RPG aids


Recent conflicts in Iron Kingdoms (which culminated in my character’s necessary death) have introduced me to the fascinating problem of feat point budgets, and methods for estimating the optimal use of feat points. Basically in Iron Kingdoms every PC has three feat points (in Warhammer 3rd Edition these would be fortune points; I think many games have this system). Feat points can be used to boost attacks or damage (or for various other tasks), and in the case of trollkin for regeneration. They are regained through rolling criticals or killing enemies or through GM fiat. Thus expending a feat point to kill someone can be cost free. But you only have three, so expending them too early or in an inefficient way can be catastrophic (as my party discovered, to Carlass’s great cost!) So it’s important to decide where to spend them.

The combat system in Iron Kingdoms is very simple:

  • Attack: roll 2d6 + attack value, you hit if you beat the target’s defense
  • Damage: roll 2d6 + weapon power, all points greater than the target’s armour do damage

That is, you have a threshold for success followed by a threshold for damage, with results above the latter threshold being more important if they are higher. Typically an enemy will have between 5 and 15 hps you can knock down, so a good result on the damage roll can be fatal. However, the attack roll is 2d6 so small improvements in bonuses are very important when attacking high-defense enemies.

Feat points can be spent to add 1d6 to either of these rolls. Adding a feat point to the attack roll increases the chance of hitting, but can be wasted if your target has high armour; adding a feat point to the damage roll can do a lot of extra damage but only works if you actually hit.

This scenario has an equivalent in epidemiology: it’s called a double-hurdle model, and is commonly used for estimating models of health-care expenditure in situations without health insurance. The first step (the first “hurdle”) is the decision to spend money on healthcare – this is often voluntary and poor people won’t always make it. The second step is the amount spent, which is inherently random. Amounts spent above a threshold lead to financial catastrophe (this threshold is defined by various means depending on how you spend income) and the intensity of expenditure is determined by the threshold. In the double hurdle model the decision to spend may be assigned a distribution, and the amount spent is often Gamma-distributed with a high probability of low cost and a small probability of extremely high cost.

In both cases (Iron Kingdoms or out-of-pocket expenditure analysis) the problem is made more complex by the fact that we don’t usually know the thresholds. Usually in the double hurdle model we’re interested in identify risk factors for exceeding the threshold. Typically in Iron Kingdoms we want to know which decision to boost to get over the second threshold – should we boost the consumption (attack) or expenditure (damage) decisions? We’re also often interested in guessing the threshold values – the GM knows them but we don’t, and we may for example roll a 9 and fail to hit, or hit on an 8 but do no damage on a 9, and then someone else boosts and hits on a 9 but does damage on a roll of 15, so the question is – what is the armour threshold?

In my last Iron Kingdoms session this came up in a beautiful way: our opponent was going to finish off the entire group if it lasted another round, and Alyvia had one feat point left. Unboosted, she was guaranteed to achieve nothing. We knew our enemy was hard to hit and hard to damage, but we didn’t know the exact values. What should she spend her last feat point on? Naturally, since I’m a statistician in my day job, all eyes turned to me. What to do? This sparked a new interest for me: I think there are methods that can be used to answer these questions. So, over the next few weeks I aim to do a few analyses to present some answers to the following questions:

  • Under assumed thresholds and attack/damage values, what are the best ways to spend your feat point budget?
  • Are there guidelines for these decisions when you don’t know the thresholds but have a rough idea of what they might be?
  • If you don’t know the thresholds, are there simple formulas you can use to guess what they are, or to assign probabilities to given thresholds, given that you know the results of other players’ rolls?
  • Can these ideas be extended beyond Iron Kingdoms to other games?

The first question can be answered easily using basic probability theory. The second and third problems are actually a slightly challenging problem in estimating boundary values of a distribution using Bayesian statistical analysis, and I’m going to have a crack at it. The fourth question is related to the third, and is most easily explored through d20/Pathfinder: in this case my naive guess is that you can set a uniform distribution on the prior probability of any threshold value, and because the observed values (the likelihood) are also uniform, get a uniformly distributed posterior distribution for the threshold given the observed data (other players’ rolls). I think I will work from this example back to the Iron Kingdoms example (which may require simulation). If the fourth question has an analytical solution it will lead to a formula I can post on the Pathfinder forums that will allow players to second-guess their GMs’ monsters, and my guess is that a party of 3+ PCs can work out the most likely threshold required to hit within a round of combat. That’s a convenient little trick right there!

Finally, it’s possible that this information may be actually informative for the out-of-pocket spending problem, which I occasionally study at work. I doubt it, but wouldn’t it be great if random ponderings on gaming helped to improve our understanding of health insurance issues in Bangladesh?!

Stay tuned for some Bayesian nastiness, if I can find the time over the next few weeks …

Look here for that which you do not seek...

Look here for that which you do not seek…

When Japanese people want to succeed at life’s challenges, they will often visit a shrine and pray to the God therein for aid and succor. Most shrines have a designated purpose, with the God ensconced there tasked with aiding childbirth, or the accumulation of wealth, knowledge, or success in love, for example. Those who live in Japan are familiar with the culture of the shrine visit: washing our hands at the little water trough near the front, passing into the silence and calm of the shrine precinct, the sound of supplicants clapping and ringing the shrine bell, and then one’s own pause for contemplation as one bows one’s head before the God. Shrines are everywhere in Japan, from the huge rambling complexes of Fushimi inari jinja in Kyoto to tiny shrines at roadsides and car parks throughout the nation. There is even one on the edge of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho night life district, surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers and major roads, a little oasis of silence in one of the busiest places in the world – its only concession to the underworld it is situated amidst being the wire cage over the water trough. Most of us who live here come to appreciate these calm moments of contemplation in the midst of the urban bustle, and also understand the importance of countryside shrines as central markers of a traditional way of Japanese life that, despite the frenetic pace of urban existence, refuses to fade away.

But there is another side to the challenges of Japanese life that is draining and exhausting, and that those little prayers at the shrine serve to support and perpetuate: the constant obligations of a life lived communally. Foreigners in Japan can escape many of them, but Japanese people face a constant stream of obligations great and small. From the demands of everyday good manners to the struggle of working as a corporate samurai, from the scourge of wedding parties that afflicts people in their mid-20s to the tedium of workplace drinking parties and even the obligation to visit a shrine on New Year’s Day, Japanese social life is full of  obligations. Most of these obligations can be embarked upon in spirit of good will and reciprocity: for example, when one finds oneself working back yet again to make things go smoothly, one can also understand that the reason the postal system is so wonderful is that someone there is also working back to make things go smoothly. People are also mutually understanding of the burden of these obligations, and do all they can to lighten the load and to be understanding of the burden of mutuality. And, of course, one can always visit a shrine, throw in 5 yen and pray for a bit of strength in the hard times.

