Encounter: Headless Wizard

I finished The Scarlet Citadel for the first time, and it gave me an idea for a funny encounter in a D&D style game. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say the name of who inspired this idea, but the encounter is with a headless wizard, stumbling through the countryside, searching for its severed head.

Headless Wizard

The headless wizard is a ragged figure, stumbling along, showing signs of wear and tear in its clothes and body. It was once a powerful wizard, and still has a few spells readied that do not require verbal components, but is clearly less formidable than it would be with its head.

Medium-sized humanoid, Chaotic Neutral

AC: 14 (robes provide mage armor)

HP: 115 hit points (19d8 +19)

Move: 30′

Spellcasting (Attack +12, DC 20)

  • At will: control flames, minor illusion, move earth
  • 3/day: catnap, hypnotic pattern, mind spike
  • 1/day: illusory dragon, mislead

Immunities: provided by the amulet of proof against detection and location

Attack: wand of lightning bolt – 5′ wide and 100′ long lightning bolt. DC 20 Dex save, 8d6 lightning damage. Either the body tries to aim the lightning bolt at the most recent attacker, or will choose at random – roll a d8 for direction. The wand has 1d6+1 charges when the headless wizard is encountered.

Illusory Dragon: the main defense the headless wizard has is to summon an illusory dragon. The wizard drags a Huge dragon from the Shadowfell and chooses its type. Each turn the wizard can move the dragon up to 60′, and the dragon breathes a 60′ cone  of some kind of elemental damage – acid, cold, fire, lightning or poison. Those in the cone make a DC 20 Intelligence save to take half of the 7d6 damage. A character can use their action to inspect the dragon and make a DC 20 Intelligence (Investigation) roll. If they succeed, they realize that the dragon is an illusion and no longer take damage from it.

Challenge: ?

Galactic Civilization and ‘The Filter’ Fallacy

The Filter, in Brief

So, there is this idea of ‘The Filter’, the great divide that separates intelligent species from the galactic civilizations that are their supposed birthright. The reasoning goes as follows:

  • All intelligent species exist on the path to developing technology and culture that will enable them to expand to control their planet, and then solar system, and then multiple solar systems, and then spread throughout galaxy
  • Given the age of our own galaxy, we would expect other intelligent species to have evolved before humans, and to have already begun this colonization process
  • We don’t see any sign of them, and so there must be The Filter, the crisis that prevents intelligent species from moving along this inevitable staircase of development
  • So we wonder – is The Filter behind us, and we’re one of the few intelligent species to make it this far, or is The Filter ahead of us, and we’re doomed?

In thinking about what this Filter could be, one can come up with places it could occur starting all the way back with the origins of life:

  • It could be that it is very unlikely for life to begin at all, and so on planets in their star’s ‘Goldilocks zone’ we will only find various kinds of chemical soup
  • Maybe it is very unlikely for multicellular life to develop, and so that soup will just be filled with simple single-celled organisms
  • It could be very unlikely for intelligence to develop (this one is a hard sell for anyone who has looked at the intelligence of non-human animals)
  • Perhaps run-away feedback loops like climate chance prevent intelligent species from living long enough, or maintaining a civilization long enough, to colonize their solar system
    • Ditto with something like thermonuclear Armageddon, or AI deciding to kill us off, or nanotechnology turning us al into grey goo, etc.
  • Or a lack of any faster-than-light travel solution could make colonizing worlds beyond one’s homeworld economically impossible
  • Or maybe something crazy, like a FTL-capable civilization wipes out all competition, and they just haven’t decided we are a threat yet

Clearly there are a lot of other options, but those above are common.

Flawed Premise

The problem I see in this formulation immediately (and I’m far form alone, nor innovative in doing so) is that it is founded on the premise that all intelligent life will inevitably lead to something like our own technocratic, hierarchical and exploitative way of life. That is, we take the way we happen to live now as a cosmic given, and then reason from there.

That’s insane. That’s a failing grade on your term paper in Philosophy 101. That’s a huge argument build on a sample size of one, when we even have other intelligent species on Earth to look at for other examples. Why not argue that orca intelligence is inevitable, or cetacean intelligence, or chimpanzee intelligence, or the emergent intelligence of insect colonies? We’re not even the only intelligence here. We’re just the most disastrous for every other living thing.

