Pixels & Platforms

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Specialist

I've never played with Hirelings. That's just not the kind of game I play, with resource management and discrete mapping of treasure to XP and high lethality. I respect that style of play, but it's just not for me. That being said, I think there's a place for NPC companions besides Hirelings and GMPCs. In the past, I've mainly used NPCs which I'll call Handlers, like Arnold Tanaka for the SHIELDBREAKER scenario of my Phantasmos setting, or Patrick Russo for the Howlston Boom Town scenario of my Aquarian Dawn setting. They usually don't accompany the party directly but provide context for the setting and scenario (especially at the beginning), and can give the party information, associates, or outright "quests" if they need it, and I try to make them interesting or funny in their own right.

I like the Handlers, and I like the label as a framing device, and it makes me think about what other framing devices I can use for NPCs who are more than NPCs but less than GMPCs. Part of it is about making them easier to create or use or make interesting, part of it is to make it more obvious to the party what their value is, so that they are actually useful, but don't take away agency from the party.

I've decided to call this category of NPCs Specialists, the idea being that they have some highly specialized skillset or knowledge, or are in a unique situation, which would make them useful beyond what any party would likely be able to do on their own (at least from the start), but are otherwise not well-rounded enough to be adventurers themselves (or are, due to their circumstances, otherwise indisposed). You might think in some cases that they're taking away from challenges the party could face for themselves, but I would argue it's just changing the nature of the challenge. I don't like the minutia of mapping a dungeon, but finding the best Cartographer for this dungeon and keeping them satisfied is much more appealing. Cartographer A is more experienced, but hates spiders. Cartographer C is the best, but they won't accept any job unless they can 100% map the dungeon. Cartographer E is as good as the others and cheaper, but he's really, really gross and annoying. These are more suggestions than hard-rules, have fun with it!

This post was loosely inspired by a comedy special that just came out on Netflix from Bob Rubin. It was a bonus episode attached to Patton Oswalt's new special. Bob is... interesting. I enjoyed it, but I don't know if I'd recommend it to everybody. I don't know if I'd call it "good" comedy, but there were moments of brilliance. Anyway, he has a whole bit about how when you own a house and need housework done, you get a contractor, but when the contractor needs to get something specific done, they get a sub-contractor. And these sub-contractors are all crazy unreal cartoon people who can barely function in the world, but are singularly masters at what they do. It was one of the funnier bits, and you could take his sub-contractors wholesale as Specialists.

The Handler

The Handler is wealthier, better connected, or more experienced than the party. They are employers or managers, or agents or consultants. They aren't necessarily adventurers themselves; maybe they used to be but retired from the job, or worked their way up the hierarchy, or got injured on the job. They might come along in a pinch and are quite skilled, although a bit rusty or past their prime. Or maybe they were never adventurers but have a knack for management. Or maybe they're bad at their job and got it through luck or nepotism but the party is stuck with them.

The Scholar

Wizards and alchemists are smart, but adventurers necessarily require a breadth of knowledge. A Scholar may spend as much of their life studying the mechanics of a single spell as an adventurer wizard spends across all their studies in their entire career. If circumstances require hyper-specific knowledge of a common topic, or knowledge at all of an obscure topic, you'll need a Scholar. However, one does not become a Scholar unscathed. They are often eccentric and asocial. Or they're so obsessive about this one thing that they're boring and intolerable to deal with. Or, despite their intelligence, are shockingly ignorant of basic things. Or they're actually really charming, likable people who happen to be brilliant and interested in this specific thing.

The Builder

You want to build a castle? You want to fortify a settlement? You just want to be comfortable? You call The Builder. Probably you call a specific Builder for a specific task; the architect is not the carpenter is not the interior decorator. The Builder may build secrets into your project that won't be discovered for a hundred years; they might do weird sex things in your soon-to-be-home when you're not keeping an eye on them. But they're the only ones who can get the job done.

The Cartographer

Did you know that adventurers used to draw their own maps? Can you imagine some dumb oaf fighter, or aloof day-dreaming wizard, trying to draw their own map? And the rogue is just gonna make it up and "commit it to memory" so they can take all the treasure for themselves (or more likely get blackout drunk and forget anyway). No wonder they kept getting themselves killed! No, if you want to get the job done right, you bring the Cartographer. Sure, you've gotta keep them alive, and keep them moving when they want to draw every little detail (although you might want to give those details a look now and then...), but if you want to get out alive (or ever come back), do yourself a favor and bring a Cartographer.

