Category Archives: Diesel Pulp
Okay… so maybe I now AM working on a Sorcerers and Speakeasies 5e supplement. Mostly, I’m having someone else work on it right now, while I just offer outlines and notes. But since it’s on my mind, and I need content for my blog anyway, here are some more thoughts.
Given that 5e is a robust, flexible, well-supported game system we need to ask ourselves: what do characters really need to fit in to our 1920s setting? Equipment, obviously. Since we are sticking with the normal species there’s no need for change there. We’ll make adjustments to the classes, but only as needed. Maybe a few spells to augment the feel of the setting (Tannison’s Terrible Tommygun, anyone?) But there’s actually not a ton of hard rules changes needed.
That brings us to backgrounds.
Many of the backgrounds in 5e conceptually work fine for our 1920s “Djinn and Tonic” campaign. We’d need to update available equipment, including for each background, but we can do that easily (once we have an equipment list… so this is something I have an excellent freelancer working on right now). Similarly we’d want a conversation about languages (do we have all the 5e languages and all the real-world languages? Do we decide German is elven, so Netherlandic is drow, West Scandinavian is old fae, and so on?), but once that’s settled languages are easy. The personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws generally work fine (I think we can trust players to update any anachronistic terms to 1920s-appropriate equivalents).
Beyond that, looking at the PHB, Acolyte, Charlatan, Criminal, Entertainer, Sage, Sailor, and Urchin all work pretty well as-is. Some context might be worth adding, but each of those backgrounds can easily be adapted to Sorcerers & Speakeasies with a small entry that gives an update to equipment and maybe proficiencies, and a short description of any conceptual tweaks that need to be mentioned.
We might want to do just a bit more work for Folk Hero, Guild Artisan, Hermit, Noble, and Outlander. The core of those work fine, but the details might need a tad more adjustment. Luckily, the concept of Variant backgrounds can handle that just fine. Local Favorite is an easy variant for Folk Hero, Union Member for Guild Artisan, Dedicated Academic for Hermit, Upper Class Scion for Noble, and possibly WWI Veteran for Outlander.
It could be worth doing a few more variant for the backgrounds that already work well too, just for specific flavor. Gambler is an easy variant for Charlatan, Gangster for Criminal, Scientist for Sage, and so on.
Now that doesn’t mean we may not want to add some new backgrounds as well. Journalist comes to mind as a common 1920s trope worth supporting on its own, and maybe Masked Vigilante if we want specific support for it. Copper, Detective, Driver, Engineer, Pilot, Smuggler, Rum-Runner… there’s tons of fun stuff we can do if we want to. In each case we should ask if it needs it’s own background (if we do Smuggler, Rum-Runner is a pretty obvious variant–same with Copper and Detective or Diver and Pilot). Dilettante could be a variant of Noble, but maybe Dandy/Flapper deserves its own? We can touch on things like Made a Deal at the Crossroads (if we don’t borrow the idea for the Warlock), or Blasted By Lovecraftian Horror if we want to support more mystic backgrounds in keeping with our magic-and-machines.
We don’t want to get TOO specific. I suspect we want Archaeologists as a form of Sage or Hermit, and Banker/Grocer/Typewriter Repair Man are likely just suggestions for some kind of Crafter or the Guild Artisan. We should think hard about whether Spy, Photographer, Athlete/Sports Star, Student, and the dozen more than come to mind are really worth having their own entries at all, but certainly some will.
A LOT of character flavor can come from backgrounds, so we’d want to think about if we want to make any variants just for that reason.
For example, look at the Entertainer background. It has 10 Entertainer Routines listed. There’s nothing wrong with being an actor, dancer, or juggler, but “jester” doesn’t speak to the 1920s. Let’s look at what a revised table might look like.
Pick 1-3 routines, or roll a d10 to pick them randomly.
- Stage actor
- Carnival barker
- Jazz instrumentalist
- Big Band instrumentalist
- Radio actor
That doesn’t change the game rules at all, but it does feel very much more grounded in the culture of the Roaring 20s.
This also means a Backgrounds chapter of a Sorcerers and Speakeasies game could contain a lot of flavor without loading down players or the GM with a lot of specialized rules. If we want to sneak in references to Adventurer’s Inc., Hexers, Grendels, and Taxi Heroes, we can put all that into Backgrounds just to help flesh out the world.
Speaking of helping:
Today’s post only happened because I was able to turn down some small freelance projects, giving me spare time to consider these questions, and replace the income those would have brought in with money from my Patreon. Even just the price of a cup of coffee each month makes a big difference in how much content I can put out on my blog!
As is so often the case for me, as I specifically set myself up for a massive workload (I am currently sitting at 223 different project deadlines due sometime in 2020), my muse is hammering me hard with ideas for a project that ISN’T on that list.
That, combined with the fact I’m still in Seattle having been flown out for some meetings at OrcaCon, means I am going to punt the next d20 Class Design Diary post (which has had Part 2 and Part 3 in recent weeks) by another week.
But we are going to tackle a related topic! I take a look at some campaign building/class expansion ideas to match new campaign options for 5e, based on the ideas that have been Muse-shoved into my brain recently. So, what project does my muse have me thinking about, that so far is NOT on my list of things to get to anytime soon?
Sorcerers & Speakeasies
“It’s the Raging 20s. Magic elixirs and booze are illegal. Monsters are rampant. Adventure is everywhere!”
There are lots of ways I could proceed about making a magic-and-machine-guns setting based on Prohibition era America, ranging from making a brand new RPG ruleset, to a full game system hack (such as I have been working on for Really Wild West). But its also possible to design it as just a set of bolted-on extras for an existing game system that does most of what we need. The current edition of 5e is flexible and open-ended enough that it could cover a lot of what a Sorcerers & Speakeasies game would need. Some worldbuilding would be necessary of course, and 1920s equipment would have to be designed and added, but that’s easy compared to reskinning a whole game or creating one from scratch.
Since the main way players interact with a game world is through character classes, that’s a great place to start when looking at creating a campaign setting for a new ruleset. When discussing using 5e classes in a Paladins-And-Prohibition game, there are two routes we could take. We could create new 5e classes whole cloth to fill all the roles we need, or we could just add new specializations to each class to give them a 1920s moonshiners and monsters feel. That’s a good deal less work, and in some ways more flexible since it means any other material designed for those classes can be easily added to our Sorcerers & Speakeasies (S&S) game.
