Outcasts, Part 2: The Exodus

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You can do a lot with a supers setting featuring aliens, as described in the last article, but the real inspiration for these series was an episode of Supergirl from this season
(MILD SUPERGIRL SEASON 2 SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD)
where Cadmus attempts to round up most of the Earthbound aliens, cram them on an old spaceship, and send them so far away that they’ll have a hard time getting back to Earth. I watched the episode kind of hoping they’d succeed, because watching our heroes try to shepherd a bunch of aliens through the galaxy while they searched for a way home seemed like a good time.

So this post describes a ship-based campaign organization for something in the vein of Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate: Atlantis, and such. A bunch of disparate aliens have been forcibly placed on a ship that’s designed less as a means of travel and more as a means of getting rid of them, jumped to an unfamiliar side of the galaxy, and left with as much difficulty as possible to get home. There’s a diverse set of competencies in the ship, if you can balance the social issues, traumas, and politics and get people to work together. Rather than just drop people off at the first inhabitable world, you could try to get everyone to stick together, accrue resources by space exploration, slowly repair the ship, and figure out what you actually want to do rather than being unwanted refugees forever.

And the central campaign organization mechanic is making sure that the ship you’re on has a lot of potential, but needs a lot of work and customization to become a home instead of a prison. There are a lot of granular and obvious steps that can be made to improve it, so adventures can often hang on getting the resources to perform a particular upgrade.

This is based on the starship rules from the Savage Worlds Science Fiction Companion, though I’ve made a few changes in assumptions (primarily in how the engines and life support work; I’m also not 100% sure the math is perfect for the starship rules, but it’s close).

Ship Overview

Initially, the ship is a Huge cargo cruiser that was somehow salvaged and retrofitted by [the Conspiracy]. It has (cramped) quarters and life support for approximately 1,000 individuals. It can maintain basic life support and in-system travel more or less indefinitely, but expends fuel for travel between systems using the FTL/jump drive (and begins the campaign mostly depleted after jaunting across the galaxy). As part of life support, it includes a hydroponics and recycling system that can maintain minimal rations needs for an extended period, but which will be gradually depleted if not supplemented with additional resources (and which are not the most attractive foodstuffs). Rightly afraid of the ship being controlled by alien computers that the outcasts might understand better than [the Conspiracy]’s programmers, as much as possible of its original systems were ripped out and replaced with kitbashed Earth computers and control systems that are heavily locked down and provide the minimum inputs necessary to pilot the ship. The ship has no weapons, and a very small number of short-range landing shuttles

Quarters

  • Cramped quarters for 1,000 individuals (~60 of them required to act as crew; the rest are part of a passenger superstructure designed for maximum residence and lacking the typical passenger structure amenities)
  • Survivalist furnishings (cots, hammocks, surplus sleeping bags and pillows, suitcases)

Current furnishings and arrangements provide -# morale. Allocating more space and providing better furnishings can provide a morale bonus to individuals with enhanced accommodations.

Unallocated Space

  • Much of the ship’s non-quarter space is empty cargo area and completely unfurnished smaller bays
  • [The Conspiracy] clearly intended to build these out to fit even more exiles, but did not finish the construction (and balked at crowding in refugees; these areas are not currently fitted to be safe during FTL)

Vital capabilities could be installed as rooms in these spaces, or it could be easily fitted to haul cargo. It is a mild difficulty to fit it for safe quarter space, either increasing the maximum crew capacity or increasing morale by giving residents more personal space. The ship can take ~40 mods worth of improvements, per the Science Fiction Companion.

Life Support

  • Basic air and water recycling; most areas of the ship smell bad, and the water retains faint bad tastes
  • The system is currently at 90% efficiency, and has a 100 day reserve for 1000 residents (essentially 1 day of reserve are lost for every 10 days); damage to the ship could threaten these reserves
  • Basic artificial gravity provides a relatively stable 0.8g

Current life support provides a -# morale. Improving the filtering systems can provide a general morale bonus. Taking on more reserve water and air can provide insurance against leakage and catastrophe. Storing more than 100 days of reserve would require additional tanks to be installed.

Nourishment

  • The ship has an extremely basic galley (capable of heating food and boiling water) suitable to serve the residents with some difficulty
  • The ship’s recycling and hydroponics systems generate 500 hominid-days of basic organic foodstuffs per day (mostly reclaimed nutrients processed by bacteria and algae into cardboard-tasting food pellets); with current number of residents, it can maintain indefinitely on half rations
  • The galley is stocked with 100,000 hominid-days of cheap canned goods and MREs; with current number of residents, supplemented by the recycling, this is enough for 200 total days on full rations

Current food options provide a -# morale. Improving the galley’s cooking capabilities (including by identifying skilled chefs), upgrading the recycling/hydroponics systems to provide tastier output, and taking on better nourishment can improve morale. Taking on more nourishment may be required to extend the mission without going on reduced rations.

