Category Archives: Diesel Pulp
“Of course, Doctor Frankenstein did not begin his work with human corpses. Not for ethical reasons, you understand, but simply because they were difficult to acquire, and until his work progressed to a stage where human trials were needed, there was no point.
“His earliest experiments on revivification were on marmots, easily bought from trappers near his family’s Swiss home. There were far more failures than successes, of course, and were it my preview I would condemn the man to perdition on the basis of what he did to those alone.
“Even so, in time he brought a marmot to life, indeed my current companion Vivo is that first, fully-revived marmot, though in Vivo’s case no surgery had been needed. The Doctor had killed him under exacting conditions, and revivified him moments later.
“I have often marveled at Vivo, for while he has all the robustness and vitality of all we mortiborn, unlike the majority of us he is a peaceful, caring creature. Well capable of defeating a predator ten times his mass, Vivo would prefer affection to affrontation. Bless him.
“But from there, the hubristic doctor did decide he must move to primates, if not yet humans, to perfect his procedure. No large primates being common in Italy or Switzerland, he had to order them bespoke. But hunting expeditions to Borneo were common enough, and he was rich.
“Indeed, I am unsure how many evils would never have been visited upon this world had the Frankenstein family not been one of vast resource and reputation. In the century-and-on of my existence, I have found more evils traced to rich, well-respected men than any other beast.
“So, vile Frankenstein had no difficulty having Indonesian and Malaysian orangutans captured and brought to him. It was thought perhaps he wanted a menagerie, such as at London’s Exeter Exchange. Many were sick and died after arrival, but that too suited his needs.
“I am uncertain how many of my distant cousins, living or dead, he constructed me from. Close examination of my form and logic dictates no less than seven, but without taking my internal organs apart — an act I have always objected to — an exact accounting is impossible.
“I have been told, repeatedly, by anatomists that my brain, at least, must be human, rather than native to my orangutan skull. This is argued that because I can talk, and reason, I cannot be a mere ape. Of my speech, I will grant, the doctor most likely used some human parts.
“But my reason? No, I am not convinced my reason is any less orangutan than my limbs. For, did his homo sapiens subjects not show vast, cold intellect beyond that of their flesh-donors? Is it so hard to believe that the gap from apes’ reason to mans’ is at best a short distance?
“I would propose the question cannot be truly settled until men show the ability to see themselves as something other than the divinely-appointed lords of all matter in the world, animal, mineral, gas, fluid, and plant alike, to use and despoil as they see fit.
“I remember nothing of my time before mortibirth, though instincts still exist from my firstflesh lives, and some smells and sounds strike me as familiar in the extreme. But having gone to Borneo once, I can safely say I am no native of it. I am no native of any land.
“I remember my first weeks. I thought the doctor wise and kind, something between a father and a god. He taught me to walk, talk, eat–ensured that I was fine in form and function. Then he drowned me in an arsenic solution of his own devising, and took notes as I screamed.
“I do presume he believed my consciousness fully destroyed. I think this not out of some trust in his character, but from the fact when I stopped moving, he stopped taking notes and never consulted my glass sarcophagus again. I sat, silent and unmoving, and thought. For years.
“Should I not have been found in the investigation that ensued after the publication of an account of Doctor Frankenstein’s insensate experiments, I believe I would be trapped, paralyzed, and thinking still, looking through the arsenic water and glass at some stone wall.
“But found I was and, in time, released. As I could speak, and was witness to the foul knowledge and process the doctor had created, I was not destroyed. In time, decades, truly, I earned my freedom by turning the lie of a human origin for my brain back on the government.
“So, here exists I. Corpses pretending to be one flesh. Abyssal chemical reactions pretending to be life. An ape’s mind pretending to be human.
“But I am also cunning, robust, and potent in the way of all my kind, and though I carry no love for Monsieur Dupin, he taught me well.
“By the aegis of his brusque acceptance of me, I am established. I have legal papers that sometimes grant me rights, and monies that do so more often.
“How did I come to know Dupin? What is my vocation now? Those shall be future articles, for which I’ll receive a nickel a word.”
