clerics, used Nathan Orlando Wilson's freeform Wizard rewrite, and added an Artificer and a Mysticas character options.


I opened the game with the premise that the PCs were broke adventurers on the periphery of Daojin City's criminal underworld, whose various schemes to get rich quick in the City of Jade had all fallen through. The four players who showed up brought this rogues' gallery to life:

  • Nobunaga the air-aspected Artifcer, a man consumed by his curiosity and desire for knowledge. An exiled noble from Kumiko, the Peach Kingdom, he is skilled in the Deadly Blossom Style developed by the poet-knights of the Peach King, which focuses on ending battles decisively and quickly, almost before they begin.
  • Sanjeev the fire-aspected Warrior, hailing from Shatranji, the Many-Coloured Raj. A fierce warrior and master of the Moving Fortress Style, he once served as a personal bodyguard to one of the Witch-Queens of Shatranji, but was banished from her presence for unknown reasons.
  • Xiao Hu ("Little Tiger") the air-aspected Mystic, a thirteen-year-old street urchin whose mystic powers were awakened when his older brother was slain by a member of the One Hand Triad. He had devoted himself to learning Jade Mountain Style, a style once practiced by the monks whose abbeys pre-dated Daojin City.
  • Li Fang the fire-aspected Ranger, who hailed from a broken town in the deserts of Haemyin, the Shifting Sands. Once a prosperous centre of trade, its fortunes vanished when the Celestial & Jade Railway bypassed the town, and when its oasis dried up. Li Fang, who is a practised artist of the Burning Sand Style, suspects that the two events are closely related.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Burn the Dark Lord!

So, our heroes face a Dark Lord, an evil and vile sorcerer (usually. Why are so many bad guys magic users?)... Cool. A bit cliche, but cliche for a reason - evil and vile sorcerers are excellent villains to face. They've got class.

And by class, I mean a hat with horns on it. 

But say you're in a bit of a rush. Well, allow me to present a set of tables for creating a dastardly magic user quickly.

First, he or she needs a name - there are various random generators out there, but none I personally particularly like. I'm sure you can work out something. Maybe name him after a disease? I've always loved "Anthrax" as an evil name.

Now, assuming that your villain is a wizard (a pretty safe assumption), then they'll need spells. I heartily recommend Zak's method of quick spell selection (the battle oracle in the same post is kinda neat too, especially if the PCs consult an oracle before facing the dark lord).

What other dastardly tricks can the dark lord do? One of these, mostly likely. (WARNING, annoying use of bad punctuation and CAPS LOCK. Probably for irony purposes or something).

As an optional third step, what's stopping the PCs from just killing the dark lord? Roll a d20. First 12 results are off this table here, the remainder are below (subtract 12 from result). If you don't like any of these, just do your darndest to make sure they stay out of the PCs' combat reach until a suitably dramatic moment.
  1. Lich. Hey, it's a classic. Can't be killed unless you find the little box holding his soul. 
  2. Annoyingly complex lich - soul split into several bits, each stored in different objects in different places. Can only die when they've ALL been destroyed.
  3. Dead man switch - if the bad guy is killed, then something even worse gets to use his dead body as a portal to access the world.
  4. Soul-bound siblings - somebody the PCs like is actually the twin of this guy, and if one dies, so does the other. 
  5. Minor God - like Thor or Loki from the Avengers, not entirely immortal, but really damned tough. In D&D terms, probably has several times the HP of the entire party put together, and recovers very quickly.
  6. Baldur-dash - made deals with the spirits/gods of every inanimate material, bar one type of tree (Holly? Oak? Palm-trees?). Can only be hurt by weapons made out of that kind of tree. 
  7. I Think I'm a Clone Now - is actually one of several duplicate copies, all equally skilled. If you kill one, another will arise from the shadows to take over his schemes. 
  8. Was never born in the first place - how he exists in defiance of the laws of causality is a mystery, but he can't actually be killed until targeted with a reincarnate spell. 