Of course some people might not consider all the 5e classes to be good matches for a 1920s-era setting, even one that adds dwarves, gnomes, and spellcasting. For example, players with visions of barbarians exclusively as nordic vikings, Conan-like Hyperboreans, and savage jungle princesses may have trouble seeing how the class works in a game that runs from Uptown Citadels and Theater Street all the way down to the Undertown and Gearling Park.
But that’s why our new specializations need to be flavorful and thematically appropriate both to the core of the class, and to some 1920s hero/villain trope. For example, if I was going to do S&S as a simple 5e bolt-on, I’d start with something like this.
Barbarian: Three new Primal Paths
Boondock – You grew up in a remote rural location, commonly mountain country or midwestern farmland, in an area with extensive and extreme poverty. You may have learned to survive just on woodcraft and farming, or you might have gotten a hard manual labor job such as miner, oil field worker, or logger. You might fit the stereotype of being an uneducated overall-wearing moonshiner and pistol-popper… or you might have depths city-slickers neither expect nor appreciate. You may or may not not be quick to anger, but your hillfolk roots give you access to a pool of simple, potent wrath you can tap when you have had enough.
Grinder – When there is dirty, hard, unpleasant work to be done, people look at you. Your best prospects are often acting as a second-tier knee-breaker, not trusted to plan anything complicated but an expert at mayhem when the the plan falls part. Some grinders make an honest living, as boxers, wrestlers, pig-chuckers, or circus strongmen, but your strength and durability often draw the attention of people who think they have more violent uses for your talents.
Jitney – People are shocked at how big you are, and how much hardship you can shrug off. They may call you “built like a cement truck,” a “brickhouse,” or a “palooka,” but the sentiment is the same regardless of the term — you are made of shoeleather and axehandles, and your durability seems unearthly. It’s fairly common for those who don’t know you to assume your mass and density mean you are dim-witted as well, though being underestimated in that way can play in your favor.
Yes, I’d need game mechanics to make those paths complete, but my starting point for adding specialties to 5e to give a 1920s magic adventure feel is very much conceptual. Taking this exploration of ideas a bit further, here are some other potential directions to take 5e classes that might otherwise feel very disconnected from the modern world of a 1920s campaign. These are just sketches of ideas, starting points I’d build out from if I was spending more time on this.
Bard: Three Circuits
There’s a good chance your S&S bard has a bit more experience singing for his dinner, and a little less formal training, than a bard with a “college.” In place of colleges, an S&S bard can select a Circuit, reflecting the types of places where they are most likely to have gotten paying gigs.
Busker’s Circuit – You might not still mostly be performing on the streets hoping for spare change to make a living, but you’ve done it enough to know the ins and outs, and how life on the street works.
Club Circuit – There are a lot of houses of entertainment these days, and you’ve learned to get booked, make a living on the gigs, and work contacts bot for your career, and to arrange for anything else you might need.
Vaudeville Circuit – You’ve done a little of a lot of different things to fit in to the vaudevillian life, and may be able to sing a bit, dance a bit, do a few card tricks, throw your voice, tell some jokes, throw your voice, or a dozen other little performances.
Druid: Three Habitats
There isn’t any one universal druid circle in the 1920s. There are numerous groups and religions that work with or include druids along with many other characters, but what most distinguishes one druid from another in Sorcery & Speakeasies is the habitat of creatures they focus on and feel a connection with.
Alley Habitat – You are closely connected to the creatures that share urban living spaces, from pigeons and rats, to feral cats and dogs, and sometimes even roaches.
Domestic Habitat – Civilization has been working with animals, as guards, allies, mounts, producers, and just food, for thousands of years. You are most strongly connected to animals that share citizens lives, be those cattle, horses, guard dogs, housecats, hunting birds, or circus elephants.
Wilds Habitat – There’s still a lot of wilderness out there, from back roads to mountain hollows and unspoiled woodlands. You prefer to connect with the creatures of these
Step 0 – A Feel for the World
This project didn’t begin as a thought experiment into how to adapt 5e classes. It began with a wild notion for what kind of slang might exist in a Fantasy Roaring 20s campaign, and how such slang might help define a world and inspire adventures within it. I’ve posted all this to my Facebook page at random times over the past couple of months, but it seems worthwhile to offer it all in one compiled for here.
Sorcerers & Speakeasies Slang
Adventure, Inc.: Adventure, Inc. is a semi-formal network of taxi drivers, trash collectors, diners, phone operators, street workers, milkmen, bus drivers, mechanics ,and similar folk who work to get information about “grendles” to people who might do something about them.
Babylon Phonebook: Spellbook, especially one focusing on summoning things.
Button Troll: Any monster paid to act as a guard, thug, or legbreaker, normally by organized crime figures.
Calico: A woman who has rural hedge-wizard, witchcraft or shamanistic powers, but also acts as an urban employee, guide, or even boss.
Cement Cloak: A magic item designed to get the user killed. Sometimes used to refer to any method of assassination.
Cleaver Squad: Group willing and able to engage in violence using primarily melee weapons, especially those adapted from tools. “The merchants of Unstreet, from the Gutters to Old Fane, can call up a pretty big Cleaver Squad.”
Copper Shield: A system protecting police and other government enforcers *and* their agents and informers from the consequences of their own actions as long as they remain useful to the government higher-ups. “He’s crooked, but he’s behind the copper shield.”
Corpse Doctor: A necromancer. Or necrothurge. Or flesh automaton maker. Basically anyone who mucks with bodies for mystic purposes.
Dama: A woman with the skills and confidence of a knight. May be literal for a warrior-woman, or may be a term of respect for the woman’s expertise and dominance within her field, be that accounting, politics, or just being family matriarch.
Drowned Man: Functioning drunk. Often barely-functioning, like a disgraced doctor who now works out of a back ally, or a corrupt police detective who does private investigations now.
Eveic: The secret language of Eve, used in the Garden of Eden, which neither Adam nor God understood. Therefor, any secret known and used by a group of women.
Hexer: Anyone with magic that is of an evil source, or they use to specifically evil ends.
