Running #Vampire: Thaumaturgy—The Devil's Bargain

A light dive into Thaumaturgy (or Blood Sorcery, if you prefer), the vampiric Discipline of making up magic shit with your blood!

Thaumaturgy's one of the most popular Disciplines among Vampire players for the simple reason that it's flexible and powerful. Learning Thaumaturgy opens the door for a character to develop a very large range of abilities, combined with ritualized practices that can subvert the traditional weaknesses of the Kindred. What's not to enjoy?

Cover for "Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy" sourcebook
Cover for "Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy" sourcebook

Like all Disciplines, Thaumaturgy is part of the vampiric condition: It is a power that makes it easier to be wicked. Just like Auspex lets you steal people's secrets, Dominate lets you force people to do things, and Potence encourages you to solve your problems with force, Thaumaturgy gives you powers that let you weasel out of many of the usual problems of being undead. Deflect wooden stakes! Increase the power of your own vitae! Steal blood from people without needing to bite them! And so much more!

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Running #DarkSun: Simplified Supplies

This post was inspired by a poster on the DARK SUN Facebook group asking about tracking food and water supplies in the game.

DARK SUN veterans know that your food and water are often in short supply. A perilous journey across a trackless waste can be made even more dangerous if a sudden sandstorm destroys your food, or a sneaky pack of jozhals steals your waterskins while you're resting!

Tracking food and water individually for everyone in your party may be a little hard on the players, though. They want to have sword-and-sandal adventures, not adventures in accounting!

One way to sidestep this is to give all the accounting duties to one player who enjoys or tolerates that kind of paperwork, and let them track supplies for the whole party. This can still be awkward, though, if you need to figure out who's carrying what, or how much the half-giant is hauling around as compared to the low-strength magician. And it's still a lot of number-tracking.

If you want to abstract your food and water supplies to require far less accounting, here's a simple way to do it!

SUPPLY DICE

Set aside three six-sided dice for use as your supply dice.
Your entire party carries supplies as a group. Strong characters carry more; the team works as a whole to carry the food and drink that they need. Your level of supplies determines how many supply dice your party has, and also affects your encumbrance. Everyone in the party has a minimum level of encumbrance set by your supplies: If you're carrying a lot of supplies, everyone's heavily encumbered by them, whether they have armor and other heavy gear, or not. Your supplies are:

LEAN - 1 die - You have a small amount of dried food and a few skins of water each. Lean supplies cost 1 sp per person.
AMPLE - 2 dice - You have a good quantity of dried and preserved food, plus a little fresh food, and a good amount of water and maybe another beverage. Everyone in the party is at least lightly encumbered by your supplies. Ample supplies cost 5 sp per person.
BOUNTIFUL - 3 dice - You have a selection of various foodstuffs and snacks, plus plenty of water and a variety of other drinks. Everyone in the party is at least heavily encumbered by your supplies. Bountiful supplies cost 25 sp per person.

If your party wants to increase their current level of supplies, just pay the difference while you're in a place where you can purchase additional supplies. If you want to decrease your level of supplies (perhaps so that you can travel more rapidly), just discard some of the excess food and water!

SPLITTING SUPPLIES

If your party splits up, you choose how to split the supply dice between the various groups. If you don't allocate any dice to one of the sub-groups, then that group is on its last day of supplies.

SUPPLY CHECKS

When you travel a notable distance, lose supplies due to a hazard, give away food and water, or otherwise put a burden on your supplies, you roll a supply check. The DM determines when you make a supply check; tyically this is any time that you undergo an event that could cause you to use up a notable quantity of your food and water. When you make a supply check, have one party member roll all of your supply dice. The DM will determine the difficulty for the roll; each d6 needs to meet or beat that number. Any die that rolls lower than the difficulty number is discarded. The amount of dice that you have left after the roll determines your new level of supply.
If you run out of supply dice due to a check, you are now on your last day of supplies.
Only roll a supply check when a scene changes or an event puts stress on supplies. You don't need to roll a supply check every few days in a long and uneventful trip, just roll once at the end of the journey.

SUPPLY CHECK DIFFICULTY EXAMPLES

2  A couple days of easy travel
3  A week of easy travel
4  A couple days of difficult travel
5  A month of easy travel; a week of difficult travel
6  Supplies destroyed by environmental hazards or malice; a month of difficult travel

The difference between "easy" and "difficult" travel here is simply to indicate that the DM should decide on the difficulty for the check based on a variety of factors. If the PCs have to travel in extreme heat, over rugged terrain, while going through several battles, they will consume more resources than if they are traveling along a well-maintained road that is defended by patrols while the weather is clear and (relatively) cool.

Example: After a week crossing the desert, the party finally reaches their destination. Having set out with Bountiful supplies (knowing that this would slow them down and take longer), they roll 3 supply dice. The DM rules that the supply difficulty is a 3, because they were traveling for a week but there were no major threats to their supplies. The party rolls 2, 4, and 6. The 2 is below the difficulty, so it is discarded. The 4 and 6 are above the difficulty, so they are kept. The party goes from Bountiful supplies to Ample supplies (and now they aren't as burdened when they go into the ruins to explore!).

CHECK MODIFIERS

Create water
spell: +1 to one die.
Create food and water spell: +1 to two dice.
A PC makes a Water Find proficiency check: +1 to one die.
A PC makes a Survival proficiency check for this terrain type: Reroll one supply die.
These do not stack with themselves: Having multiple create water spells doesn't increase your bonus. (Let your priests have a little room to prepare other spells.)

