Saturday, February 13, 2021

Troubleshooting Detachments and Forts

 I'm running custom Detachment rules which are a mash-up of Into the Odd's company rules and Apocalypse World's gang-sizes so that ship crews in my pirate game interact smoothly with PC combat.

Because this is a think-piece about custom rules I made myself, built on the foundation of the system I kludged together, this post is probably me just talking to myself.

I still don't like it. The mouth-feel is wrong.

The problem is that kludges I put together (like the Area and Large-Scale tags) are non-diegetic. There's really an arbitrary distinction between what counts as 'Area' vs 'Large-Scale'. There's still too much GM overhead, and if I forget to include 'Area' or 'Large-Scale' tags on a monster, then they're stuck doing Impaired Damage (d4) to Detachments, which means 40 peasants (+4 Bonus Size AV) are functionally immune to single monster. Bad. 

THOSE rules are because I used an escalating bonus Size AV of +2 damage resistance per size category advantage. And THAT rule is because I wanted to have a quick way to scale up 'X number of HD1 mooks', keeping their HD and not having to create a hit-point sink.

I generally run low HD human opponents, because PC health is also low. You're more likely to see an army of HD1 peasants or HD3 soldiers than HD8 legendary heroes.

So: new rules. 

Detachments still get a bonus damage die and +2 Size AV per category. Individual-scale opponents still deal Impaired damage (d4) unless they use weapons with an Area Tag

Now, the GM has discretion to ignore Size AV if the situation seems appropriate. PCs setting up explosion traps all along a gulley will do that (and probably get the Area Tag) too, or using choking gas. For monstrous foes, they ignore Size AV if they still fight effectively against large numbers of foes. 

Like this:

Or this:

Basically, if you can imagine them like Sauron in the first LotR tossing soldiers around, then they ignore Size AV. They still do Impaired Damage (d4) unless they have an Area attack, because they'll have to whittle their foes down. 

Peasant armies can still, eventually, kill a dragon. 80 peasants get +3 bonus damage dice: give them all muskets and they're doing 4d8 damage a pop. The problem is keeping them together with Morale Checks as more and more of them die.

The distinction between Impaired damage but ignores Size AV (eg, big ogre smashing fools with a club) and Area damage but minus Size AV (eg, single PC throws a grenade at the enemy squad) still requires a little bit more GM adjudication than I'd like, but I guess I can try these rules out for now.

Tomb of the Moderately Successful Playwright

I give my players an option to do 'side-quests' over Discord chat, in addition to the main game I normally run.

One of my players pitched that he wanted his frog-man con-man to get caught up in a scheme to write a self-help book called the 'Porpoise-Driven Life'.

So I came up with this:

Map-credit again goes to Dyson Logos.

Running this was a blast. The player pried open the sealed door in Room C despite there being a big red X painted over it, so De Veers got out. Percy, the porpoise-man NPC, got eaten. 

I had a lot of fun playing De Veers over text, and having him oscillate between jovial 'what ho there!' conviviality and snarling 'I'm going to eat your face' ghoul-hunger. I can't remember where I got the idea for ghouls who are kind and urbane and sophisticated but only as long as they've been fed: I want to say Arnold Kemp's Goblin Punch, but I honestly can't remember. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Court of Hell

 Made for Patrick Stuart's Dungeon Poem Challenge.

Happy Lunar New Year, ya filthy animals

Map is by Dyson Logos.

This post is brought to you by the childhood nightmare fuel that is Haw Par Villa.

by KiatXKiat

DISCLAIMER: As 'authentically Chinese' as fortune cookies. Everything I know about Chinese hell I learned from peeking between my fingers when I was 10 y/o at gory sculptures. Sorry Chen Laoshi

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Designing an Asian Colonial-Era Sandbox - Part 3 (What is the Empire?)

