Monsters & Madness: (Mechanics) From Beyond

Eladrin Nethermancer by Mark Winter

So far in this series, I’ve outlined the cosmology of the setting and how the various races fit into that picture. I’ve been concentrating on very definitive aspects of this game because the concept was so large: a merger of Dungeons & Dragons and H.P. Lovecraft, two giants in the fantasy genre. I think that I’ve cemented the relationship between the two well and I have a strong concept of how it all fits together, including writing up some location descriptions to place some of Lovecraft’s infamous locales into a multi-plane setting which can be explored and which feels coherent.

I won’t pretend that world-building and description aren’t my favorite part of roleplaying. I’ve been the DM in my gaming groups more often than not and my biggest struggle in this position is to reign myself back and keep from getting too complex. My NPCs have histories and inter-relationships so that any tug on the web of the plot causes vibrations through the whole thing. Luckily I have a group right now that loves that sort of thing. For this setting, though, I need to think about the mechanical side of things as well as the fluff. It’s not enough to paint big pictures of Great Old Ones and foul cities of dark ritual and human sacrifice. This needs to feel like a different setting as much as Dark Sun does.

To achieve this, I have three different tactics for creating a Lovecraftian atmosphere in the game. First, I want to put some new twists on the classes available in D&D. I’m taking this cue from Dark Sun and Eberron, both of which different societies from the core setting and which have corresponding shifts in tone. Secondly, as I mentioned in the opening post, I’m going to merge the Gamma World mechanic of Cryptic Alliance cards into this game, though with a few adjustments to make them fit a little better. Lastly, I want to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and unclear allegiances so I’m going to expand the arcane defilement mechanics from Dark Sun to become a central feature of the setting.

Lovecraftian Classes

In my post on cosmology and the big picture, I matched up the dark powers with power sources for classes. From the start I’ve been thinking of these associations as design ideas rather than hard-and-fast rules. I don’t want every arcanist to be a servant of the Outer Gods, for example, just most. And if someone wants to play a druid, I don’t want them to feel like they have to ally themselves with the Primal Elders or else. I think an ideal situation would be an association strong enough that PCs encountering someone from a certain tradition jumps to conclusions but it doesn’t disrupt the setting or require complex explanations when they break the mold.

Looking at other campaign settings, I will rely on fluff rather than mechanics to achieve this. For example, inĀ Dark Sun most members of primal classes are wanderers from the desert who live outside of normal society. If a party walked into a trading enclave in Raam and found a barbarian covered in piercings and wielding a bone greataxe carved with tribal signs they would be surprised but not shocked. Maybe this trading company needs experienced caravaners handling all aspects of their business, or they only recently moved to Raam from a small desert village. The situation becomes even more nuanced when you consider the city-state of Gulg whose sorcerer-queen employs rangers and primalists almost exclusively. There a barbarian or shaman would be assumed to be part of the city’s elite rather than a scavenger on the fringes. With all of this background, though, an experienced player in the campaign setting who is told that the man they were looking for is a barbarian warrior can jump to certain conclusions with reasonable safety: this man is from the desert, perhaps a nomadic tribesman, and unlikely to think highly of cityfolk.

The same could in Eberron be said of necromancers (all from Kaarnath), druids (probably from the Eldeen Reaches), and others but I’m sure you all get the point. Following the model I’ve already run through for races, I think I’ll write up some lists of the classes associated with all of the different factions of dark powers. Each faction’s list will consist of the classes from their typical power source, at least one from each other power source, and any others I can think of. I’ll shoot for ten to twelve for each group so that the classes from the associated power source only make up about half of the list.

It’s also important to consider the martial and shadow power sources. Because I don’t want to tie any of the mystical factions to non-spellcasters I skipped the martial source originally. Likewise, the shadow power source is too small to be of much interest to most of the factions (I wouldn’t want to short-change someone) and all of the dark powers probably use the evil magicks of shadow equally. For this reason, these classes will be liberally scattered through the lists to provide some varied options for players.

You can download my class lists here.

