Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Shadow Jam: Neo-Neo-X, FND Syndrome and Fanad players' option

(Head of Xing is the second moment of Shadow Warrior 2 that started the whole "this is its own setting now"; among variable SW2 NPCs he is one of the best)

All that glitters is not gold, it is demons. Mostly demons.
(screenshot from League of Legends: Overdrive trailer)

It might be odd to consider the metropolis ruled by demons and also full of demons to be a safe place for anybody else, but Neo-Neo-X is its own kind of madness thanks to Head of Xing and his utter obsession with human culture.

Just like Xanadu influence, direct demonic domination and shadowlands taint are turning many humans into semi-demonic akuna, some demons can 'catch humanity' after being exposed to such intrinsically human things as accounting, disapproving grandparents and reality shows. These ‘gone native’ demons had lost most of the mythic nature of their kind, and, in many ways, are now just badly-tempered people with fangs and horns and not the creatures of mystery and magnificence they were. The Xanadu derogatorily call humans "underdemons" but those humanity-tainted demons are called ‘underhumans’ even more derisively, and are exiled from Xanadu under the thread of utter destruction on sight lest their taint of humanity spreads. These Friendly Neighbournood Demons – mostly seed or root demons, as the spiritually weakest ones – keep a few useful talents of their nature and inability to resist their Princes embedded in all lower demons, and tend to react with violence to the voiced thought that they are somehow inferior to humans. Yet, they are much less likely to eat one's face just because it is a human face, and their minds are so similar to humans' they are eccentric much more than eldritch.

Which makes Head of Xing a bit of a paradox. Nobody would dare to suggest – not openly, at least, not in The Glitter, not often – that Xing, one of five Demon Princes, the ruler of tremendous spiritual power, the GOLDEN SUN himself could have succumbed to FND Syndrome like any lowly demon, but this obsession with human culture cannot be anything else. Most accepted theory is that Head of Xing is not Xing himself but Xing's Moon-ranked interpretation of Mouth of Sauron-type of messenger carrying just enough connection and influence that people are wary of offending real Xing through him and thus relatively few try to test Head's power. As a result, The Glitter is one of the friendliest cities to both FNDs and humans, and is the posterboy city to hate for those who wish for purity of existence from both human and demon sides. 

Head of Xing, voted "Best Demonic Overlord" by Neo-Neo-Times for thirteen years running;
screenshot from Shadow Warrior 2

It isn't to say Neo-Neo-X is a peaceful city. Aside of fending off 'the preliminary scouting missions' from Zilla City and the raids on outskirts from more purity-minded Xanadu demons, neither "calm" nor "quiet" are the words one uses for The Glitter. Head of Xing's obsession with human culture – more specifically with pre-Collision pop-media culture although any would do in a pinch – turned meager remnant of a human metropolis into feverish set of movie sets, never-ending cosplay convention, (pseudo-) historical recreations, ever-going art production and a carnival party at once where everything and everybody gravitates toward one main purpose: Head of Xing's enthusiastic entertainment with yet another spectacle. Everyday life shimmers subdued in the shadow, ready to be interrupted with colour and action at any moment.

One can make a really big bank in Neo-Neo-X if they discover a server with some obscure pedestrian anime that Head of Xing never heard about.

The Glitter is a city of dazzling soaring skyscrapers and deep, somber gutters; whirlwind of colours, neon lights, appropriately dark alleys, and smoke-filled bars. Some streets have permanent rain over them; some areas forever in nightfall because Head of Xings likes them so, and huge amount of makeup The Glitter produces is only barely enough for some exports. As Head of Xing often goes through media like wildfire through the wilds The Glitter is the grandest scene that Earth ever knew, rebuilt over, and over, and over again following the latest turn of obsession, the latest whim, the latest discovered pedestrian anime. Many long-time denizens of Neo-Neo-X assume a tone of current media fashion like other people take umbrellas for the rain, on pure reflex, changing the manner of speech or adjusting behaviour from comedic to melancholic to boisterous as per current Head of Xing's interest. The show(s) must go on and as long as a denizen or an outsider at least tokenly follows this all-encompassing fever, and don't challenge the whims / tastes of the ruler, Head of Xing or his Executives don't really bother with enforcing the whole Demon Dominance In Your Face thing, and the Glitter is thus rather free-natured and cosmopolitan in nature; everybody is welcome.

The surrounding areas around the Glitter are under Head of Xing's protection and provide the city with food and other necessities from small towns and carefully picturesque villages. While people from such outskirts are rather thankful for a rather stable and rather safe life they are not very eager participants in the artifice of The Glitter beauty, hence the city's common nickname.

In last few years Head of Xing took to broadcasting: Neo-Neo-Waves includes among other things, reality shows, pop quizzes, sports tournaments and city's own radio (which Head of Xing DJs himself with much enthusiasm). Such broadcasts are utterly forbidden by Zilla City as corrupting demonic influence and by other demonic warlords as the taint of humanity, but as main source of entertainment in the known world it finds wide acceptance in The Glow and the Garden, and even in Independence (albeit begrudgingly) and Driftwood (mostly sarcastically) – yet in this harsh enough world this is good enough distraction even for them. Pearl City in particular has strong ties with Neo-Neo-X, and both Unifology Church and Ameonna's priesthood have a strong presence in the Neo-Neo-X.

Fanad (Friendly Neighbourhood Demon)

Larry gave me the whole FND Syndrome idea;
art from Shadow Warrior 2 artbook

Demon infected by the nature of humanity. Not always particularly friendly or neighbourly, to be honest, and many have a rather bad temper after being relegated by former kinsmen to the lowest of low. Yet, what they do with their new lives is varied, from rejection to a search of acceptance to carving their own weird trajectory. Regardless of their initial appearance they take upon human shape, but still carry many powers of their blood, and are both spiritually, mentally or physically superior to regular humans.

Each Fanad has following aspects to them:

• Their starting Chai is 20, one another stat of choice is 18 and no stat can be lower than 10 (reroll other five stats at once until you get a whole single array of 10+ numbers). 

• The power of their blood: chose either Magenta, Amber, Viridian, Azure or Purple blood and subsequently roll 1d6, 6+1d6 and 12+1d6 for innate powers of it.
> lists of powers will be added later when I figure out the system. Idea here is the first roll gives minor at-wish power, second roll gives medium but more rarely useable power and third roll gives powerful but limited in use power.

• They look demon enough even if they look human enough.
> Use thiefling tables from AD&D Planescape or somesuch appearance/physical abilities demonic/mutation generator.

• Obsession over some very human thing, be it knitting sweaters, watching TV, doing taxes or dining with adopted grandparents. How each such obsession manifests is to temperament of each particular demon, ranging from cute and benevolent to cruel; knitting sweaters isn't very adorable when demon knits them from slain humans' guts.
> (I have a list of 100 such trivial obsessions somewhere, will add when find it in notes)

• They can physically survive shadowlands and Xanadu no problems, but no longer have any spiritual or mental advantage versus Xanadu and don't remember Xanadu much – as their brains humanized when FND syndrome set up the fluent nameless nature of Xanadu became elusive to them.

• Yet, fanads still have some advantage of their inhuman nature: pick up two conditions – fanad is completely immune against one of them and have permanent advantage against another.

• They are utterly despised by all right and proper Xanadu demons. Unless there is somebody present in the the group whom such demons despise even more, they will always target fanads first for extermination, and if violence is not an option, will treat them as the lowest of low. 

• Fanads remain demons enough that any Star-ranked demon have an advantage on all domination, persuasion or influence attempt, and any Moon-rank demon (and, of course Demon Princes) utterly dominates their will when within vicinity. Fanads are free (unlike many weak demons) from Sky and other lower ranking demons' dominance and generally viewed as ones who have broken off most of chains of Celestial Hierarchy. 

• By the cost of 3 permanent points of Chai, fanad can temporarily evoke their older self, making them completely immune to all earthy weapons not imbued with chai, have unlimited use of their innate abilities and expressing other signature aspects of true Xanadu demons, while also having all their drawbacks. The invocation lasts a scene (about a few minutes) and points thus lost cannot be restored.

