19 September 2022

Sign Me Up, Sarge!

 So ... I’m going outside my old player base for new players for the first time in a good while.  And it strikes me that here’s the best spot to go into my style and philosophy as a GM, to give those interested a handle on what they can expect ...

* I run 4th edition GURPS, but with a significant “but!”  Effectively I run GURPS Lite; I’m not going to slow up play fishing for book modifiers each and every time someone uses a skill.  You’re climbing up that brick wall in dry weather using a knotted rope, lightly encumbered?  Alright, just give me a Climbing roll at -1.  You’re doing that with an 80-lb pack, without a rope, on a cliff face, in an ice storm?  Damn, it’s your neck, but if you’re really feeling suicidal, give me three.  (Code for roll 3d6.  The book mods for those, for what it’s worth, are -2 and -8, respectively.)  There are rules from earlier editions I use – the big ones are in missile rules and in the cost of attributes – and I’ve a handout of itemized houserules.

* I have a dense, gritty setting.  It’s a Renaissance tech fantasy world, very loosely based on Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot/Scorpio series.  It is now getting into the Gunpowder Age.  Realism is a hallmark of Celduin, and you won’t see magical streetlights, orcs carrying hundreds of gold pieces or flying cities.  “High” fantasy this is not.  You can dive as deeply or as shallowly into my setting materials as you like, but someone who understands (eventually) what a “paktun” or an “amak” is, or the gravity of calling the clerical type in the red and grey robes a coward, will get a lot more out of my game.

* We have a collegial, laid-back atmosphere with a bit of socialization and digression – someone expecting wall-to-wall Action!!! will be disappointed.  (Then again, someone who can’t hack two hours of rip-roaring combat will be disappointed too.)  I run a character-driven game more than a plot-driven game; of course there’s plot, but I want the players to tell me what they’re going to do far more than I push the plot into telling the players what to do.  ‘Tis a sandbox.

* I find resource management fun and fascinating, myself.  In any event it’s important in my game.  Equipment lists matter, encumbrance matters, and not having the right tools to hand means needing to improvise or doing without.

* I’m as much about the journey as the goal.  I don’t handwave the two week trip to get into the mountains to reach the ruins to find the dingus (nor, with a nod to the above, the need of the players to make adequate preparations for that trip).

* I strongly recommend broad-based characters.  Someone wholly maximized for melee combat will be bored for long stretches in my runs.  Someone with no combat skills will be twiddling thumbs in any prolonged battle.  An outdoorswoman who can’t stand being within town walls and a city slicker whose idea of “roughing it” is spending ten silver a night on the inn suite will have big problems. 

* Wizardry: first off, playing a wizard or a priest involves a lot of moving parts; I encourage players to become more familiar with my campaign before diving in.  (With that, a casual mage -- M/1 with a handful of spells, say -- is fine.)  While the mechanics of spellcasting remain essentially the same from Basic Set and GURPS Magic, the spells and Colleges have been heavily revamped and reorganized.  I've added hundreds of new spells and over a dozen new Colleges.  There are also templates and writeups for the various wizardly Orders and clergy.

* The genre is cooperative, and it is neither my job nor those of existing players to come up with schemes to motivate your character to become part of the team.  I also despise player-vs-player with all my heart, and backstabbing within the party is an unforgivable offense.  A handful of players have had problems with these in the past (which is why I’m mentioning it).

* Something that surprises some folks (GURPS, after all, being a relatively deadly game system) is that my campaign has a pretty low mortality rate.  A good bit of this is my belief in what I call the Tasha Yar Rule: I’m very disinclined to kill off a PC because a schmuck orc archer in a throw-away encounter rolled a 3.  The great majority of PC deaths over the years have come from heroic last stands, charges of the battlements ... or extreme stupidity after a couple of warnings.

* Some blogposts here that might give more insights; look them over if you feel like it!


27 March 2022

30 Naval Officers


1) The Hornblower: Coming from a relatively plebeian background in a navy that favors aristocrats, coming very late to the sea, unlucky when it comes to money, unwilling to play the political game, the Hornblower has numerous strikes against him. Yet his brilliant mind took to mathematics early, and his hard work, diligence and native talent led him to become a very successful captain in single-ship actions.  (When it comes to it, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a skilled, scientific fencer.) Anything but hidebound, he questions many of his navy’s shibboleths and sees further than most. But his background has led him to chronic self-doubt and introspection – he’s sure that if he’s ever anything less than perfectly successful at sea, he’ll be beached, and he’s intensely troubled by questions of honor that others shrug off with a bemused smirk.  The Hornblower overcompensates by striving to be the epitome of wooden stoicism and pushing would-be friends away.

2) The Lewrie: In many ways the polar opposite of the Hornblower, the Lewrie was a town clown – and happy to be so! – interested in little beyond partying, wenching and drinking. Shipped off to the navy in a virtual shanghaiing in order to steal his inheritance, he took an interest in gunnery out of boredom, and eventually became an efficient and effective naval officer almost despite himself. He hasn’t changed all that much: his inability to keep his trousers buttoned around women has threatened his career, as does his relative egalitarianism – he has a few too many freed slaves in his crew for the liking of some – and an occasional tendency to shoot off his mouth to the wrong people. But he’s a lucky captain who’s popular with his crews, and the rumors are rife that the god of the sea is his personal patron.

3) The Seafort: He is a skilled naval officer, yes, and the survivor of more than one disaster; his honor and personal probity are unsurpassed and rarely questioned. But he has two traits seen by some to be virtues and by others to be flaws. In the first place, he has a deep religious faith bordering on fanaticism; in the second, he holds to the service regulations with an intensity that leaves your average fanatic gasping. The Regs are the Law and the Godhead rolled into one, and he will enforce their letter to the utmost, even if he is sickened by the result, no matter how much blood he needs to spill: even if it costs him family, friends or everything else.

4) The Aubrey: He’s almost close to a split personality, the Aubrey ashore and the Aubrey afloat. Ashore, he’s a beefy, jovial scion of the minor gentry, a bit on the shallow side, more than a little gullible, open-handed, fond of horses, gambling and living beyond his means ... with no pretensions to intellect beyond that he’s a notable amateur astronomer and musician. Afloat, he is a master seaman, tactically brilliant, mechanically sound, with a natural aura of command, a renowned gift of sea-luck, and a bright love of battle: while he’s more a good hand-to-hand fighter than a great one, the Aubrey has a touch of the berserker about him. He spent time as a common sailor, and knows the lower deck intimately – what they will put up with, what they won’t. It doesn’t hurt his career that he’s a (largely absentee) member of his nation’s legislature.

5) The Prescot:
A renowned knight of his nation’s most revered fighting order, the Prescot is a good tactician, a veteran sailor, and possesses an almost mystical charisma for leadership. He has the common touch, and thrills his men by recognizing even those who he hasn’t seen in years. But what truly leads him to success is less his skills as a ship’s captain – good, but not superlative – than his unparalleled mastery with his greatsword.  The Prescot leads all boarding actions, none can stand before him, and the bottom of the sea is carpeted by the bodies of his slain. He fights his nation’s enemies as if it were a holy war – which, in truth, it is – and in battle his normally affable expression turns into a veritable demon’s mask. Indeed, he’s been accused of being one.

6) The Leary: The Leary and the Aubrey would likely get along; they share many a similarity. The Leary’s own path to the top is smoothed by that his father is the retired ruler (and eminence grise) of the nation, and that the admiral-in-chief is his patron, but his own naval skills are great. He is a navigator of almost supernatural skill, the finest of his day, and he has an impressive record of battle success against huge odds. What sustains him above all else is his cheerful love of life, the loyalty of his crew – many of whom have followed him from ship to ship (to the point that the “Sissies,” nicknamed after the Leary’s first command, are a large cadre recognized by that name alone) – and his unwavering belief in the superiority of his nation’s naval personnel: that they are the best anywhere, and that they will always succeed. One peculiarity is that he’s a devoted amateur naturalist, and often travels with guidebooks.

