From the Phoenix’s Ashes: Politics and Intrigue

While I wrote this campaign setting for the dungeon crawling potential, while moving away from at least some of the problematic tropes of the genre, I think it would also work quite well as a setting for political intrigue if a DM more skilled then I were to run it.

Read more: From the Phoenix’s Ashes: Politics and Intrigue

You’ve got a young queen, much beloved, but one who has spent much of her youth in a foreign culture with very different politics and social customs. She is scared that her country could go down the same past as their just-defeated opponent and wants to move to a system of government with more checks and balances, or one that puts less power into a small number of people. She is leaning towards a Commonwealth style constitutional monarchy, but could be persuaded towards backing other forms of government.

Meanwhile the nobles are split: Many of them want a return to tradition, with the rights afforded them that were curtailed during the war returned, the Queen to marry into one of them, and so forth. However, many of the richer nobles have actually allied with a number of wealthy non-noble merchants to push for a form of plutocracy, or at least laws that favour the wealthy.

Meanwhile, many of the returning veterans want a form of government that gives them more say. They saved the country, and as a result, they want their voices heard. This ranges from demands for democracy, to socialism (democratic or otherwise), to anarchism, hitting all points between. Many of the farmers and workers that supported the war effort with long hours and rationing have joined in these movements.

To give more foes for the players to fight, there is a small (optional) group of fascists, formed mostly from a group of rear-line troops that didn’t see actual combat and want to see their nation grow in power and influence over its remaining neighbours, by force if needed. This faction ensures that no matter what composition of players you have, they have someone they all hate to work against.

Published in: on February 5, 2023 at 9:45 am  Comments (1)  
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From the Phoenix’s Ashes: Helping the Citizens

The war is over. The Wizard-Lords, Genemasters and Sorcerer-Generals of Zlodin are dead or missing, and Eburneum is disbanding her armies under the leadership of Queen Eliana. However, things are still dangerous. Losing access to much of her farmland in the west, Eburneum turned to it’s easternmost farms and pushed them as hard as possible to produce as much food as they could. Forests were reluctantly cleared and planted. The standard Spring/Autumn/Fallow field system was abandoned and all fields were farmed whenever the ground was not frozen. This will burn the land out, but it was the only way to produce enough food in the final years of the war.

This means that the battlefields must be turned back into farmland as soon as possible. Already many of those driven from their homes are returning to the outskirts of the plains, repairing and rebuilding villages. This is dangerous however, as many of the biological horrors (Read: D&D style monsters) are roaming the wastes, driven by their final orders to kill and destroy the enemy. Almost as dangerous are the automatons and golems* used by Eburneum in the early parts of the war, as they are even more strictly guided by their orders and unclear or poorly thought out orders have left many of them laying in wait for the enemy, covering retreats long over, or other dangerous situations.**

Published in: on January 29, 2023 at 9:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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From the Phoenix’s Ashes Campaign Setting: History

For a long time there was peace between the Federated Enchanterdoms of Zlodin* and the Kingdom of Eburneum*. However, as the Enchanterdoms reached for ever greater heights of magical and alchemical power they began to ravage their lands in search of resources to power it. These quests bore fruit and the secrets of life and death began to yield themselves to the wizards. It was thought that the secrets of eternal youth and immortality must not be long off and mining for the minerals needed grew more and more extensive, and less and less care was taken with the waste from magical resources. Forests and swamps were ravaged in the search for rare plants and reagents. It is at this point that Eberneum, Zlodin’s neighbour, got involved.

The first sign of something going badly wrong for the citizens of Eburneum was when strange, hostile, mutated animals began to cross into their lands. Then the waste from Zlodin’s mining and rituals had reached the vast, fertile plains that stretched between the two nations and began to poison the crops. This caused a rapid chilling of relations and many angry words between the two, and Eburneum began to prepare for what would happen if Zlodin did not cease to poison their farmland. The final straw was when reagent hunters from Zlodin were found to be poaching rare and magical creatures from Eberneum’s lands, and Eberneum began to march to war.

