New on Desk #38 — Monstrous Week

As last week, I don’t have much — just some more D&D cruft.

Reading corner: a xianxia quest

While most of the week was wasted in terrible procrastination, one high point was that I stumbled upon an above-average read: Hmmph… this junior is a good seed is a quest format serial story in the cultivation fantasy genre. Its main virtue is that it’s very clean and accessible as an example of its genre (and medium; this is basically what forum quests are like); if xianxia is still an unknown quantity, I might not be able to name a better crash course on what it’s about.

Substance-wise Hmmph involves a managerial perspective on a cultivation sect in a typical xianxia world, with the players directing the actions of the sect elder. They came up with a pretty nice literary conceit for the sect itself, making it a lost Roman legion scrambling to retain its traditions in the stereotypically Chinese setting. The quest mechanization is also nice, with the player participation quite high: individuals in the audience are encouraged to write up their own lower-level xianxia heroes and participate in something that is almost, but not quite, a “forum rp” exercise.

The reason why I started with this data point is, of course, that reading Hmmph combined with some D&D discussions to inspire a new… cultivation path, I suppose, for my recent D&D work. I don’t know that it’s a very important breakthrough, but let’s see — could be useful for something.

Cultivation technobabble for D&D

This relates closely to “aspirational high-level charop” that I discussed in an earlier newsletter: there exists a relatively orthodox D&D scheme (as in, it’s mainly based on combining GG and Mentzer ideas) for quantifying and defining divinity, including a very xianxia-like notion of human ascension into divinity. I have a bunch of cosmology and rules mechanics and whatnot for what amounts to an expansion to the Mentzer Immortals stuff. Characters willing to set aside their humanity and cultivate a greatness of spirit may undergo a “Soul Ignition” that irreversibly defines them as a corporeal divinity, a being capable of joining the ranks of the gods in time.

So anyway, there’s this whole metaphysical framework involved here regarding the specific diegetic significance of Experience Points and Levels, and how mortal (non-divine) Heroes interact with Divinities, and so on. One of the obscure weaknesses of divinity is that they lack the formal detachment between diegetic and formally mechanical that mortal characters enjoy: an ordinary D&D adventurer’s Class and Level, and hit points and saving throws, and so on, are all merely formal game-mechanical conceits that do not strictly speaking exist within the game-world, which affords mortal heroes in D&D some procedurally absolute privileges; in-setting forces are incapable of influencing the operation of the formal game-rules, which is why e.g. magic cannot affect the XP count of a character — the XP doesn’t exist inside the fiction. (I’ll clarify here that I’ve discarded many Gygaxian XP manipulations like energy drain and Alignment-change penalties.) For a Divinity this is not the case: the entire existence of the divine character is committed in their Astral soul, XP counts and all, which has a variety of implications for how they interact with the world around them. It is, for instance, possible for divinities to outright grant their hard-earned Power (XP) to others as a transferable commodity.

Thinking about this technical magibabble of how divine cultivation works, and comparing it to other status shifts that D&D characters undergo such as Name Level, a new kind of status shift occurred to me: what if, whatever Soul Ignition is, a character were to engage in its opposite? A Soul-ignited character aligns their entire self with their Soul, to such an extent that they may at a higher level ascend their corporeal form altogether. What would it mean for a character to resolve this body-soul dichotomy in a different direction? Let’s imagine one way it could go…

Monstrous Cultivation

The state of “monstrousness” is a metaphysically distinct thing in some settings. A “person”, an “animal” and a “monster” are all distinct from each other as orders of being. To be monstrous is to not be natural, yet nevertheless it is a very physical, material state. It is a state of power, which is why a natural animal will often have a much, much lower level of power compared to a monstrous one, even when they are similar in size and shape. Perhaps it is the monsterflesh itself that holds this superior potence that extends far beyond the physical realm into the most formal game-mechanics such as hit point counts.

