Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Weeping Iron Makes Wizards Writhe

Sorry, couldn't resist all the alliteration. ;)

Reading the fourth and fifth Black Company books inspired this. Most likely to be encountered by my Wednesday group, but considering how ubiquitous spell-use is in 5e, it seems it would have very broad application.

So, somewhere in the mists of time, someone hated spell-slingers. Someone hated them A LOT. And they devised multiple methods of killing them. One of the most effective, and enduring, was weeping iron. Weeping iron looks like black iron except it weeps a nasty purple oil that coats the metal. Most weeping iron weapons are enchanted (because, apparently, they didn’t hate all spell-slingers, or maybe they were one flavor of spell-slingers with a hate-on for another flavor; whichever works best for your campaign, naturally).

Regardless of whatever enchantments a weeping iron weapon has, anyone struck by such a weapon must make a CON save (usually against 16) or be poisoned (as per the condition rules in the PHB). If the victim doesn’t have any spell slots available, they’ll shake the poison off in 10 minutes.

On the other hand, if the victim does have spell slots, they have disadvantage on the saving throw and immediately take 1d6 damage per the level of their highest remaining spell slot. (So if a wizard has two 1st level slots and a single 3rd level spell slot remaining, the wizard takes 3d6 damage from the poison.) Every hour after, the spell-slinger takes another d6 damage per level of their highest remaining spell slot. The poison feeds on the spell-slingers magical potential; only magic will serve to purge the poison from a spell-singer’s body.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Black Company Brings D&D Magic to Fantasy Lit

I’ve read this book three times now, I think. Once was in high school. I could swear the second time was more recently, and I thought it had been since ’08, but now I’m not so sure; there’s a lot of this book I did not remember. Perhaps ’09. There are a lot of frustrating holes in my memories of ’09.

The Black Company is important to me in large part because it’s kinda-sorta the template I’ve based D&D on since high school. When I first picked up D&D, I was days away from turning the recommended age of 10. My models for fantasy were Harryhausen movies (especially Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), a random sampling of Norse and Greek myths sanitized for elementary-school kids, A Boy’s King Arthur, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A lot of the core of D&D can be found in these things: warriors that take blow after blow, their mail hanging off them in bloody rags, but staying on their feet and in the fight; professional specialization; the ensemble of disparate characters united in a quest; derring-do, danger, and reward.

But there was a big, ugly fly in my D&D soup: magic. I would learn before I reached high school that D&D magic was based on the writings of Jack Vance, but I wouldn’t actually read any Vance for over a decade after I got that first Basic box. Magic in my fantasy didn’t work at all like D&D magic. D&D magic didn’t fit in Camelot or Cair Paravel or Isengard. My earliest attempts to fix this with spell-point systems were, of course, disastrous; such a gameist solution actually snuffed out any sense of the mystical.

In my teens, however, I discovered two writers whose work really, really fit D&D. The first was Steven Brust with his Taltos novels. The second was Glen Cook with The Black Company.

In spite of Green Ronin’s free-form, point-based magic system to the contrary, magic in the Black Company universe is clearly based on very distinct spells, cast over and over again:

The occasional pair of balls howled over from Duretile. I later learned that Silent was throwing them, having been taught by the Taken.

The worst seemed over. Except for the three escapees Elmo was hunting, we had contained the thing. The Limper peeled off to the join the hunt for the three. Whisper returned to Duretile to refurbish her store of nasty tricks.

This is probably the most descriptive passage about magic in the Black Company books. Spells are, clearly, distinct and teachable techniques. And they need to be “refurbished” occasionally. In short, it looks an awful lot like D&D’s Vancian magic.

Even better, for me, The Black Company gave me a lot of what I loved from Tolkien and Lewis and King Arthur, but modified for the “reality” of D&D-style magic. We had the clash of armies, political skullduggery, the wide-ranging quests, the memorable locales and characters. Yet the focus was on grunts down in the mud and the blood and the beer. We got glimpses of great and powerful sorcerers, but from the thick of steel-on-steel melee down below the flying carpets and spiraling towers. Ok, yeah, there is a “chosen one” character, but she’s not a main character and we never see anything from her point of view. It’s mostly Croaker and his annals.