So... what's the evil plot? Roll a d30, or pick.
Obviously, these are all cribbed from movies, books, or games, and still need some fleshing out. Try not to assuming that the PCs will do anything in particular, just make sure they're in the Villain's path.
  1. He has kidnapped the princess and transformed her into a swan (or other beast), and will only lift the curse if she agrees to marry him, giving him legitimate claim to the crown.
  2. Plans to sacrifice a prophetically-picked virgin on the night of the eclipse, after which he will be able to transform into a dragon. 
  3. Has captured the prince and replaced him with a polymorphed lacky. Now living the high-life at the grace of the strangely-acting "prince". Must regularly get blood samples from the prince to maintain the spell. 
  4. Has sent vile minions (orcs are traditional) to retrieve the artifact forged by an even greater and more evil sorcerer in the depths of time. If she gets it, it will greatly magnify his arcane powers. 
  5. Leads army of vile minions (again, probably orcs. Undead are good for this as well, though) on devastating rampage through the kingdom for shits and giggles.
  6. Seeks to kill the boy whom prophecy says will kill him, so that he can concentrate on world domination scheme without worry.
  7. His immortality is actually the result of a power possessed by a girl he has had imprisoned for many years. She just escaped, and now he desperately wants her back. 
  8. Trying to get samples/plans of the powers of all the most mighty threats in the world (that alchemist's strength potion, that thief's invisibility enchantment, that inventor's submersible), so he can replicate them for himself.
  9. As #8 above, but actually just wants the powers to sell to the highest bidder.
  10. Has been sealed away in a prison deep underground for millenia... and still is. However, has managed to reach out and recruit minions to free him. They've nearly dug through to him, and when they do free him, he's going to be VERY hard to stop. 
  11. Is the subject of an unpleasant curse which prevents him from enjoying food, drink, or the pleasures of intimate company. Breaking the curse requires spilling the blood of the governor's son on a hidden island. 
  12. Already has VAST arcane power, and uses it willy-nilly. Unfortunately, this is more than local reality can stand, and if she keeps it up, the universe is going to fall apart. 
  13. Is releasing a plague to cripple every other magic-user on the planet, so that he will be unopposed. 
  14. Has built a moving fortress that can level whole cities that don't wish to bow to him. Now chasing the princess who managed to get her hands on the designs showing the fortress's one weak spot. 
  15. Loathes new music, and has ruled that only certain specific tunes may be played in her domain. Has awful taste in music.  
  16. Seeks to open a portal to another realm, to allow an extradimensional army access to the world. Once they've pillaged what they want, they will let him rule the remains, or so he believes. 
  17. He has outfitted her army with weapons of frightening power, all in turn powered by a great artifact left behind by the gods, and intends to burn the cities of the world to the ground if not stopped. 
  18. Seeks to eat the heart of a star given human form to renew his youth and power. 
  19. Wants the other two parts of the crown that, when re-formed, will let her command an army of unkillable clockwork golems. 
  20. Has stolen the Book of Peace that protects the great city from constant terrible weather and bad luck. Probably, again, for shits and giggles.
  21. Is having a mighty monument built in his honor, out of pure vanity, using slave labor. 
  22. Seeks the key to unlock the gate that will allow his overly-tentacled patron access to the world. Actually summoned the key many years ago, but lost track of it since. 
  23. When the stars align, will unleash titans to battle and defeat the gods so that she can take their place. The mortal world probably won't survive being a godly battlefield. 
  24. Trying to hunt down the Orb of Ultimate Knowledge, a device allowing access to every bit of information that will ever be known to mortal kind, if the user has the willpower to command it. She kidnaps the descendants of those who hid the orb, intending to use ancestral memories to find it. 
  25. Is propagating monsters of a particular type (some kind of contagious undead?) so that when they're killed by the heroes, she can collect the energy they release when they are destroyed. With enough energy, will be able to get her soul back. Doesn't really care how many people die along the way. 
  26. Previously a member of an order of monster-hunters, she got sick of the order making compromises, and decided to join the monsters, leading them to hunt down the order, and anybody else nearby. 
  27. He leads a cult of fanatically loyal followers on a mission to activate a series of ancient weapon emplacements. While he's told them that activating the weapons will pave the way to heaven, he hasn't told them that it will do so by killing everything on the planet. 
  28. She is ruler of an area due to monopoly on something that the local populace needs - food, water, air. But now somebody knows where the thing that will break that monopoly is hidden, and she's going to try to capture them before they can reveal all. 
  29. He is trying to capture the oracle who can lead him to the rune-bound iron cauldron that can raise an army of unstoppable undead. 
  30. She seeks the sacrificial victims and ancient tome required to resurrect her dead lover. Plans on doing a little romantic civilization-toppling when she has him back. 
Visual details - roll two or three times. For conflicting results either re-roll, or work out some way that the Dark Lord is BOTH, such as having a combat form, or concealing her appearance with illusions. 
  1. Bald
  2. Intricately styled hair
  3. Has only one eye
  4. Rubbish beard
  5. Young and handsome looking
  6. Terrible teeth
  7. Very fat
  8. Quite old, but still handsome-looking
  9. No nose
  10. Peculiar skin tone - pasty white, ashen grey, etc. 
  11. Large nose
  12. Horned helmet
  13. Black armour
  14. Very tall and well muscled
  15. Gaunt
  16. Impeccably well-dressed
  17. Significant portions of body replaced with golem components (clockwork? Stone? wood?).
  18. Actually exudes smoke or fire. 
  19. Really severe makeup. 
  20. Tall, even by evil villain standards. 