–From the Diary of Ardra Maias, the Empire Coast Journal, Jan 17th, 1934.
(No part of the article is Open Game Content)
I’m going to be playing in a Mutants & Masterminds game sometime in the not-too-distant future, online, about once a month. The GM describes it as “1938 Postmodern Golden Age Superhero,” which is to say, using tropes and aesthetics and the setting of a heroic 1938 world, but not accepting those tropes or the prejudices of that era without examination.
I adore Golden Age supers.
So, I decided I want to play someone in the Mystery Men category, what I often call a “Fedora Hero.” The basics of that are easy to nail down — a 1930s suit and hat with some kind of face covering, detective/investigative skills, fisticuffs, and a schtick. Famous examples obvious include the Crimson Avenger, Green Hornet, Sandman, the Shadow, the Spider: Master of Men, and the Spirit.
I ran through a LOT of ideas (Azure Crusader. Good Citizen. Father Pentacroft. The Griffon. Hodag. Mr. Nevermore. Punchline. Red Wasp.), but they were all either too derivative for my current desires, too generic, or too far from what I see as the core of the Fedora Hero concept.
So, I decided to go a different direction, and pick a legacy, which would lead to a concept, which would lead to a schtick, which would form the core of my hero.
So I began thinking about history and folklore that predated 1938. I considered going with a character named Argent, or Argent Agent, or Revere, and having them be a silver-wielding inheritor of Paul Revere’s heroic role. But, I have long been a bit annoyed that Paul Revere is treated as though he underwent the Midnight Ride by himself, so I didn’t really want to base a character on that as a hook.
Then, it clicked. Not Revere… but the *Lanterns*!
Now my Fedora Hero had a lapel badge of two lanterns in a church tower (“Two If By Sea”) that could shine bright light into his foe’s face. No true superpowers, but inheritor of a long line of special operatives since the days of the Midnight Ride, trained from birth by the secretive Order of William Dawes to find hidden threats to the US, oppose them, and call them out. Mostly stealth-investigator-skills based, but with guns and fisticuffs as needed.
That idea went to Jacob Blackmon, who asked some crucial questions about costume design, and The Lantern’s concept and look were set!
If you’re a fan of M&M as I am, I heartily recommend you join the official M&M Patreon, which has lots of cool content from the creators and developers of the game line!
ShadowFinder continues to work towards release. Some of the material I am drawing on for parts of the worldbuilding in this play mode are heavily inspired by things that helped me through some dark times in my life. Elseward is one of those.
Some of the areas in the demiplane known as the Shadowblast that are very close to the Material Plane. These regions, called Shallows, appear to be tightly bound to some mortal concepts or emotions and follow special rules compared to the rest of the Shadowblast. There exist natives of the Material Plane who are survivors of severe trauma and depression that can access a Shallows section of the Shadowblast known as Elseward – a violent, vicious realm that mixes dense noir city and surreal untamed jungle with no apparent rhyme or reason – usually without even knowing it. Projecting themselves partially into the Shallows, these Elsewarders exist in both their native Material Planes and the Elseward Shallow. They see and experience things other folk around them in the Material world do not, often mistaking Elseward events for daydreams. Some Elsewarders even develop special powers with the Shallows, creating a ethereal ShadowSelf that exists within Elseward even when the Elsewarders are not connected to it. Elsewarders then experience their ShadowSelf lives through dreams and reveries.
In a few cases, Elsewarders manage to heal and slowly disconnect from the Shallow, perhaps leaving their ShadowSelf behind, perhaps integrating it into themselves and departing from Elseward entirely. But more often, they eventually begin to draw bits of that Shallow region out into the Material Plane, beginning with minor Shadowblastoi creatures crossing over and growing in number, complexity, and power as time goes on. Such a traveller from Elseward into the Material Plane is known as a Drawesle, and its behavior is often dictated by the fears and nightmares of the Elsewarder that drew it through the Shallow.
It’s common for Drawesles to destroy their related Elsewarder, ending their link to the Material world and sending them back to the Shadowblast. Elsewarders with extreme will or some eldritch power source sometimes instead begin to spread their vision of the Elseward into their own world, and in rare cases even forge links between the Elseward and Material world denizens to whom they have strong (not necessarily positive) emotional connections. These advanced situations can result in small groups or even tightly-linked communities existing in both their own realities and the Elseward at once, appearing to experience ongoing shared dreams and hallucinations.
