Star Wars Thoughts: The Force Awakens

Initial Questions the Movie Asks

Where is Luke Skywalker? Will Kylo Ren reconcile with Han and Leia? Who is Rey? Who is Finn? Is Finn Force-sensitive? Are Rey and Finn going to be A thing? How about ReyLo? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? How did yet another ravaged, elderly Force-user come to find himself in charge of another space-fascist organization?

Of course, this is just JJ being JJ. This’ll all probably be like Lost, and completely meaningless by the end. Mystery boxes with nothing inside.

We get some more questions from the visions that Rey has when she touches the lightsaber. Pretending we haven’t read anything about the movie beforehand – how did Luke fail Ben Kenobi so thoroughly? He’s already got some black-clad followers. Why isn’t R2 with Luke? (Later we’ll learn that it’s just in the immediate service of finding the Luke-guffin)

Also, as we progress, where is Luke’s green lightsaber?

The Luke-Guffin

Luke Skywalker is the McGuffin of the entire film. We learn that he’s disappeared from the world, and not only that, but hidden records of his journeys so that no one can follow him. Years have been spent hunting him and seeking his whereabouts. So, why would he have hidden himself away? There are only a few answers, and the most likely one is the one that Rian Johnson will explore, and which fans of Luke will in some cases detest – he’s hidden himself away to die, so that the Jedi will die out. The only real options are:

  1. He’s off seeking his own McGuffin
  2. He’s dead
  3. He’s delving into the mysteries of the Force so deeply he isn’t concerned with the rise of the First Order, the destruction of multiple Republic worlds, etc.
  4. He’s in hiding on purpose and doesn’t want to be found

So the things about him that some people didn’t like about The Last Jedi, that Luke is a broken man, hiding away from the world, refusing to intervene; that he is no longer his younger self – that is all set up from the very beginning.

Lazy Re-Hash

This has been discussed many times in the past couple of years, but it stands out every time I watch the film. We have Resistance = Rebel Alliance, New Order = Empire, Masked Kylo = Masked Vader, Snoke = Emperor, Desert Rey = Desert Luke, Mysterious Parents = Mysterious Parents, Starkiller Base = Death Star, Fly into Starkiller Base = Fly into Second Death Star; on and on and on. I can feel the storytelling opportunities die as I watch. And I don’t think this is what JJ had to do to get us invested again. It’s Star Wars. We’re invested. Tell a new damn story.

Fun Nonetheless

I genuinely enjoyed the experience of watching The Force Awakens, and I’ve watched it a few times since. There are some very funny moments (“That’s not how the Force works!”) and exciting moments, and I’ll be left hoping that FinnPoe was a thing. Because that should have been a thing.

So it’s a fun movie, but has a lot of flaws upon closer inspection. There is so much lost opportunity, in my opinion. At least with a stupid trade dispute and a soul-less romance, the Prequels tried to tell a different story.

Call of Cthulhu Hack – PDFs

Lovecraft fan art "The call"

I’ve been working on a hack of Call of Cthulhu by Chaosium that is backward compatible but also simpler and a bit more reasonable than their 7th Edition system. Meaning no offence, there’s just some redundancy there. Then I decided to use a version of the Stress system from Mothership as a more interesting way to handle Sanity damage. A few more tweaks, and there you have it. I have a character sheet, a character creation worksheet, and a rules reference for the reworking of the rules. I’ve run it past one veteran CoC Keeper who liked it, and it’s what I’ll use next time I run Call of Cthulhu. Here you go! Enjoy. As always, comments welcome.

CoC Hack Character Creation Worksheet 0.3

CoC Hack Character Sheet 0.4

CoC Hack Rules Reference Sheet 0.4

These are unfinished, and not near publishable, even if I could publish them, but as notes you could use them to run a Call of Cthulhu game, including a published campaign almost exactly as written.