Hexhunter: An expert at tracking down, understanding, and undoing the evil caused by hexers.
Glint: Someone who has one, and likely only one, truly noteworthy magic item (often a weapon or one-use spell-tosser).
Go Dwarven: Get simple, heavy, primitive, and generally violent. “If you don’t pay your loan back, we’ll have to go dwarven on you.” But also a mechanical philosophy. “The radiator doesn’t work unless you go a bit dwarven on the pipes.”
Grendle: Any monstrous or supernatural problem that, for whatever reason, the local authorities won’t do anything about.
Guillotine Cure: Fixing social problems by getting rid of politicians in charge. Not always by killing them, but that’s often the implication.
GumSword: A hired monster-killer or adventurer. Often a low-rent one, who can’t afford high-end steel weapons, but may depend on a baseball bat or crowbar.
Lotus Fiend: Drug addict, especially addicted to drugs that grant magic visions and maybe real eldritch powers, at least briefly.
LuckLubber: Someone who is cursed, or has such bad luck they seem to be cursed.
Medusa: A woman who is believed to have power, generally magical or political, and the will to use it.
Morlock: Any intelligence, roughly humanoid thing that most lives below ground and doesn’t abide by the rules of civilization and society, not even Undertown society. May include trogs, derro, mongrelmen, skulks, tommyknockers, and, you know, morlocks.
Noirmancer: A secret spellcaster, who only does their wok in the dark or at night, or in the metaphysical shadows.
Paper Troll: Someone who talks big and makes trouble, but only in newspaper editorials or letters to the paper, or in town meetings and such.
Pargeter: An artificer skilled in the creation of automatons and homonculi.
Parthian: An enchanted firearm. “No one wants to cross Gurhtu One-Tusk. His violin case supposedly is where he carries a Parthian.”
Precious: Any important item, often referred to by the obsessive owner; such as “Jimmy the Glint’s ‘Precious’.”
Psara Cat: An unusually large, fluffy, calm breed of feline who supposedly pick people to adopt and turn into spellcasters. Also, anyone who appears to be the power behind the scenes. “Little Ezri may just look like the bartender, but he’s the real Psara Cat south of 114th street.”
Raven: An informer who knows things about the world of magic and monsters. Sometimes, may be an actual corvid.
Spelleasy: A neighborhood bar when you drink coffee or tea and discuss magic. You might discuss elixirs, but don’t actually make them. Like alcohol elixirs are, after all, illegal now.
Spider-Friendly: Willing to deal with creatures from the Undertown, like drow and driders and ropers. “The ground floor of the Drake Drink Club is upscale, but the basement levels are spider-friendly.” Also a suggestion of a person who might be sexually attracted to subterranean races.
Stormer: A powerful, primal spellcaster. often one who has to be angry to create magic effects, or who creates uncontrolled magi effects when angry.
Talk to a Mirror: Any form of divination. “Okay, I’m stumped on this case. but I know a guy who’ll talk to a mirror for us.”
Taxi Hero: An adventurer who deals with things on a case-by-case, for-pay basis. “They may not deal with the whole cult, but the neighborhood gathered some money to hire a taxi hero to clear out that Set temple on in the abandoned Monarch Hotel.” Taxi heroes often literally work for a local branch of the Delver’s Union, which sells tickets to people they can give a Taxi Hero to deal with a problem. An “A Ticket” is a minor nuisance, such a a giant rat in your basement, or soot-sprites. The letter-codes go all the way up to the E Ticket, which is your trolls under an overpass, chimera nest in the church’s bell tower, hauntings, and so on.
The Taxi Hero takes the ticket back to the local Delver’s Union, and gets paid for the work. Of course, it seems like the A and B tickets pay out less and less every season…
“Three C’s”: Chokers, Cloakers, and Crypt Things — stand in for anything you may run into in an urban alley or sewer that’s common enough to recognize and know how to deal with, but dangerous enough to kill in an unheroic manner you anyway. “Lots of people gone missing in the Battery recently. Probably just the Three C’s.”
Threadman: An undead created intentionally as a servant. Comes from the fact they often have lips, eyes, or both sewn shut.
Wand Wiggler: A spellcaster-for hire, often a pretty weak one.
WarWolf (or Loup de Guerre): A civilian vehicle converted for paramilitary or military purposes. “The Starshiners have an old WarWolf they use to make deliveries.”
Step 0+1: Microfiction
Even after I saw how easily gamified the concepts for Sorcerers & Speakeasies could be, I didn’t leap to game rules. Instead, I began wondering if there was a way to present a setting that had magic melee weapons and firearms both be fairly common, but magic firearms be rare. I especially liked the idea of enchanted clubs and sling rocks being even more common than enchanted swords.
That lead to this super-short story.
Runes and Remmingtons
“Sarge, why do the Torchers carry breakbats?”
“Are you asking, cadet, why an officer in the Undertown street patrol might be equipped by the city with an Type IV Enruned Peacekeeping Cudgel?”
“Because cadet–Macklin, is it?–there are things in Undertown that need kinetic encouragement to be good citizens.”
“Well sure, Sarge. We all get that. But why not use a .38?”
“While our Police Standard Issue is a fine choice for many duties, son, there are things in Undertown that don’t pay attention until you tap their should with something that has runes on it.”
“Okay, Sarge, but why not just put runes on a .38? I mean I’ve seen an Ogre Squad carrying more boarspears than shotguns! Shouldn’t we just put some runes on modern weapons?”
“First, Cadet Macklin, a shotgun lacks the lugs needed to keep a wounded globster from crawling up onto and over you while you and your squad hit it with the wrath of Good St. Alaina the dozen or more times it takes to bring it down.
“Second, runecasters have been putting the roxie on pigstickers and crossbows for centuries. They’ve gotten right good at it. But a nice Remmie pump 17? Been out less time than you’ve been alive. Turns out, until the Longbeards and Calicos in armaments have been perfecting the runes for a kind of weapon for a good dozen decades, the cost of enruing one is… prohibitive.”
“But Captain Auburn has that cherry Springfield with a bunch of runes on it!”
“She does indeed. Brought it back from the war. And she earned it. Got that for killing a dragon, Macklin.”
“A draaaagon, Sarge? Really?”