The Movers

If you're bringing a lot of stuff, or expecting to take a lot of stuff out, get the Movers. Sometimes it's just one big person, but usually they come in pairs. Some stuff is just too unwieldy for one big to move themselves. Sometimes the Movers are scrawny teens way out of their element who just desperately need the money. Those ones don't last long on adventures. The thing with Movers, is they tend to be the sorts who have absolutely no time for your shit and will be completely unhelpful beyond the scope of their job even if all they have to do is swat off a measly goblin, or worse, they think because they're big and strong that they're adventurers too. They're not, but still, it's impressive just how much they can haul.

(Wolf Pack and) The Cub

This child, alien, small mythical creature, other naive and relatively unskilled person is important. They are the key to the magic McGuffin, or an important royal, or a witness to a crime, or the argument for or against some larger cause. They must survive, at all costs, even as they seem desperate to get themselves killed. They may be helpless but loving, or capable but an arrogant, immature pain in the ass. But you're stuck with them.

The Glass Cannon

They are incredibly powerful. They are the only memorizer of the Magic Mega-Missile. The only operator of the hyperbeam quantum pluscannon. The only one who can pull Excalibur from the stone or lift Mjolnir. But they only get one shot, and they aren't much good for anything else. Some Glass Cannons are absolute cowards and need to be coaxed along every step of the way. Others don't know they're Glass Cannons. I don't know which is worse!

The Negotiator

Not all problems are solved by swinging swords and casting spells. Sometimes a little more delicacy is required, and adventurers aren't exactly known for their delicacy. So when boring politicking is on the line, just chauffer the Negotiator, keep them happy and keep them alive, and let them do their job while you have fun at the Fancy Tavern. But keep in mind, for as charismatic as they are, or genuine and lofty in their ideals, they are prima donnas. For them to do their job, they need you to follow the contract to the letter. No brown-colored sugar-coated chocolate candies in their candy bag, or the deal is off! Or so they say. But they look pretty genuinely distraught about it...

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.

Sunday, May 10, 2020


This post has been a long time coming, inspired by Bargain Bin Mindflayers on the titorpg blog (who incidentally wrote a Weird & Wonderful Appreciation post). I take the idea very loosely, most of these are pretty distinct from typical mindflayers and could be included right alongside them. They're powerful, eldritch beings inspired primarily by weird sea life.

Protean Proselytizers

Sea Angels
Smooth, semi-translucent, white, winged creatures that stand over 7' tall and emanate bioluminescence; like bio-droids designed by Gothic architects and Apple. They enslave gods and bend their divine powers to their will. They travel the planes, looking for worlds with vulnerable or neglectful gods, and convert the people and usurp the gods with specifically-crafted cults leveraging the abilities of their legions of enslaved gods.

Psychedelic Stingers

Semi-amorphous, whispy, tentacled beings that float between dimensions. No two look alike, with various shapes, degrees of opacity, and forms of bioluminescence. They are ancient beyond time itself, able to hibernate and rebirth themselves in the null-space between dimensions. They will latch their stinging tentacles and attach their bulbous forms onto mortals, usually over their heads, and operate their bodies like machines, in order to function on mortal planes. They attach more easily to the dead, and so they often appear in hordes after battles, plagues, and exterminations.

Vorpal Vivisectionists

Horseshoe Crabs
Some unfortunate warriors who die at sea are harvested by unknown deep-sea gods of the abyss and are brought back in undeath covered in chitin. They follow the code of anti-bushido, and gain greater necromantic power with every mortal kill, especially by the slicing and stabbing of the brain. These anti-samurai are intelligent, but soulless. Their purpose is violence, destruction, and conquest, seemingly for its own sake. It is thought that their souls are stored in caviar-like eggs somewhere in the abyss, making them liches.

Cerebrospinal Sharpshooters

Mantis Shrimp
Colorful chitinous creatures with stalk-eyes and magical claws. They see the samsara cycle with their circular polarized hyperlight vision, and the raw, recursive nature of the numerous numinous dimensions has driven them mad, or perhaps hyper-sane. They seek to destroy all; through brute force, smashing with their claws, volleyed at superspeed with the power of sonic booms, or by clicking their claws, producing pistol-shot waves of psychic force.