Comforts

  • The ship has no alcohol, drugs, snacks, or other ingested comforts beyond what was smuggled in luggage
  • The ship has no comfortable furnishings
  • The ship has no entertainment options beyond what was smuggled in luggage

Current comfort options provide a -# morale. Improving these options can raise morale.

In-System Engines

  • The ship currently has basic fusion propulsion that is largely self-sustaining (with solar power when deep inside a solar system and magnetic ramscoop assist when traveling)
  • The ship has essentially no maneuverability for a crisis; depending on current relative velocity, it needs seconds or even minutes to evade dangers
  • The ship’s acceleration is limited to 1g (both due to output and the life support’s artificial gravity compensation)

Current engines could be improved to make the ship much better at reacting to danger quickly. The engines and artificial gravity would have to be improved to increase travel speed within a system (going any faster without improving the artificial gravity would result in an increasing sensation of the floor being slanted in the direction of travel).

You can use this website to calculate non-FTL travel times, or the formula that Total Time in Days = 4 × √(midpoint distance in AU/acceleration in gs).

FTL/Jump Engines

  • The ship currently has FTL engines capable of extremely long-range jumps
  • The engines must be given extremely complicated and specific data to plot a jump
  • The engines require a massive amount of high-energy exotic fuel (and start with enough for # light years of additional jumps)

Improving the navigation computer systems could make FTL travel somewhat more efficient and much less finicky. Improving the engine guts could improve fuel efficiency. The engines could be switched to a hybrid or full-electric system by replacing the fuel tanks with batteries and capacitors; this would drastically lower the jump capabilities at one time, and require the system to slowly recharge off of the in-system engines, but would lower the fuel costs.

Controls

  • The ship currently has legacy consoles for in-system maneuvering, with much of their digital assistance stripped
  • The ship’s FTL engines are currently plotted by kitbashed Earth computer systems

Improving the consoles and reattaching digital assistance systems would improve piloting checks and require fewer units of manpower to be on the bridge to drive the ship. Improving the computer systems would decrease time to plot an FTL jump and jump targeting precision.

Computers

  • The ship currently has non-VI Earth computers patched into most control systems
  • Most systems have their native controllers at the various interface points (Earth systems handle coordination, but the technicians left any systems in place that they were confident would not retain data on Earth’s location)
  • There are no entertainment systems
  • All computer interfaces are *nix command line or extremely rough GUI; no voice control
  • There are limited voice alerts and other alarms

Improving the computers would make it far easier to command ship systems and get useful feedback and warnings. Installing a competent virtual intelligence (VI) would reduce crew requirements for many tasks. Increased terminals and entertainment software would raise morale.

Sensors

  • The ship has extremely short-range radar, cameras, and radio transmission
  • Slow software rendering data from passive radio telescopes can build a basic map of the nearby system over time (but cannot resolve small or fast-moving threats until they are very close)

Improving the ship’s sensor suite (including integrated computers) would make it much faster to get an accurate map of the current system and identify threats and opportunities at a much greater range. It could also improve range and quality of communications.

Armaments

  • The ship currently has no weaponry
  • Unallocated space could be used to mount weapons

Adding weapons would make it possible to fight in the ship, or at least repel attackers. Computer systems supporting the weapons would be necessary as well.

Defenses

  • The ship has a large hull standard to a cargo ship of its size
  • It has extremely basic magnetic shielding (mostly designed to deflect micrometeorites and other space detritus)

Adding additional physical or energy defenses would provide enhanced protection from attackers and other dangers.

Exploration

  • The ship has three basic six-hominid shuttles that are able to reach a planet from low orbit; they have no armaments or defenses, and are not particularly fast to re-achieve orbit, especially under load, but they do recharge off of the ship’s engines
  • There is an extremely minimal repair bay with only the most basic of emergency tools and materials to handle a hull breach or other catastrophe
  • There are only a dozen EVA suits which are aging NASA castoffs

The ship has space for additional and/or better shuttles or other vehicles. Improving the repair bay would make the ship much safer and quicker to respond to damage. More and better EVA suits would be extremely helpful in a vacuum.

