Friday, June 28, 2019

Into the Odd goes Space Opera (Session Report and notes on homebrewing a sci-fi ItO)

A xenolinguist arranges her own violent kidnapping. A massive firefight breaks out as cultist ex-policemen raid a village for captives and loot. Combat archaeologists make a narrow, last-minute escape from an ancient military vault haunted by a terrifying darkness...all on this episode of Gundobad Games.

Huh? That's a bit off from my usual posts about ancient history and gaming. But some local friends with a 5e D&D group graciously allowed me to hijack their GM's chair for a summer mini-campaign using my preferred minimalist rules, Chris M's Into the Odd. My players chose a sci-fi/space opera theme for our campaign, and we met a few nights ago for an action-packed Session One.

One of the great things about Into the Odd is just how quickly it can move, allowing you to pack an awful lot of stuff into an evening's gaming. In just a hair under three hours, we generated 4 characters and set them up with equipment, explained the core rules, described the setting of a brand new campaign, had three combat encounters (including a pretty big fight against 16 enemies with a heavy truck and belt-fed weapon), investigation, a tense social encounter, and a scary two-level ruin-crawl that culminated in a dramatic rescue with the clock ticking down to doom.

I am by no means the first to push the Into the Odd rules over for a sci-fi setting, but Into the Odd (hereafter just ItO) is the kind of game that really stimulates your own houseruling and tinkering, and my table is no exception. In what follows I'll offer a session report and also highlight some house-rules and creative adaptations (that's nerdspeak for shameless thieving) of other GM's great ItO ideas. So this should be of interest to fans of sci-fi gaming, fans of ItO, or those interested in constraints for running an open-table mini-campaign. Here's the outline:

+ my approach to character generation in ItO
+ brief session report
+ using the clock and the calendar as a constraint/tool
+ automatic weaponry in ItO (suppression and belt-fed heavy weapons)


We're running an open-table sandbox with a current pool of six players in the loop. Four showed up for Session One. We ended up with the following characters, all given color by a background/occupation system:

E. played a Police Psychologist with low STR who also was competent with heavy weapons (we joked that he must have some anti-grav suspensors on the belt-fed weapon). This guy also has an implant that allows him to detect, interface with, and attempt to hack wireless tech around him.

J. played a Criminal Clergyman (yup) with implanted sub-dermal armor. He had spent some time in the slammer, where a vacancy in the prison chaplaincy office led him to the world of ministry.

T1 played a Scholar (Physical Sciences) and Mechanic/Engineer with a metal bionic arm. Apparently he built the arm himself as a science project.

T2 played a Scout Soldier with a sniper rifle and a facial holographic projection unit - his real face has been replaced by a flat white screen which he can reorganize at will after about a minute's preparation.

In vanilla ItO, you roll 3d6 down the line for STR, DEX, and WIL, roll 1d6 for HP, then cross-check your HP and highest stat to find your starting equipment. This works really nicely for pickup play, but I've found that the quirky starting gear can become irrelevant once characters actually get settled into a campaign world and have the freedom to revise their inventories. Here's how I'm currently handling character generation in ItO games:

+ Roll 3d6 down the line for STR, DEX, WIL
+ swap any 2 of those stats, if you want to
+ Choose 2 character backgrounds. For this campaign, all players had to make at least 1 background be Soldier, Police, Scholar, or Criminal, and all players then chose to roll 1d20 to select their remaining background randomly from my list of sci-fi appropriate past vocations.
+ Choose 1 special ability. These were 4 weapon proficiencies (which grant a bonus damage die) and then 2 cleric/Capt. America-style 'rally the troops' type buffs.
+ Now roll 3d6 again.
+ Assign one of those 3 die results as your HP.
+ If you wish, discard a remaining die result in exchange for a third Background or second Special Ability.
+ Finally, if the total on your remaining 1 or 2 dice = 6+, you may roll 1d8 on a handy list of tactical augmentations and implants. For this list, I condensed and slightly modifed Sean Smith's d12 list from his Slick Thames ItO cyberpunk hack. [EDIT: I previously credited Norbert Matausch for Slick Thames, but as Norbert points out, Sean wrote Slick Thames and Norbert wrote the follow-up Seattle Slicks. Thanks, both!] The players really, really liked this part.
+ Finally, choose equipment. I just let players pick whatever they want, but they had to fit this within an equipment inventory management system inspired by Ben M's Knave and various other hacks/ideas out there: anybody fills up to 8 inventory slots without penalty; between 9 and your STR (if it's above 8), you're Encumbered (penalty to all physical Saves), and between STR and 18 you are Exhausted and fail any Save roll.


