Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What is Generic Fantasy Now?

So, I have to somewhat disagree with this:

As far as I am aware it has long been established that the game worlds of any Dungeons & Dragons game is essentially a quasi-Medieval world wherein the concepts of Arthurian and Tolkien fantasy hold sway over the possibilities available to the players.

This has not quite been my experience, though what was my experience may be leading me to split hairs.

Ok, I believed it, or hoped it could be, when I first started playing in the early ‘80s. My games were a mish-mash of Saturday-morning cartoons, Tolkien, Lewis, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. Problem was, the only part of that mish-mash that really worked was Saturday-morning cartoons.

Tolkien and Lewis depend on a setting where morality is literally woven into the landscape. The alignment system kinda helps to achieve that, but it’s a clunky tool that few love and fewer enjoy. Otherwise, TSR-era D&D was too enamored with looting and WotC-era D&D is too enamored with combat to map well to either Tolkien and Lewis, whose heroes spend most of their time avoiding combat whenever possible. And there’s waaaaaaay too much magic, even in early TSR-era D&D, to get anything like the Robin Hood or King Arthur feel.

I spent years trying to pound the square peg of AD&D into the round hole of Tolkien and A Young Boy’s King Arthur. Finally, in junior high, I played with a DM I hadn’t trained. He’d clearly read Fritz Leiber (which I hadn’t yet), and his adventures flowed smoothly, working in harmony with the rules. It was an eye-opening experience and completely transformed the way I played the game.

D&D has always been more of a Saturday-morning cartoon, kitchen-sink sort of assumed setting. In spite of everyone talking about “a quasi-Medieval world” the assumed setting described by the equipment is actually late Renaissance, with its pikes and halberds and plate-mail armor, lacking only the occasional arquebus (which was in 2e’s basic equipment list) to complete the picture. And variations far from that theme have always been a part of D&D, from the spaceships and lasers of “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” to the katanas and ogre-magi of “Oriental Adventures” to the genie-folk and mamluks of Al-Qadim to the pseudo-Victorian slang of Planescape to the steampunk art-deco stylings of Eberron.

Still, the author is correct in that most folks don’t want those out-there settings. They want something more familiar, more plug-and-play with everyone’s expectations. However, those expectations have little to do with Tolkien or the Arthurian legends. Yes, there are some trappings lifted wholesale from those sources, but they are only two sources, and they look nothing like our games. As the author says:

Tavern,
Dungeon,
Orcs,
Goblins,
Dragons,
Treasures,
Repeat.

So, which taverns did King Arthur and his knights hang out in? Trick question; they didn’t. They stayed in the castles of other knights when they were not roughing it in the wilderness in magical silk pavilions that provided for all their needs. The only tavern I can remember being mentioned by name in any of the Middle Earth stories is the Prancing Pony. The only dungeon is Moria (maybe Shelob’s lair, though the movies made far more of that than the book did). The Knights of the Round Table almost always met their foes in the open, at crossroads or on the list field. They dared the occasional magical castle, but these looked far more like old-school funhouse dungeons, with bridges made of swords and fighting animated statues.

Orcs and goblins are found in profusion in both Tolkien and D&D, but they bare only surface resemblance to one another. D&D’s orcs completely lack the metaphysical implications of Tolkien’s twisted elves, and have morphed into a weird, green caricature of British soccer hooligans, slow-witted jocks, and tribal Nazis with maybe a sprinkling of noble savage.

Dragons are few and far between in Tokien’s popular stories, having only one in The Hobbit and being completely absent from The Lord of the Rings. You find few in most tellings of the Arthurian legends.

As for treasures, D&D’s generic gold pieces, swords +3, and healing potions are blandly utilitarian compared to storied blades like Orcrist and Excalibur, enchanted girdles that protect from all harm, the Arkenstone, the Palantir, Morgul blades, Isolde’s love potion, or the Holy Grail.

What most folks expect in a D&D game isn’t Tolkien or King Arthur, but instead a brand new thing sometimes called “gaming fantasy.” It’s pretty much what you find in World of Warcraft and the like, and it’s heavily based on the bare-bones, utilitarian basics of D&D. It’s also got a healthy heaping of Ren Faire tropes, Greek and Norse mythology, and an endless parade of Tolkien knock-offs that were pale imitations of the original (Shannara, I’m soooo looking at you). These are worlds where combat is frequent, looting bodies is a steady job, and anti-social behavior is shrugged off, so long as the “right folks” are doing it.

