World Building: Ancient history of the Fell Met Sea

First off, if you’re playing in my Fell Met Sea game please don’t read this yet. It’s 100% full of spoilers for my current thoughts on setting background that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re not playing Fell Met Sea, I’ve put together some ideas about how the previous civilization(s) that preceded my PCs’ present world fell apart. Check out the consequences of sacrificial blood magic!

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Highwoodshire

Highwoodshire sits atop the hills, overlooking the fertile farming and grazing land below to the south and east. The land rises from river valleys to high meadows, edged by gentle slopes or crumbling cliffs. Several small forests grace the hilltops, along with a patchwork of farmsteads and villages scattered about amongst the fields, pastures, and groves. There are several productive mines in the area, with a long history of moderate use, but most notably Highwoodshire is home to an old set of forts, small temples, and watchtowers, fallen into variable disrepair.

The shire was once the seat of a knightly order, home to skilled soldiers and a strong fighting levy, held closely by the knights for many years against encroachment from the north and west by the pale people known as the Hungry Ones. The knightly order was eventually disbanded in disgrace, and their primary seat in the shire was sieged and burned when they refused to surrender to their ostensible liege. But their holdings were well built and many remain to this day. Their northwesternmost watchtower still stands strong, watching over the wide, dry grasslands of the northwest, never taken by any sieging force. It was only lost after the order was disbanded, when the small garrison finally starved to death holding off a mass of Hungry People, never receiving the support they had expected.

After the destruction of the knight’s order and several further waves of conflict, the Hungry People and the folk of Highwoodshire co-mingled and settled in peace on the hills overlooking the river valleys beyond. The temples of the order were mostly either neglected or rebuilt for the new beliefs of the mixed folk, though a few smaller ones still retained followers who held to older ways. Much of the knowledge and wealth accrued by the knights was looted or destroyed in the sacking of their forts after they were disbanded, but it is said by many that there were still more treasures and tomes hidden deep within their forts and temples that were never found. The locals are proud of their stories of the knights, even those who are conspicuously pale, and they relish telling stories of the obstinacy of that order… even as they disavow their more reviled practices.

Those in the know doubt the locals’ claims of religious and cultural propriety. There is some evidence that the practices publicly reviled by the folk of Highwoodshire are in fact maintained in secret. Some even say that the knights never partook of those practices, despite their reputation to the contrary, and that they instead were vilified for the practices of the people under their protection. There are scholarly disagreements among those who maintain the knights’ innocence as to whether the knights were aware of the practices and intentionally sheltered the people in their lands, or whether they were unaware of the habits of those they protected. Of course, most people simply lump the knights in with the rest, and say good riddance to the whole lot—ignoring the rumors of people going missing on the high hills, or the odd habits of those who live there still.

Highwoodshire remains strategically valuable as a geographic strongpoint with many remnant structures, but it has been some time since any group was permitted to maintain fortifications in the area. Instead, it is a fairly quiet place these days. Its quiet is only marred by the rumors of old treasures, secrets, and shames hidden deep in the old ruins, and by the whispers of forbidden rituals and almost-forgotten ways maintained by ancient sects in the wooded hills overlooking the peaceful farmland below.

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh drops from the jungle floor deep into the rock below. Far below the surface, dark water glimmers in the noon sun, patinated by streams of leaf-filtered sunlight. The ruins above have long since been worn away or overgrown, but within the cenote it is different; an entire city remains there, etched and built into the walls of the broad cavern’s mouth.

Though all (or almost all) agree that the original inhabitants left long ago, few agree as to why. What is known for sure is that the cenote still holds great importance to many despite its relative neglect. Some see the cenote as a religious site, and a brave few force themselves through the jungles around the cenote in order to make their pilgrimage and pay homage. Others claim that the cenote is in fact an entrance to far more important and extensive networks of caves and waterways, which were (they claim) the reason that the city within it was built in the first place. Everyone agrees that the remnants of those who once lived there are valuable, even though most of the remaining artifacts lie below the water deep within the pit.

The buildings which line the wall of the pit all open onto a spiraling thoroughfare which runs, like a screw’s thread, up and down the pit’s edge in one long line. Here and there steeper, faster routes up and down exist: ancient stone stairways, carved ladder rungs slick with condensation, even what must be carved eyelets for rope and pulleys to maneuver loads up and down the cenote’s walls. Most who visit do not venture within, instead staying safe as they pay their respects above.

