Friday, November 11, 2016

GM Principles

I know I've all but abandoned this blog, but I've been focusing most of my creative writey time on chewing on my fantasy heartbreaker project. Stupid, I know.

Today, in flagrant disregard of my writing agenda, I started toiling away in the ubiquitously included "GM Chapter" of the rulebook. I know enough about my own writing processes to let my fingers type whatever they want to type. If they have something to say about GMing, so be it.

I found the clear articulation of a GM's Agenda and Principles in the *World games to be more than just good game design--they seemed like a Good Idea. When I ran Dungeon World, I wrote down the game's principles on index cards and put them in front of me. Whenever I was looking down to check my notes or roll some dice, they were there to remind me about what sort of game I was playing and what my players could expect from me. It became such a habit, I've started writing down GM principles for just about every game I've ran since.

Since justifying a game's existence (a heartbreaker in a sea of heartbreakers) is the author's central job, I thought it was probably important to write about the GM's principles, the game's themes, and my design goals. As such, I've included my list of GM principles for His Majesty the Worm.

GM Principles
There are two dozen different styles of role-playing games and no two tables play those styles exactly the same. This game has been designed to work well with certain overarching principles of game design and table talk. I’ve found it useful in my home games to be very upfront about these principles and keep them in my mind while I run the game—I go so far as to write them down on notecards and keep them in front of me as reminders. Of course, your table is going to be different than mine, but His Majesty the Worm benefits from the following “best practices.”

Rulings, Not Rules
Ultimately, no rule system completely encapsulates every possibility of player action—and that’s the fun of RPGs: there are fringe cases, strange situations, and unconsidered possibilities that inevitably arise during play. Having a GM be able to arbitrate these situations is one of the advantages of tabletop games compared to computer games. As such, all the rules of the game are a resource for the GM to use and adapt from, not a straight-jacket.

When unexpected questions arise, GMs can adapt the rules to fit the situation at hand. When that situation comes up frequently, the GM and the table can collaborate on turning that ruling into a more hard-and-fast rule. And, when hard-and-fast rules seem to fail the tests of common sense, verisimilitude, and fun, it’s the GM’s responsibility to make calls that change the rules for the better.

Sidebar: Arbitrating Rules Questions
OK, but what should be done if there is a genuine rules dispute during gameplay? One of the GM's duties is to arbitrate these questions and decide how the rule should be played. If you're still learning the rules, you might want to look them up every time until the flow of narrative and mechanics feels natural. If you have the rules down pretty well, but encounter a speedbump, we offer this suggestion: arbitrate in favor of the players, and look up the rule later. Don't slow down a fun combat with page turning. Just make a temporary rule that is beneficial for the players, and ask your best rules lawyer at the table to look it up after the combat is over.

Let Smart Plans Work
HMtW is not a game of balanced encounters. GMs don’t have to make experience point banks and dole out appropriate levels of monsters or treasure. The player heroes should find themselves alone in alone in a large, daunting, dangerous, and fantastic world. There’s no expectation that the players are ever in a “level appropriate” place.

The game—and the character sheet—are actually pretty simple. There are few numbers, and not a lot of special powers or abilities. Players should feel empowered to experiment and take risks, with all the rewards and consequences that that entails. There are no “spot checks,” only players describing where and how they’re searching. There are no “disarm trap” skills, only players describing how they move the knife across the tripwire or tap their ten-foot pole ahead of them.

As the GM, you can give difficult situations to the players with no idea how to solve them yourself. The players will surprise you with their ingenuity and problem-solving skills. When they come up with something surprising and cool, let it work.

Engage the Senses
The principles of “Rulings Not Rules” and “Let Smart Plans Work” only work when the players have a good sense of what is going on. Since the players are not actually in the shared hallucination, they need the GM to tell them as much information as possible about the environment their heroes are acting within. GMs should paint pictures with their descriptions, actually sketch out rooms when mental pictures are difficult to conjure, and be vivid about all five senses. GMs should not leave out any salient details about things that players can see, hear, feel, or smell.

Speak Generously
“Engaging the Senses” flows from the idea that the GM is acting in good faith to the players. GMs should not fall into the trap of thinking that doling out half-secrets and hints are interesting. Information sharing games are only fun when information is actually shared. Maybe the information comes with a price (“You’re not sure if the dragon is truly sleeping or only faking it. You’ll have to move closer to get a better look at him…”), but when it comes time to pay the piper, GMs should give the players as much information as he can. “Gotcha” moments are not fun.