In truth, Zlodin was far from unhappy with this outcome, as they looked greedily towards the larger kingdoms mostly untapped magical resources. Soon the plains were churned to mud by marching armies, and cropland and wild plains alike were watered with blood. The war spread to every front, the mountains, the swamps, and even the air and below the ground. While Eburneum used traditional soldiers from across its vast kingdom, and reinforced them with magic and artifice, Zlodin took any creatures they could find into their fleshforges and warped them into semi-intelligent soldiers and weapons of war.

Eburneum counted on the bravery of her countrypeoples to counter these horrors, and luckily, was right. A small group of commandos slipped through enemy lines and stole the secrets of the fleshforges. Re-engineered into less-brutal augmentation engines, volunteers walked into them and came out as elves (faster, better adapted to archery), dwarves (To mine and fight deep underground or in trenches), foxfolk, catfolk and more. Though these specialized troops were not significantly superior to stock humankind, their loyalty and flexibility gave the kingdom what it needed to hold against the increasingly horrific monsters.

The tide began to turn when the Princess Eliana, sent away for safety at the start of the war to the lands of the Morski sea-peoples returned, having wed and become the chief advisor of the most-influential leader of these people. While in these peaceful times living as the best naval traders and merchants around, they had a long history as raiders and pirates, and had never allowed these skills to fall away, and given an excuse and cause to fight for, the various sea-peoples took up their axes and warlike ways with little hesitation.

The combination of many stout Morski joining their forces and Zlodin burning through its magical resources at a reckless rate early in the war finally turned the tide and allowed Eburnian forces to cross the plains and enter the mountainous heartland of Zlodin. There, in a once lush and pastoral valleys, the Eburnian and Morksi forces found twisted hell-scapes, choked with the effluvia of the gen-forges and scared by the sheer amount of magical and physical resources pillaged from them, barely capable of supporting life.

What happened at the final battle is not known, for there were no survivors among either command, and the reports from the surviving troops are confused and conflicting. What is known is that a cataclysmic force was unleashed, destroying the central force of the Eburnian troops and almost the entire Zlodin army. The blast levelled mountains, made armies vanish or incinerated them and warped reality with its force, to such an extent that geography itself changed in waves away from the blast, moving some landmarks by hundreds of miles.

This wiped out most of the higher nobility of Eburneum and all known surviving wizard-lords of Zlodin. Queen Eliana, forbidden from fighting on the front line by her status as heir, led the first relief forces into Zlodin. They found the common people malnourished and weak, poisoned by crops grown on tainted land. Even the remaining soldiers, given the best food available so they could fight, were eating sawdust-filled bread. Horrified, she invited the survivors back to Eburneum with her, leading the first group of refugees there herself. While it is taking adjustment after so many years of hatred, the images of bedraggled and hollow looking refugees entering the capitol, lead by the strongest bastion of hope their nation had in the final years of the war have done much to drain that anger. Armies are being demobilized and veterans allowed to return to their pre-war forms, or not, as they wish.

This is where the campaign starts. A badly damaged kingdom trying to stand back up, helping the few survivors of its bitter foe. Next time I’ll go into the present issues of the campaign and what I see players getting involved in.

*Names are placeholders made by throwing Google Translate at a bunch of near-random words. Suggestions Welcome.


From the Phoenix’s Ashes: Introduction

I’ve been thinking of writing my own d% RPG since 2010 for a variety of reasons: I could send it to people without worrying, I could only write the parts we will be using, to make it less intimidating to new players, and I could make it look exactly how I wanted. The biggest however, was I could make a game that was D&D-like, with players growing in power and taking on bigger and bigger threats over time, but using a skill-based system that wasn’t super crunchy like GURPS.

About five years ago I actually set pen to paper and wrote out the core system in a LaTeX document while spending a day doing a series of particularly long and boring fluorescence measurements at work. The core mechanics were pretty simple and ready for playtesting. I could have run a Call of Cthulhu-type game in it right then. However, problem: I already have Call of Cthulhu, and that doesn’t reach my goal of a more D&D-style d% system. When I sat down to do the things I’d need for that; spells, equipment lists, I just hit a wall. How do I do that without just blatantly copying D&D?