And yes, it’s so cliché as to be boring now. But if you want to escape it, you could just simply run something with more fidelity to Tolkien or the Arthurian myths. But after my personal experience, I’d not suggest you use D&D in those games.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Movie Review: Wonder (Why They Bothered) Woman

Back when the trailers for the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie were embedding “Hooked on a Feeling” in everyone’s ears, there was a joke making the rounds in nerd circles:
DC: Well, we’d really love to do a Wonder Woman movie, but her background is too complex and would confuse audiences.

Marvel: Look, a raccoon with a machine gun!
Clearly, DC never overcame their fear of confusing the audience, because the Wonder Woman movie we got is painfully paint-by-the-numbers:

  1. Introduce Diana as a cute, precocious child who wants to fight! But her mom is a worry-wort stick-in-the-mud. Diana learns to fight anyway.
  2. Diana has a mysterious past! A past that remains mysterious through the entire movie because everyone who tells the story has an ulterior motive for doing so. Yeah, I know, golden lasso. Tell that to Saruman and Denethor with their Palantirs.
  3. Diana rescues handsome man of questionable behavior but with a heart of gold who just happens to be of suitable age for marriage. Awkward sexual tension (mostly played for cheap jokes) ensues.
  4. Diana defies! She defies everyone (her mom, early 20th century propriety, the military realities of the first World War) except modern-day Hollywood’s sensibilities.
  5. Cute guy dies in noble self-sacrifice! (Because only Supes is allowed a long-term relationship.)
  6. Reflecting on handsome guy’s self-sacrifice suddenly makes Diana’s special effects more powerful than generic upper-crust-brit villain’s special effects.
  7. The struggle continues (but just what it is she’s struggling against or for remains impenetrably vague).

Script-wise, this movie just doesn’t cut it. Which Is a shame because a lot really works well here. You’re always entertained. The performances are a lot of fun (often in spite of the lame script). The action sequences are top-notch. The pacing is good. Runtime is 2.5 hours, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.

But the script never does the heavy-lifting to support its ending. At no point do we feel a strong enough connection between Diana and the Yank to justify the act of simply dwelling on him giving her any sort of insight or opening untapped wells of inner strength. Hell, at no point do we get the feeling that Diana trusts, respects, or even really likes the guy much. There’s a kinda-sorta hinted-at sex scene in the second act that you’d miss if you blinked, and it never comes up again in any way, shape, or form. We don’t even get the usual morning-after sweet-awkward smiles or anything.

So his sacrifice leads her to slaughter a bunch of faceless Germans. But when she’s presented with a German who very much has a face and a name, suddenly she decides she believes in love and her FX are more powerful than the villain’s FX because… reasons?

It doesn’t hold together at all. Maybe if the Yank had been more respectable, or had a family he was leaving behind, or we’d seen some sparks between him and Diana, the sacrifice thing might have made sense. But he’s none of those things because one of the big themes is that humanity is deeply flawed.

Which is the other fumbled ball of this movie. The whole time, they keep hinting that Ares isn’t a completely unreasonable jerk, that he understands humanity better than the other gods did, that perhaps he even has a point. But nope, he actually is just a jerk who gets off on goading humanity into larger and more destructive wars.

(Which, incidentally, makes the post-fight scenes very confusing. Everyone’s friends now? So it really was Ares clouding everyone’s minds? Does that mean the second World War never happens in the DC universe? It’s certainly implied in those moments of everyone helping each other as the sun rises behind a victorious Wonder Woman.)

So Ares is defeated when Diana decides humanity is worth saving because… reasons. Reasons never explained and certainly not supported by the rest of the movie. Especially since the movie very clearly says that Ares is right about humans, but apparently wanting to wipe them all out for it is wrong because… reasons.