There you have it, some terribly haphazard tables for making bad guys. I realize they're unlikely to be overly useful to anybody, but writing them was fun and interesting. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

[Dungeon World] Kung-Fu Moves

I'm looking at running a Dungeon World game soon that's inspired in equal parts by Avatar, Planescape, and Perdido Street Station. My instinct is to remove the idea of non-human races from the setting - or at least the idea of mechanically differentiated races - but that leaves a hole in the game where the current race moves are.

Inspired by some retro-clone I came across a while ago, and have completely forgotten, my solution is to give everyone "kung-fu" moves instead. The idea is that any adventurer in this setting will know at least the basics of one martial art, even the least physically inclined wizard. Essentially, it gives everyone access to a few "spells" they can use to impact the fiction automatically, without rolling - but as a strictly limited resource.

I'm also looking for a better name than "kung-fu moves".


When you spend time practising your forms and meditating, roll +WIS. On a 10+, hold 3-breath. On a 7-9, hold 2-breath. On a 6-, hold 1-breath, but the DM holds 1 over you to inflict your school’s weakness at some point. Spend your breath to use your kung-fu moves.

When you spend time practising with a kung-fu master, you can add another kung-fu move to your list.

When you create a character, choose which style of kung-fu that your character has trained in:

Drunken Monkey

  • Appear totally harmless.
  • Taunt an enemy into moving into an advantageous position.
  • Trick someone into attacking an ally.

Weakness: Incautious

Flowing Water

  • Redirect an enemy’s attack into another foe.
  • Move swiftly out of the path of danger.
  • Use an enemy’s momentum against them.

Weakness: Softness

Immovable Mountain

  • Shrug off the damage from a single attack.
  • Resist being pushed or forced to move.
  • Deliver an unstoppable blow.

Weakness: Inflexibility

Celestial Fist

  • Smite an unholy opponent with your fists.
  • Strike an incorporeal or invulnerable being.
  • Fly free from gravity for a few moments.

Weakness: Arrogance.

Shadow Dancer

  • Hide in plain sight.
  • Strike without warning.
  • Move swiftly out of the path of danger.

Weakness: Fragility

Thursday, 5 July 2012

[To Coin a World] Underworld Portal

"Well, obviously, travelling to the underworlds, the myriad lands of the dead, is very easy. Grab a knife, pick a vital organ, insert, and you're there. Travelling there in such as way that you can travel back again, that's a bit harder.

I do know of a spell that will let you do that, open a portal to the beyond. While the spell itself is not that hard, barely more difficult than a good old fireball incantation, it does have some... challenges associated with it. For starters, the spell won't work anywhere on this world. Thankfully, you can get around that by sailing to the very edge of the Coin, casting the spell so that the portal appears off the edge. Best to make sure you're going at a fair clip when you do it though. You don't want to come up short and fall into open space. 

Oh, and if you think sailing a ship off the very edge of the world is difficult, just wait till you try coming back..."

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Seclusium of Orphone & Other Mad Adventures

In what is sure to go down as the crazed work of a mad genius, Jim Raggi over at Lamentations of the Flame Princess has started up 19 separate crowdfunding campaigns for adventures from myriad writers across the planar spheres. Amongst the list of writers are brilliant voices like Jeff Rients, Kevin Crawford, and Anna Kreider. I hope all the adventures fund; I know a few of them will be taking money out of my wallet.

The first adventure to catch my eye was the work of Vincent Baker, designer of my favourite game in the universe, Apocalypse World: The Seclusium of Orphone. Here's the opening pitch:

The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions, in which are perils and treasure both material and obscure, made vulnerable to incursion by her imprisonment in the subrealm Paume

Orphone of the Three Visions is a wizardess of restless and fitful ambition, so often seen in city market and bazaar, paced always by her velvet half-human servant and bodyguard Ioma. For decades she has kept her seclusium unassailable upon an island of three concentric gardens in the Cove of Bar's Toll, working her magics, pursuing her grandizement and mastery, forbidding all to come. Now she has ventured into the subrealm Paume, for reasons of curiosity, provocation or entrapment, and has neither returned nor left any remnant impulse of her will. Even loyal Ioma has departed for other employment.

