Sunday, July 21, 2019

Module H5: Introduction

I've changed the name of the blog (and probably broken some links in the process--sorry!) to unbind it from my one specific world-building exercise. I'll still likely post about that process going forward, but it won't be my primary focus.

I also temporarily took some content down to rework it. Anybody got a lead on a vintage "Under Construction" animated gif? Preferably the '98 model, optimized for Netscape.

Character Concepts: Planescape pt 3



Continuing series on unique Faction Personalities in the Planescape setting...

Harmonium

Sidby the Stick (LG/halfling/fighter) - Sidby's a good enough berk, but there's a reason he's not called "the Carrot." Born and raised on a sleepy backwater of a world where halflings are the only sapient species, Sidby served in his town militia with honor and courage. He was known in six counties for his athletic accomplishments in both weight-lifting and the discus; he could manage a respectable sprint time as well! Sadly, an accidental stumble through a one-way portal stole him away from his community and his acclaim, stranding him in a place where his exceptional physical ability was suddenly just relative... you know, for a halfling.

A good heart and honest character can be easily outshone by bitterness and resentment, and such is the case with the strongest hairfoot in the Cage. Burdened with something to prove, Sidby marches his Market Ward beat like he means it; and he gets results. Woe be unto any litterer or loiterer who fires back at his order with a quip about his height or a prideful boast against his ability to enforce--that polished cudgel he's named for didn't get its dents from leaning on a bedpost.

Mercykillers

Cobbleroot (LN/treant/druid) - In Sigil, being mistaken for a tree won't take a cutter far in the camouflage department, making Cobble seem poorly suited to the Mercykiller trade. The passion that drove him here in pursuit of the careless evoker who burned his grove, however, was quickly noticed and properly appraised by the faction men who witnessed his justice.

Today, Cobbleroot and Swift (his hawk companion) are an odd but permanent fixture on Kindling Street in the Hive Ward, where he serves as a one-tree volunteer fire department. Nobody knows what became of the unidentified serial arsonist that gave the street its name and reputation; but when six months passed without so much as a wisp of smoke, not even the resident priest of Tymora was naive enough to suggest a happy turn of luck was to thank.

Revolutionary League

Albatross Greely (CG/tiefling/bard) - Not every barmy's a Bleaker, and Greely stands as a testament to that fact. Even his fellow Anarchists call him a hopeless Utopian. But as his third mayoral run against the incumbent Lady of Pain spins up, Albatross says he hasn't got time to worry about being mocked. Blank petitions, unattended campaign rallies, and non-existent election days--none of it slows him down. 

Opinions differ over whether he's a genuine addlecove, a performance artist, or a provocateur whose absurdity is a mirror held up to an absurd society. Whatever the case, The Lady isn't known for tolerating upstarts, no matter how foolish. The Guvners may smirk and the Hardheads may scoff, but Her Bladed Majesty's forbearance grows ever more difficult to explain.

Sign of One

Zalachi (N/githzerai/cleric) - Like many Signers, Zalachi believes that he is the center of the multiverse. Or, more specifically, that he *is* the multiverse. He views each of Sigil's factions as representations of the cognitive dissonance in his own mind, and believes that reconciling the disparate philosophies into a single, cohesive ideology will lead to his apotheosis. As such, Zalachi considers himself a member of each organization (although this delusion is humored only by Indeps and Xaositects...) and works exceptionally hard to find common purpose with other factioneers he comes into contact with.

Contrary to most of Sigil's thinkers, Zalachi isn't much put out by disagreement--even diametric opposition. Indeed, he seeks out such philosophical conflict and endeavors to resolve it.


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Character Concepts: Planescape pt 2


Wowee--I've been away a long time! Oh well. Picking up where we left off, here's part two of my odd-ball Planescape NPC concepts:

Dustmen

Setican Stillwater (LG/human/paladin) - Setican is a paladin in the service of Kelemvor--a goodly god of death and repose. The young and surprisingly enthusiastic warrior desires nothing more than to progress from this life into the True Death. Despite his death wish, he's taken the teachings of his faction to heart and would never deliberately take his own life nor dive headlong into certain death. He does however engage in unnecessary risks and attempts to provoke conditions that could very well end in his demise.

Considering he hires himself out as a mercenary adventurer to parties engaged in noble pursuits, this compulsion frequently brings misery upon others. Despite his ability to heal critically wounded allies, Setican is prone to expressing jealousy of their condition and engaging in ideological debate intended to convince the dying berk to embrace their True Death instead. He'll come through on the healing eventually, but not without losing respect for his patient in the process.

Fated

Yudumbox (LN/modron/thief) - The Fated tendency to exploit their power as Sigil's tax collectors is well-known. What better way to weaponize the fine print than with an agent who can instantly calculate interest to the millionth decimal point? The rogue modron's lawful nature grates on its fellow Takers (their exasperated curses became its de facto name!), but you can't argue with results.

Fraternity of Order

Kresimir the Certain (LN/human/druid) - Kresimir was a Xaositect who tagged along with some fellow factioneers in an ill-conceived raid on Mechanus with the intent to smash up some of the natural machinery and spit in the face of order. After a deadly encounter with natives, he was separated from his comrades and stumbled upon an isolated grotto of clockwork trees. 

As he set about to jam up the works, Kresimir noticed that the ticking of the fruit-like gears was in sync with his heartbeat; that his breath came to him in time with the hissing of steam valves that sprouted from the soil like mushrooms; that the swinging of a pendulum vine was in perfect rhythm with his subconscious compulsion to blink. While absorbing this strange phenomenon, he idly plucked a bit of detritus that was blocking a collection of gears set among a tree's roots, and as they whirred back into their function, a facial tic he'd suffered all his life was suddenly cured.

Immediately, Kresimir swore off his old ways and devoted himself to the cause of order as a druid of the clockwork forests.

Free League

Galsk-ub the Indecisive (C?/Athasian half-giant/fighter-psionicist) - As an Athasian Half-Giant (from the Dark Sun campaign setting), Galsk's only alignment constant is Chaotic. Like all members of his race, he's prone to imprint on whomever he's around at the time, shifting his ethical outlook to better fit in. Out on the planes, where belief is made manifest, this quality gets complicated.

Unlike most Indeps, who sign on with the non-faction only to protect their independence, Galsk is a compulsive joiner. His early life under the thumb of one of the Athasian God-Kings acclimated him to hard work, and so he's content to make a living as a porter in the Great Bazaar (his faction's HQ). With a rotating door of merchants from across the multiverse in such close proximity, the half-giant's impressionable nature leads to rapid and radical shifts in philosophy. He's fallen in with every faction at one time or another--the Indeps are just the only ones who haven't run him off.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Character Concepts: Planescape pt 1



Welcome to Part 1 of a series on interesting faction NPCs for use in your Planescape campaign.

