Sunday, July 27, 2014

"Theists are not Clerics," and other inchoate first steps toward religions, doctrines, rituals, myths and other sacred things for a RuneQuest campaign

Clerics belong to churches. They have doctrines. They devote their worship to a single deity to the exclusion of others, even in worlds with a diverse plurality of gods with different spheres of influence. Clerics evangelize. They pray. They hold services for congregations in buildings dedicated to worship in little pseudo-medieval villages.

The moustache is one of the vestments.
Basically, clerics are Christian, with church hierarchies and sacred doctrines that compete with other belief systems in a zero sum game to collect the largest number of followers. Admittedly, many do have a veneer of non-Christianity through their spheres of influence: Bane is a god of strife, hatred, and tyranny. His rites involve ritual human sacrifice and torture, which are not recognized ideals in Christian doctrine. Yet Bane still has a church. It has a priesthood organized around the equivalent of bishops and a high priest ("high imperceptor"), with cathedrals of a sort, and with an orthodoxy and a schism between the orthodox and "transformed" church. His priests are priests, with vestments, who pray to their god for spells. Clerical prayer -- even in the church of Bane, where its done at midnight -- fits comfortably into a mainstream Christian conception of what prayer is. It is a basically private, individual conversation between deity and follower, wherein the follower asks the god for things and the god answers. Clerics of Bane have a personal relationship with their god.

Sound familiar? 

Bane is just an example. D&D clerics are Odo Van Helsings, after all, and culturally gamers are a pretty Christian bunch. It's what we know, and it's hard to imagine other ways of thinking about religion, especially organized religion.

Now I've never really thought about this much, beyond the basic observation that clerics are boring, which you already knew.

Our game reflects this. Our clerics are pretty Christian, just like our characters are pretty modern and pretty western in their worldviews. Our clerics tend to have an evangelical habit. If there are followers of other religions in their same party, they try to convert each other, or they try to pick apart their respective imaginary religions with clever metaphysical arguments that no fantasy faith could possibly stand up to. They go on holy crusades against evil (the "fanatical fire and brimstone inquisitor type" being a classic result), and so on. It's really hard to see beyond your culture, you know? And in D&D this may or may not be a problem, depending on your goals.

For me it's mostly not a problem, in spite of what the preceding paragraphs may have suggested, as long as I don't have to play a cleric. Because clerics are boring. Which you already knew.  

And actually, this post isn't about clerics.

It's about theists and theistic magic and cults and myths and rituals in RuneQuest. I'm trying to get a better handle on these things. And the first part of doing so is recognizing that theists aren't clerics. (Except when they are, of course, but that's on me for putting a Christian church in my RuneQuest game, and I get that.) The second part of doing so will be communicating the fact that theists aren't clerics to my group (with the ultimate goal of convincing them that theists aren't boring). But let's focus on the first part first. 

So here's a thing. When the vikings were messing about in Northern England and Scotland and Ireland and places (I will stop this list here it will get too long), what were they up to? Well they were killing people and taking their stuff, and they were shaking down local big men, and they were burning things, and they were making great heathen armies, and they were calling places names like Something-by, and they were saying "their" a lot. So they were doing these things and other things, but it looks like they weren't evangelizing. You just didn't go around trying to convert people to worship of Odin. I mean, you didn't even extoll the virtue of Odin to Anglo-Saxons, who were getting pretty Christian by this time and should have known better! It just wasn't a thing you did as a matter of habit. Can you imagine that? Meanwhile, the Christians were busy extolling their doctrines to you. And eventually a bunch of people evangelizing about Christ managed to repeat their case enough and throw in enough fringe benefits (convenient church locations on top of your sacred sites, for starters, and some good Christian sacred kingship as well. Maybe wine? I don't know.) to get you to trade off your weird old gods for their one true God. What does that tell us? It tells us (among other things) that these heathen religions were different in this way from the frame we're used to using to think about religion.

And that's not the only thing that's going to be different. 

Statue of Freyja. Maybe.
So here I am wanting to make a bunch of Runequest religious cults that are pseudo-viking-y, and what am I trying to accomplish here,what is worship like, and what are the worshippers like? Well, part of the problem is we don't know much actually about heathen religious practices of Northern Europe. I mean we find statues of Freyja and we only know that they're statues of Freyja because, well, we don't know actually. They're statues of women, and Freyja was a woman, so we say they are statues of Freyja. Because why would anyone craft a little statue of a woman who isn't a goddess anyway? They must be statues of Freyja. Or at least of some goddess. Anyway, we know Freyja's name, so let's go with that.

So we don't actually have a lot to work with, in practical terms, other than a whole lot of conjecture and some imagery and a few words written about some gods hundreds of years later by Christians, and some actual objects that didn't happen to rot away and that we have found.

Ask me about the religious beliefs in Michigan a couple hundred years ago. We have really good records about this but if you tried to reconstruct the religious practices of 19th century Michigan people from what I told you about them after you first lost most of the pages of my notes, plus maybe a cross pendant you found, you'd be doing something sort of like what we're doing when we try to figure out heathen beliefs. You'd have conjecture and imagery and pieces of actual objects that didn't happen to rot away and that we have found. 

Fortunately for us, conjecture and imagery and pieces of actual objects that didn't happen to rot away are pretty good working material for fantasy gaming. Way better than they are for humanistic research because we don't actually have to try to say true things based on these scraps, we just have to do interesting things with them, where "interesting" is defined as "it worked at Friday night's game with my friends and was not boring, like clerics."

So that is a reasonable goal, and I will adopt it.

