Sunday, October 29, 2017

Summer's Gone, and the World's a Darker Place

This isn't a gaming post, but a memorial.

I found out this morning that a student of mine passed away. Her name was Summer, and she was one of my very favorite students. She was just 23 years old. I usually don't get very emotional, but I've been crying all day. I need to tell you why. It's just so fucking awful, unfair and shitty. Fuck.

A few weeks ago, Summer started feeling sick, and thought she had a cold. It didn't go away, so finally she went to the doctor. They told her it was a cold, too. A couple of days later she collapsed, and she flat-lined. She was rushed to the hospital, where they were able to revive her. She was unable, beyond that point, to do much more than blink, but they thought she was still "in there," and able to communicate through blinking her eyes. That might or might not have been true, as they later found out she'd incurred some brain damage while her heart was stopped.

They moved her to Emory University Hospital, in Atlanta. I've been waiting and trying to follow her situation since then, but getting the news through second and third-hand sources. I'd been waiting and hoping for the situation to turn around. It didn't. It got worse. She finally was diagnosed as needing a heart transplant. Then, they discovered that she was allergic to the blood thinners she'd need to make such a procedure viable. In the end, there was nothing anyone could do to make her better.

Her boyfriend and executor was told that he could either wait for the inevitable or take her off life support immediately. That's where my knowledge gets hazy. I know that he didn't immediately take her off life support, but nothing between that and when she died, shortly after 3 a.m. on Saturday.

When I met Summer, she was a major in my department. As I got to know her, mostly during the few classes she took from me, I found out that she was a deeply weird person. Not surprisingly we developed a mutual appreciation, and she took more of my classes, the last of which was Advanced Public Speaking. In that class, I ran a game/simulation called Romans... in Space! She played a character named Numeria Ulpia Crispa, and boy did she play it to the hilt. She was funny and mischievous in her play, making me and everyone else laugh at how far she'd take it. At one point, when the head of the Ulpius family was absent from class, she took the initiative to establish a new family business: a porn store. She was so very pleased with herself, and couldn't wait to tell Colin, whose absence she'd exploited for her own amusement. Why? Because it was funny. I loved that about her.

Here's what I learned about her, over the couple of years I knew her. Summer was on her own in the world, except for her boyfriend. She was estranged from her parents, who were alcoholics and addicts. She'd left home when she was very young, and supported herself working the kinds of jobs someone without a degree can get. She worked full time at a coffee shop, usually opening at 5:30 a.m., so she could attend classes at the university. She'd recently completed an internship where, if I'm reading things correctly, she made a bunch of new friends and really impressed her boss. That's pretty typical. It's just how she was.

As a professor, I try really hard not to play favorites. I try to treat every student with respect, caring, and honesty. I try to be fair (but kind) in my evaluations of their work, and to help them get where they need to go, from wherever they might start. Some care about their work, and some don't. I really appreciate the ones who do care. Summer was one of them. She was never the best of my students, academically, but she sure as hell was one of the best people. There's a lot of shitty people in this wicked world, and it's just so fucking unfair that she was the one who got this.

She was a great person to have in the classroom, always present and engaged. She had some struggles with writing. She wasn't a strong writer, despite being smart and articulate. But she took her lumps, grade-wise, and payed attention to the feedback I gave her. She never got discouraged. She was getting better, bit by bit, and I know she knew it. It fucking kills me that she never got to a point where she was able to feel like she was a good writer. Maybe I'm just projecting my own concerns, but I think she would have relished the accomplishment, and probably would have said something funny about it. I probably would have told her how proud I was of her, and that I knew how hard she'd worked to get there. And she would smile, because she always smiled; and I would smile, too. Now we won't get the chance to share that moment, and I am so filled with sadness right now that I can hardly bear it.

That's how I'll remember Summer: Smiling.

Summer, you were a really sweet kid. I loved having you around, and in my classes. I hope that, in some small way, I made life happier for you, too. You left us far, far too soon. I will miss you, you weirdo, and I will always remember you. You were one of the good ones. I wish I'd had more time to be your friend.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

DCC Tournament Time

Off to run a DCC tournament for the Augusta University Gaming Club.

