A Cultural Darkness – The Child Takers

Deutsch: Der Erlkönig (nach der gleichnamigen ...

Nice try, but no soul…

The logic is old and tragic.

Children are vulnerable.

They are smaller, weaker, have fewer immunities, and are more susceptible to cold and poor nutrition, than adults.

They are less experienced, and their minds are undeveloped – making them poor judges of their capacities and of risks.

Their parents tell them what to do and what not to do to keep them safe as best they can.

Some children… do not listen well. They do not do as they are told. They wander off.

They are “naughty” – and in a perilous environment, or under stress…

“Naughty” children die even more often than other children do.

Yet abstract reasoning, and talk of possible consequences, makes little impression on children.

Something more… immediate is needed to evoke sensible fear and obedience.

Hence the Erlking, the Krampus, the Child-Takers, the Breath-Stealers, the Boogeymen, the Plague Demons, and a hundred other childhood menaces.

Shapes hung on “something that could get you” which are easy for a child to understand and fear. All meant to terrify naughty, disobedient, and wandering children – and, through that fear, to give them a better chance to live.

Those who tell such tales may not know that – they may well believe in them themselves, and gain some comfort from performing minor rituals meant to keep such menaces away from THEIR children – but populations with such myths had a survival advantage over those that did not or they would not be so universal.

The things which lurk in the night – and filling a child with terror – are kinder by far than the boiling kettle tipped by an inquisitive young hand to snuff out a life in scalding agony. They are more merciful than the icy ravine and the fall which leaves a broken child to scream and freeze and die. They are swifter, gentler, and so much less hopeless than the congestion of the lungs which is more likely to infect a child who has refused to eat some of what food there is to give them and has foolishly become chilled and vulnerable. The things which lurk beyond the house… may take a child who has strayed, just as might a pack of wolves or a mountain lion – but they will not leave a child to slowly suffocate in gurgling delirium and frantic gasps as their lungs fill slowly with their own fluids despite everything their desperate parents can do.

The terrors of the night also make for better gaming.

  • A child dying in shrieking agony from massive burns leaves little room for heroism.
  • Swearing mighty oaths of vengeance against the ravine where a child fell accomplishes nothing at all.
  • Swords, and stealth, mighty weapons, and destructive spells cannot help a grandson slowly drowning as his lungs fill with mucus.

Situations like that – even if you’ve never encountered such a thing in reality (which is thankfully far rarer these days than it used to be in the industrialized nations) – are not fun to play. A few players can find satisfaction in working to reduce such tragedies in a setting – draining the swamp where the disease festers, or improving the irrigation system to better nourish the villagers – but that’s uncommon. Most players will find it a LOT more fun to have their characters live in a magical world where they can go and battle the evil witch who cursed the kettle (or child), or defeat the Erlking who steals children in the forest, or banish the plague-demon and thus heal the people it was afflicting.

There are myths, tales, and creatures of this general nature all over the world. Ghosts which haunt the streams where their own children drowned, and drown other children and steal their spirits to replace the ones they lost. Forest spirits which tear foolishly wandering children to bits. Lamia and Llitu which bring sickness. Cats and more supernatural predators which suck the life from sick children who would otherwise recover.


  • The Erlking steals away the souls of lost and sickly children, leaving their parents to mourn their lost child – but the fate of those souls remains unknown. Perhaps the Erlking uses them, and their remaining years to reinvigorate his ancient people – or reshapes them into more forest spirits like himself. In this case, even beyond death, there may be hope if some sufficiently heroic group comes along.
  • Gypsies, Jews, “cultists” (and many other maligned groups) were often accused of child-stealing – usually to sell or sacrifice in some peculiar ritual. Everyone knows it’s true! Can your heroes sort out the true culprits in time and save the children?
  • Witches steal children as hostages, using them as slaves while blackmailing their families to conceal their activities and support them in luxury. Worse, a family which resists, or which guards their children too well, will soon find them dying in horrible accidents. Who will stop them?
  • Demon-Cats hop into infants cribs, and the beds of sick children, to steal their breath and life force – giving themselves unnatural strength, vitality, and longevity. Still, if the creature can be hunted down and eliminated, perhaps the stolen vitality can be returned!
  • English: Krampus at Perchtenlauf Klagenfurt

    I’m here to help you!

    The Krampus is a minor oddity – a companion to Saint Nicholas, who punished naughty children. Mild misbehavior might warrant a mere beating, serious misbehavior anything up to a night in Hell – and truly bad behavior (or attempting to deny serious sins!) might lead to being torn apart and eaten alive while your soul went straight to hell for eternal punishment… Still, in most cases… the Krampus sought to reform naughty children, not to destroy them. Will you do battle with the Krampus – or will you break down the barriers which keep it out, so that it can attempt to reform a child before he or she is too corrupt for anything but being devoured?

The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice CIX – Arrangements for Arcosanti

Slovenčina: Arcosanti.

Now with Extra Gods!

Charles arrived at the ceremony for Gri-Fel and Terapishimn very formally dressed – at least for a child – although it was a modest ceremony for a modest position. He got a few odd looks from the less well-informed, but he was on the guest list, and – while he was checked over by security as he entered the chamber – it VERY politely done and not at all intrusive. He… was apparently becoming known as a powerful and mysterious figure… The chamber itself had been decorated to simulate the environment around Arcosanti – and the guest list was short: Terapishim and Gri-Fel’s friends, some gods currying favors, and Pure Frothing Delight and his terrifying minions, who were enduring floating around in their master with only the occasional quack. Gri-Fel and Terapishim were meditating upon the position on a dais in the rear. Soon, their new supervisor would approach, and they would sign the contract. Who knew what changes would occur to make them more suitable for the joint position?

And the buffet was superb, although not exactly suited to a youngster’s tastes! Still, it was easy enough to sneak some peanut butter and jelly out of his pack…

Perhaps fortunately, gods rarely changed all THAT much for a new position (it was often mostly cosmetic) – and Arcosanti was about to become far more important than it had been… If Charles had anything to say about it, it was about to become headquarters for several hundred major entities dedicated to trade, and to it’s protection and prosperity, and to the guardianship of Creation – and major gates to a dozen worlds were set up to open up in the area around it relatively soon. As the Inukami, Djinn, and other operatives set up the (mostly) underground, efficient, and ecologically-friendly rail systems, and the secondary supply and gate-defense manses, it would become the center of trade and contact for a dozen prosperous worlds and the staffs of THEIR supporting manses.

With the arrival of Redstone Runner, the Region Goddess of the North American Southwest, resplendent in her elaborately woven robes of the regional rock formations, things got down to business… The contract was signed. Other than immediate and palpable relief… Gri Fel became just a bit more wooly, and Terapishim’s beard took on the fine texture of Arcosanti’s  local sand. It was still very impressive though! Even the goddess admired it – and there was quiet and respectful applause.

Charles cheerfully joined in! Setting up the central manse would be a good celebration present, even if he did have to tell the pesky bureau what he was up to…

He stuck around to talk after the ceremony of course!

(Gri-Fel, examining the thin layer of wool all over his body) “Well, I did want pastoral, but I was thinking a less formal robe style, or shepherd’s implements! I’m employed, though, and that’s all that matters!”

(Terapishim) “Indeed! It feels wonderful! Thank you, Charles!”

(Charles) “You’re welcome! And Arcosanti should grow and prosper wonderfully under your protection!”

(Gri-Fel) “I will make it as mighty as the Imperial City was!”

(Charles) “Naturally! And a green and beautiful example for other cities to imitate!”

(Gri-Fel) “And I suppose there is no time to waste! We should probably leave for Earth as soon as the post-ceremony banquet ends.” (He leaned in a bit closer and whispered…) “How soon can you provide that Manse you built in the simulator?”

(Charles, whispering and with a privacy ward) “In a few hours; I do have to notify the Bureau, but I don’t actually have to await their response, since it IS on Earth, and I’m technically a freelance contractor!”

(Gri Fel) “Thank you. It will make a wonderful sanctum away from our sanctum. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to socialize with my new ‘friends’.”

He was well aware of what these “friends” wanted, but favors were always good to have owed!

(Gri Fel) “Would you like to join me?”

(Charles) “Naturally!”

While Gri-Fel was politicking, Terapishim and Pure Frothing Delight were conversing about beards. While Pure Frothing Delight was distracted, the green celestial rubber ducky slipped free of his amorphous bubble-body and floated over to Charles’ side…

(Charles) “Hello!”

(Sparkling Reflection, whispering) “Good evening to you. Can we talk privately?”

It looked very serious for a rubber ducky!

(Charles, putting up some privacy wards) “Why not?:

(Sparkling Reflection) “My superior is very fond of your boat. It is a marvel . . . but could you construct an accessory for it?”

