Thursday, May 15, 2014

ACKS Variant Clerics - Deities

Been thinking about deities.  Sort of want to keep the Old-Testamenty feel of the original cleric, without the same deity.  So!  Terribly-misappropriated-and-somewhat-modified deities of the Old Near East.
  • Astarte (Ishtar+Artemis+Hecate+Eris)
    • Cosmological domain: Earth
    • Spheres of influence: Love, fertility, sex, wilderness, the hunt, fey magic, feminine wiles.
    • Epithets: The Elf-Mother, The Pale Goddess, The Insatiable One, Queen of the Cats, She-Who-Chases
    • Alignment: Neutral-leaning-good-side-of-chaotic; strife-inducing, life-giving, lustful chaos, along with capricious predation.  Doesn't bear any particular ill-will towards mankind, though they are sometimes a convenient prey species.
    • Natural disasters: Plague of rodents, plague of birth defects, predation of livestock
    • Curses: Impotence, syphilis, leothropy, wild magic
    • Smiting: Transform into antelope, goat, or other prey animal, castration
    • Blessings: Fertility, good health, stealth, good aim, good hunting, navigation
    • Gifts: Extended lifespan, bewitched chariot, magic bow and arrows, spellbooks and scrolls (usually enchantment or healing)
    • Favored people: Elves; sprang fully formed from her womb, first to walk the world
    • Worshippers: Amazons, witches, explorers, prostitutes
    • Servants: Ents, animal spirits, sabre-toothed tigers
    • Messengers: Wild ungulates, monkeys, housecats 
    • Shrine locations: Hunter's lodges, whorehouses
    • Holy places: Peaceful glades, game trails
    • Preferred sacrifices: Wild animals taken in the hunt, lovers of priestesses
    • Symbols: Pouncing leopard and leaping antelope in circle
    • Festival: Spring ('bring life back to the world')
  • Dagnu (Dagon) 
    • Cosmological domain: Sea
    • Spheres of influence: Fish, bounty, growth, luck, change.
    • Epithets: The Hungry Tide, The Waiting Serpent
    • Alignment: Chaotic; primal, capricious, scaly, deep and ravenous, but patient as only a creature of the ancient depths can be.
    • Natural disasters: Tsunami, flooding, rain of frogs, rain of whales
    • Curses: Rabies, scurvy, seasickness
    • Smiting: Turned to pillar of salt, turned into fish, rapid hypertrophy and subsequent explosion, lungs to gills
    • Blessings: Water breathing, scaled skin, growth and strength, aid of sea creatures, abundant crops and fisheries
    • Gifts: Supernatural ship, magic trident, magic net, magic cloak that turns you into a fish on command
    • Favored people: Merfolk, Thrassians (an old scaly god, Dagnu is...  from his depths the Thrassians once crawled)
    • Worshippers: Sailors, fishermen, thieves.
    • Servants: Sea serpents, water spirits
    • Messengers: Small lizards, dripping water
    • Shrine locations: Below high-tide mark (made of driftwood), on bridges
    • Holy places: Tidal bores, sea caves
    • Preferred sacrifices: Heads, skin, guts, and bones of caught fish, drowned virgins and goats (tied to shrines at low tide), fishermen overboard
    • Symbol: Sea serpents entwined around trident
    • Festival: Autumn ('for bountiful harvest') 
  • Hadad (Baal)
    • Cosmological domain: Sky
    • Spheres of influence: Thunder, rain, wind, war, horses.
    • Epithet: The Thundering Hooves, The Carrion-Feaster, Lord of Battle
    • Alignment: Neutral; a patron of conquerors, a builder of empires, but not a preserver thereof.  A god of the song of steel and saddle, and prone to stir up rebellion in times of peace, lest his children grow soft and unmanly.
    • Natural disasters: Tornado, drought, lightning storm, hail
    • Curses: Cowardice, haemophilia, berserker, feared by horses, harried by ravens
    • Smiting: Lightning from a clear sky, carried off by a roc or tornado
    • Blessings: Courage, skill at arms, good weather, good luck on campaign, battle-wisdom
    • Gifts: Magic weapons, magic horns and banners, supernatural steeds, cloak of feathers that transforms you into eagle on command
    • Favored people: Humans; born of union with Astarte
    • Worshippers: Barbarians, nobility, farmers
    • Servants: Rocs, winged men, air elementals
