Wednesday, October 7, 2020

We Need to Talk About Stats

In the broken world by ionomycin
So it should go without saying that a game's mechanics effect how you fundamentally interact with the game itself. If you disagree with that assertion, I'm not here to argue with you today, because you're provably wrong. Just know that I am going to take this true statement for granted, and am building on it to hopefully show the following:

A game's stats effect how you fundamentally interact with and understand the world of a game.

Why Stats?

There is a lot to unpack with stats, in my opinion. There are obvious questions with a game, such as: whether or not to include stats, what stats are, what differs stats from something like skills (if at all), or how stats are used in the game (are they a modifier? The number of dice you roll? The number you must roll under?). However, I don't want to talk about any of that today. Those are all interesting topics to think and talk about, as well as to analyze across various games to see how they answer those questions.

What I want to talk about today is two things in particular, and the interaction between them: What are the stats in a game (and relatedly, what do they mean diagetically), and how are stats determined for characters? I want to talk about these questions first in the abstract, and then look at a few examples of different games to see how they answer this question. Let's see what we can learn!

What Do Stats Mean?

Speaking broadly, stats tell us how characters are differentiated by their abilities. However, as you may be aware, people's capabilities are far more complicated than a few completely distinct independent traits. Therefore, the reality which stats describe is fundamentally oversimplified and unreal - no number of numerically represented attributes can ever capture the complexity of reality. In pointing this out, we acknowledge that stats are fully fabricated.

However, mechanically, they are also the major way through which we are able to see the difference between people's basic abilities, to the point that they influence what characters are mechanically capable of. Thus, although the reality described by stats is fabricated, it is also the most real distinction between people's capabilities in game. Or, put in other words, it is the only distinction that the game cares to acknowledge as important enough to influence play directly.

The question of how you choose to determine a character's stat values also has implications, although they are far less interesting to talk about in abstract, and I'll save the topic for discussion around specific examples. So, let us leave the realm of the abstract and talk about a few games!

art from Faith Schaffer
 Stats of the Spirit

For our first example, I'm going to use my own in-development game, SUPERLUNARY: Fight with Feelings (S:FwF), which I'll talk about in more detail at a future date. For this discussion, all you need to know is that it is set in a dreamlike world and is heavily based around capturing the feeling and energy of both battle shounen series as well as folkloric metaphysics and whimsy. As such, my focus with the stats was never to describe the physical capabilities of characters - it simply wasn't relevant. Instead, I chose to focus on emotional stats, because they worked thematically with what I was working towards.

The stats I decided on for the game were HEART, INSTINCT, and ANTICIPATION. What these each represent is not how you do certain actions, but why, because that was what I wanted to emphasize as important in play. For the mood the game captures, it is incredibly important to ask what the reasoning behind actions is, so I made it the core mechanic.

Speaking diagetically, each also have a few meanings. While they all have literal meanings (intense emotions, the drive to survive, and expectations of what is to come), they also have poetic meanings which tie them to both parts of the universe as well as to moments in time (past, present and future). What this does, in my opinion, is justify the importance of these stats diagetically, as well as provide avenues for characterization through stats. (These meanings also come up mechanically at times, to further show that they too are important.)

Relatedly, I decided to make stats at character creation rather simple - you just choose a template of how they are spread. I landed on this for a few reasons. For one, I decided that randomly generated stats weren't appropriate for the scale of values I was using (2-4). Further, I found that a few discreet templates was better than calling it something like "point-buy" and outlining a system for it; it didn't need that level of complication.

Overall, I tried to keep things simple but evocative. They don't try to map every attribute a person has, nor would they particularly make sense for a game trying to feel tethered to reality. However, for S:FwF, they do exactly what I want them to do. The biggest takeaway from my philosophy with the game is this: since stats represent the most important attributes by which people are defined, they can also tell the player what feelings are most important.

art from the lovely Sarah Carapace

Stats of the Mind

So while S:FwF is intentionally divorced from thinking too hard about reality, that doesn't mean all games with more poetic stats need to be. In fact, not only can grounded games have evocative stats, they should. So, for our next example let's talk about cavegirl's Dungeon Bitches (DB). Much like S:FwF, it is a game which is currently in-development, and which places importance on the emotions of the characters. However, it does so in a very different way, and with a far more grounded game. If you're somehow here but unfamiliar with it, the elevator pitch is "disaster-lesbians trauma-bonding and maybe falling in love while exploring a horrible dungeon, because they've got no better options. expect angst, romance and skellingtons."

