New on Desk #77 — Spirit Questing

The week has been a diffuse combination of distractions for me, jumping from one thing to another. Not the most effective, but at least I’ve managed to get some sleep. The newsletter is in time for a change, too, assuming I won’t take the next two days writing this up. I even got a pretty good topic.

Heroquesting in D&D

I wrote a bit about astral adventuring some months back, when we were dipping our toes into it in our D&D campaign. The development cycle back then first and foremost concerned free maneuver astral travel, the question of how to organize the faerie realm of dreams and ideas into a coherent world exploration procedure.

It’s amusing how little I thought about it back then, but this week I realized that I already have a structural framework for a kind of spirit questing in my D&D toolbox, have had since the early ’00s and getting into King of Dragon Pass: said video game revolves heavily around the particular Gloranthan brand of spirit questing magic, laying out a strong case for one particular strategy in making such content gameable. The Heroquest (the Gloranthan tabletop rpg developed concurrently with KoDP, known as Hero Wars back then) materials on heroquesting have since been in consistent concord with the video game’s approach to how to even present spiritual vision quests as gaming material.

(Yes, I know that KoDP got the technique from Stafford’s earlier works, the lineage is pretty clear when you look at Pendragon and even Runequest. I didn’t get into those myself back then, though.)

I’ve been actually doing heroquest-style spirit quests in D&D ever since learning the technique from KoDP; I can remember how such quests were pretty big turning points in some of our adventures in ’03 and ’04 in Helsinki. It’s a consistent, productive approach to structuring a spiritual quest adventure; I particularly appreciate the potential it has challengeful gaming in that success on a heroquest relies so heavily on the player’s cultural literacy skills. It’s a distinct subgame to introduce into a D&D campaign.

The big distinction between the “astralcrawl” that I was working on in the winter and the heroquesting approach is that heroquests are “guided” multiple choice events with hard scene framing: instead of organic wandering with random encounter tables, mapping and lack of plot, a heroquester is swept along by the ritual logic if their own entry into the astral plane: the purpose of your journey defines the path, and the choices made along the way determine the risks and rewards of the process. Characters risk spiritual and magical losses, up to death or worse, but may also make great gains by interacting with potent supernatural entities in a ritual context more circumscribed than your usual dungeon crawl.

Challenge-oriented wargaming D&D tends to use organically interactive maneuver processes for advancing the state of the game, so the heroquesting method based on waystations (framed decision points) and decision-making nearly multiple choice in nature is rather alien, making for a distinct difference in the feel of the game. The player sets up the spirit quest by establishing the ritual magic tech, purpose and merit (the magical justification of why the quest is a thing) of the quest, but after that their decision-making is harshly constrained, as the quester is helpless to resist the narrative logic of the astral forces they have unleashed; the best you can hope to do is to follow the mythic storyline in a correct (advantageous to yourself) way, pulling the right levers on the way to come out with success.

D&D doesn’t have a traditional spell for this, by the way, but I’d call it a 4th level one, Launch Spirit Quest. It’s distinct from the traditional astral travel spells (planewalking, astral projection and plane shifting) in sort of being a lesser version of astral projection: the character does get astrally projected, it’s just that they’re also bound into a specific ritual context instead of becoming a free-range spirit. (The mechanical construction of the Coup campaign often has an use for spellifying things; it’s not intended to imply that you need to be a wizard of so-and-so level to do this thing. Characters can enact spells in a wide variety of ways.)

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #27

I’m obviously discussing heroquesting there because we got to do some of that in the campaign this week. Let’s see how that came about in practice:

Last week our face-to-face Coup campaign started a new adventure, in the Tomb of Ikari Slaggoth (a minor adaptation of The Hidden Tomb of Slaggoth the Necromancer). The conceit is that with the Tournament of Fear quickly approaching, a couple of the PCs are trying to crash enter the potent Blackguard character class by holding a prayer vigil at the tomb of the greatest blackguard ever, the Praetor General Ikari Slaggoth. Reputed to have slain Wastri the Hopping Prophet 200 years ago, the manliest fascist ever.

