Thursday, March 14, 2019

Play Report - I2TO Salt Factory

Over the winter holidays, Joshua Burnett from the Bernie the Flumph! blog ran an Into the Odd adventure, and I had the opportunity to play in it. I thought at first it might be something Chris McDowall wrote for Electric Bastionland, because the description of the exterior of the salt factory was pitch-perfect in terms of my understanding of the setting for I2TO, but later discoveries inside the factory revealed similarities to some of Josh's other ideas.
My initial character for this game was "Pinky", so named because of her resplendent all-pink outfit. (Picture noble attire from the Revolutionary War / French Revolution era, complete with tricorn hat, just all in various shades of pink.) Pinky was joined by one-armed "Lefty", Bob, Aldo, and "Pithy", who started the game with a magic book that let him speak in a universally-understandable glossolalia language.
This crew of five down-on-their-luck Bastionians heard a rumor that a safe route to an abandoned salt-processing factory had recently been discovered in the Underground. They sensed a business opportunity in "salvaging" materials from the site, and hired famed underguide Nix Perpendicular to lead them to it. Nix also brought along a handful of replacement characters "tourists" to help pad out his billing. The journey was uneventful, passing mostly though Bastion's enormous sewers before abruptly arriving in a large cavern. The stalactites here were all made of salt, and refracted their torchlight like rainbows.
The salt factory looked like a pile of red-painted metal cubes, stacked and overlapped seemingly at random. It stood at the center of the cavern, surrounded by a lake of milky white liquid. A bridge made of large copper plates sitting on thick copper cables hung over the lake and led to the factory. The bridge led to a large red-metal door. A rickety iron catwalk wrapped irregularly around parts of the factory as well. Nix took them as far as the bridge, then sat down to play solitaire dominoes and informed the adventurers that he'd wait 8 hours, and not a minute longer. Aldo looked across at the factory, and tried to persuade Nix to stay for 12 hours. Nix eventually relented and agreed to 10, but now sat grumbling about how his wife would be furious with him for coming home late.
The group worried that the bridge might be electrified, but couldn't see any obvious power source connecting to it. Bob and Aldo went across one at a time without incident. Lefty went next, and halfway across, the copper panel he stood on started tipping from side to side. He made it safely across, but the plate toppled into the milky liquid, which seemed to boil and froth as the plate sank into it. Pithy tiptoed up to the gap, then tightrope walked across the gap between the plates. Pinky ran across the bridge, sending the whole thing swaying violently, and threw herself across the gap, just making the long-jump to safety.
The group assembled on the scaffolding in front of the main door. It was painted red, but the metal underneath was obviously badly rusted. The lock was pitted and salt-corroded. Lefty decided to follow the scaffolding around the building. On one side, it came to a dead end where the metal had rusted away and collapsed. On the other, side it led to a side-door. The group decided to force open the main door, which screamed as metal rubbed against metal. Worried about the noise, Pithy used his book to call out greetings in the universal tongue, but received no reply. They forced the door the rest of the way open and went in, finding what looked like a locker room or break room, coated in a layer of clear salt like glass. They saw four workers "flash-frozen" in salt sitting at a table where they had been playing cards. There was a metal staircase leading up, another leading down, and a door leading straight out.
They quickly case and search the room. Pinky opened the door and found that it led out into a long hallway. Lefty checked the card table to try to steal the bets, but saw only a handful of coins. He also saw a brass key hanging from one of the worker's belts; when he grabbed it, all four dead workers and the table and chairs shattered like glass and crumbled to the floor. Lefty tried looking nonchalant, but did stoop to recover the handful of coins from the floor. Pithy searched the supply shelves and found a cigar box full of over a hundred silver coins. Bob located a powerful aetheric torch light, although it had no battery.
Instead of using any of this room's exits, the adventurers decided to check the side entrance. They used the scaffolding to go around the building, although it too began to groan and sway ominously as they walked. This door was covered in peeling grey paint, and was locked tight. Pinky got out her pocket watch and set an alarm to go off in 9 hours' time. Bob got out his portable ram and eventually managed to batter down the door, though each hit from the ram echoed like a crash of thunder. The door opened to reveal an anteroom, with its floor covered in hundreds of knife-like salt shards growing up from the ground. They decided not to risk the catwalk again at this time, so Bob used his ram to sweep a path clear, creating noise like a thousand shattering glasses as he did. The group went through the room and opened the door to the hall, with Pinky standing ready with her musket to cover their progress.
The hall is empty of life, though they find a bank of lockers along one wall. They begin breaking them open. Pinky found a worker's protective gear - coveralls, safety glasses, and hardhat. She decided to put them on over her clothes, which were already getting coated in salt. Lefty found a "World's Greatest Dad" mug. Bob found a musket, but having one already, gave it to Lefty. Aldo found a security guard's armor. Pithy found an aetheric battery that could fit into Bob's new lantern, and when they put it in, it lit up double bright.
The first room they found off the hall had large hole corroded into the floor. Shining Bob's lantern down the hole, they saw a catwalk running around the wall, and a distant floor probably two stories below. They also heard the faint sound of a baby crying coming up from the hole. In a building that had been abandoned for decades, maybe centuries. They quickly backed out of the room and keep exploring.
Down the hall they entered another room. The walls were decorated with crude graffiti of slogans like "HONEY YOU NO EAT!" In the corner of the room was a glass insect's nest swarming with what look like red-glass ants. Through the glass walls of the hive they saw a reservoir of opalescent liquid. Pithy used his magic book to try conversing with the ants. He heard them say "Work work work work work." Pithy tried asking politely for the ants to give him honey. They began scurrying around, clearly agitated. "They want to steal the honey! There is naught but work! There is naught but honey! Release the alarm pheromones!" Only a moment later, the floor shook and they both felt and heard footsteps running toward them down the hall, and a voice screamed "Who's stealing my honey?!"
Pinky looked down the hall and saw the silhouette of a black bear charging toward them. She tossed a bomb into the hall and ducked behind the doorframe. The bomb exploded, wrecking the hall, but the vantablack bear kept coming, though its movements were slowed, and it was bleeding profusely. Bob popped around the corner and got off a shot with his musket, finally felling the beast, which looked like a perfectly flat, perfectly black silhouette no matter which angle it was viewed from. Bob and Pithy went into the hall to skin the bear. Lefty used animal repellent to disperse the ants, who all fled for the corners of the room. Lefty used his new mug to scoop up some of their opalescent honey, while Pinky broke off a honey-filled chunk of the hive and wrapped it in the leather apron that came with her new coveralls. (3 doses opalescent honey, effect unknown.) Bob donned the bear pelt like a cape, wrapping its arms around his neck. Pinky smeared bear's blood on her face, hoping the smell would frighten off any other animals lurking in the ruins.
After their harrowing encounter, and with the structural integrity of this whole section of the building compromised by the bomb blast, the group made their way back to the security door, and used the scaffolding to return to the main entrance and the salted-over break room. On the walk around, Bob used his new aetheric lantern to inspect the exterior of the building, but the magi-technical light didn't reveal any new features. In the breakroom, the stairs leading down seemed bent out of shape since the last time they were in the room, and the door to the hall had been broken down. They decided to go upstairs.
Up the stairs, the group arrived in an office with a half-dozen ruined, salt-crusted desks. Pithy found the least damaged desk and searched it, discovering a ledger that recorded the production of various metallic and mineral salts, measured in archaic units that no longer had any meaning. He put it into his pack next to his magic book. The other desks were too badly damaged to recover anything. Pinky checked the office's door. It was decorated with a brass crest like a swarm of serpents with red jeweled eyes. As Pinky got close, the eyes lit up and she heard the hum of electricity. She backed away, and the sound stopped. Lefty inspected the door, and the whine started again, louder than before, and the air began to smell like ozone. Lefty took out the brass key he stole earlier and used it to unlock the door, and the mechanism powered down again, although Lefty's hair stood upright.
Through this protected door, they entered another room where the walls were covered with glass screens, mostly broken and burnt. In the center of the room was a throne with an emaciated corpse wearing strange mechanical armor, somehow wired into the rest of the room. As they stepped closer, the corpse opened its eyes and looked directly at them. "Have you come looking for work?" Speaking for the group, Pithy said yes. "Very well. Report for work at the refinery on Floor 5. Here are your pass keys." As the corpse spoke, four red metal cubes shimmered into existence in the air in front of them, and each explorer grabbed one. Pithy asked how to get to the fifth floor, and the figures eyes turned somehow angry and it began standing up out of the chair. "Between Floor 4 and Floor 6." They all quickly backed out of the room, and as they left, the corpse eased itself back into a sitting position. They shut the door and Lefty locked it behind them.
They returned to the break room and went down the damaged stairs, and at the bottom saw a sign saying "6". The room the stairs lead to looked horribly corroded, and there was a dead dog lying in the middle of the floor. Pity used his book and asked "Alive, woof woof?" but got no response. He approached, and the floor collapsed under him. There was a sickening thump and then silence from below. Bob tied a rope around his waist and the other end to the stairs and rappelled carefully down through the hole in the floor. Pinky approached the dog, saw that it was wearing a bejeweled collar with a tag that said "Rex", and managed to work it free from the corpse. She put it on, thinking she might be able to resell it later.

