StormHack: Demon Realms

The higher (moral, magical, macroscopic) external universe is composed of six Demon Realms, a pattern which repeats and resonates throughout all creation and is mirrored by the (individual, microscopic) internal universe within all sentient beings capable of moral choices.

This internal universe is a sequence of six impulses that direct individual behaviour. Mediating between the internal and external are six Pillars of Capability that form the mind-body composite.

Game significance of the Demon Realms:

  • The six-fold attribute/ability spread should be familiar to OSR fans. The Ability Scores themselves (the “mediating Pillars of Capability”) are used mostly as you’d expect, for task checks, saving throws and other random rolls.
  • Impulses come in at the personal level; they’re used to tie freeform background stuff like personal history, relationships and so on into the rest of the game. All PCs have a number of lines of Backstory which are just single sentences that describe formative history, personal views, affiliations to certain groups, etc. and each of these lines hinges on a particular Impulse.
  • Finally on the universal, cosmic or magical scale there are Demons. Each type of Demon is tied an Ability Score and is the manifestation of the character’s potential in that Realm. Demons provide all of the exceptional powers in the game.

Realm of Violence

The Realm of Violence represents directed force. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous the directed energy that burns away corruption and extraneous matter; and at the most base, absolute chaos and destruction.

Realm of Violence Significance
Impulse: Forceful aggressive, violent, and destructive actions
Ability: Strength fighting; shoving, lifting, or applying force; restraining or hanging on
Demons of Violence Demon Weapons and Demon Fighters

Realm of Durance

The Realm of Durance represents survival. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous fertility, health, and harvest; and at the most base, perpetual agony.

Realm of Durance Significance
Impulse: Steady patience, persistence, reliability
Ability: Constitution working; travelling; staying awake; resisting pain, fatigue or illness; Body-based saving throws
Demons of Durance Demon Armour, Guardians and Wards

Realm of Flux

The Realm of Flux represents dynamic change and motion. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous change and evolution; and at the most base, confusion and entrapment, and distortion of time and space.

Realm of Flux Significance
Impulse: Quick speed, balance, reactions
Ability: Dexterity moving quickly; moving stealthily; manual dexterity; reactions and Reflex-based saving throws
Demons of Flux Demons of Movement, Teleport Demons, Gates

Realm of Science

The Realm of Science represents understanding. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous foresight and truth; and at the most base, the boundless truths of the universe, and therefore the futility of mortal existence.

Realm of Science Significance
Impulse: Curious asking questions, insight
Ability: Intelligence situational awareness; languages; spotting clues
Demons of Science Demons of Knowledge, Divination and Scrying

Realm of Desire

The Realm of Desire represents dreams and imagination. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous the realisation of desires and the formation of new worlds; and at the most base, the inability to separate truth from illusion.

Realm of Desire Significance
Impulse: Sensitive intuition, empathy, feeling, the subconscious, dreams
Ability: Wisdom gut feel and intuition; telling reality from illusion; Will-based saving throws
Demons of Desire Demons of Illusion and Reality-Shifting

Realm of Majesty

The Realm of Durance represents interaction and leadership. The Gods of this Realm (if they exist) represent at their most virtuous organisation and moral leadership; and at the most base, falsehood and self-serving manipulation of others.

Realm of Majesty Significance
Impulse: Vocal expression, articulation, creativity, charisma
Ability: Charisma intimidating, charming and leading people
Demons of Majesty Demons of Command, Control and Possession

Summary

Impulses, Ability Scores and Demons map onto each other like this:

Impulses Ability Scores Demon Realms
Forceful Strength (STR) Realm of Violence
Steady Constitution (CON) Realm of Durance
Quick Dexterity (DEX) Realm of Flux
Curious Intelligence (INT) Realm of Science
Sensitive Wisdom (WIS) Realm of Desire
Vocal Charisma (CHA) Realm of Majesty

5 Alternatives to Vampire 5e

Bothered by the new Vampire 5th Edition Alpha? Here are five games you can play instead:

Don’t Rest Your Head

If you want to really focus on Hunger Dice-like mechanics — which are a really good idea — try Don’t Rest Your Head which is just waiting to be hacked into a Vampire-like game. For example, just rename Exhaustion dice Hunger and use Madness dice for Disciplines. There’s some conceptual massaging to be done (when Madness dominates it’s clearly Frenzy, but Frenzy should come about from Hunger, etc.) but iron those out and you’ve probably got a very tidy system.