Some Elsewarders continue to hop back-and-forth for decades, with more and more links to the Shadowblast connecting to them as time passes. When the Elsewarder is secure, supported, and dealing with their trauma well, incidents are mostly just deep dreams and odd noises in dark corners, and easily dismissed by them and others as a wandering mind’s intrusive thoughts. When exposed to new trauma or under high stress, these well-worn links can actually anchor parts of Elseward to the Material world, generally in abandoned, remote, or chaotic, badly monitored locations. This leads to Drawesles building a Material Plane power base, seeking to torment the Elsewarder and those close to them to further strengthen the link.
In these cases, outside intervention is often needed to save the Elsewarder and those near them from their literal personal demons. This may be done by seeking out and ending the Drawesles’ base of operations on the Material world, or it may require a trip into Elseward to cut off the intrusion from the source. Of course, destroying a trauma-induced monstrosity preying on an Elsewarder doesn’t end the Elsewarder’s underlying issues. But it can help give them space to do the work needed to heal themselves, and give reassurance that their trials are very, very real.
DEEP ELSEWARDER [QUIRKY]
At one time, you were tightly linked to the Elseward, or some other section of the Shallows in the Shadowblast, and you have developed special powers that only function there.
Benefit: For each character level, you can select one tier of enigma power, one bonus feat for which you meet the prerequisites, or one level of spellcasting from a specific spellcaster class list (gaining spells known, spells per day, and a caster level equal to your levels of spellcasting selected with this feat). These are separate from your normal feats and (if you have them) enigma powers and spells. Abilities gained through this feat only function in Beachheads and Shallows of the Shadowblast.
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When I am too scattered to write, or need to chew on some design or description problem for a bit while occupying my conscious mind with busy-work, I spend time going through old files on my hard drive. I try to keep archives and backups of everything, each time I move computers especially, but the orignaization hasn’t always been consistent. I literally have a folder under OwensWork/OldWork/OldWork/Games/OldGames/Unused/OldWork.
The files in there are between 20 and 25 years old. Many haven’t been cracked open this century, just being copied and moved and copied from machine to machine to machine.
Every once in a while, I find something that I absolutely do not remember writing, and kinda like. Sometimes I can see the genesis of trends and ideas I have played with since. Here’s an example, which was saved as a WordPerfect document in 2002.
Virago leader and champion of the Argive League (for which the third king of Argos was later named), a technologically advanced society in roughly 10,000 BC. Defeated the Atlanteans and Gorgons. Was betrayed in the Battle of Thermondon by the sorcerer-demigod Thrax and badly injured. Thrax’s dark magic drove the Argive forces back, and did significant damage to the land and people around its use. As a result of the betrayal and loss, the Argive League dissolved and, not wishing to fight a war where both sides loose, the Viragos retreated. Myrina convinced the Waves, also known as Enesidaon, to create a city beneath the sea, named Mytilene, where the Virago could live peacefully away from Thrax and his chaotic empire. Having done this, Enesidaon is also moved to grant Oceanic Cities to the remaining Atlanteans and Gorgons (naming the cities Cerne and Neith, respectively).
Once her people were safe, Myrina succumbed to her wounds and slept in stasis for thousands of years, until she was awoken in 1920 by the chaotic energies unleashed in random and half-understood rituals performed by occultist members of the Ultima Society who were attempting to wake the Hyperborean divine champion Donar. Myrina discovered Mytilene had waged numerous terrible wars with the Cerne and Neith, which had left all three Oceanic Cities significantly diminished. Upon discovering the Surface World had been broadcasting radio for decades (a technology long though exclusive to the Argive League and a sign the Surface World might be finally advancing to the same technological level as the Oceanic Cities) Myrina choose to travel to the Surface World. She wished to understand how and why the Surface had evolved, and seek any sign of Thrax. She became a costumed adventurers, and when World War Two broke out fought against the Axis.