BEASTS OF BURDEN

If the PCs have mounts and beasts of burden to carry supplies, reduce the encumbrance caused by supplies by one (Ample supplies cause no encumbrance, while Bountiful supplies cause Light encumbrance), but add +1 to the difficulty of all supply checks (because the PCs must also feed and water their mounts).
Some PCs will have extraordinary ways to carry supplies, such as bags of holding, undead mounts that don't need water or rest, or construct minions that can haul huge amounts without needing to eat. The DM should adjudicate these unusual benefits on a case-by-case basis. You might reduce encumbrance penalties with no corresponding increase in difficulty of supply checks, allow the party to have more than 3 supply dice, or even choose to ignore supplies altogether if the party is able to carry a large quantity of goods without needing to worry about weight.

TO USE OR NOT TO USE?

This system abstracts out your supplies so that you don't have to track every day of rations and every half-gallon of water. The advantage is that it's fast and easy to use, but PCs can still feel effective by using their special skills and powers to extend their supplies. The drawback is that it's impossible for PCs to plan in advance based on travel times; they are ultimately at the mercy of the dice. To mitigate this, it's up to the DM to decide what constitutes a good time to make a supply check. If the PCs get Ample supplies and want to travel from Tyr to Raam and are going with a heavily-defended caravan, you might not make them roll at all; supply rolls show up to indicate that something is putting stress on the PCs' supplies, and thus to increase tension.
In addition, PCs who insist on carrying huge amounts of food and water all the time have to deal with encumbrance automatically. No more arguing about "well my half-giant has a 20 Strength so I can carry the barrel of 200 gallons of water for the party..." You simply decide whether the party is traveling light or heavy, and apply modifiers appropriately.

Mongolian traditional food and beverage

Running Vampire: The Thief Game

Another chat with wickedthought brought out some more notions that may be useful to you game-running folx out there, this time for Vampire. I played for a time in a Vampire game that John ran and I noted to him that he was basically running a "thief game" with Vampire. I'll explain what all of this means and how it can help you to run Vampire games!


(Art from someone's Skyrim guide, I dunno)

The "thief game" is a subgenre of adventure gaming in which every member of the team is some shade of thief (or rogue, I guess, if you're playing latter-edition D&D). It's inspired partly by the early swords & sorcery stories with thieves (like the whole Lankhmar series) and partly by pulp heist stories (which fostered games like Wilderness of Mirrors and Fiasco). In a D&D game, this means that everyone has levels as a thief—whether as a solely single-classed thief or a multiclassed one—and you're all working for the local Guild (because if you're not in the Guild, then you have both the Law and the Guild hunting you). Typically your characters are living the "lean and hungry" lifestyle, but all kinds of thief archetypes show up: the bored wealthy socialite who steals for fun; the burned-out veteran who serves as muscle on jobs; the box-man who does locks and traps and has weird eccentricities; the face who might be a bard who moonlights as a thief, using charm and wits to talk into and out of sketchy situations. You put together your team, you ask a Guild contact for a likely job, and you run a heist.

There are several elements that really prop up a thief game:
• Most of what you would want to do as an adventurer is illegal in the city. You want to carry a sword? You don't have permission from the Chief of the Watch, it's illegal. You practice magic? No license from the College of Sorcerers, illegal. You're a down-on-your-luck veteran whose only skill is violence? Sorry, buddy, no jobs for folx like you. You're a cleric of the god of thieves? Not a legal religion in the city, no preaching and no alms-collecting. Thus you must deal with the Guild and take jobs that are illegal because you can't do anything legally, and you gotta eat and pay rent!
• You can't really trust the Guild, but they're your only source of gigs. You have to give the Guild a cut of your earnings, and what you earn is usually pretty small because you're fencing stolen goods and doing illegal blow-off cons and the like.
• You always need a team for any really lucrative job. On your own, you do petty gigs—defrauding merchants, picking pockets, fixing watches for pennies for the wealthy elite—but it's when you put the crew together and combine your skills that you can pull off a truly lucrative heist.
• Everything of worth in the city is already controlled by someone more powerful than you. You can't open a store because you'll lose to the better store that someone else already owns (and you'll never get the permits to do it anyway). You can't angle for a position on the city council or in politics because you'll be crushed by people who are wealthier and better connected than you. You can't even buy your own home because it's too expensive and thus you're reduced to living in flophouses in grimy, squalid neighborhoods, all while trying to stay one step ahead of the Law.
• You're a thief, but are you a mass murderer? Are you an arsonist? Are you a cult-leading abuser? How low will you sink in order to survive?

Starting to sound familiar? Vampire, for neonate games, has a similar set-up:
• Just by dint of what you are, you are constantly having to look over your shoulder and worry about who is watching you—you are, effectively, a criminal; always on the run, always having to find ways to keep people from realizing what you are.
• The laws of your society make anything that would ease your unlife illegal. You want to have a few mortal confederates upon whom you feed, who have given consent because they know what you are? Illegal; violates the Masquerade. You need a Domain of your own so that you have people to hunt and a place to go to ground during the day? All of the city is already parceled out to the elders and it's illegal to poach on their Domains. You want to create a brood of your own so that you can parcel out duties and have a support network? Illegal to make new vampires without the say-so of the city's elite.
• By yourself, you can't challenge the status quo. The elders are too powerful, too connected, too influential. But working as a team with other neonates with different abilities, you can do things that you wouldn't be able to do alone.
• You may be a vampire, but are you a mass murderer? Are you an arsonist? Are you a cult-leading abuser? When you're fighting against the elder network, you can win if you are more evil than they are willing to be. How low will you let your Humanity sink in order to get what you want?