But this post is long enough, so I'll drop some images in and post it. I will come back with something more constructive later, using RuneQuest to structure it. I can't promise I'll follow up soon (the beauty of blogging is that it's on my own schedule, and my schedule is slow). But I promise I will get back to trying my hand at this. I have started. In the meantime, my first draft attempt at a pseudo-viking-y cult is this Cult of the Gullet. It's still underspecified for a RuneQuest cult, but it's a gesture in that direction.

In the meantime, feel free to tell me that this has already been done, and where this has already been done, and who has already done this. Glorantha, I know, this is Glorantha's whole thing, so of course it's no accident that RuneQuest is making me think about it. Others?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Orc Soldiers of the North

But the victory of the Elves was dear-bought. For those of Ossiriand were light-armed, and no match for the Orcs, who were shod with iron and iron-shielded and bore great spears with broad blades...
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Orcs are born soldiers, created by the elves from mannish and goblin stock to march in the elven wars of conquest. Most still live and die in the service of their cold elven lords. Orcs are born of magic fully grown and begin life as members of military bands of eight to twelve soldiers. This is the orc’s born warband. While they are not bound magically to the service of the elves, most orcs know no other life, and the bonds of camaraderie within their units hold them together. In many ways, orcs fight not for their elven masters but for their brothers in the warband. Some orcs whose units have been decimated find themselves adrift in the lands of men, lost, vagabond. These may take up work as mercenaries, join bandit groups, work as trainers for local militias, wander as adventurers, or even join the armies of men. They are rarely trusted, and even among those who find some acceptance in human lands, few ever regain the camaraderie they knew in their warbands.

Orcs are born nameless, and until they distinguish themselves within their unit, they remain so. Orcs have names like Whiskey, Buzzard, Poet, Red, Savvy, Croaker, One-Eye, and Raven. Orcs have no families other than their bands. They travel as military bands, live in military camps, and conduct themselves as soldiers in the field. Orc bands (8-12) are further organized into hosts (of 8-12 bands).

Physically, orcs are the size and build of men, and through the dark glamours of the elves, orcs are cloaked by night with the appearance of men. Only the light of the sun strips away the elven glamours and reveals them to be orcs. Thus the elves sow discord in human lands, sending orc spies, saboteurs, and assassins to cause chaos and seed suspicion among men.

STR    2d6+6    7-18
CON    3d6+3    4-21
SIZ    2d6+6    7-18
DEX    3d6      3-18
INT    2d6+6    7-18
POW    3d6      3-18
CHA    2d6 (orc visage) / 3d6 (human visage)    2-12/3-18

TRAITS: Night sight, thick skin 1 AP, incorruptible (immune to disease), unstoppable (as Resilience, RQ6, p. 292), born to die (immune to fear)

One of the greatest killers of armies is disease. The orc does not fall prey to it. Orcs must survive long marches and punishing conditions. The body of an orc is incorruptible. Every orc is immune to all forms of disease.

Orcs may fall in battle, but they stand again. Orcs are unstoppable. An orc can endure any pain. He never needs to check Endurance to prevent unconsciousness when wounded, and is immune to torture.

Created by dark magics, orcs are born to die, and they know it in their souls. Orcs are immune to all natural and magical fear effects. Orc units may make a strategic retreat to gain advantage, but they never need do so through fear or hesitation.
Orcs fight, and orcs die. It is the way of the world. When using the rules from Ships & Shield Walls, orcs do not begin making morale checks until they have suffered 30% losses, and even when they do quit the field due to failed morale checks, they make an strategic withdrawal.

Orc (Nomadic Culture)
Standard Skills
Athletics, Brawn, Endurance, Evade, Ride, Unarmed, Willpower  

Combat Style: Orc Soldier
Orcs are born to war. And then they train for it. To maximize their flexibility on the field, they are trained in the use of all weapons and armor. Equipped with light armor and a bow, any orc is an archer or skirmisher. Equipped with heavy armor, shield, and blade, that same orc is a heavy foot soldier. Cloaked as a man, carrying a wicked curved knife, the orc is an assassin in the night. On the back a great dire wolf, the orc is cavalry.

Born for Battle (Benefit)
The combat style benefit of being an orc is their training to use any weapon. This adaptability carries over to mass battles. Orc forces can use any of the formations detailed on pp. 19-20 of Ships & Shield Walls.

Professional Skills
Craft (any), Engineering, Healing, Language (any), Lore (Strategy and Tactics), Seamanship, Survival

Orc Soldier (Orc Career)     

Standard Skills
Athletics, Endurance, Evade, Ride, Unarmed, Willpower; Combat Style (Orc Soldier)  

Combat Style: Orc Soldier
Orcs are born to war. And then they train for it. To maximize their flexibility on the field, they are trained in the use of all weapons and armor. Equipped with light armor and a bow, any orc is an archer or skirmisher. Equipped with heavy armor, shield, and blade, that same orc is a heavy foot soldier. Cloaked as a man, carrying a wicked curved knife, the orc is an assassin in the night. On the back a great dire wolf, the orc is cavalry.

Born for Battle (Benefit)
The combat style benefit of being an orc is their training to use any weapon. This adaptability carries over to mass battles. Orc forces can use any of the formations detailed on pp. 19-20 of Ships & Shield Walls.

Professional Skills
Craft (any with a military field application), Engineering, Healing, Language (any), Lore (Strategy and Tactics), Seamanship, Survival

This is a RuneQuest 6 version of the Orc Soldier character class I made back when I thought the war in the north campaign would use ACKS. It, in turn, implements my love of the "soldier orc" archetype.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Cultures of the North: Thulean

Thulean (Primitive Culture)

Standard Skills
Athletics, Endurance, First Aid, Locale, Perception, Stealth, Swim

Combat Style: Thule Hunter
Longspear, shortspear, javelin, sling, dagger, hatchet.

