Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

A Kindness of Doomguard

doomguardOk, I said some mean things about the Sinkers in my last post, and DavetheGame came to their defense, so let me step back and unpack that a little bit.

The Sinkers, AKA The Doomguard, are another Planescape faction. They are more or less entropy cultists, feeling that decay and destruction are not only inevitable, but desirable, as it is only through the destruction of all things that we will clear a path to a perfect universe. Or so they say. Mostly, it’s just an excuse to smash things. They are, as you might expect, violent and destructive.

Now, let me step back a bit. One of the interesting things about Planescape is that each faction has a role in the city. Because the ruler of the city (The Lady of Pain) is hands off (unless you piss her off), the factions have stepped into fill most civil roles out of necessity. General consensus is that the Lady of Pain tolerates them because they keep things working, and no one wants to piss of the Lady.

The thing is, the factions are not necessarily nice, but they do their jobs. As I noted previously, the Bleak Cabal are, well, pretty bleak, but they run the poorhouses and charities. The Harmonium serve as police. The Fated (who are jerks) keep the records. The Godsmen keep the forges going. Everyone has a role, even the Revolutionary League, whose role is to take down the other factions! The exception is the Xaositects, but that is part and parcel of the discordian/fishmalk package.

The Doomguard control the city’s armory.

On paper, this makes some sense. They’re arguably the most martial of the factions, so someplace weapony seems appropriate. But there’s a problem – there’s no actual point to having an armory in Sigil. It’s not like all the weapons are kept there, and if they were, what woudl be done with them? There’s no army to equip, and since the only way in or out of sigil is through magical doors (which are controlled by the Lady of Pain) there is no call for a standing army. It’s possible that ancient secret weapons are stored there, but if that is so, then the Doomguard are the worst possible choice to control the Armory.

So, as written, they’re a bunch of violent nutbars with no real role in the setting except to get used as plot devices in published adventures that I’d rather not talk about.

But the idea is salvageable, and here is how I do it.

The doomguard have been given the Armory and tasked with the defense of the city from external threats. When something big and unpleasant shows up and starts inflicting propery damage, the sinkers roll out of the armory gates and go forth to inflict great violence upon it. When the do so, they are allowed to use weapons and spells of great destructive potency, ones that are normally barred from deployment in the city.

This does not happen often – the Sinkers do enough damage on their rampages that the threat needs to be pretty serious, but such threats do exist, and relying on the Lady to deal with every such threat seems like an excellent way to test her patience. By agreement, three other faction heads must agree to unleashing the doomguard, but in the face of an obvious threat, the Doomguard have not always been meticulous in adhering to those rules.

But for all that, they serve a critical purpose in Sigil, not terribly different than that of a fire patrol. This also fuels some rivalry between the Harmonium and the Doomguard, as the former are tasked with keeping the streets safe ona day to day basis. The Harmonium would like nothing better than to be able to arm and equip themselves to deal with these threats, but no other faction is comfortable giving them that kind of power. They find it maddening that these berserkers are trusted off the leash to do work the Harmonium woudl be better suited to handle. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Doomguard explicitly dsescribe themsleves as handling threats no one else is tough enough for, and are entirely willing to rub this in the Hardhead’s faces.

With that change, the doomguard are welcome in my Sigil. They’re still nuts and dangerous, but they serve a purpose. They’re a part of the city, and for me, that’s the most important thing.

The Rule of Hardheads

hardheadI have always been a fan of Planescape (mild understantement there) and all of the factions take up portions of space in my head. For the unfamiliar, each faction corresponds to a philosophy of how the universe works that might or might not be true. The philosophies themselves are interesting, but they become more interesting in the way they interface with the practical concerns of the actual organization, specifically in regards to their role in the city of Sigil. Sometimes it falls flat – The Doomguard and the Xaositects have never really worked for me because their philosophies (Yay Entropy! and FIshmalks forever!, respectively) are hard to square with them keeping their stuff together enough to actually do things.

