Tuesday, July 31, 2018

"The Game" (that is, "the words")--PIG-PIP

More RPG theory. Thoughts and suggestions welcome and needed.

Part 1--Intro to PIG-PIP
Part 2 
Part 3

30. Game Text As Reference Vs Game Text As Speech

Tabletop RPG theory has usually, in the past, taken the form of practical advice directed usually and especially to one specific entity involved in games and negotiating its relationship to another entity: Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering is directed toward a GM and telling them how to work with players, the original Threefold Model, GNS, and RSP theory are directed toward matching groups to game texts or instructing writers on how to write game texts. The uniquely rhetorically complex nature of tabletop RPG game texts is often obscured.

The most obvious example is how often the game text is simply called "The Game". An example should illustrate the strangeness of this: you can't fully analyze how a team played baseball without reference to the home-field advantage, even though the home-field advantage is nowhere in the rulebook, yet over and over in formal RPG theory The Game and all its outcomes are supposed to proceed from the rules.

Game books work in many ways. Right now I'm going to draw a distinction between non-fiction texts as reference and non-fiction texts as speech.

"Reference" here means in the sense of a dictionary: a set of statements, recommendations, etc consulted in pieces, where the meaning doesn't depend on reading in a linear way. That is: a dictionary still makes sense if you read  the entry for"Pepper" before "Aardvark".

"Speech" here is used in the sense of "The president gave a speech": that is, a series of rhetorical moves where the order changes or is intended to chance if not the meaning precisely then at least the reception of the words by the audience. A speech is different if it begins "My fellow Americans..." vs "A funny thing happened on the way to the VFW tonight..." even if both statements are somewhere in both versions of the speech.

Most RPG theory treats the game text ("The Game") as if it only acts as reference: The rules are there and allegedly responsible for discrepancies between desire and outcome.

In reality, even before the "What's This Game About?" section, there is an image. This image takes different forms:

If the game is not famous (as with most games that you might hear about online or with Dungeons & Dragons as it appeared to wargamers in 1974) the image is a combination of what is on the cover and what the words on that cover communicate ("Dungeons & Dragons, Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper And Pencil and Miniature Figures" "Men & Magic" and a picture of a warrior in unrealistically--fantastically, you might say--spiky armor).

If the game is famous, the first image is a combination of the reputation of the game, the advertising of the game, and the actual packaging.

This is not a small thing. Because both players and GM:

-Choose to begin participating largely if they are attracted to the image
-Are often given the book or offered the opportunity to play based on someone else's assessment that they are attracted to the image--in some cases by parents who will forever know nothing more than the image, and
-(Most importantly) since tabletop RPGs require that participants invent elements to even work at all, and participants consciously and unconsciously assume that fun happens by bending their choices toward the image and the tropes it implies (name the elf "Silverblade", include a castle with a moat even if moats aren't in the rules yet)

...the initial and subsequent images the text presents shape genuine play in tabletop RPGs in real and extensive ways that are difficult to fully describe without going beyond just a programmer or boardgame designer's vocabulary of rules, but also the vocabularies of art, psychology and sociology.

Some examples:

The very first RPG book includes a fan-submitted illustration of creatures described nowhere in the text: "Beautiful Witch" and "Amazon". Knowing this was a "fantastic medieval" game was enough for at least this player to realize these characters could be in it.

Vampire: The Masquerade has a complex and ongoing LARP culture that uses rules nowhere in the original text. However, the themes emphasized in the LARPs (powers, humanity loss, feeding, etc) are all strongly influenced by the text-as-speech if not loyal to the text-as-reference.

It's usually understood that inventions "inside" a game's presumed genre tropes "should" work and those outside it void the warranty ("firearms will ruin your D&D game") but what does and does not fit the tropes is often assumed to be clearer to each living participant than it is. Genre assumptions are usually treated as something that either need not be said, or something that can very easily be said, when in reality getting a full palette of genre assumptions across is as complex and fraught an act of communication as trying to teach someone what musical gestures represent "jazz" and which don't.

For example, this isn't a flaw in Apocalypse World. That's not because it is mechanically impossible or undesirable in the rules-as-reference, but because the rhetorical structure of Apocalypse World as rules-as-speech would scare off anyone who thought this would be fun.

Because tropes and assumptions shape play as much or sometimes more than rules, when considering the influence of a text-as-speech in forming a game experience, a critic needs to consider a number of cultural and sociological factors including:

-When it was written
-What genre tropes can readers be assumed to be aware of (is steampunk a thing yet for this audience?)
-What the illustrations suggest
-What the wider awareness of the game or games was in the mind of the reader (many small online RPGs assume a reader knows what an RPG is, or assume familiarity with at least D&D)
-What gameplay culture does the text assume is dominant
-Whether audiences interacting with the text can be assumed to be homogenous (all equally aware of steampunk tropes) or heterogeneous (some need it explained more than others)
-How much of the text will be read by different participants and which part (it's common that nobody playing a given D&D game has read all the spell descriptions, or that only one person who's playing Dread has even touched the book)
-How charismatic is the text about presenting different principles and procedures vs others and for which audiences (It's possible one potential player could walk away from Dogs in the Vineyard excited about moral choices while another walks away hoping for shoot-outs with demon children whose hair moves in the wind even when there isn't any--this will shape play).

I would add a caveat saying that the more freedom of choice an RPG offers, the more "soft" rhetorical gestures can influence play, but in practice I've found every RPG offers so much freedom that these gestures always matter. You can "break" pretty much any game by deciding to play against the style it assumes but the textual acrobatics required to procedurally hard-code rules that head-off such fuckery are always a burden in themselves (though that subject should be addressed formally in a later entry).
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Monday, July 30, 2018

Differences Between Game Groups (PIG-PIP)

PIG-PIP Theory of RPGs Part 3.

Here's 1
Here's 2

29. Common differences between game groups.

Differences between individual players (including the GM) are discussed a lot more than differences between groups as a whole, this is because differences between living people at the same table immediately results in real-life discussion (sometimes this is an argument, a lot of times it's just fun) whereas differences between entire groups can only result in discussion if:

a) Someone records a group's behavior in enough detail to see how the group works,
b) ...puts that record somewhere that gamers with totally different assumptions will see it,
c) ...these totally-different gamers notice and say something.