There are those who claim to have traded with dwellers below, and those who have ventured in who say that they have been chased out by the things still there inside. Certainly some have thrown valuable goods into the cenote, usually gold or other precious metals and gems, explaining that they do so to propitiate the things that dwell below. Others have thrown goods into the cenote in apparent expectation that they will receive goods in return, or perhaps have their wishes granted. It is not clear to what extent they have received either goods or fulfilled wishes.

The few who do venture down into the cenote quickly learn that centuries of neglect and the constant dripping of water will make nearly any surface perilously slippery.

The cenote smells of wet stone, dirt, mellow old rot, and moss and other greenery. It echoes with birdcalls from above, croaking frogs from below, and the chirrups of peepers and other small insects. The jungle’s regular storms resound in the confined space, the sound of rainfall drowning out all other noise as it reverberates from the water below like a massive buzzing drum.

Those storms constantly refill the cenote, though its water level varies more than the casual observer might anticipate. Many floors of buildings remain un-flooded, eroded by plants and the constant drip of water, but there are several floors which are only sometimes inundated, and a few more below the usual waterline that sometimes drain. Without any warning, the cenote has been known to fill rapidly on a sunny day, or to drain suddenly during a storm. Those who pay careful attention have their theories, but a few of them are quite able to forecast reliably when the cenote will lose more of its water and reveal some of its usually sodden secrets.

The recovery of those secrets is a remarkably rewarding exercise, even if it is a dangerous one. There are many who would like to have something from within the cenote, but who are not willing to venture in there for themselves—and there are some who would like to have trustworthy company for such a quest. The removal of those secrets, be they artifacts, ancient valuables, or even simply knowledge of those who once dwelled there, is strongly opposed by some others, and it’s possible that there have been murders committed both for and against the recovery of such things.

All who would venture in do so at their own risk. Even during the height of the day, little effective sunlight reaches into the cenote’s depths. Those who would bring their own light are well advised to make sure that it will withstand constant dripping water from above. Those who would bring anything that might soak through, rot, or otherwise be destroyed by moisture are best advised to abandon their attempt, or come to terms with the temporary nature of such things. Furthermore, the constant gentle passage of water (and the occasional violent passage of it) has left much of the cenote’s architecture unstable. The thoroughfare crumbles and collapses in places, and nearly all of it is slick.

There are many rumors told of the things that still live within the cenote. Some claim that they are little more than monsters, others say that they are people, others even claim that they were the original inhabitants of the cenote and have merely been changed. Yet other people claim that all the rumors are no more than that, and should be ignored. But those disbelievers struggle to explain the vociferous choruses which rise from deep within the cenote at odd hours, instead falling back on the tired claim that it is a natural phenomenon. Few agree, and the cenote remains an only half-known piece of the landscape, calling to those with more bravery, curiosity, or greed than sense.

Boston Protest March, May 31st

I marched in Boston on Sunday.

I left after standing at the State House for a little while, before the police went into the crowd. Before I left, the crowd was loud but peaceful—as they had been for the entire march.

I had been heartened by the people around me on the march. People were more considerate of each other than a typical Boston crowd, with lots of attention paid to those around them and none of those pockets of oblivious assholes that so often crop up. While social distancing was basically impossible, I think I saw fewer than ten people without masks.

For perspective, that was ten in this crowd:

If I felt so positive about it, why did I leave?

I spoke mid-march with someone who was helping to organize the crowd, keeping it on the route. They noted the profound lack of police managing the boundaries of the route. That was an accurate assessment, as far as I could tell—the march was almost entirely self-managed. I saw only one cluster of cops off to the side along the whole march (2.4 miles from 2343 Washington Street in Roxbury to the State House on the Commons, at a slow pace over one and a half hours). I’m not sure why the police felt they shouldn’t be present along the route. That was a change from what I’ve seen before. The person managing the crowd speculated that the police were all waiting at the State House, and they worried about what that might imply about the police’s plans.

That resonated with my existing fears. It was also prescient.

I know enough people who’ve been hurt by police while peacefully protesting.

I have at least one family member who’s been hurt by police before. They were protesting peacefully. I trust and believe them when they say this; they’ve done martial arts most of their life and are trained in deescalation and crisis management. We’ve worked security together at large festivals. They were backing away from the police and not offering resistance, but the police attacked them anyway.

I’ve watched police attack other people in front of me, outside of protests, when those people were doing nothing more than being loud. I’ve heard stories of other close friends being pepper sprayed or tear gassed without offering any resistance to police officers.

That had weighed heavily on me while I planned to go to Sunday’s march. Because of that, I’d never intended to stay long enough to be around large numbers of police. Even before hearing that crowd-shepherding person’s speculation, I was hyper-aware of what might happen to me if I stayed.

