Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Odd Dead

I've had an idea of how to play a ghost in Into the Odd. I started writing this post trying my best to keep to the minimalist aesthetic of ItO but I ended going on several wild tangents that led to a ranty manifesto about fantasy fiction in general. So moving on.

When you die with unfinished business, from certain oddities or simply without noticing it, you can become a ghost.
  • Ghosts don't have Strength or Dexterity scores. 
    • All rolls attempted with those abilities automatically fail. 
    • Impairments or damage to Strength or Dexterity do nothing to a ghost.
  • A ghost's Will score cannot be healed normally.
  • A ghost can come back from Critical damage after a couple of days, but not from hitting 0 Will.
  • Sleep, food, air, warmth and other biological problems no longer apply, but you loose 1 Will foe every day of strenuous activity since biology no longer repairs itself.
  • Ghosts can spend 1d4 Will to physically interact with the world or possess a target which get's a Will save to resist. Inanimate objects instead get a save based off their sympathetic relation to the ghost, with 10 being a casually known thing.
  • A ghost can gain 1 Will by draining, stealing or eating 1d6 Will from a target.
Nothing revolutionary here, but what happens if we swap around those attributes?
  • Zombies don't have Will or Dexterity scores. 
    • All rolls attempted with those abilities automatically fail. 
    • Impairments or damage to Will or Dexterity do nothing to a zombie.
  • A zombie's Strength score cannot be healed normally.
  • A zombie can come back from Critical damage after a couple of days but not from hitting 0 Strength.
  • Sleep, food, air, warmth and other biological problems no longer apply, but you loose 1 Strength foe every day of strenuous activity since biology no longer repairs itself.
  • Zombies can spend 1d4 Strength to woo someone with unnatural charms or make a target into a enthralled zombie upon critical damage. If the critical damage roll result is 15 or greater than new zombie is free to do what it wants.
  • A zombie can gain 1 Strength by draining, stealing or eating 1d6 Strength from a target.

  • Skeletons don't have Will or Strength scores. 
    • All rolls attempted with those abilities automatically fail. 
    • Impairments or damage to Will or Strength do nothing to a skeleton.
  • A skeleton's Dexterity score cannot be healed normally.
  • A skeleton can come back from Critical damage after a couple of days but not from hitting 0 Dexterity.
  • Sleep, food, air, warmth and other biological problems no longer apply, but you loose 1 Dexterity foe every day of strenuous activity since biology no longer repairs itself.
  • Skeletons can spend 1d4 Dexterity to apply a decent amount of force, or have their bones act while separated. Your bones can also be rearranged into novel body plans without spending anything.
  • A skeleton can gain 1 Dexterity by draining, stealing or eating 1d6 Dexterity from a target.
   My intention with this design is to offer an alternative to losing a dead character that doesn't cheapen the death of said character. The two ways I see this playing out is that either the undead character doesn't consume anyone and gets burnt out out eventually while allowing the rest of the pcs to complete the dungeon or they become a monstrous creature and that places a lot of interesting issues for players to deal with. Either of which would be a good result in my book. The former might be made more likely depending on how much a player misses being able to use all three attributes. 
In either case the hijinks factor of immunity to two of the attributes should be quite fun, except zombies end up getting a raw deal because strength is the most likely to be damaged and Dexterity is most likely to be saved for in a usual game. To that my answer is to allow zombies to form a horde, which is limited by horde always being blocked off by bad terrain and most of the zombies will have lower Str scores. If an enemy is ready for it, cover or elevated ground with copious amounts of fire should take care of the infestation.
   If applied to all undead in the setting, they will generally become more pathetic than threatening. Sometime even in a comedic way. I like this from a thematic perspective because it brings the horror of undead back where it belongs, to the fear of death and the absoluteness of entropy.
   I also vary deliberately avoid saying anything about the undead being inherently evil, simply because I feel that limits what you can do with them. The themes the undead revolve around include death, loss, the past's effect on the present, disease,entropy and humanities attempts to extend it's existence. There are a lot of interesting angles to work with here, beyond purging the world of abominations against nature. This is simply a personal preference, but I prefer all the characters in my fantasy to be sympathetic and someone you can talk to.

World Building Implications and additional ideas that fit in here:

  • People generally don't like walking corpses, because grandma eating you is worse than when a some wolf does it.
  • Being undead is unpleasant and people don't willingly do it without a damn good reason.
    • The undead are still who they were in life, but degrading on all levels, physical, mental, spiritual.
    • The undead will do things for their living friends and relatives.
  • The great hero who defeated many foes even after taking a lethal wound is technicality the same as the monstrous creature that gave up it's humanity and prowls at night for victims. Nobody wants to admit that.
  •  Some backwoods places have a tradition of where people sacrifice bits of themselves to their ancestors.
  • There are special drugs brewed from highly poisonous mushrooms that allow you to lose your attributes for a couple moments. Allowing you to use the abilities of death without the commitment. Those who use this concoction are commonly called Berserkers.
    • The most potent of these drugs destroys all three of your attributes, making you immune to all harm for a couple minutes. The only problem is that you irreversibly die afterwords.
  • There is a notorious thief out there that has never been caught. His secret is that he has a ghostly brother on his side.
  • The evil Mr.Chatter is a skeleton who has added a lot of bones to himself over the years, too many really. He has 18 Dexterity, a crocodile skull on one of his hands that does d8 damage and gambling addiction. He'd be quite the gentleman if it weren't for his terrible dread cackle and habit of stealing peoples bones in their sleep.
  • It isn't clear if a zombie, a skeleton and a ghost can simultaneously be created from the same person. The intellectual and spiritual authorities on the topic deny it, but there are rumors.
  • Since they fall to pieces if they move around to much, the unquiet dead are transported around the same way the quiet ones are. On a wagon, in coffins if budget allows.
  • Vampires are dead that have found the secret of effectively draining people, thus are able to pass off as human if well fed.
    • When a vampire drains, steals or eats from someone they get the full value of the die rather than just one.
    • Vampires can drain the other two attributes instead of just the one. However when these attributes are damaged they loose at least half of it rounded up.
      • So if a skeletal vampire with 10 Str takes 2 damage it will go up to 5 and if they take 6, it will stay at 6.
    • Vampires can pass off as living humans if all their attributes are high enough, even if they are usually a skeleton or ghost underneath.
  • Lichs hide parts of themselves in phylacteries, as long as it remains unbroken the lich is static and eternal. Should it break the lich dies instantly.
    • As long as their phylactery is whole, a selected attribute of the lich will never change in any way. If broken, the selected attribute is instantly vanished as well.
    • Lichs are not able to change or adapt without messing with their phylactery. Which caries the risk of killing them. Changing opinions is like performing open heart surgery on yourself and forming new habits is that on top of what humans already have to do.
    • As such liches range from are either barely functioning old people or omnicompetent super geniuses who have thought of everything in advance, there is no middle ground.
      • In the worst cases they are both.
  • Some unquiet dead have a a remaining Dexterity attribute but are more spectral than skeletal. They lack both a body and a will but they still have their movement about them. They are poltergeists and whispering winds. You can only see them by their remaining shadow or the glint of an eye that isn't there. They can be slain if you are able to restrict their movement.
    • I decided to go with skeletons as the player option to make each type have their own distinct thing.
    • It's known that when someone dies on a phantom steed, they will become this kind of spook.
      • There is a debate on if phantom steeds are themselves a kind of dead or a manifestation of the platonic ideal of SPEED. Studying them is difficult because they keep running away.
  • Undead armies! 
    • Zombie infantry!
    • Ghost scouts and spies!
    • Skeleton rangers and shock troopers!
    • Living officers, because they don't have to worry about falling apart.
    • A culture that believes that death is no excuse for being lazy.
  • The undead don't have to sustain themselves on people, animals also have meat, bones and a spirit. The undead that do however become gain animalistc features and behaviours.
    • There is a group of vampires who deliberately eat certain animals so they can have their features, either because they idolize those animals or for a fashion statement.
    • Now you know why the pale thing in the sewers has a rats tail and whisker-like mustache.
  • Corpse Bride style towns of the dead exist, except they are generally more lethargic and slower paced, as there is no rush and rushing around will shorten you death span.
    • Some cultures have festivals once a year where the dead literally rise up from the grave to visit their living family like Dias Los Muertos. In these places, the towns of the dead have been deliberately built to house everyone's extended family.
  • There is a specter stumbling across the waste, with tattered clothes and sun bleached bones. An old bag filled perturbs his gait, as useless boots get scratched on stones. And a quite mutter escapes those teeth, he repeats his mantra again, again, like he's spirit is kept alive by the sounds. "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds"
    • 6 Dex, 0 HP
    • The pcs can just tip him over and take his bag, he's too weak to resist.
    • His bag contains old letters, and not much else. It could contain interesting adventure hooks, tidbits of flavor information, tragic stories or what have you.
    • If snapped out of his daze the specter may ask the party to lend him some of their strength(dexterity actually) so he can make the final leg of the journey. He has nothing to offer you, except a speech about the importance of delivering mail and an appeal to moral ideals.
    • He will fight tooth and nail to keep he's bag if force is used to take it from him, you don't need to bother rolling damage, he can't do anything.
    • If he thinks your also a postman and is convinced to swallow he's pride for the greater good of completing the rounds, he will give you the bag with directions to it's destination and peacefully crumple into dust.
   I'll stop there, as I could go on endlessly coming up with cool tidbits and spin off new tangents. Almost of of it is a remix, reinterpretation or riffing on already existing ideas, either from other rpgs or other media. While I initially wrote this in a stream of consciousness kind of way, I have assigned a purpose onto onto this after the fact. The purpose is to create a good fantasy world that is both fun to play in and results in cool stories. One of the central pillars of any fantasy is how the magic works, and equally importantly what we understand about how the magic works. If put on a scale, there are two poles, on one is is we have complete systematization of the magic world, this can often lead to a world where the magic is banal and boring, many versions and variations of D&D have is problem I could go into detail but I'm lazy so here's a post where the issue is explained among other things. On the other end of the spectrum we have magic that is completely unexplainable and undefined. This approach has merit but it's not something you can experiment with to achieve something, a core part of OSR playstyle (arguably as OSR is vague term). So what I want is something in the middle. Coherent rules that have sufficient predictability that you could come up with hi-jinks but still have the flexibility to have unknowns that aren't accounted for. When you see something zombie, you can be fairly confidant that it is perpetually decaying and that it will be incredibly clumsy, and you can literally smell the decay on the zombie and you can see that the pieces needed for coordinated movement hanging out, it makes sense. However you can't be complacent about your zombie knowledge because sometimes life throws you a curveball and you see a zombie running at you from across a tight rope, and you have to adapt. Maybe you need to reevaluate what you know about zombies or ask if this is really a zombie and not someone in convincing make-up. There is an interesting conflict at play here, something to think about, and choices you need to decide before you receive a perfectly executed somersault to the face.
    I think that this is a good area for a fictional world to be at because it speaks to how our world works. The rules we live by are fairly reliable but not infallible. The more you find out about the world, the more you see what you don't understand, there are intricate details and complicated systems, there are atoms spinning with unknown particles, two lethal poisons somehow combine into salt a resource vital for life, and I don't know where to start on how complicated animals are, we do not fully understand how even our own brains work. All those things are also interconnected, and interact with each other, weave between, push and pull on each other. You can connect any human endeavor with another by some common feature, each natural phenomenon is tangentially connected to all the others and it is so big and complicated and always changing in brilliant whirls and swirls that we can't precisely grasp.  But we can grasp some understanding, and we can use that to get something done that we couldn't before we sort of understood. It's amazing, exhilarating, terrifying and awe inspiring. That is something I want to capture that magic of discovery in fiction, that slow creep towards knowing and the shenanigans that happen along the way.