This is relatively rare, though increasingly-common in the post-Youtube environment.

It's impossible to list all extant differences between game groups and how they experience games differently, but some common (and commonly unacknowledged) differences that contribute to confusion in accurately discussing game experiences are:

-High Trust vs Low Trust: In the highest trust games, everyone involved has had a number of voluntary and positive social experiences with each other outside the game. In the lowest-trust games people are meeting during the game session for the first time (like at a con or game store). Commentators who unconsciously assume low-trust games tend to be the ones obsessed with safety concerns and broadcasting the fact that various forms of clearly obviously bad behavior  (racism, sexism, murder) are not👏 allowed👏 at👏their👏 table👏 . Commentators who unconsciously assume high-trust games wonder why this needs to be said.

-RPG-Experienced vs RPG-Inexperienced: Procedures and rules affect players differently depending how aware of the procedures the players are, and also depending exactly which group members have a higher or lower degree of experience.

This can have a variety of outcomes depending on other factors: unfamiliarity can make a group ignore procedures out of ignorance or hew to them beyond the point of utility out of a naive belief they have no other options.

-Text-Deferential vs Text-Skeptical: Text-deferential groups attempt to play Rules-As-Written. Text-Skeptical groups don't.

Mainstream game talk (especially fandom around D&D, Pathfinder and other commercially-dominant games) often proceeds completely unaware text-skepticism is possible or viable even though (paradoxically) most mainstream GM-guides, core books, official communiques and mainstream-designer twitter accounts openly (if not consistently) advocate it.  A fairly confusing situation occurs, for instance, when someone who unconsciously assumes a text-deferential attitude toward a set of core rules attempts to evaluate a (usually 3rd-party-published) supplement that asks for a necessarily text-skeptical attitude in order to be compatible with more than one system. The critic then is in the position of being theoretically able to grasp that different systems are different but unable to grasp that this may require they change something in the supplement's rules or the game's rules or both to make them work together.

-Goal-Homogenous vs Mixed-Goal: This term applies to a number of differences that players often have between each other (challenge-oriented player vs acting-oriented player, for instance) which are frequently discussed in RPG circles. When discussing groups, this means the entire group has the same goal (homogeneous) or doesn't (mixed-goal). We're not going to get into what those goals might be here today because that's a whole thing, but in discussion of group types it's worth pointing out that homogeneity and heterogeneity are themselves characteristics that can affect the game experience.

For example, a goal-homogenous group may require a less-skilled GM, since there are fewer different desires to accommodate. On the other hand, it might require a more-skilled GM since play may quickly stagnate if the group only pursues goals it predicted wanting to pursue in the beginning, so a GM may need to throw them a curve or two.
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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sunday, on vacation, have a layout

I've been far from home and very busy lately, but I liked Jeff's thing here.

And here's something Cheng did with one of Scrap Princess' monsters for Demon City:
Click to enlarge. Scrap wrote it, I drew it.

Donate to the Demon City Kickstarter here

Friday, July 27, 2018

Demon City Rules Index + European Shipping News

This is either really boring or really exciting but we got European shipping for Demon City down to about 17-25$ if you're into that. Official statement:

" (mind you this can change somewhat- roughly a 4-5% flux based on the market) Europe: $17 to $25.Canada: $22 to $28.Norway: $30 to $35.Australia: $25 to $32. China/Hong Kong/Macao: $16 to $22.Rest of Asia: $33 to $43. All Other Countries: $95 and higher."

So if that's been holding you back...

And for whom it may concern, here are the main posts about exactly what's in Demon City...


Character Generation

Getting Things Done



Downtime (early draft)


Aliens (the Narth)

Artificial Life

Choking Ghost


Demon of the First Order

Demons of the Second Order

Demons of the Third Order

Demons of the 6th Order

Demons of the 7th Order

Demons of the 8th Order

Demons of the 9th Order

Demons of the 10th Order

Devouring Plasm


Foetal God


Haunted Doll

The Horde

Lexicon Devil



Revenants and Drones



(Stretch Goal by Mabel Harper)




Sketches (adventure possibilities and lore)


Down and Out In Demon City

Don Membreño and Julio Elespe

The Glistening Chamber Codex (or The Nyctythatic Text)

Medical Suite

On Crime

On The Occult

The Poison Cabinet


The Show

Host Advice

Ecology of Murder

Horror Sandbox



Invisible Dungeon and Wallet-Keys-Pants (Dungeon formats)

My First Conspiracy Kit

The Three Shadows


Murder Victims

Ritual Killings

Ritual Locations

About the Graphic Designer, Shawn Cheng



Actual Play


Recommending Watching

Recommended Reading

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

The First Thing You See When You Open The Book & The Last Thing You See Before You Close It

Cheng is working on the endpapers for Demon City.

Post-Vornheim design means you use the endpapers, especially for things the GM might wanna reference all the time.

So from the left we've got the action system (maybe looks more complex than it really is but new GMs will probably appreciate it), the Downtime System (after any undeniably successful session) and d100 panic symptoms on the right (and nice one Cheng fitting all 100 in there).

And yes, the idea is every page will be full-on like this.

If you're into it, help out here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Quality of A Ritual

We all tend to like rituals, but when it comes to actually describing them in games we tend to choose one of two options:

-Verrrrry specific rituals that basically only end up getting used once for a specific effect, or
-Abstracted ideas about rituals like "Requires 800gp worth of materials" that are generally useful but lack flavor.

For Demon City, we tried to get a little deeper into how the systems of ritual worked. Here's Zedeck Siew with Corpse Oil rituals...

(a riff off Nam Man Prai, which is from the Thai phram (shamanic) folk tradition)

The act itself is relatively simple: chanting scripture, you hold a candle under the chin of a recently dead person. The air is rancid. Yellow, fatty fluid seeps from the crisping flesh.

Corpse oil has many uses. One chin yields a jam-jar-ful. Potency depends on provenance. If a corpse is:

- Beloved.
- A young woman.
- A virgin, until death.
- Your blood relation.
- Killed in grisly violence.
- Killed by your own hand.
- Properly buried and mourned.

Then each of the above conditions increases the quality and potency of the oil. In game terms each confers a “point” of Intensity.