The similarities should be pretty clear, and this is great for Storytellers because it means that a really simple way to run a Vampire chronicle is to treat it like a thief game—like a series of heists, cons, and illegal jobs. You can run:
• Assemble a crew to steal a painting from the home of one of the elders, a painting of the elder's former (mortal, now deceased) spouse. Then trade it off to the highest bidder—either the elder in question, or one of the elder's rivals who would use it to twist the knife.
• One of the elders has a magical McGuffin that would be great for you, and now due to Kindred politics that elder is on the outs with the Prince. Arrange a heist to steal the item for yourselves, knowing that the elder no longer has the Prince's protection.
• Run a con on the vampires of the city by running an illegal fighting ring of ghouls, and allowing Kindred to bet on it. Take Boons as well as money and property as bets, and "seed" your roster by telling people "Oh, someone put in a bet that they are willing to train another Kindred in Obtenebration—but that bet's already been called. You should bet now to get something good!" Run your illegal fighting matches with ghouls until you have a bunch of Kindred at a match with tons of bets on the roster, then suddenly swarm the place with "hunters" and "police" (your minions, of course). Tell the assembled Kindred that you have a secret escape for just such an emergency and help them get out, but you go back to hold off the "hunters" and get staked and dragged away. Of course your minions simply pulled you out of there and you keep all the goodies that were bet as you flee to another city and start over. (John and I actually ran this at a Vampire LARP, and people fell for it.)
• One of the elders disappears and the ruler of the city declares that the elder's former Domain is up for grabs—if you can hold it, you can keep it. Run an operation to get your claws into this suddenly-vacant Domain, but to do so, you need to repel ghouls from other elders, scam the elders into thinking that you're using your influence in a different neighborhood, and leverage your knowledge of modern technology to communicate, coordinate, and suborn local government services to your side, just like the heist movies in which the cops show up after the thieves have left and prevent the angry rich criminals who were robbed from chasing after the heist team, or the heist crew that escapes in the ambulance that they bring in and use to drive out their own people and loot while pretending to respond to the crisis.

This lets you very quickly and easily make memorable Vampire stories that you generate from your favorite heist- and con-job movies, and these give the players a strong reason to stick together in a coterie and have a wide range of capabilities. These stories also expose great moral dilemmas to challenge Humanity: How far will you go to succeed? Do you just let the stone-cold killer in the group murder a witness? Do you stick to stealing what you came for, or get greedy when another prize presents itself? What do you do when the person you contacted for the job decides to sell you out for favors from your mark, and now the job's gone sour and you must figure out how to escape? There are as many possibilities as there are criminal-protagonist films and pulpy novels.

Ciao for now!

Running D&D 5e: Choices, not Outcomes

A chat with wickedthought had me thinking about Personal Characteristics in D&D 5e—Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. As written, you use these to explain about your character and reveal their motivations. In the basic rules, when you play up a character's Personal Characteristic, you might be awarded Inspiration by the DM, because you've engaged in role-playing and maybe taken actions (possibly ones that hurt your chances of success on your mission!) in keeping with your character's beliefs.



John and I were talking about one of his discussions of a GM who was running an adventure where there was a magic door that would only open if you stated your True Name, and one of the players was playing a half-elf who had rejected her elvish heritage. When her turn came up she said "First Name" "Name of Adventuring Company," because to her, her elvish heritage wasn't who she was; the party was her family. THAT was who she was. The DM said "nope" and the party wound up stuck there because the DM was just trying to force her to speak/acknowledge her repudiated former name. (Shades of deadnaming...)

Anyway, this prompted me to note "The GM's role is not to force an outcome, but to force a choice," which is a rather flip off-the-cuff way of saying that the goal is not really to put the player into a corner and dictate what their character does, but to create a dilemma that causes the player to think about a choice between two things (maybe two good things, maybe two bad things) and finally decide on one or the other.

In D&D 5e, your Personal Characteristics describe things that are important to your character: Things that your character believes, or values, or hates. So if you want to
force a choice, you pit two of the characteristics against each other.

As a simple example, you might have a character who has a Bond like "I always protect the members of my team" and a Flaw like "I will stop at nothing to have my revenge against those who have wronged me." In this simple formulation, as a GM you know that now you can pit these interests against each other: You can put the character in a situation in which they have to choose between saving another party member, or chasing down and defeating an enemy who's caused them some personal grief. If this sounds familiar, it's because this kind of choice pops up in movies, books, and television all of the time. You expose who the protagonist is by forcing them to make choices about what's most important to them. (This is, after all, the dilemma in philosophy and drama, the two-horned monster of a decision, in which you must choose one or the other and both of them have consequences.)

The great part about doing this in D&D 5e is that once the player has made a choice, they've upheld one of their Personal Characteristics. This means that you can give them Inspiration. You reward the behavior that you want to see: In this case, making a difficult choice to show everyone what your character values. And you give the character something to agonize over later, as they try to decide whether they made the right choice and deal with the consequences.

For this to work, of course, you have to do a little work as a GM. You have to read all of your PC's Personal Characteristics, and then you have to arrange your story to create these choices. Of course if you're a GM you already signed up for this work, right?

Ciao for now!

Running #DarkSun: Reforesting vs. Xeriscaping

One of the built-in assumptions of the DARK SUN setting is that powerful heroes will want to change and reshape the world, to return it to its former verdant glory. The preserver metamorphosis—the process of a powerful wizard turning into an avangion, a being of life and hope—requires the creation of unsullied forests, and even the elemental lords that are patrons to clerics want the world to return to a state in which the elements have a stronger balance, so that they can all thrive. The element of Fire is explicitly called out as desiring the return of great forests, so that there is more to burn.