Philosophically, the movie is a complete mess. Which renders the end nothing more than a clash between special effects, visually interesting but incomprehensible. How and why anything happens is utterly hidden from the audience, and you’re left with nothing but the needs of the paint-by-numbers plot. At the very, very end, Diana gives us a generic, “I must continue the struggle!” monologue, but as she’s leaping out of the Louvre, flying through the air, we have no idea what she’s going to fight against. There’s vague talk about creating a world that could be, but the only visions of such a world are the all-female paradise of the Amazons and Ares’ dream of a human-free Eden. Exactly what Diana’s goals are in the modern world and how she plans to achieve them… Nope! She’s a super-hero. Doing super-hero things. Because… reasons!

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Boycotting Yourself in the Foot

Apparently, I’ve somehow missed most of the last political slap-fight in the RPG internet-o-sphere. Can’t say I’m horrible upset. I did, however, come across this blog post considering the morality and efficacy of boycotts against RPG companies.

Now, right off the bat, I’m not a fan of organized boycotts, especially against creative types. It very much is trying to tell artists what they can and cannot create, and backing up your demands with threats. That’s not something I can comfortably cotton to.

But, as they say, don't appeal to a person's better nature; they may not have one. So let's talk about your self-interest. And since you're here reading this blog, I assume you're interested in having fun playing RPGs. So right off the bat, discouraging people from making cool RPG things by threatening any monetary gain seems like a bad idea. Things get worse when we see Victor applying a carrot in conjunction with the stick. Sure, you can absolutely spend your money with an eye towards “supporting the creators and narratives we want to see flourish in the world.” But keep in mind that, when you do that, you’re not promoting good games. You’re promoting those who voice support for the issue de jour. You’re encouraging creators and publishers to focus on politics, social causes, and appearances instead of things like good game play, useability at the table, and creating fun. Time and money are both limited resources. The time writers and artists focus on voicing the proper opinions is not spent on improving their craft, researching new techniques and tools, or playing games. But they’ll have to do that because the publishers will be hiring folks with strong reputations for voicing support for the right causes, rather than the folks who are the most innovative and effective at supporting fun at the table.

The results will look like large swathes of the RPG market at the turn of the century, when publishers were convinced their primary audience was collectors and readers, not players. The books were big and pretty, but the art did little to support game play, the rules were poorly organized (and frequently broken; everyone remember the Star Wars game where better armor could actually make it easier to wound your character?), poorly written, and confusing, and the density made them impenetrable to beginners.

While I understand Victor’s point about boycotts potentially being more effective in the RPG world due to the small number of buyers (making each that much more important), I think it’s undercut by the nature of RPGs themselves. Quite simply, as the drift of D&D from a game about exploration to a game about combat aptly demonstrates, writers and publishers have nearly zero influence on how a game is actually played. As extreme examples (that have actually appeared on RPG forums), it’s not hard to make a game of Blue Rose about patriarchal champions fighting against the vile misandry of Aldis and its magical-deer overlords, or turn Monster Hearts into a game about competitive rape.

Of course, there’s nothing preventing you from doing the opposite, either. Which is why everyone is best served by supporting those who make really good games, no matter their personal failings or extreme political ideas. A new way of playing, or presenting information, or organizing rules can improve your game and create more fun for you regardless of the wacky ideas on economics or biology held by the author. And there’s nothing stopping you from using those tools at your table, which will naturally promote models of economics and biological science known and supported by all right-thinking people.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Road to Victory

I think we can now unilaterally declare the OSR a success. Starter boxed sets are a thing once more, with both Pathfinder and D&D 5e having one. The 5e team not only reached out to OSR bloggers shortly after announcing 5e, but paid them to consult on 5e. In his design of 5e, Mearls openly embraced simplicity over completeness and the venerable Caves of Chaos were offered as a playtest testbed for the rules. OSR works have received the highest accolades of the industry and fandom, and we even have a few folks making a full-time living at this stuff. So I think we can safely say that, yes, from an outside perspective, the OSR has been shockingly successful.

Notice the caveat up there? From an outside perspective. That’s vital.

I’m writing this because I’m seeing other groups that appear similar to the OSR and have clearly been inspired by the OSR. Yes Pulp Renaissance folks (or whatever you’re calling yourselves), I am very much talking to you here. Because there’s one key aspect of the OSR that is vital to the success of any similar movement (and as I love me some Howard, Leiber, Wagner, etc. I’d really love to see you folks flourish).