7) The Bolitho: Like the Leary and the Prescot, the Bolitho has his loyal cadre of followers, to the point that they call themselves “We Happy Few,” and inspires many a lifelong friendship. He is a skilled seaman and tactician, and beyond that skilled at strategy as well: admiral’s rank rests as easily on his shoulders as a captain’s rank did.  Moreover, he's an excellent teacher, counting numerous captains and junior admirals among his former pupils. The only fly in his ointment is a string of personal tragedies that often leave him brooding and depressed, but he seldom lets these moods affect his duty to ship, crew and country. A paragon of decency in an indecent time, he has a disregard for both social conventions and political expediency.  The axes of his superiors seem always sharpened for him if he falters, something his lieutenants grasp better than he does.

8) The Cochrane: On the one hand, the “Sea Wolf” is a renowned and lucky captain, having racked up some of the most impressive single-ship actions in history, against insanely long odds. He is also a skilled coastal raider, a technological innovator and a meticulous planner with a eye towards keeping casualties to a minimum. On the other hand, well. With a large chip on his shoulder (the Cochrane is the son of a great – but impoverished – lord), he is innately incapable of getting along with his superiors, his subordinates, the press, the aristocracy, the government ... pretty much anyone who doesn’t agree with him in all things. With a record of publicly criticizing the admiralty and the government, and superiors who'd rather be damned than offer him an appointment, he’s been reduced to being a mercenary admiral for foreign nations.

9) The Ramius: His country’s been long at (formal) peace, but he is a very well-regarded captain, technically highly competent, a sound tactician. His commands are tacitly teaching ones, and the admiralty looks on the “Schoolmaster” with favor for the large number of talented captains and officers that were juniors in his commands. But there is a canker in his heart. His wife recently died at the hands of an incompetent physician who was too well politically connected to be punished, and the Ramius himself is the rare officer in his nation’s navy from a downtrodden frontier minority. His tolerance for the failings of his nation exhausted, he plans to defect to the enemy: with the fleet’s newest and deadliest warship.

10) The Farragut:
Adopted as a child by a celebrated naval captain, the Farragut joined the navy as a midshipman himself at age nine; he was a successful prizemaster at twelve, wounded in action at fourteen. He has been in the navy ever since, even now that he’s becoming an old man. He’s fought in many a war and many an action, and held many a command – largely in anti-piracy patrols. Now his nation is in a civil war, and even though he is from the secessionist province, he is staunchly loyal to the colors he has worn for nearly fifty years. His nation’s leading admiral through seniority, some worry that he’s too old for the task (and a few mutter about his loyalties, if never ever ever in his hearing), but his innate aggressiveness, daring and knowledge of artillery may well see him through. 

11) The Porter: His grandfather was a renowned navy captain. His father was a renowned navy captain. (Indeed, his children are all navy officers.) The Porter is his nation’s second admiral in history, and adding to the family tree, the Farragut is his much older adopted brother. Like the Farragut, he joined the navy very young, and like the Farragut, he has served his entire life. He grew up overseas and speaks several languages well, and despite friction with his superiors – the Porter tends to be cocky and challenges his superiors’ skill and knowledge – was selected to found the national maritime academy, and with his characteristic energy, added honor, discipline and knowledge to the service. He’s much more of a thinker than his brawler of an elder brother, which so far has served him well in the nation’s civil war. The Porter is experienced in handling flotillas of small craft and river boats, as well as in combined operations with army forces, one of the few sea captains who is.

12) The Hull: Bred to the sea in merchantmen – his father was a civilian captain – he joined his newly independent nation’s nascent navy at age 25. In something of a makeshift squadron, his captain’s time was taken up with its command, leaving the Hull as tacit “captain” of the warship. He received his first independent command just two years later, fighting pirates – whom the Hull hates with a bitter passion – and while the new navy is small and operating on a shoestring, the Hull hasn’t lacked for the best commands available since. He’s proven to be an efficient and reliable leader, and has made his name in single-ship actions, being perhaps the fleet’s best shiphandler. Unfortunately, his popularity among his crews is suspect; difficulties in manning the fleet has led him to put newly recruited sailors in irons, lest they immediately desert with their hiring bonuses. With his country in a new war against the world’s leading maritime power, it is up to the Hull and his fellow captains to stave off their fleets.

13) The Pigot:
Young for his post, advanced up the ranks with indecent speed, he’s made captain through good connections and patronage (his father’s an admiral). Unfortunately, the Pigot’s no seaman and even less of a shiphandler; his ships have rammed two merchantmen so far. What is worse, he seized the master and officers of the second merchantmen, blamed them for the incident, and had them flogged, creating a diplomatic incident and nearly leading him to be cashiered. His new command may be his last chance for glory. However, he now has a reputation for extreme brutality, and scarcely a man in his crew has escaped flogging or worse. Whether he gains the distinction he seeks or dies at the hands of his crew is the toss of a coin.

14) The Doria: A scion of the minor nobility, he was orphaned at an early age, and became a mercenary to support himself before joining the navy. Even after becoming a renowned leader in the service of his native navy, the mercenary has never really left the Doria’s soul: he’s touchy when it comes to being paid per contract and on time, and has switched sides in consequence more than once. Still, his heart is with his homeland, and he is seldom out of its colors for long. His fellow citizens don’t seem to mind, and he’s been called upon as an honest broker more than once to help sort out his nation’s occasionally dysfunctional government. Age has not lessened his vigor, and deep into his eighties, his land has called on him again – for perhaps the final time – to lead their navy against the enemy.

15) The Semmes: When the rebellion began, the Farragut stayed with the colors. But his comrade the Semmes – as with the Farragut, a naval officer for many decades – could not turn his back on his home province. The secessionist navy is weak and consists of raiders and privateers, and its captains have proven to be masters at this style of warfare. Though it is seen as ignoble, the Semmes rationalizes this as the only real chance he has of using his skills in his new nation’s cause. Still, the dishonor stings somewhat, and so the Semmes will risk his command in “honorable” single-ship actions with the enemy navy. Handsome and deceptively young looking, he is also a student of philosophy, and read for the law as a lieutenant.

16) The de Clisson: The war was long and savage, but punctuated by occasional truces. The de Clisson’s husband was treacherously seized during one of them, and cruelly executed for treason in what was widely seen to be a judicial murder. Escaping just ahead of the law, the de Clisson swore red vengeance. She took what portable fortune she could, outfitted a squadron of warships painted black and with sails dyed red, and with her vassals as crews, offered her services to the other side. The “Lioness” and her Black Fleet are greatly feared, having preyed relentlessly on her old nation ever since: she scorns quarter and offers none, being famous for leaving only one survivor of any of her attacks on ship or coastal town, so that the survivor can tell others who was responsible. Her two surviving teenage sons sail with her, and are as redhanded as their mother. Gruesomely, her husband’s severed head is the figurehead of her flagship Revenge.

17) The Amra: His homeland is in the barbaric north, and while he’s lived in civilized lands since he was a teenager and possesses a crude honor and sense of chivalry, he’s been tarred with the barbarian brush ever after. While he’s a decent enough seaman and shiphandler, he’s neither an expert navigator nor much of a tactician: his plan is usually to sail straight up to the enemy, board them and take them without undue fuss. While his tactics often result in heavy losses among his crews, he possesses a formidable charisma ... and he is the best fighter in the world, all-but unconquerable. The Amra has spent years as a pirate, and is greatly respected by corsairs and the coastal tribesmen, whom he has led on more than one occasion. Between this and his barbaric upbringing, he has no patience with politics, and has foundered more than once on his insistence on straight talk and plain speech, and his bemused contempt for laws he finds foolish.

18) The Wallis: He wasn’t really at sea when he was five years old; that was an illegal dodge used by many a parent to get their children naval seniority young.  He didn’t actually go to sea until he was 13, and hasn’t had all that distinguished a career: been in the right places, had decent enough luck, never was wounded, never screwed up, had the usual number of commands, was an admiral at fifty.  But.  His nation really takes seniority seriously, and up the ladder the Wallis continued to climb, refusing to retire ... and he can’t be compelled to do so.  He’s nearly a hundred years old now, technically on “active” duty for over ninety years, and Admiral of the Fleet for the better part of twenty years.  The ruler’s begging him to retire, threatening him with a seagoing command if he doesn’t.  The response of the Wallis is that he’s ready to accept one!

