10 Monster Underworld (#tenmonstersetting)

The entrance to a spriggan’s crypt

A couple of months ago the 3toadstools blog posted a challenge: choose a monster manual book, pick 10 monsters out of it (1 for each category mentioned in the original post), and then create a mini-setting using these monsters, giving each of them a twist. Well, a bit late to the party, but here is my own.
The setting is an underground world of endless depth; there seems to be no surface world. Moving south the climate gets colder, moving down it gets wetter. Rigid social and political structures are almost non-existent – only the Jermlaine organize their society in such a way.
On to the monsters, selected from the AD&D 2nd Edition Core Monster Manual:

Giant/Ogre/Troll: The Spriggan Gnomes live in the wide expanses of the arid central caverns of the world, where the three last flames of Xasmo-Luur burn eternally. These creatures are normally giant-sized (20ft tall), but they are able to become small (3ft) or tiny (1ft) at will. Their mode of reproduction has nothing to do with intercourse as we know it: all new spriggans are found in crypts inside the earth, usually by members of their own race that dig for this exact (reproductive, one could say) purpose. It is unknown how the new spriggans come to be there in the first place – most believe that they are created by crypt things (see below), while some claim that the earth itself gives birth to them. They are adults when found – there are no young spriggans. They are great crafters and artists by need – they gain sustenance through crafting, not by eating food.

Undead: The body of a new spriggan is always connected to a Crypt Thing via an extremely cold leather chain. The undead guards it ferociously and has to be somehow disposed of, in order for the new member of the race to awake. The crypt things constantly whisper to the «unborn» spriggans they are connected with. They are gnarled, thin, and each has in its possession a small non-magical artifact of remarkable craftsmanship.

Semi-intelligent humanoid: Sometimes rats find the crypts of the unborn spriggans, manage to stay beneath the Crypt Things’ notice, and start gnawing on the leather chains connecting the undead to the unborn, tearing them apart. From these leftovers, Jermlaine are formed – leather humanoid figures that prowl the underground in small well-ordered bands, looking for gems and the way to the surface, where they hope that they can find an ordered world. Their orderly, structured way of behaving is the closest thing to a lawful, ordered social organization in the world.

Ancient fey race: The Atomie Sprites dwell in the seemingly endless taiga caverns of the south parts of the world. They grow deadly mushrooms which they consider to be their priests, translators of the divine. The divinities in question are the numberless trees of their habitat. Through communion with their mushroom priests the fey try to discern the gods’ words, directions that are supposed to lead to the long-lost stars. The atomies are the only race ancient enough to remember the sky.

Great wyrm or lizard: The Behirs of the southernmost tundra-like caverns are twelve-legged reptilian scholars that wander upon and dwell within the walls of their vast caves. Their knowledge is vast and they may accept to trade a piece of information for a body piece of the inquirer; alternatively, they will accept a body part coming from the Living Wall (see below). The paths that are carved upon the walls by their indolent movement are rumored to hold untold secrets for anyone able to see them in their totality – alas, completely lighting one of their vast caves in order for the paths to become simultaneously visible, is beyond the power of any mortal flame, natural or otherwise.

Aerial creature: In their journeys through the western labyrinthine corridors of the world, people have glimpsed strange mists of deeply dark orange colour. They are Crimson Deaths, vaguely humanoid (though extremely elongated), gaseous creatures, the only animated remnant of the lost city of Xasmo-Luur. Even centuries after the ancient settlement’s disappearance, its burning sewers remain infamous; in them, for countless years, undying flames devoured hecatombs of sacrificial victims. The Crimson Deaths are the smoky remains of said sacrifices, the only thing that escaped the sewer grates. They will attack anyone holding or lighting a fire. Thus travelers are advised to avoid all flames within this area.

Something to lurk in the water: All waters of the world are connected, from the smallest stream to the huge sunless sea of Albixuatot to the contents of any water flask. When someone immerses her ear in any body of water, she can hear the faint splashing of the Dragon Turtle crawling and she can feel the creature’s ravenous hunger. The turtle is never far from any accidental fall in water. Whenever a boot steps in a seemingly innocent puddle of water only to find it surprisingly deep, when a thirsty wanderer kneels to drink from a lightless river, the huge turtle may pull the unlucky person into depths apparently impossible yet fatally real.

Something from another dimension: Commerce is scarce in the underground world, not only due to the difficulties of subterranean travel. The Arcane, towering creatures from another world, are the bane of merchants. Any transaction that involves profit has a chance of attracting the attention of these blue humanoids, which have been stuck for half a millennium on this world. They blame their plight on the mercantile ways of their past. They will approach any merchant they can detect and will force an unbreakable contract upon her with their telepathic powers: to find a way for them to escape this world, or die trying.

