Pixels & Platforms

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth: Premise, PCs, NPCs

This is my second post for Maximum Recursion Depth, or Sometimes the Only Way to Win is to Stop Playing aka KILL YOURSELF: The Karma-Punk RPG (I had a couple other possible titles in the other post but I think I've narrowed it down to these two).

The first was very experimental and meant to present the tone of the setting, but understandably people seemed to struggle to understand what one does in the setting (in part from me poking fun at that question twice in the post).

This post will be a little more dry and straightforward, explaining what this game actually is. I'd like to do at least one more follow up post with some game hooks, and potentially more depending on any questions people have about the setting or if there's any interest.

One more note before I get into it. Nobody asked about or critiqued this but I still think it's important to say, I was not raised Buddhist nor am I from a community which practices Buddhism, I am not Chinese or of Chinese descent, and I am neither an authority nor scholar on Buddhism in general or Chinese Buddhism specifically. The ideas expressed in this setting are very much my own interpretation of Buddhism, based on my limited reading. I did specifically want to use the terminology and iconography of Buddhism for this setting, but one could theoretically change the language and iconography. In fact, I do discuss briefly further below how other religions and mythologies are represented in this setting. The ideology of this setting is very much a personal one, rooted in my personal understanding/interpretation of Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese mythology. I apologize in advance if anything I do or say with this setting causes any offense and I would be open to a constructive discussion with any interested parties.

The Material World

The material world is more or less the real world as we understand it, except that for the last 500 years the Numberless Courts of Hell have partially risen to Earth, and generally all the governments, organized religions, and other factions across the world acknowledge the Numberless Courts as a global authority. While this would be a major deviation from the world as we understand it, events have converged such that generally the world should feel familiar and have familiar elements. Certain religious doctrine may be slightly different than in our world, but the broad strokes should be similar. It's ok to throw in novel elements like fictional nations or organizations, as long as it still "feels" mostly like the real world, not unlike the Earth of Marvel or DC.

Despite this setting borrowing heavily from Buddhist thought and Chinese mythology, my intention is not for the Numberless Courts or other fantastical elements to be strictly based on these sources. For instance, the Circles of Hell from Dante's Inferno could easily be part of the Numberless Courts. The existence of the Numberless Courts does not invalidate other religions and cultures, although they may have adapted in certain ways to account for this alternate world order.

It is important to note that the Numberless Courts are not evil per se. They are a complex, opaque bureaucracy; order for the sake of order, for worse and for better. They interfere with Earth because of conflicts in Heaven which have created a karmic imbalance. However, this has inevitably lead to systemic dysfunction in the world.

Other supernatural elements exist, such as the Devils of the Numberless Courts, as well as Demons and Nature Spirits which exist partially outside the Karmic Cycle and partially as a manifestation of it. Some extraordinary individuals have magical abilities drawn from religious and philosophical understanding, and some magical elements exist in culture and society alongside technology. There is also the eldritch Null; the Mu.

Perhaps the most notable supernatural element after the Numberless Courts themselves is the existence of Poltergeists. When humans die, except for the rare case of a person divesting their karma and ascending to Buddha-hood, Boddhisatva-hood, or some lesser form of godhood, they are processed in the Numberless Courts and eventually reincarnated. Most people are processed in a superficial Court, usually with minimal punishment, and the process is seen as more of an inconvenience than anything else. However, those with strong karmic attachments find themselves in deeper courts with greater punishment. These are not necessarily the most "evil" people.

Poltergeists are transformed, usually into some pitiful or grotesque form, reflecting their attachments. Go on wikipedia and look up the hungry ghosts of Chinese mythology or the various yuurei ghosts from Japanese mythology (or for that matter many of the monsters from Western folklore). They usually have a dream-like consciousness, a fragmented ego, and limited ability to communicate. However, it is possible for Poltergeists to regain their ego, and even escape the Numberless Courts.

Despite the known existence of the Karmic Cycle, the Numberless Courts, Poltergeists, and reincarnation, humans still generally have a biological aversion to death. Death and reincarnation is still a fundamental physical and metaphysical transformation, and a reincarnated individual may as well be entirely unrelated to their prior selves, from the perspective of their own consciousness.

All of this being said, for the most part, anything supernatural which would affect the average person's life happens "over there"- in wartorn or impoverished places, or wealthy elite places, or places that are just "foreign". And it is, of course, all relative. They think the same of you, and paradoxically both perceptions are true, in a fashion. Even the common supernatural elements "here" are orderly and mundane from the perspective of those "here".

