The Interventionist and the Counter-Revolutionary

I hope you’ll pardon me, but instead of yelling about roleplaying games, as usual, I’m going to take a brief break to yell about pop culture and politics instead. The post that follows is a big ol’ pile of hard-left politics, half-formed ideas, and SPOILERS, so if you’re allergic to any of those, you’ve now been warned.

I got to go see Black Panther over the weekend. Short review: I enjoyed the hell out of it. The writing was great, the acting was great, the production values were great, it was just a really fun movie. I think it’s the most fun I’ve had at a Marvel feature since The Winter Soldier.

However, it got me thinking a lot about representation and empowerment of minorities and other oppressed peoples in popular culture. Which, in turn, got me thinking again about Wonder Woman, which was the last time people made a big politically-adjacent hullabaloo about a comic book movie.

See, here’s the thing. Wonder Woman and Black Panther aren’t really about empowerment (I’ll get back to this in a moment) — the important political reason to support these films is because representation matters. In this country, oppression is the default mode for anyone who’s not a white man and high-profile visibility is one of the few “acceptable” avenues to fight this. The tragic truth is that under late stage capitalism, the only way to be seen is to be profitable. Remember, identity is just another commodity. So, it’s not enough that black and female superheroes exist, they have to be profitable. If they’re not profitable, they don’t get to exist.

Also, this is (as far as I know) the first high-profile film in recent history to showcase Afro-futurism as its core aesthetic. That’s good as hell and worth supporting.

Now, let’s get back to the empowerment question. Wonder Woman is especially problematic in this regard because it doesn’t actually meaningfully portray feminine empowerment. It’s a liberal interventionist propaganda piece. The gender of the character has no bearing on the politics of the film. Rather, Diana is a symbolic stand-in for American unilateral military action. She’s strong, powerful, and outside (even above) of the usual workings of international politics (as the liberal interventionist envisions the US). Also, in this instance, I’m pretty sure it’s even more damning that the character is white, but that’s a different conversation about race and the symbolic exercise of power. Furthermore, the movie was just kind of bad.

Black Panther is problematic for a different reason. It does a great job of demonstrating black empowerment. The protagonists are all gorgeous, intelligent, successful, powerful black people. They wield unimaginable technology with an even hand and uphold a society of laws and justice. The antagonist is hot, smart, sane, competent, and driven by a coherent ideology. Pick any one of those and you’ll have found the only positive descriptor for basically any other comic book movie antagonist.

You’ll note my use of protagonist/antagonist here, rather than hero/villain. That’s because the film misidentifies these roles. There’s a separate discussion to be had about Killmonger’s portrayed plan*, but his core philosophy is one of liberation by any means necessary. His death scene confirms this: “Nah, just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships. Because they knew death was better than bondage.” That’s ridiculously powerful shit.

T’Challa, on the other hand, fits very easily into neoliberal views of “acceptable” black behavior. He wants to seek peaceful, incremental solutions, while casually brushing aside the continued suffering of nearly two billion people. The last scene at the UN is possibly the worst twist of the knife. What he’s proposing is not cultural exchange, but trade, right? Progress through the mechanisms of capital. Like I said before, identity is a commodity, and it seems T’Challa is willing to exchange that of his people for marginal progress.

Ryan Coogler is a very good filmmaker. I believe he wrote and directed these characters very deliberately to draw our attention to these points while producing something that would be acceptable to the Marvel/Disney money-making behemoth.

Killmonger was right.

* In fact, I’m not actually sure his plan was that bad. The end goal (him ruling the world, I think?) is ridiculous and indefensible, but the plan itself is solid. I think one of the quickest ways to see gun control in the country is to put high-powered assault weapons into the hands of poor and oppressed inner city populations. Want to politically empower oppressed peoples? Break the state’s monopoly on violence. If the alternative is bloodshed and instability, I think most politicians would happily come to the negotiating table.

The Interventionist and the Counter-Revolutionary

What’s in that Extra-Dimensional Space!?

So your players got themselves a bag of holding or a portable hole. Whatever form their brand-new portable extra-dimensional space takes, I have no doubt that they’re really quite excited to have it. It’s probably empty, but maybe the previous owner left something inside. Let’s find out…

What’s in that Extra-Dimensional Space!?