Did I mention none of the game rules here have been playtested at all?

"Secret Lore":
Here are ideas that would be hidden information within the setting, secrets players could figure out themselves from observing the game world. Now I don't have a specific campaign or players to hide this from and OSR blogs are mostly viewed by GMs so the chance of accidentally ruining close to none, but better safe than sorry.
  • There is a monastery fortress that holds a great treasure, it is guarded by immortal guardians in armor without eye slits. Nobody is able to best them in battle.
    • The secret of these soldiers is that they are ghosts who trained in life for this role. Their bodies are puppets made with their own bones and belongings for the strongest sympathetic link. Each guardian has partnered monks who channels their Will to their guardians threw meditation. They regularly switch shifts to allow for rest and recuperation. In combat the guardians are basically impervious to all physical attacks, but will sloppily pretend that they aren't and avoid using ghosty powers to keep up the charade. They are safe from harm as long as they have connection with their monks that are safely hiding behind the walls of the monastery. Those with mystical vision are able to see a cords of energy that lead to the monks. If you figure out that the guardian can only be harmed thought their Will, it will take several rounds for more monks to arrive and bolster the guardian, unless all of them are occupied with something else.
    • I'll eventually write up this monastery as a dungeon.
  • Anyone can turn undead, all it requires is confidence in your own authority to turn undead and yelling.
    • This is because zombies and skeletons have no Will, thus they don't get any save when they are yelled at and will instinctively turn the other direction.
    • Ghosts do have Will to resist being yelled at, but stressing them out is also how you vanquish them.
    • Do not tell this to the PCs thought, include wards, charms and holy symbols at various price ranges in the game and tell them they are used to ward off the dead. The power of these artifacts is a placebo effect to both the dead and the living, as everyone knows that the certain important symbols and holy words can do this.
      •  A symbol or charm will always work if the it's part of the undead's culture and they feel guilty or wrong for being  unholy abominations against nature.
      • The undead gets a save if they only one of the above applies, the symbol or charm is from a different culture but still obviously intended to ward off the dead.
      • If the undead is shameless and/or doesn't recognize the power of the charm they don't need to save against it.
    • Peasants usually use their local charms to defend themselves. Nomads, sailors and other traveling folk pick up a various trinkets from the various cultures they visit, at least the ones who believe in ghost stories.
    • There are people who know this truth, most of them are sorcerers, religious figures and other mystics that have a professional interest in keeping it hidden. As so much of that trade relies on placebo.
      • This is fantasy, so the line between placebo and supernatural powers is none existent. Most mystics would probably frame this in terms of belief and will power being able to change the world.
        • This thread of thought has tumbled away from the topic of the undead, put a pin in it, as this deserves it's own post.
      •  You also don't want the dead to know that they can just stop fearing wards and charms, those things are a major advantage against them.

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