Savage Worlds Stat Block

Huge Starship: Size 16, Acc/TS 35/400, Climb 0, Toughness 44 (10), Crew 60, Cost $88M, Remaining Mods 38

Notes: Crew Reduction x4, FTL Drive, Superstructure (Passenger)

Weapons: None

Outcasts, Part 1: Alien Superheroes

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I’m a big fan of the Supergirl TV show, and I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that its particular licensing limitation* implies a world where most of the superpowers are possessed by alien refugees. What follows is a setting take on how to justify this, followed by some design musings. The next part adds on an additional option for this type of campaign.

* Most of the non-alien DC characters were already in use on other shows or otherwise not available to the TV shows.

In God’s Image

A strange truism of sapient life throughout the known universe is that it seems bound to very similar forms. Through countless channels on countless worlds, evolution eventually settles on a bipedal hominid form for its pinnacle. Many look nearly identical to humans with minor cosmetic variations, the vast majority of the remainder are superficially different but structurally the same, and only the smallest fraction are truly alien in form. Nearly all of them drink water, breathe oxygen, are comfortable in a single G of gravity, and can derive nourishment from the same kind of foods.

Many religions throughout inhabited space seek to explain this truism, and the cutting edge of xenoscience can only postulate some constants of physics and chemistry that cause life to converge in this way.

Perhaps stranger, mental acuity is similarly constrained. Few sapients are much smarter than humanity, and nearly all have understandable emotions and drives. This is also true of their machine creations. There is no such thing as a true general artificial intelligence that any sapient will admit, though many races have come up with quite sophisticated virtual intelligences that lack their own motives and creativity.

All these factors mean that cosmic society plateaus technologically and culturally. The development void between 21st century humans and any given alien species is much smaller than many scientists would expect, even for civilizations much older than those on Earth. Bright humans exposed to starfaring technology can often figure out how to work it, and even partially reverse engineer it: it turns out that very little technology is sufficiently advanced to become magic. While this technological wall is no doubt depressing to futurists, it means that humanity is poised to enter intergalactic society at far less of a deficit than might otherwise be expected.

Of course, scientific competence and cosmopolitan leanings are very different things. Exposure to the vast profusion of alien culture just waiting to embrace earthling neighbors may set off many of the worst isolationist tendencies of humanity…

Design

This uses Savage Worlds as a basis, but you could easily use your supers engine of choice (though the follow up post explains in more detail why I went with Savage Worlds).

  • Use the science fiction companion to build basic alien race traits (with humans keeping the free edge as their racial advantage).
  • Each race also gets a handful of power permissions from the super powers companion, and are built as supers (i.e., they don’t have to take the arcane background edge).
  • Characters receive a variable number of points to purchase these powers.

All characters, even the weakest NPCs, should typically get around 10 points for buying powers, to allow certain powers to be standard for the alien race (e.g., you can always assume Kryptonians can fly a little, and are stronger and tougher than humans, but they might not all be as powerful as Supergirl). Wild Cards and other important characters should receive more, at the power band you want for your game. They’re, for whatever reason, the exemplars of their race’s powers.

In general, unless you’re using an established setting, players can essentially make superheroes as they would for any other supers game, then reverse-justify their power picks to a race of which they’re an exemplar.

Example Races

Kryptonian:

  • Kryptonians have the Gimmick hindrance (require regular access to sunlight from a yellow sun) and the Power Negation hindrance (Kryptonite). They gain six additional Power Points to buy super powers beyond what is standard for the campaign.
  • Kryptonians are incredibly strong, and can buy Super Attribute (Strength).
  • Kryptonians are incredibly hard to hurt, and can buy Toughness.
  • Kryptonians have preternatural flight with no apparent means of locomotion, and can buy Flight.
  • Kryptonians can fly into space and survive for short periods, so may purchase the Resistance package required to survive in space and Doesn’t Breathe (with the minor Limitation of a finite duration).
  • Kryptonians can use heat vision and cold breath as expressions of Attack, Ranged.
  • Kryptonians have enhanced vision and hearing, and can buy Heightened Senses.

Green Martian:

  • Martians have the Weakness (Major) hindrance (Fire) and the Racial Enemy (White Martian) racial drawback. They gain +2 ranks of Strength and +1 Toughness.
  • Martians are psychic, and can buy Mind Reading and Telepathy.
  • Martians are shapeshifters, and can buy Chameleon.
  • Martians have preternatural flight with no apparent means of locomotion, and can buy Flight.
  • Martians can alter their densities to pass through solid matter, and can buy Intangibility.

