Month: November 2015

OSR Demons, part 1

OK, let’s talk demons.

My first taste of Stormbringer’s demons was with The Madcap Laughs in White Dwarf back in… whoah! 1987. This was just after WD had become a house magazine but before they ditched the roleplaying to focus on Warhammer and miniatures.


This was the third edition of Stormbringer (the Games Workshop printing with the Peter Jones cover), which wasn’t much different from the first two editions. Before then magic had been D&D’s spells, point-and-click magic, and the idea of a sorcerer’s power being invested in a demonic proxy — a proxy with form, and personality, and a relationship to the summoner — blew my mind.

The fourth edition (Michael Whelan cover) spoiled demons. They were no longer summoned based on function (combat, desire, etc.) but instead build up with a point-buy “chaos value” and “demon breeds”. This change made them impersonal, no longer unique, relegated to pick-and-mix monsters. That persisted through the fifth edition (aka Elric!) but by then the magic system was watered down with RQ-style spells.

Later, Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone went back to using the terminology from Stormbringer 1e to describe demons — so maybe the authors Green, Whitaker and Nash agreed with me that the earlier version was better. But that product had god-awful black-on-grey and multiple font printing, so was nearly illegible.

Anyway… what follows are some ideas for translating SB3e style demons to an OSR/d20 system. I like this for a complete replacement for magic spells; if you want the same spell effects, the demons become containers for the spells and cast them on behalf of the caster. This first part is an overview, with mechanics to come in part 2.


One: Demon Anatomy

Demons have the following descriptive bits:

  • A unique Name (in The Madcap Laughs Ziamora’s demons are “Quolalola”, “Seepreest” and “Gjasajaguj”)
  • A Kind (Seepreest is a Demon of Desire)
  • A Form (Quolalola is “a giant seven-headed swan”.)
  • The various Services the Demon provides (depends on the kind of demon)
  • A Relationship with the conjurer.

Two: True Names

Beyond the Wall has rules for True Names of things (though it’s loose on where they originate from — should be part of the cosmology, see below). It’s up to the GM or group whether demons give their masters their true names, or just their common names.

Is the demon’s True Name known to the conjurer? Three options:

Yes, because that’s how the magician summons and binds a demon. This implies that there are demons “out there” with names that can be discovered by certain means. This implies a sort of otherworld that the demons come from, which may have a hierarchy or may be unstructured or chaotic (like an ocean where the big demons prey on the little ones)


Yes, because the True Name is given to the demon by the magician. This is the subjective demon-as-conjurer’s-personality version. This also implies that if the True Name is discovered by someone else then that person could have power not only over the demon but also the conjurer.


No. The magician summons the demon and the demon offers services in exchange for a relationship that fulfils a need; the True Name is kept back by the demon. If the conjurer (or anyone) discovers the True Name of the demon they will have complete power over it; for now, the conjurer just has a contract for services rendered. This version works best where there is an otherworld hierarchy, i.e. the demon has status or a role to fulfil in the demonic/angelic ranks. Maybe they’re offering their services on the side.

Three: Explanations for Demons

Stormbringer’s official dogma is that demons come from other planes where the owe fealty to the Lords of Chaos. But sorcerers are self-serving and deceitful individuals with a warped sense of reality, and we only have their word to go on.

Answer two questions:

  • do people believe in demons?
  • is that belief organised?

Suggest four tiers of belief and affiliation:


There are no answers for these things. There is no language to describe them. There is no identifiable pattern. There is nothing to learn. Summoning skills are intuitive acts of luck and will by isolated individuals, each with their own answers (Sorcerer)


Campfire tales and folk religion that finds answers for demons from the landscape, placing them in the context of a wider but diffuse spirituality in balance with the land, varying depending on which wise woman or priest you speak with. Demons are a bridge to the natural and spiritual world; some may be guides. Opinions vary from village to village (Beyond the Wall)


Large-scale collective beliefs, but no supremacy of any one; rival organised churches with clear heraldry and iconography; organisations that leverage the benefits of demons; negative associations are balanced with power and wealth (Stormbringer)


Large scale, highly developed human hierarchy that connects with an equally large scale of divine or demonic hierarchy. Theories become dogma; strands of belief are heresy. Objective notions of Good and Evil (In Nomine)

Four: Alignment and Need

Demons have needs (Sorcerer, before then Elric!/Stormbringer, though not so well developed). These needs seem random. Alignment can be a guide:

  • Chaotic needs: to do harm and transgress against society, serving oneself
  • Neutral needs: to identify with a natural state (a beast, a rock, a tree) and behave according to those needs (e.g. hunting and killing prey)
  • Lawful needs: to represent whatever stands for order and civilisation; serving institutions and principles

Needs are satisfied by the Relationship with the conjurer.