 Part 1

Part 2


1. Tween-king, spoiled and ignorant, prone to whimsical decrees

2. Mummified corpse, as interpreted by coterie of court-mediums

3. A revolving door of princelings continually assassinating each other

4. An especially holy rock, covered in mantras for how to live

5. Title shared by three different individuals, bureaucracy paralysed

6. Ate an immortality peach. Seven hundred years old, irredeemably senile 

7. Gnomic pronouncements dispensed by proto-Babbage-Engine

8. Highest-ranking scholar, but 'knowledge' is a thousand years out of date

9. A broken-telephone system of eunuchs relaying information to and from a baffled king

10. Absolutely NOT a horse wearing a robe. It is a crime to even think that.


1. Vast and powerful military ... now obsolete and shackled to centuries-old tactics

2. Meritocratic civil service exams ... now a Kafka-esque profusion of minor bureaucrats

3. Famous thinkers and scientists ... now calcified into tradition-bound schools

4. Rich and affluent trade cities ... now competing fiefdoms ruled by rival families

5. Unifying national religion ... now geomancers and diviners obsessed with interpreting signs

6. Monasteries as centers of culture ... now a profusion of competing apocalypse sects

7. Government by organised ministries ... now obsessed with court infighting

8. Independent and capable clans ... now a scattering of bandit-kings and warlords

9. Thriving merchant economy ... now actively profiteering in collusion with outsiders

10. Elaborate public works ... now prone to failure with consequent flood/famine/earthquakes


1.  Conqueror-worm silk

2. Medicinal fungi

3. Necromantic bone-china

4. Radiant jadestone

5. Tea. It's very good tea

6. Longevity pears

7. Wool-monkey fabrics

8. Porcelain serving-golems

9. Hell-turtle ivory

10. Edible dream-scrolls

Monday, January 18, 2021

Mutiny Rules / Pay

Rules are generated out of necessity.

A few sessions ago, my players ran out of food and tried to eat their own crew for the second time. The crew has been entirely wiped out and re-hired three times now.

I need some mutiny rules.

I played around with modifying the Injury and Death / Ship Damage rules for simplicity and consistency, but I'm thinking of trying a Dice Pool instead for that ol' gambling feel. 


When PCs give their crew a reason to be dissatisfied, Add Dice to the Mutiny Pool, then roll all the dice in the pool.

Minor Grievance (+1d6)
- Crew is inconvenienced or treated poorly
- Crew is forbidden from doing something they want to do
- Crew members are placed in danger

Significant Grievance (+2d6)
- Crew members are killed in the normal course of events
- Crew members are placed in reckless danger
- Crew is promised pay, and they are not paid

Severe Grievance (+4d6)
- Half the crew is killed 
- Each week at sea with no food
- Crew is actively sacrificed for the PC's benefit, and the Crew finds out

If any dice show a 1, roll 1d8 on the MUTINY TABLE and add the number of dice in the Mutiny Pool (MP). 

1-2: MP +1D. No other effect
3-4: MP + 2D. No other effect
5-6:  MP + 1D Crew is demoralised. Impaired Damage to enemies of the PCs until the next Port Rest 
7-8: Crew demands additional pay now (Does not count as Port Rest, not paying is a Grievance)
9-10: MP +2D. Crew is fractious. They refuse to fight at all until the next Port Rest. 
11-12: MP +3D. Crew is openly rebellious. They refuse to take any orders without incentives
13+: Mutiny! The crew attacks the PCs and tries to seize the ship

To reset the Mutiny Pool, PCs must let the crew rest in town for a week and pay them their regular wages. This replaces the old system of paying wages regularly: now wages are a way to reset the Mutiny Pool.

The idea of wages isn't very piratical, but I don't like the math that comes with calculating loot shares.

Friday, August 28, 2020

What Are Goblins?

Much has already been written regarding the Eastern Orcs, and the Great War. In recent years, some scholars have proposed daring counter-factuals claiming that Orcs have been horribly misrepresented, that rather than the dumb brutish creatures of legend, they are in fact proud and noble individuals with complex societies. There have been furious debates in academia, and more than one pot of ink has been thrown in anger. 

All scholars still agree, though, that goblins are little shits.

Goblins are grown from fungus, the result of a well-meaning wizard's experiment to manufacture a childlike, innocent race who would playfully frolic through his private domain. We know this from reading what remains of the original wizard's smeared and blood-stained notebooks. (Scholars debate whether the crude, childlike drawings of the wizard that deface the pages are evidence that goblins can feel affection.)

