Sunday, August 29, 2021

It's 2021 and the Dream is Dead

So reads the cover caption of Mayfair's Underground, published in 1993.  Taking place in 2021, Underground is unusual in terms of genre; perhaps “dystopian super-hero” might be the best categorization.  According to the first chapter, “the world of 2021 is clearly a cold and dreary rat trap dominated by violent men and women who shoot or foreclose first and ask questions later.”

Writer Ray Winninger has contributed a variety of table-top role-playing game products; most recently, he has an “Additional Design” credit on last year's Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.  However, the first textual matter in the book is a poem by William S. Burroughs.  This is a clue to the reader that the game is going to a dark place.  In fact, the full page illustration on page 102 focuses on a person about to commit suicide.  Yet the game is not without (gallows) humor.  Tastee Ghoul, “a chain of fast food restaurants specializing in cannibal cuisine,” has as a motto, “Are you a people person?”  Among other topics, Underground is a commentary on consumerism.  Here is the ultimate extension of consumerism; the consumer becomes indistinguishable from the product.

How did such a strange world come to be?  In August, 1996, “a life-pod launched from an interstellar starship crash-landed in the Florida Everglades.”  The two aliens on-board died as a result.  Although the aliens were “totally unlike any creature mankind had ever imagined,” they are also described as “lobster-like.”  So, the first point of divergence from our reality is that lobsters cannot be imagined.  “The aliens' technology was found to be based entirely around the manipulation of amino acid chains” and this technology held “the clues needed to unlock the mysteries of quantum theory, unified fields, and genetics...”

Because the U.S. Government did not disclose all aspects of the alien technology to the world, a Second Cold War resulted among the “three major trading blocks:  the North American Confederation, headed by the United States; the European Common Market, headed by Neo-Deutschland... and the Far East Collective, headed by mainland China.”

Also According to the first chapter...

...technological advances derived from the pod combined with the political situation wrought by the new Cold War to dramatically reshape the world.  All across the globe, the gap between the upper and lower classes grew broader, crime and other social ills corrupted large portions of the planet, and multi-national corporations grew larger and more powerful than ever before.  Shortly after the turn of the century, warfare evolved into a business as multi-national corporations organized large, technologically sophisticated armies capable of rapid deployment to any hot spot on the planet...  Only a few years after the first corporate army took to the battlefield, all three of the major trading blocks were routinely hiring corporate soldiers to intervene in scores of Third World squabbles and conflicts in the hope of protecting and expanding their economic interests...

One of the so-called militant corporations, Allied Mayhem™ Inc., “learned to modify human genetic tissues, turning test subjects into 'super-men' capable of dominating a modern battlefield.”  However, “stabilizing the genetic enhancement process required a living subject with a seriously impaired capacity to replace lost body cells.”  Originally, AMI used brain-dead bodies that were cryogenically frozen in the twentieth century but, “Due to their artificial brains, the enhanced soldiers were easy to outsmart and frequently failed to follow all but the simplest orders.”

In 2014...

Allied Mayhem began enhancing live volunteers in limited numbers.  Although this latest generation of enhanced soldiers was very effective in battle, the new process was ultimately deemed unstable and abandoned.  During the many months that AMI scientists spent conquering the cellular regeneration problem, they failed to recognize psychological instability as an even more profound obstacle to the enhancement of live subjects.  The first such subjects who awoke to discover that they were suddenly capable of lifting cars, flying, and projecting powerful force fields all lost their grip on reality and went mad.  AMI researchers ultimately discovered that such a radical shift in world view was simply too much for a conscious human mind to handle.

The solution devised by AMI's head of the Genetic Enhancements Division was to have enhancement subjects “spend fourteen months in a sensory deprivation tank wired into” a virtual reality environment based on a super-hero comic book.  During this time, “the computer's program enables the subject to relive his or her entire life as it might have occurred in the four-color” comic book setting.  In the simulation, the subject acquires enhanced abilities while scientists confers those same enhancements to the subject's physical form.  “Once the process is complete and the subject is removed from sensory deprivation,” we learn, “AMI psychologically reconditions the subject to the real world, though a psychological acceptance of his or her newly acquired abilities lingers on within the individual's subconscious mind alongside a faint memory of his or her virtual life.”