And what we get is very D&D-looking magic, with powerful artillery spells able to brutalize entire companies of soldiers at a time in horrific ways. There are rains of acidic dust, germ-warfare eggs, gargantuan invisible stompy things, and various sorts of pyrotechnics. Want to stop magic? You need either your own wizards to counter the spells of your enemy, or huge masses of cannon-fodder to absorb all that deadly magic and still swamp the enemy with.

Or, even better for D&D, be a small elite band that can slip in unnoticed, ambush the enemy wizards and rifle through their letters and documented orders, and then get the hell out before anybody notices what you’ve done.

And that’s the model I’ve used ever since to make my D&D worlds. There are powerful bad-asses bestriding the world like colossi, but still being very mortal and limited beyond the range of their particular suite of powers. And below them, entire pyramids of experts, specialists, spear-carriers, and grunts getting all the things done that need doing. The colossi have their own goals and rivalries and plots rolling along, and while most folks might just see that expected clash between Good and Evil, or Empire versus Free Cities, if you peek behind the curtain you’ll see that the game isn’t actually what you’d expect.

I remember thinking, the second time I read The Black Company that it clearly was intended by Cook to be a stand-alone thing, very much like his The Tower of Fear and the one about the guy with the magic sword. But if you look at the publication dates, that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Wikipedia, Shadows Linger was published five months after The Black Company, and The White Rose came out six months after that. Then we get a four year gap before Shadow Games. It’s going to be fun to explore this journey again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

D&D is a Transhuman RPG?

I was contemplating the realities of 5e D&D (the setting the rules assume/create) when I realized that D&D takes place in a transhuman setting. Notice the similarities:

  • There are superhuman abilities all over the place! Lots of common folk can do things like see in the dark or cast simple cantrips, or even higher-level spells like hellish rebuke, even before you start discussing class levels.
  •  Death is reversible. In 5th edition, a 5th level cleric can revivify a corpse if they’ve died within the last minute. This very much looks like tech medical researchers are perfecting even now. Many common folk have natural lifespans measured in centuries.
  • Enhanced reality and magical make-up! Lots of normal folk can toss around cantrips like thaumaturgy before you even start talking about class levels. High elves have access to the entire wizard list of cantrips, and these include things like lesser illusion, mage hand, and mending. A single 3rd level cleric can light every street-corner in town (given enough time) with continual flame.
  • Mind hacking is a thing. While friends and charm aren’t the spells they used to be, crown of madness and dominate person allow you to adjust a person’s behavior in real time, while suggestion, geas, and modify memory can distort or even reshape a personality.

And keep in mind, everything I’ve discussed above is available to characters below 10th level of ability. Modify memory and geas are 5th level spells, available to 9th-level wizards. I haven’t gotten into the really reality-bending stuff like teleportation circles, control weather, earthquake, true polymorph, or wish.

However, as in cyberpunk, the future is unevenly distributed. High elves are the big winners, having universal access to wizard cantrips and the longest life spans. Poor humans are at the bottom of the stack, though they do appear to have improved facility towards learning and personal development.

Just how uneven the distribution is depends on your campaign. 5e doesn’t assume, the way 3e did, what sort of campaign you’re running. If you decide that most priests can’t even manage a cantrip, then even kings might not have access to revivify. However, in most campaigns I’ve seen, almost every village has someone capable of casting at least lesser restoration, meaning they’ve got a 3rd level cleric or druid around. The rules for the teleportation circle spell state that “[m]any major temples, guilds, and other important places have permanent teleportation circles inscribed somewhere within their confines.” The DMG walks this back a bit, but there’s a strong implication that 9th-level wizards and sorcerers are thick enough on the ground to make these things useful to commercial and religious institutions (who usually don’t create wizards as part of their regular activities). Keep in mind, it takes a year of casting and over 18k gp (assuming a 365-day year) to create just one circle AND you need a 9th-level wizard or sorcerer at the other end, where people will be teleporting from. This isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to do on a whim.

So while your standard D&D campaign may lack the usual trappings of a transhumanist setting, it has a lot of the mechanical parts of one. This should make transhumanist lit a good source for mining plots, conflicts, and themes for your D&D game.