(Charles) “I suppose! What sort?”

(Sparkling Reflection) “As hard as it might be to believe, he sometimes frolics in dangerous waters. Could you construct an artifact that produces guardian rubber duck automatons to keep others away? I am certain you can devise a non-lethal method of dealing with them. Wards, perhaps?”

(Charles) “Uhrm… Well, wardings and protections are easy enough! I’ll see what I can come up with!”

(Sparkling Reflection) “And if you were to construct them so that they could deactivate and shrink to normal rubber ducks, my associates and I would appreciate it.”

(Charles) “Well… I suppose so! There’s no reason not too!”

(Sparkling Reflection) “On behalf of Pure Frothing Delight’s celestial bodyguards, I thank you, Charles Dexter Ward.”

(Charles) “You’re welcome!”

It bowed and floated off to its master, with the others watching as it returns…

It would quietly tell stories of how Charles didn’t really ask any questions in their quarters when their superior had gone…

After a little more socializing – with gods who were either (1) mildly confused as to why the mortal child had been invited, or (2) had heard wild rumors about that mortal child and were both curious and nervous – Charles left to visit the Bureau of Humanity to notify them of his intent to build a manse in Arcosanti. After all, gods being gods, the banquet would last at least a couple more days – which should give him plenty of time before anyone even considered the possibility that there might be anything serious going on in their new domain!

A functionary at the Bureau of Humanity filed the request and told him to wait several weeks for approval.

Wait, several weeks? He’d been expecting YEARS, which he was just going to work around. After all, it was supposed to be a major… Oh wait; on Earth. That meant that it wasn’t really “permission” as SUCH; it was just… acknowledging their receipt of the notification and shooting it over to any concerned parties so that they could take it into account – and half of THAT was just old rubberstamp procedures; Yu-Shan… had a lot less influence over Earth than it used to! Most of the actual regulation of manse construction – along with almost everything else – had gone out the window between the disruption of exalted rulership, the great contagion, the reshaping and the resurgent dragon-blooded whom most of Yu-Shan was STILL not on speaking terms with…

That meant that… all he needed was to get the distribution department to acknowledge receipt.

He hand-carried it to the distribution sub-department, looked for someone sympathetic to the older gods, and tried to persuade them to jump the (pretty much empty; manse-building on earth was not especially common these days – and builders who notified the bureau were even rarer) que and rubber-stamp the acknowledgment out of sympathy for Gri-Fel…

After all, if wasn’t like he’d applied for permission for building any of his other manses. He was entitled to take contracts outside of Yu-Shan without reporting them anyway since he WAS an independent contractor! It was just that he wanted to make things as smooth as possible for Gri-Fel and Terapishim…

It was easy enough to find one who was willing to keep her mouth shut. For each unemployed god that was on the streets, there was at least one relegated to busywork paper-pushing. Besides… a contractor wanted to save a month on a years-long project; who cared?

He left with his acknowledgment/permit. He could just see it… “What’s the problem? I TOLD you I was going to and you gave me a permit… Just because you EXPECTED to have years to file objections doesn’t mean that you get them!” Still… if they complained at the poor goddess he’d have to make it up to her!

Off to Arcosant and manse-making! Albeit with some extra privacy spells and things!

The community, while not yet really a full city, was definitely eclectic! That nice bell-making thaumaturge was still at work, ensuring that his metalwork and ceramics sounded as beautiful as possible.

Charles cheerily greeted him while picking the spot… it wasn’t like the man could somehow fail to notice the demesne upgrade and activation anyway! At least there was lots of room for the simple stone cube of the manse though; it really wasn’t all that big.

(Santiago the bellmaker) “I never forget a face! What brings you back here? Thinking of signing up for some classes?”

(Charles, with more privacy wards) “Well… I was going to upgrade and activate the geomantic potential of the area and create a modest focus for it! I figured that – since you’d certainly notice – I might as well tell you about it!”

(Santiago, scratching his chin thoughtfully.) “Like feng shui?”

(Charles) “Well, basically yes! But a bit more… sophisticated and active really!”

(Santiago) “Well, let’s see what you’re going to do!”

He was pretty obviously expecting the standard forms of adjustment there – or perhaps a slight improvement. Charles made sure that the Coatl were ready to catch him if HE fainted. He’d always thought that was an exaggeration, but it seemed to happen a lot. Maybe it was the energy-flux overloading people for a bit?

He put up a privacy ward that would keep anyone from paying any attention to this spot in one of the secondary green zones/gardens, and got to work – albeit with less drama than usual. It wasn’t like it really helped any and this would be hard enough to keep quiet already. Between the landscape tweaks and the pouring of essence into the demesne… Everyone with the slightest trace of sensitivity would feel that, even if they had no idea of what it was – and he couldn’t exactly hide the place in a pocket-dimension this time! It had to be out in the open to recruit it’s guardians!

Santiago did indeed register the energy surge – and did faint (a point for “physical reaction” over “psychological” perhaps? It might just be a sign of a sensitive being overloaded by the flux…). Once he came to, a Coatl had to shut his mouth for him as he looked upon the results.

(Santiago) “I wouldn’t believe this if I hadn’t seen it… It’s hard enough to believe WITH seeing it!”

The manse was only a stone cube about ten feet across – although the engraving and patterns in the stone and such made it very nicely decorative (and wonderfully well fitted into Arcosanti’s design of course). Santiago took a look – and found the information on the three oaths flooding into his mind as Charles pulled it’s rank-0 hearthstones into manifestation and collected them.

(Santiago, turning to Charles) “So… this structure… offers great power and enhancements to pretty much everything… in exchange for a commitment of service… Either Guardianship (to aid and protect people in general), Citizenship (to defend, maintain, and enhance Arcosanti and it’s people), or Trade (to support trade throughout the world for the benefit of everyone). That’s… (He scratched his chin again.) really pretty benevolent! Citizenship sounds good! Sensitive people are going to swarm this place pretty quickly, I think!”

That commitment… was enough to send incredible power surging through him, transforming him into a Guardian of the Bazaar.

(Charles) “Yes indeed! Fortunately, you’ll have help with supervising things; a couple of experienced gods will be helping out!”

Santiago didn’t faint this time – but he was clearly NOT prepared to be enlightened like that, so quickly! It wasn’t painful… but it was still quite a shock!

(Charles) “There you go! Earth can always use more protectors – and I congratulate you on making that decision!

Charles gave him a couple of pairs of the upgraded life-extension bracers that shortly bestowed independent longevity. After all, he might have a family!

Perhaps blessedly, he didn’t… just the explanations alone would have been a nightmare!

(Santiago) “What the… I’m metallic!” (He tapped his arm and it created a beautiful tone). “And I ring beautifully… son, just what are you!?”

Wait… “Earth can always use more protectors”?!?! Was this child… actually wandering around the world handing out vast powers to anyone who was… willing to commit to BEING NICE TO PEOPLE?

(Santiago) “Are you some sort of galactic guardian or something?!?!”

This was the sort of thing that happened in COMIC BOOKS!

(Charles, musingly) “Hm… You probably chose that appearance unconsciously – a reflection of your work with the bells – but it will be no trouble for you to appear normal if you wish! As for me… I’m Aden Shining Dream, and I’m fixing things! An awful lot of things have gone wrong over the last forty thousand years or so, what with the reshaping of the universe and all, and SOMEONE needs to fix it! And people need more room, and lots of things like that! So much of the universe is empty that it’s rather sad…”

Santiago found that he could indeed swap back to a normal form quite easily.

(Santiago) “So… god, cabalist, shapeshifter, what? Not that it’s important – this could change everything!”

(Charles) “Hm… I’m not quite sure really! I’ve been told that I’m a Nascent Primordial, but that could easily be wrong – in fact I strongly suspect that it is. It doesn’t much matter really, so long as things get fixed because I’ve been told lots of other things too… I confuse people a lot!”

(Santiago) “Well, either way, I guess I should get back to work!”

(Charles) “Have a good time there! You can do an awful lot of good for people now!”

Santiago – still in a slight bit of shock, but with a palpable aura of power – shook Charles’s hand… Charles left a few extra guards for the moment – just in case someone wanted to interfere with the manse before it had gathered enough guardians to make that awkward – and headed back to Yu-Shan to give the Hearthstones to Gri Fel and Terapishim and to let them know that the Manse had already recruited it’s first Guardian.