Knockout Blow (Benefit)
When attacking with surprise treat any Stun Location as lasting minutes instead of turns.

Professional Skills
Craft (any), Culture (any), Language (any), Lore (any), Navigate, Survival, Track

The Thule are the old people. They were here when Hyperborea was at its height. They are a people diminished, but they are here still, nomads wandering the north.

They have always stayed apart, keeping to their own people. Never instigating war. Moving on when their territories are threatened.

But things have changed. The Thule have been seen moving quietly along the borders of Snow Elf controlled territories. Watching the elves. And waiting.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Cultures of the North: Dwarf

Dwarf (Nomadic Culture)     

Standard Skills
Athletics, Conceal, Deceit, Endurance, Insight, Perception, Stealth   

Combat Style: Dwarven Raiding
Dwarves favor weapons kept easily at hand. The Knife. The Dagger. The Club. The Hatchet. The Sling. They also train to fight with Short Sword, Long Sword, and Short Bow.

Scrapper (Benefit)
When using the Change Range action, the foe’s opposed roll to maintain range (Evade) or meet the character with an attack are made at one difficulty grade higher.     

Professional Skills
Art (any), Craft (any), Commerce, Culture, Language (any), Lore (any, esp. Dwarves, Dragons), Navigation, Survival   

Dwarfs are a vagabond people. They are wanderers and merchants, crafters and teachers of the secret crafts. Their skills are highly valued, though they are feared as well. For it is well known that the dwarfs hold an unnatural awe of the dragons and their hoards. When dwarfs find a dragon, they steal away its hoard to attract it to a sacred cave where they will worship it. This is dangerous work, and it can lead to an angry worm that brings ruin to all the people of a region, dwarf and man alike. Dwarfish sojourners scour the north, often traveling alone or with a few trusted brethren, seeking the dragons. Dwarfish clans live nomadic lives too, traveling throughout the north on strange pilgrimages to worship their wormish gods.

Dwarf Characteristics
STR    1d6+8    9-14
CON    2d6+9    11-21
SIZ    1d3+6    7-10
DEX    3d6      3-18
INT    2d6+6    7-18
POW    2d6+6    3-18
CHA    3d6      3-18

TRAITS: Night sight, earth sense

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cultures of the North: Vandal

Vandal (Civilized Culture)     

Standard Skills
Athletics, Endurance, Deceit, Influence, Insight, Locale, Willpower   

Combat Style: Vandal Soldier
Primarily fight with Shortspear and Viking Shield or Longsword and Viking Shield; also trained with Longspear, Javelin, Dagger, Hatchet, Battle Axe, Great Axe.

Formation Fighting (Benefit)
Permits a group of three or more warriors to draw into close formation, placing more open or disordered opponents at a disadvantage (provided the ‘unit’ cannot be outflanked) and thus reducing each foe’s Action Points by one if they engage.   

Professional Skills
Art (any), Commerce, Craft (any), Courtesy, Language (any), Lore (any), Seamanship, Streetwise   

The Vandals first served as mercenaries in Atlantean armies hundreds of years ago. Today, there is a Vandal kingdom on the northwest coast of Atlantis itself. Vandals still fight alongside Atlantean Kingdoms against the rising threat of the Asturian Empire, with its undead hordes.

Vandals are rare in the north. When seen, it is often in the company of Atlanteans, either as traders themselves, as bodyguards, or as mercenary recruiters. Their tongue is related to the tongues of the Hothar, Iotar, and Thiudar, and so they often serve as translators and go-betweens in dealings between Atlantis and the north.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cultures of the North: Atlantean

Atlantean (Civilized Culture)

Standard Skills
Customs, Influence, Insight, Locale, Native Language, Ride, Willpower

Combat Style: Atlantean Guard
Quarterstaff. Also Dagger, Knife, Shortsword, and Trident and Net. At war, Pike, Glaive, Longspear. At range, Sling or Short Bow.

Cautious Fighter (Benefit)
Can use the Change Range action to automatically withdraw from engagement with no need to roll.

Professional Skills
Craft (any), Healing, Lore (any), Musicianship, Navigate, Seamanship, Survival, Track

Atlanteans are strangers to the north, hailing from the distant south, a land of glittering cities and sorceries undreamt of in our lands. Already in the days of Old Hyperborea, Atlantis stood. Today it stands still. Yet even Atlantis does not stand untroubled. The Atlantean Kingdoms fight a war on two fronts, one with the rising Asturian Empire and its undead legions, another with the Serpent Kingdoms that sit at the heart of the continent of Atlantis.

Atlanteans are very rare in the north. Most who appear are merchants. Some are here to recruit northmen warriors as mercenaries for their armies. Some, it is said, are here to plunder the treasures of lost Hyperborea, the only kingdom whose sorceries ever rivaled those of Atlantis.

Atlanteans do not worship the gods, nor do they worship Sol, nor do they worship the spirits of the land. Each Atlantean worships “the god inside.” They believe themselves to be a divine people, and through proper rites and practices, their divinity can be brought forth into the mortal world.

Into the Breach Debriefing and a Few D&D 5 Post-Game Observations

We played Into the Breach with Basic D&D 5 last Friday. Since then, I've updated the "Into the Breach" rules notes in that blog post to bring the backgrounds more closely into line with the final version of backgrounds in D&D 5 (two skills and two tools and/or languages) and made some modifications to gun things thanks to +Charles King. A pdf copy can be found here for easy printing.