19) The l’Olonnois:
But as to that, nations can do worse than the Wallis.  There’s the l’Olonnois.  The enemy ambushed him and his crew, slaughtering almost everyone – he himself survived by covering himself with blood and playing dead.  After that, he swore he would never give quarter to the enemy, and he hasn’t.  He will loot and torture, rape and murder, commit any atrocity and break any law to defeat them, and no naval officer has a worse reputation for cruelty or implacable ferocity.  Nor is he any more civilized with prisoners of war: one of his most gruesome deeds was to tear out the heart of one surrendered captain and eat it raw in front of the surrendered crew.  With an immense price on his head, the enemy has sworn to serve the l’Olonnois out as he has done to others.  If they can catch him.

20) The O’Malley: Her nation is the restive and unwilling conquest of a larger, and as a noble, she commands the rebel fleet.  Whether the O’Malley is a freedom fighter or a pirate depends on one’s point of view, but in any event she’s a fearless swashbuckler, less by way of a tactician than in ambushes and direct strikes.  It helps that her lands are in a region where the sway of the oppressors is weak and sympathy for her is strong, and she keeps the loyalty of the common folk with her coarse manners and coarser language ... and through her many victories.

21) The Lamb: He has a profound hatred for physical labor and for rising early in the morning (having grown up on a hardscrabble farm), and so avoids both at all costs.  However, the notion of sitting down – and being paid to read books! – is of great delight to the Lamb, and so he arranged, very efficiently, to pass through the naval academy with the least amount of effort.  (This involved becoming an expert smallsword fencer, so that he could avoid playing a rougher sport, and avoid harsh discipline that might threaten his chances to win matches for the dear old Navy!)  He has a very well trained and disciplined memory, so he has all the answers to hand for senior officers.  This makes them look good, and therefore happy, so the Lamb is a highly valued staff officer.  A natural efficiency expert (less work that way!), every job he holds is simplified, and his successor always has less work to do than his predecessor.

22) The Ghormley: With a long and uneventful career in the peacetime navy, moving up through the usual ladder of posts and commands, he became friends with the nation’s ruler.  And so, when the nation went to war, the Ghormley was placed in command of its expeditionary fleet, over the heads of others the naval authorities preferred in the role.  Unfortunately, the Peter Principle is very much at work.  Technological advances have him in command of ships far different than he remembers how to handle, he’s never before held fleet command, the details of admiralty are beyond him, he’s indecisive, and he often skips planning meetings.  His indecisive defeatism is starting to infect his command.

23) The Togo: His once-isolationist nation had no experience at sea ... until the day a foreign navy raided them.  The teenage Togo fought the invaders, but to no avail, and a humiliating defeat was the end result.  Shortly thereafter, the nation founded its first navy, and the Togo enlisted.  He knew that his best path to naval knowledge was in the very nation that attacked them, and he lived and studied there for several years ... insulted, derided – but successful.  He rose quickly up the ranks upon returning home, despite bouts of ill health, and now he is the fleet commander.  He now leads that fleet in a new war against a major power, and he is the only commander on his side with actual combat experience at sea.  Certainly the honor of his nation and his race are at stake.

24) The Mundy: Like the Lamb, she’s a career staff officer.  Naval punctilio means nothing to her, not even her best friend would call her a people person, and the only way she really knows how to act in certain situations is to observe others and do likewise.  (She’s only in the navy at all out of the noblesse oblige of her aristocratic culture, and as a substitute family for the one she lost in an insurrection.) But in staff work she’s unsurpassed, especially in communications and intelligence gathering and analysis, and is immensely respected on the ships she’s on ... not least due to the Mundy’s expertise as a duelist and as a deadly shot.  While she’s never served in the line and has no feel for navigation or shiphandling, the Mundy has a basic grasp of tactics, and has done well in situations where she’s been forced to command a vessel ... or a squadron.

25) The Tyacke: Very successful early on as a commander of small warships, his luck ran out in a battle that badly disfigured him.  The injury cost him his command and his repulsed fiancee, but he stuck with the service with his bitterness fueling his natural intense energy.  The “Devil With Half A Face” became a greatly feared captain in anti-slavery patrols – a much-derided arm of the navy which was the only way the interest-lacking Tyacke could get a command – fighting slavers with both his vast natural talent and a distinct lack of quarter.  He’s capable of great loyalty to an admiral who’d take a chance on him, but contemptuously rejects pity, and sometimes lashes out savagely at the hint of it.

26) The Bonden: Coming from the lower classes and the lower deck, he’ll never have a command; as to that, uneducated and only becoming literate later in life, he’s barely an officer.  But the Bonden is a consummate natural seaman, skilled at all aspects of his trade, and his captains often trust him as a prize master or as the “advisor” for less competent, higher status officers on independent commands.  Able to deal courteously with his superiors, just as able to speak the coarse lower deck idiom, he’s often the backbone of his ships.  It doesn’t hurt his reputation that he’s a renowned boxer and wrestler, often the champion in fleet-wide competitions.

27) The Pascoe:
On the one hand, the Pascoe’s got it made: he’s the nephew of the Bolitho, one of the great admiral’s many successful proteges, a natural frigate captain, young, successful, handsome, gaining renown in his own right, far less prone to make enemies than his uncle.  But on the other, there are shadows ... quite aside from that the Bolitho is a tough act to follow.  The Pascoe is in fact a bastard whom his uncle took in out of pity; his mother was a penniless prostitute, and his father (the Bolitho’s older brother) was a despised traitor to his nation, gaining a reputation the Pascoe has had to live down.  He’s also unlucky in love, involved in more than one romance doomed from the start – notably on one occasion, with his admiral’s wife.

28) The Blood: Apolitical, a member of a disparaged and oppressed minority, while the Blood was an experienced soldier and sailor in his youth, he never would’ve entered a naval career except through the hazards of misfortune.  Settling down to the practice of medicine, he humanely treated wounded rebels, was swept up in reprisals by the scared government, condemned, sold as a slave.  Popular among his fellow slaves due to his skills as a physician, he gathered together a cadre of sailors, escaped, and now commands a successful squadron of privateers ... as much out of a lack of anything better to do as for any other reason.  Curiously solicitous of his home nation (which causes some friction among his lieutenants), the Blood preys with verve upon its enemies: perhaps hoping for a pardon and reinstatement.

29) The Harrington: It’s not that her nation’s navy frowns on female commanders; it’s relatively egalitarian, with many women in high command.  Nor is it that the Harrington is a poor captain – quite the opposite, she’s highly successful both with single-ship and squadron command, with a talent for overcoming obstacles and for winning the respect of her enemies, and the Bolitho is her only peer on this list for their proteges achieving command in their own right.  Perhaps it’s just that the navy in which she serves is factionalized, politicized and more than a little corrupt, that she’s too honest and forthright to play such games ... and she's delivered too much testimony and too many reports laying well-deserved blame for screwups at the feet of highly placed admirals.  As such, all too often she winds up on the wrong side of factional battles, and her career’s suffered for it.

30) The Adama: He was on the brink of retirement, the weary, aging, bypassed last commander of an obsolete warship about to be mothballed.  Then a disaster struck his nation, the navy was gutted, and it’s not so much that the Adama is their best captain available as that he’s damn near the only one left.  Nonetheless, he plays a losing hand as well as anyone can hope for, managing the retreat with grim determination and skill.  His focus is intense and almost unwavering, his love of his ship almost symbiotic, and he will do what it takes to get the surviv
ors through to safety.

10 March 2022

Revised Alchemy rules for GURPS

So ... following a forum conversation on the relative inadequacy of the GURPS alchemical rules, I figured I should throw my own set up, based partly on the book rules, partly on Pyramid articles, and partly on my own notions about which holes needed to be filled.  This doesn't include the actual list of elixirs, which really would only be of use to GURPS players.  Enjoy!

"Can't brew Aqua Vitae to save my life, you said?"

