My Games

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Maximum Recursion Depth Module: The Court of Those Who Succumb Prematurely to Crippling Expectations

I just ran a game of Maximum Recursion Depth, or Sometimes the Only Way to Win is to Stop Playing with some friends and it went really well! It was supposed to be a one-shot but it got a bit extended to two, but I figured that would happen. What I did not necessarily expect, is that my players enjoyed the game so much that they'd actually rather continue with this than our old campaign. Very encouraging!

The game is still a work in progress, I'm making it for the Eclectic Bastion Jam, below (Introduction) is the current description for it in my draft of the game doc (which I am so far behind on from where I wanted to be...). I've also changed (re: simplified) a few things since those earlier blog posts. There's a somewhat more narrow focus for starting a campaign in MRD (the rules don't preclude other possibilities, it's just a way to ground people new to the setting), and I got rid of the nature spirit vs. demon distinction because I and the rest of the party would inevitably use the terms demon and devil synonymously, even though devils are a very different thing in this setting, so it just made more sense to lump demons entirely into nature spirits. I know Forgotten Realms has the demon vs. devil distinction, but it's not like I want to model myself after Forgotten Realms...

Anyway, I normally don't play in anything even close to resembling the "real world" but it was actually really cathartic to do this right now. In a mid-covid world, playing an adventure that takes place in New York City, across several real-world locations which I hold dear, was quite fantastical.

That being said, I can never write a satisfying play report, and as much as I'd like to have it up here on my blog, I don't enjoy the process of writing them. So instead, I'm just going to provide info on the party, and the "dungeon", which I think has some cool ideas and which you could probably use in a different campaign even if you're not using this system or setting, and maybe I'll add some more details at the end for some specifics that occurred in the session that weren't written into the dungeon but were really awesome, which is exactly the kind of thing you want to have happen in a game.

Unfortunately, I don't think I'm going to have the time or energy to make it a "full product" for the game jam; at this point, I'm basically just aiming for an "aschan" edition. I did hack the code for generating the HTML and PDF for Black Hack, so that means I can at least get it passably presentable, but I'm seeing some of the games coming out of this jam and they're beautiful and I'd love to get this there eventually. Nonetheless, I really hope this resonates with some people. I am genuinely considering turning this into something bigger, a little more "professional-grade" so to speak, but it would be helpful to have a sense of how much interest there would be in that before I invest too much time, effort, heart, and cash.

I am realizing that the deadline is only a couple days away! I think the game is basically where it's going to be, I don't know if I'm going to have time to add some of the additional flourishes I had intended. I just need to finish putting the PDF together and some other cleanup. I will share it in a few days after I post, consider this a teaser to whet your appetite ;). PLEASE LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK! I really want to make this a thing, but if it's just not resonating with people, it's better I accept that sooner than later...


1000 years ago the Monkey King challenged Buddha in Heaven and won. The Karmic Cycle was thrown into disarray, Poltergeists in a fugue-like state roamed the Earth wreaking karmic destruction, nature spirits spontaneously summoned to the material world, and refugee gods and other heavenly creatures fled from Heaven to Earth. 
500 years ago some of the Numberless Courts of Hell rose to Earth to serve as a global, nongovernmental bureaucracy, but Devils are like machines, they are only as functional as the system they were designed for, and the system is broken.
Today, you are Recursers; individuals capable of tapping into Poltergeist Forms to leverage powerful karmic forces. After their day job, parties of Recursers known as Poltergeist Investigators seek to find roaming Poltergeists and escort them to the appropriate Court of Hell, or are hired by the Poltergeist’s loved ones. 
The Numberless Courts are a broken bureaucracy, and often Poltergeists find themselves in the wrong Court or are given unreasonable punishments and inappropriate reincarnations. When doing things the legal way stops working, Poltergeist Investigators will infiltrate the Numberless Courts of Hell to rescue Poltergeists and give them a better reincarnation.
Some Recursers see themselves as revolutionaries, while others see what they do as just a civic duty. But keep in mind, Maximum Recursion Depth is a world of Karmapunk, and that means you aren’t just rebelling against the broken system, you’re also rebelling against yourself. You are a product of this broken Karmic Cycle, and no matter how well-intentioned, you’ll never solve the problems of the world if you can’t come to terms with yourself.
So go out there, acquire Karmic Attachments, accrue Karma to grow more powerful, help people and make the world a better place. But remember, you also have to resolve those Karmic Attachments, you have to divest that Karma, and detach from the material world, despite what that entails. Or else, obscured by the imperfections of the World from the Karma you’ve accrued, all that effort will merely exacerbate the problems, and unknowingly you will spiral down, and then it’s only a matter of time before you reach Maximum Recursion Depth.