Luciferous Lamia

These demons exist on higher dimensions, propagating in mortal spacetime by way of a bioluminescent appendage. The spacetime bulb produces a light distortion, a hologram, projecting just above spacetime, such that the hologram is like a four-dimensional (space + time) shadow. The holograms are always beautiful and magically alluring, but these beings are pure predators. Although the holograms take many forms, the Luciferous Lamia are themselves always female; the males are significantly less powerful, incapable of holographic projection, and merely latch to the females for survival (until they are absorbed into them).

Mutant Megadeath Mindflayers

Vampire Squids
These beings from a psionic infernal plane are to mindflayers as demons are to humans. Black and red-skinned, usually humanoid cephalopods with striking, flashing bioluminescence. They are vampires who feed on the mental energies of mortals, especially "hot" energies like hate and anger. Their infernal dimension is a plane of thought, a kind of volatile, explosive psionic space. Unlike the slender illithid, they tend to have hulking, muscular bodies. Whereas illithid experiment on and enslave other creatures, mutant megadeath mindflayers empower and mutate themselves off the hateful energies of other creatures. A single one of their kind can single-handedly slaughter an entire company of illithid, projecting balls, beams, and blasts of infernal psionic energy greater than nuclear blasts; in some cases, great enough to destroy whole regions of celestial space in a single blow.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Another Not-Review: Magical Industrial Revolution

My first not-review of Super Blood Harvest was well-received, so I figured I'd do another one. I call them not-reviews because they're brief and impressionistic and not intended as a holistic review.

Skerples' Coins and Scrolls blog is a well known and popular blog, and Magical Industrial Revolution is an electrum best seller on drivethrurpg, so it's hardly a "hidden gem", but nonetheless I find it surprising that it is not treated as an even bigger deal than it already is. It has far and away the best civilization-sim (for lack of a better term) implementation I've ever seen in any tabletop RPG. I've talked before about my interest in Settlement Building, but this is just so, so much better than anything I've ever seen before or conceived of myself. My feelings towards MIR for settlement building is not unlike my feelings for Batteries Not Included for Mechs.

It's also just masterclass writing. It is so efficient and to the point, yet evocative. I truly believe this is the most important skill for RPG writing, which requires one to express game rules, setting, and ephemeral stuff like tone, often all simultaneously, and in a way the reader can comprehend. I'm yet to wrap my head around this skill, much to my own RPG writing detriment, so when I see it done well I deeply appreciate it.

The setting doesn't take itself too seriously and is genuinely funny, but not at the expense of feeling like something that can be played in any campaign. It's also clearly very well researched and demonstrates a deep understanding of the industrial revolution and all of its social, economic, technological, scientific, etc. implications, making for an intellectually and creatively inspiring setting. MIR accomplishes what I think many Victorian/Steampunk/Early Industrial-esque settings try and utterly fail to accomplish, or accomplish only superficially at best.

I'm generally not a fan of "traditional fantasy", but I do believe there's something to be said for the juxtaposition of the "traditional" with a small number of very well realized twists. While you could adapt the general framework of MRI to a more full-gonzo Weird setting like the types I tend to prefer, I think it really shines in its precise context that Skerples intended, and would have been perfect for my Aquarian Dawn campaign (seeing as that's basically died, I really need to do a writeup of how it all played out eventually). I had modeled my settlement-building elements off of a very stripped down version of Numenera Destiny, but I think MIR captures that essence in a much superior way.

The main schtick of MIR are the Innovations; taking a basic spell / fantasy trope, and extrapolating how it could be industrialized (and then catastrophized). It develops over Seasons, based on the actions of the players, in a very rules-light, intuitive, flexible, organic way. It would be very easy to add new Innovations (if you are clever enough), and there are some fairly simple rules for how players could invent magical industrial devices that could themselves become magical industrial Innovations. I've already got a few ideas I'm sitting on that I'd like to write up at some point, if I thought I could half-meet Skerples' quality.

This not-review doesn't get into all the intricacies and doesn't do the book justice. Just do yourself a favor and check it out.

Unrelated note, one of my oldest blogosphere friends has revived his blog, Tarsos Theorem. He was the originator of the Periodic Table of Elementals, and is a strong proponent for javascript and other coding innovations in the tabletop RPG space, something which I have ironically been slack on ever since becoming a software engineer so I hope he picks up my slack! Or whatever he decides to do, I look forward to seeing it! After drafting this but before posting, he posted his Digital UVG DM Screen and seems to still be pretty gung-ho about digital tools, so that's exciting!