So her seclusium stands, not vacant, but vulnerable. The wise have not yet approached it, but cast greedy and speculative looks. Who will be the first to venture an incursion? What will they find within?

The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions: a system for creating an original wizard's seclusium to fit into your own game's world, campaign and level, inspired by the iconic work of Jack Vance, with notes on tone and technique, including Orphone's Seclusium itself as a complete and playable example.

And here's Vincent's initial notes on the Seclusium:

Later scholars will identify seven phases in the cycle of development and decline of a wizard's seclusium. It is the fifth phase, the "vulnerable," that interests us here.

Even in its "vulnerable" phase, a wizard's seclusium consists of:
- The physical structure of its seclusium proper;
- The quasi-real footprint of its magical existence;
- Its grounds, gardens, and picturesque vistas;
- Outbuildings for various purposes, both obvious and obscure;
- Passways, checkpoints, and baffles to entry, like walls, gates, paths, and vestibules;
- A position in the countryside and landscape, both physical and customary.

In its "vulnerable" phase, a wizard's seclusium nevertheless has:
- A wizard, but he or she is in some form absent;
- Guardians, but they are no longer intent;
- Portals to other wizards' seclusia;
- Portals to alternate spaces or other modes of being;
- Portals to other places of wizardly significance;
- Long term guests or prisoners of the wizard, whose needs have now gone unattended;
- Evidence or remains of previous treasure-seekers and interlopers;
- Remains of the wizard's endeavors, including dangerous failures and promising experiments;
- The wizard's trappings and treasures.
- Under some circumstances, remnants of the wizard him- or herself, embodied or dis-.

In its "vulnerable" phase, a wizard's seclusium has the attention of:
- Rival wizards hoping for spoils;
- Friendly and allied wizards, concerned for their fellow's wellbeing;
- Local kings, lords, churches, and scholars;
- Treasure seekers;
- Otherworldly entities.

When a wizard's seclusium is in its "vulnerable" phase, it shows as:
- Long inaction with an air of finality;
- Magically communicated calls for help or attention from its guests and prisoners;
- The departure of its notable guardians or servants;
- Unheeded communications, and neglected associations and obligations;
- Successful incursions.

- The grotesque: horrific, comedic, pathetic, fantastic;
- Relativism, self-justification, delicacy, understatement, putting the best light on a bad deal;
- There are no status quos. There are catastrophes that unfold at different rates;
- Play to find out what happens.

Pretty much everything Mr. Baker sets to paper is like imaginary cocaine to me, so he's already got my money. I can't wait for this to be on my table.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Marx & Monsters: Burning the City

In service to my prior post, I wanted a City Burner in the mode of Judd Karlman's MoBu City and Build Your Own New Crobuzon. You can use it to build the skeleton of your own dystopian metropolis, or to provide inspiration for extending an existing world. In this post, I focus on the structure of the City as a whole; a later post will cover mapping the City as individual districts and landmarks. Choose to use it as a random generator, or purposefully select items from each list, as you prefer.

Despite all its horrors, the City is a baroque, impossible, wonderous place. Few will choose to leave it willingly; fewer still will fail to return. Choose (1d20) one, two, or three phantasmagorical traits that set the City apart from any other metropolises that have been or will ever be:
  1. floats in the interdimensional space between the planar spheres.
  2. consumes other cities, leaving only ruins behind.
  3. walks across the face of the world, hauling its bulk on thousands of legs.
  4. grows from the corpse of a dead god.
  5. was built on the back of an immense beast.
  6. fell from the heavens.
  7. stands upon the border of Hell itself.
  8. lurks within an immense dark cavern, beneath the surface of the world.
  9. towers miles into the sky.
  10. is an animate, living thing, with a mind of its own.
  11. rules a vast empire built on blood and iron.
  12. never stops raining here.
  13. lies beyond the reach of sleep and dreams.
  14. is filled with a thousand portals to a hundred worlds.
  15. lies deep beneath the sea.
  16. was built from the dreams of a lone madman.
  17. ...the walls between the realms of life and death are thinner here.
  18. ...the streets constantly shift and move, like a living labyrinth.
  19. ...the world has already ended, and the City is all that is left.
  20. wraps back in upon itself like an ouroboros. 