In the last session we saw the party penetrate about halfway into the caverns beyond which the hidden tomb was reputed to lie. Good dungeoneering play, but the players were also failing to initiate diplomatic procedures with the goblins and ogres hanging out in the caverns, which means that with every step they were more and more committed to the military solution in reaching the actual tomb. Not necessarily a problem, except in that the adventure module is notable in being crazy linear combined with utterly lethal tactical set-ups. We got a taste of that last session with the rope bridge guarded by an ogre and a ballista, and that’s not nearly the worst the army veteran ogres running the place have to offer.

The team lost Kratos, one of their precious 2nd levelers to the ballista at the end of the last session, but as we pushed on their fortunes improved. The players are fairly paranoid about being surprised from the rear, which tends to translate into a combination of branch completionism (choosing to brush through every nook and cranny of the dungeon) and consistent back guarding. Here the team managed to thread the needle by choosing not to brush the lethal pond room with its mysterious and strategically irrelevant denizens, while nevertheless successfully rolling over a second bunch of goblins instead of leaving them to cause trouble in their back. This meant that they went into the lethal crossbow corridor from a fairly strong position.

The “crossbow corridor” was a tunnel of nooks barricaded by crossbow-wielding goblins; another tactically challenging situation to be sure. The adventurers walked into the ambush pretty easily here, but quickly retreated and organized for an old-fashioned charge to take over one of the barricades. They continued having sufficient force to overcome these goblin defenders with acceptable losses, except this time a stray hit from a desperate goblin took Lalli the knight-candidate in the leg, causing him to suffer some sort of hip injury.

The party didn’t really care about the nameless PC who got his face bitten off by a goblin in that same skirmish, but Lalli going down was bad; he’s been established as the golden boy of Sinister Thaal, the grandmaster of the Order of Fear. Getting him successfully initiated into the Blackguard class was pretty much the purpose of the entire adventure. The nominal leader of the quest, Piällikkö the Blackguard, was rightly concerned about his personal safety if he came back from the quest without Lalli.

Motivated by the setback, Piällikkö engaged in extended negotiations with the goblins, conducted by shouting around tunnel bends. While the goblins were understandably leery of the intruders, their murderous ways, and their let’s say notably fascist diplomatic tones (the players actually get into character here pretty well), they were also keen to stop the utterly lethal assault on their hideout, so negotiations proceeded sufficiently to establish contact with the ogre leadership cadre of the denizens.

Here Thaal’s prior relationship to the Tomb paid off in spades, as the party found out that the goblins were ruled by a trio of ogres who once were (presumably human) soldiers in Thaal’s independence war army, back when he still was part of Sunndi’s state establishment. Piällikkö himself had some memory of meeting with these fellows back then, as he himself was squiring for Thaal during the war. So there was some common ground to work on in terms of diplomacy.

The party had earlier dispatched Kerg the ogre, which could have been an issue, but we found that Ragnef the Ash Maker not only remembered Piällikkö from the war, but also didn’t mind that much about Kerg; the two had been competing suitors for the favours of their overall leader, Raxia the Marrow Muncher, so removing Kerg from the picture seemed like a good thing to Ragnef. Besides, he liked the “earnest boy” that he remembered Piällikkö being.

The diplomacy ultimately folded out pretty clearly: the ogres didn’t mind that much about the goblin-slaughter that’d been going on, goblins being quick to replenish and generally non-essential. They did insist on their ownership of the Tomb, however, and as the party hadn’t exactly maneuvered to gain their favour (rather the opposite; Raxia might not have liked Kerg’s death as much as Ragnef did), Raxia wasn’t about to let them into the Tomb for free.

