Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Far-From-Equilibrium 5e


I do not consider myself an OSR person, though I do play OSR games on occasion, and I appreciate the movement's DIY spirit, openness, design edge, and philosophy stipulating that "nothing is supposed to happen". I lack the requisite reverence for the hobby's Founding Fathers, and am at best lukewarm toward OSR's dominant dungeon-and-frontier aesthetic. I also think randomness is a necessary element of any RPG, and that it is of equal importance to a GM's worldbuilding and narrative skill, and player agency; but I do not believe randomness should be an imperative in itself - only a tool, and a mediating element between GMs and players. I don't think everything about a character needs to be randomly generated, and while character death and maiming need to be part of the game, the most interesting characters are those that are built with care, not those that are designed as cannon fodder and happen to survive.

In general, I think that DIY is applicable to all RPGs, and certainly, has always been a mainstay of D&D in all its incarnations. Not all systems are appropriate to all settings, but for most fantasy save truly low-magic settings, most types of D&D and its offshoots are generally suitable. On the whole, I think 5e is a fine system, that deserves the accolades it has received. It has simple, streamlined, easy-to-learn mechanics. It has a sufficient number of basic player options (classes and races) to make it attractive to a large and expanding player base, and the fact that the player options are designed from the flavor up, and not from the mechanics up, is a definite point in its favor. The design system is also fairly easy to reverse engineer, and serves as a good guide for DIY race and class design. Moreover, the introduction of backgrounds has proven to be a very useful feature that helps to ground characters in settings. And the elimination of earlier mistakes - the lack of integrated mechanics of AD&D, the crunch-heaviness of 3e, the 4e attempt to become a low-tech tactical video game - has given 5 justified recognition as a back-to-basics game that even OSR people have appreciated. And ultimately, 5e's popularity which some gamers complain about, has created an unprecedentedly large pool of potential players, some of whom can be poached for less conventional and more experimental approaches.

At the same time, there are aspects of 5e that I like quite a bit less - not so much the rules, mechanics, and flavor themselves, but the culture they are informed by, and in turn, generate. First and foremost, this involves the obsession with balance. Ideally, design should attempt to mechanically balance distinct classes and races against one another - all should have things they excel in, all should have player appeal, none should be far-and-away better than the others (else, why play them?). Such balance is fine as a goal, but a lot of people fail to realize that the attainment of balance in a complex game like D&D is impossible, simply because it is impossible to quantify every in-game situation. It is widely recognized that some classes are stronger than others, and that, in the grand scheme of things, casters are more powerful than non-casters at high levels (and that combat classes, conversely, are more powerful at low levels). This has recurred in every edition, despite the explicit push to minimize the imbalances starting with 3rd edition.

The real problem with balance is when it begins to bleed over from character design into every other aspect of the game. All encounters must be balanced. The number of encounters per day must be balanced. Each session should be balanced between role-playing, exploration, and combat. Agency must be balanced between players and GM, and all individual players, so as to maximize player efficaciousness over the course of a session (though it's really about efficaciousness more than balance - the same people who complain about a Charm spell being ineffective because NPCs remember you cast it on them will complain that a Charm spell cast on them takes away their PC's agency). The advent of the ideally balanced game session - where the party is challenged, but only just; no one dies; and everyone has a prescribed level of 'fun' is reflected in numerous advice videos, which create certain expectations of what is supposed to happen in a game session or campaign (a 'full campaign' is one in which a character advances from 1st to 20th level, where the 'capstone' is reached). It is therefore not accidental that the ideal game begins to look more-or-less the same regardless of where you look. Heroes, who almost always survive, are railroaded through very similar settings, on route to a fight with the aptly named Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), and then retire (occasionally, are killed in a final blaze of glory). The party mix is always the same diverse mix of races and classes that don't really belong together, and don't really belong in the setting, which reduces more and more to generic fantasy. This ideal type of D&D game is somewhat reminiscent of an ideal game of Diplomacy from the point of view of the realist international relations theorist. Ideally, in Diplomacy, skilled players are so sensitive to a balance of power that the slightest imbalance in favor of one Great Power will lead to immediate bandwagoning, so that boundaries don't change. Of course, real games of Diplomacy hardly ever work out that way (as do real interstate relations). Similarly, real D&D, in whatever iteration, is going to be unbalanced. To my mind, this should be factored in, and recognition of the fact can make a game more fun than an adherence to the notion of optimal balance.

Below are some ideas for playing 5e far from equilibrium, which, if done right, can create more unique and memorable campaigns. (I say campaigns, because balance is much easier to achieve in individual sessions, which consist of one set of players, where parties have clear goals and are usually rushed through preliminaries to get to them. In campaigns, where the group chemistry is always in flux, and where the setting changes, and becomes more real over time, the pursuit of balance becomes significantly more challenging. But campaigns are a unique feature of RPGs [whereas Diplomacy always reverts back to 1901 at the start of each discrete session]. Campaigns, in other words, offer quite a bit more scope for DIY).