    • Messengers: Eagles, hawks, ravens, whispering breezes, howling winds 
    • Shrine locations: Along roads, mobile yurt-shrines
    • Holy places: Isolated mountain peaks, rookeries, old battlefields
    • Preferred sacrifices: Livestock and dying warriors offered to the buzzards, a conquered enemy
    • Symbols: Eagle with lightning bolt in talons, griffon
    • Festival: Summer ('bring us victory on campaign')
  • Kothar (Kothar-wa-Khasis, Haephastus, Prometheus)
    • Cosmological domain: Sun/fire; every day cast out of sky for his ugliness and presumption to create the dwarves.  Volcanos are where he has landed, the magma his blood, and gems his teeth.
    • Spheres of influence: Invention, crafts, treasures, learning.
    • Epithet: The Crippled Smith, The Illuminating Architect, The Law-Giver
    • Alignment: Lawful; encourages the creation of lasting and beautiful works, though sometimes envious of his children's greatest successes.
    • Natural disasters: Earthquake, volcano, rain of fire and brimstone, wildfire
    • Curses: Lameness, feeblemindedness, insanity
    • Smiting: Spontaneous combustion, petrification
    • Blessings: Astuteness, protection from fire, endurance, tool-blessing
    • Gifts: Automaton servants, magic armor, inspiration (often to spell-invention in transmutation or evocation), instant fortress
    • Favored people: Dwarves; carved them from stone in shameful mimicry of the elves, for desire of Astarte and children of his own.  For all his skill, he was doomed to create life in his own image.
    • Worshippers: Smiths, armorers, inventors, scribes, engineers
    • Servants: Golems, salamanders, fire and stone spirits
    • Messengers: Badgers, bees, visions in flames
    • Shrine locations: Forges, armories, gates
    • Holy places: Volcanic gas vents, magma flows
    • Preferred sacrifices: Masterful works of art thrown into magma flows, burnt offerings of mountain goat
    • Symbols: A smoking mountain, a tower
    • Festival: Winter ('bring warmth to us in these dark days')
  • Melek (Moloch) 
    • Cosmological domain: Civilization, cities
    • Spheres of influence: Trade, bargain, oaths, sacrifice, just desserts, dark deals, unpleasant truths, necessity.
    • Epithet: The Honest Demon, The Laughing Master, The Damning Savior
    • Alignment: Neutral-to-evil-side-of-lawful; subsists on civilization, patron of its vices.  He is the darkness in the alley, the coins pressed into the magistrate's palm, and the monkey's-paw-salesman.  He keeps his word, often to the detriment of his petitioners.
    • Natural disasters: Plague, rain of blood and sewage, transmutation of local coinage to lead
    • Curses: Leprosy, death mark, swindling
    • Smiting: Possession by evil spirit, delivery into the hands of an enemy
    • Blessings: Protection from evil spirits, good luck in trade, protection from disease
    • Gifts: Secret knowledge (often spellbooks or scrolls, typically illusion, divination, necromancy, or summoning), magic knives, ring of invisibility
    • Favored people: Zaharans?  Ratmen?  Products of civilized decadence, lately blights upon the face of the world.
    • Worshippers: Merchants, assassins, warlocks, desperate men
    • Servants: Shadowbeasts, doppelgangers, invisible stalkers 
    • Messengers: Shadows, imps, speaking coins, speaking rats
    • Shrine locations: West end of market square, hall of justice
    • Holy places: Darkened sanctums of opulent temples in major cities
    • Preferred sacrifices: A firstborn child, a man's honor, a secret unknown to any other living soul
    • Symbol: Horned demon with toothy mouth holding a bowl of fire in one hand and merchant's scales in the other (gemstone eyes optional)
    • Festivals: Ghost Dance in autumn, major market fairs in summer
I think I could write spell lists / alternate clerics for these, and five feels like right about the right number of major deities.  These are deities for a young world, where wilderness is dangerous and civilization more so, where barbarian hordes thunder down upon civilized river valleys from the steppe, where sea-travel is fraught with peril, where law and virtue are rare gems and seem never to last...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