But sometimes, those obligations carry with them a weight that cannot be wished away at a shrine, and sometimes they come with an additional, crushing challenge: the challenge of having to succeed at them even when one does not want to. The culture of ganbaru, of struggling to do one’s best no matter the difficulty, is an important part of Japanese social and work life, and worse still is the need to show that one is fighting on, even where one wants to fail. This raises the terrible prospect that one can be saddled with an obligation one does not want to carry out, but also forced to do one’s utmost to achieve it, lest one be seen to be shirking or – worse still – embarrass one’s family and colleagues by being openly seen not to want to succeed in a great goal.

It is easy to imagine these onerous tasks, because they arise often. Perhaps a man is forced to apply for a job he knows will come with a huge workload and boring tasks, that he needs to take for reasons of prestige and money but really doesn’t want: in Australia he would simply fluff the interview, but here in Japan if he was recommended to the job by his superior then he will humiliate his superior if he does anything less than try his best to get the job. Perhaps a woman has been arranged an introduction with a rich and handsome future husband, and is required to do her utmost to please him and his family, but she is secretly conducting a love affair with the Korean migrant son of a pachinko parlour owner – she needs to appear as if she wants the marriage and is trying hard, to avoid embarrassing her family and the introduction agent and to keep the peace, but she really needs this introduction to fail. Perhaps a soldier has been tasked with fabricating an international incident at the Marco Polo bridge, and failure to do his utmost to carry out the incident will lead to his punishment and possibly execution – but he knows that if he succeeds his nation will be dragged into a war that will destroy it.

It is at times like these that no amount of prayers at any shrine will save you. You need to appear to be doing your best, but you need to fail. And you know that if you do your best, you won’t fail. You are trapped.

It is at times like this that you need to visit one of the shrines of the God that Failed. You take with you a rotten mandarin, a cup of the cheapest, nastiest sake you can find, and the letter offering you an interview for the job you don’t like. Place the offerings at the shrine, burn the letter, and promise the God that Failed that you will do your utmost to succeed in this honourable task.

Then, failure is guaranteed.

The shrines to the God that Failed are not the usual calm, cheerful devotional spots, established long ago and broadcast to the world through their red torii gates and colourful roof. Rather, they are themselves monuments to failure, hidden in plain sight, just as is the failure that their supplicants seek. There are many such shrines, but they can be very difficult to find: the dirty toilet of the convenience store in Japan’s poorest and most crime-ridden suburb, perhaps; or an abandoned shrine just around the corner from Japan’s lowest-ranked and lowest-achieving community college; or a little waving cat statue in a broken self-storage unit, owned by a failed spam-forwarding start up company. These shrines are never far from anyone, but finding them is in itself something of a pilgrimage, a combination of internet searching, rumour-hunting, and then following one’s own innate spiritual sense for discerning failure and sadness. Also, perhaps, one has to be careful in one’s observances to ensure one is not discovered or seen: not only do prayer’s to the God that Failed have to be conducted in the strictest secrecy, but the shrine must be known only to those that seek it – discovery of religious observance by those who do not seek failure can bring down a terrible curse upon the supplicant.

Many argue that the God that Failed is Japan’s weakest and most aberrant god, but it is possible that actually it is the most powerful. Not only are its shrines everywhere, but it has many followers. While supplication of the God that Failed is always difficult, ordinary daily worship is easy, in a way that the other Gods of Japan do not allow. Ordinary Japanese Gods do not allow one to pray to them from home, or just anywhere, but the God that Failed is aware that many of its best worshippers do not seek anything in life, and it takes their devotion where it can. To worship the God that Failed it is enough to drop out of work and school, and stay home all day on the internet in chat rooms and on 2-channel. It is sufficient to waste one’s money and time in a pachinko parlour, where the whir of the machines serves as a devotional hymn to the God that Failed, your soul slowly leaking through the storm of pinballs into its possession. Worshippers of the God that Failed may not even realize they are in its thrall, but they are everywhere: pachinko junkies, NEETs, that ageing Host who has to work just that little bit longer every morning to make ends meet, that English teacher in the second-rate company who works nights doing skype lessons for sad shift workers … all the silent failures in life who struggle to succeed in a task that everyone else knows is already a lost cause. They flock to the God that Fails, though they don’t realize they are its worshippers, and through the repetitive daily rituals of failure they slowly lose their souls to it. And with the power of these lost souls, it grants the wish of failure to those who are otherwise successful, guaranteeing continued happiness to the successful by robbing the souls of the already-lost.

If the God that Fails has a grand design outside of the ordinary spiritual precincts of Shintoism, no one knows it. It seems reasonable that the very nature of this God would preclude any greater purpose than to leech on second-rate souls. But it is possible that in its army of followers and its calm, epochal dedication to the cultivation of failure, it actually has a deeper and more evil purpose. Who is to say what grand movements in Japanese history and culture are due to its meddling? Who is to say that it does not have power in the halls of the high and mighty as well as the low and feeble? Were the spiritually aware to notice its designs, perhaps they would uncover a great and evil pattern, that only the very brave and courageous would dare to unravel …

This deity would be suitable as an adversary or an ally in a Shadowrun- or Feng Shui-style campaign, or perhaps a far Eastern version of a Cthulhuesque horror. It might be a subtle adversary, its influence underlying more obvious criminal and spiritual cliques that use less subtle techniques. Its efforts might manifest through hacking, accidents, suicides and economic ruin, and establishing the pattern of its attacks would thus be very difficult. It is also a perfect excuse for that GM who needs to destroy the plans of an overly powerful group, but hasn’t figured out a detailed storyline for why they came apart. Missed money transfers, transport plans that fail, contacts who don’t show, NPCs who commit suicide just when you most need them – look in those plot moments for the sinister movements of the God that Failed. Should you be afraid, or scornful? Only time will tell …

Everyone loves to suck the mango seed...

Everyone loves to suck the mango seed…

Mangoes are a fruit from heaven, much loved by all residents of the Steamlands, but the environment is inimical to their growth. Aside from the lush jungle of the far south, the climate of the Steamlands is harsh: cold, snowy winters and harsh, dry late summer and autumn make it difficult for a fruit as fragrant and delicate as the mango to survive. Mangoes in the Steamlands thus only survive around hot springs, where they are protected from the chill of winter and safe from the harshest excesses of summer. But because all hot springs retain a certain magical property of earth magic, mangoes have developed a kind of affinity for magic, and if the seed of a rotten mango is appropriately treated in a hot spring, it can become a cheap and durable vessel for simple magic. In particular, mango seeds that have been boiled in a hot spring can be enchanted with base magics and a trigger word, such that when thrown and activated they cast a low-grade spell in a small area.

To be enchanted, a rotten  mango must be reduced to just its seed through treatment in a hot spring. Hot spring owners don’t allow rotten fruit in their hot springs, so usually this treatment needs to be done in a wild hot spring or at a friendly location. Unfortunately, wild springs have become increasingly rare as hot spring farming has become more common, and although a few exist around Separation City they are near the graveyards, and rumoured to be haunted. This means that preparation of mango seeds can be dangerous and time consuming. However, once prepared, they can be enchanted.

