Monsters & Madness: What the Moon Brings

O R'lyeh

In my original post I discussed a need to strike a balance between enmity and outright hatred. It’s alright to be at odds with another faction but I don’t want to have one group of PCs at another’s throats. I recognize this isn’t quite like the works of H. P. Lovecraft and his fellow writers, which normally focus on one or a group of ordinary people encountering something horrible and recoiling from it. Definite good guys and definite bad guys, just like D&D.

On the other hand, there’s always the secret sorcerer who hides his nature from the investigator at first or the rival cults of Cthulhu and Hastur who are at each others’ throats. There’s precedence, in other words, for the sort of campaign I’m envisioning in Lovecraftian works but there’s not necessarily a reason to stop there.

In this article, I want to flesh out the power structure in the game since that informs party balance and allegiances among the PCs. Ideally I’d like to have a party which is united not because of mutual trust and admiration, as in your average Dungeons & Dragons campaign, but by the lesser of evils when facing the truly horrific enemies that the DM sets in front of them. First, let’s figure out what we’re working with and then some idea of how to proceed might be clear.

Keep an Open Mind

When thinking about the sort of factions I’d like to see, I’m going to keep in mind a few archetypes outside of Lovecraft as well. The Fellowship of the Ring is a good one, an alliance of a Gondorian captain, a Northern Ranger, a Mirkwood elf, a dwarf from Erebor and several Shire halflings. For the most part they work together but the elf and dwarf would surely come to blows if not for the mitigating influence of their companions, and Boromir continually pushes the agenda of Gondor alienating and eventually assaulting his allies (with the help of Sauron, of course).

It’s also a standard trope of computer games to have tennuous alliances that can fall apart, especially anything produced by Blizzard. Warcraft and Starcraft both have alliances that seem like a good idea only because of a mutual enemy that pulls together an unlikely group of races and factions. Of course when that threat disappears it’s anyone’s guess how things will shape up.

An interesting variation on this theme is the Portal games which have opposing forces teaming up for a common purpose… only one has a secret agenda that it’s keeping from the other. If you’ve played D&D for more than a week you have probably run into the PC-with-a-secret gem already, which usually comes out at the least opportune time. In Monsters & Madness, get used to that game.

I also plan on looking to epic, political series for some inspiration, such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin’s now-infamous A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m more familiar with Jordan, but both author’s have rapidly changing alliances and power dynamics among the main characters a real threat of betrayal around every corner. The Wheel of Time series is even more interesting from this perspective because it has a very definite divide between “good guys” and “bad guys” (whereas Martin prefers the blurred grey morality of feudal nobility).

Nobody in Jordan’s series questions whether they should be fighting the Dark One or not, he’s a relentless force of destruction who’s ultimate goal is a destruction of not just the world but time and space themselves. However, people constantly argue about how to fight him and who should lead with what army or weapon. Worse still, some crackpots actually follow this crazed being and not a few of them are masquerading as allies for years before they’re discovered. Both of these elements deserve a prominent place in a game about betrayal and bone-chilling choices.

The Dark Powers that Be

The works of Lovecraft are filled with a tangled collection of beings, some powerful and some little more than servants. According to the Cthulhu Mythos, the powers of Lovecraft’s works can be divided into four categories.

The Great Old Ones are powerful and ancient beings that collect cults, though their power is limited to the planet or region where they live. The Outer Gods are more powerful, though their strength is spread throughout the cosmos with little direct influence. The Elder Gods are somewhat contentious among Lovecraft fans because they are often presented as “good,” though still inhuman and frightening, and are at odds with the Great Old Ones. The Great Ones are the gods of the Dreamlands and lack power, relying on protection from others to keep them safe.

The first thing to fix is that these names are far too similar for most players to keep straight. “Great Old Ones” and “Outer Gods” are different enough but “Elder Gods” and “Great Ones” share too much with them. One thing that comes to mind is that, removing the martial power source and the limited shadow power source, there are four spellcasting power sources for PCs. We can start by tying each of these categories to a power source, and the chart to the right immediately comes to mind.