ACKS Postmortem Eleventy-One: Wilderness Encounters

Tim and I were discussing the turnaround time on ACKS adventures - the time gap (in real life) from when you realize you're done in the dungeon and it's time to go home to when you're back at the mouth of the dungeon ready to kick some butt again.  Tim opined that the turnaround time was long and painful after a crappy run with little treasure, and this was certainly a valid complaint; being chased by goblins all the way home is somewhat exciting when you have treasure to show for it, but rather disheartening when all of your encumbrance is used just carrying the bodies of the fallen.  But Tim aimed this complaint at ACKS, arguing that it is a systemic flaw - this I think is incorrect.  No, the long turnaround was a result of an error in my worldbuilding, and in our reading of the wilderness encounter rules.

Several errors, actually.

First and foremost: putting the dungeon(s) several six-mile hexes from town.  I recall it being something like a day's hike each way.  One consequence of this design was that anyone who came down with a mortal wound that needed healing within a day was probably screwed; you weren't going to be able to get them back to town in time, so it came down to party resources, which were typically lacking on the healing front.  A "raise to 1 HP within a day" wound was just about as deadly as a "raise to 1 HP within a minute" wound.  A second consequence of this design was that you were likely to get a wilderness encounter either on the way out or on the way back.  For low-level parties, this is bas news.  These dungeons were aimed at 3rd-5th level parties, who might've had enough resources to win a hard wilderness fight, but not to then follow it up with a successful dungeoncrawl.  As a result, wilderness encounters on the way out were likely to result in calling off the expedition (and then having to do turnaround again), while wilderness encounters on the way home were liable to result in TPKs (never actually happened, but there were a couple that definitely could've gone that way without some clever lateral thinking by players).

The random encounter problem could've been ameliorated if I hadn't made another pair of errors, though.  One of these was a worldbuilding error, the other a rules comprehension / inference error.  I wanted most of the campaign area to be borderlands, for flavor purposes.  As a result, I mucked with the concentric rings of civilization around the large towns out away from the rivers and coast, houserules that they generated borderlands rather than civilization.  This resulted in rolls not on the relatively-merciful Civilized wilderness encounter table (which is mostly humans), but instead on Desert, Hills, and Swamp tables, which are mostly orcs and purple worms and wyverns and such.  As a result, the individual wilderness encounters were more deadly than they should've been, given the proximity to town (though it was pretty funny when they lured the wyverns and giant scorpions into crossbow-shot of the city walls for the militia to deal with).

The rules-comprehension error related to the frequency of wilderness encounters in civilized terrain.  This one is sort of ACKS' fault; as Alex has explained on the autarch forum, it's technically covered under the domain rules for monsters wandering into wizard-built dungeons.  It's not the easiest-to-find place.  But!  Now we know, that in cizilized terrain you only roll once a month, in borderlands once a week, and in wilderness either once a day or once per hex travelled.  So we were really overdoing wilderness encounters, even for borderlands.  I think that borderlands would've been survivable with their usual encounter tables, provided that encounter frequency was a factor of seven lower and based on time travelled rather than distance.