On the level below, Bob found himself in some kind of workshop for assembling clockworks. Pithy's dying body lay in the middle of the floor. Bob managed to revive Pithy and gave him some water to sip. They heard the sound of at least two crying babies coming from just beyond the room's doors. Bob quickly retied his rope around Pithy, climbed up to the floor above, and then with Pinky's help, hauled Pithy back into the corroded room. Just then Aldo came staggering down the stairs from the break room. "Oh thank god!" he exclaimed in relief, "I thought I lost you guys!" Bob swore under his breath. "Goddammit I thought we lost that guy." The others showed Aldo their hand-sized red cubes. They were all perfectly shiny and clean - the only things in good condition they'd seen so far - and appeared to be identical.
Aldo tries to impress his comrades by breaking down one of the doors leading out of the room, but although they look as corroded as the floor Pithy fell through, they're remarkably solid. After making a terrible racket, he finally managed to kick one down, then drew his long-axe and led the way into the hall. They came to a room with a catwalk around its perimeter but no floor, and a hole corroded into the ceiling. A story below them, they saw a large chamber filled with pipes and vats, but no obvious way to get down. Aldo led them around the catwalk to another door, this one in much better condition. Aldo tapped the door, and something tapped back twice. He tapped again, and got another two taps back.
Aldo asked "Is anyone there?" A voice answered "no!" Aldo asked again, "Could you open the door, please?" The voice answered back, angry, "You open your door please!" Aldo remained polite, "But we asked you first?" The voice became even angrier, "Don't talk to ME about politics!" Aldo stepped aside to let Bob have a try. Bob noticed a keyhole with dim light coming through, and more dim light spilling out from under the door. "I'm Bob" he tried, "What's your name?" The voice sounded less angry this time. "Bob, Bob, we're all named Bob." Aldo piped up "I'm Aldo!" but the voice corrected him, angry again, "No, you're Bob." Bob tried passing his red metal key cube through the keyhole, and a moment later they heard a grinding, crunching sound. "Po-ta-to chip stale" said the voice behind the door. Unfortunately, they also heard another sound, a tinkling and clinking like glass and metal bumping into each other. Three multi-legged crystalline creatures came onto the catwalk, using the door the party had entered through.
Sensing that it would take too long to talk their way through the door, Aldo rushed the creatures with his long-axe while Bob, Lefty, and Pinky let off a volley from their muskets. The creatures were quickly reduced to shards. Pinky sifted through the wreckage and found a fang that she thought she could use as a dagger. (d4 damage, STR save or lose 1d8 STR due to electrolyte leech.) With their immediate problem resolved, they turned back to the door. Bob tried again, "Would you like another potato chip?" The voice seemed agreeable, "Yup, just go ahead and slide that under the door there." Bob had them right where he wanted them, "I'm sorry, this one's too big to fit under, you'll have to open the door." The door opened out toward Bob, revealing a filthy humanoid with red rimmed eyes, a lengthy beard, scabrous leprous skin, wrapped in bandages. Bob screamed in horror and kicked the door closed, it bounced off the humanoid, knocked it to the floor, and rebounded open.

As the door swung open, the adventurers had only a moment to take in the scene, the floor covered in filthy carpets and a dead body, and a half-dozen more bearded, bandaged humanoids staring out at the party with revenge in their red-rimmed eyes. Bob fired his musket, instantly killing another of the horrible men, and Lefty and Pithy joined to kill two more. Aldo yelled "I really don't want to be doing this!" before charging into the room with his long-axe. Two of the awful men leapt onto Pithy and Aldo and began scratching and biting them with their filth-crusted fingernails, their slavering mouths. Pinky executed Pithy's attacker with her musket, and Aldo managed to kill his with his axe. Pithy approached Aldo and poured rum onto his already-infected wounds, drawing a yelp from Aldo.

Searching the room revealed mostly more layers of blankets and rugs, all soaked with sweat and other ordure, but also a metal card with a key pattern cut into it, and a glorious bejeweled halberd, which Aldo took. The horrible men had barricaded the only other door out of the room with piles of rolled-up carpets, and graffiti reading "BEWARE THE DESPICABLE INFANT!" was scrawled near the door. They listened at the door but didn't hear any crying this time. A second door out was secured with a simple latch.

Bob led the way this time, through the un-barred door and down a hall that was lit from the far end by a vibrant green glow. They arrived in a room that seemed to be filled with light, all emanating from a smooth crystalline statue of a naked woman, who shone brighter than the aetheric torch with sickly green light. The statue stood on a plinth with a dusty sign and a level. Pinky got close to wipe the dust from the sign so she could read it. It said "QUEEN PLUTONIUM, OUR LADY OF HIGH ATOMIC WEIGHTS", and up close, Pinky could see that the statue was hollow, made of clear glass and filled with a glowing green liquid. Everyone took cover behind Aldo as he prepared to flip the lever from a distance using the tip of his new bejeweled halberd. The liquid began pouring out of the statue's mouth, viscous and ooze-like. As the liquid level dropped, the group could just see the handle of a sword floating suspended in the liquid. Pinky shot the statue with her musket, causing it to burst open, and the ooze splashed out all at once and started advancing toward the party. Pinky ran forward, leapt over the ooze, and grabbed the sword in its scabbard. She nearly wrenched her arm from her socket; it was incredibly heavy. Aldo tried to hold back the ooze with his new halberd, but only succeeded in slicing it in half. One side of the bisected monster approached him and burned his clothes and flesh as it lashed him with pseudopods. The other reared up and crashed onto Pinky like a wave, and as it flowed away from where she'd stood, the only thing that remained was the dull-metal weapon. Aldo lit and dropped the bomb he'd been carrying and chased everyone else back into the hall. After the explosion, no trace of the statue or plinth remained, although the room still glowed faintly green, and the sword laid undamaged on the floor.

As the party watched, the other door to the room popped open, and in walked "The Brain," a handsome, intelligent fellow with an Orson Welles voice and only one arm (and my second character). The Brain picked up the sword, pulled it from its scabbard to examine it. He saw that the blade was a beautiful, almost glowing metal beneath the dull grey of the lead scabbard, but also realized that it was too heavy for him to wield effectively as a weapon, and so strapped it to his back as a collector's piece. (d10, ignores armor, chance of radiation poisoning, requires 13 STR to use.) Retracing their steps, they returned to the first room they encountered on this level, the one with the hole at the bottom of the steps that Pithy earlier fell through. They used the rope they'd tied off earlier to rappel down into the clockwork workroom.