This year's tournament is "Once Upon a Time... at Band Camp." Normal high school students are sent into the Metal Lands to face death. Who will triumph over the minions of the Iron King? Will they stick it to The Man and appease the Metal Gods?

Those who do will receive acclaim and valuable prizes! Top three winners get DCC Quickstart Rules and a set of dice, and the supreme winner also gets a pound of dice and a trophy.

Pure improv session, set in my old high school.

I'll tell you about killing them later.

Elves and Iron, Updated and Complete

This is a "finished" version of a post I made a long time ago. It proposes a radical rethinking of the Elf class for DCC RPG. It was originally intended for Metal God of Ur-Hadad zien, but that never happened. It may someday see the light of day as part of a Goodman Games product, but not sure.

Of Elves and Iron

Iron Rules for DCC RPG

Iron is inescapable. Iron is poison. Iron kills.

The presence of iron, unknown in Elfland (the human name for the transdimensional realm where the elves live), was the downfall of the Imperial elves of Ore. Iron changed and corrupted elven magic, driving elves with particularly weak constitutions mad from exposure, causing low birth rates and terminal birth defects, and occasionally producing horrifying mutations among their children. The Dungeon Crawl Classics version of elves makes clear that they aren't Tolkien elves, but more like the Fae, including an aversion to iron:

Elves are extremely sensitive to the touch of iron. Direct contact over prolonged periods causes a burning sensation, and exposure at close distances makes them uncomfortable. An elf may not wear iron armor or bear the touch of iron weapons for extended periods. Prolonged contact with iron causes 1 hp of damage per day of direct contact. (DCC Core Rules, p. 57)

In my mind, this is a bit too forgiving. Iron is inconvenient to elves, but not actively dangerous. If we follow the rules-as written, iron is a bit like poison ivy: It's nasty stuff, and it can cause a person some discomfort, but it's really not that bad. Mechanically, the in-game effects are about nil, unless you do the equivalent of stuffing your pants with iron nails (or poison ivy for that matter). It's not likely that an elf is going to put herself into a position where iron contact is constant. Moreso, Judges will tend to forget or just ignore iron's effects on elven characters. Ignoring the Iron Rule is not only against the rules-as-written, it's also forgoing an opportunity for some great character development and role-playing. So, I begin with a question: What if iron poisoning was a real danger for elves, akin to heavy metal poisoning for humans?

Heavy metal poisoning is no joke. Symptoms include headaches, weakness, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and constipation. Information about more specific metals suggests we could add diseases of the organs, brittle bones, and permanent nervous system damage (with physical and mental effects). Medical science also differentiates between "acute" and "chronic" effects. In what follows, I will try to add some teeth to the effects of iron on elven characters, and explores some of the ways iron-sensitivity has had, and continues to have, significant effects on elven lives and culture.

Iron Exposure: Acute and Chronic Effects

"Acute" iron exposure results from injury, usually by getting various pieces of brutal cutlery shoved into one's body—a sudden, massive increase in the level of iron exposure. "Chronic" iron exposure occurs over time, affecting the mind and body in painful, dangerous, and frightening ways.

  •         Acute Effect: An "acute" iron effect check is triggered when an elven character is reduced to 0 hit points, and either gets healed or has a successful Recover the Body check. Roll on the following table, in addition to the "bleeding out" and "recovering the body" effects described in the DCC RPG core rules (see p. 93).

  •         Chronic Effect: Each time an elf gains a level, make a Fortitude Save (DC 10+new level). If failed, roll d12 on the table (plus Stamina modifier). Should the elf have the wherewithal to afford an iron-protective encounter suit (see below), he or she should reduce the DC by 1 per 2,000 g.p. spent on the encounter suit (rounded down, maximum of 10).

d12+STA mod
less than 0
The Sickening: Lose 1d4 points of Stamina, permanently. If 0 or less, death occurs.