Another unrelated note I'm sitting on a 95% complete draft for the next post for Maximum Recursion Depth, which will hopefully make more clear what the setting is actually about and how to play in it. I just wish I could write as effectively and evocatively as Skerples!

Monday, April 20, 2020

Batteries Not Included Unofficial Expanded Content!

Batteries Not Included is a game by Spwack of Slight Adjustments (and formerly Meandering Banter) that I instantly fell in love with. I have not had a chance to play it yet for myself, but I nonetheless felt compelled in my foolish ignorance to write a series of hacks and expansions for this game! I have a very rough setting idea and if it ever comes together I'd like to try it out.

I had posted a review a while back about Gamma Knights, an expansion for Gamma World which added power armor. I had said that I felt it was perhaps a bit too crunchy and fiddly for my tastes, but had some cool ideas, and that I would like to conceive in the OSR / DIY fashion a stripped down version of Gamma Knights for power armor and mechs. And then I never did. And then Spwack did it better than I ever could have anyway.

So below I outline suggestions for how to play the game without cards (I love the card idea but don't like being obligated to do work like print out cards!), how to integrate BNI into a more traditional OSR-style game as a sub-mechanic, and an adaptation of some Gamma Knights concepts using BNI rules. I was originally also going to include a Weird & Wonderful Hack with a set of modules using my own ideas, but I might save that for a future post instead.

One last side note: I was recently featured on the titorpg blog and I wanted to give him a plug now because that was super awesome of him. I would like to give him a more dedicated plug down the line because he deserves it, but for now hopefully this will suffice. He has produced a few books available on drivethrurpg such as sacrebleu, an open-ended module with WW1 weapons and plenty of Weirdness, for the OSR-adjacent game Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells which you all know I'm a fan of. One of my favorite posts from his blog is Bargain Bin Mindflayers. I had intended to do a followup post of it but almost a year later I still have not done so, so if I can find the inspiration I will try to make that a priority.

Anyway, on to BNI!

I love Evangelion and recently got addicted to an eva mobile game

No Cards Hack

This isn't so much a hack, as just a list of suggestions for how to play BNI without cards.

  • Randomly roll a die or use a random number generator on the modules list(s) for randomly rolling modules, oracle rolls, or treasure.
    • If you want to add my module lists to the full module list, you can either append the numbering from Spwack's list or roll first to determine which table to roll on and then a second roll for that table.

  • Track Damage and Heat for each module on character sheet using pips, in a text chat if playing online, written on a table-facing index card, or with dice.
    • For dice, use two dice for each module, one for tapped/damaged and one for Heat. Ideally use the same size dice for all Damage and Heat, and different colors for each module.

OSR Compatibility Hack

This hack is intended for using the mechanics of BNI for Power Armors or Mechs in an OSR-style game. It's not necessarily going to be compatible with all versions of OSR or OSR-adjacent games, and has not been playtested (I haven't even played BNI!). It could maybe also be used for a BNI robot class. This is just a proof of concept.

  • Power Armors are considered Large, Mechs come in various sizes greater than large. 
    • Power Armors and Mechs will be referred to as BNIs going forward.

  • BNIs cannot be damaged by non-BNI creatures of their size or smaller unless special circumstances e.g. a character has a special anti-mech rifle, or they're made of super magic.

  • BNI attacks always succeed. Treat OSR attributes or equivalent as modules, where BNI attacks deal damage to those attributes by their Damage Track, starting where 0 Damage (ramming or "unarmed" attack) = 5 attribute damage, and increase by 5 attribute damage for every step up the BNI Damage Track.
    • How does a BNI attack do charisma damage? I dunno don't worry about it. You're clever you'll come up with something sensible. It hurts their morale and by extension their outward disposition? Whatever it's just to make the fucking game work.

  • For non-BNI creatures capable of attacking BNIs, attacks automatically succeed and treat every 5 points of damage as a BNI Damage Track. If the creature would deal less than 5 OSR damage, they deal no BNI Damage, if they would deal OSR 5-9 damage, they deal BNI Damage 0, OSR 10-14 damage deals BNI Damage 1, etc.

  • As a robot PC class, use the same way except ignore the rule that only larger non-BNI creatures can damage them, and also robot PCs may be of any size. Robot PCs get no traditional advancement; advancement works by acquiring or enhancing modules.