So, the four stats in DB are Hard, Soft, Subtle, and Queer. Respectively, they generally represent: your ability to do harm and endure pain both emotional and physical, your awareness of your surroundings as well as your empathy with your fellow Bitches, your ability to escape from problems and to be manipulative, and your ability both to reach powers beyond mortals as well as flirt.

So, what does that tell us? Well for one, it reinforces the queerness of the game - it's literally one of the core attributes to a character. However, it's not something so bizarre and crass as a measurement of just how gay a character is, it's rather more a measure of their confidence to do things outside of societal norms (flirting with other sapphics, talking to ancient beings).

There's something else we can notice about the stats, though - none of them are purely literal or physical. Even Hard is not a measure of how buff a bitch is, but it is a measure of her willingness and ability to hurt others, and a measure of her ability to handle pain. Sure, you can interpret a character with good Hard as being physically strong, but it's not a direct connection. It also represents mental fortitude, since the game makes no mechanical distinction between physical and emotional pain. Someone can be strong without being good at doing violence, and they can be weak while also being willing and able to kill things. There is a certain nuance to what the stats actually mean beyond mere descriptions of physicality.

Something else interesting in how the game handles stats is in their allocation to characters. While I won't be talking about the classes in the game in detail here, it is worth noting two things about them. Firstly, they don't represent jobs in the way 'thief' or 'ranger' do, rather they more represent who a character is poetically and narratively. Second, classes determine your stats. So the Amazons, devotees to violence, have a +1 to Hard and Subtle, but struggle being open with others and have -1 to Soft and Queer. 

Further, every character gets to increase one stat by 1 at creation. Whether you choose to make a +1 into a +2 or a -1 into a +0 says something about your character. An Amazon with +2 Hard is dedicated to fighting, whereas one with +0 Soft still is clinging onto an amount of awareness and empathy that others may lack.

Once again, we find a game which uses a stat system which is both simple and evocative. In both their names and their functions, these stats tell us what is important about a character to the game, as well as what isn't. The mechanics aren't concerned with how big a sword you can wield, but how willing you are to chop something in half with it. They reinforce the game's focus on trauma and emotions, while simultaneously not detracting from the grounded nature of the game.

INJURED by Juliette Cousin (18+)

Six Stats For Life

(Alternative title: The Only Stats You'll Ever Need)

And now it's time for me to talk about a stat system which I have nothing but disdain for. One which I will here argue is not only uninteresting, but outright bad. It is, of course, that of Dungeons and Dragons (DnD). I won't be talking about any specific editions, as they are wholly irrelevant to my arguments here. Being that there are many editions, some of the specifics of my claims may not be true for your favorite. However, these specifics are largely irrelevant to my claims, so I will continue to ignore them because I'd rather not prattle about the minutiae. Also, this post is long enough as-is, and I don't care.

So, let's start with the facts. We have Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Respectively, they represent: how much weight you can carry and how hard you hit with swords, how fast you are and how good you are with ranged weapons, how hard you are to kill and your resistance to disease, your . . . smartness?, your . . . uhhh . . . , and every single social capability plus a few things.

What the fuck?

Let's start with what this list tells us about the game's priorities. Half of these are ways of showing how physically fit a character is, and although I frankly have issue with the way they chose to group and name these stats, they're largely fine. However, half of the stats in a game boiling down to how much your character works out definitely sets an expectation that the game is rather focused on what bodies are capable of. (I don't think it does a good job of capitalizing on this in the slightest, but that's a topic for a different day.) Our other three stats can be kind of put under the banner of the psychological, although many folks have taken to interpreting Charisma as also influencing ~attractiveness~, whatever that means.

So personally, I don't find these stats to evoke much of anything. That's not bad, necessarily, they don't have to. However, as I hope I made at least something of a case for, I think games should strive for that. In theory though, DnD's choice to be half and half of physical/mental traits isn't too bad - after all, the implication is that an adventurer's mind is as important as their body! Of course in play this isn't true at all and the mental stats are unimportant unless you want to be good at magic, but IN THEORY, it says something. Except . . . 

in the end by ionomycin

What the fuck is wrong with its mental stats?