  • Roll for stats and HP. Not all characters have to be the same. Rolling for stats creates tension and can limit choices, but the limitations likely results in more memorable, suboptimal characters (as well as more memorable superoptimal, and even more memorable average ones). A character's choices are impacted by rolls, and the player can choose to adjust accordingly, e.g. by taking a 'Tough' feat as a result of consistently bad HP rolls, or picking a particular archetype because the wizard ends up with a high Strength. Note that having some choice over character type is important - taking the time to make a backstory for a character kind of necessitates not being forced into a particular class and race as a result of a die roll.
    • System. Different systems for generating stats are widely known, and need not be detailed here. 4d6, drop the lowest, and arrange in any order works well enough for me, but 3d6 down the line has a certain charm that works for some games. I'm personally not in favor of setting a floor, below which a player is entitled to a re-roll - I'd rather make a deal whereby a really poor character can qualify for later adjustments due to being young, or perhaps give that character a magic item. But if rolls can simply be cancelled, there is no reason to do them. Of course, you have to make sure that players understand this ahead of time.
  • Ditch the healing surges. 4e introduced them, trying to make D&D more like a video game where you can observe the "health bar" going from red to green. These healing surges are what allow campaigns to transpire in an entirely abstract atmosphere - no wounds are more than bumps and bruises, no healers are necessary (any character can just heal themselves, because balance), and no relationships with NPCs that might help a character's predicament need be established. Everyone is self-sufficient. The surges are also central to the assumptions upon which classes are balanced - getting rid of them introduces the (rather realistic) factor that characters trained specifically for combat are better at shaking off battle effects (the fighter's second wind feature). Healing surges also make the game more combat-oriented. The recommended 6-8 combat encounters per day (that hardly any campaign-style game actually implements) are also based on the availability of healing surges, which are a key baseline in resource management. If a single fight can stretch resources, managing them becomes more unpredictable, and forces parties to change tactics to incorporate more negotiation, cunning, and speed, and less murder.
    • System. Simply use the gritty healing variant already available in the Dungeon Master's Guide: a long rest (8 hours) makes hit dice available to restore hit points, and a period of rest (or downtime) lasting a week or so makes it possible to recover hit dice. This preserves a modicum of the surges, and allows characters to be self-reliant in a pinch, but it greatly restricts free-floating cures. For more granularity that helps ground characters in a setting, make the hit dice recovery subject to the quality of the rest - if it's "poor" or "squalid" (as per the categories listed in the Equipment chapter), the character can recover 1 or 0 hit dice per week, and if it's "comfortable" or "wealth", allow 3, 4 or more hit dice per week. Suddenly, figuring out how to stay in a mansion is no longer a meaningless luxury. 
  • Relatedly, use Lingering Injuries. The argument that hit points represent fatigue, skill, and luck has a long pedigree, going all the way back to Gygax. But hit points were also physical damage. Even in 4e, a character that lost half of its total hit points was considered "bloodied". Characters that are knocked to 0 hit points are not just 'tired', but have likely sustained some sort of wound. The argument that damage is all virtual falls down on several counts. First, there is now a mechanic for Exhaustion, which is a less granular (though to my mind, effective) way to track hunger, impact of the elements, and actual fatigue. Second, if a damage type (e.g. "slashing" or "bludgeoning") is listed (as it has been in all rulesets since 3e), the idea that all damage is virtual doesn't stand up (else, why distinguish it?). As with controlling healing surges, making damage dangerous obviates a lot of common assumptions about balance, and pushes parties to be more creative about tactics.
    • System. The table provided in the DMG is rather stripped-down, and rarely leads to serious complications, but it is one option. Creating the possibility of lingering injuries on a critical hit, or when a character is reduced to 0 hit points seems reasonable. The severity of the injury can be linked to the amount of damage suffered, number of Death Saves failed, whether the hit was a critical and knocked a character out, etc. System Shock - another variant rule that recalls an old-school mechanic - is a bit too brutal (even for me) at low levels (characters make a Con save if they lose half of their hit points or more on a single attack). But if linked to critical strikes, using System Shock can make sense. Making criticals more dangerous (and flavorful) than simply doubling damage also adds extra ooomph to Champion Fighters, which are commonly considered a bit weak and boring.
  • Use reasonable assumptions for missile weapons. Lots of people think they're entitled to fire projectiles into melee without a chance of hitting your friends (because the game is balanced upon the assumption that you can). However, using the 'rulings, not rules' guideline that this and earlier editions subscribed to, you can impose a reasonable penalty for doing so. This has the effect of forcing players to actually think about tactics, instead of just pumping out DPR. One side effect this has is to dampen the use of at-will cantrips without completely breaking 5e game design and taking these away from casters. If you are worried about hurting your friends by spamming fire bolts, you either have to take a chance on rotating into combat with a melee weapon or touch spell, or rely on other abilities. Imposing penalties for firing into combat will also impact players' choices of cantrips.
    • System. The easiest thing to do is to impose disadvantage on a missile attack into melee, where friends are likely screening an opponent. If either roll is a "1", you roll an attack against your ally. You can make the system more complicated by determining how much cover an ally provides to an opponent, and make the likelihood of hitting the friend higher if your ally provides 3/4 cover (e.g., if either roll is a natural 4 or less).
  • Impose limits on the use of magic. Taking away at-will cantrips seems unwarranted, because they are so integral to the system. But other traditional ways of limiting access to spells may work and may be justified, especially in light of the fact that melee specialists are putting themselves in the way of more lingering injuries.
    • System. For wizards, you can reintroduce the old mechanic of understanding a spell before being able to copy it into your spell book. Understanding can have a DC, which is modified by proficiency bonus, ability modifier, skill in arcana, and the level of the spell. The wizard must also use a Write spell to copy a newly understood spell into a spellbook, and make a Dexterity check in the process (to make sure no smudges are created). People who complain about having nothing to spend money on in 5e will soon discover their stationery costs beginning to pile up. For warlocks, on the other hand, the recovery of spell slots after a short rest can be linked to a coven feature. A coven has a collective mind, and you tap into it to have access to the extra slot after a short rest. The bigger the coven, the greater the chance that a slot is available. The drawback is that sometimes, coven mates make the same requests from you, and if you refuse them, you will put yourself in a bad position to request spells from the coven mind. This not only encourages resource management, but also creates new role-playing opportunities (coven recruitment is obviously in your warlock's self-interest). It might be a good idea to create more openness even as you impose more limitations, e.g. by allowing a caster who has used up all spell slots to cast a spell by making a DC roll (modified by spell level, and number of the attempt at doing so) at the risk of being subject to damage or other effects if you fail the roll. 
  • Take terrain and climate seriously. Balancing mechanics typically presuppose an abstract space in which adventuring takes place (which in turn further inclines GMs to set adventures in dungeons). But forcing PCs to negotiate wilderness actually means using a lot of rules that are already on the books, but that GMs hand-wave as they push the party along toward the 'adventuring site'. Make the foraging rolls mean something. Make the navigation rolls mean something. Throw in some terrain hazards (ravines, rockslides, quicksand, wide rivers, etc.) into your encounter tables. Make the characters roll (or undertake actions) to find the hidden tower, instead of just assuming they do. Once characters begin to go without food, acquire exhaustion levels due to being underdressed, or fail to rendezvous NPCs on time because they got lost, parties will begin to make better plans for travel. Also, all of a sudden, rangers' Natural Explorer feature will no longer seem like a bunch of useless fluff, but a highly valued and desired set of skills. If realistic biomes are used, rangers will also know which type of preferred terrain to take at low levels (e.g. because they live in the taiga, instead of bumping into an Old Forest from time to time, when the GM is so inclined). The feeling of living in a certain terrain changes the experience of a game quite drastically from one where it is always a dry 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with perfect visibility.
    • System. Again, use the Survival checks for finding food and navigating in specific terrain types that the PHB and the DMG already include. Put hazards into your encounter tables. Keep track of exhaustion due to food and water deprivation, or heat and cold, and make wind impact projectile use, as it should.
  • Design character options for a unique setting. So far, we've mostly been talking about limitations, but a far-from -equilibrium game is fundamentally about variance. That doesn't mean reinventing the wheel in every campaign, but it does mean developing a theme. Look at the class and race options in the official sources. Decide what resonates with your campaign, and what doesn't. Keep what works, and design new options based on your favorite historical setting, mythology, fantasy series, film, etc. The new options will have to be playtested, and not every variant will work, but the testing itself pushes the game away from equilibrium, and makes people's characters more experimental. A different range of options also alters party balance. Most importantly, different character options make settings unique. One common complain about each edition is that players demand variants, and new variants create bloat, that in the longer run can only lead to designing new editions. It also makes settings incoherent - more options is automatically assumed to be 'better'. I don't necessarily agree with those who think it's all about making parties more human, and less firbolg or yuan-ti. It's more about making firbolg or yuan-ti thematic, having different sets of options (which include limitations as well as augmentations), not just more of them. As different variants and settings proliferate, they acquire a life of their own, and such differentiation can go on indefinitely. There is no reason why 5e can't have the same number of "hacks" (or more) as OD&D (the existence of the OGL is a wise partial retreat from all-embracing corporate control).  
    • System. Use existing designs as guidelines and models. There is no reason to make character options unbalanced on purpose - just see what sorts of properties emerge in various games and settings by trying new things, or tinkering with existing chassis. If need be, use a good point-system, or more qualitative approaches to good class or race design. Reintroduce older notions of classes being actual structures within gameworlds, rather than just bags of mechanics. Make access to higher levels limited by number of spots, approval of elders, or results of single combat. Figure out features for "epic"-level characters beyond 20th level.
  • Reward different playstyles. If you want different playstyles, you have to valorize them. It's not just about killing monsters, or routing the Big Bad. It can be about negotiating wilderness hazards, finding treasure, stealing important items, negotiating, finding ancient ruins or portals, learning secrets about NPCs, saving lives, and so on. When winning combats is not the default assumption, the game begins to balance very differently. Characters who specialize more in exploration or RP suddenly become more viable. But more than that, the sweet-spot upon which the balance rests constantly changes, depending on the decisions players and characters make. And consequences of particular actions shift the balance in certain directions over the long term. One incautious slaughter of NPCs can lead to more frequent fights, while acquiring a reputation of being a fair dealer, or having a silver tongue, will likely create more opportunities to persuade opponents.
    • System. Those who prefer the 'milestone' approach can reward player actions as they see fit. Those who prefer a more traditional XP-based approach can institute a more granular system of rewards. For my part, I usually award 10% of monster XP for mere interaction, 20% for fooling or persuading encountered creatures, and 50% for defeating them without physically vanquishing them (e.g. causing them to flee or retreat). I also give half the monetary value of treasure as XP, but without differentiating whether that treasure was looted, stolen, or paid as stipulated by a contract. Learning information yields a given amount of XP, depending on whether the information was common, uncommon, rare, etc. And making advances within an organization or a social unit is usually worth 1 point of XP per person who belongs to the organization, multiplied by degree of advance (or change of the existing institution). Obviously, there is a whole host of permutations, but you can opt for a system that rewards PCs for exploration and RP without forcing them into combat, which allows for somewhat slow level advancement at low levels (keeping a campaign low-magic, and gritty for longer periods of time, if that's what's desired).
Obviously, the list can be extended indefinitely. Not all recommendations will find purchase with everyone, but the creation of niches can be a way forward at times when a system is threatened by a saturation of interest, and bloat.