Preparation is not simple, however, and requires someone with knowledge of plants and hot springs. Typically the task can be completed by a wood elf, farmer, NPC specialist, or way watcher. Preparation takes about an hour, and requires a 2D nature lore check. Failure renders the seeds unusable, but success can affect the enchantment process, as described below.

  • 1 success: the seeds can be enchanted
  • 3 successes: +1 expertise die on the enchantment check
  • 2 boons: reduce enchantment cost by 10 sps per seed
  • 2 banes: +1 misfortune die on the enchantment check
  • Chaos star: one seed is cursed so that it only produces bane and chaos effects

The enchantment process itself costs 30 sps per seed. To enchant the seeds, the wizard gathers the ingredients and conducts a ritual that lasts one night. Mango seeds only hold magic from rank 1 spells, and no more than than three mango seeds can be enchanted at any one time. Only spells that produce a lingering effect can be cast on the seeds, and if the enchantment is successful these seeds will become a kind of grenade that, when thrown, afflicts a small number of enemies in an engagement with the lingering effect. Only magic (not blessings) can be used on the mango seeds, and positive enchantments can also be cast (affecting allies rather than enemies). The enchantment check is a 3D spellcraft check, with effects described below.

  • 1 success: 1 seed enchanted
  • 3 success: 3 seeds enchanted
  • 2 boons: seeds gain the two boons effect
  • 2 banes: seeds gain the chaos star effect
  • Sigma: seeds gain the sigmar +1 wound effect

Throwing the seeds is easy: they simply need to land in an engagement, so the task is a 1D ballistic skill check with no effect of enemy defense. Once the seed lands in the engagement, the targeted enemy or enemies need to resist the effects of the spell embedded in the mango. Because the mango seed requires activation with a special word (chosen by the enchanter) only those who know the command word may use them, and there is a risk of failure due to a poorly timed command word (hence the skill check to deliver the seed). Effects of seeds do not stack, so only one seed can be used in an engagement at any one time. This is reflected on the action card through the recharge value of the card.

An example card is shown at the top of this post. This card is assumed to have been enchanted with the Jade Order entangling spell. Other spells will produce different lingering effects. The condition invoked by the seed lasts as long as there are recharge tokens on the card.

It is rumoured that there are ways to treat mango seeds to make them reusable, but this magic is either lost or known only to the elves. It is also rumoured that the flesh of mangoes makes a useful ingredient for potions, but this may also be a secret known only to the elves…

Introduction

In previous posts in this series, I showed the differences between fighter builds, and especially that “fast fighters” are a weak decision that is particularly bad for halflings and elves even though they are the more agile races. In this post I will approach the question of fighter builds from a different angle, that of the most effective choice of feats, armour and weapons for given attribute scores. Ultimately, the aim of this work is to develop decision models (expressed as flowcharts) for PC development. We will do this through a generalized version of the simulations run to date, in combination with classification and regression tree (CART) methods.

Methods

For this study a completely random character generation method was developed. This simulation program generated random races, ability scores, weapon and armour types and feats subject to the rules in the online Pathfinder System Reference Document (SRD). Weapons were restricted to three choices: rapier, longsword and two-handed sword. Armour types were studded leather, scale, chain shirt and chain mail. There were eight possible feats: improved initiative, dodge, shield focus, weapon focus, power attack, desperate battler, weapon finesse and toughness. Ability scores were generated uniformly within the range 9 to 18, and racial modifiers then applied: the human +2 bonus was applied randomly to the three physical attributes. Feats were assigned randomly, with humans having three feats and non-humans two. All fighters with a one-handed weapon were given a light wooden shield. Halflings were given size benefits and disadvantages as described in the SRD. Initial investigation revealed that ability score values were only important in broad categories: ability scores that gave bonuses greater than 0 were good, and bonuses of 0 or less were bad. For further analysis, therefore, all ability scores were categorized accordingly into values of that gave a bonus of +1 or greater vs. those that did not.

All fighters were pitted in one-to-one melee combat against an Orc, which had randomly determined hit points and the fully operative ferocity special ability. This happened in a cage deep beneath Waterdeep, so no one could run away. Winners were promised a stash of gold and the chance to buy a farm on the Sword Coast, but were actually subsequently press-ganged into military service in the far south, where most of them died of dysentery. A million fights were simulated.

Once data had been collected it was analyzed using classification and regression tree (CART) models implemented in R. CART models enable data to be divided into groups based on patterns within the predictor variables, which enables complex classification and decision rules to be made. Although it is more complex and less reliable than standard regression, CART enables the data to be divided into classification groups without the formulaic restrictions of classical linear models. Results of CART models can be expressed as a kind of flowchart describing the relationship between variables, with ultimate classification giving an estimate of the probability of observing the outcome. In this case the outcome was a horrible death at the hands of an enraged orc, and the probability of this outcome is expressed as a number between 0 and 1. CART results were presented separately by race, in case different races benefited from different choices of feats.

Some univariate analysis was also conducted to show the basic outline of some of the (complex) relationships between variables in this dataset. Univariate analysis was conducted in Stata, and CART was conducted in R.

Results

Of the million brave souls who “agreed” to participate in this experiment, 498000 (49.8%) survived. Survival varied by race, with 55% of humans surviving and only 45% of halflings making it out alive. Some initial analysis of proportions suggested quite contradictory results for the different feats, with some feats appearing to increase mortality. For example, 47% of those with improved initiative survived, compared to 51% of those without; and 46% of those with shield focus, compared to 52% of those without. This probably represents the opportunity cost of choosing these feats, or some unexpected confounding effect from some other variable.

The three combinations of ability scores and feats with the highest number of observations and the best survival rate were:

  • Dwarf with +3 strength, +3 dexterity, +3 constitution, chain mail armour, rapier, weapon focus and desperate battler (15 observations, 100% survival)
  • Dwarf with +3 strength, +0 dex, +4 con, scale armour, two-handed sword, toughness and weapon focus (13 observations, 100% survival)
  • Dwarf with +3 strength, +2 dex, +3 con, studded leather armour, longsword, desperate battler and power strike (13 observations, 100% survival)

Despite the apparent success of Dwarves, a total of 55% of all unique combinations of ability scores, feats, weapon and armour types with 100% survival were in humans. The majority of the most frequent survival categories appeared to be in non-humans, however – this bears further investigation.

CART results varied by race. For humans, ability scores were most important; for dwarves, weapon type and armour type were important, while constitution was largely irrelevant. For elves and halflings, the only important feat was toughness; weapon finesse was only important for humans, and sometimes only as a negative choice. The key results from the CART analysis were that strength is the single most important variable, followed by dexterity for elves and halflings, or constitution for dwarves; and then by decisions about armour and weapons. Feats are largely relevant only for those with weak ability scores.

As an example, the CART results for humans are presented as a flowchart in Figure 1 (click to enlarge). It is clear that after strength and dexterity, heavy armour and constitution are important determinants of survival. Weapon finesse is only important as a feat to avoid for those with low dexterity – for those with high dexterity it is largely irrelevant. Toughness primarily acts as a counter-balance to poor constitution in those with high dexterity and strength.