Human:

  • Humans gain a bonus Edge (per the normal Savage Worlds rules).
  • Humans are stubborn, and can buy Resistance (Mental). With the lack of psychics on the planet, few even realize they are so gifted. As a whole, Earth goes mostly unknown on the galactic stage because long-range psychic probes for sapience are so globally resisted.
  • Humans breed faster than most other races, and form strong groups, such that many humans functionally have the Minions power. Aliens are often overwhelmed by human numbers and tendency to coordinate.
  • Humans are sociable, resistant to fear, and quick to overcome hardship and shock. They can buy Super Attribute (Spirit).
  • Humans tend to have an outsized share of prodigies, and can buy Super Skill (any).

Design Note: Humans needed to be designed to account for their stats being the Savage Worlds baseline, so power choices were made around things that the majority of humans could plausibly have to some extent without it being strange/noticeable.

Pathways Fantasy World Creation

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This is kind of the opposite of my previous Pathways World Creation idea: rather than making characters first and the world to suit, this is an experiment in doing pathways creation without player characters involved. See the linked Smallville tag on this post for more information about doing Pathways creation, if you haven’t played Smallville or previously read my other posts on this topic.

As usual, start with a big blank sheet of paper for drawing nodes and connecting lines. Unlike usual, do not add the player characters to the map initially (you’re developing a world for the players to eventually create characters to fit). The goal of this is ultimately to create a world-first setting, where the player characters aren’t necessarily attached to anything from the start, but to still give the players buy-in to all the primary elements.

For every step in this process, I’d advise that the GM should be treated as a player (i.e., getting to add and connect things at least as often as the players do). Traditionally, the GM does not participate in the Pathways process, but that process is often in a framework of a greater setting that the GM has already bought into. Since this is generating so much about the world, giving the GM the ability to poke at the process to highlight ideas he or she likes makes it easier to roll with the game indefinitely.

Step 0: Theme and Conflict

This step is special: it may be done normally, with the players going around the table, or may be entirely pre-seeded by the GM to get some initial core input into the important elements of the world (i.e., this is set up so, if the GM already has some seed ideas for the campaign, it’s possible to just put them as the core for the whole framework).

  • Add a short theme (triangle) to the map. This should ideally be a single word, and certainly not more than a very short sentence: it will gain more definition as other elements link to it.
  • Add an antagonist (hexagon) or macguffin (pentagon) to the map. This should be a short but evocative name; the actual details of it will be generated from linking to other elements.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.

Step 1: Peoples and Places

  • Add a location (box) to the map. This should be a whole country or region. As usual, give it an evocative, short name, and allow details to come out from connections.
  • Add a race (double-ringed circle) to the map. The GM may veto any races from the rules that he or she doesn’t want to deal with, but this is otherwise a way to say that that race is important to the setting in some way. If your game system doesn’t have mechanical races, give a short, evocative name for a culture instead.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to a location or race and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from a location or race to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.
  • Draw an arrow from a race to a location and give it one of three types of label: “homeland” (where the race is from), “Stronghold” (the race is politically dominant in that location), or a negative label (such as the race being banned, enslaved, or otherwise mistreated in that location). These can double or even triple-up if it makes sense logically (e.g., the elves are politically dominant in their own homeland, but are also widely feared by all other races in that land).

Step 2: Politics

  • Add an NPC (circle) to the map. This should be someone very politically important to the setting, but not directly villainous (that would be an antagonist). As usual, give the NPC a short evocative name and wait for details to fall out of connections.
  • Add an organization (star or double-ringed pentagon) to the map. This will become a politically important secret society, knightly order, wizard cabal, thieves’ guild, etc. As usual, a short, evocative name is important.
  • Draw an arrow from an NPC to an antagonist or macguffin and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from an antagonist or macguffin to an organization and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from an NPC or organization to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.

Step 3: Further Linkages

  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element that is not currently connected to a theme to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb. (If all elements are tied to a theme, tie one to a second theme.)
  • Draw an arrow from whichever (non-theme) element currently has the least connections to any other element, and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element to any other element and define the relationship.

Step 4: Secondary Elements

  • Add your choice of another one of the following: antagonist, macguffin, location, race, NPC, or organization.
  • Draw an arrow from any element with no connections to any other element (except themes), and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any element (that is not currently connected to a theme) to a theme, and define the connection as an aspect-style blurb.
  • Draw an arrow from whichever (non-theme) element currently has the least connections to any other element, and define the relationship.
  • Draw an arrow from any (non-theme) element to any other element and define the relationship.