Qubeley, one of my favorite mecha designs from Gundam

Gamma Knights Hack

This hack adds some modules or mechanics from Gamma Knights, the Power Armor expansion for Gamma World. It is also intended to be compatible with the OSR Compatibility Hack above. Note that some of these assume there is a pilot, as opposed to being a robot, so just ignore those if you're playing as a robot.

Also just a caveat, it's been t least a couple weeks since I first read BNI, and while I've discussed it with Spwack, especially having not played it, I may be misremembering or misinterpreting certain rules, or there may be certain modules here which are redundant with ones on the original list that I somehow missed. If you catch any mistakes please let me know!

  • If you roll Sensor Array or Tracking Array on the BNI modules list (22 and 23 respectively), re-roll for below:
  1. Spectrometer (light and energy use, 1P)
  2. Telescopic Lens (distance and close-up, 1P)
  3. Infrared Scanner (infrared and heat, 1P)
  4. Life-Scan Array (amalgam of sensors trained by computer models to scan for life signs, 1P)
  5. Motion-Sensor Array (amalgam of sensors trained by computer models to scan for motion, 1P)
  6. Radar Scanner (radar, 1P)
  7. Radiation Array (amalgam of sensors scanning for various kinds of radiation, 1P)
  8. Sonic Scanner (sound, 1P)
  9. Ultraviolet Scanner (ultraviolet, 1P)
  10. Underwater Array (fish-eye lens and sonar, 1P)
  • If you roll Energy Shield on the BNI modules list (88), re-roll for below:
  1. Energy Force Field (for each P used on the force field, mitigate up to 2D. Persists until cumulative D taken exceeds P used)
  2. Kinetic Force Field (for each P used on the force field, mitigate up to 1D. Persists until a single attack's D exceeds P used)
  3. Repulsion Force Field (-1P, mitigate all 0 or 1 D)
  • Additional new modules
  1. Cloaking Device (invisible in the visible light spectrum, 1P and 1H)
  2. Computer Scrambler (scramble a computerized device, 1P)
  3. Ejection System (cockpit ejected from BNI as an escape pod, 1P)
  4. EMP Generator (shuts down all computer systems in short range, including self, maxP)
  5. Energy-Emission Filter (makes the BNI invisible to any kind of energy sensor array and protects occupant from energy or radiation attacks, 1P)
  6. IR Absorption (protection from infrared radiation and heat to the occupant, 1P)
  7. Life Support System (provides air, temperature control, pressure control, etc. for occupant for 1 week for large BNI, 1 month for huge BNI, 4 months for gargantuan BNI, and 1+ years for colossal BNI, 1P)
  8. Light Filter (darkens dangerously bright lights and +1 defense against light attacks, 1P)
  9. Medikit (treat minor injuries of occupant as Cure Light Wounds, 1P)
  10. Autosurgeon (treat occupant who has suffered grievous injury, maxP)
  11. Radar Scrambler (scramble radar, 1P)
  12. Radio Scrambler (scramble radio or microwave signals, 1P)
  13. Self-Destruct Mechanism (an explosion which deals maxP in D to all creatures up to short range, completely destroying the BNI. 1 in 10 chance it fails)
  14. Silencer (+1H to make a loud weapon quiet)
  15. Smoke Generator (generate vision-obscuring and noxious smoke, 1P)
  16. Sound Filter (attenuates loud sounds and +1 defense against sonic attacks, 1P)
  17. Suit Sealant (protection in harsh environments such as underwater or outer space)
  18. UV Absorption (protection from ultraviolet radiation to the occupant, 1P)
  19. Water Circulation (can filter water to produce fresh, drinkable water, 1P)
  20. Flying Blade Launcher (1D, silent, area range, one-time use per combat)
  21. Fusion Rifle (3D against non-Force Field protected targets, 1D against Force Field protected targets, 1F, 1H if used twice in a row, 1P)
  22. Gravity Gun (use anti-gravity to manipulate an object, 1P)
  23. Lamprey Disk (when attached to a target module, drains 1 from maxP from target BNI per round cumulatively unless removed by tapping the module, accruing 1H, damaging the module, or detaching/destroying the module. After removal, full maxP is restored next round)
  24. Micromissile Array (1D, homing, 1A, 1P)
  25. Jet-Assisted Jump (ballistic long-range jump, 2P)
  26. Rocket (Takeoff into outer space 3P, maneuverability in space 1P) NOTE: Not a Gamma Knights module but I still wanted to include this
  27. Computer System (automatizes a given module and increases its efficiency, giving it one benefit per turn such as -1P to use, allowing it to be used while tapped, auto-reloading, etc.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Super Blood Harvest is awesome!