A classic creature from mythology: There is a seemingly endless network of stone staircases spanning much of the world: they cross the spriggan caverns, the ruins of Xasmo-Luur, the shores of the viscous Albixuatot Sea, and many other sunless places. The omnipresent handrails of these stairs have a scaly surface that sometimes writhes under the touch of whoever holds it. The rails are the countless necks of an enormous Lernaean Hydra. They may branch at seemingly random moments, creating new paths (and even locations as some fathom). There are those that say that the necks try to lead wanderers to the mouth they connect to; other claim that there are only necks; most agree that the hydra loves the taste of Atomies.

Some foul crawly thing that infests the underworld: All underground people have legends about the Living Wall that is sometimes encountered in the darkest of passages (always in total darkness) – a mosaic that is firstly sensed by touch: a bit of flesh where rock should be, a tooth, some bones, a writhing tongue. Then faint twinkling lights appear upon a frothing surface, usually the last thing someone sees as an individual being. The Wall seems to have existed for millennia, crawling, spreading throughout the bowels of the earth, incorporating (in the truest sense of the world) a legion of beings and things and cities (for the great city Xasmo-Luur now lives in the wall’s folds). It’s said that in some of its most ancient surfaces, far beneath the waters of the Albixuatot sea, the moon and the sun and the clouds can be seen. Some believe that if one passes through the living wall one reaches the surface world.


The Village of Sirtol

On the north shores of river Dubul, looking west. On the left can be seen one of Banks’ houses.

This is the first of a series of posts describing a small riverside village (which once a year becomes a pilgrimage destination) and the surrounding areas. The settlement is split in two parts by a large chasm; this separation is also mirrored in the unusual social stratification of the population. In my setting the village is on the edge of a large forest, climbing on the foot of some wooded hills, in a secluded valley far from any sizable human civilization – the whole valley is very strongly influenced by real world animistic beliefs. (As a sidenote, the village’s name is a reference to the city of Sirtel, from the namesake Slauter Xstroyes song)

Facts about the village:

  • The village is split in 2 parts: a riverside (Banks) and an uphill one (Slopes). Between them lies a (10m wide, 1km long) chasm of unknown depth; this is called the Mouth. The settlement is bordered by the river Dubul on its north and western sides.
  • Once per year, vapors rise out of the Mouth for two weeks (always from a New Moon to a Full Moon). When this happens, pilgrims come: the villagers help them to descend with ropes (they are sacred ropes made of tree fibers and corpse hair) and sleep in small crevices on the upper chasm walls to get prophetic (and other kind of interesting) dreams – alas, some dreams are nightmares. Most of the pilgrims return to the surface.
  • The villagers, due to their permanently living in the area, are unaffected by the vapors. Some of them have slightly prophetic abilities (they frequently get glimpses of next day’s events or sometimes of something more distant in time).
  • The village population, mainly human with halfling clusters, has an unusually high number of twins. Twinship is the axis upon which the village is organized: Slopes is home to all non-twins, as well as the younger twins (those that exited last from the uterus). Banks is where all elder twins reside – they control the dock and maritime communication.
  • The population has remained roughly the same for the past two centuries ~ slightly less than 300 persons.
  • Almost no metal. Most things (weapons and armors included) are made of wood, bone, horn, earth, clay, scales, and other nature-occurring materials.
Rough preliminary sketch of Sirtol village


  • Roughly 30 single-floor houses spread over 20 square minutes.
  • Buildings have thick (2m wide) rounded adobe walls. The extreme thickness is due to the following burial custom: after decomposition, the bones of the dead are inserted in the house walls and covered with adobe mud.
  • Roofs are thatched and very wide, reinforced with hair of the aforementioned dead. Thus they become unnaturally sturdy, water- and heat-proof.
  • A bell chime from the temple of Fliria (goddess of the eastern fields) in the east end marks sunrise, while sundown is signaled by a gong sound from the shrine of Dubul (the namesake river-god) in the west end.
  • Slopes smell of earth, manure and hearth smoke (hearth fires burn almost throughout the year).
  • Domesticated animals include mostly hens, a few goats (for milk and hair), and semi-domesticated pigs which graze in the forested hills to the south and southeast. The swine may occasionally attack and eat a child or very frail person that wanders alone in their territory. Those pigs that dine on human flesh are able to move on the spectral paths of the dead.