Eons ago, the aliens we call 'Olmecs' vanished, leaving only creepy ruins behind. Five centuries ago, the First Ecumene, held together by the Lion Star Hoplites, collapsed into a 300-year-long anarchy. Last year, the 250 systems of humanity's rebuilt Second Ecumene fell into civil war. Uh-oh. Since military garrisons have been deployed to the hot zones, local system prefects must now maintain order without proper military support, leaving real power increasingly in the hands of local militias.

Our player characters are the rag-tag crew of the Astral Burn (the AI pilot likes to call itself Abby), and a group of combat archaeologists (naturally, in this setting, raiding ruins for ancient high tech is likely to connect you with vicious dormant killer robots or things that want to eat your face). They jumped into the Scythian System half a year ago - and solar days later, the nav beacon that permits FTL travel across this whole ecumenical sector was destroyed in the war. That means they are stuck in the Scythian System for a long time. The local system governor, Prefect Yost, has become their patron; he'll patch up their ship and fund them very well, if they carry out his covert ops. Covert because he's lost real control over most of his assets to the local militias, including a suspicious cult: the Church of the Glorious Transference (other prominent religions in-system are Mahayana Buddhism and Interstellar Christian Orthodoxy). The Prophet of the Transference has recently proclaimed that the Transference is very near, when we will take on 'their' spiritual nature and they our physical nature, liberating us from the shackles of flesh...because the Prophet of Transference commands a small private army, Prefect Yost would really like to know more about their plans.

So. The Prefect sends Team Alpha investigate an old military vault in the mountains on a moon. Alas, our PCs aren't quite good enough to be Team Alpha; they are the B-Team, on hand to support Alpha if they need help. Meanwhile, the B-Team is sent to investigate the recent violent kidnapping of a xenolinguist whose work was funded by the Transference. Play opens as the PCs arrive at the abduction site, where a shattered truck lay on its side among some hoodoos, surrounded by dead cultists. And, unfortunately, where a pack of hungry carrion lizards were already starting to interfere with the crime scene...

So play really opened with a short, nasty fight with the lizards. The lizards managed to sneak around to the rear for an attack, and the machine-gun-toting psychologist got knocked out and almost dragged away as lunch. Judicious firepower, loyal friends, and a sympathetic morale roll finally drove off the lizards, but this meant that for the rest of the session, the machine-gunner was pretty close to death's door.

Clues at the crime scene included signs that the linguist had been shackled before her 'abduction' - suggesting that the abduction might really have been a rescue (props here to Advanced Adventures #7, The Sarcophagus Legion, for inspiring the initial elements of a story seed here with this idea) a smashed glass flask, some twisted colored wool fibres, and swoop bike tracks heading off into the desert. The bike tracks were soon covered by wind-blown dust, so PCs headed off onto my regional sandbox map to look for more info. En route to the linguist's work site, they found that a local Buddhist stupa had been ransacked, burned, and vandalized with the emblem of the Transference (a local town with police HQ had largely been subverted by the cult). At the linguist's work-site - an ancient 'Olmec' monolith covered in arcane glyphs - the PCs found a hidden research journal that demonstrated that:
+ the linguist had cracked the Olmec language
+ she realized that the Transference was doing something related to the Olmecs, something that put billions of lives at stake on their homeworld
+ she figured nobody would believe her, so she'd need to escape the cult's clutches, get help, and go find more evidence.

The PCs' next stop was a local village, Gordot, noted only for its pub, its shepherds, its distillery, and its carpet factory (hmm; smashed glass flask? colored wool fibres?). Locals were hostile and clearly assumed the players were really hitmen sent by the cult. They were just convincing the locals otherwise when a raiding party sent by the cult drew near, looking for 30 'volunteers' from the village. With about 20 minutes in-game advance notice, the players agreed to defend the village. They set up an ambush plan on a village map, and then things got rolling. We had a rollicking good fight; 4 pcs with 2 npc resisters vs. a cult commisar, 6 pistol-packing thugs, 6 rifle-armed former policemen, 2 cultists on swoop bikes, and a big police truck with a machine-gunner on top. It was an intense firefight and the ItO rules held up well, allowing nice flexibility in combat and mostly getting out of the way. Several Molotov cocktails were thrown, several keen sniper shots were made, a lot of machine gun fire was laid down, and in the end the PCs prevailed.