Important highlights of the world of 2021 include:

  • The second cold war has a hidden impact on society
  • The U.S. government closely monitors its citizens
  • The demand for (military) recruits is high
  • Some forms of popular entertainment are becoming propaganda
  • Unskilled veterans returning to the U.S. often turn to crime
  • Foreign affairs are more complex than ever
  • The wars are changing the very nature of mankind

The player characters are super-powered veterans subject to “all sorts of bigotry and prejudice.”  With regard to these veterans, “most are neurotic, slightly detached from reality, and prone to extreme mood swings.”  Additionally, for some of the veterans, the virtual reality experience instills “a 'comic book' world view and begin to interpret life as a series of struggles between 'heroes' and 'villains.'”  Ultimately, “Given the growing alienation of the lower classes and the current climate of predatory corporate practices, a few such [veterans] look upon AMI and the American government as 'master villains' who have betrayed the American way.”  Such veterans formed the titular Underground activist group.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Pages from Spellbooks (part III)

Five years ago, your humble host published two posts (here and here) providing examples of what pages in spellbooks might look like.  Below are nine more examples derived from 'real world' sources; however, not all of these sources are associated with magic in the real world.  As usual, Thoul's Paradise disclaims any responsibility for circumstances arising from the use or misuse of the following material.

Spells have to come from somewhere.  For a warlock with a “Fiend” patron, perhaps the “Fiend” possesses the body of the warlock and inscribes a new spell in the Book of Shadows.  How might such an inscription look?  Well, a 17th century nun was said to have been possessed by the Devil himself.  Of course, having possessed a nun, Satan indulged in the scandalous behavior of writing a letter.  This is the result.  Presumably, a warlock would know how to decipher it but then again, Old Scratch might just be playing a prank.  Seriously, can you trust someone known as the Prince of Lies?

Speaking of the Devil, the cover of Secrets of Black Art makes some bold promises, but does it deliver?  If it were legitimate, wouldn't it be Secrets of ye Olde Black Art ?  In actuality, the first half of the book is a hodgepodge of topics like mesmerism and folk magic written in the Victorian era.  A clever spellcaster might use this cover for his or her actual spellbook; anyone coming across the tome would assume it was useless in terms of genuine magic and disregard it.  The second half of the book is a novelty item catalog, which stands to reason given it was published by a company that sold novelty items.  If we assume that Secrets of Black Art somehow imparts magical abilities to its owner, perhaps the 'novelty items' are material components.

Speaking of spell components, when dealing with eldritch energies, every nuance is important.  A finger quivering incorrectly may effectuate an undesirable result.  (“...hand movements are usually required in order to control and specify the direction, target, area, etc., of the spell effects.”  – DMG 1e, p. 40)  As such, spellbooks should address somatic components.  Here we see notes on thumb rotation – and none of that high-falutin' theory, just honest-to-goodness praxis.

Utriusque Cosmi Historia

Each spellbook has a “unique system of notation used by the wizard who wrote it.”  Not only are spellbooks encrypted, but they must convey abstruse information.  Wizards might express such knowledge in imaginative ways.


'Pattern poetry' presents different 'layers' of information to those in the know.  This method may be an efficient means for a wizard to encode the various particulars of a spell.

De laudibus sanctae crucis

Esoteric imagery may be a useful way (or perhaps the only way) to impart thaumaturgical concepts.

Cabala, Spiegel derr Kunst und Natur in Alchymia

This next page has a hole.  Is it due to wear and tear of an adventuring spell caster's lifestyle?  Or was the name of an ultramundane entity written on this segment of parchment?  An entity so horrific – so abominable – that its very name is rejected by our reality?

Book of Ballymote

Sometimes spells written in or on items other than spellbooks.  Here is how a spell scroll might appear.