  • 15 houses, two- or three-storied, made of dark (almost black) wood. They have sloped roofs, covered with stone tiles (which are pretty stable, though it is not unheard of for some passerby to die due to a tile falling to his head – they are considered chosen by the winds, and are taken south, to the nearest mountaintop, and left there).
  • Banks smells of river and dump, of hearth smoke, and of sweet bread (this is an oddity due to a paradoxical property of the earth beneath the particular area).
  • Semi-domesticated animals include otters and ducks.
  • Banks has a hollow tree-like rock. Inside there are steps descending to a small cave whose walls are mirror-like. Therein are kept the sacred ropes that are used to lower the pilgrims to the chasm.
  • At four points of Banks there are the remains of a stone-paved road. It seems that at some era it connected the chasm to the river and beyond. The people will take great pains to avoid stepping on any of these parts.

The Mouth:

  • It is taboo to bridge the chasm in any way. The villagers will actively hunt down anyone trying it. The same goes for any attempt to place a fence.
  • During its steaming time, the Mouth’s vapors thicken each day. During the last night, when it is full-moon, the fog is so thick that nothing can be seen beyond half a meter.
  • There is a natural spring on the western edge of the Mouth, emptying in the chasm. Its water tastes like wet cotton.
Typical village scene when a hunt is under way

Seven Scenes:

  1. A procession of yellow-clothed villagers carry the body of a young man up to the hills, to release it to the winds.
  2. Under a horned moon, a trio of naked old women drive a wooden plowshare through the fields to bless the earth.
  3. Children chipping at their house’s (extremely thick) walls reveal a skeletal hand; the palm holds a clay eyeball-sized sphere.
  4. Someone is whipping his shadow, on the wall of a house.
  5. Villagers return from the monthly forest hunt, their bounty plentiful, though their eyes are clouded by grief – three of their numbers were claimed by the forest. A feast is joined by both village sides.
  6. At night, halflings are seen in their gardens, their feet immersed in the moist earth, eyes star-gazing.
  7. Scarecrow-like figures made of garments can be seen throughout the village, both outside and inside the houses. The clothes that form them seem to be in good condition. (Before embarking for the hunt, the villagers leave their normal clothes at their houses. They place them so as they resemble human figures – empty clothes sitting upon chairs, lying on the beds, standing in the garden. They want to trick the animal spirits into believing that they are still at the village.)

Five Adventure Seeds:

  1. A halfling woman seeks help – her only daughter has disappeared in the forest, where she had gone the night before last, as it is customary for all Sirtolian girls to spend the night before their 13th birthday at the forest. [If they ask around the PCs will learn that the girl was way taller than any halfling. There are rumors that her parents adopted a human child or a hag spawn.]
  2. A woman with newborn twins seeks help – her husband has been burning small animals to their hearth for the past days, and now she’s worried that he will sacrifice the twins to the flames. [He is trying to burn the mortality out of the creatures that he immolates, making them immortal. All this is according to knowledge he gathered from a tower across the river, just an hour deep in the forest.]
  3. Vapors emerge from the chasm, thicker than ever. But the ropes of lowering have vanished!
  4. The gong of Dubul’s shrine has disappeared and sunset refuses to come.
  5. Last week there was a large storytelling gathering at Banks. Since then, two creatures from the story have been rumored to roam the village at night: a leper and a horned snake.

Found in a Forest tables

Matazo Kayama, Frozen Forest

PDF version

10 weird things found in a forest clearing

1. A cart wheel made of marble, with a very tall candle at its center. While the candle is unlit it serves as a solar and lunar clock. If the candle is lit, the clock acts as a compass: its shadow points to a specific place (as suiting the DM’s needs). For as long as the candle is lit, and 24 hours after it is snuffed, the person that lit it is unable to rest and sleep.

2. A black flower that always moves away from the hand that tries to pick it. If somehow picked, a portal to the Underworld opens.

3. Three unbreakable, untearable yet quite flexible giant leaves (1 metre wide each). There appears to be no matching tree around. If taken out of the forest they try to constrict and suffocate whoever carries them.

4. A boar tusk, roughly the size of an open hand, with a serpent-like symbol engraved on it. If shaken, something can be heard inside it. It is resistant to any normal damage. Can be broken only by a charging boar, at which point the spine of a small snake is revealed.

5. The journal of a ranger’s shadow. It is made of the shadows of big leaves, bound with silver hair. The book can be grasped normally (it feels like touching cold dandelions). It is full of bitter entries: the shadow is bound to follow its owner around, never able to do what it wants.

