Friday, January 31, 2020

Best of the Web - Gonzo Cults, Religion in D&D

Gonzo Cults
Skerpies had another mind blowing post on Coins and Scrolls called OSR 1d8 Gonzo Cults in which he lists out 8 cults. The cults are interesting, shocking, and definitely gonzo but it was one cult in particular that got my attention. The Cult of True Healing. And it wasn't the cult so much as a couple of throw away bits about their healing that got me.
Healing Touch. If target is healed over their maximum HP, they must Save or gain a random mutation.
I love this so much. Every healing potion should have this as a blowback, make players really consider if its worth topping off. I'd also like some kind of extra points total so if you go over the top by 2 points here and 3 points there the numbers can act as as a penalty against a save why? Fail the save and the Flesh Reborn special ability from the same cult applies, that's why.
Flesh Reborn. On death, becomes a ravening Chaotic Psychoplasm or something equally hideous.
Critically fail that save and the Mutation Burst effect occurs.
Mutation Burst. On death, a True Healing Cultist's flesh unknits. 10' radius, 1d4 acid damage, +1d4 acid damage per round until washed. Save to dodge.
You don't even need the Cults he lists, these abilities are gold for anyone addicted to healing potions.

Rethinking Clerics and Religion
Swords of Mass Destruction has an interesting post called Rethinking clerics and religion part 1, and Rethinking clerics and religions part 2.

I've always thought D&D blew it on religion when they made Gods, Demigods and Heroes a book of deity stats and not information about how Clerics organized and worshiped. I've written a bit about Cults and Religion under my Cults heading. I mean even polytheism is complicated, Druids, Hindu's and Romans had one set of priests for all gods in the Pantheon with the Hindu's and Romans sub-contracting out Priests to different temples (I assume Greeks were similar to Romans since the Romans copied their Gods); Japanese and Chinese seem to have had different priests for each temple, at least until Buddhism moved in; Babylonian and Aztecs appeared to be polytheistic but they had groups of Gods added on as part of imperial conquest more than a natural growth. Lots of fun potential that nobody has written about game-wise.

Then mix in alignment and you probably see Lawful trending towards monotheism, neutral towards the polytheism with shared priesthoods as mentioned above, and Chaos as a bunch of stand-alone cults with the occasional one growing large and out of control before being put down by everyone else. There is a lot going on with religions without worrying about statblocks for the Gods and D&D missed it. I blame the early rapid growth combined with the satanic panic but still, they've had time and nobody has done much to fix the situation which is sad.

While reading part 2 I had a thought. Gary used to start players off at 3rd level as he found the 1-2 a bit dull. Goodman Games slaughters everyone with the funnel at 0 level to make them earn 1st level status. What if every human started out as multi-class. That is you get 1 free level of any class you like before you begin play. Religious upbringing you get 1st level cleric training. Grew up in the gutters before entering Wizarding schools you can take a level of thief training. If you grew up in your fathers footsteps as a mercenary maybe you start as a 2nd level fighter instead. Just a thought but it gives the character a tad of worthwhile background to start with.

Blog Roll
I've been reading The Alexandrian for awhile and just realized I hadn't included it on my blog roll. It is now added: The Alexandrian. I particularly liked his stuff on open tables, I'll probably directly link a few of those at some point.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Thoughts on Tiefling

Hellboy, the original Tiefling,
I'm not sure who the artist is,
TinEye comes up empty
My first thought was that the race was stupid but boy have things come a long way since 2E when Devils and Demons were renamed so as not to offend, instead of saying they are put in the game so they can be killed by heroes you dumbasses!.

So back to Tiefling. Some kind of Devil-spawn walking the mundane planes getting into adventure. It occurred to me that maybe this could be interesting.

Imagine a cult of Demon/Devil worshipers summons a Succubus or Incubus and everyone has a big happy hypnotic drug-crazed orgy (side note, what happened to Succubus in the 5E srd, they can't be trade dress). Now fast forward 9 months as the cultists find everyone involved in said orgy is pregnant. The young, the old, women & men. Bodies mutate as necessary, although mutations are all internal so they may not be apparent. Those involved may not even know they are pregnant, they may not even remember the event all that clearly and the men getting pregnant as well confuses the hell out of any diagnose. So most likely the men who might mutate themselves a womb but typically no birth canal will die. The elderly and most others die as well as Tiefling are born with small horns that make even an ideal scenario complicated. This usually leads to the end of such a cult although occasionally the survivors will continue, raising the hellspawn.
Hellboy, I think by u/LoN3WolF396. 

