2022/04/26

OSR: Pantheopolis and the Divine Exodus

Pantheopolis, the City of Many Gods! 

Pantheopolis, whose armies ranged far and wide! Their legions captured countless cities, and with each victory, the city's gods were carefully transferred to their new seat of power.

Pantheopolis! City of temples, built with the rivers of tribute flowing to the capital. City of priests and imported rituals. City of blessings uncounted. 

Pantheopolis! And when there were no more enemies to conquer, city of Ecumenodiplomats, who crept into towns and flattered their gods into departing. City of Theoarchivists, who searched scrolls and tablets for forgotten gods. For if the city achieved greatness under the guidance of a hundred gods, think of what could it achieve with a thousand.

Pantheopolis! City of blessings. City of curses. And, in time, a city where they could not be distinguished. Pray for fertility and receive barrenness from a rival god slighted by your inattention, or birth litters of dozens as gods compete to outdo each other. City where every wish becomes a prayer, and every prayer an invitation. Orphanages overflow with least demigods; armies are paralyzed by conflicting omens, crops grow out of season. The gods jostle and bicker, ignoring rites and forgetting their duties.

Pantheopolis! Former capital of an empire, now a collapsing nest of divine feuds. In desperation, the Five Oligarchs have issued a decree. Let the gods depart! 

And so, this is your task. Carry a god to a new place (with their implied consent). Find, build, or reclaim a temple. Instruct the locals in the correct rites. 

Jeremy Hunter

The Divine Exodus

I wanted to find a use for my 1d100 Divine Domains (and associated tables). You could also use the book Petty Gods, or any other list of gods. Pantheopolis is the mirror of Arnold K's Coramont.

The PCs are the usual mix of unsavory types, contracted to transport a god (and their physical presence as a statue or similar object) to a new land. Some money up front, but more money on their return (plus whatever they can fleece from the locals). It's reverse loot-for-XP; the more stuff you haul out of the city, the more XP you get.

All the useful gods (of safe travels, of warfare, of localized bandit smiting, etc.) have already been shipped out, surrounded by small armies and appropriate pomp. Don't expect a lot of help from the statue/stone/petrified frog/shield you're hauling.

In their lust for divine power, Pantheopolis may have unearthed or appropriated gods that were best left forgotten and buried. Traditional tentacular horrors, flame-and-skull cults, etc. Finding a settlement willing to take such a god off your hands may be difficult. Some image rehabilitation might be in order.

Sarunas Macijauskas

The League of Inveterate Atheists

The gods, great and small, have caused nothing but trouble for humanity. They should stick to their own affairs and leave humans alone. The League of Inveterate Atheists undermines shrines, tosses statues into bogs, bludgeons clerics, and generally attempts to reduce the total amount of faith in the world. The Divine Exodus is a great opportunity to pick off a few small and feeble cults. 

Members of the League are typically wracked with philosophy, and can be distracted by complex logic problems. They wear disguises, use false names, and avoid direct and clear-cut blaspheming.  

Of course, there are the usual OSR enemies. Cults of rival deities. Generic monsters. Other adventuring parties looking to take credit for someone else's work.

Nikola Matkovic

Useful Quotes

An enormous crowd went and filled the camp. After the Dictator had taken the auspices and issued orders for the soldiers to arm for battle, he uttered this prayer: "Pythian Apollo, guided and inspired by thy will I go forth to destroy the city of Veii, and a tenth part of its spoils I devote to thee. Thee too, Queen Juno, who now dwellest in Veii, I beseech, that thou wouldst follow us, after our victory, to the City which is ours and which will soon be shine, where a temple worthy of thy majesty will receive thee."  

[...]

When all that belonged to man had been carried away from Veii, they began to remove from the temples the votive gifts that had been made to the gods, and then the gods themselves; but this they did as worshippers rather than as plunderers. The deportation of Queen Juno to Rome was entrusted to a body of men selected from the whole army, who after performing their ablutions and arraying themselves in white vestments, reverently entered the temple and in a spirit of holy dread placed their hands on the statue, for it was as a rule only the priest of one particular house who, by Etruscan usage, touched it. Then one of them, either under a sudden inspiration, or in a spirit of youthful mirth, said, "Art thou willing, Juno, to go to Rome?" The rest exclaimed that the goddess nodded assent. An addition to the story was made to the effect that she was heard to say, "I am willing." At all events we have it that she was moved from her place by appliances of little power, and proved light and easy of transport, as though she were following of her own accord. She was brought without mishap to the Aventine, her everlasting seat, whither the prayers of the Roman Dictator had called her, and where this same Camillus afterwards dedicated the temple which he had vowed.

-Livy 5.21-22

After being thus victorious in battle and capturing two camps and nine towns belonging to the enemy and receiving the surrender of Praeneste, Titus Quinctius returned to Rome. In his triumphal procession he carried up to the Capitol the image of Jupiter Imperator, which had been brought from Praeneste. It was set up in a recess between the shrines of Jupiter and Minerva, and a tablet was affixed to the pedestal recording the Dictator's successes. The inscription ran something like this: "Jupiter and all the gods have granted this boon to Titus Quinctius the Dictator, that he should capture nine towns."

-Livy 6.29

That the art of statuary was familiar to Italian Italy also and of long standing there is indicated by the statue of Hercules in the Cattle Market said to have been dedicated by Evander, which is called 'Hercules Triumphant,' and on the occasion of triumphal processions is arrayed in triumphal vestments; and also by the two-faced Janus, dedicated by King Numa, which is worshipped as indicating war and peace, the fingers of the statue being so arranged as to indicate the 355 days of the year, and to betoken that Janus is the god of the duration of time. Also there is no doubt that the so-called Tuscanic images scattered all over the world were regularly made in Etruria. I should have supposed these to have been statues of deities only, were it not that Metrodorus of Scepsis, who received his surname from his hatred of the very name of Rome, reproached us with having taken by storm the city of Volsinii for the sake of the 2000 statues which it contained.