Figure 1: Character creation decision model for humans

Decision models for other races will be uploaded in future posts.

Conclusion

This study once again shows that strength is the single most important ability for determining survival in first level fighters, and that feats are largely used to improve survival chances amongst those who already have good ability scores. In previous posts dexterity appeared to be irrelevant, but analysis with CART shows that the absence of a dexterity bonus makes a large difference to survival – those with no dexterity score bonus do not benefit from feat choices, while those who have a dexterity bonus can benefit further by careful choice of armour and feats. Although previous posts found that “tough” fighters have a very high survival rate, this post finds that constitution is not in itself a priority ability score. By following the decision model identified in this study, players can expect to generate a fighter with the highest average survival chance given their ability scores.

行ってきます!

This is my first attempt at mapping the Steamlands, the kingdom in which I am now running WFRP 3 adventures. The map was created in Hexographer (the free version) because I’m a terrible artist, designer or drawer. The geography of this kingdom is based loosely on Kyushu, Southern Japan, taking the names and some of the features of parts of Japan for inspiration. I’ve also chucked in a bit of Germany for good measure (the World Forest on the west coast, and the river system lined with towers, is essentially a geographical feature copied from the Black Forest and the Rhine).

At the moment I have no ideas for this world except the names of towns (translated from the Japanese) and a couple of general features. Although the geography is modeled loosely on Kyushu and the city names a translation of Kyushu names, the vegetation and weather is roughly similar to south east Australia – so the World Forest, for example, is a vast wilderness of eucalyptus forest, and the flat areas can be imagined to be rolling pasture dotted with cows. I haven’t decided if it has marsupials (probably not) but it will have a bird that resembles a kookaburra, and the forest will preserve Australian features – quiet, pleasantly fragrant, dry and kind of spooky. Some particular features of the landscape (and the names they’re translated from) are given below.

  • The Spear Capes (Nagasaki): a land of inlets and bays, rich swamps and wild rivers, I imagine this is dotted with independent cities of pirates and traders, and is quite primitive and barbaric in many ways. I imagine the swamps will be mangroves, and crocodiles will be common. I also imagine that the inland areas will have plantain and sugar farms, and possibly large plantations owned by strongmen from the other kingdoms (particularly from Twinluck)
  • Twinluck (Fukuoka): Twinluck is the largest city in the Steamlands, and is connected by a railway line to the city of Store. I imagine Twinluck as a chaotic melting pot, with an ancient history and lots of steampunk technology. I also think that the current ruler has styled himself “The Emperor of Infinity” and is attempting to build a great empire, the Empire of the Manifold Path, which is slowly expanding East and Southwest (through the land that in real life is called Saga but in this map is simply farmland and forest that is open to exploitation by the most aggressive settlers). I also imagine that the people of the Manifold Empire (as it is often referred to) are of a different race to those in the Spear Capes, and there is much conflict on the edges of the Empire
  • Store (Kitakyushu/Kokura): I know nothing about Store except that it is at the other end of the railway line from Twinluck, and it constitutes the Easternmost boundary of the Manifold Empire. It is so-called because the coastline is riddled with old caves that connect into a deep dungeon, in which can be found lost artifacts and ancient technology – as well as ancient evils
  • Heavenbalm (Usa): Heavenbalm is the temple-fortress at the centre of a religious kingdom, about which I know nothing. I guess there is human sacrifice and witch burning, and possibly magic is forbidden.
  • Steamline Spa (Yufuin): This town is the centre of a network of hot springs and spas, scattered through the mountains in this area. This is the area where the campaign began
  • Separation City (Beppu): The adventurers are heading here as I make the map. I’m not sure why it’s called “Separation City” or what’s there, but I think it will be a smallish town with a large entertainment industry, and a large port for Eastward travel to the Four Kingdoms and the Summerlands (two other continents not shown on this map)
  • Greathalf (Oita): A large industrial and agricultural city, the last significant town before one heads down the wild east coast
  • The Beastlands (Kumamoto): Kumamoto means “origin of bears,” so for this area I figured it must be full of beastmen. These beastmen regularly spread to the east coast or northeast towards the civilized lands of Greathalf, and the line of towers has something to do with them. The southernmost island of the Beastlands is the Isle of Pan, and it may be the home of some kind of god of the beastmen, though no one has returned to tell the tale of its contents. This island corresponds with the province of Kagoshima (Island of Fauns), and the islands which inspired the mythical forest of Princess Mononoke, which seems apt
  • The World Forest: the home of the elves, especially away from the coast, and continually being contested between elves, beastmen and humans

Besides these rough outlines, I have no other ideas for the world. I know there is another kingdom on the east coast, not yet described, which corresponds with Miyazaki, but I can’t think of a good translation of Miyazaki (“Palace” plus “Promontory” or “Peninsular”). Maybe the “Bay of Palaces”? Sounds rich and powerful! Or maybe it once was, and now is crumbling under the beastman threat.

Because there is a dwarf in the party I need to find a place to fit dwarves in all of this – they might, however, come from over the sea, in the Four Kingdoms.

The PCs are heading to Separation City to get a lawyer to sign a deed transferring property to them, so that they can take ownership of an onsen in the mountains. After that they have adventure options in Twinluck, and they can return and explore the land around their property, or they can head elsewhere to explore the Steamlands. At this stage it’s all pretty open, basically a sandbox to enable me to see how far I can push the WFRP 3 rules before I get bored of them and/or they break. Shall I have a beastman empire? What is buried beneath Store? And does the Emperor of Infinity know something we don’t? Only time will tell…

He went thattaway ...

During this weekend’s gaming session, we killed a lich. Good job! おつかれさま!Unfortunately, we didn’t know where our victim’s phylactery was, so we couldn’t actually eliminate the lich – we needed to find the phylactery, but the only way to do that was to let the lich reanimate its body and then follow him to his lair, kill him again and this time destroy his phylactery. All in a day’s work, etc. We had his body and disembodied head (gagged, of course) and we’d stuffed the head in a sack, then stuffed the sack in a barrel of water, then put a lid on the barrel, so we could make plans without fear of being overheard. So we hatched a scheme to follow the lich, but there was unfortunately a small hitch – we knew that this lich had the power to dissolve his body into a swarm of cockroaches and scuttle away to his dark and stinky home. We were in a city, where following a swarm of cockroaches is impossible. So, we designed a lich compass. This is how our plan worked:

  1. Carve a chunk of flesh from the lich’s body, near one of its injuries where it is unlikely to notice the piece is missing
  2. Put this chunk of flesh in a jar large enough for a cockroach to move around
  3. Take the body and the head to a park, build a fire large enough to make a lich think we’re trying to destroy its body, but not large enough to completely incinerate the body
  4. Chuck the lich on (and its head, of course)
  5. After about 10 minutes of watching, tell each other that the job is surely done, and walk away
  6. Hide
  7. Once the fire has died down, the lich body will slowly reanimate, and the lich will collect his head and go shambling, smokily, to his lair
  8. Follow him
  9. The big risk is that he will turn into a swarm of cockroaches. This is pretty likely, since his clothes will have been destroyed and he’s covered in burns – he probably wants to go home in a slightly less conspicuous form
  10. When he turns into cockroaches, pull out the jar
  11. All the cockroaches will be heading in the same direction – this means that the cockroaches in the jar will be trying to push through whatever side of the jar is closest to the lich’s path
  12. Follow the compass!