Raxia’s demands boiled down to one of two options: either a 100 GP per head entry toll for the Tomb, or the party could win her favour by slaying Krekklefeets the Spider King for her. Having made some acquaintance with said monster earlier, the party wasn’t particularly keen on that, but they didn’t exactly have the gold either. Piällikkö showed his greatness here by negotiating for deferred payment: they’d get Lalli (and an assist, as he couldn’t walk unaided now) into the Tomb now, and Piällikkö would remain hostage afterwards while the rest of the party went back to the Temple and got the money from Thaal. Lots of faith in the process there from Piällikkö, I have to say.

Anyway, the adventure had finally reached its actual goal, with Lalli and his newly elevated aide (an unnamed PC squire of the Order, freshly brewed to replace the chasm-diving Kratos) entering the Tomb together while the rest of the party were left out, waiting for them to return. This would ordinarily be a pretty risky play, as most D&D tombs tend to be hellish crypt-mazes full of dangerous undead, but here it worked out reasonably well: the Tomb of Slaggoth isn’t very large, and doesn’t have major dangers in it.

While the party’s earlier diplomacy play might have been a tad on the blunt side (they only ever grew interested in attempting diplomacy with the dungeon denizens after they started losing), the puzzle play was on point: Slaggoth’s Mirror Room proved no obstacle, the players correctly deciphering the clues collected earlier in the caverns to discover the secret entrance to the crypt proper. They weren’t the most observant about the circumstances, perhaps, neatly ignoring the wall mosaics that might have provided further hints to the past of the Tyrant Mistress, but who needs hints anyway when going spirit questing.

Once at the crypt, the actual purpose of the adventure could finally be accomplished: Lalli, and his freshly baked co-initiatorist no-name (really, Lalli was being aided here by an elevated henchman; at least all the henches in this project are indeed squires preparing for their own knighthood) wasted no time sitting down and starting a prayer vigil when they discovered the true resting place of Ikari Slaggoth. Lalli’s being seriously injured wasn’t making him any favours here, and they couldn’t stay at the crypt forever; as it was, they had to soon allow the torches to go out and hold their vigil in darkness, lacking the luxury of lanterns.

Our spirit quest experience

The players knew little of what to expect here, aside from having to hold a successful vigil, which required a simple WIS check over an extended period of time. This took a while for both of the vigilers, but with the lack of food and water making them light-headed, ultimately succeeded.

First to go was Lalli, who found himself spiritually transported to the dimly lit, vast yet constraining astral medium that surrounds and embeds the dreaming domain of the Tyrant Mistress. The Mire of Chaos has limited visibility and not much to be seen, and the traveler is forced to keep moving less they sink deeper into the boggy ground. There is nothing to struggle against, no dramatic broil. Just the mire.

As Lalli entered the Mire from the Tomb, he soon found his way to a petty promontory of rock, barely fit for one person to stand upon, and therein Ikari Slaggoth, the pale specter — astral figment, in all likelihood — of the legendary warrior. Armed in full panoply, she stood there, defending her claim to what might be the only place of stability in the Mire.

Lalli, steadily sinking, tried to fight the Tyrant Mistress for a stable foundation. He was found hopelessly weak, however, and would only get struck down once and again for his efforts. Instead of seeing what would happen in total HP loss Lalli tried submission next; paying abject obeisance to the Mistress, Lalli begged her for security and protection against the ever-greedy mire. Ikari Slaggoth heard Lalli’s pleas and allowed him to crawl upon the promontory, finding his place at her feet. Thus was society formed, by the weak submitting to the strong for protection. Lalli had to give up 50% of his experience points total to the Tyrant Mistress as tribute, though.

The other PC, who I think really doesn’t have a name yet, was a teenage squire of the Order of Fear, so much more doctrinally initiated than Lalli. He also managed to vigilize himself into the astral space some time after Lalli, finding himself in the Mire of Chaos. Having a firmer background in the Order’s particular brand of crazy, though, the boy noticed the far flickering Yellow Light as it penetrated the eternal gloom of the Mire, and decided to follow that. (Sort of missed Ikari Slaggoth’s Pillar of Stability in favour of this other spiritual good, the kernel of which he’d carried here himself.)