“Feel free to ask her your own self, cadet. If you want to lose your eyebrows for insolence. But until then, let’s train with the Peacekeeping Cudgels, shall we?”
Enjoying Sorcerers & Speakeasies?
Right now the ONLY way I am going to have time to work on this is if my Patreon pays for the time. And this is my longest blog post in months! Which means it took a lot more of my effort away from other paying projects.
So if you want to see more of this setting, sign up for a few bucks a month, and let me know you want more S&S!
You can set the tone for an RPG, from an entire game system to a single adventure, with bits of short fiction. The purpose of this fiction isn’t really the same as fiction that exists only for its own sake. You need to introduce a world and show some of the ways it can be used, as much as entertain with prose.
That’s subtle different from game tie-in fiction. God tie-in fiction does work entirely on its own, and may even take liberties with what game rules could handle in order to present a story set in the same world as a game. It’s a balancing act, but the best tie-in fiction tends to be a good story first, and a faithful representation of a game later. (And this is fair – lots of games made as tie-in to fiction are imperfect representations of those fictional worlds. When you change the format, you accept some alteration in the details.)
For example, I’ve been experimenting with what fiction set in the Really Wild West would look like. I’ve done short introduction fiction for some of the RWW pieces, but am thinking I might take a different approach if I wanted to do my own tie-in fiction.
I haven’t had time to write a complete Really Wild West long-form story, but I have written the first scene of one.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE RUSTY
The air was dense with smoke and ash, burning Skaff’s throat as he sucked desperately through the bandanna held to his mouth. His eyes watered but he dared not shut them, glaring deep into the smoke as he ran. The clouds of thick gray ash and cinders were painful, burning his cheeks and hands, but it was infinitely preferable to the oily black vapor that would surely be crawling through the town’s streets by now. Choking, even burning, was a less fearful fate than the horrors he had seen visited on those who had been exposed even briefly to the black gas.
A loud roar, part steam horn and part animal howl, bellowed through town. Even over the screaming of panicked citizens he could not see through the conflagration, the roar was clear and chilling. He felt the need to run from that sound as quickly as possible, but it seemed to come from all directions at once. As its echoes faded, a similar sound rang in the distance. He was unsure how far away the source of the more remote roar could be—a mile?—less?—but he knew it was not far enough. The distant roar seemed to come primarily from the east and so he turned west, the direction only discernible because the low setting sun made one section of smoke glow more than the rest.
A woman crashed into him, running in blind panic, and clawed at his coat. She was tall and thin, with the fine features and sharp ears of an elf, but her face showed none of the serenity Skaff associated with the European clade. Before he could react to her at all, though he knew not if he hoped to aid the woman or shove her away, the elven interloper cried out and dashed out of sight into the smoke. She left a wet sensation on Skaff’s shirt, which he briefly hoped was water, perhaps a result of the woman trying to protect herself from the flames. But the strong smell of iron, wafting up even through smoke and bandana, told him the truth. He was covered in another person’s blood, soaked through her clothing to thoroughly that one impact had splashed it on him. It was a sure sign black gas was nearby. That woman, though running, was already dead. She just had the worst parts of experiencing her end yet to come.
Skaff tried to angle his retreat to move both westward, and away from the direction he thought the unfortunate blood-cover woman had come from. He could no longer see clearly from his left eye, and the stinging in his right forced him to close it even as he desperately fought to keep looking for deadly vapors. Shapes in the ash were vague, and he could only guess at their clades. A human, one of the insectile chivvin, the jerky motions of an automaton. A figure that was a centaur, or a mounted rider, thundered past. Suddenly, in a flash of crimson light and wave of heat, the horselike figure burst into flames, turning to charcoal before it could even fall to the ground.
And then, the dull glow of dusk was blocked from above.
The shape concealing the sun was vast, looming far above him. Even through the smoke its basic form was obvious, three long legs stretching up from the ground supporting a huge disk which writhed with undulating tentacles. Screams echoed down from the top of the shape, and Skaff stopped dead in his tracks. Hot drops of red fell on his face, like hellish rain, and he could taste that they were blood. One of the massive tripod legs lifted and swung forward, smashing some unseen building of brick and glass in the process. A stone struck Skaff, driving him to the dusty street, and the sky further darkened as the leg fell toward him.
Skaff woke screaming.
All around him it was dark, and for a long panicked moment he didn’t know where he was. Instinctively he scrambled backwards, fighting some wet shape that enwrapped him, tangling him and holding him tightly. Then he was falling. He thought he was falling from a great height, but he dropped just a short distance onto a hard, cold floor.
It was the chill air, as he dragged it into his aching throat, that made him realize he wasn’t in the smoke anymore. He wasn’t in that town. The tripod hadn’t crushed him, by the narrowest margin.
(Do you enjoy the content on this blog? Why not become a patron, and support the creation of more free material! Or you could even become a sponsor, and get me to link to YOUR content!)
The AssassiNations is a conceptual paradigm, a rough description of a secret world and their rules and rulers, designed for use in TTRPG campaigns where something a step more involved than just secret societies is desired.
The AssassiNations are non-territorial governments that rule over populations of secret societies and superhuman clans, ruled with an iron fist by the Erebocracy and it’s regimented laws known as the Canon. They are also one of the least closely-guarded secrets in the world.
Nearly all classic world powers are aware of them. In most service industries between 10-15% of the members know enough to avoid violating the Canon, but that goes up for many fields such as train and bus employees, hotel concierges, sex workers, smugglers, and mercenaries. More than 3/4 of the cabbies in New York City are formally Read In, even if they are mostly nonpartisans.
Despite nearly 10% of the world’s population having some level of familiarity with the AssassiNations, that knowledge does not spread. No one who does not need to know is told, and this rule is very rarely broken. In part, this is because the Erebocracy forbids such revelations, and rules over the greatest sects of secret killers, spies, and double agents the world has ever known. And partly, it is because it’s better for everyone that way.
The AssassiNations are a solution to the problem of there being more than one clade of person in the world. While the classic governments of the world are sufficient for most people, there is a second kith of people with extraordinary abilities. They have been called many things over the eons–Argonauts, fey, djinn, even demigods. The next step in human evolution. Aliens. What is important is that the Shadowbreed exist, and are capable of acts of reasoning, endurance, resilience, accuracy, and strength literally impossible for typical humans.