Obviously this plan has a large number of flaws – I count 11 (anyone can follow a compass![1]). Our compass was based on two big assumptions:

  1. The lich doesn’t have a detailed knowledge of the location of every piece of his body, but the pieces are somehow spiritually connected
  2. When the lich casts a spell on himself, all parts of his body are affected

Obviously some GMs would take issue with these assumptions, but I don’t think they’re unreasonable. If the GM accepts this particular approach to Lich corporeality, then I think our compass should work. Also, perhaps, it would work on Vampires.

Unfortunately, we never got to test our assumptions because a crazy wizard teleported in, stole the lich’s head, and teleported out again. The GM then revealed that the lich can disconnect his soul from his body, leaving the body to rot, so all we ended up with was a jar full of rotting flesh. But I think if the wizard hadn’t appeared, we would have been good to go – he disconnected his body because he’d been teleported out, not because he knew we were hiding there.

Incidentally, when we killed the lich it made me aware of a problem that GMs face with these undying types of creatures, which is that the nature of their invulnerability is really hard to describe. Sure, we all know that you can’t kill a lich permanently, but of course if the players don’t have the phylactery they’ll do a damn good job of making the lich essentially eternally dead. Cut it into tiny pieces and feed them to fish in 7 oceans, burn the body and scatter it to the winds, etc. We were on a city that was on the back of a massive, slow-moving tortoise, and I recommended trying to find a way to feed the body into the tortoise – it wouldn’t be  dead but a thousand years of digestion would surely make the matter irrelevant. At this point the GM has to figure out a way to make the creature’s return plausible. Obviously it can be done but, particularly for things like trolls and the like that aren’t undead spirits in a temporary physical shell, it’s damn hard to explain. And in the case of liches, the Monster Manual seems to imply quite strongly that it’s their original body they’re in (the demi-lich is still tied to its body’s dust and skull) – so how exactly does it work for a lich?

This is further proof that as one advances in levels in D&D, it’s important to put points into your various lore skills. If one hasn’t read Mordenkainen’s seminal texts on undead corporeality, how will one know the best way to build a lich-compass?

fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure that there would be systems and/or GMs where a skill check would be required …

Hideous dark secrets await...

I received the pdf version of James Raggi’s re-release of Geoffrey McKinney’s infamous Carcosa “supplement V” two days ago, and have been reading it voraciously since. I haven’t received the physical version yet, so can’t comment on that, but my main interest was the content so I’d like to give a review of it here. It’s my first reading of Carcosa – I missed the original version and the controversy surrounding it – so I’m going to review it as if nobody knew what it was. I have wanted this product since I read the controversy, since much of the material contained within it is relevant to my own campaign ideas, which can involve a certain amount of ritual sacrifice and happen in worlds with an underlying morality that I think has similarities to that of the “lawful” or “neutral” residents of Carcosa – that of sometimes making very unpleasant bargains with evil powers in order to further a greater good.

Background

Carcosa is a science-fantasy/swords and sorcery setting, a planet far from earth in which the ancient gods of the cthulhu mythos slumber (and sometimes wake), and humans live in small and scattered settlements, terrified of the evil powers that dominate the world. The appendix to this edition describes the state of Men[sic] nicely thus:

Man has not populated the world of Carcosa with the monsters of his imagination. Instead, the monsters of Carcosa infect the nightmares of man. Nor has man imagined mythological spirits and projected them upon his surroundings, later refining his mythologies with philosophy and theology. The world of Carcosa is fraught with the like of the Old Ones and their spawn, the legacy of the extinct Snake Men, and Sorcery.

Humans were created by the Snake Men and placed on Carcosa as slaves and chattel to be used in vile sorcerous rituals by which the extinct Snake Men summoned, controlled or banished the Old Ones and their related entities. The Snake Men are long gone, but their legacy remains in the world that is presented to us: Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, the Old Ones, strange mutations and sorcerous effects, and lesser and greater Old Ones who are either imprisoned within our outside the planet, or roaming the planet itself looking for prey. The planet also hosts some Space Aliens, whose artifacts and high-tech items adventurers may be able to find and use.

In this world there is no magic, though there are some psionics. The only magic available to humans is that of sorcery, which enables one to summon, bind, imprison or banish evil entities. However, aside from banishment these sorcerous invocations depend upon rituals which invariably involve the degradation, torture and murder of humans. The 13 races of humans come in distinct colours, and these colours are coded to different rituals; in order to gain power over the elder gods one must find a suitable number of the correct humans of the right colour, age and sex, and then do what is necessary to raise the entity, in a ritual whose contents are themselves difficult to learn, and require precise ingredients collected from rare locations across Carcosa. Being a sorcerer is neither easy nor sensible. Being a sorcerer’s chattel is far, far worse.

So, the world of Carcosa is a brutal and nasty place, where humans were invented to be used, and continue to use each other in the manner that their extinct progenitors planned for them. It is a world where moral decisions are made in a very, very different framework to that of many other fantasy worlds; but it is my contention (and I’ll outline this below) that the moral framework for decisions in Carcosa is simply reflective of a different period in our own history, and the decision to play in Carcosa will simply represent a preference for playing in a different historical milieu to the one we’re all used to. No big deal, really, right?

The Rules

Carcosa is presented as a supplement to Original D&D (OD&D), so it doesn’t present a system per se. Rather, it contains a new character class, the Sorcerer, and some kooky ideas for dice rolling and determining hit dice that I’m not sure I’ll comment on until I’ve played with them. It also presents a wide range of new technological items (of the Space Aliens), new monsters (connected to the Old Ones) and a set of rituals for the Sorcerer. The book also makes clear that on Carcosa there are no PC classes except the Fighter and the Sorcerer (and the Specialist, if you want). There is no magic but sorcery, and no clerical magic of any kind. If you want magic on Carcosa, you have one choice: summon an entity of purest evil, and bend it to your will.

The Sorcerer character seems little different to the Fighter, though I don’t have any OD&D rulebooks so can’t tell the details. Perhaps its XP progression is slower and its saves slightly better, but otherwise it seems broadly similar. In my opinion (and I think Grognardia agreed with me on this) this is a big weakness. The sorcerer is basically a slightly inferior fighter who gains levels more slowly, and can only differentiate him or herself from the Fighter through the long and arduous task of learning a ritual and then binding an entity to his or her will. At this point the sorcerer becomes almost invincible, or dead. I think it might be better if the Sorcerer started off with some differentiating power, such as e.g. a single banishment ritual, or psionic powers. The way the rules are structured, they open the very real possibility that you could start play as a sorcerer with no special abilities or powers of any sort, while your fellow player started off as a fighter with psionics! If, on the other hand, Sorcerers gained psionics from the start and advanced in them slowly, they might be more … enticing. The possibility that one day you can summon Cthulhu and maybe, if you’re lucky, he won’t eat you but will serve you for 72 hours, is not a great lure for the average player. Especially if summoning Cthulhu means you have to rape a couple of children and murder them in a pool of acid.