Some tidbits

• Head of Xing is puppy-enthusiastic about human culture, but he consumes it rather fast and while he is never tired to see the same general motif manifested three thousand times in various movies or shows or arts, he remembers each separate manifestation. Can one run out of culture?

• FND Syndrome takes root when a human permanently names a previously nameless demon, sacrificing their own Chai; the transformation isn't instant though and might take a few years.

• Neo-Neo-X is a major pain in Zilla's side – mostly ideologically and as a haven to various non-pure-human undesirables – but both Orochi Zilla and Head of Xing occasionally have a very brief public radio discussion about the virtues of their own ways. Nobody is persuading anybody, though.

• Larry is a weapons trader in a small, rather obscured settlement near The Garden. 

• Mezu's and Hoji's demons are most eager to destroy FNDs; Mezu's seek to redominate and use them. Dead Sun Enra's remaining demons mostly just avoid them like plague.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

Shadow Jam: Zilla City and Zilion players' option

(From this picture below the whole idea of Shadow Jam started: as I was typing the caption "like cyberpunk but with magic and demons" the disjointed little things I liked about both games came together. Thus Zilla City would always be a ground zero for this setting and the first place to visit.)

Rain-swept empty streets, holographic flowers, the sense of unseen sea; metal, and glass, and light;
image from Shadow Warrior 2 artbook

When during Collision CEO Orochi Zilla turned from upstart corporate functionary into full-on saviour of humanity, his corporate city became the refuge to thousands fleeing the horrors of war, the haven untouched by demon hands, the beacon for all otherwise hopelessly lost to the invasion. Thanks to the superb technological developments, the self-sustainability built into the city, its defensible position beyond what is now Snakespine mountains and the overall remoteness of the place from any newfangled shadowlands it stood its ground against invading demon force of Demon Lord Gozun, and currently remains the last bastion of pre-Collision civilization in the known world.

Zilla City is the place where people don't go hungry and don't fear demon raids, where they can bring up families without everyday struggle, where they work with their fellow humans free from shackles of demonic overlords, all while enjoying the benefits of high comforts, education and crimeless environment. This is the only place where 'scientist' is not a dirty word used to brand the failure and foolishness, but instead a title of honour as new emerging technologies from Zilla City might one day lead the reclamation of human world from the clawed hands of the invaders. 

In the game one only visits the City at night – it would be quite busy by the day;
screenshot by Budong

After sixteen years the the War of Worlds the City achieved highly stable population without a hint of a demon blood. All Zilla City recognized citizens realize their unique call as defenders of humanity and united in their desire to contribute to the never-ending battle with Xanadu – while White Treaty currently prevents any open conflicts, Zilla City bides it time, and builds its power until foul demons would unavoidably break the Treaty and untie its hands. One hundred percent gainfully employed, each of citizens brings their own effort and talents to fulfill this heroic goal.

Under benevolent foresight of current and only mayor Orochi Zilla, the City influence spreads across all Avocado Archipelago, into Wilder Lands and even Lush, carefully expanding its defensive settlements and making life better for any human who still dreams of demon-free world. Zilions – dedicated bionic peacekeepers, scouts and specialists – play a significant part in this noble endeavour, giving a helping augmented hand where mere flesh is not enough. Carefully selected from the never-ending pool of volunteers, they represent the peak of human condition multiplied on insight of human science and support of human technological ingenuity, and the squadron of them can go toe-to-toe even with blood behemoths in the wilderness.

Currently the first generation of those selfless servants of humanity is retiring from active service. Aged approximately early thirties, all of them were, of course, volunteers – orphans who suffered through the War of Worlds and decided to do their best to help their fellow humans. Their augmentations were largely experimental, born out of rushed necessity, and is outdated by current standards, but nobody would deny their contribution. Some of them decided to remain in the City, but many chose to venture further into lawless lands and undoubtedly lend their help where they can. 


Glowing eyes are optional; Art by Ryan-John Keates

As per dismissal clause of their contract, each is getting a good severance package, their favourite weapon or tool, and throughout memory wipe. The above text was the orientation session given to zilion after the mind wipe as they are preparing to leave the service.

• All in their early thirties. Their haphazard argumentation mean they will die in 6+1d6 years unless continuously helped by advanced Zilla City science or any other prominent life-sustaining effect
• Peak human condition: chose three attributes (cannot pick up Chai). These attributes are automatically 18, no need to roll. Other four attributes are rolled as usual. Within two years before their time is up all three highest stats gradually drop by half.
• Roll with advantage against fatigue, toxins, disease and torture. Cannot disobey Mr. Zilla's (or anybody's who is carrying his True Brand) direct order and by action or inaction allow him to be harmed if in their direct vicinity. In case of orders conflict Mr. Zilla always is a priority to be obeyed and defended.
• Can survive for about two months on half of food, water and sleep the normal humans need. Vulnerable to subliminal manipulation if one knows which patterns and methods to use.
• Provided they carry no demonic taint and didn't commit anything publicly notorious that can harm the reputation of the City, they are still granted entry to Zilla City and baseline citizen rights; although they are cut from their access to resources active zilions enjoy, as veterans they are provided with decent living accommodations for doing some nominal spirits-lifting work for citizens' benefit. Each carries deeply hidden subliminal trigger that can be activated by code word once, making them into a puppet for a scene (in case of a combat actions) or a day (in case of non-combat actions or infliltrations).
• Useful modification zilion is able to retain thanks to the benevolent Mr. Zilla: (1d12)
(to be finalized in numbers when I find out which system 'Shadow Jam' is going to use)

01) Healing subsystem
02) Perception subsystem
03) Endurance subsystem
04) Muscle adapter
05) Multi-respiratory adapter
06) Subdermal adapter
07) Learning node
08) Rush Impulse node
09) Sub-vocal diplomacy node
10) Carapace armature
11) Cyber-integration armature
12) Malfunctioning chai-booster implant

• Starting wealth is 500 soles. All starting equipment is of good quality; advanced gear lists are also available for the character's generation. Additionally choose one heavy Advanced Arms or Tool, or two medium Advanced Arms or Tools or three light Advanced Arms or Tools (in any combination of Arms and Tools in case of multiples) for free; all these things are firmly ID-locked and unsalable. All Advanced Arms or Tools have trackers in them that Zilla City keeps on monitoring.
• As a slight drawback, not everybody is happy to see zilions around; many, especially in Avocado Achipelago and Wilder Lands, bear grudges against zilions for some (undoubtedly imaginary) griefs, and might rejoice venting those grievances onto a lone zilion. Others would like to learn what makes a zilion different from regular humans; even as an outdated model long since surpassed by later zilions, science-starved or simply inquisitive dwellers of Known World would like to get a hold on zilion's body, dead or preferably alive, as even so obsolete they still carry a seed of science superior to all that the Known World can offer. If zilion true identity is known expect escalating bounty hunters. After riff-raff and amateurs there will be professionals.
• Zilions can pass for regular humans but if one knows where to look for brand codes and traces of old surgeries not even supernatural disguises can provide full protection. All zilions are sterile and cannot pass their traits to their children even if such children are conceived by supernatural means.
• Just one last detail: what undeleted memory about benevolent Mr. Zilla bothers you so much you are unable to suppress it? You know the memory is undoubtedly a glitch, and there is completely nothing to be wary of, yet for some reasons you didn't voice your knowledge upon your dismissal: (1d10)

01) Artificial light floods space with bunker-heavy doors and intricate lab equipment. The air so full of chai it prickles your skin. There is a monstrosity behind the bullet-proof glass of the tank you guard. It still has recognizable human pieces. It still has human eyes. It pleads with you wordlessly.

02) Blanket of silence. You see perfectly in the darkness of the City apartment building. The door unlocked silently with your access, your unit goes in with practiced ease. A family – roused from the sleep, confused, terrified. “You are under arrest for civil disharmony.” – Your own voice in the dark, calm, level, almost sympathetic. – “Lethal force will be used against you if you resist.”

