An Alternative Take on Demons

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So, in my near constant Sisyphean torment of thinking up campaign idea after campaign idea, I’ve been thinking a lot about the setting I’d want to run if I ever got to pick up my alma mater game of Dungeons and Dragons 3.5E. That setting, which I’ve written about before, is a dimension-hopping setting where various worlds have to combat hordes of demonic armies travelling through massive Hell portals.

The thing I’ve been really thinking about, though, is the idea of what “demons” are. As far as prototypical fantasy villains, demons are up there with orcs, goblins, and dragons in their age, and thus, the rigidity of their tropes. They’re all red and scaly, occasionally slimy. They love fire and pointy shit, and they’re big ol’ jerks who like to mess with people. They sometimes possess people, usually have wings, and probably don’t like crosses or holy water or whatever. This is…fine, but not the most interesting thing in the world after the four hundredth time. So, I’ve been thinking about what my demons are.

So my demons start with God. Not the Judeo-Christian God, but nevertheless a singular deity of this universe, the singular source of divine energy in all of Creation. God created the entire universe, and all of the things inside of it. All beings, all rules of nature, all desires and emotions and thoughts, are a result of the cosmic law set spinning by God.

But, as God looked at the countless worlds of God’s creation, God wept, for God couldn’t actually experience anything that God created. God was too fundamentally different from God’s own creations, and as such was unable to eat or drink, to love or to hate, to feel happiness or to cry. Like a painter unable to see their own painting, God was unable to witness God’s own creation at work. God had to simply watch the mortals of Creation revel in their universe, and for this God was envious.

And so, God performed what is called the First Great Resurrection. Summoning forth the greatest sword in Creation, God killed itself, impaled on God’s own throne. However, a deity can never truly die, and the very essence of God was split, and from that essence came 666 new beings: the First Demons.

These Demons were similar in a lot of ways to the God that birthed them. If they died, they, too, would eventually regenerate into a new being. They had innate magical prowess, and could control their own forms to take any shape. However, these new beings encapsulated some of the world around them when they formed. They experienced emotion, they aged, they needed to eat and drink, and they had distinct personalities.

These First Demons found themselves in the throne room of their Creator, a palace surrounded on all sides by stone. With that, they began to dig, and dig, and build, and dig, slowly building the first structures to stand alongside the Palace of the Creator. As they dug, they discovered that the stone which encapsulated their world simply did not end. The world they lived in could be expanded endlessly, as long as they dug.

And so they did, and as they dug they reveled in the experience of mortality. They loved and hated, they had children and they killed one another, they ate and they drank, and the First Demons soon became an entire society of Demons. For a while, they were happy to be alone in their own world. But, eventually, the Demons remembered the rest of Creation, the countless worlds which were scattered across the cosmos just like their own. Moreover, the Demons found that the resources of their own world, once left untouched by a divine being which did not need them, were beginning to run slim.

The Demons used their magic to open portals to some of these other worlds, exploring the Creation which they themselves, in a way, had created. Some of these worlds were barren playgrounds, some had inhabitants more than happy to welcome the Demons, but others saw the Demons as invaders and sought to fight them off. Whenever the Demons obtained a foothold, they reveled with the local populace, often having Demonic children with the locals, and always eventually hoping to use some of the resources to bolster their own. After all, the Demons had a unique problem: their population could grow, but thanks to their immortality, never shrink. And, thanks to the longing for a mortal experience that caused their creation, the Demons experienced a great want for everything in life.

At first, the Demons spread their influence diplomatically and socially, hoping to coexist with others and share the plenty of Creation. However, the rate at which negotiations were struck and agreements made was dwarfed by the growing population of Demons and the growing size of their home city, now called Hell. This resource deficit, along with the Demon’s innate hedonistic tendencies, eventually forced a meeting of the 666 First Demons (some in original forms, some since reincarnated several times). This consortium met and spoke for ten thousand years, arguing and debating and shouting and occasionally fighting, until all 666 reached consensus: the Demons should take what is rightfully theirs from Creation.

From that point forward, the Demons marched as an army, conquering worlds in the hopes of collecting resources in order to support their infinite lives. To the Demons, this was but another new mortal experience to discover: the act of War. For those worlds conquered by the Demon armies, they found themselves under an unusual rule: harsh quotas were put on workers, and the land was destroyed as it was stripped of anything of value, but their rulers were far from savage or unfair, more aloof and efficient.

And so, these Demonic armies that live forever have been marching across an unending number of worlds, hoping to support an endlessly expanding population in a city without borders. Some say that the Demons have begun to prepare for a great project, a Second Great Act of Creation to rival the origination of the entire universe. Others claim that the 666 First Demons, now tired of an eternity of revelry, have begun to discuss re-merging into a single divine consciousness. All of this, while conquered worlds strip their own homes barren under Demonic rule, and free lands sign deals with devils far worse to protect their own worlds.

