Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Awlad-i-Dimagh (Child of the Mind): Troika Background

Axes + Orcs has been tirelessly diving into the Troika design space, creating oodles of backgrounds. He got me inspired to write this up and submit it to the ongoing TroikaJam over at itch.io. It's an update of my original Psychic Warrior class. This feels a bit smoother, at least.

This is available in PDF format over at itch.io, but it's duplicated here for ease of access.

Awlad-i-Dimagh (Child of the Mind)

Original energy arc photo by Blaise Frazier
released under
GNU Free Documentation License

I don’t know if you agreed when the recruiters came. Or when they put you under the knife and started mucking around in your brain. I don’t know what they told you about the powers you’d gain - or what you’d have to do to keep using them.

But I do know that you’re on a deadline now. Using these powers catches up to you. The shakes keep coming faster and faster. And when your ticket’s up, you know what to expect - a flare of pain and horror and power before your light is snuffed forever.

Guess you’ve got some time to kill. (Don’t let these shakes go on…)

  • Tattered Uniform
  • 3 Doses, Psy-Drugs
  • Brass Straw for drinking cerebrospinal fluid
Advanced Skills:
  • 3 Psychic Blade
  • 2 Soldiering
  • 2 Biofeedback
  • 2 Stave Off Inevitable Burnout
  • 1 Memory Leech
  • 1 Spectral Assassin
  • 1 Fight Past the Shakes 
Special: Psy-drugs (expensive), stealing someone’s memories, drinking cerebrospinal fluid, or devouring a sentient’s brain all boost Stave Off Inevitable Burnout. Psy-drugs boost it to 3 and last for a week. Memory leeching boosts it to 4 and lasts for a week. Cerebrospinal fluid or eating a brain boost it to 4 and last for a month.

The Awlad-i-Dimagh Background is an independent production by Humza Kazmi and is not affiliated with the Melsonian Arts Council.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Landsknecht Link Roundup, July/Aug

Ba Chim seal of approval!

(Art by Dreadbeasts)
I posted this on RPG.net but it bears reposting (and expanding) here:
  • Not quite RPG related, but Hydra heads Trey, Jason, and Robert have launched the Bronze Age Book Club podcast, for jawing about comics. Check it out here.
  • David Schirduan ran a series of interviews with some of the folks in the SWORD DREAM / *DREAM space (including me), discussing our perspectives and how we want to see this space grow.
  • Relatedly, Dream Jam (a Sword Dream game jam ) just wrapped up - you can see the entries here. I think this is the first large set of material releasing in the *DREAM space, and it's exciting to see! Many of the submissions skew a bit more to the indie side than I generally roll with, but I'm also excited to see new design influences entering our space and hopefully having some fruitful dialog.
  • Cavegirl (the Evil High Priestess of the OSR) starts laying out a system for creating magic items based on supernatural resonances. I'd like to see more detail on the creation process and system details, but the writeup of affinities and their effects is excellent. She's also got the Wounded Daughter advancement, which is raw and from the heart and the first time I've seen a "this PC does not die" mechanic in an OSR game that has felt really compelling to me.
  • Throne of Salt has a great post on the Book of the Night, discussing the universe as envisioned by Abd al-Hazra. Certainly not going to pass up an Arabic grimoire post, even if this one might be a bit more Lovecrafty than historical.
  • Lizardman Diaries has a compilation of all of their Infinigrad posts, in advance of launching a Patreon. Lots of handy city-related generators, guilds, shopping, random tables... I particularly like the automated augmentation generator (though I sigh a bit at the name "Fantasypunk") and the guild generators, because factions are great. Very good for "strange fantasy city" work.
  • Gundobad Games continues the "Settings with Strata" discussion, this time discussing how leaving voids in a setting's backstory can allow for fruitful development and increased depth as different factions tell their own histories. Worth synthesizing with this Hill Cantons discussion of information-as-treasure.
  • Evlyn M rewrites an earlier campaign framework of a witches' coven, with a town-centric sandbox and table-generated setting. Pushes back against transphobic components of prior inspiration. (Warning: some NSFW art - stylized nudity, non-sexualized.)
  • Against the Wicked City has this pairing of English literary authors and the Warhammer armies they'd play, which is goofy/amazing enough that it absolutely has to be included here.
  • While we're on the subject of Warhammer influence, Uncaring Cosmos has a writeup on the British OSR. I think that there's a lot more overlap between the A-OSR and B-OSR than they suggest - WFRP and GW creations seem to exert a great deal of weight in the OSR's aesthetics of ruin - but it's still worth a read.
  • Tarsos Theorem has a handy-dandy Mothership PC generator. Be prepared to shout "let's rock" and/or discuss the bonus situation.
  • Goatman's Goblet created a Knave's Guide to Eberron, adapting the 3e setting to Ben Milton's Knave RPG. Despite the deep love many folks have for the setting, I've always struggled to get into Eberron; this looks like a short, sweet, and easy way to dig in.
  • The Alexandrian argues that the bowdlerization of Palace of the Silver Princess marked the ending of the "old school spirit" in TSR design. Strong concur that Jean Wells was frickin' robbed, and that we lost a lot of potential by TSR pulling her work in favor of the Moldvay rewrite. See also Grognardia's interview with Jean Wells, Part 1 and Part 2.
  • This last one is from 2017, but I just discovered it and really like it, so in it goes! Trilemma's post on Awesome vs Tangible Resolution just helped me describe better what I like about my preferred playstyle.
  • POCGamer's got a good read on decolonization and integration within D+D. While POCGamer's post focuses on WotC's treatment of D+D, his comments are still handy and useful for considering how we construct other, hopefully more compelling, settings.
  • Papers and Pencils just posted a public-facing version of On A Red World Alone, a super-light treatment of post-apocalyptic Mars. Worth checking out, and reminiscent of Rogues and Reavers's Savage World of Krul setting from back in the day (currently hibernating and unavailable).
  • Shoe Skogen has been running video interviews with folks on Hey! My Friend Made A Thing! They've uploaded interviews with David Schirduan (who just released his Bone Marshes module) and with me, and there are more to come from folks at Gen Con.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Spectre (7+3 HD) Is Haunting the Flaeness: Towards a Leftist OSR