This is particularly true when players Bid Lore. If you accept a lore bid, you have a social obligation to speak generously to the player and give as much information as is appropriate.

Meaningful Exploration
Decisions in an RPG should be interesting, not arbitrary. It is essential that, during the Crawl, the GM provides meaningful choices so that exploration is fun and engaging. Nobody cares about taking the left path or taking the right path. The players don't have enough information to make an informed or interesting choice. A coin flip could determine the "best" way to go. However, you could put graffiti on the walls of the right path that says in Orcish "Undead ahead! Do not enter! Turn back! All is lost!" For the left path, you could hear the distinctively peacock-esque cry of the cockatrice. Now the players have an information to make a decision with: would they rather face a basilisk or the undead? What are they most prepared for? Could they lure the undead towards the basilisk?

When travelling, gloss over details or choices that aren't interesting. Don't describe every hallway or room. Players spend a turn winding through tunnels or rooms towards their ultimate destination, and the GM can describe their journey in a sentence or two. Only zoom in on the action when the players have meaningful choices to make. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Spells are Bad Demons (and they're in your magic sword)

Out in the Far Realms, thoughtforms and concepts are active with intention and purpose. We call them "spirits" in a generic sort of way. The least of these spirits are spells: memetic entities that are basically words that are alive. You might also call them "demons." Spells will serve mortal sorcerers in exchange for observing taboos, which they like for reasons that it's best not to think too long about.

There are only so many spells in the world. Spells are discrete. There are only nine-hundred spells of the first circle. There are only nine spells of the ninth circle, each one unique. Sorcerer's own spells like knights own their arms and armor. And, when you defeat a sorcerer, you add his spells to your own grimoire by right of conquest.

Sometimes, spells get trapped in the Plane of Flesh. Indeed, wizards trap them in spellbooks in the labyrinthine passages of runes frequently. Sometimes, they even take on physical form, which is truly bizarre and frightening to see. That's what a familiar is—just a little spell demon in the flesh. Sometimes they get trapped in items, though. This is what people refer to blithely as "magic items."

Items of power are greatly coveted. Too many people have heard of the farmer Wooton Lye-eye who overthrew the king Grim Nassis with the aid of his magic sword (the story is true, actually). They are equalizers to the sorcerer's mysterious power.

Unfortunately, you can't force a spell into an item of power. Magic items are not made or forged. You have to trick a spell into a magic item, which is hard. Being in a magic item is torturous for them. They hate it. But spells are bound by their natures, and if you can somehow get it to promise to inhabit an item, they can't break this oath.

Every magic item is discrete and unique. Every one is alive. Well, that is to say, they're alive because spells are "living." Humans (and even elves) have more in common with slugs than they do with spells. But its worth noting that each magic item has a will. It has things it likes and things it doesn't like. It has an agenda. And, ultimately, it wants to be freeeach magic item seeks to be unmade.

Alright What Are We Talking About

  • Every item of power has a spell trapped inside of it. 
  • When wielding the item of power, you can cast this spell if the magic item is charged. Casting the spell discharges the item of power. 
    • Items of power are either charged or uncharged. 
  • Items of power begin begins day charged.
  • Items of power also become charged when their bearer fulfills one of the item's passions
Every demon has a passion. Every demon wants something. Some want to depose kings. Some want to give money to beggars. These actions are how it eats and breathes. When the bearer of an item of power helps the demon fulfill these actions, the magic of the item is rekindled.

  1. Death of a particular race/monster/hair color/religious group/social rank
  2. Destruction of religious artifacts, scripts, and art
  3. Destruction of ego via self-debasement and disassociative drugs
  4. Publicly accuse an innocent person of a capital crime
  5. Discover (or destroy) long-lost secrets and forgotten things
  6. Giving away large sums of material wealth to the poor/specific institutions/to people who fulfill bizarre criteria
  7. Eating something never before eaten
  8. Sex with something pretty weird
All items of power also share one passion in addition to their unique goals: being destroyed. If the bearer ever takes a risk that significantly risks their life (say, at least a 50% chance that they would seriously fucking die), the item of power is charged as if their passion had been fulfilled. 