Dark Allegiances

As soon as I saw the Cryptic Alliance cards in Famine in Far-Go, I thought it was a fantastic idea. The concept is that players start with a card which is secret from the rest of the party and during a fight they play it to give themselves an edge at the expense of others. This is perfect for Monsters & Madness, where I am calling them Dark Allegiance cards, and in fact the only problem is that it doesn’t go far enough. The ideal way I see things working follows this example scene. There is a party of adventurers, each from different regions and possibly even different planes. They meet up and go on an adventure during which they fight their way through horrible nests of spidery creatures that try their nerves. Arriving at the deepest chamber, in front of a maddening altar, they find themselves facing the largest spider in the nest. The Big Boss in other words. One of the characters directs her attention towards the others (playing his Dark Allegiance card) and uses this distraction to gain an excellent position. The others get mauled a little from this action but the player who revealed his loyalty gets a leg up and allows them to survive with everyone alive, which might not have been the case giving the rolls that night and the lingering poison effects from earlier chambers.

In this example, everything went right with the use of this card. It came out at a climactic moment, just as revelations about hidden loyalties should in a story worth its salt, and it created tension because the player revealing the card damaged his allies on the gamble that it would help the party out. It did so hopefully there aren’t too many hard feelings, but if it hadn’t then the paranoia and mistrust of the setting comes out (hopefully only in-character, of course). The trick is, though, that these allegiances, important as they are, had no real impact on the game (unless someone really played it up) before this scene and, now that it’s been played, the allegiance won’t come up again except that the player gets labled as “So-and-so’s minion” rather than only “George.”

I’d like to fix that so I’m adding in a mechanic called the Hidden Effect, a small benefit which the player gets while the card is unrevealed. It won’t be much, a +2 bonus to a skill or a reroll on a specific roll once in a while, but it will give the player some payback for picking a certain patron. This should also help to delay the reveal of cards a little so that it’s not a game of everyone revealing during encounter #1. It’s not a big sacrifice, but is this situation dire enough to reveal your allegiance and lose your +2 to Insight? Depends on what Dark Allegiance cards haven’t been played, your own plans as a character, etc. And now we’re getting somewhere.

My Dark Allegiance mechanics are still under development but you can check out a collection of beta cards here.

The Tempting Call of Cthulhu

Another game mechanic I’ll be stealing is that of arcane defilement from Dark Sun. This feature is an extra at-will power that lets an arcane caster reroll a bad d20 result on a daily power at the expense of his friends. All arcane casters get it free but it’s a gamble to use it because the benefit comes along with allies being damaged. Like the Cryptic Alliance cards, though, this doesn’t go far enough. Why should arcane magic users get all the fun, or magic users in general for that matter? I’m going to utilize the work of cleverer men than me and borrow the mechanics from Half-Orc Bard for his tempting magic subsystem. I can’t think of any improvement to his at-wills (though I might come up with a martial version) but I think there can be some further development. It would be great to see more of a sliding scale from the “casual” user of tempting magic to those consumed by it, even the Ravenous described in last week’s Eye on Dark Sun. Above I mentioned that Dark Allegiance cards needed a boost before and after the reveal, so maybe once you reveal you can make use of a further bit of tempting magic. If you reveal and you have access to the favored power source of your dark patron (divine for a Great Old One, psionic for a Dreamlord, etc) then you get access to another tempting power. The reasoning for this is to act as a mechanical counterweight to the class discussion above: I can freely associate classes with whatever group I like to give players options but if they pick a “typical” match-up then there’s a reason they work better. As in Dark Sun this is a system that just makes everyone more powerful across the board, and if you gain access to the third power you have more powers than everyone else. On the other hand, that third power is itself balanced because you have to damage your allies to use it, so I think we’re alright balance-wise.

My tempting magic powers are also still in beta, but here‘s the Arcane set as a preview.

So there we have it. I’m done with things for the players’ side of things and can start to smooth in all the cracks. There are still some items I have planned for DMs, which I’ll share next week, and then some resources for campaign-building on both sides of the screen which I’ll follow up with. In the meantime, please let me know what you think of the items here, particularly the mechanics. If you are anxious to see the whole thing put together, never fear! I’ll be assembling them all into a final pdf once all the I’s are crossed the T’s dotted. No… Wait, yes.