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back—
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

From the OSR’s inception, before Maliszewski started Grognardia, before anyone was even saying anything like “Old School Renaissance,” the OSR was about one thing: having fun playing RPGs. Fun, of course, is a very particular thing; what floats my boat might sink yours. Each of us was pursuing our own individual fun. Sure, we did it in groups (RPGing is largely not a solo activity), but those groups had very different ideas of fun. Maliszewski had his very Appendix-N-driven world-building with a strong emphasis on dungeon exploration while Raggi pursued a horror vibe in a pseudo-historical setting. Some pursued Gygaxian Naturalism while others preferred a more metaphorical experience via delving into a Mythic Underworld. Games were opened up to the whole world (well, all of the world that could get on Google Hangouts) via the Flailsnails linked campaigns while others were carefully cultivated walled gardens, specifically designed for the enjoyment of a small few. Some wallowed in the excesses of Gygaxian descriptive writing while others embraced the simplicity of the One-page Dungeon. Thieves were excised from games, or modified, or the original design was strictly adhered to. Some embraced the entirety of Appendix N for inspiration, others picked just certain portions (Dying Earth stories or Swords & Sorcery) while others looked to video games or anime.

Within the very loose framework of the OSR, each of us pursued our own fun. Each of us pushed the boundaries of what the OSR was and then we’d get together to discuss what worked and what didn’t. We tore apart the old games to see how each individual piece worked, how they interacted with one another, and then tried new combinations to see what would happen. When something worked and was fun, we shared it with each other. And so our toolboxes of fun-building grew, our games became more fun to play, and we had great times.

The reason for the caveat above, about an outside perspective? That’s because whether or not the OSR succeeded or failed hung entirely on a single question: did you have more fun playing RPGs? The OSR succeeded and failed hundreds of thousands of times for every individual who gave it a whirl. Nothing else really mattered. If we were not having fun, things were not right and had to be changed. So we changed and explored and each of us found our individual fun.

So far, so good, at least as far as those of us finding this personal success were concerned. But enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s easy to be enthusiastic about something that’s fun! The more fun we had, and the more we talked about our fun and shared it, the more other folks wanted a piece of our action. That’s what created the success of the OSR as an influential movement in the larger sphere of RPGs. Not any attempt to strongly codify what the OSR is, or an internally coherent logical structure, or deeply penetrating philosophy. Jeff Rients set the tone early on; fuck pretentious bullshit. Is it fun? Then do more of that!

Were there fights with outside groups? Yep. Internal fights that grew rancorous? Of course. That happens, especially when you lose sight of how individualistic the whole thing was. It wasn’t all fun and games. But the core of everything vital was, in fact, fun and games. The success of the OSR, both for the individuals doing it as well as the movement as a whole, was entirely built on a foundation of playing games and having fun. Everything worthwhile and good grew from that.

UPDATE: a variation on this theme from Zak.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

What the Heck is That?!?

I haven't found any solid rules in 5e D&D for adjudicating Nature and Arcana checks to learn more about monsters. My players (who for whatever reason haven't all run out and purchased a copy of the MM and memorized its contents; I suspect "not being a teenager" to be high on the list of reasons ;) ) ask for these rolls a lot. I certainly don't mind; part of playing under the philosophy that "it's not the DM's job to balance the encounters; it's the players' job to unbalance the encounters in their favor" is giving the players enough information to make intelligent decisions about which encounters they want to tackle and how.

So that means, whenever they encounter an unusual critter, they'll ask what they know about it and I'll ask for either a Nature or Arcana check. Which do I ask for? Arcana for the following creature types:


  • Aberrations
  • Celestials
  • Constructs
  • Elementals
  • Fey
  • Fiends
  • Monstrosities
  • Undead


All the rest us Nature checks; I'll take the highest of either Nature or Arcana for dragons.

So the players roll their dice (usually they all do this) and I start with the second-highest roll ("Ok, the bard knows blah-blah-blah...") and then move to the highest ("... and the wizard can also tell you blah-blah-blah.")