This time, the group searched the cabinets of the workspace. Bob found a bomb, Lefty found a rocket, and Aldo found some very high-quality tools. Bob and Pithy listened at the two doors leading out of the room. One was silent, the other revealed the soft sound of an infant wailing in the distance. The group agreed to open the silent door, but it seemed to be blocked from the other side. Bob used his portable ram to batter the door down, again making a sound like thunder as the ram slammed against the metal door. When the thunder stopped, everyone could clearly hear the angry infant screaming coming from very nearby.

Inside the room, the see three skeletons wearing tattered coveralls and security badges. Aldo found some archaic armor and an accompanying shield. Pithy found an antique blunderbuss, and Lefty found what he thought was a flash-bang grenade. Looking up at the ceiling, they saw small holes like some liquid had once been dripping through from the floor above. All the while that they searched, the sound of the infant crying grew closer and louder. Losing their collective nerves, the adventurers ran for their lives calmly decided on an orderly and strategic retreat from the site. They climbed up the rope, climbed the stairs to the break room, and made their way back across the bridge. They found Nix Perpendicular playing backgammon with some of the tourists he'd brought. He was pleased that they'd made it back before even the original 8 hours were up.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Campaigns I Want to Play - Dead Travellers, Psychedelic Cosmonauts, & Full Parsec Five

A couple years ago, at this point, there was a meme going around Google Plus of people posting screenshots of a randomly generated Traveller character made using the Devil Ghost website:

Here's an example. Generate your own.
Yes, I did keep going until I got a woman
who died during char-gen.

So, my friend Peter, who runs the Fantasy Heartbreak Workshop blog and the Starship Graveyard tumblr ended up having a couple conversations about the idea of playing dead Travellers. Since Google Plus has crashed into an iceberg and is current taking on water as it disappears beneath the waves, I'm going to transcribe part of those conversations here.

It started when Peter shared a tweet from Dennis Detwiller (no relation, as far as I know, to the immensely talented Dirk Detweiler Leichtey), and I responded with interest: "I want a game where you play Traveller Ghost PCs who died in character generation trying to save others from gruesome fates."

PETER: I never played Traveller (thought it always sounded cool enough) and games focused around ghosts generally seemed to abstract for me to wrap my mind around. But this idea gives it interesting focus.

The idea of a ship's ghosts trying desperately to prevent the crew from re-enacting an Event Horizon type incident or some similar catastrophe, seems really appealing. 

ANNE: Alternatively, the ghosts don't interact with the living at all, they just go off to have their own super-phantasmagorical adventures IN SPAAACE! 

PETER: I was going to say that seems a little abstract for my tastes.  But, you know what, might be cool.

ANNE: Yeah, I mean the idea of having the ghosts be on the same ship as the living characters (who are NPCs?), unable to interact with them, but somehow trying to save them from danger sounds kind of challenging to play. Like, that kind of thing works on tv and in books, but I don't know at the table.

(Maybe play the scenario once as the living characters, keep really good records, then play again as the ghosts who can "see" what the living characters are doing? I dunno, it's more work that I would want to do, especially because...)

The idea of playing ghosts who encounter crazy weird hallucinatory stuff on outre science-fantasy planets just seems so much cooler and more fun. I don't know if the heroes would be anything like Space Ghost, but the villains could totally be like the things Space Ghost finds and fights.

PETER: Yah. The dead among the living could be tricky. I'm not entirely sure how to structure it perfectly so the PCs have some capacity to influence things, but have to do it subtly.

The bizarre space phantom situations you suggest are the sort of thing I'd always pictured more for mortal Astral plane travellers. No reason one couldn't split the difference though.

You haul freight for the Imperium for half a lifetime. It isn't until death your real voyage begins...

He went on to suggest that a good starting adventure for this campaign would be Astral Marines - Patrol Sector Omega, a community-keyed hexcrawl, apparently inspired by a Luka Rejec post, with map by Gus L, and published on the Save vs Total Party Kill blog by Ramanan S.

Astral Marines - Patrol Sector Omega map by Gus L
Incidentally, one of the comments on that initial tweet was a link to one of my favorite Threadless shirt designs, "The Madness of Mission 6" - which included the following, appropriately insane text as part of its artists' note:

In 1976, Cosmonaut Nikolai Peckmann was sent alone to an orbiting space station for what would be called Mission Six- to study the radiation levels and strange circumstances that killed all four crewmen of the last research mission. By the third day, Peckmann’s broken transmissions were coming back to ground control filled with increasing paranoia and delusion. He claimed that the spirits of the dead cosmonauts were coming to claim him, and that he had to keep moving to evade them. He shouted that if he could capture consume these spirits himself while he still had strength, he could move to the next level of consciousness…Truly the rantings of an insane man. Indeed, video recovered later would show Peckmann running around the confined but maze-like station, downing emergency sedatives like a madman….pausing in a corner momentarily, only to throw back vitamin pills and give chase to his invisible demons. He had exhausted the entire cargo of vitamins, pills, and fresh fruit well ahead of schedule…It was determined that another mission to recover any remains or gather any more research would be a waste of the people’s money, and the station was allowed to drift out of orbit and into space- a failure never to be mentioned again. It was ordered and assumed that all video and paper evidence had been destroyed.

Madness of Mission 6
Anyway, so Peter and I both liked the idea of this game, but neither of us have played Traveller before, and both of us are sort of busy with other gaming and/or life projects.

Eventually my interest was rekindled when Peter posted an image of some appropriately awesome 1970s scifi art. I think it was around this time that I began to think of this as the "psychedelic cosmonauts" campaign.

Found on the 70s Sci-Fi Art tumblr
ANNE: This makes me think of our idea to do some kind of psychedelic space adventure with dead Traveller characters.

PETER: Every now and then I'd been puttering away at a little work on this sort of setting. There are usually about half a dozen different settings warring for attention in my brain, but I carved out a little time to separate this one from the pack into a mini-supplement for Minimal d6 system. It had gone on the back burner for several weeks until you reminded me about it tonight and I finished up a few details.

Not exactly what we discussed, but maybe you'll still find it of some interest:

What he posted next was a Google Plus link to a blog post. I'll post the blog link in a second, but it's worth sharing what we said at the other link as well.

PETER: Full Parsec Five is a sort of undead space opera setting for the Minimal d6 / Miso-Six systems.

Thanks to Anne Hunter jogging my memory tonight about our discussion that inspired it. Finally gave me the kick in the pants needed to add a few more details and get it up on the web.  Still think it would be great to give it a more thorough treatment some day. But perfect is the enemy of extant, so...

ANNE: I'm really digging the four types of astral space. I also think you're right that although they were ordinary astronauts before they died, they need the chance to become as weird as the things they're fighting/exploring.

The link Peter posted was to his blog entry on Full Parsec Five, a very rules-light ruleset he put together as a potential starting point. He also put together a list of other space opera RPG systems.

At the time, I wasn't sure what rules, if any, would be a good fit for the campaign we had in mind. Peter, meanwhile, was busy collecting links on his Google Plus feed. I won't lose much when G+ dies. I mostly posted links to my own blog, and mostly wrote a lot of "cools" and "thank yous" on other people's posts or in response to their comments on mine. I won't miss these archived conversations evaporating like snow on a too-sunny day any more or less than I regret the fact that none of my spoken conversations have transcripts. But I will miss this ongoing conversation with Peter, which is why I'm archiving it here. And it was Peter's own use of G+ to reshare so many links that first got me worried about the effect of the shift away from blogs and onto social media, long before Google announced that it was letting the air out of Plus and allowing it to float off into the atmosphere. Any social media feed may archive your thoughts, but without the ability to go back through that archive, search through the depths, or link back to anything, those thoughts are already as good as lost.

