Tuesday, November 20, 2018

GFA18 - Scribing Runes in MCC

This is the last of my Gongfarmer's Almanac 2018 articles that deal with Mutant Crawl Classics. (Don't worry, it's not the last one overall, coming next are some materials for DCC Westerns.) This time, I was thinking about ways to bring a little more DCC magic into MCC. In my image of the Terra AD setting, technology takes the form of discrete technological artifacts, but it also takes the form of sites and locations. Some of these are deadly, acting like traps, but others represent powers that characters can use (and re-use) if they can get to the right place. Ideally, there should be multiple "right places" for any given effect, but you can't just activate any effect from any where.
I really want to give a shout out to Karim for the great art accompanying this piece. Because he was volunteering his time and talent to GFA18, he would have been totally within his rights to simply look at my draft and then draw whatever he wanted inspired by it. Karim when above and beyond though; he essentially volunteered to give me the true commission experience. He drew preliminary sketches, revised them based on my comments, check the revisions with me, then made the final versions. All the pieces went through some revision, but this one went through the most. I had described something a little like David Langford's "blit" where a parrot-like image drives people insane, except ... what I described didn't really work visually. Karim came up with the idea of the parrot as a mechanical pop-up, and the effect as a beam, and it's fantastically weird, and it just ... works. (Plus check out the gross detail on the disintegrating guy! It's off the hook!)
Keith Garrett edited this piece, as he did the others in this series. You might have recognized the narrative example from my previous article as being lifted from Star Trek First Contact. The example here is probably harder to recognize. It comes from Jasper Fford's novel Shades of Grey. The whole community structure and set-up of that novel would, I think, make for a pretty good entry-level scenario for MCC.
Art by Karim
In a world without literacy, all writing seems like magic. Some writing is much more magical than others, however. Some writing issues commands that its viewers have to obey, even if they can't actually "read" it. The DCC spells runic alphabet (mortal) and runic alphabet (fey) represent a set of procedures that characters can memorize by rote in order to enact wetware-like effects without direct intervention by the patron AIs. The DCC spell make potion even provides a list of procedures characters can follow to issue wetware-like commands to themselves.
Characters can only learn runes one at a time, they can never memorize an entire runic alphabet at once. Characters learn a rune by making a technology roll, including their usual artifact check bonus. A character must make a technology roll equal to the rune's original minimum spellcheck in order to memorize it. Once a character has memorized a rune, they can inscribe it any time by making a technology roll equal to the rune's spell check. The rune's complexity is equal to twice its spell level (so mortal runes are complexity 2 and fey runes and potions are both complexity 6). If the alternative technology roll described earlier is used, then characters' technology die is also their spell check die, and can continue to improve even after they memorize the rune. If the bard class described earlier is used, bards roll +1d on technology rolls to learn and scribe runes. Most characters can memorize a number of runes equal to half their character level, while bards can memorize a number of runes equal to their level.
A rune might represent ancient machine code. Writing the code might issue a command-line instruction to a patron AI's satellite mainframe, and activating the rune might represent the satellite compiling and executing the code via the AI's operatives and resources planetside. Or, a rune might represent ancient logins, passwords, and database entries. Writing the rune might fill in a webform maintained by the nanites ambient in the atmosphere all over Terra A.D., and activating the rune might represent the nanites submitting the entry as a new row in a cloud database. Or, a rune might consist of images that exploit flaws in the image-processing centers of the human brain to produce almost unavoidable effects, as described by David Langford in his "blit" and "basilisk" stories. Learning the rune might represent learning to accurately reproduce the image without suffering its effects. Inscribing might consist of drawing this image, and activating it might represent fully revealing the image to its victim's visual cortex. Depending on the judge's interpretation, inscribing a rune might require access to a functioning ancient computer terminal, special paints or stencils to craft a nanite-readable barcode or QR code, or protective eyewear to shield the scribe's own optic nerve from the rune's effects.
Example: Jane has been press-ganged into leading Tommo and Violet into an abandoned ancient city to collect spoons and other artifacts. Near the edge of town, she spots an Ancient screen and keyboard, attached to a machine that accepts rectangular leaves and returns metal pebbles. First she types in the command to make the monitor display a particular shade of green that relieves the injuries she suffered on the road (make potion "healing", technology DC 18, Complexity 6). When Tommo and Violet demand that Jane repeat the procedure, she enacts the second part of her plan, typing in a command to display a coruscating pattern of red-and-green static that causes Tommo and Violet to hemorrhage to death on the spot (runic alphabet (fey) "pain", technology DC 16, Complexity 6). Jane returns home telling a story about how Tommo and Violet "were eaten by a carnivorous plant."

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