The following rules supersede the ones in GURPS Magic.

General: An Alchemist knows, at startup, a number of elixirs equal to (Alchemy skill x 1.5); therefore, a character with Alchemy-12 knows 18 preparations to start.  At least half of these must be in one category of Elixir: Poisons, Combat, Common Preparations, Magical, Medical, Mental, Physical and Protective.  This is the Alchemist’s Primary category.  Outside of this, an Alchemist may learn any formula from any category for which he or she meets the prerequisites.  However, any formula with a penalty of -4 or more is treated as “restricted” and only available to Alchemists for whom that is a Primary category.

A starting character cannot know Alchemical Metals, nor any formula with a penalty of -5 or more.

Brewing:  To create an elixir, an Alchemist must expend a certain amount of money and time as listed in the elixir lists.  (If not otherwise stated, the default time to make an elixir is one week.)  The elixir will be brewing 24 hours a day during that time, and must be attended by an alchemist for at least eight hours daily.  This need not be the same alchemist throughout the process, but if more than one alchemist works on an elixir, the lowest-skill alchemist is responsible for making the final Skill roll.  If the elixir is in the Alchemist’s Primary category, it takes 10% less time to brew and requires one hour per day less time to oversee – thus, seven hours vs eight.  Elixirs can be made as:

Grenade: To be thrown at a target, requiring a nagateppo.  Only those elixirs specifically flagged with a (G) can be made into this form;
Ointment: To be rubbed on bare skin (or another target); can be stored in a jar, tube or any waterproof container;
Pastille: A thumb-sized pill that needs to be lit, and affects all who inhale its smoke.  Must be kept in a fire- and water-resistant container;
Potion: Drinkable liquid, stored in any waterproof container;
Powder: Can be blown at the target or put into food or drink to be consumed; kept in a small bag or jar.

The basic field setup for brewing is listed in the price lists at two sovereigns and 25 lbs (exclusive of ingredient costs), and gives a -2 penalty to skill.  In an emergency, a fire source, scoured jars and clean field expedient tools are possible, but at a -3 penalty to skill or worse.  Brewing outdoors – where wind, dust and other detritus can interfere – likewise is not a great idea.
Being a magical process, alchemy is affected by background mana.  Add +1 to effective Skill for brewing in a high mana area, and subtract -3 for brewing in a low mana area.  Brewing in a very high mana area is hideously dangerous, and a number of alchemists are trying to figure out what effects brewing on a Dragon Line † cause.  Consuming an elixir is unaffected by mana level, but elixirs do not work in no mana zones.

Modifiers: Since alchemy is an art, not a science, applications of the following are up to the GM’s whim of the moment, especially on what elixirs can be affected by these and by how much.

* An alchemist can only oversee one elixir at once, but can brew multiple doses of the same elixir, at -1 to the final Skill roll for each additional dose.  For each -1 additional penalty to the Skill roll and 10% increase in both production time and ingredient cost, the duration of the elixir is increased by 100%; for instance, taking a -3 Skill and +30% time and cost results in an elixir with quadruple duration.  Similar actions may (repeat, may) have a similar effect on the elixir’s effects other than duration.

* By taking extra brewing time, the odds of success are improved: for each additional +50% in brewing time and +5% of cost (keeping those fires and reagents coming, y’know), add +1 to effective Skill roll.

* One way to create an elixir in a short span of time is to make a less powerful version.  For every 10% by which either the brewing time or the required ingredients costs are reduced (up to a maximum of 80%), the value, duration and all effects of the elixir are reduced by 10% as well.  For instance, one could brew a dose of Phoenix’s Blood in just four days, changing the result from recovering 1d HT to recovering 1d-2 HT instead.

Learning New Formulae: The formularies to brew an elixir are esoteric, obscure knowledge costing at least a sovereign a pop, and much more for an entire Category.  An Alchemist should spend as many days studying a new formula as it takes to brew that elixir; until that time is taken, the Alchemist can brew out of the book, but it takes half again as long for the preparation.  

Improving Skill: The effective Skill of all preparations is increased if the player increases Alchemy skill.  Alternately, individual elixirs can be learned (and improved) as Hard Techniques.

Mastery: An Alchemist is said to have “mastered” a category of elixirs when he has learned a certain number in each.  Mastery reduces the time required to oversee a brewing by a hour (which stacks with the hour reduction for Primary elixirs), and is a prerequisite both for learning certain formulae and for learning Alchemical Metals.  The requirements for mastering a category are:

    Poisons: Thirteen preparations.
    Combat: All ten preparations below -4 in difficulty (e.g., all but Mighty Bull and Starcrystal)
    Common Preparations: Ten preparations.
    Magical: Twelve preparations below -4 in difficulty (e.g., leaving out Alkahest, Radiant Dawn, Ratri’s Balm, Rudra’s Cloak and Water of Hematite).
    Medical: Twelve preparations below -4 in difficulty (e.g., leaving out Aqua Vitae, Ratri’s Balm, Stimulant/Gold and Water of Tourmaline).
    Mental: Twelve preparations below -4 in difficulty (e.g., leaving out San Pirian’s Elixir and Water of Diamond).
    Physical: Twelve preparations below -4 in difficulty (e.g., leaving out Aqua Verti).
    Protective: All nine preparations below -4 in difficulty (e.g., all but Mighty Bull and Water of Pearl).

    Elixirs belonging to more than one category (such as Mighty Bull or Ratri’s Balm) count for both.   

Mage-Alchemists: The use of certain spells can aid with alchemy.  The Skill penalty for the formula is applied to the spell’s effective Skill.  In every such case, failure on the spell cast ruins the batch.  The following spells can assist Alchemy:

* Essential Spell: The use of spells like Essential Water, Essential Fire, Essential Wood and the like – if such high-grade reagents are reasonably necessary to the process – reduces the time to brew and the cost by 15%.

* Food spells: Distill reduces the time to brew by 10%; Mature reduces it by 5%.  Cook reduces the cost by 10%.

* Temporal spells: The use of time-manipulation spells reduces brewing time, but must be continually maintained for the subjective duration of the brewing, and where applicable, the Alchemist must remain inside the affected area for the requisite eight hours a day (however subjective).  The entirety of the alchemical lab must be inside the area; a Fine lab, for instance, takes up a minimum of two Areas.

* Mimicking spells: If the effects of a given elixir mimic a specific spell, successfully casting that spell once per day on the brewing setup results in a reduction of 10% on both time and cost.  For instance, casting Bravery aids in the creation of Conqueror’s Wine.  Spells that reasonably affect the equipment itself will not end well: casting Levitation on a batch of Levitational Salts, for instance.

Regardless of how many spells might apply, the grand total reduction in time or cost may never go below 80%.

Alchemical Miscellany:

* Not being a “killer GM” by inclination (I’m talking to you, AD&D Miscibility chart), there is no baleful consequences to drinking multiple elixirs of different types at once, above and beyond their base effects.  (Guzzling San Caellan’s Brew and Water of Tourmaline at the same time, for example, is more than somewhat counterproductive.)

* If they’re stored in reasonably secure containers and in reasonably stable environments, alchemicals last indefinitely.  An elixir in an uncorked vial can be recorked, likely with no adverse effects, if it wasn’t abused in the meantime.  There are no guarantees about what happens to alchemicals that are stored in the open – say, powders in a potpourri dish, or elixirs sitting on the hearth.

* Alchemists can analyze elixirs and magic items as per GURPS Magic, p. 212.

* Techniques: Batching (Hard, default Elixir+0, buys off penalty for multiple doses of the same elixir), Identify Elixir (Hard, default Alchemy+0), Identify Magical Item (Hard, default Alchemy-2)

† - "Dragon Lines" are ley lines.  The places where such lines intersect are High Mana zones, at least.  They've only appeared on my gameworld in the last two years.

03 March 2022

Character Creation handout, Celduin campaign, 8th revision, August 2021

(Disclaimer: the following contains some houserules.)