Nephilim

If you want to play a supernatural arsehole who basically hijacks a mortal body and rides it like they stole it, play Nephilim. Use it for long-lived vamps who’ve endured periods of torpor between their “past lives”. There are secret societies galore. Granted, the system and setting need some full-on reupholstering but it goes back to a VtM 1e conceit — that basically all mythical things have their roots in Vampires (you know, Baba Yaga is a Nosferatu, etc.). Use the Transformations for revealing the vamp’s monstrous nature (a bit like the woge in Grimm, maybe).

Silent Legions

If you want to play in a vast, world-spanning conspiracy of vampire society, maybe built it from the ground up with Silent Legions. For “Elder Gods” read “Antediluvians”. Then build all of the descendants and followers as magical secret societies etc, and have them play a sort of “great game” of politics and nonsense. Use the Kelipot rules for special areas like Elysium and vampiric domains. Yeah, I know they’re like magical other dimensions — re-imagine them as areas outside normal human space, the underbelly where the natural order is reversed and the vamps have control, etc. And sure, you need to do something to make vampire PCs — my best bet so far is to do something with sanity rules and make the pursuit of sanity the same as the pursuit of blood, or something.

Over The Edge

If frankly you’re not bothered about actual rules, which let’s face it we never really bothered with them back in the 90s, you just want to free-form through the game and you need the bare minimum of a framework to support it — why not use the WaRP system? I’ve been thinking about this on and off for some time. And honestly it’s got most of what you need — the Fringe Powers work, and the Psychic Pool and/or Experience Dice work for a temporary resource you can spend when you really need it. Maybe just make a Blood Pool of dice to power your Fringe Powers and otherwise use for Blood Buffs, and replenish it by roleplaying the hunt. Job done.

Vampire the Masquerade, 1st Edition

Back in the 90s before all the splatbooks, before Werewolf and the others, before being collared in goth clubs having your ear bent about metaplot, there was only one rulebook with messy layout and inconsistent rules and a pretentious goth bibliography/soundtrack. If you’re not so bothered about Rules as Written (we weren’t) Vampire the Masquerade First Edition is as worthwhile as any version. For me it’s the best; VtM 1e left a lot of blank space to fill in (lupines, cities, etc.). I also liked the non-glossy pages and the understated fonts and understated clans and the many ideas for chronicles. Yeah, OK, we’ll never get that back, but at least we were free to create our own incongruous scenarios and sophomoric characters

StormHack SRD Lite: Drama and Adventure Games

An update to the SRD mini-document for StormHack. What this includes:

  1. the “Drama game” which is how you play in downtime or flashbacks, for dramatic scenes/origin stories etc.
  2. the “Adventure game” which is basically an OSR game.

What it doesn’t contain are details on the Demon Ladders which just wouldn’t fit, but those will come shortly in the complete SRD. But it should give you sort of an idea on how to play.

Here’s the two sides. Print them on one sheet of paper, and make the little booklet as previously shown; when you open it up you should have the two modes of play in there.

Here’s the thing in PDF, which may be useful if you’ve got a printer that does double-sided printing.

Pregens with Hawkwind

This is my forthcoming Eternal Champion style game for a house con:

The WishTower At The Junction Of Nine Planes

Once in a generation the WishTower intersects all dimensions. The Sorceress who resides within will grant one wish, without reservation, to any Champion who penetrates her inner sanctum. You are that Champion; chosen by your people, groomed from birth with a sword in hand, and send far from home to await the Tower’s reappearance at the very edge of Lawful land, where only rough weeds cling to nightmare cliffs over a roiling lambent sea, and the monuments to past Champions lie shattered and sand-blown, and clouds of ash consume the suns.

  • Other Champions from other nations also wait: will you fight, or work together?
  • Will you embrace your past, or reject it?
  • Will you wish for your family, your nation, or yourself?