Athar

The Burned Lady (N/half-elf/ghost) - Believed to have been a priestess of Aoskar who burned to death during the Lady of Pain's destruction of the god of portals, Athar clerks claim to sometimes encounter this apparition deep in the book-filled catacombs of the Shattered Temple. She appears as a translucent figure in a tattered but elegant blue gown, wreathed in a perpetual, incorporeal flame that lights the dark passageways she wanders. 

Those who work the deep stacks claim to find tomes (always relating to legends of godslayers and their methods) pulled from the shelves--their text marked with corrections singed into the vellum pages. Factol Terrance believes that witnessing the death of her deity, seeing the suffering of her fellow worshipers, and losing her own life on account of her faith, instilled in her a deep and abiding bitterness toward the lying gods. According to him, she shares her supernatural knowledge in the hope that it will help the enemies of the gods to expose or even destroy them.

Believers of the Source

Padmini Singh (NG/human/bard) - Singh is a philosopher from the prime who stumbled into Sigil quite by accident. She found the city immediately intoxicating for its richness of thought; a place where even the lowest untouchable spent their free time wrestling for purpose and meaning with a sophistication and sharpness and passion that rivaled even the greatest of her colleagues back home. Encountering the various factions, Padmini struggled between the Dustmen and the Godsmen--the former for their ascetic beliefs, and the latter for their emphasis on transcendence through philosophy.

She ultimately found the Dustmen's notion of True Death too distasteful, and joined the Godsmen... albeit with her own ascetic interpretation of their teachings. Unlike most members of her faction, Padmini believes that a spirit's progression through the stages of existence leads not from the lowest grub to the highest of gods, but the other way around. Through divesting one's self of emotion, desire, and worldly concerns, Padmini believes that a being can shed the complexities of mortal life and be reincarnated in a simpler, more pure, more naturally peaceful form. She sees the innocence of so-called "lesser" creatures as a manifestation of calm and wisdom--a release from the rigors of superfluous need and want, and from the constant struggle to *know* one's purpose.

Bleak Cabal

Echelaos (CG/aasimon/fallen proxy) - Once a proxy of Zeus, Echelaos' empathy was a constant whisper of doubt when following the orders of his vengeful and seemingly petty master. The task which troubled him most was being sent to observe the defeated enemies of the Olympians and confirm their continuing punishments were sufficiently cruel.

During one such excursion, Echelaos felt compelled to show some small kindness to a poor soul named Sisyphus, who the gods had condemned to repeatedly push a boulder up a mountain slope only to watch it roll down again, and again, for all eternity. He joined the damned man for a time, putting his own shoulder into the stone to ease the load, and during the climb the two spoke. To his surprise, Echelaos discovered that Sisyphus was not only resigned to his fate, but genuinely content. The former king explained that his entire life had been a struggle--against rivals, plotters, sycophants, and ultimately the gods and death itself. He said that while he first found his fate truly and deeply gruesome, eventually his bitterness began to fade away into mere memories from a part of his existence that was now centuries past. Sisyphus, it seemed to Echelaos, had been liberated from the drive to find purpose. He had realized that all the seemingly important matters that plagued him were ultimately no less futile than his current work. Freedom from hope brought with it an end to all agonizing fixations on what could someday be, leaving him, for once and all, to dwell in *this* moment alone.

Echelaos never returned to Olympus. Instead, he came to Sigil. Now his empathy is invested in caring for the sick and elderly at one of the Cabal's many hostels. He seeks to learn how to embrace the ephemeral relationships that he builds with people who soon will pass away. Most of all, he drinks.

Doomguard

Crumbling Jayk (CE/tiefling/fighter) - The particular manifestations of Jayk's plane-touched ancestry are perhaps poetic for an acolyte of entropy. The tiefling's very touch is corrosive to metal (equivalent to a rust monster). Instead of sweat, Jayk excretes a dry rust that stains his clothing and hair--the whites of his eyes, his teeth, the grime beneath his fingernails... all are tinged with the reddish hue of a cast-off bit of iron left unloved in the rain. He feels a kinship with rust monsters, and keeps two of them (Nail-Biter and Hungry Hacksaw) as beloved pets.


Continue to Parts 2 and 3

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Adventure 1: "No Show" Trabo


This short AD&D adventure is intended for four characters of levels 1-3. The encounter details and accompanying art are free for personal use. I personally like the look of hand-drawn maps and tokens on VTT programs like Roll20, but feel free to remake the map to your taste or simply loot the key for ideas. If you use the encounter, I'd love to hear how it goes. If you convert it to another system or edition, I'd love to see your changes.

Note that this adventure is written with an eye toward brevity. Dungeon Masters are encouraged to insert additional encounters and NPCs of their own to liven up the city and avoid giving players the impression that everyone they meet is conveniently involved in the adventure. Furthermore, the course of action presumed in the text is intended as an example of how players might solve the mystery. The DM should endeavor to improvise as necessary when the players take an unexpected turn.

____________

Background

The city of Iriaebor in the Western Heartlands region of the Forgotten Realms rests upon a staggered bluff on the north bank of the River Chionthar. Once a wretched hive of scum and villainy, its native injustice and inequality has been largely eradicated via revolution. The newly crowned Lord Bron (LN/hm/F10) has done a fine job driving corruption from the city, but one tenacious criminal organization has proven difficult to root out: The Night Skulls.

The Skulls survive in part through their organization into discreet cells which function essentially like independent gangs. Each gang is led by an apprentice of the mad illusionist, Nathlar (CE/hm/I13), who secretly serves the Zhentarim and uses the Night Skulls as unwitting dupes in that organization's plots to destabilize Iriaebor's new regime.

In this short adventure, the PCs discover the lair of a Night Skulls cell known as The Candle Street Skulls, and presumably put an end to their operation. Doing so will earn them the favor of Lord Bron (as well as other folk around town) and the enmity of Nathlar and his many apprentices.

Starting the Adventure

The party are on their way through the area as caravan guards under contract to a merchant named Trabo (N/hm/T2). He passes this way frequently, and is well known to the locals--he's greeted by name at the gates, and stopped several times on the street by fellow traders and local business owners.

The party has received a small stipend of 10 gold pieces each, and are looking forward to a big pay day of 100 gold pieces upon arrival at their ultimate destination. In the meantime, Trabo rewards their good service by paying for their room and board at an inn called The Black Boar. Its amenities are limited, but you can't argue with free. For his own part, Trabo heads to the High City for better (and more expensive) accommodations. After a raucous night and a well-earned rest, the PCs head out to the market district to meet back up with their employer at a pre-determined time and location. If they have an interest in purchasing gear, they are free to go a little early and check out the various stalls and shops. Most items are sold at standard prices, but Iriaebor is known for horses. PCs looking for a mount can find fine specimens here at 3/4 the standard price.