Finally, the players learned from their new allies that they were, in fact, friends of the linguist's rescuer/kidnappers (a small band of resisters...former policemen who were dismayed to see local police subverted by the Transference, and responded by reporting their weapons stolen, and 'retiring' to a nearby village where they hid the weapons beneath the carpet factory). The linguist and her ex-cope guard friends had gone off to raid an old military vault in the mountains that should have more evidence of whatever was going on with the Olmecs. At the same time, Abby (the AI pilot of the players' ship) called to say that Team Alpha - currently raiding an old military vault in the mountains - had lost contact, and could the PCs please go bail them out...oh, and long-range scans showed that the Transference had just launched a small convoy toward this moon, including some light fighters, and so could you all please move post-haste...

Hard-scene frame to the entrance to the military vault; players went inside, found bodies and broken security droids from an older attempt to raid the vault, and found evidence that this was a First Ecumene outpost manned by the Lion Star Hoplites - who had been guarding something that went 'uncontained.' The inventory system here showed its real chops, as the players found a really sweet ancient melee weapon in a storage locker - and almost left it behind because they wanted to avoid encumbrance.

Oh, and once they were a few rooms into the vault...the PCs started hearing a voice in their head saying things like "Ssssssoooo many words...for fear...", which, uh, didn't make them feel confident.

An elevator shaft at the back of the vault had three rappelling cables anchored...their friends/allies/whoever were downstairs. Descending through the elevator shaft brought them to a dark platform ... slippery with blood ... with the front half of a squad automatic weapon lying in the corner. The platform led to flooded rooms below and a creaky, rusty, metal gantry above, both leading to left and right off into the darkness. One flooded room turned out to have half-submerged, ancient computer banks... and part of a Team Alpha crewmember floating around. Oh, and the creepy voice was back in their heads...("when I've eaten everything you can won't have to feel anything any more..."). It was about this point where players started urgently discussing the real possibility of bailing and aborting the mission (this was music to my ears as GM, not because I wanted them to fail but because it showed I was achieving the effects I had aimed at, I guess...). They went up one of the gantries, crossed into a central room, and found the dehydrated, semi-conscious linguist lying inside a containment field where she'd taken refuge from...something. She saw them...raised half-up...croaked 'you have to take my backpack, and LEAVE!' There was an angry roar from deeper in the complex. One player grabbed the backpack and then heroically headed at the double for the exit. The soldier-scout scooped up the linguist onto his shoulder and started climbing back up the ladder to the exit gantry (the player got a dilemma: roll a STR save, success means you can carry her away in time, failure means you both land on your backs at the base of the ladder...). Around this time, boot-steps were heard from deeper rooms coming their way. As they all reached the elevator shaft, something like a 10'-long sausage made of pure darkness materialized behind them, shifted into the shape of something like a bear with two giant paws, and psychically voiced its desire to devour their fears...Players who had harpoon grapples shot them into the ceiling above while those without started hand-over-handing it up the cables...the horrible dark beast followed them up the elevator shaft and started attacking...the players at the top started spraying fire down the shaft (all rpg sessions should end with somebody firing a machine-gun down a dark elevator shaft, don't you think?) and the players JUUUUUUUST managed to make it out in time to jump into their ship, which Abby had brought around. They escaped the moon just as Transference fighters entered the atmosphere.


The aftermath: so, of Team Alpha, the linguist, and the linguist's guards, only the linguist came back alive. The linguist tells the party that the Olmecs, too, had a civil war...they locked away most of their own nightmare enemies in quantum-sealed prisons. Only a few aren't locked away - the old Lion Star Hoplites had half-released one and were studying it in the undergound vault. But most of the Olmec shadow-worms should languish in half-reality forever...unless something weakens the seals.

Naturally, in true evil cultist fashion, the Transference has been weakening the seals, working actively to return these ancient monsters to reality. The Olmecs did leave several control orbs that can re-seal the vaults, (Oh look, a MacGuffin!) but if this isn't done soon, then about 100,000 shadow-worms like the thing in the vault will burst out across the Transference's homeworld, where 5 billion civilians currently reside...