Myrina is tough, swift, and powerful, as all Viragos are, and is a master of all forms of combat and strategy. She also possesses the Areioi (a divine girdle that grants its wearer the strength of titans and flight of the gods), Ancile (a shield that can turn away any force as long as it is held with conviction), and Harpe (an indestructible adamant blade that can pierce any magic defense).
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“When you are the storyteller, you get to decide what the story is.”
I’ve been working on miniatures for Rosie’s Rebels, a super-powered military team for my Diesel Pulp ’40 hobby setting, for a long time. I rarely have much time for it currently, but my roommate built a Bren universal carrier model of mine, which let me wrap up a long-stalled project, the automatons Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale to accompany Bolt Buster.
Below are Eight-Ball and Gibson (who you can read about here), along with Medusa, Stheno, Euryale, and Bolt Buster (who have write-ups below). Eight-Ball and Bolt Buster are both carrying Thompson-Remmington M2S1 submachine guns, as common with Rosie’s Rifles, while Gibson has her iconic High Standard HF .38 pistol.
Still need to be painted, obviously.
Bolt Buster: Prior to volunteering for the Homestead Observation Program Executive, Bolt Buster was a moonshiner, tractor-repair woman, and torch singer who worked the Appalachian Mountain resort circuit. Her exposure to mateirals as part of H.O.P.E.’s experimentation resulted in gaining the ability to comprehend mechanical and electronic functions (but not, for example, chemical) by hearing sounds echo off such devices. This allowed her to become a genius-level inventor and engineer. When in a hurry, she often began fixing things by hitting them with a wrench to hear what was wrong with them.
Early in deployment, Rosie’s Rifles picked up three 1st-generation R.U.R. automatons, MDA, 13O, UR-AIL, and worked with them for some months. When the automatons were destroyed, Bolt Buster was determined to rebuild them, despite the fact no one had ever successfully restarted a failed “cold” R.U.R. cognition core. She succeeded… but the automatons were incapable of speech, and could no longer achieve the coordination needed for bipedal locomotion or coordinate hands (though MDA could operate a single “off” hand). Bolt Buster built them new, smaller, bodies, and they became a core part of the Rosies’ section until the end of the war. In their new forms the automatons selected new names — Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale.
It was often debated whether Cast-Iron or Bolt Buster was a greater genius and inventor, and Cast-Iron’s inventions where clearly more advanced (but no one but her could ever make them work), while the vast majority of Bolt Buster’s much more mundane, but replicable. The two women felt no need to participate in such debates, and were good friends who often collaborated.
Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale: The only R.U.R. cognition cores to ever be restarted from total failure and remain stable, the automatons originally designated MDA, 13O, UR-AIL nonetheless underwent significant personality changes. Medusa was the only one of the 3 still able to operate even 1 hand, and was the most aggressive of the 3, generally taking charge when they made decisions without one of the Rebels present. Medusa was also able to easily adapt to different weapons in her Dexter gun mount, though she generally carried a M1919 Browning 30 cal. Stheno was built into a gun carrier to serve as its driver and gunner, and often served as the Rebel’s primary portage unit and fall back position. She had a Browning M2 .50 cal mounted forward, and a M25a 105mm recoilless rifle that could be fired by her, or swung down on it’s mounting arm to be fired by adjacent infantry (which tended to be significantly more accurate, but required Stheno to be stationary). Euryale was fixed in a single form, unable to adjust to new weapons (equipped with two custom box-fed .45 Thompson-Remmingtons), but was by far the fastest of the three, able to move up to 45 mph, even in rough terrain.
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I have been working on a “White Tsar” diesel pulp armored vehicle for nearly 5 years now. It’s a major kitbash, using some pretty advanced models beyond my actual skill level, and it’s stalled out more than once.
But our new housemate (a friend of decades) is an avid modeler, and wanted to help. The fact each wheel has more than 100 individual parts (I love pedrails, but they were not simple tech) phased him not a bit. And thus, this monstrosity has finally finished the construction stage, so I can show it off prior to beginning painting.
Comparing it to the original Tsar tank:
More than 20 feet tall? Check.