Step 1:  You have 135 points (exclusive of points from Disadvantages) to create your character. Before anything else, think about what you want your character to do.  Go into as much detail as it pleases you to do, and tell me about it; I’ll be happy to help pick out abilities and numbers that best fit your conception.  (Truth be told, I strongly prefer characters be created with me in the room.)  A number of templates are available as “starter kits” for various archetypes, if you think you need them.  I will be happy to go over the various races with you, each of which is its own template.  Wizardly orders and clerical options are as well.

Step 2 - Attributes: ST/HT cost ten points per level for the first three levels; DX/IQ cost 15 points per level for the first three levels.  They cost 15 and 20 points, respectively, for the next two levels.  Scores lower than 10 have a negative cost: -10 pts per level for ST or HT, -15 per level for DX or IQ.

It costs double to improve an Attribute as it does to purchase it at character creation.  It’s best for long-term planning, therefore, to place your Attributes as high as you dare, then squeeze your skills further and see if you can raise DX or IQ that crucial extra point.

Think long and hard before having Attributes lower than 10.  GURPS doesn’t have a “dump stat” – low Attributes will absolutely impair your character.  The inevitable result the times someone’s ignored my advice and gone with “Oh, I’m playing a wizard, I can afford DX & HT of 8" has been a grumpy tradeout a couple sessions later.

Step 3 - Disadvantages:  You may have up to 40 points of Disadvantages or Attributes lower than normal, combined (this includes any you get from Templates), and up to five points worth of Quirks.  Check with me; many are either not suitable for PCs or for this particular campaign, or combine poorly with existing PCs.  You may keep a couple “quirk slots” free for a couple of sessions.  A Disadvantage at the -15 level or higher involves some significant drawbacks to your character; I don’t recommend them.

Step 4 - Advantages:  A number of Advantages are on a “restricted” list, requiring either special circumstances or Unusual Background as a prerequisite.  It costs double to learn (or improve) most Advantages after character creation, and most Advantages can’t be purchased with earned experience; get all the Advantages you have to have up front.  

        The Minimum Package: The closest to a must-have Advantage is Luck.  It’s not cheap, and it doesn’t affect magic in my campaign, but there’s nothing like having a mulligan once a session for a blown roll.

Step 5 - Skills:  A number are on a “restricted” list, requiring either special circumstances or Unusual Background as a prerequisite. 

In general, a skill level below 11 is unreliable, 11-12 is fair – in the “it’s good to have someone in the party who knows something about literature” camp – Skill-13 good, 14-15 quality (and is about where you want the make or break ability upon which your character relies), and 18+ is expert.  Certain skills (Rapier, Shield, magical spells) have efficiency break points for which it’s useful to consult me.

It is almost always the case that if you have thirty or more points invested in either DX- or IQ-based skills, it saves points (and gives other benefits!) to halve the amount put in those skills and raise the governing Attribute instead.  It is also considerably easier to already know a skill and improve it later, even if your skill level is mediocre to start, than to learn the skill from scratch down the road.

Save some points for utility skills.  Moreover, feel free to take skills that might not seem to have direct applications to adventuring.  It’s an axiom that a clever player can make a Glassblowing, Musical Instrument or Architecture skill work in surprising ways.

        The Minimum Package: Above and beyond any templates or options, strongly consider dropping a point each into the following skills no matter the type of character you’re seeking to play:

        Carousing, Fast-Talk, and/or Savoir-Faire: Sooner or later, everyone needs to talk to someone.
        Hiking, Stealth: The party’s often only as good in these as their slowest/clumsiest member.
        First Aid: Even when there’s a healer (not always the case), everyone gets banged up sometimes.  Just put a point into it, no matter what kind of character you're running.
        Observation: Noticing interesting things takes training.
        Streetwise, Survival: I run a lot of urban adventures.  I run a lot of outdoor travel adventures.  Being incompetent in both environments isn’t a great idea.
        Brawling or Judo: Even the party scholar gets jumped, sometimes.  A point into any weapon skill is easy.  Parrying an attack without one is formidably hard.

Step 6 - Appearance:  Outstanding good or bad looks are an Advantage or a Disadvantage.  Otherwise, whatever you prefer.

Step 7 - Numbers:  Speed is (HT + DX)/4.  Move equals Speed (round down) minus encumbrance penalty.

Defenses:  Dodge = Move + 3  Block = ½ Shield Skill, round down, + 3.  Parry = ½ Weapon skill, round down, + 3.  Damage Resistance (DR) = total DR from armor, advantages.

Encumbrance:  if the weight you are carrying is up to twice your ST in pounds, no penalty; if up to 4 x ST (“Light”), penalty of 1; if up to 6 x ST (“Medium”), penalty of 2; if up to 12 x ST (“Heavy”), penalty of 3; if up to 20 x ST (“Extra-Heavy”), penalty of 4.

Your weapon inflicts damage based on your “basic weapon damage” depending on what you do with it.  Most weapons do differing damage depending on whether you swing or thrust with them.

Step 8 - Equipment:  Barring a wealth option, characters start with 500 silver sinvers and one suit of clothes appropriate to their social station.  If players prefer not to choose Wealth, they can get extra silver by spending one initial character point for a month’s pay at their profession.  For more than a few points’ worth, this is not cost-effective; take Comfortable Wealth instead.

Capital equipment is expensive; day-to-day living is not.  Those 500 silver sinvers would last a frugal character for about a year’s worth of modest inns.  It will also buy a broadsword, a buckler and a quilted cloth jerkin, and a couple extra luxuries, about.  Characters, especially beginning ones, often make out foraging the swords of the fallen than rifling pockets in the hope of finding a pouch brimming with gold.

Wrapping Up: 
I strongly recommend broad-based characters.  Someone wholly maximized for melee combat will be bored for long stretches in my runs.  Someone with no combat skills will be twiddling thumbs in any prolonged battle.  An outdoorswoman who can’t stand being within town walls and a city slicker whose idea of “roughing it” is spending ten silver a night on the inn suite will have big problems.

Party compatibility is a must.  A necromancer in a party of fanatical Upuaut worshippers, a thalassophobe in a nautically-oriented campaign or a compulsively lawful gentleman in a group of thieving lowlifes generally won’t work.  In similar fashion, few groups need (say) three dedicated physicians.

Note: the genre is cooperative, and it is neither my job nor those of existing players to come up with schemes to motivate your character to become part of the team.  It’s yours.  A handful of players have had problems with this in the past (which is why I’m mentioning it), and I anticipate that all players will be proactive in fitting in with the party and in buying into the adventures presented.


Character Creation in GURPS

A bunch of people over the years have proffered their own advice on how to create characters in this system, and it's a great deal easier than a lot of folks make it out to be ... or MAKE it to be.  So herewith some counsel on this subject, and there'll be a follow-up post with the Character Creation document I give to new players.

'Nuff said.

The biggest problems a newbie have with GURPS is (1) deciding he needs to do everything at once; and (2) designing a character from the bottom up.

For the first part, take everything a step at a time. You've decided that (say) you're going to take 50 points in Disadvantages? Great. Pick them. That should be relatively easy. Now you know how many points you have to build. Set aside (say) 30 points for Advantages. Now set up your attributes, not based on numbers crunching, but on how strong, how dexterous, how smart and how healthy you think your character ought to be. Now you have some points left to put into skills.

Designing from the bottom up is almost always a mistake ... gee, I'll take this skill, I'll take that skill, oooh, I want that skill too. Instead, design it from the top down. Figure out, in detail, exactly what you want to play. Hmm, I'd like a warrior. Ex-military, heavy infantry. He needs to be reasonably strong, reasonably fast, pretty tough. I don't figure he's a brain type, but enough so he could've been a sergeant. Long service in a mercenary company, and once he's bought, he stays bought. I also figure he had downtime in the nearest big seaport, and knows how to get around in rough areas.

Anyone familiar with GURPS knows what this guy looks like. Perhaps ST 11, DX 12, IQ 11, HT 13. He'll have advantages such as High Pain Threshold, Combat Reflexes, Allies/Contacts (his old unit mates). He'll probably have a Sense of Duty, Code of Honor (Mercenary) and possibly an old war wound (One Hand, One Eye, Reduced Move due to a limp). Skills? Broadsword, Shield, Soldier, Armoury, Streetwise, some Area Knowledges, Carousing, Brawling, Hiking, Scrounging, Leadership, Survival.