-Pliny NH 34.24

 

2022/04/24

OSR: The Iron Gates and Information Gating

Here are some more notes on my Alexander Romance/Dark Souls-inspired Iron Gates setting. People have asked why I don't just write the setting. This post is an attempt to answer that question. The issue isn't writing, it's choosing what to write, and choosing how to present that information to a GM in a useful way.

Stepan Alekseev

Dark Souls takes video game elements and makes them part of the world. Constraints become building blocks. Elements that most games gloss over become emblematic of the series.

  • Dying and respawning at checkpoints.
  • Resetting enemies.
  • Enemy deaths converting into Experience Points.
  • Boss fights.
  • Intermittent PvP.

The constraints of a tabletop RPG are not the same as the constraints of a video game. If you want media that turns RPG elements into world elements, Order of the Stick and similar tongue-in-cheek media are probably the way to go.

Dark Souls is a single-player game. The game proceeds at a pace controlled by one person. Combat is satisfying. Player skill is vital. Mysteries are optional; you don't need to know much of the plot to go somewhere you haven't been before, find a fog gate, go through it, and kill whatever is on the other side.

RPGs involve multiple people, who all need to be sufficiently entertained to turn up to the next session. The pace is barely controlled by anyone, but everyone gets some input. Combat is rarely as satisfying as system designers hope it will be, mainly because it takes time to do anything. Roll dice, move chits, mark down numbers, do math; a computer can do it all instantly and seamlessly, but tabletop RPGs are slow. Player skills are important, but are mainly focused on finding ways around combat (or similar roadblocks) and coming up with lateral solutions. Because the world doesn't exist outside of the group's shared imagination, a higher degree of engagement with the plot is important.

Simulating Dark Souls combat in an RPG doesn't make a ton of sense to me. You could build a tabletop system to "authentically" simulate a game of snooker... or you could just play snooker. If an experience is difficult to come by (say, landing an airliner, firing a neutron laser at a mutant space goon, etc.) then I can see some utility in simulating it, but Dark Souls isn't exactly hard to find.

So if we set the system aside as an issue for another time, we're left with non-system information. The old crunch vs. fluff distinction. What makes a Souls setting a Souls setting, and how can that information be conveyed in an RPG context?

Ariel Perez

Conveying Information In An RPG

In a Souls-type video game, player-facing information consists of the opening cutscene, any mandatory boss cutscenes, the environment, and maybe a few lines of dialogue. It's possible to play the game to completion and not have a clue what's going on. Why do bonfires exist? Who's this big snake? Why is this guy on fire? Oh well, hit them until the health bar drops and the credits roll.

Even players who pay close attention will probably miss lore elements. Some secrets seem like they are designed for collaborative analysis and debate. Why does Lysanderoth's Ring have a picture of the Fourfold Sigil on it? Why is a corpse in the Billowing Library wearing the Elm Scholar's Set, and does it have anything to do with the cut content surrounding the War of the Misfiled Ledger? You know, that sort of detail.

It's not difficult to write a Souls-type setting. It's difficult to present it to a GM in a manner that makes it useful (or even useable). Writing paragraph after paragraph about various dieties and locations doesn't help. It's just... words. What a GM needs are tools. I've written about a few tools in this post, but here are some additional notes.

A GM doesn't have access to spectacular visuals or sound cues. They can turn the book around to show the players some art, but that's not always feasible (or even wise; a good description can be far more evocative than a piece of art). Players tune out after a sentence or two of readaloud text.

Information is impermanent. Unless a player took notes, the description happened and then vanished into the past. In a video game, you can revisit an area, check an item description, or replay a conversation; RPGs do not have that luxury.

In between RPG sessions, real-world events will cloud memories and obscure details. "Where were we? Who were we fighting? What's that giant snake talking about?" Good notes help, but a GM can't force players to take notes or pay attention. 

Therefore, a setting guide needs to rely on tools that a GM can access:

Resonance
Whenever possible, descriptions should use elements already present in the players' minds to create the shared imaginary world. Call up a castle and a castle appears; the players know what a castle looks like. Sure, everyone's imagining a different castle, but in one word the GM has set the basic framing of a scene. A handful of descriptive words and modifiers fill in the colours.

Layers
The first description of a scene should give the players enough information to make immediately relevant choices. If there's a giant dragon sleeping on a pile of gold, the GM should definitely mention it, and fill in architectural and textural details later.

But as the players move through a scene or interact with the world, the GM can introduce layers of description. It's an overgrown chapel with an altar. It's a wooden altar, painted to look like marble. The bowl atop the altar is made from the horns of a stag. The horns are untouched by the moss and algae that coat every other surface in the chapel.

Coherence
In a Souls inspired RPG setting, every detail should matter. Everything should be part of a larger pattern, because there's so little information being conveyed. Everything presented in a setting guide should connect, in some way, to some other element or hidden plot or world system. If an altar is made of wood, it's made of wood for a reason. If a ring is made of silver, it's made of silver for a reason. It allows players to make educated guesses about the world, and experience the joy of discovery when their inferences are rewarded. It also lets the GM improvise with confidence.

Perfect coherence is impossible for any author... but it's worth aiming at, and it's worth convincing your readers (and players) that yes, this was all planned. Whenever possible, smile gently and take the credit. 

Repetition
Themes and visuals can be repeated in different areas, or reinforced by similar phrasing. The chapel's guardians wear cloaks of lichen and masks of bark. They flee before anyone wearing a crown. Their blood is black and thin, like stagnant water.

Presenting this information to the GM in a useful and consistent manner is crucial. The days of chapters of two-column lore text are over. This information can fit in random encounter tables, items, NPC descriptions, location descriptions, weather tables, etc, etc. You don't want a GM to feel as if they have to quote the text verbatim, but you want to provide high-quality prompts that they can weave the written words into a fluid description.

Kilart

Secrets, Secrets, and Secrets

I'm not a fan of RPG books where vital setting elements are hidden from the GM. If there's a murder mystery, summarize the plot early in the book. If there's a metaplot, provide a handy chart. Try, as much as possible, to make the GM's life easy. Let the players puzzle out the solution (or one possible solution), but don't force the poor GM to pick through pages of purple prose to discover Nepotian the Merchant is really Nestorpot the Heretic in disguise.