One thing that really helped add tension was the presence of some real-world time constraints. I've announced that (for different narrative reasons and for eminently practical real-life reasons) each session in our mini-campaign will have a real-world ticking clock that ends with a TPK if the party hasn't left the operational area yet. To be honest, I was a little more flexible this time, since we had needed to use time for character generation, to introduce the system, equipment, etc., so the players didn't have quite as much time as I'd normally want to complete a pretty action-packed session. I'd initially said that 10:15 was the stroke of doom, and we instead changed that to...10:30, so it's not really like we broke the bank. :-) In this case, Transference fighter-craft were coming, and they would probably be too much for Abby to handle, so there was a real need to finish things. The players really got this, and one thing that made the final rescue in the vault so dramatic was that the clock was ticking down in real life even as horrible dark things were coming to eat the players' minds in the story. Very satisfying finish.

I've also announced that the Evil Villains' Doomsday Plan (trademark) will happen, if the suitable MacGuffin fix is not applied, in real-world September (just have to confirm the date looking at a real calendar). In other words, we have an open table in a semi-flexible sandbox setting; I'll provide multiple possible jobs for the party to run each time, and they can choose whatever they want. Oh, and if they don't stop the villains' plans by September, then 5 billion people die and the PCs lose the campaign. No worries, what could go wrong?

I didn't come up with these ideas but was inspired by others who've led open table campaigns. I haven't tried it before and I'm really sold now after seeing the effects in one session.


For machine guns, I borrowed (again, shamelessly thieved) the automatic fire rules from the ItO hack Into the Jungle (a quirky game about D&D-style fantasy monster fighting...during the Vietnam War). These rules have the firer make a series of d20 saves with rapidly increasing difficulty, with each success inflicting damage on a target, and failure meaning you've used up an ammo reload and need to spend a turn reloading (and reducing inventory). At first, I wasn't sure how well this would work in play. Report: it was awesome. I didn't (and wouldn't) use these rules for all automatic fire, but rather just for heavy weapons. It really made them feel special and over-powered, but also unreliable.

Great fun. Thanks for reading.

And don't worry, I haven't forgotten my roots in dusty, musty, blog posts about ancient history and archaeology. Stay tuned. :-)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"What do you smell? Man-Flesh!" Scent, Wind Direction, and a Curious Gap in Encounter Procedures

Critics still remember the 1985 Schwarzenegger film Commando for its artful cinematography, its understated acting, and its profound interrogation of the human condition. Wait, sorry, they don’t. Not at all. What *I* remember from that movie is the scene when Ah-nuld tells off a soldier assigned to protect him during an ambush:

Ah-nuld: Remember, you’re downwind. The air current may tip them off.
Soldier: Downwind? You think I can smell them coming?
Ah-nuld: I did. 

Smelling the enemy is not just a Hollywood idea; scent discipline is a real feature in modern warfare (though, if my understanding is correct, it tends to be most important in the close conditions of jungle fighting; since contact may occur with hidden enemies at very, very close range, human smells and especially detergents, tobacco, etc. could alert a concealed threat). 

Detecting an enemy (or a predator, or prey) is far more important in the Animal Kingdom. Although I’m not a hunter, I’ve spent much of my life near wilderness and/or around hunters. I learned one of the fundamentals as a kid: if you want to have any chance at stalking an animal, you must pay attention to the direction of the wind. Approach from upwind, and you have no chance. But again, I’m not a hunter - so don’t take my word for it. Take these folks’ instead. 

“Nothing gets past a deer’s nose … And it’s easy to forget about scent. Sure you notice obvious odors, but you simply don’t realize how much you smell like a human being when you’re in the bush. You may think you’re scent-free, but to any downwind wild critter - save a skunk - you smell big and bad. … Remember, if there’s one golden rule of deer hunting, it’s never to get caught upwind.” 

Also from Outdoor Canada
“So, if you want a guaranteed way to foil your [moose] hunt, ignore the wind and call from an upwind position. Even worse, wear hunting clothes that reek like smoke, bacon, and other camp smells. In either case, you can say adios to your moose roasts.” 