Anyway, Peter compiled quite a list of inspirational material, so I'm going to link to it here, so it's not lost. I have some of my own inspirations, and my own thoughts about rules, that I'll share next.

Giant Evil Wizard - D12 Things What Just Fell Out Of The Orbital Rust Belt

Monster Manuals Sewn From Pants - Plane Scrap

Markerslinger - The Mind Mine

Robert Moorehead - Space Hulk Generation Rules

Gorgo Mormo - Demons of the Outer Dark

Sheep & Sorcery - Tables for Derelict Space Ships

Cavegirl's Game Stuff - Astral Projection for OSR Games

Tarsos Theorem - Derelict Deserted Dreadnoughts

Tarsos Theorem - Sci-Fi Adventure Location Generator

In the mean time, the things that have inspired me have been images of people wearing salvagepunk spacesuits, or wearing spacesuits to explore dreamland, the afterlife, or other planes.
On Stranger Things, Eleven wears a diving suit to enter a sensory deprivation tank...
... and then psychically travel to another dimension called The Upside Down.
Psychics on The OA use a slight different kind of underwater suit to travel to the afterlife.
I don't know where the Euthanauts travel, although I would guess it's also the afterlife.
This is basically the plot to Flatliners and The Discovery too, right? Just without the space suits?
Prospect so makes me want my own space suit...
... so so sooo so want it.
I live in a noxious, pollen-filled atmosphere beneath a scorching, lethal sun, too.
Should I be penalized just because I live that way on Earth?
Also in the meantime, some more scifi gaming rules have come out that I think might be suitable for playing this campaign. The first is Highland Paranormal Society's "In the Light of a Ghost Star" ruleset. I think it was actually one of Peter's links that first made me aware of Nate Treme's art and gaming materials. This one is also pretty rules-light, but it's based enough on D&D that it seems intuitive to me, a person who is familiar with D&D.

The second is the "Mothership" game by Failure Tolerated. People looove Mothership. Throne of Salt loves it. Dungeons & Possums loves it. Tarsos Theorem loves it (and continues making cool scifi stuff unrelated to it at the same time.) I haven't seen people this excited about a ruleset since I noticed the existence of the GLOG-o-sphere (and actually, there's some overlap in the fandoms here...)  Mothership uses d100 ability scores and checks, which means that it's compatible with Eclipse Phase, and probably with Grand Tapsetry's Urutsk setting as well. Like Ghost Star, Mothership gets top marks its graphic design. It also has Stress and Sanity mechanics that might be useful for any kind of space-horror gaming.

But if I'm being really honest with myself, the rules that most excite me as a possible basis for a psychedelic cosmonauts campaign are Troika's. I'm not familiar with the older British games that Troika's rules are modeled after, but one peek at its gorgeous, utterly bizarre artwork (by Andrew Walter the aforementioned Dirk Detweiler Leichty), one glimpse of its text about golden barges and crystal spheres, and I'm already smitten. The art-heavy reprinting is called the 'numinous edition," and it is numinous indeed. The character occupations are so great I'm adding them to my list of favorite lists, and Dirk's art brings them to weird-Baroque life. Sure, you can play as a burglar or a questing knight, but you can also end up as a Rhino-man, as escaped servitor created by a dead wizard, or a robot powered by a mechanical analytic engine. I'd need to re-read the rules to fully understand them, but it seems like Brits my age are nostalgic for Fighting Fantasy the way Americans are for 1st edition AD&D (or maybe for Choose Your Own Adventure? the exact analogy is a little unclear to me) so I assume the mechanics are easy enough to learn and provide satisfying resolution most of the time.

Troika Numinous Edition cover by Andrew Walter
Lonesome Monarch by Dirk Detweiler Leichty
Monkey-Monger by Dirk Detweiler Leichty

Ultimately, the choice of rules will probably be up to Peter, or whoever the two of us can strongarm into running a the game for us, because while most of the entries I tagged with "Campaigns I Want to Play" are really campaigns I want to run, "psychedelic cosmonauts" truly is a campaign I want to play. Or maybe Peter will talk me into it. Or I'll talk myself into it. Time will tell.

What adventures do I think would work well for this sort of campaign? Well, not-so-coincidentally, I think In the Light of Ghost Star, Mothership, and Troika all have adventuring scenarios that look eminently rob-able.

I suppose my go-to mental image is something like the strangest episodes of the original Star Trek, combined with the various "only one person notices the rest of the crew has gone crazy" episodes of Next Generation, mashed up with AE Van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle - where the crew first meets a giant displacer beast who takes over the ship, then flies too close to a planet of psychic bird people whose mental noise-pollution drives everyone but one crewman crazy, then meets an extradimensional alien assembled from spheres and cylinders who takes over the ship, then flies too close to a psychic nebula who drives everyone but one crewman crazy...

I'm also partial to some of the ideas and imagery from the new Shade the Changing Girl comics series, where human emotions are like drugs aliens take to get high, and madness is both a physical place you can go to, and a sort of unstoppable force of chaos that reacts to our actions and moods.

So far, so inspiring. And I think Peter's suggestion to use Astral Sector Omega is very solid. The initiating adventure for a campaign like this could be something completely doomed and hopeless - these are dead astronauts, after all, so Black Sun Death Crawl or Null Singularity are both pretty viable options.

The adventures that tempt me both, primarily on the basis of their reviews on Ten Foot Pole, are Paul Keigh's entries in Geoffrey McKinney's Psychedelic Fantasies series - Dreams of the Lurid Sac, Streams of the Lurid Crack, and Gleams of the Vivid Crack. Truly regrettable names aside, TFP's review suggests that these probably have the level of gonzo alien weirdness that I'm looking for:

"This thing has a core concept and it is focused on it. Elements of this adventure have been found in other adventures in bits & pieces, but no other adventure has, I believe, put them all together in one shell. You’re adventuring inside of a creature, the titular Lurid Sac. Remember Fantastic Voyage? The interior sets looked … alien? Weird fibers, colors, flows, creatures. Well that’s what’s going on here. Most of the “adventuring inside a create” things I’ve seen have been half-efforts. There are doors, or stairways built in, or something like that. None of that is in this one. No stairs or doors or comforts of home brought in by travellers. This is a truly alien environment … exactly the way an alien environment should be. Imagine a hundred overlapping bubbles, on maybe three layers. That’s the map. Where they touch you can massage the membranes to get through. Some of the bubbles have special purposes: the cortex, the mouth, the neck, the 'sponges' that allow access to the outside, and so on. The rest of the bubbles are procedurally generated, as are the contents. There are random monsters, events, contents, humours … you get the idea."

So that's what I want. The ghosts of dead astronauts exploring an invisible galaxy full of aliens, monsters, nightmares, madness, and phenomena that defy classification, forever.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

5e Backgrounds, Lifepaths, Random Generation ... and an Unexpected Convergence with the GLOG

I like random character generation. Rather than coming up with a robust concept for my character and then trying to generate her, I usually prefer to let the dice make a lot of my decisions for me, then build my concept off of that. (Although that's not always the case - playing Numenera, I read through the available options and got inspired, which was fortunate, since random generation isn't super supported there.)

If a system allows random generation, unless your referee is a jerk, you can usually still pick options like it's a menu if you have a concept in mind. But if a ruleset isn't set up for random generation, it's usually hard to add it back in. And if you don't have a concept before getting started, it can be easy to fall prey to analysis paralysis, or else to just making the same character over and over. Random generation provides a starting point, it tells you who your character was, before you started playing them, before they started a life as a full-time adventurer.

Random ability scores are one way to insert some randomness into character creation; random backgrounds are another. Both of those are pretty de rigueur in retro roleplaying. Most players still expect to be able to choose their own character race and character class though. (Although again, there are exceptions. GLOG players might be expected to roll for a random race, and in Jack Shear's upcoming Cinderheim campaign-starter, players roll for both a random background and a random character class.)