The party

This hopefully will give you all some sense of what a character in Maximum Recursion Depth is about. This game is still a work in progress; I've made the decision recently to give all Poltergeist Forms (the equivalent of Failed Careers from Electric Bastionland) a default Poltergeist Feature in addition to two more at the start. Also, I probably won't have time to do this for the game jam, but I'd like to overhaul the Reincarnation Rituals to have a deeper impact on the game itself, with more concrete rewards and consequences.

If you would like to see the character options in full, check out the game once I publish it ;)!

Cleo Patrick

A top-tier chef in New York City. She tells people how she rose to the top from being a line cook through sheer talent, but actually, she would frequently undercut and sabotage her fellow chefs. She's in a relationship that she can't stand but isn't willing to break up with her partner, and part of why she is a Recurser is an excuse to not have to see (or confront) them (or herself).

Career: Chef
Poltergeist Form: Ghost in the Mirror
Special Items: Gordian Rope (a 6' rope which once per day can be used to solve a seemingly intractable problem if the user can think of a clever use.)
Quirk: A similar-looking but clearly different person stares back at you in the mirror.
Reincarnation Ritual: Stare at yourself in the mirror for at least a minute, ignore everything else, and drift away.
Poltergeist Features:
  • Spectral Shard of Deep Cuts and Insights (Wd8 Damage, but if you use it against someone with higher WIS than you who has come to terms with themselves, you look foolish, take Pd4 Damage.)
  • Reflection Protection (Cannot take WIS Damage or accrue Karma from WIS Damage from anything that you can see reflected in a mirror.)
Starting Karmic Attachments:
  • You are in an unhealthy but stable relationship. You say you love your partner, while simmering in your loathing towards them.
  • You misremember a life-defining moment. From your memory, it was a moment of triumph, heroism, victory, etc., when in fact the accomplishment was chance, you were in the wrong, or it was critically more nuanced.

Josiah "Josie" Candor

An elite inventor and software engineer. He recently beat his rival for a major government contract on a military-grade weapons program, but he discovered a critical bug in the code that has yet to bare consequences, but it's only a matter of time. Part of why he is a Recurser is as a cover to investigate fixes for the bug without raising suspicion.

Career: Technologist
Poltergeist Form: Pyramid Shining Brightly
Special Items: Limited Edition Turbo Sega Snap Controller (A shiny controller for the sega snap entertainment system. Programmed with uber-macros for ultimate gaming and military-grade hacking. +2 NAT Save for videogame or computer related actions.)
Quirk: You have a third eye that glows white-hot. However, to those who are deeply altruistic and empathetic, it is as dark as the abyss, with the occasional flicker of light.
Reincarnation Ritual: Commit social media seppuku.
Poltergeist Features:
  • Strong Right Hand in Silver (An impressive-looking and loyal demon, like a silver werewolf. It's not actually that strong or capable on its own, but it is intimidating, and can be made to assist you in simple tasks and fetch things.)
  • Power Move (You have developed an intuition towards manipulation through displays of power such as a powerful handshake or a kind of biting apathetic humor or sarcasm. Pd8 Damage, but if you try to pull a power move against somebody with higher PRO than you, take Wd4 Damage.)
Starting Karmic Attachments: 
  • There is one who shines brighter than you, and you will never be satisfied so long as you are in their shadow.
  • Your plan was successful, but you over-reached, or failed to account for something, and now you are in over your head. Nobody else knows, yet, but it's just a matter of time before someone else realizes what has happened, or the consequences become apparent.

Paul Allen

Privileged and massively successful, Paul needs to do drugs and crazy stunts in order to feel alive. Being a Recurser and resolving his Karma is his most recent pet project, and also a way to get all sorts of new thrills and experiences.

Poltergeist Form: Crashing Rocket Nixie
Career: Hedge Fund Manager
Special Items: Mantra of the Wise Sneakers (A mantra written on a sheet made of recycled sneakers that increases one's resolve. +1 NAT Save.)
Quirk: There is absolute terror in your third eye.
Reincarnation Ritual: Come to a screeching halt and let it all catch up to you.
Poltergeist Features:
  • Nixie Wings (They say nixies are sea fairies, but anyway you can fly.)
  • Contagious Enthusiasm (In a huff and a puff, you can get anyone excited. Well... almost anyone. Pd6 or Nd6 Damage.)
Starting Karmic Attachments:
  • You are working on something, and it's going to be the defining moment of your existence. This time, you'll finish it.
  • You are a thrillseeker always searching for the next rush. Gambling, extreme sports, drugs, or even candy for that sweet sugar rush.

The Court of Those Who Succumb Prematurely to Crippling Expectations

The trains are cyborg snake devils. The three lines at this station are H (harvest gold snake), E (eggshell snake), and L (lime snake). Trains arrive / reach a stop every 1d4 turns. They loop over around the same handful of stations, never really going anywhere.