From RealTree:
“Researchers at Mississippi State University found that a deer’s sense of smell, like a dog’s, can be anywhere from 500 to 1,000 times more acute than a human’s. Furthermore, scientists say that whitetails have thousands of sensitive receptors in their nostrils, which they use to sort out up to six smells at one time. For more than 50 years Leonard Lee Rue III … has done more to educate the American public on the ways of whitetail than anyone. Rue observes that [on a day with] ideal scenting conditions for a buck … ‘a deer could detect a human’s scent from at least one half-mile, or more.’ … How do you defeat the whitetail’s awesome nose? You can’t. You can only stay in the game by playing the wind and practicing good scent control on every hunt.”

To be clear, it’s not just prey animals that can find you a long way away with their noses. Not all predators are whiz-bang sniffers; tigers, for example, don’t particularly rely on scent for hunting. Bears, however, can smell 2,100 times more effectively than you can; they can “detect a carcass that is about 20 miles away, and polar bears can follow a sexually receptive sow’s scent over 100 miles.” Stacked up against the competition, then, human sense of smell is pretty measly. They can smell us a looooooooong way away. 

Ok, now let’s translate this to the fantasy-gaming table. You have a party of footloose adventurers crossing, say, the Isle of Dread, or some other wilderness area. They smell strongly of human, not to mention every campfire they’ve sat around on this journey...not to mention the seasonings in the food they’ve been munching on the journey...not to mention any other unpleasant things that have spattered on them in recent combat encounters. And they are traversing a wilderness that is full, our Monster Manuals assure us, of things much, much scarier than whitetail deer and even grizzly bears. Nightmare creatures that want to find them and eat them.

Sniff sniff ... where are you, PCs? (Source)

One might rightly expect, therefore, that scent control and wind direction would be very important at the gaming table. 

Indeed, scent and wind direction play a prominent role in OSR discussions of encounter design. For example:


Oh wait, scent and wind direction don’t play much of a role in our conversations, at least as far as I can tell. Ok, to be fair, it’s not the case that there isn’t any consideration of it; for example, my B/X Essentials Monsters entry for Cave Bear notes that such creatures have poor eyesight but a good sense of smell, and elaborates that ‘when hungry’ they will follow a blood trail by smell. Contrast that with the entry for tigers; surprise, on a 1-4, in woodland, due to camouflage. But there is little sense here that scent detection, dependent to some extent on wind direction, is going to play a major role in shaping the likelihood of an overland encounter with a bear (let alone something much worse), the likelihood that the party may be surprised by that encounter, and even the direction from which a creature’s attack comes. And honestly, after doing some poking around, I don’t see much discussion about scent within the OSR at all.  

A quick aside: please do not interpret anything here as a criticism of B/X Essentials (not to mention the original B/X) or the wonderful work that Gavin is putting out these days. Nor am I trying to attack anyone else. Rather, I’ve just stumbled on something that I think is a noteworthy gap in our conversations as a gaming community, and I’m hoping either that you will all school me in the comments and show me that this is already taken care of or doesn't need addressed because it's not worth gaming out - or, instead, maybe we can think together about how to harness monstrous sniffers in helpful, fun ways…

If we move beyond the OSR specifically, we see a little more engagement with scent and wind direction, though not (IMHO) to full advantage. Some random examples: 

+ a 3.5-era entry on playable Minotaurs granted them keen scent which would allow them - upon reaching 4th level - to detect creatures by smell up to 10 feet away, or - oh, the power! - up to 20 feet away if the creature was upwind. That’s massively underwhelming compared to ‘run of the mill’ animals in the real world. 

+ I've seen some discussions about characters with keen senses being able to detect invisible foes by smell, e.g. gaining Advantage on rolls to perceive such enemies. I also found a reddit post discussing what a dog-as-player-character would be able to smell. 

+ Lots of attention to wind intensity as part of the weather, mainly for traveling by sea or for its effect on part endurance. Notably, just going off what I've found myself online, the RPG hobby appears to have invested more ink in the random likelihood of a tornado hitting the party - and the Fort save DC should that occur - than the likelihood that a monster would stalk them from downwind. Surely I must be missing something? 

+ Even…yes…personal fragrances (as in cologne and perfume, yo) matched with the classic character classes, or scents-as-special-effects. 

What I don’t see - and again, please do point it out if I’m just not seeing what’s already there - is any prominent, useful generalized treatment of how and when to include wind direction as a normal part of the wilderness encounter process. So - step 1, tell me in the comments if I’m wrong; step 2 - assuming I’m not wrong; what might we do about it? 