6. Three little holes recently dug, as if someone wanted to plant something but then left in a hurry. The holes only accept teeth – anything other put in is ejected. If teeth are planted the next night a full-grown double of the tooth’s owner sprouts. Tusks also work.

7. A saw made entirely out of wood. Useless against wood, cuts stone easily. Will not let its owner rest in any settlement larger than a small village.

8. A rope ladder tied on a large tree branch. Cannot be separated from it. However, each person can cut and take one and only one step out of it. The step can be used to reach a safe place once – then it disappears forever.

9. A full helm (its closed visor is sculpted in the realistic likeness of a human face) half buried in the vegetation. If opened there emerges a small plant head on a very long, branch-like neck, waiting to be fed.

10. Α dead baby hanging from a tree branch. Stillborn, it was left in the air so as the soul would be reclaimed by birds (it has already been taken).

8 weird beings found in a forest clearing

1. (Only at night) An old man who despises the sun. He will pay handsomely for a piece of the sun or anything that is related to the star of day; he will then proceed to ritually destroy the object. If somehow tricked into staying with the characters until morning, he is bound to the nearest tree for a year.

2. The ghost of a long-dry stream. Appears as a pond of silvery water and will communicate with anyone that drinks from it (its water tastes like gaseous honey, its voice is like water dripping from a corpse’s lips). Will reveal the location of a magical dowsing rod (that leads to lost memories) to anyone carrying some of its water to a large city well. Only a special container will do the trick, which can be crafted from the hoof of a legendary forest boar.

3. A single cow moving backwards, part of a god’s stolen herd. If slain its meat will restore any wounds and heal all fatigue, but if its bones are not buried afterwards, the god-owner of the herd will know of the deed.

4. Three acorn spirits in the guise of children. They will ask to be guided out of the forest, and will try to climb on the three stronger characters, mentioning that they are very tired. If they are allowed to, they slowly and almost imperceptibly immerse themselves in their carriers’ bodies (8 hours). If completely immersed, they turn the carriers’ bodies to earth within 3 days, and a little tree sprouts from each.

5. A heavy-backed mother of three, her head always covered with a thick woolen kerchief. She will lead the characters to a destination within the forest, if they help her with a mundane chore. However, if the PCs refuse to help her with the chore, she removes the kerchief.
If the acorn spirits are on the characters she will immediately chase them away, saving the characters.

6. Large crows dining on a long table, upon golden goblets and silver plates. They are ancients of their species, and can cover huge distances very quickly; they can even fly up to the sun and bring a piece of it back. If they are disturbed while eating, or they are not addressed in a polite way, they trap half of the PCs in the other half’s shadows.

7. A peddler of hair, fur and wigs has spread his merchandise all around the clearing. Is currently looking for customers, as well as providers of exotic hair. For a sample of his merchandise roll on attached table.

8. A noble old man trying to make a compact with a spirit of darkness. He needs the blood of a special animal to craft the ink for the contract. If the PCs aid him he will reward them handsomely with his new powers. If they refuse and try to stop him, nightmares will haunt them, while in the forest, making rest impossible.

Table – Hair-peddler’s merchandise

1A wig made of scarecrows’ straw hair. Any kind of bird is unable to harm, or even approach the wearer, who however becomes slow in his movements and reactions.
2Hair of a corpse, still growing (one centimeter per night). They are unbreakable, but will try to subtly arrange for the hanging of anyone who uses them.
3Patches of boar fur boiled in liquid shadow. They can be used to walk on quicksand and pit traps without danger.
4A whip made from the gold-coloured ponytail of a long dead acrobat, renowned for her skill, notorious for her cruelty. It can be used to make a horse jump impossible distances, even walk on walls; however, as soon as the horse stops it falls dead. Horses will not willingly go near anyone carrying the whip.
5The complete (280cm long) fur of a winter snake, a species long thought to be extinct. A scabbard covered with this will break any faulty weapon inserted in it, no matter how tiny its flaw. Thus it is prized by weaponsmiths.
6A shoulder-length wig made of silver hair; the whole thing is extremely polished, so as to act as a flowing mirror when under moonlight. Any animal reflected in the wig can verbally communicate with the wearer.

Dragon Magazine rants 2 – Language


The second article of Dragon’s first issue, Languages, deals with in-game linguistics, with a slight emphasis on percentage statistics (mainly concerning the possibility of a random monster/being knowing a given language – I imagine that back in the day randomness was a big thing for DMs), and raises some pretty interesting issues and questions, both rule-wise and from in-game points of view.