There might exist a way for a mortal to become monstrous, benefiting from the power inherent in the monsterflesh. Whatever the exact practical means of such a transformation, here’s some mechanical formalisms to consider:

Monster HD are an expression of metaphysical rank: Orthodox D&D sources prefer to think of monster HD as an expression of how much flesh the monster has, which is obviously so busted as to merit no serious consideration whatsoever. If you want a Whale to have lots-a hit points-a, grant them bonus HP. Rather, I would posit a “Monster Rank”, which is just a less confusing way of saying Hit Dice: so many game-mechanical linchpins of existence in D&D are directly devolved from HD that it makes no sense to pretend that monsters don’t have their Level-equivalent. They very clearly do, and just like adventurer Levels, Monster Rank grants you that one HD per Rank.

Monster Rank is not Level: As anybody experienced in older D&D can tell you, Monster Rank is not the same thing as character Level — there’s all kinds of persnickety differences despite monsters kinda-sorta being similar to Fighting Men game-mechanically. And when you get around to having monsters with Classes, like a Minotaur Barbarian or whatever, that’s when all bets are off and the interaction might work any which way. (I very much favour non-compounding features myself, so you take the better of the HD, attack bonus, saves, etc. between the Class and Monster chassis rather than adding them up.) The main point, though, is that Monster Rank is distinct from character Level, and sometimes the same being can have both. Arguably all people do: humans are technically speaking Rank 1 monsters in that they have a monster stat block and a natural HD even without Class and Level.

Monster Rank is inborn: It is heavily implied by the structures of D&D that Monster Rank is more of a matter of birth than a matter of training. Where this is not the case, it still seems clear that monsters come in types rather than degrees. They evolve like Pokemon from one state to another rather than improving incrementally. There can be minor variation of Rank within a type (Monster Manual often lists variable HD for various monsters), but only to a limited extend. I think it’s a good general rule that when monsters breed true, the “spawn” has half the HD of their type; as they mature, they achieve the full might of their breed.

What if you could gain Monster Rank with XP: If such a cultivation path were to exist, I would say that it works similarly to Name Level in that the character doing it stops advancing in adventurer Levels. The gain of Monster Rank would be extremely strange as an in-setting phenomenon, as normal monsters do not grow like that as mature adults. It would be unlocking a certain, dare I say it, primordial Ur-Monstrousness that transcends the stable typologies and evolution paths of naturally existing monsters. The accreting Monster Rank could have strange effects beyond the increased sum of hit points, as monsters clearly do tend to have more powerful talents at higher HD.

What would it cost: Monster HD are not as fundamental and powerful as character Level one for one. I am personally very comfortable with the “short range” leveling scheme of earliest D&D, where ordinary Level range is more like 1–10 than 1–20, which means that monsters can easily have “epic” HD compared to adventurers. Your legendary hero might have 10 HD, but the Tyrannosaurus has 15, and it’s not nearly the greatest being that the monster ecology has to offer. To capture this idea of monster HD being “cheaper” metaphysically, it’s clear that Monster Rank needs to progress on a more forgiving XP table. I suggest additive squaring: Rank N costs N2 × 1000 xp, so 1k, 4k, 9k…

What would you get: Monster Rank gets you a HD and inherent attack bonus, similar to the Fighter Class. It gets you monstrous Saves. These are all non-cumulative with Level, so use the better one only. Furthermore, each Monster Rank gained grants the character a monstrous boon off a semi-random table of monster powers, so you might e.g. learn to breath fire or whatever. Grow a thick fur. No guarantees of being useful, not all Rank-ups gain you anything. Bestest of all, going up in Monster Rank increases Soul Integration as the mortal’s soul melds with their flesh, empowering the transformation.

What’s that, Soul Integration?: Having a soul is a problem when progressing in Monster Rank. Specifically, the changes the flesh undergoes do not interact well with the soul, as monsterflesh is astrally dense and capable of trapping and consuming the soul. This means that every time a character’s Monster Rank goes up, they have a chance of gaining mental derangement until they achieve full Soul Integration and stop having a soul to be bothered by the process. (The progress of Soul Integration can be expressed as a percentage skill.) The smart monstrous cultivator will either protect their soul somehow, or quicken the integration process and try to retain their sanity. As you might imagine, this Soul Integration business is the edgy attempt at making monstrous cultivation a “left-hand path”.