The Squad

Codename: Mountain Man
Primary Military Specialty: Architect
Acclimation: Rogue

Codename: Black Eagle
Primary Military Specialty: Search and Rescue Inferus
Acclimation: Rogue

Codename: Silkscreen
Primary Military Specialty: Cleaner
Acclimation: Rogue

Codename: Sand Viper
Primary Military Specialty: Soldier (Automatic Riflewoman)
Acclimation: Fighter

Codename: Lead Balloon
Primary Military Specialty: Sapper
Acclimation: (Mountain Dwarf) Fighter

Acclimations were rolled randomly, as planned, but on a larger table that put (human) cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard with equal probabilities (20%) and distributed the remaining 20% across a few different demihuman + class acclimation possibilities. Demihuman acclimations don't change character appearance at all -- they just add a bit of strangeness to the character's abilities. We didn't end up with any casters, so we didn't see any spellcasting in play.

Here's what we did see: 

  • A Dyson Class Stairwell's main hallways collapsed with explosives
  • Murder most foul at the hands of a drug lord with access to Guenhwyvar class xenotech
  • And the use of said xenotech as a hood ornament
  • A warehouse full of custom speedboats used for drug and xenotech smuggling
  • A lost island that has to be sailed to in a ritual pattern in order to reach it, containing a breach
  • Orcs with automatic weapons
  • Velociraptors eating drug lords
  • Hijackings on the high seas

Here's what I learned:
  • Advantage is really great. It is easy to keep track of even when drinking, and it keeps things moving. These things are very important to me because we typically have 8-9 players + the GM. (Last Friday was the 4th of July, which is why we were down to 5 players + GM.)
  • Orcs with automatic weapons are scary. Players may even make a tactical retreat while collapsing the tunnel behind them.
  • If you introduce an Onyx Panther Figurine of Wondrous Power and call it a "Guenhwyvar Class Xenotech," it cannot be scary. It will be treated with disdain regardless of its actual danger level to the party. 
  • You deserve that.
  • Giving a Dyson Class Breach Database (copy of Dyson's Delves I) to a player will slow initial dungeon exploration until the breach type is identified. After that, things pick up. 
  • Project Long Stair Breach Closures are plausible. The players actually set charges to close the main entrance tunnels to the dungeon they found and collapsed the tunnels without exploring the dungeon first. (In The Cinder Throne map, they blew the tunnel at location of the first side door in each primary entrance tunnel.)
  • It will still be very tempting for them to go in, and they may leave a side passage unsealed "just in case we want to go back." (The players knew about the secret door entrance thanks to the Architect, but they chose not to seal it.)
  • You don't need any extra rules to set up an interesting tension between "Do we do our jobs and shut down this breach and do a veil out" vs "Do we explore this dungeon just a little bit and maybe find a treasure xenotech artifact or two... for scientific purposes of course." All you really need is a set of "Mission Rules" that are directly at odds with the things D&D PCs do. The players will do the rest to make that interesting. (I used the "Ethics Code" from p. 42 of the Esoterrorists, and it was perfect.)
  • Rogues are pretty great at the things they are great at, even at 3rd level, but it feels right.
  • Backgrounds are really easy to create and are an invitation to make your own stuff that tailors the game to your setting. I will have a lot of fun with them.
  • Inspiration is easy for me to forget because I'm not used to it. I'm not opposed to its presence in 5th edition, but I'm not acclimated to tracking it. Also, only one player filled in the ideals, bonds, flaws stuff that links into it. Partly I think the other players just didn't think to do that, since bonds, ideals, and so on are a new addition to the game. Partly I think it was because it is a thing that slows down character creation. Bonds, ideals, and flaws are very open-ended, and open-ended decisions are not as easy to make quickly as closed-set decisions. Some people will want to spend a little time mulling them over, and . Also, players may not have a clear image of the character yet and are painting with broad strokes during character creation, so they may be a bit hard to pin down. As far as Inspiration goes, so far I could take or leave it. Time will tell which one.
  • Monsters are not that hard to just make up on the fly, at least at low level. I used "Hobgoblin" stats for my orcs and those were fine but I also was ready for just about anything because I know what AC range, Hit Points, attack rolls, and damage values characters have and can use those benchmarks to spitball monsters. Bounded accuracy helps a lot with this, I think.
D&D 5th edition is pretty good Dungeons & Dragons. It'll be a while before I'm able to say for sure, but it has a real shot of joining ACKS as one of my top two choices for playing D&D.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Alignment and Psychological Health in Into the Breach

"Into the Breach" uses "capital A" Alignment.

Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- who has always lived upstairs and has never encountered a basement dweller or piece of basement tech is Unaligned. It doesn't matter how "good" or "evil" they are in colloquial terms. 

However, Long Stair veterans often come back up... changed. Aligned somehow to weird forces. In fact, one way to test whether you're dealing with a basement dweller in disguise or long stair acclimated individual is the tried and true set of detect alignment spells. 

You may choose one of the standard D&D alignments for your character, or you may choose to have remained Unaligned. 

The conspiracy recruits both aligned and unaligned individuals -- they can hardly avoid it -- but aligned agents are watched more closely than those who went down and returned unaligned. Aligned individuals are connected to a still poorly understood xenocosmic war or fate of some kind, and that makes a lot of folks upstairs more than a little nervous. Observational reports also suggest that their actions, when driven by Alignment, may increase the likelihood of breaches. They have to be monitored, and any unaligned individuals on a team will be assigned to monitor the aligned ones for possible breach-provoking behaviors.