Personally, I have no interest in creating mechanical complexity just for the sake of verisimilitude alone. Hyper-simulation isn’t my preferred cup of tea. I’m interested in harnessing scent and wind direction where they increase fun and especially where they increase meaningful tension and player choice.

To that end, here are a few possible approaches; I invite readers to add other ideas in the comments. 

IDEA ONE: develop a perfectly tuned, hypercrunchy simulation of wind direction, scent, monster scent-gland sizes, etc. Nope, not for me, for reasons stated above. Maybe someone else would like this. 

IDEA TWO: Hand-wave it. Turn scent and wind direction into flavor text. The party managed to evade a random encounter? Tell them it was because the Ranger stealthily led them downwind from the thing she’d tracked. The party gets hit by a surprise encounter? Mention the wind blowing in their faces right before you describe them getting jumped from behind. This would work, but it doesn’t add meaningful choices.  

IDEA THREE: Incorporate scent and wind direction only where you know its effect on player choice, mainly as a tactical puzzle in fixed encounters. For example, your players are rushing to rescue a local official abducted by hungry humanoid foes. You tell them that they’ve tracked the baddies to a camp on a bluff overlooking a river. The wind is blowing up the gentler slope into the enemy camp; any direct assault or incursion from that direction will face a steep chance of detection by keen humanoid noses. If the players want, they could try to sneak around and climb up the steep riverbank bluff instead, which would be risky but would put them in the camp from downwind. Or, they can wait and roll every hour to see if the wind direction changes - but hope the captors don’t eat the prisoner before the rescue can happen ("What about their legs? They don't need those, do they?"). That’s 3 different and meaningful tactical choices all dictated by the fact that their humanoid enemies can smell “man-flesh.”

[Side-Note: I used exactly this method last time I ran a game, although I simply rolled a d12 as a clock face to find the wind direction. But I was GM’ing for kids and they got distracted by an argument over whether or not to shoot flaming arrows into the woods, hoping that a forest fire would flush out the hobgoblin bandits waiting to ambush them. :-) ]

IDEA FOUR: Make scent and wind direction a key component in random encounter rolls and overland travel procedures, but without loading it down with crunchy simulationism. I am not yet quite sure how I’d want to do this, and I should give all of you a chance to shout me down before I invest too much thought into it. Maybe your random encounter table for a given landscape should note which creatures on the list have particularly keen smell. If you roll an encounter with such a creature, immediately roll 1d12; “1” is the direction in which the PCs are currently traveling. If the d12 shows a wind direction coming from anywhere behind the PCs, past them into the land they’re moving into, then the encountered creature automatically knows they are coming, and the very best the PCs can achieve is to not be surprised themselves. But how to introduce some tactical choice here? 

Maybe this calls for something in between the "spoor/sign" encounter result and the actual encounter - a little minigame that gives the party a chance to outmaneuver the wind and a suspected monster - or to spend a resource, like time, to hide in a cave until the wind changes, or pick a longer alternate path that is less exposed to the wind. Or to just bull through, and fight the owlbear that's looking for lunch when it inevitably catches them. 

Hmmm. Let me know what you think; good ideas here, or does it all just smell? 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Moving Experience for Dead PCs

I’d like to comment on a conversation that recently caught my interest, but happened while I was busy working on Brazen Backgrounds and didn’t want to divert to comment at much length. The key idea under discussion has evidently been around for quite a while in a variety of forms - namely, that you can redeem back a good chunk of your deceased character’s XP if you recover their body and throw a suitably expensive funeral for them. The In Places Deep blog discussed a variant of this idea a few months ago; I’m pretty sure that there also was even more discussion recently that (arghh!) I thought I’d bookmarked but now can’t find, even with some Google-Fu. 

At any rate…paying treasure to redeem a dead PC’s experience points offers a number of advantages (which others have already noted before me): it can mitigate that feeling of being the one Level 1 character in a pack of Level 6’ers; it can benefit the party as a whole, since they don’t lose as much competence per PC death; it can give absolutely loaded characters something to actually do with all that loot; it can help players transition emotionally and mentally between characters, and highlight meaningful connections with new characters (maybe a long-lost cousin - your new character - is the one throwing the massive funeral); and it can change play in meaningful ways by incentivizing new behaviors, like risking death or dismemberment just to get back the body of a fallen comrade and transport it to civilization (I’m not going to drop spoilers, but a recent Netflix Original action movie revolved around exactly this kind of abrupt mission-adjustment, and struck me as analogous to a dungeon crawl gone wrong). Someone mentioned that you could require a funeral on consecrated ground, or at least incentivize such a location. Doing so, worth noting, would automatically flag certain places/things as more important in your setting.