The City plays home to a host of cultures and species, a melting pot that boils everything down to its lowest common denominator. Humans call the City home, of course, but many other races do as well. Perhaps they form part of the ruling classes, perhaps they are victims of a speciest government that treats them like slaves, or perhaps they are just people. Pick (1d20) at least three non-human sapient races that make up large portions of the city's population:
  1. Orcs, hot-tempered, thick-skinned, and often cruel.
  2. Scarabae, beetle-kin with a taste for precious jewels.
  3. Yuan-ti, descendants of men and snakes with a poisonous bite.
  4. Fomorians. hulking giants with the blood of the unseelie.
  5. Abeil, hard-working bee folk from a distant plane of existence.
  6. Litorians, powerfully built leonine people with a nomadic past.
  7. Kobolds, scavengers with the blood of dragons in their veins.
  8. Minotaurs, bull-headed, stubborn, and with a penchant for labyrinths.
  9. Myconids, fungoid creatures who cannot form human words.
  10. Aranea, shape-shifting great spiders with a talent for textiles.
  11. Salamanders, flame-blooded and serpentine.
  12. Lycanthropes of several different breeds.
  13. Ghouls, undead scavengers with a savage hunger for flesh.
  14. Anubians, jackal-headed stone constructs given life through arcane means.
  15. Wyrmen, pigeon-like flying creatures with a rudimentary intelligence.
  16. Tritons, fish-kin who live in brackish coves beneath the city.
  17. Drow, long-banished elf-kin who abhor sunlight.
  18. Tieflings, humans touched with the blood of the infernal planes.
  19. Yoon-Suin, slug-kin, immense strength tempered only by their slowness.
  20. Choose any other race from your favourite compendium of creatures.

Corrupt plutocrats and patricians form the majority of the city's ruling class, but they do not rule alone. There are many interlocking gears in the machinery of oppression. Choose (1d10) two or three other major power groups who hold great influence over the City's leadership, either openly or in secret:
  1. A nest of vampires (desire: to feast off the life-force of the populace)
  2. The corrupt elders of a major faith (desire: to rule the hearts and minds of the populace)
  3. A coven of dream-witches (desire: to rule the world of dreams)
  4. A cabal of wizards and sorcerers (desire: to plumb the depths of knowledge)
  5. A cult of hedonistic demon-worshippers (desire: to revel in causing suffering)
  6. A powerful spirit of law (desire: to ensure obedience and conformity)
  7. The military leadership (desire: to wage war)
  8. A prominent devil with a quota to meet (desire: to ensure a healthy supply of damned souls)
  9. A major criminal syndicate (desire: to accumulate and hold power)
  10. A truly ancient dragon (desire: to hoard wealth)

Life in the City, for most of its impoverished inhabitants, is a dire struggle for one's daily bread, caught in a constant cycle of debt and near-starvation, living from one day's wage to the next, surrounded by suffering, disease, and crime. The City, however, is not content with the relatively mundane horrors of permanent crushing poverty, inescapable debts, and class-based oppression. Choose (1d12) two or three bizarre inhumanities that are imposed upon the population by the status quo:
  1. Constant thirst: The supply of drinkable water is controlled by plutocrats, who charge through the nose for the basic substance of life. Vast swathes of the population are constantly on the verge of death from thirst, while the wealthy cavort in bath-houses and fountains.
  2. Forced undeath: Necromantic rituals are used to transform corpses of the proletariat into a tireless zombie workforce. Often, labourers are worth more as dead corpses than living beings, and the truly impoverished can be forced to sell themselves into undeath to provide for their families.
  3. Flesh-warping: Those convicted of a crime, or who fall into bankruptcy, become the property of the City. They are subjected to flesh-warping sorcery by the City's justice system, either to shape them into better slaves, or to provide ironic punishments for their crimes. Worse yet the gardens of the truly wealthy are filled with living sculptures; sapient beings sculpted into obscene abstract bodily forms.
  4. Industrial sacrifice: Ritualised murder powers the City's industrial district. Criminals and debtors are the first to be fed into the maw of progress, but its hunger never yields. Sometimes, entire city blocks are cordoned off, the inhabitants carted away to be fed into some horrific eldritch machines.
  5. Arcane experiments: Impoverished citizens have no rights when it comes to the pursuit of arcane science. The poor are regularly subjected to horrific experiments, and most diseases that sweep through the tenements are engineered by pestilence mages from the City's most prestigious magical academy.
  6. Travel restrictions: Peaceful transit through the city is regulated by a series of obscure codes and travel zones. Certain classes of citizen are prohibited from travelling through certain zones at certain times, and anyone found in the wrong district at the wrong time is subject to the full horrific force of the City's justice. 
  7. Body-theft: The wealthiest amongst the elite of the City can live forever by buying up the bodies of young criminals and debtors. Either consciousness can be transferred across bodies, leaving the poor in the broken near-corpses of City elders while they cavort in young and shapely forms, or the City's elite are in fact mental parasites that subdue the consciousness of their hosts.
  8. Endless conscription: The City's leaders are engaged in a constant and unyielding struggle with a foreign power, and their war machine cries out for fresh blood. Those who are conscripted and remade into soldiers or worse will never return, or at least not in any form recognizable to those who once knew them.
  9. Dream control: Even in deepest sleep, oppression cannot be escaped. The shadowy guardians of the City walk through the dreams of the sleepers, searching for hints of rebellion and seditious thoughts. Sleepers can even be forced to work off their debts in dream-labours towards mysterious ends.
  10. Memory markets: In the City, debts can be absolved and crimes forgotten in exchange for your memories, which can be sold on the open market to the highest bidder. It's not unknown for a pauper to sell the memory of their dead mother to pay for a cup of coffee, or the memory of a lost love to pay the month's rent.
  11. Drug-induced prayer: The alchemists and priests of the City have discovered how to produce an addictive drug known as Faith, which induces a state of heightened religious ecstasy. The prayers of a million addicted labourers are channelled as raw power into the temple-factories and eldritch workshops of the City's industrial districts.
  12. Blood money: The economy of the City is quite literally built on the blood of its citizenry. Pints of blood are a common unit of exchange to be bought and sold like milk or honey. Taxes, rents, and debts can be forgiven in exchange for a few minutes with a needle and bottle. In the poorer districts, pallid skin and fainting labourers are everywhere, drained of their very life-force by the machine.