Agents and Psychological Health
Similarly, the conspiracy keeps a close eye on any signs of "Underground Acculturation Syndrome" (UAS), a syndrome of behaviors and psychological traits that appear to be a form of basement-specific PTSD, and that soldiers sometimes refer to as "going native" or (in more extreme cases) "going full murderhobo." Development of an alignment is one sign of the potential for developing UAS. Another indicator of UAS is the display of a marked preference for archaic weaponry and tools. Other, more serious behaviors, may develop. The conspiracy has very strict rules against agents looting the dead, as this behavior in particular is associated with UAS, and its occurrence is correlated with the creation of new breaches. The maintenance of real human relationships, in particular familial relationships, appears to act as a countermeasure, which is one of the reasons that agents are never employed full-time as counter-breach operators and are rotated through cycles of activation and rest. Rest phases are extremely important to the maintenance of psychological health. Team members are encouraged to report risk factors for UAS in their colleagues in an effort to get them counselling and appropriate help as soon as possible. In practice, team members sometimes cover up signs of UAS in their colleagues, failing to report indicators of the syndrome. There are known cases of entire teams going rogue, and in most of these cases, UAS has been implicated. 

The conspiracy tacitly allows for some levels of (properly managed and balanced) UAS in its agents, however, in part because some level of UAS is unavoidable in agents and in part because it is often those agents who display signs of UAS who are the most effective operatives.

Cultures of the North: Imperial (Asturian)

Imperial (Asturian) (Civilized Culture)

Standard Skills
Conceal, Deceit, Drive, Influence, Insight, Locale, Willpower   

Combat Style: Asturian Legionnaire
Asturian Legionnaires wield the Shortsword and Scutum. They carry a dagger at their side, and fight also with shortspears and javelins. They too have archers trained in the Short Bow.

Formation Fighting (Benefit)
Permits a group of three or more warriors to draw into close formation, placing more open or disordered opponents at a disadvantage (provided the ‘unit’ cannot be outflanked) and thus reducing each foe’s Action Points by one if they engage.

Professional Skills
Art (any), Commerce, Craft (any), Courtesy, Language (any), Lore (any), Musicianship, Streetwise   

Asturians come from a powerful, rapidly expanding southern empire that carries on the legacy of once great Vanor. The new Asturian Empire is centered around a great city. Its armies battle on land and sea with Atlantis to its south. Their armies have also had skirmishes with the snow elves over borderland territories and islands along Asturia’s northern borders.

Asturians worship a range of Sol cults, but the most important of the current age is the Cult of the Black Sun. The Asturian Empire has an army of unnatural strength, for its Emperor and princes can speak to the dead, and the dead do their bidding.

Asturians are rare in the north, but they do not war with the Iotar. Some say that they could be allies against the hated snow elves. Others say that this is a bargain that should not be struck lightly.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Careers of the North: Magician

Magician (Kemi Career)     

Standard Skills
Customs, Deceit, Endurance, Influence, Insight, Locale, Willpower   

Professional Skills
Binding (Tradition), Devotion (Propitiatory Cult), Exhort, Folk Magic, Invocation (Old Northern Magic), Shaping, Trance   

The Kemi magician is a hero, leader, wise one, and adventurer all in one. Magicians are the cultural heroes of the Kemi, the men and women who propitiate the Bad Old North Wind, who intercourse with spirits, and who invoke strange eldest magics from the mythic age when the Kemi and the Hyperboreans were at war. It was the Magicians, it is said, who cast down proud Hyperborea’s sorcerous hosts. For Kemi magic was always greater than the magic of Hyperborea. For where are the Hyperboreans now? What is left but them but ruins and dust? Yet the Kemi live on.

Cultures of the North: Kemi

Kemi (Primitive Culture)     

Standard Skills
Athletics, Endurance, Evade, Locale, Perception, Stealth, Willpower   

Combat Style: Kemi Heroics
Shortspear, Longspear, Quarterstaff. Hatchet, Club, and Dagger. Short Bow.  Sword in the hands of the noble.

Skirmishing (Benefit)
This style permits launching ranged attacks while at a run or skiing (but not while sprinting).    

Professional Skills
Craft (Animal Husbandry), Folk Magic, Healing, Lore (any), Navigate, Survival, Track   

The Kemi are the people of the far north. They are herders and rovers, the people of the Greathorn Deer and of the Mammoth. They were here before the Iotar. Before the Hothar. Before the Avenians and the Ivarians. Kemi people live along the northernmost coasts of the Isle of Hyperborea and the far northeast of the mainland. They propitiate the north wind, but they do not worship him, for they know him too well. Their heroes are the wise and wizardly, and even the Iotar take care not to encroach too closely on their camps. Some whisper that it was a war between the Kemi and the Hyperboreans that led to the ultimate fall of both peoples.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Cultures of the North: Varangian

Varangian (Civilized Culture)

Standard Skills
Athletics, Boating, Brawn, Endurance, First Aid, Locale, Perception

Combat Style: Varangian Adventurer
Primarily fight with Great Axe or Broad Sword and Viking Shield; also trained in Shortspear, Javelin, Dagger, Short Bow; some warriors adopt the Mace in Vanor.

Adventurer (Benefit)
May use Evade to dodge blows in hand to hand combat without ending up prone.

Professional Skills
Commerce, Craft (any), Culture (any), Language (any), Lore (any), Navigate, Seamanship, Survival

Varangians are northmen who have travelled past Groznaya to the ruins of distant Vanor to make their fortune. Vanor is a city of danger, adventure, and great rewards for the bold.

Sometimes, a Varangian returns home.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Cultures of the North: Thiudar

Thiudar (Barbarian Culture)     

Standard Skills
Athletics, Brawn, Endurance, First Aid, Locale, Perception, Stealth   

Combat Style: Thiudar Warband
Axe (Battleaxe) and the shield (“Viking Shield”) or Broadaxe. Ready too with a Hatchet, Broadknife, Dagger, or Club. Javelins and Shortspears when the need arises, and the Short Bow.