Roll a d12…

1-5 – Nothing
6 – Something Useless
7 – Something Useful
8 – Something Gross
9 – Something Nice
10 – Something Horrible
11 – Something Magical

12 – Something Wacky (USE AT YOUR OWN RISK – If these are just too zany, count this result as “Nothing”.)

Note: When rolling random magic items, always re-roll items that grant wishes or include extra-dimensional spaces. I’ll have no random world-ending on my hands!

Something Useless – Roll a d10…

1 – Crumbled-up cookie
2 – A bouquet of wilted flowers
3 – Broken quill pen
4 – Notebook filled with illegible nonsense
5 – Treasure map! (fake)
6 – A wad of knotted-up string
7 – Cracked pipe with some burned-up tobacco in it
8 – Book of matches (empty)
9 – Ring of rusty keys (if used to try to unlock a door, they break instantly)

10 – Broken pieces of a 10′ pole (one piece is missing, so if mended the pole will only be about 7′ long)

Something Useful – Roll a d10…

1 – Pocket sand!
2 – Small magnifying glass
3 – A well-kept set of artisan’s tools (roll a type, must be hand-held)
4 – Ring of keys (these open every door in a wealthy family’s mansion)
5 – Treasure map! (real)
7 – High-quality set of thieves’ tools
8 – Book of matches (full)
9 – Musical instrument (roll a type, must be hand-held)

10 – A 10′ pole

Something Gross – Roll a d10…

1 – Moldy sandwich
2 – Well-used handkerchief
3 – Glass jar half-full of rancid lard
4 – A paper bag full of dog poo
5 – Smelly sock
6 – Troll dentures
7 – An alarming amount of human hair
8 – Something sticky
9 – A jar of warm, yellowish fluid

10 – A full load of some adventurer’s dirty laundry

Something Nice – Roll a d10…

1 – A bouquet of fresh roses
2 – Bag of cash! (roll a CR 0-4 individual treasure)
3 – Big bag of cash! (roll a CR 5-10 individual treasure)
4 – Really big bag of cash! (roll a CR 11-16 individual treasure)
5 – Treasure map! (real, detailed)
6 – An incredibly finely-made oak walking stick with a brass eagle topper
7 – Intricately carved ivory pipe and a bag of fine tobacco
8 – An efreeti cigarette lighter (never runs out of fuel)
9 – Bottle of Chateau de Elminster Sauvignon Blanc, Vintage 1342 DR

10 – Roll once on Magic Item Table A

Something Horrible – Roll a d10…

2 – A human head (surprisingly fresh, someone might come looking for them)
3 – A human head (not so fresh, save vs. disease)
4 – Vecna cult prayer book, bound in human skin (this is going to cause problems for sure…)
5 – Sacrificial dagger (actually legit cursed — save or feel an overwhelming desire to sacrifice someone within 1d6 days)
6 – Way too many fucking maggots, all dumped out at once (save vs. drowning)
7 – Hoo boy, that’s a lot of blood (save or get washed away in the flood)
8 – Nightmare dust (extremely difficult save or suffer 1d6 hours of waking nightmares, effects everyone nearby)
9 – Still-twitching hand of a really pissed off lich (he’s going to come looking for it, might cast random spells from time to time)

10 – A lit bundle of dynamite! (8d10 damage, save for half)

Something Magical – Roll a d10…

1 – A bouquet of fresh roses that will never wilt
2 – A clockwork canary that sings in the presence of traps
3 – Cosmic Auditor’s eye loop (can be used to cast identify once per week)
4 – Roll once on the Goblin Punch d100 Minor Magic Items Table (
5 –  Roll once on Magic Item Table B
6 –  Roll once on Magic Item Table C
7 –  Roll once on Magic Item Table D
8 –  Roll once on Magic Item Table E
9 –  Roll once on Magic Item Table F

10 – Roll once on Magic Item Table G

Something Wacky – Roll a d10…

1 – Giant fuckin’ huge bag of cash! (roll a CR 17+ individual treasure)
2 – A human head (mummified, enchanted, and chatty!)
3 – A single prismatic seed (when it makes contact with the air, immediately roll once on the Bag of Beans table)
4 – A single playing card (draw once from the Deck of Many Things)
5 – Stable portal key to a random plane
6 – Skeleton key (literally a tiny skeleton that’ll open 80% of mundane locks – he’s very rude)
7 – A really pissed off magical animal (roll once on the Tan Bag of Tricks table, is smart as hell and can cast as a 10th level wizard)
8 – A powerful outsider who’s been trapped in there for WAAAY too long (roll a random CR 10+ elemental or outsider)
9 – Crystallized essence of a dead god

10 – What is that!? (Well, whatever it is, the Lady of Pain wants it. Good luck, fucker.)