So first and foremost, we have the issue of Intelligence as a single stat. As you may be aware, IQ is a concept which exists in the real world, and is thought of as a way to measure someone's intelligence. There's just one little problem with it; it's pseudoscientific nonsense. There is no one smartness number which determines how much of a genius you are, and these tests don't measure shit except for how good you are at taking them, which correlates pretty well with how white and affluent you are. Of course, it has then also been used as an excuse to do some horrible racist shit

So with that real-world context in mind, one can see how Intelligence is not only nonsense, but potentially connected to some gross shit. Put a pin in that second part, we'll come back to it, and let's talk about Wisdom instead! Now, of course, Intelligence represents your SMARTNESS NUMBER, which means Wisdom represents your . . . uh . . . seriously, what the fuck is Wisdom? It's sometimes understood as something of an 'intelligence of life,' a more practical foil to the academia-flavored Intelligence. That's profoundly unclear and unsatisfying, though. It's important to characters like clerics and druids, so perhaps it's somehow tied to faith? Does it represent morality? Well, no, that's it's own separate and extremely stupid mechanic in DnD. So ultimately, it ends up being ambiguously different from Intelligence, and both of them mean absolutely nothing in real terms.

Then we have Charisma. This is a stat which governs all of the game's horrible social mechanics. From B/X where it's tied to things like reaction rolls and how many retainers you can control, to more modern iterations where it represents your ability to be scary, kind, and manipulative. (Those have their own problems which this post is also not going to get into.) It ends up determining everything from your leadership abilities to how conniving you are, and that is . . . a frankly baffling simplification of how people socialize.

But enough bitching about what the stats are, let's get into how they're determined! Rolling up your stats to randomly determine their values is a classic method, while modern iterations have emphasized things like "point-buy" systems where you build a character's stats using a resource and mechanic particular to creation. It's a bit messy, especially when the way DnD's stat values work is already a nuisance, but it's fine. Random generation can have its problems too, but it obviously has its place. And all of this is fine.

What isn't fine is how DnD handles racial modifiers. Now, these obviously are not something in your game if you're playing a game which uses race-as-class, but most editions of DnD do in fact use this mechanic, including the most recent iteration, so I'm going to talk about it anyway. And I know plenty of people before me have talked about this, but it's relevant to the discussion at hand regardless.

So racial modifiers in DnD are a major way in which character stats are affected during character creation. In previous editions, these included both positive and negative value changes, but as of 5e they are all positive. Essentially, the species of a character effects their stats in some way, which silently is suggesting that all of these stats have some biological origin. Elves are nimble, everyone wants to fuck Tieflings, and Orcs are strong but stupid because they're . . . oh fucking hell we're doing this, are we?

So let us recall once more that in the real world, the pseudoscientific claim that intelligence is a measurable number has been used to legitimize some racist shit. The tests given to measure it largely measured how prepared someone was to take them, and heavily favored people with the affluence to know how to answer them, which in turn meant that, due to an economic divide along lines of race, there was a disparity in results along lines of race. In particular, this concept was rather popular amongst phrenologists, who were very concerned with the "hierarchy of the races", and who rather liked having a way to pretend to do science while claiming that white people were just the smartest. It goes without saying, they were just a bunch of rich racists who wanted to come up with excuses to call institutional racism "just some science".

So with that in mind, when DnD includes a stat called Intelligence which is some nonsense metric of how ~smart~ someone is, and then ALSO includes different species (which it calls races) and ALSO says that some of them just inherently have more or less Intelligence than others . . . yeah, that's going to carry some fucking implications. And it's gross.

Whew. Okay. So to wrap up my thoughts on DnD, its stat system isn't totally irredeemable, but you need to do some shit to it. The irony of the atrocious Intelligence stat is that many modern versions have a Skill system, which is a much better implementation of the idea. There is no One Smartness Number, but certainly you can be different amounts of smart/experienced at different specific topics and skills.

Like I also said above, I think the idea of a game which tells you mind and body are equally important is perfectly fine. However, I don't think DnD successfully implements this atall, mostly because they don't know what the fuck they are doing when it comes to how people think.

art from Faith Schaffer

The Conclusion, Finally

Alright, just shy of 1300 words about Dungeons and Dragons later and I'm done bitching about it for today. So what has this whole post been trying to get at? Let's come back to what I set out to show: a game's stats effect how you fundamentally interact with and understand the world of a game. Now that we've shown this through a few examples, I would like to ask a follow-up question - why does that matter?

