Sep 22, 2017

The Necrocarcerus Alchemy Supplement

I wrote these alchemy rules for what is rapidly becoming the "never-to-be-finished" Necrocarcerus Rules version 3.0. Someone asked for a list of alchemy ingredients, and I realised I already had one written up, so I scraped the rules and the lists from that document and have uploaded it to Google Drive as a handsome PDF. As always, most of it is a series of bad in-jokes and allusions for which I apologise pre-emptively.

These rules represent a distillation and refinement of the procedures in Procedural Metapharmacology and Alchemy: The Junkie's Science, and can be supplemented with the procedures outlined in those posts as well as in my post Determining Magical Item Components (all of which are actually just more prolix variations on the advice "Use your random encounter table to determine what the PCs need"). Enjoy!

Sep 17, 2017

A Few Notes on Combat Styles in Mythras

Combat styles in the Mythras family are left with relatively undefined scopes in the rules as written. Individual referees are left to figure out how many combat styles their setting will have; how many (and which) weapons any given combat style encompasses; and which the special trait(s) each style will have. Having now designed about twenty different combat styles for several different settings with very different feels, I'd like to share some of my impressions.

As an initial qualification, I'd mention that Luther Arkwright, the one published science fiction setting, breaks from a bunch of what I'm saying below, though it arrives as a similar set of conclusions about how combat styles should work nonetheless. I'm also leaving aside "Monster Styles" since they can be created off the cuff without consequence.

The Observations


1) PCs will typically have between one and two combat styles right out the game, and the slow increase in skills in Mythras means that most will either stick with their original styles or pick up at most a third. I've never seen a PC with four or more combat styles, never even heard any one discuss the possibility as a realistic option for their character's development.

2) In my experience, the typical Mythras party has PCs all come from a shared cultural background, so you'll find that most of them share the same primary combat style. But, every other character in a typical party will have a career that allows them to access a second combat style (or in the case of Mythras Without Tears, will sacrifice a professional skill choice to gain access to a second combat style). Most of these PCs will want their second choice to be unique withing the party (unless one of the combat styles is particularly good). So when you're trying to judge how many combat styles you need for the party alone, use that as your baseline assumption.

3) Though they may not realise it at the start, most PCs will eventually want one of their two combat styles to have a fairly good ranged weapon (usually the short spear), at least one to let them use a shield, and at least one with the Mounted Combat trait (even if they don't need to invoke it all that often). The more they can layer these into a single style, the more desirable or necessary that style becomes.

NB: If you're a PC and you notice your enemies are using a combat style that has a trait other than Mounted Combat, try to get your enemies to jump onto their steeds (perhaps by fleeing on your own with them in hot pursuit) and then remind your referee about capping their combat styles with their Ride skill. You won't be popular, but you will be nigh-invulnerable to most stock enemies.

4) If there's a trait that rewards a bunch of PCs using the same combat style in tandem with one another (i.e. Shield Wall, or Formation Fighting) either everyone in the party will take it as their primary combat style or else it'll fail to reach the critical threshold of three PCs and be ignored / snubbed. If you're using careers, it's extremely unlikely that three PCs will get access to, and choose, the same secondary combat style through their careers, so you have to make it available at the Culture stage. In parties with multiple cultural backgrounds, don't expect people to take these combat styles.

5) The Mythras core has just under 60 weapons in it (counting shields), but most settings use a much smaller subset - I believe there's about 13 (counting shields) in Mythic Britain, and around 25 in Shores of Korantia's combat styles (with most of the variety in a small number styles that are less common). In the Dawnlands, I went for 12 - ten actual weapons, and two kinds of shields (I am considering adding another three of four, but haven't made up my mind).

A certain amount of doubling up on weapons between styles is good (since it allows a character not to have to carry a golf bag of swords), but you don't want too much overlap since that lowers people's willingness to take it as a second style without a further incentive. And that incentive might actually convince them to take the second style and ignore the first anyhow.

In practice, I find the ideal is about three weapons, especially if you're designing a lot of styles that count shields as one of those three. That lets PCs who take two combat styles use four offensive weapons, and at least one kind of shield, possibly two, without penalty. Three weapons also helps keep the style focused - with four weapons you tend to start asking yourself "What would the most common secondary sidearm for this person be?" a lot.