I’m frustrated that this might be seen as a feature by those who support more violent policing, and by those who don’t support protests (or don’t support protests except when a certain President supports them, as was the case with various armed white protestors this April).

But what it comes down to, really, is that I don’t trust the police.

I don’t trust police to deescalate a situation. I don’t trust police to engage peacefully with anyone they don’t like or empathize with. I don’t believe that they’ll avoid hurting people who don’t offer any resistance. I especially don’t trust police to engage peacefully with crowds. Honestly—and I say this as someone with all the benefits of being seen as a white man—I don’t trust police to empathize with anyone who isn’t visibly and vocally supporting them.

On top of that, I don’t trust most people to believe or support peaceful protestors who’ve been hurt by the police. I believe that those hurt will be blamed, instead of the police. As best as I can see, there’s little accountability to that motto “to serve and protect.”

I’m sad about all of that.

Consider, just for a moment, the standards we hold protestors to when we judge whether or not they’re behaving acceptably. Now, what behavior will we permit or excuse among police officers? Police aren’t punished when they use disproportionate force to subdue people, or when they react to provocations. But if protestors are attacked, we gasp and complain when they respond with anything other than nonviolent forbearance. And we accept that people who’ve done nothing wrong, whose very rights to speech and assembly are enshrined in our Constitution, suffer when the police use indiscriminate force to control people.

When one person in a large crowd throws something, the whole crowd is suspect and a legitimate target. When one officer kills someone, they’re “just one bad apple.” Never mind the fact that the idiom about bad apples says that one bad apple spoils the bunch.

I think I’m only not angry about this all the time because I’ve nearly given up on the police being better. That in itself is sad and stupid; I’ve been on security teams that were better, and I know Community Safety Officers more dedicated to (and who do a better job of) serving and protecting their communities. I know it’s possible to have people do similar work that supports and grows the public trust instead of corroding it.

I fear the impact these protests will have, both through violent policing and through Covid-19’s spread, especially in communities of color. Mattias talks eloquently about both of these things in his thread that starts here:

I can only conclude is that it’s vital for these protests to continue. I don’t see another way to make things change.

Using 3 Pillar XP in D&D as 5 Questions

I posted in February last year about using XP awards to train your players, and the problems of various methods of XP accounting. I mentioned in that post that I would experiment with rewarding players for telling me more explicitly where they wanted to go in their next session. It turns out, that particular group of players never developed the habit of telling me explicitly what their characters’ goals were despite my repeated encouragement.

I also mentioned the reddit thread about Improved 3 Pillar XP, and said that I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to use it because it seemed like it would require more accounting than I was interested in doing. But since Covid-19 has moved all my gaming online and I’ve made more quick reference materials for myself in google docs, I decided that I’d try building a spreadsheet to run the Improved 3 Pillar XP calculations for me.

I think the golden moment for me—the moment that convinced me to throw together the basics of the Improved 3 Pillar XP categories in a spreadsheet—was seeing that I could simplify all XP gain into a series of questions at the end of a session. Those questions:

  • Did the PCs recover any notable treasure?
  • Did the PCs explore, defend (suggested by my sibs), or takeover an important location?
  • Did the PCs ally an important NPC, or align them towards PC’s causes / away from foes’?
  • Did the players interact with each other in character?
  • Did the PCs circumvent or defeat any foes?

When I shared my quick and dirty first notes with my sibs, they rapidly made a separate interface that I’m actually quite happy with.

Now I have a spreadsheet that will take direct input from me about how much I want to reward my PCs as a proportion of their next level, with input categories spread across exploration, social interaction, and combat. The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is that this is also flexible and easy to expand.

If I want to try adding other categories of behavior that I wish to reward, I can either include those as expanded qualifying cases for the above questions (by changing an existing question) or I can add another question and reward category. As someone who enjoys tinkering with spreadsheets, that isn’t a scary prospect… though I can understand it not being your cup of tea. Ideally, I’ll have all this put together in a good-looking easily-read format at some point. For now though, I’m trying it out and seeing how well it works. Do it bad quickly first, etc.

The first idea I had about expanding this was to try rewarding players for telling me about their characters’ plans and then having the PCs act on those. I realize that this doesn’t necessarily work with PCs who are too in-the-moment to plan ahead, nor does it work as well when the PCs are too busy reacting to every new garbage fire to forge their own path… but I think it could be useful in a more sandbox game, especially one with a more relaxed pace.