03) Holojectors reconstruct the affected city block perfectly in miniature. Details are captured clear, up to the pores on the faces of bystanders. Somebody across the table makes an adjustment: person in, person out, curve of the bullet changed, cosmetic details added. A third voice rehearses the future news “Illegal demon-tainted entity was apprehended in our city today.”

04) Heavy jungle smell. Heavy jungle rain. Mud, a clearing amidst the wet branches. Haphazard, tiny village, barely silhouettes against the dark skies. Unconscious bodies cocooned tightly, lying in row. You finish tightening straps on the last of them, but the body jerks suddenly, scratching against your armour with their horns. You administer another doze of sedative with well-practiced move and they fall motionless. Time to deliver the cargo back to the City.

05) Boring day at the job: sleeping people don’t cause troubles. They look kind of cute in their peabean beds, with those big helmets on. Glimpsing the endless stream of memvideo feed from the central control screen you briefly feel pride about being a part of such well-functioning society and loyalty to vision of benevolent Mr. Zilla. All as it should be.

06) A person interrupts you on your patrol route. Their features evade you but their movements aren’t aggressive so no riot protocols are triggered. They call a name you don’t recognize – quick search tells you it is a name of a dead person. They try to hold your hand. “Do you remember me? Please remember me.” they ask. They seems to be crying for some reason as you carefully move past them following your route.

07) Golden holoflowers flicker through pools of red. Filters in your mask work one hundred percent well but you, somehow, still smell the iron in the air. Your training momentary broken, you tear off yourhelmet and vomit onto a nearby pile of disabled entities. You cannot take it anymore. A small prick in your shoulder – your commander administer the cure for disloyalty virus.

08) You trace specified figures as they walk through the streets. They bypass the gates by forged passes, one by one assemble in a disused warehouse. They consider this place to be unobserved, but new cameras were installed there only an hour prior. Your fingers, your mind flickers as you counteract their makeshift jammers. You observe as the conspiracy against benevolent Mr. Zilla blooms and collect the evidence for prosecution. 

09) The mercury-heavy sludge raises to your knees but your armour keeps you superbly protected. The roar of machines supporting the City is all around you, here in maintenance tunnels, deep below. One of the grey, emaciated figures working 'the mills' suddenly breaks free of the engine and tries to run away when she thinks you are not looking. You turn around and shoot – as it is your duty – and she falls, a small body in the sludge, leaving no ripples. Drones fish the body to process it later. This is a forth of them shrinking their citizen duty this week.

10) There was a wave of the faces – human and half-human, bestial and almost recognizable. A circle of bodies, facing outward, facing you and your unit, all with the same expression. They have makeshift weapons but nobody is clearly a match to any of you. There is a figure in the center of the circle. The figure clearly is not of human. The bodies defend the demon from you, a tight mindless swarm. "Take the puppeteer alive, discard the rest" comes the order. You fire in an unblinking crowd, as they ineffectively try to harm you.

Surely it was your own decision to venture away from Zilla City.

Various tidbits
Latest news about Zilla City is that they finally developed the long-rumoured Chai Engine – the seamless blend of technology and magic previously thought impossible. Their new sleektech is only glimpsed outside of the Zilla City as it is entrusted exclusively to the most advanced and loyal zilions and functionaries; currently is one of the most desirable things everywhere in the Known World.

Orochi Zilla knows many things about the pre-Collision world. His name is his name and his memory seems to be fully intact judging by the precision with which he guides all Zilla City broadcasts and efforts. Of course, such esteemed and dignified person obviously cultivated their spirit long before the Collision.

Zilla City latest public campaign is to root out pirates from Bansara, anarchic haven on the western tip of Avocado Archipelago and to establish full control over this area of the world. Bansarians hence seek to find and sic the legendary Deep Moon Manta onto Zilla City in retribution.

Despite being a staunch opponents of any negotiations with demons, Zilla City has to nominally ally itself with Pearl City – as a sacred place where White Treaty was signed, it is a neutral ground to all four other Cities even if they aren't peaceful between themselves. Zilla City genuinely tries to align itself with Independence, given their similar "Humanity, fuck yeah!" attitude and an arsenal of nukes, but travels through Lush, closeness to tainted shadowlands and core Independence attitude are making such negotiations difficult. There is continuous "war" of radio broadcasts between Zilla City and Neo-Neo-X, each trumpeting their own virtues. The Glow is vilified as a place full of demons.

If it wasn't somehow clear from the text, while Zilla City is safe, advanced and prosperous it is far from the utopia it claims to be in its propaganda; at the very best it is still a corporate city at heart, and at the worst it is much worse than that. 

Monday, 5 April 2021

Common language as memo-virus

'Common' language, sometimes under a different name, is a very persistent element of many imaginary worlds. 

It has some ground in history, with various lingua franca languages, but in imaginary worlds Common usually is far more ubiquitous and widespread than any lingua francas would, up to being a default and only language of many different cultural groups, default and only language of many different political powers, default communicative language between distant and isolated locations, or used by monsters, even without physical capability to actually speak this language. 

Sometimes the world justifies Common in-history, such as in Greyhawk and Golarion where Common is specifically the language of somewhat-recently-widespread empire(s), but most of the time the Common assumed to be a sort of potluck language that came into existence somehow on its own even in the grim points-of-light worlds that didn't have such widespread recent historical notions.

A language is also something that naturally and continuously changes over time and distance: French language spoken in Quebec isn't the same as French language spoken in France, and English, even so widespread and ubiquitous, has a hundreds small differences depending on the area it is spoken in. But there is never 'Old Common' language, neither there are any regional dialects, even in the case of far and isolated realms. It comes to somewhat absurd degree in settings such as Planescape, where beings from different worlds and planes of existence speak the same Common language just fine. It is Common everywhere, and the Common just is, as a cohesive and unchangeable whole, unnaturally resilient to being anything else but the Common.

English is my third language, with first two being close enough that they share a lot of structure and word-roots but different enough that each one has to be learnt separately. One thing that strikes me is how it is often impossible to translate both poetry and jokes from one language to another with 100% precision, without either substituting some close – but not exactly the same – words or idioms, or losing the wordplay, the rhyme, the meter or punchline. It is downright impossible sometimes to translate a song from other two languages into English without making a page of commentary on what this word salad supposed to generally mean because English has more rigid sentence structure where a sequence of words is treated differently then a sequence of words in languages of more lenient structure. But yet, in-games with Common, even if hired translator is used in those rare cases when Common isn't a local language, their translations are supposed to be 100% precise and trustworthy, and without losing the  meaning or the punchline.

Common is in this way because it is gameplay, not in-world, necessity: if my experience is of any measure, it is extremely rare that people come to play tabletop RPGs with intention of dealing with linguistic intricacies. Players want to participate in whatever action is going on, and in the real world the language barrier is one of the most powerful things preventing this(*). Thus for the sake of fun and convenience such intricacies are omitted, and player characters are given 'Common' as a mirror of whatever language is used at the gaming table. To further make the language a non-problem, 'Comprehend Languages' is one of the most basic spells to fill the gaps in understanding where Common isn't enough, and, as another nod to the gameplay, the full language mastery through 'Tongues' is just low-to-mid-level-spell, to eliminate a language barrier entirely as long as a mage is around.

(*the language barrier can be a good tool to create a sense of alienation, social helplessness, and maybe even horror in some settings or games. There is only so much one can perceive from a tone or a body language if they don't understand what is going around them. Trustworthiness and precision of translators can also play a role in social intrigue type of games.)

But thanks to this gameplay convenience, when taken in-universe Common as a language has a lot of unnatural features, and thus can be seen as self-propagated, self-sustained, monolithic mnemonic entity, a memo-virus similar to the Idea of Thorns from Gardens of Ynn, only much more subtle. Such memo-virus would be quickly replacing in-world languages as soon as it is introduced to/infects the local populace: it is just too darn inconvenient not to use Common, and thus local languages and dialects die within generation or two, replaced by it, with intricacies of previous languages lost without native speakers. Being a subtle memo-virus without counters, Common can maintain its structure unchanged, without necessity to adapt; maybe it is even lazy enough to share the space with other languages as long as it is in the mind of the speaker and the most dominant one used.