Nemesis: The character has gone irrevocably mad from iron poisoning. Play as NPC with hatred for former comrades.
Fisher King's Lament: Acquire a wound that will not heal normally, and which requires a 4 dice result of a Lay on Hands check to heal through divine means. Lose 1d6 hp per day until healed.

Rust Rot: Skin turns the color of rust, and flakes off constantly. Lose 1d4 points of Personality, permanently.
Vampirism: As result of damage major organs are mutated. Character must ingest the blood of intelligent creatures of the living, red-blooded races (e.g., humans, halflings, dwarves) in addition to normal food. Failure to do so at least once per week results in roll for chronic effect.

Ghoulish: Arms lengthen by 2d10 inches and grow iron claws (1d3 damage).
Something Human: You are no longer immune to magical sleep and paralysis. Each time one of these spells could affect you, make a Will Save as normal human.

Twisted Freak: Body becomes contorted over the course of two weeks (Strength and Agility -1d3).
Blood in Your Eyes: Eyes turn the color of blood. You no longer have infravision.

Orked Out: Gain 1d3 Strength and lose 1d3 Personality, permanently.
Dulled Senses: Normal ability to detect secret doors reduced by 1d4, permanently.

Hot blooded: You now bleed red instead of "normal" blue-green. When you take damage, make a Will Save (DC 15) or go berserk for 1d6 rounds. During this time, you will have AC -2, to-hit and damage +2. You will always attack the nearest "foe" even if that person is not your enemy.
Human Frailty: Hit dice reduced from 1d6 to 1d4 when gaining next level.

Blood Magic: Choose a spell at random. Spell checks for that spell made with next higher die type (e.g., d24 instead of d20), but must Spellburn 1d3 points to cast. If caster does not Spellburn, the spell is cast using next lower die type (e.g., d16 instead of d20).
Freaked Out: The character is delirious from the effects of iron poisoning. Spell checks and Will Saves are rolled at -1d6 for 1d3 days.

Wild Mercurial: Choose a spell at random. Each time you cast that spell, roll 1 additional Mercurial Magic result, which occurs in addition to any other Mercurial effect(s). This effect is permanent.
A Little Itchy: Develop a persistent rash at the site of the wound. -1 to Initiative rolls for 1d3 days, due to incessant itching.

Arcane Chaos: Choose a spell at random and roll 1d4-2. If the number is positive/negative the spell now must be cast using a die up/down that many steps in the dice chain, permanently. If 0, then no effect. However, that spell also requires 1 point of Spellburn to cast.
Iron Burn: Lose 1d3 points of Stamina. Any points in addition to the permanent 1 point loss required by DCC RPG rules are temporary (like Spellburn) and will be recovered at a rate of 1 per day.

Holding Pattern: No chronic effect.

Since coming to Ore, elves have sought to escape the effects of its poisonous, iron-rich environment, to find new ways to avoid the poison that saps their vitality, warps their magic, and corrodes their very souls. Unfortunately, their adaptations involve extremely expensive technologies, and not all elves are able to make use of them.

Elven Encounter Suits

Encounter suits are the product of millennia of elvish medical experimentation ( none of it particularly ethical and some of it quite horrific). Each suit provides a body-covering "suit" (a tough sheath of cloth, sometimes enhanced with mithril thread), a face concealing helmet with integrated breathing apparatus, and gloves/boots to cover the hands and feet. The suits provide an enclosed, protective environment, free from the corrosive effects of iron poisoning, and must be worn at all times to provide their benefits.

Encounter suits are expensive, both to purchase and to maintain, and elves think of them much in the same way that modern humans regard things like automobiles: They are at the same time utilitarian objects, expressions of personal aesthetics, and markers of social status and/or financial wherewithal. Only the wealthiest of elves can even afford encounter suits, as they are expensive both to acquire (at least 5,000 gp) and to maintain (1% of purchase price per month). Also, should the suit be damaged, a hasty repair can keep it in working order for a short time, but any real repair costs up to 10% of the suit's value. They also, of course, are markers of particular elves' identities and status. The sheathing suit, gloves, and boots provide visual cues that other elves can use to determine things like clan identity, personal triumphs and accomplishments, professional affiliations, and so forth.

