Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Those Crowned In Bone

Those Crowned In Bone
Demons of the Eighth Order
Art by me, acrylic on paper. Click to enlarge

The Angels of Death, The Samael, The Wailing Ones, The Divine Poison, Handmaids of the Eighth King are summoned to enforce contracts. Their aspect is impersonal, implacable. Once activated, they cannot be recalled. Plants grow strange and curling black shoots in their wake. Their faces are bone.

They may be summoned by impaling eight victims from three directions at right angles with iron rods such that they can be and are then placed at the vertices of a large cube of these rods set within an octagonal ritual perimeter. Their names, such as Destroyerannihilator and Destructorexterminator have eight syllables.

Design Notes:

(from “Demons” in "Kinds of Horrors" section)

Demons always appear attached in some way to some NPC. They are personifications of sin and, as such, are not being fully utilized unless they, in some way, emphasize the sins of ordinary humans. Most demons named here are quite powerful and so should only be sprung on the party once they have thoroughly investigated the more mundane corruption that the demon’s presence invites and cultivates.

The chaos caused by the influence of demons may at first appear to be the work of a serial killer, or a mass delusion—there will be repeated themes and symmetries, and things to look up in occult texts.
The first encounter with the actual demon may go quite poorly for the party (some are essentially invulnerable) and the Host should design the adventure such that there is at least one way s/he can think of that the party could escape (whether they think of it, or a better solution, is up to them). One way or another, however, it should be made clear that these things can be defeated, or at least driven off—and the adventure should also be designed so that its clear a second encounter with a more prepared party might go better. Be generous with occult information from Contacts and other NPCs—even with it, the fight will be a challenge. There are more details on how exorcism rituals can work in the Supernatural Abilities section of the Library.

Calm: 10
Agility: 8
Toughness: 9
Perception: 9
Appeal: 0
Cash: 0
Knowledge: 9

Calm Check: 9
Cards: Death (15), Emperor (4), Justice (11), Eight of Swords, Two of Swords

Special abilities:

Demonic: Demons don’t need to breathe or digest, don’t age, and are immune to poison, etc. and cannot be mentally controlled with psionic abilities. Animals will avoid the demon in any form.

Sixth Sense: All demons are supersensitive to danger, hostile emotions and signs of past trauma or the supernatural.

Flight: These Demons move at running speed in the air.

Sword: Those Crowned in Bone carry swords which do Overwhelming Damage.

Invulnerability: These demons can only be harmed be directly harmed by magic.


The holy symbols of any faith causes a demon to make a Calm check or flee until they are out of sight. The intensity of the calm check is equal to the degree of fervor of whoever is wielding it (1-9). In the case of an incidentally encountered symbol (a glimpsed church steeple, for instance) the intensity is 2.

Touching a holy symbol, including holy water, does damage to a demon as an ordinary physical attack.

Speaking the true name of demon causes it great pain, and the creature must make a Calm Check against the speaker’s Calm each round to avoid obeying the attacker.

The Samael cannot see anyone except their prey—those who have failed to fulfill their side of a contract.

These demons come only at night.
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Friday, February 16, 2018

She's a Witch

version of the witch for Demon City


Witches (usually female), Witch-Lords (usually male) and Witch Children are mortals who have given over their bodies and souls to demons in exchange for necromantic power. These contracts gnarl their bodies and distend their minds into scheming caricatures. They also eat infants.

Their lives are tragic and their motives always have some petty element—to ruin a past rival in love, to avenge themselves on the authors of a long-ago mockery or humiliation—but the scope of their retributions is vast: whole cities, bloodlines, professions, might be made to pay for the trespass of a lone constituent. Even the mountains of hate that would drive a witch to bring forth all the legions of all the damned to devastate a continent will inevitably have first clotted around some clouded cataract of distant pain.

These depressing creatures might be found leading cults of ordinary sociopaths, swelling the ranks of small or quite extensive and networked covens with fellow practitioners of necromancy, or operating alone, in places nearly as lonely as they are.