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Spice Up Your Magic

Magic systems are bo-ring nowadays. The Vancian system of magic, where spellcasters memorize spells, expend spell slots, and maybe have a book, has been canonized in fantasy roleplaying games to the point of being stale. Magic needs to be, you know, magical, so I’ve been trying to think of some interesting ways to spice up a world’s magic system and make it a bit different. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

The Ten Percent Law

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For those of you who snoozed in high school Biology class, The Ten Percent Law dictates that a consumer of organic food will end up obtaining about ten percent of the available caloric energy of the consumed.

Maybe you see where I’m going with this.

Someone really, really messed up in your magical world discovered that the Ten Percent Law also, unfortunately, extends to magical energy. By consuming a magical being, you obtain ten percent of that being’s magical power. For the little stuff, the fairies and pixies of the world, ten percent is a barely noticeable bump. But were you to climb to the top of the tower of the greatest wizard of the land, strike him down, and dig in, you’d find yourself wielding noticeable new power.

Thus, the wizards of this world have made the devil’s trade, allowing themselves to commit the most heinous sin in exchange for ultimate power. Spellcasting duels usually end with the winner tearing the flesh from the body of the loser. Extremely high-end restaurants emerge, offering to cook up and serve powerful magical beasts for the enrichment of its sorcerous diners. Some people, with an unpleasant combination of ambition and psychopathy, hope to one day consume the gods themselves, in order to ascend to divinity.

Tell Me The Name of My Dad, So That I May Become Djinn

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A somewhat common spin on traditional magic is what I’ll call “Name Magic”. Popularized in the Earthsea series as well as in the Inheritance Cycle, the fundamental idea is that everything has a sort of “true name”, its name in the unknowable, ancient language spoken by the fundamental forces of the universe. By speaking that name, you exert dominance over that thing.

This ideas is extremely common with reference to demons. The idea is that knowing a demon’s true name grants you control over its very being, essentially enslaving it to you. In my homebrew D&D setting, the demons themselves use this ability to establish a hierarchy: greater demons carry scrolls containing the names of thousands of subservient demons, which can all in a moment be magically read to move the horde.

The interesting thing about this system is that it suddenly gives magic a bunch of quirks which we normally associate with linguistics. What happens when you speak the Fundamental Language of the Universe with an accent? When someone creates something truly novel and unique, how do you refer to that thing in the Ancient Tongue of Creation? Moreover, if you understand some of the phonemes of the One True Language, you can potentially learn new and devastating magic just by reading. All of a sudden, magicians are engaged in the same war to control literacy as the church was in our real world 500 years ago.

Memory Limit Exceeded

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When you’re casting what we traditionally consider to be 8th or 9th level spells, you’re manipulating fundamental forces of the universe. There’s a lot of factors involved with getting a wish or opening a gate, and you need to account for all of them, or else your spell will not go the way you want it to.

To this effect, a mortal being literally does not have the mental capacity to process all of the information needed to successfully cast an 8th or higher level spell. If they try, the spell will invariably backfire, as some incalculable equation is calculated wrong, an impossible degree of focus is not achieved, or maybe just some rogue factor is simply forgotten.

The challenge which serves as the threshold between great spellcasters and those that change the world lies in how they shortcut this need for expanded mental capacity. In my D&D setting, the aforementioned demons cheat by distributing the tasks of spellcasting amongst their subservient demons. Artificers might construct objects that essentially serve as magical computers, crunching the numbers in the background to help a spellcaster deal with more complex world-warping. Particularly daring wizards might just try to magically expand their brain, although doing so, and especially botching such a procedure, might have disastrous consequences.

Ammomancers

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It’s fairly common in fantasy settings to have artificers enchant magical weapons, perhaps by fitting it with jewels or inscribing magical runes in order to grant a weapon new powers. With this in mind, consider a world in which enchanters use this ability to enchant America’s favorite weapon: the gun. Or, more interestingly, the bullet.

Making ammunition is hard, and its even harder to try and attempt to inscribe tiny, precise magical runes onto those little metal cylinders. As a result, the world’s ammomancers, those with the knowledge of the ancients and steady hands, are some of the most valued enchanters in the world. Entire kingdoms rise and fall due to the work of history’s greatest ammomancers.

While magical ammunition is pretty cool (bullets that explode! bullets that open portals! bullets that banish monsters to other dimensions!), the interesting worldbuilding potential comes from magical warfare experiencing a similar shift that actual war experienced at the end of the Middle Ages, a shift of democratization. It’s much easier to fire a gun than it is to swing a sword, and it’s also much easier to fire a gun than to cast a spell. With magical ammunition rampant, any commoner with the right equipment can cast spells like any great wizard. People will attempt to construct special mills that automate the enchanting process, with it completely changing the face of magic as it is known. How will the magical orthodoxy respond to this?

You Have Broken The Greatest Of Laws

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There is a Divine Creator of this world, one who wrote the Laws of Creation by which the fundamental forces of the universe work. You, as a spellcaster, have found a way to bend and break these laws for your own good. While you seem like a man of miracles to those around you, in the eyes of God, you are a lawbreaker, and lawbreakers must be punished.