How powerful is it?: Very powerful in the low and mid-levels, thanks to the quicker advancement. I suspect that this monstrous cultivation path isn’t ultimately as potent as becoming a Hero or becoming a Divinity (two other modal states I’ve explored in my aspirational D&D design this summer). It’s probably about as potent as the possibilities inherent to Name Rank. I can not, of course, tell for sure without playtesting, but I think that the monstrous cultivator will probably plateau in practical power around the 1M xp mark; at that point Heroes start kicking in with their memetic Chuck Norris, while Divinities start ascending into godhood. The monstrous cultivator, meanwhile, has a few dozen HD more, possibly some sort of monster-breeding project (creating loyal minions by birthing them or whatnot), and overall strength comparable to an ancient dragon — but that’s what Heroes slay. The campaign metaphysics might enable the concept of “monster” to scale to the actually epic Levels as something more than a speed-bump, but they might just as well not. Depends on the esoteric nature of monsterflesh and whether the monstrous as an identity is a true dweomer or just an ancient plague, and so on and so forth.

So that’s the basic framework. It’s a bit esoteric, and what monstrous cultivation actually looks like would depend heavily on the setting. A few ideas:

Use it for: Werewolves

Monstrous cultivation could provide some needed metaphysical backing for lycanthropy, a way for it to be a cool condition comparable to e.g. vampirism. What if lycanthropy was this retroviral genetic disease that is actually responsible for the ancient generation of the many types of monsters that roam the D&D world? The werewolf in the throes of the monsterflesh cultivation is a mad beast, but you could maybe master the condition and make something of it.

Use it for: Immanent Mastery

Traditional monastic kungfu wizardry strives for divine cultivation, but the first stages of the great work are very physical as the cultivator prepares their body for the trials ahead. What if it was possible for a Monk in the early stages of cultivation, long before Soul Ignition, to stumble upon the secrets of monstrous cultivation? It is a very physical path of body cultivation after all, not that different. All it takes is one misunderstood lesson, or a wicked word set edgeways in the cultivation path for the young and naive to stray.

A controlled low-level flesh cultivation could well make a martial artist a prodigy, as the monsterflesh is inherently stronger and faster; they’re essentially a super-hero, or a top-tier physical cultivator with nearly no effort at all. The interactions with Soul Ignition, the necessary prerequisite for actually effective qigong (qi manipulation, actual kungfu magic) practice, are beyond fucked, though: the very best scenario for a monk attempting Soul Ignition with a monstrously cultivated body is that they need to check their Soul Integration score to find out if they immediately die as the partly flesh-melded soul rips apart. But if you can dodge that, why, a little bit of monstrous cultivation could clear the physical requirements of your cultivation sect. No need to spend a decade doing push-ups!

There is of course no reason why a Monk sect couldn’t just discard divine cultivation altogether and go all-in on monstrous cultivation. This is the famous Path of Immanent Mastery from Glorantha: monks who strive towards the dragonform, becoming potent martial artists and capable of manifesting the Immanent (concretely existing, that is) Dragon, that which is the final destination and nature of the Monstrous. An actually intentional and organized monstrous cultivation society like this would presumably have various means of easing the Soul Integration issues, and insofar as their metaphysics are correct, they would presumably become dragons over time, correlating towards the Perfect Form.

What’s the deal with the Lamassu?

OK, so there’s one extremely good reason to have a soul as a monstrous cultivator, and it has to do with shape-shifting, one of the more potent tools in the arsenal of the monsterflesh: a shape-shifter who does not have a soul cannot actually retain their identity when their shape shifts, as their mind exists in the flesh of their brain. Shapeshift the brain, you shapeshift the mind as well, and it’s rather probable that you shift into something that doesn’t want to shift back, or doesn’t know how. Having a soul prevents this, as in the D&D metaphysics the mind resides in the soul by default.