Ripley Scroll (detail)

In a previous post, we explored the possibility of spells being recorded on alternative media.  A lazy wizard might want to forgo a spellbook altogether.  Why bother with tediously turning pages when you can just inscribe all of your pertinent spell information on your staff?  It will never leave your side; security and convenience both.

Santiago Staff (detail)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Journey to Stonedeep (spoilers)

Art by Ed Lee

The introductory adventure (or “ready-to-run quest”) provided in 1995's Everway Box Set takes up about half of the 64-page Gamemastering Guide.  It is a very good example of what an introductory adventure should be:  it provides options for the gamemaster, explains the likely results of those options, describes probable choices the players may make, and the ramifications of those choices.  In short, 'Journey to Stonedeep' is not a linear narrative to which the players and gamemaster must conform.  However, Jonathan Tweet identifies a best or ideal ending (later called the “ideal climax”).

Given the focus on cards in Everway, it should come as no surprise that 'Journey to Stonedeep' has six 'quest cards' associated with it.  Each quest card has an illustration on one side and relevant information (usually the scores for background characters) on the other.  The illustrations are useful for showing the players what a particular scene or background character looks like.

In terms of background, “a venomous, evil dragon” devastated a realm called Sweetwaters three hundred years ago.  The only gate to the realm of Stonedeep is in Sweetwaters.  Due to the presence of the dragon in Sweetwaters, spherewalkers have not been able to travel to or from Stonedeep.  Recently, “a hero has vanquished the dragon,” and the gate to Stonedeep is accessible once again.  Patrons now recruit the player characters “to use the gate, find out how Stonedeep may have changed in three hundred years, and determine the best way to approach those lost neighbors.”

Once in Sweetwaters, a guide leads the party to the gate to Stonedeep.  This takes seven days.  The guide will wait two weeks for the party to return, after which, “the guide will leave, and eventually someone will sponsor another expedition to Stonedeep.”  The Playing Guide tells us, “Most spherewalks take about a week.”  One week to Stonedeep and one week back already accounts for two weeks, so there's not much time to accomplish the goal of the quest.

Anyway, during the transition from Sweetwaters to Stonedeep, characters with strong Water scores have a vision of the Awakener (shown above).  Of course, the characters don't yet know it's the Awakener, they just see the vision:

You are standing in a field, but you feel ungrounded, and you realize you're having a vision.  A dragon hurdles down out of the the sky, crashes into the ground, and bursts into flame.  Out of the flame walks a man in armor.  He strides forth, stands still, and stares at you.  His eyes glow red.  Suddenly you see that he is standing on a pile of skulls.  “I seek a bride,” he says.  The vision vanishes, and you're standing on solid ground.

Crashing dragon.  Glowing red eyes.  Pile of skulls.  Players are sensitive to clues like these and they might just receive the impression that this is not a nice person.  A sidebar provides some additional information:

The Awakener gets his name from a teaching of Anubis, the god of death.  Anubis teaches that dying is “awakening”:  the virtuous awaken to the light of a glorious afterlife, while the unworthy awaken in darkness.

If or how the player characters learn this is not detailed.

In any event, the party arrives at some ruins in Stonedeep, a realm similar to ancient Egypt.  The party soon encounters a damsel in distress; specifically, a woman named Rarity is at the mercy of two (or more) ghouls.  Presumably, the party rescues Rarity and, also presumably, return her to the town of Underwood.  In this and subsequent scenes she party obtains pertinent information.  A priestess of Isis repelled an invasion 250 years ago and became the ruler of Stonedeep, changing the name of the realm to Bonekeep.  She remains ruler and is known as “the Ghoul Queen.”  We also learn:

The queen rules the land by turning the dead into vile, half-alive servants that do her bidding without question.  The people have grown resigned to her rule.

Additionally, the party gains some information about the Awakener.  His arrival in Bonekeep is imminent.  As indicated in the vision, he is looking for a bride.  The Ghoul Queen has captured a few beautiful women (like Rarity) and intends to present them to the Awakener under the assumption that he's looking for beauty.  She expects the Awakener to provide her with a boon for her efforts.

