Monday, 28 October 2013

Deathwatch: The Price of Hubris, part 08

Contains spoilers for, funnily enough, The Price of Hubris from The Emperor Protects.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features a fair amount of background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

Quite a bit of this episode is a recap of the previous session, as it was some weeks between the two. If you're listening to it all close together you might prefer to skip forward a bit, but you might enjoy it.

With the planet suffering a bad case of xenos, there's potentially a serious tension between sensible Imperial doctrine and the kind of thing you probably want to do if you're playing Deathwatch rather than Dark Heresy. Arthur sensibly took the scenario as written with a pinch of salt and made sure we had options to tackle things the way we wanted to. This effectively meant we could keep playing roughly within the adventure as written, without too many IC worries to handle. To be honest, nuking the place from orbit would still have been a relatively sensible idea as Space Marines understand things, but there was enough uncertainty in the mix that it wasn't clearly the best option by a mile, which was enough for us.

There's something weirdly refreshing about interrogating a suspect when you're genuinely in a position to do that, rather than one shady adventurer trying to grill another in a tavern and looking for that delicate balance where it isn't completely ludicrous for them to put up with your questioning rather than walk out, but you also don't look like a psychopathic bully.

Link to Episode 08.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Lethal weapons

For millenia, people have been choosing between a wide variety of weapons for various purposes and occasions. Some are clearly better in some circumstances, other cases are ambiguous. However, when it comes to playing RPGs – and particularly if any of you pay any heed to the weapons mechanics rather than choosing on purely roleplaying grounds – the distribution of weapons rarely matches what you might hope to see with an eye to realism.

Why is this? What affects the power balance between weapons in reality, and what makes it so different in games?

Disclaimer: I am doing no actual research for this, so all statements are based on vague memories of history books and wild extrapolation. I'm also not looking to criticize anyone's choices of weapons or systems. It's just I was having a conversation with Dan about this.

Probably the most classic example of this problem is what I will call the Assaxein. Dan ran into this issue only the other week during our Numenera game. Narratively speaking, an assassin should mostly wield small blades, perhaps a garotte, a blowgun or a handful of throwing knives. However, small blades are in almost all games mechanically very poor at killing people. If you want to be an effective murderer, your best option is to grab the biggest weapon you can get your bloodstained mitts on.

In Numenera, a light weapon inflicts 2 damage and grants a +3 to hit. A medium weapon inflicts 4 damage. A heavy weapon inflicts a whopping 6 damage. Even allowing for the Glaive power that grants +1 damage (and thus reduces the discrepancy), there are precisely two very unlikely situations when it's worth using a dagger instead of a greatsword:

  • When you would otherwise need an 19 or 20 to hit (assuming there aren't auto-hits on these, which seems hard to work out with the Minor/Major Effect rules)
  • When you know you need to inflict 3 damage or less

In AD&D, a dagger typically inflicts 1d4 damage with a possible Strength bonus. A longsword inflicts 1d8 damage and Strength bonus, whil a greatsword will do around 1d12 and in most cases gets a bigger Strength bonus because it's being wielded two-handed. Rogues (our assassinalike) can multiply this damage by either rolling more dice, or multiplying the number by some factor. Unless rogues have their weapon choices restricted, this actually serves to make it worse, because the difference between 5d4 and 5d12 is really very significant. On the plus side, using weapon speed does slightly compensate by allowing first strike to light weapons, and with the generally low hit dice of creatures and PCs in this system, this can be vital.

Later editions of D&D improve on matters by having fixed-size bonus dice, so that as level increases the original weapon ends up much less important than the sneak attack bonus. However, that doesn't actually solve the problem, which is that the sensible weapon choice is generally the biggest one you can carry. They compensate somewhat by offering Weapon Finesse so you can wield light weapons using Dexterity, which is usually a slightly more accurate choice.

You also commonly end up with one weapon or other being flat-out better than anything else in its category, usually by dint of simply having a higher mean damage output. Occasionally, where hit points are low and heavy weapons usually overkill, something else will challenge them by being highly accurate or by providing some additional benefit like a defensive bonus.

So why is it that historically people used such a massively variable array of weapons compared to the common choices in games? Well, I think it's largely down to games modelling some attributes much more effectively than others.

Strength in numbers

Some weapons were intended primarily for mass use, and others for individual use. A greataxe or rapier are both formidable weapons in a one-on-one fight, but pose problems in mass warfare, because one calls for swinging room and the other for manoeuvrability. When engaging in serious tactics, people turned to weapons like the spear or sword, which can be effectively used en masse. Some of these weapons become far effective when used as a group, allowing for defensive strategies like the Tortoise, or for harmonised strike-and-recover tactics that allowed soldiers to protect one another by compensating for weaknesses.

In game terms, adventurers tend not to worry about this kind of thing because they're not fighting en masse. I'd say that the distribution of weapons tends to be more or less appropriate for one-on-one skirmish fighting.

Weapon Interactions

A rapier is a highly effective weapon in a duel against another person with a rapier, even more so against someone with a knife, and I hate to think how nasty it'd be against a hammer or anything else with a short range that needs a bit wind-up and has little defensive capacity. On the other hand, I suspect a rapier is completely pants against someone with a spear, or in virtually any situation where you're called on to defend against a weapon any heavier than another rapier. It can hit a small target accurately and react quickly to strike or defend, but it doesn't have the weight to block attacks or to punch through armour. Similarly, if someone gets within dagger range, a long rapier isn't likely to be much help, while a club or another dagger offers you more protection. This was an additional reason for rapiers to be used with a dagger, as was apparently common. Of course, the threatening range and psychological effect of weapons also come into play here - you have to be fairly confident in your dodging to rush someone with a longsword.

Because active defense tends not to feature heavily in games, the relative benefits of different weapon pairings don't get much attention. Even in those with a parry system, you tend to be looking at intrinsic bonuses for a particular weapon, rather than the interplay of yours and your opponent's. The implications of this depend on the system. In general it tends to mean there's little incentive to take weapons that are useful in defending yourself, since they generally don't provide this mechanical benefit.


Some weapons are more effective against some degrees or types of armour, as Gygax knew well. Faced with a stark naked enemy, something like a bullwhip would be quite a sensible choice - range, very painful - but it's not going to be hugely effective against someone in plate. Some armours can be cut, others need to be crushed. A slicing blade may be most effective against a lightly-armoured target that can be badly injured or killed, but if they're wearing metal plates then not only will they ward off the worst of it, but you might damage your weapon. On the other hand, a big ol' lump of iron can send them reeling or trip them. A small, piercing weapon can find a chink in armour where a longsword won't. Restrictively bulky armour leaves a target vulnerable to quick stabs even while protecting them from heavy swings. Many armour designs leave hands and legs relatively exposed, good targets for rapid cuts and pokes to weaken and impede your enemy.

Some games do apply penalties for restrictive armour, but these tend to be across-the-board, without accounting for specific vulnerabilities. Others distinguish forms of damage but not the effects of accuracy or impact.

This blanket approach to armour tends to favour relatively slow and powerful weapons, since you can't benefit mechanically from weapons designed to exploit weaknesses in armour.


People are really not that tough. Whatever games may say, very few people get up again after being hit full-on with a longsword. A lot of people don't survive their first encounter with a knife. Admittedly some of these injuries take a while to be fatal, but they also tend to be crippling in the short term - and of course many injuries are crippling in the short term even though they won't be fatal. A straightforward whack to any number of vulnerable spots can leave someone helpless.

What this means in game terms is that to be honest, most weapons are (relatively) underpowered. Of course, different systems model different things, and arguably hit points represent things other than direct physical injury. But does dodging a slow axe swing take more out of you than dodging a flourishing dagger? Particularly when a dagger is so suited to striking quickly, reversing and generally otherwise gives you a lot to worry about. A knock-on effect is that people and creatures are remarkably blasé about injury, and so you can't generally rely on pulling out a knife to scare off bandits who know they can take three or four hits with zero risk of death or long-term injury. Similarly, pain doesn't generally exist in games.

Different types of injury also come into play. Stab wounds are liable to cause long-term damage, be very difficult to treat and often fatal, but they may not immediately stop someone fighting. A slashing wound can sever muscles or tendons, and cause a lot of blood loss, but may be less lethal. Impact weapons can knock over, stun and wind a target even through armour, since much of the force may carry through when a blade's impact would be stopped; they are also liable to break bones and cause internal injuries.

This tends to favour the use of large weapons that inflict the maximum possible direct damage to a target, both for killing potential and because it slightly improves your chances of scaring someone off.


Of course, there are definitely some cases where a bigger weapon is better. A spear is much better for fighting tough bears or boar than a dagger - in fact a spear generally seems to be the weapon of choice for just about any kind of hunting, possibly because so many animals are fast, strong, and otherwise likely to bat your blade aside and bowl you over while you're trying to swing hard enough to get through all that fur and hide. Spears offer range, can be braced against charges, pivoted quickly, and crucially you can keep the pointy bit aimed at the animal and backed up with two hands - swords are harder to hang onto if a heavy weight crashes against them. On the other hand, a dagger is easy to use in close quarters to stab at vital points while you're ducking or hanging onto something's back. Swords are, fundamentally, designed for fighting other people with weapons.

Games frequently feature axes and swords used against wild animals and beastial monsters, but these don't seem to feature in real-life hunting. I've never seen a ruleset detailed enough to tackle things like the difficulty of bringing swords to bear on a wolf, the fact that animal fights will tend to end up with you rolling on the floor rather than circling six feet apart, and the impact of a charging bear knocking weapons out of your hand.

This tends to favour the use of large, warlike weapons that inflict a lot of damage, and those designed for fighting armed humans, over hunting weapons.


Weapons, and armour, vary wildly in cost. You can get hold of a cudgel for nothing in almost all circumstances, knives are plentiful and cheap, and staves or crude spears can be fashioned with cheap materials. Axes, hammers and other items than need worked iron or stone are more expensive because of the skill and labour needed. Swords made of any decent material are expensive, and so are decent bows, because they take a lot of work to make. The fancier or more technical the weapon, the more expensive it's likely to be, whether you're paying in money or simply in time. There's also the question of what materials are available, with some areas having large iron deposits, others plentiful obsidian or strong wood, and some short of any very sturdy materials.

Cost is definitely a factor when you're equipping an army, which is an expensive enough undertaking in the first place. As well as the pure cost, an army-raiser will want to consider more complex factors: is the marginal benefit of longswords over spears worth the additional cost? What about the cost of training the recruits to use them? If your troops are green recruits, will they get any benefit from good equipment? If you expect heavy casualties anyway (perhaps you're sending them on a suicidal holding action or a forlorn hope) can you afford to pay for all those weapons that'll be lost with the troops, and likely captured by the enemy? If you're raising an army of worthless peasants to hurl at your rival, do you actually care what they have to fight with? What about the cultural factors, if your society expects individual soldiers to buy their own equipment?

Individual adventurers, of course, will want the very best they can get. While money's an issue, it tends to be more on the level of mundane vs. magical sword, rather than the handful of gold it takes to buy a slightly bigger sword. Adventurers are rarely short of cash for small mundane items, and especially for those they'll use constantly.