Shield Splitter (Benefit)
Permits clubs and axes to roll the weapon’s damage twice and pick the best result, but only when using the Damage Weapon special effect against shields.    

Professional Skills
Craft (any), Healing, Lore (any), Musicianship, Navigate, Survival, Track   

When the Hothar left the Old Forest hundreds of years ago, the Thiudar stayed. The Thiudar are renowned for their fierce defense of their forest lands. Vanor could not conquer the Old Forest, even at the height of its power. The Iotar could not conquer it, even during their greatest push. The Snow Elves have made no headway beneath its boughs. Even Hyperborea, some say, stopped at its border.

Thiudar mercenaries sometimes fight in the armies of Asturia. Sometimes for the Iotar. Sometimes for the Hothar. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cultures of the North: Heathen

Heathen (Barbarian Culture)

Standard Skills
Athletics, Brawn, Endurance, First Aid, Locale, Perception, Ride

Combat Style: Heathen Cavalry
The Lance and Kite Shield or Heater on horseback. The Broadsword and Kite Shield or Heater on foot. Trained also in spears (long and short), axes (battleaxes and hatchets), the mace, and the flail. Familiar with the Short Bow.

Lancer (Benefit)
Performing a mounted charge with this combat style does not incur the one step difficulty penalty to hit. 

Professional Skills
Courtesy, Craft (any), Healing, Lore (any), Navigate, Seamanship, Survival

The Knights of the Heath are descended of the same stock as the Hothar, but they have long since conquered the southern heathlands and ride into battle with their famed heavy cavalry. They are at war on two fronts – one with the rising Asturian Empire along their southern border, the other their crusade of reconquest to free the north of the snow elf threat. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Into the Breach with Basic D&D 5e

Prep and musings for a one-shot D&D 5e session for this Friday (July 4) night.

It begins here, with Voices from Below and the Long Stairs. Thanks to +Benjamin Baugh for the inspiration.

In this version of the world of Project Long Stair, the emphasis will be on action adventure spyjinks upstairs. My players read this blog, so I'll keep out the details, but it's going to look a little like this:

A breach into the long stairs has emerged in [LOCATION REDACTED]. [WARLORD OR CRIMINAL ELEMENT REDACTED] appears to have sent agents into the breach at least once. The utter destruction of [WARLORD'S ENEMY] three days ago in a way indicative of the use of basement tech suggests that [WARLORD] is now in control of powerful [BASEMENT TECH]. Your team of Long Stairs veterans has been assembled to neutralize [WARLORD], recover [BASEMENT TECH], and close the breach, conducting a veil out to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence of the breach in this region.

Rules will be D&D 5e (with modern backgrounds and weapons added, see below for details). Thank you +Mike Mearls and team.

Scenario structure will steal liberally from +Robin Laws's The Esoterrorists and +Kenneth Hite's Night's Black Agents. A reskinned version of The Ordo Veritas will stand in for the benevolent international conspiracy that is trying to contain these breaches (pp. 35-43 of the Esoterrorists 2nd edition, for those reading along at home). Modern firearms and armor and gun rules pull from Spycraft 2.0 by +Alex Flagg, Scott Gearin, and +Patrick Kapera to some extent, albeit greatly simplified. I'll have a copy of the Spycraft 2.0 handy for its incredible lists of cool equipment. I'll just make on the fly rulings as necessary to use them.

So take that mix of inspirations and resources, stir in GI Joe and classic Dungeons & Dragons and Street Fighter and action movies. That's where we start.

Let's talk about how D&D 5e will serve for this and about characters. (This all assumes you've read at least the first post in the Voices from Below and the Long Stairs thread.)

So the world is like that.

Everyone who hasn't been downstairs... in fact, everyone who hasn't acclimated to the downstairs, been infected by it, everyone else in the world is 0 level. That will mean almost every single NPC in the world will have stats like this:

Regular People
Abilities: 3d6 (in order or assigned, depending on how I feel like making the NPC or whether it's a non-acclimated character played by a player)

Backgrounds: Each character has a background, which provides the usual two skills, two tool proficiencies, and one trait granted to a background in D&D 5th edition. In addition, military and espionage backgrounds may provide additional weapon and armor proficiencies, listed in the category of "Military Training." This goes beyond what a background provides in D&D, but it is a useful accompaniment for the kind of modern era action adventure heroes I'm looking for here. In practice, for NPCs (as well as relevant PC activities), I'll probably treat a Background kind of like a cliché from +S. John Ross's Risus, with a flat bonus to reflect the character's level of competence. This bonus will range from 1-4.

Hit Points: 1d6 + Con bonus (if any)

No classes or class levels for characters who haven't been downstairs.

The PCs, of course, will have been downstairs. They're veterans of the Long Stair. They'll have class levels just like any other D&D 5e character. For the one shot, I'm thinking I'll go with level 3 or level 5. (I'll have to see the Basic pdf first, which will come very soon now.) Importantly, the proficiency bonus does apply to every skill or trait the character is proficient in. It doesn't add to the competence. You just take the higher value.

Some Long Stair veterans prefer more archaic weapons.
PCs (and other Long Stair Veterans)
  1. Abilities: 4d6 drop lowest, assign. (Being downstairs changes you.)
  2. Backgrounds: Choose a background from the list below. The background works just like every other background in D&D 5. 
  3. Race: Human. Add the human racial features to your character as well.
  4. Class: Roll 1d4 to determine whether your character acclimated as a Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, or Wizard. Once the Player's Handbook is out I'll expand this to include all the classes for future one-shots, of course.
The order above is important. Players should assign attributes based on background before you roll for class.

