Story Fragment: The Dark Sorcerer

Once upon a time … I’m sure you’ve heard this story before. But you probably don’t know how it actually ended.

Once upon a time, there was an old man who was a powerful wizard. He was powerful enough to demand favors of gods, to bargain with demons, to walk unmolested through the hells of Ninhursag, who was known in the heavens and on Earth. He declared himself a lord of the world, raised armies, and strove to conquer all.

And he did. He ruled with an iron fist. His palaces overflowed with pleasures, while the peasants and common folk lived in abject poverty, wracked by monsters. Misery and injustice were everywhere. Rats swelled into vast hordes, and ate the folk alive in their home. The sky was dark by midday. Men killed one another for a loaf of bread. 

A band of heroes arose. A mighty champion. A cunning orphan. A priestess, pure of heart. Several others. The gods, jealous, were on their side, and the demons, tired of doing the sorcerers’ bidding, paved the way before them. The old tyrant scoffed, but somewhere inside, he knew. The oracles had spoken. He strove to disbelieve, but you don’t attain to great magic by ignorance.

The heroes slew the undead by the hundreds. They stormed the inner chambers. The sorcerer’s magics failed him, seemingly by chance, when they were needed most. And when the great warrior, shining and true, raised his sword, the sorcerer fell to his knees and, without hope in his heart, but at his last resort, he asked dully for mercy, for clemency.

The sword-bearer paused, lowered his weapon. Extended his hand. He extracted an oath from the black-hearted wizard. “Make this right. Redeem yourself. Save this world from the horrors you’ve unleashed, and then, using your powers, leave this world, never to return.”

The sorcerer … had foreseen all, all but this. He couldn’t have imagined that mercy could be granted for his many sins. Unthinkable! He swore the oath, though, and he was true to his word.

The warrior ruled, with a shadowy force behind the throne, his “advisor,” who none knew to be the self-same black-hearted wizard, the one all knew to be slain long ago, with a different face. With mighty spells, the land was healed. With rituals, the people thrived. Gold was discovered in the ground. The land was united through the brief unpleasantness of war, an anticlimactic war fought without slaughter, through the mage’s profound trickery. At last, the land was whole.

On a cool crisp evening, the warrior looked the old man in the eye. They were never friends, but they’d grown to … understand one another. Perhaps there was even a kernel of respect. But … there could never be trust. The warrior told the old man, “It’s time.” The wizard nodded. It was time.

The sorcerer rose into the night sky. He left this world for the heavens, to float, meditating, in the vast nothing. What more was there? If he couldn’t have the world, what did he want? He asked himself, and for a long forever, there was no reply.

Then, an image appeared in his head, then another. He thought about green shoots pushing through thick layers of ash, to welcome shafts of the sun streaming down through darkened clouds. He thought of children born to barren women, and tears of joy. He thought of men returning from wars to family and children, hanging their swords and shields on the wall, to gather rust and dust and stories. He thought of peace, and growth, comfort, and calm. Of books and stories written about tales of dread, but written with a full stomach, under a roof, with not a rat in sight.

A vast stone swam lazily through the void next to the sorcerer He looked at it. The walls of the craters on this planetoid looked something like a crenelated castle wall. Mayhap, a home, for study. For the greatest spell. A spell to bring peace and comfort, to entire worlds, for all time.

The sorcerer willed himself to fly to his new home, and it was so. In an immortal life, there was now so much to do.

Note: This isn’t necessarily the canonical origin story for Ensi Abgal and Uru Ulan, but it’s an idea, and I like it so far. I may develop it further later on, I just wanted to post it for feedback for now.

A Game of 100 Questions

I wrote this questionnaire a long time ago, and have used it with in at least a dozen campaigns. If you’re running a point-based RPG like Cosmic Cutthroats, you might find it helpful to answer the questions before creating your character. This helps you flesh out the character concept that you’re building.

If you’re running a system with more randomized generation, it makes more sense to answer after your character is finished. That way, you’re giving context to all those random roles, weaving them together into a coherent whole. And if your game features high lethality, maybe answer one randomly-chosen question per game session. By the time you answer enough questions to get attached, your character might be strong enough to survive, at least a little while longer!

Name

1. What is your Character’s name (first, middle, and last)?
2. Does your Character have a nickname? What is the Character’s code name?
3. Does the Character have any commonly used aliases?
4. How does the Character feel about their name; do they particularly like or dislike their name or nickname?