    Special thanks to Kazumi Chin, Fiona Geist, Camilla Greer, Michael Lombardi, and Robert Parker for their feedback and guidance.

    The design space associated with OSR games is often assumed to be inherently reactionary, an interest in classic games coinciding with a desire for social regression and oppression. Setting the incorrect nature of that assumption aside, I started wondering what an explicitly leftist OSR framework might look like. This pondering was accelerated by a query on the same topic that Mabel Harper* raised on Discord a while back.

    This isn't untrodden territory. Some past must-reads from others: Marx + Monsters: A Radical Leftist Fantasy Sandbox, City of Brass "West Marxes"

    Inspired by Marx + Monsters, I concluded that a leftist OSR framework would move away from a simple advancement through gold route, and instead work through improving the community that PCs reside in. The approach I list below is strongly influenced by Mayfair Games's 1993 RPG Underground, a game centered around superhero-veterans attempting to improve their communities as the world around them went mad.

    This is a potential new framework for experience gain that a GM can use to frame a social format for their campaign. It assumes that PCs are still taking on adventurous projects, but seeks to present greater ties to the communities that they are a part of.

    Communities and Experience

    1. PCs start out as members of the same community. While they may have wildly different origins and backgrounds, they're all united by current location and ties. (This can be a city or town, or even a neighborhood. For higher powered games, a province or nation might be apropos.)

    Figures outside the tombs of the caliphs, Cairo, Egypt.
    Coloured lithograph by L. Haghe after D. Roberts, 1848.
    Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain
    2. This community is assessed on six stats:

    Identity - How strongly the community identifies as a group together, with a shared culture. Identity 4 or 5 might be a newborn boomtown, Identity 14 or 15 might be a longstanding ethnic enclave in a larger city.
    Prosperity - Whether the community is economically stable. Are folks able to get by comfortably? Are folks living hand-to-mouth?
    Safety - Are people physically safe in this community? Is their security under threat?
    Governance - The breadth and scope of government function. How well do governing institutions respond to the requirements of the community?
    Legitimacy - Is the government regarded as representative of the community's people? Are these seen as interlopers or leaders?
    Sustainability - Is the community's usage of resources sustainable in the long run? Is support infrastructure properly available for the residents?

    These stats are rated on a 3-18 scale, just as character stats are. The GM may either work with the PCs to collaboratively generate a community, as in Beyond the Wall or Dream Askew/Apart, may assign stats to a pre-existing community setting, or may roll 3d4 (not 3d6) for each stat.

    3. During downtime, between adventures, PCs may place money and time into raising one of the categories. They must describe how they are using their resources and time to combat problems or improve conditions for their community.

    Ex: Shaghab and Arslan live in a community with Legitimacy of 6. They decide to improve this stat by ousting the famously corrupt qadi, or chief judge, and seeking to install someone a bit better. Shaghab describes how she'll be spending three weeks organizing street protests against the qadi as he attempts to rule on cases, shouting out the stories of those he's screwed over, while Arslan will try to force the local governor to be confronted with this evidence of the population's unrest. They hope that through this, the governor will consider removing the qadi and replacing him with someone new. While the replacement's unknown, Shaghab and Arslan believe that they'll be able to influence the selection and pressure the governor to find a more virtuous replacement.