They were still at the party, and accepted the Hearthstones discreetly. Charles was delighted to see that Gri Fel and Terapishim now looked even better than before! Their domain had just jumped in importance a good deal before they even got there; Gri Fel now had cleaner wool – and Terapishim had a smoother beard…

That hadn’t escaped notice, although it was considered impolite to discuss such things at official functions – but Redstone Runner felt that it was definitely promising! Rarely was a god or gods so well fitted to a domain that their mere appointment would serve to increase it’s influence upon the world… Had their young assistant… actually gone and done something effective ALREADY? He had gone off for a bit! Even if that was it though… it would still speak of effective planning and an EXCELLENT use of such a resource…

Charles was very pleased! Even the old Imperial Capital might not have had so many major powers directly associated with it, although it HAD had many more lower-end Dragon-Blooded hanging about. They’d make a fine support staff as they started trickling in, and would bring in trade, and wealth, and support for the entire arcology-and-nature concept – which would be a splendid example when the planetary gates he was setting up to open near Arcosanti did so and it became an intergalactic crossroads! It would be a win-win situation for pretty much everyone!

There would inevitably be conflicts and the like, but that was the risk of letting anyone run ANYTHING without constant interference and micro-management – and if Gri Fel couldn’t handle that… well, something had gone badly wrong. He might have gotten pretty corrupt at the end, but he had been excellent at what he did – and there wasn’t that much room for corruption at Arcosanti! It had a rather bright future coming up now!

Shortly the Bureau of Humanity, and the Convocation on Essence Wielders, and the Masons, and various other groups, would want to talk – but that was for another time.

The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice CVIII – The Tomes Of Doom

English: The Crypt of Saint Charles Borromeo (...

Not bad for a broom closet, even in Yu-Shan!

Shaping a pocket dimension had required that Charles come in person to do the shaping – but it had been easy enough to swap back out for his construct after it was done… Twenty-Two Warp hadn’t even noticed – although, to be fair, he’d had plenty of distractions to deal with.

Charles (because this WAS a side-trip after all) and Twenty-Two Warp (because he – however reluctantly – had other things to do) headed back into Yu-Shan, and into the sub-basements of the “Saigoth” building (currently serving as squatters’ accommodations for unemployed technology gods) leaving Twenty-One Weft to get the pocket-realm – and it’s various manse-resources – organized…

Someone else would probably find the place sooner or later – a pocket dimension full of primordial demesnes and indestructible manses in Yu-Shan would almost certainly draw attention eventually! – but by then Charles might have been able to get everything straightened out again… He hoped so anyway.

Still, routing the doorway through an indestructible door, gate-frame, and bar that blocked most magic would hold things up for quite awhile even then given that no one could dematerialize in Yu-Shan.

(Twenty-Two Warp) “I’d better report back to the senior Overseer. Be careful down here; even I’m not supposed to go any deeper in here than this sub-basement.”

(Charles) “I’ll be careful!”

Twenty-Two Warp bowed – rather sincerely – and headed off with his pack of lesser deiphages.

Charles continued on down with some slight trace of caution. Still… it WAS only a remote and the way down to the seventh sub-basement was clear enough… There were indeed wards against spirits though! They were.. powerful and well-maintained, and… exempted Deiphages. Now that was a little odd! In the same building with an assortment of gods?

It was pretty musty and dark… Charles called, but no one answered his greeting – so he made some light, and took a look around to see what was there!

Lit up… the place appeared to be a normal sub-basement, cleanly stripped of all valuables, with the remnants of Quintessential items strewn all over the marble floors. But a ways off in the distance… yes, that wall would look complete without enhanced Essence senses, but there was actually… an illusion covering up an elevator. From the style, Shogunate era manufacture. Evidently he wasn’t far enough down for books yet!

Charles headed over to the elevator! Hopefully it did not have buttons that said “Lower Yu-Shan” “Creation” “Underworld” “The Wyld”, “Malfeas”, “Zen-Mu”, and “Oblivion”… Would that make it a Hellavator?

Actually it simply seemed to go to the ground floor, this floor, and the three below, although those required a key… more interestingly, the elevator’s door was warded and alarmed against spirits and all types of Exalt. It seemed… confused about him first. Faint energies, invisible to the eyes of most, pulsed and wavered – and then decided that he could pass. Hm! Evidently he WAS becoming something… other than a normal Exalt!

Oh wait! That was a TERRIBLE test! He’d been forgetting that he wasn’t really there! It wasn’t warded against artifacts or remote links! Charles noted that he’d have to remember to run a real test one of these days – and promptly forget about it again with the new distractions. The elevator key… seemed to be a magical token; a slender, flat piece of adamant with orichalcum circuitry, easily held in one hand. It… was a complex pattern, but not too much of a bother for his current level of magical power and resources.

And then Charles abruptly realized that he didn’t have his pack with the gate or direct access to his resources! He was going to have to… have something sent over special! Physically! Or trade out again, and he didn’t want to keep doing THAT! It would completely negate the point of using a remote in the first place…

The “remote presence” trick obviously needed a lot more work. Not being able to use most of his resources and powers… he’d forgotten how much of them he used for minor, practical, details!

He didn’t want to draw too much attention… ergo; a minor messenger and a package! There were many messengers running the streets of Yu-Shan, although ones who ran to the empty and slum quarters demanded high fees… Still, a normal messenger wouldn’t really be safe, and couldn’t come down past the wards, and he had to have key made in Aden anyway… A kickaha should be able to come through though; the wards didn’t really cover them since they weren’t exactly gods, and if they got “killed” they’d just come back at the manse. A few extra protective wards, and a package well-shielded to appear strictly ordinary and a kickaha boy should be safe enough!

It took several hours, but the boy made it fairly unimpeded; compared to some gods, he looked fairly normal in wolf form… While he was waiting, though, Charles got a message from Gri-Fel.

(Charles) “Hello! What’s up?”

(Gri-Fel) “I have good news, Charles! Terapishim went to the Bureau of Nature a week ago, and they’ve finished planning for the acceptance ceremony.”

(Charles, with pleasure) “That IS good news!”

(Gri-Fel) “Unfortunately… his little shedu friend slipped up somewhere and forgot to let you know about the ceremony! I do apologize, and I know it’s on short notice, but do you think you could attend it tonight?”

(Charles, thinking quickly) “Uhrm… I think so! There’s usually nothing all THAT urgent in the evening!”

(Gri-Fel) “Wonderful! It wouldn’t even be happening without your help, so it wouldn’t be right to have you absent. We’ll see you there!”

(Charles) “Where is it?”

It was being held in one of the classical investment chambers at the Bureau of Nature. Since Arcosanti was built to blend in with nature, it seemed appropriate (and most of the wait has been over WHERE the ceremony would be held anyway). It would be… early evening, at least by Earth standards, although it was always hard to tell in Yu-Shan without a good artifact clock!

Charles made arrangements to attend.

Gri-Fel and Terapishim were both glad; as obliging as Charles was, they’d heard that he was quite busy.

An hour after that, the Kickaha boy arrived with the package. By then Charles had reconsidered a bit, and met him outside the wards on the elevator. You never knew!

(Charles) “Thank you there! That was very nice of you!”

(Sayid) “Thank you, Charles! Oh yeah… Gothmug wanted to know if you needed anybody to come along with you!”

(Charles) “I don’t think you can go through the ward… but I suppose you could try! You’re not exactly a spirit or a normal mortal, and it might not cover you!”

Sadly, it proved to be a bit too powerful for him.

(Charles) “Oh dear! I’m sorry there… Still, if you want to wait for me to come back up, you’re welcome to do so! Just be sure to call for an emergency evacuation if anything nasty comes up!”

The boy was annoyed – but at least the pesky ward didn’t throw him across dimensions like the last time he’d tried to penetrate wards. Still, he stationed himself by the elevator just in case something did happen.

(Charles) “You be cautious now! After all, it’s not like I’m really here; this is a projection at most, so you shouldn’t take ANY risks to protect it!”

(Sayid) “Got it!”

The eighth floor was a rather sterile and spartan archive. Bookshelves lined the walls and filled the floor, and there were several tables and file cabinets arranged near the elevator. The entire floor had been warded against detection: a Celestial tier upgrade to the Private Plaza of Downcast Eyes. No wonder Malinda had some trouble. From the back there was the sound of rustling and books being tossed.

(Charles) “Huh! Hello? Anybody in?”

The noises stopped. Someone wanted their privacy, so Charles wandered around looking at titles… A great many of the books had been badly damaged, and then painstakingly restored. They involved stories of the forbidden gods… The titles included “Chronicles of the Primordial Loyalists,” “An Atlas of Old Yu-Shan,” and “Records of the Trial of False Divines.”

Somebody had painstakingly removed all traces of anyone ever touching them.

Well… there could be magical traps in the text – but still… He set up to scan them to an isolated, non-sapient, computer as block images of each page with no interpretation of any kind… That ought to be safe enough until he could think of something!

A god in scholarly robes and a cap tried to sneak by – and made a respectable attempt – but apparently underestimated the noise running up a bookshelf could cause.

(Charles) “Hello!”

(God) “Gah! Hey, it’s you!”