Appearance

5. Is the Character human? If not, what is your Character’s species, subspecies, and/or race?
6. What is your Character’s height, weight, eye color, natural hair color, current hair color, and skin color?
7. Does your Character have any body modifications, such as tattoos, burns, scars, body piercings, bionics or genetic alterations? If so, describe them.
8. Is there a story behind any of the Character’s modifications (from above)?
9. Is your Character very attractive? Describe their build — are they muscular, lithe, willowy, husky, flabby, voluptuous, ripped, or what?
10. Is this despite or because of the care they take of themselves?
11. How does the Character dress, and what is their hairstyle and posture Examples: Dapper or preppie, or slacker, or slobbish.
12. What does the Character’s voice sound like?
13. What is the look in the Character’s eyes? Dangerous, daring, cunning, dull, or bewildered?

Family

14. What is your Character’s family background? Is the Character an orphan? If so, skip questions 15-20, or explain the nearest equivalents.
15. What are the Character’s parents’ names and occupations?
16. How many siblings does the Character have, and what are their names, genders, ages, and occupations?
17. Does the family maintain contacts, or are they distant?
18. Any there any other important family members, such ans grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins?
19. What is the Character’s feelings towards each of their family members? Examples: Attachment, competition for attention, love, loathing, or even fear.
20. Are all of the Character’s relatives living? If not, describe how they died, and what effect did their death had on the Character. Was it an accident, negligence, illness, or even murder?

Childhood

21. Where did the Character grow up? Examples: The suburbs, the ghettos, downtown, on military bases, on reservations.
22. Does the Character have any favorite memories of childhood, such as a playmate, a tree fort, a favorite game or toy? Instead, was it so bad that the Character usually blocks out all of their childhood memories?

Occupation

23. What is your Character’s job?
24. Why did the Character choose that job? What qualifications does the Character have for the job?
25. Where did the Character go to train in that occupation? A college, armed service, or trade school?
26. Has the Character ever changed jobs? If so, describe any important former positions, and why they left, or were fired.
27. What is the worst thing about their job, in the Character’s opinion?
28. What is the best thing about the job, in the Character’s opinion?
29. Are they loyal, or would they jump ship for better wages — or even for worse ones?
30. What is the Character’s dream job? Describe the employer, the job position, salary, colleagues and underlings, and duties.

Finances

31. How tight a handle does the Character keep on their money (free spender, or miserly)?
32. Is there one kind of product that they have a special weakness for spending lots of money on?
33. Does the Character pay their bills on time?
34. What does the Character use for transportation — an old junker, or a classy new jobber?
35. What sort of dwelling does the Character live in? Examples: A house, an apartment, a trailer-house, a mud hut, a cave, or a refrigerator box? Provide a simple (at least 1 sentence) description of the interior.

Friendships

36. Does the Character have any friends? If so, names and a short (at least 1 sentence) description of each, noting any ‘best friends’ or former romantic interests.
37. What do the Character and each of their friend(s) have in common, and what is different between them?
38. How did the Character and each of their friend(s) meet?
39. Does the Character have any pets — now or in the past? If so, what kind, and what were their names, and why were those names chosen.
40. What sort of pets does the Character prefer? If any, state what reasons do they give for liking them.

Significant Others

41. Is your Character currently in a significant relationship with a member of the opposite sex? Note if it is a possibly long-term relationship.
42. Is the relationship sexual, platonic, true love, or any combination?
43. How did the Character and their S.O. meet?
44. What is your Character’s sexual preference?
45. Is the Character’s philosophy ‘love the one you’re with’, ‘faithful ’til the end’, or ‘as long as we have an understanding’?
46. What is the Character’s dream mate, in appearance, personality, etc. The description will show how shallow or deep the Character themselves are.
47. Has the Character ever been, or are they, married, and to whom? If they are no longer so, note when that was, if it was a legal, religious, or common-law marriage, when it was broken off, and why.
48. Does the Character maintain contacts with any ex-girl/boyfriends or ex-spouses?