This tends to favour the use of expensive, high-quality weapons that are honed for a particular task. I don't think this is a problem. Those are exactly the sort of weapons adventurers should be using.


Many weapons require a lot of time, aptitude and fitness to learn. Most soldiers probably didn't have the luxury. Peasant conscripts tended to be trained with a couple of simple weapons, possibly by laws requiring them to practice regularly. Sometimes peasants were deliberately not allowed weapons outside wartime, to prevent them rebelling. In these circumstances, you pick something that's relatively quick to learn rather than a far more lethal weapon that takes a lot of training to use effectively.

As PCs are typically trained warriors, and training to use a weapon is rarely a major concern (it's either simple or impossible), this doesn't tend to apply in games. Again, they're also a much smaller group and have fewer logistical problems than armies.

I think this tends to favour the use of military weapons, and often of the more dangerous ones, since the difficulty of learning to use them is handwaved. If it's no more difficult to learn to use a flail than a club, why use a club? In reality, once you've become proficient with a particular weapon it's logical to keep training with that and improve further, rather than turn to a new and larger weapon. Games often allow you to learn a new weapon over the course of a couple of adventures, becoming just as proficient with it as you were with your original one. Some have characters proficient with all weapons, which is handy from a gaming point of view, but tends to distort the choice of weapons.


Some weapons are simple to maintain or replace, while others call for delicate components or constant attention. Metal weapons need oiling and cleaning. Strung weapons will fray and need new strings, which may be hard to source on the move. Latches and triggers may jam, swell or bend. Wooden components may need rubbing down, oiling or replacing entirely after they've been cut about. Hard but fragile materials like bone and stone may mean weapons need replacing after every fight, or at least that spikes or blades need replacing. Blades need sharpening.

These are relatively simple (if annoying) if you're an army with a substantial supply chain and weaponsmiths, but for adventuring parties they would pose problems. Carrying spare bowstrings, oil and toolkits adds to a load, and PCs don't necessarily have any relevant skills (it depends a lot on the genre). However, games rarely model wear and tear on gear so this factor is largely ignored.

This will tend to favour the use of high-maintenance weapons that would historically be a pain, since it's no more difficult to keep your obsidian-bladed sword on the go than your big stick.


Weapons have different useful ranges, and this is a major concern for anyone actually getting into fights. Pick any description of a fight and you'll almost certainly read about people ducking out of range, or rushing inside the other's reach so they can't be attacked effectively.

Pikes are enormous weapons, great for striking at an enemy at long range. Unfortunately, if someone manages to slip past the head or approaches from your side, you're in a bad way. Daggers have a very short range and leave you vulnerable to most larger weapons, but if you get in close to someone with a larger weapon they'll really struggle to defend themselves, and that's a scary prospect. In a brawl, a knife is your friend. A sword or club is a decent compromise between these options.

Games rarely model reach in any kind of detail, which tends to offer a lot of advantage to largish weapons. Long spears sometimes offer a bit of extra reach, but I've yet to see any rules that put you at a disadvantage once a goblin gets within the swing of your longsword with their rusty dagger. It's also not usually possible to fend someone off in games using a longer weapon, whereas it's a sensible tactic in real life.

It's quite hard to say what the effects of this are, because it's going to depend on how you're fighting. On the whole, I think it will slightly disadvantage longer weapons that are both physically dangerous and psychologically worrying. It will also make life more difficult for animals and characters wielding small weapons who are good at getting into combat, because they can't use their proximity to impede opponents' ability to use their weapons. On the whole, then, it's likely to favour classic weapons like the sword and axe that cover the middle distance.


Some weapons let you attack and defend very rapidly, switching guards and redirecting strikes. These are generally light and often small. A larger weapon can become unwieldy because of moment, and there's also the risk that a long weapon is easy to knock aside because a small pressure at the tip will affect it strongly. If you have a good rhythm going, you may be able to swing a large weapon quickly, but you'll lose that if you hit anything. It's a lot easier to flourish a knife than a sledgehammer.

This kind of speed helps you to defend yourself effectively, and also to attack and bluff more frequently, controlling your enemy's actions. I've not yet seen a game where you got more attacks with a dagger than a longsword. Initiative systems are sometimes designed to help with this, but they typically just affect the order people fight in, rather than offering any long-term benefit.

This will, again, tend to favour slow and powerful weapons, since they can ignore their disadvantage. Lighter weapons don't get the benefits they would expect.

Weight and strength

Fighting is hard work. Wielding a big, heavy or long weapon calls for more strength, especially if you're going to be doing a lot of it. The heavier or more unwieldy the weapon, the stronger you need to be to use it effectively. Even something as straightforward as a spear will be a lot more useful in the hands of someone with the strength to realign it quickly. Heavier weapons that rely on swings and impacts will be very tiring to use, and are best avoided by weaklings.

Weight of weapons is included in most games, but rarely makes any difference to how effectively they can be wielded. I haven't seen any that feature general fatigue rules that would limit the length of combats.

This will tend to favour heavy weapons, which typically inflict more damage with an attack. If it's no harder to swing a sledgehammer than a fist, why punch?


Some weapons are extremely effective, but only in the right circumstances. Specialised weapons can be designed for all kinds of needs, from punching a hole through plate armour to delivering contact poisons, but these tend to be quite ineffective when their special requirements aren't met. A long, heavy lucerne hammer is great for taking down knights on horseback, but of limited use against almost any other target. A rapier is ideal for duelling against another lightly-armoured person with a rapier, and perhaps with an even smaller weapon, but much less useful if armour or hefty weapons come into the question. A pike is good for formation combat. In contrast, there are more generalised weapons like broadswords and spears that are relatively flexible. A warrior might want to choose between them based on what they expect to fight - and would probably train for a considerable time in those specific weapons.

This kind of thing can't be simply modelled in games, but depends on a number of factors mentioned already, such as speed, weight, and how they interacts with an opponent's arms and armour.

If you can find a weapon that provides a niche benefit, but doesn't suffer disadvantages in other situations, it's logical to use it. So this will tend to favour the use of quite specialised weapons.

Turning circle

Environment is very important in combat, and can make a useful weapon fairly ineffective. Tight formations, foliage, crowded rooms and narrow passages can seriously hamper your efforts to use a long spear or greataxe. If you expect to fight in conditions like that, from boarding actions to a kobold tunnel, you're better off with a small blade or mace that doesn't need so much manoeuvring room.

Games typically treat all weapons as taking up the same "space" as the character, be they brass knuckles or a naginata. This removes one of the significant advantages of smaller weapons.

This will tend to favour large, unwieldy weapons.

Concealment and carrying

Portability and concealability are also potentially important, especially for the typical gaming scenario where you're not part of a well-equipped army with baggage trains. It's all very well carrying a smallsword or dirk, but trudging many miles with a zweihänder is going to be extremely annoying, let alone a pike. They also make you very noticeable to passers-by, and it's difficult to hide while you're carrying one.

Concealment is another issue that's frequently relevant to adventurers - people in weapon-toting times and cultures tend to have rules for what you can do with them, and very often you're not allow to lug them around everywhere. Whether you're wanting to stay prepared for self-defence or planning an assassination, having a weapon that won't attract guards or offend your host's sensibilities is important. Here, little things like knives, walking staves, shuriken and brass knuckles are what you want. An assassin wandering around with a mask and a double-headed battleaxe is going to be asked some serious questions. Even if you're sneaking rather than impersonating, getting you and a knife into shadows is easier than doing the same with a big, shiny, clinks-on-stones weapon.

(That being said, I suspect most assassins tend to be a bit more direct than the popular image of sneaking around cutting people's throats, and instead probably jump people in a mob and hack them to death.)

I think part of the problem here is that while "some kind of assassin" is a fairly popular trope for RPG characters, RPG characters are quite rarely in assassin-like situations. It's unusual for you to be sneaking into hostile territory, trying to appear harmless or make minimal noise, and therefore for weapon concealment to be relevant. You're not often trying to kill a single target and blasé about the rest of their forces. Guards are inclined to be very paranoid, and people assume they'll run into trouble - and be unable to quickly finish off the guards in true Hollywood manner because the system doesn't allow it. Moreover, the weakness of light weapons and difficulty of one-shotting targets in many systems means that it doesn't really make sense to try and perform a classic assassination in the first place.

This will tend to favour larger, more dangerous weapons.

Complex combat

In fights, directly killing your target is only part of it. There's also manoeuvring to put people off-balance, send them reeling or knock them over so they're vulnerable. Pulling knights off horses so you could stab them in the groin, eye or armpit was a well-established tactic from what I remember. Goading someone into taking an unwise swing or manoeuvring them into a corner where their weapon's harder to use are excellent tactics. Castles had clockwise staircases so they'd be easier to defend with the right hand than to attack. A big axe will make a mess if it hits, but you may have trouble getting that chance when someone's pointing a rapier at your face all the time and you know they can hit you faster than vice versa. You might be able to grab that rapier or spear and yank the wielder off-balance or just hold it while you whack them.

This will tend to favour weapons that deal a lot of mechanical damage, since possible advantages of other types are not relevant.


Choice of weapon has a big impact on your defensive options. With a lightweight weapon, you're left relatively mobile, able to strike quickly and withdraw, manoeuvre freely and use your free hand to ward off blows; you can duck and dive relatively easily too. With a very heavy or unwieldy weapon, you'll need to use both hands either to wield it or to compensate for its swing, leaving you unable to use a shield and greatly reducing your manoeuvrability.

In practice, it seems to me that games tend to greatly underestimate the benefits of having a shield when you're defending yourself. Being able to deflect incoming attacks is fantastically useful, and no, you don't want to be doing that with your longsword. With shields typically offering quite a small defensive benefit, the maths tends to end up in favour of a two-handed weapon that inflicts more damage, so you can defeat enemies faster rather than trying to weather their attacks. There are very rarely any benefits to fighting with just a lightweight weapon, and so the advantage of mobility is lost.

This will tend to favour large, powerful weapons.

On the whole, then, I think there's a pretty clear pattern of "distortion" in what weapons make sense in games versus real life. You should take the weapon that inflicts the most damage over time. It's very rare that any other factor is relevant.

Because this is a big ol' heap of speculation and opinion, comments are very welcome.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Deathwatch: The Price of Hubris, part 07

Contains spoilers for, funnily enough, The Price of Hubris from The Emperor Protects.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features a fair amount of background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

This episode is some extracts from our chat after the first session finished. We talk about what we think of Deathwatch, how it felt for those of us playing for the first time, what we think of the scenario so far - with quite a lot about the Diablodon - and some general musings.

Link to Episode 07.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Numenera, part 2

Part two of my first impressions of Numenera from our game last weekend, begun here.

Contains mild spoilers for The Beale of Boregal, the starting adventure for Numenera.