(Charles, puzzledly) “Well, when I’m somewhere it usually is!”

(God) “You’re that kid who’s poking around in the underground regions! At least, that’s what some say you are.”

(Charles, enthusiastically) “There’s very interesting geomancy down there!”

He cheerily launched into a brief explanation, with illusion-diagrams, of some of the more interesting features!

The god listened with a great deal of interest…

(God) “I was researching some of that stuff myself. Things need fixing around here!”

(Charles) “They do indeed! All kinds of things are damaged in Yu-Shan!”

(God) “Hey, want to talk things over with my associate downstairs? We’ve got plans for that too, and it’d be interesting to compare. I would have asked a LOT earlier than this, but… we’re not celebrities, you know?”

(Charles) “OK! Just a minute while the scans finish!”

The scans were almost finished!

The god rubbed his eyes, which were encircled by a black mask.

(God) “Take your time! And… yeah, welcome to the offices of the Subsidiary Convention on Forbidden Gods! Such as they are, anyway.”

Huh! Hadn’t that convention supposedly been removed when the Sidereals got too busy for the Bureau to use assignment there as punishment?

(Charles) “OK! And it’s nice to see that the convention is still active! You never know when it will be important!”

(God) “Tell me about it… and glad you came. I thought sending the message through hot beverages was nutty, but it succeeded.”

(Charles) “So what’s up?

(God) “I’ll tell you more after you’re done scanning. Go ahead, you never know what might be useful for fixing this place up.”

(Charles) “It’s done now! I’ve been upgrading the scanner!”

The scholar-god directed him back towards the elevator…

(God) “The next floor down is as well-warded as it gets in Yu-Shan – not that this floor isn’t at a pretty high standard! I just want to be as secure as possible here!”

Charles headed on down – while the god accompanied him and chatted a bit about Celestial gossip. He… apparently didn’t get out much.

Charles wasn’t too connected to that sort of thing either, but was glad to share a bit of news en route!

The elevator doors opened up on another large chamber, re-purposed as office space and just as sterile and spartan as the floor above. There were several rather large cubicles here. Just like anyone else, gods hated cubicles, but everything here was ambrosial. That was… unusual. Usually if you were bothering to make it ambrosial you did something better than cubicles! Especially odd for a convention with a reputation like this one’s.

Also, the office was… strangely devoid of gods. Still, it wasn’t too large, still had some fair resources – and was doubtless supported by quite a few gods who didn’t actually visit the place for their own reasons. The god led him towards a room in the corner, which had actual, if non-matching, walls. The craftsmanship on them was sound, though… The door was currently shut.

And he heard a muffled cry for help coming from the office!

He threw open the door to see what was wrong…

It was a fairly typical office for a mid-ranked functionary’s place – and there was a young man standing in front of the collapsed functionary who was presumably in charge around here… Since she wasn’t dissolving into her component motes, at least she wasn’t dead for the day.

(Young Man) “Ugh, what a pain. Look, I can explain this!”

(Charles, doubtfully… was this staged? The coincidence level was pretty high if not!) “Uhrm… Excuse me!”

He put a ward around the functionary.

(Young Man) “She’s just unconscious. I needed to take her out while I considered the situation. But I’m glad you’re here, Charles!”

(God) “You could have been QUICKER on that, you know.”

(Charles, seeing that the goddess really wasn’t hurt – she’d been incapacitated by a rather high-powered thaumaturgical psychic sleep effect, and would be out for several hours – put a cushion under her) “So what’s up?”

The young man sat at the god’s desk – and seemed to enjoy the ambrosial seating.

(Young Man)”Okay, first, I want a promise that you’re not going to do anything rash, like trap us in indestructible walls. Got it?”

(Charles) “Ok…”

It wasn’t like he could actually do any of that through the link anyway!

The young man eyed him appraisingly – but relaxed.

Charles, meanwhile, had noted that the young man had an impressive array of artifacts – including a ring that hid his Essence signature.

(Young Man) “Great! Okay, I was sent here by my friends to grab a book from this place. It wasn’t easy getting past the deiphages to get to the building, and it was even harder sneaking this far in. I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for him!” (And he nodded to the god.)

(Charles) “Uhm… Which one did you want?”

(Young Man) “It’s called the ‘Record of First Days,’ and my friends think it can help.”

Hm… That was legendary! It was one of the few primary sources on Primordial Yu-Shan… and it supposedly hit anyone who read it with the desire to worship the Primordials. Just POSSESSING a copy of that thing was a Severity 5 offense – at least in Yu-Shan.

From Malinda’s information… it was definitely at the lowest level and it hadn’t been scanned yet.

(Charles) “Hrm… That one is sort of mind-trapped, at least according to what I’ve heard! What do you need to know from it?”

(God) “His friends need a copy of the geomantic maps of Yu-Shan – all the geomantic maps. Normally I wouldn’t grant such a request, but I want that… THING… out of this archive. I… don’t even know how many it would have, but it should have some of the earliest in existence in its pages.”

(Charles) “Oh those! They ARE kind of handy for some things!”

(Young Man) “So, yeah, can you help me out? I’m pretty well-protected against that thing, but I don’t want to chance it – and you seem to be immune somehow.”

This really did seem kind of dodgy!

(Charles, who was busily letting some of the Adenic Thaumaturgists back in Aden work on the link – and run the scan through the celestial-tier wards (he was inside a lot of them anyway) and down to the lower levels…) “So why send messages in my chocolate?”

(Young Man) “Chocolate? Who would do a stupid thing like that?”

(God) “I did! I knew he was a nice boy who would take care of horrible things like that one.”

(Charles) “So why do you need the old geomantic maps?”

(Young Man) “My friends want to add more energy to the geomancy, and revitalize the Earth.”

Charles… had gotten quite a bit more perceptive over the last year or so… and from his understanding of body language…. This young man was GOOD at hiding things – his dodginess would have gone unnoticed by many mortals and Exalts – and the god was totally lying about being the one who sent that message.

He cheerily started talking about the Geomancy of Yu-Shan, it’s general history, and development, and layout, and many other details – although it would take a thousand years to go over it orally – just to see if they actually cared about that information or if they just wanted to get him to read that particular book.

Hmm… They seemed to care very much about it! The young man was even taking notes.

(Charles) “Anyway… it does need fixing, and that’s going to take some months!”

(Young Man) “At least!”

(Charles) “How were you planning to add the extra power?”

(Young Man) “Well, there’s plenty of energy out in the Wyld! We were thinking of running some through and filtering it through Yu-Shan’s geomancy. I’m not sure how we were going to get it to Creation, though – the lions would have a fit! And that would be bad!”

Sadly, Charles was not yet thinking about the Cauldron-Born… While he’d suspected that the Lions couldn’t really keep them from coming and going as long as Demien had that Hearthstone, he’d pushed it out of his mind; the only way to stop that was to damage a very old and powerful manse, and he would HATE to do that!

Besides… Windhiam knew the travel Charms to drive his car back and forth between Creation and Yu-Shan – although Charles had never known anything about that.

(Charles) “That’s a bit problematic unless you fed it into the substrate to be converted into Essence!”

(Young Man) “You’re definitely an expert, Charles! How would you suggest doing that?

(Charles) “Hm… the easiest way will be to add a step-function dimensional coordinate like I was planning on anyway… That way you could assign a dimensional value to the substrate and just feed it through the appropriate gates! Given that it’s already adrift in Elsewhere… you’d have direct access!”

(Young Man) “That sounds like complex geomancy… I’m not sure my pal will be able to handle that, though he’s working really hard on it. Could you make a document with the steps?”

(Charles) “It will take awhile! How much wyld energy did you want to be adding anyway?”

(Young Man) “Well… enough to affect the whole planet! The speed doesn’t matter – we’ve got plenty of time. We just want it to be… quiet, you know? People are going to need time to adapt, so they don’t go TOO nuts with things!”

(Charles) “Oh, you want it funneled out across the earth! That’s… Hm… I suppose it’s possible; it might or might not be best to go through Yu-Shan though! I’ll have to study it!”

(Young Man) “Thanks! I’ll give you a secure number, OK? It should work no matter where you are.” (He gave Charles his card.) “Now what about maps? Ours are pretty incomplete.”

Charles considered… A basic overview map perhaps? They were obviously up to something, but that wasn’t a big thing; practically everyone in Yu-Shan was up to SOMETHING… He produced one, with (of course) some annotations on particularly interesting details!

(Young Man) “That’s a start… anyway, thanks! I’m surprised at how helpful you’ve been – most people would call the Lions if they found something like this! And this way I can bring something back-my friends won’t be happy that I’ve failed to get the book, but they’ll just have to get over it.”

(Charles) “Well, maybe it will turn up!”

