The Implicit Empire

There are a lot of essays I want to write within the field of How D&D Is And Why, but before I even begin, framing it that way has some problems.  The concepts and patterns of thought I want to talk about aren’t limited to D&D; they appear throughout tabletop RPG, and even out into books, digital games, movies, and beyond.  At the same time, you can play D&D without most of these elements, and many people do.  It’s tricky to clearly articulate the idea space.

The reason for this, I think, is because while D&D is theoretically setting-agnostic, from its earliest editions it has incorporated a lot of very particular, and often sort of weird, assumptions about how the game setting works.  These assumptions range from the mechanical — e.g., memorized spells forgotten upon use — to the cosmological — e.g., the Inner and Outer Planes.  All of those assumptions are technically optional, but they’re incorporated by reference throughout the rest of the game.  Abandoning them requires a certain amount of work to follow out all the chains of influence.  [This makes those elements a fairly powerful default; people will change elements that are important to the game they want to play, but leave alone elements they just feel neutral about.]

This makes D&D in many ways an inelegant design, but I think that baroqueness was actually an important element of D&D’s success.  More cleanly generic RPGs have sometimes struggled to gain traction, because it’s hard to provide a hook for players’ imaginations to grab on to.  D&D’s idiosyncrasies are a sort of canonical adventure of setting, a baseline understanding of what RPG worlds look like to fall back on.  (In 4th grade, I was accosted by a new classmate who was affronted that the cover of the book I was reading featured a spellcaster wielding a sword.  We became best friends.)

For this reason, I think it’s meaningful to talk about a default D&D setting, even though you can’t go buy a boxed set for it.  There is an ur-setting that lies behind and ties together all the tens of thousands of campaigns that implement D&D’s setting assumptions, and the scope of its influence makes it useful to talk about.  I call it the Implicit Empire.

Its broad familiarity — and frankly, its internal contradictions — makes it wildly generative.  Every weird quirk of how D&D does things is a site for exploration, elaboration, or subversion that will be legible to anyone who knows the game. At the same time, the fact that it emerged haphazardly from a gumbo of what a not especially diverse pool of contributors in the late 70s thought was cool means that a lot of those tropes and premises are often real problematic in real deep ways. There’s a lot going on in that tension that I want to explore.

The Dwarven Lands
(Feb. 7, 2021)

New visitors to the dwarven lands often assume that the region is mostly inhabited by dwarves, but it is not so. The dwarven lands are home to a variety of peoples, and outside the handful of dwarven redoubts studded through the mountains, dwarves are not even the majority. The realm takes its name from the fact that the land has been so thoroughly shaped by dwarven hands.

Every city is made, almost entirely, of buildings in the rectilinear style of dwarven construction, with extensive catacombs beneath. The roads between the cities are paved with distinctive lozenges of basalt. Even a traveler lost in the wilderness will find well-appointed campgrounds spaced about a day’s march apart.

This is because a dwarf, whenever not otherwise occupied, starts building something. Those wilderness campgrounds exist because, whenever a traveling party including dwarves stops to camp, the dwarves immediately start building out a proper hearth, and a rudimentary stockade, and a bear chest, and eventually some bedsteads. Should the party have found an existing dwarven campground, the dwarves will occupy themselves repairing and improving the site. In the dwarven lands, after so many centuries, every wild place is not far from what amounts to an unmanned inn.

Meanwhile, every cave system in the dwarven lands has been explored and built out into an underground warren. Almost all are left empty; the dwarves who built them had no particular purpose for them. Some have become home to bandits, or wild beasts.

Other peoples find all this building perplexing but useful, and few have made a serious effort to understand why the dwarves do it. Dwarves, for their part, have generally proven unable and unwilling to articulate their motives. Indeed, it’s not always clear that they have motives other than building more things and trading for necessities. To the other inhabitants of the dwarven lands, dwarves are affable, helpful, and ultimately incomprehensible.

This is because the dwarves that other peoples know are but a small outcrop of their civilization. The dwarves of the surface are sexless drones, birthed from sacs carried up through endless tunnels from the great dwarrowdelves of the deep. The dwarves of the mountain redoubts exist to acquire foodstuffs and other goods to be sent down to the caverns where the deep dwarves dwell, and then further still, past where most surface dwarves will ever go, to the abyssal palaces of the lords and queens of dwarfkind, who only a handful of humans have ever seen.

Those who have call them the aboleth.

The Feral Gods of Apsada
(January 11, 2021)

Many people maintain that the gods depend on their worshippers for sustenance, and that a god whose cult dies out dies with it. This is a comforting fiction. It allows mortals to believe that they are, at least in aggregate, indispensable.

In truth, the gods endure regardless of whether they are worshipped or not. However, worship civilizes a god. The gods like to be worshipped; it flatters them, and the flavor of sacrifice is savory. In observing the antics of its followers, and in hearing their entreaties (whether or not it chooses to act on them), a god comes to have some empathy for mortal life, and thus typically acts in a fashion which is, if not beneficial to mortals, at least comprehensible.