Right, so I have a game idea. Now I need pre-gens. What better inspiration than Hawkwind?

Arrival in Utopia (from Choose Your Masques)

Stasis, the World City at the End of Time is technologically brilliant yet artistically stagnant, and spirals towards cosmic insignificance. An avatar, dressed in archaic armour, is sent back in time to seek the source of Chaos and re-ignite the Sun.

We dreamed of golden shining towers // Of lazy days and thrilling hours // Fields of wonder, streets so fair // Of amber ships which sailed, through the air // Dreamed of steel and glass and wire // Of days of wine and nights of fire // Dreamt of dogs that talked like boys // Of girls who flew, of unnamed joys // And now our dreams are true // We don’t know what to do // For we don’t like it here // There’s nothing for us to fear // Bored mindless in Utopia

The Sleep Of A Thousand Tears (from The Chronicle of the Black Sword)

An ancient sword Qanjana, sworn to protect the mortal society that owns it but desperate to be free to return to its own dimension. Its demon manifests as a drooling, whining albino who carries it aloft in battle; the sword has full use of the albino’s senses and voice box.

With your white arms wrapped around me // And locked in embrace so cold // We slept a thousand years or more // To awake in a land of gold // Where, the king of the world was a creature // Both man and woman and beast // Under landscape boiled with a million strange flowers // And the sun set in the east // And we were heroes you and I // By virtue of age and skill // And we rode to the land at the edge of the skies // To an emerald tower on a hill

Infinity (from PXR5)

A young knight in the service of Queen Antipathe, sworn to protect the Vale from alien invaders. She was not always a knight; once she was a twelve-year old child in a world far away who ventured into a forest alone and was trapped in Antipathe’s dream world, where she was aged magically to young adulthood. Despite her longing for home she has come to love the people of the Vale as much as she hates her mistress.

I met her in a forest glade // Where starbeams grew like trees // I did not take her for a witch // She wasn’t what she seemed // She turned the key of endlessness // And locked me in a dream // Infinity

Sonic Attack (first appearing on Space Ritual)

A weary warrior wearing white plate armour ringed with black grommets to dampen vibrations at different frequencies. He is a veteran of the Sonic Wars, where both sides employ sonic weapons and sonic drugs which resonate key areas of the brain to control sleep and emotion. Their world is a wasteland where the years-old remnants of aural detonations still resonate in unexpected patterns, making any journey outside a soundproofed Dome hazardous. In this world the ultimate act of intimacy is to remove one’s ear pods and listen to another human being.

The warrior’s generals want a weapon to end the war. The warrior craves one thing: silence.

These are all signs of imminent sonic destruction // Your only protection is flight // If you are less than ten years old // Remain in your shelter and use your cocoon // But remember Help no-one else

Magnu (from Warrior at the Edge of Time)

They terraformed the Sun! The golden knight rides the solar flares towards the Edge Worlds, bringing the message of the Solar Church to one and all, with a simple message — embrace the New Light, or be incinerated. Now they have travelled further than ever before, with the intention of illuminating the entire universe…

Sunbeams are my shafts to kill // All men who dare imagine ill // Deceit that fears the light of day // Fly from the glory of my ray // Good minds open and take new light // Until we diminish by the reign of night

Fable of a Failed Race (from Quark, Strangeness and Charm)

It is heresy to claim that there was ever a world other than this. Sand-blown and sterile where a fat green sun wreathed in flocks of monstrous crows presides over the half-submerged Pyramid Cities. A heretic priest is the last hope of the failing race; they will journey far away to find the source of life and return life to the surface.

Our legends tell we came from a seed // That traveled at a whirlwind speed // Til it came to rest upon this land // That once was green and is now all sand // That buried us up to our eyes // And made us watchers of the skies // Til the shadow wings came for our sight // And left us to conspire with night.