Design Notes:

Like demons, witches generally appear to punish victims for something. Unlike demons, this is often something with no meaning to anyone else. The victims are too curious, too naive, too confident, too pretty, too lustful. The witch sees an underlying order to things and gleefully informs the trespassers they have broken it, and will suffer. Witches are also associated with homes—unless the transgression they come to punish is something very specific, the witch is usually content to occupy some dark place (a hovel, a corner suite, a tent by the methadone clinic) and wait for parties to come to her (which is, itself, often considered a crime to be punished).
Moreso than the necromancer (who relies on books) or the deathless (who conjures with ancient gestures) the necromancy of the witch is characterized by ingredients. The witch needs to collect things: tears from a spurned lover, hairs from the family cat, etc. This can create a mystery with no corpse: why are all the left shoes missing from the closet? 

Typical Witch, Witch-Child or Witch-Lord

Calm: 0
Agility: 1
Toughness: 1
Perception: 6 (Can range up to 9)
Appeal: 0
Cash: 4
Knowledge: 6 (Can range up to 9)

Calm Check: 4 (Can range up to 9)
Cards: Queen of Wands (10), Queen of Cups (10), The Devil (15), The Moon (18) Possibly: The High Priestess (2)

Special Abilities:

Necromancy: Any caster/psychic of witchcraft will have at least 7 necromantic spells prepared to cast at any given moment, at least one of which will be a Curse and one of which will be Dim and Darken. These will generally have an intensity equal to their Knowledge stat.

Sixth Sense: All users of witchcraft are supersensitive to danger, hostile emotions and signs of past trauma or the supernatural.

Cyclical Regeneration: Witches regenerate all damage when they Throw any of their special cards.

Haywire Hex: Electronic detection devices and gunpowder firearms simply do not work on witches. They jam or break.

(possibly) Familiar: Familiars are animals bound by witchcraft. The master can control the creature completely (or it controls them? Either way: their will is unified) and see through its eyes—it may be any creature dog-sized or smaller, usually an ordinary animal, but occasionally something stranger.

Marks of Witchcraft: 
In addition to any obvious deformities, there will be at least one other mark—throw or pick one
1 Forked tongue
2 Warts
3 Facial features transposed or missing
4 No neck—head simply floats
5 Looks preternaturally attractive—appeal 6—until touched
6 Jagged teeth—bite inflicts damage as a standard attack
7 One withered hand
8 Followed by rats, spiders, other vermin (this is not a proper swarm, just a subtle cosmetic effect)
9 Appears to be an animal when asleep
10 Two left feet

Witch Gifts :
Constant traffic with witchcraft alters cause and effect around the damned creature. Throw or pick one
( “Presence” means for these purposes within 100’ and the Witch/Lord/Child can see or be seen by the character.)

1 Immune to metal
2 Transmits a curse via sexual intercourse
3 Food spoils in the witch/lord/child’s presence
4 Disorienting presence causes blurred vision and minor hallucinations—everyone must Check Calm vs 3 or act intoxicated
5 Married people forget their spouse’s names in Witch/Lord/Child’s presence.
6 Animals obey witch/lord/child 
7 Emerge from the Darkness: If unwitnessed, witches (etc) may step into any shadow in the city where they are summoned and reappear through any other in the same city.
8 Burning touch (Gains a bonus Throw to hit with a physical attack since witch/lord/child doesn’t have to hit very hard)
9 Kiss causes target to sleep (Calm Check each round to avoid or wake)
10 Induces panic in nuns on sight


No practitioner of witchcraft can move through a door with a pointed arch.

A virgin’s touch will reveal a disguised witch or lord for what they truly are.
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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Demon City Preview With Sexy Sexy Layouts

Click a layout to enlarge it
Click this tag to find out more
Go here to help out
Haven't copy-edited the text yet so there's clear spelling and punc fuck-ups, but you get an idea what it'll look like.

And of course there's a typo right there on page one

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Biggest Scandal In The History of RPGs

Let's talk about exploitation

Some Basic Math

I write a column for an art magazine.

It's like 700 words. Functionally speaking (including talking to my editor and looking stuff up and rewriting) it takes me about one work day (8 hours) to write.

So, like, let's say most writers could do 500-1000 words per day of decent, usable prose if they were writing something requiring some original thought, like an RPG. Especially if they were doing it every day. That's where I ballpark myself when I do game gigs for people.

Now let's pay our imaginary writer the rates that popular indie RPG publishers Evil Hat (which has the popular Dresden Files game) and Green Ronin (which has its DC Adventures game on the shelves of every local game store I've ever seen) pay their authors:

5 cents a word.