If you perform a little magic here and there, you’ll get some omens that something greater than yourself isn’t happy: bad dreams, some black cats cross your way, maybe someone says something really foreboding to you before forgetting it ever happened. However, if you start doing some big magic, like throwing fireballs and resurrecting the dead, you’ll have problems on your hands. More, specifically, you’ll have Angels.

Far from the peaceful, wisdom-dispensing and Heaven-delivering angels we usually think of, these Angels exist to find anyone who breaks the Laws of Reality and remove them from the world, usually violently. These Angels are merciless hunters but, much like police officers, they are bound to the Law that they enforce. Thus, Angels do not have any abilities that we would consider “magical”. Instead, they exhibit an incredible control over probability. Instead of performing the impossible, they instead bend the odds on what’s possible to end up on their preference.

For big, big magic, like mass resurrections, profane rituals, and really, really bad stuff, God isn’t above some direct intervention. People tell stories about a kingdom up on a mountain which believed itself mightier than any divinity, thanks to its massive leaps in magic. Out of wrath, God struck the mountain with a force so strong it demolished the mountain, killed everyone in the kingdom, and sunk every last remnant of the civilization into an unknowably deep pit.

Collaborative Mystery Games

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Running a mystery in a tabletop RPG is pretty hard, as it turns out. An RPG traditionally has a single source of truth, the GM, and thus, all information required to solve a mystery must pour forth from the GM’s mouth. Unfortunately, players have a tendency to assume the converse, that everything the GM says must be essential, simply by the merit of having been said. Combine this with the normal problems constraining a mystery (clues being too obvious or too baroque, unclear motivations, easily sidetracked audiences, etc.) and the whole endeavor is pretty hard.

There have certainly been great leaps in portraying a mystery in an RPG. Gumshoe is a fantastic system for running mysteries, as it makes the fantastic observation that the useful part of a game is not finding clues, but rather understanding their role in the mystery at large. However, it’s still victim to a fairly fundamental psychological problem: sometimes, players just get locked into a train of thought that isn’t right, and end up frustrating themselves as they chase loose ends.

I’m experiencing this right now, in fact, as my current Dungeons and Dragons game is centered around a mystery. I can feel the frustration as my group, myself included, get stuck in our preconceived, false notions about the mystery, both angry enough at the dead ends to know we’re barking up the wrong tree, and too rooted to our current assumptions to be able to create alternative hypotheses.

This got me thinking: player agency with regards to the story of an RPG is sort of the new hotness right now. Plenty of games offer mechanics by which players can create truths about the world around them, and plenty of GMs nowadays are OK with, or even very into, the idea that players should get an amount of say with the game world.

What if players got to dictate truths about a mystery game, defining a mystery as they solved it?

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So, the immediate problem with this idea is that it, well, fundamentally destroys the concept of mystery. If the players can just point at a guy and go “He did it”, and actually warp the fabric of reality itself such that he most definitely did it, there’s no mystery. They’re no longer the audience, but the writer, and a writer is not surprised by their own mystery.

With this in mind, such a system should not give the players complete control over the path of the mystery. Instead, players should have a more granular control over the clues, and be given some say as to what matters and what does not. The greater mystery as a whole is still left in the darkness, under the watch of the GM, but the players can find some fact in the world, some detail or clue, and say that, yes, this is indeed a piece of the puzzle, and here’s why. It’s then up to the GM to determine how that known piece of information bridges into the unknown mystery.

Here’s a really rough implementation idea. Let’s say that every character has some sort of knowledge domain, just like how Gumshoe does it. The rough-and-tumble street thug knows all about the underworld and crime and thievery. The posh noblewoman knows all about courtly traditions and noble bloodlines and gossip. The coroner knows all about wounds and blood spatters and poisons and bodily decomposition. Along with these domains of knowledge, the players are given some sort of metacurrency. Let’s call it Deductions.

When a character comes across a clue in their particular intellectual domain, maybe a splash of dried blood on a couch cushion, maybe a broken lockpick beneath the window, maybe the knowledge that Lady Verisimilitude or whatever left on the day of the murder to go to the the royal banquet at Bangers-and-Mash-upon-Thames, that character may burn a Deduction to make a conclusion about that clue, a conclusion that is, of course, completely pulled out of their ass.

“Real blood will dry brown if left to stain for that long. This is still red, and thus must be fake”

“This particular kind of break is most common if one attempts to pick a lock with strength instead of finesse, a common mistake for an amateur to make.”

“Bangers-and-Mash-upon-Thames cancelled its banquet this year after the local Baron fell ill, so Lady Verisimilitude must have gone elsewhere.”

The important thing is that these are facts from this point forward. That splash of blood must be fake, that thief must not be that good a lockpick, and Lady Verisimilitude must have lied about her whereabouts. The key here is that no conclusion is drawn here that cannot be pulled directly from domain knowledge. The player is not allowed to assert where Lady Verisimilitude was, merely that she was not where she said. This would have to be enforced as a rule.