The reason that I think this matters is far too many games fall into not thinking critically about what their stats communicate to a player. Stats are, to reiterate, the major defining mechanical traits of a character, the way in which they are differentiated from anyone else. So to uncritically copy over the template of DnD, a game who's stats are laden with issues to begin with, you miss the opportunity to reiterate the themes or core conceits of a game.

Some games do a sort of halfway attempt at having more evocative stats, keeping DnD-esque stats while adding maybe one or two which are more tonally appropriate or specific to their setting. While this is certainly better than nothing, they still feel largely uninspired. It's much more interesting to think about what is important to a game, and drive that home. And to keep in mind that stats are arbitrary, they're not real. You don't need to attempt to describe every attribute to someone, only the ones which you think matter, grouped however you like.

Alright, next week is definitely going to be the Weary Rust-Knight; this damn post took too much time. (The irony is I did this thinking a class would be too much work . . . sigh.) Also, expect a sister-post to my running horror post on Halloween, talking more about some specific pieces of horror media and the unique lessons they have to teach us for tabletop games. And if you've read all the way through this, thank you! I didn't intend for this blog to immediately become full of philosophical nonsense, but I'm rather enjoying writing it.

Monday, September 28, 2020

On Running Horror in Games

Stephen Gammell's art scarred young me and I love it

I've been thinking a lot about running horror in games lately, particularly about what makes horror work, and what tabletop games can do with it that other mediums can't. So, let's talk about that!

get closer by genicecream
But First

Before we start, let's set some expectations right away. Most of my experience with horror is reading too much of it too young as a kid, and getting into J-Horror thru video games and comics. Horror movies in particular have always been too much for me, I think largely because you don't have autonomy in the same way you do with the other mediums mentioned. You can read a book slower, or try to run in a game - but a movie you're just along for the ride (yes I recognize you can pause a film watching it at home, yes I still feel this way).

Also, these thoughts are going to be more about psychological horror than anything else, because I'm writing a horror mystery module that's largely using psychological horror. More physical/cosmic stuff is neat too, and some of these thoughts will likely still be applicable to it, but that's not what I'm thinking about. I'm much more interested in horror centered around human emotions and minds.


Establishing Reality

A big aspect of horror is its abnormality, in my opinion. If a setting is called MURDERWORLD, it's not shocking when someone gets murdered in their house. After all, it's MURDERWORLD, what did you expect? When it happens in Halloween, though, it is, because now the murder is happening in a white picket fence neighborhood and well this isn't supposed to happen here. That is the source of the horror in the film - the way it breaks the trust and safety that the suburbia it depicts is supposed to have. The murder, and Michael Meyers himself, is an aberration.

In the context of a film, we don't need too much time to establish normal, because there are so many ways to do it. The way the shots are framed, the expressions and intonations of the characters, the music and sound design telling you when something is wrong. But in tabletop games, we don't have all of those means of communicating feelings to players in the same way movies do to their viewers.

It is important to remember here one of the other major differences: players have a character who is actually in the story, whose perception and context and emotions are their main way of seeing and reacting to the world, unlike film where we experience it as an outside observer. So, in order to establish the normal of the world, we just need to clearly establish setting, right? Well . . . 

I'd argue that it isn't enough, actually, to clearly lay out the rules of a setting. For one, some stories will want to keep that unclear, and no text summary or elevator pitch will let you fully understand what is and is not normal. But more importantly, we need to remember that because characters are the way players interact with the world, for many it won't be enough to know in their heads what 'normal' is. For horror to work, we need more than just to understand when something is off, we need to feel when something is off. And for that to happen, we need to know what the safety of normality feels like.

There's no right or wrong way to do this, and it's going to depend on what kind of game you're running and how long it will be. If you're doing a one-shot, you need to establish it pretty quick so you can jump into that haunted house. But if you have the time, I think taking at least the first session to just let the players breathe and live in the world is going to have huge benefits to the emotions of the horror. If you give them that time to not just know what normal is but to live in it, then they'll certainly feel when it's absent.

little light by genicecream

Breaking Reality

The way you introduce your elements of horror and break the sense of normality and safety is also greatly going to effect the feeling of your game. I wouldn't dare set rules on how this should be done, but I will generalize the subject and give my opinions anyway.

