The Planarch Cantos: Core Themes

Out in the blogosphere, Tristan and Dan are posting about what truly makes their setting work at its core. I’ve decided to do the same. Below you will find the six primary themes that make up The Planarch Cantos – the omniversal, reality hoping, infinite spanning setting I try real hard to run games in.

I don’t think I do a good job of expressing these things in play, so I’m hoping writing this will give me a focus to think back on during the game.

1. Everything Ends

ruins
ruins by zhiyong li

Every Canto in the omniverse is a unique song in the void. Except Rivage, for the City is the antithesis, the end of these songs.

When Rivage consumes another world, it ends. The places, the cultures, the peoples. Even for those that survive as refugees in the City itself, nothing will ever be the same – what has come before is no more.

This is true of everyone and everything. Nothing lasts forever.

2. Each End Creates A Beginning

tree inside a dead tree
artist unknown

As the City consumes and destroys, it also builds itself – new places, different places, amalgams of many things. And the refugees that come to the City for safety? Their cultures, their bloodlines, too become changed. They begin something new.

Though everything ends, these endings give space for new growth, new creation. Death begets life.

3. No One Is Really In Charge

Assassin
Assassin by shenfeic

When folk search for meaning, they often find it. When they search for power, they find that, too. Every block, every district in the City has some little warlord or savior or bastion that controls and organizes it. Often they bend the knee to someone greater.

But no one, no matter how big, is truly in charge of everything they think they’re in charge of. There are always those more powerful, always those who seek their weakness.

Many may think they’re in charge, but no one truly is.

4. There Is No Black And White, Just Grey

Dark City
artist unknown

The thousands of cultures and philosophies in Rivage may be enough to clue you in, but if not, take it to heart: there is no such thing as “good” and “evil” here. It’s all a matter of degrees. Everyone thinks they’re in the right – you think a villain sees themselves as villainous?

Sure, the Rulekeepers’ll try to tell everyone how to be, and how to live, but the rules of the streets don’t often listen to what those in power want. Even the staunchest defender of life will kill when necessary; even the most crooked thief will give when needed.

5. Life Follows A Pattern

Heritage in Rivage
Heritage and Lineage in the City

There is great variety in the realities of the omniverse, but for some reason, there’s not as much among her peoples.

Nearly every worldsphere ever recorded has Humans. They are like a fungus – hardy, tough to get rid of, and spread everywhere.

Most worlds have Alfar – beings with a connection to the natural world. While they often present as smaller Humans, there is always some tell to set them apart – small horns, cloven hooves, pointy ears, furry feet, or what have you.

There’s others that show up on multiple worldspheres, to lesser degrees – the Trolls, ugly hulking creatures with an affinity for dark, hidden places; the Yokai, small furry shapeshifters with a penchant for trickery; the Scarabae, deadly brutes who hide philosophers’ minds beneath thick exoskeletons; and the Strigi, the feathered nobles, selfish and disloyal.

There’s an unlimited number of other folks, but they’re few. Last of their kind, usually. All the rest come from one worldsphere, and if they’re in the City, their world is long gone.

6. There Are Things Outside Of What We Know

The Planrch Cantos: Outsiders

The void between worldspheres is not empty. There are things out there. Places, entities, and other strangeness that doesn’t fit inside what we view as real and truthful.

Celestials and Infernals are known by many, even outside the City – they are the creators and destroyers, the things outside reality, either worshiped or reviled. They live in the void, come from the void, but are obsessed with the real. Their motives are opaque, but those in the know categorize them by their schemes – Infernals take, and Celestials give.

Constructs are not from the void – they are created life. Powerful magic, faith, or any number of things can create them. But by all accounts, these creations should not be. Whatever power animates them and gives them purpose is beyond mortal comprehension.

Then there’s the Astrals – a collective word for all the folk from various worldspheres who have chosen or adapted to live within the void itself. Most travel in great ships or live on worldshards – crumbs left in Rivage’s wake. There are whole societies, great and small, among the Astrals.

Setting Inspirations and Touchstones

There are many things I can point to that inspire me. Here’s everything I can think of (Drivethru links are affiliate links).

  • David Lewis Johnson’s gonzo science-fantasy Gathox Vertical Slum presents us with a city on the back of a god that crawls across worlds. Includes minimal Sword & Wizardy rules (which I actually like).
  • Jack Shear’s wonderful Umberwell is a fantasy city after my own heart – full of dirty and grime and fiends and moral grey areas.
  • The Planarch Codex is where I got the name and the idea of a consuming city. Very light supplement for Dungeon World that can be used almost anywhere.
  • The Planescape Campaign Setting will always be in my heart. This is the original D&D I grew up with. Two additional books stand out even if you don’t want to use the whole campaign setting – In The Cage covers Sigil, “The Cage”, the great city at the center of the cosmos; and Uncaged covers NPCs and locations in Sigil.
  • Spelljammer is another setting from the Planescape era with ships that sailed the space between worlds on the Prime Material plane. That concept has been plucked wholesale into The Planarch Cantos.