So what do I tell them?

On a roll up to 9:
I tell them they don't know much. I tell them maybe what the thing eats, and a rumor (that I openly label as such) that might be true and says more about the setting than the monster ("The shepherds down by Greenford have trouble with these things coming out of the forest and swiping sheep every three or so years.") and may or may not be true.

(In general, whenever the players make a knowledge check, I tell them something no matter how badly they roll, even if it's not immediately useful.)

10-14:
Either an immunity or resistance, or one major attack or defense the creature has. If it has a defining characteristic (like a displacer beast's illusionary positioning) they'll get that instead.

15-20:
All immunities, resistances, and vulnerabilities, plus one major attack or defense, and any not-obvious forms of locomotion. If they ask, I might tell them about senses, but not give ranges, as well as relative speeds (faster/slower than you).

21-25:
All-of-the-above, plus highest and lowest stats, all senses and their ranges, plus their speeds.

25+:
Pretty much anything they want to know. If they roll above 30, I'm just handing them the book to peruse.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Bushel-full of Gods

Over on G+, Stuart Robertson asks:

How formally do you handle religions in your game? Do you use an established setting with deities? Do you sort of hand wave it all? Do you have something DIY but more structured?

Religion is pretty central to my campaigns. 5e only seems to have made it more important, though I'm not entirely certain why. (Possibly because we have more paladins now that being Lawful Good isn't a requirement?) One of the first things I do when creating a campaign, right after deciding on a theme, is build the gods.

One of the three (!!!) campaigns I'm running now has a theme of hidden mysteries and lost history. It's centered around a large sheltered sea (very much like the Gulf of Mexico) called the Mur. The gods are below.

Long-time readers will recognize some of these deities from my old Labyrinth Lord game from back in '09. I am so not above stealing gods from other campaigns, either my own or those from other folks. If you've got a stable group of players, it's easy to reuse things like that and it gives them an easy in to the new setting, or is a great way to demonstrate how this new setting is different from the old one.

Along the shores of the Mur, these are the most widely venerated gods. Of these, the worship of Abzu and Tiamat is nearly universal across the multiverse. The further you get from the Mur, the less likely you are to encounter the others.

Abzu
God of Civilization, Knowledge, and Truth

Symbol: an untethered golden flame
Domains: Knowledge, Life, Light, War
Alignment: Lawful Good

Abzu is the great platinum dragon, sibling and occasional lover of Tiamat, father of dragons. He is her opposite (and you can create a sort of yin-yang symbol from their combined symbols), being the patron of cool intellect, reflection, and the search for truth.

He’s also the patron of penance and forgiveness, as he periodically fails to adhere to his own principles and engages in violent and passionate lovemaking with his sister-lover. It is said that, should he ever manage to resist for long enough, all of Creation would wither and die.

His temples are places of learning and education. Most universities have at least a shrine to Abzu on their grounds. Some monasteries are dedicated to Abzu, and most have meditation on the platinum dragon’s struggle and will as part of their discipline. Nearly all paladins taking the Oath of Devotion have Abzu as their patron deity.

Aratshi
God of Order and the Law

Symbol: an iron mace
Domains: Knowledge, Light, War
Alignment: Lawful Neutral

Aratshi is the giver and the defender of the Law. He is a being of absolute order, the Primarch of the modrons and the patron of order. Most of Aratshi’s temples are fortress-courts where the guilty are tried and condemned by a court of judge-priests.

Aratshi’s priests dress in accordance with their duties. Those who serve as judges dress in kilts of white wool striped with purple. Enforcers of the law wear sleeveless chain mail over red tunics and bear iron-headed maces. Inquisitors, those who seek out the guilty, wear long crimson robes.

While most human lands have at least a small presence of Aratshi’s devoted, he’s seen as far too hidebound and inflexible by the tradition-following dwarves or the chaos-embracing elves. In most human lands, Aratshi’s faith has dwindled to a few specialists, aiding civil courts to enforce secular laws. In a few places, Aratshi still wields great influence, and it’s not been lost on most that these places tend to be ruled by iron-fisted tyrants. Note also that Aratshi is a god of the law but not a god of justice, which falls more under Abzu’s domain.