Then a few years ago I got the idea to write my own campaign setting to go with it, that wasn’t basic D&D fantasy. I decided on a transhumanist, post-war Renaissance/Enlightenment-era setting with anthropomorphic influences. My biggest influences are Eberron (particularly Keith Baker’s idea that the most interesting place to set a campaign is right after a big world-shaping event, not ten or a hundred years later), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the Bolo series by Keith Laumer, and the scene you see in a number of anime series where a group of people are walking through a ruined city or desert and suddenly a war machine senses them and activates (For example, Wolf’s Rain. I know I’ve seen it other places but am drawing a blank: I’d love it if people left examples in the comments.) I got busy with finishing my degree and was too stressed out by the pandemic to write anything creative for a long time, but I’m finally warming up to writing again, and I’m seeing a lot of people pushing for blogs to make a comeback in 2023, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Cthuhlhu and Robert E. Howard

Back in 2010 I started writing this blog post, and got through 17 revisions it seems, but never finished the adventure. It has been sitting in my drafts folder for 13 years now, and I no longer remember the story well enough to finish it off, but thought I might as well post it rather then have it sitting in my drafts folder forever. I would love some suggestions as to how to finish it off, if anyone is familiar with the story.

I recently finished a Black Canaan, a collection of Robert E. Howard’s ‘lesser’ stories. While he is best known for inventing Conan Howard also wrote horror and pulp. Really he wrote anything he could get paid for. While reading it I was struck by how similar some of his tales where to my Call of Cthulhu game. In fact, it has inspired me to attempt to write my own adventures.

Howard has steel-hewed, square-jawed hero’s fighting cultists and demons. Practitioners of the occult stopping those who engage in black magic, and all manner of similar events. It seems a good match for my players, who like CoC and yet want to be Big Damn Heroes.

So I am going to give the outline of an adventure based on a story from this book: The Haunter of the Ring.
Warning: Beyond this point are spoilers


More images to inspire non-pessimistic post-apocoplytic games

I wrote last time about how I wanted a less depressing post-apoc RPG then Fallout and most modern ones. It was an appealing setting when I was a lonely teenager or undergrad, but now that I’ve got a partner I want to spend my life with, a life I don’t hate and so forth, the end of the world is a lot less appealing.

So I thought I would post some of the pictures that bring up the old fantasy of wandering through a ruined city and finding useful things to help my community out, that don’t depress me at the same time. Spending too much time on Tumblr has inspired this somewhat, particularly after discovering it has RSS feeds.

A figure with long hair and an open jacket, seen from behind overlooking a small town. No other people can be seen, though there is smoke coming out of one of the buildings. The town is in forested mountains. The image starts in dark purples at the bottom of the image and uses a gradiant to become pale pink at the top, implying sunset.
This is an image from an RPG named Alice is Missing, played entirely via text message, which is a damn cool idea. While there is nothing post-apocalyptic about the image it gives me the feel I want for a cozy, cooperative post-apocalypse game.

The above image, found on Tumblr, is one of the inspirations for this series of posts. I don’t know why, the town is clearly meant to be inhabited, but I looked at it and thought about how peaceful it would be to be a lone traveller after the end, coming across a nearly untouched town in the pacific northwest or a similar region. That or possibly this person is coming home after a trip to the outside world and is taking a moment to enjoy the view of the town? Something about it just strikes me as peaceful and the fact there is only one person shown is striking.

“Fire Truck” by Huhsoo.
I don’t know if this is fanart, or was done for The Last of Us, but it is surprisingly peaceful in how it shows nature reclaiming the town.

I like how this shows nature reclaiming a city: Usually when I see post-apocalyptic artwork, the focus is on broken buildings falling apart, but not how beautiful the nature reclaiming it can be.

This art is apparently by Johnny Bruck

This one is more silly, as is obvious. Levity is a great way to keep games from becoming depressing, and honestly, this picture is hard to take seriously.