Five: Overview of Demon Kinds and Services

Stormbringer 1e has six different Kinds of Demons. The Kind says nothing about the demon’s appearance or origins — it’s all about the Services the demon provides. The taxonomy is according to function (i.e. what it can do for the summoner) rather than “breed” as in SB4e and later.

  • Demon of Combat come in two forms — either as weapons, or as Demon Fighters (basically monsters). Their powers are hitting and hurting things; could also include inducing fear, poisoning, inhibiting or restraining. (STR)
  • Demons of Protection also come in two forms, either as Demon Armour or as Guardians. There’s also some stuff about Wardpacts which the game interprets as invulnerability to a class of thing (following The Vanishing Tower). Services will be armour, soaking damage, cushioning, hiding, reflecting or redirecting damage. (CON)
  • Demons of Knowledge know specific facts, though they’re not infallable. They “will not fight under any circumstances”. Normally they’re summoned by a sacrifice of a piece of art or something, rather than a blood sacrifice which is usual for the more violent demons. Services include scrying and divination, but could also be elevating senses. (INT)
  • Demons of Travel help the sorcerer move around, whether it’s physical movement, teleportation or jumping to other planes of existance. (WIS)
  • Demons of Desire are wish-granters; they can procure objects (limited by their physical dimensions). They also tend to look attractive, and they can heal the sorcerer. (DEX)
  • Demons of Posession are bound into bodies or objects and can be ordered to do whatever the body it posesses is capable of doing; additionally they can leap from body to body, by overcoming magical resistance. Services will be kinds of enchantment i.e. charm, hold person (CHA)

I’ve mapped each demon onto a specific attribute — demons should work as Relationships (also I will work in rules for Harm). This may also be specifically useful for Whitehack. In part two I’ll talk about the mechanics.


Preface: Demons

A preface to something…

What are demons to your game world?

  1. Representatives of an absolute, objective evil (Hellblazer)
  2. Ancient races who walked the earth aeons ago (Buffy)
  3. Extra-planar beings separated from our world by a metaphysical barrier (Moorcock/Stormbringer)
  4. A breach in consensus reality (Sorcerer)
  5. A manifestation of personal power or psyche (also Sorcerer, early Stormbringer RPG)

That list moves from objective to subjective; in the middle point you get some kind of hand-waving “other dimensions, too numerous to count, fluid reality” explanation.

Consider two axes — on one you move between an objective and consensus reality to a subjective one, and on the other you move between summoning (and bargaining with) something other to conjuring something from the self. For example:


Until next time.

RPG First Look: Whitehack

I’ve said before that the OSR is like Linux:

OSR games are like Linux distributions: they reflect the operability ideals of the designers, they’re essentially a diffuse package of commands that the distribution maintainer curates and forces to operate together

These little differences between distros (package managers, system tools, desktop environment) form the basis of preference for Linux enthusiasts, but… they’re completely irrelevent to outsiders who make computing decisions on a completely different set of criteria (ideology, need for apps, shiny hardware).

And the OSR is like that. Outsiders can’t grok the difference between the retroclones, even if those differences are fairly significant. Their decision to look at OSR products comes from a different set of decision-making criteria (ideology, community they play with, style, genre, etc.).

In Decision Behaviour, Analysis and Support (excerpt here) Prof. Simon French discusses the “Strategy Pyramid”:


(also, another strategy pyramid — for another time)

The decision for “which OSR” or “which Linux” is Operational/Instinctive — it comes down to a set of low-level activities (which dice, ascending/descending AC, which commands). The decision to use or not use Linux in favour of Windows, or an OSR game in favour of, say, GURPS, is a strategic one with completely different criteria. For the RPG choice you’ll be thinking

  • What do my friends play/like?
  • What products are available in the shops?
  • What settings appeal to me?
  • What community do I identify with?

And so on. Yes, some of these have nothing to do with system — but they’re fair, high-level strategic decisions on which game to invest time in.

By now you’re thinking: what the hell has this got to do with Whitehack?


Christian Mehrstam’s Whitehack speaks the language of OSR — “zero edition roots”, streamlined rules, implied conversions from other OSR sources. Those markers help the OSR types identify this game as part of that family of games, and therefore something to be curious about. If that’s you, check out Sophia Brandt’s 7-part study where you can get the information you need to decide how Whitehack differs from your favourite OSR beast.

For the wider RPG audience for whom Whitehack is “just another D&D game” there’s not much reason to seek out those differences, and that’s a shame. So here’s where I break it down. Because this isn’t only an OSR game, it’s a conduit between the OSR and 90’s minimalist designs which also understands the indie drive towards emergent setting.