I also have a tendency to create a single combat style in a campaign that allows you to choose any two weapons you want. You gain in freedom of choice by losing that extra slot. This helps accommodate the folks who really, really, really want to wield a particular weapon that wouldn't otherwise be available.

6) There's a temptation that's indulged a lot to create near-identical combat styles differentiated by culture (usually with a slightly different sidearm or . Instead, I recommend picking the common types of soldier in your campaign setting, creating a combat style for each one, and then just reusing them across cultures to save time.

The Conclusions

Combat styles tend to work best when they have about three weapons per style. You should assume that at least every other character in a typical party is going to want a unique combat style. If you want a style that synergises when multiple characters have it, make it a cultural style rather than a specialty style you get access to through a career. Mounted Combat is an inobviously excellent and useful trait, so having it in a couple of styles is a good idea.

Aug 31, 2017

(Re)Introducing the Dawnlands

Over the nearly ten years (since 2008!) that I've been designing and running the Dawnlands, a lot has changed. I thought I'd take the opportunity to reintroduce the setting to new readers of my blog. It's shifted from a D&D 4e setting to an Openquest setting to one run by Mythras. And for folks who've been following it since the old RPGsite thread, a lot of names have changed, and many of the original D&Disms have been stripped out or altered significantly. Rather than make people dig through five year old blog posts, here's a brief introduction to where the Dawnlands is nowadays.

The Dawnlands is a psychedelic mythic fantasy setting built atop a layer of social realism and very loosely inspired by the historical khaganates of Western and Central Asia. Literary inspirations include Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars; the Secret History of the Mongols; Constantine Porphyrogenitus' De Administrando Imperio; Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road; Calvino's Invisible Cities; Borges' short stories and many others. The archetypal Dawnlands story is something like getting cursed for bringing a crappy gift to your cousin's wedding, and having to go take magic mushrooms so your ancestors can guide you to the lost grave of a cannibal-wizard guarded by creatures made of his solidified spite so you can steal the crown he's buried with and bring it back as a better wedding gift to get uncursed.

The Dawnlands is an area about the size of Oregon (about 250,000 square kilometres) with six main cultural groups and two cities, with an overall population of about 2.5 million sentient beings.

The main species are:

Habiru - Canine-headed men broken up into racial groups based on what type of dog. The Kartakalli coming from the north are Habiru (with white-furred wolf heads), but a jackal-headed and a grey-furred wolf type are both indigenous to the Dawnlands. Originally, these were hobgoblins, orcs, and gnolls.

Humanity - There are three main racial groups, the Kads, the Qurun, and the Weykulni. Neighbouring groups present as visitors include the Salt Men, the Men of Rhuap, the Goguriz, and the Men of the Three Towns. In the original version of the Dawnlands, Kads were humans, the Qurun were elves, and the Weykulni were orcs.

Urum - Scaly-skinned humanoids with weird eyes about a metre and a half high. There are several subvarieties, with the most important being the Nethom, a distinct phenotype who rule the southern city-state of Durona. Most Urum live in Durona, in the Orthocracy of Kaddish, or amongst the Forest Dreamers. In the original Dawnlands, the Urum were halflings, goblins, kobolds and the like. Nethom were originally dwarves.

Voidmen - A refugee population from the southern Kingdom of Falling Stars that rules alongside the Nethom in Durona. Dark-skinned with eyes that appear to be empty fields dotted with stars. They live much longer than anyone else (centuries).

The main cultural groups are:

Duronans (pop. 500,000) - A rich society of highly stratified castes with Nethom and Voidmen at the top as zamindars and thakars, and a vast ryot and slave population underneath them. They are busy establishing colonies throughout the south-west Dawnlands, and trying to stave off a slave rebellion. They worship those of their ancestors who have attained divinity and live amongst the stars. Durona was originally called "Dwer Tor" in earlier materials.

Forest Dreamers (pop. 200,000) - A recently-formed theocratic confederation located in the great western rainforest known as the "Forest of Dreams". They worship the Hivehome, the great insect-spirits of the dream world. They are trying to drive out the Duronan slavers. They are split into tribal factions aligned with different temples of the same cult.

Kartakalli (pop. 50,000) - Monotheistic Habiru invaders from the north who worship the god of winter. They toppled the Kingdom of Weykuln and are picking over its bones. The cruelest and most fanatical members of a much more sophisticated society. In the original Dawnlands these guys didn't have a name, so I eventually got around to giving them one.