The squire ultimately found his way to a crossing, the place where the Mire gives out to Lake Hali. His spiritual perception could not quite make out the City beyond. The Yellow Light could be seen flickering out there beyond the Lake, though. What to do? The player (a clever git, he) sort of picked up on various subtext in the way I described the situation, and apparently the Yellow Light is pretty sus despite it being the actual devil patron of the Order of Fear. The squire would have rather discovered Ikari Slaggoth, I think.

The player had the confidence here to take an empty beat in the spirit quest (sinking further into the Mire, exhausting themself by 1 HP), allowing the character to stand still and perceive any further clues to the spiritual nature of the situation. So of course they rolled a critical success on the WIS check, leading to a bit of an info dump on the nature of Lake Hali and the Mire of Chaos. The squire attained the “Mystery of Violence”, a type of intuitive knowledge that would probably be more useful for a spellcaster or some such, but maybe we’ll figure out some use for it later. (It’s the origin myth of the Mire of Chaos, basically, and therefore the key to the ethos of Ikari Slaggoth’s particular brand of Blackguard mysticism.)

The squire also heard the Call of Wastri resounding barely at the limit of hearing, like an ancient echo, perhaps hinting at yet another hero path accessible from the Mire.

After being illuminated by sitting in the rusty mire, the squire chose to forgo questing for the Yellow Light, and instead outright returned to the Mire, desirous of meeting with Ikari Slaggoth. Apparently the Sinister Thaal has trained his boys well when it comes to Fearing the Yellow Light. Sort of foundational for the Order of Fear, that.

Another hit point was expended in searching, but when we again found our way to the Pillar of Stability, instead of Ikari Slaggoth alone the squire discovered an entire palace built upon firm foundations of stone, monopolizing what non-sinking real estate there was to be had. Lalli had been promoted into a portier in Ikari Slaggoth’s budding civilization, and as PCs won’t trouble PCs (it’s the PC code, yo!), gaining audience with the Tyrant Mistress was easy.

I got the impression that the players liked the spirit quest stuff, but they were also so thoroughly spooked at this point that the squire didn’t waste any time asking Ikari Slaggoth for the same deal Lalli got: submission in exchange for a place under her. This being the sort of easy way, and the CHA check being favourable (these Order fellows generally have high CHA, it’s the Blackguard prime requisite), Ikari Slaggoth accepted her second follower of the day.

This was a relatively simple spiritual quest, although lacking foreknowledge of what they would face surely made it more difficult for the initiates than it needed to be. They successfully charted their way into honorable service and spiritual bondage with the Tyrant Mistress, which is I suppose a sort of minimal success outcome here. Losing 50% of the XP count was harsh on Lalli, who lost ~1500 XP, but the player seemed to be more than happy about having succeeded in something that with different dice and choices could have ended in death.

Forgot last week: Eulogy for Kratos

Well, not really so much forget as I simply didn’t have time for it. The newsletter was pretty half-assed as it was, and came out like 30 hours late. One of the things I wanted to write was a short eulogy for Kratos the unfortunate Fighter who perished in the quest to become a Blackguard. Getting to 2nd level is rare enough as it is, I should make a point of it when one of the greats passes.

So, Kratos… he was a basic Fighter, a callous fellow who joined the Beast Society to further himself at the expense of others. The player’s new to tabletop RPGs, and Kratos was his first character in the campaign. Took to the form like fish to water, I have to say; very cogent play from day one. His very first maneuver in the campaign was to ask whether his character could have a special thing, a fancy sword. Yes Kratos, you could indeed have a fancy sword as your inheritance. And yes, by all means suffer from chronic alcoholism if you’d like. I always like to see players enjoy the game, nothing wrong with giving your character a bit of flair.

So Kratos, unlike many others in the cadre, survived the Crawling God and the journey to the Temple of Doom, and further adventures therein. His classic gag was that he had this obviously fancy sword with a mysterious past, and he would show it to any wise-seeming fellow adventurers in the hopes of somebody being able to tell him what it was about. Maybe it was magical? Nobody ever could, the players seemed to have cursed dice when it came to that sword.