The Shadowbreed vary between 2-15% of the human population, and are found in every nation, every ethnicity, every culture. If they are a different species, they are as broad and varied as humanity itself. If they are a mutation, they are one that does not seem to be spreading. If they are sidhe, they lack the vulnerabilities legend suggests they should possess.
The AssassiNations themselves are often strongly tied to their native cultures, though they evolve and adapt and adopt as any culture does. Whenever a territorial government or group explored, conquered, committed genocide, there were Shadowbreed AssassiNations present on both sides. Once, they warred in near-open conflicts, many of which are the source of ancient mythology. But with the rise of the Erebocracy and it’s Canon, their conflicts are much more regimented. Choreographed. Secret. Quiet.
Canon dictates no single conflict may include more than a dozen Shadowbreed without Ereborcracy sanction. Sanctions are generally in the form of contract hits, laying a price on the slaying of a rogue Shadowbreed that any member of an AssassiNation can claim. No one who is not Read In is ever to be involved in any AssassiNation business or conflict, and only regional Triararchs and their sworn Liturgies can read anyone in. Anyone not a formal member of an AssassiNation is nonpartisan, not to engage in violence against Shadowbreed, or be a target of it.
All AssasssiNation services, known as Custom, as available only to those in good standing with the Ereborcracy. Custom is paid for only in Blood Gold, red coins only the AssasiNations mint or use, and any single Custom has a cost of a single Blood Coin. Custom includes the creation of things that might be seen as “magic” by those who do not know the ancient techniques and materials used to craft them. Business suits of dyed golden spider thread, stronger than steel. Secret therapies of bacteriophage, custom-designed nanite-controlled hormones, and fungal skin grafts. Combat caseless ammunition that pack 100 flechettes into a common-looking pistol. AI programs that truly can extrapolate new information from security cameras to create pictures of events that happened just offscreen. There are limits to Custom Craft, but they are not the limits of the rest of the world.
Specific locations are declared Moresnet — neutral zones where violence of any kind is forbidden. These include the headquarters of every AssasiNation, most churches and temples, and a significant number of hotels, pawn shops, bus stops, ships, and cemeteries. Most Moresnet are overseen by a Castellan, who within that single space is equal in rank to a Triararch, and is considered the match for a Liturgy even outside their domain. The Ereborcracy anoints Castellans, but cannot remove their title. It can, however, suspend the sanctions of anyone violating the neutrality of their Moresnet, and even place a price on their head. But only for 72 hours — if a Castellan has not been killed or forced to capitulate within that time, their authority and sanctuary within their Domain is maintained without further Ereborcracy interference for no less than a year and a day.
No action by a Shadowbreed may ever expose the Ereborcracy, the AssassiNations, the Canon, or any element of the careful balance of this shadow world. As needed Triararchs can Read In non-Shadowbreed for the purpose of maintaining the ability of the AssasssiNations to function and fight among themselves, but any that abused this power will be sanctioned.
Like all my blog posts, this is brought to you by the wonderful patrons of my Patreon! Want more of this content? Want to suggest specific game systems, topics, of kinds of articles? Join my Patreon and let me know what you want to see!
As the German Wüstendrachen had little impact on the war anywhere but in Africa, Allied planners tended to dismiss them as either a stunt designed to show the impressive reach of the Reich, or a poorly-conceived plan to create a new form of wonder-soldier to compete (in general, poorly) with powered-armor equipped heavy infantry.
In fact, neither of those was the strategic purpose of the Wüstendrachen, which was in general never realized.
By the time the Reich had determined victory had to mean conquering North and South America, the reality of logistics just invading the Soviet Union and Czarist Crimea had become clear. While invasions of the Americas wouldn’t have to deal with Russian Winter, the need to import the needed war materiel across one or more oceans was seen as a major problem. Even if jet bombers and saucers could destroy most of the continent’s opposing forces from the air, truly controlling such territory would require troops on the ground.
This is where the drachen were seen as part of the solution. The beasts were capable of outrunning and outlasting horses, camels, and even jeeps, could allow expert troops to carry significant materiel and even anti-tank weapons, and while they could not compete with walkers or heavy infantry, they were more than capable of handling light infantry or militias.
And they could breed.
The idea was that a well-blooded, well-trained Wüstendrachen could expand exponentially once established on a foreign continent. A single female could lay 4-5 eggs a week, and hatchlings were born nearly self-sufficient. They would imprint upon birth with a pack handler, could be used as guard animals within a week, and could become mounts within 3 months.
Rather than have to build factories, import or process fuel, maintain supply lines of tires and spare parts, the plan was for elite Wüstendrachen to establish bases of operations, feed their mounts on fallen foes and wild game, and recruit, train, and educate local whites to become volkwüstendrachen, creating a self-sustaining, replicating, self-sufficient scouting and patrol force that could spread across any continent with little support from Germany.
Though the project only took root in any strength under Rommel in Africa, its success there for years suggests it would have at least had some impact on an invasion of the Americas, if the Reich had ever managed great enough success to attempt such a thing.
Deputy Jensen Jackson was not particularly important. He knew that.
He was simply too young to be important. Or, at least, too young for someone from his social circles and economic circumstance to be important. That was fine. That was how the world worked.
But he did WORK for people who were important. Old Sheriff McCarter, of course, but “Mac” McCarter had stopped trying to elevate his own status, or those who worked for him, long before Deputy Jackson came along. Assuming, of course, he had ever made such efforts.
Deputy Jackson did assume that.
But Old Mac simply spent too much time hanging out with unimportant people to be a ticket to betterment. Oh, sure, being trusted by people on both side of the tracks — as well as townies, ranchers, drillers, hunters, natives, and even truckers — was useful when it came to policing. Deputy Jackson assumed that was why Mayor Gauge put up with Old Mac — he kept things quiet. And, it meant Mayor Gauge never had to worry about the sheriff looking to move into his job. Old Mac just ran in the wrong circles for that.
Mayor Bill Gauge very much ran in the right circles. When it came to being important in the town of Virtue, Oklahoma, Mayor Gauge defined the right circles.
