Games From Scratch: Monsters & Madness

Cthulhu by Eike Braselmann

A few weeks ago, Patrick started posting his efforts at creating a StarCraft RPG using Gamma World rules. His posts were great and I, as one of the new playtesters of his system, have definitely appreciated the rewards. It got me thinking, though, about what I’d like to do with a D&D or Gamma World hack. The answer came a few weeks after his posts began while I was listening to a podcast from recorded at an ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign. Listening to the chaotic fun as one of the characters succumbed to madness and proceded to plot against the others and run off with their travel bag of cash, I realized how fun this would be if they had broadswords and fireball spells.

This idle thought quickly took hold and the idea of what I like to call Monsters & Madness took hold. In this version of D&D, things are not always what they seem, the gods are cruel and exacting, and betrayal lurks in every eye, even those of your fellow PCs. This game will start with the Cthulhu mythos and end up in the Points of Light campaign of Dungeons & Dragons 4e. In this game, villages and cities are bastions of safety from marauding monsters and dangerous lands, but the people keeping the monsters out are cultists devoted to evil gods who might kill you anyways if you are not careful. Needless to say, I’m really psyched.

A Careful Balance

The trick with this project is going to be the balance between how closely I fit this into the worlds of both Dungeons & Dragons and the Cthulhu mythos. Obviously, if this is just Nerath with Cthulhu in R’lyeh rather than Asmodeus in the Nine Hells then we’ve got a problem. Similarly, if we have just a relabeling of everything in Lovecraftian terms with Gloomwrought set in the Plateau of Leng and Fallcrest huddled in the shadows of the Mountains of Madness then everyone will fall into the camps of confused or annoyed depending on how much of Lovecraft’s works they knew about beforehand.

Ideally we’d like to fall in this happy medium: everything from D&D and everything from Lovecraft’s novels should be able to be carried over in some form with minimal effort.

This is somewhat like the design philosophy made by the designers of the Eberron Campaign Setting, a world which is very different from Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms but which should have room for all the best parts of those settings anyways. How will we achieve this? By being vague.

Like the core setting, this is something which can be developed in bits and pieces at first and tied together into a holistic tapestry after we play around in it for awhile. This is helping me to net my first playtesters as they have the ability to forge this new world… provided they aren’t eaten by byakes.

Revenge is a Dish Best Served Mechanically

Because I want the themes of betrayal, revenge, treason, and other fun topics to be ingrained into this game, I need to make sure they are ingrained in the ruleset first. One way that I’ve already latched onto is the arcane defilement mechanic from Dark Sun.

Arcane spellcasters on Athas can take the easy way out with their spells and drain the land around them for energy, something which led to the initial destruction of the world. In game mechanics, they can get a free reroll on an arcane daily power by damaging their allies, a power bonus at the expense of friends. I want to expand this to everyone and the Half-Orc Bard has already done a great job of doing just that.

Another thing I’ll borrow is the Cryptic Alliance cards, introduced in the Gamma World expansion Famine at Far-Go. As they explain in the Wizards of the Coast preview, these “…are designed to be fun secrets that motivate the players to act against one another and reveal their hidden agendas during the game session. Each card provides a small benefit to the player, a penalty to his or her allies, or both. Within a few sessions, the secrets come out.” And once they do come out they involve hampering the other PCs while giving you a benefit to your own actions for the round or encounter.

These mechanics may seem petty and vindictive, sure to cause party strife if used a lot, and partly this is what I would love to see. In Monsters & Madness, players have to choose whether they will triumph over their enemies no matter the betrayals they face or take revenge on their fellow PCs at the risk of letting the ultimate foe succeed. However, it doesn’t need to be this way and in fact a party can use tempting magic and alliance cards to everyone’s advantage when the other players stoically put up with the penalty (whatever their characters may think) in order for one person to get the boost to firepower needed to put their attack over the top and thrash an important enemy.

The Enemy of My Enemy is… Probably Also My Enemy

The other item of balance and of party betrayals to keep in mind is that with all of these powerful entities that hate each other and want to destroy the world, at a certain point it becomes too much. There need to be some plausible explanations in the setting descriptions about why different characters would travel together and not kill each other, why they would serve such evil creatures even if they are not evil themselves, and why stay with someone once they have revealed themselves to be an enemy to your cause? While much of this can be reflected right back at the players and DMs, some of it should be premeditated.

As I write this, I’ll have to keep in mind that one can go too far. One of the inspirations for this game are the characters I’ve witnessed in Call of Cthulhu who very often have secrets they are keeping from each other. This is the goal, not party fractioning, and it’s important to remember that in this game I want players working towards the same goals in opposite ways, not opposite goals in the same way. That kind of thing is for NPCs and monsters… or PCs driven insane by Great Old Ones who are no longer fit to play.