D&D Alignment and the “Big Six” Moral Values

This is another of my responses to Saving the Game’s alignment series they are currently producing (and still will be producing when this post drops). I added that link in here so you can find them, and so maybe they see the pingback and read this article 🙂

Briefly, a moral philosopher named Jonathan Haidt is a proponent of what is sometimes known as the “Big Five” moral values as a way to understand why, for example, liberals and conservatives can have strong moral intuitions that do not seem to overlap. It is kind of like D&D alignments, but for actual people. Those Big Five are Authority and Tradition, Care and Compassion, Fairness and Justice, Loyalty, and Purity. To those five some have added a sixth, Liberty, and I’ll be keeping that change, resulting in a Big Six.

There is a lot more to this conversation, and a good place to start is Haidt’s TED Talk about why conservatives and liberals seem to see moral questions so differently:

<div style=”max-width:854px”><div style=”position:relative;height:0;padding-bottom:56.25%”>https://embed.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jonathan_haidt_the_moral_roots_of_liberals_and_conservatives</div></div>

All that being said, what I would like to do in thinking about alignment in D&D and similar games is to look at the Big Six and see if they can map onto D&D-style alignment in any interesting ways. (If you want to see the Big Six used as an alignment system in an OSR game, check out my own Iron Pax hack on DriveThru) Let’s take a look at how they might map to 5E’s standard alignments:

Authority & Tradition : Lawful

This first one is kind of a gimme. Clearly, if a character values authority and tradition highly, then they are going to lean toward a Lawful alignment of some kind. Of course, this could easily be Lawful Good, Lawful Neutral, or Lawful Evil, depending on the traditions in question and how they are interpreted.

Care & Compassion : Good

This one also seems straightforward. If a character values care and compassion for others, it is hard to argue that they would be other than Good in alignment. If they were only concerned for people in their own in-group, then that would coincide with Loyalty. If they were only interested in caring for those who deserved it, that would lean more toward Fairness & Justice.

We can also immediately see how these alignments could be combined. Just from the first two, if someone interprets the Authority & Tradition of their culture in a way that prioritizes Care & Compassion, we could easily call that Lawful Good. Part of my point here is, isn’t it more interesting to take an in-depth look at what these alignments mean, beyond just “Lawful” or “Good”? I think that using more robust moral language is a way to deepen alignment and make it a more interesting rule, or even just a more interesting roleplaying guide. But I’ve said plenty about that before, and I digress.

Fairness & Justice : Lawful or Neutral

I can see Fairness & Justice being interpreted either in terms of legality or impartiality. If someone sees Fairness & Justice as applying the law to everyone equally, I think that this would indicate what we usually mean by Lawful. If, on the other hand, they see this as someone being impartial, that is, judging situations and people on even terms without preference for one group or another, then that would in my mind tend more toward the Neutrality. Is justice judging everything dispassionately on its merits? Or is justice judging everything according to the same laws or standards? The difference isn’t a huge one, but I think it’s noteworthy, in terms of the stance being ‘I am applying these rules to everything’ compared to ‘I consider everything on its own merits.’ I think that both could be interpretations of Fairness & Justice.

Liberty : Chaotic

Liberty was added by others to Haidt’s moral system, and I think it makes a lot of sense as the ‘sixth.’ And connecting Liberty to Chaotic alignments fits with my experience of people who play Chaotic alignments in game – what they seem to want more than anything else is no one telling them what to do. They want to function without an external standard to which they need to adhere. (That’s the best of it, anyway. Certainly there are players who play any given alignment to be jerks, but just don’t game with them)

Normally Chaotic isn’t so much a desire for chaos for its own sake, but rather a desire for freedom, which fits the moral value of Liberty perfectly I think. We can also see how some of these moral values overlap and others do not, or at least not as well. It is harder to imagine someone valuing both Liberty and Authority & Tradition, for example, though not impossible. I suppose that character would end up being a complicated version of Neutral – but I can think if people I’ve met who seem to value both. The classic rural family that has traditional values but also wants to be left to their own devices comes to mind – values/small government voters in the US. For me it is easier to imagine where Liberty and Care & Compassion overlap – I want to care for people, but in my own way and on my own terms. Chaotic Good.