(Young Man) “Yeah, maybe… I’m out of here either way.” (To the god) “Sagacious Binder, right? Your boss isn’t going to be happy with you! Why don’t you come with me?”

(Sagacious Binder) “Sigh… that’s true. And I do like to go outside SOMETIMES. I’ll accompany you to a safer quarter, at least.”

A bit odd really Channeling in extra chaos was sensible enough; it was no wonder that off-earth Geomancy was weak what with how thin it was spread… but why Yu-Shan?

For the moment, he marked it up to a combination of “up to something” and “probably aren’t entirely clear on what they’re doing” (or they wouldn’t be after geomancy maps in the first place). At any rate, the god and young man departed up the elevator – and Charles warned Sayid to get out of sight, but to mark the scents!

Sayid did so – and apparently managed to pass undiscovered; after all… scent rounded corners.

He reported back that the young man smelled … FUNNY. Like a raccoon and … blue and mischief! He hadn’t even been aware that “blue” and “mischief” had aromas.

(Charles) “Huh! That’s dream-signature! Impossibility made solid, concepts given physical qualities… But… in an old archive in Yu-Shan talking about geomancy?

He was just about to start thinking about possible reasons “why” when the computer in the office chimed and woke up the functionary…

(Message) “Shadowed Lamp, has anyone come in asking about a message in their hot beverage? If so, direct them downstairs.”

(Shadowed Lamp) “Ah! What happened?”

(Charles) “Allo! I think you were knocked out by a rather strange person!”

(Shadowed Lamp, looking Charles over) “You must be Charles Dexter Ward! The boss said they were sending you a message today!”

(Charles) “That’s me!”

(Shadowed Lamp, looking over at the computer.) “Ah! You’re to go downstairs!”

(Charles) “OK!”

Downstairs… there were more bookshelves, but these were sealed off by wards AND private chambers. Some books – presumably the most dangerous of the bunch – were sealed behind their own wards and chambers. The environment was still sterile and spartan… but it was a near-ideal archive.

All of it was blocked off by adamant glass and a rather solid and warded door. There was a computer terminal here, with a camera and a message. The camera was transdimensional, and looked like it had been set up recently.

(Terminal) “Ah, it is you. I apologize for the secrecy, but this is highly sensitive business. Did you have much trouble getting down here?”

(Charles) “Not really! You had some intruders, but they mostly wanted to talk!”

There was a long pause.

(Terminal) “Bother. And here I had hoped that the security was good enough to prevent that. Could you tell me what happened?”

Charles cheerily described it!

(Terminal) “It’s my fault, really. I should have been closer to the office when I sent the message, and monitored things for the day. Now I have reports to write… but we don’t have much time. Have you spoken with any Bronze Faction members recently?”

Well, they hadn’t really requested secrecy in general, although the details were confidential as always.

(Charles) “Well, yes!”

(Terminal) “What did you discuss?”

(Charles) “Well, they thought that a geomantic crisis might be approaching, and were making some preparations in case something happened!”

(Terminal) “Something well within your field, I believe. How did they ask you to help?”

(Charles) “Well… helping make some preparations to get their mortal dependents to safety if the worst befell… So what do you need to tell me?”

(Terminal) “All right. Do you see the fourth chamber from the terminal, on the left? Do you also see the door in the back?”

Well yes, it was pretty obvious.

(Terminal) “Okay, go to the door. I’ll unseal the chamber. Don’t open the book inside; the contents don’t reflect the title at all. Scan it, then open the door in the rear and toss the book into that device. Then read the copy in Aden, under the best security you and your Devas can devise. Nowhere else. Understood?”

(Charles) “Well… I can scan it at least! Is it especially dangerous that your copy needs to be destroyed?”

(Terminal) “For you? No. For me? It could be lethal, but you need to know what’s inside. Return here when you’ve read it, and tell me what you think. And… I know you’ve scanned elsewhere. I collected these texts for a reason. If anyone asks you… the Subsidiary Convention on Forbidden Gods does not exist. Understood?””

(Charles) “OK!”

Well, it had been pretty obvious that he would scan the library; he was noted for picking up weird information that he had no right to have!

(Charles) “Would you like a private dimension to keep things in?”

(Terminal) “I… I would enjoy having one, but would it have signs of your involvement? I don’t want to embroil you in this any further than I must.”

(Charles) “Not a worry really! It’s not like I don’t give things away without much of a reason anyway!”

He fished out small ring-chancel…

(Terminal) “You’re far too trusting, Charles. Nonetheless… keep it for now. I’ll have Shadowed Lamp retrieve it.”

(Charles) “You’re welcome! Those are… pretty trivial items really!”

(Terminal) “Now hurry! This place is already compromised, and you don’t need to be here any longer than you must.”

(Charles) “OK… do you want everything packed up?”

(Terminal) “If you wouldn’t mind. I would appreciate it.”

Charles sent… well, pretty much everything, swirling into the Chancel. He left, handed the little bag of trivial-but-handy artifacts to Sayid (and sent him racing home) – and got rid of the remote body; he had to get to Gri Fel’s and Terapishim’s ceremony anyway!

(Terminal, in one last appearance) “Thank you for everything, Charles.”

(Charles) “You’re welcome!”

He had a party to get too! Fortunately… he could make it there in plenty of time.

OK, I think I’m sufficiently recovered to get back to posting again… Lets find out for sure. Sorry about the unexpected hiatus though.

Game, Set, & Match

Rules aren’t Games

We often mistake the books of rules for games. Except they aren’t. The rules do not make up the basic game. Rather, the game exists in the experiences of the players, which can be quite different from the actual game itself. This isn’t to say that the rules need tweaking so that players can enjoy them. That’s true enough, but it’s not what we’re saying. Instead, the game only exists in the realm of people playing it. Without human beings, the game is just ink on paper, or ifnormation recorded in an even more ethereal medium like electronics.

We’re not saying this just to sound deep and philosophical. It has serious consequences to how we play games. Greater adherence to the rules demands more time and effort. This increases even more as the rules grow ever more complex and lengthy. And the more rulebooks you add, the more and more time it requires to sift through and understand, even to have a decent enough understanding to look up the important bits later.

That’s simple enough. But this also has importance relating to how we relate rules to the setting, and why it’s incredibly important to keep an eye not only on the actual rules that you write, but how they interact to create systems or incentives that influence gameplay.

For example, Shadowrun 4th edition has a good system. In fact, we would say it’s a very good system. It’s quite clean, easily understood, and applicable to a wide array of situations. However, if you’ve read a lot on this site, you may know that we don’t think very much of that game around here. To understand why, consider the impact of just two rules: all human characters get a single point of Edge, and all characters with Edge may use it to survive otherwise fatal events.

This has consequences for gameplay. In theory, a passenger jet crash in Shadowrun 4 should see almost all the humans survive – and babies would be more likely to survive than their parents, because they haven’t had to spend that Edge point previously. Even if you handwave this scenario, there are dozens of conflicts great and small, which collectively erode the illusion of the gameworld as real. This affects everything in the game, from out-of-the-box character creation to the details like the economics of small business firms. Nothing can be understood and accepted by the players without explanation, unless they are willing to blindly ignore all contradictions. But even that is not a solution.

Either questioning everything, or blindly ignoring contradictions, makes it harder to accept the gameworld or the game as real. Similarly, you can’t predict the logical outcome of player action, and therefore can’t make good judgements about what your character should do in the gameworld. Because the world isn’t internally consistent, it relies heavily on the Game Master specifically telling the players what’s going on.

This doesn’t mean that Shadowrun 4 is a bad system. Instead, it’s a system which doesn’t match the game world the players expect to interact with. You could work up a very good game based on the Shadowrun 4 rules, but it would have radically different culture, environment, and people. The game wouldn’t be at all like the earlier Shadowrun game – but it doesn’t have to be. It can still be a cyberpunk game although the themes and concepts behind it would differ greatly.

Some people might try to relate this to the Gamist vs. Simulationist debate, but that’s not quite relevant and not where I’m taking this. There will always be inconsistencies no matter how you write the rules. But writing them in a way that smooths over most notable inconsistencies is what makes games worthwhile. When the rules effectively apply *only* to the player characters, it’s impossible to have a game world. It becomes mere scenery dressing for rolling dice, or perhaps worse, requires two sets of incomplete and contradictory rules: the official rules written in books, which apply to the players, and the real rules which are written only in the GM’s mind. The gameworld then becomes a a gran scenario of playing Mao, and attempting to guess or intuit what the GM is thinking.

For a literary comparison, consider if in Lord of the Rings, Gollum was repeatedy killed “offscreen” in slapstick accidents while nobody noticed. Even if this would be entertaining in its own right (or we think it would, anyway), the concept can’t work because it undercuts the story as a whole. Humorous and light-hearted moments do exist in the books, and even more in the movies, but most agree that they don’t betray the basic themes or the plot at work.