Kratos was one of the two Beast Society members who Magister (going by “Cultist” back then) sold to his old master Sinister Thaal as a prospective member of the Order of Fear. While Thaal treated Kratos badly and verily attempted to break his spirits, this was surely merely because Kratos needed to train a couple of points of CHA to qualify to become a Blackguard, so really Thaal was merely acting out of love. Otherwise Kratos fit in among the children Thaal’d had kidnapped for his chivalric order swimmingly, at least once he had the alcoholism beaten out of him. Good Fighter stock, solid physical stats.

In one of their adventures, the party leaned rather boldly forward in trying to steal the Fetish of Grandi, leading them on a mad-cap race through the dangerously active Grandicomb crypts. I was pretty sure that meeting an actual Wraith would be the end of that particular adventure, what with their immunity to weapons and soul drain and such. However, what happened instead was that we discovered that Kratos’s mystery sword was indeed magical: when Kratos struck the insubstantial wraith with it and fumbled the attack, the sword exploded. Lucky damage rolls had Kratos survive while the wraith was dispersed in the magical explosion. The party never found out what was the deal with the sword, so maybe it was a Sword of Undead Explosion?

So Kratos was responsible for Magister’s success in the fetish affair. Later on he also distinguished himself at the Isle of Dread, witnessing the majesty of many dinosaurs and therefore reaping the only kind of experience points available at the Isle. Kratos survived the ill-conceived expedition to contact a lost civilization in the interior of the Isle and returned to the Temple of Doom a leaner, meaner, 2nd-leveler Fighter, very much ready to become a Blackguard and amaze everybody with how very fascist he could be.

As so often happens in D&D, Kratos’s ambitions and dreams got handily cut short by a ballista bolt. (Actually not that common. I think I’ve seen somebody get killed by a ballista only once before over the last decade.) Time will tell whether he’ll be more remembered for being an ogre-tipper or a ballista victim.

Monday: Coup de Main #50

Meanwhile the day before, the online Coup celebrated the Anniversary Jubilee with a basic dungeon crawl. Pleasant core activity stuff at the Castle Greyhawk. I don’t know what it is that causes the Monday group with a far more experienced crew to end up running much more basic dungeon crawling than the Tuesday group.

The first hour of the session was spent in the Great Boar Debate, a strategic discussion of what to do with the Double Boar Threat hunkering down in one of the remote corners of the so-far mapped dungeon floor. The boars could sneak up on us at the worst possible time, so maybe we should attack first? But then again, they’re clearly terrible foes! Gotta play this smart.

Ultimately the party decided to table the boar question on the premise that if they explore in the opposite direction, surely the boars won’t reach them. The happiness was tangible when the party actually found some open pits in the dungeon, all the better to avoid the fearsome boars on the other side.

After the Boar Debate we did pretty normal dungeoneering for the rest of the session. Encountered a small crew of goblins with an impressive poison gas trap and a couple of butch hobgoblin leaders. Some minor PC casualties, but overall not much danger. Not much treasure, either, but that seems to be the general theme here in the Castle dungeons.

Actually the biggest development of the session occurred when at the very end I did some random encounter rolls and discovered that the elven prince Viusdul Daro (from back in session #65), with his merry band of elves and kidnapped player characters, had stumbled on the Barbican! That’s probably what we’ll deal with first thing next time we play.

Session #51 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 21.6., 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.

Reading stuff: The Great American Novel

I’ve been so unproductive that it’s questionable whether I should spend time on any extra writing, but part of why I’ve been so unproductive over the last couple of weeks is no doubt about The Great American Novel, so it’s only fair to document what I’ve been reading lately.