Loyalty : Lawful

Here I think of Valerie in the Pathfinder: Kingmaker computer game (which I’m currently playing and is a great game). Her alignment is Lawful Neutral, and I think they did a great job with her character. Her comments on your choices are always in terms of loyalty and duty – not cruel, but not particularly compassionate either. After you become the baron of the Stolen Lands, she is continually reminding you of your duty as a ruler and your duty to your people over everything else. But even when she disagrees with your decisions, her loyalty remains.

When I think of the moral value of Loyalty, I think of the “My country love it or leave it” types in the United States. Patriotism is to a large degree composed of Loyalty. It is a sense that “these are my people”, almost a pack mentality in a way. This is also one of the moral values that I can easily see sliding into Evil, depending on to whom you are loyal, and how you live that loyalty out. Where Care & Compassion as a primary value could just make you vulnerable and idealistic, I could easily see where Loyalty as a primary value could be turned to evil ends.

Purity : Good, or Neutral, or Evil

Purity is interesting – there is a whole sub-category of disgust psychology that I find fascinating. As always, I recommend for Christians the book Unclean by Richard Beck. Really for anyone, but for Christians in particular, as that is his approach.

Disgust is powerful – it comes to mind that pretty much every genocide that has ever occurred has largely been motivated by Purity-style rhetoric and thinking. Even the name we use, “ethnic cleansing” (a term I dislike), has echoes of Purity and cleanliness to it. Think of films like The Purge for another example of how Purity can be bent toward evil quite readily. “Purity culture” is an example of the damaging influence this value can have in Evangelical Christianity, in the United States at least.

Though valuing purity might also motivate a Jain practitioner to adhere to nonviolence and veganism, for example, or a Shinto priest to diligently serve their community, in the real world. It depends on how one defines what, or whom, is unclean. And, basically, if you are defining any person as unclean, you’re flirting with evil right there in my view. That’s why I say that Purity as a value could map to Good (vegan pacifists), Neutral (cleansing ancestral shrines) or Evil (genocide) quite readily.

Alright, this is a first-thought type of post. What do you think? What did I miss? Would you, like me, prefer to use the Big Six in place of the classic D&D alignments?

Animals as Living Traps for D&D

5 Interesting Facts About Reef Stonefish | Hayden's Animal Facts

I always struggle with traps, as I’ve written here before. Hard to come up with ones that are interesting and make sense in the world’s ecology. Who built them? Who resets them? What makes them interesting? And so on.

I was watching a show about milking the venom from stonefish, and it occurred to me how living things could function as traps. I mean, a stonefish is basically a deadly trap that re-arms itself that would fit in any coastal environment.

The traps below are based on living creatures, assuming that there are fantasy versions of each of them in your setting. I’m also creating 5E rules for each that are modeled after the creature’s capabilities, including lethality, even if this contradicts weaksauce 5E rules for things like poisons.

For each of the following examples, assume that the creature in question is somewhat more potent than the ones found on Earth.

Stonefish

Stonefish might be encountered in any shallow salt water or estuary. These stonefish are larger than the Earth version, and their spines are able to pierce boots, though a character wearing boots has advantage on their saving throw. A DC 15 Survival roll will reveal the presence of a stonefish if a character is searching the area. Otherwise, they are easily mistaken for a stone and might be stepped on by any character. When stepped on, their victim must make a DC 20 Constitution saving throw, taking 5d10 poison damage on a failed save and half as much on a successful one. They pain also causes one level of exhaustion on a failed save. This exhaustion can be relieved by a DC 15 Wisdom (Medicine) check to treat the wound immediately after it occurs.

Recluse Spider

AKA fiddle-back, brown spider, or reaper. When bitten by a recluse spider, a character must make a DC 15 Constitution saving throw, taking 3d10 poison on a failed save and half as much on a successful one. On a failed save, after an hour has passed, the character must make a second Constitution save against a DC of 20 or take 3d10 necrotic damage and have their maximum hit points reduced by that number. This reduction can be negated by lesser restoration or a similar spell. If the bite is treated with a DC 15 Wisdom (Medicine) check, this necrotic damage is avoided.