Conclusion

Maybe there is no filter, and we are just caught in the throes of a suicidal trajectory because we are a particular kind of intelligent life in a particular situation. There’s no reason to assume that all life would be in a similar situation, much less to assume that all intelligent life would inexorably seek to exploit their entire planet, and then solar system, and then multiple solar systems.

Maybe as we find signs of life in other places, that life will be living in approximate balance with its ecosystems, like the various species of human did for hundreds of thousands of years before the last ten thousand or so. Maybe they will have developed means to detect us, and have meetings to decide what to do about this one rogue form of intelligent life out there that seems hell-bent on killing itself and everything around it. Can they somehow contain the damage we do? What do the thousands of other intelligent species on other worlds think?

The galaxy could be empty of star-spanning civilizations because of wisdom and no other reason. The “Filter” could exist only in our thinking about the nature of life, and intelligence, and civilization. It seems that we are catastrophically wrong about how to live on our own planet – it stands to reason that we would also be catastrophically wrong about how to live on multiple planets circling multiple stars as well.

Avatar: To Bend Another’s Spirit

In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements, but the energy within ourselves. To bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable or you will be corrupted and destroyed.

Above is the quote that the Lion Turtle says to Aang, preparing him for the final confrontation with Fire Lord Ozai, and it always makes me feel and think when I watch what is the best ending to a cartoon ever. I feel choked up, like something true and important is being revealed, and I think about civility, and social change, and compromise, and radicalism, and nonviolence, and disarmament.

In order to bend another’s energy, must our spirit remain unbendable? In the context of worldwide anti-racism protests and riots, what does it mean to bend or not? I think about two approaches to activism, one that is more concerned with purity, and says that there should not be any compromise, and another that is more concerned about civility perhaps, or pragmatism, that calls for the path forward being some middle ground of compromise.

I also think about progress, or especially the lack thereof when we look at race relations in the US. We are more segregated than during Jim Crow, and the police aren’t murdering (and harassing and abusing and framing) more African-Americans, we’re just catching them on camera. When I say “we”, I mean white people. A well-known gaming luminary recently commented on a Facebook thread that he supports the police the way the used to be, before they did all the awful things we see now. I responded that the police haven’t changed, we just have cameras in our pockets and the Internet. None of this would surprise us if we had been listening to people of color the whole time, but it takes protests in 50 states and 18 countries to listen to them now.

I realized that I don’t care what his reply is, I’m just so tired of this “The cops were always friendly in my all-white middle class neighborhood so what are you even talking about?” response.

But, again, who is best to bring about positive change? One who is unbending, uncompromising, or one who bends, and compromises?

The reality seems to be, right now, that evil is uncompromising. With corrupt police departments, there is no compromise. There is no compromise with Mitch McConnell as he stymies progress, halting hundreds of bills and working to stack Federal benches with regressives. There was no compromise on Merrick Garland’s nomination. Over and over, the people working to make the world worse every day show us that they will not compromise.

This is likely what has moved the center rightward in the US rightward for my entire life (40 years and counting)…

Coda: De-Fund the Police (or Abolish Them)

After I started writing this draft, protests broke out in 50 states and 18 other countries against police brutality. Again. After an unarmed African-American man was suffocated to death by a cop on camera. Again. So here we are. Again.

Only this time, the protests are more widespread than I remember in the past, and they do not seem to be losing momentum. I’m hearing more about de-funding the police, and even abolishing the police, than I ever have before. (For the record, I want to abolish police, but I’ll gladly accept radically de-funding them as a compromise).

This brings me right back to the ending of AtLA. The Fire Lord has demonstrated that he will never use his power for anything but evil. He has every chance to change his ways, reconsider, and so on. But he simply will not turn aside from evil. And so Aang has to deal with him – the previous incarnations tell him he must be decisive. Everything is pointing toward killing the Fire Lord.

But Aang disarms him. That is decisive, and it ends his capacity for evil (or at least dramatically reduces it). But in order to do that, in order to bend his spirit, his own spirit must be unbendable.