So thinking of monstrous cultivation CharOp, there’s four things you can do:
Never shapeshift: need to control involuntary monstrous evolution as well, but theoretically yeah.
Keep the soul: have fun with bouts of Soul Integration dementia for the rest of your life.
Become a NPC: just shapeshift into something indescript, who cares about agency.
Keep the brain intact: you can still change shape, just keep the human head…

So yeah, that’s my explanation for Lamassu, those wacky Mesopotamian winged lions with human heads: they’re a cultivation sect that’s solved the identity transformation issue in this way. It’s OK to shapeshift as long as you keep the head.

A more general example of possibilities is involved with the Doppelganger, or Changeling: as students of early LotFP well know, the identity of the changeling resides in a “monster core” that allows it to retain an action-directing super-ego even while its flesh brain changes and turns. The changeling body really believes itself to be the creature it mimics, it just so happens to have an even deeper identity embedded within. Something to think about for characters looking to become Ur-Monsters.

Monday: Coup de Main #14

A huge success! The party has recently been a little bit on the slimmer side, as only three regular players have had the time for the game, but that just means less heads to feed in the party. The adventurers succeeded in three major mile-stones one after another:

Discovered the Heart of Nestor: It’s an unassuming silver medallion in the shape of a heart, but there is a potent, loving magic within! +10 hit points and an edge on poison and disease saves, it’s the perfect gift to a significant other you wish to protect from the accidents of life. Phun Eral discovered the Heart in the Yragern family crypts, where it was left by Nestor’s ghost as a gift to the respectful adventurers.

Found the crypt of Zagyg: Rob Banks, the party thief, masterfully discovered the secret crypt. Only Phun entered the viciously guarded crypt to discover a final resting place guarded by a True Dweomer. A practically useless find, but for a scholar of Zagyg lore like Phun, who was to great extent exploring this place specifically for understanding of the Mad Archmage, this was the find. Not that we have any idea for what to do with it, as the Dweomer prevents looting the tomb and all that.

Captured the Giant Weasel: This one’s my personal favourite due to how proactive and purposeful the players needed to be about it. The party has been finding giant weasel tracks here and there around the mansion, and they’d recognized a place that the giant weasel particularly favoured, so they set a bear trap in the area a few days back. The trap paid off now, and the party was in luck overall, being able to kill the weasel neatly in the trap. The Monster Manual scores Giant Weasel furs at 1k–6k GP, so it’s actually a major treasure! And all this without any kind of leading by the nose: the players might just as well have ignored the weasel, but instead they worked over like 10 sessions, on and off, to exploit the opportunity.

After these successes the party retreated back to town to figure out what they had and how to split the loot. The big issue that emerged was actually that the loot was too valuable: the Heart of Nestor was worth thousands, much more than the modest xp caps (maximum amount of xp a character can gain from a single expedition) of the party. Selling it would have allowed the party to even out the gains so as to not “waste” any xp, but the party wanted to keep the powerful talisman instead, and that meant a XP windfall to whomever gained it far in excess of their capability to benefit from the xp.

(Most campaigns do not grant xp rewards for magic items, but I’ve recently flipped on this technical matter myself, so here in the Coup campaign magic items that are useful and meaningful for the character are also counted for XP. The theoretical reason is that I believe that XP is granted for success, and treasure xp specifically doesn’t care about the form the treasure takes: if the item was worth xp when sold, then it doesn’t make sense that a character would have to first sell it and then buy it back to gain xp for it. We’ll see how this plays in the long run, but for now I’m happy with it.)

Ultimately the party did their best to distribute the xp rewards evenly, having Rob forgo his share of the other treasure and so on, in exchange for him gaining possession of the Heart. Astur did well in the adventure as well, but the big winners were Phun for discovering the crypt of Zagyg, and Rob for gaining the Heart; both broke through to the 3rd level now, and Rob actually went in the lead in the campaign scoring table, at 3860 XP total. The party retainer, “Hench #4” (no, he doesn’t have a real name), got to 2nd level out of the proceedings.

The party has a few options in how to follow up on the act, so tomorrow will probably feature some serious planning. The options are to go back to the manor to delve even deeper (there might still be something worthwhile there), start working on this Thieves’ Guild adventure opportunity the party discovered a few days back, or, well, I think it’ll probably be one of those two. We’ll see.