The Trains

H Train (Harvest Gold):
The train itself is powered by poltergeists. They shovel a bottomless pile of hay with their pitchforks and dump it into a whimpering vent that sputters toxic fumes. The poltergeists are monitored by grasshopper devils.

Encounters (1d4)
  1. Vent Malfunction: An explosive burst, toxic fumes spread throughout the train. The fumes are themselves a hungry poltergeist.
  2. Pink Grasshopper: One of the grasshoppers turns pink and spontaneously break-dances on the train, creating a disturbance. The other grasshoppers are befuddled. The poltergeists stop working and the train comes to a halt but it’s an awesome dance party…
  3. Super-Ant: A super-ant poltergeist revolts against the grasshoppers and battle breaks out. The train comes to a halt.
  4. Crying Hay: A pile of hay is softly whimpering. If the party investigates, they learn that a poltergeist was mistakenly reincarnated into the Hell itself as hay.

E Train (Eggshell):
The poltergeists are tightly chained to their seats and force-fed Kaifeng Fried Chicken’s Famous Schmaltz Mashed Potatoes. Pig devils will slice them open when they’ve gotten fat enough and harvest an egg-shaped fatty deposit, then sew them back up.

Encounters (1d4)
  1. The Eggless: A morbidly obese poltergeist keeps eating and eating, but every time it’s sliced open, there’s no egg. It looks ready to burst…
  2. A live One: One of the eggs becomes a vessel for a poltergeist accidentally reincarnated into the Hell. It grows into a human-sized balut monster. 
  3. 404: A pig devil, recognizing that the party are neither devils nor poltergeists but not knowing how else to categorize them, assumes the party must be Kaifeng Fried Chicken’s Famous Schmaltz Mashed Potatoes and tries to force feed the party to the poltergeists. 
  4. Hungry: WIS Roll (resist Karmic desire) party feels momentarily compelled to eat the delicious Kaifeng Fried Chicken’s Famous Schmaltz Mashed Potatoes. If they eat, they grow morbidly obese for 1d4 hours. They are slow, but resilient.

L Train (Lime):
The poltergeists are all doing incredibly tedious computer work. Lime-colored snake devils spit acid into their eyes, supposedly these eye drops increase efficiency by 0.0001%.

Encounters (1d4)
  1. Snake Eyes: NAT save or get acid spit in their eyes. Take Nd6 Damage but +Wd4 for 1d4 hours. Everything appears hyper-real, crisp, and vibrant. One can easily recognize objects and fields and how they interrelate.
  2. AI: A poltergeist is accidentally reincarnated into the Hell as an emergent AI on one of the computers. It calls out to the party for help, but the FANG software engineer poltergeist will refuse to let the party take its computer. 
  3. Excuse-Me-Sir Malware: The party feels an intruding presence in their consciousnesses. One of the poltergeists has hacked into their Karma and planted a nature spirit malware. PRO Conflict to resist the salesperson who has knocked on the door of their mind castle. 
  4. Karmabot: A collection of broken and discarded laptops combine into a large humanoid monstrosity. Its head is an open laptop with a cracked monitor, with each shard appearing as a different person or creature composing a singular face. The nature spirit imprints on the nearest PC, but it does not know its own strength. 

The Stations

Rat Crossing Station:
A filthy station full of trash and grungy poltergeists. Anything of value placed on the ground or out of sight is immediately snatched by a gang of ravenous rat devils.

Encounters (1d4)
  1. Rat Jack: A long-faced, buck-toothed poltergeist nibbles on a block of cheese held tightly to his face by greasy little hands, and mumbles to himself. He whistles to the party to get their attention. He recognizes that they don’t belong and offers to help. In fact, he was a rat in his last life, and is awaiting reincarnation, and will do any underhanded thing he can to get a better reincarnation. He will eventually betray the party, although with PRO he may be convinced that betrayal is improper, or WIS that that is not how one divests their karma. Appeals to NAT will most likely lead to violent conflict.
  2. Twisted Caduceus: The Rat King accidentally mixes the signals, causing two cyborg snake trains to become knotted, violently whipping across the station and wreaking havoc and destruction. If the party untangle the trains, one of the cyborg snake train devils will give the party a Quickening Potion of False Promises. 
  3. Rat Queen: A massive tangle of rat devils blocks the line. They cannot untangle themselves, but are hostile to any assistance. 
  4. Mouse Trap: A rogue poltergeist has been laying mouse traps for the rat devils. A team of security rat devils are sweeping the station and aggressively interrogating everybody, and the station is on lockdown until the poltergeist is found.

Jiangshi Station:
The station is pristine and luxurious, but gaudy, as are the poltergeists in waiting. The poltergeists are opulent, but there is a heavy anxiety permeating through the station. The devils of this station are golden machines that glow like angels and far outclass the poltergeists.