Orthocracy of Kaddish (pop. 1.2 million) - Once High Kaddish, the paramount state of the Dawnlands, the Orthocracy is now merely its largest mess. An incredible font of magic, technology, culture, but with no real government, it staggers from crisis to crisis somehow managing to survive. Even the vilest gods are acceptable to worship in lawless Kaddish. It possesses the unique magic of "soulforging", which allows it to create new species and transform existing ones.

The Plains Nomads (pop. 150,000) - The king-makers of the Dawnlands, who roam the highland plains of the Dawnlands. There are two main confederations or khanates, each of which despises the others. The Hill People are the descendants of a ruined civilisation known as the Cities of Night, conquered by High Kaddish. The Kadiz were once the ruling landowners of High Kaddish until they were driven out in a revolution. Both groups worship the Storm Bulls and the Wolves of the Earth, ancient gods of the plains.

The Weykulni (pop. 400,000) - Once a proud state controlling the northern mountain passes into the Dawnlands. Now, a series of squabbling nobles slowly being picked off by the Kartakalli as they dispute who should be king. Peasants are fleeing the valley-refuges and great castles of the Weykulni magnates as their armies march against one another. The priesthood of the God of Gates are being hunted down by Kartakalli assassins. Much like the Kartakalli, these folks originally didn't have names, but I was referring to them enough via circumlocutions that I eventually just gave them one.

More to come some other time.

Aug 29, 2017

Mythras Without Tears II

I've been fiddling and experimenting with the character generation system for Mythras since writing this post, and here's what I've decided to use for skills in Dawnlands games. To me, this combines the ideal amount of customisation with speed and ease. I'm also including some passion house rules that make them easier to calculate (and slightly lower on average) than the stock rules.

Starting PCs pick seven standard skills, seven professional skills, and one combat style. They can swap out one professional skill choice to get a second combat style choice. They get 350 points, and can spend up to 45 points on any skill, adding 1% per point spent. They also add +40% to their Native Tongue and Customs skills.

Starting PCs also pick three passions. The first passion has an initial rating of POWx5, the second has an initial rating of POWx4, and the third's initial rating is POWx3. Skill points may also be spent increasing passions as if they were skills. PCs may also swap out one professional skill choice for a fourth passion, which has an initial rating of POWx5.

Art, Culture, Craft, Languages, Literacy, Lore, and Musicianship each have a number of specialties. Customs is the equivalent of Culture for a character's home culture, and Native Tongue is the equivalent of Languages for a character's home culture, but Customs and Native Tongue are distinguished by not having specialties. A character with these skills has a number of specialties equal to 1/5th the skill. Characters test their specialties at full. Outside their specialties, any tests with the skill are at least one grade harder.

One side effect of these passion rules is that most spellcasters are going to start off a little obsessive. I consider this a feature, not a bug.

Aug 15, 2017

Teamwork Rules for Mythras

I had always thought that the rules I'm about to outline were actually part of the core rules for Mythras, but it turns out that they weren't and I'd only imagined that they were (or else Loz and I couldn't find them when we glanced through the rules). I used these rules at Lozcon this weekend (Lawrence Whitaker's weekend roleplaying convention held annually at his home) and they were a hit. In hindsight, they're a simpler version of the teamwork rules I came up with for Openquest.

Whenever characters want to assist one another (i.e. they are all searching a room together; or two smiths working on the same project), they designate a lead. The lead is usually the group member with the highest skill. The lead is the character who will make the roll. The lead may have up to three assistants. Each assistant must have a score of at least 25% in the relevant skill. Each assistant reduces the difficulty grade of the roll by one. If the lead fails or fumbles, both the lead and the assistants suffer the consequences of failing.

This tends to simplify perception and sneaking rolls tremendously.

Jul 30, 2017

Simplifying Religion in Mythras

Religious organisations in Mythras theoretically have up to five levels of membership: lay member, initiate, acolyte, priest, and high priest. Three of these are spell-casting categories as well: initiate, acolyte, and priest. All theism spells are categorised as one of these three levels, and the level categorisation is based on the spell, not on the religion. The different levels of membership control the size of your "devotion pool" which is the number of magic points out of your total pool of magic points that you can devote to casting theistic miracles, which each miracle taking up 1 MP from the devotional pool (e.g. an initiate with 12 POW can devote three magic points to their devotional pool, allowing them to cast three miracles).