Regardless if Sapir-Whorf hypothesis true or not, poetry in particular is vulnerable to translation. As Common becomes more and more prevalent in each society, the poetry becomes written mostly in it and eventually more and more homogenized comparatively to what it could have been. Taking this idea even further, in a world where the magic source is the chaos of imagination, lured in and barely contained in the frames of meter and rhymes in the minds of the poets foremost (and only then, through effort, translated, distilled and brought down to useful, functional mundanity of spells by science-wizards and their dry practical memorizational minds), Common as a dominant memo-virus can also explain the uniformity of spells; without other languages to give poetry some different frames and angles, in the world of utter Common dominance the magic eventually will reach the limit of what can be expresses in it.

And at the last, one can treat Common not as simple mindless memo-virus, but as an Eldritch God, a formless being propagating through the minds of mortals and immortals alike, influencing their ways to express themselves and thus affect the world to its liking. 

P.S. I am also finding its name, "Common" to have a lot of rather sinister depth if one would like to play up the themes of homogenization, what is perceived as normalcy, lowest common linguistic denominator while taking Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a truth for some given world.

Friday, 2 April 2021

[finished](Annual) map giveaway

Once upon a time in times of G+ I used to do annual giveaway of maps and amateur-bond sketchbooks. 

On this anniversary of G+ shutdown, I still have a few maps to give away, even if the collision with Easter this year left much less time to do all I wanted to do. 

1. Maps will be shipped for no cost to you; on a downside this shipping will be a plain letter and won't have tracking. Delays in delivery are possible.

Currently delivery is not possible to: Anguilla, Bolivia, Bouvet Island, British Indian Ocean Territory, Brunei, Comoros, Dominica, Falkland Islands, French Southern Territory, Georgia / Sandwich Islands, Lao, Libya, Mayotte, Montserrat, North Korea, Paraguay, Pitcairn Island, Sudan, Timor-Leste, Tristan Da Cunha, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Venezuela, British Virgin Islands, Wallis And Futuna, Western Sahara and Yemen.

2. Maps are given on "first come, first serve" basis. On the pictures below they are photographed, not scanned, so the colours and vibrancy might be somewhat off from the actual original.

To claim the map, first leave a comment below with which map you want; the timestamp of the comment would be used to resolve any conflicting issues. If the map is available, send the posting address to cryptic_pale (at) protonmail com. Once the map is shipped, I will delete all addresses I received and won't keep any private information.

3.  Maps are provided under following conditions: non-commercial use (with attribution if used in some kind of public work), non-sublicensable (don't give it to stock sites), and only transferable along with the paper original under the same conditions (gift the map in paper if you no longer need it).

Maps are:

(claimed) 1. "Flow Silhouettes"  (12.5 cm. x 8 cm. / 5 in. x 3.25 in.; watercolour, gel pen)

(claimed) 2. "Coastline" (12.5 cm. x 9.5 cm. / 5 in. x 3.75 in.; watercolour, gel pen)

(claimed) 3. "World Steps" (12.5 cm. x 8.5 cm. / 5 in. x 3.25 in.; watercolour, gel pen)


P.S. It is somewhat disheartening to see the previous giveaway post lingering within the direct vicinity of this one but being bottled at home for six months of heat and then dealing with avalanche of work for six months after isn't exactly good for random creative musings I use to do.
Still, there are about fifteen post drafts lingering about, so hopefully at least quarter of them will be released in nearby month or two.

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Chai for Shadow Jam

Sadly having nothing to do with lovely Paper Elemental's Platescape, Shadow Jam is a setting I tinkering with through the summer and in bits and pieces since the last year. It is based on Shadow Warrior 1 and 2, the reboot and the subsequential sequel to the said reboot of the old FPS with a dubious sense of humour. While comparing SW1 to SW2 is like comparing an apple to another, very similar apple, as it is with so many throwaway videogame settings there is a lot of small interesting details in both games to keep the imagination asking if there is more can be done with such setup.

One of such details were a casual couple of lines from SW2 that the tea is kind of a luxurious rarity in the post-Collision world, both because of how difficult it is to grow actual tea now – demonic storms and overabundance of hostile flora along with the collapse of the infrastructure are to blame – and because it also seems to restore the magic power better than anything else.

Tea ceremony is an important ritual in Shadow Jam; "Demon Tea" by Nahamut

 "Why is it called chai? Because it is not chi."

Chi (or qi) used to describe the measure of magical energy in pre-Collision Earth when it was an extremely scarce phenomenon: it took twenty years to learn to do anything with it, and another twenty years to do anything half-way useful. The scarcity of Old-Earth mages was not due to some conspiracy aimed to keep the masses from awakening (although such conspiracies did exist), but in the fact that very few people were ready to dedicate their whole life to harsh cultivation of a talent that could have been easily countered or overshadowed by pretty much anything widely available technology could do. Spending twenty years just to learn how to make tiny flames doesn't look that much appealing when lighters exist.

Old-Earth chi was most prominent in humans who could, through determined training, elevate it to do then-extraordinary feats. But even in such practitioners its capacity was like a very threadbare mist when compared to post-Collision  where the abundance of such energy is streaming from demonic world Xanadu through shadowlands, and saturating Earth like an ever-present rain. What previously took lifetime to master now takes only a few months, and what best magic the adepts could do pre- and post-Collision differs drastically. The term chai itself was, at some point, just a pun joke, highlighting the difference between what old and new mages were capable of doing, but it stuck in common perception to the point that in tea-deprived world of Shadow Jam new generations take it for granted. 

* * *

Chai is a seventh stat for Shadow Jam system, and it measures a power/capacity for magic in an each given entity. Abundance of magic means that each and every person (and most not-persons) have this stat at some capacity and are capable to do with it a few things even when untrained in actual magic.

  • so chai helps to withstand magical effects and do magic, straightforwardly enough. 
  • as a consequence, higher chai helps survive in shadowlands a little longer.
  • chai can solidify an oath/contract, making it into sealed oath/contract and incurring consequences for breaking it. 
  • point of chai can be used to enhance almost any kind of roll; it isn't uncommon for competitive gamblers to have chai-offs with each other, eventually draining themselves dry.
  • point of chai can permanently imbue an simple object or a simple being, turning them into a familiar. This is one of the few 'witchy' things that tough guys and gals in Independence are fond of doing, usually to their guns and on a regular basics.
  • point of chai can be used to name a true demon, weakening them a little. When used temporarily it is of little effect on anybody but seed and maybe root demons, but if a permanent point of chai is used for naming, and the namer is close in the level of power to the demon in question, the demon can be hampered and has a high chance of catching FND-Syndrome, thus sooner or later losing their true demonic nature.
  • by permanently sacrificing half of their Chai score, the entity can auto-resurrect themselves from almost any condition of demise. Due to how severe this effect is on actual mages – basically, loping off any extra capability they have – some prefer to die rather than see their wonderment and power be crushed and hollowed out of them. Most of people have about three resurrections and use up the first chance by their twenties. Living dead happen when auto-resurrection leaves chai at zero. 
Dedicated mages would obviously be better at all these kinds of things but many loath to spend chai on anything but the magic itself, while people of simpler means and ways usually benefit more from innate capabilities of chai in everyday life.

Friday, 1 May 2020

A few what ifs

(a couple of thoughts too short for their own entries)
1) What if magic – which exists to break the established order of existence, with its laws of mass, of energy conservation, of logical and immutable causality – doesn't mutilate the normal user with its corruption, spellburns or madness so common as a consequence of multiple fumbles in various systems, but it is the other way around, and magic can only take ever seed in minds (and bodies) already dissonance and broken? In this case the normalcy is sterile ground: in order to get the magic, one's sane mind and healthy body must get damaged first.

It might explain why curses of people wronged and passions of people unhinged come true in magic while mundane desires of bourgeois in pastel shirts do not; why want-to-be-wizards go through fugue, it might explain drugs and other chemicals as a tools of temporarily going off-normal, or even fully insane.