It’s that last piece that I’d like to unpack a little in this post. Reading about this “PC funeral for XP” idea immediately reminded me of a somewhat recent academic study addressing the return of bodies to ancestral homes from overseas in the Roman and Greek world. The point I want to stress is how this funeral concept also lets one highlight cultural values that run very deep in your setting (well, if you want them to, that is) - in a way that signals that even your murderhobo PC runabouts, as footloose and isolated as they may appear, actually belong somewhere - and at the end of the day (err, life), someone is looking for them to come home. 

Perhaps he was a Level 5 Fighter. (Source)

For the two and a half of you who will care about the precise details, the study is:

Rolf E. Tybout. “Dead Men Walking: The Repatriation of Mortal Remains” in Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire, edited by Luuk de Ligt and Laurens Ernst Tacoma, 390-437. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 

Ok, I’m going to let Tybout speak for himself with some direct quotes, then I’ll comment briefly on using this idea at the game table. 

“The repatriation of corpses appears to have been more widely spread, both geographically and socially, than has generally been acknowledged … in archaeological reports.” (391)

“Dying abroad was a grievous matter in itself; although it could cause relatives excessive sorrow, this might be mitigated somewhat by being able to grant the deceased his last journey home … To be left to lie in alien soil, far away from family and native community, is a frequent source of lamentation [in funerary inscriptions] … If it was impossible to retrieve the body, the next best option open to the bereaved family was to erect a cenotaph in a graveyard in the deceased’s hometown, so that its members would at least have a tangible and lasting focus for commemoration…” (394-5)

“Obviously, the considerable time span involved in the whole process meant that the bodies could not be brought home intact … it is clear that some form of preservation of the corpse was required for long-distance repatriation. … Cremation would have been necessary to strip the flesh and reduce the body to ashes or bones … bones are likely to survive intact when heated for a relatively short duration and not subjected to the very high maximum temperature of the funeral pyre. … Two [Greek] poems certainly describe the transportation of bones …” (398)

“Needless to say, the operation was complex and must have involved considerable trouble and all sorts of expenses. In the ideal situation … relatives already present at the place of death accompanied the body on its way to the homeland. But in most cases companions or colleagues will have taken care of a traveller’s or migrant’s funeral. Days, even weeks must have passed before relatives even received notice of the death of their loved one; they would have had to travel, perhaps after deliberations in the family circle, to destinations often beyond their horizons, where they would have had to find out how the body has been dealt with so far and where the remains were located. They would have found either an urn or another receptacle containing the ashes or bones or a grave in which the bones or the intact body had been interred. In the latter case, they would have had to obtain permission to disinter the remains. If time had not already dissolved the flesh, cremation would have been inevitable after disentombment. Finally they would have had to organize transport home. In all its variants, the whole procedure of repatriation might have taken months rather than weeks. … That at least twenty-three of the 142 epigrams considered in this study attest to repatriation post mortem, implying that about one-sixth of the relatives opted to spare no effort to achieve this end and accomplished their objective, is indicative of its vital role and ritual function in the contemporary ways of coping with grief and bereavement.” (400)

[Tybout notes that some sources indicate that dead travelers were embalmed prior to transport] “However, the people concerned are all Egyptians, for whom the unity of body and spirit expressed by this most thorough variant of embalmment was of vital importance. Greeks and Romans, who shared in the age-old belief that the spirit should be set free by the decay of the body, did not consider the latter’s perpetual conservation an appropriate treatment. We have seen that cremation, with the ashes and bones remaining, was the normal way for Greeks and Romans to evade the problem of putrefaction during transport.” (408) [But, Tybout notes, in some cases even Greeks and Romans would resort to the temporary preservation of whole remains using wax, salt, or honey, but only for transport]. 