So if the mayor called up and said “Jensen, my fellow… ” and it pleased Deputy Jackson that the mayor always called him ‘Jensen,’ “… I am having some folks over at the Boomer Barn, and I’d sure like if you were there to keep an eye on things.” Well then, Deputy Jackson would be there, keeping an eye on things.
He was not, in any formal sense, “on duty” when he stood near the mayor and his associates at the Boomer Barn. He was in uniform and thus, under Old Mac’s rules, couldn’t get a drink even though the Barn’s owner, Amos Lauren, would happily have given the deputy a free glass like he did for Mayor Gauge and whoever was sitting with the mayor. At least, Deputy Jackson was sure Amos would slide him a liquor-by-the-wink (as Apache County was dry) if he was out of uniform while keeping an eye on things for the mayor.
It had never come up.
Mostly, he just stood a bit away from the bar, in his tan and brown uniform, with his belt and holster and badge, between most of the Boomer Bar’s main room, and the leathertop table in the back corner where Mayor Gauge talked to folks and got things done. It was unofficial, of course, but efficient. No rules of order, no minutes of each meeting, no snoops, no party officers, at least unless the mayor invited them.
The government, people in Virtue said, was in town hall. Solutions came from the leathertop.
The mayor normally told Deputy Jackson who to expect so he could wave them to the leathertop, as Jackson knew everyone in town and most everyone important in the county. If anyone not on the list wandered up, the deputy stared at them until they got skittish and wondered away. If they seemed important enough that the mayor might want to talk to them even if they weren’t on the list, Jackson cleared his throat to get the mayor’s attention.
That was keeping an eye on things.
As a result, Deputy Jackson was surprised when Peg Shaw walked into the Boomer Barn, wearing her waitressing uniform and apron, kicking red dust off her boots, and then marched straight toward him. He was even more surprised she had a big, white cloth sheath hanging from her apron, with a knife stuck in it. His surprise grew only slightly more when he realized she was carrying a shotgun.
Shotguns were more common in Virtue than 12-inch-long knives.
She wasn’t pointing the gun at anyone, and she seemed calm enough. And Peg had been a law-abiding citizen her entire life, 32 years in town. There were stories that her mother had been a bit nuts, had maybe used grandpa Shaw’s tractor to run over a whole heard of razorbacks in ’31, but whenever the question had come up Old Mac always said that was, after all, not illegal
And while Peg was mostly a waitress at the “Ranch 66” diner by the highway, she had been known to step up and cook if the regular staff got sick, or had to go help family who lost a home in a tornado. Her family were ranchers and butchers going way back, so it was no shock she could cook. And, he recalled, when he had seen her running the Ranch 66’s grill once, she had been sporting that same cloth sheath and knife.
So Deputy Jackson could envision some odd scenarios where she needed to run an errand over to the Boomer Barn, and just happened to have a foot-long knife and a shotgun when she did them. And, honestly, those scenarios seemed more likely than Peg Shaw meaning to harm anyone at the local dance and social hall, so he didn’t feel the need to grab his gun or yell orders.
When it was clear that she was headed toward the leathertop, he decided his plan was simply to stare at her until she went away. Whatever she thought she needed from the mayor or his guests, Peg Shaw clearly was not important enough to skip the list.
That plan worked fine, right up to the moment Peg walked up to him, and matched his gaze.
“Peg,” he said casually, to remind her that even though she was a few years his senior and they weren’t friends, he had the position to use her given name.
“Jensen,” she replied even more coolly. Deputy Jackson had no idea what that was supposed to remind him of, but he suddenly felt like he had in elementary school, when Mrs. Floyd has asked him what 11 times 13 was, and he hadn’t known, even though he was supposed to know by then.
Her gaze became uncomfortable. If she found his stare in any way disconcerting, she wasn’t showing any sign of it. His sureness in her unimportance wavered. She also, he realized, had a book under one arm. It was a ragged, uneven thing with what seemed to be magazine pages and newspaper clippings and loose typed pages, all stuck hodge-podge between it’s covers. There were tabbed pages as well, and he could just read three of them, with tabs marked “breakfast,” and “desserts” and “therianthropes.”
It was, of course, rude to stare at a woman for this long. And it would be rude to suggest she go back out, or that she shouldn’t be wandering around with a big knife and shotgun. That was the only reason Deputy Jackson turned away from her gaze and pointedly cleared his throat at Mayor Gauge.
The mayor looked up, annoyed. His eyes flickered at Jackson, and then over to Peg Shaw. And then, to the deputy’s shock, the mayor looked concerned.
“Peg Shaw. You on the clock?”
Jackson’s eyes bounced back and forth between the mayor and Peg, and he felt his jaw relax a bit.
Peg’s voice was still cool. “I am, mayor. I need a minute.”
“It’s not a great time, Peg.” The mayor waved at the five men sitting at the leathertop with him. The most important of those was Bruce Shane, one of the wealthiest ranchers in the tri-county area. While most of the other men present seems as perplexed as the deputy (though none of them had either the annoyance or disdain Jackson would have expected from such a circumstance), Shane’s expression was as grim and serious as the mayor’s.
“Sorry, mayor. It can’t wait. Not unless Mr. Shane thinks he has cattle to spare. There’s already a truck rig missing, and it’s got to be belly coolers…”
The mayor held up a hand, which forestalled Peg finishing the description of whatever couldn’t wait.
“Gentlemen,” the mayor’s voice was calm, “forgive me, but a civil servant’s first duty must be to his constituency. We can finish this discussion another time. Bruce, can you stay?”
Peg walked past Jackson without any further invitation, and all the men not named Bruce stood from their chairs around the leathertop, and walked away without any grumbling.
Deputy Jackson was, as always, thrilled the mayor called him by his last name, and even more thrilled to be included in anything important enough to interrupt the major’s normal plans. He almost started to walk toward the table.
“Go get Old Mac, will you? Let him know there’s a Shaw Problem, and that Peg is here.”
The deputy swung his leg, which had been about to carry him toward the leathertop, in an arc he was sure looked natural and intended as he began walking toward the door. He heard a thump behind him, and the rustling of pages.
Peg’s voice followed. “There are signs, which ‘Nan Micah made note of back in ’04 here on her rules for boiling poke salad…”
Jensen hurried a bit, to go get Old Mac.