Just right there, I'm up over 150 points, and I have a pretty viable character there.

Maybe cut back on the Carousing ...
What don't I need? For one, I don't need to write down every damn skill I could use by default. If it comes up, I can look it up. I don't need to go over every advantage and every skill; there are a hundred of them this guy'll never know exists, let alone touch.

Speaking of those skill levels ... Yeah, the deal with benchmarks is that every GM seems to have his own set. †  For instance:

Skill 10 or less: well, you have basic knowledge of it, and it's better than nothing.

Skill 11-12: Low average; enough to get a job doing this.  (This is the level I look to for background skills useful to a party; y'know, in the "It's good to have someone in the party who knows something about World History" camp.)  Using my projected character above, I'll take Soldier, Armoury, those Area Knowledges, Carousing, Leadership, Scrounging and Hiking around here.  Possibly some Professional skill as well, whatever I did before I became a mercenary.  Carpentry or Leatherworking, maybe?

Skill 13:
My nominating level for skilled craftsmen.  A character with secondary skills around here is doing alright.  Let's look for Streetwise, my key Area Knowledge, Brawling and Survival around here.

Skill 14-15: Now you're getting good; this is a talented practitioner of this skill.  A new character should have his go-to skill around here.  This is where I want my Broadsword (and maybe Shield) skill.

Skill 18: Expert; someone at this level may gain renown for his or her mastery, and people who ARE renowned for their expertise are around here. I don't allow PCs to exceed this with beginning characters, I never let them have more than a single skill up around here, and doing so involves serious sacrifice.

Skill 21: Best in a region. This is effectively the peak level for PC development; better than this is incompatible with adventuring. I don't think that as many as a half dozen PCs (out of a few hundred) have had a skill exceed 21.

Skill 25: Best in the world. In my 37 years GMing this system, only one PC, with a single skill, has reached this level.  (That PC has also been active for 19 years, and is by a good ways the highest point PC in my campaign's history.) 

† - The GURPS line editor, for instance, pitches those levels lower than I do.  We're both contradicted by a number of GURPS products, some of which have been cranked so high that one of my players (and a SJ Games author himself) memorably burst out in reaction to 1st edition GURPS Special Ops, "What the hell, does the US Army have recruiting stations on Krypton??")

I'll also mention this, because it's come up in the past.  Now I like backstories. I've editorialized in their favor.  And I appreciate when players give nods to those backstories in character creation ... it's often enough the case that the Glassblower or Innkeeper skill that the character "had" in pre-adventuring days turns out very handy that the most recent Order of the Stick webcomic turned on just that point.  But eeesh ... the object of character creation isn't to perfectly reflect a character's past life, down to every conceivable skill they may have ever had as an accountant for a fintech corporation.  It's to create a viable adventurer for everything that happens after creation.  Someone with a point each into fifty skills at a level of 9-12 is going to be a speed bump.  How about half as many, with some at useful levels?

Beyond that, look.  You're the player, not me.  You should be playing a character with which you can live.  But if you're a new player in my campaign, you just aren't steeped in the setting.  I am.  You just don't know my foibles as a GM.  I better have a good handle on them.

So if I tell you, "That skill isn't useful in my campaign," I am not blowing smoke out my backside; it's a good idea to presume I know what I'm talking about.  If I tell you, "That skill level is unnecessarily high/uselessly low," I probably know what I'm talking about there as well.  If I tell you, "You know, the type of role you aim to play really needs X Advantage and Y skill," well ... you get the picture.  So I hope.  

Not every GM gives such hints.  Reject some of my advice, fair enough, you're exercising your own agency.  Reject most or all of it, you're not only shortchanging yourself, you're hoisting a big red flag.  (And holy heck, telling me "That element of your setting makes no sense" is jumping up and down waving a big flaming red flag.)  Since I am not interested in an adversarial GM-vs-players tong war, it's my invariable experience that the handful of people who've hoisted such a flag will be disruptive, keep on picking fights and not last long.  (Curiously enough, almost without exception these people are familiar with GURPS, as opposed to newbies learning the system fresh.)

22 February 2022

Dating Advice = Gaming Advice?

One of my guilty pleasures is following advice columns: Miss Manners, Ask Amy, the Love Letters column in the Boston Globe, Carolyn Hax, Dear Prudence, a fair number over the years.  (And half the fun are the ones with comment sections; the peanut gallery for Love Letters is especially raucous!)

One is a column by a chap named Harris O’Malley (doctornerdlove.com), whose particular specialty is dating/relationship advice as directed to geek/nerd subcultures.  He’s got a particularly pithy, jocular style, and advice I wish I’d had 40+ years ago, so as to have dodged some bad decisions and notions.  An example is one of his standards: to wit, it’s not that Nice Guys Finish Last, or that women really get off on Bad Boys treating them poorly.  It’s that while the Nice Guys are moping in silence, hoping against hope that their virtue will be rewarded -- without them ever sticking a toe in the water -- the Bad Boys aren’t hesitating to actually ask the women out.

You may be asking yourself, by now, what the merry hell this has to do with tabletop gaming?

Simple.  Just read on, and I’ll run some bulletpoints of the good Doctor’s standard lines:

1) Stop Taking Advice From People Who Hate The Folks You Want to Date: Something O’Malley riffs on a fair bit is the incel crowd, especially on places like Reddit.  To quote: “The appeal ... isn’t advice so much as catharsis. It’s about having people tell you what you want to hear while also yelling at the folks who stubbornly insist on dating people who aren’t you. So much of the advice is a tell, revealing their own fears, angers and insecurities.”

And doesn’t this apply to gaming forums, in spades?  Posters are screaming constantly, inflating minor misunderstandings to cause celebres, debates to rage wars, and disputes to “Gaming is ruined forever!!!”  Every issue needs to be war to the knife.  A game system that doesn’t reflect your every prejudice and preference is worthless and needs to be discarded.  Paizo putting a couple LGBT NPCs in with a hundred straight NPCs means that they’re taking over!!  How dare WotC make racial alignment optional??? 

It's not actually "discussion." It's baying at the moon.  No one needs to fall into their rabbit holes.  Beyond that, the Internet being the Internet, controversy drives page views.  Start a thread titled "I Like D&D" on a popular forum, and it'll get a dozen laconic responses and peter out in three days.  Start one called "Only Losers and Scum Like D&D," and that'll be a hundred posts deep in four hours flat, and rage on for weeks.

2) Know What You Want (And Own It): To quote O’Malley, “A smaller pool that consists entirely of folks who want what you want is far better than a huge pool of people who don’t. The former means that you’re dating people who crave the things you have to offer. The latter is a series of bad first dates and frustration for everybody.”

This is likewise one of my common riffs, if applied to gaming; I’m a staunch partisan of the premise that no gaming is better than bad gaming.  I’ll compromise on the things that don’t much matter to me, one way or another, but not on the things that really do.  At my age, I’ve had my fill of settling. 

Does that mean I have a smaller pool of potential players?  Yes.  Yes it does.  But it also means I have far fewer false starts, people who don't click with my style, people whose style I don't want at my table.  Especially with gaming going online, though, that pool is FAR larger than it ever was before.  One of my current players lives in Croatia; one lives in Germany.  I've never met them in the flesh and likely never will.

3) Embrace Honesty and Clarity: “We all have a tendency to assume that we’re all reading from the same handbook and playing by the same set of rules. It’s all too easy to think that our understanding of the rules and definitions of terms are not only the correct ones, but that they’re universal ... If you want dating to suck less, then you need to focus on clarity and mutual understanding. In fact, you may need to do so to the point of bluntness and beating someone about the head and shoulders with a clue-by-four. In practice, this means saying what you actually mean in a clear and understandable manner, rather than talking around it or using colorful but confusing or misleading language. If you’re saying “yes” to something but what you say doesn’t actually include the words “yes”, “I agree”, “let’s do that” or something equally clear, you’re going to run the risk of being misunderstood ... Somebody who dodges direct questions or won’t give you a straight answer has a vested reason to prefer confusion to clarity, and it’s never in your benefit.”