If your map is still sparse for your group’s tastes, repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’re satisfied with the map.

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 3)

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Apparently, I had a lot more to say on this topic than I thought, and it’s taken me until the third post to get to the item list that was the core of why I started writing this series in the first place. So without further ado…

Types of Items for Sale

Trinkets

Not every vendor in the market has epic items that will change your life forever. Probably the majority of them are a lot like their mortal counterparts: selling the everyday things that visitors to the market might need. Depending on the weirdness of the average customer, this could vary from goods that wouldn’t be out of place at any mortal market to items that have similar functions but alien appearances. Mostly, for mortal visitors, this winds up basically being tchotchkes: the kind of slightly unusual token you bring back to show your neighbors that you’ve seen wonders they couldn’t even imagine.

They might even accept your own coin or unusual goods for trade, letting you dip your toe in the market without bartering anything you aren’t prepared to part with.

Snacks and Merriment

It wouldn’t be a fair without delicious food, drink, and revelry to part you from your coin. As mentioned previously, they’re probably not glamoured fruits that will make you sick to death or tricks that keep you from ever leaving faerieland. At least the reputable vendors don’t sell that kind of thing. But the foods are delicious, empty calories, often spun into daring shapes that can’t be accomplished in human ovens with mortal gravity, and the entertainments are… extremely memorable.

Many of them are even touched with magic and might give you a small bonus to something relevant for an hour or two.

Exotic Goods

Beside the trinket vendors are the merchants with the things that are truly beyond what you can get in the mortal world. They sell bolts of cloth or fully-tailored clothing better than anything you’ve ever felt, metals that mortal metallurgists wouldn’t believe could exist, gems made of captured light, and chemicals that would make a mortal alchemist or baker weep at the possibilities.

Many of these things don’t last long outside of the market, falling apart under coarse mortal hands or turning into leaves with the dawn. If you can keep them up, the maintenance requires care and/or magic almost (almost) beyond what it’s worth. But they still might be useful for as long as they last, particularly if you’ve been invited to an event and aren’t properly attired.

Some of them might last, of course, if it suits the whimsy of the GM for them to persist. In particular, raw materials might survive into the mortal world… what better way to vex mortal crafters that try and fail to work them?

Secrets

If you need to know a particularly useful and hidden bit of lore, the market is the place to ask around. As noted previously, information at the market changes hands like physical goods: you’re paying not just to know something, but to be the holder of an exclusive (or, at least, extremely limited) piece of data. You can get weaknesses of your enemies, quest hooks, lost histories, and even spells from the right vendor for the right price.

Of course, the fact that you were asking around for these things is strangely free of the limited nature of secrets… the fae might gossip about your desires to almost anyone. That might particularly include someone who desperately wanted to know a secret that you now exclusively own.

Enchantment Shifting

To mortals, “permanent” magic is static, but, to many of the fae, it’s much more fluid. Have a curse you need taken off of you? Have a magic weapon that’s not your specialized type? There may be someone that can help you move that enchantment to a home more to your liking.

Magic as Commodity

The standard consumables are just the start for the types of magic you can buy at the market. Virtually any spell could find a home in a crafted good: to the fae, it’s not enchantment, just their own particular brand of handiwork. As noted previously, these should often be much easier to get than the rules expect, because of the spoilage factor.

Memories and Talents

Of course, the core currency of the market can also be an end in itself. Need to boost an ability or skill? Someone else may have paid in the right qualities that a merchant could distill the draught for you.

These bonuses should range from the slight to the overwhelming, and from the momentary to the permanent. Maybe you only need the memories of a genius or the muscles of a troll for a moment to solve a problem, or maybe you’d like a slighter bonus for longer. The pricing for this should probably start similar to a potion that boosts an ability for a short period, adjusted for magnitude and duration, and discounted for drawbacks.

In addition to the normal drawback of spoilage, the hidden drawback of this kind of thing is the danger of taking in someone else’s identity.

Mental ability scores and skills tend to come from a constellation of memories and emotions, not all of them healthy. Is it worth it to be smart, if you suddenly have a genius’ pedantry and arrogance? Is it worth it to be incredibly charismatic and artistic, if you are suddenly wracked with depression engendered by a long-lost muse?

Physical ability scores and skills can be even more troubling, drifting into the realm of body horror. The muscles of a troll may come with many of the troll’s other physical characteristics. And sometimes the stories of being turned into frogs are just an offended merchant selling a particular distillation of a potion of agility…

Teaching a Mortal to Fish

Perhaps the most efficient purchase you can make, if you’re mystically inclined, are the secrets used to build containers and fill them with currency. With sufficient dedication, you can spend the weeks until the next fair gathering dross from your own home town out of dreams, emotions, and secrets no one will even miss, and save up for something at no cost to your own identity. For the patient and industrious, it’s the best investment you could make.

