My Games

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Quath (Art by Scrap Princess)

After nearly two years, I've finally ordered another commissioned piece of art by Scrap Princess. This is Quath, one of the Four Ordinal Beasts, along with Mun Jira, Mogleth, and Zaphrad (yet to come) from my Phantasmos Campaign Setting (Big Picture, Themes, Key Concepts, Play Reports).

Eventually I'm going to do proper writeups for these mythic beings, or so I've been saying for two years now. I find it difficult to write for these, because her art is so incredible, and so many other writers have already written brilliant things accompanying her brilliant art, that every time I try to write for them, I get writers block. Also, in these last two years, I've much more so prioritized my career over my hobby of RPG writing, and while I have absolutely no regrets about that, I just don't have much regular practice or momentum with real prose writing right now. Probably the only semi-long prose I've written on the blog (not the brief descriptions in my Weird & Wonderful Tables) is A Crawl Through the Dungeon of Impossible Light, and even that is very clunky and cringe-y in certain parts and also not really a complete story, and also something I wrote quite a while ago.

But enough about me, below is Quath! If you want a description, check out the Four Ordinal Beasts link above, until the day when I write something actually worthy of accompanying the art. In addition to the description in that post and the general themes around anti-information and the elements of Phantasmos (as described in the varying hyperlinked posts above and additional posts hyperlinked within those), another visual influence was the concept of denisyuk holograms.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Concept: The Positive and Negative Planes

I had originally intended to accompany this post with a micro-setting I'm tentatively calling Shadow Mars and Crystal Mars, but I've been super busy with work lately and just haven't had the time or mental energy to give that a full writeup. I include at the bottom of this post a very brief blurb on Shadow Mars, not even including Crystal Mars, that I will hopefully expand upon in a future post. Some of the details may change in the process, there are a few things that don't quite feel right with the concept yet. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

The Positive and Negative Planes

As I've discussed before, I'm always fascinated by the idea of elements, the features of a universe at their most reduced (or nearly most- more on that later), see materialsphantasmos key conceptsweird & wonderful loottama-dama collectible egg battle game. There's nothing wrong with the traditional alchemical elements (Fire, Water, Earth, Air) or Taoist elements (Fire, Water, Metal, Wood, Ground), but these are rooted in our own world. Admittedly, it is hard to seriously conceive of a world with non-traditional elements since that would make it a fundamentally different, alien thing, but it is, to me, so much more provocative that way. A world of Impossible Light, Absolute Solid, Anti-Information, and Liquid Starfire; or Ectoplasm, Phlogiston, Yeast, and Lymph, has the kind of potential that only comes from that which is near-inconceivable.

For this reason, I've found the idea of the Positive and Negative planes in D&D / Planescape to be both intriguing and also disappointing. I should acknowledge that I have not read much of the source material directly and am going more off of descriptions I've seen elsewhere, so it's possible that it's much more interesting than I give it credit for. But at the end of the day, as best as I can tell, the D&D concept of Positive and Negative basically just maps to life and death, or all-ness vs. nothingness. As with the traditional elements, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, and I think it can be done in interesting ways (or subverted, such as with my Cancerverse), but it just seems too... obvious. Positive and Negative as absolutist elemental/planar concept should be like the sub-atoms of the universe, so life and death is fine, but what if it's something else?

But if Positive and Negative are not black and white; life and death, all and none, then what are they? I knew that I wanted to play with colors, to me that's an important part of elements. But being that Positive and Negative are like the sub-atoms of the elements themselves, they shouldn't necessarily map to colors per se, but to the origins of colors. While Positive could be mapped to white and color reflection, and Negative mapped to black and color absorption, it is more interesting to broaden it to Positive mapped to additive colors and Negative mapped to subtractive colors (color theory). 

However, then I started to think about a world of entropy (additive colors = starlight = thermodynamic entropy) and anti-entropy (I dunno, black holes, wormholes transferring energy across universes, something like that), which quickly devolved to something more or less akin to life and death or all and none anyway, albeit maybe a bit of a subversion like the Cancerverse, which isn't really what I wanted.

Then I tried thinking about physics. Non-fiction is always a good source of inspiration. I should say that I know very little about physics. But I was thinking about how, at least to my minimal understanding, Positive and Negative in physics don't really mean anything. Or rather, it's not so much that Positive and Negative reflect two different binary states like 0 and 1, but that they are opposites from the origin along a dimension, like -1 and 1, which are in an absolute sense the same thing ( abs(-1)==1 ).

So then I started thinking about how to combine the idea of additive and subtractive color with binary logic, and that led me to anaglyph 3D; those old-school red and cyan 3D glasses. In most cases, one lens is an additive color such as red or blue, and the other is a mixture of the two other additive colors to produce an opposing subtractive color, so cyan (subtractive or blue+green) against red (additive), or yellow (subtractive or red+green) against blue (additive). So these lenses act as opposing filters [1 0 0] in one eye, [0 1 1] in the other eye, the union of which is [1 1 1]. The vectors themselves aren't binary per se, they just map to Red Green Blue (or Magenta Yellow Cyan), but they are binary-valenced and the end visualization is a binary OR operation, or union. That's not actually totally correct for various reasons, but that's how it all came together in my head, in any case.

So we have Positive and Negative elements which are like the sub-atoms of the other elements, have an interesting pseudo-science schtick, and also a cool retro aesthetic, but they aren't inherently meaningful (by design). So what makes them interesting?

What makes them interesting is what can be revealed when one separates or combines their perception of the planes. You see, reality as we know it is merely the overlap between the Positive and Negative planes, but much is misaligned or left off the intersection entirely. Special "anaglyph" lenses may be used to correct the misalignments, or singularly positively or negatively filtered lenses may reveal that which is hidden from reality, overlapping in space but existing only in one plane or the other.

And what does it mean for the elements themselves to be separable by Positive or Negative where there is no intrinsic meaning such as life and death or all and none mapped to them? What does it mean for life and consciousness? For magic and science? The answers to these questions will depend on the elements themselves, but independent of anything else, isn't this just a fascinating question?

Shadow Mars and Crystal Mars

The dead planet Mars; the red marble. Or so it seems to those on Earth. In fact, Mars is just as vibrant with life (of a sort), merely out of phase with reality as we know it. It exists disproportionately in the cyan Negative Plane, and so what we see in reality is mostly its red Positive form, and not even all of it, at that. Although life exists on Mars on both planes, let us first discuss Shadow Mars.

Through a Positive-filtering lens, usually cyan-colored, one may see Mars as it exists on the Negative Plane: Shadow Mars. The red planet appears black, and its cyan occupants shimmer white against the cyan sky and black planet like an inversion of a starry night sky. Thin rivers of iridescent azure vein across the twinkling lights of cyan cities like connecting the dots of astrological formations, pulsing with schools of fish and nixies overwatched by the vampire lords.

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...