Anyway, here are three items of power currently lying at the bottom of some dragon's hoard, quietly praying for death. 

The Shield of the Black Spiral
Sir Theo of Thorns managed to trap demon Bra'el in his spellbook shield instead of banishing the demon back to the Far Realms. It was Bra'el's general supposition that Sir Theo further his goals under his diabolical influence--a supposition that proved mostly true. 

The Shield of the Black Spiral is a metal kite shield painted with a jagged black spiral curving in towards its center. The back of the shield contains several spellbook pages pasted to it, for ease of reading mid-combat. 

Magic: The shield can cast Hypnotize against one opponent facing its uncovered surface. 
Passion: To deny pleas of mercy--the shield becomes charged if its bearer ever denies someones request to be spared on the battlefield.

The Helm of Hern
The greater daemon known as the Green Man forced one of his subservient spells into the Helm of Hern in order to fulfill one of his own bargains with the wood elves of the Candlewood. The helm is made of leather, and features two projecting antlers cresting from it. As a helm, its wearer can elect to have it destroyed (permanently) to turn a hit into a miss. 

Magic: The helm can cast Bloodlust* on whoever wears it. 
Passion: Aiding animals--the helm is charged if its bearer provides aid, succor, or healing to an animal. 

The last surviving sword of the legendary three blades forged by Region the rune-king, Mourn was most famously carried by the Unborn Hero and presumed to be buried with him (though the location of his tomb is unknown). 

Mourn is a long, black sword forged of meteoric iron. It is continually cold to the touch; gripping it with bare flesh causes 1d6 frost damage. If emerged in water, the water will freeze over the course of several moments. 

Magic: Mourn can blast a death ray from its tip. 
Passion: Killing family members--Mourn will become charged if the bearer ever slays a member of his own dynasty. 
* Wonder & Wickedness, p. 34

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Alternate Damage Dice

One thing that I liked about Dungeon World was that each class had a different damage dice. It made sense to me--a fighter is so skilled and so well-trained that no matter what weapon he picks up, he'll be wielding it with deadly accuracy, even as the conservative mage will be pinging away with whatever staff he grasps in his ancient, withered claws.

I liked that rule in DW because having different damage die per weapon has niggled me for a while. It requires a double-think on the part of the verisimilitude of what damage and HP mean. Consider:

  • Hit Points are abstract. They represent how much moxie and luck and chutzpah a character has to absorb near misses and glancing blows. They're not really you getting hit--at least not in a meaningful way. 
  • Different types of weapons will cause varying degrees of tissue damage. A handgun is going to cause a different wound than a chainsaw. A big ass claymore is going to cause a different wound than a nunchaku blow. 
These two ideas aren't entirely congruous. 

Moreover, despite having a fairly abstract combat system, D&D's weapon choices were often rather bland. Sure the quarterstaff has the two-handed and versatile weapon properties, what? In several editions, I found that the group was usually choosing the same weapons because "they were the best" mechanically. That kind of sucks, doesn't it? Shouldn't your weapon choice be thematically appropriate and representative of your character's fighting style? 

Anyway, this here isn't anything groundbreaking, but it was an idea that I had on a walk this morning. If I was ever going to run a Oriental Adventures-esque game, I'd probably shop these as house rules. 

Signature Weapon
Each player character chooses a signature weapon. The barbarian might choose the double-handed axe or the claymore, while the thief chooses the dagger--or visa versa. 
When wielding your signature weapon, you deal d8 damage. If it's a two-handed weapon, you deal d10 damage instead. 

Trained Weapons
If you're wielding a weapon that you're proficient in (but isn't your signature weapon), you deal d6 damage. 

Untrained Weapons
If you're wielding a weapon that you're not proficient in, you deal d4 damage. 

Shuriken means "hidden sword." Throwing stars or daggers weren't really designed to do massive amounts of damage, but throwing a small blade into your opponent's face when they're not expecting it can be pretty effective. Therefore:
If you use a new improvised weapon for the first time during a campaign, you deal d12 damage. 
If you use an improvised weapon for the second time, it's treated as a trained weapon (d6). 
Each subsequent use of that improvised weapon deals d4 damage. 