Founding Principles

In play Whitehack appears to be built on two very important principles:

  1. You can negotiate for advantage at any time.
  2. When you negotiate for advantage, you explain where the fictional source of that advantage comes from.

The first principle is dear to my heart and core to playing light freeform-style games such as Everway and WaRP/Over the Edge. But it’s the second that drives the emergent setting, growing the world over time. That same principle lies at the heart of indie darlings Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel.

Genre Aware

The genius in Whitehack is not just in its re-treading of the OSR mechanisms, though these are certainly innovative and sleek — it’s in the game’s awareness of genre and setting as they pertain to “adventure”. From the beginning Referees’s section, p.24:

Nobody ever comes “clean” to a game or a genre.

Then from “Hacking Your Notion of Normal” (p.25)

The expression “normal fantasy” may sound contradictory, but it isn’t… if you want to hack your group’s notion of what is normal, concentrate on a select few important aspects of the setting and leave the rest

and from “Switching or Mixing Genres” (p.25)

Genres are formalised answers to historical social needs, not just containers for stereotypes, tropes and typical trappings… Genres run much deeper. For example, science fiction answers the need to shed new light on common beliefs and conceptions.

From the outset Whitehack makes the correct assumption that the reader has their own biases and experience with the genre; it doesn’t work against that, rather provides a framework for emergent setting.

Fluid Framework

I’ll mention one aspect of the mechanics, which is the interaction of the Classes and Groups. Much like Numenera’s characters which are typically

adjective noun who verbs

Whitehack’s character classes are not vocational but only imply a core activity (Deft, Strong and Wise). The book encourages the creation of e.g. Deft Magicians and Wise Warriors with different interpretations on their vocation (a Wise Warrior is a strategist, for example).

Combining this with the different Group options — everyone gets two groups, which can be vocational, affiliation or even species — the result is almost the antithesis of D&D’s rigidly imposed class structure. Instead the classes are a starting point and a means to diverge from the traditional classes, while retaining the usefulness of D&D’s experience reward system.

The Booklet

Whitehack has a clear message to deliver, and is uncompromising as it is clear. It’s not available as an electronic version — it’s POD only, and the hardcover editions don’t ship outside North America. It’s also completely lacking any artwork — the cover is the character sheet, and the interior is 64 pages long with a few tables and diagrams but otherwise just text. This is a very interesting design statement about both the neutrality of the content (your genre, your emergent setting) and the way the content is to be consumed.

Closing Remarks

If you have a reason for buying something from Lulu and you’re even remotely interested, I would recommend Whitehack. In many ways it’s a deconstruction and reconfiguration of OSR mechanisms that empower both the GM and the players in owning their setting and exploring it in emergent fashion. But even better because it has the trappings of OSR it’s “compatible” with a broad range of sources, and has the potential to plug into other games. Mixing and matching Beyond the Wall/Further Afield (Threat Packs, Playbooks, Scenario packs) with Whitehack seems a distinct possibility with a bit of care.

I get a similar vibe that I got with Sorcerer and Sword — and while the latter is more genre-prescriptive, the same principles of ownership of one’s own world, and embracing the emergent nature of that world hold true. At the same time this feels as much like Everway and Over the Edge as it does D&D; and it’s a true “hybrid OSR” approach that marries a player-led narrative with traditional GM oversight.

I am truly excited.

Dorian Aquila: An Introduction

Today has been a good day. Taking my dad to the hospital has been… OK. I made a really good spag bol afterwards.

While I was waiting I wrote some of The Last Days Of Dorian Aquila, a storygame about a faux 17th century duellist. Including this relationship map:

Dorian_Relationship Map

And some fluff:

“The Last Days of Dorian Aquila: A Tragedy”

Dorian Aquila is a rake and a scoundrel. She is about to fight a duel and will likely not survive. These are her last days, where she settles her affairs. Who will she make amends with?

This is not an historically accurate game. Style-wise it looks a lot like the late 17th to early 18th century; but really that’s just a bunch of social conventions. You could transplant the setting to a fantasy setting, a space-opera setting, etc. I visualise it as being this period because I like frock coats and outrageous wigs.

These are the important conventions:

  • There is a mania for duelling, and people die every day over matters of honour.
  • Duelling is also formalised, with seconds to observe that everything is “fair”. This is used to mitigate against a charge of murder and hanging in the event of a fatality.
  • People are obsessed with honour.
  • People are also obsessed with social class. One can ascend through merit alone, but that is very rare; far more likely that one comes from money already. The latter will always consider themselves superior to the former.

Also, about female pronouns. I want to use female pronouns throughout. (If this bothers you as being a bit too politically correct I will just say this — it’s not intended to be politically correct, just political.)