Blue-Ringed Octopus

Not generally aggressive, but potentially fatal. When bitten, the victim must make a DC 20 Constitution saving throw, taking 3d10 damage on a failed save and half on a successful one. On a failed save, after one minute, a second DC 20 Constitution save must be made to avoid taking a level of exhaustion. This exhaustion will continue to accumulate, one level per minute, until either the victim succeeds on a DC 20 Constitution saving throw or the bite is treated with a DC 18 Wisdom (Medicine) test.

Sea Wasp/Box Jellyfish

This might be a large Fantasy box jellyfish but the normal ones can be fatal on their own. They are translucent, and hard to see, requiring a DC 15 Perception check to notice floating nearby. Their trailing tentacles have a reach of 10 feet to entangle a swimming creature. Once entangled, the victim must make a DC 18 Con save or take 3d10 poison damage and becoming poisoned, or half damage and no poisoned condition with a successful save. Escaping entanglement requires a DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check. If a creature begins it’s turn entangled it takes another 1d10 poison damage.

Bullet Ant Swarm

The sting of a single bullet ant has been described as a 12 hour tsunami of pain, and bullet ants live in colonies of 1,000 to 3,000 individuals. A bullet ant swarm only fills a 5 foot square, and can move 20 feet per round.

When in the area of a swarm of bullet ants, a creature must make a DC 20 Con save or take 2d10 poison damage. They are then stunned until the start of the swarm’s next turn, and take one level of exhaustion. On a successful save, they take half damage but still take the level of exhaustion from the agony. On any consecutive turn that begins in the swarm, the creature must make a new DC 20 Con save to resist a further 1d10 poison damage and another level of exhaustion. On a successful save, they take no further damage, but still take another level of exhaustion.

Piranha School (Swarm)

This description has more to do with the legend of the piranha instead of the actual fish. Blood in the cloudy water of a river is enough to attract this school of fish which functions as a swarm. The swarm is 20 feet square and has a swim speed of 30 feet. When a creature starts it’s turn adjacent to the swarm or enveloped by it, they must make a DC 15 Strength save or take 2d10 slashing damage.

 

Sample 10th Level Spells for D&D 5E

A while back I wrote about 10th level spells in theory, and I’ve noticed that that post gets a little bit of steady traffic, so I thought I’d come up with a few examples of what I had in mind in terms of 10th level spells. I’ll put these in basic layout, and of course you can use them in your games. Quick reminder of the principles I came up with for 10th level spells:

  • A 10th level spell can change the setting in some ongoing way.
  • 10th level spells must be found, or researched, or earned as part of a quest.
  • A 10th level spell can be cast only once, and then it is lost.
  • 10th level spells are how you account for magical effects in the setting that aren’t covered by existing spells or magic items.

Cataclysm

10th-level evocation (Cleric, Druid, Wizard); Casting time: 1 hour; Range: 500 feet; Components: VSMgp; Duration: concentration, up to 1 hour.

You summon a catastrophic combination of energies that are more than enough to level a town or small city. This spell creates horrific, lethal conditions within a 1000 foot diameter circle that extends 200 feet above and, where appropriate, below ground.

Lightning: any creature that comes within 10 feet of a large metal object risks being struck by static electricity. The creature must make a Dexterity save or take 5d10 lightning damage, or half damage with a successful save.

Rain of acid and fire: The entire area is pelted with a fiery, acidic rain. Every round a character begins or ends out of cover, they must make a Constitution saving throw to resist 3d10 acid and 3d10 fire damage, taking half damage on a successful save. Each minute, the rain will burn through six inches of wood or an inch of stone, meaning there will be less and less cover as the cataclysm continues.

Tremors: The area is wracked by tremors, making all terrain difficult terrain and causing buildings to collapse. Each minute, a given building has a 10% chance to collapse, dealing 4d10 bludgeoning damage to all inside if a wooden structure and 8d10 bludgeoning damage to all inside if a stone structure.

Create Demi-Plane

10th-level conjuration (Cleric, Wizard); Casting time: 24 hours; Range: 1 mile; Components: VSMgp; Duration: permanent.

This spell consumes a single magical item that creates or interacts with extra-dimensional space, such as a bag of holding, worth at least 10,000gp.