"No Show" Trabo

Unfortunately, the PCs have been duped by their employer. In fact, Iriaebor was the merchant's final destination, and the rest of the route he described was just a ruse to get him out of having to follow through on the promised 100 gold pieces for each PC at the end of the journey. Trabo never shows up at the rendezvous, likely causing the PCs to suspect that he's gotten himself into trouble and compelling them to investigate. If they check the caravan yards, they find no sign of Trabo's wagons or cargo, and none of the laborers there recall having seen a man by his description yesterday.

Observant players might recall that the gate guards and several shopkeepers seemed to know Trabo. If sought out, they all know that Trabo is a regular at the Silver Thistle in the High City. Less observant players might have to be tossed a few breadcrumbs. 

Rumors and Leads

Seeking out local rumors turns up that the young daughter of a local sage named Ahlimon (N/hm/F1/Sage: Undead) has gone missing. Her name is Emusette (NG/hf/W1). A local stonemason named Jelton (NE/dm/T3) has also disappeared, and his apprentices have pooled their meager resources to offer a 10 gold piece reward for anyone who can find him. By contrast, the wealthy Ahlimon insists that his daughter merely took an unexpected holiday, and that his initial concerns have been dispelled.

Jelton's apprentices (LN/d/F1) know a lot about their master's routine, including that he frequently gambles in a private card game at the Silver Thistle. They do not, however, know that this information is relevant and so don't bring it up unless the PCs ask questions that lead them to do so. In fact, Jelton was taken hostage by his hosts at the Thistle to be sent away to Zhentil Keep as a skilled slave for a prominent Zhent who needs a capable stone mason to oversee construction on a personal stronghold.

If the PCs visit Ahlimon's small library and office, they find a smashed window and the sage engaged in a scuffle with an assailant (NE/hm/T3). The two are wrestling over a dagger, and it's difficult to determine which is the aggressor and which is the sage--the PCs will have to figure it out. Provided they save Ahlimon, he explains that his daughter was taken hostage by the Night Skulls and that they demanded a ransom of information related to controlling mindless undead. (Kolaos, the leader of the Candle Street Skulls, was hoping to find a way to control their captured ogre zombie.) Ahlimon paid the ransom, surrendering the relevant texts a few days ago to a man that he recognized as one of the bouncers at the Silver Thistle. Despite having paid the ransom, his daughter Emusette has not been returned. Now that they've attempted to kill him, he is inclined to recognize that his continued silence isn't doing him any favors and he will tell the PCs all that he knows. If the thug that attacked him is captured alive, he can be convinced under threat of torture, promise of coin, or magical compulsion, to reveal the truth about the drainage grate on Candle Street.

The Silver Thistle and Candle Street

The Silver Thistle has the appearance of an upper-class inn and tavern, and indeed functions in that capacity, but is in fact a front for the Candle Street Skulls. It's a two-story structure with a large taproom, a pantry and cellar entrance behind the bar, and four sparsely appointed rooms upstairs. It's perched upon a craggy knot of a hill, and circled half-way around by Candle Street. The prices are high and the service poor--this is by design, to keep the place relatively empty and quiet. Weapons aren't allowed inside, and four bouncers (N/F1) menace visitors to make the atmosphere even more uncomfortable. PCs should be made to feel unwelcome and watched. The barkeep denies knowing anyone by the name of Trabo, and is curt and unhelpful in all ways.

Candle Street is a narrow avenue named for the several candle-makers whose businesses crowd around it. It's shaped a bit like a crescent moon, curling around the Silver Thistle to descend behind it where a vertical grate in the rock face drains rain as well as spilled animal fat, dyes, and perfumes from the candle-makers out from the dead end holler. The grate is made to look like it is set firmly in the rock, its well-oiled hinges and lock concealed by means of a permanent illusion. The lair of the Candle Street Gang lies beyond (area 8 on the DM map below). Another entrance to the lair is via a secret door (S) in the Silver Thistle's cellar (area 1). 