A god whose cult has died, however, or who has never had worshippers at all, has no such empathy. Fortunately for mortal civilization, gods without followers frequently embark on pursuits beyond mortal understanding and beyond mortal perception; for this reason, a god whose followers have died out may be forgotten and believed to be dead. When a feral god pursues its ineffable ends on the mortal plane, however, it may unleash titanic chaos without even being aware of the consequences. The worshipped gods may be able to contain a feral god’s rampage, but such is not a trivial undertaking even for the gods; many gods will not intercede to protect their worshippers from a feral god’s wrath.

Thus, the sanctuary of Apsada was built. Apsada lies on a remote island far from civilized lands, but all civilized lands send it tribute. Its priests daily offer bountiful sacrifices to … no god in particular. Apsada is, in effect, a lure. The hope is that feral gods will be drawn to the offerings of Apsada, and that the priests there will be able to comprehend them and to worship them. In time, the priests who have built a relationship with a once-feral god will relocate to the mainland, evangelizing and growing the god’s cult.

It is a hard fate to be a priest of Apsada. One may spend one’s life pleading with gods one cannot comprehend or that may not even be listening. One may find oneself consecrated as high priest to a god of murder. From time to time, feral gods fight over the offerings, and Apsada has been obliterated on several occasions by the forces unleashed. Nonetheless, every generation offers up sufficient volunteers, who devote themselves to the task of Apsada so that their homelands may be kept safe from the threat of wild gods.

The Palace in Death
(August 24, 2015)

About 12 miles north of where the Cane Road crosses the river Malakha, a great earthen mound rises malignantly from the plain. Centuries ago, it was the Palace in Death of the Anmalakhan sorceror-kings, a monument clad in platinum and obsidian. Since then, its outer shell has been stripped, and time and nature have whittled its stone facade into earth and gravel. However, legend whispers of unnumbered treasures — and unspeakable perils — behind the Palace’s Six Gates and One. Deep in those silent chambers, too, the sorceror-kings’ most prized relics throb with arcane malice, casting a shadow of dark magic for miles in every direction. All the righteous kingdoms would pay dearly for the destruction of those instruments of evil; others would pay even more dearly for their possession.

The town of Ombridge, at the bridge across the Malakha, exists principally as a waypost for the traders that ply the Cane Road. Its second industry, however, is serving and supplying the adventurers who travel from all around to try their skill against the dangers within the Palace. Half the able-bodied adults in the town have traveled at least as far as the semi-permanent camp before the Silent Maw, the most commonly used of the Six Gates and One. Many of them know some of the Palace’s secrets, either from experience or from whispers gleaned from adventurers who survived at least one foray into its hazards. Or, some whisper, from hidden lore handed down to the celebrants of the forbidden cult of Anmalakhan, still unquelled after so many years.

The Palace is a very large dungeon complex, comprising the tombs and appurtenant chapels and treasuries of at least a dozen sorceror-kings. There are extensive, and extremely deadly, traps all through the complex. A frontal assault will probably be the death of all but the most potent adventuring parties. However, an equally important part of adventuring in the Palace is to engage with the people of Ombridge, become part of their lives and their politics, and tease out the myriad hints and clues to the Palace’s secrets that are known among the townsfolk.

Originally published on Google Plus

Uplift in heroic fantasy RPGs

I reread Startide Rising and The Uplift War recently, and it occurred to me that that interspecies dynamic would be an interesting way of handling the profusion of intelligent races in an “everything in the books”-style D&D campaign.  Sure, maybe bugbears and ogres are basically the same thing, but that’s just because the illithids thought the aboleth had too good a thing going with ogres to let the idea go unswiped.  If you have a problem with that, I’m sure the beholders will be happy to field your complaints about their client race.  Or their patrons, if you can find the right Outer Plane.

Originally published on Google Plus

Alternate Alchemies

I’ve just been reading an article on alchemy which suggests that the Arab alchemists’ development of mineral acids — that is, acids stronger than the vinegar derivatives which were their predecessors — was far more valuable to civilization than if they had succeeded in transmuting base metals to gold.

It made me imagine an alternate world where alchemists did indeed learn the secret of transmutation, and metals are thus completely fungible, but where the strongest acids possible are highly concentrated solutions of acetic acid.

On the one hand, many technological applications would be eased — there would never be shortages of metals — and if transmutation could be applied to finished objects one could fabricate in a soft metal and then transmute to a hard one. On the other, chemical fertilizers and explosives would be impossible. No batteries, and some plastic would be impossible. Come to think of it, certain metals — aluminum, for example — might be unavailable; sure, they could be achieved through transmutation, but if the alchemists don’t know that a metal exists, they may never figure out how to make it.

It seems like an interesting way to kick alternate-historical industry in the rear right up to the beginning of the industrial age, at which point you’re screwed.

Valazdal the Undying
(Oct. 2, 2004)

The king of Valazdal — himself named Valazdal — is termed the Undying, because it is his blessing and his curse that death cannot hold him, and he is invariably reborn and rejuvenated following his bodily death. Unfortunately, his rejuvenation is not as simple as the resurrections spoken of in the codices. Instead, he rises from death as a revenant, a bloodthirsty undead fiend, and must be sated with great quantities of blood and flesh before he sleeps again and arises a second time as a living, youthful man.