Mixing in consecrated philtres, speaking the proper spells, a necromancer may prepare corpse oil in several ways.

As an ointment, on contact with skin, it can confer the following effects (In order of quality of oil required)

Requires only corpse oil—the quality is irrelevant
- Wheezing fatigue.
- An inability to recognise faces.
- Bad breath that spoils food.
- The ability to talk to gravestones.

Requires an oil of Intensity 2.
- Wracking back pains.
- An inability to use stairs.
- A musk that attracts vermin.
- The ability to command birds.

Requires an oil of Intensity 3.
- Night terrors.
- An inability to feel pain.
- An odour that repulses women.
- The ability to query reflections.

Requires an oil of Intensity 4.
- Miscarriage.
- A strong sexual attraction to you.
- A bright glow visible to evil entities.
- The ability to dictate card games.

Requires an oil of Intensity 5.
- Liver failure.
- Susceptibility to your suggestions.
- A touch that burns holy persons.
- Invincibility, when holding breath.

As a grease, ritually applied to a single building’s foundations, it lends the structure special virtues:

Requires only corpse oil—the quality is irrelevant
- Unnaturally stuffy.
- Deals made here cannot lose you money.

Requires oil of Intensity 3
- Gives restless sleep.
- Residents are inclined to obey you.

Requires oil of Intensity 5.
- Sounds do not carry.
- Doors are always open for you.

Requires oil of Intensity 6.
- Traps disquiet spirits.
- Irresistibly draws the eye.

Requires oil of Intensity 7
- Confuses your enemies.
- Cannot be demolished.

As a fetish, a jar wrapped in yellow talisman paper, it fetters the ghost of the person from which it came. This spirit:

Requires an oil of Intensity 3:
- Cramps or twists muscle, with a touch.
- Manifests a corporeal, unspoiled body.
- Speaks with the voice of anyone living.
- Roams beyond the sight of its fetish jar.

Requires an oil of Intensity 6
- Exudes steamy, flesh-eating ectoplasm.
- May possess any male-identified person.
- Captures the souls of un-weaned babies.
- Banishes other ghosts with its presence.
- Steals air from the lungs of living things.
- Does not remember anything of its past.

Each preparation comes with a unique command mantra. Those who speak this formula are masters who the corpse oil cannot harm, and must obey.


Without its command mantra, corpse oil effects can only be lifted by ritual healing (Heal the Flesh ritual, etc). Effective treatment depends on who’s treating. If an exorcist is:

- A priest or religious ascetic.
- From a different religious tradition.
- Celibate.
- Vegetarian.
- Of non-human lineage.
- Related to a royal family.
- Master of their own corpse-oil ghost.

Each of the above conditions improve the quality and strength of the exorcism. You may disrupt one corpse-oil effect per condition met.

If the exorcism’s total number of conditions exceeds the corpse oil’s total quality, the substance is destroyed. If not, the corpse oil’s effects return after C10 (that is pick a card 1-10) days.
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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Decks In Demon City

This is a round-up mostly for people who want more detail on the tarot rules because of the Demon City kickstarter. Straight from the current Demon City draft...

Getting Things Done

The Players' Deck, The Horror’s Deck, and Significator Cards

Now that the basics are down, it’s time to go into a little more detail about the cards.

As we’ve already said, before each adventure, after the Host has decided what the ultimate creature or creatures will be lurking behind the events in the day’s adventure, the Host creates the Horror’s Deck. The Horror’s Deck should be used by the Host in every session until the Horror that formed that particular deck is defeated. Then a new one is created for the next session.

The Horror’s Deck should include:

-A few (typically 1-4) cards specifically associated with the major horrors that will ultimately feature in the course of the adventure—even if the Horror itself may not appear in this session. For example, if the adventure includes a werewolf, the deck would likely include The Moon (18) and possibly Strength (8). The associations of cards with specific horrors is detailed in the Horrors section.

-A few cards associated with specific places or NPCs that are important in the adventure. For example, if a rich woman features prominently in the adventure, the Queen of Pentacles would appear in The Horror’s Deck, if an abandoned factory was an important location, an 8 of Cups might be in the deck. The connections of cards with specific ideas, kinds of people and kinds of places are noted on the endpapers of this book.

-Enough other cards that the deck contains at least one card worth every number one through ten. So: One card worth One (any of the four Aces—Wands, Cups, Swords, or Pentacles, or the Magician—the card marked 1 at the top), a single card worth two (two of Wands, Cups, etc or the High Priestess, the card marked 2 at the top), a single card worth 3 (3 of Wands, Cups, etc or The Empress—the card marked 3) etc all the way up through ten—so, ten cards allowing a random throw of 1-10, plus some extras. These other cards should be chosen with an eye to making them as consonant with the ideas you want to include in the adventure as possible—if indulgence, passion and drunkenness feature heavily, feature the suit of Cups prominently, if violence and pain, then feature Swords, if money and power are important, use Pentacles, if magic or creativity—Wands. Again, these meanings are detailed in the Host’s section. Note “court” cards—Pages, Knights, Queens and Kings—are worth 10.

-The Horror’s Deck won’t inclde the current Significator Cards of any PC present.

-There’s an example of how to assemble a Horrors’ Deck in the Host section.

The Players’ Deck:

… is made from most of the cards left over after making The Horror’s Deck. As noted above, it should include The Fool unless the Host has decided to put it in the Horror’s Deck, as well as 3 number cards of each value 1-10. The only other cards in the Players’ Deck should be Significator Cards—discussed in a second.

-Even if any of the PC’s Significator Cards are worth 1-10, the Players’ Deck must still include 3 of each value in addition to these cards.

When used in resolving action, The Horror’s Deck has a few kinks:

-The Horror’s Deck will often be unbalanced—a deck including the Wheel of Fortune and the Knight of Swords has at least two tens in it. This is fine—sometimes horrors have an advantage, that’s why they’re horrors.

-The deck may also include cards worth more than 10. These powerful cards are worth face value and count as Critical Successes unless someone throws a higher card.

These cards represents something especally horrific and immediate happening. A blunt and immediate “sting” showing the power of the menace at hand.