$0.05 a word x 500-1000 words a day. That's 25-50$ a day. Quite a bit south of minimum wage.

261 work days in a year x 50 = 13,050$ a year.

The US poverty line for a single person with no kids is $13,860.

And that's our best case scenario, with the writer writing at the bleeding edge of what they could reasonably write per day, as if they had a project for one of these companies every day, with no spouse or kid to feed.

And yet somehow the people at the top of these companies (Fred Hicks and Chris Pramas respectively) live full-time off publishing games and support kids.


James Edward Raggi, one of my publishers, aka Lamentations of the Flame Princess--who:

1. Does not have any licensed media like Dresden Files or DC Comics

2. Whose books are most definitely not on the shelves in every local game store

3. Yet also lives exclusively off RPG publishing

...has run the math on the various deals he offers his creators. These vary. One deal he offers is an upfront payment plus, if a book earns out this upfront payment, royalties on top of that.

The math turns out to be (advance plus royalties)--LotFP's 21st best selling book (that is 20 books sell better than this one) is still making its creator 26 cents a word (which is 21 in eurocents).

If you're wondering: he also pays quarterly and scrupulously on time.

So, A Question

Let's say you do not think that the blood, gore, fancy prose, player-challengey mechanics, high death toll and weird art of LotFP is better than what Evil Hat and Green Ronin are putting out.

Let's say it does not bother you that Evil Hat has had major business ties to rape-scandal-riddled RPG forum RPGnet (and the sexist "For Men Only" ads that run on it).

Let's say it does not bother you that Green Ronin is similarly linked to sexual improprieties 1.

Let's say it does not bother you that Evil Hat's head Fred Hicks has a record of harassing other creators2 and then, when questioned, claiming he can't discuss the accusations he makes for mental health reasons.

Let's say it does not bother you that Green Ronin cheats the LGBT creators 3 it is using to try to market itself as woke.

Let's say it does not bother you that they do these things while continuously and aggressively paying lipservice to supposedly progressive ideals and using supposed devotion to equality and diversity to market their products.

Let's say it does not bother you that these publishers run the other way as soon as anyone even seeks to engage them critically about any of this.

Let's say you hate me and have some conspiracy theory take where all these well-documented things didn't actually happen.

Let's say these companies make your favorite games ever.

Let's assume all that is true:

Why, though, even with all that, are freelancers ok with these dudes exploiting every creator they work with on this level for the sake of their straight white cis profits?

Why don't you leave and go make your own stuff--or hook up with a company that will give you the kind of profit-split deal that LotFP and the companies that follow its model have been able to give their creators?

1 Green Ronin's sex pestery here
2 Fred's Harassment rap sheet
3 Bad business here

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Dream-Space of Abstract Threat

"Something real and tangible, yet fraught with infinite suggestions of nighted mystery, now confronted me."

Reading Lovecraft's Shadow Out Of Time again--it's great.

The usual sort of nervous academic narrates a story of experiencing a strange split consciousness, being not wholly himself, strange visions and dreams of massive landscapes, compulsions to consult obscure texts. All this is wonderfully done--better than usual, I'd say, Lovecraft in top form: shadowy but crisp, obscured but never vague, never embedded more in the mundane than necessary to feel grounded.

The narrator does eventually get around to describing why all this is happening to him. Spoilers:

Specifically goofy-shaped psychic aliens that take over peoples' brains and zoom around in space ships, rovers and boats and zap each other with "cameralike" weapons.

These guys:
Fun, definitely, but ironically lacking all the emotional and aesthetic qualities that seemed to horror enthusiasts to be distinctive enough that someone decided to coin the adjective "Lovecraftian".

This is one of the paradoxes of Lovecraft: his actual inventions were, if not banal, at least, technically, almost wholly typical of the kinds of pulpy sci-fi of the era. It was how he described them and--moreover--their effect on people, that was magically creepy.

The quality of any given Lovecraft story tends to depend a lot on how he manages the transition from the dream-space of abstract threat (his forte) to actually telling us what the monster is (a big roll of the dice).

My restrictions as a prisoner gradually disappeared, so that some of the visions included vivid travels over the mighty jungle roads, sojourns in strange cities, and explorations of some of the vast dark windowless ruins from which the Great Race shrank in curious fear (Beautiful, awesome) There were also long sea-voyages in enormous, many-decked boats of incredible swiftness, and trips over wild regions in closed, projectile-like airships lifted and moved by electrical repulsion (Wait, you were in a blimp?)