I was well impressed with this. This is about the slickest system I can think of, maybe excepting BRP. Even there, the fractions of skill and modifiers can turn a simple d100 roll into something that feels complicated, while Numenera's system felt slick. In part that's because you're not using your stats, but fixed target numbers for success, which can be modified based on circumstances or by spending stat pools (I never bothered). To some extent that means the DM is doing the work, but it seemed like they were quite minor adjustments, and more importantly quite simple. We mostly ended up rolling on better than 50% chances, even on combat rolls for the Nano and Jack, which means succeeding most of the time. I think most them were more like 80%.

I think the best way to express it is that I never felt like the system got in my way. Admittedly it was a fairly short introductory scenario and we didn't try anything that complicated, but then it's not necessarily complicated things that expose snags in the ruleset. It's actually making me really tempted to reconsider making a very pared-down version of Monitors, although I'd have some issues with the magic/tech distinction... On the hypothetical downside, I can see that if things remain as simple as that throughout, it might start to feel simplistic for the action-and-adventure kind of game it seems to be aiming for. I don't know how it felt from the DM's perspective (Arthur?).

From my point of view, in this particular game, I quite liked the fact that even the magic (including the esoteries I didn't take) seemed really very simple - a pleasing combination mixture of mechanics that were quite simple, like Ward or Onslaught (magic bolts), and things with no actual mechanics that rely on GM interpretation of a description, like Scan. It's not what I'd want for Call of Cthulhu, but it felt appropriate here, in this setting where technology and magic fade into one another. Of course, it does rely on have a GM comfortable making those calls, and on the GM and players agreeing.

I initially though the levelling system was ultraslick as well. It seems that the GM can make a "GM intervention" by giving the affected player two XP tokens (I think you can reject these, but I didn't see the point and it sounds like that's quite punitive). You keep one and give the other to another player. Now I misinterpreted Arthur's brief description of the levelling rules and thought you could buy one upgrade with each XP, which would have been very simple and quite nice. In reality, it costs four XP to buy an upgrade, and you get a few XP for missions as well as the GM intervention ones. I assume there are good balancey reasons for this, and apparently you can use the tokens for things other than buying upgrades, but it was still a mild disappointment. My own fault, though.

When you do have four XP, you can buy one of a set of upgrades (increasing a Pool, an Edge, a Skill, ...something else, or buying a new special ability). Each can only be bought once. When you've bought four, you move up one Tier, and gain new abilities from your Noun, Adjective and Verb. The limit is almost certainly because otherwise you'd just buy Edge and use all your powers all the time.

The Setting

While I found the rules and options quite fun, I think all of us struggled with the setting. It was hard to get a sense of what the place was like, and how it "worked" - how do people behave, and how does that interact with our place in society? What kind of people are we supposed to be, and how does that compare to NPCs? How do both of those interact with our OOC goals of having adventures? It's a little tricky to establish your specific identity without understanding what you're fitting into or contrasting with. Because it wasn't obviously based on a real-world culture or history, or even an obvious fantasy setting, it was a bit tricky to work those things out.

I think in general, there's a bit of an issue with what you might call "hotchpotch" settings in that while they nicely mix things up and break away from the same old tropes, their variety can make it very very difficult to get a feel for the setting. The more divergent the contents are, the harder it is to have intuitions about anything. A setting that mashes up the Court of the Sun King and 1950s America is odd but means drawing conclusions from two sets of cultures; a setting that also grabs elements from the Aztecs, Victorian industrialism, Tolkein, Clark Ashton Smith, stonepunk, Star Trek and Warhammer 40,000 is going to be very hard to interpret.

To be fair, Numenera isn't the latter. However, it's a science fantasy setting that's very divorced from anything familiar, and that means no tropes to draw on. I found it somewhat confusing even in the short time we were there. One minute it was caravans in the waste, and stone circles that curse anyone who breaks hospitality; shortly afterwards we were in a spa town being asked to visit a garden that grew nanotech fruits and alien metals so that a psychiatrist could cure our NPC of possession. We fought dogs with bird-skull heads. Even at the most basic level, wilderness camping reads like Conan the Barbarian, spa towns read like Georgette Heyer and psychiatrists are clearly neither, so I couldn't tell what level of civilisation we were experiencing. Did people brawl in smoky taverns and rob snake temples, or exchange quips in the Royal Institute of Adventurers? Was our place more like petty mercenaries, Victorian explorers or some kind of special agents? Were there libraries, doctors, supermarkets, insurance?

Similarly, the wildly variable levels of what I might call available technology were a little odd. I've no problem at all with magic-as-technology or technology-as-magic, which are both fun. However, due again to the hotchpotching, I couldn't initially guess what might be generally available in this setting, as opposed to being unique artefacts, though I decided in the end it's broadly faux-medieval like most fantasy, with odd technological trinkets here and there. Early on, though, I wasn't sure if it might be more like Star Wars, with people riding hoverbikes to the nearest solar station for a bowl of porridge before the witch-burning.

In some ways I think the technology situation may actually be quite similar to that in Warhammer 40,000, with a low baseline tech, specific known technologies that can be exploited but aren't understood well enough to generalise, and a plethora of unique artefacts that nobody really understands. It also seems like it shares the Imperium of Man's suspicious attitude to technology, or at least to people who get too involved in it.

Sets in fiction and the Ninth World

I think one source of the disconnect comes from the Ninth World thing, actually. This means many things are very different from what we're used to, to the point that I don't think a single one of the monster entries was a recognisable creature. There was the germ of an idea here that I tried to articulate to the others and I don't think I succeeded, but let's try again...

In reality, one of the ways we understand the world is classification. Things come in types and patterns, and we can use the similarities to draw general conclusions. For example, animals come in broad types, materials can be roughly grouped, so can professions or cultures. If a fictional setting presents us with identifiable types, then we can predict some things without being explicitly told them, and it gives the sense of an understandable world. In contrast, if everything we encounter is unique and different, they become a set of things to memorise.

Numenera seems to lean heavily towards the unique model. Not only are the monster entries all novel, but they all seemed to be radically different from each other. There weren't, for example, recognisable genera of creatures or classes of war machine. I also didn't get a sense that the monsters related to any obvious non-monster creatures that existed in the setting. Now this mildly bothers me as a biologist (which doesn't really matter), but I also feel like it makes things that little bit more difficult as a player with zero starting knowledge of the setting. Similarly, because every location seemed to have a somewhat arbitrary level of technology, I couldn't get a feel for what the technological capabilities of the prevailing culture actually were - or whether there was a prevailing culture at all. When you can't assume that recognisable groups exist, your ability to make OOC predictions about the gameworld is limited, which is an issue when IC you should know these things.

To put it another way: if the starter scenario had featured youngsters riding up to our camp on an elephant to report that their village was being besieged by buffalo, and we'd been sent to retrieve herbs from a garden occupied by a wolfpack, we would have had an intuitive sense of the kind of threat presented by these creatures and the ways they might be likely to behave. As it was, we couldn't tell whether the "pallones" (floating razor-edged jellyfish, apparently?) would have slaughted everyone within minutes and immediate help was needed, or were just kind of annoying. The broken dogs were a bit more predictable by dint of being doglike, but if you'd called them something else and given them five legs I'd have been just as clueless. Basically it's a matter of tropes.

Biology tangent

I'll cheerfully admit that I'm a bit weird about this, but I think it'd make a lot of fantastical game settings more robust if the designers at least briefly considered how biology works. You can have any creature you like, but species don't arise in isolation; they evolve from similar species or are left behind when relatives die out. Reptiles are really quite variable, but you can spot the similarities and predict some things about them. Same with birds, or felines, or arachnids. It's particularly striking when you have sentient species that appear to have no relatives whatsoever. I'm not saying you need sound scientific explanations, but I am saying that if you have a species of human-sized sentient ladybird and no other insects bigger than a palm or with any level of intelligence, that's an anomaly. Humans are pretty isolated as species go, but we still have a whole swathe of primates.

Magic and technology are good explanations, but you're still usually turning something into something else, if nothing else because doing things from scratch is both hard and largely pointless. Are you really going straight to human-sized sentient ladybirds, or wouldn't you have started with dog-sized beasts of burden and kept making better ones? And again, once you create a cool magical servant beast, do you start all over again next time, or make a new model every year? Either way, you're likely to end up with a group of recognisably-similar creatures.


I'm not really in a position to review the scenario, since I haven't actually read it and as I said our game was a bit disrupted. It does seem that Arthur refined it a bit for us, since I've seen mention of fluff we managed to escape and some mildly tiresome NPC behaviour that he sensibly ignored.

The adventure didn't really seem to leave much room for flexibility, basically asking us to visit a couple of locations and do specific things there. Given it's apparently a questy sort of game that's not entirely surprising. Also, starter scenarios are amongst other things an opportunity to introduce mechanics in a controlled way, and that aim doesn't mesh too comfortably with sandbox play. That being said, the way the adventure consisted of specific one-room locations (effectively) made it feel more linear than I think an equivalent scenario set in a single location might have; essentially you're going from Camp Room to Doctor Room to Dog Room by fast travel, and so there's not much opportunity for creative approaches. Not something to completely slate it for, it's just something I notice in retrospect.

On the other hand, I did quite like the premise of the adventure when we'd worked out what it was, and it seemed like something you could actually have done (or do) rather more with, especially if the last section offered some ways to dig into the history a bit in future adventures (which it may do, I don't know).


It seemed like the general consensus was that people had a reasonable time with Numenera, but didn't really see much reason to play it instead of a system we already know. The two that came up were D&D (inevitably) and Dying Earth (on account of some similarities in setting). Certainly I think if you're looking for adventure and already know D&D fairly well then there's a lot to be said for sticking with it. On the other hand, I did feel like there were some interesting differences, and in particular I do wonder whether Numenera might suit some people who wouldn't necessarily care for D&D. Its main strengths there are the relatively simple mechanics and the different background. The mechanics are slick enough that players really don't have to fuss over maths or rules complexities, which is more than can be said for any edition of D&D. At the same time, people who aren't really into fantasy or just want a change might find the Miyazaki-like world appealing, and I suspect a keen GM could tweak things to create a more familiar setting for such players. So I have the impression it might be quite a good game for people new to gaming.

Dying Earth is a call I can't make, because frankly I know virtually nothing about it. I've read precisely one Jack Vance short story, as far as I'm aware - not part of a deliberate policy, I just have a ridiculous number of unread books - and if it was a Dying Earth tale it seemed quite different from what the others have talked about. I've played one game of Dying Earth, and to be honest I found it a struggle. I had the same problems with the setting that our non-Warhams friend had playing Deathwatch, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that we didn't spend any of our game killing stuff, which does tend to simplify matters. So I really had no idea how to play my character, what to do, what the world was like or how to approach the game. As far as I was concerned, then, Numenera was no more unfamiliar as a setting, and it was more approachable for me because I'm au fait with doing escort quests and killing monsters for people, whereas Dying Earth didn't offer me anything familiar to hang on.

So while I'm not in a desperate hurry to go and play some more Numenera, I'd certainly be up for it in the future, and I have an anime-enjoying friend or two who I think would appreciate it.