A long bit of quoting there, but once again, remove dating from that, substitute gaming, and this remains very sound advice.  Beyond that, a common feedback O’Malley gets from people asking for his advice is that if they are clear about their wants, needs and dislikes, they’ll scare people off.  To which O’Malley’s common response is: good!  Because, he feels, someone who just isn’t into the things you are is self-selecting out of your dating pool.  Do you want to date a heavy drinker if you’re a teetotaler?  Do you want to date someone who desperately wants children if you desperately don’t?  Do you want to date a rabid red-stater if you’re a rabid blue-stater, or vice versa?  Not unless you’re planning to waste that person’s time and yours for something that won’t end well.

And the same thing applies to gaming.  If you just can’t handle hack-and-slash, be honest about it.  If you absolutely have to play D&D 5th or bust, be honest about it.  If the thought of gaming over Discord leaves you cold, don't agree to it.  If you hate the thought of being in the same gaming group with That Guy, don't sign off on it.  Don’t be afraid to advocate for your must-haves/can’t handles.  Don’t be afraid to walk if you don’t get an answer you can hack.  There's always another table.  There are always people looking for games/GMs on Reddit or Discord.  There's your local FLGS, your local gaming convention, your local college gaming club.

4) Take People As They Are (Instead of Getting Mad For Who They Aren’t):
“Part of dating means accepting people as they actually are, rather than trying to mold them to your expectations. It doesn’t matter how universal you think your expectations are, nor how much better things would be for them if they would act just the way you want them to.  Letting your expectations overrule their reality is a recipe for conflict and heartbreak ... Demanding that they stop being who they are for you is a bad idea and – spoiler alert – it never works anyway ... You don’t get to force them to change. And if you can’t accept it or respect it… well, hey you know where the door is.”

And this is the corollary to #3.  Something to which O'Malley alludes is the danger of assumptions: that what you're used to is the only way to go, that the mores and practices of your social group are universal standards.  This is far more prevalent in gaming circles: so many of us play in small, insular groups, taught by our friends, with a hazy grasp of the printed rules, going by the houserules and customs of the band.  At my table, PvP is a mortal sin; at many others, backstabbing is standard operating procedure.  Romance is a common element of gameplay at my table; at many others, well, I've posted about that one.  I get very frosted if a player gets it into his head that I'm the enemy; at a number of tables, the players who don't recognize that the GM is out to get them are fools.

Something that often crops up on gaming forums are people who are just plain mad at those chowderheads who Just Won’t Game The Way I Want.  They won’t read the rules, or they won’t give me face time, or they won’t try the Great New Game I Just Bought, or they just won’t play the way I want them to play, on and on and on.

And one just gets the idea that they’re just waiting for a bunch of strangers on the Internet to agree with them, so they can whirl in righteous vindication at their gaming group, and cry out “SEE?!?”

Spoiler alert: it never works anyway.

03 February 2022

30 (+) Obnoxious Cultural Traits

There's a current (well, recently necroed) thread on my favorite gaming forum of 101 Obnoxious Cultural Traits.  Diving right in, herewith are my entries so far, for your own use and edification! If you feel some of these reflect real world cultures, you may well be right ...

"We're all badasses!  Can't you see the skull?"

1) They are relentless exceptionalists. Their culture/nation is just superior. Everything they do is better. Every institution they have is superior. Their blood is purer. Their crops are taller, their livestock is bigger, their children are smarter, their hats are wider, their music is louder, their sports are more "manly." It isn't even as if they feel they're in a competition: they think they already won them all a long time ago. Any evidence to the contrary is just white noise, and met with bemused, patronizing smiles.

2) As a variant of the above, they feel their culture is the center of the universe. Everyone else is a barbarian, and they just can't wrap their heads around dealing with outsiders except on terms of supplicants kowtowing to their masters. They're always right, everyone else is always wrong. 

3) They are rabid libertarians. The notion of a "common good" is sneered at, never mind sacrificing to achieve it. Any hint at restraining their "freedom" must be the result of malice, a vile conspiracy or enemy action. (Somewhat more obnoxiously, their notion of "freedom" suddenly comes to a screeching halt when it comes to how YOU act towards THEM.)

4) They loathe and despise another major culture/nation. Nothing from that culture can be any good. No one from that culture is any good. Having so much of an ancestor of that culture defiles you irrevocably. The laws notwithstanding, crimes committed against people from that culture are no more credited by the authorities than crimes committed against a cockroach. That other culture/nation is plainly out to do them down, and must be opposed at all times and at all hazards, reflexively.  If an actual conflict breaks out, it's war to the knife.

5) Their notion of driving comes, one might joke, from demolition derbies. They hurl their vehicles forward at reckless speeds. Traffic laws, driving lanes, curbsides, these are designed to be flouted. Other vehicles, obstacles, buildings, these are expected to yield or vanish at their approach. Their attitude towards pedestrians is apparently that they collect points for mowing them down, like a pinball game. Being a passenger in their vehicles feels very much like you're on the wrong end of a cavalry charge.

6) Their notion of formal courtesy is staggeringly complex, and lacks any sense of a guiding principle: there are just rules upon rules upon rules. There aren't merely a few forms of address; there are hundreds. It's not that the rules themselves are incomprehensible, it's that there are so damn many. Failure to conform with each and every one of them tags you, irrevocably, as a barbarian.

7) Likewise, they have a complex code of behavior based around clothing, jewelry, face painting and/or tattoos. Where and whether you wear a stud of a red stone in a gold setting, versus wearing a blue stone in a silver setting, announces that you're in a committed monogamous relationship, versus being up for one-off sexual encounters with strangers in the nearest convenient alley. (Or so it would seem.) This code signifies area of birth, political or religious affiliation, the whole works. Wearing the items the "wrong" way is Not Done ... well, other than by adolescents trying to shock the squares. They all reflexively assume outsiders are familiar with and are conforming to the code, and are very wrongfooted if this isn't the case.

8) Some common terms in their language are vile obscenities in yours, or vice versa. "Good morning, how are you faring?" is their standard greeting, and the words in your language imply that the speaker personally facilitated your spouse becoming a diseased prostitute.  The very name of their people, in their own language, is an obscenity in yours.

9) They are a homogeneous society, exclusively of an insular ethnic group. They will learn the language of another culture only grudgingly, and practice elements of that culture in like fashion, like someone scrunching up their faces and holding their noses. Intolerant of immigrants, outsiders in their homeland are stigmatized and relegated to menial or dangerous professions. Marrying outside their culture is unthinkable.  They tend, generally, to be isolationists.

10) In a more extreme fashion – tip of the cap to Prof. Barker! – the culture is downright xenophobic. They won't even pretend to tolerate the practices of outsiders, nor soil their tongues with barbarian languages.  Foreigners had better stay in their insular cantonments after business hours (and will be cheated and derided during them), or risk running into gangs whose idea of fun is impaling them.

11) They just don't get the practices of other cultures. They're not unduly mean or rude about it, nor are they haughty over the correctness of their own culture, but they can't comprehend deviations from their own practices, no matter how often displayed or repeated.

12) They're inveterate and reflexive duelists. They're touchy about a lot of things, and an insult can only be wiped out in blood: there's pretty much a duel going on all the time in any city (and they're outright spectator sports).  The code duello is comprehensive and well-known. Declining a duel provokes the same horrified reactions as urinating on an altar during a religious service might.

13) Speaking of which ... they don't have much body consciousness regarding evacuation. Publicly urinating or defecating is the norm. Dropping trou to wipe their genitals with a cloth -- oh, hey, your handkerchief will do, much thanks! -- is common.

14) They are extreme xenophiles. Everything other cultures do is Neat! and Cool!  A product wrapping, a business sign, these are invariably in some other language (and they're often careless about the translation).  They give their children foreign -- or foreign-sounding -- names.  They're passionately interested in every difference, and regard every manifestation or behavior you might make as potentially some new Neat! and Cool! practice. They want to know All About It! Why is it you rub your chin like that? Did you get that from your parents? Is that a religious thing? Neat!