(Do you enjoy the content on this blog? Why not become a patron, and support the creation of more free material! Or you could even become a sponsor, and get me to link to YOUR content!)
Exploring a concept of a psychic power I’ve never seen anyone use in story or game before.
The ability to touch an object and gain impressions of noteworthy things that are going to happen to it in the future.
Especially useful variant is “image prechometry,” which allows you to touch a detailed picture of an object (such as a blueprint), and determine what major things would happen to it if actually existed.
In my “Diesel Pulp” just-for-fun setting, the Black Duchess of Crimea has a number of prechometrist stranniks, who allow her military to troubleshoot new designs without ever actually building or testing them. While this system is not perfect, it saves so much time and money as to give the Black Duchess a huge advantage.
(Do you enjoy the content on this blog? Why not become a patron, and support the creation of more free material! Or you could even become a sponsor, and get me to link to YOUR content!)
Tech Noir is a genre that mixes the tropes, themes, and archetypical characters and stories of noir and hard boiled fiction with science-fiction technology and aesthetics. It’s the genre of stories about illegal psychics on the run from a government that wants to put them in internment camps and the one ex-psy-cop who can help them escape; or a missing microchip that can hack any computer and the detective hired by corrupt cops to find it since it’s believed to be somewhere in Neon Town; or the billionaire inheritor of a megacorporation who wants to know why her parents were killed in an aircar accident, and doesn’t know who to trust so she turns to outsiders to solve the crime.
The Starfinder Roleplaying Game isn’t specifically designed to emulate Tech Noir, but if everyone in a group is willing to give the tropes a try, there’s only a few things that need to be adjusted for it to do the job quite well.
Tech Noir isn’t about killing monsters or taking their stuff, though both those things can happen. It’s about investigating, surviving, exploring themes, and earning experience points. The GM ignores wealth per level, and “treasure” may be as little as 5 credits a day plus expenses. Instead, you get to pick gear at every character level, with some gear getting special rules on how its recovered or recharged.
“Gear,” in this context, is anything that would go in the equipment chapter of the Starfinder Core Ruleook, so cybernetics and such count. You can even take “services” as gear, in which case they count as contacts (and treat “item level” as the npc contact level), but you have to go to them for help (no more often than once per game session)—they aren’t cohorts.
This equipment has a minimum item level of 1, but even at first level it’s important to know which gear fills which slot (since recharge/reuse rules are different).
Armor has no environmental protections, and always looks like typical clothing. Mostly suits and trenchcoats.
*You get one piece of gear of your level+1 or less. If it uses charges or batteries you never run out of supplies for it, though you do need to take time to reload normally, and you can’t use those supplies for any other equipment. If you lose this, it is restored or replaced within 24 hours or as soon as you get back to your base of operations.
*You also get one pieces of gear of your level or less. If it uses charges or batteries you get one spare every time you hit your home base. If you lose this, it is restored or replaced as soon as you get back to your base of operations (but not more often than once per 2 days.)
*You get two pieces of gear of your level -1 or less. If it uses charges or batteries you get one spare every time you hit your home base, no more than once per game session. If you lose these, they are restored or replaced near the beginning of the next game session.
*You get four pieces of gear of your level -3 or less. If you lose these, you’re out of luck until you gain a new character level.
*If you are 5th level or higher, you get four pieces of gear of your level -4 or less. If you lose these, you’re out of luck until you gain a new character level.
Tech noir adventures are much more likely to be mysteries than jungle exploration, first contact with new alien species, or raids into ancient dungeons—though tech noir CAN tell those stories, with an additional mystery/drama subplot.
In the first or second session of a new tech noir adventure, the GM should make clear why the mystery or complication of the adventure is. After each successful encounter, the GM must give the PCs a lead. No skill check is needed for this (though additional clues may be available with successful skill checks). The lead is, at minimum, a way to get to another encounter related to the mystery or complication, which in turn leads to another, and so on. After 13 successful encounters, the mystery or complication is solved (by shooting the bad guy and finding his diaries explaining everything, if nothing else). Noir detectives and agents often fumble about most of the story, getting jumped by foes they’ve never met and finding allies suddenly getting cagey for no good reason. By tenaciously pulling through, the noir protagonist eventually uncovers the truth. A tech noir adventure should be set up the same way.
Example of Tech Noir in Fiction
Blade Runner 2049
Ghost in the Shell (anime)
Source of Inspiration
Shadowrun—all forms of this RPG are well suited to draw ideas for magic-infused tech noir.
Garrett Files Series. These books by Glen Cook have no tech, but they combine noir with fantasy in a way that should be inspirational for anyone looking to create Starfinder Noir adventures.
Enjoy this post? Consider supporting more stuff like this by backing my Patreon! Even just a few dollars a month is a huge help.
And now, at least for a moment, a change of pace.
When you are the storyteller, you get to decide what the story is.
Inspired by WWII slang, here’s an idea for a WWII pulp heroes team.
The German Ubermensch and the ‘31s (results of Japan’s Unit 731) had the Allies on the run by mid-1943. While espionage efforts managed to bring back some of the super-science being used to create those soldiers, results were nearly always incomplete. The US felt an invasion of the home country was inevitable, and grew desperate. Experiments had to be carried out, dangerous human experiments, but it was considered unacceptable to risk fighting men (even minority fighting men) that were desperately needed on the front.
Thus, women were asked to volunteer to be injected with unknown agents, exposed to strange radiations, and fed experimental chemicals. Most survived, but the overall casualty rate was still higher than a typical combat unit. In time, the knowledge gained helped turn the tide of war. But before that, many of the woman with the most exceptional test reactions were sent to fight on the front lines, despite the bias against their gender. Anecdotally, this was a result of the First Lady, Mrs. Roosevelt, being told by a general that the United States would not send women to the front lines no matter how dire the desperation, and her calmly replying by asking he he felt the Nazi’s would maintain that policy once they took over.
Thus the first Special Troopers section was born, as the decorated unit of “Rosie’s Rebels,” all exposed to dangerous, entirely-experimental and largely misunderstood processes, many reverse-engineered from captured ’31s or stolen notes and compounds.