But since people sometimes buy RPG books to read, not to use, it might be advisable to include some less relevant mysteries for the GM/reader to uncover. Vital concepts (such as Iron, Gold, and Water in the Iron Gates setting) should be fully explained to the GM, but subtle patterns could be left as surprises for readers and players alike.

Since the Iron Gates setting is based on stories from the real world, readers, GMs, and players can use real-world knowledge to assist in-game. The material isn't a 1:1 adaptation, and reading the Alexander Romance might provide too many spoilers, but patterns present in the Iron Gates setting will resonate with other stories known to the players.

Example: The Stag and the Unicorn

There is much to be surmised, but little that a cautious investigator would care to affirm positively, about the symbolic meanings ascribed to the unicorn in pre-Christian times. Several bits of evidence concur, however, in the suggestion that for a very long time one-horned animals have been regarded as emblematic of unlimited or undivided sovereign power.

[...]

In the Book of Daniel (chapter viii) there is recorded this strange vision: "And behold, an he goat came from the West on the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground; and the goat had a notable horn between his eyes. And he came to the ram that had two horns . . . and ran unto him in the fury of his power. And I saw him come close unto the ram, and he was moved with choler against him, and smote the ram, and brake his two horns: and there was no power in the ram to stand before him, but he cast him down to the ground and stamped upon him." Later in the same chapter we are given an interpretation of this vision: "And the rough goat is the king of Grecia, and the great horn that is between his eyes is the first king."

The one-horned goat of Daniel's vision, in other words, stands for Alexander the Great, and the whole allegory depicts his triumph over the hosts of the Persians, represented by the two-horned ram. The interesting thing is that the one horn should be chosen as a symbol of superior power. One can readily understand it as a symbol of single and supreme sovereignty, and it is permissible to paraphrase the sentence quoted above so as to make it read: "The great horn that is between his eyes signifies that he is the supreme king." Exactly the same symbolism is found in the pseudepigraphic first book of Enoch, in the ninetieth chapter: "And I saw till horns grew upon these lambs, and the rams cast down their horns; and I saw till there sprouted a great horn of one of these sheep, and their eyes were opened. And it looked at them and it cried to the sheep, and the rams saw it and all ran to it." The one-horned sheep of this passage, according to the notes of R. H. Charles, must be Judas Maccabaeus.

- Lore of the Unicorn, Odell Shepard

In opposition to the singular horn of the Unicorn / the singular power of Kingship / control / legibility, we have the Stag, whose branching antlers represent opposition to anthropocentric order. Consider the White Stag of Arthurian legends. Both the White Stag and the Unicorn are otherworldly and proverbially difficult to capture. 

So, in the Iron Gates setting, creatures with one horn will be associated specifically with Iskandar, and creatures with multiple or branching horns will be associated with the outer darkness and wilderness. Will this association ever be relevant to the players? Probably not. But if they pick up on it, and find an amulet with a unicorn on it, they might make a connection.

2022/04/13

40k: Deconflagrators and Sump Pirates, Painted

Sump Pirates

The Sump Pirates of Necromunda, as previously stated, do not exist. They are an underhive story to frighten children. When they appear, it's as if a mythical beast has suddenly and inexplicably burst into the mundane world. When they retreat, their victims invent explanations for the destruction and death they inevitably cause.

Members of the gang often wear masks, whether to filter out sump toxins, shield their identities, or to protect from a hypothetical memory-altering gas. Jump packs and grappling hooks are common.
Sump Spiders allow the Sump Pirates to raid across the Hive and beyond. While slower than many wheeled or tracked vehicles, it can climb walls or paddle through toxic rivers. It also carries an autocannon, a terrifying weapon in any gang conflict, as well as a rear-mounted heavy stubber.
The unusual camouflage pattern on Sump Pirate vehicles may serve to conceal their hull shapes during raids, or it may be mere tradition.
The Sump Strider is the capital vessel and roving war-base of the Sump Pirates. Festooned with weapons, the Sump Strider allows the Sump Pirates to raid with impunity.

Its terrifying war-mask bears a mysterious vent.

Kits: The Sump Pirates are a mix of various Necromunda gangs and spare parts. The Sump Spiders are Age of Sigmar Arkanaut frigates with 40k Defiler legs. The Sump Strider is an Arkanaut Ironclad with Knight legs. Buying these kits new and mashing them together is probably not a good plan. I just happened to stumble across them (or parts of them) at a convenient time.
 

How do the Sump Pirates maintain their cloak of unnatural secrecy? Are they the ancient remnants of a marooned Navigator house? Warp-touched pskyers? The owners of some mysterious artifact or source of mind-altering sump gas? Who knows.

The Deconflagrators

In the Dark Grimness of the Future Imperfect, things still catch on fire that should  not be on fire. The Deconflagrators rush to the blaze, connect hoses to ancient skull-shaped hydrants, and pour foam and water onto the flames. They are respected by citizens and outlaws alike, for the brief life of a Deconflagrator is spent in constant service.

Rubber melts and cloth burns, so the Deonflagrators ride on iron wheels and shroud their bodies in hissing cryosuits. With suitable ritual preparations, a Deconflagration Wagon can survive the heat of an alchemical fire or promethium spill. 

Kits: The Deconflagrators are based on Forgeworld Titan crew. The wagon is a modified Goliath Truck with wheels from (of all things) the Forgeworld Malcador Infernus. The foam cannon is based on an old Ork cannon.

Other Underhive Denizens

Two other models for Necromunda/Inq28 games: an Inquisitor on a bike from Wargame Exclusive and a humble water-seller. Pretty soon I'll have enough vehicles to run a Necromunda-themed 28mm Gaslands race.

Side Note: It's really odd that The Great Race (1965) predates Wacky Races (1968). It feels like it should be the other way around. The Great Race has all the hallmarks of a misguided adaptation, yet it's the origin. Oh well.