Published in: on November 6, 2021 at 6:56 pm  Comments (3)  
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Art to inspire an Optimistic Post-Apoc Game

Like a lot of people my age, my image of the apocalypse is largely filled with the green-tinted DC wasteland of Fallout 3 the bleak, ruined Boston of Fallout 4 and countless images of the Zombie apocalypse from the zombie craze that filled my time in high school. However, I do like my settings a bit more colourful and optimistic then these games. As I went over last time there are plenty of good literary inspirations, but these often don’t have any art aside from the cover. Lately I’ve been posting a ton of dragon art over at my Tabletop Games focused Mastodon account. A lot of this art I find via the Vintage RPG tumbr, and while going through it I’ve found some good art to inspire an optimistic setting that just happens to occur after the world has broken.

A bear in Napoleonic garb, including one hand in it's coat
From The Second edition of Gamma World (1983)

When I was young, I wasn’t a fan of Gamma World due to its much discussed “Gonzo” attitude and wanted something more serious. While I’m still leaning towards something more serious, ehhh, it had some good ideas.

Another account giving me ideas for this is Black Ray Gun: An exploration of the world after the Apocalypse, which has the excellent URL of “Post Apocalyptic Flim Flam”.

A figure larger then the trees, made of twisted wood but wearing armour, or possible with technology as its face and around its wooden body
A second view of the previous figure

These images from Magic the Gathering also inspire me with their vaugly Studio-Gibli style look. As if you’d be walking through the forest and come across one of these left over from a much more advanced civilization, just waiting to be awakened, or still doing their final task.

The inside of a torus-shaped space station, extending off into the distance. It is clearly abandoned and overgrown, but done so as to look more peaceful then anything.

I also found this image via Post Apocalyptic Flim Flam/Black Ray Gun and it really resonated with me, emphasizing the peaceful, serene side of the fall of civilization.

I’ll probably post more of these as I come across them.

Until next time, Stay Geeky

Published in: on July 20, 2021 at 2:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marking from a TA’s perspective

It has been a VERY long time since I’ve posted about chemistry, I was an undergrad at that point, but I wanted to write something longer and more easily linked to then a twitter thread. I’m about to finish my Ph. D. and while I’ve done a lot less marking then many students, I’ve done enough to have a few opinions I thought professors might find useful. This is mostly based on my most recent experience, since it is fresh in my mind. Also, the list is not in any particular order after the first few big ones.

First: Don’t split marking up by student. This WILL lead to uneven marking as there is always stuff that needs a judgment call, and with one student I can remember “I’ve seen this way of answering the question before, what did I do there”. Now, you can do careful coordination and this semester I’ve tried to do that, but it makes marking take a lot longer and will never be as good. I’ve spent a lot of time describing my marking decisions, but I still get emails from students going “I lost a mark for this, and my friend didn’t.” Instead, split marking up by assignment or question. That way if one TA is a much harder marker then the other, every student gets the hard TA and easy TA equally.

Second: Don’t have big tables of balanced equations. They are the WORST to mark. So you’ve got a table of five equations, each with two reagents and two products. That is just five things to mark, right? No, you have to check that each of those products and reagents are correct, and have the right numbers of atoms. Then each of those products and reagents has a coefficient. So for something like “2 Al + 3 Cl2 Ž→ 2 AlCl3 (s)” I have to check three coefficents, two subscripts and three compounds. So for a table of five of these type of equations I have to check 5*3*2*3= 90 things for one table. At a certain point my eyes start glazing over and I worry I’ll miss mistakes.

Third: Don’t include things on the assignment that aren’t marked. I’ve had one assignment that had a page that wasn’t marked. That felt bad as some students (probably those who were running out of time) did that page and not marked worked. Boom, none of that work helped their grade.

Fourth: Make sure the question you are asking is what you think you are asking. Students will often answer very literally, so something like “What do you see in this part of the online interactive” will get a literal description, when what the professor wanted was just a description of the motion of the ions. Likewise, make the scope of your questions clear “Which ion is never soluble” is bad. “Which ion is not soluble in question three. is good. Also, check your answers. I had one case where there was a correct answer the prof didn’t realize since they’d accidentally not given an example where that ion was soluble. It isn’t a particularly insoluble ion, they just never showed it.

Fifth: Don’t worry about making the assignment total some round number of marks. I have had one prof who made every assignment total 10 marks. This leads to a lot of questions worth half a mark and other such annoyances. Your TA can normalize a grade at the end. Having to say 0.25/0.5 is more of a pain and more confusing to the student then 0.5/1.