But there’s more than just RPGs, there’s also…

  • The world of Throne from Kill Six Billion Demons is a massive inspiration for visualizations in my head.
  • That also makes me think if Prophet which isn’t an urban based setting, but has amazing visuals, and just the right level of weird to fit perfectly.
  • The Fifth Element for all of the same reasons.
  • The GSV ships in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series are usually on my mind – when we get to voidships in play, I intend to give them personalities because of these books.
  • And probably tons more…
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More on Countdowns

Art by Aureta

Last time I spent some time looking at the Planarch Codex method of specifying dungeons based on themes. A core component of this method is the countdown – typically a series of checkboxes that are checked as a given theme or danger rears its head. Let’s quote the Codex’s CC licensed text here:

Countdown: Name the danger—a corruption, a desire, etc.—and
tell the player to draw six boxes, filling in the first.
Next time, tell them to fill in more or offer incentives to
do so. When all the boxes are full, boom, it happens. If
they ask, tell them a way out.

This is intended to be a GM move, but later we’re presented with a mechanic for checking boxes that involves a typical PbtA 2d6 spread.

Instead, what I’d suggest is a simple flat d3 roll – but give the characters opportunity to add ±1 to this roll based on preparedness or circumstance. If an action moves the Countdown forward or a risk is brought to bear, roll a d3 and tick that many boxes. Often you don’t know how much of an impact you actions may have until they’re done.

Countdown Length

Consider that with a typical range of 1-3 boxes ticked, a three box Countdown has potential to end abruptly with a good roll. Likewise, a 6 box Countdown could take a long time if the dice are not favorable. I personally like the 3-6 range for most Countdowns because of this. Longer Countdowns could take multiple sessions, or long involved actions. I wouldn’t use shorter Countdowns – a length of 1 or 2 is more or less an extra roll after some sort of character success.

Using Countdowns Effectively

A Countdown should always be attached to a singular thing that is clear: either the time until a thing happens, or the amount of a thing remaining. Keep the names of the Countdowns obvious, so it clearly communicates what is going to happen. Things like:

  • Countdown: The King’s Demonic Possession [ ][ ][ ]
  • Countdown: Pack of Goblins [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]
  • Countdown: Cave Collapse [ ][ ][ ][ ]

This is covered in Rob Donoghue’s Clockery article better than I could manage. Each Countdown should have a single purpose, not be filled with dense information at each step of the way.

But expanding on the article, you might wish to have an “escalation point” during a Countdown. Often escalations do not mean the end of the Countdown, just a change. Notate these escalation points like so:

  • Countdown: Zombie Incursion [ ][ ][ ][ ][ ]|[ ][ ]
    • Escalation: The Lich Queen arrives

The zombie onslaught continues unabated for 7 ticks of the countdown, but at some point the Lich Queen arrives. Notice that the Incursion end without the Lich Queen arriving – we can tick 3 boxes at once and skip right over it.

This is important, because an escalation is an independent event that happens – it may still affect the countdown, but once the Lich Queen has arrived, she isn’t beholden to the Countdown.

Here’s another example:

  • Countdown: Villagers cross the bridge [ ][ ][ ]
  • Countdown: Bridge Collapses [ ][ ][ ]|[ ][ ][ ][ ]
    • Escalation: One rope rips, tipping the bridge

The interesting bit here is that we probably won’t skip over the escalation point, and we have two competing Countdowns. As the character’s actions help the villagers, they risk the bridge collapsing. When it tips, villagers may be in peril, and helping them is that much harder.

Types of Countdowns

Previously I talked about using Countdowns for generating a space to be explored – using themes or dangers present in the place, and then rolling to see which were present, if any. I’d call those Exploration Countdowns – used to create a place. These are passive Countdowns that sit squarely on the GM side of the table. Exploration Countdowns tick once per scene, and tick again when the scene changes.

The examples above are mostly Event Countdowns – used to indicate when something will occur, or when something will end. These are active Countdowns that are directly impacted by character actions, and should be clearly shown to the players (keeping escalation points hidden until they occur is completely fine, but optional). Event Countdowns tick multiple times per scene based on character actions.

We can also use something called a Project Countdown to reflect passive activities the characters try to help with. These are a special type of Event Countdowns that usually take a long time to accomplish. Imagine building a church in a small town – the villagers may do most of the work, but it is a slog. When the characters get involved, it moves much faster. Or perhaps supplies are lacking and the characters need to help. When characters do actual work on the project, that’s a good time to give a +1 bonus to the roll. Project Countdowns tick once or twice per session.