Significator Cards:

-When a major challenge is defeated, shuffle the Horror’s Deck and fan it out face down and have each player choose a card. This is their PC’s Significator Card (see below).

-It is possible to meaningfully defeat a hostile NPC without combat (for example, discovering evidence of their guilt and making it public) or meaningfully defeat a foe that isn’t a creature as such (like, say, a complex trap). In both cases, if the achievement is significant, the group should be eligible for a Significator at this point.

-If any of the PCs have a Significator when the deck is fanned out, they lose the old one and it is replaced with the new one. The Players’ Deck must be remade.

-The player notes the new Significator Card on their character sheet and the new Significator Card will be placed in the Players’ Deck next time they play.

-Each Significator has three functions…

+First, as noted above, drawing your PC’s own current Significator counts as a Critical Success if that card also would normally win the contest it’s being drawn for.

+Second, a specific PC reward associated with each card is listed on the endpapers. Once they gain a given Significator, players do not have to wait to draw this card during a throw to use the reward—they can use the reward at any time when the situation described in the reward (“Gain a throw vs Calm loss at the sight of violence or death”) could happen, or, if a specific situation is not described, at any other time it would physically be possible for that thing to occur, including Downtime (see below). Once used this way, however, it’s gone. The connection between PC and Significator Card is no more, the card is crossed off the character sheet, and it’s removed from the Players’ Deck. “Burning” a Significator takes away a PCs chance of Critical Success until the next major menace is defeated, but is often worth it since it allows a PC to seize control of a situation in the moment. And the card will be changed out after the next menace is overcome anyway.

+Third, the Significator is, in occult terms, an actal tarot card that actually was chosen randomly on behalf of the PC. Outside of any mechanical restrictions, The Significators traditional divinatory meanings can guide the player in how they’re going to play their PC, and can guide the Host in what kind of situations they might derive for them. The traditional meanings are easy to find online.

-When it’s time to switching cards, an unusued held card is gone—a PC cannot use the reward from the old card immediately just to hog both benefits.

-The Significator Cards represent chance favoring a PC, not supernatural intervention—the card cannot make something otherwise physically impossible in the game world possible.

-The Host should note down who got what Significator.

Other Uses Of the Tarot Deck:

The Host can use the cards in many other ways:

-Some foes will have specific attacks or effects that activate when a given card or combination is thrown, noted in the Horrors section.

-Cards can be used to generate random NPCs and locations during the adventure, like any other random table. Using cards from the Horror’s Deck ensures a range of results in line with the ideas the Host wants to emphasize in that adventure—like a carefully built Random Encounter Table in a dungeon game that echoes the themes of that dungeon.

-The Host can create specific events that will be triggered when a given card or combination appears in a given situation.

-Supernatural abilities allowing precognition or divination can allow a character to read the Horror’s Deck to gain insight into what is to come—depending on the precise method used, this will allow a general reading (what the cards broadly can imply) or a specific one (what the cards signify in this particular adventure) or both.

Demon City Tarot

Interpreters of the tarot always tell you two things: (1) A discoverable and apparently historically-justified meaning attaches to each card and its placement in the interpretive matrix and it took me years to figure it out, but also (2) interpreting the cards is more art than science so hey whatever. Below is a piece of what the cards mean in Demon City—which has its own uses for meaning.

There are many uses for the cards, including:

1. As throws from the Horror’s and Players’ Decks as well as rewards for PCs resulting defeating horrors (as described in the first section of the book).

2. To create fortunes or precognitive flashes (By showing a PC cards associated with the menace they are currently facing and, in some cases, telling them the significance of it.)

3. To randomly determine characteristics of Contacts or other NPCs (Each card has at least one kind of person associated with it or characteristics of a person).

4. To randomly determine buildings or locations (Each card has at least one kind of location associated with it).

5. To improvise any other situations needed during a session (Once the Host is comfortable with the meanings in their current Horror’s Deck.)

In the case of 4 and 5, you can pull multiple cards to describe something in more detail—The Hierophant and the 8 of Cups together would be a retired priest or an abandoned church.

Additional numbers are provided in parenthesis so that, if necessary, card effects can be rolled up with dice—roll D100 and reroll anything too high.

The information is provided in the order: Character. Location. (Possible other interpretation.) Significator Card reward.


(00) The Fool—A moron, but likable. A small and pale puppy. A sheer drop. A stranger will be kind to you, despite your mistakes.

(1) The Magician—A wizard or liar. A deceptive performance, before a large audience. Avoid a spell, or cast one unerringly.

(2) The High Priestess—A cagey and intuitive woman in a hat. A nurse. A religious hospital. A 12 to perceive unholy forces.

(3) The Empress—A blonde, imperious, dishy. Beauty. A bend in the river. Gain a point of Appeal if you throw a 10 exercising or give up a point of Cash on plastic surgery.

(4) The Emperor—A father, bearded. Entrenched authority. A public building in white marble. Someone will assume you’re an authority figure.

(5) The Hierophant—A religious leader. A grey church. Traditions. A 15 to drive off unholy forces.

(6) The Lovers—An erotically charged relationship. Touching. A good place for hook-ups. An existing Contact finds you irresistible—or add a new one who does, free.

(7) The Chariot—A racer or a driver. A ride, pimped. Any vehicle. A showroom. A 10 to drive well.

(8) Strength—Someone tough. A fierce animal. A place for athletes. A boxing gym. Throw an extra time (just you) when exercising during Downtime and pick the highest.

(9) The Hermit—Isolation and the perspective that comes from isolation. A desolate place. A brutalist parking garage. Led Zeppelin IV. A 10 on a Perception check while alone.

(10) The Wheel of Fortune—A gamble or gambler. A casino, a track or a card game. Cause anyone to rethrow their last throw.

(11) Justice—Someone inclined to fairness. Possibly blind. A police station, a protest, a courtroom, a place where activists meet. An 11 to hit someone who has hurt a friend.

(12) The Hanged Man—Reversal. Inversion. A contrarian or iconoclast. Punished but not punished. A place of execution. A 12 to hit a captor.

(13) Death—Someone who is old and knows it, or something. A graveyard, an ICU, a home for dying people. Double damage on an already damaged foe—won’t work on what’s already dead.