Friday, November 2, 2018

Worldbuilding on World Anvil



I discovered World Anvil by accident while looking for a video on Twitch a couple of weeks ago, when I saw Satine Phoenix advertising it on the D&D channel. Since I think worldbuilding is the most neglected leg of TTRPGs (compared to resources devoted to mechanics and RP), I decided to check it out. Then I decided to test it out by uploading materials for one of my campaigns.

To simplify, World Anvil is kind of like a wiki for your campaign. I wouldn't say it's indispensable, as there are lots of other ways to share info with your players. It is convenient to have all that information in one place, that is easily accessible, and simply organized. This is an extended list of World Anvil's pros and cons, at least based on my experiences with it so far.

The Good:
  • Again, convenience. World Anvil is easier to navigate than, say Google Drive. All your entries (locations, organizations, religions, NPCs, etc.) appear in a clear table of contents, and you can click on each entry to see all the specific headings that fall under it without having to switch back and forth between different folders.
  • Visuals. Miniature maps appear right there next to the entries on your main campaign page, and you can then click to enlarge them. You can put article cover images into individual entries that make them look quite attractive, and the default sepia page layout is easy on the eye.
  • Design. Specific articles have built-in subheadings for specific purposes. For example, play reports can display tl;drs in the form of loot acquired, NPCs interacted with, missions accomplished, locations visited, and so on. In general, World Anvil is pretty ideal for play reports (this means, freeing your blog for others sorts of posts). If you are uploading an article on a settlement, you can easily highlight information on its history, demographics, mode of rule, etc., and these subheadings can easily be linked to other entries. I do find that the choices are better suited to higher-tech settings, though (precise sociological information is hard to come by for people living in pre-modern environments, nor is it clear why PCs would need it).
  • Timeline.  This is one of the best features of World Anvil. Personally, I think players don't need to memorize the dates of historical events so they can do well on the quiz at the start of your next session, so world timelines are best left vague (though having key events laid out graphically in a timeline is much better than a historical narrative or a list of bullets). However, where this resource really becomes handy is for making campaign timelines. Players often have little sense of how long their character has been adventuring, how long their characters have known one another, how long it's been since a particularly significant occurrence in the campaign, and so on. If the number of entries is kept within limits, the campaign timeline will probably be referenced fairly often.
  • System-variant. If you are so inclined, you can upload howebrew material (classes, races, spells, character sheets, monsters, etc.). World Anvil gives you options for various game systems (haven't closely inspected the range, but it seems broad enough). 
  • Economy. Using World Anvil is free - but see below. The resource is sort of set up for people who want to monetize their world-building, so you can link the page with Patreon and social media. For the artistically-inclined, it's a good place to feature your creations (graphic or narrative), and to make connections with people who will pay you to draw/write things for their settings.

The Bad
  • Free, but. So it is free, but you only get 100 megs of storage space, which, all things considered, is pretty skimpy. Google Drive gives you 15 gigs. The stuff I uploaded for a campaign that has been running since early summer took up nearly 10% of that. If I decide to upload materials for my other campaign, which has over 50 play reports, I'll be pretty close to maxing out (or actually over the top). You can put up fewer pictures (which eat up most of the memory), but that kind of defeats the utility of the resource. In other words, World Anvil is designed to hook you, and get you to pony up once you've invested all that time and energy uploading (or writing) your materials and attracting followers. On top of that, if you're using the resource for free, you're exposed to ads (which you now see on Facebook and Youtube, so you're inured to it, but still - it's oh so easy to get rid of them if you just fork over between $3 and $10/month (and then you still only get 5 GB of space). Also, unlike on Google Drive, you have to pay if you want to allow others to edit particular pages.
  • Some visuals are fuzzy. The best images - the ones that take up the most space - look pretty good on cover pages. Smaller pics look fuzzy and washed out - which, of course, encourages you to use ones that eat up more memory. For NPCs and such, you should use character portraits, which are smaller, but less voluminous, instead of cover images - they look better, and use less space.
  • Some cross-referencing is suboptimal. There are easy built-in ways to allow someone to read more about a character's race, or to see which NPCs are located in which settlement. But if you want to make links to and from your NPCs or PCs and a play session, you have to sweat, and input them manually, which is quite time-consuming. And you have to make sure your eyes don't fall out of your head while you're looking at all that BB code that appears on your edit pages. These are all far smaller problems on Blogger and such.
  • Rules are harder to design than setting fluff. If you want to include custom options like classes, you also have to deal with BB code. There are instructions on how to fashion/import tables (kinda necessary for level progression, say), but they are not particularly user-friendly. It's also not clear where the rules end up - I don't see them on the main world page.
  • Calendar is poorly designed. The calendar feature is useful, but not well executed. You input all your months into a numbered table, but then only the numbers show up, not the names. Also, the dates show up in numeric form, which kind of loses the purpose of having cool names. And the numeric form is European (i.e. November 2nd is 2/11/2018), which is fine, but would be confusing if most of your players are American. They should give you an option of which system to use, at least. And, the calendar doesn't include names for days of the week, which is also kind of... weak.
 So, in a nutshell, you have to do some work to make your stuff look its best. Is it worth a try? I say yes - put in what you can while it's free, and see what happens. People spend money on electronic rulebooks and tokens on various platforms; for my money, I'd rather spend my money on this, if I have to spend any money at all. And people are much more likely to read your setting stuff here than elsewhere.

So look at my Lukomorye setting, and follow it.


Friday, October 26, 2018

The Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 10 - The Demiurge of the Raid

Before the companions take leave of Zinovii, he introduces them to one of his servitors - a rooster-headed man called Anatoly Frolyn. Anatoly was a captive who grew up with the Kochmaki on the steppe after having himself been taken captive on a raid from a Norik village. Along with his sister, he grew up among the nomads, learning their customs and language. On a trip to the Khan's court with Grand Prince Vasilii, Zinovii met him, and purchased his freedom. Now, he sends Anatoly along with the other companions to serve as a translator and protector. Anatoly - a person of martial disposition, tells them that he would like to serve his benefactor and learn what befell those whose fate is similar to his own. The best use of his talents at present, Yuri and Lokan decide, would be to visit the Kochmak encampment just outside of town, and to ask them about the Vladykino captives. Yaakov has personal and family matters to attend to in the main city, so he excuses himself, and says he will meet the group at the cemetery, where they are to hold their vigil again tonight. Agapia also runs off, apparently in search of a new cauldron.
Anatoly, a new companion taking up the vacant 'cocky' role in the party
Anatoly, not wanting to attract unwanted attention, prepares himself by changing into the form of a tall, muscular human. The party then rides outside of the Nart Quarter, and heads through the rain toward the field dotted with multicolored yurts. Upon coming to the perimeter, they are immediately surrounded by four Kochmak riders, who, ignoring Anatoly's entreaties, order the group to dismount and disarm, and conduct them to one of the tents. The riders look very similar to those that confronted Yuri when he was following the raiders several weeks ago.