The backgrounds below all contain an additional "Military Training" line. This does make them more powerful than other backgrounds in the default game. This is intentional and is meant to support action adventure type gameplay.

Here are the backgrounds:

Architect: Specialist in basement architectural, layout, habitation, and xenotechnological distribution patterns. Architects contribute to a shared mapping database including common recurring basement geomorphic patterns as well as a complete database of known Dyson Class Stairwells. Architects serve as scouts during missions in the basement or in breached stairwells. 

Even a small Dyson Class Breach must be treated with caution.

Note: The player of an architect will be given a folder containing images of the layouts of known Dyson Class Stairwells -- that is, a folder filled with copies of +Dyson Logos's maps or a copy of Dyson's Delves I and/or Dyson's Delves II (print copies via Lulu). Any time the party enters a breach or other stairwell, it's up to the player to match the layout of the place they are traversing with one of the known maps. Once they identify which map they're working with, they can use that to guide the party through the dungeon.  

Skills: Arcana, Perception
Tools: Dyson Class Delve Database, Climbing Gear
Trait: Wanderer (Basement)
Military Training: Moderate Body Armor (Tactical Armor), Small Arms

Caver (Special Environment Specialist Terrestrial): Specialist in natural cavern environments, xenoforms, and threats.

Skills: Acrobatics, Athletics
Tools: Caving Gear
Trait: Wanderer (Caves)
Military Training: Partial Body Armor (Tactical Vest), Handguns

Cleaner: Specialist in cover ups and veil outs following Long Stair breaches upstairs. This specialization includes training in psychological and media ops. Cleaners must have Long Stair experience even though most of their work is carried out upstairs. 

Skills: Deception, Persuasion
Tools: Veil-Out Kit
Trait: Contact
Military Training: Partial Body Armor (Tactical Vest), Handguns

A diver hauls an escaped xenoform up from an undersea breach.
Diver (Special Environment Specialist Aquatic): Specialist in aquatic envirnoments, xenoforms, and threats.

Skills: Athletics, Nature
Tools: SCUBA / Diving Gear, Speargun
Trait: Wanderer (Aquatic)
Military Training: Partial Body Armor (Tactical Vest), Small Arms

Field Analyst: Long stair data collection and analysis specialist. Some specialize in field investigations downstairs. Others specialize in investigations upstairs, tracking down unauthorized Basement tech and Long Stair breach points. 

Skills: Arcana, Investigation
Tools: Digital Surveillance Equipment, Portable Xenochem Lab
Trait: Researcher
Military Training: Partial Body Armor (Tactical Vest), Handguns

Medic: Combat medic. Medics assigned to the basement train and prepare not only to deal with standard combat trauma but also with the special dangers posed by basement xenoforms. 

Skills: Medicine, Nature
Tools: Medical Kit, Anti-Toxins
Trait: "I Owe You One"
Military Training: Moderate Body Armor (Tactical Armor), Small Arms

A negotiator should keep extensive field notes.
Negotiator (Xeno-Ethologist): Specialist in both sapient and non-sapient xenoform behaviors and sociability. Trained in techniques for communication and negotiation with sapient xenoforms. Expert in xenoform biological and behavioral traits. 

Skills: Insight, Persuasion
Tools: Xenoform Database
Languages: Lingua Infera (colloquially known to veterans of the stair as "Chaotic")
Trait: Friends in Low Places
Military Training: Moderate Body Armor (Tactical Vest), Small Arms

Soldier: Fire team special operations soldier. Common roles in a fire team include rifleman, automatic rifleman, grenadier, and fire team leader. The rifleman is the standard fire team member and gains an additional +1 with Rifles. The automatic rifleman carries a squad automatic weapon and has proficiency in Machine Guns. The grenadier is armed with an indirect fire weapon and has proficiency with Grenade Launcher. The fire team leader is the operational commander for combat operations and can come from any of the above specializations

Skills: Athletics, Perception
Tools: Moderate Body Armor (Tactical Armor), Small Arms
Trait: Military Rank
Military Specialist Training: Grenades and one additional proficiency or specialty, as noted above.

Sapper (Combat Engineer): Specialist in combat constructions and demolitions, including the destruction of the diverse hazards (colloquially known as "traps" to many soldiers and agents) of the basement.

Skills: Perception, Sleight of Hand
Tools: Demolitions/Explosives Kit
Trait: Life or Death
Military Training: Full Body Armor (EOD Suit), Small Arms

Search and Rescue Inferus Trooper: Specialist in rescue and recovery down below. When things go horribly wrong, these are the soldiers who get down there and pull you out. 

Skills: Athletics, Medicine
Tools: Emergency Medical Equipment, Para- and Rapid Descent Gear
Trait: "I Owe You One"
Military Training: Partial Body Armor (Tactical Vest), Small Arms

Because the Background is chosen but the class is rolled randomly, yes, this does mean that you could roll up a "Negotiator" who is acclimated to Fighter. Or a Soldier acclimated to Wizard. This doesn't mean your soldier won't also be a badass. As a soldier, you would have the Small Arms tool proficiency and the Moderate Body Armor proficiency, and you would have 3d6 HD at 3rd level + Con mods (which you probably have, since you're a soldier). With most NPCs being regular people, you're still a competent soldier even if your class is wizard.

Veterans of the stair are heroic upstairs, though they do have to be careful not to create new breaches by doing the impossible.

Things could get hinky downstairs or when dealing with escaped basement dwellers, of course.