Let’s take a look at language’s hard association with Intelligence. In the first edition of D&D (as well as in all other onwards, up to 3.5 – as for the fourth, I cannot comment, since I have no familiarity with it), the language ability is depended on the Intelligence attribute. In the article it is said that a human with an Intelligence score of 3 will only be able to speak one language (Common in this instance, since this is considered the default human language), and with a pretty limited vocabulary at this. This view perceives language as a purely mental activity, which could be conquered and enhanced via intellectual bravado alone – if one can memorize all the dictionary’s pages, one will be a master of that language.

The thing is, language is never detached from in-life experience and interaction with other users (persons) and carriers (texts and other written language forms or symbols) of it – something that they finally got right on the fifth edition, in which language at character creation is solely based on race and background (socio-cultural factors), and then on training, namely learning it via a tutor, spending time in order to interact with speakers and/or texts, etc – Intelligence is not central to it. Thus, instead of setting language upon a pedestal, as a prize protected by a riddle-ridden gauntlet, which is to be gained after a purely mental quest, it is best seen as a matter of entering into a network of interaction with entities that use it or carry it. A quote from Tim Ingold’s “The Perception of the Environment” is quite close to what I describe:

Language cannot properly be said to be handed down – it endures, but it endures as a continuous process of becoming. Individuals do not receive a ready-made language at all, rather, they enter upon the stream of verbal communication.”

To wrap this up, if languages had to be depended on an attribute, I propose that due to language learning’s deeply social nature Charisma (or even Wisdom, due to its more intuitive nature) would be a slightly more fitting candidate than Intelligence. Still, I think that fifth edition’s attribute-less, socio-cultural take on language is much more representative of language’s nature.

Onwards now to spells as speak with animals, plants, etc, with a quote from the article that I found somewhat hilarious: “I have encountered one character who took “Wall” as a language and attempted to interrogate dungeon walls as to what lay behind them. In my dungeon, the walls drunkenly replied, “I don’t know; I’m plastered.”” Apparently, there wasn’t a Stone Tell spell at the time, so the player’s choice to take “Wall” as bonus language was both amusing and innovative.

Now, casting a spell which bestows the “gift” of (our) speech on a creature not normally being able to speak it, seems straightforward enough: we seem to suppose that all beings are memory and experience containers, and thus, by bestowing upon them the gift of speech, we are able to tap into their informational reservoir; it would not be so amiss if I said that we see them as a multi-sensational sensors, which wait for an interface to appear, through which to communicate to us their experience – especially considering the spell description that the animal or the plant WILL provide the information (if existent), no ifs and buts. This approach however, takes for granted certain things, two of which are: the organisms’ willingness to cooperate with the caster (implying a charm of sorts) – all in all, a pretty anthropocentric view; the organisms’ ability to store their past (namely, their before-the-spell’s-casting) experience.

Α look is on the order, at how deep is the effect of this humble first-level divination spell called Speak With Animals (same goes for Speak With Plants, and Stone Tell): The spell seems to attribute a symbolic mode of thought and communication to non-human entities, for that is exactly what language is. We are talking heavy magic here, changing the whole mode of thought, perception, and experience of a being, even for only its duration. It implements within their thought process:

a. the idea (and the acceptance of this idea) that particulars sounds correspond to particular meaning,

b. an understanding of time as perceived by us – so as to be able to communicate even basic concepts as “now,” “before,” and “after”

c. the sensoral ability to receive, process and emit linguistic information to and from another creature (be it telepathically, through vocal and auditory systems, etc).

I realize that now I am entering under the spell’s hood, something that I try to avoid as far as magic is concerned, but the ramifications and the scale of what a simple first level spell can do were far too inviting.

(Let’s also note here that with Speak To Plants or Animals, we imposes our mode of thought upon the entities affected by the spell, an action that could be even scrutinized from an ethical point of view.)

In the article there is also a mention of animal languages, focusing on the existence of common languages for wide taxonomic categories: is there an Equine language spoken by all Horses, Mules, Donkeys, Unicorns, etc? Once again we have a projection of our way of thinking to non-human entities. We tend to see species (another human invention) as “neighboring” by virtue of similarities that We find among them, as well as theorizing that since all humanoids in a fantasy world have a way of inter-species communication (the Common tongue), so it will probably be with all other similar species – never mind that this is a pure anthropocentric view of other beings. We obviously talk about an imaginary world, and since it is humans that play it, there is bound to be anthropocentrism, but it is interesting, I think, to see how this view is embedded inside the game world, for it could bring light to real-world human view of non-human entities.