For a more positive example, consider how easily understood the major characters are even when introduced late in the story. Denethor ( son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, World Champion of the Flaming 100 Yard Dash) is a major character who affects events in extremely important ways. Yet he doesn’t know up until the last book. His entire backstory is a tangle of personal relationships and complex politics, military campaigns and the grief of an old, tired man trying to hold out one more day. ASlthough we don’t learn much about Gondor’s politics and we’re never explicitly told all these things about him. Tolkein instead shows us hints of these things and allows us to fill in the blanks for ourselves, and explains these things in a very brief way the reader can understand. Even better: even though we aren’t explicitly told anything, we quickly understand Denethor’s character, why he does the things he does, and even come to care and admire him. We don’t need to understand everything about Gondor and politics and history to understand Denethor.

What Tolkein absolutely did not do was to make understanding Denethor’s actions contingent upon first knowing the complex relationships and history and politics. Obviously that would have sucked horribly for the reader, but it would also have been a betrayal of the way Lord of the Rings was constructed. You don’t, and shouldn’t, need to know all these things to enjoy the story or understand everything which goes on. The books hint at the history, but you can read it straight through, understanding every event, without having to refer to a separate history book.

But in game terms, that’s what writers often do to because they fail to match the rules with the game world they want to write. For example, if your rules system is pretty realistic in terms of damage, then you really can’t have an epic fantasy world – nobody’s going to make it long enough to become an epic hero, unless there the one-in-millions near-superman. And even then, they’re more likely to become a hero by raising armies and forging kingdoms, not by personally killing dragons. On the other hand, in a standard 3rd or 4th edition DnD-type world, you probably won’t see many armies or great conquests, because armies are uselesss compared to a single high-level character.*

*Whether or not armies would even exist is another question, and we’ll get to that another day.

A game which did an excellent example of merging the world and the rules was Legend of the Five Rings. You can level many complaints and point out many rules problems, but in terms of making the rules match the universe they were trying to create, the game did an excellent job. Fundamentally, the rules say that life is cheap and that advancing in power through adventure is the way to become effective. And lo and helod – that’s what the game world says happens. On the low end of play, or if you’re surprised by enemies and unable to defend yourself or escape, you probably die. Meanwhile, history is mostly written by great heroes, with armies as appendages for duelling generals. The only reason most Samurai even have weapons is so they can die gloriously, with a handful of lucky or tough survivors going on to become the great champions of the realm.

This isn’t to say it’s perfect. The creators eveidently don’t understand concepts like math or demographics very well, and sometimes their desire to make the game “fantasy Japanese, sorta” ends up being goofy or overly stereotyped. Still, the game on the whole does a very good job of merging what the players are told explicitly through the world material with what the players are told implicitly through the rules.

In games, maintaining a consistent world is especially important because the players and Game Master must interact with each other and with the rules to play. The *players* can break from the game reality to indulge in Monty Python jokes, nerd references, and off-color humor. But the game cannot do so unless that’s built into the tone and structure of the game. That’s when you break out Paranoia.

Combat as Sport and War

Combat Engineers

Well of COURSE I take it more seriously than Superman! He’s bulletproof!

For today, it’s another question…

So how would the (THIS) article relate to the debate regarding Combat as Sport vs. Combat as War? (I’d link to the original post on EN World, but they’re down right now.)

– Alzrius

For convenience, I’ll quote the basic definitions that that article provides:

People who want Combat as Sport want fun fights between two (at least roughly) evenly matched sides. They hate “ganking” in which one side has such an enormous advantage (because of superior numbers, levels, strategic surprise, etc.) that the fight itself is a fait accompli. They value combat tactics that could be used to overcome the enemy and fair rules adhered to by both sides rather than looking for loopholes in the rules. Terrain and the specific situation should provide spice to the combat but never turn it into a turkey shoot. They tend to prefer arena combat in which there would be a pre-set fight with (roughly) equal sides and in which no greater strategic issues impinge on the fight or unbalance it.

The other side of the debate is the Combat as War side. They like Eve-style combat in which in a lot of fights, you know who was going to win before the fight even starts and a lot of the fun comes in from using strategy and logistics to ensure that the playing field is heavily unbalanced in your favor. The greatest coup for these players isn’t to win a fair fight but to make sure that the fight never happens (the classic example would be inserting a spy or turning a traitor within the enemy’s administration and crippling their infrastructure so they can’t field a fleet) or is a complete turkey shoot. The Combat as Sport side hates this sort of thing with a passion since the actual fights are often one-sided massacres or stand-offs that take hours.


Now definitions are good, but they only really help if relate them to design decisions.

Combat as Sport only works in a character-based game if you either…

  • (A) Assume that the characters involved care little or nothing for their own lives. Look around you… baboon gangs, wolf packs, and human societies all contain a wide variety of mechanisms to settle disputes without seriously risking life and limb. Sure, they might be seeking fabulous rewards – but if they’re that good, why don’t they get their rewards and retire?
  • (B) Place the characters in a situation – such as a gladiatorial arena, or being ordered about by gods, emperors, military commanders, or other powerful figures – where they are being forced into “fair fights”.
  • (C) Ensure that the characters are very sure of surviving – or of being resurrected if they die, which amounts to the same thing.

So what are the consequences of those three options?

(A) Kills off most role-playing, leaving the characters as playing pieces who disdain pain, and personal risk, and see combat as a goal rather than a tool. Sure, the players may state that their characters are death-or-glory types who don’t care about the pain or death – but should that really apply to all of their opponents too? There’s nothing wrong with that in a tactical wargame – but once you discard realistic motives you’re no longer playing a role-playing game.

(B) Kills off player-character decision-making (and is also known as “railroading”). There’s nothing wrong with that if the railroad goes to what the players want to do and the GM is simply providing an in-character excuse for the characters to be doing it – but it’s worth noting that actual gladiators were quite creative about finding ways to “cheat”.

That leaves (C) – Which is why death is a simple temporary inconvenience in most computer and video games. I died? Who cares? Just wait a moment while I go pick up my stuff, or put in an extra token, or hit the replay button…

In most tabletop role-playing games the classic answer to “being fairly sure of survival” was a bit of GM warning of especially tough or dangerous opponents, ablative combat, scouting out the opposition, and having the characters be prepared to escape and heal themselves if things seemed to be going badly. As characters became more powerful, they tended to acquire special methods of escape – ranging from smoke pellets and skill at hiding on up to cloning systems, limited-use teleportation devices, and resurrections. Sometimes – in desperation – they would even resort to bargaining or surrendering…

The World Tree game – where even basic starting characters and ordinary folks can easily be equipped with short range teleportation powers, a small supply of “automatically heal me from death” devices, and are usually pretty tough into the bargain – is the logical end point of this progression. On the World Tree most fights against intelligent opponents are not to the death; they’re “until keeping going starts becoming seriously risky or expensive and I use an escape effect” – or they’re social or political or some such to start with.

Now World Tree can be a lot of fun – but a lot of players will find it really annoying when their opponents escape. A fair number of them hate to retreat even when they should. Worse, living through truly serious World Tree combat when it comes up, even if it is pretty rare, involves quite a lot of careful forethought, planning, and resource management.

A lot of players don’t like that – and the solution was “Balanced Encounters”.

Of course, “Balanced Encounters” are a lie.

Lets think about that. Is Chess “balanced”? It may not be entirely perfect – there is the first-move advantage – but that’s why most people choose who goes first at random, which restores perfect parity between two random players sitting down for a game.

Chess is fair and balanced – and pretty much comes down to player skill and intuition. One or the other player may win or it may wind up a draw – the equivalent of “one or the other side falls back and escapes” in a RPG – but the odds are pretty much equal.

But WOTC had a stroke of genius – and in a bit of doublespeak worthy of substituting “ethnic cleansing” for “genocide” – redefined a “balanced (combat) encounter” as “one where the player characters are expected to win quite readily – without needing to bother with scouting or special preparations or even any really complex tactics – at the cost of about 25% of their daily resources”.

Funny, I thought that “Balanced” meant “Both sides are more or less equal and have fairly equal chances”. That’s what it means in Chess – and in Monopoly, and Poker, and Scrabble, and Tennis, and Baseball, and pretty much every other game. The few where the two sides really are grossly unequal are usually played in rounds where the players switch sides – like baseball innings.

You could do that; make it a genuine test of player skill; run through your “balanced encounter” as usual – and then switch sides and replay it. To get any rewards for it, the players have to win both times.

Not going to be popular using WOTC-style “balanced encounters” is it?