“All this puts the picture of widespread, largely voluntary mobility arising from sundry sources into a somewhat different perspective. Perhaps it would have been unlikely for migrants to encounter physical or legal boundaries, but many of them will have had mental barriers to overcome as they set out on their journeys. Numerous … sources testify in one way or another to the extremely strong bonds of affection which connected them to their ancestral home and native soil, the trusted communities in which they had grown up in the bosom of the loving families they had left behind. These bonds were to last a lifetime, and beyond: repatriation post mortem was, in a sense, an act of reparation - of restoring the natural order disturbed by migration. … [For] most Greeks or Romans, no matter how much they chose to wander in a world whose open frontiers allowed them to travel or migrate as often as they wishes … whatever fruits ‘foreign earth’ might have yielded to its immigrants, the outside world remained second rate compared to their homeland.” (415). 



Ok, time for a few ideas to elaborate on how all this can be put to use at the gaming table:

+ first: there’s nothing wrong with the idea of paying gold to harvest a dead PC’s experience points - in fact, although this idea probably arises out of gamers’ very pragmatic concerns, it perfectly reflects the kinds of psychological and cultural factors that would have shaped end-of-life rituals in some prominent ancient societies. This is a huge win-win in my book, as it allows something that is mechanically helpful just for the purpose of playing a game, and also makes that game even deeper and more expressive of historical realities. 

+ as Tybout notes, different adjacent cultures might handle these practices in different ways; Greeks and Romans preferred to transport charred dry bones; Egyptians preferred embalmment; and, as Tybout goes on to note, the Christinaization of the Roman world led in some cases to less concern about one’s final resting place, as the deceased awaited resurrecting life from a single God present in every corner of Creation. If your game has several different cultures existing cheek-by-jowl, it could be interesting to determine in advance how each prefers to handle their dead - and in particular how they handle their dead when far from home. This can even be relevant for PCs all of the same culture, if they wander into foreign territory…for example, if your culture mandates embalmment but the locals consider that some weird heathen superstition, good luck finding an embalmer (or at least a trustworthy one - maybe the only choice has about a 35% chance of actually turning your friend into an undead horror for purposes of his own…mwuahahah…). Finding a really large clay jar, and a LOT of honey or salt, may be next on your remaining PCs’ agenda…

+ these cultural practices allow for a hierarchy of preferred funerary-transport methods which can fit seamlessly into a hierarchy of XP gains in different circumstances. Could’t recover that PC’s body at all? Maybe you still get a fraction of the XP for setting up a funerary cenotaph on home turf. Is transport overseas unsafe or otherwise impossible? Set up a proper burial in a less-desired spot for more XP than just a cenotaph, but less XP than a proper tomb back home with the ancestors. 

+ Ok, now how to define “home” turf? In many campaigns, this should be easy to do. But there may be some campaigns where this is more complicated; maybe characters are from all over the place, but the frame of play itself is within a more narrowly defined sandbox far from home (which I think is actually a better more manageably game-able idea in most cases than a giant continent-spanning epic). Or maybe most of your characters are locals but one player is running a barbarian from far away; do you want to penalize the barbarian player because of a distant point of origin? Here are a few possible work-arounds:

+ designate some place that is familiar and within reach in your campaign ‘frame’ as home turf for each PC. This may be their literal point of origin or, for more footloose characters, it may be a kind of new home away from home where they’ve found meaningful connections. So maybe your barbarian from a distant land has fallen in with a group of fellow tribes members living in exile or as mercenaries far from home, and they band together for common identity. Burial among them counts as ‘home.’ 

+ handle travel for burial with an epic montage. The character was able to get here, so they should be able (in most circumstances) to get back there. But that doesn’t mean we should necessarily derail this campaign for a seven-session narration of the long voyage back to the Republic of Thneed. Instead, if the players have clearly been able to recover the body and get it into shape for transport (embalmed, partially cremated, fully cremated, pickled, salted, etc.) then whenever they have extended downtime between sessions they can pay the requisite GP-for-XP so long as they provide a stirring, brief narration of how the other PCs and/or extended family members took the body home to its resting place.

+ or you just go full tilt and you have to game out every step of the way. Good luck. 

What a morbid but interesting topic. Cheers all!

By the way - I want to close with a very hearty THANK YOU to those who’ve purchased my rpg supplement BRAZEN BACKGROUNDS: Character Backgrounds for Bronze Age Settings. I really appreciate the patronage from all who’ve picked it up, and I’d love to hear how you use it. If you’re interested, you can check it out here (affiliate link).