What’s in that Extra-Dimensional Space!?

New 5e Warlock Patron: Infernal Bureaucracy

My buddy Roddy and I came up with this new Warlock patron for the character he’s playing in my current 5e game. I think the flavor is spot on and the power level should be approximately in line with other patrons. As always, if you give this a try, let me know what you think!

Warlock Patron: Infernal Bureaucracy

Expanded Spell List

  1. Detect Magic (weirdly not a warlock spell already), Command
  2. Zone of Truth, Continual Flame
  3. Sending, Create Food and Water
  4. Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum, Death Ward
  5. Geas, Commune
Extra Cantrips

At 1st level, you learn the Mending and Produce Flame cantrips. They count as Warlock cantrips for you, but they don’t count against your number of cantrips known.

Binding Contracts

Beginning at 1st level, any contract drawn up by an Agent of the Infernal Bureaucracy holds more weight than a contract drawn up by non-infernal agents. Willingly signing a contract places all parties, including the Agent, under the auspices of the Infernal Bureaucracy. When the contract is broken, the signing Agent is notified and the breaker must make a Wisdom save against the Agent’s spell save DC or take 4d8 psychic damage, or half damage on a successful save. This effect occurs only the first time the contract is breached. If the Agent is the party found to be in breach of contract, their immediate supervisor is notified, and they forfeit their right to the Wisdom save and take the full 4d8 psychic damage immediately. If someone is coerced into unwillingly signing a contract prepared this way, the contract is considered unenforceable.

Burdensome Paperwork… In Triplicate
Starting at 6th level, you can call on the Infernal Bureaucracy to plague opponents with burdensome paperwork. You can use your reaction to cause an opponent who has just committed to an action (attack, spell cast, etc) to instead spend their turn filling out paperwork in triplicate. They find a quill and a sheaf of bureaucratic forms in their hands (replacing any items it was holding if necessary). The forms are in a language the creature can understand, with an imp translator and scribe provided on request. This does not effect the target’s AC or their ability to defend themselves.

Until their next turn, the target may take no action other than filling out these forms in triplicate. Then they must complete the committed action on their next turn. If the effected creature takes damage while filling out these forms, they must make a DC 10 Constitution saving throw to maintain concentration and ensure they do not fill out the paperwork incorrectly. If they fail, the target takes disadvantage on the committed action due to a delay in processing the paperwork. Creatures with Intelligence score of less than 3 are unaffected by this ability as they are subject to different departmental regulations. Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Proper Requisition

Starting at 10th level, you can choose one damage type when you finish a short or long rest. You gain resistance to that damage type until you choose a different one with this feature. Damage from magical weapons or silver weapons ignores this resistance.

Soul Audit

Starting at 14th level, when you hit a creature with an attack, you can use this feature to instantly begin an audit of the creatures mind and soul. The creature disappears and reappears bound in a Infernal Auditors cell where it is subjected to a full mental and spiritual audit and must account for all of its past misdeeds and regrets. At the end of your next turn, the target returns to the space it previously occupied, or the nearest unoccupied space. If the target is not a soulless creature, it takes 10d10 psychic damage as it reels from its Kafkaesque experience. Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.

EDIT: Fixed some wording in the Binding Contracts power.

EDIT 2: Clarified the Burdensome Paperwork… In Triplicate power.

New 5e Warlock Patron: Infernal Bureaucracy

Heartbreaker v1.0

Well, I’ve finally gone and done it. I wrote my own OSR D&D heartbreaker.

It’s basically a mashup of Lamentations of the Flame Princess by James Raggi and Labyrinth Lord by Daniel Proctor and the crew at Goblinoid Games with a few bits and pieces of my own invention. I also returned the Holmes/Moldvay B/X books a few times to keep my shit true to the source.