Goblins are raw id. If orcs are said to be brutish violence made flesh, goblins are immature selfishness and lack of empathy. 

They are psychotic toddlers, with less impulse control.

If you shout at a goblin it might cry and sniffle, and tug at your hem and keep saying sorry through the snot. If you shout at a group of goblins they might also cry and sniffle, or they might flash their sharp teeth and giggle and experimentally start poking you with short, dirty spears to see what you'll do next.

By Svetlin Velinov for Magic: The Gathering

Goblins have no sense of personal space. They'll crowd around you, pick at your clothes, take things without asking, put it in their mouths to see what it tastes like. They think it's funny when things break, or blow up. They'll play with something until it stops working, and then they'll get bored and throw it away.

A group of goblins is called a gaggle, which is like a giggle but with more kidnapping. 

The goblin chief is the one with the strongest imagination and ability to impose that imagination on other goblins. Individually, a goblin just breaks things and is a nuisance. Together, a gaggle of goblins can collaborate with the single-minded focus of children at play. Their play always involves copying something they've seen before.

They'll steal cannons and pretend to be an army. They'll dress up in the clothes of villagers, and put on short skits pretending to be humans. They'll raid the manor house, kill the duke and all his servants, and live there for a week wearing powdered wigs and pretending to serve each other tea. 

Jumpstart Historic Goblins Theorycraft • MTG Arena Zone
By Dmitry Burmak

When they're not pretending, they sit around and complain all the time about how boring it is and how nothing ever happens. That's when they get into fights with each other. Bored goblins are always delighted to meet new people. New people are like toys: they're fun to play with, and if they break you can always go and get new ones. They might pretend they'll help you navigate the dungeon. They'll lead you through traps, giggling as they go, or take you to the Manticore's lair to see who would win. Or they might play pretend and make you their king, or decide that you're their best friend. They'll probably believe this, too, for as long as they play.

You might be safe, for a while, if you play along, but their games get more and more murderous. 

They usually end with you being eaten. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Designing an Asian Colonial-Era Sandbox - Part 2 (Representation), but this actually became a full-length essay

You can't talk about designing anything for play 1) during the Colonial era and 2) in a pseudo-Asian setting today without talking about the representation of cultural tropes.

Problem the first: One problem with designing non-generic D&D has to do with implicit tropes that players/GMs might not have access to. OSR D&D can get away with brevity because it relies so much on a shared pop-cultural knowledge: nobody needs to be told what a 'goblin' is, everybody understands the Baron is somebody important. 

In TTRPGs, where the curated space is imaginative and shared, the work of presenting new tropes is doubly hard. The GM has to learn / adopt new tropes AND communicate them to the players, AND the table then has to engage in a shared construction of the play-space. Basically: it's hard to get a table to imagine tropes they're not already familiar with. 

(Sidenote: Electric Bastionland and the UVG are interesting to me because they ALSO draw on implicit tropes, just not 'generic' fantasy ones. EB evokes tropes about the City, and the experience of living in an urban space. UVG draws on Mad Max, psychedelia, Dune, and maybe Barsoom - edit: especially the art of Moebius)

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Beasts of Barsoom

Problem the second: When introducing tropes to do with real-world cultures, there's a tricky line between appreciating and parodying. More so because today, the line between 'Cultural Appreciation' and 'Cultural Appropriation' is thin, and seems to shift constantly. What discussions of 'Cultural Appropriation' can miss is that everyone is engaged in an artificial construction of 'culture'. My experiences as a Chinese person living as part of a diaspora in a 21st century city are worlds apart from the experiences of a Chinese person in 19th-century Qing Dynasty China. The experiences of a 21st century British person playing through D&D are worlds apart from the cultural assumptions of, say, 15th century Chivalric fiction (which is itself distinct from the experience of actually living in the 15th century), but there isn't that baggage of 'appropriation' if you get knights wrong. 

Problem: my imaginative space labelled 'East Asia' is a melting pot of Hong Kong martial arts movies and Zhang Yimou films and Ghost in the Shell and Hayao Miyazaki and the time I took a trip to see the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. I'm making it up too. 