Inside the tent, they find Nygmet, a white-bearded clan elder of some sort. Unlike the camp guards, Nygmet treats the visitors cordially, inviting each to sit down on the cushions, and enjoy a bowl of broth (which Anatoly, who eschews meat, politely sets aside at an opportune moment). When Anatoly explains that they would like to speak to the bey about the whereabouts of the captives taken from Vladykino, Nygmet replies that the bey would in turn like information about who the guests are, who they work for, and what their interest in the matter is. After negotiation, it is decided that the spirits will determine the matter by having the two sides cast knucklebones, and the winner of the throw will be required to divulge their secrets first. The knucklebones are cast, but the spirits remain silent on the matter - the throw is judged to be a draw.

To resolve the draw, Nygmet offers a tie-breaker contest - a test of skill in archery. Anatoly makes his own counteroffer - he knows that the highest honor among the Kochmaki is held by those who demonstrate feats of physical prowess, so he suggests a wrestling contest. Nygmet agrees, and brings Aibek - one of the clan's best wrestlers, as well as Zhuldyz - the daughter of Sholpan Bey. Zhuldyz is conversant in the Noriki tongue, which will ease communication with the whole group, and relieve Anatoly of having to translate.

Anatoly offers the group his services as their champion against the strongman. His forelock stands upon end as he feels the power of the Earth flow through his body. He locks arms with Aibek, catches the Kochmak in a reverse hold, and quicker than one can blink, throws the strongman over his back. Clearly impressed with his strength, Zhuldyz asks if he would like to join the clan as a wrestling champion. When he replies that he is currently engaged, but will consider the offer, the bey's daughter fulfills the promise of the wager. She tells them what they have already heard from Berke: that the bulk of the prisoners are warehoused on Slave Island in a caravanserai owned by a man named Hassan, but the young women in the group were transported across the river. She does add that they are now in the possession of a powerful lord named Yaqub, who owns land across the river, and who paid for the raid in the first place. The raiders keep the proceeds for the sale of the other captives, but the young women were sent to Yaqub immediately upon the expedition's return.

Zhuldyz then asks the companions to tell them about herself, as a courtesy, and Yuri reveals his story, as well as the group's relationship with Zinovii. Zhudyz ends the meeting by wishing the companions luck in buying back the captives, and invites Anatoly to return at any time, asking whether his prowess at wrestling is matched in other areas.

Leaving the camp with heads still attached to necks: a moral victory
The party leaves the raider camp, and returns to the city. Now that they have some answers, which seem to absolve the Grand Prince of any responsibility, they hope to receive Zinovii's promised princely protection. But the ailing boyar, though he praises the group for the results so far, objects that the people of the Ladeisk prince who would blame his master would require more concrete legal proof of the raiders' collusion with this Yaqub, preferably in writing. Anatoly promises that he will return to the encampment to obtain the proof, especially as he seems to have a standing invitation from the bey's daughter. But now, as the day heads toward evening, it is time to return to the cemetery, and this time, Anatoly would like to accompany the rest of the group, in all his rooster glory.

At the cemetery, the watchman is closing up as Yuri, Lokan, and Anatoly arrive. He hasn't seen any disturbing activity since the previous night, but remains nervous - the grave robbers might come back! The companions ask for a few candles - they'd like to have a closer look around for tracks and disturbed graves. Searching around, Lokan finds disturbed dirt on top of a stone slab, which Yuri shoves aside, finding another staircase down into the darkness. Around this time, Yaakov shows up. He informs the rest of the group that his contacts in the main city have revealed to him that the grave robbers are Banu Tabar that operate out of an apothecary shop, where they sell the stolen water as a cure-all remedy. Perhaps one of the tunnels leads to this shop.

Lokan heads down into yesterday's tunnel with Anatoly, and after entering the long hallway, finds the passage blocked with a newly constructed brick wall. A careful look around reveals that some of the mortar hasn't set, or is perhaps of lower quality. Lokan easily removes the bricks adhering to the bad mortar, revealing a hole that a person can crawl through. Looks like the grave robbers have left themselves a back door, and likely intend to return. Meanwhile, Yuri finds an identical wall, with an identical "back door" in the new tunnel. Both tunnels continue for quite a ways, and then begin to branch off into side passages. Perhaps tonight is not the time to find out where they lead, and to confront whoever waits on the other side - these are tasks best left for another day. The group returns to the cemetery, and completes their nightly vigil. Nothing transpires, and at sunrise, they all go back to their resting places - Yaakov to his home in the main city, Anatoly to the Nikonov mansion, and Yuri and Lokan - to Hegumen Mitrofan's monastery, to sleep, and reconvene at Nikonov's in the early evening.

The following day, Anatoly rises to meet his new companions at the monastery. Alden and Agapia are still nowhere to be seen, Yakov is likely preoccupied with his affairs, and Anatoly returns, in human form, to the nomad encampment to speak to Zhuldyz, to see if he can wrangle a confirmation of what she told him the previous day in writing, and perhaps to have a bit of fun. The bey's daughter seems preoccupied and dismissive in comparison to the previous day, says that she does not write, and invites Anatoly to return another time.

In the meantime, Yuri and Lokan decide to head into the main city to see if anything more can be learned about Yaqub. The most promising place to go seems to be the docks from where captives were ferried to Slave Island, because here they might find the ferryman who took the young women across the river, and on to Yaqub. Yuri leaves his weapons behind - he doesn't want want trouble with the guardians at the West Gate. Lokan, however, tries to sneak a dagger and his whip into the city. The guards don't like how he looks, so they demand that he hand his purse over. Lokan toys with the idea of pulling a little sleight of hand, but a dirty look from Yuri dissuade him. The guards are thorough, find the weapons, and confiscate them, giving the vagabond a token so he can redeem them later.

After arriving at the docks and asking around, they find the dockmaster, Kardysh, who directs them to a man named Mamoun - the transporter of the slaves. The arrival of the captives was obviously big news, and hard to cover up. When they ask him where the young women were taken, who Yaqub is, and where he lives, Mamoun takes them aside and demands three gold dinars as payment - a hefty sum. There is nothing to it, so Yuri pays up, and in return, Mamoun tells them that Yaqub is in fact a firebreathing zilant - a winged, two-legged serpent, who lives under a hill a couple of hours upstream on the other side. It seems he has lived there for a while, and is sometimes seen to take flight at night. His hunting grounds are elsewhere - perhaps on the steppe, as he has been seen carrying horses back to his lair. But this is not the first time he has received contingents of young women taken on raids. What he does with them is unclear, but Mamoun took the women there shortly after they arrived, turned them over to people who are presumably Yaqub's agents, and they took it from there, while he returned. There is no indication that the man is lying, but he refuses to set any of this down in writing.

Mamoun spills the beans while sipping his sherbet
Yuri's heart sinks - can it be that his beloved Svetlana has already been devoured by a monstrous serpent? Whatever the case, the monster must die, but he and his companion must return to the Nart Quarter to at least wait out the downpour, which threatens to wash out the rest of the day, and collect their weapons and the rest of their companions. At Nikonov's, they meet Anatoly, back from his foray to the encampment with little to show for it, though the rooster-man is eager to join in the expedition to hunt down a serpent - it is just the thing to prove his heroic mettle. Yaakov is there as well - he has returned to give Zinovii another blood-letting. He had spent the day watching his nephews and nieces after his nightly escapades, and is now trying to give a skeptical Zinovii a diagnosis of his malady. It seems that the boyar is a little too indulgent a drinker - an explanation the latter dismisses as outlandish before agreeing to cut back his mealtime consumption from five drinks to three.

As the four stand outside the mansion discussing the diagnosis and their next steps, Agapia appears, happily skipping by. Yesterday, she tried to replace her missing cauldron by lifting one from a local bazaar, and was promptly caught and escorted back to her uncle for punishment - her relationship and special status do give her some leeway. Mitrofan promptly punished her by locking her in her room for a day, but now she has been set free, and is skipping along merrily - she just found a clay jar in an alley, and used magic to clean it from sediment, so she is elated.     