This first version of the game includes all the rules needed to make characters and play the game up to 10th level in each of the eight classes. I’ve included no spell lists, monsters, adventures, or supplemental rules for stuff like strongholds, investments, or high-level play. If you need any of that, look up one or more of the games listed above, give their writers some cash, and use theirs.

Also, I definitely don’t fully understand copyright law, so this thing is straight-up NOT FOR SALE. I make no claims of owning anything contained within (even the ideas I’m pretty sure are mine). If you’re pissed off that I’m using something you wrote, please let me know and I’ll take it down.

If I haven’t already scared you off, head on over to the Heartbreaker page and check it out. We’re in serious “never been playtested” territory with this, so things probably aren’t as dialed in as they could be. If you give it a try, please drop me a line and let me know what you think.

Heartbreaker v1.0

What’s in Stock at the Fantasy Costco?

Inspired by those good, good McElroy boys, I’ve come up with my own list of what Garfield might be selling at the Fantasy Costco branch in Sigil. Here’s the current list:

Invisible Dagger – 1600 gp – This dagger is literally invisible. All attacks made with it are at disadvantage, but it ignores armor (all opponents AC = 10 + Dex mod) and always qualifies for sneak attack damage (because no one can see an invisible dagger coming). Taking less than a full combat turn to draw this weapon does 2d4 damage to the character as they cut themselves a couple times while pulling it out.

Hand Wraps of the Sympathetic Sniper – 1200 gp – These slightly dirty hand wraps once belonged to an incredibly talented archer who felt really, really bad about shooting all those people. They absorbed a fair bit of his skill and precision, but also some of his regrets. All ranged attacks made at long range while wearing the hand wraps are at advantage, rather than disadvantage. However, if such an attack hits, the attacker must make a Charisma save (DC 12) or stop attacking that target until the next dawn.

Wistful Wand – 2200 gp – Requires Attunement – While attuned to the wand, any spell caster can use it to make spell attacks with a +1 bonus to hit and damage. Additionally, once per day, the wand can make a single sapient target extremely nostalgic about something from their past. The target must make an Intelligence save (DC 16) or spend the next 1d4 hours quietly contemplating the subject of their nostalgia. This effect has the same restrictions as spells like charm person. While attuned to this wand, the user feels a vague general wistfulness. This could easily be mistaken to be a case of mild ennui.

An Incredibly Talkative Bag of Holding – 4000 gp – This bag of holding is embroidered with the portrait of a slightly inhuman, very smug-looking face. When the bag is opened, it starts jabbering away. The voice is kind of grating and surprisingly loud. This will dispel any silence effects in the area and double the likelihood of a random encounter that turn (if opened in a dungeon or other dangerous area). The bag is always listening, so whatever it says will be germane to the current situation or conversation. It usually doesn’t blab secrets. Usually.

Slightly Off-Key Singing Sword – 1800 gp – Requires Attunement – When drawn, this +1 silver rapier emits a gentle hum. However, when it is drawn in the presence of music, it will sing along, but slightly off-key. This is really quite annoying, but also beneficial! When used to cast bard spells, it adds +1 to the spell save DC. Also, any granted bardic inspiration is rolled at +1 (i.e. if you normally grant a 1d8 inspiration die, the sword grants 1d8+1). If you could find a way to ask the sword, it would be 100% certain that it’s singing on-key.

Hungry Hungry Hippogriff – 4500 gp – When the command phrase (“grilled goblin steaks”) is spoken, this small marble statue of a hippogriff transforms into a full-sized hippogriff for 6 hours. It can speak Common and can fly comfortably with two full-sized adventurers on its back. If reduced to 0 HP, it reverts to statue form and cannot be used again for 1 week. It turns out the transformation process is quite taxing for the hippogriff (whose name is Harry) and will emerge from his nascent state remarkably hungry. If properly fed, Harry will happily treat the players as friendly and do whatever they command. Otherwise, Harry’s gonna get himself a snack…

Vest of Vines – 2000 gp – Requires Attunement – This vest looks like a shaped mat of woven jungle vines. It functions as +1 breastplate and once per day, when given the proper mental instructions, will unwrap into 50′ of animate rope, as per the spell rope trick (but without the extra-dimensional space). While the vest is unwrapped, it doesn’t count as armor (obviously).