Permanent Polymorph

10th-level transmutation (Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard); Casting time: 1 hour; Range: 30 feet; VSMgp; Duration: permanent.

As polymorph, but the change is permanent until it is dispelled by powerful magic.

Permanent Resistance

10th-level abjuration (Bard, Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard); Casting time: 1 hour; Range: 30 feet; Components: VSMgp; Duration: permanent.

This spell grants a creature resistance against a single damage type from among: acid, cold, fire, force, lightning, necrotic, poison, radiant; bludgeoning, piercing or slashing from non-magical sources. Casting the spell consumes a single gem representing the damage type (ruby for fire, etc.) worth at least 5,000gp.

Raise Flying Citadel

10th-level transmutation (Cleric, Wizard); Casting time: 24 hours; Range: 1000 feet; Components: VSMgp; Duration: permanent (until brought down)

This spell is cast by a single powerful cleric or wizard with the support of at least a dozen fellow clerics and wizards. The spell requires 24 hours to complete, and at the end, a stone keep is ripped free of the earth and allowed to float above the earth. It can be guided by a powerful spellcaster (of 12th level or higher) from the inside thereafter. It has a flying speed of 60′, and if not being guided simply hovers in place. This spell obviously requires a material component of one citadel which is not consumed in the casting.

Wish

10th-level conjuration (Sorcerer, Wizard); Casting time: 1 action; Range: self; Components: V; Duration: instantaneous.

This change simply makes the wish spell a 10th level spell so that it can only be cast once, must be found via a quest or deep research, and a DM can be more lenient with the various restrictions on the spell.

Erasure

10th-level illusion (Bard, Warlock, Wizard); Casting time: 1 hour; Range: self; Components: VSMgp; Duration: instantaneous.

This spell makes one creature permanently immune to being targeted by divination magic. The spell consumes an ingot of adamantine metal worth at least 5,000gp.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Dragon Dads

Not long ago I joined the Dragon Dads. If you know me you might know why, and if you don’t, it isn’t mine to say. What are Dragon Dads, you ask?

The Dragon Dads are an online support group for dads with LGBTQ kids. Support, not in the sense of “How do I deal with this?” but in the sense of “How do we smash hetero-normativity and support our kids?” I came to learn about them through a little article about them attending a Pride event, and then looked into them a bit more. Turns out, it’s easy to join, and they seem really cool. Here’s a sample manly picture of some Dragon Dads with their kids:

‘Today's’ Craig Melvin delves into the evolution of love ...

The message boils down to “Don’t mess with our kids.” And to me this is a very basic aspect of masculinity that I don’t think I’ve touched upon before – protect the offspring.

This very manly impulse, in fact, is what lies behind plenty of abusive fatherly behavior – punishing a child as a way to try to change them and protect them from the world. This is of course precisely wrong, but probably sticky behavior because it draws on something manly and true.

Protect the offspring. Take their side. Don’t side with a shitty world, it’s shitty enough.

Horror Gaming

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) - Wikipedia

I think that the hardest kind of RPG experience to create at the table is horror – by a significant margin. I’ve been alarmed, worried, disgusted, and so on at the table, but very rarely frightened. The most frightened I remember being was in an Old World of Darkness game using Kult’s setting. The game that is always recommended is Dread, which is a great use of Jenga to create tension at a table whether you want it or not. It still requires more elements to approach horror.

I wonder – it’s pretty easy for a movie to scare the crap out of me. Why is it so much harder at a table?

Players Must Buy In/Session Zero

I’m pretty funny – I can coax someone into participating in a funny game. I can coax someone into participating in a heroic adventure game. I even know how to design specifically for either goal, among a few others. Horror, though – I don’t know how to coax someone into a horror game, and I can see ways that horror more than other genres would press against players’ lines and veils.

For this reason, a Session Zero for a horror game is necessary. The discussion of what you want kept out of the story needs to be had, because it will likely be the job of the GM in a horror game to suddenly introduce disturbing imagery and themes. It also occurs to me that a tool like the X-Card should be available, but in the context of a horror game, I can see that using it would potentially take people out of the moment – like pausing a horror DVD to answer the phone. And of course we shouldn’t harm each other for the sake of playing pretend, but if we can figure things out ahead of time, that is especially good in the context of a horror game.