Hasrit
Goddess of the Stars, Divination, and Hidden Secrets

Symbol: a silver star of four greater and four lesser points
Domains: Knowledge, Light, Trickery
Alignment: True Neutral

Hasrit is one of the most popular deities in human lands, second only to Tiamat (and sometimes eclipsing her in more urban and urbane environments). Her priests carefully chart the motions of all the celestial bodies, then reproduce those motions in spinning, ecstatic dances seeking enlightenment and perception that pierces the veils of the mortal world to see their underpinnings. Hasrit herself dances at the fulcrum of the universe, where Chaos and Order, Good and Evil meet.

Hasrit’s temples are especially favored by merchants and politicians, seeking insight into future events or the natures of clients and rivals. The guidance of the goddess’ oracles are sometimes sought at coming-of-age ceremonies, before major construction projects, or marching off to war in some cultures.

Most of Hasrit’s ceremonies take place at night, and while her temples are open at all hours, nights of the new moon are considered to give the clearest divinations. Hasrit’s priests wear robes with long, bell-shaped sleeves, and from their belts hang long strings of gems, stones, metal chains or ropes that splay out as they dance. Hallucinogens and similar consciousness-altering drugs are frequently used in Hasrit’s ceremonies. While it’s not unheard of for Hasrit’s temples to include sacred prostitutes, they are not nearly as common as they are at Tiamat’s temples.

Khogus
Emperor of the Dead, Caretaker of Souls

Symbol: a white skull crowned with flowers
Domains: Knowledge, Light, War
Alignment: Lawful Good

Khogus rules the underworld, where the souls of the dead go for the final reward. Kinda. Most priests of Khogus preach a soul’s time in the underworld is limited; eventually such souls are reborn into new lives.

As defender of dead souls, Khogus is violently opposed to undeath; his priests are charged with destroying undead wherever they are found and safeguarding the bodies of the deceased against necromantic tampering. They also aren’t very fond of those who’ve sold their souls.

Khogus’ priests typically wear common clothing and maintain a somber, sober appearance. They oversee the rites of death and burial, defend graveyards, and hunt the undead. When performing their sacred duties, they wear white or black robes. Paladins who have taken the oaths of Devotion or Vengeance may choose Khogus as their patron.

Shkeen
God of Slavery, Aratshi’s Hound

Symbol: Three links of chain between four triangles which are arranged like the fangs of a hound
Domains: Knowledge, Nature, Tempest
Alignment: ???

According to legend, Shkeen was a powerful creature of Chaos, possibly a demon, defeated and enslaved by Aratshi. The two are generally linked in the mortal realms, since the most common punishment handed down by the courts of Aratshi is a period of enslavement, the profits from which are supposed to serve as restitution for the injured.

Those so sentenced are handed over to the priests of Shkeen. These hound-masked individuals are experts in bending, breaking, and rebuilding the will, and those branded with the mark of Shkeen are considered to be the most loyal and dependable slaves you can buy.

While the Shkeenites are supposed to primarily acquire slaves via the law courts, they are not forbidden from engaging the larger market. It’s rumored that, while the Shkeenites don’t themselves organize or directly finance slave-taking raids, they’re eager to buy new and exotic slaves from nearly any source. In more tyrannical regimes, open season on targeted communities allow the Shkeenites to periodically sweep an area, claiming whomever they can catch as new slaves for their temple-stockyards.

Because of this, it’s not unusual to find that Shkeen’s temple is larger, more opulent, and far more popular among the rich and powerful than Aratshi’s. Their wealth also grants them far more political leverage than the law-giver’s temples enjoy.

Tiamat
Goddess of Passion, Fertility, Creativity, Violence and Chaos

Symbol: a bloody claw
Domains: Life, Nature, Tempest, Trickery, War
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral

The chromatic queen of dragons, Tiamat is venerated in all lands as the patron of fertility and creativity. In many places, she is worshipped as the goddess of both war and love. She is the sister-lover of Abzu, repeatedly tempting him to abandon reason and wallow in his passions (which are, at heart, as violent and potent as hers, perhaps even more so for struggling against his near-constant adamantium restraint).