If you want to try building your own, I suggest copying all the various tables in the Improved 3 Pillar XP post into a spreadsheet first so that you know what you’re working with. If you’d like to try using what I’ve got so far, tell me so and I’ll look into sharing something that you might be able to use.

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

CBB+Book+CoverShit Children of Blood and Bone is good. Tomi Adeyemi deserves more than praise for this.

The end of the book was all that I could have wanted and more, and I loved it. I finished it in tears, big warm heartfelt and healing ones, the kind I like. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone looking for fantasy YA, and I’d add it to the reading list I’ve made of works by Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and Alaya Dawn Johnson (all of whose work you should also try if you haven’t yet).

Now, as often happens with YA these days, I did bounce several times nearly two-thirds through. My dislike of YA star-crossed romance tropes—and my fear and anticipation of the next guessed-at story beat—got the better of me. But each time, what Adeyemi actually wrought was so much better than what I’d feared. She did conform closely enough to the tropes for the story beats to be recognizable as those tropes, but she wrote them well. Better, she wrote them differently enough that I, as someone who struggles through those pieces of YA novels, enjoyed it. Tomi Adeyemi is skillful and capable, and she twists characters around and makes them suffer, and she does it brilliantly.

This book is beautiful and powerful and magnificent, it is evocative and compelling, I love it. And I absolutely admire it as craft and as message. Children of Blood and Bone calls out brutal truths about our own world. I fervently hope it reaches more people… and that we change our world.

Thank you, Tomi Adeyemi, for making this and sharing it.

I’ve already picked up Children of Virtue and Vengeance, the sequel.

Worldbuilding: The Mad Libs Approach

Building a setting piecemeal is sometimes difficult, but often fun and rewarding. By playing mad libs with your setting, you’re able to cram together a wild group of ideas that fill out your underlying concepts and give the whole thing its own distinct flavor. My favorite example of this was Continue reading

Blending Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots with D&D

Call of Cthulhu—for all it’s other Lovecraft-inherited flaws—has traditionally done a good job of building expectations of death and insanity into the core of the game. Furthermore, it has done this in a way that builds tension for longer campaigns without (usually) compromising the characters central to those campaigns. CoC does this best by blending one-shots with longer campaigns.

D&D can make use of this! I plan to do this in a game I’m starting soon.

The way that Call of Cthulhu usually handles this is by using a one-shot to set the scene and tone of a longer campaign. Characters in those one-shots are sacrificial, and their survival is a surprise rather than a given.

While similar assumptions of character death underlie old school B/X D&D, those assumptions are less present in most 5th edition D&D games that I’ve been in (or run) recently. Many players have more heroic narrative expectations of their characters. But I want to use Call of Cthulhu’s murderous one-shots in a longer D&D game to give the players a better sense of the tensions and threats that await them.

My hope is to let players experience the fates of other characters (who are not their primary campaign ones). By uncovering the setting’s past, through magical archaeology or some other information gathering, I would let them play one-shots as characters other than their PCs. The players would know beforehand some of the conclusions to be reached in the scenes they played out, but they would otherwise be free to play those snapshots however they saw fit, and could have a chance to learn more about the setting in ways that fed into their main PCs’ decision making and views of the world.

Given that I expect to have some inexperienced players, my hopes with this are manifold; I wish to create spaces within the game for my players to come to terms with character death, to give them information about the setting which would otherwise require hefty info dumps, and to let them cut loose and experiment with decision making that doesn’t hamper their narrative goals or visions for their main characters. We’ll see how I do.

The Twin Falls

The Twin Falls drop in a single stream from a cleft cliff face. One river splits into two mouths at the cliff’s edge, their columns of water remerging into one for the plummet to the impossibly smooth waters below. Some strange trick of the depths beneath the falls sucks the roaring water into a still lake, the surface mirror smooth from the edge of the falling column outwards.

This, perhaps, is the true source of the Twin Falls’ name; standing on the low rise that rings the lake below like an amphitheater’s seats, looking into the lake shows two waterfalls, one dropping from above as the other meets it from below—an unbroken column across the plane of the lake.

The low rise is itself well shaped, as though it might have been intentionally sculpted into place. Here and there one may find tiny nooks carved into the rise, large enough for a picnic blanket were one to hew space from the jungle’s covetous grasp. Each nook offers a view of the falls, every one from a different angle. No large trees grow on the rise, though several tower along the cliff’s edge high above and many more soar in the space beyond the berm.

Where the lake’s water goes, no one knows.