I really enjoy introducing tension and suspense early on, well before you intend to break the player's sense of reality, but still after giving them enough time to get used to a normal. The way you explain things can have a big effect on this, or even just calling attention to unimportant, mundane things to make them feel unsettling. Talking about the way the waitress' eyes dart around, or the way the ceiling fan slowly shakes, as though it were about to fall onto the floor. Perhaps you call attention to odd noises, like the sound of either a pebble or footsteps behind the player. Or maybe you prefer to mention the motion they see in the corner of their eye. These are all perfectly normal and mundane - but by calling attention to them as an experience the player has, you introduce the subtle unease that they cause.

I think a slow burn to the horror is effective, and just keeping players tense can be enough. If you plan to have them truly confronted by something, though, eventually they'll need to meet it. This of course can be the slow ramping up of minor spooks until eventually they are met with true horror, face-to-face. Think something like Alien - the crew realize they aren't alone, and slowly work out what the hell is going on, all the while hearing the xenomorph stalking around, its presence always felt. Jaws also does something similar, and while the strategy of these films to hold off on showing their monsters isn't the only way to accomplish this (especially if your horror is something less physical than a big creature), they are something that I think can be learned from and adapted.

You can also just throw your horror right at the players, shattering their reality with a sledgehammer. This certainly has the effect of triggering a fight-or-flight response, and as long as the threat of stumbling directly into terror persists, players will be kept tense even when there's nothing around. Hell, even if you just have one big horrifying reveal, if nothing ever happens again, just sitting with the terror that it could happen again can keep a story tense; these characters will never see the world the same way again, and that can be enough.


On Autonomy

It's obvious that the loss of autonomy in various forms can be (or in fact, simply is) horrifying. But granting the player autonomy can be extremely effective in evoking feelings as well.

Consider someone exploring alone in a dark room because they heard a noise. Or who is in a room, only for the lights to suddenly go out and the door be locked. These are the sorts of moments where time stretches on and on, and we are left with nothing but ourselves and the 4 walls around us. How might we make the player feel that horror and loneliness? I propose two major choices which promote those feelings:

Firstly, cut away from them. They are alone, with themselves, in the dark. Time stretches on, seconds become minutes. By cutting away from the player to focus on others, you're giving them the ability to experience that. Their character is still there, stuck in that singular moment, but they themselves are still thinking, sitting there.

Second, give them a leading question when you part from them. Something along the lines of, "This reminds you of something from your childhood, what is it and why?" or "Why does this room feel so familiar?". These accomplish a few things - for one, they force the player to stay in their characters head and think, stuck in that dark room. If you cut from them but don't give them something to think about, they may just listen to the other scenes and not get the intended emotional experience.

What it also does, though, is grant them autonomy in their own horror. You could just tell them that they were lost and alone in a mall once, or that this room has the same layout as the one they grew up in before they lost their childhood home. But they will feel so much more if they come up with answers to what's bothering their character as they're stuck in their own head. It's a moment to be drawn in and establish something about your character - it's engaging! Much moreso than being given the answer.


Anyways, those are some of my thoughts on doing horror in tabletop games. I meant to have this up . . . last Wednesday, but I was having a hard time getting back at writing it. Working on any of my (far too many) projects has been difficult recently, but we'll get there. Next post will likely be diving into one of the classes for the Tangle, because even though that started as just a fun little idea, it's definitely something I'd like to get more into.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

THE TANGLE - an F122 Setting

Folks were talking on discord about making classes setting-specific, and keeping the number of classes to 7-8, both of which are ideas I agree with and care about! So, stream of consciousness I came up with a list of class names around a certain vibe, and then I couldn't stop thinking about what they might actually be. So, here's the fluff and description of these classes, and no mechanics, because I don't give a shit! Maybe I'll make them GLOG classes someday or something. I have a pretty good idea of how all of these would play, but I'm also theoretically busy with projects.

Also, this ended up turning into an F-122 Challenge so there's also a bunch more writing about the setting after the classes. Which, to be fair, I had a pretty good idea of - the class names felt very wet to me.

1. The Weary Rust-Knight. In the chaos of the Endless Swamp, life is rarely safe; fortunately, the common folk can depend on the Knights. They are by no means a formal order - there is no organizational structure, nor list of members, or training or regalia. In fact, even their title of 'Weary Rust-Knights' was granted to them by the people; the knights themselves seem more than happy to go fully unrecognized.