2022/03/31

OSR: Time Travel Tips for GMs

In fiction, time travel typically falls into the following categories:

  • Time travel can affect the past in details, but not in broad outcomes. X can travel into the past and save Y from a car accident, but Y will then die in a train accident
  • Time travel can affect the past, with any effects propagating into the future. X can travel into the past and save Y from a car accident. The future that caused X to travel back in time never occurs, but it's not an issue. Potential paradoxes result in people flickering or photographs fading. 
  • Time travel creates a parallel world. X can travel into the past and save Y from a car accident, but this creates a Y-less timeline and a Y-containing timeline.
  • Time travel cannot affect the past. X cannot travel into the past and save Y from a car accident. X's efforts will fail somehow. The past is already written.

The last option is, in my opinion, the most interesting for RPG purposes. One set of of events has already occurred; parallel non-contradictory events can also occur. See: Dark (2017), Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (2016), Timecrimes (2007) etc, etc.

The Time Bend

Time's arrow cannot be diverted, but it can be bent. 

X moves forward in time. They enter the time machine, jump back in time, and then move forward in time parallel to their past self. X1 is the person before the enter the time machine, X2 is the person after the enter the time machine. X1 and X2 exist simultaneously until X1 enters the time machine, at which point X2 continues forward in time.

The past cannot be altered. When X2 exits the time machine, everything that is about to happen has already happened.

Timecrimes (2007)

Time Travel for GMs

Any GM who runs a consistent Time Bend in a game gets a gold star. It's a feat of bluff and story management, and it's not for the faint-hearted. If it works, it's the sort of thing players remember for decades. Proceed with caution.

Ideal Circumstances for a Simple Time Bend Scenario

  • A event has yet to occur, but is likely to occur.
  • The PCs cannot currently stop the event.
  • Given additional time and knowledge, the PCs could stop the event.

E.g. The mad wizard Hexibald Crumb has just announced that he's buried a Thaumic Bomb somewhere in the city of Endon. It will detonate in 20 minutes. The PCs cannot find and safely defuse the bomb 20 minutes, but could - with foreknowledge of Hexibald's threat - find it given several hours.

A Time Bend is useful in this scenario. If the Thaumic Bomb had already detonated, a Time Bend would not be useful*. Only future events (from the PCs current point of view) can be altered. The past is fixed.

 *OK, the PCs could use it to travel back in time, rent fast horses, and escape Endon, but that requires the time machine to also survive the Thaumic Bomb.

Most of the Innovations in Magical Industrial Revolution give the PCs plenty of time to alter, divert, or accidentally magnify the potentially catastrophic results. They are deliberately slow and gradual changes without fixed inflection points.

But occasionally, a GM might realize that an approaching crisis could use a Time Bend. It's an interesting option if the GM is willing to put in the work and the players are on board (or are likely to be on board). Attempting to force a crisis as an excuse to use a Time Bend will feel unnatural. Have it as an option, but not the only option (or even the best option).


In the Planning Zone, the GM suspects that time travel might play an interesting role in the game.

The Careful Notes Zone, also known as the Extra Bullshit Zone, is where the GM drops hints of events occurring in the setting that could be caused by a second group of PCs operating in parallel to the first, but are also totally normal and innocuous. Newspaper headlines, strange omens, accidents, weather, hints, etc. A GM should be doing this sort of thing anyway in a city-based campaign, especially in a city like Endon, but since the PCs will be interacting with these events twice, keeping notes is important.

The start of the Careful Notes zone is earliest point at which the PCs can arrive when they jump back in time. When it works, it makes the GM look like a genius. When it doesn't work, nobody remembers hints that don't go anywhere.

If the actions/locations of the PCs' foes are completely known before starting the Time Bend , it gives the GM less scope to modify the world, so there needs to be some vagueness or undefined time.

The Crisis Zone is the future. Ideally, the time-jumped PCs have arranged matters to prevent the crisis.

E.g. At the end of a session, the GM realizes that the players have fallen for Hexibald Crumb's distracting schemes, and are now unlikely to be able to react to the Thaumic Bomb in time. It's still possible (given cunning players and exceptional schemes), but a backup plan could be useful. 

At during the first half of the next session, the GM drops a few casual hints about a burglary at Northfangor Abbey, a terrible traffic accident, and a friendly NPC who sees the PCs, does a double take, and sprints away, etc, etc.

In the middle of the session, the PCs jump back in time. 

As part of their schemes, they realize that they need to burgle Northfangor Abbey. They cause a terrible traffic accident, which prevents them from running into the past versions and causing a paradox, and they send that friendly NPC ahead to check if the coast is clear.

Ideally, these hints and schemes should feel like actual coincidences, and not the GM forcing the PCs down a set path. The GM can achieve this by spewing a variety of events and hints at all times, and letting the players pattern-match their way to the desired outcome. The best kind of coincidence is one the GM and players failed to anticipate, but which it feels like the GM could have planned. The GM should feel like a master poker player, not someone who stacked the deck.

In most time travel media, the audience experiences the events in the most convenient and dramatic order. In an RPG, the order of events is fixed. This makes dramatic revelations about seemingly unconnected events more powerful.

Side Note: Multiple overlapping Time Bends are possible, but not advised unless the GM is feeling exceptionally clever and has taken very good notes. Just in case, the GM should try to ensure the PCs spend a little time as possible around the time machine, so they won't run into additional groups. 

Side Note 2: The opposition can also use Time Bends, though this shifts the game from one that contains time travel to one that is about time travel. Bear in mind that the opposition knows the past is fixed. They, and the PCs, are basically attempting to maneuver into the best possible position when the bend ends. Each time jump decreases freedom of action. Honestly, this sort of thing is tough enough to manage with one group in one bend.
 

Paradoxes and Railroading

Any event that the PCs do not explicitly remember not happening can happen.

E.g. The PCs, before entering the Time Bend, did not see the Auld Grey Cathedral explode, and it's impossible for them to have failed to notice such an event. Therefore, in the bend, they cannot cause it to explode. They did not notice one way or another if someone blew the doors off the Hydrangea Vault in Loxdon College, as the vault is underground and rarely visited. Therefore, the PCs could do so in the bend.