It's not exactly the old cliche that "what you imagine is scarier than anything you could see" I think it's more that the dreamstate of only half-imagining is a more powerful evocative state than the fully described thing. That juxtaposition of that half of it that is nailed down with a few specificities with that other half that could still be anything and you haven't thought too hard about it is essential.

This is one reason why the actual Call of Cthulhu book and its laying out of the "mythos creatures" always seems a little disappointing--although these squidbeasts and tentacled pyramidheads are the lynchpin, justification and most identifiable characteristic of the Lovecraft stories, they aren't the actual heart of the magic.

The magic (as in most horror) is in the delirious prose evocation of the emotion of guessing at and anticipating them. The simple word "Azathoth" contains much more of it than the image or stats in the book. (Lovecraft's first mention of it was in a note to himself that just read "Azathoth--hideous name".)

I think a lot of weird fiction after Lovecraft (and influenced by him) recognized this--and tried to find ways to suspend that moment of not-knowing-what-the-fuck as long as possible. When Ligotti describes language and life itself as the horror he's trying to do this, when Grant Morrison describes a demon as made of the collective despair over like Hiroshima he's trying to do this: the story can't be let down by the final boss' banality because the final boss still has a gap of effective indescribability.

Lovecraft knew the trick, even if he didn't ultimately rely on it: the "non-euclidean angles" and the "concepts beyond our understanding"--these were word-constructs, not descriptions of mere things you could picture and get bored of.

To describe the indescribable space of dream, (by which I mean the consciousness characteristic of real dreams which films and books and games can sometime approximate) I'd say:

There is an unquestioned assumption that something is there and real, without the sobriety, distance and clarity that the mind constantly unconsciously uses to understand the thing's full shape and limits. The important questions that would establish how a thing is in the world are not answered but also never asked.

Games have one disadvantage in getting you into the dreamspace of abstract threat in that in even the spookiest situation you generally know the thing does have stats and is embedded in a world where foes are basically challenges that can be addressed. The possibility of uncontested annihilation is off the table. It always boils down to a bag of procedures or numbers.

On the other hand, games have one tremendous advantage: unlike a short story or film, the game does contain something that is there and is authentically of unknown and unknowable shape--the future of the campaign.

It is undeniable that the campaign will keep going and it is undeniable that no-one can describe in full detail where it will go. The campaign need not simulate the ecstasy of potential dangers and evolutions, metastasizing meanings, it is that. You are in the midst of a genuinely half-shaped and half-shapeless thing. With a book, you could skip to the end and the unknown turns into a package, a product, a mere evocation of infinity, not the actually infinite. In game, as long as the campaign is still on, you are still watching form solidify from a shadow that is not yet used up: continuously and in real-time.

The demon of RPGs means Tiamat is far more statted, described and knowable than she is in any story where she might appear, but it also means what will happen when I meet her is far less knowable. When I pick up the ring it might mean something and it might not.

And that--feeling being in the middle of that--is kind of great.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Frostbitten & Mutilated preview+More Matt Finch Conversation

Oh, check it--here's the 3rd part of me talking to Matt (Frog God Games, Tome of Adventure Design, Swords & Wzardry, etc) Finch. We start by brainstorming a Northern Islamic setting and move on to the Brazilian favelas, D&D tattoos, the process of consulting on 5th edition D&D, and the design of D&D as a whole, the Warhammer 40k games, killing a space pirate, D&D fans appearing everywhere, how porn stars react to games and how games bring people together.


Ladies and gentlemen and everyone who is neither, the work variously known as Viking Amazons of the Devoured Land, Black Metal Amazons of the Frozen North, etc, is at the printer...

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Psychodrama and Sociodrama and RPGs

At the Indiecade before last I was looking at a game by a well-known Indie RPG darling/gadfly:

It was a freeform LARP--presenting, as an avant-garde game, the following scenario: two players play a couple trying to decide whether to get an abortion or not and the third played a doctor. I think maybe they were in Northern Ireland. More or less freeform, with not many further instructions. It made me wonder...

Despite the fact that RPGs (like most art forms these days) are increasingly being called to the principal's office to ask what they're doing to improve the Republic, I've seen surprisingly little discussion of role-playing gaming's near-cousin: role-playing therapy.