Session #15 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 20.9., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Thursday: Varangian Way playtest

Varangian Way proceeded apace on Thursday. We ultimately did three actual scenes, with some minor maneuvering in between. Will probably continue next Thursday, as the game’s proving entertaining enough to play for its own sake.

The key mechanical chassis in Varangians is the Passion system, and that’s really been showing its expressive strength as we learn how to play the game. The core conceit is that everything in the fictional world — people, places, ideas, whatever — can have a Passion score, a numerical expression of how much latent potential for change they have. For people the mechanical trait usually expresses a literal passion towards something or other. Because only things with Passion can change, the attentions of the campaign follow the Passion around: we play stories about things with great Passion and see what happens to that Passion.

The nature of Passion is to change and shift, and bring about changes and shifts. The three core “Passion interactions” that the players keep an eye out for in the game are as follows:
Sharing Passion happens when two Passion elements (two characters, say) interact in depth. Both grant a single point of Passion to each other, if they have some.
Dominating happens when a Passion element demonstrates superiority and control over another. The submissive side of the interaction grants a point of Passion to the dominant.
Gifting happens when a Passion element aids and advices another successfully. The helper grants a point of Passion to the aided.

Every time Passion moves, it gets randomized via a special dice roll, so every time there is a chance for the moving Passion to become greater or lesser than before. Because the Passion interactions are not voluntary (even if it is up to the players to interpret what “counts as” a Passion interaction), Passion tends to move back and forth all the time. Protagonist characters will generally want to maintain a healthy Passion score, as characters without Passion can’t generally have scenes or otherwise be proactive about changing their own fate.

So anyway, we’re doing all kinds of cool things with these basic rules now. For example, in this session I framed a scene in which Petteri’s character Säisä, a young shaman, was being pressured to kill a helpless prisoner by his ruthless viking mentor Knut-Harald. The Passion interaction rules were very much in play here, as choosing to go along with Knut-Harald would have meant Sharing with him, while refusing his demands would have meant Knut-Harald doing the deed himself and beating Säisä black and blue, Dominating him. Faced with the awful choice Säisä took the possibly even worse option of conflict, struggling mightily with Knut-Harald and ultimately killing the man. Both Säisä and Knut-Harald released Passion into the atmosphere during their struggle, and the funny thing was that the helpless captive was the one to drink up and be inspired by their Passions — the heretofore nameless man, a forest rebel now called Jutikka, jumped to 4 points of Passion for witnessing the Knut-Harald’s death.

Although the conflict rules and such also use Passion in an interesting way, you could basically just run the game with the Passion rules, considering how much they inspire events and their understanding. It’s particularly interesting to see what exactly inspires various characters, and what falls flat for them.

State of the Productive Facilities

One day the depression and external disturbances will shed away and I shall show you all!

2 thoughts on “New on Desk #38 — Monstrous Week”

  1. The polls being up again is a sign of an impending burst of structured creativity and productivity, right? Go for it, Eero!

    1. I was thinking more that I’ll write and finish a bunch of essays, and get that crowdfunding thing out of the way, and then do more polls.

      It’s annoying how much stuff I have on the creative docket here, but the various summer stuff hasn’t been good for letting me write in peace. I probably should just plan for a formal summer sequester of some sort and not even try to maintain creativity. Everything gets super-charged in the Summer around here, what with the rural production machineries demanding attention, and the constant struggle against the jungle threatening to overgrow everything. After all the forestry, gardening and doing my part in the village community it’d take a more focused kind of person to also get any writing done.

      I’m hopeful that the darkness that’s creeping up now will leave me with the chops to do more than just run the Coup campaign and do quick attempts at the weekly newsletter. There’s a few housework projects still to be finished before the snows roll in, but the general level of activity has been petering out. For example, I finished moving my brother’s geek cruft library that got forcibly evicted earlier in the summer, and got it into sufficiently weather-resistance quarters for the winter, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

      No promises, because I’m evidently a giant flake, but perhaps we’ll get back on track in terms of productivity for the third trimester of the year.

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