Also, learning rituals appears to be very difficult, so it’s possible you could play a sorcerer for a lot of levels and never get to use any special powers. So, I can’t see the point of distinguishing the sorcerer from the Fighter.

The Rituals

In truth, the rituals are one of the main reasons I got this book. There are six types of ritual, and only one of them can be conducted without doing something nasty.

  • Banish: these drive a specific entity away, for varying times, and are usually quick and easy to perform
  • Invoke: these put the sorcerer in contact with some horrific extra-dimensional being that will answer questions that the sorcerer puts to it
  • Bind: these grant complete control over the subject entity for a given period of time. At the end of this time, it’s wise to have your banish ritual ready
  • Imprison: these trap an entity in some extra-dimensional or subterranean prison, possibly forever, and are the surest way to ensure that it doesn’t come back without the intervention of another sorcerer. All imprisonment rituals seem to involve human sacrifice.
  • Conjure: these summon an entity, either from wherever it is now or from its prison. They don’t guarantee control over the conjured entity, however, so it’s a good idea to bind it first
  • Torment: these cause a chosen entity to suffer horribly, reducing its hit dice and/or forcing it to obey the sorcerer and/or answer questions

So, it’s possible to see that there are ways in which these rituals, even though they involve human sacrifice, can be for the good of all. In fact, one can imagine a “lawful” sorcerer traveling the earth, forcing every sorcerer he finds to teach him their rituals, then killing them and imprisoning any deities they had the power to conjure. This would involve a lot of pain and slaughter but at the end of such a successful campaign the world would be free of deities and no one but the PC would be able to conjure them again. Is this worth a bit of child murder? Don’t answer me unless you live on Carcosa.

The rituals themselves are very nicely written, in a portentous style that is very evocative of the Cthulhu ethos, and involves a lot of words like “blasphemous,” “ineffable” and “canticle.” The descriptions have an underlying sense of horror, but are themselves clinically written and detailed, capturing both the mechanical elements of the ritual, its arcane meaning and its horrific consequences in just one or two concise paragraphs. They’re also key to establishing the philosophical and theological background of the world of Carcosa, and in my opinion one can’t really properly describe the world without reference to these rituals. Once one has read this tome of rituals, the descriptions of the communities of the world – tiny enclaves of humans, largely the same colour, suspicious of outsiders and often treacherous and warlike – make a great deal of sense. It also sets the tone for a world steeped in horror.

My main criticism of the rituals would be that it’s not clear how they mesh together – does one bind a creature before or after conjuring it? Why would one torment an entity, and what are the key differences between banishment and imprisonment? Ideally, I would have liked a couple of examples of rituals in use: perhaps a description of a sorcerer’s attempts to conjure a particular entity – how he found the ritual, the order in which he enacts them, and the benefits. For a GM’s section this would be particularly useful, since it would enable a GM to work out how to mesh the quest for and consequences of a ritual into adventure planning. Without this we have to work out the details ourselves, which is fine, but I paid 35 euros for this book so I could read the ideas of the person who wrote it, so I’d have liked a few examples or ideas to support the use of rituals in the game. Also, I would like to know more about what one gains from summoning the entities. The entities all have their stat blocks given, but they are largely for combat, and this means that really the sorcerer seems to be just taking a great deal of risks to invoke a great big weapon. It would be nice if conjuring a given beast gave the sorcerer some benefits (like a kind of familiar), so that even without going into combat the sorcerer got some non-Fighter-oriented benefits. Otherwise, why not just go to hex XXXX and grab the Space Alien Tank there – a much safer way to do 4 dice of damage than summoning It of the Fallen Pylons, which, incidentally, requires casting eight Red Men through an extra-dimensional vault into outer space, and making a save vs. Magic at -4 to avoid joining them yourself.

Despite these limitations, the rituals lend the world of Carcosa a particular feeling of grim horror and foreboding that is both very Cthulhu-esque, and very atmospheric even if, like me, you haven’t read much Lovecraft.

Entities, Monsters and Maps

I really like the entities and monsters presented in Carcosa. The entities have evocative, sinister names and are very, very nasty, and the main monsters arise in almost infinite variety through the random generation tables. Robots and cyborgs follow a similar range and would make both interesting allies and formidable adversaries. The book comes with a hex map of a section of Carcosa with two possible encounters for every hex described. Some of these hexes offer opportunities for further adventuring in dungeons or castles or forests, and give simple adventure hooks; others present towns to explore and conquer, or simply monsters or the opportunity to learn rituals, find ancient technology, or uncover strange objects. It’s a really weird and compelling map that sets out a world completely different to the average D&D setting. This world is definitely not to everyone’s tastes – brilliant Yellow-colored men carrying laser pistols and riding mutant dinosaurs to war against Cthulhoid entities is maybe not everyone’s cup of tea – but if you like science fantasy then it has a lot of material to explore.

Presentation

I can’t comment on the physical book, since I haven’t received it, but I certainly can commend the presentation of the pdf format. I’ve been reading it on my iPad, and it’s a joy to use. The pdf is extensively hyperlinked, so if you’re reading a ritual and want to know what the creature it summons is, you can jump to the creature; then you can use the list of rituals related to that entity to jump to a different ritual, or to go back to where you were. Ingredients that can be found in certain hexes include a link to those hexes; if a particular hex in the map is related to other hexes, those hexes are listed next to the text, so you can jump to them. The hex map itself is hyperlinked, so you can click to the description of any hex – sadly, on my iPad the bit of the map I tap doesn’t work, and I get directed instead to the column left of where I wanted to tap, but this is not an insurmountable problem (I just tap slightly more to the right) and I don’t know if it’s a problem in the original text or in its translation to my iPad. It would be nice if the hex descriptions included a link back to the map (perhaps in their name?) so that one could explore the map more rapidly, but this too is not an insurmountable problem. The linking is an excellent idea and really makes the pdf useful.

Other elements of the presentation also really appeal to me. I like the font and the style on the edges of the pages – perhaps the patterns at the top of the page are a little overdone, but they suit the theme. I like the layout of things like rituals and monster descriptions, with the text next to the title and then all the hyperlinks below the title, next to the text; and the artwork suits the world very well. Unlike usual OSR artwork, it’s actually good, and the sketch-like style gives a sense of hurriedly glimpsing horrors, like seeing a massacre through grainy camera footage rather than being a direct eyewitness. This suits the content – especially the rituals and monsters – very well. It’s a very well-presented and laid out text.