The Goal

In the film The Matrix, Neo is given a choice. Take the blue pill, and he will forget everything, and go about his life as usual. It will be easier, safer, and more comfortable, but on some level, it will feel wrong, and he will never know why. Or he can take the red pill, and wake up*. Life will be harder, there will be fewer comforts, it will disrupt everything he has known, and he will always be fighting. However, it will be real, and in that is potential for something greater.

*SIDEBAR: It frustrates me to no end that the red pill / blue pill analogy has been co-opted by various assholes and has come to embody the diametric opposite of what it was intended to mean. Fuck those people, let's take this analogy back from them.

Maximum Recursion Depth is not unlike that. You may or may not still interact with normal society, to whatever degree, but you have made the choice to reject this reality as normal. You recognize its systemic dysfunction and challenge it to be better, often despite itself.

However, you are also a product of this dysfunctional system. You don't get to just take the red pill and enter the Action Movie like Neo does. You're Bojack Horseman, you're Jimmy McGill, you're not Neo. If you actually want to change the world, you have to change yourself first. You don't just face the dysfunctions of the world, you face your own dysfunction. If you want to live, you have to kill yourself, and reincarnate; ego death, over and over and over. Hopefully, you improve.

So maybe you fight for social equality, the environment, medical care, the end of corruption, the end of violence, or any number of other world goals (which are probably more specific than these). Maybe this means you engage in violent conflict, but it could also mean you take legal action, build a social movement, enter politics, or engage in sabotage and espionage. Meanwhile, you're also working on your own personal issues. Because if you try to solve these problems without facing your own dysfunctions, no amount of good you do will matter; you are simply adding to the material dysfunction.

Player Characters


Most player characters will be humans, usually with some extraordinary skillset fitting of someone willing to face the world and face themselves and make sacrifices in order to enact change. They have developed the ability to maintain their ego after death and reincarnate with some continuity of their former self. But only if they kill themselves. Each character has some signature method by which they kill themselves, with some specific motivation pertaining to what aspects of themselves they are challenging. It is not enough just to kill oneself with their signature method, they must also have divested karma pertaining to some personal flaw, such that when they reincarnate they have made meaningful strides towards that goal and are now notably different in their personality and disposition. By continuity, this means that they usually return to life as their former self, physically as they were, altered mainly only in terms of their karma and by extension the karmic pressure they exert on the world. If they do not reincarnate properly, they are reborn as a more or less totally disconnected new person or animal, just as anyone else would reincarnate. That is to say, roll up a new character.

Player characters can also have varying degrees of magical or alchemical abilities. Magical abilities generally come from spiritual divesting of karma as a monk, or by accruing karma. The former is more difficult, tenuous, and subtle. More like magic in the Lord of the Rings. It is a force of the universe, of karma; opportunities present themselves that otherwise would not, they have a presence which empowers them, insurmountable tasks become achievable as second-order effects of non-obvious actions. They are a narrative vehicle with literal plot armor.

Magic derived from accruing karma is more like traditional D&D / videogame magic. It is an increase in karmic pressure; it has more direct, mechanical effects, and obvious power; things like fireballs or superstrength. While easier and more immediately powerful than magic from divesting karma, one faces the risk of accruing too much karma, becoming more reliant on the material world and more attached, growing their karmic debt, and ultimately succumbing to their karma and transforming into a karma Devil; an Ashura, and no longer being playable. The tricky thing about it is that the lines are not always so clearly defined.

Aside from karmic magic, there is also alchemy. This is generally derived from some form of elementalism such as the five elements of Taoism (fire, water, metal, wood, ground), but can extend to other metaphysical understandings that are orthogonal to the Karmic Cycle per se. A Taoist alchemist is more likely to be at peace with the Way of the material world and accept it, at least consciously. While metaphysical in nature, alchemists otherwise have more in common with programmers than monks, and in fact, many alchemists practice their work through code. The training is more intellectually rigorous, and less overtly or metaphysically powerful than either form of karmic magic, but also less intrinsically tied to their karma.


There are generally not Poltergeist PCs per se, but every time a PC kills themselves and is sent to one of the Numberless Courts, they become a Poltergeist. Depending on the nature of the karma they have divested or accrued, they may take on different forms. Or if there's nothing obvious, just roll on a random mutation table and come up with reasoning post-hoc (or don't). Because of the awoken nature of PCs, these mutations should be a rough balance of debilitating and empowering (or just don't worry about balance if you don't care). PCs may also have certain consistent features across their various Poltergeist forms, their "superhero costume" if you will. Although usually, PCs will attempt to reincarnate in order to progress on their personal journey, it may sometimes be the case that a PC will, out of choice or necessity, attempt to escape the Numberless Courts without reincarnating.