In this way, I guess it would be more accurate to say that the players are not actually providing any answers to the mystery, but are instead being given the power to say what questions have answers that are important. It’s still up to the GM to say why there’s fake blood on the sofa, who in the town is a crap lockpicker, and where Lady V was, but the players can rest assured that those details have been codified as important, and thus, time and mental energy spent pursuing answers will not be wasted.

Because that’s ultimately the death knell for a good mystery, is if a lot of time and energy is spent by the players, and they feel like they gain little out of it, most likely because what they’re pursuing is simply not important to the mystery that the GM has laid out. By giving the players a sort of mechanical reassurance that what they’re doing is important (because they have enforced that it is, no less), they can be assured that they’re moving forward.

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Speaking of the mystery the GM has laid out, they’ll have to do so somewhat differently now that the players have the ability to assert facts. Generally speaking, you’ll have to make sure that your mystery is solid enough that the players aren’t completely dictating the story, yet flexible enough that it can incorporate all of the things that they believe to be true. Furthermore, since Deductions are a limited resource, you need to ensure that every clue you scatter through the game has both a place where you expect it to fall in your web of mystery (in case no one uses a Deduction on that clue), but also is general enough that players can slot them in a variety of places as they see fit.

Perhaps you just meant that broken lockpick to signify that the intruder was not invited in during the Grand Ball, and had to break in, but the concept of the lockpick being broken in an amateurish fashion gives you an extra wrinkle to work with. Maybe the thief’s bookshelf has a dog-eared copy of “Lockpicking For Dummies” stashed on one of the shelves, or their garage has padlocks lying on the workbench, clearly for practice. The detail the player created hasn’t changed who the thief is, but rather acted as a piece of bait that the players bit on to, that you can use to reel them towards the revelations.

I think such a system could be incorporated into any game already capable of running mysteries. Just, at any point where the GM would describe a detail of a clue, instead turn to the player and say “What do you notice?”. I think a certain key would be to give players a finite amount of ability to do this: too much and they’ll end up convoluting the plot beyond the GM’s ability to improvise, or they’ll line up facts in such a way that it basically forces a certain conclusion to be true, ending back up at the point where they are both writing and reading the mystery.

So, where does this get you? Well, your players will be given facts that are 100% guaranteed to be both correct and useful, and since they’re dictating them, they’ll never have to worry about being stuck down a train of thought that’s wrong, because they’ll be able to demand that their focus is, at least to a degree, relevant. This eliminates the guessing game of “Is this a red herring, or is this useful?” that tends to suck the fun out of mystery games.

Here’s the really bloody secret, though: you should already be doing this. If, as a GM, you have dictated from the very beginning how each and every clue relates to your mystery, even if you’re not concealing those clues behind skill checks, you’re running the risk of players getting stuck in those logical dead-ends where they’re focusing on the wrong thing, interpreting a clue the wrong way, or trying to kludge every detail into the incorrect hypothesis they already have. Frankly, the more players are confident in their wrong answer, the less fun you’re going to have.

I’m not saying “the players should always be right”, but instead “the players should always be half right”. Don’t give them the entire mystery, but instead give them just enough that the twists and turns of the mystery come from the parts they do have set in stone, instead of coming out of left field because the players were dead wrong in the first place.

Bleak Rains: My Foray Into The Apocalypse

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It just occurred to me that I haven’t written about my projects in a little while, so I thought I’d pop out and talk about something I’ve been working on: Bleak Rains. I’m excited about this project for a couple of reasons, but mostly because it’s my first foray into designing a Powered by the Apocalypse game, meaning it runs on the same mechanical engine as Vincent Baker’s masterpiece, Apocalypse World.

Initially a project I started to get out of a funk I was in while writing playtests for my other two major tabletop RPG projects, Bleak Rains takes place in a city called Indra. Indra is a massive, ancient city, on an island surrounded by the ocean on all sides. Indra is at a level of technology equivalent to just before the Industrial Revolution: there are some steam engines here and there, but they’re loud, clunky, and expensive. This city is ruled by a group called the High Overseers. From the top of their ivory towers (literally), they not only enforce law and order, but also the cultural norms of this society. Before the High Overseers, things were, well, bad.

The reason they were bad is because of the ocean. In classic, Lovecraftian fashion, the ocean of this world is full of unknowable things. There are monsters, relics from the barbaric civilizations of a bygone era, but on top of all of that, the water itself is just inexplicably weird. It naturally unnerves people, makes them paranoid, and maybe even causes them to hallucinate. The water is never clear, it’s always murky, hiding something. In the distant past, the people of Indra used to worship the things in the water, the High Overseers pulled them away and dragged them towards civilization.

Things are fine for half of the year: the things of the sea stay in the sea and everyone, with the exception of sailors, fishermen, and daredevils, can stay safely on land and avoid all of the unpleasantness. The problem is the weather: for six months out of the year, Indra is in its rainy season. This means that the water which is the source of all of this general unpleasantness literally drenches the city, and sea levels rise, to the point where lower layers of the city flood. All of a sudden, what was normally stuck in the sea is now free to wander the streets.