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 9 - Seeking Support of Church and State

Armed with new information courtesy of Berke, the companions return to the Nart Quarter as the sun sinks in the west. Tonight, they will hold a vigil in the cemetery of the large Irii Church that dominates the Quarter, as it is here that all of Udyn's Gaalites are buried, and here that unclean creatures come in the dark hour. If they succeed in driving the darkness back, perhaps Hegumen Mitrofan, and the other Fathers will see fit to support their efforts to free Yuri's family, both materially and spiritually.

As they arrive at the cemetery, the night watchman is just closing up the gate. He is frightened, and tells the group that undead nezhit' come up out of the ground at night, notwithstanding the fact that the cemetery is hallowed ground. They have already scared off some local adolescents who undertook to watch the graveyard, and caused a dog that had come with them to go rigid for hours after grabbing it with their claws.

What are those ghostly forms floating above the church?
Agapia, Lokan and Yuri enter the cemetery, and begin to search for a place where the nezhit' might emerge from. There are some recent burials, but no signs of where such creatures may emerge from out of the ground. There is a a sacred spring at the center of the graveyard that Agapia knows about - it is dedicated to Saint Pachomii of Udyn - a Bahite who converted to the True Confession, and was martyred by the Kochmaki on that very spot. The spring erupts from a rock, and empties into a font that the faithful built around it. Lokan looks longingly at the coins they threw in the font to win the saint's favor, but Yuri shoots him a dirty look, and dissuades him from fishing any of them out of the sacred water. Figuring this for a strategic and defensible spot, Agapia and Lokan set up a triangular tripwire using rope, wire and grave markers around the font, and begin filling a waterskin and Agapia's small cauldron with holy water. Yuri uses the opportunity to slip out, back to the Noriki monastery, to retrieve his horse Vera, and to see if there is any sign of Alden. Vera is there, stabled by the Hegumen's people, but Alden seems to have gone out on the town with his friend Fedor, and has not yet returned.

Yuri rides Vera back to the cemetery, and the trio begin their watch. Hours pass, but after the call for the nightly prayer from the minarets in the main city, which Agapia knows marks the midnight hour, the sound of a moving stone slab, buried somewhere under dirt, alerts the watchers that something is coming. Soon, two shapes dressed in rags approach the font, shambling and groaning. Their faces are deathly pale and covered with dirt and fresh blood, which is running down their chins. As they come closer, a groan goes up from somewhere behind the companions. The doughty men of action - Yuri and Lokan - have seen enough, and both head toward the gate, Yuri astride Vera.

Little Agapia is left alone to face the two fiends, perhaps not realizing why she should fear them. She positions herself to squirt one of them with holy water, expecting this to drive them off. But in response, the creature emits a wheezy laugh through its groan, deliberately steps over the tripwire, dips its hand in the font, and sprays Agapia with the water. Then it grabs her cauldron, which she left undefended.

Realizing that their friend is in trouble, Lokan masters his fear, and returns, succeeding in cracking one of the fiends painfully with his whip. Yuri rides back, too, but one of the creatures rips him with its claws, and he goes rigid. Only because he is an expert rider does he manage to remain mounted as Vera retreats once again. The other fiend claws at Agapia, and gets tangled in her thick fleece. It is then that Agapia sees that its talon glints in the moonlight, and that it is not a claw at all, but a dagger! She flings her own dagger at the creature, and buries it in its rags. At this point, both creatures turn and flee, no longer shambling, but running nimbly back in the direction they came from. They are able to outdistance even the similarly nimble Lokan, and disappear into the darkness. The stone slab grinds back into place.

Yuri is still frozen on Vera, but he indicates through his teeth that his two companions should follow the creatures without him. It would be good to know where they went, and to learn why they came. Worst of all, they have borne away Agapia's knife and cauldron full of holy water. After struggling, Lokan finally succeeds in moving the stone slab. Underneath, he finds a set of stairs. Shrugging, he and Agapia descend into the darkness. At the bottom of the stone stairs, a tunnel leads away, turning right and left. Lokan pursues in the darkness, with Agapia lagging far behind. Agapia soon finds herself peering at two glowing, yellow eyes, but they soon move away. She tries to move forward, feeling the wall, but after a time, she feels Lokan's hand on her shoulder. After turning two corners, Lokan saw a light off in the distance, but it moved away very quickly, and he found that he could not catch up. He returned to Agapia, and the two now ascend back to the cemetery.

After finding Yuri, they lead Vera back to the monastery. Lokan's ministrations to Yuri are in vain, and when they get back, they find an empty cell, lay Yuri down carefully, and collapse. The following morning Yuri is groggy, but finally mobile. Hegumen Mitrofan ministers to him, and he feels better, after which the hegumen questions the companions about their nightly escapades. The monk asks if Lokan remembers which direction the long tunnel was leading, and the vagabond answers that he is quite certain that it led east. That means that the tunnel and the grave robbers went back into the main city, and now, they will be hard to find. The companions entertain the notion of trying to seek them out, and to learn why they are stealing holy water, but the hegumen points out that if they get into a conflict with Bahites, he will be hard-pressed to support them. He surmises that now that they know the cemetery is guarded they won't be back, at least not right away. He will undertake a collection among the faithful to support the watchers.

The companions decide that their time is best spend seeking out the emissary of the Grand Prince, to learn what, if anything, he knows about the captives. Agapia leads them to the mansion of Georgii Nikonov, a boyar and fur merchant who resides in the Nart Quarter. Once there, Yuri explains to armed guards that he has heard an emissary of Grand Prince Vasilii is staying in the mansion, that he himself hails from the village that was raided by the Kochmaki, and that he wishes to speak to the emissary about the raid and the captives. The guards convey the message, and tell Yuri and the others to wait until the emissary is ready to see them.

While they wait at the bottom of the stair, a robed, turbaned and bearded man with a yellow armband that strikes Agapia's eye descends down the stair. He is Yaakov - a Fogarma physician, who was summoned here to attend to the emissary. The companions are then called up, to see his patient - pale, lying on a bench, with leeches on his arms and legs. His name is Zinovii Surikov, and he listens carefully to Yuri's tale, and his request to be granted the Grand Prince's protection so they can openly bear weapons and act on his behalf. Zinovii explains that he is actually in town to learn the truth of the matter behind the raid. He knows that subjects of the Prince Trofim of Ladeisk - Yuri's suzerain lord - probably suspect Vasilii's connivance in the raid, but he assures them that this is not the case.

Zinovii Surikov after surviving the wonders of 'modern'
69th century medicine
The physician returns to the mansion to remove the leeches. Zinovii orders the servants to bring food, while Yuri and Lokan entertain all those assembled with music. At the end, Zinovii tells them if they learn the true reasons behind the raid - from the slavers on the island, the raiders still camped outside town, or Udyn's rulers - he will know he can trust them, and will extend the Grand Prince's patronage to them. Yaakov expresses a desire to accompany them, for reasons that are as yet unclear.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 8 - The Virtuous City And Its Underside

The party heads toward a gate flanked by two square wooden towers. Two unsmiling mailed Kochmak spearmen, wicked sabres hanging at their sides, stand at the ready, their feet spread apart. Between them is an official with an abacus, calculating toll rates for all those who are waiting to enter. When their turn comes, the official informs Yuri that the toll for the four of them and their three animals will be 2 and a half dirhems - the local term for kopecks. While the companions search through their pockets, the official, who calls himself Zaman, instructs them in local etiquette and ordinances. As Gaalites, they may not ride horses or bear arms in the city. They may only stay in the Nart Quarter - set aside for Gaalites - which is located at the other end of the city. Finally, they must wear light blue armbands when they are about in the main part of the city. Unless they want to leave their weapons at the gate until they leave, they can pay a boy named Ahmed to carry their weapons to the Nart Quarter (for a nominal fee).