(14) Temperance—A moderate or teetotaler. A bad haircut. Wherever middle-aged couples relax. A vegan restaurant. Throw an extra time if detoxing and pick the best.

(15) The Devil—Undeniably wicked. Any place of enslavement, calculated iniquity or accumulated power. A 15 to hit an enemy, but your friend is hit, too.

(16) The Tower—One who overthrows. A building that is mazelike, high-security, or haunted. A 16 to successfully trespass.

(17) The Star—A celebrity of some kind. Someone or something uncanny, distant. A celebrated place. An alien place. Acquire renown for your work.

(18) The Moon—Someone given to passions. Dark or pale. Animals. Cause a round of panic in an enemy that is hurt or surprised.

(19) The Sun—Very young, but wise. Skin prematurely worn. Leathery. A rooftop in daylight. A greenhouse.  Illumination. A 19 to a Research check.

(20) Judgement—Someone on a panel, or a board, or any judge. A room where great decisions are made. A neutral party with power will agree to help you. 

(21) The World—A foreigner. A global perspective: Little Armenia, Little Jamaica, the airport, Chinatown. Add a free Contact overseas.

(22) Ace of Wands—A beginner, capable.  A redhead. A startup’s office. Throw an extra throw if Working/Training during Downtime and pick the highest.

(23) Two of Wands—Someone with concerns abroad. A waterfront or beach, rapidly developing. Add an extra throw during an Action round when executing a plan you made.

(24) Three of Wands—A brown-haired man. A room with blueprints.The Department of Regional Planning. Gain a point next time you add a new Knowledge-based skill.

(25) Four of Wands—A family member. Normality. A place unchanged for a very long time. Add a throw and pick the highest when visiting family during Downtime.

(26) Five of Wands—An arguer, surrounded by chaos. A fighting ring or debate hall. Lose 1 less damage than you would otherwise in a fight.

(27) Six of Wands—Someone black-haired and proud. A parade or award ceremony. Gain a throw when speaking to a crowd.

(28) Seven of Wands—A fugitive or desperate person.  A small business. A drug front. Gain a throw when facing multiple opponents.

(29) Eight of Wands—Online a lot. A hydro-electric plant. Impersonal forces. Gain a throw working with a machine.

(30) Nine of Wands—A disabled person. An exhaustive collection—archive, museum—nearly complete. Gain a throw during the Action Round after awaking from an injury.

(31) Ten of Wands—A bureaucrat, working too hard. An overburdened government or administrative service. Gain a free government Contact with a 9 in Research.

(32) Page of Wands—An apprentice or enthusiast. A grand opening. A 10 when dealing with any kind of supernatural thing for the first time.

(33) Knight of Wands—A genius in their field. A sentient spell. A place of unharnessed power. Gain 2 points of Paranormal/Occult or gain Paranormal/Occult at Knowledge+1 if you don’t already have it.

(34) Queen of Wands—Voracious, and a total babe. A black cat. A disguised witch. An excellent restaurant. Add a throw when spending Downtime reading—the benefit goes to the entire group.

(35) King of Wands—Successful and admired. A lizard. A necromancer. A source of impeccable, if flamboyant, menswear. Uncover a work of occult knowledge.

(36) Ace of Cups—Acutely sensitive. Preternaturally aware. An impressive fountain. Gain a Contact free.

(37) Two of Cups—Warm and reasonable. A mutual beneficial relationship. A kind woman’s home. An extra throw when spending Downtime with an ally, apply it to everyone.

(38) Three of Cups—Charismatic and not drunk yet. A friendly dive under a place where no-one eats. Succeed on an Appeal throw to meet a stranger.

(39) Four of Cups—Hungover and apathetic. Where people are sleeping off a party—or a bad clinic. Gain a throw vs inebriation.

(40) Five of Cups—A gaunt soul, dark of aspect. A ruin or ruined place. Gain a throw vs Calm Loss at the sight of violence or death.

(41) Six of Cups—A natural victim, paying no attention. An unsuspecting and idyllic place. A carnival. Throw an extra Downtime throw when Being Social.

(42) Seven of Cups—Someone misshapen and delusional. A district of retail luxury. A theme park or retro diner. A 17 on a Deception throw.

(43) Eight of Cups—A retiree or once who has renounced the past. An abandoned place. An 18 to escape.

(44) Nine of Cups—A jerk, smug of aspect. A vast, proud venture, long in the making. A 19 to impress someone.

(45) Ten of Cups—Someone pleased to help. Generosity. A center of LGIB or T life. Receive an unexpected gift that helps with a case.

(46) Page of Cups—A sentimental weirdo. A fondness for seafood. A pleasant wharf. If you get them drunk they’ll tell you everything.

(47) Knight of Cups—A romantic with full lips. A library without windows. A place of breaking glass. A 10 to seduce.

(48) Queen of Cups—A ginger woman with strange possessions. A psychic. An antique shop or prop house. A 10 to discover a rare object.

(49) King of Cups—A wise and wealthy man in elegant footwear. A houseboat or yacht. A 10 to persuade.

(50) Ace of Swords—A tattooed man. A decapitation strike. A busy corner in the center of the city. An 11 to a called shot.

(51) Two of Swords—Dangerously obstinate. Defensiveness. Manslaughter. Deadly ground. A 12 to defend.

(52) Three of Swords—One who complains. A bad tattoo shop. A 13 to a backstab.

(53) Four of Swords—A quiet thinker. A prepared assassin. A mausoleum. An extra throw if attempting to work through Downtime.

(54) Five of Swords—A gloating fiend. A thief and orchestrator of violence. A hub of iniquity. A 15 to commit an unjust act.

(55) Six of Swords—An exhausted traveler. A crossroads. A 15 to negotiate with hostile powers.

(56) Seven of Swords—A petty schemer. A spiteful failure. A business operated as a front. A 17 to steal from someone who likes you.

(57) Eight of Swords—The perfect victim. Kidnapped or compelled. A support group or center for the afflicted. An 18 to convince someone you are sinned against.

(58) Nine of Swords—An insomniac. Shopping from home. A guilty conscience. A bachelor pad with a hand-me-down quilt. A 9 to inflict a head wound.

(59) Ten of Swords—A soon-to-be-corpse—or a corpse. The murder card. The worst neighborhood. A 10 to afflict the already-afflicted.