The actual play of Bleak Rains takes place exclusively in this rainy season. In this period, the streets are full of mysteries and danger, people are paranoid and selfish, and things that lay dormant wake up. The playbooks, offering roles and identities to the player, are people who, for one reason or another, are forced to (or want to) be in the streets during this dark season.

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One of my goals for the playbooks was that I wanted the roles to be sort of weird. I have nothing against wizards, clerics, and paladins, but I thought that it would be much more interesting to let players define part of this weird setting through play (that is, after all, the mantra of PbtA). Thus, by providing playbooks close to the weirdest parts of this setting, it puts a spotlight to those weird parts and encourages an exploration of them, even if only to get a better understanding of what your character’s even doing.

Take, for example, The Graveswimmer, one of the playbooks a player can choose for their character. The central premise is that traditional burial doesn’t really work in Indra. On top of there not being a lot of land to bury people, the rain has this pesky tendency to bring the dead back to life. Graveswimmers are an ancient order basically responsible for finding dead bodies and giving them their rites, both putting their souls to rest in a spiritual sense and ensuring their shambling bodies don’t bother anyone in the future.

By having a Graveswimmer in your party, you’re forcing your group, or at least one person, to think about the way death is handled in this society. It brings up this conflict of treating a dead person with respect versus limiting the danger they present to society (a conflict that was very real back in the days of plague), and it makes you think of burial as a sort of functional mechanism of society, rather than just a cultural one. If I do my job right, the Graveswimmer will, as they grow as a character, explore more and more of the psychology and cultural importance of death, something that’s kind of hard to do, but might be easier if placed in such a foreign setting.

Another playbook I’m super excited about is The Anchorlugger. Anchorluggers are basically The Scarlet Letter taken to the nth degree. Since straying from cultural norms in this society leads to, you know, the veneration of sea monsters and the potential destruction of civilized society, major social transgressions are treated very harshly in this world. One of the Anchorlugger’s ancestors committed some sort of grievous sin and, as punishment, their decedents, including the player, have had to carry a physical manifestation of their family’s sin in the form of this big, unwieldy anchor.

Where Graveswimmers deal with the treatment of death, and the balance between burial as a cultural and a function construct, Anchorluggers are built to deal with the conflict between trying to fit into a society that hates you, and embracing your differences, even if it means self-imposed isolation. That’s a conflict that might hit really close to home for some people, but Anchorluggers are dealing with crimes and punishments far outside of the norms of our society, and thus maybe have some more creative freedom to explore what it’s like to integrate into, or distance oneself from, a society that hates you.

The most mechanically interesting part of Bleak Rains, in my opinion, is Weird. Weird is a tangible measurement of one’s distance from societal norms, and is represented in the form of checkboxes. Characters that are closer to the fringes of society have fewer boxes of Weird. That’s because you mark a Weird every time your character does something that’s really pushing the limits of what this society will think of as acceptable. For most characters, marking Weird is good, because you add the number of Weird you have marked to dice rolls when you use your, well, weird abilities. The closer you get to the fringe, the better you are at manipulating it. However, when you mark all of your Weird, society decides that you’ve gone too far from the norm. At that point, you’re either cast into the shadows forever, with society trying its best to completely ignore your existence, or a lynch mob comes after you.

With Bleak Rains, my goals are twofold. First, I want players to be able to explore the concept of what we in a society consider “normal”, as well as what happens when you leave normalcy, without the baggage that a familiar setting might bring with it. Secondly, I want players to be able to explore a setting where they have some control in the fundamental structures of its society, and explore what I consider to be the most interesting part of worldbuilding: figuring out what happens when the weird becomes the new normal.

I hope to share some more Bleak Rains content on this blog in the future. I think I’m pretty close to playtestable right now, but in the meanwhile, I’ll probably talk about the playbooks and the types of player experiences they’re built to encourage. Until then, be sure to stay dry…

What If We Had Concerts For Games?

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I don’t go to concerts terribly frequently, but I do really enjoy a good concert. This went doubly so for the most recent show I saw: a concert headlined by heavy metal pantheon members Iron Maiden, opened by a rising star in the metal scene and a personal favorite of mine, the Swedish band Ghost. While I obviously really enjoy the music put out by both bands, there was a commonality between the two performances, which was a noticeable amount of attention put into, I’m not sure how to put it, the things that weren’t music.

You see, both bands clearly put painstaking work into the entire experience, beyond just “play the music real good”. This is the third time I’d seen Ghost live, and as a result I’m very used to their appearance: 5 anonymous demons play the instruments behind a similarly disguised anti-Pope known to the crowd as Papa Emeritus (I should note that Ghost sings almost exclusively about the Devil).

