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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Jeff Rients Wants to Blow Up Your Game

I never thought of Jeff as one of those black-jacket anarchist types, running about smashing things with tire-irons and crowbars, but, well, have you seen Broodmother Skyfortress?

If you haven’t, and you want to play in it, ***SPOILER ALERT***READ NO FURTHER***SPOILER ALERT***. If you haven’t and you’re just curious, there are many good reviews of it out there. I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I’d like to talk about what Mr. Rients has going on under the hood in that adventure.

First off, he thinks you need to blow stuff up. If there’s a favorite tavern the PCs enjoy hanging out in, or a particular lord they love (or love to hate) or whatever, he suggests you have the Skyfortress giants come down on it like a ton of bricks. And he’s not talking about a little raid that knocks over tables and kidnaps a few peasants. He suggests you ask yourself:

If the Giants attack by surprise at night, as is their wont, is there any possibility of survivors or would visitors find nothing but a collection of bloody smears?

Death Frost Doom
is (in)famous for the possibility that the PCs might unleash a plague of zombies on the world. Broodmother Skyfortress assumes something nearly that bad is happening already.

I love this idea when used in moderation (as Jeff himself suggests in the book). A destructible world is more real, more immediate to the players, and far more interesting. Being willing to blow up the Keep on the Borderlands (illustrated beautifully on the back cover of the book) tells players that they’re gaming in a truly dynamic world where their actions (or lack thereof) will have real consequences. That’s cool.

On the other hand, if the players never know whether or not all elves will be transformed into cat-people, or all wizard spells now result in explosive flatulence, or all the gods are simply going to vanish at the drop of a hat, it actively prevents them from investing in the setting. Doing one of those things over the course of an entire campaign might be cool. Doing one (or more) of those every time you sit down to play tells the players that nothing is trustworthy, and they’ll just avoid investing in any of it.

While that’s fascinating all by itself, Jeff’s after more than just blowing up your campaign. He wants to blow up your entire game.

There’s little more sacred in D&D than the to-hit roll: d20 + mods to reach or beat a target number. The sanctity of this mechanic has only grown over the years as it has been expanded to cover nearly every situation, from saving throws to skills to tool use. Pretty much anything a PC wants to do in 5e is accompanied by rolling a d20.

When fighting the giants, Jeff suggests you just not bother having the players roll to hit. Yep, they always automatically hit the Giants. However, they have obscene numbers of hit-points and the first five points of damage from any attack don’t count. Attacking them with mundane weapons (or even lesser enchanted ones) is barely going to scratch these monsters. Normal combat is going to lead to TPKs; the players simply can’t put enough hurt on these monsters fast enough to take them down (unless they’ve got access to some really nasty magic). And, by eschewing the sacred d20 roll, players should immediately understand that this is an unusual situation.

Jeff calls this Mechanical Alienation, and it’s a cool technique. Again, it’s probably most potent when used rarely (I’m thinking of invoking it at the end of one of my current campaigns), but it does drag into the middle of the table the central question of what your RPG is. Gygax is famously credited with saying, “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules.” This is that idea turned up to 11. It’s not quite free-form RPGing, but rather understanding that all the rules are there to promote the fun. Rules that don’t promote the fun should be tossed aside, maybe for good, maybe for only a few moments. It would be too much fuss and bother for us DMs to create a completely original set of rules for each encounter (and if you did, you’d destroy player trust in your campaign; see above). But there is a time and a place to set the book aside and recreate the game in a more fun shape. At its heart, this is what Broodmother Skyfortress is all about.