Finally, the article also touches upon the subject of the language in which persons think, mainly in order to examine if it is possible to read the thoughts of a person whose language you do not speak – ending up in situations where one could take advantage of the obscurity of his native language in order to guard his thought from magic intrusions. Still, I think that reducing the thought process in pure language is something of a radical simplification. For it is not too usual to think without images, sensations, mental nudges, thought noise, and other things thrown around some words. It is unusual to think in pure language, even in cases where we need to put our thought into writing or speech.

Dragon Magazine rants 1 – Magic & Science


(For this (hopefully weekly) column I’ll be reading issues of the Dragon Magazine, starting from the first one, trying to find one or more articles in each worth of commentary/ranting. I kick off with Issue 1, and the first of the two articles which I found interesting in it.)

The first issue of the Dragon magazine, released on June 1976, is (not unexpectedly) somewhat underwhelming considering the magazine we knew during the ’90s and ’00s. Just 32 pages long, it still managed to cram inside: the first parts of 2 fiction stories, several small articles (dealing with both role-playing and strategy wargaming), many advertisements, and even a small piece of writing from Fritz Leiber (a very small gazetteer of Newhon).

Two articles are of particular interest to me here:

Magic & Science (Are they compatible in D&D) by James M. Ward

Languages (or, Could you repeat that in Auld Wormish?) by Lee Gold

The first one, Magic & Science, is trying to tackle a subject which apparently had already surfaced even back in the first days of role-playing, namely the role and (acceptable) level of science in a magical fantasy setting. The writer proposes a somewhat weird scenario, in which a particular culture has three types of “scientific” items: a hand-catapult discharging some spheres, categorized by colour, each colour having a spell-like effect; some other blue spheres that are somewhat autonomous, movement-wise, and can emit rays and force fields that emulate spells; and the anologic computers which can counter magic, analyze enemies, and emit an attack ray.

Firstly, there is no mention of how these items work; essentially they are stored, “delayed,” spells, camouflaged only on a surface levels as technological items. They could be paralleled to wand charges, since they are expendable. The fact that the “how” is nonexistent, makes the whole science point going astray. Since science is chiefly concerned with the “how” of things and events, the author here pulls a very thin camouflage-rug above what is considered magic in the game. But what is D&D’s magic really?

I consider science something that gives reliable and identical or similar results under repeatable occasions. In this light, D&D’s magic is a kind of science, due to its reliability. Being a wizard, if you know a spell, its gestures, vocalising, and have any necessary material ingredients, along with a suitable spell slot, then you can reliably cast the spell. Thus magic appears as something that can be rationally studied, analysed, and assimilated – something that more or less follows a scientific method. Sure, its effects can be beyond the reach of that cultural era’s science and technology, even beyond ours, but the method followed is deeply rational.

Let’s take a look on a short elaboration on real-world occultism, from “The Varieties of Magical Experience”: “Important in the practice of magic, we have found, are intuition, imagination, and the emotions; rationality plays little part in magic because magic occurs when one lets go of rational thoughts. When the imagination is permitted full play there is room for a shift in the perception of reality. There can be a change in consciousness, so much so that physical boundaries and distinctions between real and unreal often dissolve. Such experiences are not able to be measured scientifically. Rather, the person might have a noticeable experience of deep inner change, or a knowing, or a sense that something significant has happened.” (my emphasis)

One more passage, this time from an article from the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin, on which I stumbled while writing this post, and which, though mostly concerned with magic in fantasy literature, has many points that I believe are relevant to the D&D case also (D&D is explicitly mentioned, and not in a good way): “Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death — things no one understands, and few expect to.

It is my opinion that magic, as loosely defined in the above passages, is what is somewhat missing from the game (or rather from its rules), not science, as the writer was complaining. Despite its enchanted cloak, if one gets down to the nuts and bolts of the magic system of almost any RPG, you have blueprints that are bound to work, like a very rationally designed mechanism.

If one takes a look at the wizard class, starting with a stat view, where Intelligence is the single most important stat, the class seems like a fantasy version of the modern scientist. Intelligence, or rather raw mental strength is what makes spells more effective. In the 5th editition’s Player’s Handbook it is written that “lntelligence measures mental acuity, accuracy of recall, and the ability to reason.” A description permeated aesthetically throughout with cold logic, with an aura of clinical precision.