Of course, some people say that many fae were once mortal practitioners with a greed for faerie things and the right start down the slippery slope…

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 2)

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Last week, I talked about the overall themes and possibility space of market items, and this week I’ll delve more into mechanics.

The Economy of the Market

While it may move away from keeping the workings of the market seeming totally alien, it does help to have some kind of rational economic basis in your head as a GM. The fae merchants absolutely haggle, and some things may be arbitrarily expensive or cheap as a way of modeling alien values, but this is theoretically still a place where fae merchants do what mortal merchants do: sell items for a price that covers their expenses plus profits. Thus, having some kind of math in the background gains in verisimilitude what it loses in inscrutability. You don’t want the players getting pissed off that everything happens to cost either a negligible amount or slightly more than the most they intended to pay. Sometimes, they should just be able to buy the thing with the items of currency they’ve collected.

These items of currency are what I find interesting. This is another area where I feel like more of a mechanic provides a big gain in verisimilitude. If even the least fae merchant can, at a whim, transform core pieces of a person into coin, why are they wasting their time doing so with peasants rather than kings? Instead, I postulate the following (tweak for the nature of the fae and mechanics in your own campaign):

  • Many fae, and some mortals, can learn various tricks to see and touch the stuff of mortal identity: your dreams are real to them, your secrets have a presence, and your personal traits linger like a cloud around you flickering with signifiers. This can give them an uncanny insight into your nature, for the things you believe are hidden within the darkness of your skull are plain to see for those that know how to interpret them. More importantly, with the right tools and right circumstances, seeing someone’s trappings is just the first step of taking them.
  • These tools are made through ritual and expense, from rare material and great skill. The least fae can weave webs to hold nightmares, prepare flasks to decant lesser memories, and bake a juicy secret into a pie. Stronger fae can make much more potent containers, which can hold trappings of much greater value. And even the least fae can fill a container given by a greater crafter.

Ultimately, I divide the currency of the fae into two rough categories:

  • Dross items have purchasing power similar to a gold piece or two (or silver for games like Beyond the Wall that have more conservative adventuring economies): each one was basically a day’s work for a lesser fae to craft and fill with a trapping. They can only hold the most minor of signifiers: stolen nightmares, captured applause, the least of secrets, and pieces of your competency easily given and hardly missed. They’re the pennies of the fae world, used for small purchases and sweetening a deal, but it’s somewhat gauche to try to make a big purchase with a lot of them.
  • Unique items were made with much more expensive and time-consuming rituals to hold trappings of real significance. Each has its own story, and, once filled, mutates from its original raw form into something fitting the significant piece of identity stored inside. Each has a base value that may change based on whether the alien needs of a particular fae values that trapping for some inscrutable purpose beyond use as a currency. After all, these things aren’t just a fun version of coin: they have value because some faerie, somewhere, has a real use for them. And if you want them back, you’d best find them before they reach their final buyer.

What this means is that lesser fae probably can’t buy your youth, your health, your love’s affection, or any other things of real value to you, unless they’re shiftily working as a front-fae for a much more powerful buyer that wishes to remain unnamed. Once you start asking what of yourself you can give up for that extremely pricey item, many fae merchants may have to direct you to a more powerful trader who has the requisite container to bottle what you’re selling.

This should really give you some time to rethink the trade you’re trying to make.

Another thing to keep in mind about the fae economy is that it has its own peculiar form of DRM: mortals are used to information being easily copied, so might think nothing of sharing a secret or a memory. Most of the time, though, this is an exclusive deal: if you trade in information, you no longer have it yourself. The lesser fae make a point of only trading for data you haven’t “backed up” by sharing with someone else, so when you forget it you can’t easily get it back. The more powerful traders can absorb information from everywhere else it exists, be it minds or writing, as long as it was actually yours to trade.

So how much can you actually get by shaving off pieces of your character’s identity?

As a core rule, trades should be inherently lossy: the merchant has to pay for market overhead and ritual components, at least. Even with the best haggling roll, if you think you’re getting an even swap (say, two points of one ability score for two points of another), you’re probably missing something. It’s more likely that even the best deals will leave you over 20% in the hole when comparing apples-to-apples (e.g., trade five points of ability scores for four).