Oh, and just to get this off my chest: I'm all for people incorporating more actual Gaelic into their games, but in a fantasy setting full of name soup, is it really completely outrageous to think you could expect players to pick one of the real spellings of "beale" as beul (Scottish), béal (Irish) or beeal (Manx)? It's just a really weird thing to do. Nobody has games featuring black-clad ningers throwing shurryken at samyoureye, is what I'm saying. < /rant >

Numenera, part 1

At the weekend, as we are wont to do, Arthur, Dan, me and another friend sat down to try out Arthur's shiny, shiny new copy of Numenera. And as I am wont to do, I'm going to gab on about it.

Contains mild spoilers for The Beale of Boregal, the starting adventure for Numenera.

Actually, one of my biggest take-homes from the session is how disjointed it felt. None of that was Arthur's fault, and I feel a bit bad about it like. I mean, first sessions are quite often a bit awkward, and in this case Arthur's the only one who'd read any of the rules or setting, so there was the inevitable sort of pauses and waiting bits during chargen while each person made up their mind and wrote stuff down. I don't think there's anything we could've done about that. I did say at the time that RPGs should come with three spare copies of the chargen rules so you can all do it at once, but as people pointed out, the rules you need tend to be a bit dispersed and it'd be hard to do. It's a nice idea though, and I might try it out if Monitors ever gets off the ground (which is most likely if my house gets launched into space by a fracking accident).

Like a lot of the time, I'd brung along my dictaphone and was recording the session to put up here, except the batteries were apparently knacked after a big game last weekend. I had some spares, but somewhere between being rechargeable and maybe not the best, they only lasted ten minutes a pop. So I interrupted things a couple of times to ferret in a bag, and eventually Dan grabbed a laptop and tried recording on that. No idea how it turned out yet. But obviously that was a big interruption to the game, and it's to Arthur's serious credit that he took it so well. Soz, mate. Next time I really need to just put fresh disposable batteries in at the start and not muck about, or else shrug it off if we lose the recording (although that does seem like it'd be a shame).

There was also an important work call for our fourth player, which she could do even less about, and we had to call a halt for a while and then chatted a bit about it afterwards. Again, reasonable enough, but it does throw the game out when you stop in places you hadn't planned for. So I think between all that we were all just a bit less focused than we could've done with being. I thought (and think) that was a shame, both for Arthur's game and for Numenera, because in that situation you're that much less immersed in the game and that much less able to appreciate it.


The chargen for Numenera is a little bit more involved than the "you're an Adjective Noun who Verbs" that hooked me in the first place, but it's still along AD&D lines, or even Deathwatch, rather than Pathfinder. The time mostly boiled down to Arthur reading stuff out for us and then explaining it - quite often we didn't really need to know X at the time, but of course you don't know you don't need to know*, as Colin Powell might have said if he played RPGs - while the effort was mostly a case of writing down the relevant details so we wouldn't need to ask Arthur to look it up again later. With better knowledge of the system, most of the time could've been eliminated and we'd have had less to write down. Again, if it's the sort of thing you played a lot, you might all have a rulebook and speed things up even more.

As nearly always, we did group chargen, which we all favour for various reasons. In the case of what I tend to call podtests, I think it helps because a) taking a reasonable spread of things makes it more interesting to listen to, and b) explaining to the others what you (think you) did, why, and what it means for your character and the group is actually really damn helpful for a listener who's never played the game before. And you get the back-and-forth, which again helps people understand what you're doing, as well as cutting down on schoolboy errors or misreadings.

While it's possible to create something similar to, say, a D&D character, I deliberately went and picked a combination you just wouldn't get in another game, with my Rugged Nano who Wears a Sheen of Ice. That's quite substantially because I wouldn't get to do it in another game and I thought it was cool. I also think it gives the game a better chance to show off its own moves; with picking familiar options I think it can get unfair because you could end up judging a game on how it plays when you're unconsciously trying to replicate another game that it isn't. The character difference gives a mental break that signals to you that it's a different kind of game.

We actually rolled randomly to allocate the three "classes" (Glaive, Nano and Jack) between the three of us. Here, interestingly, Dan said he'd thought I'd end up as a Nano because I always struck him as the sort of person who plays wizards. That's interesting to me primarily because I've actually never played a wizard or wizard-equivalent in any RPG until Numenera. In fact, I'm a bit notorious for playing spiritually-inclined dwarves. The lack of wizardry is down to a few things, none of which is a lack of interest in wizards. Primarily, my early RPing was with experienced players in NWN, and not only had I never played before, but I also don't play MMORPGs or anything, which meant I was really paranoid about not being able to handle a complex and fragile class at the same pace as everyone else. So I went for tough, simple and largely support characters. While I've branched out a bit since then, I do tend to play with more experienced gamers (and GM for less), which means it's a natural trend. I suppose I could also say that one of the things about wizards is, in most games you're really restricted on the amount of wizarding you can do, which for me makes them less appealing than other classes that can do their thing more often. Anyway, this time was going to be different.

Off the top of my head, I've played:

  • A dwarven cleric (Neverwinter Nights-medium campaign)
  • A dwarven monk (Neverwinter Nights-medium campaign)
  • A sociopathic whiny twin-rapier-wielding elven princess (Neverwinter Nights-medium campaign)
  • A twin-rapier-wielding orc ranger (Neverwinter Nights-medium campaign)
  • Antonio Banderas in power armour (Deathwatch)
  • A mentally-unstable minor aristocrat and reincarnated evil sorcerer (Call of Cthulhu)
  • A stolid professional bodyguard for a party of clothies (Pathfinder DM-run companion)
  • A dim, amiable clay golem (playtest)
  • A Halo-playing frat-a-like glashtyn (playtest)
  • A wastrel of uncertain everything (Dying Earth)
  • A young businesswoman of unfortunate husbandage (Fiasco)

But of course, everyone remembers the dwarves.

I was really pretty happy with my character. Being a Nano gave me a vaguely wizardy theme, although interestingly the limited number of starting abilities and my choices meant I basically did the same stuff as the others. Of my two "esotery" (spell) choices, I took Ward and Scan. The first one gave a permanent defensive bonus that stacked with my Sheen of Ice armour to make me the toughest person in the party. Given I had an armour of 2, that was a bit of a shock, but it's a low-modifier game from what I can see; in practice it meant I could halve the damage from most attacks. Scan allowed me to sense and analyse nearby items, materials and organisms, with a kind of psychic radar, which I just thought was cool. I didn't take any offensive abilities, and to be fair the pool is quite small (there's precisely one that does damage, plus telekinetic pushing). The impression I get is the game wants you to mostly work in roughly the same way, with different approaches and probabilities because of your builds; this doesn't seem to be a game where Fighters Fight, Wizards Cast and Rogues Disable Traps. Hit chance and damage essentially came from the weapon, with Dan's chosen special ability granting +1 damage, which looks paltry until you realise that translates into between +25% and +50% by weapon. Yeah, Numenera seems to be a low-numbers game, which means every point counts.

My Rugged choice made me a kind of wild-man, with an affinity for animals and plants, which I thought was a nicely interesting combination with wizarding. A bit of the Radagasts, I suppose, though I didn't think of it at the time. Sheen of Ice meant I was permanently dusted with frost and insensitive to cold, and on a whim I could freeze ice out of the air around me into crude armour. This would be decent in the first place, although mostly I took it because I thought it was well cool, but combined with Ward it was really pretty good - not sick, just a good synergy. Obviously going for Ward cost me the chance of flexibility, but I felt like being solid at a small number of things was a better choice for a first shot.

There was some brief discussion of whether this was going to be a bad combination, because in some games choosing non-obvious combinations is a pathway to problems. I felt like this wasn't going to be one of them, and from what I saw that was right. I think basically PCs get to be competent at stuff, and while your class modifies your three stats, your other choices give you other stuff instead. Notably, it seemed like everyone was basically equally good at fighting, with small variances because Dan's glaive had bigger weapons and her powers granted slightly more damage. There was none of the massive gaps you might find in a Fighter Wizard Thief party, and it was kind of fun that my job as the wizard was actually to stand at the front and soak damage because I was covered in ice and slay Broken Dogs with my Shredder claws. Sorry, I haven't entirely got over just how beast that was.

Another interesting thing, especially compared to our Deathwatch games, was that the shopping part of the game took about two minutes, which was mostly Arthur reading out the names of the weapons we could choose from and Dan vacillating over just how big a sword Tasha needed because game-mechanically it almost always makes sense for assassins to use a greatsword even though it's farcical. We really didn't need anything but starting gear, and quite a bit of that didn't see use. Adventuring kits were untouched, and none of us even used any of our cyphers (one-use magic items). In the first go at a game, you do tend to concentrate on the core mechanics, and we didn't feel hard-pressed at any point - I think I took two hits the whole game, and that was it for the party. Also, until you've got a feel for the game, it's hard to know how much you're supposed to use limited abilities, as you don't know what the turnover is like.


One thing we did find a bit odd was the connections mechanic. Each character has a reason for having set out adventuring, which you choose from a short list (one per... Focus? possibly). While you do get a choice, we couldn't really see anything that felt suitable - not least because we weren't particularly sure what the initial adventure was. Once we found out, I ended up choosing "I need the money", which isn't a very good reason to go into the wilderness and climb a huge rock if I'm honest. However, nearly all the options seemed to be "I persuaded X to let me come along" or "I thought Y needed my protection", so it seemed very easy to end up with a party who'd all convinced each other to go but had no actual reason for it. More of a buddy film than an adventuring party, y'know?

The game does seem to be generally trying to make characters feel connected. Each Focus will affect one other player in a specific way, which is sort of vaguely interesting mechanically, though it doesn't particularly strengthen the party as far as I'm concerned. In my case, my ice armour would also spread to our Jack if he was nearby; the Jack also knew that Tasha was an assassin, while Tasha could see through all his illusions. A bit of a mixed bag to me; I think something more like Traveller chargen offers a better chance to build connections between characters that mean something to the players. Another slight issue is that you're making these decisions before you really know anything about the other characters, which is always a potential problem. In principle, though, I appreciate this.

* There are known ignorances: things we know we need to know. There are known unignorances: things we know we don't need to know. There are unknown ignorances: things we don't know we need to know. And there are unknown unignorances: things we do not know we do not need to know.

On the one hand, this is pure frivolity. On another hand, I think it's actually kind of relevant in gaming, almost to the point where I might write something more substantial about it (feel free to bagsy it, though).

More to come soon.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Deathwatch: The Price of Hubris, part 06

Contains spoilers for, funnily enough, The Price of Hubris from The Emperor Protects.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features a fair amount of background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

This episode basically consists of us fighting a monster. Here we see a great example of how not to build an encounter. Arthur has already discussed the Diablodon encounter better than I could, and I'll mostly leave it to him. Also, we do talk about it in the post-session chat.