And finally, we have Faction Countdowns that show how important people or groups move toward their goal. These are a specialized Project Countdowns that occur in the background. The character’s overall actions in a session should provide the ±1 for the roll, but can also fully disrupt a Countdown, removing it from the board. When a Countdown ends or is disrupted irrevocably, immediately write up a new one for the faction – they never sit still. Faction Countdowns tick once between sessions.

Going Further

I instinctively pace a lot of things in this manner when GMing. Most of these Countdowns are improvised, because that’s how I do things. But my intention is to use Faction Countdowns to provide a living world full of groups vying for different goals.

 

Procedural Exploration

With Michael talking about getting PbtA in my peanut butter, I thought it was time to finish a post I’ve been sitting on for a bit about a nearly perfect method of procedurally generating territories to be explored.

In the Planarch Codex (buy it here, affiliate link) there is a particular method for generating a dungeon – you name a handful of themes or dangers, give each one a countdown, and then roll for the strength they present in each room. The rolls are the classic PbtA spread – roll 2d6, on a 12 the theme is present at a strength of 3; 10+-11 it’s present at a strength of 2; on a 7-9 it’s present at a strength of 1; on a 6- it’s not present; check off boxes equal to the strength and use strength to determine difficulty of any obstacle.

This method works incredibly well for all sorts of non-dungeon spaces to be explored, so I want to illustrate a few examples.

ming-chang-the-tower9074513141248775487.jpg
Art by Ming Chang

Dungeon: The Tower of Nezcabel

The Tower of Nezcabel can be seen for miles, as the top disappears into the clouds that seem attracted to its great height. Rumors tell of the great Magus who lives here, strangely not named Nezcabel, but no one has ever happened upon him. With level upon level of empty rooms, everyone who has ever tried to climb the tower has given up and returned home.

Themes/Dangers

  • Lonely, Oppressive Emptiness
    • Countdown: ☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐
    • Instinct: to make them turn back
  • Refuse and Sundries
    • Countdown: ☐☐☐
    • Instinct: to waste away, left behind long ago
  • The Magus
    • Countdown: ☐ [enabled once all Refuse and Sundries are exhausted]
    • Instinct: to greet those who have survived his tower

Notes: For a bit of a tweak, this one has a Theme that only appears after another is exhausted. This way one Theme’s countdown is used as a timer. You will note there’s nothing dangerous here – that’s intentional. The site is intended to take weeks or months, with the characters being assaulted by their own woes. Use any sanity/hope/emotional mechanism your system supports – in Torchbearer I’d run this as a Will Test vs Ob2 or Ob3 in order to continue the climb with Conditions being the preferred result of failure.

tumblr_ml0bvljb8u1rgaepso1_12807486275766497570166.jpg
Photo by 格格不入的人生

Wilderness: The Goremist Marsh

The Goremist Marsh sits on the edge of the Town of Frin. During the day, the locals hunt for leeches or treecrawlers. But when the goremist rolls in, they return to town, cowering close to their fires. For the mist, it will strip the skin from a human in minutes. But one of the hunters didn’t return home, and the Duskbell has tolled. If you can retrieve her alive, you’ll be rewarded handsomely.

Themes/Dangers

  • The Approaching Mist
    • Countdown: ☐☐☐ [the Mist appears when countdown is exhausted]
    • Instinct: to spread far; to melt flesh before sunrise
  • Leeches and Crawlers
    • Countdown: ☐☐☐☐☐
    • Instinct: to defend their territory
  • Sucking Mud
    • Countdown: ☐☐☐☐
    • Instinct: to pull things down, forever

Notes: This site is an entire wilderness – a marshland. Similar to before, there is a timer for when the actual mist arrives. Each tick of this theme is mostly atmospheric, possible blocking off routes through the marsh, or making them lost. The other two are more classic dangers. Note that there’s no theme related to finding the missing hunter – you could use a countdown for this, but I’d probably give them the hunter easily, and make getting HOME the hard part. Maybe some sort of rolls for tracking or scouting, and they got her. The real challenge is making sure she lives when the mist rolls in.

57632070200996384iqp1ujwsc7747048906621174685.jpg

The Overcity

Nine years ago the Overcity appeared. It sits above us now, robbing us of sunlight for the warmest parts of the day. Now the frost and ice are rarely gone by midday, and the fires are constant. We will not last like this. If only we had a way to reach it, to climb it, and maybe parley with its denizens.