Sixth: Don’t make us use annoying grades. Example: Make sure tables have a number of marked boxes that divide into a non-repeating fraction. I don’t want to have to write 1.33333… marks out of 2, and 1 1/3rd marks out of 2 is just confusing. But 1.5/2 is not.

Seventh: Don’t make students marge audio on a presentation when doing things online. I had to mark some oral presentations, and the first one with solo students was fine(tm). I mean, the recording quality was all over the place, but it was bearable, and you never know what sort of technology the student has access to, the lack of a quite space to record, whatever. HOWEVER, as soon as the prof assigned a GROUP project? BAD. The audio quality was often so bad that I got headaches trying to parse what the students were saying. I hurt my ears SO many times when I had to crank my speakers up for the first student, then the second student was super loud.

Eight: Make sure you aren’t assigning the students the same questions over and over. In one course I TAed I the students have a weekly LON-CAPPA problemset written by the university. These are generally very well written, and have been upgraded and tweaked over the years. Then they would get a Sapling problem set, which would redo the same concepts and similar questions, but with a worse input method, ambiguous wordings, and shinier graphics. Then they’d get a tutorial handout that some weeks would basically then duplicate the Sapling work. You could just pick one of these and you’d teach the same amount.

Nine: Make sure you aren’t just asking the students to copy stuff out of the online interactive. There was at least one set of questions that literally ZERO students out of the 80 I was marking got wrong. Then I realized that the question was to write out the equation for some reactions you saw in an online interactive. Except that the interactive showed you the equation below the video. So they were all just literally copy and pasting them in. Which means they were not learning anything, you weren’t marking anything except the ability to notice that equation, and all you are doing is generating marking work for the TA.

Ten: Make sure your marking schemes make sense. For example, A question with four checkboxes, and a note that it is worth two marks, but -1 mark per wrong answer. But no details on what is a wrong answer. If they check “add heat” instead of “remove head” is that one wrong answer or two? The TAs got permission from the prof to just assign each box 0.5 marks, and if that box was marked or not marked correctly they got the marks for it.

Eleven: Make sure your sig figs are consistent if you are going to mark them. There was one question where it was ambiguous if some of the numbers we gave them were infinite precision values or should be taken as a number of sig figs. Therefore, if you are going to do this, be clear. Don’t say 300 mL. Say either 300. mL (the notation our sig fig handouts specifies, but that I haven’t seen since undergrad), 300.0 mL (now is explicit) or 301 mL (technically still ambiguous but no longer has students thinking there is only one digit) or 3.00*10^2 mL.

Published in: on April 23, 2021 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Optimistic Post-Apocalyptic Setting

I decided to dust off this blog to post something a little longer then would fit on Mastodon. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of running a post-apocalyptic game for a long time. It has all the upsides of typical fantasy settings, which is no large governmental network to provide aid, which makes room for a lot of adventures, and yet also allows for modern and science fiction concepts. If I have any readers of this blog left from back when I posted regularly, I’m sure you will be utterly unsurprised by this.

My views on this are heavily influenced by Daybreak 2250 AD by Andre Norton. I read this novel as a kid, and at least once or twice since then, and the images of the protagonist exploring the ruined city not to get weapons or armour, but useful things for his village of people, paper, food, books with useful knowledge have stuck with me to this day.

After that, the earliest influence on me was reading articles on Gamma World in Dragon Magazine as a kid, and seeing all the wild and strange art, mutated creatures and so on. That is the first post-apocalyptic setting I searched for on the internet when I was a kid, and it lead me to the others. I found it’s early fansites tended to lean into what was called back then a more “Gonzo” play style. Very silly, anything goes type of stuff, which wasn’t what I was looking for. However, recently Tumblr posts about it, such as those by Black Ray Gun have made me more interested in the aesthetic, with devices made out of scrap and used for purposes never intended, and the colour of it, after years of Bethesda’s Fallout games green and grey and brown.

