Tuesday, September 21, 2021

D&D Theology in The Raven Tower

Ann Leckie's The Raven Tower is a short fantasy novel told from the perspective of a demigod. Like all her other novels, it is a deft and thoughtful exploration of a way of being fundamentally different from our own. More relevant to this blog, it is also a compelling account of how deities (and their clerics) in your standard D&D setting might work.

In this article I'm going to try and summarize what gods in The Raven Tower are, and how their powers work. While ultimately I'd suggest you just go read the novel, I understand that not all readers have the time, money, or interest to do so. Still, I recommend it, especially if the breakdown in this post is interesting to you. The post will contain some minor spoilers, although I am confident it will not give away any critical plot details.

Also note that I listened to an audiobook of The Raven Tower, to which I no longer have access, about two years ago. Therefore, my recollections on some points are hazy, and I am unable to go back to the text to clarify.

The nature of gods

Gods in The Raven Tower are beings of pure mind and will. They occupy a particular point in space and can inhabit some physical body (examples include a rock, a dog, a swarm of mosquitos, a skull) but do not need to. Their exact origin, and relationship to the wider cosmology, is left ambiguous in the book. Gods are not omniscient and their awareness, while not strictly limited by senses as we know them, appears limited to their vicinity.

Everything a god says is true. This does not mean that gods cannot lie, but rather that if it speaks an untruth, the god wills that untruth into being. If a god says "that tree is on fire", the tree must either already be on fire, or it catches fire as soon as the sentence is uttered. Gods' speech is not verbal, so much as a pure expression of intent. In this regard, willpower and physical energy appear to be interchangeable, and speech alters the world largely through the application and manipulation of physical laws. Converting one substance into another means rearranging it at an atomic level; causing it to float means applying sufficient force to counter the pull of gravity. I do not remember whether the law of conservation of matter applies in The Raven Tower, but either way, it is certainly easier to manipulate existing matter than to create it fresh.

Speaking into being in this way expends a god's limited supply of consciousness, and so they have to be careful about what they say. Using up too much of its power robs the god of its essence and ability to think or act. I forget whether gods can truly die, but they can come very close by speaking something that exceeds their capacity. For instance, a god can speak a storm into being for a moment, allowing the storm to dissipate naturally afterward; but if a god says a storm will rage on forever, its power will permanently be funneled into keeping that storm going. Thus, the best way to "harm" a god is to trick it into saying something can't afford to make true.

The sociology of religion

Much as gods can expend energy through will, they accumulate energy as it is given to them. Acts that direct energy to a god nourish them; things like prayer are like a little snack, whereas a mass sacrifice, which gives matter and life over to them, is like a hearty meal. The exact mechanics of this exchange are not explored in depth, but the relationship between the direction of energy and the nourishment of gods make for some of the most interesting moments in the novel.

Something like religion, then, tends to emerge in historical relationships between communities of humans (there are no demi-humans in The Raven Tower) and gods. Humans can provide a steady diet of worship and sacrifice, in exchange for various boons, blessings, miracles, etc. At the same time, gods are cautious about what promises they make their worshippers, and often attach terms that allow them to balance their own resources and avoid overcommiting. For example, a god may promise that so long as certain observances are kept up according to its specifications, it will continue to protect a community from eg. drought, or some other narrowly defined threat.

Because gods' awareness is limited, they sometimes make their power "portable" by attaching a promise to a certain person, object, and/or action. This canonically leads to conditions where a blessed object -- a "god-spoken thing" -- will enact some miracle when a command word or gesture is performed, but only once a day.

(I'm extrapolating now, but you have here the basis for your traditional D&D cleric: A person who has adequately demonstrated their fealty is allowed to ask for a certain number of favours per day. Those favours are pre-defined, ranked according to how costly they are to grant -- levels -- and meted out in limited quantities per day. As they continue to prove their worth, clerics are given access to more and better favours.)

Gods have individual personalities and skills. Gods gradually develop techniques to more efficiently enact certain things. The difference could be between, say, a god that provides better crop yields by learning about and subtly accelerating plants' natural growth processes, and one that isn't as knowledgeable about plants and obtains the same effect by providing good weather all year (the latter presumably being a lot more costly). While their relationships with humans can be quite transactional, gods can also grow attached to humans -- or at least their communities, as individuals don't live very long.

Conclusion

The Raven Tower presents a world where gods live in evolving relationships with humans and one another, and where those relationships are embedded in a kind of pseudo-material economy of willpower. The nature and limitations of Leckie's take on fantasy deities corresponds closely to the way they're instantiated mechanically in D&D, making that novel's theology an excellent fit for your kitchen-sink D&D setting.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Ideating City Adventures, or 12 Ruinations of Pumpai

A Preamble

This post represents an intersection of a number of recent inspirations: For one, Patrick is blogging about Gormenghast, and Nate is sharing his incredible megadungeon lore, which have me thinking about the stories behind huge, beautiful, ruined, dreamy places. Second, I haven't run D&D in a while, and having started to miss it, I've been wanting to work on game material. So I've been thinking about Pumpai, a city I first started dreaming up in around 2014, and have fiddled with intermittently over the years. Some inspiration images:

Paul Delvaux, The Great Sirens (1947)

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain II (1941)

lokorum (2020)

I'm not going to get into a bunch of detail about Pumpai now, because the point of this exercise is kind of not to do that. In the past I've struggled to flesh out Pumpai for play, so I went back to Joseph Manola's excellent posts about adapting his own city setting to something he can run at the table in his City of Spires game (parts 1, 2, and 3). I was particularly interested in his calls to condense and shrink the setting, as Pumpai has always existed in my mind as something vast and nebulous -- a vibe with infinite potential for specification and variation, rather than something actual and concrete you can put characters in. At the same time, it's important to me that Pumpai be a place that feels old, a place steeped in its history. So I wanted to do some work with it that would both develop it as a place for adventuring and help flesh out its past...

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Social Procedures in Practice: A report

Not long ago I wrote up a codified version of my social procedures. In addition to posting them to this blog, I shared them with my players. I have run two sessions since then, during which I have taken care to call out these procedures as I use them and make clear how I am interpreting them in play. This is meant both to help my players better understand the game, and to enforce upon myself a kind of rigour in testing them out in this more defined form.

In the latest session, one PC managed to activate every single social mechanic. So here's how that went:

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

GM Anxiety and the West Marches

It should be no secret to anyone who's been following what I do lately that I think of GMing as craft. What I mean by that is enough for its own blog post (and also a podcast).

A lot of the talk about the social dynamics of GMing focus on power imbalances, and the outsized influence and control a GM can exert. I agree to an extent, but for reasons that also lie outside the scope of this post, I believe that this imbalance is not as necessarily or intrinsically problematic as some would contend. I also think it can make for a very rich game, and affords qualities of play that cannot be readily achieved through more balanced distributions of narrative control. Again, though, that's another post.

There is also a flipside to the social power arguments that I find absent, or at least underexplored, which is the vulnerability and social pressure attached to GMing. Admittedly, more balanced power dynamics offset this. However, proceeding from the assumption that assymmetry can be desirable, I find a more robust engagement with the subject lacking. These matter have become pronounced of late in my experiences running my home game, which has recently transitioned to a West Marches-style format. In this post I'm going to identify what I consider some significant blind spots in the ways we tend to talk about running this kind of game, especially when it comes to its experiential dimensions. Moving forward, I'll be devoting some thought to how I've been managing these issues in my campaign of late.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Social Procedures

I've been running OSE a bunch lately and decided it might be helpful for my players if there's a codified version of the way I run social encounters for them to consult.* Since I wrote them up anyway, I thought I'd share them here. Link immediately below, brief design notes after the jump.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Text to Table episode 2: Nate Lumpkin -- Statting Gods and Dating Goblins

The second episode of my podcast is online! Go listen to it!

Click the picture to listen to it!

My guest for this episode is Nate Lumpkin, from Swamp of Monsters. His blog has been one of my favourites since the heyday of G+ and I'm super excited whenever a new post shows up in my feed. Nate is talented writer with a good mind for D&D, and it was really fun to get to speak to him about his campaign.

I faced a number of technical issues putting this one together, a couple of which were my fault but most of which really lie with the platform, Anchor. These are reflected in the nearly month-long gap between episodes, and in the audio quality of the interview itself. It's alright if you want to get something out quick and don't care to edit, but neither of those things describe me and I found it to be really hostile to work with. I haven't made any firm decisions yet but am exploring alternative hosting services, cause damn. 

Anyway, enjoy the conversation. I liked having it and I think there's some really interesting material in there.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Background Music in Online Games: The Sequel

A lot us are doing a lot more online gaming these days. For the last year, I've been living an hour's drive my from my nearest friend, and two or more hours from the vast majority of people I've traditionally gamed with in person. So I've been online for a while now. This isn't my first time moving my gaming online - it also happened the year I was living in France for the 2014-15 school year - and of course there's been the occasional online game on G+ (R.I.P.) and Discord. All this to say I have quite a bit of experience with these things.

Through all that experience, one problem that remains fucking intractable is that of piping in background music. This has never been especially hard to do in person; I open up my laptop and pull up a song or video. But for some reason, while simulating every other aspect of a TTRPG session is getting increasingly easy and convenient, music remains a singular challenge. I more or less solved the issue in 2015. The advice in that post still works, more or less. I checked yesterday, and while it's a bit dated and some links might need updating, if you squint a little the instructions will do now what they did then.

So why am I writing this post? Well, the computational landscape has changed significantly since 2015. I no longer use Skype, because I find it intolerable, and Hangouts has been slowly torn to pieces and will finally be laid to rest in June. There are other options for online gaming, and they are very good options, but music remains a problem. In this post I'm going to break down what it takes to get music right in an online gaming session, and I'm going to provide an overview of every conferencing tool of which I am aware. As you'll see, while many of these are okay, or at least workable, most solutions available now are unnecessarily kludgy, awkward to coordinate with players, and/or rely on bad or dying software. The other point of this post is to lay out the problem clearly, in the hopes that someone equiped with that information might have a better solution.