A "real" post should be coming soon, just haven't had the time or energy but I'm sitting on a million ideas and they keep coming so hopefully some day soon I'll have some good stuff incoming.

Anyway, here's a not-review for Super Blood Harvest, which I just read in its entirety just now.

I don't really have anything particularly insightful to say about this game, except that it is awesome, and I don't understand why more people aren't talking about it. I'm pretty sure I had heard of it, but there are certain games that get brought up all the time and I don't understand why this isn't up there as one of those.

It's by Dirk Leichty who was also the artist on Silent Titans, and like Silent Titans it's doing a very unique brand of Weird Science Fantasy using a system derived from Into the Odd. The first two issues are in a setting vaguely reminiscent of Vampire Hunter D set on a Space Hulk with all sorts of weird science, vampires, eldritch things, and I'm not doing it justice with that explanation but its very cool. Dirk's art is amazing, and he infuses a retro video-gamey style that makes it feel as much like Castlevania or Doom as Vampire Hunter D.

The third issue is set in the far future of the first two issues (I think) and really takes things to a whole other level. At first glance it's a Barsoom meets Terminator pastiche, kind of, but that really does not at all do justice to how disturbing, Cronenbergian, Orwellian, generally dystopian, and Weird this setting is. It's kind of like the Matrix too, or at least Zion, except not shitty. It would not be possible for me to describe it in a way that does it justice, but it is unlike anything else and also I'm reasonably confident there is much more going on there than I had the mental bandwidth to fully comprehend as I was reading it.

I realize I don't have a whole lot of professional RPG work to my name aside from this blog, but Dirk, if you're reading this, I'd love to work with you some time!

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth, or Sometimes the Only Way to Win is to Stop Playing

This is a setting that I've been very very very slowly converging on for some time now, and it just finally started coming together in an epiphany last night. Despite the title I chose for this post, it has many titles, as I briefly mentioned when I first brought this idea up, but that was before I even came up with what has now become the core conceit.

It's titles are as follows:

  • Maximum Recursion Depth, or Sometimes the Only Way to Win is to Stop Playing
  • Sun Wukong's in his heaven, all's [not] right with the world
  • KILL YOURSELF: The Karma-Punk RPG
  • Free the System: An Absurdist World of Bureaucratic Fantasy

Because of Covid, I had to put my last one-shot micro-setting on hold, unfortunately. We still plan to run that game eventually, but one of the players couldn't play from home (married with children) and another was feeling too overwhelmed right now, so I'm going to run this instead.

I think we're going to end up using Troika Numinous, not so much because it particularly makes sense for the new setting, but because it's a system I've wanted to try for a while. If it really doesn't seem like it's going to work I'll try something else, haven't gotten that far yet. If I'm feeling really ambitious I'd like to devise a karma system similar to Tenra Bansho Zero but significantly simplified to hack into this game / setting.

If you'll notice, very few of my settings (these being a handful of them) take place in anything resembling the real world. I've always enjoyed urban fantasy and magical realism, and I've wanted to design a setting that takes place in something vaguely resembling the contemporary world, but I often find it over-constraining, and hard to avoid being too derivative of previous works. I've also at various points talked about my interest in the concepts of Buddhist attachment and karma. Finally, these ideas and others I'd been sitting on started to gel, and I came up with this setting.

This will hopefully be the first of several posts. This one is a bit more abstract, and in future posts I may go into more of the dry details of what it all means.


This is a setting where Sun Wukong defeated Buddha, and the Karmic Cycle is imbalanced, as the Celestial Bureaucracy serve the whims of their child-like ruler and the Numberless Courts of Hell have risen to Earth to bring some semblance of Order. Over a thousand years later... It's basically our world, but the hellish and Kafka-esque parts are literal.

This setting is inspired by the novel Journey to the West, Chinese and Buddhist mythology, the Invisibles, the Matrix, John Wick, Sandman, Persona 5, and the short story Folding Beijing, among others.


Over a thousand years ago Sun Wukong, The Great Sage Equal to Heaven, the Monkey King born in stone nourished by the five heavens, challenged Buddha, and won. The Monkey King is not inherently malicious, but he is child-like; selfish, impulsive, and prone to tantrums. Heaven has fallen into disarray as the entire Celestial Bureaucracy buckles to his whims, and the Karmic Cycle has become unbalanced.