Should the party confront him once he arrives, they learn that, “By snapping his fingers, the Awakener can bring death to mortal and undead beings.”  Specifically, each snap causes up to twelve beings to lose one point of Earth.  Therefore, the Awakener can destroy a dozen average opponents in three narrative turns.  Also, he is “unkillable” and has a Fire score of 6.  In effect, the party cannot reasonably hope to defeat the Awakener.  If the party prevents the Ghoul Queen from presenting the Awakener with a bride, they “will have to track him down and deal with him somehow to keep Bonekeep from being destroyed.”  So, absent interference from the Ghoul Queen or the party, the Awakener will destroy the realm.  I feel safe in saying this is a bad thing. 

As written, the quest implies that the Ghoul Queen's rule is tyrannical.  There are references to peasants being “angry at the Ghoul Queen,” that hers is an “evil reign,” and “there are crimes she committed.“  Granted, 'Ghoul Queen' is not a term of endearment and she has arranged for the abduction of beautiful women for the purpose of giving one of them to the Awakener.  However, since the arrival of the (possibly ineffective) party was unanticipated, the Ghoul Queen's plan was the only way to prevent the destruction of Bonekeep.  Other than the fact that she takes her subjects “as servants and soldiers when they die,“ there is no evidence presented that she is evil.  Remember, the Ghoul Queen saved the realm from invasion and, as another priestess of Isis explains, “as long as the Ghoul Queen rules, no living soldiers have to shed their blood in battle.“  Also, the ghoul servants are morally incorruptible.  It's been several generations since the Ghoul Queen became ruler and since the “people have grown resigned to her rule,“ one might suppose that the ghouls have become an accepted part of society.  I mean, if creating ghouls is so intolerable, people would cremate their dead or otherwise dispose of corpses to prevent their conversion.

“The cleverest outcome,“ the text relates, “would be for the heroes... to convince the Awakener to choose the Ghoul Queen as his bride.“  (So, Jonathan Tweet's concept of an “ideal climax“ involves a Ghoul Queen.  I'm not judging, just making an observation.)  In terms of storytelling, it makes sense; resolve the quest by using two threats to cancel each other out.  This ending also leads to the sixth quest card.  However, there's no apparent reason for the Awakener to choose the Ghoul Queen as his bride.  Unless the party suggests this option to him, the Awakener will not select the queen.  The “best ending“ develops from a player character essentially saying to the Awakener, “Hey bro, why don't you hook up with the Ghoul Queen?“  Why the Awakener would think this is a good idea is not touched upon.  No explanation is needed.  At the last minute, the player characters “still have a chance to succeed if they can yell to the Awakener and put it in his mind to choose the queen as his bride.“

As indicated earlier, the assumption is that the Awakener is looking for a 'beautiful' bride.  This assumption is incorrect.  With regard to suggesting to the Awakener that he should choose the queen, it would make much more sense if the party could discover some bit of lore about what the Awakener actually wants or why choosing the queen is a good idea.  Maybe the Ghoul Queen's original name was 'Open Eyes' or something and the party can find this out.  Awakener + Open Eyes = perfect match.

Everway characters do not earn experience.  As compensation, for this quest, heroes can get loot from the Ghoul Queen's palace (assuming she departs – one way or another):

Ask each player to invent some item that his or her hero takes from the Ghoul Queen's palace.  They may find precious jewels, items with magical abilities, scrolls bearing magical secrets, and so on.  (You can change or disallow any item that you think would make the game less fun, such as one that would make a hero too powerful.)

Alternately, you can invent an item for each hero, either on the spot or ahead of time.  Invest items that the heroes are likely to enjoy.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Pre-Generated Characters in Everway

Everway provides a dozen pre-generated characters, complete with backgrounds, descriptions of magic and powers, possessions, and even “questions for development.”  Without further ado. . .