(60) Page of Swords—Someone playing with fire. A gun shop with inadequate security. Learn a new weapon skill or +2 to an existing one.

(61) Knight of Swords—Quite intentionally an absolute menace. A stabber. A themed pub. A 10 in a fight.

(62) Queen of Swords—A formidable woman. A home with a high fence. A 10 to damage, don’t throw normally.

(63) King of Swords—A very dangerous man. Closed rooms where crimelords meet. A 10 to intimidate.

(64) Ace of Pentacles—Efficient and practical. A place with a strange door. A vacant lot. Establish a new business.

(65) Two of Pentacles—A juggler or a chancer. A playground or ball field. Rethrow a failed Cash check.

(66) Three of Pentacles—A team player. A cathedral or place made of stone. A 13 to a group effort, devoid of violence.

(67) Four of Pentacles—An absurd miser. A roof with a fine view. Greed revealed as only greed. A 14 to grab someone or something.

(68) Five of Pentacles—A battered beggar. A terrible charity. Refusal. A 15 to a Calm Check in the face of suffering.

(69) Six of Pentacles—A charity worker. A distributor of gifts. A Goodwill or Salvation Army. A 16 to persuade a skeptic of good intentions.

(70) Seven of Pentacles—Straightforward and hard working. A quality control officer. A growing business. A 17 to notice financial irregularities.

(71) Eight of Pentacles—One practiced in their craft. A place with a prominent public sign. An 18 to apply an Occupational skill.

(72) Nine of Pentacles—A prospering dork. A golden garden. A bird of prey. Leisure. Gain the trust of an ordinary animal.

(73) Ten of Pentacles—A member of a powerful family. Thin white hounds. A vast estate. Undo a Cash loss.

(74) Page of Pentacles—A neophyte schemer. A university campus. Gain a point of Cash.

(75) Knight of Pentacles—A hustler. A summoned thing. A sketchy lawyer. A club with a dark reputation. Gain a Criminal contact with a 9 in Streetwise and Local Knowledge.

(76) Queen of Pentacles—A woman, rich and slow-moving. A sad stone monument. Regain a point of Calm.

(77) King of Pentacles—A man of ill-gotten wealth and dubious taste. An enormous mall. Move to an amazing apartment downtown, above your means.

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Monday, July 23, 2018

A Bad Baby

Several of the Demon City stretch goals have been unlocked, including a whole handful of horrible Filipino monsters from new OSR hotness Mabel Harper, here's one hot off the press, not yet edited or illustrated:

There are quiet parts of a city, far from the commercial zoning, expensive shops, and tourist traps, where the sounds of construction and honking cars and spitting, sneering people are distant echoes--those neighborhoods with abandoned pharmacies, rundown churches on every corner, and colorful graffiti decorating condemned architecture. Sometimes in these places, a baby cries in a dark alleyway. The cries naturally beckon gentle souls to the source; when they arrive, they find a child, small and terrified and alone.

The infant often looks a lot like the person who comes to the rescue. Same skin color and color of the eyes. Sometimes even facial features. The familiarity breeds further goodwill. It’s by design.

When the Good Samaritan picks up the child, the illusion dissipates. The child--no, no, the thing--transforms. The metamorphosis is sickening: bones lengthen and pop into place, flesh grows taut over a bestial visage, and pale, bloodstained fur sprouts over the soft baby skin. The resulting monster is much larger than the victim, and it will devour them.

This is the Tiyanak, a corrupted dead infant who seeks to destroy the good and caring people in this world. Despite what some say, abortions do not give rise to the Tiyanak; rather, its fate is woven by cruelty and carelessness, especially of the ones who should have shown the child care. The infant died young and violently, without a name or a proper burial. Feeling embittered at their fate, without an identity to anchor them, their ghost is reborn as a monstrous spirit to enact petty, violent vengeance against those who would show them kindness. Transference at its bloodiest.

There is only one thing that can end the Tiyanak’s reign of terror: the original infant corpse must be located, correctly identified and named by the closest living relative, and finally given a burial. Only then will the restless, vengeful spirit transform back into a mournful little ghost and continue on its way to peaceful oblivion.

Design Notes:

An adventure featuring a Tiyanak is about identification. During the PCs’ investigation, the story of its violent past must be discovered, and either the original perpetrator of the abuse that killed it or a relative of theirs must be tracked down and forced to confront the truth of their transgression. Given that humans are not often willing to confront their own wrongs (the power of denial is strong), this usually isn’t as easy as just tracking down whoever can put the baby to rest. The PCs must also convince them that it’s their responsibility to do penance. This will be difficult, especially if the parent directly responsible for the infant’s death is still alive and is therefore the only person able to stop the Tiyanak.

Calm: 3
Agility: 5
Toughness: 8
Perception: 4
Appeal: 4
Cash: 0
Knowledge: 0

Calm Check: 8
Cards: The Fool, Ten of Cups

Special abilities:

Devouring Maw: In its true form, the Tiyanak’s maw is filled with hundreds of razor-sharp teeth and can open wide enough to swallow most humans. A successful attack inflicts standard damage and grapples the target. A creature of any size may be eventually swallowed this way.
Infant Cry: When in infant form, the Tiyanak’s cry beckons kind-hearted souls to it. NPCs cannot resist, but PCs aware of the vengeance spirit’s ways may resist by making a Calm check against an intensity equal to the Tiyanak’s Appeal.

Invulnerability: The Tiyanak can be harmed by ordinary weapons, but it cannot be slain by them. If defeated, it will simply dematerialize until the next night, when it will return in perfect health.

Manifestation: The Tiyanak appears near potential victims after the sun goes down, often in lonely alleyways, but really in any place in the dark far away from crowds and a lot of noise. After manifesting, it must move normally and will disappear before sunrise.

Shapeshift: The Tiyanak may take the form of an infant no older than twelve months old. The infant’s appearance may reflect similarities such as skin, hair, eye color, or even facial structure to the approaching victim. The Tiyanak may also take the form of a black bird. It may use this ability to flee or locate potential victims.


The holy symbols of any faith cause the Tiyanak to make a Calm check or flee until said symbols are out of sight. The intensity of the Calm check is equal to the degree of fervor of whoever is wielding it (1-9). In the case of an incidentally encountered symbol (a glimpsed church steeple, for instance), the intensity is 2.