I make no copyright claims.

This same pattern happens occasionally with isolated Demon worshipers who are rarely able to pass along any info to others. Even if they do spread the word a bit the pregnancy info of Succubus and Incubus seems to never be taken seriously or isn't passed along so new, horny, chaos-worshiping knuckleheads continue to fall for the trap.

So Tiefling are super rare, typically orphans, and when they do appear they are raised in clusters. They are not accepted by most Lawful societies and often are forced to hide their true nature. They tend to gravitate towards lawless societies and multi-cultural areas were few questions are asked and they can pretend to be Satyr's or something if someone notices the horns.

So I think a dark background like that might make Tiefling interesting but I still wouldn't let them be a player race.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Thoughts on Aboleth

I've always had a love/hate relationship with Aboleth. They originally showed up in the jungle ruins of the Dwellers of the Forbidden City and then soon after they appeared in the Fiend Folio where they were relegated to subterranean lakes. Both locations seem too impossibly remote to really use them in interesting ways.

The appearance of the Aboleth has always been a big part of the creature but why? It's basically a water beast that messes with your brain so who's getting a good look at the thing anyway? I like the idea of the tentacles but arms are just as good. I like the cold bizarre eyes but can you trust what you are seeing when its messing with your mind? The known image of the Aboleth might have been implanted to screw with folks trying to identify them. Or perhaps that's what they look like but they implant images of a more 'expected' type of sea monster in their victims to throw people off the scent.

Characters will never really have an opportunity to learn about Aboleth lifespan and culture so we can forget that. Aboleth are better when they are surrounded in mystery anyway. What is important is the Scum and the mind powers.

The idea of followers that are slowly transitioning into Fishmen has a lot of Lovecraftian horror. It is as if when they made Kuo-Toa they took Deep Ones and took everything interesting out of them to avoid upsetting Chaosium who controlled the Lovecraft properties. Then later made Skum to backfill that cultish fishmen connection except it didn't work because you can't set up a dangerous cult deep down around subterranean lakes can you?

Everything about the beast seems designed as if it will beach itself on the shore to fight like any other encounter but the descriptions hint at something better, far better. Aboleth aren't so much a boss fight as they are the big bad (or one of) in an ongoing campaign. The Aboleth cries out to be the baddy of the sort that the players only slowly become aware of, and that they eventually have to figure out how to confront as it lives underwater. To do that it needs to live in surface oceans where it can contact sea ports and ships but disappear into the depths if things get too hot.

As a powerful aquatic creature the Aboleth becomes far more useful. Imagine it swimming beneath a ship where it can't be seen, and slowly using its powers to take over the crew. Perhaps it dominates entire ships and then follows them out to sea leading those seamen into a life of piracy, dining on their victims or wounded. The 'pirates' may not even know why they changed career paths, they might even return to a normal life after a few attacks.

Now ally the Aboleth with Kuo-Toa that have also been freed from their subterranean purgatory and the Aboleth has additional muscle to do its bidding. The cult provides mystery, the missing ships provide mystery, the fishmen provide mystery. But at the heart of it all is the Aboleth living beneath a ship in the bay controlling a growing army of cultists to do who knows what.

That's far more interesting, and Lovecraftian than a psionic fish living in a subterranean lake.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Thoughts on Lizardfolk

I've always loved the concept of Lizardmen as a natural sword & sorcery race but never liked TSR's implementation. The lizardmen in 1e lived in huts or mounds in the swamp and might use spears if they were lucky. They seemed based on humanoid alligators which looks really cool but isn't really interesting. I don't mind them in the swamps but if you're going to develop a humanoid shape you're probably gonna adapt beyond such a limited niche. After all reptiles are found in all but the coldest climes. They are in deserts and jungles.

So we have Swamp/Marsh lizardmen as the most primitive aspect of the species.