A Brief Ancient History of Athas

In Athas’ distant past, the world had a Blue Age, an era in which a blue sun looked over an aquatic world full of verdant life. An algal bloom, the Brown Tide, threatened to destroy the oceans, and was fought by the use of powerful life-shaping to create the Pristine Tower, a monument of life-shaping that also absorbed power from the sun. The sun changed from blue to yellow, destroying the Brown Tide but also ending the Blue Age. The civilization of the age collapsed and new beings were born from the malleable influences of the Pristine Tower, giving rise to elves, dwarves, humans, and others.

When the sun changed to yellow, Athas’ ecosystem changed, and the Green Age began. Oceans retreated and forests and savannahs expanded. Upheavals in society led to the formation of independent city-states, looking to their own welfare. Into one of these city-states was born Rajaat, who discovered the secrets of defiling magic and sought to find a way to revert the world to its former state.

Rajaat raised Champions and conducted the Cleansing Wars, all with the ultimate goal of returning Athas to its former glory by eradicating the species created by the Pristine Tower and handing over ultimate power to the few remaining halfling life-shapers. Rajaat hid his goal even from his Champions, knowing that they would never willingly give power over to the halflings after conducting their genocidal campaign. Of course in the end the Cleansing Wars largely fail and Rajaat is imprisoned in the Hollow. The use of massive defiling magic led to the collapse of the environment, turning the sun red and ushering in the Brown Age.

You Can't Go Back

With that Athasian history lesson behind us, what was Rajaat’s goal? To turn back the clock—to wipe out everyone but the halflings and return the world to their stewardship, with the hope that they would make things right. Rajaat wanted to go back to the way things were before, to Make Athas Great Again. But you can’t go back. The old days are just a memory, and a gilded one at that. Rajaat can’t turn Athas back to a blue ocean paradise any more than he can un-make defiling magic; the genie is out of the bottle and will not return.

So why should heroes be any different? Turning the world back into a forested realm—a rebirth of the Green Age—is a tall errand. Reclaiming the massive desert is the work of many lifetimes, work that will be constantly interrupted by enemies and by shifts in the ecosystem. And the ecosystem has moved on; the thri-kreen of Athas are supremely adapted to savannah and desert, and would be displaced by humid forests where their jumping abilities are of limited use (because there are all these trees in the way!) and they are at constant threat of fungal rot. So trying to make the world back into the way it was before is not only difficult and dangerous, it presents an existential threat to some of the people who are left. Of course a preserver might decide to just create their own little corner of paradise, to have a small forest refuge out in the midst of nowhere, but then what good are you doing if you have this incredible magic and you’re not using it to help anybody?

Life in the Desert

In our own world, there are many examples of societies that have lived by xeriscaping—by shaping the desert environment for their needs—or simply by adapting to the desert. The indigenous people of Australia and the western and central parts of the Americas are all desert survivors, as are the people of the central deserts reaching from the Mediterranean and east toward Mongolia or south into Africa. Life flourishes in these places by adapting. Just like the characters of a DARK SUN game learn to find water, to find shade, and to find food in the desert, so too do people of our own world. Adventure gaming in general comes from a long narrative of western European- and American-inspired stories, so players are used to thinking of deserts as deathly places, while forests are places of life; this thinking permeates the DARK SUN material as well. But deserts, too, can support life. Indeed, the great city-states of Athas are modeled upon cities of the ancient world that were likewise often built in desert biomes, able to grow to great size because of a ready source of water but otherwise in parched rocky badlands or even in places now overrun by encroaching sand dunes. The great cities of ancient Mesopotamia were built along watersheds in the middle of the desert.
Modern Village Built In Traditional Classical Style Stock Image ...

The Enlightened Age

It’s pretty clear that the city-states in DARK SUN have plenty of resources. Most of the city-states support tens of thousands of people, with nobles and sorcerer-monarchs in verdant gardens, with wells and mud flats providing water and arable land, and with enough supplies to support life for everyone and abundance for a few. The problem is not a lack of resources: it’s unequal distribution of those resources. Nobles, merchant-princes, templars, and sorcerer-monarchs all hoard wealth, while masses of people scrabble for daily survival. Clearly, even in the desert ecosystem, the city-states can provide; the rulers, however, choose to keep people living in desperation—perhaps because desperation makes them more compliant, as they will do anything for another day’s jug of water.

So perhaps the quest for the preserver, or the druid, or the elemental cleric, is not just one of magically making the world into a bright forest again. Instead their quest is one of learning to reshape the ecosystem merely as a prelude to reshaping society—and that’s work that anyone can do. You don’t have to be a magician to teach people how to live together. You don’t need an elemental patron in order to overthrow despots and make a society that values all of its members, and brings them together to work for a common cause. That’s the kind of change that has to happen, ultimately. What happens if you make a great oasis or forest in the middle of the desert? A perfect magical paradise? Refugees will flock to it from the other city-states. Merchants and laborers will come, hoping to become rich by exploiting its verdant resources. Defilers will come, hoping to use its life-force for their magic. And the sorcerer-monarchs will come, because any place that upsets their status quo, any place that offers hope for a better life, must be destroyed lest it leave their city-states in turmoil, with people fleeing to a new home. Thus the creation of a new paradise on Athas goes hand-in-hand with the war to keep it safe, and with the shaping of a new society that eschews the resource-hoarding and autocracy of the rest of the world, because ultimately any new resource-rich place will be exploited and destroyed if it is not protected.