Encounter Suit Garments (including gloves/boots)
Cost (gp)
Lowest Quality
High Quality

Encounter suit helmets are as individual as the faces they conceal, and the most important marker of a wealthy elf's social identity, the face he or she presents to the world. For such reasons, even lower quality suits are well made of high-end encounter suits are crafted using a range of rare and valuable materials to highlight the owner's exquisite taste and cultural refinement, and there's much emphasis placed, among elves, on matters of encounter suit aesthetics that are, to the other races, incomprehensibly abstruse. The elven nobility are particularly given to using their helmets to mark particulars of rank and status, and each noble family has a distinctive style unique to itself. Anyone else pretending to that style who is not a member of that family invites a duel (at best) or even a feud.

Encounter Suit Helmet

Lowest Quality


High Quality



There is great variation in the range of quality of encounter suits, including their physical protective qualities, their ability to shield their users from harmful iron, and the money that elves might spend on their customization. It is up to judges to determine if and how they might allow players to customize their encounter suits. However, no encounter suit may reduce the saving throw DC for Chronic effects by more than 10 points.

Iron's Effects on Elven Culture

The effects of iron are ever on most elves' minds, and fear of it is pervasive. Though not all elves are able to do anything to help themselves—They simply can't afford the cost—there still are a whole host of cultural practices, from mere quackery to science, risen around the problem. Here are a few of them for judges to think about:
  •          Elves are vigilant toward potential vectors of iron infection. They find ways to seal themselves and their homes off from those vectors. (Adventure Idea: Provide positive modifier to Chronic Effect roll for players of elf PCs who role-play this vigilance well.)
  •          There is an area of arcane study concerned with iron exposure and its effects on spell casting. Iron makes magic work differently. Corruption will tend to be exacerbated by iron infection, or it might manifest as symptoms thereof. (Adventure Idea: Magical artifacts may be created to stabilize spell effects may uncertain by iron.)
  •          Elves study healing/medicine concerned with iron exposure and its effects on elven biology. This area of study is guarded from outsiders, and elves have been known to assassinate any non-Elf who tries to pry into these mysteries. (Adventure Idea: There may be cults who engage in horrible experiments, attempting to "fix" elven biology.)
  •          There is a thriving industry in quackery, "holistic" approaches to healing from iron exposure, and other pseudo-medical and faith-based scams. Because iron is so dangerous, and infection so inevitable, some elves will believe nearly anything in order to cope with their fears, even if the cures offered are ineffective or even worse than iron infection itself. (Adventure Idea: Charismatic cults dedicated to healing iron poisoning have arisen among low-class elves, though their practices have little or no real effect.)
  •          Elven artisans craft devices to limit their exposure to iron (e.g., filter masks, special garments, etc.). This tends to make them look even more otherworldly, and sets them apart from the other races even further. Given the history of the elves on Ore, this means that they are even further excluded from the society of other races. Encounter suits are only one such technology, and the only one that works reliably. Elves who can't afford them might attempt other means of self-protection (Adventure Idea: PCs or NPCs could work to recover and develop lost technologies.)
  •          Evan non-elves know that iron-infected elves are potentially dangerous. The more powerful the Elf, the more likely he or she is to be a problem. As a result, there is strong anti-Elf sentiment in some quarters, and even some political impetus to exclude elves from human society entirely. (Adventure Idea: Some NPCs/NPC Factions may display prejudice toward elven PCs.)
  •          Elves sometimes return to Elfland in order to seek respite from the effects of iron infection, and to attempt healing of some sort. Some never return. (Adventure Idea: Make this a Quest, with associated effects based on level of success.)

Clearly iron is important to the elves, but their attempts (even failed ones) to deal with its effects is not simply a matter for each individual to handle. Whole ways of life and industries have arisen to cope with the sad reality faced by the elves of Ore. Within elven society, though, there are other, potentially dangerous things brewing, because not every elf can be protected from it. Wealth and nobility are keys to accessing the protection needed to stave off iron infection. As with the other races, though, not everyone shares equally the things from which all could benefit.