Unbreakable Arrows – 3 in stock – 250 gp ea. – These +1 arrows never lose their enhancement bonus and cannot be broken except by divine intervention or extremely powerful magic. Fine print: Fantasy Costco does not accept liability for any events resulting from placing these items into an extra-dimensional space.

Snitchin’ Stone – 600 gp – If left somewhere, this small, polished stone will listen to any important conversations that occur around it (don’t worry, it can tell the difference) and report them back to its owner when recovered later. It always cages its reports like Deep Throat talking to Woodward and Bernstein.

Leather Souled Boots – 2800 gp – When wearing these boots, your steps make no sound, regardless of the surface you are moving across. You also have advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks that rely on moving silently. However, during this time, your soul is technically disconnected from your body. You can be turned as undead, animals don’t like you, and if you’re killed, your soul will be forever lost in the Far-Ethereal.

Crystallized Off-Color Joke – 200 gp – This small, slightly off-color pink crystal, when smashed, loudly tells a highly inappropriate joke that can be easily comprehended by all sapient beings within 100’. All creatures unfriendly to the character who used the item must make a Wisdom save (DC 14) or become so embarrassed that they have disadvantage on attacks, ability checks, and saving throws until the end of the user’s next turn. Everyone else is just normal embarrassed.

Transfusion Bag Full of Enchanted Blood – 400 gp – When you receive this enchanted blood, your maximum HP is permanently increased by 5. The blood is carefully screened at the Enchanted Blood Processing Center, but occasionally something odd will slip through. There is a 3% chance you contract a magical disease or affliction (GM will roll in secret and choose an appropriate ailment).

Glove of Stuff Storing – 2300 gp – With a full round of concentration, someone wearing this glove can cause a single item that can be held in a single hand to be shunted off into an extra-dimensional space. Snapping your fingers with the gloved hand will immediately recall the item into your hand. You’re not the first owner, so there’s a chance the glove might already have an item in it…

This Pen is Mightier – 1500 gp – This enchanted quill pen never runs out of ink and, when the command word is spoken, the pen transforms into a +1 sword usable by anyone who is literate. If your opponent is wielding a sword, the Pen’s enhancement bonus is one higher than that of your opponent’s sword.

Portable Miniature Magnetar – 2500 gp – This item looks like a fist-sized, dull iron sphere with a bronze button on top. It weighs WAY more than you’d expect. A few seconds after the button is pressed, the ball will begin to spin incredibly fast and glow white-hot. Everyone within 15’ must make a Strength save (DC 16) or be pulled towards the Portable Miniature Magnetar and take 1d10 crushing damage and 2d6 fire damage per round. Each character affected should pick three items that it would really suck to lose. The GM will select one of these items to be destroyed. Those who save take half damage. This effect lasts 3 rounds. A character captured by the Portable Miniature Magnetar may spend their action attempting to escape (make the save again). This will also seriously fuck up furniture, buildings, and caves. If the Portable Miniature Magnetar can be recovered, it will recharge in 1 week.

Sights of the Far-Sighted Sniper – 1400 gp – These archery sights, when attached to a bow or crossbow, grant advantage on all attacks made against targets at long range, but disadvantage on attacks against targets within 30 ft.
What’s in Stock at the Fantasy Costco?

Action Scene Generator

I’m gearing up to run Robin Laws’ most excellent Feng Shui 2 and I was inspired by the need to have a way to produce buck wild action scenes on demand. So I made this table! Enjoy!

To make a wacky action scene, roll once for each column. Shake well. Serve over ice.