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These costumes are very good (Papa even has two looks, allowing him to switch into something less cumbersome about halfway through the show), and that combined with the stage dressing, the ambiance (Ghost usually begins a set with about twenty minutes’ worth of Latin chanting and incense), and an assortment of other tools used to get the audience in the spirit of some good ol’ Satanic mass (my favorite being women dressed as nuns passing Communion wafers and wine to the front of the crowd).

Iron Maiden, while perhaps not as committed to their costumes as much as Ghost, still went heavy into the accouterments, featuring massive curtains featuring painted scenes depicting a sort of narrative throughout the concert, giant inflatables of band mascot Eddie, as well as the Devil, and a lumbering, lanky Eddie costume with which the lead singer engaged in a fistfight, before ripping a faux heart out of the costume and tossing it into the pit.

This concert reignited an idea I had a while ago, back when I was at South by Southwest last year: what if games went on tour? They sort of do, insofar as some companies will take their in-development games in buses on road trips to visit press, and there’s also those weird “video game party in a van” things you can rent for a children’s party.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is for you to buy a ticket and go to a venue, along with a large crowd of other people, to play a video game.

So, much like a show where a band just plays their song and leaves, just going to a concert hall and sitting down for just a regular ol’ game is boring. I’m not gonna buy a $25 ticket and drive to Deep Ellum (a Dallas neighborhood known for music venues, for those not in the DFW area) for a glorified LAN party with bad air conditioning, and neither is anyone else.

I don’t 100% know what this idea done right looks like, but I have ideas. For starters, going to a concert where you don’t know the band is never as fun as one where you do and can belt out all of the words. Ghost concerts are usually good for this, as the band is niche enough that people who seek them out and go to the shows are dedicated enough fans to know the relatively small discography, and that feeling of chanting along with a whole crowd and the band is really cool. Even if you don’t necessarily know the band, a lot of more crowd-oriented concerts make picking up what the crowd is “supposed to do” as easy as possible, with an extreme example being a lot of Blue Man Group shows.

For games, this means that you either need to be playing a game that the crowd has already played before, or can pick up extremely easily. Simpler control schemes and familiar genre trends are probably going to be favorable here, instead of trying to get a sweaty crowd of people well versed in Crusader Kings 2 in a couple of hours.

Speaking of which, obvious requirement: length! Whatever you have to play needs to be able to be a complete experience in a couple of hours, and needs to end cleanly by the end of a concert. Imagine being at a concert and halfway through your favorite song when all of a sudden the lights come up and a roadie tells you to go home. The end of the event needs to feel like the end, not just the point where time is up. Although, as an aside, you could have multiple, small games building to a climatic finale.

The key, I’d imagine, is that you need to try and harness the coolest part of the best concerts, which is that sense of being in a sort of positive feedback loop between the performance and the crowd. You know when you’re at a concert and the crowd is just all going wild and you can tell the band is noticing and just feeding off of it? Obviously, a video game cannot in any way harness that raw emotional energy, but what you can do is pick or make a game that meaningfully changes when exposed to a large amount of players.

Consider EVO, or other video game competitions. While games are certainly at the center of these events, in my opinion, the games are merely the setting for the skillful interaction between players. You’re not competing in or even watching EVO because you just really like Street Fighter, you’re really there for the interactions of players. And while the crowd can certainly behave like a concert pit at EVO, they’re not playing. That’s not what I’m interested in.

What this leads me to believe is that a game played live should be a collaborative experience, one where this group of strangers works together, earnestly, toward a common goal, like when the audience at a concert sings in unison to a song they all like. These are the moments that stick out to me at a concert. Imagine being in a group of 1000 Minecraft players, all working together to build a single massive structure (technical issues aside). Imagine playing in a 1000-piece Rock Band band, like a plastic version of the Rockin’ 1000. Hell, imagine a 1000 man World of Warcraft raid, or a 1000 man game of Johann Sebastian Joust (I know this is competitive, but JBJ is a game that definitely changes meaning based on the number of people in the game).

Earnestness would be key. You can’t have griefers in your massive collaborative Minecraft game, nor someone embarrassed to mumble some Foo Fighters lyrics into one of your 250 plastic microphones. I also don’t think an emphasis on “being good” is healthy for the experience either, or else people will be afraid to even go to such an event for fear of embarrassing themselves.

Imagine, though. If there’s one thing that, in my opinion, games have done really bad, it’s gameplay moments en masse. Even games that we tout as “massive”, like Battlefield, usually feature no more than 64 players at a time, spread out over a huge map. Imagine 500 people simultaneously storming the beaches of Normandy in a Battlefield-like game. Environmental sound is piped through the entire venue. The people directly around you are put in a squad with you, and you form an impromptu bond as you save each other from virtual peril and work as a team.

Of course, this idea is still extremely vague, and has massive technical problems (how are you going to get that many consoles or PCs in a room, and it sounds like a fucking technical nightmare, although networking might be slightly easier than having as many machines connect wirelessly over long distances). However, I think that games have the potential to harness the positive power of the concert as a medium, even if it’d require a lot of work.