Beliefs

49. What are the Character’s moral/ethical beliefs?
50. Their spiritual/religious beliefs?
51. Do they adhere to a specific philosophy, or are they freewheeling?
52. How committed is the Character to these beliefs — would the Character die for them, or kill for them?
53. Are they generally good, selfish, indifferent, or evil?
54. Was the Character raised with a specific philosophy, and do they accept or reject it?
55. Does the Character believe in an afterlife, and how do they plan to get there?
56. Does the Character struggle with their faith, or are they strong and committed?
57. Does the Character attend any kind of religious services regularly?
58. How does the Character feel about: violence/killing, extramarital sex, sexual orientation, sexual deviancy, religion, stealing, lying, gender roles, use of torture, loyalty and trust?

Legal Status

59. What is the Character’s relationship to the authorities?
60. Have they ever been convicted of a minor crime? A major one?
61. Is this despite or because of the care (or lack of) they take in dealing with the police?
62. Are the crimes cleared or outstanding?
63. Is the Character currently wanted, on probation, or have bounties on them?

Hobbies

64. If the Character travels (or could travel), where to? How often? With whom?
65. If the Character participates in or even watches sports, which ones? What style — hardball or softball, touch or tackle?
66. What TV genres, books, magazines, musical styles, movie genres, or computer games do they enjoy? Favorite card, board, or war games? Do they cheat?
67. Does the Character use any recreational drugs? Examples: tobacco and/or alcohol (give specific brands if they are that particular), marijuana, or any others.

Politics

68. Does the Character support the current national administration? Why or why not?
69. Does the Character count themselves part of any particular political movement or party? Or is the Character anarchist, radical, absurdist, or monarchist, democratic, Machiavellian, socialist, hegemonist, imperialist, or apolitical?
70. Is there some political alignment that they absolutely cannot stand, or find laughable?

Sanity and Madness

71. Is the Character plagued with any specific doubts about themselves?
72. What does the Character fear most about the future?
73. Does the Character believe fanatically in only the tangible (materialist), or in a bit of the supernatural, or do they believe anything they’re told?
74. Does the Character get along well in society, or are they handicapped by any eccentricities they have?

Combat Style

75. How does the Character perform in combat? Fast and furious, slow and measured, deceptive and misdirecting? Describe a typical combat scene.
76. Does the Character talk, scream, giggle, sing, or growl in combat, or are they deadly silent?
77. Does the Character train in any specific fighting style or martial art? If so, mention why they chose that art, and their degree of proficiency in it.
78. Is there some weapon the Character prefers, either a specific weapon (grandfather’s Musashi sword) or a class of weapons in general (Colt .45s)? Mention why the Character has such a preference, and their degree of proficiency with it.
79. Is there some flashy, tricky move or weapon kata that they love to use? Examples might include wide flourishing disarms, trips, swiftly slashing their initials on the enemy or their belongings, or clipping off buttons or armor buckles.
80. Does the Character prefer sneakiness and subterfuge, brazen attack, or a combination, with grand, intimidating entries? State if the Character has any degree of skill with stealth.

Mortality

81. What is the Character’s attitude towards death? Examples: Scared, transfixed with horror, morbidly fascinated, uninterested, or totally unafraid.
82. How would the Character want to be disposed of once they pass on?
83. Does the Character believe in an honorable death for all, or are murder and assassination justified to them?

Personality

84. Is the Character an introvert or an extrovert — shy or outgoing?
85. How does the Character solve most interpersonal problems? Examples: Looking up possible solutions in a psychology textbook, brazenly ignoring – or confronting — the problem, seeking neutral arbitration, lying and sneaking their way out of it, or conscientiously speaking the truth.
86. What is the Character’s attitude towards life itself? Examples: It is a battle that goes to the strong, a training grounds for some final battle at the end of time, an enormous test set up by the gods, a joke, a joke in very poor taste, just a bit better than death, worse than death?
87. What is the Character’s prize possession? Mention how they acquired it, from whom, when and what significance it holds for them.
88. The Character has discovered someone breaking into their house; what do they do? Examples: Kill the intruder instantly, talk to them, scare them away, capture them and torture them, or cower under the bed with a broomstick.
89. How does the Character accept the following: compliments, flattery, gifts, charity?
90. How does the Character accept the following: being ignored, insults, requests for charity?
91. Is the Character prejudiced about any one species, race, gender, culture, or sexual orientation, and if so, why?
92. What sort of foods does the Character enjoy? If any, mention if they are capable of cooking, and how well.
93. The Character is asked to go to a formal function, a fancy wedding, for example; how do they spend the majority of the reception? Examples: Eating cake and/or finger foods, talking, dancing with friends, or with strangers, people-watching from corners, or slipping out early.
94. What is the Character’s favorite saying, or a good, illustrative quote by the Character?
95. What song (or band/performer, or music genre) best evokes the mood that would fit the Character’s personality — and would they like the song?
96. Who are the Character’s heroes, and if there are none in the game-world, who would they be in our world?
97. What is your Character’s attitude towards luck/chance/fate/destiny? Do they even believe in luck? Are they pessimistic or optimistic? Do they see themselves as pessimistic or optimistic?
98. What are the Character’s dreams for the future? A wife, a dog, three kids, and a house with rose bushes and picket fences; a series of wild adventures crossing the globe, punctuated by carousing and spending sprees; touring the world in a ship, rubbing elbows with the elite, ridding the world of crime and evil once and for all, becoming a god, or what?