    Tizemt lives in the same community, but they think that trying to replace the qadi is merely supplanting one outside leader for another. Instead, they decide to spend a month organizing a community council that will resolve disputes outside the scope of the qadi and avoid having to appear before the corrupt pustule. Tizemt sees this as improving the community's Governance rating (conveniently, also 6), but it might also apply to Identity or maaaaybe even Legitimacy as well. Tizemt plans to support this council through holding meetings and determining who among the community will have sufficient stature to be seen as legitimate decision-makers.

    4. The GM assesses their plan, mentally considers counterarguments and forces that will operate to protect the status quo, and places it in a matrix framework to assess how effective this is at addressing the issue in question. (See: Matrix Games.)

    Strength of Argument
    Adjustment to Roll
    Very Strong Argument
    Roll 5d6 against stat
    Strong Argument
    Roll 4d6 against stat
    Average Argument
    Roll 3d6 against stat
    Weak Argument
    Roll 2d6 against stat
    Very Weak Argument
    Roll 1d6 against stat
    Abysmal Argument
    Roll fails!

    Ex. The GM thinks that Shaghab and Arslan's plan isn't too great -- aside from trusting in the benevolence of the governor, they also don't know that the governor and qadi have been working together to feather both nests, and that the qadi has some compromising information on the governor. But significant enough street protests might be able to sway the governor, if it becomes clear that the city won't quiet down until the qadi is removed. It's not the best thought out and there are hidden factors, but it's not completely unreasonable - the GM considers it a weak argument. They get a 4 on 2d6 against the community’s Legitimacy 6 -- the plan fails.

    The GM thinks that Tizemt's plan is more likely to receive results, since there isn't any hidden information in play, the scope of the change is enough to merit increasing the Governance stat, and Tizemt's player has identified prominent NPCs who they think have established a solid community reputation, even in the cynical Vancian atmosphere of the setting. While it's more likely to get off the ground since there's no particular opposition, having an alternative dispute structure may not necessarily take off and gain community support. It is considered an average argument.  They roll 3d6 against the community’s Governance 6 and get an 11 -- the plan succeeds!

    5. After the time and resources have been invested, the GM rolls against the stat as above:

    a) If the roll is above the stat in question, the PCs' effort is successful. The stat is raised by one, and all PCs who contributed to this effort gain experience: Firstly, each PC gains 1500 x the number of times the stat in question has been raised (so, 1500 XP for the first improvement, 3000 for the second, etc.) Secondly, they gain 1.5x the GP value of resources that were contributed as XP. Finally, the GM makes an explicit note of the method that the PCs have used to shape the community, to ensure that its effects continue to be remembered (and leveraged) as play continues.

    b) If the roll is under the stat in question, then the PCs have failed to improve conditions. The stat remains unchanged, and no experience is awarded. The GM keeps a tally of how much resources have been put into improving the stat in question; if the PCs manage to improve the stat later, then all PCs who have contributed (past or present) gain both the stat-raise experience, the benefit of 1.5x the resources of the successful attempt, and 0.5x the value of all prior resources put in, combining failed attempts with the most recent success. Long-term campaigns may not succeed at first, but they continue to build the foundation for subsequent success.
    Sao Paolo General Strike, 1917
    Unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia

    Note: Application of extra resources beyond the base requirements can grant rerolls on step 5, allowing a second chance at a failed increase: When a stat is 3-8, putting in an additional 3000 gp grants one reroll. When a stat is 9-12, this amount increases to 9000 gp. When a stat is 13-17, the amount increases to 27000 gp. Resources spent towards rerolls do not grant additional XP.

    6. After a stat has been increased successfully, the GM determines another stat to be tested against, and rolls 3d6 against that stat. (The statistic is either determined randomly, or emerges naturally from the nature of the improvement.) If the GM rolls under, that stat decreases by 1, to a minimum of the lowest stat present (if the two lowest stats are both 5s, one cannot lower to a 4 through this method). Decreases represent additional challenges that have begun facing the community; the GM should generate new adventure hooks from these.

    Ex. Tizemt's plan to create a community council as an alternative to the qadi was successful. Given that the community council now serves as an alternative form of governance to the incumbent, the GM chooses to decrease Legitimacy by 1, since there is now uncertainty over who really rules the neighborhood.

