Friday, February 17, 2017

The Saints Have Turned to Crime: secret wars, sanity, and moral fiber in Arthurian D&D

So I was at work the other day doing a routine and boring task, and my mind was wandering. I was moping around about the hideous and depraved life I live, when I had an inspiration: I decided to try thinking about D&D instead to cheer myself up. Almost instantly I felt better, and I began wrestling with a somewhat knotty problem: how to reconcile all the aesthetic elements of my setting?

After seeing my inestimable comrade N. Manscorpion's beginning work on his own megadungeon, I was forced to conclude that my setting is too fractured. I can hold his whole setting, in terms of look and feel and vibe, in my mind all at once. I can't say the same for my own. Depending on where I turn it's grim black metal album covers and beheadings, or faeries with pointy hats sitting on toadstools conversing with guys in platemail and fair maidens. There's nothing wrong with having both in your game, but I really want something that I can visualize in its entirety. It helps with making decisions if I can instantly say "this fits, that doesn't."

False Patrick has written about the difficulties of D&Ding in Arthurian England before (I have read this article a million times). I am sidestepping some of these concerns by placing my game in a "slightly more realistic" era, after the Roman occupation ended (somewhere in the late 400s/early 500s). I will be adding in anachronistic elements because it's not D&D without some of those (plate mail is still available, but insanely expensive and hard to find), but there is no renaissance fair, shining castles, bards in tights stuff going on. It's closer to Middenmurk (actually I will be shamelessly using 80% of that page in my game) than Camelot as it's usually depicted.

Even so, we have King Arthur, magic swords, ladies of the lake, wizards in towers, goblins, dwarves, pixies, griffons and giants. How do I reconcile those with the fact that, a mere 50 feet underground, you can do battle with horrors from beyond the stars? Why don't those guys run the whole world? More importantly, why doesn't anybody talk about them, and what would life be like if they did?

So there I was at work, doing something boring, when I flashed on it:

Final Fantasy Tactics.

For those who don't know, Final Fantasy Tactics was a classic Playstation game that succeeded the obscure gem Tactics Ogre, which itself was a sequel to one of the greatest goddamn games ever made: Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen (if you have some spare time and like strategy games, all three of these are highly recommended).

Anyway, I remember the storyline of FFT being really political (boring). The general thrust is that the main character, Ramza, leads a group of scruffy cadets to stop a world-destroying bad guy, you get the idea, regular stuff. While his childhood friend Delita commands the army, marries the princess, becomes king, and goes down in the history books as the hero of the Lion War, Ramza (whose eyes the player sees the story through) fights in utter obscurity. One of his comrades' diaries is discovered generations later and "the true story of the Lion War can be told."

This is an easy one to translate! As long as those rugose cones, goatmen, and brain-eating jellyfish never venture above ground to threaten our existence in public, nobody knows or talks about them. The characters can fight, die and (maybe) win, gain experience, get rich and have cool adventures in the otherworldly hells of Annwn, but they won't ever get famous for it.

To get a reputation, they have to do things outdoors in the open. Winning wars, slaying big classic monsters (ogres, giants, griffons, etc), bringing bandits to justice, fighting in tournaments, paying bards to sing songs about them and the like. This makes me think that instead of rolling "Wyvern" on the wilderness encounter table, it should be "The Winged Terror of Whatevershire." Something that relates to the social world where the PCs live, in a way that dungeon encounters don't.

Only Warhammer Fantasy has the pictures I need.
The fun thing about thinking along these lines is: if nobody talks about it, who's to say Arthur's knights didn't all gain their early levels in dungeons too? Lancelot can fight 30 men at once because after "Wargoat Fight Club" in a pool of boiling acid, everything else gets the volume turned down. Maybe he wanders the kingdoms alone "on quests" so often because he has fucking PTSD from his experiences, not to mention all the friends and comrades that he must have seen die down there?

I had been thinking about using a sanity or horror system of some kind to represent the otherworldly terrors that the PCs will come in contact with, but haven't settled on anything good. The fear aura of some dragons or powerful undead is a good start, but I wonder if some kind of permanent 'mental scarring' can be made to work. I have no qualms about characters being permanently changed (in ways other than dying, HA!) from their trips to the dungeon, and I like the idea of going underground a wet-behind-the-ears 1st level pissant, and coming out rich, powerful and geared-up but with a 1000-yard stare, a few missing fingers, and no pancreas. Beedo's article on the subject from back in the day seems like too much for me: the PCs will be throwing down with hideous horrors a lot, and not everything they see should blast their minds. Nevertheless it's something that I'd like to bring into play somehow, especially as it relates to the "secret dungeon war." (I have also been thinking about player character mutations, but that really just requires a giant random table and a few failed saves.)

Forever alone.
Maybe all the "evil knights" are such dicks because once they got deep into the dungeon, they saw that not only is Jesus not the supreme deity, not even in the top three, but we live in an amoral mechanistic universe? Maybe Sir Meleagaunce went into the dungeon with Alignment: L on his character sheet, and came out C? Maybe he decided if he couldn't beat the eldritch horrors, he could still cut a deal? Maybe under his helmet he isn't entirely human? He can't look like the full-on Warhammer chaos knights, because then we may as well just play Warhammer and it makes things too obvious. Maybe just a weird mole or birthmark, a gross scar, something that sets him apart as weird or unnatural that you wouldn't necessarily see or notice.

It's also worth noting that this is pretty close to what happens to Solaire of Astora in Dark Souls, so it's right where I want to be tonally.

Maybe the reason Arthur is so perfect and good and has the best judgement and stands apart as kind of inhuman in his reasonableness and fairness (White touches on this in The Once and Future King) is that he gained all his levels at once from pulling the sword out of the stone, and he never had to go into a dungeon and watch his friends die and his dreams get slaughtered for a few gold pieces more. Sure he wages bloody wars against the Saxons, but everybody does that anyway. What makes the rest of the round table knights such good guys, and how do they rise up from being scruffy adventurers to the leading moral figures of the age? Lots of different ways. Some had prophecies going in their favour, some just grew up fighting wolves in the snow and never had to breathe in radioactive mists while the Cthulhu Cult stabs them with hot pokers, and some just made all their saving throws. As a wise friend of mine once said: "Being the good guy just means waking up better than everybody else."


Anyway, this has been a productive piece of musing, but now I have to go redo all my encounter tables and double the square footage of level 1. Play this the next time you need a bit of pagan pessimism in your game:

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