Running Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure as a Tabletop RPG

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Boy, this one’s…this one’s gonna be niche

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking about running a Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure tabletop game. It’s a combination of two of my most niche interests into something that would require a group so oddly specific that I’ve basically resigned myself to never, ever doing this ever.

But, man, it’d be cool.

For the uninitiated, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is the story of the Joestar family, a bloodline for extremely stern people who basically constantly find themselves at the center of a great deal of trouble, from fighting vampire kings to chasing serial killers to fighting the President to fighting the time-stopping, blood-sucking uber-villain of the series, DIO.

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Yes, he is named after Ronnie James Dio and, yes, you are supposed to spell his name in all-caps.

In Jojo’s, a party of heroes usually ends up in encounters with enemies one at a time, in a “villain of the week” sort of format. Most characters of note in Jojo’s possess what are called “Stands”, which are these sort of ghostly manifestations of their inner psyche, each of which has a unique power. Some of them, like DIO’s “The World”, pictured above clenching his fist, have immediately useful powers like stopping time. Others have more niche abilities, such as “Highway to Hell” in Part 6, which has the ability to kill any target in range, so long as the stand’s user…kills himself.

That’s the joy of Jojo‘s, and why I think it would make an excellent tabletop setting. Jojo’s is all about people with extremely specific powers trying to out-think one another, to put each other into situations where their powers will shine. The most recent season finale of the anime, finishing off the Diamond is Unbreakable arc of the manga, had two stand users basically just outwitting each other for an entire battle, as the hero, who’s ability is to reconstitute anything he punches into its original form, faces off against the antagonist, who can turn anything he touches into a bomb. The battle is less of a direct fistfight and more like watching two very precisely laid-out plans weaved into one another.

So, specifically, why would Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure make for a good tabletop game? Well, what I just said above has me instantly interested. Traditional RPGs can sometimes devolve into rote “I hit him, he hits me” combat, in which combatants just smack each other with weapons until one of them falls over. JJBA instead has fights which feature a distinct pattern: Meet the villain. Figure out what his power is. Concoct a ridiculous strategy to defeat it. Execute. And then punch them a lot. Actual physical combat is usually the last thing in the fight, and it usually provides a satisfying conclusion to the fight.

As a result, every time players would show up to the table, they’d have a new puzzle to solve. First they need to put their heads together to figure out what the hell the enemy is even doing, which is easier said than done. Here is a list of actual abilities that Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure characters have had:

Basically, the sky’s the limit for what sort of antagonist you can have. When you have that down, your players have to actually be clever and figure out specifically how they intend to use their specific abilities to beat this foe. Then, they get to enact that plan, and change it on the fly, and beat foes with the strength of their strategy, instead of just through sheer force of numbers and statistics. Then, when they finally have the enemy in a corner, it’s punchin’ time.

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I highly encourage to let players scream wildly while they do this.

Another nice part about Jojo’s, other than its resistance to getting stale and how it incentivizes creativity, is that it’s episodic. Like I mentioned in my superhero game post, games featuring a “villain of the week” structure are extremely resistant to player schedules, allowing you to simply tell a story with whoever’s around the table that day, without worrying about where the other characters went off to.

So, what we have is a setting where players can build characters that can do basically anything, where every fight is unique and a chance to be creative, a game that requires smart thinking on part of the players, and a game that will work with a volatile group. You know what we don’t have? A game. Like, an actual system to use. Surely, I don’t have something already primed and ready to go?

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Behold, my face as you fell into my classic bamboozle

However, there is a system which I think is a perfect fit: Monsters and Other Childish Things, by Arc Dream. MaoCT is a system in which children have adventures alongside their own personal monsters, otherworldly things which are unique to the child and have unique and interesting powers. Find “monster”, replace “Stand”, and done.

MaoCT uses the One-Roll Engine, which is an extremely simple and fantastically clever dice system which I am a big fan of. The system is designed from the ground up to allow for versatile and unique powers to be represented mechanically, and the fantastically good character creation system, which ties monster abilities to parts of their body, works pretty well in Jojo‘s, where it is frequently the case that protagonists have to attack specific weak points of an enemy.

So, I have a system, a motivation, and an infinite wellspring of characters to create, mechanically represent, and set against my players. Now, sadly, all I need are players.

Campaign Idea: March of the Hellgates

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I’ve been inhumanly busy lately, between my schoolwork, the two tabletop campaigns I’m running (and the one I’m playing in), my job, and pursuing a post-graduation job, but I still have tons of ideas bouncing around in my head for games to play, and I’ve recently had an idea for a kitchen-sink campaign setting that’s got me very excited, if very wishing I had more free time.

The name of this setting would be March of the Hellgates. The setting centers on the world of Astacia, a high-magic, D&D-ass D&D setting full of wizards and magic and arcane secrets and monsters. The one thing this setting is missing is divine magic. While the concept of religion exists, the idea of divine beings having a tangible effect on the real world, at least an undeniable and traceable one, does not.