StormHack SRD Lite

Working on the SRD for StormHack. I’ve changed the system a bit since the playtest at Concrete Cow. The revised version has an “interior game” and an “exterior game”, something I’ve been noodling with the idea for nearly 3 years in Beyond the Wall (character sheets here). Basic idea:

  1. The Adventure game happens outside the “village” (the settlement, city, etc.). Play this like an OSR game (e.g. WhiteHack or Beyond the Wall).
  2. The Drama game happens either in Downtime (i.e. “back in the village”) or as Flashbacks between the adventure scenes. Run these as you would Dramasystem by playing out the character’s relationships (“Bonds”) and possibly with another player roleplaying the other end of the relationship. The outcome generates tokens that can be spent in the Adventure game.
  3. It’s up to the players and GM how much you play flashbacks vs. the adventure portion.
  4. (Yes, similar to Night Witches although note that I had this idea back in August 2014…)

Anyway, I went from writing a monolithic document to trying the SRD on a single page and from there a little 8 page A6 pamphlet (made like this).

Here’s the image file:

The margins are screwed up at the moment. The reverse side will be instructions for the Drama and Adventure games but I haven’t written that yet. The plan is to use this for both an Eternal Champion type game, and Black Mantle.

More to come.

Pale Assassins

This rough game sketch follows some ideas laid down in the latest Fictoplasm podcast about Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.

The General Idea

First, influences, a bit of this and that:

  • Books: Pale Fire (Nabokov), The Land of Laughs (Carroll), Weaveworld (Barker)
  • Film and TV: Twin Peaks, Riverdale, It Follows
  • Comics: Planetary issue 9 (“Planet Fiction”) (Warren Ellis)
  • RPGs: Mage: The Ascension, Over The Edge, Unknown Armies, Changeling: The Lost

In summary, a lot like a contemporary game, a liminal fantasy, magical realism, a setting that looks like the real world but with weirdness.

Second, the pitch.

The characters are exiles from “Ruritania”, a.k.a. The Old Country. This is a place that (mostly) exists outside the game area.

Most of the time the characters have settled in a “Ruritanian colony” in The New Country. This colony isn’t really a real place, but it’s close enough to all the real places in the New Country that most non-Ruritanians, or “normal people” could not tell the difference. It fits right in with their world, they can easily travel to it, etc.

What do the PCs do in this place? Well, any kind of modern drama/investigative type of game. The world looks like our world, and the people inside it behave accordingly, and most of the time you follow the characters around and see how their lives link up.

But at some point, Ruritania intrudes on the real world. Ruritania is the exotic, the weird, the magical. It’s also subjective; Ruritania means different things to different characters. And it’s possible to hold a personal view of Ruritania and experience someone else’s version. Ruritania is a single place but viewed from many different perspectives.

The default setup is that assassins from Ruritania are stalking the characters. The game should play out episodically like a drama, soap opera, police procedural, etc. with a weekly (well, short) story arc. But the Ruritanian arc is long-term. As things get stranger, the assassins get closer to where the PCs are; and when they are close enough, they strike.

System Approach

The goal is to run a game like Twin Peaks with “real” people and their personal interests and drama. Most of the time things are perfectly mundane but at points the strangeness intrudes.

Dramasystem should work very well for setting up the web of relationships. Where Dramasystem fails for procedural bits, consider the procedural approach in Malandros.

Also consider the WaRP system, which works nicely for very light characters. WaRP is very neat looking with the Central Trait, Side Traits and Negative Trait.

Consider the involvement of NPCs in Dramatic and Procedural scenes. A lot of Dramasystem supposedly focuses inward; but a game like this needs external characters to come from outside and connect with the interior characters.

Use a sort of location tagging system. Rate this numerically:

  • 0 for “real world”
  • 1 for “almost real world”; the default state for a Ruritanian colony
  • 2-3 for “intrusion”, that is any strangeness, alternative reality
  • 5 is full-on Ruritania; the magical or weird reality that is stalking the characters.

Locations in the game world can have ratings that go up and down. These ratings represent difficulties for passing into certain areas. See the Boundaries bit, next.

During the game, each character will have a clock which goes up or down. As their rating increases they become more sensitive, more connected with the secret world (criminal underworld, psychic world, dream world, etc.). If this is handled using an Apocalypse World style of “hard moves” then above a certain threshold on the clock certain options are opened to the GM to take hard moves on behalf of the Ruritanian assassins, representing their progress towards the characters.