I blame the writing a bit. The Bleak Cabal (who think the world is a meaningless pile of crap) could easily fall into that trap, but in the book that dug into the factions in detail, it really unpacked the fact that beause they have such a bleak view, that *drives* them to charitable works. The world is terrible, so it is on us to make it a little less terrible.

I bring this up because the faction I think about most has bubbled to the top of my head again. They are not my favorite faction, nor the one I’m drawn to, but they may be the one I find most *interesting*, and they are The Harmonium.

Some Planescape fans might find this weird. The Harmonium (AKA the Hardheads) are presented as the bully boys of the Planescape setting. They come across as borderline facists who are all about thumping people over the head for any kind of inappropriateness anddragging them off in irons. They make for the kind of characters that players really love to hate.

But what intrigues me about them is that while they are nominally the face of authoritarianism (as well as a number of other unpleasant isms), that is only a consequence of the really interesting idea behind them. Taking from between the lines and at the edges of the Harmonium, the picture is kind fo fascinating. Faced with the challenge of a universe that may or may not have any rules, what rules should you follow? In the absence of clear guidance, can you take a swing at the best rules?

And that’s the real heart of the Harmonium’s ideology – a pragmatism that says it is better to have a set of rules than no set at all. This set may not be perfect, and it needs to grow and evolve, but the point is to *have* those rules. And the more people who follow those rules, the better off *everyone* will be.

It’s easy to see where this goes wrong. Rules can grow and evolve, but what keeps them from overgrowing, or growing in unhealthy directions? What happens when things change? And what happens when someone decides that some folks need to follow the rules for their own good?

And that idea of goodness is important. You can assume the best of intentions and still have all of these things go wrong. But from the inside, those problems may not be visible, or may be attributed to problems outside the rules. Even when a problem gets recognized, it can be easily dismissed as a anomaly – something that needs to be fixed, certainly, but no big deal when compared to all the good that the rules do.

In D&D terms, Harmonium members tend to Lawful, but its an umbrella that equally easily handles Good, Evil and everything in between. And there is no contradiction to a LN or LE hardhead who is working for the greater good. There are always lawyers and monsters to be found.

But you need not even go so far. For many, there is an immense relief in having rules to follow, and a number of non-admirable human tendencies come out in those most willing to accept rules without question. And that, in turn, leads is to the cartoonish hardhead who is so well known on Sigil. She is uninterested in the philosophy of the rules because the rules have provided her clarity and guidance, and in her real life of stone and bread, that is what really matters. She doesn’t understand why peopel are so *dumb* and *self-harming* as to follow their decadent, self-destructive paths, but she’ll do what she can to save them, no matter how much they hate her.

Because she is a hero. At least according to the rules.

From Bonds to Flags

flying-flag2Random bit of Dungeon World tech, inspired by a brilliant idea from Judd Karlman’s 1st Quest.

When playing with a changing cast of characters, the bond list gets torn to tatters pretty fast. You can address this by adding more bonds, or creating temporary bonds, but that gets kind of clunky as things shift. So with that in mind, here’s another possible solution: Invert the problem

Replace Bonds with Flags (or if you prefer, Buttons) – Flags are behaviors that other players enable, ideally ones that really emphasize elements of your character as you envision them. So, if you envision your character as gullible, then the flag might be “Tell me a lie that I beleive”. If you envision your Paladin as righteous, then the flag might be “Offer me an easier solution that cuts corners I am unwilling to cut”

Now, when we play a game and we come to a guard post, my thief can propose that we bribe the guard. The paladin gets all paladin-y about its, and insists they proceed honorable. The thief has effectively hit the Paladin’s flag, and at the end of the session, she gets an XP in the same way that she would if she’d had a bond like “I will offer the paladin solutions that woudl simplyfy the problems if he woudl just lighten up”.

OPTIONAL RULE: You can actually get more generous with the XP for flags, and given them to both players. This even allows multiple players to get in on the act, so if the ranger hits the Paladin’s flag later in the session, at session end, the thief, ranger and paladin all get one XP (Paladiin still gets only 1 – it only matters that it came up, not how often it came up). If you do this, I would suggest that 6- results stop giving XP and instead give some other currency, or just accept that characters are going to level faster.