It is said that people once lived around the Twin Falls. Certainly those who know where and how to look will see their traces. Those suspicious enough to pry or imagine will find plentiful fuel for their ideas—whether from those conveniently sized nooks and their alignment through the mouths of the falls with astronomical bodies above, or from the many hillocks that dot the rainforest beyond, or from the shapings still visible in the stone of the cliff face and the land past it. Regardless, none of those people still remain.

Stories are told of why they disappeared. Those with a predilection for the sword speculate that the missing people were invaded and subjugated, though little explanation is given for why no one remained. The more mystically inclined wonder at the deep knowledge needed to build such an astronomical sighting system, and argue that the people obtained enlightenment or found some higher truth of the world. Those whose suspicions run deeper speak in hushed tones of the lake itself, claiming that it must be a cenote deep enough to swallow the river above, with a belled top perfectly shaped by masterful stoneworkers in order to preserve the mirrored surface. These speculators, the especially paranoid and fanciful, whisper of the sun’s path on the longest day, the way it illuminates everything below, how the lake’s reflection twists for just a moment as the sun finally sets, and how there are stories of folk going missing in the jungles there on the longest day. Stories of a city in the lake, painted gold by the setting solstice sun, are easily explained away as sun-blindness.

No matter the reasons, Twin Falls is a place of stunning grandeur. It does not take an overactive imagination to see why some might once have settled in the lands nearby. Nor, from the eager greenery that clings tightly and encroaches day by day, is it difficult to see why one might choose to leave. Molds fester in dark places, and rot takes hold and does not let go. Nor are the jungles around Twin Falls quiet. Hungry things prowl there, and travelers are wise to go armed and ready. The wild beasts of that place are territorial and indiscriminate where they are not simply predatory. Worse still are the dreams some say come to them there as the days lengthen, the call of the lake, the powerful tug of its waters and the songs heard from a city that hangs golden in their dreams just beyond the mirror of the setting sun.

Receiver 2: stay safe

Receiver2header

Hunted by kill drones, you’ll sneak through unnervingly empty buildings, scour for messages left by others like you, and hunt down tapes that teach you about the Threat and what you must do to defeat it—while you master every element of your randomly assigned firearm in order to perform well under pressure.

Receiver 2, by Wolfire, is an excellent game. It’s only on Steam right now.

But also, Receiver 2 is not for everyone. Not in a “only cool kids will like this game” way, but in a “you should be ready to engage with strong themes of mental illness, self harm, and the most serious approach to gun safety I’ve seen in a video game” sort of way. Like I said, not for everyone.

I really like this game.

It’s tense. It’s difficult. It is incredibly thorough and extremely well thought out (with a niggling exception that I’ll cover later). It’s the only game I know—besides its game-jam precursor—to bother modeling the underlying mechanisms of the guns you use.

Receiver 2 makes loading, safe-ing, and holstering your gun an actual skill. Learning to clear malfunctions by reflex is necessary, and mastering it is deeply satisfying in a way that simply tapping ‘r’ never is. Receiver 2 also discusses gun safety with extreme frankness, and pushes you to be aware of it constantly. If you screw up or forget, you may shoot yourself.

As someone who’s been a range safety assistant I deeply approve.

Intricately modeled weapons and foes, discoverable story and world-building, maneuvering through the tense spatial puzzles of kill drones’ blindspots in order to achieve your objectives—Receiver 2 is very good. I strongly recommend it, with two qualifications:

The first is that niggling exception from earlier, and something Wolfire says they’re resolving; the game revolves around uncovering tapes to advance through levels, but you lose a level of progress when you quit the game. That’s a problem, and it’s an unfortunate oversight. The game is already challenging, and has no save function, so demoting you a level when you quit feels needlessly punitive. Luckily, Wolfire has said that they’re going to fix that in a patch. Until then, I have read that typing ‘insight’ into the pause screen will advance you one level. Use as you see fit.

Second, if you aren’t in a good space to face strong themes of mental illness and self harm, especially around guns, I recommend caution around this game. I agree with RPS’ review of Receiver 2, but as someone who has dealt with depression and suicidal ideation I think they should have mentioned this content warning.

I’m keeping this non-specific in case you care about spoilers, but Receiver 2 deals with all those aforementioned topics head on. Now, Receiver 2 has one of the most straightforward and positive approaches to discussing depression and suicidal ideation that I’ve seen in a video game. But even though I knew that Receiver 2 had themes of mental illness and self harm, I was *not* ready for what I encountered. I’m glad that I’ve played the game, and I’m extra glad that I’ve *kept* playing because I admire some of Wolfire’s choices in handling these themes. But you should know that this game has difficult content—especially around suicidal ideation and self harm. I want you to be aware of that before you sign up for it.