Campaign

99. How does the Character’s abilities fit into the hero group? Does the Character have the super-strength to keep enemies from the party’s weaker members, or the telepathic talent to tie their teammate’s minds together?
100. How will the Character fit into the Campaign? What adventures does the Character’s background make possible?

ROLEPLAYING: IT’S NOT JUST FOR NERDS ANYMORE

Got a shout out on the ‘Follow Me and Die’ blog, after a comment I left on MeWe about the article below. This kind of humor, the ‘I bet you nerds are super happy that your hobbies have been accepted into the mainstream and you get to hang out with the cool kids now’, it gets really tiresome.

Look, I’m a somewhat successful professional with a family, been married over twenty years, and with any luck, soon to be a homeowner. I’ve also been gaming nonstop since junior high. Most of that time, RPGs weren’t cool. While I’m glad more people get to share the love, and it’s nice seeing a more diverse bunch of people get into gaming and publishing, gaming itself is and always has been cool.

I guess what I’m saying to the formerly non-gaming world, the people who used to think “D&D is just for geeks” is … you’re late to the party. How nice of you to join us, I hope you don’t mind we started without you. Grab some nachos, grab a character sheet, and get caught up on the plot, ‘cuz we’re not waiting. 🙂

No More Nerds – A Rant

Mad Libs Adventure Design

This system allows a group to semi-randomly generate an adventure! Sure, thsi blog is geared to Cosmic Cutthroats, but this system will work for any game.

Each person things of some story, maybe a book, movie, TV show episode (has to be a specific episode), or whatnot. Then, everyone rolls 1d20. They answer these questions, going in order from lowest roll to highest.

If two people roll the same number, both of their answers are counted. If you have less than 5 people, then each person should pick another 2-3 stories, and their subsequent stories can count for later questions.

  1. What’s the problem the PCs need to solve?
  2. Who is a helpful NPC that might assist?
  3. Who is the villain that the group must face (if any)?
  4. Where does this all take place?
  5. What’s the final twist, or some unexpected element? The PC that rolled this one may keep it a secret!
  6. What’s the reward if the PCs succeed?

In many cases, there will be multiple answers. The group can choose the one they like best, or they can choose randomly. You can add more questions, too, to flesh out the adventure, but they need to be very open-ended, suitable for any kind of story.

So, for example, Abigail, Beatrice, Carla, Dave, Eddie, and Frank want to play Cosmic Cutthroats, but Abbie can’t decide on an adventure to run. It’s a universal system, and NPCs and creatures are easy to make in minutes, she just needs an idea for the plot. So, everyone thinks of a story.

  1. Abigail thinks of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
  2. Beatrice thinks of Crazy Rich Asians.
  3. Carla thinks of Nightmare on Elm Street.
  4. Dave thinks of Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas.
  5. Eddie thinks of Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 5 episode 2, “Darmok.”
  6. Frank thinks of the novel The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi.

Everyone rolls 1d20.
Abigail rolls a 1, Beatrice rolls a 19, Carla rolls 10, Dave 15, Eddie 5, and Frank 9.

So the order goes:

1. What’s the problem the PCs need to solve?
Abigail thought of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Abigail really liked the parts of The Two Towers in Rohan, so the group decides this is a diplomatic mission, to go enlist the aid of a civilization in a neighboring dimension for their patrons in the transdimensional city of Uru Ulan.