The content is also very well written and maintains its Cthulhoid theme pretty much seamlessly across the whole book. This is a fine achievement and really makes the book stand out as a work of fiction as well as a gaming supplement. It’s rare I think to find a world setting that maintains a coherent theme across world content, presentation and writing style, and through the combination of the three builds up a distinct atmosphere. This book does that, in spades, and in that sense I think it’s a masterful work.

I do have some complaints about the content, though. In addition to wanting more detail on the mechanics of rituals, I would have liked more context to the world as a whole. After just a page or two of introduction the book jumps straight into the rules, and further exposition of the background to the world only comes in an appendix, which is very short. Even though the rationale for this – not wanting to bias the Referee, so that they can be free to interpret Carcosa as they like – is perfectly understandable, I’m not into it. I want Geoffrey McKinney’s bias in my interpretation of his world, and I’m adult enough to get rid of what I don’t like. I would like his bias at the beginning, because as it is I have waded through the whole book before I discover why certain rituals use certain colors of human, etc. This problem is even more pronounced in the sample adventure, Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, which is not really an adventure at all but a more detailed exposition of a single hex in the map. Some context to this adventure, perhaps background details to the tensions and regions of the hex map, how PCs might be drawn into differing factions or adventures, and what the political circumstances in the region are, might help. The motivations and perspectives of the various denizens of the map are not clear, and the reasons for selecting it as an adventure are just not there. It’s usable, but it doesn’t add anything to the main hex map except more detail. I would say this is a general structural problem in the text: it isn’t set out in the flow of Introduction/Body/Conclusion, but just as a random scattering of information with a rough flow. Even the appendix setting out the basic circumstances of humans on Carcosa is missing a conclusion: it just ends with a description of the uses of Space Alien technology. Repeatedly missing this structure means that the work is sometimes contextless, which is a shame given the depth of its actual content.

The layout, though generally excellent, suffers some minor flaws and I think James Raggi may have been guilty of over-egging how much he has added to the original. The editing is sometimes a bit weak, with obvious errors in presentation (such as italicizing a book title, then putting other book titles inconsistently in quotes, in the same paragraph of the introduction). Indeed, there is even an error in the preview – e.g. page 129, Hex 0502, has inconsistent pronoun usage (it and he to describe the Mummy). Also I think the linking is incomplete – sometimes a description will say “cf. [ritual name]” where it would have been much better for it to have the link to [ritual name]. Of course I’m happy to forgive tiny errors, because overall the layout is excellent and the writing very concise and clear.

The Controversy

This review isn’t meant to be about the controversy, but I guess I should cover it. Two (?) of the rituals involve the rape and murder of children, and most of them involve the torture and murder of humans. This has led some to say that Carcosa goes too far, that it brings disrepute onto the gaming world, and that it is itself a morally repugnant work. Well, it’s certainly morally repugnant, but much of what happens in role-playing is morally repugnant. In standard D&D most adventuring parties happily torture and murder captured enemies, and exterminate without mercy those who are racially different to themselves, on the very dubious moral assumption that our enemies have no humanity of any kind. D&D explicitly states that elves have no soul. This is a moral framework that is taken pretty much straight from the playbook of 19th and early 20th century western Imperialism[1], and although we are supposed to believe that our D&D worlds make these ideals objectively true, rather than subjectively true, I don’t think this really exonerates the worldview contained therein.

So the world of D&D as most of us are used to playing it is pretty morally repugnant as well, and it explicitly allows for or describes the use of human and non-human lives as tools for the benefit of the PCs. What else is necromancy but the most horrific misuse of humans? What about the Imprisonment spell, or Dominate Monster? Sure, the Player’s Handbook doesn’t say “You can use this spell to rape anyone you want,” but it’s pretty obvious that this is what evil people will do. And most PC groups at some point have used enslaved/captured/charmed/dominated NPCs as meat in the grinder – for trap finding, for attracting the monster’s first, worst attack, etc. I think the old school blogosphere makes quite a point of doing this with henchmen and hirelings.

So what is the difference with Carcosa? It makes the moral framework of D&D explicit, and I think this offends a lot of people who would otherwise have enacted many of the components of the rituals in their ordinary play. But in presenting this moral framework explicitly, is Carcosa asking us to play in a world that is any different from 15th century Europe, which is the moral exemplar for much of our gaming worlds? What distinguishes a sorcerer in Carcosa from the leaders of the USSR in Afghanistan, any of the players of the Great Game, or the British in India? D&D’s implicit morality is, largely, that of 19th century colonial Europe; Carcosa’s implicit morality is that of crusader Europe or the vikings. If we can accept one, and play it at its most invidious, then we can surely play in the other without compromising ourselves overmuch.

Furthermore, I don’t think these rituals need necessarily be construed as irredeemably evil. In Hex 2013 of the Carcosa map is a village of 497 Jale Men ruled by “She of the Lake.” She is slowly building up an empire and “her hunger for slaves and captives to fuel her sorceries is bottomless.” So if my PC summons the Lurker Amidst the Obsidian Ruins through the murder of four Black Males, and binds it to me using the horrific Primal Formula of the Dweller (which requires my PC to kill 101 Dolm Children with an axe), then sends the Lurker to kill She of the Lake and her main minions, have I not done the world a great service? And what harm have I done to the world if instead of killing the two Yellow Men bandits who survived a bandit attack on my party, I inflict them with a fatal disease and sacrifice them in the ritual called The Encrusted Glyphs of the Deep, which imprisons the Leprous Dweller Below in a primordial city in the Radioactive Desert?

Carcosa presents us with a morally repugnant setting, but as mature adults we can negotiate it in a more sophisticated way than merely averting our eyes and declaring it wrong.

Conclusion

If you like your worlds to be dark, cruel, primitive and full of evil and hard choices, then Carcosa is for you. If you want to play in a Science/Fantasy Swords and Sorcery setting with or without bizarre and evil sorcerous rituals, this book is a great starting point and will give you endless hours of crazed sandbox adventuring. It’s a very nicely laid out, excellently written and well-crafted addition to the gaming world, and I think James Raggi should be encouraged in his efforts. He brings a huge amount of energy and creativity to the OSR, and should be justifiably proud of his achievement in presenting this setting in this format. But of course the ultimate credit should go to Geoffrey McKinney, who has crafted a genuinely disturbing, morally dubious, occasionally repugnant, but very well-written and ingenious world setting that, while not to everyone’s tastes and a little more controversial thank I think is warranted, is definitely a brilliant and amazingly creative work. I hope that he and Raggi will work together again in the future to produce more material of the same high quality and style, and I would definitely like to see more material for the Carcosa setting – whether or not I ever get a chance to play it.

fn1: please do not take this to mean that I think only Imperialists believed these things; this is the particular historical framework that western Europeans draw upon when they make these moral statements.