Basically, somehow the designers ended up with a creature that was insanely difficult for a party who actually go with the scenario and fight it with stone weapons in loincloths, having gone to enormous trouble to encourage you to do precisely that and emphasised how dishonourable and politically unwise it would be to cheat. On the other hand, the creature would be a pushover with normal weaponry. What you end up with is a creature that is basically only killable by a party with a Librarian who chose some blasting powers, and will take any other party hundreds of rounds of arrow-fire to whittle down by rolling critical hits for a point or two of damage. It's just really odd. You'd think it ought to be possible for them to create a creature that'd be a challenge to both armed and unarmed parties, by focusing on abilities other than being huge and armoured.

This episode we also get the Big Reveal!

Link to Episode 06.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Deathwatch: The Price of Hubris, part 05

Contains spoilers for, funnily enough, The Price of Hubris from The Emperor Protects.

As always, be aware that the podcast is not really family-friendly, and features a fair amount of background noise, if that sort of thing bothers you.

The Episode

As with the last episode featuring the start of the expedition, this one once again featured some juggling of IC, OOC and metagame understandings of the situation. The appearance of the boys in the valley was a bit unexpected, but I for one struggled to decide how to respond.

Were the boys really allowed to be here, or had they come against the chief's wishes? As recruiters for the Fists, we'd want to see just how good these kids were; however, we were also supposed to do anything to antagonise the locals, and getting their favourite kids killed off seemed like it fell into that category. Were they going to be semi-useful accomplices or squishy escort quests? I don't think we were bothered about traps by this point (although in theory they could have been leading us into trouble), but was it more honourable to refuse these kids' aid and send them back or to accept them?

The key thing here was probably that I (no idea about the others) didn't realise Arthur had actually added the boys to this section; I assumed it was part of the adventure as written. That being the case, I once again had no idea what the scenario writer had in mind here. While I trust Arthur not to obnoxiously screw me over by (for example) convincing me to take some kids along and then starting a war because they get killed, I have zero reason to trust an unknown scenario writer.

At the same time, my character's cautious disposition meant that his first response really would be to send them back home. So the OOC and IC concerns about their safety and the political situation combined to make me quite reluctant to accept them. Thankfully, I was convinced in the end. I also think it's quite nice that in this war-themed game, we spent quite so much time on IC discussion and non-combat RP.

Link to Episode 05.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Conversion: Plaguebearers of Nurgle for D&D

Dungeons and Hammers

So I appear to be converting Warhammer-mythos creatures for Dungeons and Dragons. Right. Okay.

After my opening act with the Horrors of Tzeentch, I was planning to work on Flamers. I quickly realised this was an issue because they’ve changed their tone several times over iterations of the game, and I was struggling to pin them down. This makes conversion a pain, and I decided to let them be for now. Instead, a simpler task: the Plaguebearers of Nurgle.

Plaguebearers of Nurgle for 3.5


These loathsome creatures are crafted from the blighted souls of mortals who have been slain by the virulent plague known as Nurgle's Rot. These Lesser Daemons of the Lord of Decay are shambling, pustulent creatures. Plaguebearers have gangling, bony limbs, their bodies swollen with decay, so much so that glistening innards are exposed through rents in their skin. They possess a single, cyclopean eye and a single horn rising above their haggard, drawn faces, their bodies covered in filth and parasites. Despite the Plaguebearer's unusual appearance, they are supernaturally resilient to harm, the gifts of their master having inured them to all pain. Plaguebearers are constantly surrounded by clouds of droning flies and chant monotonous hymns, their gait a staggering lope. Their sonorous voices attempt to keep count of the number of noxious plagues unleashed by Nurgle; an impossible task, for the Grandfather of Plagues constantly invents new strains of viruses. They also serve as the "Tallymen of Nurgle," eternally bound to record all of their Dark God’s pestilential creations. Many believe that Plaguebearers are in fact created by such diseases, incubating within plague victims and feeding upon their dying energies, only to later fully emerge from their heaped bodies.

The attitude of a Plaguebearer is often more frightening to mortals than their appearance. They solemnly drudge along, steady in the suffering and despair they cause. This is not some sadistic pleasure, like that of Slaanesh, but rather a determined appreciation of Nurgle's genius, a devotion to his art and an acknowledgment of the eventual disintegration of all things. Their wish to spread disease is driven by their wish to share their Father's gifts with the galaxy. As they march, they chant out the list of poxes, plagues, and pestilence their Father has created, ever certain in their growing number and increasing virulence. Bands of Plaguebearers are the most organised and efficient of Daemons upon the battlefield, shambling purposefully towards a chosen foe before hacking them apart with Plagueswords. Flies continually buzz around them, therefore making them more difficult to fight. The many diseases carried by these daemons can be used to terrible effect during battle. Should a foe endure long enough to strike back, his blows will have little effect on the Plaguebearers. Their corrupted forms feel no pain and regenerate damage at a frightening rate.

It is the Plaguebearer’s eternal role to herd Nurgle’s daemonic forces in battle. Other tasks of the Plaguebearers include keeping stock of the diseases, allocating appropriate fates to each new victim and attempting to maintain order among a naturally chaotic horde. They also constantly strive to number the poxes and represent the need of humanity to impose order on a chaotic and uncaring universe. These onerous duties have earned Plaguebearers the title of Nurgle’s Tallymen in popular lore.

Plaguebearers are a fairly classic, mediaeval European sort of demon: not predator-murderers like Khornate daemons, nor the sizzling weirdness of Tzeentch, but bringers of disease and death. They’re lumbering, repulsive and relentless. Plaguebearers don’t quite have the humorous touch of some other Nurglites, but their origin and their forced servitude does vaguely tie into the black humour associated with the Lord of Decay, for whom life itself is a cosmic joke. Warhammer itself plays up their combat prowess, of course, but I like to think they can be read as more complicated than simply trudging around hitting things with swords. Much of the time, in a game that isn't tactical wargaming, plaguebearers can be taking entirely different approaches to their mission, heavier on the actual plagues and less on the violence.

Statswise, plaguebearers are extremely tough, rather slow and sort of orc-level strong. Level is hard to judge, but I think we're looking at plaguebearers being somewhat above Horrors here, at maybe a 7; I'm quietly constructing a loose hierarchy of Chaos daemons in my head, with reference to existing demons and devils. As with most Warhammer daemons, they have communal magic, which in their case takes the form of many repulsive and disease-based spells. Despite this, they rely largely on close combat.

As I said last time:

Another problem is that demons in Warhammer tend to have a collective magic thing going on. Basically, as creatures of the Warp, they are made of the stuff of magic, and the more demons in an area, the greater their magical power becomes. This works fine in a tabletop wargame, where the maths balances out fairly well, but I'm concerned about translating it to an RPG where Challenge Rating is pretty crucial. If you think about it, the difference between five CR4 creatures who can cast flaming hands at will and ten CR4 creatures who can cast burning hands at will plus fireball once each per day is enormous. To look at ways to handle this, I've looked at kuo-toa clerics and the shocker lizard, both of which have similar abilities.

In Warhammer, plaguebearers may use several different powers; depending on the edition, that might be down to unit size, a random die roll during setup, or a straight-up purchase. I certainly can't afford for every plaguebearer to have stream of corruption or some such. However, unlike the horrors, Nurgle magic seems to offer a few fairly low-key possibilities in existing disease-themed spells like contagion and stinking cloud. However, I think I'd like to give them a communal power as well to emphasise the theme of these conversions, and their difference from existing creatures.

The closest matches I can see are a succubus and hellcat, both being evil outsiders. Both have somewhat different roles in the game: a succubus is very controlly, while hellcats' strongest point is their invisibility; in contrast, plaguebearers should be tough and repulsive. However, a succubus has got a clutch of minor at-will enchantment and divination powers, plus two teleportation options (pretty sick actually). Okay, I don't want that, but it's a loose guideline. They can also summon other demons.

I could allow plaguebearers to summon another plaguebearer, though I'm a little wary of that kind of thing. To be honest I'm not really seeing anything that's low enough level to fit and fits the disease theme. Special abilities it is!

Oh, and the obligatory starting point: a new subtype. While there's no particular canonical reason for the resistances, they're cribbed right off existing demons and seem appropriate. The immunities are canonical.

Nurglite subtype: daemons of Nurgle share the following properties:

  • Damage reduction 5/silver or lawful
  • Darkvision 60 ft.
  • Immunity to pain, disease and poison (mundane and magical)
  • Resistance to cold and electricity

Plaguebearer of Nurgle

This loathesome, shambling creature is filthy and clearly diseased. A single eye gazes around with quiet mockery, and a horn protrudes from its repellent face. Its limbs are gangly, and nearly skeletal, but the torso is bloated and swollen. Ulcers and welts pepper its sickly skin, and glistening organs are visible through festering rents in its hide. Clouds of insects buzz incessantly around the loping figure.

Plaguebearers of Nurgle are rotting, diseased servants of the Lord of Decay, said to be born from the souls of those slain by the vilest diseases. They constantly chant the names of diseases and other infestations, and are sometimes known as the Tallymen of Nurgle, bound to record all the repellent creations unleashed by their master. They are ungainly but extremely tough, and shamble forth with an air of great intentness, determined to fulfil their grim work in appreciation of Nurgle's artistry and the inevitability of decay. The weapons and bodies of plaguebearers carry Nurgle's rot, an ever-changing mass of disease and infestation that condemns those afflicted to slow, lingering deaths. While potent adversaries in combat, they are happy to guide cults of Nurgle, stalk the streets spreading disease, and silently bestow the virulent gifts of their Lord on the ungrateful world.

The magical power of plaguebearers grows as they congregate, until great clouds of decay boil around them. They are so burdened with disease and pain that plague, poison and injury mean nothing to them.

Size/Type: Medium Outsider (evil, extraplanar, chaotic, nurglite)
Hit Dice: 8d8+48 (87 hp)
Initiative: +0
Speed: 30 ft. (6 squares)
Armor Class: 13 (-1 Dex, +4 natural), touch 9, flat-footed 13
Base Attack/Grapple: +6/+6
Attack: Longsword +11 melee (1d8+2 plus Nurgle's rot)
Full Attack: Longsword +11/+6 melee (1d8+2 plus Nurgle's rot)
Space/Reach: 5 ft./10 ft.
Special Attacks: Stream of corruption
Special Qualities: Damage reduction 5/silver or lawful, cloud of flies, darkvision 60 ft., immunity to pain, disease and poison, plague wind, resistance to cold 10 and electricity 10, spell resistance 18.
Saves: Fort 12, Ref 5, Will 7
Abilities: Str 15, Dex 8, Con 22, Int 13, Wis 13, Cha 8
Feats: Toughness, Weapon Focus (longsword)
Environment: The Warp
Organization: Gang (2-4), pack (5-10), mob (11-20)
Challenge Rating: 7
Treasure: None
Alignment: Always chaotic evil
Advancement: 9-16 HD (Medium)
Level Adjustment:

A plaguebearer's natural weapons, as well as any weapons it wields, are treated as evil-aligned and chaotic-aligned for the purpose of overcoming damage reduction.

Stream of Corruption (Ex):A plaguebearer can cough up a gust of foul vapour and noxious spray against an adjacent target. This is a ranged touch attack that does not provoke opportunity actions. On a successful attack, the target must pass a Fortitude save (DC 20) or be affected by poison (1D6 Con initial and secondary damage). The save DCs are Constitution-based.