The Lair

By whatever means, the PCs should eventually act on their suspicions and invade the Candle Street Skulls' lair.
DM's Map of the Candle Street Skulls Lair
  1. The Cellar - This room is accessible via the stairs from a back room of the Silver Thistle. It contains some stored goods, but most are covered in dust and well past freshness. The barrel in the north-east corner of the room is fixed to the floor and filled with water, at the bottom of which a lever may be found that opens the secret door to room 2.
  2. Entry Chamber - This room is cut out from the surrounding rock, with a 7' ceiling supported by 1' thick timber beams. Characters with edged weapons who roll a 1 on an attack roll in this room accidentally lodge their weapons in one of the beams. A single thug is on watch here. There is a 30% chance that he has nodded off and is automatically surprised when the PCs enter. The room is lit by an oil lamp suspended from a beam in the center of the ceiling (which clever PCs might employ in their combat tactics). The door in the south wall is locked, and the key is worn on a leather cord tied around the thug's wrist.
  3. Kolaos' Room - This is where Nathlar's apprentice and the leader of this cell of the Night Skulls sleeps. It is lavishly appointed with a silk carpet (75gp value), comfortable bedding and pillows (30gp), and a 4'x3' painting of Kolaos striking a regal pose (50gp). A trunk against the north wall is locked and magically trapped (save vs spell or take 1d4 lightning damage). A key tucked under the mattress will open the chest without setting off the trap. Inside the trunk is Kolaos' spellbook, as well as his inks, quills, and extra spell components. The room is dimly lit by an oil lamp which is currently running low on fuel.
  4. Myredor's Room - This is the bedroom of Kolaos' lieutenant, Myredor. It holds only a bed, wardrobe, and currently empty torch sconce. The room is dark. Inside the wardrobe, Myredor keeps a longsword, whetstone, a field kit for armor repairs, several cloaks, and extra clothing. A pouch tucked among the clothes contains 35 gold pieces, three rose-red phenalope gems (worth 50gp each), and a golden cloak clasp in the shape of the Zhentarim symbol (worth 20gp).
  5. Trabo's Room - This sparsely appointed room is where Trabo rests for a few days after delivering contraband to the Skulls from his Zhent masters. He is present now, relaxing on the bed and eating oysters from a silver platter (10gp value) resting on his belly. When the PCs enter, Trabo is surprised to see them. He quickly gathers his composure, however, and pretends to be a captive. If the PCs buy the ruse, he will follow the group until given an opportunity to flee the scene. A dresser in the room contains clothing, as well as a sack of 45 gold pieces--Trabo's pay for the latest delivery. The room is lit by several candles.
  6. The Vault - The Candle Street Skulls keep their riches locked away in this low-ceiling room. The heavy, iron-banded door is held fast by two separate locks that must be opened at the same time (requiring two thieves if they are to be picked). If only one lock is opened, it magically re-locks a few seconds later and activates a magical alarm that draws the attention of anyone in areas 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7. The keys are possessed by Kolaos and Myredor. The vault's treasures include a large cask of Berduskan Dark (a valuable brandy worth 50gp), 12 short swords, 6 longswords, 4 light crossbows, 60 quarrels, 4 suits of studded leather, one suit of chainmail, 2 healing potions, a scroll of protection from poison, 100 gold pieces, 500 silver pieces, 650 copper pieces, Emusette's Spellbook (see below) and 13 books on necromantic magic and undead (these were the ransom paid by Ahlimon, and are detailed below).
  7. Meeting Room - This room contains a heavy oak table and six chairs. Kolaos and Myredor can be found here, along with 1d4 thugs. They are currently plotting the robbery of a local temple of Eldath. Naturally, they respond to the PCs' incursion with violence. The room is lit by an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. The door to the south is not locked.
  8. Candle Street Entrance - This tall-ceiling, natural cavern is the entrance most often used by the Night Skulls. The floor is slick with oily moisture from the drainage, and the room is lit by a single torch on the south wall. Trabo's wagons and pack animals are kept here, and the grain sacks and other goods he was carrying have been torn into and discarded in favor of the hidden weapons he was delivering. The air smells of rot from the caged zombie ogre. A thief sits on watch in the chair, just far enough away from the torch to give her the benefit of her hide in shadows skill (30% chance of success). She will either run for help or attempt a backstab, depending on how she judges her odds. A secret door to the north is opened by twisting a discolored stone on the wall.
  9. Barracks - The high ceiling of this room slopes down to the west until it's only 7' at the worked-stone section. Two thieves, plus 1d4 thugs are present--half are sleeping and half are playing cards at the table. A section in the north of the room has been sealed off with a thick iron gate, behind which a terrifying zombie ogre grunts and sways mindlessly. This creature was recently captured in a nearby ruin and Kolaos has been trying to find a way to make it a faithful bit of muscle for his operation. The gate can be opened via the lever on the south wall. The Skulls here are loathe to unleash the thing, but will do so and attempt to flee if the fight turns against them. The room is lit by torches in wall sconces and a fat candle on the table. Neither door in this room is locked.
  10. The Gaoler's Office - The Gaoler is seated behind his desk, dressed in a white frock with old, rust-colored bloodstains down the front. Two thugs are seated on the bench against the north wall. The barrels contain assorted foodstuffs (PCs can convert the contents into 10 iron rations, if so inclined), and a desk in the drawer holds a key ring with keys to the door in the north wall and the cells in area 11.
  11. Cells - This room is low and cramped, with a 4' ceiling that forces most occupants to crouch uncomfortably and suffer a -2 on any attack roll requiring more than a simple thrust (such as with a spear or rapier). There is no light in the room. One of the cells holds Ahlimon's daughter, Emusette. Another holds Jelton, the dwarven stonemason. Both are ready and willing to help fight against any remaining Night Skulls.

Completing the Adventure

Once the Candle Street Skulls are slain or driven out, the PCs are heralded as heroes by several of Iriaebor's citizens. Certainly, Lord Bron will want to reward them appropriately (allowing them to keep any wealth recovered from the lair, granting them a charter to operate as an official adventuring company in any region belonging to the Lords' Alliance, and offering them free use of the city's fleet of river barges for life, to travel safely anywhere they like along the River Chionthar. Ahlimon the Sage can make a valuable friend, providing his services for free (or as close to it as he can manage, depending on research costs). Jelton is likewise useful, both as a fence for any contraband the PCs might need to pawn, and as a skilled stonemason and engineer for any of them who have ambitions to build a stronghold in the future. If pressed for monetary rewards, any of the listed persons could be pressured to give as much as 100 gold pieces, but applying such pressure displays a mercenary outlook that sours future generosity from them.

If Kolaos escaped, he can give Nathlar a detailed description of the PCs, setting him up as a dangerous villain with a grudge. If Myredor survived, he will hide out in town until he can receive some money from his superiors back in Zhentil Keep to hire mercenaries to help him track down the party.

If the party is captured, they are stripped of their belongings (which are stored in area 6) and held in the cells for 1d4 days until Nathlar comes by to look them over. He will give the order to have them sent to Zhentil Keep as slaves, and Trabo will smuggle them out of the city and transport them there--possibly giving them a chance to escape at some point when the caravan is attacked by a wandering monster or discovered by a guard patrol from one of the cities they must travel past.

Special experience awards for this adventure should be granted for saving the captives (50 xp each), slaying or capturing both Kolaos and Myredor (100 xp), and slaying or capturing Trabo (50 xp), discovering the secret doors (25 xp each). Experience from combat is granted by HD, as normal.

Additional Details

Kolaos - Apprentice of Nathlar and leader of the Candle Street Skulls cell of the Night Skulls.
NE, human mage, lvl 4. AC 6 (Armor spell); MV 12; THAC0 19; #AT 3 (darts) 1d3 dmg.
Spells: 1- Burning Hands, Hold Portal; 2- Blindness, Hypnotic Pattern.
Possessions: Darts (6), dagger, spell components, vault key 1.

Myredor - Zhent soldier appointed to guard Kolaos.
LE, human fighter, lvl 3. AC 4 (Scale Mail, Shield); MV 12; THAC0 18; #AT 3/2 (longsword, specialized) +1 to hit, 1d8+2 dmg.
Possessions: scale mail, shield, longsword, 29 gold pieces, potion of healing, vault key 2.

The Gaoler - A dwarf with a taste for violence, restrained from harming the current prisoners only for their monetary value to Kolaos.
LE, dwarf fighter, lvl 2. AC 10; MV 6; THAC0 19; #AT 3/2 (hand axe, specialized, Str bonus) +2 to hit, 1d6+2.
Possessions: hand axe.

Thieves - NE, thief, lvl 1. AC 8 (leather armor); MV by race; THAC0 20, #AT 1 (dagger) 1d4.
MS 35%, HS 30%, Backstab x2
Possessions: Dagger, leather armor, 1d6 silver pieces, 1d12 copper pieces.

Thugs - NE, fighter, lvl 1. AC 6 (studded leather, shield); MV by race; THAC0 20; #AT 1 (shortsword) 1d6.
Possessions: Studded leather armor, shield, shortsword, 1d6 silver pieces, 1d12 copper pieces.

Zombie Ogre - N, monster zombie, HD 6. AC 6; MV 9; THAC0 15; #AT 1 (slam) 4d4 damage.