Random Encounter: Deep-fried Gnocchi

After visiting Unit club in Daikanyama to watch The Big Pink live, my partner and I went for dinner at the Sign Cafe, right next to Daikanyama station. The entire ceiling and most of the walls of this cafe are decorated in hex-map style, and on the ceiling near the door a ring of hexagons has been marked with the numbers 1 to 6, with a 7th hexagon in the centre labeled Random Direction. That’s right folks, this cafe had an old-fashioned hex-crawl map on its ceiling. Only in Japan could this be cool. The official website tells me that the wall graphic was designed by “Groovisions,” and the interior design was by a chap called Matt and a certain Lee Myeong-Hee (a woman’s name, I think). One of these three people is a role-player or a war-gamer, I think. And undoubtedly of a certain age.

You can see more photos of the groovy drink coasters and the decking at this woman’s blog. The food was good and the drinks menu both reasonably priced (unusual for Daikanyama maybe, which has an upmarket image) and quite varied (for a cafe). Unfortunately when I visited the cafe it didn’t look anything like those pictures – on a dark and stormy night it was not quite so sunny, and all the glass made it cold. If you visit, you will undoubtedly do so with a girl; bear in mind that they have blankets under the seats, you may need them in winter. It’s 2 minutes from Unit and last order is at 10, so you can get back there for a drink after a mid-week band. Maybe, if you ask nicely, you can play an upside down wargame on the ceiling…

Following up on a similar post last year, I present another random dungeon table from the Japanese RPG Make You Kingdom. This table is also for generating rooms in one of the kingdoms you invade, but the theme is “man-made” or human-engineered rooms. Again, the rooms are rolled randomly using “d66″. For a d66, you roll 2d6. The lower value becomes tens, the higher value units.

Here, then, is the table:

11 A stone garden 23 A workshop full of half-finished goods 36 A giant stone mural, abandoned mid-carving
12 A spiral staircase cut into a giant-sized pit 24 An ancient battlefield scattered with bones and rusted weapons 44 A huge hall containing nothing but a tapestry
13 An ancient library full of only dust 25 A toilet of carefully arranged stones 45 A line from an underground railway Empire
14 A simple, run-down shrine 26 A high-class kitchen 46 A gallery full of pictures or sculptures
15 An engine room noisy with the sound of pistons and cogs 33 A room of brick 55 A cemetery full of rows of sarcophagi
16 A giant’s causeway 34 A theatre, as silent as the grave 56 A giant’s gate, with a massive, rusted door
22 A room carved from a massive log 35 A midden strewn with rubbish 66 An abandoned prison

The obake-yashiki, or “Twisted Mansion,” is a mystery to all reputable scholars, be they Japanese or foreign. Found on lonely mountain paths, or just slightly off of pilgrim trails and disused trade routes, the obake-yashiki takes the form of a building such as a peasant’s hut, a shrine, a hot spring bathhouse or some other place that might be inviting to weary travellers. From a distance it appears completely normal, its only unusual or distinguishing feature being its placement, which is inevitably in wilderness or uninhabited settings rarely visited by anyone but the hardiest of wayfarers.

No one knows whether the obake-yashiki survives by consuming the souls or the bodies of its victims, and it is unclear whether the absence of corpses around its location arises from a supernatural capacity to erase the remains of its victims, or a supernatural ability to transport to a new remote location after its grisly deed has been done. But all scholars agree that the obake-yashiki is a deadly hunter, that sets traps for exclusively human prey to lure them to their death. Usually these traps take the form of some inviting sound, smell or sight such as befits the disguise the monster has taken: drifting clouds of fragrant incense from a shrine; the sound of pretty ladies giggling in a garden; the silhouette of people bathing in an outdoor hotspring; or the delicious smells of an evening meal from a peasant’s hut. This lure first acts in a completely natural fashion, but if the passing wayfarer does not respond to it with sufficient curiousity, the obake-yashiki exerts its supernatural influence, and attempts to charm its victims closer. Those who are successfully charmed in this way enter the building directly, and are lost forever unless prompt action is taken to rescue them.

If unenchanted victims come within the immediate vicinity of the building, the obake-yashiki attacks them. The form of the attack varies depending on the structure of the building: an onsen may lash out with gouts of steamy hot water; a shrine’s fox guardians may come to life and attack; the tools from the peasant’s hut may animate and strike. However, this is only the first line of attack. Should the beast’s outer guardians disable or distract defenders, the shrine will lash out with some form of appendage – again, reminiscent of the building’s form, though sometimes a more naked representation of the dark magic that animates the building – to ensnare a victim and drag them through its portal. Once inside, the victim is likely beyond help, or will be destroyed permanently and completely unless their companions immediately rush to destroy the main building. The shrine’s outer guardians can also be disabled permanently by attacking the building itself, though they will fight hard to defend it. Of course the building is both resilient and possessed of great strength, but there are two forms of attack against which all obake-yashiki are weak: fire, and earthquakes. Magical attacks that inflict either such effect on the building will destroy it quickly, or cause it to eject any recently-consumed victims and disappear.

Obake-yashiki can be driven away from an area by a suitably-skilled priest, and are vulnerable to exorcism or abjuration magic. They are impervious to slashing weapons, and take damage only slowly from bludgeoning weapons. It is said that foxes and tanuki hate them, and obake-yashiki rarely visit areas that are known to be in the territory of an enchanted fox or tanuki. To permanently destroy an obake-yashiki, so that it is rendered down to the form of a mere ruined building, requires the intervention of a priest, who will chant sutras that hold the building in place while it is destroyed with fire. Once this is done, adventurers can search the remains of the building and often will find a rich treasure gathered together from the remains of the building’s previous victims.

It is said that evil magics exist that give priests and wizards power over these buildings, and that sometimes undead or evil wizards live within them, and move around with the building. Whether this is true or not has never been confirmed, because few people survive encounters with the obake-yashiki. It is also rumoured that obake-yashiki are created from the evil deeds of past occupants, or from their unresolved rage at some past injustice. In this case, it may be possible through some quest of redemption or vengeance to quell the obake-yashiki without the aid of a priest. If this quest is successful the obake-yashiki will simply become a normal building, in whatever place it was last situated, and the person who quietened it will be forever honoured in local folklore.

However, the numbers of those honoured for such deeds is far, far smaller than the numbers of those who have died  at the hands of these vicious and deceptive beasts.

Note: obake-yashiki means “haunted house” in official Japanese, but I got the idea for this monster from the earthquake. Yesterday my colleague told me that our workplace seems like “obake-yashiki” because the earthquake alarms were going off randomly, and the halls are dark and cold (not to mention quivering in aftershocks). In Japanese, obake means “transformed” or “metamorphosed,” and thus was the idea born. I haven’t given statistics for this monster, but I think the idea is good for a random encounter or adventure trigger, and in my imagination these beasts can be as weak or as strong as the building they are formed from. The beast could also have a place in a modern manga-style Japanese campaign, set in a world like that of Witch Hunter Robin, in which case even a portaloo or an ATM hall could be an obake-yashiki. I suspect a particularly powerful and terrifying modern incarnation of this beast would be a pachinko parlour…

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 50 other followers