I end there. We must disarm the police, because they have demonstrated that they will never stop using their power for evil. They are using their power for evil this very moment, brutalizing unarmed protestors who are protesting their brutality. Posing for all-white photo-ops and screaming at the press for vilifying them as white supremacists. Shooting and beating and killing children and elders and everyone in between.

We must disarm them, and we must not bend.

The Economy: Greed, Idolatry, and Human Sacrifice

This is a thought experiment, inspired by the open discussion of human sacrifice for the sake of the Stock Market that has been going on in United States society recently. I’ve always held that our society is best understood in the context of human sacrifice (including child sacrifice – see Sandy Hook) rather than anything more ‘modern.’ It’s been chilling, and in a way vindicating, to have this just come out in the open during the pandemic. Republican leaders look directly into the camera and say, in essence, “We must commit human sacrifice so that the Economy will bless us.”

It is the most Aztec I have ever felt.

Right now we literally live in Gehenna – as in, Ge Hinnom, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem where tradition says people practiced child sacrifice to Molech. It’s where our early images of Hell come from.

Murica.

I sketched out a rough table that might show what I’m talking about. Let’s see…

Time period Sacrificial Victims High Priests Holy Warriors Blessings Divine Form
1500s-1800s Native American nations …Priests, unfortunately Conquistadores, US Cavalry Gold, land Manifest Destiy
1600s-1800s Africans Slave-owners, congressmen Slave-catchers, KKK, lynch gangs Labor, Southern wealth Peculiar Institution
1800s-Present Workers Industrialists Union-busters, cops Profits increase while wages do not Prosperity
1900s-Present Farm-workers ICE, border militias Cheap, plentiful food Donald Trump
Present Elders, vulnerable people GOP, Evangelicals Spring Breakers, Evangelicals A return to ‘normal’ The economy
1800s-Present Everyone Climate change deniers, fossil fuel industry Conservative politicians, YouTubers Our inhumane civilization Our inhumane civilization

 

Advancement in Breath of the Wild

Why Breath of the Wild is the best open-world game ever

I know I am late to the party, but I’ve defeated Calamity Ganon and loved pretty much every moment of Breath of the Wild. One of the many interesting things about this game is that it does not handle leveling up the way that most other RPGs, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age or Skyrim for example, do. I know that this is very much in line with the Zelda series of games, but the only Zelda games I’ve actually played are the original, Legend of Zelda, Wind Waker, and now Breath of the Wild.

Player Skill Development

There are cleverly hidden tutorials for things like shield surfing and the perfect block and perfect dodge, which are all skills that depend on the player’s dexterity. Each of the shrines is also potential skill development, as it teaches you various ways to solve problems that reflect some situations you find while exploring the world. Of course, this is an open world, so the shrines don’t necessarily happen in any particular order (after you leave the starting zone), but frequently I would have to learn something to solve a shrine, and then later realize that I could use a similar skill to solve a problem in the world.

This is the part of game design that builds up player mastery or system mastery, which makes a big difference, at least to my experience of games. This can also reveal when a game is too complex for the people playing it. In a current D&D campaign for example, we are at 12th level and players are still realizing features their characters have had for months. My character has so many different abilities to use in combat that I regularly forget one of them in a given fight – and fighting is what D&D is built for.

5th edition D&D is a lot of fun, but by the time you hit about 5th level your character has a ton of abilities, even in a system that is clearly slimmed down compared to 3.5. I have pretty much never been in a game where the players remember all of their abilities, me included. Similarly, after learning in theory how to perform a perfect dodge and a perfect parry, I never again used those skills in Breath of the Wild, getting through to the end of the game without them (except for learning how to deflect Guardian blasts, which seems to simply be necessary). Though it does say something for the flexibility of the game that without a difficult setting, I was able to ignore two significant skills and still complete the game.

Player mastery really comes up in the shrine quest of Eventide Island. You are stripped of all of your equipment, and have to complete three shrine quests on the island starting from nothing. This depends much more on your player skills than normal, as for a lot of the game you can power past mistakes and tough fights by force-feeding Link and using your best weapons until they wear out.