Emusette - Ahlimon's daughter and fledgling wizard.
NG, human, mage 1. AC 10; MV 12; THAC0 20; #AT 1 (by weapon)

Jelton - Dwarven stonemason, fence, and irresponsible gambler.
LE, dwarf, thief 3. AC 10; MV 6; THAC0 19; #AT 1 (by weapon)

Ahlimon's Books - These thirteen volumes cover a variety of details on mindless undead such as zombies and skeletons. Information on such creatures (such as special defenses, weaknesses, etc) can be discovered at a base chance of 50%, minus 10% for each HD of the creature being studied. Additionally, wizards with access to these tomes gain a +5% bonus on their chance to learn spells when attempting to learn or research a spell from the Necromancy school.

Kolaos' Spellbook - 1- Armor, Burning Hands, Detect Magic, Hold Portal, Read Magic; 2- Blindness, Detect Invisibility, Hypnotic Pattern, Knock.

Emusette's Spellbook - 1- Detect Magic, Identify, Magic Missile, Read Magic.


Unlabeled Lair Map for VTT Use

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ecology of the Fantasy Name

Names are obviously a pretty overwhelming obstacle to a believable world--particularly in a medieval setting where occupants of a region rarely travel beyond the familiar and every ridge, stream, and meadow has been named by the denizens and is used for giving directions more readily than are cardinal directions. It's particularly difficult if you need to cover multiple cultures, where each might have their own names for various landmarks, and even when not, each name needs to fit into the linguistic aesthetic of that culture.

One thing to remember about these names is that much of the exotic-sounding names we hear of foreign lands are considerably less exotic to those who live there. To the Slavic peoples who founded it, Berlin just means Swamp Town. Tenochtitlan in the language of the Aztecs was "Cactus Rock." Pyongyang in Korean is Flat Land. We can see then how English place names (Oxford, Kingston, Stow-on-the-Wold, etc) are actually pretty par-for-the-course. If your adventurers are locals, then the place names needn't sound any more exotic than "Greenville" or "South Home."

That said, a name can carry a certain pathos evocative of wonder or despair, and that can shoulder a lot of the weight in making your world seem exciting, alive, and rich with history and culture. Drawing from one's own well for these kinds of names can leave you dry pretty quick, but this is also one place where inspiration is easy to come by. Lately, I've been turning to singer-songwriters for poetic and descriptive names to steal, ahem, pay homage. For example, I've placed a lake in the high mountains that is known as "The Diamond in the Valley's Hand," per the Josh Ritter song "Thin Blue Flame." Townes Van Zandt's "Our Mother the Mountain" album title has become a god in my game.

The sad language of the Handsome Family is an excellent resource: Broken Road, The Silver Shore, The Door Across the Fire (a road linking oases in a vast desert?), Waving Trees. Gram Parsons gives us the Grievous Angel (whether a fallen seraph or a poet-haunted tavern is anyone's guess). The Mountain Goats are boundless for our purposes: Near North, Altar Keep, The Jungle of Martyrs (a vine-choked field of statuary?), History's Bruise (a famous battlefield where great wizards dueled, now uninhabitable from magical damage and psychic trauma?).

What about you? Where do you go to plunder names?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Hit Points in the Fiction

This isn't a new idea, but it's one that I've been trying to integrate into my descriptions at the table.

Basically, getting stabbed is deadly. Getting shot by an arrow is deadly. When that happens, there's a good chance it's game over no matter how many experience points you've pulled out of goblin corpses. For this reason, I've stopped describing hits in combat as literal hits, but instead treat hit points as a sort of player currency that is spent to negate hits. When someone rolls a miss, that's pretty straight forward. But if they roll a hit and you have HP remaining, you manage to block or dodge or absorb the blow. HP, I think, should be treated more as a stamina meter. You emerge from the battle bloody and bruised, but not with open sword wounds and half your liver lying on the ground.

This approach does require some sprucing up, but I think the added verisimilitude is worth the cost of a little brain power and rules complication. As we build our milieu, we are constantly tempted to tack on more and more systems rather than strip them out, so those that we do should be kept pretty simple if we can help it.

"I'll be good to go again next week."
The first question is, what are healing spells? I think it's fair enough to say they bestow rejuvenating energy on the exhausted, bruised, and aching characters who just came out of a life-or-death battle with wrenched joints and scratches and black eyes and busted shield arms and so on. For a magic-light setting, this is a pretty big boost. No more arrows popping out of the wounded fighter as the cleric performs a literal miracle before the eyes of the gathering crowd! Onlookers may even attribute the rejuvenated warrior's recovery to a placebo effect, or simple prodding of faith.

The next two questions are: If HP represent stamina, should we be more generous with natural healing? And what about grievous wounds that nevertheless don't kill? I haven't hammered out the specifics, but I feel like this is a case of counter-balancing. We can consider a certain percentage of HP to be actual wounds, and the rest to be stamina. 10%, say. Or your first hit die. Or your final 10 hp. Damage that soaks into that region represents an actual hit, and may stay with you awhile and require proper bandaging and treatment after the battle. Stamina may recover much faster than HP in the standard rules, but actual wounds may take a long time and prevent stamina recovery until they're taken care of. There's also room to let a player describe his new permanent scar any time he's knocked down to this level.

Yet another benefit is that it recovers some of the lost verisimilitude of a higher level fighter being able to get stabbed more times before dying, or for a 12 damage wound being deadly to one guy, but trivial to another. It's much easier to imagine that a high level warrior is simply better at blocking and dodging than his low level counterpart, and so is able to deflect more of the blows that would kill a less skilled combatant.

I remember playing in a friend's homebrew game many years ago, for which he made a very interesting armor system. Instead of dexterity and armor contributing to the same number and making you harder to hit, that was exclusively the role of dexterity. Armor was worth additional hit points, and damage went to the armor first. This made the Armorer proficiency very valuable! It also made those suits of armor found in armory of the slavers' fort a much better treasure. Players typically gloss over any armor less than what they currently have--but when your plate mail is dinged up and on its last legs, that suit of chain on the rack is suddenly quite attractive.  As a system, it's a little too fiddly for what I'm looking to do here, but it stuck with me as an interesting answer to a difficult problem.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Side Trek: Monty Haul Campaign

Took a trip to New Orleans (by way of Mobile) and scored quite a lot of nice stuff. What should I read first?


If you're ever in the area, I recommend Gamers N Geeks in Mobile, AL, and 2nd & Charles in Covington, LA.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Wizard & the Cleric: Dissociating Class and Context (pt 2)

In my first post on this topic, we discussed the unnecessary association of a character's class with his or her profession or place in the fiction. Revisiting briefly; a 9th level Thief has the same Thac0 as a 5th level Fighter (and slightly more hit points, all things being equal). Provided we aren't chasing the newer editions into scaling our world for the level of the PCs, there's very little in the way of jobs for a 5th level Fighter which a 9th level Thief can't manage to do perfectly well, if not better. There's no reason that anyone meeting the Captain of the Guard should be able to determine that he isn't a 5th level Fighter, but rather a 9th level Thief. In fact, even the Thief himself may not recognize this, and may consider himself a Fighter with a natural talent for locks and moving quietly. Some work needs to be done to build some symmetry into that, but it's pretty trivial to think of several ways to approach making the opposite true as well.