According to popular rumor, whenever a Knight falls in battle, someone pure of heart will hear The Call, drawing them to the armor of the fallen warrior. If there were anything akin to an oath, it would be The Call, though we have no idea what it might entail, since the Knights insist on disappearing after they do their duty. In fact, they all seem to act the same; they work to defend the helpless, yet they also refuse any recognition or repayment, never accepting better equipment, food, gold, and so on. The Weary Rust-Knights do not even name themselves, which has led to folks deciding nicknames based on their appearance.

There are a great many theories as to how the Knights are able to fight with their gear and live without any supplies in the swamps. Some believe the rusted equipment is actually imbued with powerful magics, which also grants them the ability to subsist on very little. Others have claimed that the Knights undergo dark rites when they accept The Call, becoming some sort of half-dead creature in the process. The most commonly accepted theory, though, is far simpler: once you've suffered badly enough for long enough, pain starts to seem insignificant.

by Hushabye Valley

2. Hog-Riding Merchant. The giant feral hogs of the swamp can be horrifying beasts, ruining entire villages in a single rampage; naturally, most tend to stay far away from them. It is for this reason that the Merchants who have managed to tame them and use them as steeds hold such status. Their speed and size make them perhaps the best land-beast for moving goods between the many communities of the swamps, able to carry entire shops on their backs.

How the Hog-Riders manage to tame the beasts is unknown, but any attempt to ask the question will be met with the claim that the hogs are not tame, but merely business partners. Unfortunately, this only raises more questions as to the nature of the beasts of burden - just what are they?

The hogs of the Hog-Riders are well-known for their odd behavior, acting in complete opposition to their usual aggression. Instead, the merchant-pigs seem to dig through the mud at the sign of trouble, finding odd trinkets and avoiding conflict while their 'business partners' volley bolts from the windows of their shop. A word of wisdom: if you ever travel with such a merchant, do not allow their store to be destroyed, lest you want to be trampled by a bankrupt boar.

But the Hog is MUCH bigger

3. Sister of Horns. Oh, the venerable Sisters. Their temple lies in the center of what could be considered the swamp's biggest town, Lovesick, and are a beloved fixture of their community - their music fills the streets in their worship. Their deities are horrible and loving, a divine polycule of wrathful mothers who were alive even in the before times.

To become a Sister, besides devotion to the goddesses, a hopeful must drink of Her blood. Afterwards, through piety and ritual, Sisters begin to grow their horns. Some Sisters may sprout only one, others two, in all manner of configurations; no two Sisters have identical horns. The horns do not appear from nowhere, however - their material comes from the inside of the bones of the Sister of Horns. By the time a Sister's horns are massive and imposing, her bones are hollow and frail; the slightest wind would shatter them into dust.

Their hollow bones, however, are the key to their wondrous miracles. As they sing their hymnals, the sound reverberates through their hollow insides, amplifying the sound to our ears, and transforming it into a song which can touch even divinity itself. It's said that they have a hymn dedicated to each of their goddesses, and their mothers are always willing to come to their daughters' aid.

by Miss Lakuna

4. Knower of the Old Ways. When the world was covered by the Endless Swamp those centuries ago, much of the old knowledge was lost and destroyed. However, the Knower's Guild quickly earned a name for themselves through their intense research and restoration of ancient artifacts. Of course, the Guild themselves would eventually dissipate due to internal disputes, but their knowledge and techniques have been passed down from master to apprentice ever since.

The Knowers of the Old Ways are those who are mastered in the use and repair of these artifacts, who inherited the craft of the old Guild. From their fearsome Boomsticks and Crackwands to their wondrous Screamhorses and PaintBoxes, their presence is always felt. Noone would dare to confront a Knower while they had their Boomstick, lest they had a deathwish.

The most closely guarded secret of the Knowers, of course, is how little ammunition they ever seem to have for their horrible tools. The idea of their artifacts carries enough weight on its own though, such that they rarely ever need to truly use them.

by James Bama

5. Bog-Thing. What a pitiable creature they are. We believe they were once bodies from before the Mud-Flood, their centuries of mummification in the muck allowing something to seep into their souls and stir them once more. They are missing nearly all of their memories, but tend to remember a few names or relationships they once had. Maybe it's better that they don't know what's become of their world.