You could take this world at face value where everyone is literally female — similar to the feminist utopia of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. Or you could take it as a statement that gender identification doesn’t really matter, such as in Anne Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, or where gender roles are fluid as in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand Of Darkness. Or you could just do what (I guess) a female audience usually does with male-pronoun fiction — imagine that at any point he may be substituted for she. Except the other way around. Obviously.

(Not politically correct. Just political.)

RPG First Look: Urban Shadows

We’ve got our 15th session of Apocalypse World coming up next week, and while I love playing PbtA (and the group I’m playing with) I’ve found it a real struggle being the MC.

  • Some of that’s on me. I wanted to run AW (and run the original) to challenge my habits, and engage with all the subsystems (hard moves, clocks, fronts) in earnest. I’m still learning, although the organisation of the book doesn’t help.
  • Some of it’s genre. AW is a particularly violent, desperate example; also much of it is territorial, where my preference in that genre is for the characters to get away from the settlement and explore the areas between (such as H.M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow, or Greg Saunders’ Summerland).
  • Some of it is the system. There is a whiff factor (our Gunlugger’s record on manipulation, for example). The system is specifically the author’s vision of the genre; if you’re not aligned, you can’t just wing it.

Anyway, Urban Shadows is me breaking my rule about no more rpg pdfs you will never read. The Halloween sale and the promise of an epub version tipped the scales. It’s post-WoD urban fantasy, Powered by the Apocalypse.

Urban Shadows Cover

The first few chapters are predictably moves, playbooks, and the other trappings of PbtA systems like harm. I have to say the writing is incredibly clear and well laid out. All my complaints about AW’s organisation are addressed, e.g. the group combat is both clearer and easier to find by comparison. This must be set against the fact that it’s still PbtA, complete with the jargon and mindset; so if you’re coming to it as a veteran of those games it’s perfect (and great for me as a second go at MCing), but if not it still represents a conceptual hurdle.

There’s not much genre exposition outside the playbooks, but that’s OK; this is a game for a post-Buffy, post-WoD audience. We have genre expectations and the game is aware of that. The genre-specific moves start to come out with Drama moves and Debt moves; in the former case the characters are wrestling with Corruption, which is not unlike MonsterheartsDarkest Self but with a slower climb and long-term effects as you gain moves at the cost of your soul.

PbtA has always been interesting for Advances; for the MC it’s great that the players can just claim advances without intervention, and negotiate for their own rewards. In US the conditions for advancing come from marking Factions (Mortality, Night, Power, Wild). You can’t mark one Faction more than once, and you have to mark all four to advance. I assume this means you have to constantly insert yourself into other people’s business. The actual advances are the usual, genre-keyed stuff — membership of groups, Corruption (q.v.), advancing the basic moves.

Then there’s the MC section, which reads just like all the others — you have an agenda, address the characters not the players, etc. It’s not really anything new, but it does a great job of refining the usual advice with examples of Soft and Hard Moves. The MC has the usual range of moves, some of which are for Factions, others for the City. There’s PvP, NPC, PC-NPC-PC triangles, and so forth; there’s a discussion of the various Playbooks (Archetypes); there’s themes and general advice for narration and MC behaviour. There’s a First Session portion which is completely familiar, but very nicely done.

There is a good bit about Teaching the Game, which acknowledges the effort required in learning and the need for coaching new players without PbtA experience. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it in other PbtA games.

Threats are nothing new, but vastly improved for clarity — the section on Clocks, for example. Threats are thematically linked through Storms (Fronts).

The last chapter deals with creating new moves and the various traps, and a really simple but innovative method of handling players who missed the last session (Love Letters).


This feels like a true, second-generation PbtA effort; there’s a clarity, a focus on teaching players and teaching the MC that has been missing. It’s as if the authors have recognised that their do not have a direct social connection to the communities and original authors to make up the shortfall in understanding.

This fixes two of my three complaints about Apocalypse World, one being clarity of the text and the second being my preference for genre. The jury is out on the third — the whiff factor — and for that, we’ll need to play.

I have a similar feeling about Urban Shadows to my feelings on Silent Legions — and granted these are two completely different approaches to roleplaying, but they’re both genre-aware, and both toolkit approaches that put the tools in the GM’s hands.

Where should I position this game with its PbtA Urban Fantasy peers, Monsterhearts and Monster of the Week? If Monsterhearts is Teen Wolf and Vampire Diaries, and Monster of the Week is Buffy and Supernatural, Urban Shadows is somewhere between the two — probably Lost Girl or Mortal Instruments or True Blood.

Recommended, if you like that sort of thing.

urban shadows

(I would have preferred this for the cover, though…)

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