Themes/Dangers

  • Alien Architecture
    • Countdown: ☐☐☐☐☐
    • Instinct: to confuse and mislead; to invite question
  • The Thin Princes
    • Countdown: ☐☐☐☐☐
    • Instinct: to wander, searching for intruders; to silently send them away
  • Bold Slaves
    • Countdown: ☐☐☐
    • Instinct: to treat outsiders with disgust; to labor

Notes: I’m not sure what this floating city is about, and that’s part of the reason I enjoy GMing. Just writing this up has created more questions than I expected. As they explore, think of how alien and strange the architecture is, how the Thin Princes look and act, and what is up with the slaves. When in doubt, ask the players leading questions – What makes the door in front of you utterly unusable to human hands? What to the Thin Princes murmur as they approach? What sort of weapon does the slave bring to bear against you?


These are just some examples of how to use the Planarch Codex system. It’d work for many different rulesets, but “strength” would have to manifest differently. In Torchbearer, I’d use the strength as Test factors or +D for versus tests. You might use them to determine a DC or similar, or simply a number of enemies.

Rolling 2d6 for the strength isn’t for everyone, though – some people like flat distributions. I’d manage this by rolling a flat d6, looking for equal to or under the current countdown, then roll d3 to determine strength.

I want to play with this system much more to figure out how various countdown and types of themes or dangers actually feel in play. Has anyone spend much time with this style of procedural generation?

Shared: Failing is Effin’ Fun

Michael finally has a blog, and now he’s posting some cool content. Check it out…

Stories & Dice

I’m convinced that players are by in large masochists. At least the ones that I play with tend lean in that direction. Maybe that’s a result of how I run games. Maybe it’s just the type of people I attract in my life – oh god. Not a time for self reflection.

Failing is, as the big words above state, effin’ fun. With this caveat – failure is most fun when it hurts like a mutha and it does not rob players of the agency. Solution: give the players the tools necessary to hurt themselves. They’ll rarely shy away from it and they’ll be surprisingly ruthless.

Over the past year I’ve been running a weekly game of 5e on Tuesday nights. It’s got all the traditional trappings that you’d expect out of a D&D game. And it’s been a ding-dang blast. But I have a secret and I think my…

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Review: Notes from the Shadowed City

I picked up this book recently, and think it’s worthy of a post in this blog.

Notes from the Shadowed City (affiliate link) is first and foremost an art book. It is a book of sketches that a fictional explorer with no memories makes as they travel through the strange city they find themselves in.

While some pages are repetitive, the ones that stand out really stand out.

It’s an interesting style of telling a story – it’s not a cohesive narrative, but you can fill in the blanks because the sketches are chronological. After this happens, he meets the masked fencing master, and so on.

The story isn’t in the entries as written. Those are interesting vignettes in the life of this character. The story is between the entries – it is how you fill in the gaps between each entry. In this way, it is entirely different based on the reader.

It’s a little on the expensive side, but it’s a high quality hardcover, and I don’t regret buying it. It will definitely get referenced a lot when running RPGs – simply flipping open to a random page for inspiration.

Check it out!

IGRC does Forbidden Lands (S1)

Paul does amazing write-ups for a lot of things, and it’s really cool to see him starting up Forbidden Lands. I didn’t back this on Kickstarter, but reading reports is sort of slaking my regret-thirst. I’m particularly curious about this “blood mist” rule that requires you not to camp too far from towns or else […]

Rules as Agreed

There are two mantras, two modes of play that are pervasive in various roleplaying communities.

The Rules As Written (RAW) groups play games by the book, following everything to the letter. This clear communication of what to expect from the rules provides players with sense of fairness, it gives them the ability to understand play from table to table, group to group. Players can trust the rules will not surprise them, allowing them to make informed choices.

The Rulings, not Rules (RnR) groups often play games with minimal rules, or rules that have notable gaps, allowing the GM to fill in these gaps on the fly as they come up. This style of play is generally more fiction-focused, as players need to clarify the world around them before making decisions, being unable to rely on known rules.

Personally, I think there’s good to be had in both camps – the RAW play style creates consistency and coherence in the rules, giving the players confidence in how their actions will turn out and the risks they’re taking on; the RnR play style allows for creativity from the GM and an ability to judge actions regardless of how the rules would treat them,

So I propose a third style of play: Rules as Agreed (RaA) combines these two ideals. Rules are the first class citizen, but the game you play is constructed like Legos – suggested and agreed upon by the group when situations come up. These building blocks are added to during play, not before. The Fate SRD makes some good points about creating too many rules this way, and explains that rulings in the RnR sense eventually do become true Rules.

The RaA style is how I prefer to play. I don’t believe rulings should be the primary mode of determining outcome, because it puts too much power over the game into one player at the table. As a GM, I like when I am surprised by the game, and that doesn’t happen if I’m choosing things at every turn.