Triwheel design? Check
Giant weapon sponsons and a turret? Check
Here’s a quick recap of its fictional origin.
“In the ’49 setting, the Crimea remains under the control of the White Russians, loyalists to the Russian monarchy despite losing most of their territory to the Soviet Union. The White Russians are commanded by Anastasia the Great, also known as the “Black Duchess,” the last surviving child of Czar Nicholas II. Anastacia is a military genius with a reputation for ambushes and nasty surprises, a lifetime of conflict, and a cabal of loyal psychic stranniks with mysterious ties to the legendary Rasputin.
One of the things that has allowed the Black Duchess is hold on to ‘Czarist Crimea’ as the last gasp of the Russian Empire is that rather than build walkers (which her tiny empire simply lacks the resources to design or maintain), she depends primarily on the mighty White Tsar rolling heavy armor units. Faster and cheaper than walkers and more reliable than the legendarily finicky tracked vehicles, the White Tsar remains the only wheeled heavy armor unit in the war. Though the original Tsar wheeled armor unit was too heavy to move, by using what Martian-derived technology is available to her on a revised wheeled design for a huge mobile cannon platform, the Black Duchess has created a mobile heavy armor unit that performs very well, and which traditional anti-walker tactics don’t work well against.”
Now, I can turn my attention to the Black Duchess’s primary Romanian Fascist foes.
Pics with Eight-Ball, one of Rosie’s Rebels, for scale.
We’ve talked about doing the 1920s Magic and Mobsters campaign, “Sorcerers and Speakeasies” in general terms, and talked a bit about Backgrounds, and even talked a bit about our plans on the BAMF podcast.
A common question that has come up during these discussions is: What do you plan to do about religion?
It’s a common question anytime you add fantastic elements to a setting rooted in real-world history. There are numerous potential issues when you look to grant traditional D&D-like divine powers to real-world religions. These problems are magnified if you don’t do tons and tons of research. Should you treat Christians differently than Hindus? Is Zues still worshipped? Are their fantasy gods, like Karracker? If monotheist religions can talk to God, does that prove polytheists are wrong?
So, Sorcerers and Speakeasies is leaning toward avoiding a lot of those questions, and focusing instead on religios themes. Players and GMs can do whatever they and their group are comfortable with those themes.
First and foremost, gods (and God) don’t talk to people in Sorcerers and Speakeasies.
Outsiders do… but all admit they can’t discuss (or don’t know) the reality of gods. Angelic and fiendish creatures themselves follow various religions, or at least seem to, but in general state they support those mortals that support their own areas of concern, often as indicated through Aspects (see below).
Cleric: Three Callings
Gods aren’t as directly communicative in 1920 as they seemed to be in Ancient times. Rather than the focused power of a divine domain, S&S clerics are generally following a calling that motivates them to live spiritual lives in very specific ways.
Calling of Ordination – Member of a specific holy order, though that may be a Buddhist nun, Catholic priest, Presbyterian pastor, semicha lerabanim, or any other organized group that have common rules, training, and requirements to join.
Calling of Preachers – You have been called to preach. Perhaps in a church, perhaps under a tent, or perhaps on a street corner.
Calling of Witness – You don’t just have faith, you demonstrate it by doing something dangerous as proof your faith protects you. Among the most famous of these are scorpion-dancers, who handle deadly scorpions as proof they have divine protection.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with the domains in the Player’s handbook–if you want to play a cleric of the Knowledge domain, feel free. But most Sorcerers and Speakeasies clerics, and divine characters and NPCs in general, are built around one of sixteen Aspects, each of which has a domain.
These are build off concepts often seen as “sins” and “virtues,” and eight of each have angels and fiends empowered by them, but the aspects are not alignment-locked. While there are demons of Pride, it is possible to have a good-aligned cleric of Pride who embodied taking pride in your work and avoiding false modesty. Similarly someone who believes in killing those who are not generous enough would be an evil figure of Generosity).
Angelic Aspects: Courage, Diligence, Generosity, Gratitude, Humility, Justice, Patience, Prudence
Fiendish Aspects: Cowardice, Envy, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Pride, Sloth, Wrath
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!
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?”
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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.
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