They appear to be capable of speech, though their preserved throats and the half-millenia of mud caked into them make them rather difficult to communicate with. At the very least, Bog-Things appear to be good listeners. Otherwise, we know very little about what exactly has possessed them to begin rising up from the swamp, or what they are fully capable of. Rumors abound, though, for feats as far-fetched as their horrible snapping limbs allowing them to jump from willow-to-willow, their muck-filled lungs spewing forth a foul plague, or even being able to wrestle giant hogs with their emaciated bodies.

by Sophie Prestigiacomo

6. Detestable Vivimancer. The magics of the Detestable Vivimancers are not to be trusted, and they should be avoided at all costs. These ne'er-do-wells give into their basest desires and venture out to listen to the Cannibal Sun, basking under its radiance as the blood of stars drips from its maw, breaking the still of the swamp as they splatter into the muck. It is there, in the holy sacrifice, which they learned the False Sun's dark secrets.

Those who survive the rituals taught to them by the Bastard Sun find that their bodies have become larger on the inside than the outside, and that with a mere touch, they can absorb another's flesh into their own. Those experienced can make use of this to do horrible mutations to their body, using all of their hidden flesh to suddenly expand. It is a horrifying sight.

Anyone would be wise to avoid the Detestable Vivimancers, though the giant hogs seem particularly wary. Their raised concern is likely due to stories of debt-ridden Merchants getting out of their payments by having their hogs absorbed by one of these horrid fleshcrafters.

from Akira

7. Songstress. Out there on the murky waters, their great wheels turn: the Pleasure-Boats of the Bog Barons. Large vessels, each totally unique, but also the exact same; after all, they all only exist to sate the appetite of the fuck who owns them. Upon each of these great ships, you will find the Songstresses being forced to waste their talents on the entertainment of a Baron.

The Songstresses of the Swamp can trace their origins back to the Knower's Guild, in particular one of the factions which caused the eventual disintegration of the order. Rather than focusing on the artifacts of the old world, they found a way to commune with the swamp itself and discover ancient songs, turning themselves into living libraries. Singing, then, was not only an art, but a means of sharing knowledge; there are even Songstresses who claim to be able to learn the hymns of the Sisters of Horns, though this blasphemy is often met with smiting. (Some even go so far as to claim that the hymns were first learned by Songstresses and given to the Church of Passion, although to even state the notion is heresy.)

While some Songstresses may see fit to play at the Barons for their own gains, many escape from the boats to learn the music of the swamps, and once again fulfill their purpose as a living history. If you happen to meet one, be careful of her voice - music can move the soul.

Photo of Emmy Destinn, Opera Singer


What sport do street children play? In most small communities, youths will make contests out of digging for mud-crabs and crawdads, which the adults certainly never mind - it's good for resource gathering to not be a chore. The loser of such contests is shamed by being forced to dunk their hand into their baskets, letting their hands be pinched by their catches, after which all of the spoils are brought back for a boil in the village.

In the 'town' of Lovesick, at the center of which the Church of Passion lies, customs are naturally different, due to the difference in scale. There, streetchildren tend to find their fun in crab-wrestling, where they set a series of wooden planks on top of one of the pools in the neighborhood crabfarms, and grapple each other overtop them. It is highly illegal for multiple reasons, but it is by its nature easy both to set up and take apart a crab-wrestling ring. Children will often dress up or paint themselves with designs in mud, and take on wild characters, garnering a following among their peers. There are also rumors of gambling in the fights, which is highly unsurprising, though as of yet not backed.

Mud is as close to solid ground as most settlements
get in the Endless Swamp

How is the law executed: by an individual charged with representing the state or independent institutions? In most of the small settlements, there is no formalized law system; instead, each will tend to have their own way of handling extreme non-collaborative behavior. While such behavior is uncommon, there are two major solutions communities may use: either teaching the offender how to appropriately act, or tossing them into the bog and letting the swamp deal with them. 

Naturally, the solution a village favors says much about their general attitudes, and the former tend to much more popular amongst Bog-Travellers. In the case of the former sort of settlement, there have been countless stories of the offenders being saved by the perfectly-timed arrival of a Weary Rust-Knight. Unable to return to their communities, many will follow their savior until they find a new village to call home, or at least to use for travel to somewhere better. A rare few, however, have been so inspired, that they felt The Call, and dug up their own set of rusted gear from the mud.

In Lovesick, most serious crime is dealt with through the constant singing of the hymnals of the Church, the city under the constant protection of one of their Mothers. For petty crimes, small mercenary parties are hired out, though Songstresses are avoided, and often treated with great suspicion in the city in general.