Concerning D&D spells, most of them affect the physical world, which from a game-rules point of view is comprehensible. But most of the effects are things that could be replicated by a sort of advanced science. There is little of the esoteric, since it is obviously difficult to incorporate this in a game. The spells are certain to satisfy the players’ craving for powers beyond the norm, for their having abilities that are beyond the vast majority, their will for omnipotence, their lust for wonder. But it seems that D&D magic also reinforces a clinical, rational way of thinking, and presents a rather standarized image of magic, not much full of wonder.

Concluding, I again stress that it is quite understandable for a rules-driven game to structure its magic on a rational and not-so-enchanting way. This goes hand to hand with D&D’s focus on linear character progression and advancement (for more on this, see here). But the quest for a more magical magic system (or rather the complete absence of a system) is a worthy undertaking for an adventuring party or three.

The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 2)


First Part here.

B: Tabletop Progress

It could be said that the origins of tabletop RPG’s (and by extension of CRPG’s) can be traced back to tabletop/board games, as well as on storytelling and character acting. Let’s examine how progress appears in each of these:

A game, of any genre and form whatsoever, includes in its structure the notion of progression, of working towards an objective. The objective could be set by the game itself (via existing rules) or by the player, and could be set in stone, or be constantly changing. Whatever its nature, an objective requires a response on the part of the player, leading towards either its completion or its abandonment. A response is a choice and an action, however trivial it may be, physical or mental in nature. The player, responding to an objective, re-establishes his position inside the game’s infrastructure, for better, for worse, or inconsequently.

In the vast majority of board games, the whole of action takes place on a single gaming session (which, in extreme cases could be separated in more temporal spaces, but this is purely of a practical nature), the players antagonizing or cooperating towards a number of objectives, which are pre-existing (of the session itself) and incorporated in the whole structure of the game. The game progresses as one, more, or all of the players draw closer to the completion of the objective(s). This progression could entail an increase in difficulty, resources, risk, complexity, or any combination of these. The fact remains, that the players are presented with a goal, which they must achieve, so as to win the game. One could speak about two basic game states: Win and non-Win. The Win state is presented as the desired one, as better for the player than the non-Win one, which is the absence of the Win state, as far as the game is concerned. Thus, the notion of progress appears. One must work towards the improvement of his state. This is not to say that the path towards the Win state is trivial to the player experience of the game; in most cases this path is the game itself, and many players are only interested in this path, in the feel of the game mechanics and their implementation inside the game. But the idea of progress is essential, since it showcases the starting and end point of this path of indulging in the game mechanics.

The difference of progress between board games and tabletop RPG’s lies mainly on the former’s independence of each game session. Progress in a board game is self-contained inside each session. After each session of play, whatever progress has been made (leading to victory, or not) is erased, discarded, so as in the next session all players begin at the starting point, the whole of progress being in front of them (apart from meta-thinking and rules/structure understanding). Thus, progress is contained and remains unimportant outside a particular session. The mental image of a cyclical process is fitting, the linearity of progress being apparent only in each session.

On the other hand, RPG progress is cumulative between each game session, at least as far as the same story (and probably the same characters, but not always) is utilized. Especially the concept of campaign (as a grand story arc, or a collection of adventures) is based upon the characters’ progress inside the story. The lack of “Win” states, in fact the absence of win conditions in the rules, makes it possible for the players involved to keep setting new goals for the characters ad infinitum. Long-term thinking has a definite place here, since the character development is crucial to the evolution of the campaign itself. What has been mentioned in Part A is applicable here. There are of course the exceptions of the one-shot sessions or adventures, which however are not the norm, are more akin to a board game or a small theatrical play, and almost always do not take into account a large pillar of the genre, namely character development (through game mechanics). Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu adventures is a prime example of situations that tend to escalate frequently towards that kind of experience.

Apart from board games (and gaming in general), storytelling and acting/impersonation of characters, are also pillars of role playing games, maybe the most important ones. But progress in storytelling is only a necessary characteristic from a technical point of view: since a story must be told, recited, its external structure must have a beginning and end, though its content can be free of such linear shackles. On no account is the ending to be considered, from a formalist standpoint, as an improvement of the beginning, or vice versa. Still, the gradual revealing of the story’s content, plot, and folds, can be considered a sort of progression towards improvement of knowledge of the listener, concerning the specified story, creating thus a progress through quantitative assimilation. But between that and the betterment of the individual that assimilates the story lies a wide gulf, that is totally subjective and circumstantial.