Cloud of Flies (Ex): A perpetual cloud of corrupted vermin swirls around a plaguebearer, distracting and revolting mortals who approach. Any creature within 5 feet of a plaguebearer at the beginning of its turn must pass a Fortitude save (DC 20) each round or be sickened for 1 round. A creature already sickened becomes nauseated instead.

Plague Wind (Su): Two or more plaguebearers can combine their innate arcane energies to conjure a festering wind once every 1d6 rounds. The plaguebearers must join hands to focus their magic, but need merely remain within 30 feet of one another while it builds. The wind affects a 30ft. radius within 100ft and line of sight of at least one plaguebearer. All creatures within the blast suffer 1d4 damage per contributing plaguebearer, to a maximum of 15d4, and are nauseated for 1d4 rounds. They take a further 1d4 damage per round while nauseated. A successful Fortitude save (DC 15 + number of contributing plaguebearers) will halve the initial damage, negate the ongoing damage and leave creatures sickened instead of nauseated. Nurglite creatures and those immune to disease are unaffected by this ability. Remove disease will negate any ongoing effects.

For each creature that fails its saving throw, a Nurgling manifests within 5 feet of the victim.

Nurgle's Rot (Su): Supernatural disease, Fortitude DC 13, incubation period 1 minute; damage 1d6 Str and 1d6 Dex. The save DC is Charisma-based. A character reduced to 0 in one of these attributes will begin taking 1d6 Con damage in addition.

Unlike normal diseases, Nurgle's rot continues until the victim reaches Con 0 (and dies) or is cured.

Nurgle's rot is a powerful curse, not a natural disease. A character attempting to cast any conjuration (healing) spell on a creature afflicted with Nurgle's rot must succeed on a DC 20 caster level check, or the spell has no effect on the afflicted character. A character cannot benefit from a saving throw except when a healing spell is successfully cast.


These tiny tottering creatures are repulsive, yet almost appealing. They giggle wide-eyed as they bare their fangs, expressions of childish glee on their pestilent faces.

Size/Type: Tiny outsider (evil, extraplanar, chaotic, nurglite)
Hit Dice: 1d8+3 (7 hp)
Initiative: +2
Speed: 30 ft. (8 squares)
Armor Class: 14 (+2 Dex, +2 size), touch 14, flat-footed 12
Base Attack/Grapple: +1/-3
Attack: Claw +5 melee (1d3-1) or bite +3 melee (1d4-1 and sickened for 1 round)
Full Attack: Claw +5 melee (1d3-1)
Space/Reach: 2½ ft./0 ft.
Special Attacks: -
Special Qualities: Damage reduction 5/silver or lawful, darkvision 60 ft., immunity to pain, disease and poison, resistance to cold 5 and electricity 5, spell resistance 6.
Saves: Fort +5, Ref +4, Will +3
Abilities: Str 8, Dex 14, Con 16, Int 9, Wis 13, Cha 14
Feats: Weapon Finesse
Environment: The Warp
Organization: Gang (4-8), mob (10-30) or horde (50-100).
Challenge Rating: 1/4
Treasure: None
Alignment: Always chaotic evil
Advancement: 2-3 HD (Tiny)
Level Adjustment:

Nurglings are the smallest of the Nurlite daemons, tiny balls of chaos and death that resemble diseased toddlers. Their warty faces are innocent and pleased, and they revel in the decay and destruction they bring just as a child might enjoy a favoured game. They are the children of Grandfather Nurgle, and readily manifest wherever plague and death can be found.

Plaguebearers for 4E

Plaguebearers have fewer complicated issues than the horrors did, and so I'll have less need for 4E's mechanics. On the other hand, 4E again has some advantages because it expects short-term status conditions, and this should be handy for modelling the various disease-themed powers.

Plaguebearers are simpler to model, too: they're clearly brutes, big and tough but easy to hit.

Plaguebearer of Nurgle Level 7 Brute
Medium immortal humanoid (demon, chaotic) XP 200
Initiative -1 Senses Perception +3; darkvision
HP 96; Bloodied 48
AC 19; Fortitude 20, Reflex 18, Will 18
Speed 5
Immune Disease, poison; Resist 10 necrotic
Cloud of Flies ♦ Aura 1
Effect: each living creature in the aura incurs a -2 penalty to attack rolls. Nurglite creatures are unaffected.
Standard Actions
(M) Plaguesword ♦ At-will, necrotic
Attack: +10 vs. AC
Hit: 2d8 + 6 damage and ongoing 2 necrotic damage.
RB Plague Wind (disease, necrotic) ♦ Recharge 6
Attack: Area burst 2 within 10; +10 vs. Fortitude
Hit: enemies within the burst suffer 2d8+5 necrotic damage and ongoing 5 necrotic damage (save ends). For each target that suffers damage from the initial attack, a Nurgling manifests within the target area. Secondary attack: +10 vs. Fortitude; the target contracts Nurgle's Rot.
Minor Actions
CB Stream of Corruption ♦ Recharge 4, necrotic, poison
Attack: close blast 1; +10 vs. Fortitude
Hit: 1d6+4 poison and necrotic damage, and the target is weakened until the end of its next turn.
Triggered Actions
Horde Arcana ♦ At-will
Trigger: an ally within 4 squares uses plague wind.
Effect (Immediate Reaction): expend a charged plague wind to grant +1 to the ally's attack rolls and increase the damage inflicted by 1d8. Using this ability does not count as an attack or provoke attacks of opportunity.
Skills Arcana +11, Athletics +10
Str 16 (+6) Dex 9 (+2) Wis 17 (+6)
Con 20 (+8) Int 17 (+6) Cha 11 (+3)
Alignment Chaotic evilLanguages Abyssal

Nurgling Level 1 Minion Skirmisher
Tiny immortal humanoid (demon, chaotic) XP 25
Initiative +4 Senses Perception +2; darkvision
HP 1; a missed attack never damages a minion.
AC 16; Fortitude 14, Reflex 11, Will 12
Speed 5
Immune disease, poison; Resist 5 necrotic
Standard Actions
(M) Bite ♦ At-will
Attack: +4 vs. AC
Hit: 4 damage
M Mischief ♦ At-will
Attack: +4 vs. Reflex
Hit: slide the target 1 square
Skills Stealth +3
Str 11 (+0) Dex 16 (+3) Wis 12 (+1)
Con 16 (+3) Int 13 (+1) Cha 11 (+0)
Alignment Chaotic evilLanguages Abyssal

Nurgle's Rot: treat as Mummy Rot, level 8, with errata'd DCs of Endurance improve DC 15 + two-thirds mummy’s level (19+), maintain DC 10 + two-thirds mummy’s level (14+), worsen DC 9 + two-third’s mummy’s level or lower.

Because necrotic damage exists in 4E, it seemed like the most appropriate way to model Nurglite resistance to pain and decay.

To my surprise, I struggled a bit to find suitable ways to handle the attacks. Slowing, ongoing necrotic damage, disease and weakening all seemed like pretty good options; I didn't like to make anything too complicated, because they are just level 7 monsters, after all. I was very tempted to have plague wind cause weakening, but the image of creatures slowly rotting away after the cloud of filth sweeps over them was too cool. I just didn't feel like I could do damage + ongoing + weakening + disease, you know? The inclusion of Nurgle's Rot seemed really necessary to me, but it does cap the number of other effects I could include.

The plague wind power is a bit tricky to balance, and I'm hoping it's okay - it's less damaging than many equivalents, and based off the underpowered damage charts in the DMG1 (because it's really freakin' hard to find the updated figures anywhere) but the ongoing damage and the disease kicker should make up for that.

So anyway, hope that was fun for someone. I might do more in future, but we'll have to see.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Tomefoolery, part six: containment

Commentarii linguae graecae, 1548

Sorry this has been so long coming.

Part of a continuing series of uncertain length on Tomes of Unspeakable Evil and the PCs who love them. I've discussed how people get their hands on such books in the first place, the effects of their dreadful contents on tiny human minds and the purposes and designs of the tomes themselves, why TOUEs exist at all, and last time, the capabilities of evil books.

This time: how to care for your tome of unspeakable evil, and more importantly, how to stop it breaking free and wreaking havoc on the world (before you've had a chance to do it yourself).

There are two main aspects to containment of tomes. The first is straightforward imprisonment, the second is appeasement. Either or both may come into play with powerful tomes. Both sinister sorcerers and do-gooders may need to isolate, control or contain tomes for various reasons.

While I'm technically talking about TOUEs here, in practice most of these could be generalised to all kinds of artefacts, and in some cases to dangerous entities, undead-inclined corpses, and other evil influences too. Of course, they could also be turned around for use by just about any group to contain unwanted things, so a GM might find them handy for imprisoning benevolent entities, or for one evil force to imprison another.


There are a number of ways you might imprison or otherwise control a tome, which depend somewhat on the genre you're aiming for. Some are period-dependent, others just don't fit with a particular setting. There's also the question of which direction you want to maintain the barrier, which is likely to depend quite a lot on the owner of the tome, their purpose and the nature of the tome itself.

Mundane methods

Let's start off with a few mundane options that are fairly transferable. These need resources, but they don't need genre-specific tools.

Stone walls do not a prison make

To keep something in, or out, there are few options more tried-and-tested than dock-off blocks of stone. A tome could be locked in a tomb (which is poetically pleasing as well as narratively strong) or a similar mausoleum-like structure, where it can't get out unless some idiot breaks through the walls. Alternatively, it could be held in a secure vault or treasury, with thick doors and many locks; this allows you to monitor it and even use it, but also makes unwanted access or escape easier.

Mauzolej ivana meštrovića

If you're not actually a monarch and have to worry what other people think, then vaults can be a problem; mobile or magical tomes might create enough stir to upset the bank, for example, and either get people asking awkward questions, or have people poking into your vault with potentially horrible consequences. This is less of a problem if tomes are known to the public and imprisoning one will be publically acclaimed, although to be honest, openly acknowledging you've got one is just likely to lead to problems: reckless idiots, covetous necromancers or rabble-raising demagogues could all take an interest. What better to attract a party of adventurers? Keeping the thing secret is probably your best bet.

In some cases, a massive iron cage or similar structure might do the job too. This allows you to keep an eye on the tome, while also preventing its escape. Also, large cages are relatively easy to get (compared to vaults, at least), and most tomes aren't physically strong enough to wrench open the bars of, say, a Rottweiler cage. However, watch out for flying tomes that could lift off, cage and all; for tomes that can dissipate into mist; for magical attack, unwanted scrutiny or strangling bookmarks; and of course for excessively widely-spaced bars. Another problem here is that other people can easily see you have a book in a cage, which is often difficult to explain - fine if you keep it somewhere secluded, though. A magical library or magical containment facility might well have cells like this for tomes, though they might prefer something more attuned to the specific capabilities of the tome.