The Mothers have particularly gruesome preferences
in their smiting methods

Are there weapons that work better against armored foes? It is rare to find someone in armor of any sort of metal - most is made from hides and scales. However, the Hog-Riding Merchants have been known to bring esoteric weapons from far-off settlements, such as the Sawblades from the north, or the Peeling Poles of the south, each built to tear hide and scale, respectively. Naturally, various artifacts of the Knowers are also well-understood to be able to pierce through just about anything.

There are multiple reasons why metal armor is rare - importantly, there is very little of the stuff to be found, unless one wishes to travel to the depths of the bogs. Of course, many will try, though most never leave the muck once they're submerged. There are other weaknesses of metal, as well though: if it can rust, then it will in the swamp, and travel is difficult enough without being weighed down. The only folks 'fortunate' enough to find metal gear are the Weary Rust-Knights, and if their worn-down appearance is any sign, it's not of much help to them.

What magic trades stability for power? It would be foolish to claim that any magic in the swamp was stable, but if one were particularly costly, it would be that of the Detestable Vivimancers. Beyond their horrible nature, it's commonly believed that the more flesh they hold within their bodies, the more difficulty they find with controlling themselves. Perhaps it is the weight of their rituals upon their bastard hearts, or maybe it is the minds of the consumed vying for control of themselves once more. Either way, the proteges of the Cannibal Sun seem doomed to lose themselves to their craft.

from Akira

Do you hire barristers? Are priests involved? There are no courts. Squabbles are often settled by traditions appropriate to the settlement instead - in Lovesick, the opposing parties will hold separate concerts, and whoever draws the largest crowd is determined to be correct. Sisters will lend their services to preside over the concerts as MCs, and to count the final crowd size of each. In the matter of determining guilt against the law, the Church holds all power as already stated.

What mystery cult has been imported? What syncretic tradition is emerging? As of late, a group from the western swamps has began spreading the gospel of the Swamp King, who they claim has come to swallow the world anew, and grant his faithful a beautiful life under the endless muck. Amongst those sensible, it's widely believed that their 'King' is merely an Alliegator deceiving them for his own entertainment.

However, the spread of this belief has led one Knower, Persimmon-Of-The-Order-of-Great-Seeds, to spread her own new gospel. Combining this new-Flood rhetoric along with various ancient knowledge from her research as a Knower, and even imagery from the Church of Passion, to form the basis for an esoteric argument that the Swamp is actually finite. This is, of course, preposterous, and the heads of her and her followers have had a call put out for them by the Church. She wears a pale mask of great bones, and is known to have at least two crackwands; if you know anything about her whereabouts, please report to the Sister Superior immediately. You will be greatly rewarded.

from Zhihui Su

Is this society a gift economy? The nature of exchange in the settlements of the swamps is generally understood to be communal and without the expectation of a return. However, it is also rare for good deeds to go unthanked or unrewarded - all we have is each other here. So, while there is no explicit exchange system, it's rare for someone to give a gift and not receive one in return.

Then there are the Hog-Riding Merchants. They operate on a barter system, but this is generally understood as a sort of cultural practice of their order by most, and not questioned too much. They are prevalent enough for it to not be a total shock, and besides - asking for a return on gifts so marvelous as they carry might be rude, but hardly anyone would take such things without kindly granting them a token from the community.

What is the local menace? In the small villages of the swamps, the local issues tend to largely be giant bog beasts, though the Rust-Knights always seem to appear at just the right time to defend them. However, something far more uncanny has been causing problems in Lovesick - a child was born under the shade of the Moon Corpse. If you have a child, hold them close, and don't you dare go looking if you hear a baby cry.

What illegal bloodsports do elites favor? On the Pleasure-Boats of the wretched Bog-Barons, spectacles of violence are always a beloved pasttime. While some see fit to toss fighters into the swamps to fight horrid beasts, this has widely fallen out of favor and is considered passe. The hottest new trend is to force a pet Bog-Thing to fight poorly-equipped oafs from local towns. It is horribly cruel to everyone involved, but not much better is to be expected from the Barons.

Sometimes they'll use dilapidated construction as an arena,
to shake up the event.

Where are tailors? Often, the elders of a small settlement will take on the role of tailoring. In Lovesick, though, much tailoring is handled by one of the sects of the Sisterhood. The Sacred Spinsters sit in their chambers, singing their special hymns to the Mother of Garments, Who Clothes her Lovers, and purportedly sewing with their horns. Of course, noone is allowed in their chambers, so we must simply believe the reports from the Church.