The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 1)


A: A general perspective

The concept of progress is deeply rooted in the RPG genre (pen & paper or otherwise), the most obvious expression of it being the whole leveling structure. A character (or a multitude of them) almost universally sets out (the spatial verb is not ambiguously chosen, for progress is based upon spatiotemporal pillars) as a “low-level” (meaning weak in comparison to most challenges lying ahead) person, who is bound to improve (in an array of personality characteristics – physical, mental, social) as time passes, space is explored, and she indulges in actions that either hone her skills, expand her understanding of the world, help other beings, etc. This improvement is of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature, as will be apparent below. The implication of a forward movement towards this practical betterment of the being is evident.

The notion of Progress is deeply rooted in western thought, as much as is the linear concept of time. Those 2 concepts are irrevocably intertwined in the mental construction of evolution through time, namely the idea that as time progresses, so civilization as a whole evolves, improving in comparison to its past aspects; not necessarily in every single time step it takes, but on a macro temporal level – for example: “civilization (and through it humanity) has improved during the last century, it has moved forward”. It seems that our linguistic mentality has connected the spatial (and subjective) term “forward” with the future (though on a subtler level this is not always the case – see for instance the phrase “winter has moved on”, which refers to a past season as having moved on, implying forwards). Still, it is good to remember that progress is not a humanity-wide idea (the Australian Aborigines for instance have no concept of it).

Returning to role playing games, let’s trace progress inside the mechanics of the genre. As mentioned, leveling is perhaps the single most obvious mechanical structure that is tied to the progress wheel. The whole leveling process is usually depicted in tables, in which a direction is specified as that of progression through the levels (usually from top to bottom, but not always so). Story matters aside (though even there we say that we want to see how the story unfolds or progresses) one of the reasons that we play RPG’s is to improve our character. How is that achieved? It depends on the game system, but in most of them, the experience point gain is central. Experience point: the word experience refers to a past event, experienced by the character, that has in a certain way enriched the character’s being, thus making it more “powerful”. All past experiences that matter (a thing decided both by the rules and by the dungeon master – in the tabletop/pen & paper variety) are enumerated and categorized, each translated to a certain number (or fraction possibly) of points. These are added up, summarized, and the specific nature of the event experienced is lost once turned to points (we do not usually have many categories of XP – for instance social, combat, etc). Thus, knowledge (as experience) is revealed in the game as cumulative and progressive, always adding upon the existing corpus of experience, as it was considered by science before quantum physics (and philosophy) came in to view. Whatever one experiences (apart from certain niche encounters – as are the level-draining undead in D&D for instance) contributes towards this character’s betterment.


Thus is leveling made possible through the adding up of past experiences, leading to the Level-Up! Moment, the culmination of the effort and time invested (see below), and an improved character. But what is exactly entailed in this improvement? Most, if not all, of the character improvements are of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature. Incoming damage threshold (aka hit points) is increased, more skills are added to the character’s arsenal, some innate powers could appear or be awakened, and inherent stats (corresponding to physical, mental, or other abilities) are improved. The practical nature of the improvements is necessary, in order for the player to fully reap the fruits of his labour. If the improvement was of a theoretical, conceptual or mental nature, then they would simply serve the character and not the player, apart from situations of great identification between the two. To clarify this, how can a player feel, understand, and experience an attribute improvement, for example the rise of his character’s Intelligence by a number of points? Only through indirect means, by application of the new attribute or attribute bonus in situations where it is required to overcome an obstacle, or through the empowerment of a spell, the acquisition of a new one, etc, since direct perception of the improvement is out of the question (the player’s intelligence, if such a thing exists, is obviously not raised by the raise of the character’s one).

Thus, one ends up leveling through the accumulation of experience through a number of encounters experienced by his character, in order to improve the character, so as to be able to see the change in the overcoming of more encounters, which are required to level furthermore; a hamster’s wheel of sorts, that obviously does not take into account the desire of the player to experience a story or a game world. My focus here concerns the leveling mechanics and their progressive nature, which is somehow reflective of the frantic and vain quest for progress that permeates the western thought, at least from the Enlightenment paradigm shift onwards.

Of great importance is the idea underlying the whole aforementioned structure, that one can improve through devoting a quantity of a “currency” towards that improvement, whereas the currency is time, effort of thought, hand-to-eye coordination (in certain cRPG’s). This exchange (one could say investment, though an investment is an exchange nonetheless) is in the core of most RPG’s. Time improves the being. Improving it in a way that is meaningful for (and is subservient to) the situations arising inside the game worlds, governed by the game rules. The progress framework is set by the game itself, and the character follows this (more or less) linear course through it, a course whose end point is occasionally the level-cap.

Second Part here.