This will require coming up with a list of flags, and helping players customize them. Every character should probably have 2 flags, though if you want to give bond-heavy classes like Bards 3, knock yourself out. The flags themselves will need a few things:

  • They must have a clearly identifiable action (So they can’t be judged by effect – “Make my wizard feel bad” is a poor flag. “Refuse my wizard’s aid because he’s a foreigner” works well)
  • They must create some sort of conflict or tension, usually reflected by a choice. There must be a legitimate alternative. “Attempt to poison me so I can notice it” is pretty bad, because there’s no reason to “not” notice it. If there is not a choice, the action itself must be something that could complicate things. “Call me bob” is a poor flag. :)
  • They should give me an opportunity to show off something about my character that I might not otherwise have the chance to do so.

A few possible flags

Gullible – Tell me a lie I believe

Liar – Believe and act on a lie I’ve told you

Righteous – Offer me an easier solution I must refuse on principle.

Outsider – Refuse my aid because I’m different

Leader – Allow me to make a decision so you can criticize it.

Heroic – Let me keep you from going first into danger so I can go myself

An NPC Grid

I was watching some clips of Leverage, as I am sometimes wont to do, and I was particular taken by a sequence of supporting characters.

The thing about Leverage is that the crew are very capable, but they also have a code, something that makes them good guys. I’m calling this clarity, but feel free to pick your own word. It’s important that there are two axes, because they provide a useful comparison to the characters around them.

That is to say, if there is someone important to the show who is not a member of the crew, they are lacking in one \of those two categories. Characters who have capability but not clarity tend to be enemies or foils (Sterling, Chaos and so on). Characters who have clarity but not capability tend to be allies and supporting characters (the FBI agents, Maggie, Jack Hurley). Characters lacking in both tend to be mooks or victims, and sometimes marks. It’s all pretty easy to illustrate in a grid.


Marks, notably, fall outside of this arrangement because their role is very different. They are often more and less capable than the crew, and may have both more and less clarity. I’m ok with that for Leverage.


Anyway, I’m intrigued by the grid because I want to remember to use it in my own games, specifically to make sure that I have names in every box. It’s easy to remember the foils because they’re so much fun, but it’s worth the effort to remember the sympathetic NPCs. If your heroes have clarity regarding who they are, nothing tests that like someone else trying to live up to the same rules and failing.

But it’s also kind of Leverage specific, since it’s a game where it’s appropriate that the PCs are “up and to the right”. That’s far from common, so I tweaked the model a bit for more traditional games.


Notably I replaces “clarity” with “drive”. This partly moves away from the moral component from leverage, but it also allowed me to move the foils to the right. :) In this case, drive equates to the strength and direction of a character’s agenda.

The lower left is still largely the same, except the foils have been replaced by neutrals – characters who could act, but choose not to. On paper, these should be the most boring of characters, but in small doses they tend to be quite compelling.

Above them is the Old Man From Scene 26, which is the stand in for overpowered NPCs with no reason to be there. They tend to not contribute much to a game, but some setting shave a role for powerful observers or the equivalent. They may be more prize than participant.

To the right we have the mentors – the folks who are similar to the PCs but more capable. As with the Old Man From Scene 26, these can be a problem, and it’s best to either remove them from the board early, occupy them, or make them a source of trouble in their own right (in the sprit of the elders of Amber).

I put villains in the upper right, which may seem weird, especially since it’s so close to the PCs and the mentors, but consider: what makes a villain interesting is that they are at odds with whatever the characters want, and they cannot easily be turned from that path. Without those two characteristics, the villain is merely a challenge.

Foils re-emerge on the far right – they are as capable as the PCs, but their motives take them elsewhere.