So the PCs cannot alter the past. What if they try? 

First, this whole scheme requires a certain level of buy-in from the players. This usually isn't an issue. If a player is willing to pretend to be an imaginary wizard, they're probably willing to pretend to be an imaginary time-traveling wizard. The stranger the setting, the less strange time travel will be to its inhabitants.

Second, the GM can introduce complications that prevent the paradox from occurring. Some examples are listed in the table at the end of this article.

Third, the time machine's owner can warn of dire consequences. Paradox Angels can turn up. The PC can vanish in a puff of smoke. The universe can vanish and be replaced with something even stranger.

The larger the possible scope of action, the less chance of a paradox. If X1 and X2 are trapped in the same house, it's almost impossible for X1 to avoid running into X2. Across an entire city, especially a city like Endon, it's far easier to keep the threads from tangling. A system with a small number of moving parts ideal for tense films, but RPGs can afford to sprawl.

Finally, memory is a fickle thing. If the paradox isn't too egregious, or if nobody spots it at the time, it's probably fine.

Since the PCs cannot alter the past, their actions are nessesarily constrained. The GM should take care not to make these invisible walls too restrictive. PCs who are operating secretly (to avoid running into their past selves) and quickly (because of the time pressure imposed by bend) are unlikely to notice. Ideally, PC2s should not feel that their only course of action is something that PC1s are certain did not occur. 

E.g. The PCs travel back in time and decide to immediately assassinate Hexibald Crumb. However, as Hexibald Crumb is alive* when the PCs initiate the Time Bend, any assassination attempts in the past must nessesarily fail. If the players insist on pursuing this route, they'll run into the sort of contrived roadblocks good GMs are supposed to avoid. Genre-savvy players, buying into the conceit, will see the issue and work on a way to assassinate Hexibald after the Time Bend.

*or at least apparently alive. In an emergency, the GM can use the old pre-recorded illusion/doppelganger/disguised minion trick to bring a dead NPC back to life and avoid a paradox.

Timing the Bend

A GM should adjust the length of the jump back to suit the style of their group. Err on the side of time pressure. For an imminent apocalypse, 6 hours should be plenty, and 1 hour might be enough. For a scheme of delicacy and complexity, or one that requires a lot of prep work in a disused warehouse, a week might provide sufficient scope.

The longer the bend, the more secrets need to be kept. In a film or TV series, the writers can plan everything to ensure characters communicate the right information at the right times. With an RPG, where nobody knows how the story will turn out, it's more difficult to keep things under wraps for days, let alone years. Characters keep secrets from each other and from the audience. PCs blab to everyone and share the meta-knowledge of players sitting around the same table.

Mattias Adolfsson

Edward Kovinov and the Temporal Funnel

Encased in his stiff robes like an ivory hatstand, Edward Kovinov is clearly a motivated and eccentric wizard. His hands shake. His mustache is unevenly trimmed, like an old boot brush. His eyes are large and watery, but his pupils are tiny specks, and his smile seems to affect only his lower lip. Kovinov's workshop is covered in lead sheets. Ambient magical radiation provides plenty of blue-grey light, which should alarm more discerning wizards. Every bit of the workshop not coated in instruments, pipes, supply racks, and charms is covered in clocks, all set to different times. The ticking is a constant murmur.

From the side, the Temporal Funnel is about 10' tall and 12' long. From the front, it seems to be at least a mile deep. It's an exceedingly complicated magical apparatus. When active, it forms a portal between two times, sucking whatever is in front of it through and depositing it in the past. 

The theory is relatively simple. When activated, spells in the Temporal Funnel devour all locally available time, creating a sort of stasis bucket instead of a stasis sphere. When the other end of the portal is activated at some point in the future, the bottom of the bucket falls out, creating a tunnel.

It sounds simple (and it beats raising Gorbels) but it's taken years to perfect. It's also ludicrously dangerous. Kovinov is aware that his invention could slurp all the time out of Endon, punch a hole in space, or unwind the nature of causality, but he refuses to acknowledge the danger. He is insane, but because he seems like a harmless crank pursuing a known dead-end, people ignore him.

Edward already knows PCs will arrive because he met them in the past.

Ah, yes. Welcome, welcome. Please step into...

Oh, I should explain, you were just here. I mean, earlier today, when I finished the machine. Inserted the last gem and poof, pow, there you were. Gave me quite a shock.

Although from your point of view you're about to give me quite a shock, but you see, for me, it's already happened. Am I making any sense? No? Oh I hate it when that happens.

Let me draw a diagram. This is time. Time only goes forward, like an arrow, but the Temporal Funnel lets me bend it slightly. You will go from here to here. X to X. For about 6 hours there will be two of you in the city.

Everything will proceed as if you had not traveled back in time. You cannot use this machine to alter the past. You can use it to alter the future. From your point of view, everything that is about to happen has already happened, until you reach this point again.

Do not contact your past selves, or anyone in direct contact with your past selves. Unless you remember that happening, in which case you should definitely contact your past selves. Which you probably don't. So don't. Operate as secretly as possible. Maintain a disguise if you can. The consequences of a paradox could be catastrophic for you or for the entire fabric of reality. Total temporal annihilation.

Well of course it will work. I saw you come out of the machine!


Wait, who are you? I said what? And it's terribly urgent? Well, I suppose it must be.

Have I explained all this already? Did I draw a diagram? Oh good, then please proceed. Just remember that everything that is about to happen has already happened, so if you remember it not happening, it won't happen, but if you don't remember if it happened or not then it might happen. Have you ever said a word so often that it starts to lose all meaning and just becomes a noise? Happen happen happen happen.

The machine will take at least six hours to charge, and I need to make all sorts of adjustments.

Oh, to be clear, you can definitely still die. Your past selves can't, because they didn't, but you can, because you haven't.