In the end, the heroes of Athas must overthrow the sorcerer-monarchs, and find a new, better way to live, because Athas does give enough for life—it is merely exploited by the wealthy and the power-hungry. Perhaps turning back the clock to a previous Green Age or Blue Age isn’t the answer. Make the world rich in resources, and those resources will just be hungrily sucked up by the powerful few who insist on controlling them all and thereby controlling the masses. Perhaps it’s time instead to remake Athas as a world where scarcity is no longer created by hungry dictators and social-climbers, where instead people respect their environment and each other so that everyone can survive.

A bit of a parable for our times.

Running Dark Sun: Elemental Clerics

The elemental cleric is a staple of the original DARK SUN setting. While largely cast aside in the later 4th edition material, the elemental cleric fills an important niche: They demonstrate that there are still great powers in the world, but that all of these great powers have some kind of flaw. Templars serve false gods; the sorcerer-monarchs are frauds pretending to be divinities. For elemental clerics, their patrons aren't gods at all, but elementals - beings that are focused on the struggles of base matter in the world and divorced from the human(oid) condition. Thus, they are not beings with whom one can identify, or even relate; they are distant, abstract entities, and their demands and their judgments can be unfeeling and alien even to their clerics.

This is some juicy stuff - a cleric PC has latched on to a power source that gives real, tangible benefits (spells! turning undead!), but it comes with a philosophical cost. You aren't out shilling for a particular god or ethos or pantheon. Instead you're advancing the cause of a material concept, some kind of humanoid interpretation of a chunk of the world. This means you're stuck between trying to fulfill your personal agendas and emotional needs and community demands, and also trying to interpret "what is the will of Fire" or "how do I become more like Earth" or "who would Water support in this conflict." These create strong role-playing opportunities for clerics. Whenever a cleric approaches a conflict, they should not just be thinking about how they, personally, feel about it, but also about how it meshes in with their abstract concepts of the elements. Some clerics will be very practical about this; others may take on a philosophical bent, looking for how an element symbolizes certain things - fire as inspiration or cleansing, water as malleability or purity, air as illusion or freedom, earth as stability or secrecy.

Beyond their philosophies, though, clerics are keepers of real power in the DARK SUN setting, and that's always an attention-grabber. As noted in Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, many villlages and tribes in the wild have shamanic clerics to assist them in life challenges, whether with healing magic, divination, defense, or just general wisdom. In the city-states, though, it's a different story. Clerics are a threat to the status quo. Normally it's the templars who have the power to invoke "divine" favor. Other people who can do it without calling upon the sorcerer-monarch? Heretics. Pagans. Whatever "othering" religious terminology the templarate might choose to invoke. Even if a city-dweller needs the help of a cleric, the fear of being found out by the templars - of being branded as an enemy of the sorcerer-monarch - is pervasive. Clerical cults in the city-states must perforce be secretive, or else have an alliance with a templar patron. Those who truck with clerics risk denunciation.

Of course if you're rich and you have a little prestige of your own, maybe you can hold that denunciation off. Noble families and merchant-houses might like to have a pet cleric - someone who can work elemental magic on their behalf, without being beholden to the sorcerer-monarchs. An influential patron might protect a cleric from such entanglements, but this too comes with a cost. The cleric's movements are no longer free; working for someone who puts this kind of political clout on the line means spending your time making good on their investment. And it also means that clerics are constantly under threat from these groups. Why would a noble family pay a cleric and protect them from persecution, when they could just purchase the cleric at a slave auction? All too easy to pull a few strings, bribe a low-ranking templar, and have the cleric hauled off in ropes, just to turn around and buy them at the block later. A horrible fate, but all too possible for someone who has the power to create water by magic!

This is before even getting into the notion that clerical cults in DARK SUN don't necessarily have to be benevolent. One would hope that PC clerics would be heroes, but any clerical cult could be headed up by an evil leader - someone who's gained a taste of power and wants to use it for control, or revenge, or wealth, or general mayhem. Just because a cleric can conjure water doesn't mean that the cleric is guaranteed to be a good person. For PCs trying to survive in the city-states, running into a clerical cult run by an evil mastermind can be quite a challenge - since the PCs are often primed to think of other hidden power groups as enemies of the city-state (and they may well be!) and thus as natural allies, while such a group could turn out to be enemies or, worse still, a group that feigns friendship in order to use the PCs.

The ultimate end for clerics in DARK SUN, of course, is elemental transformation (well, for some clerics, anyway) - literally becoming an elemental. This raises interesting questions: How much does the cleric retain their former humanoid sensibilities? Do they eventually become as alien as their patrons and stop caring about humanoids, or do they become a "person in elemental skin" who is now agitating the cause of their former friends and allies and family from inside the elemental hierarchy? Is the cleric still aware of the need for a balance of elements to keep the world alive, or does the notion of overwhelming the world with one element become too strong a call to resist? As with all endgame transformations, this is ostensibly something that is changing the character and potentially changing the world at the same time - in this case, introducing the idea that there is a bridge between mortal and elemental, more than just an arrangement or a power-brokered deal but a true merging of philosophy and flesh. What will the cleric do with this transformation? Take over part of the world and try to turn it into a reflection of the elemental planes? Bring humanoid sensibilities and ideas to the elemental lords and perhaps upset the stagnant conflict of elemental opposition? Throw open the doors of the elemental cult to others and form a new society fueled by elemental powers? Each of these possibilities creates ideas not just for endgames for clerics, but food for thought about the relationship between clerics, elementals, and the common people of Athas.