Air:  3 (etiquette)

Fire:  5 (unarmed combat)

Earth:  6 (resisting unconsciousness)

Water:  3 (stealth)

Motive:  Authority

Virtue:  Summer

Fault:  The Fool – reversed

Fate:  Knowledge

Amber is a weretiger from a village of weretigers.  She was exiled after helping humans from other villages and now she travels among the spheres using “her powers to right wrongs, correct the injustice, ad protect the innocent.”  Other than being a weretiger, she has the powers of 'Silence of the Hunter' (“When stalking her enemies. . .Only those with special senses or a strong Water scores can sense her”) and 'Resistance to Death Magics' (“Magical abilities that specifically kill instantly only incapacitate Amber. . .”).


Air:  3 (military tactics)

Fire:  6 (reacting to danger)

Earth:  4 (endurance in combat)

Water:  6 (sensing motives)

Motive:  Adversity

Virtue:  The Peasant

Fault:  The Griffin – reversed

Fate:  War

Chance inherited some abilities from his father, who was a wandering warrior.  He left his village to become a mercenary, but stopped when all the fighting became too much for him. . .”  His powers are 'Berserk' (“His strength and endurance increase [in combat], but he becomes completely lost to reason”) and 'Inured to Pain' (“Chance endures physical pain easily”).



Air:  6 (poetry)

Fire:  4 (swordfighting)

Earth:  3 (resisting persuasion)

Water:  5 (sensing others' presence)

Motive:  Wanderlust

Virtue:  Inspiration

Fault:  The Defender – reversed

Fate:  The Smith

Growing up, Clarity was an apprentice to a bard.  Eventually, she discovered that she was a spherewalker.  Now she travels “among the worlds, learning songs and poems and sharing them with others. . .”  Her powers are 'Ravenform' (“Clarity can take on the shape of a large raven at will”) and 'Perfect Memory of the Bard' (“Clarity can remember everything that she was trained to perform or learn as a bard”).


Air:  3 (identifying herbs and plants)

Fire:  4 (hunting)

Earth:  5 (resisting bad magic)

Water:  3 (sensing injury and illness)

Motive:  Mystery

Virtue:  The Lion

Fault:  The Creator – reversed

Fate:  The Peasant

Cleft has five points of 'Soil and Stone' magic, appropriately associated with his Earth element.  Cleft uses his magic for healing.  “His touch can ease pain, stop bleeding, and keeping a wound clean. . .[as well as] cure diseases, neutralize poisons, lift curses, and banish malignant spirits.”  Among other capabilities, “With great and constant effort, he can prevent a mortally wounded person from dying and nurse that person back to health.”  With his power of 'Earth's Surety', “Cleft is almost impossible to knock down” if he is standing on “living, level earth.”



Air:  7 (ancient lore)

Fire:  3 (jumping)

Earth:  2 (walking long distance)

Water:  5 (sensing death)

Motive:  Knowledge

Virtue:  Winter

Fault:  Striking the Dragon's Tail

Fate:  Spring

Detritus has decided to explore “the spheres for the rest of his life, compiling what he hopes will be a comprehensive book about past civilizations.”  His powers are:  'Rune of Lurking Unseen' (Detritus has a stone that allows him to become invisible as long as he doesn't move or make a sound), 'Ancient Gesture of Clarity' (He “can dispel magical illusions”), 'Invulnerable Sphere of Infinite Sound' (“This crystal can. . .make any manner of sound, as loud as thunder or as quiet as [a] mouse's sigh”), and 'Illuminating Clap' (“With a clap, Detritus can illuminate the area around him with a gentle glow”).


Air:  3 (speaking to crowds)

Fire:  6 (fire magic)

Earth:  3 (maintaining vigils)

Water:  5 (sensing divine energies)

Motive:  Adversity

Virtue:  The Lion

Fault:  Death – reversed

Fate:  The Soldier

Fireson – Jonathan Tweet's own character – was “banished from his homeland” after he “offended his deity.”  Now he “wanders the spheres, hoping for a way to regain his deity's favor. . .”  His powers are:  'Priestly Rites' (“Fireson can channel divine energies and the energies of worshipers through powerful rituals”), 'Sweat Fire' (“Fireson can cause flames to come forth from his skin”), and 'Friend to Fire' (Heat “neither pains nor harms him”).