2. Who is a helpful NPC?
Eddie thought of Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 5 episode 2, “Darmok.”
There’s an alien who might be able to help the group, but his language is so strange that neither technology nor spells can assist. They have to learn the alien’s culture (Brains rolls) to be able to interpret.

3. Who is the villain that the group must face (if any)?
Frank thought of The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi.
The most frightening enemies in The Quantum Thief are the keepers of the Prison, AIs who perform endless experiments on prisoners in a theoretical attempt to rehabilitate them. The group shudders and agrees that some vast, godlike AI, performing mass psychology experiments, would be a great bad guy.

4. Where does this all take place?
Carla thinks of Nightmare on Elm Street.
So the two main locations in Nightmare on Elm Street are the real world in the 80s, and the dream world. They agree it would be kind of silly for the whole plot to be “all a dream”, so the world they’re visiting resembles suburban Earth in North America in the late 20th century.

5. What’s the twist? The PC that rolled this one keeps it a secret.
Dave thinks of Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas.
There was so much weirdness and so many twists in that movie! But maybe the problem with the “Darmok” figure is he’s so full of drugs that not a lot of what he says makes sense. If you can cut through the thick smoke that surrounds him and get him to talk plainly, his advice will be invaluable.

(Okay, so maybe this isn’t the twistiest of twists, but it does bring in an additional plot element and fleshes out an NPC a little more, but more importantly, Dave likes it and the group agrees, so it goes in. There’s plenty of room for flexibility when using this mechanic).

6. What’s the reward if the PCs succeed?
Beatrice thinks of Crazy Rich Asians.
The plot of Crazy Rich Asians is about an Asian American lady going to Macau with her fiancee, to attend a wedding, and the clash of cultures that results. The reward, really, is growing to understand her fiancee and get closer to him. We can add a subplot where one PC describes an attractive person they meet in this 1980s dimension, and if they succeed in formulating an alliance, the two have a chance to get to know one another.
Since Beatrice is playing a straight female character, she describes a good-looking guy the group can contact.

So here’s a plot summary:
The Ordo Custodes Noctis contacts the PCs with an important mission. There’s been a rash of mass murders recently. Artificial beings, synthetically designed beings made of flesh and cybernetic parts, have infiltrated Uru Ulan. They pass for “normal” visitors and inhabitants, have jobs, have friends, and lead a normal life, until they suddenly snap and go on a nocturnal killing spree. This has to stop.

They’ve traced the synthetics to a nearby Realm that resembles 1980s Earth, complete with Cold War tensions. It’s believed that a massive supercomputer there might have run amok, an AI designed by the local American military to defend the country against a Russian missile attack. This machine consciousness has the facilities to create synthetic spies, and as it grows more twisted and paranoid, it’s creating the mass murdering synthetics through some kind of social experiment.

You will travel to this world and speak with the President of the United Confederation of Vespuccia. He’s a senile old man who’s been in office for decades due to his “wartime powers” declarations. His top advisers are mostly or all agents of the aberrant AI, so you may need to deal with them to get the old man to give you permission to take out the AI itself. And of course, you need to convince him to do without the AI’s protection in case of an attack, probably no mean feat.

The OCN has a local contact, a retired mystic, but the PCs will discover that the contact is eccentric and unreliable, often addled by noxious chemicals, but his grasp of the local situation may be essential. Keeping on his good side will be most helpful.

Finally, a handsome Russian double agent with a background in programming is available to assist you if you’re able to get permission to deal with the deadly defense AI. You’ll have to determine if he’s trustworthy, and if so, gain his trust so he can assist you in disabling the AI without leaving the Vespuccian missile defense totally vulnerable.

Good luck!

Cutthroat Progress

Just completed a major graphical update for Cosmic Cutthroats, adding a background image, an outline for tables, and some gradients for section headers. I think it looks pretty nice, and can’t wait to order a test copy and see how it looks in print!

The previous test copy turned out pretty well, also. Hoping to get some playtesting in soon. Initial test runs have gone well, and resulted in some good changes, but nothing beats getting the system beaten into shape by actual players.

Here is a link to the playtest PDF, the print copy, and miscellaneous useful tools. Enjoy, and feel free to mail me. Address in this Google Doc also. Thanks!

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1ZSzC_G9yDFR4Iv79PE5P-EUf3MqZ2jmO8hbF9wLffOw