The pictures in this post are from Groo the Wanderer by Sergio Aragones (as if you couldn't tell from the top one). In that comic they have nomadic lizardmen with a fortification being carried by extra large dinosaurs. The lizardmen clearly do not speak a language used by any of the humans and seem to go about their business somewhat oblivious of those in their way. The lizardmen have what looks like new and well crafted lamellar armor with a vaguely asian look and occasionally have horned helmets*. These lizardmen colored my impressions since 1985, before I ran across Warhammer Armies and their Slann armies with dinosaur mounts.

Instead of having them sling a fortress between super-sized dinosaurs I imagine massive howdah ontop of pseudosaurus (domesticated sauropods of the slow reptile type before Robert Bakker and his theories made dinosaurs impossibly deadly). The lizardfolk are nomads of the beduin type, crossing the desert from settlement to settlement and then moving on. The young and old might live in the settlements and a few strategic ones might have a permanent presence but generally they move on as no settlement could feed the beasts for long.

The Lizardfolk living in the jungles aren't some kind of Aztec/Mayan culture the way they are in Warhammer. They might have built ziggurats and geometric cities out of large blocks of basalt (put in place with pseudeosaurus construction of the Fred Flintstone type) long ago but such ziggurats and the cities that surround them have been in ruins for a long time. The lizardmen still live in the city, but they are semi-savage living in the ruins and not actual city-dwellers.

Oh, and Troglodytes are particularly large Lizardmen and Kobolds are small ones. They live and work among the Lizardmen and just add variety to the culture. These two are mutations that appeared after the species took up worshiping Chaos Gods.

* Despite artistic representations of Vikings I don't believe any cultures actually used horns on their helmets as this would make it easy for an enemy to grab and twist your head. Same is true for ring armor which does not seem to have ever existed (if it did the leather base rotted long before it could find its way to a museum). Such item make nice aesthetic for non-human races (Horned helmets for Lizardmen, Ring Armor for Elves).

Monday, January 27, 2020

Thoughts on Kuo-Toa

Kuo-Toa are tepid diaper-wearing rip-offs of Deep Ones, at least the 1e version were. Presumably part of this was for legal reasons or in some way associated with the stepping on toes incident between TSR and Chaosium in the 1e Deities & Demigods. The part about the diapers in the Fiend Folio picture is harder to explain, I understand the S&M harnesses they have in the Shrine of the Kua-Toa but why would Kuo-Toa wear diapers or shorts or a loan cloth or whatever. Was TSR being coy about if the things had external genitalia or not? Further messing them up they were placed deep underground in the D series of modules. Excuse me but fish should be in the ocean or at least somewhere they can plot against people. Deep in a subterranean environment is the worst place for them.

In 4e they worshiped and were allied with Aboleth which is good, but Aboleth deserve to be in the oceans as well, but that's for another post. Both have a position in a campaign and that position is not just something to fight but instead its about secret cults and growing horror.

The Kuo-Toa are tainted with madness. This is a mildly interesting but as it leaves open the idea of an insane Kuo-Toa being the source of a clue or possibly questionable info or something. But beyond that fishmen should be so different, so alien, that a sane one and an insane one are impossible for normal humanoids to differentiate.

Two notable things about Deep Ones: First they interbreed with humans creating hybrids that live and do their work on land. This is somewhat necessary for the idea of a cult that threatens humanity. This was missing from the original Kuo-Toa but was sort of captured sort-of by the Abolith's Skum, although the rational of how they converted with slime contact didn't work for me. I find Lovecrafts interbreeding worked in a creepy way but comes off as silly in an RPG. I've been a big fan of body-horror involving chaos (that is Chaos of the Warhammer RPG sort) involving mutation through polluted food. This is scarier in my opinion as a player isn't likely to suddenly find out they are the child of a fishman, but they might freak when they find out the local food they've enjoyed has been polluted by something that causes mutations. So instead of fishrape I prefer the fishmen to feed their own eggs to cultmembers and prisoners, causing a certain percentage to become Skum who are then raised by loyal cult members (loyal and controlled by the Aboleth at the heart of the cult).

The other thing is that Deep Ones continue to grow throughout their lives, becoming Godzilla-sized if they live long enough. The Fiend Folio says "SIZE: M (higher levels L)" but that was it. I find this interesting in that you don't need to blend races into a band (like ogres and orcs) to get the variety of muscle in a lair, you just have larger and smaller Kuo-toa. Also every humanoid doesn't need to be the size of humans, give the Kua-Toa a bit of size and they become even more terrifying when they climb over the gunwales of a ship.