But the risk here is that, while the magic is generally attracted to broken minds by its own blind, unthinkable nature, one never can be sure it would be specifically their mind the magic going to inhabit – there are no rules on whom the occult will seed, there is no way to force it, hence intentionally going mad might amount to nothing at the end if the magic, by the irrational nature of its own existence, simply doesn't take a hold. If one has a good and comfortable place in society already, and power over others that is more reliable and predictable than occult, intentionally going mad in scant hope to get occult powers is an open opportunity to end up destitute without any powers at all.

2) What if Conan the Barbarian but in cyberpunk? Mixing fantasy and mega-urban landscape is not a new idea but the appeal here in the known names reimagined: Stygian sorcerers as servants of abyss that are old Archeronian preserved minds which, in their turn, go back to forgotten Lemurian protocols.

3) What if museum instead of gardens? The memetic beast here, instead of thorns, would be a notion to enshrine the every moment of every being into a display – the sickness starts with note-taking, shifts to obsessive journallng, into replica constructions until the whole civilization is utterly paralyzed into nothing but putting everything that moves into clear archival resin and creating displays of themselves creating displays. At the end, the museum is full of treasures, both actual, and everyday mundane, and made from trash and it grows more distorted and grotesque as one progresses through the fall of civilization. The main actual treasure probably is finding eatable food and water in the place of replicas, and the end goal is probably not something grand and mysterious but just an exit, to tear themselves off eternity as the museum recording every moment of every creature would otherwise continues endlessly, similar to Library of Babel. 

Thursday, 2 April 2020

[finished](Annual) map giveaway

(Apologies for frequent edits)
In times of G+ (which I still miss) I used to do once-per-year giveaway of some clumsily-made sketchbooks; if people wanted to pay for shipping, I added painted maps to it. This year I am just giving away maps because I hope that the slim letter has better chances to be delivered in timely manner than a more bulky parcel. In the light of this, the map will be shipped for no cost to you, unless you want a more expensive shipping with tracking numbers and such.

Please leave a comment first on which map you want and email your shipping address to cryptic_pale at protonmail com next. All addresses will be kept confidential and will be deleted once the item is delivered. Notes on current shipping situation are at the end of the post.

In this post the maps are photographed, not scanned, so colours and reflections might be slightly off, especially on mostly-metallic ones:

"Chaos Grass"; watercolours, gel pen, coloured pencils; ~9.5cm x 12cm (~3.75in x 5in)

"Coral Mountains", watercolour and watercolour metallics, gel pen; ~12.5cm x 9.5cm (~5in x 3.75in)

"Silvertine Coast", watercolour and watercolour metallics, gel pen; ~12.5cm x 8.5cm (~5in x 3.25in) - it doesn't photograph well due to silver underlay but it looks better in reality.

"Whispering Desert", watercolour, gel pen; ~12.5cm x 8.5cm (~5in x 3.25in)

As of now, all North American deliveries should be slower but (mostly) are assured. International shipping is severely interrupted and, as of the time of the writing, the postal carrier only delivers to Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Curacao, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Holy See, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Korea South Republic, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macao, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, St. Pierre and Miquelon, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, Vietnam and Zambia. According to the latest available discoveries, the virus doesn't survive during the shipping.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Doppelganger language

Jonathan Newell just posted a new very big and complex map and mentioned, in a comments, a doppelganger city. Doppelgangers are rarely given an opportunity to have their own culture, mostly presented as monsters here to steal your identity instead of creating their own, but if they do have their own city, what kind of language they might have there? I know nothing of actual Idolum, but it is an interesting thought to think about. 

In many systems as they are portrayed, a doppelganger and other similar shapeshifters of fluid form are given the Common language as a base and often no full telepathy (although they can detect surface thoughts in some worlds). But if the creature possesses the ability to change so much about their body why should they be constrained by somebody's else language, spoken in a standardized audible range?

With ability to transform, the doppelganger language is doppelganger themselves, they 'speak' by changing their body or, more often, the parts of their body, to convey a meaning in the way other people create specific tremblings in air or draw certain lines to communicate. Early DG language was, probably, quite literal – change to a wolf-creature if you 'speak' about wolves – but later it became both more symbolic and much more complex, including shifts in colour, texture, scents, temperature, audible and visual range capabilities to a degree, as well as shape, form and appearance, using the whole world as their language components. With no need to rely purely on the audible component to 'speak', and the natural inclination for doppelgangers to infiltrate, I think it was, at least initially, a silent language, relying on visual (and, in close proximity, textural) changes more than on audible ones, but even without a sound the DG language at its height could be incredibly byzantine. 

In structural sense, the language can be seen as logographic (pictographic in early stages), with difference that each 'written'/'spoken' part of it is the cascade of changes the goppelganger themselves assumes. It probably also has several forms – at least one that is 'common people' version and is more like a quick sign language or huntspeech with only a few bodyparts and minimal changes involved, and another of highly cultured function where the whole paragraph could be condensed to a single change, and poems could be 'recited' with a single movement; the recitations of novels and sagas in this form are grand theatrics performances. If doppelganger society grows past 'oral' traditions (which, I think, would be much stronger for them than for cultures with just audible language) and come to a need to preserve the information externally, DG might have a simplified 'static' written form for the first type, and some highly ornamented multi-coloured-ink calligraphy 'static' written form for the second type, which still won't convey the language whole complexity and beauty, given how many more layers 'live' version might have.
Depending how much the setting allows them to change, red and white flowers could be doppelgangers too; photo from Equal Wedding Japan

Doppelganger language is possible for the outsider to learn, but impossible to 'speak' without some kind of ability to either transform the "speaker's" own body fluidly or, at least, have an active illusion that mimics such transformations (such as 'Change Self' spell). Spells such as 'Comprehend Languages' and 'Tongues' won't translate 'live' DG as the language of change isn't isn't actually written, and whatever audible ('spoken') components it has are meaningless without the rest of the changes adding to them, so translating them by magic would be like translating a written word with about 90% of its strokes missing; in its complexity, to observing non-shapeshifters, it has more similarities to a code, and this is just when doppelgangers aren't trying to intentionally 'speak' in code, or poetic, or making a double entendre jokes. Written forms are more rudimentary than 'live' forms, so even with spells the translations from written forms will lose whatever subtlety they have.

The danger for DG as to a language is in its own complexity; if the city comes under a strong outsider cultural influence, (as it often happens in the real life) younger doppelgangers might adopt the other language as their native one because it is so much easier to learn and also gives them more social mobility with the other, now dominant culture, while DG language might be seen as outdated, inefficient, pompous or, depending on a new regime, dangerous to exhibit. Simple telepathy is even more efficient, so in the settings where doppelgangers have telepathy, such DG language won't develop due to the lack of need.

On another hand, because it is rare and difficult to understand by magic, it might be used specifically to convey secret messages, similar to Native Americans code-talkers in WW2.

* * *
On a more general thought, to function the DG city needs some kind of stable infrastructure but with everybody being able to mimic anybody else (nothing, technically, prevents a doppelganger to assume an innate shape of another doppelganger) the importance of external, preferably unforgeable  symbols for important city positions is bigger than for a regular society. Assuming that doppelgangers are still individuals, with their ability to change almost everything about themselves, if they don't have no innate capabilities to recognize each other under such change (*) the masks of the office can become literally more important than the people who is currently inhabiting them; 'becoming a mask', i.e. assuming a certain specific mindset required to fit into a certain governing ability is, probably, on a job description for most of position of importance for DG city, and whatever the everyday life in such city could be, the official structure could be seen as just one endless theatrical performance by the outsiders.

(*) and if they do, it will take just one captive and/or tortured and/or brainwashed doppelganger to create a cadre of a 'drug-sensing dogs' to find all the others of their people in the vicinity, so they probably don't have such ability; 'True Seeing' spell discovers doppelgangers but it is high end spell of limited duration (and expensive to make into a multitude of items) and so not as efficient.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Diegetics of 'Ryuutama' Seasonal Dragons

One of the three interesting things that 'Savage World (Deluxe edition)' did when I read it first time, was to provide a page of quick optional rules that tweak the mechanics of SW in different ways. By combining these quick rules it is much easier to emulate a certain genre, such as pulp fiction, where heroes never die, or more gory barbarian tales.
Optional rules are nothing new but it was the first time when I saw them assembled in one place in corebook with clear purposes to give DM optional rules as their own genre/mood construction kit. I think more games and systems should do something similar from the start, instead of having optional rules scattered through the whole rulebook.