15) They have an extensive caste system, and everyone has their place within it. The system's very rigid, and rules govern how you treat people at every rung; violating these rules isn't merely a social offense but a religious one as well. They seek to fit you into a slot, and are visibly uncomfortable with those who do not fit.  However much they grudgingly recognize that other cultures don't play by their rules, it's hard for them to deal with and it shows.

16) The culture is just reflexively and mindlessly cruel, compared to yours. People think nothing of lashing lower-status folk with barbed quirts or whips, mutilating servants, putting animals to painful deaths just for the heck of it.  Athletic events which don't draw blood are for wimps. Outright executions take hours, and are spectator sports, with families bringing lunch baskets to the party, and the executioners take payments to cut off this part or that. How much am I bid for a finger? C'mon, you can do better than that! What's that you say, you call dibs on the left testicle? And so on and so forth.

17) A staple livestock (treated routinely as food in YOUR culture) is regarded as sacred. The animals are inviolate, allowed to wander around as they please, breeding and eating as they will. Just touching them is suspect. Molesting or impeding them will earn you a beating at best. Actually harming one will subject the perp to a gruesome death; being burned alive is standard. Eating the animal's flesh (or using its byproducts) is considered cannibalism and sacrilegious, and being known to be from a culture where that happens marks you as suspect. Accusations are routine and often knee-jerk: you'd better not sport a feather in your hat, if you don't want someone to scream that you plucked it from a sacred chicken ...

18) Some common practice is fetishized to the extreme. Let's take the color yellow, for example. Everyone wears it. No one's seen without it. Great care is taken to keep those yellow articles of clothing spotless and pristine. Spitting on something that's colored yellow is a near-sacrilegious act. Insulting the color absolutely is. People will stop and pray for a minute before whipping an egg yolk ... or doing anything that will harm or mar something colored yellow. "Sash-smearer" is their worst insult (referring to those unutterable louts who spill sauces on their yellow sashes). Even down to everyone daily consuming enough of a certain herb to ensure that they don't disrespect the revered color through urination. Pardon me, sir (delivered in a chilly tone), why aren't you eating your mlekil-root? What does its taste have to do with it?

19) It's an equestrian culture. Possession of a riding animal is a prerequisite to being treated as a real person, and one's skill at riding is paramount in determining status. All art and architecture is suffused with references to riding. Combat solely takes place mounted, and being dismounted or having your mount killed automatically means you yield/surrender. People would rather ride twenty miles than walk one. The very word for "human" in their language is literally "one who rides," and someone unable to ride (through inexperience, no talent, disability or age) is no longer treated as an adult, and will not be trusted with any responsible position.

20) No negotiation, no business dealing can be concluded before several rounds of their bitter, foul-tasting, very heavily alcoholic national drink. Wincing, flinching, or gagging means you're less than a real person. Never mind -- the gods forbid! -- declining.  What?!  You refuse to drink with us!?  (cue hand dropping to sword hilt)

21) Insults are the common way of treating other people. Greeting your best friend or spouse with "How goes it, you ugly goatfucker?" is considered a basic sign of affection. By contrast, treating someone with formal courtesy is considered insulting.

22) All foods must be prepared in a certain way (particular to each food or dish), and only in that way. You can only eat omelets; scrambled eggs are taboo. You can only eat broiled steaks; panfried or steak stir fry is right out. You can only find skim milk; whole fat milk doesn't exist. Etcetera.

23) Lying is a serious sin in this culture, and on the one hand that's a good thing. But the flip side is that people are seriously gullible, and will swallow the most bizarre delusions, if delivered earnestly enough. These are the people who believe in Pizzagate, the Piltdown Man, blood libels, Satanic ritual abuse, evil clowns, that the 2020 election was rigged, that the presence of wizards in neighborhoods cause people to become sterile, that the world will end on Kelusse 15 at two hours to sunsdown, and that the Martian War Machines will be responsible. They're altogether too easy to cheat or scam ... and altogether too willing to tear suspected cheaters and scammers to pieces, if the bastards are outed.

24) Religion is omnipresent to an overbearing degree. Prayer is a part of all business. Attending daily services is a must, and the truly pious squeeze more in. No home is without a niche to the gods/ancestors/spirits, and the poor beggar themselves for candles and offerings. Incredibly arcane -- and near-trivial -- facets of the faith are exhaustively contentious and continually debated, and riots have started over whether their god has two natures but only one will, or two wills and only one nature. (That particular riot ended when the two sides joined forces to attack the faction holding that the god had an equally balanced number of wills and natures: heresy!) An economically draining and disproportionate number are in the clergy. They're aware that outlanders hold to different faiths, and don't harass them for it, but it's all very tiresome.

24b) Come to that, take just about any aspect of life -- sports, politics, literature, leisure pastimes -- and apply the same treatment. Everyone reads all the time, no one's considered educated or a grown-up without being familiar with the entirety of the culture's literary canon, constant debates over New Works vs Traditional Works, fist fights over whether the newest translation was botched, people who can't whip out quotes at the drop of a pin derided for being bumpkins, society coming to a screeching halt when the Greatest Living Author comes out with a new book, society coming to a screeching halt for the state funeral when the Greatest Living Author kicks it. Etc.

25) The society's pretty straightlaced, nose to the grindstone, work work work. But at quitting time on Friday (or the equivalent thereof), all hell breaks loose. Everyone gets hammered, everyone gets laid, everyone dives into a completely over the top bacchanal. Kick the gendarmes in the jimmies, smash windows and furniture in the ensuing drunken stupor, empty your gun into the ceiling, throw up on your boss after pointing at her husband's crotch and laughing, it's all laughed off: "Whiskey, eh." At dawn the party stops, the cleanup begins, and everyone makes a point -- or that's the ideal, anyway -- of not mentioning it.

26) The culture has no sense of privacy. Everyone's in everyone else's business, all the time. It's only mildly suspect to come home to find a neighbor rifling through your papers and cabinets. Evasive or non-answers (or, gasp, locking one's door) invariably provoke a startled "Whaddaya got to hide?"

27) The culture has a fetish for divination. Everyone looks for omens for everything. The bones are cast, or the cards are read, or the entrails are examined for auspicious days to begin any significant undertaking. You might have to dodge passersby on the streets who are staring straight up, trying to discern patterns in the clouds or the flight of birds. No one will conclude serious business with you before consulting their fortuneteller, or asking you your birthday so they can have their neighborhood astrologer cast your horoscope.

28) The society highly values the ability to withstand pain. Ordeals are rites of passage, and torture the answer to just about everything. Showing fear under threat is shameful, keeping silent under torture is what separates persons from non-persons, and only silent deaths are considered honorable.

29) The culture's never shaken its nomadic roots. Buildings -- and they're never more than two stories -- are constructed with only three walls; the fourth is invariably of heavy canvas, leather, wicker or some other impermanent substance ... wattle-and-daub at the utmost. It's considered decadent to own more than you can carry in a wagon, or any one object too heavy to put in a packsaddle. The mark of how close your folk adhere to cultural purity is whether or not you go through with burning down your entire city once every twelve years -- as was done in the old days -- and rebuild it a mile thataway. Large-scale industry is disparaged in favor of handicrafts.

30) People speak what's on their mind.  It's not quite that they can't lie, or hold a secret, but they're seriously blunt, they have no social filters, and furthermore everyone's expected to take it in stride.   

31) Steel is sacred. Steel is holy. You proudly display your weapons, that all may honor them. You care for your knives like you would for your young. Better than. A rust spot on your blade, a notch, a pit ... and you have insulted Steel itself; you are not fit to live! (And you must die by stoning -- no steel must be sullied with your polluted blood.) A man whose weapon breaks is as good as emasculated. Your wealth must be spent on the finest scabbards, silver wire for the hilts, beautiful gems for the pommels. Only the best whetstones will do. Master armourers are the leaders and arbiters of society. Hail to Sacred Steel!

... stranger, where are your blades? (narrow stare)