Rather than a third-level party meeting an army of skeletons on their way to their first dungeoncrawl, and a pair of fire giants on the way back, you're supposed to start within the bubble of relative safety surrounding town, making expeditions to nearby dungeons, and only starting travel outside of civilized / borderlands regions when you're high enough level to deal with the threats inherent in those regions.  At wilderness level, I'm not sure there's a good way to avoid turnaround time as a factor in play; dangerous travel is the name of the wilderness game, and such dangerous travel is inconsistent with reducing time from retreat to reentry of the dungeon.  But I think that's OK; just another "play changes over level" sort of thing.  By the mid-levels, you don't need to rely on town as heavily anyway.  You have the cash to bring healers with you; after all, you were going to bring mercenaries to guard the horses, so why not just add some medics as well?  You have Create Food and Create Water, so you can reduce the amount of supplies you need to carry per day and perhaps live off divine favor indefinitely for a small party in dire straits (also Tim - this is your fast-mode ACKS.  Create Food and Water, Teleport, and similar spells that just cut out the annoying bits).  You can bring a portable shrine for your cleric who can cast Restore Life and Limb.  This is starting to look more like an armed camp outside the dungeon than leaving a handful of men-at-arms standing in the open with your mounts, isn't it?  If it's a big dungeon and you're going to be back, it might make sense to build some more durable fortifications than basic trenches; the mercenaries were complaining about sleeping in the mud anyway.  And if you're there long enough and doing construction, you're going to need a reliable food and labor supply.  And the mercenaries are grouching about lack of women and booze again...  Wait, the lizardmen from the next valley over have been stealing our tavern wenches?  Unacceptable!  We better go take them out.  Maybe clear out the spiders that have been eating out cows too...  Oh crap, the dungeon's tapped out.  Well, I guess we could tell everyone to go home...  or charge them money to stay?  That's ridiculous, Thief, but just so ridiculous that it might work!  And so a domain is born.  A party-shared domain.

But I digress.  In summary - as I have said before, the things that went wrong with my ACKS game of 2012-13 were largely my own fault.  I also recant of this post - turns out surviving in ACKSworld is a lot easier than we thought, as long as you stay near population centers.

Monday, May 5, 2014

ACKS: Variant Clerics

The other day Beedo was talking on the ACKS forum about cleric variants.  This is a topic which is relevant to my interests, but Beedo and I didn't quite agree on what was desirable in a variant cleric.  While most of mine have been modified primarily in weapons, armor, and proficiencies with small tweaks to the spell lists, Beedo was looking mainly for spell list rebuilds with small or no variation in the cleric core, and he was curious why few divine classes of this form exist in the ACKS blogosphere.  I believe that this is because the divine spell list for ACKS, even with the Player's Companion, is remains confined to two main themes: the traditional sunlight-healing-fire Old Testament cleric list (including most Priestess and Bladedancer exclusive spells), and the more woodsy spells brought in for the Shaman and Witch.  The reason we're not seeing significantly different divine spell lists is that divine spells outside of those areas don't exist.

...  yet.

(Also, because balancing divine spell lists is a tricky and sometimes contentious thing)

So!  If I were to build some cleric variants, complete with heavy spell list modification, what would I build?  My players have shown some affection for knowledge-focused deities (Thoth, Volgrim, Odin?), which is unsurprising given that most of my players are engineers of some sort.  Thor is a perennial favorite of gamers, and also offers a nice selection of well-known miracles to provide as spells (really the problem with custom spell lists is the high-level stuff; low-level clerics are liable to look somewhat similar across faiths, but it's the mid-high level Insect Plagues and Snakes to Sticks and Flame Strikes and whatnot that get a bit dubious).  He's also reasonably close to the default cleric thematically, though.  My father tends to strongly favor travel clerics whenever such an option is available (Ffarlaghn, Yaris, Hermes?).  I for one would also like to see a deity of death and chaos or two, for use as opposition.

...  and there I just lost half an hour reading wikipedia on the Greek pantheon, narrowing down to Hephaestus, the Kabeiroi, and Kothar-wa-Kasis.  Spells another night.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

On the Dungeon Dimensions

So I read The Colour of Magic this morning, and was struck by a wonderful line about "the dungeon dimensions", which I am unfortunately unable to find at the moment (a hazard of reading novels in one sitting, and in paper).  But, disregarding any Discworld canon that I have yet to read, I find the term inspiring for de-megadungeoning the Mythic Underworld dungeon.  This is useful to me, since I have realized that megadungeons are significantly more difficult to put together than small dungeons.

