Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Major Arcana: The Nhing Codex

Over on the Dungeon World Discord, Razorkiss asked this interesting question:

Imagine you're trying to model scary Mythos tomes in DungeonWorld. Y'know, we're talking about The Necronomicon here. You want to create a custom move that represents the dangers of reading it, the dangers of gaining knowledge at the expense of sanity. I feel like the first instinct would be that this is a +WIS move, because, y'know, the Will save and all of its attendant baggage. But... is that the way you'd really want to go? It's basically saying, "Y'know, Wizard, you'd think you'd be the person who would be all over this custom move, but it turns out your buddies the Ranger, Druid, and Cleric are better-suited for this job..."
When you read the obviously evil book, roll +???

Queue discussion about whether it'd be an INT roll or CHA roll or whatever.

And my first instinct was to treat it the way I treat major arcana in Stonetop. 

(discussion after the break)

Major Arcana

In Stonetop, there are (to date) 18 "major arcana".  They're potent magical items (or close enough) that the PCs can unlock over time. The details vary a lot from arcanum to arcanum, but the general structure is:

  • The arcanum provides a potentially useful move right away.
  • There's a path towards unlocking more and more of the arcanum's power. Often (but not always), that path involves using the initial move. 
  • Unlocking the arcanum's mysteries gives you a potent new move (or moves), but using those moves runs the risk of accumulating Consequences.
  • Consequences are a limited list of Bad Things that the player picks from. There's usually 6-8 of them, and some are passing problems, others are mixed-blessings, and others are really bad. The player sees what the options are, and at first the options aren't that bad. But, about the time that they're really getting used to what this thing can really do, the "not that bad" options dry up and they're left looking at really unpleasant stuff.
Basically, the major arcana end up being little player-controlled grim portents. It's a delightful experience in play.

With that general structure, there's a lot of room to play. For example, here's the Azure Hand:

art by Jason Lutes

The starting move is potentially quite useful, though also quite dangerous. You unlock the mysteries by using it and screwing up. Using it and screwing up means that the power goes out of control, making Eye of the Storm a very appealing initial power to unlock, and it then starts generating Consequences. But you have to keep using (and screwing up with) the staff to unlock the other two powers.

But here's a very different sort of major arcana, the Blood-Quenched Sword:

art by Jason Lutes (again)

Again, you unlock the mysteries by using this arcana, but with this one, it's generally by doing it successfully (albeit bloodily). But that gets you just the first advanced move (Unquenched), which requires marking Consequences to use. And to get the second move (A Flickering Flame), you have to accumulate 3 Consequences.

Point being: it's a flexible structure, and a great way to reflect the slow (or not-so-slow) corruption that potent magical items can inflict on a PC. So if you're looking for a way to model "the dangers of gaining knowledge at the expense of sanity," this seems like a great fit.

The Nhing Codex

Going back to Razorkiss's initial question, I'm picturing a "basic" power that involves that reading through the book and getting flashes of insight and deeper understanding. That seems like an INT check to me, not WIS. Meanwhile, the growing insight itself should start messing with the character right away. And it seems like, in the literature that spawns these types of books, there's always a risk of unleashing terrible, uncontrolled power.  

So, here's our starting set of moves:

The Nhing Codex 

When you spend hours and hours pouring through the cryptic text and perusing the unsettling engravings, roll +INT. On a 10+, both. On a 7-9, pick 1: 

  • Ask the GM a question about the Things that Dwell in Outer Darkness, or the Priest-Kings of Ancient Nhing, and get an honest answer. 
  • Gain 1 Gnosis.

On a 6-, mark XP and tell the GM one of the following:

  • The name/title of the Thing that you've accidentally called into the world (e.g. Dyakon Many-Winged, Iiliaphaz Whose Tongue is Fire, Zzykiliost the Thief of Warmth)
  • The shape or visage of the Thing that has started peering at you out of the shadows, and why it terrifies you so
  • The nature of the curse that you've unwittingly unleashed on someone else (the GM decides on who)

Gnosis: O O O O

When you hold any Gnosis and you Make Camp, roll +Gnosis. On a a 12+, pick 1, but also gain great insight--lose all your Gnosis and learn a Nhing Codex Spell of your choice. On a 10-11, pick 2. On a 7-9, pick 1. On a 6-, don't mark XP; your dreams are merely disquieting.