When Fallout 3 came out, I being a fan of Oblivion got it, and it made me fall deeply in love with Bethesda games. While it certainly had its issues with the writing of the main story quest, it got the feeling of walking thorough abandoned buildings very well, as did Fallout 4 to a large extent. These games I have issues with though. Particularly in Fallout 4, why are people living in shacks full of holes when there are hundreds of large, dead trees around that could be cut down to make shelter? Why are people not living in log cabins?

The final piece of inspiration for this setting mix is anime. I found Wolf’s Rain after watching Cowboy Bebop during my undergrad, and wanting more like it. It wasn’t like it, at all, but it has a sequence that has stuck with me, where the main characters are venturing through a ruin and are attack by an old war robot following long-forgotten orders. More directly relevant is the asthetic and world of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The contract between the creepy radioactive wastes, the vibrant colours of the toxic forests, and the pastoral landscape of the valley of the winds feels right. People are building new things, using what technology they can, and making due with older bits when they can’t. They KNOW what cars and such are, but they don’t necessarily have the technology base to make new ones, so they use pack animals. They mostly use their own stuff, but are fine with scavenging, though they mostly do so from the natural forest rather then the ruins.

In high school and university I moved into running The Call of Cthulhu due how easy it is to teach, and left this idea alone. However, I ran a campaign of my own making for the first time recently, rather then working in an existing campaign setting, and I liked the feeling. It didn’t last long due to me not having the focus to keep a play by post game running while dealing with grad school, but it gave me a taste. Now I want to run something similar, something I can adapt per-existing adventures to but with my own flavour. Now, due to one of my partners being VERY much not into dark, apocalyptic settings, so I’m thinking of a more stable setting.

The players are from an established farming community that is doing well, and there isn’t that much for them to do during the summer, so they head out after planting, with the goal of finding things that will help their community and getting back before the harvest when their help is needed. Anything from toys for children, new types of seeds, textbooks (or really, any books), tools, or even contact with other communities so that trade deals and mutual aid can be set up. To do this the players would have to explore the local area beyond where the village normally travels, based on the stories of the older members of the community and maps purchased from traders. Track down rumours of ruins in the wilderness, and so on.

Perhaps they find a broken truck in the wilderness, still full of canned food, a perfect emergency stash for their community in case of a bad harvest. Then the adventure then becomes how do they get this back to their community without a working truck? The other thing would be finding good tables of STUFF for the players to find and letting them figure out how it could help their community. I love seeing players being creative in ways I didn’t anticipate and that sort of thing would be very cool.

Honestly, the hard part as a DM would be making sure to show all the small ways the players were improving the town over time, making the players feel good about what they are doing. Kind of like what Three Dog did in Fallout 3, those broadcasts did a lot to make me feel connected to the world and part of it.

Anyway, no idea if anyone will see this after most of a decade, but it was fun to write and get my ideas down.

Until I post again, whenever that is, stay geeky.


Published in: on January 24, 2021 at 5:24 pm  Comments (4)  
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D&D has infrastructure: Things to consider when suggesting games to replace it

One of the things that makes D&D such an attractive game to run is that it has infrastructure. There are entire companies that make adventures for it. It has campaign settings. If I don’t have money there are hundreds of free adventures for it on the internet. Want to write your own adventures, but not the full world? TSR and Wizards have put out something like a dozen settings, and other companies dozens more, and most of these have adventures set in them.

That makes DMing D&D a very easy experience, even if it’s rules are harder to work with.

As someone who enjoys DMing but does not enjoy writing adventures, this is a big factor in me choosing what game I’m going to run. A lot of games seem to look down on the idea that you would use a premade adventure, a stance I strongly disagree with.

I’ve only found one other game with a basically unlimited supply of free adventures: Call of Cthulhu. I think this comes from the fact it had some very good adventures early on, showing people that prewritten adventures can be a powerful shared experience between playgroups. Couple that with a strong convention scene, and a lot of DMs have posted their adventures online over the years.  Additionally, if you have money, there are LOTS of pre-written adventures available for purchase, some of them very good.

I would love to hear about other games with good adventure and campaign setting support, please let me know if there are other games out there with this level of support.

Published in: on July 8, 2020 at 9:07 am  Comments (2)  
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