    7. This process can be used on its own, but ideally it would also take into account dynamic shifts in the campaign from the actions of other parties. The next steps would be tying additional shifts to a Chaos Index (reflecting further changing dynamics outside the control of player characters) and ensuring that adventure hooks can also present opportunities for changing a community's stats, or at least laying the groundwork for doing so.

    As a community improves, it will become harder and harder for PCs to improve its stats. PCs may choose to expand their focus (working to improve a city instead of a neighborhood, a province instead of a city). If PCs elect to expand, they begin working to improve the larger polity's stats (which are likely worse than the smaller area PCs have been focusing on). Multiply experience gains by 5 each time a player group chooses to expand. Multiply reroll resource costs by ten (and adjust costs for open-ended resource allocation accordingly as well).

    Emma Goldman
    T. Kajiwara, 1911 (Wikimedia)
    Note: Players may try and solve some of the problems that their communities are facing through violence -- their PCs are likely still adventurers or revolutionaries, after all. GMs should be cautious with this. In some cases, violence may absolutely be necessary - but it is not enough, in and of itself, to generate long-term systemic change. There must be positive action taken in order to create a sustainable improvement in a community.

    Design Notes

    XP as Central Driver

    Much has been made about 1 GP = 1 XP as the core gameplay loop driver of TSR D+D. But XP for gold retrieved also winds up being something of a de facto capitalistic outlook as well. Success is driven by accumulation of individual wealth -- by an adventuring company, even! So what's a new framework that can be used for underpinning a leftist OSR campaign?

    Marx + Monsters raises two proposals: XP for direct redistribution of wealth, or XP awarded through communal questions (a la Dungeon World). I found neither of these satisfying for my purposes. Direct redistribution of wealth is basically a slightly tweaked version of "XP through spending," and communal questions seems too far at odds with the mechanical framework of OSR games. Admittedly the system proposed here is still related to "XP through spending," but ideally generates a bit more  thought and focus regarding how people attempt to help others.

    Campaign Framing

    "Standard" OSR gaming is focused around the pulp-inspired picaresque. James's bullet-point list of what that entails (assumption of PCs at the margins, a corrupt/venal society) can fit well into a radical framing. The change is that instead of focusing on the individual rise of a small group of people (PCs), this proposed campaign explicitly looks at how a community or society changes (through the actions of a small group).

    Community Creation and Interaction

    Beyond the Wall features group creation of the party's starting-hub town, and ties the player characters together with each other and the shared NPCs they've created. (See also the communal creation of Dream Askew/Dream Apart, which focus even more tightly on communal setting as play center.) I don't know that group setting creation is a necessary part of this framing, but it can help to provide players with a strong connection to the community they are a part of, combating the detachment with which PCs can sometimes view their surroundings.

    "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow"

    Obligatory pop culture references aside, I recognize that this is a game system that's discussing social resistance and community building: areas which are pretty important at the moment, and areas which which I don't have a full grounding in. While I'm slowly learning more on these topics, I also recognize that I have LOTS of blind spots regarding these areas. If I've said something boneheaaded here, please do let me know.  
      * Also check out Mabel's new music video!


      Leftist Design and Community Interaction
      Alternative Experience Takes

        Tuesday, March 12, 2019

        Hymn to the Bow: the Hunters

        “Portrait de Jeune Noir avec Arc”
        Hyacinthe Rigaud.
        Special thanks to Jerry Grayson and Lloyd Gyan for their input and guidance.

        Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze! The Two-who-are-One, the Hunters Without Peer! Some say that they are eternal rivals, vying for greater success in the hunt. Some say that they are twins, or parent and child. Some that they are lovers, forever together. Many in Manden hold that they are the left and right hands of the Path to Justice, the Orisha Oshossi. Many in Sukiyya believe that the Two-who-are-One were once human before they crossed over into the world of the jinn. But who can know the truth of that otherworld?

        They are certainly not a god, despite the rumors that are sometimes spread. If they were a god, would the princes of Manden be required to swear to the Two-in-One before their ascension to the throne? It would be unthinkable for peers of the Caliphate to forsake Ar-Rahman.

        So. Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze are manifestly not gods. 

        But all agree that they are mighty spirits, the lords of brush and forest. They are the Hunters, knowers of the paths and the way. They see what is to come, and move towards the future and the past as they track their prey.

        Chief among the simbon, those who are favored in the eyes of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze, are the princes of Manden. But any who desire the favor of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze may swear to their service, should they be willing to abide by the Code of the Hunter.

        "Hunters of Mali" - Philippe Bordas.
        Membership Requirements

        An applicant who has proven their worth as a hunter may seek the blessing of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze. They must find a simbon, a Master Hunter, who is willing to sponsor them in the ranks of the donso, and then they must hunt and defeat an animal or beast that plagues a community. This hunt is a spiritual trial for the applicant, that will test not only their skills as a hunter, but their connection to the wilderness and their willingness to serve Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze.