  • You get little sleep, and what you manage is not restful; regain no HP.
  • You dreams are insightful yet disturbing; ask the GM a question about the Things that Dwell in Outer Darkness or the inhabitants of Priest-Kings of Ancient Nhing, but mark a debility. 
  • You do... strange things... in your sleep. The GM will say what. 

When you cast a spell learned from the Nhing Codex, roll +INT. On a 10+, the spell works as described. On a 7-9, the spell works, but choose 1 from the list below. On a 6-, mark a consequence in addition to whatever the GM says.

  • You draw unwelcome attention or put yourself in a spot (ask the GM how)
  • Something shifts in your mind; take a -1 penalty (cumulative) to cast a codex spell. When you would gain Gnosis, you can instead remove this penalty.  

So we've got a general move that can prompt a GM info dump and/or get you closer to unlocking some spells, while also making you less likely to have a pleasant sleep. Oh, and you can accidentally unleash evil on the world. 

In order to make this something people actually want to use, we need to make the spells that it provides pretty darn powerful. And the Consequences should be all about the corruption (mental and physical) that comes from trucking with these powers.


Mysteries of the Nhing Codex


[ ] Twist the Senses: Name someone and hold 3 Sway over them. Spend 1 Sway to twist their senses, making them perceive something that is not true.

[ ] Grasping Darkness: Start chanting and point at a place of shadows; a mass of inky black tentacles (15 HP, 2 armor) bursts forth. They deal d8+1 damage (reach, area, grabby, forceful) to anything they can grasp, but they last only as long as you keep chanting. 

[ ] Baleful Utterance: Speak a foul word. One object in your presence shatters, and the ears of all who hear the word bleed (1d4 damage, ignores armor, temporarily deafened).

[ ] Vox Umbra: Grasp the voice of someone who is speaking with an inky tendril. The tendril slithers down their throat. While this spell persists, they cannot speak of their own accord, and instead say whatever you wish, black bile pouring from their mouth as they do so. The spell ends if you cast another spell.

[ ] Night Falls: Snap your fingers. All light sources in near range are snuffed out. 

[ ] Pour Forth: Name someone. They spend the next few minutes vomiting vile black fluid, incapable of doing much more than staggering about or crawling. 

[ ] Flow Through Me: The Outer Darkness twists your body in a useful, impossible way (describe it). You lose 1d6 hit points, and the effect ends as soon as you roll a miss.

[ ] Darksome Servant: Call up a lesser being of the Outer Darkness. Name one ability that you wish it to possess, and one task you wish it to perform. The GM will tell you want it wants. Pay its cost and it will perform you task. Refuse, and it runs free.

[ ] Dismissal: Name a thing of the Outer Darkness in your presence. It is banished back from whence it came. 

[ ] No Hiding from the Darkness: Look into someone's eyes and ask them a question. They must answer you, wholly and truthfully. They will forever after suffer from nightmares.

[ ] Night Puppet: A black tendril of your power crawls from your mouth and into a dead thing, animating it. Spend 1 to 10 HP; your puppet has as many HP as you spend. 


[ ] Your drive/alignment becomes "Upset another with your compulsive behaviors."

[ ] Henceforth, anyone who Makes Camp in your presence suffers from disturbing dreams. Ask them to tell you about them. 

[ ] Your eyes become inky orbs of darkness; you can see in even absolute darkness, but nearly blinded by full daylight. 

[ ] One of your limbs becomes... wrong. Tell us how.

[ ] Your blood is black and foul-smelling; you are immune to poisons, but heal only half the usual amount of HP. 

[ ] When you look into someone's eyes, you can ask their player/the GM "What fills you with fear or disgust?" and get an honest answer.

[ ] [ ] [ ]  One of the Priest-Kings of Ancient Nhing demands a task of you. Until you complete it, you have disadvantage to cast a codex spell.  

[ ] You hear the whispers of the Outer Dark. When they compel you to act, mark XP if you do as bidden. If you resist, roll +WIS; on a 10+, your will is your own; on a 7-9, it takes time or aid from a friend to shake off the compulsion; on a 6-, do as they wish or do something drastic, right now, to drown out the whispers. 



The biggest critique I have is that I couldn't get this to fit on the 2-sided half-sheets that I use for the other Stonetop major arcana. I'd have to prune the spell list quite a bit and probably crunch up the language on the "front" page as well.