Anyway, my love of Kua-Toa dates directly to my discovery of Donn Kenn's artwork. He's the one who did the art in this post, the copyrights are all his. Something about his fishmen, smooth and ghostlike instead of looking like a Creature from the Black Lagoon retread appeals to me and seems more fish like. Having them be a large and terrifying in groups of raiders, seems more terrifying than any of the art I've seen of Kua-Toa (although the one in Peterson's Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors was pretty awesome).

Friday, January 24, 2020

Best of the Web - Hiring, Campaign Turns, Dynamic Combat, Undead Turning Humans

Hall of the Mountain King has a wonderful post that is a mock advertisement. It is called The Temple of Elemental Evil Wants You!. The concept is simply brilliant and I'm amazed I haven't seen something similar before.

Martin O of Goodberry Monthly has a post called Wizard City Hex Crawl in which he does just that. I'm not really sold on urban hex crawls (6 mile hex subdivided into 1 mile hexes) as I believe an urban area should be far denser than that but it has me thinking of doing something similar by the neighborhood would work nicely. I'm also a big fan of his throw-away line about Campaign turns "What is a Campaign Turn? After every Adventure, that’s a Campaign Turn." with some interesting things that startup while the adventurers are gone and thus give the settlement a lot of character. The idea is very similar to the What is happening in the Quant Village, in the Rebellious Village, happening in the Holy Village posts I did nearly a year ago. I might have to reconsider and revisit the idea at some point.

Norbert at Darkworm Colt has a post called Static vs dynamic: how old is your game? that has my head buzzing. Basically he's saying that in the very, very old days they used a system of attack/counter-attack instead of initiative. Basically according to Norbert:
  • roll dice against each other (maybe you get to add a bonus because of some advantage), higher roll hits, a tie means both side hit simultaneously
  • repeat
I really like this and I'll have to run my brain around the issue awhile. It really has the potential to make combat nasty, brutish, and short and make being outnumbered particularly nasty.

Micheal “Chgowiz” Shorten at ChicagoWiz's games has an interesting post called Undead Turning the Living that I think would go very nicely if treated like the Dynamic combat mentioned above. Cleric attempts to turn the undead and they both give it a shot at the same time to see if the Undead flees or if the Cleric and party lose their nerve and try to get out of there. I like that characters don't generally roll morale in normal situations but this does make for a nice way to introduce fear on occasion. Of course it would have to apply to Demons and other otherworldly nasties to be consistent.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


As a technical writer for some time I'm familiar with the Darwin Information Typing Architecture or DITA standard. Basically the idea is when you write a technical manual you divide the thing into Overview Information, Procedure type information and Reference information. There is a lot more to it than that with XML and tags and re-use and all but I'm only talking about the three way split. There are many reasons to divide the information, most of it to ease repackaging the bits and pieces for different products a company might have but I'm here to talk about its application to RPGs. I see a good RPG as have the same three elements.

Overview is basically setting information and those bits of creative writing that occasionally introduce a section hoping to give it color. Setting may be separate from the rules (example D&D with its one set of rules and thousands of settings) or it may be built into the DNA of the game (example Stormbringer and Harnmaster). The choice of bonding a system to the setting can provide a richer experience but it could also hold that system back if folks think the setting is weird or would rather create their own (see RuneQuest and Glorantha). Adventure modules fit into this  category as well.

Procedure type info is basically the rules. The crunch. The rules might be a single unified mechanic or a million little different subsystems hobbled together. The rules might be light and let the DM wing it, or they might be comprehensive hoping to cover all of the more likely scenarios to prevent rules lawyers from dominating the game. They might be wedded to the Overview or they might be easily adapted to any world or situation.

Reference type info is the pile of entries that actually dominate most RPG. The monsters, the spells, and magic items and treasure are the best examples. You can continue to add more spells, and more monsters, to the game without fundamentally changing anything. If the GM doesn't like the additional spells they just don't appear and no harm done. Character classes and character races might fit into this category (look at the explosion of character classes for GLOG for example).

So I guess my point is an RPG should support their system by producing Overview and Reference material, not the core rules type stuff. I'm not calling out any companies here, just writing a reminder to myself for the day my Fantasy Heartbreaker is finally done and I want to continue tinkering with the core rules.