Location Enemies Complication
1 Chinese Restaurant Ninjas Everything’s on fire!
2 Cubicle Offices Cyber-ninjas They’ve got hostages!
3 Ancient Temple Oni It’s collapsing!
4 Neon-Drenched Night Market Triad Goons There’s explosive stuff all over the place!
5 Building Under Construction Drug Runners They’re already fighting someone else! (Roll another enemy!)
6 On Top of a Submarine Heavily Armed PTA Members They’re about to launch the missiles!
7 Suburban Culdesac Cultists Tornado!
8 Factory Nazis They’re conducting a horrific ritual!
9 Laboratory Pirates It’s a raid! (The police are involved!)
10 On Top of an Elevated Train Robots Crashing spaceship!
11 Docks Men In Black There’s a bomb!
12 Hellscape Aliens The eggs are hatching!
13 Jungle Dinosaurs It’s sinking!
14 Outpost Paramilitaries They’re weird! (Roll another enemy and combine them!)
15 Pirate Ship Swordsmen The scene’s weird! (Roll another location and combine them!)
16 Castle Rednecks The scene is mobile!
17 Space Station Spacemen It’s complicated! (Roll an additional complication!)
18 Alien Planet Lizard-people So many doves!
19 City Freeway Post-Apocalyptic Raiders There’s a ton of poisonous stuff around!
20 Trailer Park Cyber-Apes From the Future Everything’s weird! (Roll another everything!)

How about an example? I just rolled 8, 14, and 4. Looks like our heroes are about to fight a bunch of paramilitaries in a factory that’s full of explosives!

Action Scene Generator

Story vs. Plot

A while back, I had a really interesting conversation with a friend about the concepts of story, plot, and player agency in roleplaying games. The conversation started with them asking me about techniques for keeping players on track story-wise without railroading. Which struck me as kind of an odd question. It seems to presuppose a directed, largely immutable story that the players are expected to follow.

That kinda sounds like railroading.

So, this has led me to a couple of new questions. How do we think about “story” and “plot” in a roleplaying game? And, furthermore, are these concepts compatible with the level of player agency that we’re looking for in our game?

I believe that, as with so many things, this is — in no small part — a problem of language. So let’s start by laying out some definitions. Many of these ideas come out of literature and I’m going to knowingly abuse the hell out of them for my own nefarious ends. Deal with it.

Story. The story of your game consists of everything that will happen if the player characters do nothing.

Plot. The plot of your game is what happens when the player characters interact with story elements.

Static events. Any event that cannot be changed by the player characters is a static event.

Dynamic events. These are everything else.

Excellent. So what do we do with these things?

Well, first off, I’d like to observe that static events should probably be used sparingly. If there’s a bunch of stuff going on that your players can’t change, they’re not going to feel like active participants in the game. If I have to explain why that’s bad, you might be reading the wrong blog. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that static events should only be used as “setup” and placing static events in an ongoing game will feel like railroading.

For example, if you want your game to revolve around the players investigating the assassination of the king, that assassination will be a static event that occurs before the player characters arrive on the scene in the first session. However, if you’re running an ongoing game and your players have been dealing with the king a lot, making his assassination a static event won’t seem fair to your players.

Also, it’s worth noting that a “dynamic” event that doesn’t include the player characters will feel like a static one. To return our earlier example, if the players “had a chance” to learn of the planned assassination of the king earlier in the adventure, but missed the clues, your players will still feel cheated if the king dies off-screen. See, they don’t know that they missed the clues. From their perspective, the king died basically out of nowhere with no chance for them to intervene. And that sucks.

Fortunately, the fix to this is fairly simple. According to the definitions and observations I laid out earlier, all plot-relevant events should not only be dynamic, but must include the player characters in a meaningful way. To continue with our regicide example, instead of having the assassination occur off-screen, have the assassin make his attempt while the player characters are in a position to do something about it. Maybe they’re having an audience with the king and he decides they should walk the city so as to be seen by his subjects. Then, the assassin can spring a trap along the route. The player characters’ job (protecting the king) might be a hell of a lot harder than it would have been if they had advance warning about the attack, but they’ll still have a chance to save the king’s life.

I think this should probably extend to all villains and opposing NPCs, as well. Basically, the general rule is if you want on of your bad guys to fuck with the players, their favorite NPCs, or their stuff, the players must have an opportunity to intervene.

These concepts also tie in really well with my notions of planning and preparation. Before you start running the game, you should probably have a notion of what your story looks like (i.e. what will go down in the game world without the players mucking about in it), but once the players start doing stuff, all bets are off. That’s why I write characters, rather than plot. Well-written NPCs are easy to improvise around and can easily be transplanted from place to place (or story beat to story beat) in your campaign with little more than a simple re-skin. If all you have is “A happens, then B happens” and your players do something that doesn’t fall into this mold, you’re hosed.

Story vs. Plot