For this reason, a death sentence in Valazdal is not as in other cities. The condemned are put to work, awaiting the day that the king dies. Some men, guilty of heinous crimes, have lived out their lives as slaves, waiting upon the king’s mortality. When the king dies, the condemned are trussed and left in the king’s sepulchre. When he arises, they become his food.  When the dead king’s hunger is sufficiently mild to spare some of the condemned, the reborn king commutes their sentence. When there are too few condemned to sate the king’s fury . . . it is an unsafe time to be a vagrant or a foreigner in Valazdal.

Valazdal itself has died from time to time, cast down by conquest or catastrophe. In these
times, the king’s wraith stalks the ruined streets, frustrating settlers and colonists until their blood restores him to life and health. Afterwards, he rebuilds, and Valazdal lives again.

The Trouble-Stones of the Pherissai

It was long the custom of Pherissai traders, when abroad from the factories of their families, to carry a so-called trouble-stone — a charm carved from soft stone. Whenever the trader found himself troubled or afflicted by misfortune, he would touch the stone and expel his trouble unto it by means of a simple incantation. A trouble-stone became an essential piece of equipment for any Pherissai who had need to think with unclouded mind in the midst of chaos and peril, as any trader must.

Trouble-stones also became an effective defense against pickpockets, as an uninitiated
cutpurse who handled a trouble-stone would find themselves heir to all the trouble stored within. Vagabonds and thieves soon learnt that a Pherissai pocket promised as much danger as a fortified villa.

In time, the disposal of the indispensable trouble-stones became a problem. When a trouble-stone became full, a trader would bring it home and store it in their family’s factory, exchanging it for a new-carved stone. Over the decades, every Pherissai clan came to possess thousands of used trouble-stones, each pulsing with the ill fortune of a dozen
expeditions, and no use for them.

As a result, the invention of curse-shot was most convenient. An adept of particular
insight and cunning hit upon a process by which a filled trouble-stone might be cut into small pieces and, along with a few dozen of its fellows and a slab of clay, shaped into a hefty sphere of dry ceramic — a curse-shot, charged with a deadly load of misfortune.

Without curse-shot, the Pherissai Interregnum would have been impossible. With it, a company of men and a catapult could besiege a city. A brief barrage of curse-shot, and the assaulted city would find itself beset by disease, famine, treachery, and previous unimagined fatal flaws in their fortifications.  The Pherissai company had merely to wait a few days before moving in to accept the surrender of a prostrate city.

Such a massive campaign of conquest could not be long sustained, of course, and in short order the Grand Exchange was riven with intrigues among families. The armies of Pherissa moved outward no longer, obliged as each brigade was to defend its patron family’s territorial claims. Worse, the once-inexhaustible reserves of trouble-stones began to run low.

In due time, of course, the curse-shot ran out entirely. At that point, the Pherissai had all
the trouble they could ever want.

The Autarchs of Cephlen
(Nov. 13, 2003)

West of the Diadems, the only true absolute rulers to survive are the Autarchs of Cephlen. One by one, the other great tyrannies have all fallen to degeneracy, corruption, and incompetence. Cephlen alone has retained the vigor of its autocracy, by means of a single, simple check on the Autarch.

The Senate of Cephlen is all but meaningless now, no more than a social club for the factors of Cephlen. It retains only this one task of government; however, that one task suffices.

No Autarch goes to war without the Standard of Cephlen, that mighty relic forged from the bones of a god. By the command of the first Autarch, the Standard is kept in a magically sealed chamber; only the sitting Autarch may enter, and only when ceremonially cleansed. The ablutions begin with steam baths and anointing with rare oils, and end when the Autarch submits to be shaved by a member of the Senate, elected by secret ballot.

Thus, to take Cephlen into war, the Autarch must place his life at the disposal of the representative of the Senate, the factors, and the people of Cephlen. This tradition has ended the lives of a few Autarchs. And it has surely averted many wars.

Dwarven Plate

Ever since the dwarves entered the family of nations, their warriors have been feared for their mighty weapons and armor, and their still mightier strength which shatters the strongest dwarven plate.

Pity it’s a crock.

You see, shortly after the dwarves started trading with other races, it became clear that their customers’ hunger for high-quality armaments was inexhaustible. This worried the Forgemasters, who felt, in a typically dwarven and clannish way, that it was perhaps not the best idea to equip a world full of dangerous non-dwarves with the best dwarvenkind had, no matter how well they paid.

Thus, all dwarven armor and weaponry made for external sale has a minor but fatal flaw concealed somewhere in the manufacture. Dwarven warriors are trained in the locations of these weak spots, which allows them to shear off blades and smash plate mail to shards when they hit the sweet spot juuuust right.

For a while, human knockoffs were a concern to them, but it appears that human smiths have taken to slavishly imitation of dwarven craftsmanship, including the flaws. Clearly, brains are in the beard.

Originally published on LiveJournal