Additionally when the characters are “in Ruritania” (i.e. in the psychic landscape) they may have restricted actions depending on what permission they have to be there — this fits with e.g. a dream world where certain moves simply aren’t available owing to dream logic.

What is Ruritania?

“Ruritania” represents somewhere far away, magical, normally separate from reality; a higher world, a dream world, an idealised state, a place yearned for. It’s the Black and White Lodges in Twin Peaks, the higher universe of Yesod in the Book of the New Sun, the dream worlds of Dreamscape or Nightmare on Elm St, and so on.

Ruritania in the game is an unattainable state — and it’s normally a place the characters are fleeing from, and from whence they are pursued with lethal intent.

But there are Ruritanian colonies for the exiles; decide whether these are created consciously or happen spontaneously. Maybe they are necessary for survival; the Ruritanians can sustain themselves for a short while in the real world as vampires by feeding off individual dreamers, but for long term health they need to be in a place of stability. Maybe Ruritanian exiles gathering together in one place is a risky strategy since it attracts attention, but they’re forced to get together to survive.

What happens when normal people who are touched by Ruritanian unreality leave? Are they haunted? Are they infected? Is Ruritania a transmissible condition?

Drawing Boundaries

  1. Use a location tagging system to map out the play area
  2. Partition the areas in the map with clear boundaries, and rank these areas according to the previous scale: 0 for real world, 1 for not-quite-there, 2 for magical realism, etc.
  3. Consider that some of these areas can be reached normally, but the magical or secret or mysterious part can only be accessed with certain permissions. Draw these as circles with cross the main boundary.

See the example for Twin Peaks:

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks as an example:

  • “Ruritania” is the Black Lodge
  • The Assassin is Windom Earle
  • Twin Peaks is a colony for Ruritanian exiles, some of whom are magically attuned e.g. Laura Palmer, Sarah Palmer, the Log Lady, Agent Cooper, Garland Briggs, Hawk
  • The Red Room, Agent Cooper’s dictaphone messages to Diane, Tibet, the Log Lady’s log, the owls in the forest, visions by various characters (e.g. the one Garland Briggs relates to Bobby) and possibly even the FBI represent higher states of consciousness

The Map

Several locations. Rating indicates how far they are removed from reality:

The Game

If you were playing Twin Peaks most characters would be drawn together by Laura Palmer’s murder. Agent Cooper travels in from outside but the other characters are already in the location.

The law enforcement characters and indeed everyone affected by Laura Palmer’s death will be interested in getting answers. This would be the arc plot; over the course of the game the Assassin will draw closer and the Black Lodge exert more of an influence.

But there should be episodic drama too, and that’s what the characters should be doing week on week. Dramasystem offers a nice structure to let players frame scenes so they each get spotlight. Consider the balance of incentives in pursuing individual dramatic poles vs. the arc plot.

Ruritania, Magic and Unreality

Agent Cooper’s actions are restricted in the Red Room, and early on he’s only allowed to be a spectator and only to receive cryptic information. He only accesses the room in dreams. All of these point to the level of permission he has to act freely in the Red Room (and the Black Lodge), and (in game terms) the moves he can make in that environment. Furthermore the advent of his dreams is a result of ramping up of weirdness and the psychic world penetrating the real world when he’s in Twin Peaks.

Eurgh

This is what happened when I opened my new bottle of Montblanc Lavender Purple:

You could be forgiven for thinking that’s just dried ink inside the cap, but look at around 8 o’clock and you can see a big fuzzy growth, as well as some stringy stuff in the middle which could be slime or it could just be ink precipitates.

I went for a refund rather than replacement since the stock was all from the same batch (Dec 2020) and replacements could easily be contaminated and/or undertreated with biocide.

There are a few examples of mouldy Montblanc inks on t’internet (more Lavender Purple, and Yellow) although the name usually associated with bottle slime is J. Herbin who had issues in 2010 — caused by challenges of using ingredients that were safer for operators but harder to mix with water, so their treat of biocide wasn’t consistent across all batches (letter here).

Cow Report part 1: Playtesting

Here’s what happened when I went to Concrete Cow a couple of weeks ago. I ran StormHack in the morning slot, then played in Matt Sanderson’s Kult 4e game (I believe the KS playtest version, only partially translated into English) followed by Scott Dorward’s Cthulhu Dark session in the evening.