Demons and Nature Spirits

Demons and Nature Spirits are magical creatures, often intelligent, which are either intrinsically tied to the Karmic Cycle, or are orthogonal to it (as opposed to being antithetical to it), but either way, they interface with karma in a way fundamentally different from humans, except when they don't and they're basically just humans in different genes. These creatures may be magical fox-folk, goblins, fairies, djinn, or in some cases angels or demigods. The difference between demon and nature spirit is nominally whether they are orthogonal to karma (Demon) vs. intrinsically tied to it (Nature Spirits), but the difference is often merely politics. A being that interferes with human civilization or reflects the failings of humanity is a demon, a being that exists in nature and does not interfere with human civilization is a Nature Spirit. A being that is karmic like a human is usually considered a Demon by default, unless they look human-passing enough or have an endearing appearance.

Mu Host

Rarely and inexplicably, there are things which cannot be named, and cannot be explained by binary logic or metaphysics, and which exist antithetical to the Karmic Cycle. If we think of logic as two-dimensional, on and off, the Mu are Null; they exist in n-dimensional logic and cannot properly be represented in two-dimensional logic. The Mu are like a thought virus that can infect humans, detaching them from the Karmic Cycle and deranging their thoughts. These Mu Hosts are often ostracized and villainized, although in the overwhelming majority of cases the Mu kills the host well before the host can be a danger to anyone besides themselves. With proper training (in some cases assisted by medication), a Mu Host can learn to adapt to the Mu, and at least partially reintegrate into the Karmic Cycle. Mu Hosts are invisible to karmic observation and pose an intrinsic risk to the Numberless Courts. When they die, they are not reincarnated and enter neither Heaven nor Hell, and are believed to persist in The Null Space. However, in life, they may (relatively) easily infiltrate the Numberless Courts alongside their deceased compatriots. The abilities of a Mu Host may be eldritch and horrific on a cosmic scale, or shamanic, holy, or natural, often depending more on the beliefs and perceptions of the Mu Host than the nature of the Mu per se, which is inexplicable.

How to play Non-Humans

For Demon / Nature Spirit PCs it would be best if they are of the karmic variety, for the sake of exploring the themes of this setting. However, they are still very much treated as other, which may intersect with their personal struggles and struggles within the systemic dysfunction. Likewise, a Mu Host PC should be at least partly within the Karmic Cycle, but always at risk of falling outside it. Their struggles are thematically somewhat different than the rest of the PCs in ways that are probably not very subtle, but should still be relatably human struggles.


Obviously any of the above can be NPCs, but additionally, there are gods and devils. 


Gods are rare on Earth, mostly refugees who have fled the dysfunction of the Monkey King's Heaven. Many came to Earth under sub-optimal circumstances, totally unprepared, and have spent the better part of the last 500 years as drifters or destitute. However, those gods who have accrued enough karma to function in the deeply flawed, material world, become enormously successful. The gods embody the principles of a functional bureaucracy. They are, at least when all is right in Heaven, the perfect system. They do not normally act on karma; they craft themselves such that their actions passively make the world better (or at least optimal and operable). But all is not right in Heaven. As a result, those of the gods who can overcome this transition are superhuman in their ability to exploit and affect change in the world. However, regardless of their intentions, the results of their actions are almost always net-negative in the long run, as they were never supposed to operate in this way in the material world. They tend to prop up human figureheads to operate on their behalf as entrepreneurs, inventors, politicians, artists, and so on, while they manipulate the world from the sideline.


Devils are the judges, legislators, and executioners; the bureaucrats, of the Numberless Courts. They are no more inherently good or evil than the gods or humans. If Heaven is the perfect system, the Numberless Courts of Hell are what happens when the perfect system is fit to imperfect data. It is a system of refinement, crudely and roughly processing overly-karmic souls, preparing them for reincarnation back into the system of the material world. Devils tend to think and behave in absolutes; quickly, and with little critical thought or self-awareness. They are hyper-specific in their abilities, far and away the best at what they do, and very little else. Their attempt at damage control 500 years ago was valiant, but they have struggled to adapt to the ever-crumbling Heaven and its effect on the material world, and are unwilling to acknowledge this fact or change their approach.


  1. I finally had quiet time to read it and this is a fascinating world-system. Thank you very much.
    How one switches from being a Nature Spirit to Demon - can it be done without self-realization, i.e. the Nature Spirit still things they are Nature Spirit while, in the eyes of the others, they are Demon?

    1. I had intended for the distinction to be more of a social/political construct than something literal, but I think you can take it more literally or some combination. Particularly with a more karmic demon / nature spirit you could imagine something like Princess Mononoke, where the distinction between the kami and demons is when they are consumed by their rage (righteous though it may be). So yes, you could imagine a nature spirit being so consumed by some material goal that they become a demon without realizing it.