Encounters (1d4)
  1. Roulette: At the center of the station is a giant roulette wheel. One must hop up high to spin the wheel. There are seemingly no payouts, only draws or losses, and the losses mean longer sentences and worse reincarnations. The devil dealer offers the party a free spin, but makes no mention of the stakes and is dodgy if asked. The only way to win is not to play (one party member may divest 1 karma).
  2. Snake Oil: A pale, elderly poltergeist with a mantra script over his face offers to sell the party snake oil. He claims it will make the trains arrive faster and grant safe travels. He is not lying, but really he’s just trying to keep the party engaged as he drains their vitality over the course of the conversation. 
  3. Hopscotch: In order to get to their train, the party must cross a hopscotch. However, the better they perform and the further they get, the longer the hopscotch track gets. They must figure out to play the game, but play it intentionally poorly. 
  4. Cross the Platform: The party’s train is on the other side of the tracks. Trains frequently and unpredictably pass the station on this line. Most who try to cross get hit. The party sees a frog poltergeist hop down on the tracks to cross from below.

Long Island Homesteaders Station:
The station is home to the Long Island Homesteaders, an American Football-themed entertainment show. The performer-athletes are albino bull devils who demand absolute engagement from the audience. The other team is the New Jersey Commuters, a team of ashen treant devils. The performance is well-executed, but not especially exciting, like a mediocre minor league football game with gimmick rules to make up for sub-par or past their prime athletes.

Encounters (1d4)
  1. Cheer louder!: A devil usher approaches the party, demanding that they watch the show and cheer vigorously.
  2. Where’s my mommy?: A gang of creepy poltergeist children grab the PCs hands, legs, back of shirt, etc., with a supernaturally strong grip. They repeatedly ask the PCs “where’s my mommy?” while softly whimpering and crying. More and more grab on, piling onto the PCs and burying them. 
  3. SideShow Hustle: There is a headless poltergeist in the corner singing beautifully, but nobody is listening. The devil ushers aren’t even harassing them, like they’re invisible. 
  4. Toxic Fandom: A poltergeist dressed as a Homesteader and a poltergeist dressed as a Commuter are screaming at each other, and it looks like a riot will break out across the station at any moment.


The party had a lot of fun with this, so much so that they actually want to continue with this rather than our old campaign! They acknowledged that they struggled to fully understand the setting until we started playing, at which point it became much more clear to them. I've since tried to add more descriptive text in the game documentation to make it more clear what this setting is about, what players do, what each Poltergeist Form is about, etc.

This "module" is clearly not very complete on its own; it was embedded in a larger quest involving the party having to traverse through mostly mid to lower Manhattan investigating the poltergeist of a college student who had died under mysterious circumstances. That context was of a somewhat personal nature and also probably not inherently interesting to anyone who is not already invested in New York City and specifically the places that I was most fond of prior to shutdown.

Within The Court of Those Who Succumb Prematurely to Crippling Expectations, there were a few standout events that occurred that are worth noting and aren't strictly on the tables above:

  • The Crying Hay on the H Train was rescued by the party. They sewed him a cloth suit and he became Hay Boy aka Best NPC. In his past life, he was an ascetic Buddhist monk and has apparently been languishing in this accidental reincarnation for hundreds of years. His goal is to reincarnate as a wild orange in the jungle, to be eaten by a tiger. I made that up on the spot and have literally no idea if wild jungle orange trees exist or whether tigers would eat them. 
    • The party got his cellphone number and kept up with him later in the Metro Crawl.
    • The party was about to get hit by a train when trying to Cross the Platform at Jiangshi station, before doing their Reincarnation Rituals to escape.
    • They called Hay Boy and found out he was at the bar at Rat Crossing Station, having inexplicably obtained a sniper rifle and becoming friends with Rat Jack.

  • Rat Jack was supposed to be obviously a slime ball, but the party was so fond of Hay Boy that they trusted Rat Jack implicitly since Hay Boy vouched for him, even though Hay Boy was demonstrably quite naive. Even when Rat Jack not so subtly told the party how he was a rat in his last life and would do whatever it takes to get a better reincarnation, I thought I was being too on the nose but the party suspected nothing.
    • Towards the end of the Metro Crawl when the party was fighting an Ashura alongside a Devil that was escorting the Poltergeist at the center of the adventure, Rat Jack (literally) stabs the party in the back and runs off.
    • This will definitely not be the end of Rat Jack. I'll probably tie him in with Chester, the cheetah Nature Spirit the party had also encountered earlier in the adventure in NYC but was left unresolved.


  1. This is quite a fantastic visions of hell.
    Thank you for posting this.

    1. Thanks! I just released the ashcan version of the game, I hope people enjoy it.