The Wizard and Cleric classes stand out however, because their defining abilities are closely tied to the mechanical elements of the game. They make the rules visible to characters in the fiction, due to objective and observable and quantifiable abilities within the system. Only a Cleric can cast Cure Light Wounds. A Wizard's level can be determined with objective certainty by asking him how many spells he can cast. If we're going to continue the work of dissociating character class from fiction, then we're going to need to blur a lot of these lines.

For this purpose, I found inspiration in a passage from Douglas Hofstadter's excellent book on the origin of the self, I am a Strange Loop. In it, he uses a thought exercise to discuss ethics through a lens of souledness, or degrees of soul in various living things, including people. (Don't worry--it's not nearly the apologism for eugenics that this short summary makes it look like.) So let's blur the line between the Cleric and the Wizard by dictating that all magic is intrinsically spiritual, fueled by something like souledness. Now, I rather like the academic and independent nature of the Wizard, so that's where this change comes in. "Soul" is the divine fuel, and it can be provided by one's own spiritual energy. Let us suppose that a spell's level doubles as the prerequisite level of souledness necessary to cast it. Let us also assume that the average human has a souledness of 2. An animal has a 1, an elf has a 3, etc. Ergo, any human with sufficient training and talent in magic is capable of casting up to 2nd level spells on his own power. (And bear in mind that these numbers are just some quick calculations in the margins--they can be hammered out later.) Let us further imagine that it is possible to bestow souledness of your own onto individuals of lesser souledness, for purposes of allowing them to cast spells of higher levels. This mechanically facilitates the concept of gods granting spells to their clerics, and also of the old image of the witch and warlock working black arts in pacts with pagan gods, nature spirits, and demons. A human wizard with 3rd level spell slots therefore needs to track down some entity of higher souledness who is willing to power his spells (probably in exchange for some sacrifice or other bargain), or seek some method of increasing his own souledness, or possibly uncover ley lines or attune to places of great magical power, or possibly even trap the souls of victims to expand his reserves! There can be lots of methods for achieving this need, is the point--and they cover a lot of our different concepts of magic. Runes, crystals, circle-magic, etc.

Obviously, gods under this system will possess tremendous souledness. We can define the boundaries between gods, demigods, ancestor spirits, saints, and so on, if we like. We can determine a degree of souledness that permits the apotheosis of a mortal into godhood. We also recognize that it is possible to interact with this system without knowing about it in the fiction. A cleric dedicated to a god is bestowed with necessary souledness as a matter of course, and his part of the bargain is just engaging in the sorts of things a cleric already does. It also explains why a cleric who changes his alignment loses access to his spells--the god cuts him off, not in some abstract sense, but materially and mechanically. There's no need for Atonement spells or anything of the sort. The god (or a rival deity or power) just has to be convinced to bestow souledness again. 

As a result of all of this, we facilitate monotheism in a world of multiple gods. As a priest or prophet or cleric, my perspective is that I perform these miracles in God's name and to His glory. But because I might reasonably believe that the Pharoah's priest turned his staff into a serpent by essentially the same means that a wizard might conjure a monster. The power alone doesn't automatically legitimize their claims regarding its source. Additionally, this mitigates somewhat the improbability of atheism/secularism in such a setting.

We can dissociate the party role of the Cleric and Wizard from their representation in the fiction. Clerics and Wizards are merely different kinds of magic users. A Cleric can make a pact with a dryad or a dragon, or tap into the energies of the ley lines--he can build a tower on the outside of town and devote himself to arcane practices and experiments. The people in town are going to say, "Watch out for the old wizard who lives out there. He's an ornery sort. I heard he turns visitors into toads!" Meanwhile, as I said in the previous installment, a Wizard-class character can don the cassock and bear a holy symbol and have souledness bestowed upon him by a god. He might administer to a sick house, have a congregation, keep a reliquary, and protect his flock with miraculous displays of God's power (in the form of Magic Missile and Fireball). Crucially, under this system, he isn't necessarily a charlatan. He genuinely is granted his power by his god.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Proficiencies Progress

I've been working for awhile to compile all the published non-weapon proficiencies from various 2nd Edition AD&D sources, and I think I'm mostly done. I'm sure a few more will turn up here and there as I research other elements of my build, but I've got enough to start cooking them down to a manageable number. I thought I'd share where I'm at in case anyone wants to do something similar while skipping the first exhausting step.

Going through the raw list was prohibitive due to size, so I sorted everything into smaller categories to better locate similarities that I'd want to merge. The categories here are arbitrary and probably won't appear in the final document--they were just organizational aids. Still, I thought I'd include them here for completeness I suppose. Sources are not included below, but if anyone has a question about a particular proficiency, leave a comment and I'll provide it.

The list here isn't in alphabetical order. Sorry about that. It's an artifact of going through the proficiencies themselves alphabetically and sorting them under new names. The term on the left is the new proficiency name (many of which are still working titles--suggestions welcome!), and the list right of each term contains the proficiencies that have been merged to make the new one. Also, you'll note that some were merged despite being different skills, due to similarity of purpose (such as Glass Blowing and Pottery). In the final rules, I will likely ask players to specify which element their character is skilled in. Some elements will also be stripped out depending on technology level. Likewise, where a previous proficiency appears twice on the list, its elements are being divided between the two new ones.

One final note: You may notice some omissions from this list. This is because I've changed Weapon and Non-Weapon Proficiencies into Combat and Non-Combat Proficiencies. Things like Blind Fighting have been transferred to the Combat Proficiencies list, which is not yet in a publishable state.