Touching a holy symbol, including holy water, does damage to the Tiyanak as an ordinary physical attack.
If one wears their clothes inside out, the Tiyanak’s cursed infant cry will not attract them.

After the Tiyanak is given a name, but before its original corpse is buried (and therefore laid to rest), the Tiyanak becomes frightened when its true name is used. The monster must make a successful Calm check against the speaker’s Calm each round, or flee.
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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Relevant Retropost Sunday: "A" Monsters Suck

Newer readers may not know that I went through every single page of the Monster Manual and talked about the creatures in order. They're under this tag. Here's the first one:

I was looking through the AD&D Monster Manual and was struck forcefully with the following insight: monsters that start with "A" suck.

Aerial servant

Invisible? Boring.
Air elemental? Boring.
Summoned by clerics? Boring.
Here's the only good part: "If the aerial servant is frustrated from completion ["frustrated from completion"?] of its assigned mission it becomes insane, returns to the cleric which sent it forth, and attacks as a double strength invisible stalker."
Let's not mention how invisible stalkers are also boring.


This is one of those rare Gygax-invented monsters that gets absolutely no love from anyone. Nobody likes them, nobody hates them, nobody thinks they're funny, they're just one more giant bug. Being a big M John Harrison fan I have a soft spot for insects in medieval settings and still just can't bring myself to write "d4 ankhegs here" on a map. I think it's the name. Sounds like a verification word.

Ant, Giant

Within the insect-and-arthropod community, I'm pretty sure "ant" is synonymous with "square". As in, there's a bunch of wasps, spiders, flies, and cockroaches hanging out and they're like "Come onnnn, man, roooadtrip!"
"Awww, I don't know, Jimmy."
"Ok, man, look: you can crawl up into the van and come with us and have a blast seeing the world, or you can put on your tie, and go to work, and do whatever the Queen says, like some fucking ant."
"Awww, Jimmy..."

ApeGorilla, and Carnivorous

My theory is: there are Ape People and there are Monkey People. Monkey people like monkeys because they are funny. Also, they are creepy, clever, and decadent. The perverted elf princess in the silk-swathed tower made of jasmine and murder has a pet monkey--for sure.

Ape People are different: ape people tend to be fans of what I call "hairy" entertainment: Conan movies, Jack Kirby Comics, Zardoz, Planet of the Apes (naturally), these:

For these people, King Kong actually had a shot against Godzilla, and the giant ape is the finest monster of which one could ever hope to dream.

I confess to being more of a pretentious, scheming Monkey Person than a fun-loving, good-hearted Ape Guy, so the idea of asking a wizard to take time out of his or her busy schedule just to deal with some fucking gorilla just seems basically disrespectful. Though I will say that this thing is awesome:

Axe Beak

Does anyone care about the axe beak? Ok, didn't think so...

Ok, so, see? The A's are hopeless. If you go beyond the Monster Manual, the only other "A" monster that ever got any traction is the Aboleth.


These were supposed to be sort of creepy Lovecraftian menaces from the deep. But if you never read Lovecraft when you first got ahold of the Monster Manual 2 because you were a little kid at the time then this is just like a really fucked up whale that hates you.

If it wasn't a classic, like a dragon or a hydra, then you pretty much had only the illustration to go by to figure out what the fuck is the idea with a monster.

Strangely enough, I am right back in this position with my players now. This is how meeting an aboleth would go with my group:

Me: "...and it looks...like...this!"
KK: "What the fuck is that?"
Me: "It's an aboleth, an ancient and inscrutable race that lives deep beneath the sea, older than man, older than the tides, older than the gods, older than...."
Mandy: "So it's like a Lovecraft thing?"
Frankie: "What's a Lovecraft thing?"
Daniel: "He was like this science fiction writer who wrote about, like, big monsters that looked like that."
KK: "So it's like a space fish that's old?"
Connie: "Can I pickpocket it?"
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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Relevant Retropost Saturday: Ideas vs Tools

Ok, in looking at RPG stuffs: there's ideas and there's tools.

Ideas are like "Ok, it's like a sphere with a big eye and an evil little mouth and a bunch of eyestalks and all the eyes have different magic powers and I call it a Beholder".

Tools are like "Here's a way to generate 18 dungeon rooms complete with contents at once".

You judge ideas on whether you could have thought of them yourself and like them.

Tools don't have to have things you wouldn't have thought of yourself, they just have to organize and present lots of ideas (original or old) quickly and/or conveniently so you can build other things with them.

Both are great, naturally. But when people talk about RPG stuff they often talk past each other because one person's judging a thing's ideas and another person is judging the tools.

Some examples:

The AD&D DMG is fantastic for ideas. But while it has a lot of tools in it, they're hard to find and have been superceded by other stuff.

Retroclones, as tools, are frequently better than the original D&Ds they clone.

Products detailing tons of hexes, like the Wilderlands and Carcosa, are pretty sparse in the ratio of ideas-to-pages, but they're meant to be, they're tools for endlessly recombining a relatively short list of moving parts to create an environment.

Published modules have always kinda disappointed me on the idea front but people often defend them as tools. I find they often take longer to prep than it'd take me to write my own thing, so they fall down as tools as well.

The Monster Manual was fantastic as both. Deities and Demigods was all ideas and no tools (at least until now).

Rifts is better than most games for ideas, it's a disaster for tools.

My favorite RPG books, Realms of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness and Lost and the Damned, are mediocre tools (I rarely consult them) but bursting with ideas.

Ideas are more glamorous, but once you get them you don't need the book they came in any more. Tools are no fun to read but you can use them forever.

Random tables can be either....
You can have a Random Weather Table which is all weird stuff (rain of frogs, etc) or just interesting mechanical ways to express the effects of rain, wind, etc.--that is, a table of ideas, or you can have a Random Weather Table that's just totally realistic for a given place--that's a tool. Or, of course, you can have one with both.
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Friday, July 20, 2018

What's a Game Text Do? Why are we playing? What went wrong? PIG-PIP 2

Part two of a theory of RPGs.

Part one here.
Part three here.