Grumbling at the regulations, and fearful that the staying in the city will result in one shakedown after another, the companions finally enter the city. Udyn is mostly built of wood, but with imposing stone structures - fortresses, public buildings, and temples towering over the residential buildings. The temples are crowned with the sign of the crescent, which the locals worship apparently. Though some of the domes and spires seem to belong to churches, none is topped with the sign of the cross. Strange, bad-smelling humped animals roam the streets and alleys of the city, and the scents of exotic spices and succulent meats hover over the markets and hostels. Alden, who has lived in the lands of the Garipy, is not overly impressed with the wooden structures, but Yuri, who has not traveled much in his life, is overwhelmed by the size and grandeur of the place: many tens of thousands of people must live here!

Udyn - a metropolis of wood and stone
After making their way to the eastern edge of the city, the party finally locates the gate to the Nart Quarter. Prior to turning their weapons back over to them, Ahmed suggests that once inside, they may want to consider going to a bathhouse and washing their clothes. All four are filthy, and Alden's clothes are stained with blood - a memento of his encounter with the rusalka's husband, who he killed for his cow. Most think this is a good idea. Fedor says that now that he has helped Yuri get to his destination, he will be heading back soon after his bath. Alden says he wants to run an errand to give his friend a proper sendoff, and heads back into the main part of the city.

The Nart Quarter, though much smaller than the main city, is still a sizable conurbation in its own right. Though the people who live here are supposedly Gaalites like them, most speak languages they don't understand. They head toward the main church with a tall spire, where they learn that it is the Irii church. From there locals direct them to a bathhouse frequented by the Noriki. Wary of losing their animals, Yuri and Fedor stay to watch them, while Lokan goes for a steaming. At the entrance, he pays the attendant, and receives a wooden bucket and some birch switches. As he heads inside, a young girl with a tangled mess of auburn braids follows him inside. A mean-looking grandmother instructs them that they need to head to different steam rooms - the men's or the women's, unless Lokan is interested in paying for a private room. Intrigued, and bewildered, Lokan opts for the later, and the girl follows him inside. She reveals her name to be Agapia, and says that she likes to hang around near the bathhouse in hopes of running into interesting people, though she is not sure why. When Lokan presses her for information about who she is, she answers each question after casting a colored die, and considering the facet that lands up.

In the meantime, Alden searches the district near the gate to the Nart Quarter for a fortune teller. He locates a Noriki-speaking adolescent, and gives him the equivalent of nearly two days' wages in exchange for information of leading to a good fortune teller. The kid, named Khariton, knows just the person, and says he will take Alden to her. The two go into the Nart Quarter, and proceed to the plaza just outside the bathhouse, where they find Yuri and Fedor impatiently waiting for Lokan to emerge. Khariton asks whether anyone has seen Agapia, and after learning that she went inside, enters the bathhouse with Yuri. Yuri knocks on the door to the private steam room, and is chased out by the mean grandmother. Lokan, in much cleaner (but wet) clothes, along with a dry Agapia, exit, while Yuri and Fedor take their turns, steaming and cleaning the grime from their clothes. After all have bathed, Agapia uses some sort of magical trick to instantly dry everyone's clothes, thus confirming her bona fides as a fortune teller. Khariton then conducts the rest of the group to a nearby tavern.

While they dine on bowls of cabbage soup and bread, Agapia uses her die to determine Fedor's fortune: he will return home, find amazing adventures, and die a true hero's death. In the meantime, Yuri has more mundane concerns - does Khariton know anyone who might be willing to buy their cow? Khariton says that he is a servant in at a nearby Noriki abbey, where Agapia's uncle happens to be the hegumen. Given how much money he has been plied with, Khariton goes to fetch the hegumen forthwith.

The Irii Church in the Nart Quarter
Khariton soon reappears with the hegumen, Father Mitrofan. Mitrofan is not entirely pleased with the cow, but when he learns of the party's travails and the reason they are here, he undertakes to help them, and buys the cow for slightly more than a ruble. He then invites them to the monastery, to relax, and cleanse themselves spiritually, now that they have bathed. The group follows Mitrofan and makes themselves at home in the monastery courtyard, while the pious Yuri proceeds inside to confess his sins. Aside from various youthful indiscretions, he reveals that the cow he has just sold was stolen, but does this so sincerely that Mitrofan's furrowed brow soon relaxes. As the hegumen grants absolution, he also informs Yuri that he thinks the actions of his cow-stealing companion have cursed the whole group, and that will be hard to overcome.

After he has confessed, Yuri and the rest consult the hegumen as to their next steps. They are especially concerned that any extended stay in Udyn will quickly drain their already meagre funds. Mitrofan recommends that they sell their horses as quickly as possible, because there is no other way they can earn sufficient funds to redeem even a few of Yuri's relatives. Yuri is reticent to part with Vera, and asks what sort of help they might find in releasing the prisoners in other ways. In response, Mitrofan warns Yuri that any altercation will reflect badly on the Gaalites in town, who are sheltering the party, and advises against it. There are occasionally princes that stay with local notables in the Gaalite quarter, and perhaps winning their support will allow the companions to freely carry weapons around town, but this is a project that they will have to pursue by themselves. Yuri inquires whether there is any sort of work the companions can do for the monastery to earn a little money. Mitrofan tells them that there have been sightings of unclean beings at the Gaalite cemetery at night - strange, because it is on hallowed ground. If the companions undertake to watch the cemetery, perhaps the churches can pass around a collection plate to support their efforts. Lokan, taking a different tack, asks if there are criminal organizations in Udyn that might help them get information about the prisoners, where they are kept, and how they are guarded. To this, a surprisingly businesslike Mitrofan says that although he has no contact with such people, he knows that the Banu Tabar - a criminal network that is spread throughout the Bahite world, does operate in the city. They have a gathering place right near the main souk - the market next to the central mosque. The place, operated by a man auspiciously named Kesha, is a gathering place where the Banu Tabar drink alcoholic beverages - a practice forbidden to Bahites, and yet one that is indulged by many of the recent converts, and aided by the town's brewers, who are all located in the Nart Quarter. In fact, Agapia has supplied the place with beer in the past, and can conduct the companions to the establishment.

Now that they have a few leads to follow up on, the companions decide to spend their first evening in Udyn productively. While Alden stays behind to say good-bye to Fedor, Yuri and Lokan follow Agapia to the main town. The sun has not set when they arrive at the souk, and Lokan toys with the idea of pickpocketing someone, in hopes that members of the Banu Tabar will notice someone poaching on their turf, and intervene. Yuri decides this is a bad way to start a relationship, and suggests that they simply follow Agapia to the tavern, which is what they do. Inside, they quickly locate seedy types seated on cushions, drinking beer and wine, and smoking shisha. While her companions order some fermented milk, Agapia heads over to a table where a big Kochmak named Berke is holding forth, surrounded by hangers on. Berke recognizes her, and asks her what she is doing there, to which she answers that she doesn't remember. Lokan, who is a man of the world, flashes some signs at Berke, which the latter appears to recognize. Berke suggests that the newcomers buy him and his friends a round of beer.  In response, Lokan pleads poverty, and says they could do that if Berke offers them a job. Berke lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is not a man to be trifled with, and then tells him he would like to have a private talk with him in the alley.

Berke - a man not to be disrespected
Once outside, the two men speak in an argot that Lokan mostly understands. Berke informs him that as a newcomer, he should behave with the proper deference, and if he wants information, he is going to have to pay, and not haggle. After a brief consult with Yuri, Lokan agrees to do so. After parting with nearly 40 dirhems, Berke divulges the following information. First, the slavers arrived in town 10 days ago, and are housing the captives in a caravanserai on an island in the middle of the Udena. The Banu Tabar can smuggle the party there, for a price. Second, shortly after their arrival, men working for Vasilii, the Grand Prince of Kliakva, arrived in town, and are staying at the house of a local boyar named Georgii, in the Nart Quarter. Vasilii, Lokan and Yuri know, is the rival of the Prince of Ladeisk, overlord of Vladykino, from whence the party has come. Third, a good number of the slaves have already been sold, some down the river, probably bound for the Khan's capital at Ak Karam. Some were sold to local notables, including the amir. However, a number of young women were separated from the rest, transported across the river. It is not clear where they were taken, but it seems unlikely that they were headed to Ak Karam, unless they were to walk the whole way there.