Hope Must be Limited

The reason we sat down and designed Reckoning, a dice-less horror RPG, was because of the problem of dice. As long as you can roll dice to have a chance to triumph, horror is almost impossible. Our players would grin their way through horrific scenarios, or so we thought them, rolling dice all the way. My friend Jason says that a horror game can therefore never use dice, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just that dice can’t be an option for triumphing. Stakes have to be set carefully, perhaps.

Reckoning limits hope by having a scene count-down which will end with something horrific happening. Each time a card gets turned, you know something else bad is going to happen, all getting closer to the worst thing happening. I think that some kind of countdown, some kind of visibly growing threat, could be necessary. The proverbial ticking time-bomb that the players know about, even if the characters do not.

Doom Must be Foreshadowed

Continuing on with the previous thought – when you go to a horror movie, or pick up a horror novel, you know what kind of story it is. This has to be clear from the start with a horror game as well. Even if not from the literal beginning, there should be a big reveal at some point, early. Ideally, all of the players should think, “Oh crap, this is going to be deliciously bad.”

If possible there should be foreshadowing both in the fiction and outside of it – in the room where the game takes place. On the character sheet. On the pages of rules you reference during the game. On the art you use to represent what the characters see. In the music you have playing while you game.

A Strong GM Seems to be Necessary

I asked Twitter to let me know about any APs tweeps are aware of that represent a horror game that seemed to really foster fear and horror on the parts of the players. I enjoy APs, but they are generally what I end up doing when I run horror – some moments of squick and then dark humor the rest of the time, bordering on outright zaniness. Even for AP groups that focus on horror gaming, this seems to be where they max out as well. When done well, the squick is very squick-y and the dark humor is dark and funny, but would I call it horror? I’m not sure.

One thing I’ve noticed is that horror gaming, even the squick/dark humor kind, seems to demand a strong GM. I would love to see an attempt at a GM-less (or GM-full) game that does horror consistently well. My guess would be that if it does, it is simply a game (like many GM-less/full games) that attracts a bunch of GMs as players. I think horror gaming will simply depend on GM skill + player buy-in, full stop. I don’t see a way around that, and I don’t see any game that gets around that, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong by some genius game design. As I sit here, that game design is beyond me as a designer.

It’s Cthulhu and Footnotes

The last thought I have about horror gaming is that Call of Cthulhu dominates horror gaming the way D&D dominates fantasy adventure gaming. Clearly, there are other popular horror games, like All Flesh Must Be Eaten back in the day, or Bluebeard’s Bride; various Worlds of Darkness, or of course the often-mentioned Dread. There is also Monsters and Other Childish things, perhaps, or Clockwork: Dominion. But Call of Cthulhu looms over all of these, and when horror gaming comes up, CoC will almost invariably come up as well.

What is the difference here? What makes Call of Cthulhu stand out, despite being temporarily supplanted by Vampire the Masquerade for example? I think one difference is that many of those other games are also about adventure and the chance to triumph. Not Bluebeard’s Bride, and mostly not Dread perhaps, but otherwise, those games listed above can be played as adventure or comedy pretty easily. Really, the one that would be hard to play that way would be Bluebeard’s Bride – I think one could easily hack Dread to tell a Fiasco-style story, as an example.

I think that the key appeal of Call of Cthulhu for horror gaming might be that it is common knowledge that CoC is not about triumphing, or even in many cases surviving, a horror story. It is about going insane and/or dying horribly. The worst things you’ll encounter you cannot possibly overcome no matter what you do. So the game is about progressively learning what those awful things are, and then having a good time on the way down after that. This, even more than the Mythos, is what keeps Call of Cthulhu in that top slot, I think. At least, when I look at horror APs and talk to people about horror gaming.

What Did I Miss?

These are just my thoughts, neither exhaustive nor meant to be so. What did I miss? What has been your experience of horror gaming?