Essentially, when I talk about designing an 'Asian' setting, I'm constructing an artificial pastiche of ideas as much as anybody else. Obviously, this doesn't mean that anyone should throw together some Asian tropes and call it, say 'Oriental Adventures'. But it does mean there is no platonic ideal of cultural representation, because what exactly does it mean to be, eg, 'authentically Korean' in the 21st century? Products that claim to be culturally 'authentic' are really just throwing around marketing buzzwords.

Oriental Adventures - Wikipedia

TTRPGs striving for 'authentic' might try their hardest to evoke 'Asian' tropes, but they often end up flattening them. I once attended a cross-cultural business talk about doing business in China (it was a bit like an out-of-body experience). The speaker (not Chinese) talked about the importance of face and shame culture and authority, which is a bit like someone insisting the keystones to British culture are tea and not making a fuss. Like, kind of, but not really? 

This also applies to POC/Asians writing in diaspora culture. It is tempting for me to flatten Chinese culture into, say 'kinship ties', and then pretend that this motivates all sorts of behaviour, when really, people are people everywhere you go. They have similar motivations: they love their kids. They don't want to starve to death. They try to avoid harming people they care about. They like things being comfortable, and predictable, and generally don't like extreme change. Emphasising cultural difference can exoticize, when I think there's more that unites us as humans than sets us apart. 

How many TTRPG East-Asian influenced products start with chapters waxing lyrical about 'The Way of the Samurai', or 'Duty and Honour', or some reference to the Tao or the Elements or the Spirits of Air and Water, as if these were the keys to comprehending what 'Asian' is? 

(Sidenote 1:This is also the same problem that European representations of Asia have had for ages, the idea that understanding some cultural mythos is key to interpreting political behaviour. See 19th century attempts to essentialise Chinese culture from Staunton's translation of the Qing legal code, or for a more modern version, how Frances Fitzgerald's 'Fire in the Lake' tried to explicate Vietnam War revolutionaries by saying that the Vietnamese were just culturally different, rather than engage with how American policy consistently alienated the populace for very evident reasons.) 

(Sidenote 2: About the use of the word 'Asian'. I've never actually heard the label 'Asian' used self-descriptively, outside of places with overseas diaspora communities like the US and the UK. In South-East Asia, people will say they are Thai or Korean or Chinese, because there are large differences between these cultures. You might get discussions about 'Asian parenting styles' or 'Asian education', but it's as broad as the term 'Westerner'.

...There's a whole 'nother discussion about how/why 'representation' is much more of a concern for overseas diaspora cultures or minority cultures than majority-cultures. Koreans in South Korea are generally far less concerned about 'representation' than Korean-Americans in the US.)

Problem the third: TTRPGs rely on a shared understanding of how the world works in order for players to take meaningful actions. At the most basic level, players need to assume that real-world physics are in play in order to meaningfully make a boulder-trap. At a social level, players expect that their actions will evoke comprehensible reactions from others. Certain actions are laudable and win respect. Other actions are reprehensible and incur disapproval. While sometimes GMs can play with this expectation to create a twist (eg the monster the PCs killed is actually sacred to the villagers, and now everyone is mad), a world that functions on very different social dynamics is one where PCs end up feeling continually alienated and bewildered. 

In a continuation from Problem the Second, this is why so many TTRPGs that try to 'represent Asia' (usually China or Japan), insert very unsubtle mechanisms for guiding PCs to engage with 'Asian' dynamics. Thus, you have giri tracks and honour points and Face scores or whatever mechanic, to try and get players to engage with these different (and implicitly alien) social dynamics. The idea is that players are meant to learn how culturally distinct this setting is, but it ends up being like Romance Points in Mass Effect, where if you hit the 'nice' option enough you can get an NPC to sleep with you.

If I get 12 more honour points, the Daimyo will give me a castle! 

Oh no, this betrayal has hurt my Giri-score. My PC is now depressed.

It's a bit like trying to make an 'American RPG' where PCs constantly have to manage 'Freedom Points' as a metacurrency. You could, but it would scan as parody, wouldn't it? 

L5R RPG – Strange Assembly


Give up, and don't bother. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.