The other game where this idea is used even more than in 'Savage World' is 'Ryuutama': the cutesy, feel-good game about traveling through the unknown vibrant world, writing travelogues and, by the ways of its spirit world ecosystem, literally expanding said world by feeding said travelogues to seasonal dragons.

There two diegetic loops that exist in 'Ryuutama', one smaller and one bigger. Smaller loop is that travelogues exist both as PC-written documents in-world and an actual gaming chronicle for players. Despite my earlier fears, players don't actually need to write a lot of text (although they certainly can if they want), but the chronicle of who travelled, and to where, and what happened there is recorded for both PCs and players as a part of the gameplay. Both these documents enhance the life of participants in- and out-of-world: for PCs by literally expanding their world and making it more vibrant through abovementioned growth of seasonal dragons, and for players by levelling the special DM character called 'Ryuujin' (Dragon-person, RJ for short).

The second loop is directly tired to this Ryuujin, who is, in-world, presented as an intermediate link between the seasonal dragons and the travellers, between both the spiritual and the material, a being insubstantial and obscured everywhere except their own places of power and rare occasional moments they can manifest; the observer, the helper and, occasionally, the trickster or the adversary.

In-world Ryuujin are supposed to unnoticeably guide the party and influence the travel, so the resulting in-world travelogue would be a better nutrition for the seasonal dragon the Ryuujin is dedicated to, and that dragon, in turn, will make the world bigger and better. Out-of-world, the Ryuujin is the special DM character, and the number of travelogues finished by any particular group serves as XP for Ryuujin leveling progression.

Looks tasty; artwork from 'Ryuutama' corebook
Unlike other NPCs (which DM can still use just like in any other game), Ryuujin have their own rules of generation, their own powers and their own limitation in the form of Artifacts, Benedictions and Reveil. It is in those Artifacts and Benedictions (less so in Reveil) that the 'Savage World' page of optional rules comes to mind, because each RJ's Artifacts and Benedictions are simultaneously sets of out-of-world rules that affect the game in four different thematic ways, and are actual artifacts and spells the Ryuujin casts and uses within the game world, and which could be, presumably, stolen, lost or otherwise thwarted.

Each Ryuujin is dedicated to one of four seasonal dragons: Green of adventure and exploration, Azure of relationships and human drama, Crimson of battles and competitions, and Black of secrets, betrayals and tragedies – thus the Artifacts and Benedictions each Ryuujin gets reflect that theme both in-world and out-of-world terms. With leveling up, more of those Artifacts and Benedictions become available, and the Ryuujin with more powers changes the longer-going campaign by introducing new rules and influences as it unfolds. In this way DM can calibrate how difficult they can make a longer lasting campaign or where they want to take it, and this makes the campaign less uniform at its length.

Some of the Artifacts and Benedictions (i.e. changes they make) are odd to me, not by what they do but because in 'Ryuutama' they are the part of codified system of what is usually is just assumed to be there. For example, Encyclopedia artifact specifies that 'You are running the game using the rules as written.' which in a usual game would be just something DM says to the players ('I use RAW'), but here this is the part of the limits imposed onto DM through the Ryuujin; simultaneously it is also the actual magical encyclopedia RJ has and which might be stolen or lost. Longspear artifact '[...] determines in the setting that all the PCs are members of an army, and they are traveling in order to fulfill a mission for that army.' which, again, commonly will be something that decided by DM and players just because they'd like to play this way this time, but here is a part of the limited thematic options. Some Artifacts have more mechanical use such as Crystal from Azure Dragon ('All of the PCs can survive damage that reduces them as far as -20 HP.') which makes less deadly the game which is all about relationships and connections, and where losing a character could be more frustrating than in other themes. There are about three Artifacts per theme, but as Ryuujin levels up/the campaign goes on, they can level up into Artifact from a different theme, creating a mash-up of rules and moods.

Some artifacts from the same theme are contradictory by nature
Benedictions (and, to the lesser extend, Reveils) are a 'spell-rules', using for occasion and with more limited, immediate effect; some can be used for free in level-defined but limited number of slots, and others can be 'cast' on fly from RJ's (very limited) lifepoints, with possibility of death from overusing. As such, in neither way Benedictions are cast left and right on a whim, but they warp in-world reality/game mechanics in certain way when they come to play.

Some general ones, such as Misfortune ('Declare that the dice all come up as “1s” on a check.') simply affect dice rolls; more specific ones, such as The Tale of Nostalgia from Green Dragon ('If the PCs roleplay having nostalgia for home, they can ignore all negative effects of mind-based status effects for the rest of the session; this affects up to two PCs at once if they meet the conditions.') usually affect roleplay and gameplay at the same time, giving mechanical benefits for PCs' roleplaying action which encourage a related theme. Even more strange are Ritual Benedictions which come to play only after the seasonal dragon first matures and Ryuujin maxes the level (meaning experienced DM) – such as Ritual of Sleep ('If a player falls asleep in the middle of the session, their PC realizes that they lost their wallet. Their money decreases by their character level times d6 times 100G. [...]) which creates an in-world feedback for the player character for out-of-world player's direct actions, skipping the roleplaying part.

I am not sure if it creates more fun or paranoia at the table
'Ryuutama' is the only game I know with both very traditional game mechanic (HPs, to hit, classes, encumbrance etc) and codification of more narrative elements (together with group-created world, more typical to storygames). As a result, you can discuss anything that Ryuujin does and has both in-world and out-of-world in equal measure.

How to (possibly) use it
Returning to the page from 'Savage World' where all rules are just a kit to assemble as DM wishes, Four Dragons (whom I rename as Exploration, Connections, Challenges and Secrets) all follow strong themes, but the ability to cross-contaminate their Artifacts and Benedictions still opens up all kinds of interesting combinations. Despite 'Ryuutama' setup as heart-warming game, with some tweaking and/or renaming in Artifacts it is quite easy to run a darker game, especially because codewords for Secrets are "Intrigue, Betrayal, Solving mysteries, Assassination, Tragedy, Madness, Decay, Aesthetics, Deduction, Suspense, Madness, Fear, Confusion, Depravity, The Criminal Underworld, Gambling" already – and one of its artifacts, Dagger is "Once per journey, an NPC can die. No roll required." Going from there to run travel through the mind like "Yume Nikki" or post-apocalyptic world like "Lisa the Painful" is very much possible. Human connections could be involuntary, and Ring artifact could be portrayed as a collar or a link of chain: cross Challenges with Connection with Secrets to get something like dark fantasy of 'Berserk'. 

Four Dragons can be thematically tied to Tarot (because pretty much anything with symbolic base of four can be tied to Tarot, I suspect) and, re-skinned this way, with Major Arcana playing the role of Artifacts and Benedictions, genre-mood/rules system can be laid off more flat and accessible like 'Savage World' rules, while also using out-of-world gameplay of card dealing, shuffling and so on; it can be utilized for games set in some kind of chaos, be it an actual Warp, a dream or a wicked mind; it can be interesting to try it as a subsystem for running through unstable planar travels in moorcockian multiverse or in Reflections from 'Chronicles of Amber', for example.  

What about running such sub-system of theme rules in UltraViolet Grasslands, to reflect the strangeness of the travel into more and more unknown areas?

Step-by-step introduction of artifacts tied to RJ level can create twists in campaign on both narrative and gameplay level, but the limitations set onto DM through the RJ character's limitations, and leveling up of RJ along with levelling up of the PCs prevents rampant pile-up of such twists. As many things about 'Ryuutama', I am finding it all quite fascinating and wish I could run it to the length to see how it works in actual play.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

So, you want to be a Ghost Detective?

(long and loose world- and mechanics- wireframe about how to play a detective who is trying to put ghosts to rest; more broad strokes and words than actual solutions and mechanics. Intended for one-player game, hopefully to be tried this summer)

It is a difficult job, bad hours, in shitty conditions. The only thing you'd have going for you is the knowledge you are doing some good but even this is arguable.