Maybe the ultimate in random character generation is lifepath generation. This is when you generate a random character by creating them in stages that mimic successive stages of their life. The result is not just a random character, but one who has a bit of a backstory about how they got where they are at the start of the first session. The best-known example is probably Traveller, which infamously has a lifepath char-gen system where your character can die mid-creation. (That's because in Traveller, there are no levels or XP advancement; whatever skills and abilities you start the game with is all you're ever going to get. You go through char-gen in "loops," and in each loop you get richer and more experienced, but you also risk dying. At the end of each loop, you can choose to "retire" and start playing the game, or you can continue the process. If you die though, you have to start over, so when you get a decently good character, there's a temptation to enjoy what you've won so far and stop pushing your luck trying for more.)

There's no reason, though, that you couldn't have a lifepath generator that stops with you ending up as a 1st level D&D character. In fact, there are a few that do just that, so let's look at them, and some other suggestions for generating random backstory as part of character-generation.

2015 Gongfarmer's Almanac

First, because of my inordinate fondness for Dungeon Crawl Classics, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Paul Wolfe's "virtual funnel" from the free 2015 Gongfarmer's Almanac, vol 6. Like Traveller, the "virtual funnel" involves "looping" a character - or in this case a group of four characters - multiple times through a dangerous path. Each "loop" indicates an event that happened to the character, and requires some kind of save or throw to attempt.

If you fail the attempt, you take a penalty, sometimes death, usually damage, sometimes cash. If you succeed, you get a bonus, usually an ability score increase, sometimes a weapon, occasionally something magical. (If you roll well enough on the event table that "cash" is your penalty, the bonus is something really special!) And then, regardless of the outcome, you get some XP and a modifier on the roll to determine the next event. If the character dies, the next character inherits all the XP, money, and equipment received so far. When a character gets to 10 XP, they've made it to 1st level.

Good news! for Traveller fans, Paul Wolfe reports that in his playtesting, the first two characters in a group of four nearly always die, and about 1/3 of the time, all four die and you have to start over. (Pretty typical for DCC, really.) Calling this a virtual funnel is pretty accurate, since it pretty well mimics several features of zero-level play, especially the way that later characters basically get a free ride on their forebears coattails.

Player's Handbook

The random bonds, ideals, and flaws built into 5e's core rules are one method of getting random backstory, albeit one that really doesn't resemble a lifepath at all. Instead, it generates specific moments of backstory to ensure that you have three distinct kinds of moments that you can call on during play to gain "Inspiration." Inspiration is pretty much a "hero point" - you can spend it to gain advantage on a roll, or to remove disadvantage. You can only have one point at a time, although you can give it away to another character if you want.

Your "bond" is an NPC you know and care about, likely some kind of parent/mentor or sibling/friend. (Would it be worth trying to categorize and tally up the different entries in 5e's backstory tables? I really don't have the heart.) But it's also some task you're trying to accomplish for that person. The way "Inspiration" works is that you have to act on your bond, ideal, or flaw to receive it, so these entries are written to be very actionable (if perhaps overly simplistic?) Your "ideal" is like an ethical code that your character follows, or at least, one rule from such a code. Again, they're all things where it would be very easy to point out an example of your character following their ideal to show that you earned Inspiration. Like the other two, "flaws" are mistakes or mis-steps that you're encouraged to make in order to receive your hero point.

Unlawful Games suggests giving every character a goal, a kind of thing that they're looking for, not for Inspiration, just to give them some extra oomph of motivation, but this might be a pretty good replacement for ideals if you were in the market for one. I'm not sure how I feel about all this. Rotten Pulp makes a pretty well-grounded argument against offering extrinsic rewards for roleplaying. On the other hand, Dyson Logos suggests giving out Inspiration the way Numenera give out magic items - with the profligacy of a Dickensian landlord trying to ward off the Ghost of Christmas Past through a flamboyant display of generosity - to encourage the players to acquire and spend them freely rather than trying to save them up. Personally I wish that Inspiration were both more powerful and a little harder to come by. Like, it should be harder to get than just saying a catchphrase once a session, but also something that if you earn it, really does something to help you out. Anyway, that's a thought for another day.

Weirdly, 5e's recommended method of character generation almost inverts the lifepath idea. You pick a character race, then class, then set your ability scores (which are immediately modified by your race, unless you forgot since you read about that two steps ago), then finally you pick a background (and if your background skills are the same as the ones you picked for your class, then you have to go back again and select a different class skill to replace the doubled-up one.) It's really counter-intuitive.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything

Xanathar's Guide to Everything has a kind of lifepath generator for 5e characters. You still pick your race, class, and background, but then the generator helps fill in more backstory. There's a series of tables to learn about your family, although I find these tables to be oddly preoccupied with things like where you were born, your birth order among your siblings, and other information that feels like it's of dubious value at the table. There are tables you can roll on to find out why/how your character "chose" the background and class you picked for them, and then a life events table that you can roll on multiple times. Instead of "looping" through the table like in Traveller or Paul Wolfe's virtual funnel, you roll once to find out how old you are, roll again to find out how many events you experienced, and then finally roll on the table once per event. Your "event" is most likely to be an actual event (and then, most likely to just be "make money working your job"), with about a 1-in-3 chance you are connected for good or ill to an NPC, and about a 1-in-4 chance of some unusual experience. Some author or group of authors on the D&D Wiki has a lifepath generator for 3rd edition characters, and a 5e version that changes little, but is slightly worse. I might like this one better than the official version, mostly because it's a bit streamlined than the one in Xanathar's Guide.


This is a lifepath just for generating backstory though - it's an optional additional step after character creation is finished. Jack Shear has announced that he's working on a lifepath generator for his Cinderheim campaign that actually generates (most of) the character for you. Roll once to learn who your parents were - and thus what your background is. Then roll on a sub-table to learn another fact about your parents. Roll again to learn who your mentor was - and thus what your class is. And again, roll on the sub-table to learn an additional detail. It's elegant in its simplicity, and the subtables remind me of Into the Odd's new Bastionland careers, possibly just because that's the first place I saw something like that, and it made an impression on me.

Goblin Laws Of Gaming

Probably my favorite lifepath character generator though comes from Goblin Punch's GLOG rules. You generate your character in thee life stages - childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. In childhood, you roll 3 random events. Each event is paired with two ability scores, and awards a specific number of points to each. For example "You read books in the library" is paired with "+1 Str, +4 Int", while "You once destroyed a book" gets you "+2 Str, +1 Int". In adolescence, you get asked 3 questions. Each question is a dilemma that your character faced as a teen, and your answer gives you advantage rolling a dice for one ability score, and disadvantage rolling for another one. For example "Did you divide the food evenly (Int), or give the hungrier ones a little bit more (Wis)?" In adulthood, you get to roll twice on a table of random careers and then pick the one you want. You then roll four random events that happened to you during your pre-adventuring career. About half the events ask you to test one ability score to potentially improve or worsen another, and the other half award you additional starting skills and equipment. For example, if you join the army, you might get an event like "Is your scar awesome or disfiguring? Where is it?" that instructs you to "Test Con to influence Cha", or like "You are haunted by your memories. Of what?" that tells you "Learn Ghosts" as a skill.

The events in the GLOG's lifepath generator are not very specific to any particular campaign. They're less like specific backstory events and more like prompts to guide the invention of those specifics. One of the strengths here is that the generator creates a random character as you go, so that specific elements of the random backstory get tied to specific improvements (or injuries) to the character as they advance through the stages. It's entirely possible to know that you were a weak child, but your adolescence made your stronger, and you toughened up in the army - precisely because each event is tied to a specific change to an ability score.