“Leveling” – Hearts and Stamina

The closest to leveling up that you do in Breath of the Wild is when you complete four shrine quests you turn in four Spirit Orbs for another heart or portion of stamina. There are no built-in increases aside from these two things – if you want to deal more damage, or absorb less damage, move faster, etc., then those things have to be accomplished in other ways. But in terms of ‘leveling up’ in the traditional way, this is it for BotW.

Hearts and stamina also provide difficulty settings for the game. If you find the game to be difficult, you can solve more shrines and gain more hearts and live longer in fights. If you want to explore more freely, then you can turn in more Spirit Orbs and gain more stamina so you can climb higher and swim farther.

Or you could leave the starting zone, go straight to Calamity Ganon, and fight him at the equivalent of ‘level 1.’ There are whole YouTube channels devoted to this kind of mastery.

Ingredients for Cooking

Finding new ingredients and new recipes allow you to heal up and create self-buffs, and this is another way that you advance in the game. The farther you travel from your starting zone, the more exotic ingredients become available to you, and as you gather these various ingredients, you are also able to use them to upgrade your weapons and armor (which I discuss below). If you need to, you can also just travel around gathering apples, which are very common and safe, and devour them in the middle of fights to help you survive when your skills and equipment aren’t enough. You can also create food that gives you 25 bonus hearts when you eat it, or triple upgrades your armor, etc.

Weapons and Armor

Breath of the Wild is interesting because of the speed at which your weapons break down – a very durable weapon will survive at most a handful of fights before it explodes into bluish shards. I thought that I would find this more frustrating than I did, and there are so many weapons in the game that my weapon inventory is never empty, and most of my korok seeds go to expanding my weapon stash. This is something like D&D, with the classic question of how will we carry all of our loot back to town. The main downside is that when I find a weapon I really like (I’m looking at you, Thunder Spear) it only survives a fight or two before it explodes into shards. But when I read about the game, I expected to spend more time scavenging weapons.

Improving Armor

I suppose the other way that you “level up” in the traditional sense in BotW is when you can improve your armor with the help of up to four Great Fairies in the game (with, yes, a bonus fifth who resurrects horses). Like cooking and selling, upgrading armor is the reason to travel the world harvesting strange things, and is like the soft form of the “fetch” quests that are so central to MMOs.

Exploration and Unlocking Travel

Breath of the Wild is, above all, a game of exploration. And it is so well designed, it is at times stunning. There are shrines and korok seeds to find, and the game rewards climbing every cliff and ever tree and literally looking under every rock.

There is a history of ‘hex crawls’ and traditional RPGs that focus on exploration, and ideally a dungeon crawl is first and foremost about exploration. I’ve never seen exploration done better than Breath of the Wild, however, on or off a screen.

One of the ways that you ‘level up’ in Breath of the Wild is not only through exploration, but by unlocking travel options. When you find a new stable and have access to your horses, or especially when you unlock a new tower and expand your map. Teleportation between shrines and towers becomes necessary and commonplace, but even after dozens (hundreds?) of hours of play, I find myself returning to already-explored areas to discover new things.

Lots of Ways to Win

What Breath of the Wild masterfully provides is an open-world game that is also open as to how you can win it. You can depend entirely on player skill, and beat Calamity Ganon to death with three hearts and scavenged equipment. You can travel around gathering ingredients and create super-foods that give you bonus hearts and upgrades and survive regardless of your skills. You can upgrade all of your equipment and have amazing armor to wear, or travel the world gathering powerful weapons to use. You can solve all of the shrines and have a huge number of hearts. Or do all of the above.

For all of their complexity, most tabletop RPGs have only one way to win – do the thing the game rewards with XP (almost always fighting) and get XP and improve. But if you are playing D&D 5E, there’s no way to just ignore leveling up and just rely on your skill as a player. You couldn’t go and gather amazing equipment rather than level up either. One way or another, you need to get XP. That is the only path to winning. This narrow window is the case with pretty much every tabletop RPG I can think of, even the really clever ones. I’m just left in awe of the designers of Breath of the Wild, including for this reason – that they created an open-world and open-victory game.