The Spires of the Elven Lords

The wealthiest elves live in great spires, sealed off from the dangers of the outside world.
Though Man conquered the elves in His rebellion, lo these many years ago, the elves never surrendered their Spires. They still stand, a testament to elven persistence in their quixotic fight against the inevitable.

The Spires were built in the earliest days to combat the iron threat. Though their arts are not now practiced (and are forbidden by decree), the ancient elves of the Imperium were masters of technomancy, and could create life through those forbidden processes (though it is rumored that some elven factions still follow this path). They "bred" homes, aether ships, fortresses, fell constructs bred for battle, and all manner of other things. These creatures were grown from strange seed and nurtured into the mature works of elven master artisans of this foul craft. Five elven Spires grew from such seeds, rising thousands of feet into the skies above Ur-Hadad.

The Spires look like bleached, blue-white bones, shining unsullied by time under the sun and moons of Ore. Their surfaces are near-impregnable, with few windows or portals, and these well guarded. They rise with celestial grace into the sky, their sharp points skewering the cloud layers, disappearing from sight, far, far above. They look just a little bit like thorny vines, engorged of stem and laden with fruits and buds, climbing toward eternity.

Each Spire has a name Anuch-Dar (the Collective Mind), Morgath-Ka'ak (the Bloody Hand), Morgath-Gur (the Sinister Hand), Morgath-Noriel (the Adroit Hand), and Anuch-Ur (the Singular Mind). No one is quite sure what these names mean, and the elves aren't inclined to answer questions about them. In fact, the Spires are not spoken of in the hearing of non-elves, and even those elves who walk among Men refuse any attempt to discuss them, going so far as to fight duels to avoid doing so.

No non-elven person has ever entered a Spire. In fact, not every elf has done so. They are sealed off to most, and guarded jealously against unauthorized entry. Cloistered within are the elite of elven society, whose faces are concealed by bizarre breathing masks and protective raiment, and whose voices emerge, strange and discordant, from the places where their mouths must be. No living human has ever seen the faces of the elven nobility. As a result, we have little to go on but rumors. Here are a few:

  •         The elves are preparing to reconquer Ore.
  •          The elves are using their arcane knowledge to build a bridge to the moons.
  •          The elven women are the true rulers, and use the Spires to keep their breeding stock of pure-blooded males in harem.
  •          The Spires descend miles into the depths of Ore, and are just the tips of a far vaster structure that spans the entire world.
  •          The Spires are great aether-ships, and could leave the surface of Ore to sail among the moons and stars.
  •          The creatures living in the Spires are not elves at all, but demons, and wear their concealing raiment to hide their true natures.
  •          The elves are attempting to cross-breed with Men, and the Spires are full of vast slave pens, technomantic laboratories, and mad elves bent on fiendish experiments and lusting after human women.
  •          The Spires are great libraries of lost knowledge, jealously guarded by powerful elven nobles.
  •          The Spires are portals to other planes, where the elves still rule a great empire of cruelty and despair.
  •          There are lost Spires out in the wilds and under the seas of Ore.

None of these rumors has been substantiated, but neither have they been disproved. And there are many more than these, each wilder than the last, each speaking to the greatest hopes and deepest fears of the Men of Ore, and underlining the cultural rift between the two races.

Men gaze suspiciously upon the Spires, pondering their threat and their promise. Elves, too, live outside the Spires. They are not the elite of elven society. They do not share in its bounty. Most cannot afford the protections either of Spire or of encounter suit. Their misery grows, generation by generation, as they are warped and corroded by iron infection, and fewer and fewer healthy offspring are born. They, too, gaze at the Spires. Their hatred springs like thornwood from blackened ground, growing from sentiment, to philosophy, to vocation. It surely will bear poisoned fruit.