But you notice changes in street signs, an old paint returning to modern walls, vacant-eyes people in a few blocks radius speaking in archaic tones, smiling outdated smiles, going in routes as if half-asleep, more automatic than they usually are. You notice all that, and you realize that there is a ghost somewhere at the epicenter of all of this, a clot of death and self-delusion, and that it won't go away without taking somebody's life.

Echo Dawn didn't touch you as much as the others: you are still able to care, even about the strangers. So you go in. You go in and you try to decipher illusions and lies, to find the clues, to establish lost connections, to recover the truth from under distortion the ghost pours from within itself – so you can face the ghost and make it face this truth, and break it wide open with this truth, and then make it go away.
Hopefully in time, before the ghost kills yet again.
You don't have much time. You never have much time.

Ghola lifar and the ghost cycle
Ghola lifar, stage 5, modern times; art from "Grim Legends 3"

Ghosts bring their own twisted reality with them – the world-as-it-should-be according to their self-delusion. It starts small – a room, a basement, a building, a detail forgotten here and there, a vulnerable person acting oddly – but with current apathy it is rarely detected until it's about the size of the neighbourhood, spilling beyond closed doors and starting to be noticeable to passerby.
Such furuncle with the ghost as its spiritual centre is ghola lifar. Breaking it by 'resolving' the ghost is the main task of Ghost Detective. Failing to break it causes the ghost to become more rooted in death and self-delusion, and as a result the reality-changing effects of ghola lifar become wider-reaching, and stronger, and even more difficult to break, up to the point that beyond the fifth loop the reality of this particular piece of the world no longer can be re-established: ghola lifar ripens and both it and the ghost become permanent.

Initially ghosts are manifesting in semi-cyclical way – as they manifest, they start re-living the pieces of their life they see as important, nudging softly and, later, enforcing bluntly the re-enactment of these events on the wider and wider scale, involving more and more bystanders to act as extras in the theatre of ghost's fragmented life. Such 'performances' unavoidably lead to more death as the ghost nears the finale of their (rarely peaceful) conclusion, and, if not resolved in time, the story ends to start repeating again in a little while, only now in a stronger ghola lifar and with more and more power over people in it.

People inside of ghola lifar are sleepwalkers. When it is weak they go around doing their own business, and the only change happens when it is touches on the ghost-related matters: usually indifference, callousness, forgetfulness and general unhelpfulness. They won't call the police, they won't leave, there is no reason to worry, and with Echo Dawn touching upon almost everybody, they are half-asleep enough as they are, sticking to their own little grooves, and going their own little routes, discussing their own little news, always complacent and calm. In early stages of ghola lifar the ghost doesn't control them directly, but they adopt mannerisms and habits from related era without even being aware what they do; if this is pointed directly, they dismiss it as a quirk, defend it is a 'fashion' or ignore it altogether; a few might be shaken enough to leave, but only a few. Prepare for all kinds of excuses: people are great when explaining things they cannot really explain. At the later states they are mentally warped to the point that they obey the ghost and the 'role' the ghola lifar assigns them without a thought, becoming conceptual zombies. When ghola lifar ripens, they permanently lose their identity to become people the ghost sees them as and wishes them to be.

Along with people, the environment itself changes – on a surface level at first (calendars show a different year, tree is back after it was cut, previous shop sign returns over the new one) but it progressively becomes more and more as the world-as-it-is from the ghost's point of view. Fifth stage ghola lifar could be twisted reflection of Boston in 30s with almost no indication that the world outside is something else. A major side-effect important to Ghost Detective is that what ghost wishes not to remember or remembers wrongly, becomes more obscured as far as it can spiritually reach: archives burn, servers crash, mementos get lost, photographs fade, coffee spills on unwanted names and people forget. Initially it only affects things connected to the ghost directly, but when ghola lifar grows enough its reach becomes stronger and touches on even unrelated things, along with general change in its reality.

You would think people would care, but inside ghola lifar people won't and then can't, and outside of ghola lifar people capable to care about strangers after Echo Dawn usually have their hands full already. Ghola lifar remains relatively small in scale spatially even as it comes to full power, and, being self-absorbed on a ghost's life story, rarely Causes Troubles to those far enough outside, so if there is no complains, nobody is going to go anything. There usually no complains.

Ghola lifar is also a place of the great comfort for the ghost. However horrific and distorted it might be to the detective, it is still a protective blanket of the world-as-it-should be for the ghost itself. This is why initially the ghost is calm and concerned only with playing out their own story, regarding you as just one of the sleepwalkers. This is why as the investigation escalates and you start digging into things left buried, the ghost becomes more and more aware of what you doing, and thus, more and more aggravated: whatever self-delusion it built for itself, you are taking it apart with your questions and your discoveries, you break into the grand performance of its own Life Where Everything Is Right and toss proverbial rotten tomatoes on the stage. No ghost ever takes it kindly. Before they are able to face the truth, it will always come to pain.

The hostage
Amidst sleepwalkers there is usually a hostage: a living human who is kidnapped by the ghost and is forced to be the centerpiece in the dramatic re-enactment, playing a role of a lover, or a victim, or sworn enemy. The hostage might be related to the past events – directly, tangentially or as a few-generations-later relative – or they just might look vaguely similar to the important somebody, or they might be just a random person, as it is often true in late-stage 'performances'. Point is, they are most aware person in the whole situation – wide awake in the ghost realm, heck, even in the apathetic world itself – but are controlled and confined by the ghost into doing its bidding.

They die at the end. Hostages always die at the end, and ghost goes away for a little while but soon returns with ghola lifar grown even more powerful, more reaching, more ripe than before. This is how such place propagates: on death and enforcement of false memory. For all your remaining compassion, however difficult it is to do, you have to save the hostage. For their sake but also yours.

You were a hostage once too. You remember all too well how it is to be utterly alone, helpless and terrified by something you have no understanding of, forced into a role that is not your cause or fault. Somebody – a stranger – pulled you out of it, risking their life. This is how it all started. Play it forward.

Power within power; art from 'Magnetic Rose'
As ghola lifar grows and festers, people become what the ghost wants them to be: unaware actors on the stage, fully dedicated to the unfolding performance. If the ghost concentrates, it can control some amounts of zombies as their physical arms, into doing things in the physical world, but these people are still living humans and do as living humans do; the worst harm they can do is a gun or with fire, with known human means. They are still no smarter than humans are, and can be fooled. They can be harmed as humans can be harmed as well, but each death makes ghola lifar stronger, so better to go with fooling.

Mirror-wrights appear as the situation escalates to the conclusion (or from the start on forth and fifth stages) to guard the ghost's most precious truths, each one as their own little guard dog king in their own little guard dog kingdom. They are fully aware what is going on, but adopt the roles of people the ghost wants them to be with enthusiastic dedication – usually the one of ghost's trusted friends and wise advisors, cohorts and authoritarian figures (or, occasionally, monsters, executors or boogeyman), molding and mirroring themselves to move the grand performance forward as required.

Their reach is mercifully short – a building, a scene, a cell – and they cannot move far from their place, but like boil within boil their powers are amplified to the point they may establish their own laws drastically different from what the reality is, even taking into account the whole mess of ghola lifar itself. From flames that cannot be extinguished and locks that cannot be broken, to words that can only express the past or a riddle, to the extra moon moving along with hands of the clock.
Mirror-wrights have supernatural powers and are most dangerous opponents: facing them unprepared means death or a terrible, unending curse. What they are and where they come from is difficult to know – their minds are twisted, their tongues are mocking – but just before being banished they occasionally sigh for the 'Black Sea below', and this is all that is known.

Resolving a ghost
The violence is rarely an option. You are outnumbered by sleepwalkers, and overpowered by mirror-wrights, and there is no outside help. Occasionally you can enlist a help of another person who is similarly awake, but they are going to be on a verge of exhaustion from their own work, and, while they can offer a pair of eyes and a good advice, they rarely can come to help guns blazing. And guns don't help against ghosts or mirror-wrights anyway.