Still, despite the irritating-to-me doublespeak, “Balanced Encounters” really do work perfectly well from a gaming point of view and a game using them can be lots of fun. It does, however, require throwing out any pretense that the setting makes sense on its own, rather than revolving around the player-characters. A lot of players and game masters won’t mind that – after all, it’s basically true – but it will drive others (mostly the “deep immersion” players) right up the wall.

Combat as War only works in a role-playing game that… (A) supports a fair level of world detail as opposed to mechanical detail, (B) has players who are ALL willing to invest a great deal of time and effort in both role-playing and in planning and preparation, and (C) is run as a simulation of a fantasy reality, with an emphasis on the physics of the fantasy universe – how things work instead of what they do – and the motivations of the characters (both PC and NPC) involved rather than as a “game”.

Please note that this isn’t a “pick one” situation like Combat as Sport. This is all or nothing.

(A) isn’t entirely a matter of rules; the game may help by telling you HOW things work in the setting, and even by providing a certain amount of random background (Percent in Lair, Morale Table, etc, etc, etc…), but it can be a lot of work for the game master to make sure that the background makes sense, to keep track of time, and to have intelligent opponents make sensible preparations. (B) is required – since if some of the players aren’t willing to invest a lot of time in role-playing and planning they will be horribly bored and will soon rebel. Finally, of course, (C) requires making sure that the players have a reasonable idea of how things work in the setting and are willing to restrict themselves to what their character’s know.

Either style can lead to an enjoyable game as long as the people playing are all willing to go along with the assumptions and behaviors involved – but when someone isn’t, you get problems.

Not entirely by coincidence, Chess IS about perfect as a combat-as-sport game. It’s about as rules, setting, information, and terrain equal as you can get and no one worries about the motives of the individual pieces (outside of a few short stories) – and thus it doesn’t even need a game master. Guided Freeform games are about the epitome of Combat-as-war; they rely heavily on rules that may be in the game masters head but are unknown to the players, the advantage goes to creative use and interpretation of the setting, and anything else may be wildly unequal to the point where many combats will jump straight to the foregone conclusion.

My personal observation is that combat-as-sport is better for episodic games, if players may or may not be able to make it to any given session, and for shorter campaigns. Combat-as-war tends to require greater committments and longer games. When players come and go, it can really disrupt a combat-as-war game since a single “battle” may span multiple sessions.

It’s still possible to mix the two of course. As an example the last d6 Star Wars campaign ran for a bit over a hundred sessions – and did indeed lean towards “Combat as War”. There were a few roughly “balanced” battles (The weaker, but well-prepared, Bounty Hunters have caught up with you!), and plenty of grossly unbalanced battles – but they were fun anyway when the objective on one side was “Capture” and the other was “Impress these men enough to recruit them”, or “let them escape believing that they just fought a battle with the people we are trying to frame”, or “stall them and keep the damage to an absolute minimum while our negotiators slip through to try and settle this”.

When the objective was “rescue several thousand civilians who think that half of the party are legendary villains from bioengineered flying jellyfish-monsters who’s touch induces berserker madness, get them to the spaceport, take the spaceport away from a fanatical defending force with starship weapons who also think that the party is full of legendary villains without damaging the defenders or the ships, and get everyone offworld” things got complicated – but there was a mighty string of exciting battles and tense negotiations during which very few people (there were a few civilians that the party didn’t manage to rescue from the jellyfish-things) actually got killed.

To mix combat-as-war and combat-as-sport more readily, simply ensure that…

  • (A) The players do a lot of their planning in their personal time – such as picking out and upgrading their equipment, training in their special options, and coming up with pre-planned maneuvers – rather than before fighting. The good old “Next week we’ll be dealing with these problems… you might want to plan ahead” at the end of the session works beautifully. The players who want to plan will come with plans, the ones who don’t want to bother will simply ride along with the ones who did.
  • (B) Most battles are not to the death. This cuts down ENORMOUSLY on the frantic efforts to plan for every possibility and allows a lot more spontaneity since the players can afford to lose occasionally – and may well be quite happy with a partial win if there are multiple goals (which takes us to…)
  • (C) The goals are usually more complex than “defeat the opposition”. If your goals are “Kill the enemy and take their stuff” things are a lot simpler – and more one-correct-tactic oriented – than if your goals are “capture the bandits, find the rare item we want, impress the sheriff so he’ll owe you a favor, cover up the involvement with the bandits of one character’s idiot nephew, and get some information on the guy who drove the bandits out of their usual haunts”.

Thus, over the course of several battles in that d6 Star Wars campaign the bounty hunter D’arc went from Captor (goals; escape and steal his ship!) to Menace (goals; escape, find out how he found them again, try to keep the reward on them down), to Comedy Relief (goals; knock out D’arc and his henchmen, steal D’arc’s NEW ship, and persuade the locals that the group was NOT a major menace), to Stalker / Leader of a menacing enemy team (goals; keep him from revealing their location, try and persuade him that they were currently the good guys and should be helped, rather than hindered, and recruit him) – and finally to Ally.

There are more discussions along these lines in several other articles on the site – such as Battling the Balanced Encounter and the Ridmarch series on flexible adventure design (Part I, Part II, and Part III).

Unfortunately, none of that is precisely related to the original article, which is about players who attempt to import real-world tactics into games where they don’t work (and so their characters would not be familiar with them except, perhaps, as “things that don’t work”) and then get upset about it when they fail – although there is a relationship to the article you mention.

That article does make a good illustration though: the combat-as-sport side is presented fairly – but the combat-as-war side is not.

First up, a combat-as-war group generally IS going up against targets that they cannot defeat in a straight fight (and would need to run to survive without preparations), whereas the article implies that the groups are equivalent and the combat-as-war group could win if they just jumped in. That’s rather unfair since that’s generally not how it works.

Secondarily, the combat-as-war PC’s are presented as expecting benefits from trying to use obviously silly stratagems. A couple of layers of clothing and some mud are good against ordinary bees. Against giant bees with stingers the size of short swords? Not so much; that’s just “padded armor” (which monks were not allowed to use). Similarly, the “sneak attack with a ballista in a bag of holding” example is rather blatantly chosen to look like a silly rules exploit. Now if it had been “lure them into a corridor and use Stone Shape to collapse the ceiling on them” that would pretty obviously be clever tactics – albeit just as much an exploit and just as likely to be a cheap way to end an encounter with very little fuss.

Situational Tactics and Role-Playing Games

Chess Tactics Discovered Check

Recommended Tactic: Do Not Allow This To Happen.

“So… I’ve got two mutually-supporting castles and a small force of knights and some peasant militia to protect the royal court from a similar force? Man the castles, put the court in keep in the strongest castle, prepare to fire from the walls, and reserve the knights to sally out and break the siege while we await reinforcements!”

“For the last time George! The game is Chess, it does NOT work that way, and demanding that the rules be changed to accommodate YOUR desire for what you call “realism” is about the most UNREALISTIC thing that I’ve ever heard of!”

One of the most basic rules of tactics is that you have to adapt them to the situation – and, in a role playing game, the rules are a big part of the situation, even if they are usually a bit less abstract than the rules of chess.

Consider d20. It…

  • Is designed to promote dramatic and exciting battles, and so makes it very difficult to one-shot anyone of a roughly similar power level without using carefully-set up limited-use effects – which breaks tactics based on the lethality of real-world injuries and weapons.
  • Uses turn-based combat time, rather than simultaneous actions, to make it easier to run and play and to ensure “fairness” about who gets to do something – which breaks most real-world notions about “covering fire” and tactical movement.
  • Has magic because people like magic and characters with fabulous abilities – which breaks pretty much EVERY real-world assumption about fortification, the advantages of being on the defensive, and information security.
  • Gives similar creatures – say a first level commoner and a tenth level character with a reasonable build – radically different abilities. Otherwise, how can you play a mighty hero? Of course, if you give fifty first-level commoners equivalent armor and weapons, and send them up against a tenth level character with thirty seconds warning… other factors being equal, the tenth level guy will soon have a heap of new armor, weapons, and (if he chooses to be merciful and has the abilities to capture without killing) prisoners. That breaks most tactics based on deploying groups, along with most assumptions about military training and concentrating force.
  • Says that effective combatants may not even need armor, weapons, or supplies – breaking most real-world assumptions about disarming prisoners and logistics.

And so on.

For better or for worse, a great many other role-playing games use similar – or even LESS “realistic” – assumptions, making the characters impossibly skilled, tough, and central to events. Yes, they’re simulations – but they’re usually not simulations of the real world. They’re simulations of a fantastic cinematic reality full of epic heroes, mighty magics, and literary conventions. They’re designed for fun, not for historical accuracy.

Yes there ARE plenty of tactical options and strategies in d20 and in other role playing games – but they rarely look much like anything that would work in the real world. Good tactics in role playing games depend very heavily on the exact rules in use, what the game master approves of, the situation (which is likely to be laughably weird by real-world standards), how persuasive and friendly the player proposing those tactics is, and on whether or not the other players go along with them.