Alan Linnstaedt

Time Travel Twists

  • A time machine should require an inconvenient length of time to recharge or a rare ingredient (to discourage multiple overlapping trips). Alternatively, it only works once. Alternatively, the one time it works causes the very catastrophe the PCs are trying to prevent. The machine explodes as soon as the PCs pass through it.
  • The bend isn't a jump, but a time flow reversal. Tenet-style, the PCs experience the journey back (but in reverse), then use the machine a second time to de-reversify their flow. Since the rules of Tenet aren't fully understood (even by the filmmaker), I can't recommend this method. It seems interesting on paper but breaks down in practice, even in a controlled environment like a film.
  • Instead of traveling physically through time, the PCs use astral projection. Their spirit-forms are invisible and intangible, but too weak to affect the world beyond turning a page or rolling a coin. They can gain new information, but cannot easily create paradoxes. It's much less interesting, unless their enemies are expecting ethereal foes and have taken appropriate countermeasures.
  • As astral projection, but with a possession element. The PCs take over people in the past and run them like rental cars before returning to their bodies in the future. Again, less interesting than full time travel.
  • Throughout this article, I've assumed that time travel will be obvious to the participants. It can be a surprise, though this requires a fair bit of luck on the GM's part and is more likely to result in the PCs deliberately trying to create a paradox.
  • Short bends are relatively easy to plan, but longer time travel plots are possible. A GM should consider restricting this sort of time travel to messages or small objects instead of PCs. It's deeply satisfying for the PCs to receive a note in session N, then send the same note back in time in session N+12, and then to realize what they've done.
  • Turns out, time travel is a metaphor for infidelity or personal regret. Exposure to a time bend amplifies all emotions, particularly negative ones.

0_Guri


1d20 Ways to Prevent a Paradox in Endon
1 A cart drives into the scene, blocking line of sight and giving everyone a chance to scatter.
2 A newspaper, blown by the wind, smacks someone in the face. 
3 Street seller urgently wants to foist a pie on someone. No sense of personal space.
4 A rascally urchin grabs a vital item and sprints away.
5 A barrel of flour rolls out of an upper window, narrowly missing pedestrians.
6 A wedge of Coppers, whistles blowing, pursue a masked thief.
7 The character is struck by an eerie sense of déjà vu, then remembers a similar moment from their childhood that only now makes sense in the context of time travel. A conspiracy or a coincidence? 
8 Desperate need to visit a Public Convenience and perform the Necessary Bodily Rituals.
9 Box of kittens in mortal peril. 
10 Something truly unusual, alarming, and relevant to the plot appears in the distance. Villain carrying a mysterious bundle, a clock ticking backwards, etc. Which path to pursue? 
11 A grandson argues with their grandfather. Bystanders drawn in, either to prevent violence or to lend support.
12 A collision, a stumble, a brief exchange of words with a stranger. Sometimes that's all it takes for an opportunity to slip away.
13 Time-shivered ghost of a half-possible future bursts into view, then melts in agony. Alarming (if described with enough purple prose), but ultimately meaningless. Just the usual side-effects of temporal brain-rot.
14 Someone offers a crate of discount fireworks for sale. Very few time-traveling schemers can resist a box of fireworks.
15 A sudden spasm of doubt. Is this really a good idea? What if it annihilates all possible futures? Is it really worth the risk?
16 An urgent message from an ally reveals a vital clue. Intended for the past group, but caught the future group instead. 
17 Catacomb collapse. A few square feet of cobbles and dirt plummet downwards. Curious bystanders peer into the dark. Most people just cross the street.
18 Oh, the old war wound! Leg crumples, eye twitches, a sudden lurch out of frame.
19 Heart attack. Not fatal if treated promptly, but the victim should be rushed to a healer.
20 Bolt of raw magic vaporizes someone completely. Not even smouldering boots. Witnesses unsure if they can believe their eyes.
Moebius

Part 2: Metastafutures

Time travel cannot affect the past, but the future is unwritten. Metastafutures are contagious futures, trying to leap backwards in time and initiate their own existence. They are typically operating blindly, either by mechanical action, fanaticism, or desperation. One seed will eventually get through, but it doesn't have to be this seed.

Examples:

The Colonists
Fleeing a doomed world, they seek a past full of natural resources and pliable labour. Their history is shattered and forgotten; perhaps this was how the decline began, or how their vast empire was born. In any case, they want out. They've seen this world's end and they don't like it.

Hyperbiota
Bacteria that eat sunlight. Bacteria that eat metal, asphalt, and flesh. Bacteria that eat time itself. Life evolves to use any available energy source. Blindly probing backwards, Hyperbiota bloom into a swirling soup of optimized life. An ecosystem of grey goo. It is possible that biological life was initiated by a Metastafuture.

Time Thieves
Jump back, steal something valuable, hop into a stasis sphere, and coast until you reach your origin in the timeline. Or hang around, dropping objects into stasis for later retrieval. Good records help in this case; it's useful to know when an item vanishes from the record.

The Cult
They know someone unleashed the Elder Horror at some point in the past. They're not sure when (as most of the world burned and the survivors went mad), but it happened. The cult has access to time travel. It seems only sensible to try and unleash the Elder Horror at every possible point in the past, to bring about the Blessed State of Unending Madness. If the stars aren't right, they'll leave pamphlets, build obelisks, check in on existing cult structures, and generally make a mess of the world.

Kuldar Leement

Part 3: Stasis

Stasis spells are peculiar. When analyzed, the wizards of Endon found that stasis spells with identical effects had wildly different thaumic signatures. "As alike as bats, birds, and kites," said Prof. Thorne, in despair. Not only were haste and slow completely different, different slow spells could operate completely different ways. Some altered time. Some altered air density, created bubbles of force, or sapped energy from nerves and muscles.

Black Stasis
Spell breeding was a haphazard art in the pre-Industrial era. Sometimes, perfectly stable stasis spells spawned suboptimal offspring. "Black Stasis" spells are perfectly functional, but seal their contents in an opaque shell. Generations of texts warn wizards not to expose Black Stasis to sunlight, as the spell tends to fail spectacularly, sometimes vaporizing anything sealed inside.

Bright Stasis
Considered a cosmetic variant, Bright Stasis creates a perfectly mirrored shell around its contents. 