Dross should be pretty easy to come by, and only start to have major effects if the characters try to create a lot of it from their identities in a very short period. The market’s no fun if you have to worry about the long-term negative effects of minor trades. By all means be very descriptive about the lost memories, emotions, and other personal qualities spun into dross, but they probably shouldn’t have any real, long-term mechanical effect on the character (perhaps some small penalties in the short term).

Unique items, however, should quickly transition into dear purchases. Brandes is hesitant to assess permanent ability score penalties, but I think they’re on the table as long as the currency you buy with them can be used to get something whose utility closely balances the regret at permanent lost character potency (possibly just through being something otherwise unavailable through prescribed system means). In 5e or other games with systematized personality traits/aspects, those are also good to spend. Skills/skill points can go as well. Secrets are good to use if they have real in-campaign utility (e.g., the secret way into your stronghold, your own true name or that of a powerful entity, etc.). Spellcasters can give up learned spells.

And, of course, “permanent” may be relative. Most of the boosts you can buy in the market are fleeting, so actual mechanical stat penalties may last just long enough to be super annoying and then gradually recover (as you make new memories/accrue replacement identity signifiers).

Like with the nature of items, the nature of fae currency is figuring out how to get player characters to do something the characters might regret forever, but which doesn’t actually permanently ruin the players’ fun. A lot of it will come down to your own players’ tolerances for roleplayed misery.

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 1)

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My Beyond the Wall players, as mentioned in a prior post, finally decided they had enough of a handle on the campaign world to go into the Hedge searching for the market they’d learned of from a pack of defeated goblins. Their treasure from that encounter was a chest of stolen nightmares: clearly only the kind of thing human adventurers are going to get much use out of if they can find the place where commerce of that type happens. This meant I needed to think out exactly how I wanted the goblin market (really more of a faerie market in general) to work.

I’d done some improvisation on this score using Don’t Rest Your Head’s bazaar, which functions quite similarly. But what works for an extremely rules-light game doesn’t work as well for games like D&D that have a lot of assumptions built into player access to items and magic. Brandes has articles on goblin markets in general and ideas for what to find there, and you should read both of those articles before this one to be working from the same playbook I am as to what I still felt like I needed to create.

Themes of a Faerie Market

While I typically prefer the term “Goblin Market,” the poem with which that term is most linked is not exactly what I’m talking about (though well could be the pastime of the less savory merchants when they’re not at the big show). I tend to think more of the markets of Stardust and Hellboy II: massive gatherings of strange merchants with exotic wares, where you might wind up paying in coin you didn’t know you possessed.

In this kind of market, there can certainly be the wicked danger proposed by the poem, if your game wants to emphasize the Victorian morality involved. But I think you’ll often get more out of it by playing a bit more fairly with the players: purchases aren’t an inherently bad idea, but can still be extremely risky if you don’t know what you’re getting or spending. This is a fully functioning economy, just using rules that may defy the PCs’ intuitions from more mundane markets.

For my own purposes, I think the major themes to keep in mind when running such a place are wonder, consequences, and identity.

  • Wonder: At its core, visiting such a market is an opportunity to inject wonder into a game. Beings normally only encountered in frightening combats, legends, and as historical remnants are packed into a small space and going about their own personal shopping trips. You get to see them up close and may not even have to fight them. They may trade with you. This may be your best opportunity to gain information from primary sources, if you can ask the right questions. And it may be your opportunity to piss off a huge swath of powerful entities all at once, if you’re not careful.
  • Consequences: While the market may not inevitably be that of Rosetti’s goblins, tricking you into trading that which is most important for pretty poison, such an outcome is not off the table. Some merchants will outright try to cheat you, and even the “honest” ones are happy to take advantage of your ignorance to get a better deal for themselves. In particular, if you are rude or brash, you are unlikely to profit. If it looks like you got an excellent deal, far better than what you expected, there are probably hidden consequences. And, with a handshake bargain, there’s not even any fine print to read.
  • Identity: One of the classic things the market trades in is trappings of identity. You can pay with memories, beauty, youth, vigor, secrets, and many other types of coin that you didn’t even know were available to spend. The consequences are usually smaller but more obvious than a classic devil’s bargain for your soul: you get to spend the rest of your life understanding something about yourself that you didn’t realize was essential until it was gone. If you’re lucky, you can figure out how to buy it back. From the other side of the deal, what does it mean to profit from the trappings of someone else’s identity? Any boost you purchase may be powered by an essential trait of another person, taken into yourself.