The GAN is a hilarious literary criticism website dedicated to arguing that the Fantastic Four comic book is the Great American Novel. I assume that if you’re in the target audience cross-section of litcrit + superheroes, that already told you everything you need to know. The author, Chris Tolworthy, is an absolute gem; when it comes to art criticism, I’m very much in favour of this sort of intelligent, constructive commitment to creative opinion. It does help that I pretty much agree with him about Marvel comics having turned to shit around the early ’90s, but even if I didn’t, I’d still prefer this kind of active cognitive participation in the cultural dialogue over merely consuming content like a good little consumer.

Just a few examples of what amazing efforts at secondary creation await on the bottom of this particular rabbit hole:

Strident realist soap opera theory of superhero comics. Tolworthy argues a theory of what good Marvel comics were like, and what changed creatively later on: real issues, real time, no status quo. It’s basically the sort of complete literary theory that you can seize upon and use as the basic for a rpg if you’d like.

Amazing fan theories. Tolworthy totally convinced me that Johny Storm (Human Torch) is actually the secret son of Sue Storm (Invisible Woman), instead of her brother as commonly understood. Makes perfect sense in the historical context, so let’s go with that, moving forward.

An issue by issue literary criticism of the entire run of Fantastic Four. Or the first 30 years of it, anyway, as the critical edifice here considers the Great American Novel to have ended around issue #333 or so. Spoilers: the novel isn’t about family, as you might have heard the old wisdom about F4; rather, it’s about American identity. Skrulls are the Russians, Inhumans are Chinese.

Huge amounts of fun little tidbits from the comics. Really, all the little observations about the weirdness over the decades of F4 production alone make this a worthwhile read. I’m pretty well read in superhero comics myself, but it’s more breadth than depth, and I never was an American style comics geek, so having a true scholar of the subject matter argue things out in detail is an absolute treat.

Diegetic explanation of what killed the Marvel Universe. A man of culture could probably guess that Inferno had something to do with it, but unless you’re big into the Fantastic Four you might not have realized that Franklin Richard is the one-size-fits-all explanation for why the comics suck nowadays. It’s moderately epic, even, and I like how lovingly Tolworthy imagines a future where all the retconning goes away once Franklin grows up. Fun stuff.

Tolworthy’s website actually does a good job of motivating me to read some more Fantastic Four. I’ve read some fairly long stretches in my time, but unlike e.g. X-Men, I think my general exposure has been somewhat spotty. There’s probably good stuff out there I haven’t seen.

While GAN itself is a formidable chunk of reading (it’d be a book if it wasn’t a website), I also found the time to read The Case for Kirby from the same author. It’s basically more of the same brand of hardcore superhero comics scholarship, so the sort of thing I read for leisure. Here the premise is that Tolworthy is going to prove in excruciating detail why Jack Kirby should actually be considered the creator of the entire Marvel Universe, instead of that conniving business leech Stan Lee. (If you didn’t understand the premise because those names don’t say anything, this book is probably not for you.) The first ~100 pages of the book consist of a page-by-page analysis of Fantastic Four #1 to demonstrate Kirby’s decisive role, and it only gets better (yes, I mean “deeper in the rabbit hole”) from there.

The best part is that I wasn’t really aware in the past about there apparently being an entire scene of this kind of decisively free-thinking superhero comics hobbyism out there; Tolworthy isn’t the only one doing this stuff, I spent a fair amount of time this week reading The Original Marvel Universe, a laborious attempt at building a real-time timeline of the events in the Marvel Universe. This is actually pretty much 98% exactly what I need for a gaming project I’ve been mulling over for a few years, so it’s great to see somebody’s done all the leg-work already.

State of the Productive Facilities

Haw haw, I’ve gotten diddly done this week. Second week in a row without appreciable gains in writing. In my defense… I guess all the sports, swelter and social commitments just distract from routines enough to leave me doing nothing. I feel like I’ve been spending a lot of time staring at the ceiling (or rather, watching competitive Tetris esports; same dif), unwinding and trying to stay out of the exhausting gaze of the merciless daystar. At least I feel pretty energetic in a way that may indicate productive events in the coming days, assuming I don’t get distracted again.

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