Hedge Stasis
Does not alter the flow of time at all, but merely traps the contents in a cage of force. Mostly used for short-duration combat spells or cosmetic effects.

True Stasis
Stops time and provides a clear view of the spell's contents, as if they were preserved in glass.

Black Stasis spells trap light. The dim light of a candle, even for a decade, is nothing compared to a few moments of sunlight. If it absorbs too much light, the spell fails and explodes, releasing the energy. Attempts to weaponize Black Stasis are ongoing, but theoretical wizards believe the total yield is less than a fireball of a similar thaumic charge.

Bright stasis spells reflect light. They are, therefore, much more stable than other stasis spells, though  not sufficiently stable for the purposes of experimental illusionists. Real mirrors are better.

True stasis spells are permeable to light. Light enters, bounces off a sort of time-shell around the object (but doesn't interact with the object itself), and exits. Sufficiently bright light can still cause the spell to fail.

Most stasis spells devour local time. Some create a bubble in time's flow. Others shunt time elsewhere, causing unnatural aging and misalignments in nearby objects. They are resistant to study.

Some wizards wonder if a giant stasis-like bubble surrounds the world. The wandering stars move; the fixed stars don't, but why? What if they are trapped in stasis, and our stasis spells merely open a link to that vast outer stillness?

Additionally, time does seem to flow inside a stasis field, but almost imperceptibly slowly. The McGillicuddy Oil Drop Experiment shows that, inside a weak stasis field, drops of oil still fall a hair's breadth every decade. Presumably, stronger stasis fields slow the flow even more, but total stasis is (by some theories) impossible, as the spell still needs to act on its contents. This does suggest that stasis spells, against all expectations, are the fastest of all spells.

Stasis spells allow the past to crash into the future. Emperors dream of preserving armies in stasis, ready to unleash them when the civil wars subside. Monks escape to the end of the universe, wizards flee the mob (or just skip ahead like an impatient reader of mystery novels), and secret societies of all kinds send agents and messages into the future. Fear the hidden cave, the locked vault, the abandoned tower. In the out-of-the-way places of the world, stasis spells drift through the stream of time.

2022/03/24

OSR: Vathek and Gothic Fiction

The aesthetics of ruin are famously important to the OSR. Vathek, as one of the first Gothic novels, has received plenty of attention in the OSR and elsewhere, but I feel like a few elements could be reviewed.


Quotes from "The Gothic Novel, 1790-1830: Plot Summaries and Index to Motifs" by Ann B. Tracy, with "Gothic" replaced by "OSR".
Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg

Side Note: Is it possible the model for this work is William "Kitty" Courtenay? He'd be 22 in 1790, and the figure vaguely matches this painting from 1789.
It fits the timeline. de Loutherbourg was on good terms with Beckford. The painting's history is unclear.


Instead of summarizing the plot, let's jump right in to the middle of the text. Vathek, the caliph and titular character, is supposed to be taking his entourage to the gates of the infernal realms, there to gain access to the treasures of the Pre-Adamite Sultans, etc. His mother, Carathis, remained behind, but a letter has just arrived informing her that Vathek is dawdling in an emir's palace instead of finishing his quest.

I've lightly edited the text. You can read the original here, though reading Vathek online isn't a great experience. I suggest finding a physical copy if you can. Complaints about my edits can be sent to Byrd Park, Richmond VA.

No person knew aught of Vathek, and a thousand ridiculous stories were propagated at his expense.  The eagerness of Carathis may be easily guessed at receiving the letter, as well as her rage at reading the dissolute conduct of her son.

“Is it so,” said she; “either I will perish, or Vathek shall enter the palace of fire.  Let me expire in flames, provided he may reign on the throne of Soliman!”

Having said this, and whirled herself round in a magical manner, which struck Morakanabad with such terror as caused him to recoil, she ordered her great camel Alboufaki to be brought, and the hideous Nerkes with the unrelenting Cafour to attend.

“I require no other retinue,” said she to Morakanabad: “I am going on affairs of emergency, a truce therefore to parade!  Take you care of the people, fleece them well in my absence, for we shall expend large sums, and one knows not what may betide.”

The night was uncommonly dark, and a pestilential blast ravaged the plain of Catoul that would have deterred any other traveller however urgent the call; but Carathis enjoyed most whatever filled others with dread.  Nerkes concurred in opinion with her, and Cafour had a particular predilection for a pestilence.  In the morning this accomplished caravan, with the wood-fellers who directed their route, halted on the edge of an extensive marsh, from whence so noxious a vapour arose as would have destroyed any animal but Alboufaki, who naturally inhaled these malignant fogs.  The peasants entreated their convoy not to sleep in this place.

“To sleep,” cried Carathis, “what an excellent thought!  I never sleep but for visions; and as to my attendants, their occupations are too many to close the only eye they each have.”

The poor peasants, who were not over pleased with their party, remained open-mouthed with surprise.

Carathis alighted as well as her servants, and severally stripping off their outer garments, they all ran in their drawers to cull from those spots where the sun shone fiercest, the venomous plants that grew on the marsh.  This provision was made for the family of the emir, and whoever might retard the expedition to Istakar.  The woodmen were overcome with fear when they beheld these three horrible phantoms run, and not much relishing the company of Alboufaki, stood aghast at the command of Carathis to set forward, notwithstanding it was noon, and the heat fierce enough to calcine even rocks.  In spite, however, of every remonstrance, they were forced implicitly to submit.

Alboufaki, who delighted in solitude, constantly snorted whenever he perceived himself near a habitation, and Carathis, who was apt to spoil him with indulgence, as constantly turned him aside; so that the peasants were precluded from procuring subsistence; for the milch goats and ewes which Providence had sent towards the district they traversed, to refresh travellers with their milk, all fled at the sight of the hideous animal and his strange riders.  As to Carathis, she needed no common aliment; for her invention had previously furnished her with an opiate to stay her stomach, some of which she imparted to her mutes.