The lower right is the category I’m east sure of – NPCs with little capability but a lot of drive. That is to say – plot hooks. And that’s great as far as it goes, but I’m not sure what I’d do with an NPC who lives in that space.


As with the Leverage grid, the utility of a grid like this is to be able to drop your NPC names and see if any gaps reveal themselves. It’s a simple trick, but maybe useful.

Goblins Cannot Build

Hopping back to the Elvish Empire for a moment

For the elves, “goblin” is a catchall term that encompasses the brutes among thier populace, as well as numerous monstrous races, most notably goblins, orcs, bugbears & hobgoblins. The accuracy of using a blanket term for all these races is fairly questionable in any abstract sense, but these distinctions are unimportant to the elves and their subject people.

It is well known that the goblin armies were the most pernicious enemies of the elven reclamation, and it is frequently asserted that it was the threat of goblinkind that forced the elves’ hand, triggering the reclamation in the first place in order to unite the peoples of the empire to stop them.

And stop them they did. The goblin armies were shattered, and the survivors forced to flee or to bend knee. Some called for the eradication of these monsters, but the elves stayed their hand, and instead showed mercy, imposing only a single rule upon these now-subject peoples – Goblins Shall Not Build. The penalty is death.

Nowawdays, people think of goblins as monsters and don’t think much deeper than that. Some remnants of the old armies exist within the empire, a point that kinder souls take as evidence that they are capable of civilization, and it is only that those existing in the wild have chosen a monstrous life. The Goblin Law is ironclad, but is seen as only fair punishment for the horrible harm caused by their armies.

And goblin armies figure heavily in song and story. Numberless hordes of fierce soldiers, hungry for blood. They are the classic image of opposition to be found in most of the empire’s art.

Only a handful of scholars realize that it was not the armies of the goblins that made them dangerous, but rather the goblins themselves. A clever, industrious people, the goblins had made numerous technical and infrastructure advancements which did not rely on magic. They had entered alliances with numerous peoples (included all those currently considered to be “goblin kind”) and were experiencing a golden age of advancement and enlightenment when the elvish reclamation began.

Coexistence was not an option, and since their defeat, the elves’ zealous enforcement of the Goblin Law has kept them from reclaiming what they have lost while allowing the elves a lawful seeming pretense for the systematic oppression of their people.

Since any new construction will draw the forceful attention of the elves, the goblins have become nomadic, finding shelter of opportunity. Old caves, abandoned buildings – any existing construction which allows them to live without drawing elvish ire is likely to draw goblins.

This is not a matter that is given much thought in the empire, save among the gnomes. During the reclamation, the gnomes had close ties to both the goblins and the elves, and worked tirelessly (but fruitlessly) to come to some sort of accord. As a result of this (and subsequent generations of offering goblinkind what shelter it can) the gnomes have a poor reputation among the other people of the empire, as shifty, untrustworthy goblin lovers.

Apologies if there’s a bit of noise on the feed. I’m experimenting with a new client to see if i can make microblogging as easy here as it is on G+. Specifically, seeing if it might be suitable for smaller posts. Like…about this big.

Less Than Unique

templar-shield.pngDungeon World does an interesting thing where a character playing a class is the sole representative of the class in the world. They are the fighter or wizard and whatnot. It’s a nice gimmick, and a few games use it, because it underscore the role of the characters as protagonists, not just interchangeable pieces.

Contrast that with D&D 3e, which did something very clever with “NPC classes”, which followed the same general rules as PC classes, but were simply less awesome. Most NPCs who fought were “Warriors” of whatever level was appropriate, and while they were capable at fighting, they lacked the bells and whistles of the PC classes.

The game I’d like to see is somewhere between those two, where PC roles or classes are meaningful, but not unique. That diminishes PC spotlight somewhat, but the tradeoff is that it gives them a stronger social context. A world where you are The Paladin is maybe a little bit different than the one where there are a dozen Paladins, and you are one of them.

The exact number doesn’t matter a lot – it could just as easily be 108 Paladins. It just matters that there’s enough of a boundary that it matters, but not so much that it has no context.