For those not really worried about intruders or observation, who simply want to keep their book from flying away or being pilfered, then you can't go wrong with a massive chain. These allow mobile tomes to take a decent amount of healthy exercise and avoid damp or sunny spots, while keeping them roughly where you put them. They also allow tomes to spring viciously on intruders, useful for sorcerers or avatars of evil who aren't concerned that their tome will betray them. Heavy iron locks are another option, perhaps to prevent biting, speech, flight or spellcasting. This is also relevant for books with certain powers or natures; a book that traps people who touch it, displays sanity-blasting images, or can unleash the creatures illustrated within, is better off bound.

Ring of Fire

A second option is a maintained barrier; something that you can control, but that the tome can't (or won't) cross. Sticking with mundane options, your best bet is fire: keep a ring of flame around a book and it isn't going anywhere. Depending on the setting, this might be simple wood, petrol, lava, or something with a supernatural touch such as blessed candles. These may be more useful than walls for dealing with magical books, which can perhaps exert their influence through stone or spell open locks. On the downside, you need to keep that fire well-supplied. If you have an antagonistic relationship with the book, a circle of fire may be a means of forcing it to obey you, as it could be designed so that if the fire falters it will engulf the book before dying out: this helps discourage unwanted murder attempts, as with nobody to tend the fire, the tome is doomed.

Water is another option, and a moat is a good start. But why stop there? Seal your tome in a guaranteed-airtight box and leave it at the bottom of a tank, where any escape attempt will mean destruction. This is also a good way to conceal its very existence from nosy visitors: a large fish-tank is no cause for concern, whereas a basement dungeon or back-garden furnace may raise eyebrows. At the same time, it's relatively easy to retrieve the book if you need to consult it.

Depending on the nature of the book, it may be that it can be immersed directly in water to counteract its power, without active harm. Ye Tantric Booke of Sexe Magicke is notoriously kept in a vat of crushed ice, which might work for a Slaaneshi tome too. Shadow-magic and similar tomes could be imprisoned by constant light. Some of the more animalistic tomes may be contained readily by barbed wire, electricity or particular scents - incense or herbs. Perhaps salt, silver or some other substance is anathema to it? Magnetised iron (especially for fey-like books)?

Of course, you could also go with something a bit more dramatic, sealing a tome into a block of concrete or some other protective substance.

In principle, you could also set up some kind of elaborate mechanism, so that any escape attempt (or spellcasting) by the book will trigger sawblades, acid, water, paper-eating insects or some other doom. However, I think it's more difficult to make these credible than with an obviously-living prisoner. With a highly sentient book, though, it's a possibility: perhaps a candle needs regularly replacement so as not to ignite something, or a mechanism needs resetting so it never reaches a trigger-point.

In a high-technology setting, there are further interesting options available, of which radiation is the most obvious. Of course, the exact interactions between tomes and technology are too complex and variable to cover here. Similarly, it's much easier to set up monitoring and defensive equipment to watch a tome and to punish (or destroy) it for unacceptable activities.


Simple: have some actual people keeping an eye on it. This is very suitable for Warhammer-type settings, as well as some historical ones, where the forces of good lesser evil might assign highly-trained warriors, priests or other trusted individuals to watch a dangerous artefact. Guards can keep an eye on what a tome is up to, which none of the others can, and actively intervene or adapt to thwart plans. On the downside, they're vulnerable to attack, influence or even outright corruption. Assigning multiple guards at a time, and assessing them regularly for signs of manipulation or taint, is advisable.


Books that are simply pure forces of malevolence, you're likely to want to secure thoroughly. These will rarely (if ever) need consultation, and so walling them up behind fifty feet of stone is probably the best bet. If the book is a useful tool to you, then the priorities are different: you need access to it yourself, so locked doors and cages are more likely. Some books aren't really dangerous to the owner, either because they have the same goals, because the book is fundamentally bound to the owner, or because of the owner's particular nature: in these cases you're mostly worried about escape or vandalism rather than protection, and so simple restraints should be adequate. That being said, even demon-queens may want some minimal protection to reduce the number of servants obliterated by their tome. An owner powerful enough to shrug off magic and rip apart unruly tomes has few concerns, but some tomes may still be so chaotic or plain bolshie that they need imprisoning.

You also need to consider how permanent a containment you're looking for (options for actually destroying books I'll consider another day). A library, powerful sorcerer or religious order may want to contain a tome permamently, either to make use of it or simply to contain its evil. In these cases, you want a solution that can be readily maintained; perhaps one that doesn't need expert maintenance or constant monitoring (though these are impressive for adventurers), and one that isn't likely to weaken over time. In contrast, player characters are quite likely to want to control a tome just long enough to fulfil some objective or find a means to destroy it. In these cases, something effective in the short term is appropriate, and if it's prohibitively expensive or unmanageable for longer use... well, that's their problem. Having players scramble round for oil, buy expensive herbs or rig up steel cages before stealing the sorcerer's tome can be a fun bit of preparation and a chance to show ingenuity.

Magical methods

In a setting where magic is more prevalent, or where PCs are more likely to have access to it, there are also a number of magical options to contain your tomes.

Weave a circle round him thrice

John Dee's Seal of God British Museum 26 07 2013

Magical wards and seals are a great option for containing tomes, or at least certain kinds of tome. There are a range of these available. Magic circles and pentagrams are one option; the book itself rests on a pedestal, or perhaps the ward is carved into a marble slab where the book lies. A sort of mobile might hang charms, spell-parchments or magical herbs all around a book, preventing it from using its powers. A book-chest or glass case might be inscribed with charms or covered in sacred wax seals.

Statues and charms are another form of warding. Perhaps statues of a powerful deity can contain the book's powers - though this doesn't necessarily have to be one you approve of. In a grey-morality setting, characters might be forced to invoke entities they dislike in order to combat those they loathe; on the other hand, a cultist might willingly call on the power of various foul entities to master the tome. Such wards might be subtle (a simple circle of statues) or dramatic (lightning or flame arcs between outstretched hands, a book floats glowing in the centre of the circle).

For a more immediate seal, tomes might be wrapped with strips of holy writ or prayers, sheathed in dragonskin or tied up with prayer beads. More dramatically, a magic sword, unicorn horn or nail from the True Cross might pin a tome down and sap its power, without destroying it.

Conversely, it may seem more appropriate to ward the entire room or building, either because it will affect everything inside, or because it keeps the tome from leaving and that's all that really matters. This may be particularly relevant with toolbooks, whose power the owner wants to draw on, as removing and redrawing wards and seals each time may be very inconvenient. In these cases, doors may be heavy and rune-carved, walls may be made of nullifying substances (see below), and ceiling and floor tiles painted with sigils.


Most settings with substantial magic also have some canonical magic-blocking possibilities, be it antimagic fields, psychic null-zones, octarine, slabs of lead, or divine powers (relics or shrines, perhaps) that suppress tainted magic. In such settings, these may be an obvious way to contain the more magical kinds of tome. They are, however, likely of less use in tackling other hazards: a tome in such a field may still be able to bite, speak or even absorb victims, while its malevolence remains undiminished and its contents still pose a significant danger.

Opposing influences

I mentioned anathemic substances above, and magical versions are just an extension of this idea. Most obviously, there are sacred or magical substances that may hinder a tome, ranging from holy relics to arcane powders. Another option is opposing magical types: for example, a necromantic tome might be helpless in a place redolent with nature-magic.


Guardian lion statue

While we've already discussed ordinary guards, magical settings allow for potent entities to keep a tome in check. A whole range of options is available. Mindless skeletons are hard for a tome to influence, but a necromantic tome poses obvious problems there. Paladins, sanctified sorcerers or other empowered mortals can more readily resist a tome's influence and check its schemes. Many magical creations might be suitable guards, be they golems, giant bronze serpents, or weapons imbued with magic and simple commands.

Taking a different tack, creatures might be summoned to watch over a tome, though in some cases that poses its own risks. A benevolent spirit may cheerfully (and safely) guard a tome, whereas a demon is dangerous enough to summon, let alone to leave watching an artefact of incredible vileness. More neutral entities, such as elementals or shadow-beings, may simply be vulnerable to corruption. A sphinx or similar being inclined to guardianship may be a good bet, assuming you can make a deal with it. Ideally, you'd have a powerful avatar of some opposing force to guard the tome, but for many people that isn't an option - even if they exist and the character could contact them, explaining why you've got the tome and why you need to hang onto it may be a delicate or impossible business. A cultist, in contrast, might have one or more powerful evil beings as guardians, relying simply on dominance or on differences of interest to prevent them allying with the tome against her.

Continuous suppression

All TOUEs are nasty business, but for the most potent or pernicious, constant effort may be needed to keep them in check. A constant circle of prayer might be maintained in shifts by members of a holy order, preventing the book from taking action. Wizards might need to regularly reinforce wards or suppressive spells, or psychics might maintain permanent vigil with psionic senses alert for any sinister activity. These are fundamantally a variation on the ring of fire mentioned earlier - a containment technique that calls for constant effort on the part of the warders.


In many cases, as least part of an owner's concern is going to be keeping people away from the book, rather than vice versa. Whether they're scheming rivals looking to pinch your grimoires, meddling do-gooders eager to quench your plots, sinister cultists trying to retrieve a dreadful tome, or stupid kids who could doom the entire world by their drunken antics, they must be kept away.

Many of the methods I've already mentioned function just as well for keeping out trespassers - thick walls, big spikes and powerful guardians can all be effective deterrents. Since intruders are often more immediately cunning (or unpredictable) in their efforts, having intelligent guards is often a good idea, though bear in mind that guards can be corrupted, bribed, ensorcelled or straight-up killed, while big spikes remain both big and spiky.

Of course, some methods pose problems once devious human opponents come into question. The problem with many defences is that they're obvious, and this tends to attract attention and inspire greed. A book bound tightly in iron chains is, in some people's opinion, just crying out to be read; putting a necromantic tome inside a circle of magical flame in a rune-inscribed granite-walled chamber in a rune-covered cave under a remote mountain just gets them interested. Guards make people wonder what's to be guarded, and locks and wards simply highlight the location of the coveted items.


If you're concerned about meddlers, you may want to look at ways of concealing tomes, disguising their nature and misleading the interlopers. This creates a tension between the desire for serious protection, and the blatancy of such methods.

One obvious option is to hide the needle in a haystack. A well-guarded library is, in some cases, an excellent way to hide a tome. Intruders aren't usually renowned for their patience, and wading through a whole library to find the tome is probably beyond them. However, certain types of tomes make this an undesirable choice, such as those that can devour or possess other books, those that will actively seek out intruders, or that make their own physical efforts to break free. It also isn't likely to work on those tomes that are vast and sinister, burn with unholy light, levitate, whisper and howl, or otherwise draw attention to themselves.

Concealment is another possibility. Confident cults may leave their books lying around on altars, but the wise wizard has spellbooks tucked away for safekeeping. Traditionally, tomes tend to be stashed in secret compartments of lecterns and statues, under large magical symbols that hint at the command word needed to reveal them, in cellars under large rugs, and other prominent locations. These are perfect for some games, but you should vary it by genre. In a light-hearted setting, the book may be hidden under someone's pillow or in a large chocolate box; in a very gritty setting, it may be in a large box-file marked "Utility Bills 2001-3", in a battered cardboard box full of genuine tedious paperwork, amongst a number of other boxes stuffed under the stairs with a stepladder carelessly laid on top of them.