This first part is a sort of designer diary, mostly about things that went wrong. I’ll talk about the other games I played in part 2.

StormHack

I did a playtest for StormHack. To save time I didn’t write a new scenario but instead grabbed the short and classic See Hwamgaarl and Die from the Sorcerers of Pan Tang supplement from Stormbringer 4th Edition.

I think the scenario went OK (it’s railroady as hell, but works for a fixed-time slot), but on the other hand 75% of the session involved hardly any dice rolling at all. Normally I’m fine with that but it’s hardly a stress test of the system.

The Walkover

The session was too easy. That’s partly a matter of system tuning and scaling but it was mainly caused by three design decisions:

  • Players roll to hit against the threat of damage if they fail (Apocalypse-world style). Keep successfully hitting and you don’t take damage.
  • Rolling was under attribute with a d20, Whitehack style (mostly).
  • Skills allow you to roll with advantage, i.e. roll two dice and pick the result you want.

I checked the probabilities of rolling with advantage; it works out that an advantage is the equivalent of a whopping +5 on your attribute. No wonder everyone was winning.

More importantly this asymmetry just didn’t work with the players. It isn’t “trad”, and it certainly isn’t “OSR”. It wasn’t relatable. And that’s the biggest take-away I had: I wanted an OSR game that didn’t deviate too far from the framework, and I’d added these bits that did not do what I set out to do.

Dice Clocks and Carcosa Hit Dice

See here. These worked OK but for two issues. On the GM side they count down the enemy’s hit points nicely but some players found it difficult to imagine the whole mass of dice as representing several antagonists at once. The idea is that the mass of dice represents the whole threat, and once you’ve knocked out the dice all the antagonists are either dead or fleeing.

But some players need to know how many people they’re fighting, which means how many hit dice per person. This made for a weird kind of double accounting: I had the dice clock down on the table but I still had to translate that into actual numbers of people that they could count down in their heads.

I think this is just a small cognitive hump that needs to be overcome. The other issue was much harder: some players didn’t get the idea of rolling their hit dice on the table, Carcosa style. Whenever dice are rolled the instinct is immediately to snatch them up again (I believe Sorcerer has this problem) rather than let them sit. And the players can be bad at keeping their Hit Dice in play separate from all the other little puddles of dice that are just standing by. And last, when they took hits they looked to the character sheet for a hit point track instead of sacrificing the Hit Dice on the table.

I still think having the GM roll a pool of hit dice for the threat in the middle of the table works as something to focus on. There are things you can do with that (different colours for morale dice, using d8 for demon dice, etc.). But this is a tool to present a heterogeneous body of monsters as a single threat to chew on. You don’t need to do that the other way; each PC is an individual and their character sheet will do fine.

Funny Names

I had some new properties like Heartstrings (after J. Gregory Keyes’ The Waterborn) and Quick. Heartstrings were just Hit Dice and calling them a funny name just confused everyone. As for Quick (a sort of combination of luck/fate points, insight and reflexes) it could work but there was just too much of it as a burnable resource. Besides that stuff normally comes from Ability scores and saving throws. Again, I’d deviated from the OSR plan.

The Demons

This was the biggest issue. The idea of what demons are wasn’t communicated adequately, for example one player treated their demon as an autonymous NPC whereas it’s really a thrall. The main problem was not enough focus on the relationship between owner and demon (see here) so not enough hard bargaining. In the back of my mind Demons are supposed to work like the Shadow in Wraith the Oblivion, and can be played by others at the table within very tight guidelines. The scenario didn’t test that at all.

Demons were supposedly powered by Quick, i.e. spend a point of Quick to get the demon’s Service. Fine in theory but in practice Quick never ran out (one of the players suggested bidding Ability Score points instead, which would have a lot more bite).

So in summary a lot that didn’t go the way I planned but the upside is, I think it’s all fixable; mostly by going back to the original premise, i.e. remixing the OSR portion to add the demon relationships without too much much clever clever changes to combat etc. that aren’t really needed.

That’s all for now. Part 2 will cover the games I played.