Yes, really! 

I'm not aspiring to make a 'culturally authentic' setting, partly because I'm drawing inspiration from India/China/Japan so it's all pastiche anyway, and partly because I'm more interested in creating a space that explores a period, and letting people fill in the blanks. 

Put another way, nobody plays D&D-as-written to get in touch with, say, their Irish-Catholic roots. But you can bet there's an Irish-Catholic GM and their players somewhere who've put something of their childhood into the NPCs or settings or locations they wrote up. I want a D&D where people like me can put in Oni and Hungry Ghosts and Fortune Cats if they want to, and not feel like they're setting up shop over Tolkien's grave.

This means that setting-creation will be collaborative. I'm hoping I can write something that any group can riff off-of, rather than something where people outside South-East Asia don't dare to play it because they'll do it 'wrong'. 


Well, not quite. 

Even if the actual cultural touchstones are hazy, I'm still calling it 'Asian Colonial-Era Sandbox Play' because I want it to evoke a broad experience. Even if you're playing members of a mushroom-empire getting colonised by psychic moles and mecha-squids, there's certain genre assumptions and principles to guide play. 

If anything, I want to represent the material experience of colonisation interacting with the fall of empire. I want to complicate the narrative that colonialism involves bad actors with agency attacking a passive victim. I want PCs to consider if collusion makes sense in the moment, even if the wider consequences are to accelerate the collapse of a failing structure.

There'll be tea-houses and calligraphy schools and officials in sedan chairs. It will probably be entirely implicit in the random tables I draft, and vague enough to leave lots of gaps. I also want to preserve the weirdness of the OSR, so like it'll probably be caterpillar-men carrying sedan chairs.

I also really appreciated Chris McDowall's short, punchy guides for how to describe locations and types of characters in Electric Bastionland. I could probably do something similar for officials, villagers etc. 


This is the most important one. The tribespeople are people. The colonialists are people. The emperor's court is full of people. Everyone has motivations for what they're doing. Their motivations could be wrong, superstitious, selfish or corrupt, but they're still understandable motivations.

The collapsing empire is the centre of play, in the same way that the Middle Kingdom is better translated as The Central Kingdom or The Centre of Everything. There's other places, but they are all judged in relation to the empire. 

The sources of moral authority in the empire are unchanged, even if the material reality is shifting. Experience first-hand the dissonance of everyone saying they respect and venerate the emperor even as they rebel against him, because 'well he's just very badly advised by corrupt eunuchs so THIS is his true will'. (See what I mean by 'everyone is more similar than different'? Compare: the complex relationships of monarchs with popes, when moral authority =/ material authority)

The PCs have an understanding of the culture they're in, though they might meet strange sects, cults or deviant groups that defy the norm. The foreigners? Emperor knows what they're about. Every foreign empire has customs that are incomprehensible and defy common sense to the PCs. Ask your players to make some up. If you have fantasy-France as a colonial power, add a little something that emphasises how alien they are. Maybe they eat their dead. Maybe public nudity is not a taboo. Just bear in mind rule 1.

Talk it out with your players as adults. Spend Session Zero discussing features of your setting, bring in the tropes that people want to see. My setting is influenced most by China, and a little bit of India and Japan, but if you want to do something themed around, say, Portuguese touchstones, why not?

Additionally, there's all this other stuff in the Colonial-era that people might not want to deal with. Drugs and racism are very much a part of the Colonial Experience(TM), but if your table doesn't want to deal with that you can toss it out. Enthusiastic Pirate Bois has animal-races, which 1) makes it easier for PCs to remember that Moles hate Frogs and 2) is, for me at least, an acceptable level of fantasy racism. But do what works for your table. 

They're rarely as good as you think.

GM GUIDE (A sample)

When the players meet an Official...
- Give them a formal title, which they will insist on
- Give them something they are meant to be in charge of
- Show how they are much less in charge of that thing than they say
- All excuses are made with reference to the emperor and his laws
(Note: Make a random table called 'What is this Official's Excuse Now?')
- Never directly acknowledge a loss of authority
- Give them a problem they need help with
- Always ask for help indirectly