Sometimes, imprisonment isn't on the cards. Perhaps you don't have the resources necessary to imprison a tome, or the means to do so without attracting the wrong kind of attention. If you're always on the move, then you probably can't keep your TOUE in a three-foot-thick steel cage surrounded by a fire of cedarwood and salt. Maybe the intoners' union won't accept 24-hour rotas to maintain your circle of prayer. It's also possible that a book is too powerful for you, or its influences too subtle to confine. Plus, maybe you don't want that kind of relationship: if you need to use the tome for some reason, then there may be no option but to negotiate. Maybe you're not actually working against the tome, but with it, or at least in the same sort of direction. Perhaps you're simply cacklingly evil. In these circumstances, appeasement may be the way to go. Not all tomes will agree to this, but some may be prepared to lie inactive or limit their activities, if various desires are sated.


Human sacrifice (Codex Laud, f.8)

The classic option, as with any evil artefact or entity, is sacrifices. There are many kinds of sacrifice, from good old killings to life-energy, magical power or knowledge. Some tomes might drain emotions or memories, or dreams. A more corrupting choice might be allowing the tome into a victim, rather than feeding on them: the tome might be permitted to inhabit and control the victim's dreams, to possess their body for an hour a day, or to transform them into twisted minions. Those books that regenerate themselves might prefer some form of energy, while those that wish to spread evil influences prefer to infect new victims. See the post on book vampirism for more thoughts.

Sacrifices are particularly suitable for cults, especially those centred around a tome. They are also likely where the owner of a tome is largely in the tome's control, perhaps unable to resist this demand but not quite weak enough (yet) to give it entirely its own way. The main point here is that the sacrifice doesn't really get you anything except making the TOUE less likely to cause trouble. It's like feeding a captive animal or paying Danegeld.


Sacrifices could arguably be lumped in with bargains, but I feel they're worth separating. What I'm getting at here is agreements to exchange services rendered, basically. These are likely to involve more obviously sentient TOUEs, which plan and make deals, whereas sacrifices may be more suitable for more animalistic tomes with less complex sentience.

A fun option is the favour-for-a-favour. The owner of the tome agrees to act on behalf of the tome, if only it will provide the knowledge she needs, or refrain from trying to turn Berkshire into a scorched wasteland full of the laughter of incomprehensible extradimensional beings, or simply stop invading her dreams. In some cases, doing things yourself may be preferable to doing them in your sleep and waking up bruised to see fuzzy CCTV pictures on the telly of you robbing the British Museum stark naked. At other times, the demands made may seem far less harmful than the consequences of refusal: removing that weird stone from that field, performing a little ritual here, they're certainly better than having the tome eat another neighbour. And of course, certain owners have no compunction about doing genuinely evil deeds in exchange for what they want. Sorcerers and cultists of course; but also utilitarians, despotic rulers and the desperate may see such actions as the lesser of two evils, rather than have the TOUE's power loosed upon the world. Of course, the TOUE isn't just asking this stuff for fun (okay, certain ones are); it's making a bargain because it will get something out of it, and little deeds can add up to a mountain of trouble.

Rather than actions, a TOUE may desire stuff. As mentioned previously, Pontius Glaw is a decent inspiration here. This kind of works for any sentient artefact, but especially for things that might be a shadow of their former glory. Prison books are a great option here, as the minds trapped within seek ways to influence the world. Information is a good starting-point, and a gentle way to lead PCs into gray areas - providing a little information about the outside world won't do any harm, after all... after this the TOUE may seek repair, aesthetic enhancement, mobility, special treatment, servants, and so on. If handled carefully, PCs could build up a kind of relationship with a tome and disregard its evil for a time, especially if it seems to play fair and somewhat respects them by not demanding evil deeds and being generally amicable. All the better to betray them later.

I think an important point to make here is that unlike some things I've mentioned in this series, much of this would work very well for tomes that aren't indescribably evil. A spellbook or tome of knowledge might demand particular favours to provide what the reader wants, simply out of pride or towards its own, non-evil ends. More importantly, a benevolent tome is perhaps even more likely to demand services that further its goals, and this may be a way to kick off adventures. Even selfish and mercenary characters can be prodded into doing benevolent things if it will attain their ends, and this might offer the chance for them to develop into more altruistic people - if the players want them to, of course.

Wholehearted Obedience

Don't forget that sometimes the goals of the tome and the owners will coincide perfectly. In these circumstances, just doing what the book wants can keep it perfectly contented (although of course, some contrary, malevolent or inscrutable books may still act up). Or to look at it another way, perhaps the owner's activities are entirely satisfactory, even without conscious effort to appease the tome. This is likely to be the case where books of a particular deity or alignment are owned by followers of that power, where a character has deliberately sought out a TOUE suited to their temperament, or where mysterious fates have conspired to bring together two complementary wills.

Containment in Play

So from a gaming point of view, how are these approaches likely to affect play?

Ownership costs

If a PC owns TOUEs, then there may be considerable practical and financial costs in containing them suitably. Even building a vault will take time and money - potentially quite a lot of both. Any more serious buildings, particularly if warded, may be fantastically expensive. A moat or cage will need to be inspected, just as you might with a wild animal's pen, and runic circles may need cleaning or redrawing regularly to keep them effective. For those interested in playing with such things, I picture the difficulties of maintaining a runic circle to be rather like maintaining canal banks or locks; because you're trying to contain something, you can't simply rub out the chalk and redraw it! You need something like an arcane cofferdam to let you work safely.

Such things as walls of fire or regular sacrifices have ongoing costs, require maintenance and regular inspection to make sure things are under control. If you're using esoteric substances like silver dust, phoenix feathers, blessed candles or rare herbs, it might be difficult as well as expensive to keep the barrier going (silver dust is liable to drift away over time, even if it's not being consumed). For a PC party, that's a great opportunity for some adventuring to restore their supplies. Keeping a fifty-strong choir going all day and night forever is a pretty big undertaking, and I think some serious planning can be expected. In all these cases, having PCs regularly make payments for their containment choices offers a way to make it feel significant and something more than nominal.

Many of the higher-maintenance methods may be a problem for PCs unless they have very reliable staff to help out. A deathtrap that needs resetting once an hour sounds good, but the practicalities are a real nuisance: interrupted sleep, no holidays, and what happens if you're ill? I think it's reasonable to bring these things into play if players decide to use such methods. Even on longer intervals, there are issues - if the PCs are delayed returning from a trip by a car breaking down, does the trap trigger and destroy their tome just to be on the safe side?

Staffing of any kind brings its own problems, whether you're talking about your choristers, some traditional guards, summoned beasts or even just domestic staff in the same house. Trustworthiness is a real issue, and the more staff you have, the greater the issue, not least because more people know and word is more likely to get out. There's always a risk that one of your new choristers is actually a disguised cultist, and it's made much more likely if you're trying to keep a staff of 400 choristers on the go. There's also the question of recruitment, which is not a simple matter: how do you recruit all those choristers? When do you let them in on the issue of exactly what's expected, and what do you do about the ones who don't come up to scratch or don't want anything to do with it when they learn the secret? I feel like recruiting and maintaining staff could be a fun aspect of a TOUE-based game, with opportunities for problems ranging from choosing good candidates to handling illness or stress, dealing with possible treachery, and even everyday HR matters. Sorting out pay disputes or problems in the workplace could be a diverting break.

PCs should also consider testing their protections. Guards may need regular spot inspections to make sure they're up to scratch. Over time, both PCs and hirelings may get lax in their behaviour if the TOUE shows no sign of escaping, which is something I'd take advantage of as a sentient tome. It's particularly likely, I think, with precautions that require a lot of effort. Perhaps the circle of candles isn't quite as tightly-packed as necessary, or the singing is a bit lacklustre. A cage may get rusty, or a box decay over time, or be gnawed by rats - perhaps rats summoned by a tome! You may also want to inspect guards' physical and mental health, to ensure they aren't being corrupted or harmed by the tomes they guard.

Summoned creatures offset some of these issues, but bring their own problems. Negotiating with or appeasing them can be a thorny issue. An unwilling summon might perform its job only sullenly and reluctantly, and secretly hope the tome will escape; some may cling to the letter of commands rather than the spirit. A summon may demand esoteric or vile payments in compensation for its work, while even benevolent spirits might ask for tasks to be completed. Again, these offer a good chance for further adventures while a tome backplot simmers away.

Unless PCs are careful, then many of these approaches might attract unwanted attention from neighbours, the authorities or from sinister enemies. This is particularly true if they're performing sacrifices or buying a lot of strange substances.

Overcoming protections

The other side of the coin is what happens when someone else has a tome the PCs want.

In many ways, the precautions aren't that different from ordinary anti-theft precautions, just with a slightly different focus. Walls, doors and guards are likely to work just about as well - although the locks may be on the unexpected side. Moats and walls of fire keep people out, as well as books.

Actually locating a tome is often a difficulty, and I mentioned camouflage above. However, containment can actually make a TOUE easier to track down: an owner buying lots of arcane components, sacrificed victims turning up nearby, unusually large kennels or a constant drift of cedary smoke can be a useful clue to a tome's location. Similarly, PCs may pick up on the comings and goings of guards, or even on recruitment attempts.

Some precautions don't exactly present an obstacle, but will make it fiddlier to steal or consult a tome without damaging or releasing it. This is true of underwater storage, various kinds of traps and magic circles. A careless attempt to remove the tome might trigger the trap and destroy it. On top of that, the PCs will likely need to have some way to contain it temporarily until they can get it back to their own storehouse. However, methods like the True Cross nail or dragonskin bindings are very portable.

Of course, PCs may want to destroy (or even release) a TOUE rather than steal it, and many precautious will actually make this easier. The traplike methods can be triggered by PCs, while confining a trome and stopping it from using its powers will leave it vulnerable and easy to attack. If PCs wish to release a tome (perhaps to wreak havoc on its cult), then they could interfere with sacrifices, scuff a runic circle or interrupt the supply of fuel to a ring of fire. Some of these could be done remotely, or even indirectly, making it less likely that they'll end up suffering as a result. For example, they could use commercial or logistical approaches to block the supply of cedarwood to a town, disguising it as ordinary commerce, a health and safety issue (insects in the wood?), or even a legal dispute. Within a week, the owner runs out of wood for the fires and disaster strikes - or perhaps they're driven to take some extreme action that allows the PCs to achieve another objective.

And on that last point, it's worth noting that even threatened breach of a TOUE's containment may be enough to achieve the PCs' ends, by disrupting an owner's activities, by forcing them to take illegal action and having them arrested, or simply by distracting them while you achieve your real goal.

Okay, this has got really long and rambling now, so I'll stop, but I'd love to hear other people's suggestions and views here, particularly any ideas for containment types and how you might use them in play.

Tune in next time...

Next up I'm planning to look at actual destruction and disposal of tomes.