So your cleric is more than just a repository of spells and elemental powers. They are a doorway, a psychopomp, an intermediary that goes both ways: Bringing elemental power to the humanoid world, but bringing humanoid ideals and motivations ot the elements. At the same time they underscore that all greater powers on Athas stem from some flawed or corrupted source, be it the false divinity of the sorcerer-monarchs, the deathly temptations of defiling, or the nonuman elemental and natural spirits - all offering power, but not safety, community, or answers.

Fury Road

Like many other people but not as many as those who went to see Pitch Perfect 2, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road.

This is an interesting movie. I have some things to say about it, hopefully without giving away too much.

Matt Colville​, always an interesting commentator on movies, had some thoughts about it too, though his is more spoiler-y. You can read about his impressions here.

I think it is interesting as a note about our society that our artistic movies, our commentary movies, our movies about who we are as a people, are now this filled with violence and dystopia. I suppose though that for anyone who grew up in the '80s in the U.S. this is nothing new. We all lived under the spectre of mutually-assured destruction and the fear of imminent nuclear Armageddon.

Fury Road is, basically, a two-hour car chase, one that goes back and forth and winds up ending where it started. Of course, that's how many good stories work: Something happens to change the status quo, characters leave their home and come back wiser, sometimes upending the society upon their return. That's basically the formula here, and it works very well, because the characters reveal themselves in the journey and the movie is very tightly wound, with pretty much every element that's introduced important either as a catalyst to a later event or due to its symbolic power.

I feel like Fury Road is a movie that you can get a lot of meaning out of, but what meaning you get will be largely based on your own interpretation. I feel like George Miller made a spectacular romp, knowing exactly what he could get away with in terms of story and action and CGI, and he made many events that matter as the movie unfolds, but a lot of meaning in it is based on what you decide to apply to it.

The brief opening mention of oil wars and water wars should sound familiar to anyone living in California. It's a future that we simultaneously tell ourselves will never happen while secretly dreading that it's just around the corner. This is perhaps important to Max's characterization; he's a shellshocked survivor from a world mostly familiar to us, trapped in a hellscape of our creation.

This is one of the important parts of Mad Max's dystopias: They aren't of an Earth destroyed by a meteor or a volcano. They're destroyed by us. In all of Miller's Mad Max movies, there's some kind of cult-like leader figure (the Night Rider, Lord Humungus, Aunty Entity, etc.) who's building their own society from the ruins of the old world. As the movies become increasingly bleak and dystopian, these leaders become more and more wrapped up in eccentricities, in religious trappings, and in their grip on control of the precious resources of life. Even trampled, the world can support a little bit of life, but just like a two-headed lizard, life takes on strange forms when it's put under such pressure.

In Fury Road, Max tackles the question left hanging at the end of Beyond Thunderdome: Where is there to go? Where's the promised land? Where can we make a new home? Obviously the viewer knows that Max will never find a new home. His old home is dead and destroyed and all he has left is wandering and survival. With Fury Road, Max goes out to help look for a new home, but in the end he says, there is no new home. There is only the home you have. It's up to you to make it worth living in.

To me, this is inspirational. It's one of those moments where I take meaning from the movie that might or might not be intended, as I mentioned earlier. Max is dragged into a dysfunctional society of warriors who live in what could be a paradise, but it's under the thumb of a diseased dictator (a familiar and recurring trope of Miller's). At first, some people want to escape. They want to find another paradise, a promised land where they can raise children and live in green and have peace. After all their struggles, though, Max tells them bluntly, there is no promised land. Out there is nothing but desolation and death. If you want to live in a peaceful, green, flourishing society, you must make it. You must take it from the hands of tyrants and shape it into the paradise that you dream about.

The parallels of this message, the message that there's nowhere else to go so you have to make your home livable, with the offhand comment early in the movie about "water wars" is obvious. It's a kind of ecological litany crossed with an invocation against tyranny. We only have one world to live on, and if we overtax it and make it poisonous to us, if we let tyrants control the water and the green and all that lives and grows, it will choke us and kill us. The only thing we can do is try to turn the home that we have into the paradise that it could be, and to do that we must overthrow the tyrants who want to control all of the life and poison all the minds of its people. And Mad Max doesn't shy away from saying that many will die along the way, and many will never see that promised land. Even innocents. Children. Unborn babies. They will be casualties of these struggles. Because just as Max is desperate to survive at any cost, if humans are to survive we will have to pay costs for the horrors that we've racked up. But there's nowhere else to go, nobody out there who will swoop in and save us, so it's up to us to figure out how to make our world one that we can live in.

Another message that I took away is that of consequences. Arguably that's just good plotting: every significant action has a consequence down the road. You accidentally nick someone's leg while wildly firing a gun, and it's that injury that leads to the victim's death later. You establish that Max is an unwitting life-giver -- he's a universal blood donor -- and this ties him to other unwitting life-givers, when the tyrant of the piece tries to claim them all as property.

There's a lot of transformation, too. The movie's replete with chains. Chains are constantly used to hold people back, to turn them into chattel. Those chains must be cut or thrown off in order to move forward. Yet those same chains can bring people together, force them to cooperate or help them to work for a bigger cause that they can't do alone. It's pretty straightforward symbolism, but it feels like it's pointing to the idea that there are symbols in this movie, here's an obvious one, now go find more. The chains point toward other bindings: masks, chastity belts, artificial pieces made to bind people; it's when they are removed or cast off that people are able to develop bonds to each other and form their own road community. Every one in Max's unwitting band undergoes some kind of transformation along the way, whether learning to fight, exchanging dreams of the past for a hope of a new kind of future, or from living to dead. Max is looking for that transformation - he wants to leave behind his nightmares and be at peace with himself - but he gets something else instead: He succeeds in helping someone he cares about. This is important because it's something he was never able to do before. His wife and son were murdered. The peaceful inhabitants of the refinery were killed en masse and then forced out of their home. The children hoping to go to the Promised Land in Beyond Thunderdome . . .  well we don't really know what happened to them but the implication in Fury Road is, nothing good. This time, Max connects with someone -- he doesn't want to, but he can't help it -- and he saves them. He makes things better. His destructive power, channeled in concert with a glimmer of hope for a new world, becomes a revolutionary force.