At the end, Berke tells Lokan that he must keep up appearances, though he would prefer not to do the deed himself. Lokan appears confused, but Yuri understands what the Kochmak means, and after Berke has gone back inside, he slugs his companion in the face, giving him a black eye. The party then briefly returns to the tavern, so Berke's henchmen can bear witness to their boss' prowess.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Can Fantasy World Religion Have Social Aspects?

To hear a lot of gamers tell it, no, it cannot. In part, this is a position expressed in response to any suggestion that classes (like priests, clerics, etc.) might actually be recognizable social groups, or professions. The idea is, divine spells are only for the truly elect, the pious, who are worthy before the gods. The worst possible imposition, from this perspective, is that access to spells and other priestly powers is actually regulated by members of the priestly establishment. The idea that NPCs can affect your access to certain powers, or impact your untrammeled progress through class levels is anathema to some, despite the fact that these features were fully present in early iterations of fantasy RPGs (clerics and paladins being stripped of powers due to changing alignment, druids, monks, and assassins having to fight for a limited number of spots at the higher levels, etc.).

There is a certain set of players who think that no constraint on player agency - being charmed, being incapacitated or killed, having an idea or proposal turn out to be unworkable - is ever justified. Leaving that aside as an extreme position, there is a fairly widespread feeling that in certain situations, gods may punish recalcitrant followers by stripping them of powers. But that cannot be done by the god's mortal followers. No religious magnate, and certainly, to religious concilium, gets to decide what my character can or cannot do.

The notion of divine powers implicit in this position can ultimately be characterized as either vulgar polytheism, or vulgar Protestantism. Those who incline to the former conceive of gods as being very powerful NPCs with lots of hit points and powers, who can come down and fight your character if they decide they dislike her. According to the latter conception, on the other hand, gods are remote, disembodied crystallizations of ethical positions (or alignments), and they will act against characters who are not living up to, or backsliding from, their religious commitments. In this case, the punishment can be effected by the god who truly does "embody" those commitments, but not by the god's imperfect followers.

There is no room in either position for gods who act in mysterious ways, incomprehensible to most followers most of the time. There is likewise no room for gods that act through communities of worshipers. It's one thing to send down blue bolts from heaven to let a straying cleric know that you don't approve of his actions. It's another thing entirely to cause his superiors cut him off from the body of the faithful for the same offense. NPC priests are obviously doing it for selfish, impious reasons, and it's not fair.

'But how can a good God allow an evil cleric to cast spells in his name?'
Historically, of course, divine beings were seen as acting through organized groups of worshipers all the time. In religions centered on God's interventions in and through history, action through communities of the faithful (and occasionally, even infidels) were taken as the most potent evidence of his existence. In both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, ecclesiastical councils determined theological doctrine, what writings would be included in the scripture, and what roles priests ought to play with respect to laypeople. Translating this into FRPG terms, this meant that the councils, consisting largely of high Church officials, would get to decide what powers priests would possess. And for this reason, Church officers would be fully within their rights if they decided to excommunicate you - since your divine powers would be defined as such by the ecclesiastical community. This ecclesiastical community was no mere collection of self-interested NPCs, but the Bride of Christ - a material and social testament of the promise of eternal life. Naturally, theologically sophisticated attendees at ecclesiastical councils would not have dared claim that they were determining what God could or could not do. They claimed only that the best way available for forming a just community and living a good life was for the best-qualified people to make the best interpretation they could of truths revealed by a mysterious and all-powerful God.

Not everyone agreed with this interpretation. Millenarian sects tended to see the Bride of Christ as those 144,000 properly believing elect who would enter the Kingdom of Heaven during the coming Time of Tribulation. They saw the Church not as the Bride of Christ, but as the Whore of Babylon, run by self-serving prelates. But the point is, this was a decidedly marginal position in most Christian lands until the Reformation (and in many of them, after that as well). Until then, most thinking people would probably have agreed that while prelates could be corrupt and self-serving, on the whole, the ecclesiastical structure reflected divine will.

Much the same can be said about Islam. The key thing was the construction of the Umma - the community of believers, rather than (or on top of) the submission of the individual Muslim to the will of God. Until recently, students of conversion in Muslim lands spoke dismissively of surface conversions in e.g. Mongol khanates, where Sufi missionaries with heterodox beliefs nominally claimed lands for Islam, while allowing shamanistic practices to persist under an Islamic guise. As effectively argued by Devin Deweese, however,  the notion of "Actual Islam" as constituting a change of heart along the lines acceptable to Muslim jurists was a marginal position held by ibn Taimiyyah, who encouraged his followers to rise up against the Mongol overlords, (or an anachronistic, latter day vulgar Protestant position unwittingly internalized by scholars).   At the time, Muslim theologians regarded even nominal conversion by rulers, and the establishment of an Umma in distant lands, as already a proof that a divine miracle had taken place, because a solid basis for the expansion of Islam had been established.

In fact, even in polytheistic religions, which are ostensibly more represented in FRPG settings, a communal expression of the divine is highly evident. The Greek polis, often regarded as a secular community, was in its germ a religious community bound together by the worship of a genius loci (e.g. of Athena, the tutelary deity of Athens). The action of such a community as a community - e.g. an election of an arkhon by the body of citizens - was a quintessentially religious act: vox populi, vox dei, as the Romans recognized. The Chinese notion of tianming - the Mandate of Heaven - was of similar provenance. When All Under Heaven enter into open revolt, the rulers have lost the support of the celestial powers, who are using the popular uprising to reestablish order.

Ultimately, there are simply too many examples of gods acting through an imperfect society to dogmatically reject such a thing from happening in a game setting (as it is commonly done by those who insist that PCs must be socially rootless heroes who are completely insulated from society's actions). The refusal to entertain the notion that gods can act through imperfect vessels, and do so in the name of playing the long game, is rooted in a kind of vulgar Protestantism that mutated into the dominant mindset of modern scientism, suspicious as it was of the social aspects of knowledge-making. The key task for GMs is figuring out how to use these aspects creatively and fairly - which is the same imperative that ought to motivate good GMs in every aspect of world-building anyway.

Here are a few suggestions of ways in which gods can exhibit agency specifically through social groups. Existing game mechanics can make their actions easy to operationalize (and if necessary, to contest):

- When crowds gather, e.g. at public festivals or during crisis periods, they can become literally inspired and gain at least a modicum of magical power. This provides a handy in-game reason for people coming together in mob form, and it also allows GMs to break out of the sterile mentality that envisions commoners as inert fodder for heroes and villains.

- One specific aspect of this crowd magic could be a divine decision to punish mortals by first driving them mad. Call of Cthulhu is especially clever in describing the social impact of an Elder God's sudden appearance in a particular community. There is little reason why FRPGs can't also do this with various sorts of Dionysian cults.

- Campaigns can be organized around themes of pantheon formation. Gods select groups to effect or act through, and as these groups make alliances, gods form durable associations in the form of pantheons. Gods (and their followers) that get shut out of these alliances become defined as demons. The terms of the pantheon alliance define some gods (and followings) as being senior or junior partners. Later, these can be redefined as familial relationships (senior partners are parents, junior partners - children or younger siblings). As an interesting experiment, character classes can be defined as the followings of particular divine patrons. This seems aesthetically preferable to 'racial' gods, who would probably join such pantheons in an actually existing imperial polytheism of the type FRPGs usually assume: how many 'racial' gods were there in the Roman Empire (that did not quickly lose their racial status)?