-----

Crafts & Skills
Metalworking - Armorer, Blacksmithing, Weaponsmithing
Woodworking - Boatwright, Carpentry, Bowyer/Fletcher
Papercrafts - Bookbinding, Papermaking
Finecrafts - Clockwork, Locksmithing, Gem Cutting
Glass & Ceramics - Glass Blowing, Pottery
Leatherworking - Cobbling, Leatherworking
Provender - Brewing, Cooking
Engineering - Engineering, Stone Masonry
Clothworking - Weaving, Seamstress
Scribe - Scribe, Forgery

Management
Seneschal - Administration, Stewardship
Politics - Bureaucracy, Diplomacy, Politics, Statecraft
Law
Leadership

Scholarship & Sciences
Medicine - Diagnostics, Healing, Herbalism, Anatomy
Military Science - Military Science, Tactics, Tactics of Magic
Theology - Ceremony, Religion
Thaumaturgy - Thaumaturgy, Tactics of Magic, Spellcraft, Arcanology
Alchemy
History - Ancient History, Local History
Weather Sense
Research
Reading/Writing
Philosophy - Philosophy, Oration/Rhetoric
Lore
Languages - Ancient Languages, Modern Languages
Heraldry - Heraldry, Geneology

Physical
Agility - Jumping, Tightrope Walking, Tumbling, Escape Artist
Stamina - Revelry, Rowing, Running, Endurance
Swimming

Social
Manipulation - Boasting, Fast Talking, Intimidation, Persuasion, Oratory
Performance - Artistic Expression / Dramatist, Dancing, Juggling, Musical Instrument, Singing
Etiquette

Outdoorsman
Farming - Agriculture, Animal Rendering
Seamanship - Boating, Seamanship, Rowing
Navigation - Cartography, Direction Sense, Distance Sense, Navigation
Survival - Survival, Animal Rendering, Fire Building, Fishing, Mountaineering, Foraging
Huntsman - Hunting, Animal Lore, Tracking, Set Snares
Animal Handling - Animal Handling, Animal Training, Riding (land based, air based, water based)
Ranging - Trail Marking, Trail Signs, Signaling
Prospecting - Mining, Dowsing

Money
Appraisal - Barter, Appraisal, Looting
Gaming

Thief
Chicanery - Chicanery, Prestidigitation, Somatic Concealment, Ventriloquism
Conceal - Disguise, Camouflage
Read Lips

Other
Fortune Telling - Omen Reading, Astrology
Preening - Grooming, Massage
Artistic Ability - Artistic Ability, Tattooing
Investigation - Observation, Information Gathering, Investigation

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I still need to go through the Masque of the Red Death boxed set, per Ripper X's recent post, and make some decisions about Thief Skills vs Proficiencies... but once I get the descriptions all merged together and typed up for the above, I think that will be enough to let me recharge my energy with a little work on another section of the rule set.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Dissociating Character Classes from the Fiction

So here's something that everyone knows but relatively few players manage to employ at the table: A character's class is an abstraction. It helps to quantify the abilities of the character within the fiction, but it is not itself a part of that fiction. In the comment section of a recent post on Delta's D&D Hotspot, there was a conversation about Robin Hood being classified as a Fighter rather than a Thief. I don't presume to know definitively what class Robin Hood should have, but I'd argue that a character needn't be a Thief in order to be a thief--if you'll pardon the deliberately muddled distinction.

A character in the fiction is incapable of knowing anything about class, level, attributes, weapon proficiency, or (at my table anyway) alignment. Certainly a character can speak very knowledgeably about his or her job, general competency, health and education, weapon skill, and moral outlook, but that's because these are the realities that the abstractions quantify. A skilled swordsman might be able to perceive some difference in method between two fighters with the same chance to hit, one due to better Thac0 and the other due to weapon specialization, but that doesn't make him aware of Thac0 and specialization as structures. There's nothing more immersion-breaking (in my humble opinion) than characters behaving as though they are aware of the abstractions in the system. This was a problem for me when playing with rule sets such as 3.5 (or worse, 4E), where a lack of optimization in either build or tactic was met with scorn by many players.

"Don't forget to press X to access your inventory, kid!"

This distinction was not of much importance to Gygax either, of course (nor many of our gaming forebears), but even as modern sensibilities encourage verisimilitude, and elements like alignment languages and level/rank isomorphism fall from merely out-of-vogue to downright silly, many players still have trouble separating a character's class from her occupation. This is unfortunate because it limits the options of such a player to only those he's likely to intuit as viable under the given class identities, and because it prevents some interesting juxtaposition within a character between his talents and his ambitions. After all, who's to say that my 12 charisma fighter isn't a bard? Who in the fiction knows that, and how? 

"Oh, Sir Reginald! My hero!"
"Actually, I gained a level. I'm a swashbuckler now."
Consider a 5th level Thief-class character, as noble and brave as you please. If you called him a thief, he'd lay you right out with a sock to the nose for the insult. Ask him to pick a lock and you'll get an arched brow and a, "What, exactly do you mean to imply, sir?" Sure, he favors the short sword and leather armor, keeps quick on his feet, and has a talent for devastating opponents with his deadly flanking maneuvers (backstab multiplier!), but he's no thief! And what of Sir Tancred, 12th level fighter and favored of God, who can abide no evil and is ever compelled to lay down his life in service of a righteous cause? He's not a paladin in the eyes of his comrades, because he can't lay on hands and his Charisma is 16 instead of 17?

Okay, those are easy examples. But what about Clerics and Wizards? Is there some reason in the fiction that a pious Wizard can't don the cassock, brandish a holy symbol, and bless his flock with Protection From Evil spells? Why shouldn't there be a secularized Cleric in the secluded tower at the edge of town, brewing potions and wrestling with esoteric knowledge? At least in this case, there is a distinction implied mechanically and within the fiction, but it's very possible to strip our milieu of that justification and build something to better suit our needs.

In the next post, we'll look at a few ways to dissociate the Cleric and Wizard classes from their roles in the fiction. We'll also take a stab at the puzzle of reconciling monotheism with a setting where priests of other gods can also cast spells. Exciting stuff!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Side Trek: The Three Great Horrors

(CW: elements of horror fiction which may trigger sensitivities around trauma, anxiety, and mental health)

I'm not really a fan of horror movies or games that are just spooky-scary werewolf bat mitzfah flavor fare. When a DM says, "You see a ghost," it doesn't feel substantively different than seeing any other monster with hit dice and a thac0. I don't mind it, and I can play up my character's response to that experience, but it isn't going to effect me. That said, I am a big fan of great, unmanageable, existential terror--stuff that leaves you anxious and fretting over real emotions, either churning up the higher functions of our reasoning (Roko's Basilisk, anyone?) or drilling deep down into the lizard brain to shake us up (there's a thing outside my shelter and it wants to get inside and eat me).

I have a standing tradition around Halloween of running a one-shot "ghost story" for some friends who don't really play RPGs, and I occasionally think about breaking out Call of Cthulhu and trying my hand at weaving something really chilling, to unnerve a bunch of players who are familiar enough with gaming that even great old ones are just another Big Bad Evil Guy to try and thwart. I've managed a few real winners, and there is a common thread between what has worked for me as a game master creating horror tales over various systems, and what has worked in film to fill me with that good, gloomy despair that I so enjoy. I call this thread the Three Great Horrors, and I have found that one or more of them is always present in virtually everything I've found genuinely scary. They are as follows...