This may be because people don't know much about it, or perhaps because advocates of the socially therapeutic RPG generally like to present their product as radical and new, rather than reaching back toward a practice that's been around for a hundred years.

At any rate, it's an interesting subject, and one no theoretical discussion of the role of RPGs as self-improving or as "exploring difficult issues" can afford to ignore.

When any RPG is presented as intended to clarify or explore a player's real-world emotional or intellectual connection to serious issues we should definitely take a look at the work of the professionals who have been doing a similar thing (though usually without dice) since forever.

The basic method originated with Romanian shrink Jacob L. Moreno and, at least for his lineage, breaks down into two main types: psychodrama and sociodrama. Here he is "GMing" a psychodrama.

In psychodrama, the goal is to help a single person, and the other participants take on support roles which emphasize, reiterate, repeat or analyze that main character's role.

In sociodrama, the goal is to help a community deal with issues that affect the community as a whole, and people take on disparate roles in that community.

Practically speaking, the "deep" exploratory RPG might have elements in common with both.

They both make extensive use of a very storygamey technique (I use this adjective advisedly--it is pointed out as specifically a storygamey technique by none other than Andy Kitkowski, the founder of scene-framing. That is: the group agrees a scene will begin in a certain place.

Many readers may have encountered a form of sociodrama at school--during one of those assemblies where a woman with a scarf comes and says "Ok we're going to talk about drugs! Franklin, you're going to be pressuring your friend Carl to smoke doobies".

The overall idea is: people act out the scene. Then, afterward, they talk about what things in the scene meant, what seemed true or false, what ideas or observations were or were not important. Issues emerge.

Some excerpts from the literature:

Moreno’s role theory of personality holds that the behavior and motives of human beings can be best understood by studying the collection of the various roles through which they interact with others and which give form to their inner realm of desires, fantasies, dreams and aspirations.

On the appropriate personnel for a sociodrama:

Three to five of the participants can be players, while the other 10 to 12 participants have an important role as audience members.

The method--each person improvises inside a given character:

They should not plan exactly what they will say. It is better to have the players act out more or less spontaneously what comes to mind.

Remind the players that they will not be acting as themselves – they should present a normal or real scene from their community. You may encourage players to act as a person of a different age or gender if they feel comfortable doing this, as it can be more entertaining for the audience.

Role-playing tips:

Suggest the following to the players: speak in a loud voice; utilize body expression, movement, and gestures; try not to have more than one person speak at the same time


Instruct players to discuss where the scene will take place, what characters will be in the
drama, and what they will do.

Tell the players that they should act out normal life (what people say and do), the whole setting, not just the exact topic they are given.

Tell the players that they should perform a series of scenes.

Suggest that they make the scenes “interesting” by acting out what typically happens in the particular setting, regardless of whether it concerns the selected topic.

Remind the players that they should act out what actually happens in their community –not what they think is proper or the “correct” answers. Remind them again that they are not playing themselves, but are showing what is generally done.

A sample scenario:

Scenario 1: Resisting peer pressure (delay, stopping, in relationship)

1) A 14 year old girl is being teased by her friends about how they have sex. They try to convince her that she should try it, saying that she is silly and young because she has not tried and they will not chat as much with her if she does not try. The girl tries to resist the pressure. (3-5 girls)

2) A 15 year old boy who has never had sex decides to wait for marriage, or until he is much older. He lives in the boys’ quarters with his friends and older brothers. His friends try to convince him to change his mind and get a girlfriend. (3 – 5 boys)

3) A 12 year old girlfriend tries to persuade her boyfriend that they need to have sex as part of their relationship. Later, his friend can join the discussion (1 girl, 2 boy(s))

4) A 15 year old boyfriend tries to convince his girlfriend to have sex. (2 people)

I don't have much of a thesis here, just some questions--we are watching some parts of the RPG community move very much in this direction--whole games are being designed around "healing" the players. Obviously people are doing this because they want to and see value in it, but I haven't yet seen anyone articulate what the value of doing these kinds of games in an RPG space rather than in a medical space or theatrical one is for them personally. And I haven't seen much development of ideas around which spaces are better for what purposes or how a group goes about deciding what proportion of therapy to what proportion of entertainment a game might contain (and does "catharsis" land someone in the middle?).

I suggest the whole subject is worth further investigation.