Karma is the embodiment of the material world, once held in balance by the Celestial Bureaucracy of Heaven and the Numberless Courts of Hell. The karmic cycle is one in which humans accrue karma as they grow attached to the world, and must divest themselves of karma in order to eventually enter Heaven. Those who fail to sufficiently divest their karma in life are processed in the Numberless Courts of Hell, and eventually reincarnated, until their material soul is sufficiently divested of karma so that their spiritual soul may pass on to Heaven permanently, or they are lost to their own karma and become a Devil. 

However, with Heaven in its current state, the Numberless Courts of Hell have had to pick up the slack. Around 500 years ago Yama, The Judge King of Hell, raised Youdu, the capital of Diyu (Hell) to Earth. While the Earth of the present closely resembles our world, all the governments of the world submit to the Numberless Courts. Monstrous Devils operate the Kafka-esque Bureaucracies of this world, much as in our own, but also there are humans capable of great material feats of karma and great spiritual feats divested of karma. There are also mages and alchemists who are one (and not one) with the Tao, twisted and pitiful Poltergeists serving time in the Numberless Courts, demons and nature spirits (the difference often merely being politics), refugee Gods, and the eldritch Mu.

The world is a complex and layered mechanism folded in on itself like a transformers toy or really high quality pop-up book. Socioecenomic classes, spiritual "classes", Youdu, cultures and subcultures and counter cultures, identities, coexisting in total chaos that is all, somehow, almost coherent. Mainly because you only ever see a small sliver of it at a time. Most people only see a sliver of it, ever.

Go to work, or school, or take care of the kids, or chores, or go the gym. But when you come to the table, you're an artist, a philosopher, a warrior, a monk, a mage, a rebel, a celebrity, a grotesque poltergeist, a demon or nature spirit, an executive, a mu-host. You are not a Devil or God because they're something else, let's just put those two aside for now. You can be literally anything else. You can be happy. You can be miserable. You can be.

Junji Ito Uzamaki

What do I do?

Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes
What if I'm late, gotta big date, gotta get home before the sun comes up
Up and away, got a big day, sorry can't stay, I gotta run, run, yeah
Gotta get home, pick up the phone, I gotta let the people know I'm gonna be late

Keep busy. Go to work. Find a partner. Procreate. Make money. Pay taxes. Don't overthink it. Venerate your elders. Pray. Follow the rules. Be polite. Don't ask questions. Fill out this form. Get mad and scared at the things on TV. Don't doubt yourself. You are Right. Always.

Or fuck that. You're here, aren't you? Be a rebel. Fuck the System. Think critically. Challenge others. Challenge yourself. Get mad at injustice. Do something that matters.

But you do have to pay bills. And you like nice things. And seeing all the flaws in the world only drags you down deeper, endlessly eating your own tail like an Oroboros until you inevitably hit cognitive dissonance, psychotic break, or nihilism. Be logical but not at the expense of empathy and be empathetic but not at the expense of logic. Rise above so you can see the truth impartially. Know when you're Wrong. Rise above yourself. Wei Wu Wei.

But what do I do really? 

Kill Yourself. Everything is fucked, it's only just nice enough to keep you complacent, if you can be so lucky. When you're lost deep in Diyu, standing in one of the never-ending, never-moving, numberless lines of the Numberless Court, take a good, hard look at yourself. You pitiful, grotesque poltergeist. Clinging to existence. Clinging to what? Why are you still here? Keep staring, no matter how much it hurts. You're disgusting.

Acclimate to You. Get bored by You. Think about You impartially. Come to terms with You. Embrace You. But also, let's be honest, You could do a little better. Do a little better, how about it? I've got your back. Let's do this together! Get out of the fucking line. Run! Run all the way up to Youdu. Find your material soul. Reincarnate. The Old You is Dead. Fuck the Old You, they sucked anyway. Be glad about it, that means You are better now. Be the New You. Long Live the New You. 

Fight the System, but also Fight You. I know you worked so hard just to get your humanity back, so you're not going to want to hear this, but now I'm going to ask you to start accruing karma again. Because there is work to do. Get involved in the world.  Like it all matters. See what's out there. Fight injustice. Fix the broken things. Help people. Help people help themselves. Do all that, but don't accrue too much karma. Know when to quit. Or, Kill Yourself. And try again.