The second critique is that the Consequences feel more about corrupting the individual PC with the power they're using and less about the cost this has on their sanity--which is what originally prompted me to start this whole exercise.  I'm not sure that it's actually a problem, as the initial moves for studying the book and Making Camp with Gnosis gets at a lot of the mental toll of digging into the book.  

The final critique, then, is that the Consequences are sufficiently bad. Like, it feels like there should be ~2 of them that are, like, "oh, you've opened a portal to the Outer Darkness and let All The Bad Things in."  But, again, maybe that doesn't need to be part of the arcana itself. The Things in the Outer Darkness and the Priest-Kings of Ancient Nhing sure seem like they'd be a set of fronts/dangers with an impending doom and grim portents all their own, and the Consequences would then probably rope the PC into helping those grim portents along.  












  1. There's a small typo on Darksome Servant:

    "Pay it is cost and" -> "Pay its* cost and"

    1. Dang, if that's the only typo in this article, I'm doing about 1000% better than usual.

      Thanks! (Fixed.)

  2. This is great! Question: I’m starting a new campaign with level 1 characters and a group that’s never played DW before and some who have never played :any: RPG before. Would you dive right in with this, or give it some time?

    1. I'd probably introduce it pretty early, but maybe as a "treasure" at the end of the first adventure. Give the players a chance to figure out who their characters are and how they work :without: this eldritch albatross hanging around their necks. Also, give the players a chance to get used to the system before in general before they start handling a whole new subsystem.

      Oh, and just as important: maybe your players won't :want: to keep and/or use something like this. That's an important statement they get to make about their characters.

      In Stonetop, the majority of major arcana come as a part of a decision made at character creation. If you pick the Seeker playbook, you start with one of 3 backgrounds (Patriot, Antiquarian, or Witch-Hunter) and each of those backgrounds provides a choice between 3 major arcana. So you're largely defining your character based on the arcanum you choose. Just dumping this on, say, a standard DW Bard or Wizard without their buy-in seems like a bad idea, player-engagement-wise.

  3. Dude, this is just awesome and makes me even more excited for Stonetop. Hopefully some version of the Nhing Codex will be a Major Arcanum when it comes out.

    1. Horst! Good to hear from you, and thanks for the kind words!

      I doubt that *this particular* codex will end up Stonetop, but that's because 1) it's a bit too long to fit on the cards and 2) it's setting details don't quite mesh with Stonetop's.

      But fear not! We've got the "creepy-ass magic tome" niche well and thoroughly covered. In fact, it was maybe the 2nd or 3rd of the major arcana I created?

      The Hec'Tumel Codex:

  4. Very fun! Is there a procedure to deal with arcana moves that cause consequences once every consequence is ticked off? Should the GM substitute hard moves at that point? Is that the capping point?

    1. Depends on the arcana and how it interacts with its consequences. For the N'hing Codex, yeah, your 6- results are now "only" hard GM moves. But I think by the time you get to that, there will be plenty of precedent for these spells going terribly, terribly wrong.

      By contrast, when the Blood-Quenched Blade runs out of consequences, you can no longer use Unquenched (because you can't meet the trigger). But on the flip side, a 6- on A Flickering Flame is basically the same as a 7-9, because you can't mark a consequence and the result does NOT say anything about "in addition to whatever the GM says."

      And then, with the Azure Hand, if you're out of consequences it gets... interesting. You can't mark any more consequences, so Eye of the Storm becomes a *lot* less dangerous (it's pick 2 or pick 1, and only two meaningful choices). But at the same time, if you use Resonance and get a 7-9, then... nothing really happens.

  5. I dig this idea! Question: when introducing the item to a player, do you just give them the whole sheet so they know what they are getting into or do you let them learn as they go, divulging consequences as they screw up?

    1. Thanks, glad you like it.

      The intent is: give the player the whole sheet. A big part of the effect is that they can *see* the consequences and thus know where this thing is taking them. A few of the consequences are "not that bad" or even potentially useful, which gets the player using the item and seeing how effective it can be. By the time they've used up the "safe" consequences, using the arcana has become part of their shtick, and the delimna regarding whether they keep using it and risk more (dire) consequences is pretty delicious.

  6. Is there an e-mail address through which I can contact you?