This adds an extra layer of complexity when you're designing religions, as you have to keep track of the level of the spell when you're putting together their spell lists, otherwise you run the risk of accidentally creating a religion in which initiates or priests or whoever don't gain access to new spells with their initiations. Considering the limited suggested number of available miracles per cult (up to 1d6+3 total per cult in a high magic campaign), this becomes especially difficult.

Having created my fair share of cults and played a fair deal of Runequest 6, I'd make the following observations:

1) Most of the published campaign worlds don't actually follow the listed guidelines. Mythic Britain uses a totally different system for Christianity that offers 4 miracles per interceding saint you invoke (with some overlap between saints), and has ten or twelve saints in the corebook. The Taskan Empire and Shores of Korantia have different cults offer between 3 and 19 miracles each, depending on the power and prominence of the cult. Classic Fantasy uses some other system entirely that involves three ranks of spells and limits the number you have access to by INT and your level. Monster Island is the one rulebook-following exception, which grants three initiate spells, two acolyte spells, and one priest spell per cult. Some of the top-tier miracles priests get access to are a bit shit tho' (one is "Rain of Fish").

2) Some progression or development is necessary to keep PCs committed to cults. If they can just dip in casually, become an initiate, and learn every possible spell (or at least all the good ones) right off the bat, they're not incentivised to engage further with the cult. Keeping the really good stuff for higher levels of initiation gives PCs something to work toward, so any proposed simplification or solution needs to keep at least two levels of access to spells, and possibly more.

3) I used to think it was feasible to run games where any individual PC might belong to many cults, but after playing RQ6 for a while, I think because of the slow acquisition of new skills and the way devotion pools work, most PCs are going to belong to 1-2 theist cults maximum (and probably one of those will be as just a lay member). That's assuming you even open up the possibility of characters becoming priests if they don't start with access to theist magic (this is something the rules-as-written discourage, but that, once again, is widely ignored in practice). So, if we assume that most PCs are going to belong to 1-2 cults, and probably only one as more than a lay member, a certain amount of depth should be available so they can feel like they're progressing through it.

To simplify the process of creating a religion, my proposal is fairly simple, and really represents a rationalisation of what I see people doing online when they homebrew cults. That is simply to calculate the level of membership required to gain access to a spell on the basis of each religion, rather than the spell. So initiates of one solar religion, acolytes of another, and priests of a third each gain access to say, Sunspear at different levels of membership. This allows greater customisation of each religion, and I'm surprised it's not the default.

Jul 25, 2017

Mythras Without Tears

Creating characters in Mythras is reasonably complicated, especially since one must go through three separate steps to spend skill points, each of which has different restrictions. I won't be using the rules below rules for character generation for the pre-generated characters I'm putting together for the scenario I'll be running at LozCon, but I may use them for Runequest / Mythras character generation in the next campaign I run.

Instead of selecting a culture, career, and spending bonus points, you select seven standard skills, seven professional skills and up to two combat styles (not counting Unarmed). You must spend at least five skill points improving each of the fourteen to sixteen skills, and may spend up to 45 points improving them. This produces characters who are almost identical to regular Mythras characters but without all the substeps. Theoretically, characters could end up knowing two kinds of advanced magic (sorcery and theism, say, or even just two schools of sorcery), which I'm personally fine with. If you're not, simply impose a limit on how many kinds of magic a single person may know.

The restrictions of the substeps theoretically force you to spend points to ensure your character has a basic competency at things their culture values, but in practice, I don't think dumping five skill points into standard skills you've already got a basic ranking in accomplishes that. What it does do is force you waste about 20% or so of the points you got from your cultural background on skills you don't want more than a basic ranking in anyhow. At least by choosing the standard skills, you'll be able to make sure they're all ones that match your character concept.

Personally, I think I'd all up to +50 to be added, to encourage a slightly higher degree of specialisation, but keep the overall size of the pool (350 points) identical.

Some people no doubt find the culture and career process helpful for shaping their character concepts, and I recommend people who do so use the method in the rules as written, but I often find them at least as much a hindrance to realising a character concept as a help personally.