You can find her priestesses and temples in nearly every society, from the tribes of goblins to the dwarves (where she is worshipped in secret mystery cults by women only).

The exact nature of Tiamat’s temples varies greatly by race. Among the dwarves, she is worshipped in living caves whose entrances are a closely-guarded secret. The orcs venerate her with living sacrifices and bloody rituals under the open sky. In most human lands, her temples are palaces of hedonistic delights, offering shelter to the starving artist, healing to the emotionally wounded, and the services of hierodules, sacred prostitutes, to all with the gold to pay for them.

It should be noted that while Tiamat is a chaotic deity, she has little interest in esoteric concepts like good and evil. Some paladins who’ve taken the Oath of Vengeance or the Oath of the Ancients have Tiamat as their patron deity.

Lesser Gods
These gods are extremely regional and most are lacking in any sort of organized worship (which isn’t to say that they lack clerics). Where they are venerated at all you usually only find roadside or street-corner shrines.

The Magpie Princess
The Barefoot Goddess, Queen of the Open Road

Symbol: a gold ring with a ribbon tied to it
Domains: Tempest, Trickery
Alignment: Chaotic Neutral

This enigmatic being is said to roam the material world in the form of a tall, strikingly handsome woman with long and wild black hair, wearing the height of last year’s fashions in a motley collection of threadbare cast-offs. She isn’t worshipped so much as she’s invoked by travellers and caravans (and most of those are asking her to stay far away from them).

While she is not herself a goddess of fertility, it is believed in some regions that she can pick the gender of an unborn child. In territories where she's known to roam, the father or son of a pregnant woman will climb a tall tree and tie a trinket to the highest branch they can reach as an offering to the Magpie Princess. Coins or unadorned jewelry are requests for a boy, while gemstones, either alone or set in jewelry, requests a girl.

Mapachtli
Lord of Snickers, God of Shadows and the Downtrodden

Symbol: a raccoon’s mask
Domains: Knowledge, Trickery
Alignment: Chaotic Good

This prince of tricksters is well known in nearly all cultures as a gadfly to the comfortable, wicked, and foolish in numerous stories. He’s almost as frequently invoked by bards before a performance as Tiamat. In his stories, Mapachtli is generally seen outsmarting wicked tax collectors, stealing the ill-gotten wealth of the powerful, or spiriting away princesses on the day of an unwanted political marriage.

While Mapachtli is usually the hero of his stories, on occasion others get the upper hand with him. Most notoriously is Tiamat’s vengeance against him when he stole one of her eggs.

While his worship is discouraged among the dwarves, nearly every other civilized race reveres Mapachtli. His shrines can be found in almost every small hamlet or hidden within the cells of slaves. He is especially loathed by Aratshi and hunted by Shkeen, and their priests often figure as villains in Mapachtli’s stories. Uniquely among the lesser gods, he is sometimes chosen as the patron deity for paladins taking the Oath of Vengeance or the Ancients.

The Prince of Swords
The Ravager, the Despoiler, the Hound of Chaos

Symbol: a bloody, two-edged sword
Domains: Tempest, War
Alignment: Chaotic Evil

The patron of mercenaries and the bringing of strike, the Prince of Swords is generally seen as an unpleasant but necessary force in the world. He is the patron of violence, as willing to strike the good as the bad, and his whispers of fear and greed spur the great and powerful to acts of aggression. His shrines can be found in every sword-school, mercenary camp, and castle in the world.

Skotia
Lady of Mosquitoes and Marshes, Goddess of Plagues, Thieves and Assassins

Symbol: a mosquito
Domains: Nature, Trickery
Alignment: Chaotic Evil

When those in polite society invoke Skotia, they’re hoping to turn her attention elsewhere, or propitiate her to the point that she won’t aid in attempts to rob, swindle, or curse them. Most of Skotia’s worshippers are thieves, assassins, grifters and con artists. While few temples dedicated to her worship exist, it’s not unusual to find little shrines tucked away in dark alleys or just off well-travelled roads.