Serious tactical studies for role-playing games are rare to unheard of – and that’s a good thing. It’s a LOT more fun to try to figure out an applicable tactic than it is to quote a tactical study and precedent. You doubt that? Look at serious chess, where the first twenty moves are often straight out of books. Somehow… memories of old chess games rarely become stories that get trotted out years later to tell to friends.

So when your local military-history buff tries to drag real-world tactics into a game – and then gets upset when they don’t work – no, he or she does not have a reasonable cause for being upset or for complaining about the game system. Even if the character has tactical skills (in which case the game master should provide some advice on tactics that will actually work in the game) trying to drag real-world tactics in is just as much cheating as trying to have your spear-wielding stone age tribesman character using your real-world electronics expertise to repair a crash-landed alien spacecraft. Behavior like that should NOT be rewarded.

Fortunately, there’s rarely any need to intentionally frustrate players who try this sort of thing. Since the tactics they’re trying to use probably will not work in the game it’s not ONLY cheating, but it’s STUPID cheating that generally doesn’t work.

Yes, every adventurer should develop some basic tactical notions – but they should be lessons learned from their experiences about things that actually work in the setting, not from reality.

After all, “reality” is what we’re playing these games to get away from.

Zombie Apocalypse Part I – Powering Your Corpse

It’s really easy to start a zombie apocalypse game. Every gamers seen enough versions of that particular scenario that they’re only waiting to hear you name the setting, how far along the thing is, and what rules you’ll be using to make the characters to get started. The more enthusiastic ones will start before you get around to the rules system, or sometimes even before you tell them how far along things are.

The trouble here is that gamers tend to THINK. They’re going to be looking for ways to win easily instead of going along with the scriptwriter. They’ll be looking for ways to justify any bit of equipment that they’d like to have. They’ll be making nitroglycerin out of old zombies (well I know how you could do that…). Any hole in the logic or plot, identifiable zombie behavior pattern, or other flaw will be mercilessly investigated and exploited. They’ll adjust and improve their tactics – and they’ll EXPERIMENT. Worse, they’ll expect you to have answers on tap – especially if you happen to be playing with technical types.

That means that… you’re going to want to have answers ready. You’ll want to know just how your zombies work before you start – and you’ll want it to be plausible under whatever laws of nature you establish for your setting.

First up, what makes them go? Where does the energy come from?

That’s the first, and most fundamental, problem with a lot of “zombie” tales. The supposed “agent” involved doesn’t matter yet. If we want to keep our zombies plausible, what matters is that keeping a body active requires a fair amount of energy. Where can we get it?

  • Total Mass-Energy Conversion? That WOULD keep our zombies going – but it requires big-bang level temperatures, gravitational singularities, or magnetic monopoles and some way to convert the resulting radiant energy into usable power. Putting that into an organic body? Yep. that’s (implied rude expression) magic.
  • Nuclear Energy? Derived from Fission, Fusion, or Radioisotopes? Since whatever creates zombies usually doesn’t install chunks of highly-radioactive and/or fissionable material (which would make interesting zombies I’ll admit, but would make them lethal to all normal life forms in a wide radius by their mere presence) we can leave out Fission and Radioisotopes. As a side-benefit, that lets us ignore the problem of converting that energy into a usable form. Fusion sounds better – there’s all that enthusiasm about “Cold Fusion” to give us a gloss of respectability – but while there are several ways to achieve fusion in the lab, the only way that can actually generate net power is thermal. Generating and containing that kind of temperature in a human body takes us back to (rude noises) magic – although the thought of fusion-bomb zombies is amusing.
  • Thermal Energy? Sure, that’s all around you – but turning it into power without a lower-temperature energy sink violates the laws of thermodynamics. That’s some SERIOUS magic, whether we label it “negative energy” or “subspace”. Thermodynamics is about as well-established and generally applicable as physics GETS. Still, energy-vampire thermal-energy sucking zombies are another amusing notion even if they ARE heap big magic…
  • Dark Energy, Spacefields, and Vacuum Energy. Well, everything we know about THESE – where we’re sure that they exist at all – suggests that there’s no way to actually extract net energy from them short of things like starting an energy-cascade to a lower vacuum-energy state (also known as “a wave of total destruction that expands at the speed of light, replacing our universe with another newborn one”). Handwave in enough new physics to allow this and we’re back to (random euphemism) magic again.
  • Electrical And Magnetic Energy… Well, now we’re cooking! We know LOTS of ways of acquiring, storing, and using electrical energy! Admittedly, most of them are a lot less organic than the human body, but there’s no reason why similar organic structures cannot be created… Taking this route we can justify nanite zombies – perhaps some form of cellular-replacement route-to-immortality-experiment gone horribly wrong – that gradually fill up their hosts with plasticized tissues, tiny electrical components, and capacitor systems. It’s hard to see why electrical zombies should behave anything like classical ones – but killer cyberzombies DO have a certain appeal. We may still need some magic to make this work, but we can shove it a good deal further into the background with electrozombies.
  • Radiant Energy – such as photons – can DEFINITELY work as an energy source, and can be fairly readily harnessed by organic structures. The problem here is simply that it’s pretty diffuse – which means that any creature relying on the direct conversion of radiant energy to power (at least in any remotely earthlike environment) is going to be SLOW. In fact, we already have some creatures out there that feed on dead animals, convert radiant energy into power to “live”, and are engaged in a constant, mindless, struggle for survival. They’ve been even refining their weapons for millions of years! They’re called “Plants” – and, like it or not, exciting action scenes involving fights with plants that aren’t being moved around by external forces… tend to be pretty contrived, few, and far between. How often do you see your lawn dragging down and pulling apart your lawnmower? I think that we’re going to have to look elsewhere for our zombie apocalypse fuel.
  • Mechanical Energy sources include the energy of impacts (kinetic energy), of sound (small impacts), rotation, and energy stored in elastic systems (springs, rubber bands, and so on). Now, this may have worked for Sebastian Shaw – but he’s a comic book character, and Marvel’s “Mutant Powers” pretty much ALL fall into the (rude sexual reference) magic category. Do I REALLY need to go into much detail on the limitations of clockwork, hydraulic, or otherwise mechanical zombies powered by cranks, flywheels, wound-up springs, and rubber bands? Leave it to Tik-Tok of Oz.

That leaves us with… Chemical Energy. We KNOW that this can move a human body around, and that the human body – even dead – has substantial reserves of it, and that it can fuel some pretty impressive stunts!

Of course, using chemical energy to power a human body… requires some pretty sophisticated systems. Simply bursting into flames doesn’t get you very far. You’ve got to release it a bit at a time (usually requiring various reactant chemicals and sources and transport systems for them), control it (regulatory mechanisms), channel it into usable forms (classically ATP or other highly energetic molecules), convert it into mechanical energy with more complicated molecular systems (the contractile molecules that power muscles), and so on.

Wait a minute. This is getting pretty blasted complicated! Worse, it’s sounding a lot like… life. Isn’t there an easier way?

Sure there is. You can power your zombies with fuel cells (back to Electrozombies!) or a steam engine or an internal-combustion engine or a lot of other variants – but that takes you back to mechanical energy…

If you want to use chemical energy as a direct, efficient, power source for a human body… you want to keep it so close to being alive that it’s a lot simpler, easier, and more efficient to not kill it in the first place. Thus the various forms of “living zombies”, such as the “Rage Virus Zombies” of Twenty-Eight Days Later.

That has it’s own limitations – if you don’t respect things like incubation times, the need to breathe, the fact that operating in continual overdrive will kill most bodies fairly quickly (blood pressure, heart strain, fever, internal damage, not taking necessary medications, not eating – or at least not being able to digest properly while blood is being diverted from digestion to sustain constant activity elsewhere – and so on) you’re back in (reference to eliminatory bodily functions) magic territory again – but at least it’s a technically plausible start!

Of course, the resulting zombie plague won’t necessarily bear much resemblance to a classical zombie attack – but if a classical zombie attack is what you want, don’t try for a technical justification. Go ahead. Let it stand tall and proud. It’s MAGIC. That’s why it ignores many physical limitations and follows your favorite zombie conventions. Personally, I LIKE magic – but I DON’T like it when it tries to hide from me under a thin cloak of scientific terminology.

Arise you rotting corpses, you slaughterers of the living, you decaying and unnatural horrors! Stand tall, proud, and magical among the twitching bodies of your latest victims! Wait for those who are intact enough to rise to join your relentless ranks! Know neither pain nor pity! Plant the standard of dark magic in the very heart of the living world! You have nothing to lose but the jeers of skeptics!

Do stop sucking down those intestines from still-living screaming victims though. Trying to describe that to the players is just gross.