BAM—A seven-foot amazon of a woman and a marine, BAM was able to bounce attacks from small arms off her skin and throw a jeep, or even tip over a tank. While the “BAM Process” was one of the eventually successes of the experimental programs (used to create male super-soldiers as fast as possible, though late in the war), no soldier given the “perfected” version was nearly as strong or tough as BAM herself.
Cast-Iron—Already a brilliant engineer, Cast-Iron created a personal heavy combat armor during her downtime between sessions of experimental injections. Unfortunately she was so much smarter than anyone else that no one could understand how she built it, maintained it, or kept it running. In the end, only Cast-Iron ever used her infantry armor suit.
Eight Ball—People who meant Eight Ball harm always came to bad ends. No one was ever sure if this was a ’31-induced power, or if she was just naturally lucky, or if it was a string of amazing coincidences.
Gibson—Gibson could hear, and somehow send by thought, radio waves. She was also a spectacular tactician and soldier. While the official military account claimed her military prowess was a result of the same radiation that gave her radiopathy, history suggests she was simply overlocked for her combat and leadership qualities until she had a power. Leader of Rosie’s Rebels until the end of the war.
Gold Star—Despite dying during experimentation, Gold Star showed up for duty the next day. Though she seemed no more resilient to damage than a typical 38-year-old mother of three, her body and belongings always disappeared within a few hours, and she would wander in by the next day, along with her gear. Also a rated marksman and sniper.
Heat Wave—The recipient of a unique ability that was never duplicated in further experiments, Heat Wave caused flammable fuel near her to not be expended when it created fire (even to run an engine). Early on she simply had a neverending flamethrower and extended the range of any vehicle she sat over the fuel tank of, but near the end of the war her ability to produce combustion without expending mass was used to also give her a personal flight platform.
Jawbreaker Jane—One of the first artillerywomen trained to provide not-quite-front-line support for Allied troops after it became clear the draft would have to extend to women following the failure of the Normandy Invasion, Jane Jawalski provided fire support in one of Rosie’s Rebel’s early operations. She was badly wounded and needed a blood transfusion, which she received from Retread, using BAM’s blood. Jane gained strength nearly on par with BAM’s, though not nearly as much size or resilience, and joined the Rebels. An expert in heavy ordenance, she carried a variety of super-heavy mech-scale ranged weapons throughout the course of the war, most designed by Cast Iron.
Retread—A veteran of the nursing corps during the Great War, Retread could temporarily access the memories and skills of the recently deceased… including Gold Star.
Sky Scout—Could inexplicable see her position from roughly 100 to 1,000 feet up if she closed her eyes. Also a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist and Rosie’s Rebels unofficial chaplain.
Sometimes a campaign really needs a mastermind criminal with a vast organization at his disposal. Preferably someone with extensive resources, but who also prefer to keep a low profile. Such crime bosses may serve as foils, contacts, patrons, nemesis, or just background elements the GM and players can work off of as stories develop.
Of course, it helps if such master criminals and crime groups are cool and enigmatic.
So this is an idea of one option to fill that element. It focuses on the master criminal, the Wolf’s Head, and touches lightly on the organization, the Crime Guild. These descriptions are kept intentionally broad. A GM should be able to easily adapt the Wolf’s Head and Crime Guild to any genre, any game system, and any world or time frame. They can be pastiches for Lex Luthor and LexCrop, Moriarty and his Network, the Godfather and the Five Families, or Jabba the Hutt and his scum and villainy. Alternatively, a GM can use this as a starting point to build a whole new kind of organized crime group.
The Wolf’s Head
The Wolf’s Head is a mastermind villain and organizer of all forms of outlawry. He or she holds the highest position in the Crime Guild, a combination of organized crime cartel and training-ground for talented individuals. Each Wolf’s Head carries the position’s official scepter of office, a long cane with a silver wolf’s head and the words caput gerat lupinum (“may his be a wolf’s head” in Latin) engraved around the base of the head of the cane.
The Wolf’s Head traces its origin back to writ’s of outlawry in early English common law (or any older nation in worlds lacking England). An outlaw was literally being “cast out of the law,” no longer subject to the protections a person received from the law and thus able to be treated as a wolf. The write included the words caput gerat lupinum, and in many cases was considered the most serious possible sentence.
According to Crime Guild history, one of the earliest people declared an outlaw under this system build a vast network of outlaws, and took the first Wolf’s Head title. Over the centuries that organization has come in contact with, and absorbed, the thousands of organized crime groups from every continent, nation, and ethnicity, forming the massive, worldwide Crime Guild. While the goals of the Crime Guild vary somewhat, they tend to remain institutional – focused on earning and protecting money, influence, and power and building a large cadre of loyal agents. Many guilders are important members of other groups, ranging from crime families to law enforcement agencies, but some few work directly for the Crime Guild. These generally answer directly to the Wolf’s Head, and through them the Wolf’s Head is free to pursue any goals he or she desires, as long as the Crime Guild on the whole continues to grow and prosper.
The holder of the Wolf’s Head title changes periodically, and apparently at random to outside observers. Each Wolf’s Head must nominate one Alder of Crime every 3 years (though killed alders need not be replaced). Each Alder is able to secretly vote to “retire” the current Wolf’s Head (though they can change this vote at any time). Such votes are kept with several ArchNumbers (Numbers being living cogitators who keep all the Crime Guild’s records, and ArchNumbers being senior examples). The Wolf’s Head also ranks the alders, from best to worst, and gives that information only to the ArchNumbers (and can change the rankings at any time).
If at any point 2/3 or more of the current Alders have voted to retire the current leader, the Numbers inform the entire Crime Guild. At that point all Alders try to kill the Wolf’s Head. If they succeed within 30 days (also known as the Hunter’s Moon, as the alders hunt the ultimate wolf), then whichever alder still alive that was highest ranked by the previous Wolf’s Head becomes the new Wolf’s Head. If not, the current Wolf’s Head retains the position, and the ArchNumbers ensure every alder that voted to retire him is killed (to cull those who mistakenly thought it was time to change leaders).
This post is Charitably sponsored by The Open Gaming Store! In addition to giving you a choice of free pdfs with every order you make above $20, this is also the store that supports the awesome webmaster of the rules archive at d20pfsrd.com!