On the other hand, if all we want is random backstory, Bardiches & Bathhouses suggests only using your class to generate it. He actually suggests using four subtables per class (double what Jack and I2TO are using) to help establish things like how you got started, what specifically you do, potentially some major beliefs, and how the NPCs in your home community feel about you. In all 3 campaign settings (Cinderheim, Bastionland, and ... Bardich-Bathhouse-land?) the subtables provide specific, evocative detail that help tie the character to the setting. If you wanted to use any of these set-ups in a different type of campaign world, you could keep the broad mechanics, but you'd need to rewrite the details. The backstory that comes from 5e's default bonds, ideals, and flaws gets around this problem by being both more generic and more vague, and then asking the player to fill in the details. It's the same way in the GLOG. Ten Foot Polemic uses a similar approach for his list of 100 retroactive backstories - the incidents described are non-specific enough to belong to almost any time and any setting, and it's up to the player add in the setting- or character-specific details.

One last suggestion that feels worth mentioning here is The Retired Adventurer's idea to physicalize backstory by tying it to specific objects, like a diary or a letter. Having that item in your inventory then serves as a mnemonic reminder of the relevant bit of backstory.

There's a partial convergence between 5e's backgrounds and its classes. Acolytes are a little like proto-clerics, criminals are like proto-rogues, entertainers like proto-bards, hermits like proto-druids, outlanders like proto-barbarians, soldiers like proto-fighters, and sages like proto-wizards. The correspondence is imperfect though. Most of the backgrounds seem like precursors to at least a couple classes, and most classes have more than one possible precursor background. And then there are the backgrounds like Sailor and classes like Monk that feel untethered from any sort of matching. (As an aside, this is probably because you have 3 "base" classes - fighter, thief, and wizard, plus wizard-thieves, ie "bards" ... plus like two more wizards for some reason, "sorcerers" and "warlocks." Then you just add on descriptors to get the others. Divine wizard is "cleric" and divine wizard-fighter is "paladin." Wilderness fighter is "barbarian," wilderness thief-wizard is "ranger," and wilderness wizard is "druid." Monks feel out of place in this system because they ARE, they are literally from an entirely different genre of fiction than any of the other characters. Although I guess you COULD probably consider them fantasy-Asian fighter-wizards.)

There's a second convergence (the one I promised up there in the title, the one that surprised me) between 5e's backgrounds and the GLOG's random careers. "Army" matches soldier, "clergy" matches acolyte, "criminal" matches ... well, criminal, plus maybe charlatan, "forest" more or less matches outlander, "hobo" matches either hermit or urchin, "nobility" matches noble, "rural" fits most of the same idea as folk-hero, "sailor" matches sailor, natch, "scholar" "wizard's apprentice" matches sage, even after the name change, and "town" matches the guild artisan / guild merchant pretty well. I think that just leaves entertainer unaccounted for on 5e's side, and the GLOG's lone remainder is the "strange" career for a backstory involving meeting fairy tale monsters. (And "strange" isn't even really a full career, one event on each other career table tells you to roll once on the "strange" table.) It's interesting to me though, that two different designers (or TEAMS of designers in 5e's case) converged on pretty much the same list of pre-adventuring character backgrounds. If you wanted to design your own list of generic backgrounds, the areas of overlap might be a good place to start, and their areas of disagreement might help you focus on what you think is most important for your list.

One final note, Bardiches & Bathhouses other post about backgrounds argues that backstory is intimately tied to character goals and motivations. He then talks through some of the most common backstories, and points out potential problems caused by some of them being pretty anti-social to try using in a cooperative game. This is an entirely different view of backstory, and one that's unrelated to the other background elements I've talked about so far. In the kind of retro-roleplaying games I'm used to, the characters might have different occupations, but they all have the same motivation - to find treasure. Empire of the Petal Throne adds a slight wrinkle to this by making all the characters barbarous foreigners trying to both make their fortune and find their way in a bizarre alien city. In Mouse Guard, Spears of the Dawn, and Mutant Crawl Classics, again, the player characters have different "jobs" but they all have the same role - that of newly-minted tribal defenders who explore the wilderness and fight off threats to their home village. The fact that one character is a glass-blower and the other's a beekeeper is irrelevant to their in-game motivation.

But 5e is a game where the player characters want different things. It's not just that one wants jewelry and one wants gemstones and one wants a magic sword. It's that one wants to help their noble family, and one wants to explore their village's hinterland, and one wants to lead their army to victory. That table of goals from Unlawful Games that I linked to earlier also introduces divergent motivations into the party. I worry a little that this is "splitting the party" at the very moment of character creation, but I would hope that most player groups can think of missions that advance multiple agendas at the same time, or else can agree to a bit of friendly "turn taking" to advance one goal at a time. I also suspect that the emergent motivations that always come up during play as a result of the players interacting with the setting will help to re-unite the party behind a common motivation.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

5e Backgrounds - What Do They Ask of Us?

I previously noted that 5e's character backgrounds often call for discreet bits of co-creative worldbuilding, where the player adds something to the campaign setting in cooperation with the DM. A few of them have tables with random bits of backstory. And all of them have a feature that gives the character some kind of special ability.

What I want to do here is just take stock of what each background asks for and offers. I'm looking at the Player's Handbook and the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica, because they're the two places I've seen complete backgrounds. The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide has some additional backgrounds, but they're basically minor reskins of the existing ones rather than complete backgrounds, so I'm not going include it in this exercise, at least for now.

You don't actually have to follow 5e's advice on this. A DM with a more fully-developed campaign setting could simply offer each player a small menu of options for things that currently exist in the setting, rather than asking the player to co-create them. The right decision depends on both what you want as a DM and what you players want, whether they want to help build a setting together with you and the other players, or if they'd prefer to just play the game in a pre-existing setting. Before I start, I also want to re-mention Jack Shear's idea to let players design much larger and more important elements of the setting, rather than the relatively small elements that the backgrounds typically call for.

Ship's Passage + Position of Privilege = Adventure?

Player's Handbook Backgrounds

  •  Feature - "Shelter of the Faithful" - basically room and board at the local temple wherever you go, plus free access to healing magic at these temples, plus a home-base temple
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to either design a new god/pantheon (or at least a new denomination or sect for worshiping an existing god), plus other details about your home-base temple and your role in it. your equipment list mentions that your holy symbol was a gift, so possibly design the NPC who gave it to you.

  • Feature - "False Identity" - a second persona you can adopt for social roleplaying whenever you want (in an intrigue game where everyone can disguise themselves as a different member of the same profession, I would say that charlatans can use any disguise they want. if I gave the other characters get A secret identity, I'd give charlatans TWO. or, I'd give them one stable secret identity, and a second disguise that has to be different every game session.)
  • Random Table - roll to discover your favorite scam, rather than designing your own con
  • Creative Opportunities - only the second persona, in whatever level of detail you like, plus anything you want to make up about how you do your cons

  • Feature - "Criminal Contact" - you know an NPC who acts as your liaison to the criminal underworld, and you and/or your contact are connected to the underworld well enough to send each other messages wherever you go
  • Random Table - roll to discover what kind of crimes you commit
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to help design your NPC point-of-contact
  • Alternative - you could choose to be a spy instead of a criminal (personally, I think the Charlatan background's second identity is a better fit for a spy, but I guess this is based on the ability to pass messages via your contact/handler?)

  • Feature - "By Popular Demand" - basically room and board at the local theater wherever you travel, along with a bit of popularity and name recognition among the local NPCs wherever you perform
  • Random Table - roll to discover what kind of performance you give
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to flesh out your entertainment routine in a way that charlatans and criminals are not asked to flesh out their scams and crimes; but unlike the acolyte, you're not asked to help design a home-base theater. your equipment includes a letter from an admirer, so possibly you need to design them as an NPC
  • Alternative - you could choose to be a gladiator instead of a performer (really, any kind of athlete would fit as well here, but maybe gladiatorial combat is the only sport in the Forgotten Realms?)