Once I applied these categories to these power sources other things start to shake out. The Great Old Ones are the dominant figures in the literature so they are going to be the dominant power and their priesthood, wielding divine power, rules with an iron fist.

The Outer Gods are a little more nebulous and often connected with stars and fates, keeping arcane secrets and twisting reality. As an ancient power opposed to the Great Old Ones, the Primal Elders (renamed from Elder Gods) follow older traditions and are relegated to the wilderness.

Outside of what most consider “normal,” the Dreamlords (a more unique name for the Great Ones) are insidious and creep into mortals’ minds to gather insurance against any aggression against them. These powers have split up the planes as well, though their spheres of power overlap so as to create regions of contention. Mostly I’ve concentrated on the three “central” planes: the Shadowfell, the Feywild, and the mortal realm.

No one has a large claim on either the Astral Sea or the Elemental Chaos (for lawless zones where anything goes) and most heroes will be starting off in the lands of the Great Old Ones in the heroic tier, since I want them to be a major focus. Because it is so iconic to Lovecraft’s writing, I’ve also added the Dreamlands which I’m going to build up with elements borrowed heavily from Dal Quor in Eberron.

A Little Cold War Never Hurt Anybody

With all of these gods hanging around with dark agendas, it’s easy to see the game tipping in direction I’m concerned about. If someone in the party serves the Outer Gods and another serves the Great Old Ones, why should they work together? Wouldn’t they turn on each other and slit their companion’s throat in their sleep? Again, I’d like to ideally have that be a constant threat, but also an unrealized one. I have two strong tools for accomplishing this: detante and obscuring.

First of all, the enmity which each faction holds for the others is in the background, simmering and unlikely to erupt into violence unless provoked. Like the nationalist tensions in Eberron and Forgotten Realms or the rivalries between city-states in Dark Sun, the different sides of this struggle are content to sit and wait for the time being. Treaties have been forged, borders agreed to, and insurances taken.

It’s unlikely that a lowly adventurer would challenge the plans of the gods by stirring things up, unless a DM is so inclined and creates a situation where the status quo begins to break down. A servant of the Primal Elders and one of the Outer Gods may resent each other but they aren’t going to fight at every provocation. On the contrary, a canny wizard of Azathoth might see an opportunity to gather intelligence and a proud shaman of Vorvadoss may relish the chance to show up his master’s rival by demonstrating his strength. So long as I don’t reign things back so much that the threat is removed (which, after all, is the whole point) I should be alright.

The second tool in my arsenal is to provide opportunity for characters to hide their allegiance. Just as a Karrn can stow away his crest when entering Thrane in Eberron, it shouldn’t be impossible for characters in Monsters & Madness to hide their true colors when going into unfriendly territory.

Among the other party members this is accomplished by keeping the Cryptic Alliance cards (which I mentioned last time) a secret, so that players can have their characters be friends and have a reason for traveling together before everything that might drive them apart is on the table. In general, however, this means that the power source and faction match-ups are not universal but just tendencies. Most arcanists serve the Outer Gods, but anyone who assumes they all are is going to run into trouble quickly.

This will hold true for races as well (which we’ll see next time) who are normally devoted to a god of their favored faction but with many exceptions. Aside from giving players more flexibility in building their characters, this means that your elven swordmage is not going to get accosted if he walks into a town with a particular grudge… only if he walks into town proclaiming his patron supreme and all others insects before him. No one likes a braggart.

Next time, you can expect a discussion of race in M&M and the twists applied to each which makes them just familiar enough to understand but just different enough to freak out players. I’d love to have some feedback on the dark powers before we get too far, though. They’re a central facet of the game and if there are people out there with good ideas (for or against what I have so far) I’d love to hear them!