Air:  4 (speaking well)

Fire:  5 (climbing)

Earth:  2 (enduring pain)

Water:  7 (sensing magic)

Motive:  Adversity

Virtue:  The Phoenix

Fault:  The Hermit – reversed

Fate:  The Cockatrice

A water priestess was held captive by an evil wizard.  The priestess died giving birth to Opal.  When Opal grew to adulthood, she beheaded the wizard using a pair of “bird claw gloves.”  The gloves allow her to “grasp with great strength and endurance.”  Opal also has the power of 'Persuasion' (“Because of her strong intuition about people, she is very effective at manipulating them”).

Praises Be

Air:  6 (authoritative voice)

Fire:  2 (staff fighting)

Earth:  3 (studying long hours)

Water:  3 (sensing magic)

Motive:  Conquest

Virtue:  The Eagle

Fault:  The Defender – reversed

Fate:  Law

“After defeating his master in a contest of magic, Praises Be. . .set out to explore the universe and test his abilities against the challenges to be found among the infinite spheres.”  He has six points of 'Words of Power' magic, associated with his air element.  With this magic, he “can compel a spirit to obey him, kill an average person, or force a group of people to back away.”  Additionally, he can use his magic to conduct rituals as well as “inscribe objects with magic words. . .”  Praises Be also has the power of 'Universal Reading'.


Air:  3 (storytelling)

Fire:  5 (archery)

Earth:  6 (enduring the elements)

Water:  5 (stealth)

Motive:  Authority

Virtue:  The Defender

Fault:  The Dragon – reversed

Fate:  The Creator

“Puma is a hunter, the only known survivor of an earthquake that killed her people when she was eighteen.”  She has the powers of 'Speak to Animals' (“Puma can speak to and understand all animals”) and 'Cat's Leap' (“Puma can jump fifteen feet straight up from a standing position”).

Serenity Freemansdaughter

Air:  3 (singing)

Fire:  5 (dancing and partying)

Earth:  4 (resisting poisons)

Water:  3 (sensing faerie magic)

Motive:  Wanderlust

Virtue:  Death

Fault:  Knowledge – reversed

Fate:  The Fish

Serenity's maternal grandmother was a troll.  She taught Serenity magic and gave her the secret name “Farbright.”  Serenity has five points of 'Flux' magic, associated with her fire element.  She can use this magic to “transform people and things. . .through her concentrated gaze.”  Such transformations are temporary and relatively minor.  She also has the 'Troll Friend' power:  “Trolls (and other earthy, magic beings) generally take a liking to Serenity.”

Shadowblade Dragonseeker of the Clan of the Spirit Mountain

Air:  3 (disguise)

Fire:  5 (swordfighting)

Earth:  4 (resisting magic)

Water:  7 (anticipating another's actions)

Motive:  Mystery

Virtue:  The Dragon

Fault:  Autumn – reversed

Fate:  War

Shadow was “a spy [for] a noble house. . .” who performed “a delicate, dangerous, and ugly deed. . .”  Freed from further obligations to the nobles, “Shadow has set out to learn about life's deeper mysteries: beauty, love, family, awe, worship, friendship, and sorrow.”  Wearing “shadow gear,” he “can blend into shadows and become invisible.”  Shadow is also a 'Weaponsmaster' (He “can use any sort of mundane, handheld weapon without training...”).

Whisper Walker

Air:  3 (historical insight)

Fire:  4 (spirit battles)

Earth:  4 (“Soul's Wall of Stone”)

Water:  5 (speaking with spirits)

Motive:  Beauty

Virtue:  The Hermit

Fault:  Drowning in Armor

Fate:  The Phoenix

Due to a mishap as a child, Whisper became “sensitive to the world of spirits.”  She has four points of 'Open Chalice' magic, associated with her water element.  Whisper can use her magic to sense energies and become possessed by spirits.  Her “Soul's Wall of Stone” is a “psychic barrier.”  Whisper also has a power called 'Vision of the Departed Spirit' (She “can tell by sight whether a person is awake, unconscious, or dreaming”).