Not everyone is content to allow the elites free reign, to simply lie still while they are crushed beneath the gears of capital. The City's underground is awash with revolutionary groups who aim to break the status quo, or defend the rights of the proletariat. The list below includes some of the possible groups that might make up this underground. Choose (d6) at least one revolutionary group that is actively being crushed by the enforcers of the status quo, and at least one revolutionary group whose leadership have abandoned their goals and become co-opted into the regime:

  1. A powerful trade union (desire: to win rights for workers).
  2. Anarchist street gangs (desire: to bring down the state).
  3. Radical street journalists (desire: to expose the truth).
  4. Liberation theologists, declared as heretics (desire: to protect the impoverished).
  5. Civil rights activists (desire: to win equality).
  6. Artistic revolutionaries (desire: to display the truth through art).

The leaders of the City do not generally dirty themselves with the messy business of enforcing oppressive laws and controlling the people. Stamping boots across the face of the citizenry is left to militiamen, secret police, and mercenaries hired by industrial cabals and underworld syndicates. These enforcers are well versed in the language of fists, batons, and torture, but they wield other tools as well. Choose (d10) at least two strengths of the City's enforcers:
  1. Ironwatch: Street-level enforcers are automata and constructs, immune to bribery and firmly under the control of the central commanders.
  2. Changelings: The secret police employ changelings who can take any form and infiltrate any organisation.
  3. Enforcer beasts: Horrific beasts are kept under control by the city guard, to be released upon criminals and rioting citizens at will.
  4. Noxious alchemy: The city guards have access to an array of alchemical weapons, from noxious choking gasses, to alchemical potions of strength and endurance, to batons marked with poisons that cause vomiting on contact.
  5. Compulsion: Secret police and other enforcers have access to charms and techniques that inflict magical compulsions upon their targets, mentally compelling them into certain actions.
  6. Mind flaying: With time and intimacy, agents of the regime can peel away a person's most secret thoughts and memories. The health of the prisoner is not guaranteed.
  7. Informants everywhere: The secret police use wealth and blackmail to maintain an incredible network of informants and double-agents, giving them eyes at every level of society.
  8. Judicators: The City's militia is not restrained by any formal system of justice when dealing with the proletariat; agents of the state are free to pass sentence upon offenders in situ.
  9. Panopticon: Most every public space, and many private ones, are laced with the scrying eyes of the secret police.
  10. Scent trackers: Once a target has been sighted, members of the militia are able to track them by scent through miles of winding City streets.

Finally, give the City a name, or as many names as its citizens have tongues. Haunting names that harken to lost ideals, musty names that recall ancient history, ironic names that promise a better future, or names that stir memories of revolutions past.

Next up: Mapping the City!