The Mystery Cults
In addition to the gods named above, the shores of the Mur are littered with secretive mystery cults. Unlike the faiths of the principal gods, mystery cults have little interest in spreading their worship broadly. In fact, it’s often forbidden for members to mention to others that they belong to such a cult. It’s rumored that these cults are actually fronts for demons and devils, and that they have infiltrated nearly every prominent government and financial institution. Some say that even the temples of the principal gods have secret adherents to mystery cults among their members.

It’s rumored that even the Autarch himself is a member of a mystery cult. Other, more sinister rumors insist that a number of mystery cults actually worship the Autarch himself!

Art by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

50 Shades of Blueberry

If you are of a certain age, largely congruous with being there when AD&D was the new hotness, you probably remember when entertainment aimed at children was rife with kink.

No, I’m serious. The Adam West Batman show was probably the most well-known. Every story was a two-parter, and the first part invariably ended with Batman and/or Robin captured and tied up in some bizarre, slow-acting death trap. Like a rotisserie cooker, or beneath giant magnifying glasses, or inside a giant mousetrap, while Julie Newmar (or Eartha Kitt) crawled all over them wearing tight spandex and purring.

That, ladies and gentleman, is the sort of image that will stick in your subconscious and never be dislodged. Especially if you saw it five times a week.

Batman was, of course, only the tip of the iceberg. Saturday morning cartoons were rife with this sort of thing. A single episode of the Speed Buggy cartoon, “The Hidden Valley of Amazonia” involves not just the female doms/male subs the title implies, but also forced feminization, objectification (people as widgets on a conveyor belt), togas, and the ever-popular mind control. And that was probably a rehash of a nearly identical plot from the not-fetishy-at-all Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space episode, “Warrior Women of Amazonia.”

The bizarre thing was how much all of this was hidden in plain sight, a sort of purloined chain-letter of kinky deviance all over the place. Part of that, I’m sure, was the dominance of the counter-culture at that time, but there also seemed to be willful blindness about things. Things like the twisted and macabre horror-film-disguised-as-a-kid’s-film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

This movie is a magnum opus of body horror and industrial objectification. Kids have their bodies warped and twisted in numerous ways, or get trapped in industrial machinery, or burned alive in a furnace. (At least, that’s what’s strongly implied.)

Maybe it’s his relative youth that allows Kiel Chenier to not treat any of the murder and mutilation of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as normal kids fare. Instead, he embraces the kinky body-horror of the whole thing and plays it as a straight-up Lamentations of the Flame Princess probably-kill-you-all-but-in-amusing-ways adventure.

The thing that Kiel does that the movie doesn’t is linger on the effects of all this body-horror. In the movie, children die off-camera, while the horribly disfigured and mutated are dragged away by the creepy Oompa Loompas. In Blood in the Chocolate, warped bodies become classic OSR-style challenges. Getting inflated isn’t something that just happens for a moment; it’s an ongoing condition and slow death-by-degrees that has to be dealt with (or possibly even capitalized on). And, honestly, that’s one of the more normal things that can happen to PCs in this adventure. Characters can be forced into cannibalism, literally uncontrollably eating their buddies to death.

This is really warped stuff, and even above-and-beyond what I’ve come to expect from LotFP; there’s some twisted stuff in Broodmother Skyfortress, but none of it is as twisted or personal as what’s in Blood in the Chocolate. In Broodmother Skyfortress, you see ugly, twisted, icky stuff. In Blood in the Chocolate, your character becomes ugly, twisted, icky stuff. And then explodes.

The use of cultural icons for humor purposes does make this look, at least on the surface, similar to Venger Satanis’ Alpha Blue stuff. However, where Alpha Blue implies a certain amount of Yakkity Sax playing in the background, Blood in the Chocolate is deadly earnest, which makes the silly bits go from comedic to downright creepy, the same way Pennywise the Clown isn’t in the least bit funny, but all the more terrible because of the associations.

This all means that Blood in the Chocolate is a welcome step in the right direction for including fetish content in your RPGing. It’s not just window-dressing (as is often the case in Pathfinder adventures) but something the adventure (and likely one or more PCs) wallows in. It’s not exactly the focus of the adventure, but it certainly is both unavoidable and central to the fun, if not the plot. I don’t think you could really play this game straight, though I suppose if you did and just ignored all the implications, hey, that would be an awful lot like Saturday mornings in the ‘70s.