20. What Does A Game Text Do?

A game text is a nonliving and static participant in play.

("Static" barring releases of errata and, like, answers from the author in venues like Dragon mag back in the day or Twitter now. The text has some dynamism, it's still way slower than a player or GM.)

The text consists of a series of suggestions about goals to be pursued and procedures to be followed in the game session, usually along with an argument for pursuing those goals and following those procedures.

For example, if the art in a game shows someone in chainmail cutting up an owlbear that's both a suggestion (try to set up situations like this when you run your game) and an argument (it'll be fun if you set up this situation, following the rules here will help you set up this situation, etc).

21. About Fun

"Fun" is a shorthand expression. Really what we usually mean is "an experience the living participant finds desirable" which covers slightly more territory, including the possibility of cathartic experiences.

For example, everything we're talking about should apply to the person who left this comment on the last entry:

I think you'll need to say a lot about what you mean by fun. Depending on what you figure out you might need to justify it as the focus of your investigation. Because you need to accommodate some really diverse roleplaying experiences that we should deem successful, but don't seem to involve fun as we normally think about it.

For example: I normally play pretty standard dnd, but my favorite rpg experience was in a really constrained story game (A Walk in Winter Wood) and it was genuinely terrifying. There was no part of it that was pleasant---no jokes, moments of low tension, nothing. Just stress. I was terribly uncomfortable (but of course I was at least comfortable with the level of discomfort I was in. Or I was willing to undergo that much discomfort for the experience. Dunno how to phrase it.).

Anyway that experience was great because it touched on true horror and evoked real feeling. I don't know where fun enters in this analysis.

More narrowly, fun is sometimes used casually to refer to light-hearted kinds of desired experiences ("It's just a fun movie" etc) often connoting, in a game context, a relatively permissive game ("It was Pendragon but I broke the rules and played a horse because, hey, fun's fun"). Just noting that here because sometimes discussion gets confused because people are using different definitions.

22. Broad Goal of Play

To distribute the maximum experiences-found-desirable to the living players.

Jargon notes: If you just go "desirable experiences" then you have the silly problem where someone undergoes an experience someone else desires but doesn't like it. Like a vegetarian eating a cheeseburger is having an experience that is "able to be desired", so "desirable" (I like cheeseburgers) but not by them. That's the important part: the person gets a thing they liked.

Also note it's not necessarily desired experience past tense: the person doesn't have to get what they expected to get, only something that, once gotten, was liked.

23. Narrow Goal of Play

While it's all fine and good to say the goal of play is to distribute maximum fun (etc) experiences, practically speaking, planned leisure experiences always involve imagining a specific kind of desired experience ("let's go bowling it will be loud and convivial and there'll be melted cheese" "let's curl up on the couch and watch Antiques Roadshow it'll be cozy and chill")  and then, as it were, carving life down until it is sharp enough to penetrate the force field of boredom or the other foes of leisure from a very specific angle. One does not just throw unrelated fun-suggestions against the wall of Fort Boredom and hope one makes it through.

The game text argues not just for the desirability of experiences but for a specific kind of experience. This is where we can talk about the "desired experience": What you went in expecting and wanting.

For example: Procedures and advice for a horror game and for a comedy game have the same broad goal (22) and very different narrow goals.

24. Observation on Evaluating Game Texts

A lot of digital ink has gotten spilled over whether a game is "well-designed" or "poorly-designed" in arguments between people who are talking past each other because one is describing a failure to hit a purported Narrow Goal of Play (common phrases you'll hear: "but it failed because it was advertised as...", "but it failed because the author's intent was..." etc) and the other is describing a success in hitting the Broad Goal of Play.

A common iteration of this argument is about whether D&D or a version of it succeeds because people like it (often over all other experienced options) or a failure because the illustrations and ads suggest the Narrow Goal of Play is epic fantasy but actual play can be more like serial pulp or picaresque fantasy or just bathetic.

25. Observation on Game Communities

People (the game's living participants) are influenced by-, and in some cases arguably products of-, communities. Communities have norms, ranging from use of language ("dual-wield" is a gamerism, not a military-historical way of referring to two-handed weapon fighting) to procedural assumptions ("GM is always right"). As soon as a game involves more than one person, gaming can never exist outside of some kind of cultural assumptions (even if they are so limited as "What language do we use when we play?").

Cultural assumptions are thus very close to a "participant" (though technically: "a characteristic that participants have in common") and can and should be analyzed with the same scrutiny one analyzes the game text or individual player behavior when asking what went wrong or what went right in a game.

26. Practical Consideration for Game Texts About Community Assumptions


a) There are far fewer game communities than gamers
b) The author of a game text is far more likely to be familiar with the assumptions of game communities than individual gamers,
c) Assumptions in these communities vary widely, and
d) These assumptions can affect how the text's suggestions are interpreted

...it is desirable for a game text to, all other considerations being equal, communicate as much about how the suggestions inside interact with different communal assumptions as possible.

27. Limit on 26

There are few assumptions so bizarre that some gamer community on the internet somewhere does not hold them (including: you don't have to read the text to run the game and then decide it doesn't work), therefore there is a practical limit on the ability of any text to communicate every single aspect of how it interacts with communal assumptions.

A game text that spends time addressing each of the infinite ways communities could misconstrue it will eventually become so difficult to read (ie uncharismatic) that it works against its purpose of effectively providing suggestions for play.

28. Post-Game Analysis

A PIG-PIP analysis of a game session would consist of:

-Listing the participants (including players, texts, and other paraphernalia used)
-Describing specific contributions made by specific participants, with an eye specifically toward contributions that were atypical or different from contributions made in a game session that had a different outcome--like if trying to figure out why a session failed, look at how it was different than a similar one that succeeded and vice versa.
-Looking for "chemistry effects"--that is, interactions between participants whose result was complex or unusual. This is by far the most difficult part.

A good analysis might examine things like the interaction between GM and text (how many of the text's suggestions were thrown out or altered, which ones were sed) player and text (which of the rules did the players engage especially, including spells, items, feats, etc) player and player (were they interpersonally helpful or disruptive to some players more than others) etc.

One tool would be a Punnet-squarish matrix like this: http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2011/03/zaks-ez-adventure-making-chart_30.html

Part three is here.

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