- Gods can come together in partnership with communities, but these partnerships can also be dissolved. FRPGs often reproduce stories of deicide, but they often take the form of individual PCs slaying gods. What if the process was a truly social one, as whole groups, or at least factions within groups, cooperated in sidelining particular gods? There would be far more intrigue and far greater stakes to a deicide narrative than a simple boss fight on the 573rd level of the Abyss. A quick read through descriptions of ritual drownings, burnings, and demolition of gods in the historical literature demonstrates how evocative they would be for a game.

- As suggested above, gods could experiment with letting communities shape the nature of the divine magic that's accessible to them. Gods test mortals as to how they will make these decisions, whether they would grow ethically over time as a result of being able to make them, and whether they could correct mistakes about who can have access to such magic over the long term. Big debates about including arcane spells into the arsenal of religiously 'approved' magic could color whole campaigns and decisions about multi-classing. 

- A more 'monotheistic' version of the pantheon formation situation could be a case where a single god decides to set two sets of worshipers against one another, to see which one is more worthy. As a variant, a god might abandon worshipers for a group of barbarians seen thenceforth as a scourge. Perhaps it could come to the point where rival religious groups even convince the deity that it is in fact different people, and it develops multiple personality disorder.


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Chronicles of 'Team B' - Chapter 7 - One Path Ends, The Other Continues

Before the rest of the group departs from Vladykino, Bjorg kills and roasts the second pig brought by Lokan, while Kesha takes the day to thoroughly search the village. He recalls that there was a wise woman with a somewhat unwholesome reputation that lived on the outskirts, and locates a few edibles, as well as a couple of crocks containing potions: one with a silver coin on the bottom - probably a holy water or healing potion, and another that's about a quarter full, containing a foul-smelling liquid with transmutative properties. Kesha creates a harness for the two crocks, to make sure they don't break along the way.

The following day, once it becomes clear that the weather will not improve, and once what remains of the pig is salvaged (Bjorg is no better a cook than Alden), Kesha and his big friend set out in pursuit of the four companions who left earlier in the day. Since they are on foot, they press on after dark, but find it tough going in the dense woods, and tire quickly. The following day, they run into the same scruffy characters their companions met earlier, but, not wishing to fall behind, they have the briefest of chats, and learn only that their companions proceeded south. The next day, the pair locate a giant turnip in the woods. Not seeing anyone around, Bjorg pulls it out of the ground, and brings it along, but Kesha worries that the turnip's owner will come after them. At night, he uses magic to raise the earth in an attempt to protect them from any trouble, as well as from the rain.

At the end of the third day, the two have still not caught up with their companions, but they do find the Kochmak campsite, left roughly 10 days ago. They proceed deeper into the woods, but have grown tired of maintaining their pace - even Bjorg finds the weight he is carrying oppressive. The rain has made the forest floor into a mud pit, and it is very slow going. The region seems devoid of people, though Kesha does see some lights off in the distance this night and the next. The second time around, he decides to investigate, and discovers a homestead in the midst of the woods. He knocks on the gate until someone answers. The man speaks an unfamiliar tongue, and Kesha attempts to communicate with him by creating an image of his companions on a piece of cowhide. The man is frightened, and runs off, but soon, an armed Kochmak rider appears from inside a building in the compound. Kesha attempts to charm the man, unsuccessfully, and then is fortunate to be able to flee and hide, until the Kochmak ceases his pursuit. After dawn breaks, the rider, along with another, appears with two others near Bjorg and Kesha's campsite. After Bjorg rouses himself, they seem to be a bit taken aback, but one rider fires warning shots at a tree, and orders the travelers to leave (in the Noriki tongue).

Left with no aid and no information, and beset by more bad weather, the two travelers make the best guess they can about which direction to head. There have been no signs of the Kochmak raiding party or of their companions for several days. Another Kochmak rider passes them, apparently wanting to know about the settlement they passed, so they send him on his way. The pig has been eaten, but there is still the turnip which should last for a while. Bjorg also succeeds in killing a deer in the old-fashioned way (rock to the head). The pair roast it on the fire, while trying to warm up from the rain (Kesha uses his magic toward this endeavor as well).

The deer, however, proves the pair's downfall. On the third day after leaving the Kochmak campsite, they attract a pack of wolves. The wolves follow them for a while, trying to snatch the roasted deer carcass from the volot. Four of the wolves come at the volot, and though he swats at a couple with his oslop, he does not manage to bring any down. One of the wolves bites him hard on the foot, and the big man falls, dropping his prey. A wolf snatches it, and takes off. Kesha, after healing the big man, uses magic to give chase, but his sling, and his attempts to shock the wolves prove ineffective - the road has taken its toll. Bjorg is having a hard time finding his feet after being healed, and Kesha has moved a ways away while chasing the pack. Two wolves confront the chud, and the lead wolf delivers a vicious bite to his abdomen, as the world fades to black...

You shoudda just let us go with that deer...

* * *

The main group takes a full-day's rest trying to recover from the harrowing encounter with the rusalka the previous night. The companions manage to fashion a canopy from the rain and to start a fire. Lokan and Fedor hunt down some hares, while the others catch several fish in the stream, giving the party sufficient food for the next several days. The following day, they set out, with horses and cow in tow, trying to push south. It's a slow slog through the mud and the rain, but two days later, Yuri discovers the Kochmak camp, indicating that the party has managed to find their way back to the raider's trail.

The following day, the bad weather finally ends, though the woods are thick here, there are no dwellings in sight, and the ground is still wet with mud. But hearts are lifted, as progress is made, and in three days time, the four sight a large river through the trees - presumably, the Udena. Soon, they see small fishing settlements along the bank. Curious as to who lives there, and interested in taking an opportunity in trying to sell their ill-gotten cow, Yuri and Lokan decide to investigate. Alden, on account of his recent escapades, is not invited, but left on a hilltop outside the village, with Fedor to watch over him, and keep him out of trouble.

The two companions enter through the main gate, and are immediately confronted with a gaggle of local children. They are clearly not Noriki, judging by their appearance and dress, and they are none too happy about seeing Noriki here. They say a few mean things about infidels in broken Noriki, and make fun of the companions' cow, saying it looks sickly and thin, and that no one will buy it. Yuri and Lokan make their way toward the village center, where the local shrine is located. Here, they meet the village headman, Erken, who seems happy to see them, and invites them in for a meal. He explains that the town of Udyn is actually very close by, and reveals that a large group of raiders, as well as captives, did pass by here about 10 days ago. Erken relates that his people belong to the Bahite faith, but says that those espousing different creeds live peacefully in Udyn - there is in fact a Gaalite quarter. Yuri offers that when he was young, a Bahite traveler named Hassan Abu Hakim came to Vladykino, and gifted him his oud, as well as fantastic stories about the wide world. Yuri takes the opportunity to regale his hosts with several songs from his homeland on the oud, while Lokan decides he likes koumiss - the local delicacy made of fermented mare's milk, and attempts to engage the hosts in a drinking contest. The host's friends drift into dinner, while Erken, gladdened by the atmosphere, offers the pair 30 altyn to buy their cow. Yuri recalls that this is less than a ruble, and Erken admits they can get a better price in town.

After the fourth toast, and Yuri's second song, the other guests politely take their leave, and Yuri and Lokan are offered places to sleep in the loft. After the lights go down, and the household falls asleep, Lokan slips out, and goes to find his companions on the hilltop, and sneaks them into the village. Inside Erken's house, the two uninvited guests manage to waken the hosts as they try to eat the remains of supper. Erken is a bit confused about the extra guests, and the following morning, begs off from breaking fast with the party. But the quartet leaves the village unmolested, and soon, sight Udyn - a city of tall stone spires and colorful domes rising before them on a hilltop overlooking the river...

Finally here! Hmmm... why only a wooden wall?