Folk Hero
  • Feature - "Rustic Hospitality" - room and board with the local peasants, who will also hide you from their own government
  • Random Table - roll to discover the defining event that makes people think of you as a hero
  • Creative Opportunities - only more detail about your defining event, if you so choose

Guild Artisan
  • Feature - "Guild Membership" - room and board again! plus the guild hall is explicitly a good place to meet NPCs, and you can get out of most crimes or get access to important political figures by paying back your overdue membership fees (5 gp per month since your last visit)
  • Random Table - roll to discover what your guild does
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to help design your guild as a faction; plus you were apprenticed to a master artisan, so you should help design that NPC
  • Alternative - you could choose to be a guild merchant instead, if you do, you'll need to help decide what goods you sold and how you transported them

  • Feature - "Discovery" - you know something important about the campaign setting that none of the NPCs are aware of 
  • Random Table - roll to discover the reason you left society
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to help determine your secret discovery, which is explicitly described as being pretty much anything you and the DM want; you can also add more detail to your reason for going into seclusion, and you'll need to think a little about what your secluded life was like
  • Alternative - none listed, but a philosopher or scientist would be a pretty good fit to make a cool discovery

  • Feature - "Position of Privilege" - NPCs generally like you, peasants defer to you, other nobles treat you as a peer, and you can meet with politically important NPCs if you want
  • Alternate Features - "Retainers" - you get 3 loyal NPC servants, they're all supposed to have different jobs, and they won't fight or go into dungeons
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to help design your title, decide how much political power that title wields, to design your noble family/house, determine your position in the family, and design any noble regalia associated with your household
  • Alternative - you can be a knight, which, among other things, means you're a low-status noble trying to move up in the world

  • Feature - "Wanderer" - room and board! specifically, you can find a good campsite and forage for enough fresh food and water for the rest of your party, and you are familiar with the overland map of your campaign setting (this one's sort of fascinating for what it implies - are other characters city-slickers who don't know how to camp? are you the only one who knows what the campaign setting looks like?!)
  • Random Table - roll to discover what sort of nomadic lifestyle you were leading
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to help design one (or more!) foreign countries

  • Feature - "Researcher" - whenever you don't know a piece of information, you do know where you'll need to go in order to find out
  • Random Table - roll to discover how you were trained (like, were you a librarian? a researcher?) weirdly this table does not tell you what topic you're sagacious about
  • Creative Opportunities - the Player's Handbook doesn't mention it, but I feel like maybe you should decide what topic you know about? also your equipment includes a letter from a colleague with a question you can't answer, so you should probably eventually design the colleague and the question.

  • Feature - "Ship's Passage" - you can get a free boat-ride for your party, although since you're riding for free, you don't get to pick exactly when you'll leave or how long it'll take, and it's kind of implied that you have to help the NPCs who run the boat with whatever quest they're on
  • Alternate Feature - "Bad Reputation" - NPCs are generally afraid of you, and you can get away with small crimes because people are too scared of reprisal to risk calling the cops unless it's really important 
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to help design your old boat, its reputation, its eventual fate, and like the noble, you need to decide what your relationship is with your old crewmates
  • Alternatives - you could choose to be a pirate, arrrrgh

  • Feature - "Military Rank" - you can command lower ranking soldiers, both from your own unit, and potentially from other units who need a commander, you can requisition military equipment, and you'll be allowed to enter military-only facilities
  • Random Table - roll to find out what your job was within your unit, only 3 of the 8 options are officer, infantry, or cavalry
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to help design your own former military unit, and your rank within that unit

  • Feature - "City Secrets" - you can find shortcuts through any city to travel through it twice as fast as you'd usually be able
  • Creative Opportunities - you're asked to invent a brief explanation for how just now made enough money to get out of poverty and go adventuring (what this mostly makes me notice is that NONE of the other backgrounds ask you WHY you're adventuring, which is surprising, since the urchin is the only background for whom treasure-hunting needs no explanation)

What do you MEAN "the book's on another planet?!"

Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica Backgrounds

While the backgrounds in the Player's Handbook are essentially occupations, the backgrounds in the Guide to Ravnica are all faction memberships. Let's see what WotC recommends for co-creation and potential features in a campaign where the setting is much more well-defined from the very beginning.

In addition to personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, each background now also has a random table for generating contacts. Interestingly, both the bond and contact tables seem designed to build up a little backstory. Pretty much all the entries on the bond and contact tables describe the NPC you care about in a word or two, and spend the rest of their text explaining how you're connected to them. Those explanations serve as defining moments in your character's backstory. Also, you have three contacts, an ally inside your guild, a rival inside your guild, and someone you know in another guild.

Azorious Functionary
  • Feature - "Legal Authority" - you're a cop, NPCs avoid breaking rules in front of you, you can go into restricted areas and question people as long as it's "for the investigation"
  • Creative Opportunities - you carry around a copy of your favorite law, so you should decide what that is, I guess

Boros Legionairre
  • Feature - "Legion Station" - hello darkness room and board, my old friend, this time you get a side of free medical care and requisitioning military equipment, which is de facto much cooler when you're in a setting where there are magical war machines than it is when "a horse" is given as an example of the kind of materiel you can request
  • Creative Opportunities - you have a souvenir from a famous battle, so decide what battle that was, maybe?

Dimir Operative
  • Feature - "False Identity" - you have a second persona, and most of the time, you pretend to be a member of another guild, this is very similar to the Charlatan's feature, but with the added structure of the Guide to scaffold the second identity
  • Random Table - roll to find out your reason for infiltrating, everything from secretly wishing you could actually join the guild to sincerely desiring to destroy it from within
  • Creative Opportunities - you get to pick which guild you're infiltrating, and you're asked to make up a bit of backstory about how your infiltration is going

Golgari Agent
  • Feature - "Undercity Paths" - similar to the Urchin, you can overland travel through cities twice as fast as other backgrounds due to knowing secret passages, but there are two differences - on Ravnica, everywhere is city, and the feature explicitly points out that "your journey isn't guaranteed to be safe", ie, there might be an obligatory sewer mini-adventure waiting for you if you do this
  • Creative Opportunities - none beyond what's standard - although in Ravnica, "standard" also includes deciding your place within your guild, and making up some backstory about your three contacts - but most of the things you're asked to invent in the Player's Handbook are already designed for you here

Gruul Anarch
  • Feature - "Rubblebelt Refugee" - like an Outlander, you can find a campsite and forage for food and water in destroyed and untended neighborhoods of the city; this ability actually makes more sense here, since in a world where it's always city, it makes sense that most people don't know how to rough it in the few rough areas available
  • Random Table - roll to see which of the Gruul clans you belong to
  • Creative Opportunities - in addition to deciding your place within the guild, also think about your role within your sub-guild clan

Izzet Engineer
  • Feature - "Urban Infrastructure" - you know about the magical HVAC, magical plumbing, etc, that goes into Ravnica's buildings behind the walls, you can also pick up copies of blueprints from the city planning office, basically you're allowed to ask your DM for a map of the dungeon before you go in, and you're sometimes allowed to find secret doors that aren't on the map - or at least, that's my read on the implications of this feature, although the implication also seems to be that this depends on the DM making a ruling rather than having real explicit rules about how you can do this
  • Random Table - actually none, but I would recommend rolling a d10 to find out which lab (and thus, which type of mad science) you're affiliated with
  • Creative Opportunities - your equipment includes the remains of a failed experiment, so probably think about what that was, if I were playing an Izzet character, I would for sure be plotting to try the same experiment again

Orzhov Representative
  • Feature - "Leverage" - you have at least one flunky / underling you can bully into doing menial labor for you, and if you can increase your status within the guild, you can get acquire more and better sycophants to do your bidding
  • Creative Opportunities - none beyond what's standard