And Also Some Gear

Equipment: Modern Body Armor

Partial Body Armor (30% coverage, can be worn beneath clothes)
AC 13 + Dex modifier
Examples: Tactical Vest (military), Correction Vest (prison), Duty Vest (standard law enforcement), Low-Profile Armor (used by bodyguard and security personnel)

Moderate Body Armor (40-60% coverage, meant to protect against military grade threats)
AC 15 + Dex modifier (Max 2)
Examples: Tactical Jacket, Modular Tactical Armor, Motorcycle Suit

Full Body Armor (90-100% coverage, meant for specific high-danger situations) 
AC 18, STR 15, Stealth Disadvantage 
Example: EOD Suit (bomb squad), Riot Gear


Handguns (Light, one-handed)
Holdout Pistol 1d6 Piercing, Single-Shot, 15/75 ft 
Service Pistol 1d10 Piercing, Single-Shot, 25/250 ft 
Service Revolver 1d6+1 Piercing, Single-Shot, 25/250 ft

SMGs (One-handed)
Light SMG 1d6 Piercing, Imprecise, Single-Shot, Burst, Full-Auto, Light, 20/200 ft
Heavy SMG 1d10 Piercing, Single-Shot, Burst, Full-Auto, 30/300 ft

Rifles (Heavy, two-handed)
Bolt-Action Rifle 3d6 Piercing, Single-Shot, Accurate, 200/2000 ft
Semi-Automatic Rifle 3d6 Piercing, Single-Shot, 150/1500 ft
Assault Rifle 3d6 Piercing, Single-Shot, Burst, Full-Auto, 100/1000 ft

Shotguns (Heavy, two-handed)
12 Gauge Shotgun (slug) 2d12 Piercing, Imprecise, Single-Shot, 30/150 ft
12 Gauge Shotgun (shot) 4d6 Piercing, Imprecise, Single-Shot, 30/150 ft

Machine Guns (Heavy, two-handed)
Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW, infantry use) 3d6 Piercing, Burst, Full-Auto, 200/2000 ft
General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG, fixed/braced) 2d10 Piercing, Burst, Full-Auto, 200/2000 ft
Heavy Machine Gun (HMG, vehicle use) 3d10 Piercing, Burst, Full-Auto, 300/3000 ft

Special Weapons (Heavy, two-handed)
Flamethrower 2d6 Fire, 15/75 ft
Grenade Launcher 4d8 Explosive, Armor Piercing, 40/400 ft (On a miss, the grenade lands in one of 8 directions, 5-20' away if fired at short range or 5-30' away if fired from greater than short range)
Rocket Launcher 4d12 Explosive, Armor Piercing, 50/500 ft (On a miss, the grenade lands in one of 8 directions, 5-20' away if fired at short range or 5-30' away if fired from greater than short range)

Grenades, Thrown (On a miss, a grenade lands in one of the 8 adjacent directions, 5-10' away)
Concussive Grenade 8d4 Explosive 15/60 ft
Flash & Bang Grenade Roll 4d8 tp determine save DC for Flash & Bang 15/60 ft
Fragmentation Grenade 4d10 Explosive 15/60 ft
Tear Gas Grenade Con Save (DC ) or be blind and choking for 1d6 minutes, 1d4 rounds onset time. When blinded and choking, character takes disadvantage on all actions and must make a Con save each round he wants to take any action other than cough, retch, choke, and try to mitigate the effects of the tear gas. 15/60 ft

Charge, Breaching 2d6 Explosive, Armor Piercing
Charge, Satchel 5d10 Explosive
Mine, Anti-Personnel 3d8 Explosive
Mine, Anti-Tank 3d10 Explosive
Plastic Explosive, 1/4 lb 6d6 Explosive

Weapon Qualities

Accurate: If a round is spent aiming, attacks with this weapon may be made with advantage even if the shot is taken at a distance beyond the short range value.

Armor Piercing: These weapons ignore non-magical damage reduction.

Burst: This weapon may be fired in burst mode.
Explosive: Dex save for 1/2 damage and to move out of the center of the blast. Con save or be stunned for 1d6 rounds.
Flash & Bang: Dex save for 1/2 damage and to move out of the center of the blast. Fort save or be blinded for 1d6 rounds and stunned for 1d6 rounds. All damage is temporary and is recovered with a short rest.
Full-Auto: This weapon may be fired in full-auto mode.
Imprecise: Grants Disadvantage to any attacks made on targets within 5 ft. of allied characters or creatures".
Single Shot: This weapon may be fired in single-shot mode.

Other Gun Things

Burst Fire: Use three shots of ammo if your gun has a burst fire setting and five rounds if it simply has full-auto. Gain advantage on your attack roll. Advantage from burst fire alone does not license a Rogue's "Sneak Attack."
Cover Fire: Name the character you are covering and identify your field of fire. Enemies in your field of fire take disadvantage to attack that character.  
Suppressive Fire: Name a square / space / location you are riddling with suppressive fire. Any enemies who pass through that space take disadvantage that turn & you get an attack roll against them when they enter the space. 

That's what I have so far that is player facing. I'll also have my own notes, maps, and prep of course.

If you've read the Long Stair thread, you'll know that there are no promises that the monsters you meet will actually be like the ones you recognize from D&D. I won't have a Monster Manual, so I'll be creating unique monsters, as +James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess suggests. I like that, though I'll also be looking forward to the eventual guidance the 5e DMG gives me on tailoring D&D 5 and the points of reference the Monster Manual will provide.

In the meantime, this should do for this Friday. If it works reasonably well, I'll have a copy in a folder for possible pick up sessions at Gen Con.