A terror cult has arisen among the common classes of elves: It is known as Morgath'ak-Lugash (The Iron Fist). The members of this notorious sect hunt, torture, and (usually) kill the wealthiest among the elves, using iron weapons and instruments. Their first acknowledged victim was crucified with iron nails, an iron spear drive into his side, and a wreath of barbed wire wrapped around his brow. No one has been able to determine its terror cult's membership, what resources they might have, or where they might lair.

In the end, as every elf knows, there is only metal. Ore's iron core spins malignantly beneath its crust, and its arteries pump iron-rich magma. Iron dust blows across its lands, and the other races bear weapons and raiment of iron, as if making mock of the elves great plight. From iron there is no escape, no surcease, but only the long, bitter struggle against the inevitable. There is death, or there is madness, or there is the choice to "sail into the West," a cryptic reference that no elf has ever explained to outsiders.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Children of the Earth

I've long been dissatisfied with the mundane ways fantasy RPGs portray dwarves (or dwarfs, whatever floats your boat). They are, more or less, short, stocky, grumpy, bearded humans, except that they live underground and are greedy for gold and gems. Like REALLY greedy for them. They're sort of gnomish but way more industrious. And, sure, maybe they have other differentiating aspects. They have knowledge of the underground spaces, can see in the dark, detect slopes, suss out new construction, and all of that, sure. But in the end they're just little people who have some quirks. All of those quirks provide ways to differentiate their powers and abilities from other playable races, though I've never felt like it was really worth not just being human. Even DCC has this problem, sadly, and I've never quite understood the reason for the sword-and-board ability for dwarves in that ruleset. Seems like any warrior should be doing shield attacks, right? Mostly, it seems (again) just a differential power, with no reason for being except for "Not a Human." I won't even get into elves and halflings, now, because they tend to suffer from the same, "Like a human, but..." problem.

What if dwarves were weirder?

I like to think of dwarves as being more like the mountains themselves than like the men in the mountain villages. In fact, I think about giants the same way. They are children of the earth. They are born of  the living stone (maybe literally "living") and take from it their flesh and bones, their character, their sense of the world. Different stone means different tribes. The granite and basalt dwarves are different. The dwarves around coal fields are especially odd (and flammable); and giants from those lands belch smoke and breathe fire. There are no sandstone dwarves, and none at all associated with sedimentary rocks: Only metamorphic and igneous rock will do.

Each dwarven "race" takes its character from its original substance. The dwarves of the Iron Mountains have grey skin, streaked with orange, and those who dwell in Cinnabar bleed mercury. The golden dwarves are beautiful and pliable, and desired by all. They hide themselves away, hidden from sight, protected from being stolen. Dwarves are of the flesh that is not meat.

A punch from a dwarf is like getting hit with a stone, and they have their own schools of unarmed combat. Such is the war they wage against each other, but they mimic the ways of humans to keep their true fighting traditions secret.

Dwarves cannot abide mortar and concrete. It smells of old death, and seems like an astonishing perversion of their very substance. They hate human cities for this reason. In every human habitation, they try to teach the natives to work stone properly, and with reverence, so that they can fit it perfectly without any cement whatsoever. But humans are stupid, and willfully ignorant. They can't take the time to learn, nor the time to coax the stones into their proper shapes. It takes a long time, and they are so short-lived.

Dwarves work stone more by persuasion than with blows of a pick, or chisel and hammer. They speak to the stone as they shape it, pressing their flesh into its flesh, and shaping it more like a smith than like a carpenter. Rather, more like an animal trainer, than like a craftsman. The stone listens. The stone speaks. The stone remembers, else how would the dwarves be born?

All the wizards want their secrets. All the elves want to steal their nobility, the mithril dwarves. All the humans pretend that the dwarves are just little, hairy, grumpy humans, perhaps from Scotland. They refuse to understand how wrong they are. They trade in the bones of the dead, looted from deep burial grounds. They will count a reckoning, later. Stone is patient. Stone can wait. Stone will not forget.

Dwarves (and giants) are the bones of the world, its blood and passion, and they have all the time in the world.