Everything’s going swimmingly in Astacia until, one day, a hundred years ago, these great fiery portals called Hellgates open up across the land. Demonic armies literally spew forth from these rifts, razing the countryside, reaving armies, and enslaving the populace. To defend against this threat, eight of the greatest sorcerers, now known as the Sorcerer Kings, perform a ritual that destroys their physical body, but allows them to ascent to astral beings, and in this brief moment where they are able to maintain their power in the Material Plane, they carve massive swaths in the demon armies and force them to retreat.

The Sorcerer Kings vanish, unable to contain their power into material bodies for any longer, and the devastated Astacia is forced to rebuild. Riding on the end of the conflict, a mageocracy (that is, a government controlled by magic users) called the Arcane Protectorate establishes itself as the new high power in the land. The reasoning is that magic users are what literally just saved the world from destruction, so why not put them in charge?

While the Protectorate isn’t totalitarian per-se, they are an extremely bureaucratic and self-concerned organization, which meant it was a while before they tackled their first big problem: the Hellgates. When the last demons retreated through the Hellgates, they weren’t closed behind them. They were just sort of left open.

Finally, an expedition team is mounted to travel through a Hellgate, and this is where the meat of the setting is. When the team reaches their destination, they find themselves not in Hell, but another world, one called Mendallen. Mendallen is a desert world, currently controlled by demons, but most decidedly not the origin of the demons. In fact, as it turns out, the Hellgates serve as a sort of highway service connecting the assorted worlds that the demons have invaded at one point or another, thus establishing a multiverse ripe for exploration.

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That’s the meat and potatoes of the setting. Astacia serves as the “hub” for the game, out of need for a focal point, and its unique standing as a world recently (in the grand scheme of things) invaded by demons. Some of the worlds connected by Hellgates are under demonic control. Others, like Astacia, are not. However, the common trend is that control is inescapable. All of the worlds that resisted demonic occupation did so by instead submitted to an alternative evil.

Take the world of Covina, for example. Heavily inspired by D&D’s Ravenloft and Magic the Gathering‘s Innistrad, Covina is a densely wooded, dark gothic world, one where citizens hide behind their town walls at night out of fear of the monsters that lurk in the shadows. Covina is host to a variety of horrifying monsters, such as vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and most interestingly, a cosmic horror-scale monster called T’sholoth that lives in the ocean. T’sholoth is horrifying: it mutates and aggravates the monsters in the night, it drives men mad with whispers in dreams, and it basically has stunted all civilization on this world by forcing people to cower in fear.

However, when the demons invaded Covina, T’sholoth pretty much single handedly obliterated them, both with hordes of mutated monsters and its own direct involvement. T’sholoth is an unspeakable horror, and the damnation of the plane, but were T’sholoth defeated, the demon armies would easily conquer Covina.

That’s the core question of Astacia. Astacia freed itself, but now the Arcane Protectorate wields absolute authority. While the Protectorate hasn’t necessarily done anything too bad yet, they’re still extremely concerned with maintaining power, to the point of heavily regulating magic users, and making a point to research, perfect, and grandstand with powerful instruments of war. Their taxes can be rough, their punishments severe at times, and they have a tendency to be very paranoid.

Not only that, but the Sorcerer Kings are still a presence, even if not a physical one. Those who reach out to the Ethereal Plane can sometimes be visited by a Sorcerer King, who might bestow knowledge or a quest upon the traveler. The extent of their power is unknown, as is their motivations. On top of that, they’re completely unmatched: the Protectorate has no idea how to reproduce the ritual that created them, despite constant experimentation. Are the eight Kings going to become watchful guardians of the realm, or oppressive god-like beings like T’sholoth?

I think this idea is ripe with fascinating, interesting ideas. If done will, a campaign could take place within a single world (like a group of monster hunters surviving the woods of Covina, or a caravan of traders wandering the desert of Mendallen), or could span multiple worlds as a party travels the multiverse. Any genre of fantasy wanted can be explored here by just travelling to a new plane, and anything boring can just be left.

However, there are three things that make me very excited about this setting, that make me want to run it ASAP:

1. Higher powers are weird

Paladins are banned from this campaign, clerics draw their power from the ethereal Sorcerer Kings, and the gods, if there are any, don’t regularly make their presence known in this world. There are definitely great forces in this setting, but what they want and exactly what they can do are far more ambiguous than most high-fantasy settings.

2. Heavily exploration focused

This campaign is built from the ground up on the premise of going to new, bizarre places. The sheer variety of places to go, things to encounter, and problems to solve is multiplied exponentially by having a variety of planes, meaning you can do a sandbox-style game in such a setting fairly easily.

3. Weird magic

Sort of following point 1, magic in this world is bizarre and doesn’t work in a very well-defined way. While the Protectorate tries its best to normalize and control magic, things like the Hellgates, the ascension of the Sorcerer Kings, T’sholoth, and other oddities mean that there is plenty of magic that is just nothing but question marks. In my opinion, I think that makes for the best kinds of magic.