        Once they have returned victorious, the simbon will ask them three questions:

        "Will you learn to obey Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze before your own father and mother?"
        "Will you learn that honor is never slavery, and give your honor and your submission to the simbon?"
        "Will you learn that kola nuts are good, tobacco is good, honey is sweet - and give them over to your master?"

        Once they have agreed, they are of the donso. The new initiates must obey the code of their brotherhood and annually fulfill its requirements, or be the sworn enemy of all other donso.


        Donso wear skin-tight leggings and bear cowrie shells upon their cloak or blouse as the marks of a hunter. Simbons of great prowess likely carry a pouch of goatskin, the sassa, filled with sand and cowries for use in divination. They favor the spear, the bow, and the rifle. Simbons are likely to bear a hunter's whistle, to signal with others of the band.

        Hunter's shirt. Mali.
        Date unknown. Minneapolis Institute of Art.

        A character seeking to become a donso must have a ranged attack bonus of +5 or greater without any magic assistance - only a combination of their base attack and any Dexterity modifications. They must gain the sponsorship of a simbon who will continue to sponsor and bear responsibility for their candidates.


        After becoming a donso a character continues to level normally, but gains the following benefits in addition to their standard gained abilities at a given level (see below).


        A donso character gains the benefits of the skills listed below when they achieve the level in question. No additional XP is required; however a donso must always adhere to the requirements listed below, or else the favor of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze is withdrawn. 
        • Peerless Trackers: Improve base hunting skill by 1-in-6, 3 points, or 15% depending on your game system of choice (1st)
        • Herbs of the Healer: 25 + (level * 3)% chance in wilderness to find herbs that can grant a second saving throw vs poison (1st)
        • Future Paths: may cast augury 3x/week (2nd). 
        • Tongues of Jinn: may converse normally with jinn of brush and forest; has 10x level chance to invoke a jinn of brush or forest and converse or bargain, 1x/month (4th)
        • Simbon: Master hunter, may sponsor another applicant into the donso (6th)
        • "Hunters of Mali" - Philippe Bordas, Le Monde
        • Window to the World of Jinn: May cast commune 1x/month (9th)

        A donso must always obey their oaths to their simbon regarding the three questions.

        1. Even the rulers of Manden swear to obey Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze (and their servant the simbon) above their own fathers, giving the royal court of Manden an unexpected dual loyalty. However, each ruler is sponsored by a different simbon, ensuring that no one person continues to dominate the course of the nation.

        2. Along with the duties of respect and obedience to the simbon, donso are expected to oppose slavery at every turn, rooting it out when encountered. Where open confrontation is not viable, donso may take the time to operate in a clandestine manner, but they may never abandon a slave to their fate.

        3. Each year, a donso must present their simbon with their level x 1000 dinars worth of trade goods (tobacco, kola nuts, etc.). This does not have to be all at once, but can be presented to the simbon over the course of the year.

        In return, a simbon must prepare the medicines and powders for their students to ensure that the creatures they hunt do not continue to haunt them.  Donso take a risk when they hunt. The greater power and role that their quarry plays in the cosmos, the greater the danger is that its wraith will stalk the donso that harmed it -- unless the simbon provides guidance and protection.

        Simbon speak each season with the jinn of brush and forest to ensure that they are satisfied, and to confirm that their students have followed their oaths - to guide them if they falter, and to punish them if they fail. They must teach their students the ways to talk with jinn. They must ensure that all those who hunt in their lands (donso or not) obey the traditions of the hunt. They must ensure that no prince or emir or caliph or chief encroaches upon the bounds of the donso, or answer to Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze at their peril.

        Cultural Note

        This entry derives strongly from the hunters of Kondolon ni Sané as related by Djibril Niane. Niane's work (as he directly acknowledges) came from speaking with the griot Mamadou Kouyaté of Guinea. The Epic of Sundiata is an oral tradition, and cannot fully be conveyed through the written word. Similarly, as you can see from the Guillot article linked below (and the Bordas photographs used for illustration here) the brotherhood of hunters continues to exist in Mali. The abilities I have referenced in this post reflect those mentioned in the Epic of Sundiata, and do not touch upon any other abilities or secret traditions that the hunters may have.

        I have no connection to the Mandingo people beyond those shared from a common Islamic religious and cultural tradition. I believe that Mamadou Kouyaté's work through Niane is a valid subject for interpretation in game material because of the intended public-facing nature of the work that Niane relates, and additional discussion in the preface.