Rakdos Cultist
  • Feature - "Fearsome Reputation" - like a Pirate, you're so scary that NPCs let you get away with small crimes without calling the Azorious cops on you
  • Random Table - roll to find out which nightmare-circus performance you give; this table is more important here than it was for the Entertainer since Rakdos performances are much more tightly thematic, and shows like "spikewheel acrobat" and "pain artist" aren't necessarily ones you'd come up with on your own
  • Creative Opportunities - your equipment includes a costume, so maybe describe what that looks like

Selesnya Initiate
  • Feature - "Conclave's Shelter" - oh look! it's a completely new ability room and board AGAIN! you can also get free healing magic, like an Acolyte
  • Creative Opportunities - none beyond the standard. Selesnya might be the simplest background for a new player to opt into, if that was intentional, then hopefully WotC made it the most conventional gild for novices to advance in

Simic Scientist
  • Feature - "Researcher" - just like a Sage, you have the ability to know where to go to learn unknown information, also this time there's an explicit reminder that going to site might be an adventure (or several) by itself, and that finding the information within the site might be another adventure as well
  • Random Table - roll to find out which sub-guild clade you belong to and thus what type of mad science you're working on
  • Creative Opportunities - this background probably has the coolest equipment, basically a series of glass vials of alchemical reagents made of fish parts, but there's nothing for you to decide there; you should probably think about your specific mad science project, since the table just gives you a general area of interest

A brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal?
image by Cliff Chiang

Concluding Thoughts

The first thing that jumps out at me is how different the creative opportunities are in the Player's Handbook and the Guildmaster's Guide. The base game sets each player up to help co-create the campaign setting in cooperation with the DM and with each other. If you started with only the most barebones setting idea - like "let's pretend we're in fantasy world like Lord or the Rings or like Game of Thrones" - then the creative prompts during character creation would immediately help lend some specificity to the setting and start to turn it into a unique place. Possibly not to the same degree that the creative prompts in Dungeon World or Beyond the Wall do - but clearly the baseline assumption here is that the players and DM are inventing a new fantasy setting together at the table.

Ravnica, on the other hand, is already a pretty-thoroughly imagined setting, although it is, I'll hasten to add, MUCH less oversaturated with detail than a place like the Forgotten Realms or Harn, where it can feel like if you start cross-referencing all the supplements, every person who lives there has a name and lifelong biography, and every village and nation has a day-by-day history going back a thousand years. But still, Ravnica already has a strong imaginary presence, and the backgrounds are much more about slotting the player characters into that pre-existing world than about helping invent it. The creative flourishes called for here are mostly about the character's own backstory.

Another reason for the difference, I think, is that a lot of the co-creation in the Player's Handbook is helping to invent factions for your shared world - after all, what you're mostly inventing isn't places or even individual people, it's GROUPS - whereas Ravnica has factions already. The backgrounds in the base game are occupations, they're things you DO. In Ravnica, all the backgrounds are group-memberships. The Boros background might say you're a Legionnaire and the Simic background you're a Scientist, but my sense is those are just names to help distinguish when the book is referring to a background and when it's referring to the guild itself. The names could just as easily have been Boros Member and Simic Member. Whatever job you had within the guild, whatever your role or place there, if you're with Boros you're "a legionnaire" and if you're with Simic you're "a scientist." Notably, this means that you COULD still co-create some of the geography of the world like in Freebooters on the Frontier, even though the Guide doesn't explicitly ask you to.

The second thing that occurs to me is what the Background Features are doing. I know I gave them a hard time because "free room and board" keeps showing up over and over, but I think part of that's because I had mismatched expectations. I was expecting the Background Feature to be almost like a mundane superpower you got to use because of your old job, and they're not that. (If you're really interested in resource management play, the abundance of "free room and board" is just one more nail in the coffin for your hopes of using 5e for that play style unaltered. Although with the light spell as a re-usable at-will cantrip, your hopes of that were probably already buried pretty deep.)

What I think the Features are really doing though, is codifying something that's probably implicit in every other version of the game - which is that NPCs interact with you on the basis of your role and status. And the two main statuses you can have are "one of us" or "better than us." (Starting characters in dark fantasy games are basically the scum of the earth, but even in those settings, I think the idea is that you become notorious / infamous as a result of your career of misdeeds, thus rapidly making your "better than us" for most purposes.)

If you're "one of us," then you get welcomed inside, you get a free meal and a place to sleep. Depending on who exactly "us" is, there might be a little more "we" can do for you. If "us" is just the local peasants, then room and board is pretty much it. If "us" is a temple, you get healing; if "us" is the military, you get access to weapons and armor; if "us" is sailors, you get to ride on our boat. "We" will also hide you or protect you from outsiders, if possible.

If you're "better than us," then you get deference, either out of fear or respect. If you're a noble, the peasants will bow to you. If you're a criminal, they'll avoid you. The biggest difference difference between the backgrounds is that some are "one of us" with the peasants, and thus aren't really "better" than anyone, while others have higher status and are "one of us" with the nobility, or the army, or the criminal underworld. In those places, you get treated the same way a Folk Hero gets treated by peasants - but when you're dealing with peasants, you get that fear and/or awe I mentioned.

This is also, I think, why there aren't THAT MANY different features, and why backgrounds that are basically re-skins of one another just recommend re-using the old feature rather than writing a new one. If it WAS some kind of superpower, then yeah, you might enjoy the chance to write a new one for every single background. But it's not, and the purpose that it serves is served plenty well by re-use, served better, probably, than it would be by writing a bunch of new ones.

My mismatched expectations came because when you call something a "feature" an bill it as an "ability" you can use, then I sort of expect it to do something extra. But instead, what the Background Features are doing, mostly, is codifying and making explicit something that is an implied but unwritten assumption of other versions of the game. Your class and/or pre-adventuring occupation makes your character a part of the game world and gives them a place in that world among the NPCs who live there. Those NPCs react to you on the basis of that. If you're a rogue or some other kind of criminal, you're part of the underworld. If you're a religious figure or a scholar of some kind, then you have a place in those institutions, you can enter them freely, and get help with the services that only a temple or library can provide, even if it's just directions to the RIGHT temple or the RIGHT library. And if you're a farmer or a craftsperson, then you fit in pretty well among the ordinary villagers who make up like 99% of the population of any faux-medieval world.

As Bubba Dave put it in a comment on my previous post "If your background is Sage then you know how to talk to academics, and they'll steer you toward the best place to research that thing you were asking about; a Hermit or Urchin would have more trouble and would probably have to render payment in coin or service. A Criminal knows how to talk to mobsters, where an Urchin can deal with beggars and squatters. There's some overlap with classes, but not a lot; if your Fighter was an Outlander then even though the local mercenary company might respect her skills they don't have the same jargon and shared experiences that they do with that Cleric who turned to the Church after a military career."

All this is already ASSUMED in other versions of D&D, but what 5e is doing is making it explicit, presumably so that people who are new to the game will (a) realize it, and (b) have SOME guidelines for how to use that in play. The rules text for the Features actually isn't hyper-specific or legalistic the way that the rules around combat or spellcasting can be. Instead, the writing here really is more like a guide for DM's to make their own rulings. It's there to explicitly encourage DMs to give their players the benefits of having a place in the NPCs' world, and to place a few explicit limits on it. I haven't brought it up before now, but each background does also include a sentence or so saying that if the players abuse their Feature, they won't be able to keep using it. NPCs don't have infinite patience, and if you try to take advantage of them, they'll kick you out. Exactly what that looks like isn't specified, because again, this isn't a hard-and-fast rule, it's a guideline to help the DM make an appropriate ruling based on their situation, without locking them in or trying to enumerate every possibility.

It still might be interesting to try writing Background Features that ARE like mundane superpowers (like the Urchin's ability to travel fast through cities, or the Knight's ability to attract followers) but perhaps it's not especially important to do so.