You can interrupt the 'performance' on a wide scale, usually by causing a huge fire or another calamity grand enough to endanger many of sleepwalkers' lives; in direct and immediate danger they will awake enough to flee and maybe break free entirely. It can halt the performance and even revert first- or second-stage ghola lifar. But hostage is usually unable to leave and dies, and on latter stages conceptual zombies don't care much about their well-being, with their will subverted so much they will keep finding excuses to remain in burning building but not to break 'the role' if this suits the ghost. Aside of collateral damage, such tactic and the following death toll usually escalates the ghola lifar into fifth stage immediately, or, rarely, even beyond that.

So your only reasonable solution is to hit the weakest spot – the ghost itself, the spiritual anchor of this whole mess – by discovering what really happened, and connecting all the clues, and eliminating all contradictions, and asking all painfully uncomfortable questions nobody wants to hear. If ghost remembers their life as it actually was and are unable to wiggle away into some other explanation, they break open, and are resolved, and pass on to whatever place they have to go, and the ghola lifar heals back into reality with people usually none of the wiser to what just happened.

Told you this wasn't a very rewarding job – barely anybody remembers anything to say thanks.
But the world is slightly less twisted at the end, and true dawn maybe slightly closer.

Barebones mechanics
1) Decide on your appearance, name and such.

2) Your stats are curiosity, compassion, courage and constitution. Unless modified by background, you assumed to be of average human physical capabilities.

Curiosity helps you to find the truth, to get to the answers faster. Compassion, the gift of open heart, helps to make connections easier. You need courage to make progress, and good constitution helps to endure the pain when events, inevitably, come to pain.

Roll 4d6 discard the lowest four times, in order. You can either reroll one stat, or switch two of them.

Your Life equals to your Constitution score; when Life is zero, you are either dead or worse.
Your Vitality, the resilience to all kinds of pain and hardships, equals to Courage + Compassion; when Vitality is zero, the pain is too much and you start losing Life. You can lose Life directly as well.
Vitality heals overnight fully or, in lesser way, by passing time.
Life heals only in hospitals, usually in days if not months. If you have to heal Life in the middle of the investigation, you usually lose too much time to save the hostage.

3) Roll or chose your background (>possible backgrounds) and personal items or connections to help you along the way (>more tables).
4) Optionally: roll or chose an office (>possible offices) as means of downtime research and recovery.

Principles I
The dungeon is ghola lifar: rooms are buildings or areas of interest, hallways are streets; although it is more point-crawl than a dungeon, on a scale of the neighbourhood or a city.

True memories, hard facts, unearthed secrets are treasures. In the world of distortions they are very valuable to resolve the ghost. Outside research is never clear and complete due to the nature of the ghost; it might be still helpful but it also takes time to conduct.
There is no Intelligence or Perception stat to roll, so all conclusions and observations has to be done by the player(s).

Truth also serve as defense – the more facts are established the higher the figurative AC is, although some facts could be used for defense only limited amount of time(s).

Some items found within ghola lifar work as one-use spells-or-potions to help you progress.

Detective attacks with questions – and all important questions use their own Vitality so player has to think about what they ask (like in "Speaking with dead" spell, which in a way, it is), but if the question catches on contradiction, exposes the fact or otherwise pieces through obfuscation, the next question is free (similar to Persona 5 attack into a weakness, and somewhat similar to Phoenix Wright court procedures). Technically you can ask as many questions as you want but without imbue of Vitality they are unable to break sleepwalkers' stasis and you get some platitude of no-answers.

(I think it is possible to re-purpose Feint-Block-Evade-Attack-Lunge and similar fighting techniques for interrogation)

Principles II
Investigations are on clock – time passes, usually in 10 min intervals for such actions as to search the room through or to change the location noticeably. It is 3+1d4 days until the ghost 'performance' is over and the hostage is dead. To recover Vitality fully you need at least 6 hours of sleep or 4 hours of sleep with a hit to one random stat. Taking short breaks restores a bit here and there. Some items might help too.

There is an escalation mechanics (re-purposed Chaos Index): the ghost starts in a calm state and the more disturbance to them and their cozy ghola world there is, the more it is aware and aggressive. It cannot do much on its own but it can direct zombies, influence sleepwalkers and assign mirror-wrights. Ghost isn't as much of a stand-alone monster as an environment or a weather that comes to hate the intruder detective.

It is possible to de-escalate the ghost or to learn more about their life by playing along with its performance up to certain degree but the risk here is losing yourself or running out of time.

Final confrontation:
- Assemble evidence
- Bear through ghost's rage
- Present your case
- If successful, bid final farewell
- Go home and get some rest

Possible campai(g)n
All these words are, technically, for one-shot game but, equally technically, Ghost Detective could level up on a number of ghosts successfully resolved and maybe gets some powers, connections or insights on their own up to some helpful magical familiar or actual arcanoi powers of their own.

For the added grimness and darkness, track the number of ghosts not successfully resolved as a separate 'levelling' progression of World Is Getting Worse.

There might be actual treasure unearthed to help to pay the rent, but probably nothing beyond ordinary lifestyle.

XP is used to point-buy more mundane abilities, one-shot preparations (treat as spells/gear) and/or raise stats, similar to World of Darkness. On a longer run, each year Ghost Detective loses a point from (randomly chosen) Compassion, Curiosity and Courage, just like the rest of the world does, until such stats hit the minimum of 7, the world average. The world isn't a good place right now. Maybe it can be resolved?

Examples and variations
Any sufficiently progressed ghola lifar (stage 4 and 5) merges into playing a dungeon as a travel through a mind or dungeon as a travel through a dream, as such place bleeds so much of the ghost's preferences, memories and perspective (all distorted) into the real world it becomes difficult to tell them apart.

As such, few other ideas could be re-skinned for ghost investigation:

> Tower of High Art: Ghola lifar presents itself as a magical tower which keeps the world from apocalypse by sacrifice of the chosen few individuals to keep the magical seal on Evil intact; each sacrifice's life then become a floor in a growing tower, immortalizing their contribution with pictures and significant items. In reality, the ghost is a serial killer and the 'tower' is their crime string, with their victims being sacrifices, and seal is their realization of their own nature.

> Garden of Magnetic Rose: based upon extremely good short SF animated story (somehow not yet adapted for Mothership) it might utilize depth mechanics to emulate the environment, and ghost to take place of AI.

> Dark Ashen Souls: "Dark Souls 3"-like land as an extreme example of distorted grieving. It is less about detective work through questioning, but more about detective work through connecting what is already there from treasure found and sights seen (as so much of actual lore-hunting in DS-games does). Areas serve as monsters, with their "attacks" taking form of separate creatures which die in one hit (for example, something like Undead Settlement will have first attack as 'dogs rush at you', second as 'few gaunts with touches lunge at you', third attack "evangelists breathes fire at you" and so on); defeating such 'monster' means that the character made progress through the area and mastered it enough so it isn't a problem on subsequent run through. Mirror-wrights take place of bosses.

> Options: for more than a single player game there might be classes; there might be options of no downtime available for harsher play or no clock/no hostage for softer play; or being a wright themselves for more of WoD Oblivion inclination.

I used to have a very low opinion on Hidden Object Games: they are glittery, they are saccharine, they are shallow, simple, cliche, full of repetitive simple puzzles, badly made characters and threadbare story. And they still all of those things but occasionally there are interesting moments in them (such as mirror-wrights and tower that grows floors from sacrifices) that it is currently my favourite place to discover some unexpected interesting details, some interesting shadow-settings.

And if to think about it, the world in such games is the world where people regularly meet all kind of supernatural – which _supposed_ to be previously unknown supernatural, the first ever confirmation in the history that supernatural actually exists – but nobody cares or even wonders about it at all, which gives that impression that the world takes a look at what is going on and then goes back to sleep, not caring in the slightest. As if bystander effect taken up to extreme apathy. As if Echo Dawn.

Aside of multitude of HOGs, this post is also inspired by "Blackwell" series, anime series "Mononoke" and "Mushishi", abovementioned "Magnetic Rose" and "Wraith: the Oblivion" to some small measure.