At the fall of night Alboufaki making a sudden stop, stamped with his foot, which to Carathis, who understood his paces, was a certain indication that she was near the confines of some cemetery.  The moon shed a bright light on the spot, which served to discover a long wall with a large door in it standing a-jar, and so high that Alboufaki might easily enter.  The miserable guides, who perceived their end approaching, humbly implored Carathis, as she had now so good an opportunity, to inter them, and immediately gave up the ghost.  Nerkes and Cafour, whose wit was of a style peculiar to themselves, were by no means parsimonious of it on the folly of these poor people, nor could any thing have been found more suited to their taste than the site of the burying ground, and the sepulchres which its precincts contained.  There were at least two thousand of them on the declivity of a hill; some in the form of pyramids, others like columns, and in short the variety of their shapes was endless.  Carathis was too much immersed in her sublime contemplations to stop at the view, charming as it appeared in her eyes.  Pondering the advantages that might accrue from her present situation, she could not forbear to exclaim:

“So beautiful a cemetery must be haunted by Gouls, and they want not for intelligence! having heedlessly suffered my guides to expire, I will apply for directions to them, and as an inducement, will invite them to regale on these fresh corpses.”

After this short soliloquy, she beckoned to Nerkes and Cafour, and made signs with her fingers, as much as to say:

“Go, knock against the sides of the tombs, and strike up your delightful warblings, that are so like to those of the guests whose company I wish to obtain.”

The servants, full of joy at the behests of their mistress, and promising themselves much pleasure from the society of the Gouls, went with an air of conquest, and began their knockings at the tombs.  As their strokes were repeated, a hollow noise was heard in the earth, the surface hove up into heaps, and the Gouls on all sides protruded their noses to inhale the effluvia which the carcasses of the woodmen began to emit.

They assembled before a sarcophagus of white marble, where Carathis was seated between the bodies of her miserable guides.  The princess received her visitants with distinguished politeness, and when supper was ended, proceeded with them to business.  Having soon learnt from them every thing she wished to discover, it was her intention to set forward forthwith on her journey, but her servants, who were forming tender connections with the Gouls, importuned her with all their fingers to wait, at least till the dawn.  Carathis, however, being chastity in the abstract, and an implacable enemy to love and repose, at once rejected their prayer, mounted Alboufaki, and commanded them to take their seats in a moment.  Four days and four nights she continued her route, without turning to the right hand or left; on the fifth she traversed the mountains and half-burnt forests, and arrived on the sixth before the beautiful screens which concealed from all eyes the voluptuous wanderings of her son.

Marine, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg

 Vathek as an RPG Session

GM: The letter informs you that your son is delayed at the palace of an emir.
Carathis: Oh shoot. We're going after him. I tell my servants to prepare my camel...
GM: Your giant evil camel?
Carathis: Of course my giant evil camel. I'll take two hirelings, Nerkes and Cafour...
GM: Your mute one-eyed hirelings?
Carathis: Yup. Is the vizier still here?
GM: Yes, you were just playing chess.
Carathis: I whirl around and shout, uh, "Either I will perish, or Vathek shall enter the palace of fire!"
GM: The vizier looks confused. Also, I'm not sure that's an or-statement.
Carathis: I don't care. Oh, and I tell him not to forget to collect taxes. Camel! And away!

 [...]

GM: You come across a pestilential marsh.
Carathis: Are there poisonous plants here?
GM: Yes.
Carathis: Great. I'm going to make some poison, just in case. I'll have my hirelings help.
GM: Just in case of what?
Carathis: You never know. Poison is always useful.

[...]

Carathis: Those guides were still with us?
GM: Yes? You didn't dismiss them or anything. It's you, your two hirelings, the guides...
Carathis: And my giant evil camel.
GM: And your giant evil camel, yes.
Carathis: The guides will be fine. I offer them some opium.
GM: They do not want the opium.
Carathis: Fine. We keep going.

[...]

GM: Your giant evil camel detects a cemetery nearby.
Carathis: I knew that ability would come in handy. We should stop.
GM: [rolls] Aaaand your guides are dead.
Carathis: Wait, what? Why?
GM: You haven't given them food or water for more than 24 hours, and you've been traveling the whole time.
Carathis: Fair enough. Wait... are there Ghouls in this cemetery?
GM: [rolls] There might be.
Carathis: I want to try and lure them out with the bodies. They'll be much better guides.

[...]

GM: Your hirelings are trying to seduce the Ghouls.
Carathis: Damn it, not again!

The Angel Binding Satan, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg

Notes on the Author

William Beckford (1760-1844) was, at the time of publication, 21-year-old incredibly wealthy slave-owning complicated pederast who wrote Vathek over (allegedly) 3 days of feverish effort. Honestly, if you didn't know that, you'd probably figure it out by reading the text. It's basically author-insert Arabian Nights fanfiction, straight out of the early internet. Take your problematic author bingo card, dip it in ink, and laminate it.

Beckford was also one of the all-time great English eccentrics. The story of Fonthill Abbey is well worth a read. Echoes of theme parks and film studios; worlds that never were, "the creation of an erratic but powerful imagination" willing - or even compelled - to drag the unreal into the unreal.

He is also dead.

Vathek contains an interesting mix of dread and humour. Some of the dread is the stuff found in dreams. It's hard to explain, in the waking world, why it a dream was terrifying, but it makes perfect sense at the time. Conveying that in a novel takes real talent.

Sure, it's pure Orientalism, but it's more nuanced than some of its contemporaries. Beckford managed to capture some of the themes of various classic tales while adding new and interesting elements. He did his research (or, more accurately, devoured all the available source texts and Vathek as a way of releasing the pressure of a fevered imagination). Is it authentic? No. The "academic footnotes" added by the Reverend Samuel Henely, the well-meaning translator, only add to the joke. Beckford winks at the audience, revealing that it's just a story being told, not a cultural history or a poetic introspection. Vathek the character is a wry stand-in for Beckford. Carathis is his mother, while Nerkes and Cafour could be references to family friends, notorious servants, or Woosterian Aunts.

Such a blend of horror and farce, ambition and folly, subconscious expression, cultural pilfering, treasure, scenery, and the supernatural fit RPGs perfectly.