The Nature of Market Items

The interesting thing about the market is the juxtaposition of seemingly fabulously powerful magics with an implied hidden drawback. Items that are normally the trappings of epic adventurers seem to be available for quite reasonable prices, even once you’ve gotten a handle on the true meaning of fae prices. How do you put such things into the game without breaking the itemization math upon which D&D is based?

I think the key is to keep most purchases fragile, fleeting, evanescent, and/or ephemeral. Not only should they mostly be consumables (as Brandes notes), they should defy the traditional D&D logic of consumables by including spoilage. In my experience, potions, scrolls, and charged items accumulate, becoming dangerous to game balance in their ability to be saved until their moment of greatest advantage. Part of their costing is based on being a reserve spell when the math said you should be out of daily resources. Making fae purchases into something that must be used now, or at least soon, can go a long way toward eliminating worries about whether they’re too cheap. Especially if the fae traders are on a schedule that doesn’t suit the whims of the PCs, it’s pretty easy to give out items that are lots of fun to use, but which won’t be available to wreck scenarios set a few days or weeks later.

Also, as noted under themes, items purchased from the fae are likely to have hidden drawbacks, not the least of which is being spun from the trappings of someone else’s identity. What shortcuts did the fae crafter take to make something so powerful that can be sold so cheaply? Does its core still carry the intentions of its originator, making it unexpectedly hard to use? Will it, even in the best case scenario, begin to warp your own identity through leakage or as a core principle of how it works?

If you can get your players into a deep anxiety about whether they were cheated or got a fabulous deal, and whether they can risk using this thing vs. risking letting it expire, you’ve properly created the item.

GM Tricks: Arbitrary Links as Imagination Seed

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regionalmapnearbynotes

My Beyond the Wall game is a Westmarches-style hexcrawl, for the most part. The players are from a small village situated on the edge of a deadly wilderness, but the “settled” lands are also filled with adventure locations (largely safer ones for low-level characters not yet ready to venture into a forest of razor-sharp thorns). I’ve been thwarted for years by attempts to make a hexcrawl, due to the sheer amount of creation involved, until, finally, for this campaign, I hit upon the following idea.

First off, I didn’t try to fill every single hex with content. Instead, I used BtW‘s conception of distance bands (near hexes are those within a close radius, moderate hexes are the next band of that distance, and far hexes are the band after that), and decided that I’d use an alphabet key for each band. Basically, of the 37 “near” hexes, only 26 have significant content, as do 26 of the “moderate” hexes. Other than the players’ home town being A1 right in the center, the hexes that got a letter were determined randomly.

This still leaves space for things I might decide to add later, but coming up with 52 locations across a 7-hex radius was much less daunting than filling in every single one of them. I had a pool of general ideas for locations I might want to have in the game (like a haunted farmhouse, a crossroads, a giant inn, and the old watchtower required by one of the threat packs I’m using), and then filled in the rest with the random location generator from BtW.

But none of that is the trick.

The trick is that, at this point, all I had were some vaguely atmospheric locations and a few ideas for how some of them hooked into the overall campaign themes and threats. So next, I made a spreadsheet*. In addition to salient data about the location’s key letter, name/description, and overall position within the world, it got a couple of useful columns: clue to near, and clue to moderate. Each location would hold some kind of clue to how to find one other location in the near band, and one in the far band, and some kind of useful details about those other locations. And each location would get used the same number of times (so each location essentially has two out clues and two in clues).

Some of the locations were easy. Obviously the haunted farmhouse (which was secretly the home base of goblins trying to scare people away) would be a good place to put a clue to the goblin market location. But most of the connections wound up being fairly arbitrary: when you only have one location without a clue, and one location that can take a clue, you match them up.

And this became the trick to filling in these locations with interesting details. On the spreadsheet, I could now see that each vague location had some kind of clue to two other vague locations. And that clue would inform both sides.

Why is the estate of rival nobles getting a clue from the old battlefield and sending a clue to ancient ruins? I already know they’re nobles that are good at farming, but maybe they have an inferiority complex about it. Maybe they’re trying to find proof that they’re actually an extremely old noble house in order to raise their prestige among the other nobles. Boom. The old battlefield now has a roleplay encounter with archaeologists hired by the family to dig for relics of the family’s armies, and if the players follow it up they can get hired by the noble family to hunt for further proof in the ancient ruins.

Not only is every location now findable without just having to go hex-by-hex, but each location has four data points to spur imagination about why it’s interesting and how it fits into the larger world.

And the GraphViz of the connections is pretty neat too:

locationgraph

* My next step is almost always to make a spreadsheet.

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