You can find other messages in Fury Road, too, whether feminist or fascist or futhark. Some are uplifting, some are horrific, but that's the funny thing about our world: It's full of things wonderful and terrible. Mad Max's world is pretty awful with glimmers of good. So how good do we have it, in our world that's pretty good with some pieces of pure nastiness? And how much will it take for us to take responsibility and keep our world from sliding down from pretty good to pretty bad?

Also, lots of cars explode.

"Don't Grieve, Admiral."



"Don't grieve, Admiral."

These simple words are some of Spock's last as he's dying from radiation burns in the warp core of the Enterprise while fighting to save the crew during the Wrath of Khan. It is a curious choice of phrase.

Spock can't tell Kirk "I know you are hurting." He can't say "I did this because of my love for my captain and my crew." He can't let anyone know what he feels.

"I have been, and always shall be, your friend."

And an unlikely friendship, between passion and logic, the connection of reason with intuition. There's so much unspoken under what Spock says. Don't grieve -- not because I am telling you not to hurt; not because I am telling you not to care; because I know you care, I know you hurt, but I am telling you in the only way that I can that what I have done was logical; I made a choice to sacrifice for people because I, too, cared about them. So don't grieve, because it is not a pointless death or an empty death. It is a logical death, and if I could feel, I would tell you that it is the death that I chose because of my love for my crew and captain.

"Remember."

The final word to McCoy, the rival, who becomes the unlikely acolyte. A note which triggers McCoy's response later: "You know, he's not really dead, as long as we remember him." Because we all remember him. We remember the part of us that he touched, the part that lives on in our minds. In the case of McCoy this touch was literal. For the rest of us, though, it will live on through the experiences we shared.

We remember.

Running Pathfinder: The Adventure Paths

While my last article discussed a bit of Pathfinder's Kingmaker adventures and their specialty rules for building kingdoms, I figured that I would take a quick detour (and buy myself some time to work on the additional construction material for elven and dwarven themed kingdoms) to write a little bit about Paizo's market strategy with Adventure Paths.

For those who're not big-time role-playing game aficionados, Paizo is the publisher for the Pathfinder game, which is essentially the half-step adopted successor to 2000's Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Pathfinder is, by several metrics, very successful and quite a competitor with D&D as far as sales and brand loyalty in the role-playing game market. This should not be a surprise, because Paizo is under the watchful gaze of Lisa Stevens, who's been keen on industry opportunities for over twenty-five years at this point and is one savvy businesswoman -- especially for a business sector that's generally pretty low-profit.

Anyway, Paizo regularly publishes "Adventure Paths," which are monthly adventures that connect in a six-episode arc designed to carry your game group from introduction (brand-new characters) all the way to a heroic conclusion (at the upper tiers of gameplay, as mighty adventurers with a history of many victories). This means that Paizo publishes two complete series of adventures every year. Their other releases often synergize with this: If the current adventure takes place in the River Kingdoms, there's also a Guide to the River Kingdoms. If you're exploring a crashed spaceship, there's a Guide to Technology in that release cycle. It's a very smart release strategy and it's certainly no accident.

The current iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, the fifth edition, is positioning to emulate this -- to some degree. At least one industry survey found that the typical fantasy gaming campaign lasts for about a year, and the new D&D has opened up with one-year story arcs. Last year was the Tyranny of Dragons story arc; this year it's Elemental Evil. Each story arc gets a campaign sourcebook detailing the particulars of that campaign, and some adventure support -- in the case of last year's Tyranny of Dragons arc, via the third-party publisher Kobold Press, under the guidance of the effulgently creative designer Wolfgang Baur. (You've heard his name before if you're an old hand with D&D -- he is, after all, for whom the Bauriar of Planescape are named.)

The problem that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast has with D&D right now is that their publication schedule is basically sticking them with one book for the whole year. This causes a loss of momentum in the customer base. People want to be excited about upcoming releases, and one campaign sourcebook -- with the adventurer's handbook to go with it, chock full of meaty new character-creation goodness, cancelled and turned into a PDF -- isn't cutting it. Folks are looking at their D&D sourcebooks, saying "That's it?" and looking around bored, wondering what to do next. The loss of momentum is going to cause people to drift away from the brand and seek something more dynamic with more frequent support. (Wizards of the Coast's design department is in a tough nut here, though. Too many books cause feature bloat and make it impossible to support the game. Too few mean not enough releases to sustain interest and sales. They could probably get away with doing something closer to Paizo's model, releasing smaller amounts of content every month or two -- or subcontracting that out to other companies -- and tying a lot of their game rules updates into that content in small bite-sized chunks, but they aren't doing so and nobody seems to know why they're so hesitant to license out for other companies to help out with the small-run publication of adventures and support.)

So, aside from having an aggressive release schedule that supports the sale of other setting books, Paizo is also eating Hasbro/WotC's lunch by reprising everything popular that D&D players have loved, and going through that with their releases. A significant chunk of Paizo's adventure paths -- say, maybe half of them -- have storylines that are pretty close to some of the very early D&D modules that are known by, loved by, and popular with old hands of the role-playing game field. Let's have a look . . .