So, the Dungeon Dimensions are an infinite collection of naturally-occurring hostile pocket universes.  Any door in a sinkhole of evil (an area infused with evil magic as the result of corruption) may naturally become a portal to a Dungeon Dimension.  Dungeon Dimensions are often thematically associated with the cause of the sinkhole;  a sinkhole resulting from human sacrifices to the spider goddess will tend to yield portals to dungeon dimensions containing spiders both mundane and supernatural, as well as other servants of the goddess.  Such denizens are spontaneously generated from the matter of the dimension and the souls of those sacrificed to the deity, demon lord, or other power responsible for the dimension.  If the sinkhole is cleansed, the portals close, but the dimension remains, and should another portal appear due to a similar cause, it may be reachable again.

Internally, each dungeon dimension is basically what we'd think of as a dungeon level.  These might be more to it outside the area reachable from the portal, but the potential infinitude of a dungeonesque can be ignored unless the PCs start bringing pickaxes and passwalls into the dimension.  The walls between segments of the dimension might be passable to certain denizens, or there might be a cosmological reason that no reachable segment of a dungeon dimension can be larger than a sheet of graph paper, or dungeon dimensions might be able to contain portals to other segments or dimensions entirely.  Such a structure would lend itself very nicely to a node-based megadungeon, and given that the portal network might change over time (as new areas are shadowed and old sinkholes cleansed, or as dark powers change things up out of malice and caprice), the addition of new portals between dungeon dimensions is readily explained.

Adventure possibilities:
  • A portal to a dungeon dimension has opened in an innocent tavernkeeper's cellars.  Clearly evil forces are at work nearby in town...  but where?  The dungeoncrawl takes on an air of investigation; what are the trappings and symbols present in the dimension?  Can they be used to locate the source of the portal?
  • An ancient evil is imprisoned in a dungeon dimension, and an evildoer seeks to open a portal to the particular segment where the ancient evil is to be found, in order to consult it, release it upon the world, or what-have-you.  Unfortunately, he's not sure of quite the right set of atrocities to get the segment he wants, so he's proceeding experimentally...
  • An fabled or important treasure has been lost in a dungeon dimension.  If they seek to retrieve it, the PCs will either need to find or create a portal to it. Either approach is likely to entail occult research, to locate a site terrible enough or a group known to create that manner of portals, or in order to learn how to create such a portal oneself.
  • A dungeon dimension with portals in known locations might be used as a means of perilous rapid transit.  Mines of Moria, extraplanar edition.
  • Cultists of one dark deity undertake the rites of another to open a portal to the dimensions of an enemy deity, in order to sack them.  This throws the detectives off.
  • An evil organization is using a heavily-fortified dungeon dimension as a base of operations.  At low levels, the party fights cells trying to open portals in new areas to expand the organization's influence.  At mid-levels, they raid bases with active portals, and must deactivate the portal before reinforcements can be summoned or arrive.  At high levels, they storm the dimension itself.
  • An irritatingly persistent portal in a local graveyard opens of its own accord during the last new moon of each year.  The locals know to stay in on those nights, but the PCs might not (or they might go seeking).  Perhaps they can close the portal once and for all.
Reasons I like this idea:
  • I like the idea of the mythic underworld dungeon, where monsters spontaneously generate, the doors are malicious, and the geometry is messed up, but I dislike the singularity of it.  This approach changes the portal from The Gates of Hell to one of many gates to a tiny slice of an infinitude of hells.  Sort of a DCC way to look at it.
  • I also like the idea of the interplanar campaign a la Planescape or Magic the Gathering, but I have enough trouble mapping one universe at continent-scale, nevermind multiple.  By providing pocket dimensions or segmenting infinite dimensions, I can keep things at comprehensible and preparable scales.  Also provides a good stepping-off point to further extraplanar adventure; the Dungeon Dimensions might be easy to reach from the Prime, but they needn't be the only other dimensions in the multiverse.
  • My dungeons are entirely too believable.  Sometimes I include plumbing for cromsake (sometimes that plumbing is relevant to the game when it is full of green slime).  This approach liberates me from the shackles of naturalism while also not really changing much else.
    • Allows very nicely for dungeons in urban environments without interfering with the sewer system.
    • I like themed dungeons but have a hard time reconciling them with my naturalist sensibilities.
  • Reusability.  When the door to the dungeon moves and the population reinforces itself even while the dimension is sealed, a segment could be reused in a completely different overworld context.