1) The compulsive hedonism of biological hungers, unchecked by reason or taboo, reducing people to a biomaterial resource that satiates some grotesquely base need. Particularly when the emulation of love or sexual attraction is bait employed passively by an emotionless or mindless creature for purposes of ensnaring and consuming or otherwise using and discarding a person. Often such a predator exploits the prey's own baser hungers, but just as often it simply overpowers, immobilizes, and uses its victim. (Alien, The Blob, spiders, vampires, venus fly traps, angler fish, sexual cannibalism as per the Praying Mantis. Begotten.)


2) The existentially terrifying implications of a god, an afterlife, and/or spiritual world that doesn't value us--particularly when the truth has parallels to our traditions that suggest that our entire history has been shaped by some kind of glancing and accidental contact with a higher being that didn't notice and wouldn't care, or one whose motives are suspect and whose values and desires are hopelessly and incomprehensibly alien. Also, the suggestion that the spiritual world is not for us and will be hostile, painful, frightening, or psychologically confusing. (Lovecraft mythos, Event Horizon, The Messenger (the Jean d'Arc one), Begotten, Hellraiser, The subway scene from Ghost. Heaven as depicted in Preacher. The afterlife for suicides in What Dreams May Come.)


3) The condition of being trapped in a trajectory toward some miserable outcome or dreadful eternity, with the ability to fully understand and fear what is happening, while being powerless to change it. Being conscious and aware in the body after death, particularly leading up to the autopsy or embalming; being buried alive; trapped on a spacecraft gone adrift, or in a water-safe cabin on a sinking ship; being paralyzed or restrained on the beach as the tide comes in, or where vultures or other animals can eat you. Being aware of one's own mental deterioration, particularly violent madness and the looming inevitability of your harming or killing a loved one. (Black Mirror's "White Christmas" episode; Twilight Zone's "Time Enough At Last" episode; Star Trek Voyager's "The Thaw" episode; The Babadook; 2001: A Space Odyssey; the pig scene from Hannibal; On the Beach. Pandorum.)


In short, any great piece of horror provokes our anxieties about sex; the shame of our bodily functions and the filthiness of our sweaty, mucous-dripping, eternally consumptive biomass, contrasted against the elegance of the inert and lifeless; our cosmic smallness; aggressive, malicious meaninglessness; existential isolation; and helplessness in the face of dread or agony. If you want to scare someone, either as a writer of fiction or as a master of dungeons, you can't go far wrong stirring up these elements in different combinations.

It should go without saying, but games that do this probably merit a content warning for players who might have psychological trauma, and who come to the game for escapism rather than exposure therapy.

Did I miss anything? Can you think of other examples where these elements were used to great effect? Can you think of other base building blocks of horror that you would add to the list?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Elves & Ethnocentrism

I've written at length (a lot) about decisions I've already made about my world and rule set. We're finally catching up on the work that still lies ahead of me. This one falls under the "Isolated Cultures" element of design principle #1. How do we simulate both the objective truth of the setting, and the subjective biases of individual cultures?

I have a good bit of experience doing one or the other. Objective truth is a fairly standard presence in D&D, particularly in the Gygaxian spirit in which characters know and talk about their alignments, but also generally as in the spirit of players developing a sense of the DM's approach to certain questions. Orcs always being evil is a good example of an objective truth situation, but so is the inverse that orcs aren't always evil--in either case, one of these is defined as true by the DM and players can figure out which one.

Good? Bad? I'm just the lady with the
shadow that cuts people to ribbons.
Subjective truth is more rare, but certainly no one who has run a game of Planescape for any length of time is going to be too uncomfortable with it. Essentially, these are matters where the DM doesn't make a choice about what's true and players develop a sense of what they believe to be rather than what is--most often without actually realizing that it is merely a belief. The Lady of Pain's identity and motives are a good example of this. The DM doesn't know the answer (or shouldn't, anyway), and that can be empowering or frustrating for players, depending on taste.

It's also possible to approach subjective truth from a position of not knowing the answer to a question *yet*. Looking to a video game example, whatever became of the Dwemer in the Elder Scrolls setting is an example. It's likely that the setting's writers don't know what happened exactly--but it's also likely that they will eventually decide on an answer and reveal it. In this case, an objective truth is born from a theory within a subjective module being selected.

My conundrum though, is that I want to achieve both of these at once, not merely transition from one to the other. Specifically, my game is going to begin in a Celt-Irish milieu which, over time and as a result of player exploration, will open other cultural milieus both as things to interact with as visiting explorers *and* as sources from which to draw future characters. To achieve the latter in such a way that the systems which govern character options, magic systems, etc, can be ready-to-go upon being discovered, certain concrete facts have to be there. I have to answer a lot of questions about these places so that I can populate the hexes before the players walk into them.

The initial area in which our Celt-Irish PCs will explore is most closely bordered by a small civilization of elves, which is initially great because elves feature prominently in Celtic mythology and have an important place in setting the experiential tone of the setting in play. Except... the elves that Celts know about are Sidhe--nature spirits of dubious motives, full of mystery and pregnant with implications of what is and isn't true about other planes (Tir nan Og, for example). The Viking milieu on the far side of the elves have their own notions about the Alfr and their mystical realm (Alfheim). And the elves themselves are ideally to be of a Tolkien model--aloof and wise beings who are now retreating from the mortal realm (to the campaign's analogue of the Gray Havens or Valinor).

Are these the same creatures, or are Sidhe, Alfr, and Elves different? I think it's more elegant and interesting if these are three views of the same beings, and that leads to an objective conclusion that they are Elves in the Tolkien sense, and our Celts and Vikings are merely wrong about them. But then what is a beansidhe (banshee)? Do the Leanansidhe steal men's souls and wither them to husks, or are these the fanciful stories of broken-hearted Celts whose Elven lovers abandoned them? Are the Firbolg and Jotnar likewise just different names for the Giants, about whom there is also an objective, concrete answer?

Each of these questions is pretty trivial to answer on its own (frex: the banshee is an undead spirit that the Celt people wrongly consider to be a type of elf, as they do any supernatural being), but it's pretty easy to see that these answers satisfy our pre-game narrative considerations while being imminently difficult to keep mysterious during actual play, provided player agency and a DM who doesn't want to arbitrarily lie about what the characters experience, misleading them to the culturally relevant but factually wrong conclusions. Players stand, in other words, to immediately puncture the milieu, which can hardly be expected to survive the very first encounter with an elf. The Sidhe immediately become a myth, preventing right away many of the sorts of adventures that evoke the experience of the culture.

It's a difficult question, and I've been wrestling with it for awhile. I will likely continue to wrestle with it going forward, but I eventually need to have an answer. Have you ever dealt with this in a way that was satisfying, either as a player or DM? How did it work? How long were you able to maintain the mystery?

There's also the matter of having both polytheism and monotheism present in a world where priests can cast spells, although I have come up with an answer for that one that, if I might pat myself on the back, is worthy of its own future post.