Release # Adventure Path Notes
1 Rise of the Runelords Your basic "Evil is awakening, fight your way through a series of dungeons to defeat it!" Straight-up boilerplate out-of-the-box epic adventure.
2 Curse of the Crimson Throne Fresh off a dungeon saga, Paizo says “You like that? We’re gonna do something wildly different,” and throws players into a court intrigue and political gamesmanship campaign.
3 Second Darkness Fight against the dark elves and their attempt to take over the world, starting with a major metropolis on the surface and tracing back to their demonic roots deep underground! It’s the old drow series of modules: D1-3, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and Vault of the Drow.
4 Legacy of Fire Strange events are afoot in a desert landscape where two warring factions invoked genies to do battle. Sounds suspiciously like the infamous Desert of Desolation modules I3-5: Pharaoh, Oasis of the White Palm, and Lost Tomb of Martek.
5 Council of Thieves A corrupt city in an evil empire is the source of all manner of hellish problems, as the heroes infiltrate criminal enterprises while evading the wickedly malevolent forces of the ruling class. Some similarities to Iuz the Evil, the sourcebook of Greyhawk’s evil kingdom ruled by an evil demigod.
6 Kingmaker Explore the wilderness, build a kingdom, then defend it. This is essentially the main thrust of D&D development in 1st edition AD&D and in the D&D basic and later boxed sets: When you have had enough adventures to become powerful leaders, you settle some lands, fight off monsters, and become a local baron or other noble and collect taxes while fending off rivals. The D&D Companion Set also had a system for domain building and management, something that Kingmaker also includes as an integral component.
7 Serpent’s Skull Shipwrecked on a jungle shore, the party eventually reaches a dangerous trade city and uncovers activities of a deadly cult of serpent people. Some similarities to I1, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which featured serpent cultists in a desolate city deep in the jungle, as well as N4 Treasure Hunt, which has the party shipwrecked. Also echoes of C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, with its jungle crossing to a ruined ancient temple.
8 Carrion Crown Horror adventures in a grim, haunted kingdom. Very much in the vein of I6 Ravenloft.
9 Jade Regent Escort a caravan and a few local friends across the North Pole to reach the far east and establish one of them as the rightful ruler of a distant fantasy Japan-themed kingdom.
10 Skull & Shackles Escape from captivity on a pirate ship and become pirates yourselves, then fight for the pirates and traders of your independent archipelago. Opens similarly to the aforementioned N4 Treasure Hunt with the players enslaved on a ship, then goes straight into Pirates of the Caribbean territory.
11 Shattered Star The players find themselves roped into re-assembling the Sihedron, a powerful artifact that was broken into seven pieces long ago. Very close concept to the Rod of Seven Parts. Same number of pieces, even!
12 Reign of Winter Baba Yaga and Rasputin show up to bring eternal winter to the fantasy Russia analog. Naturally the fact that it has Baba Yaga means there’s a content connection to the module The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga, though there’s a lot more going on in this adventure path.
13 Wrath of the Righteous Descend into a massive hell-scar to fight demons and try to save the world. Features the special mythic hero rules, as one might expect. This somewhat mirrors the Bloodstone series H1-4, which had the players going to Hell to steal an artifact from a demon prince and was recommended for characters up to level 100 (that is, mythic!).
14 Mummy’s Mask Fight the cult of an ancient undead god-king in fantasy Egypt analog land. Has some similarities to Gygax’s Necropolis supermodule hardcover and to module RA3 Touch of Death.
15 Iron Gods Explore tech-dungeons from pieces of a crashed spaceship, collect space weapons and fight aliens with the goal of overthrowing a mad tyrant, a secret society of tech-sorcerers, and a crazed AI. Very much a Thundarr the Barbarian style adventure in the footsteps of the famous module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.
16 Giantslayer Giants are invading! Fight them off! So far this adventure path looks like it’s treading some ground similar to modules G1-3 Against the Giants.

So am I saying that Paizo's Pathfinder team is just doing a bunch of rip-offs? Not at all. Paizo's staffers know their audience. They know how to schedule releases, they have a good idea of what people want, and they're bringing their own touch to classic adventure ideas, while occasionally throwing their own curve balls. Keep in mind, too, that the typical old-school D&D adventure module is 32 or 64 pages, while an adventure path boasts a series of 6 books at 96 pages each, including the adventure, some short fiction, and some supplementary monsters and new rules. So Paizo's doing what any good creative endeavor does when making sequels: They're taking the familiar elements that people learned to love, putting a new polish on them, and giving them much more lavish treatment.

Since Paizo manages two adventure paths every year, this also gives players an "either-or" choice. If you just want to play in one game (or run one game), you can pick either adventure path for the year and run it. Since the average campaign goes on for a year, you'll have two more choices by the time the end of your campaign rolls around. Thus, you can pick the one that you like.

I daresay that this is an example of something incredibly rare in the game industry: a marketing division that works with the creative division and actually gets what the audience wants. Pathfinder's success rests on people who felt like the newer editions of D&D left them behind; they liked what they were playing, and they wanted to keep playing more of it. The adventure paths that Paizo is publishing recognize that these are people who will spend their dollars on adventure gaming that lets them reprise the cool stories from their game roots with a game system with which they've become familiar over the last fifteen years.

Thus far, D&D's new 5th edition looks like a good game, but a good game will only last if you have something to sell to people. Wizards of the Coast needs to step up its commitment to publication -- either on their own or through their licensed partners -- or Paizo is going to continue to eat their lunch.