So, the first time you're in a bar and decide to pick up a bar stool and smash it over your opponent's head, you deal d12. But barstools aren't really made for weaponry, so the gimmick gets old quick and each barstool attack will yield diminishing returns. However, if you'd like to throw the boar's head mantelpiece or a fisherman's net or a roof tile or a dead goblin, the first time you use those you also get to roll a d12. Players should utilize the environment in interesting ways.  

In this system, the damage dice represent "threat" and "skill" more than their wrecking power.

If you want to see two house rule systems for LotFP that treat weapons differently/interestingly in ways beyond varying damage dice, check out Last Gasp Grimoire and Ten-Foot Polemic

Monday, August 8, 2016

Religious Touchstones

I discussed in my previous post how I want religion to be relatable (yet weird) and meaningful. I'm still trying to articulate to myself why I think the Greyhawk-esque deity spread is so boring (because the choices flow from mechanical advantage instead of what you think would be most interesting?); but more importantly, I want to "fix" it. Sure, you can be a critic, but it's somewhat unhelpful for me to just say "I don't like this" without saying "...but I do like this."

Fair Warning: For this post, I'm going to be talking generally about the implied setting of my current game. I say implied because most of the setting is given to the players by the rules and fluff text. Rarely do I put in big chunks of prose or exposition.

As mentioned previously, the Cult of Mythrys is important because they are a political organization. They are an institution. The faith is one of the four estates in the social order of the City. They are represented by the suit of cups. They are the scribes, the money-changers, the physicks, the apothecaries, the lore-masters, the historians, the lawyers. They're important to have around.

What is the Cult like, though? What's it like to be a member? What do they believe?

Alright, full disclosure here--I have a background in LARPing. I wrote and ran a small game for about seven years. There's something I really like about LARPs that I haven't found necessarily true for the tabletop community: the character-facing fluff is written in a way to make you think about your character. Often, tabletop RPGs write fluff to worldbuild. It could be interesting or a good story, but the author is rarely writing with the intention of saying "how" your character acts. The writing doesn't facilitate conversations about that subject.

In well-written LARPs, however, authors stuff cool character traits, cultural habits, ticks, and beliefs into character-facing material. The Ultek consider it vulgar to touch hands, since hands are the agents of their will. Elves do not share their food with mortals. Albionish are deferential to women, and the flowers they wear mean different things about their relationship status. Grueth barbarians consider it a great dishonor to see your back, and will attack it to prove that they are not someone to go unwatched. The Green Elves consider it a great shame to have a magic spell cast on them.

These little details mean something in the game, and boy do they come up. You put weird little cultural gimmicks into the different character choices a player can make, and you're adding chemically reactive ingredients into a potion and shaking it up. Characters conflict. Cultural shock happens. Players are forced to make hard choices about how their character feels about attacking a woman (shock) who is unarmed (double shock) but also possessed and wielding necromantic energies (triple shock!) without concern for herself or others. You have a sword in your hand, but are you willing  to kill an innocent woman to stop the demon inside's rampage? If you do so, doesn't it mean dishonor and disbarment from your order of knighthood? I've seen great, meaningful moments of roleplay come out of these situations.

To try and facilitate the discussion of culture without being prescriptivist about setting or your character, I use touchstones. Touchstones raise questions, but don't necessarily answer them. Or they give you a generic idea and beg you to explore the specifics.

These Things are Mysteries
The Cult of Mythrys is a mystery cult. Its teachings are secrets. The uninitiated may not know--must not know--the truths hinted at and obscured by layers of metaphor, parable, and symbolism. Indeed, it is many tiered. The adherents of higher levels know more sacred secrets than those of lower levels. A monk may spend his entire life pursuing the deeper truths of Mythrys and never gain the true enlightenment of the deepest initiations.
  • A Mythric religious ceremony or religious text is begun and ended with the phrase: "These things are mysteries." 
  • A member of the cult is called a mystai, which means "initiate." Someone non-initiated is called a stulte, which means "fool." 
    • The Cult still considers the non-initiated to be "in" the Cult; they just rank 0. 
  • There are twenty-one ranks of initiation which mystai advance through in their religious career. 
  • If you are in the cult, you are probably rank 1. Your local clergyman is probably rank 4 or 5. Monks and nuns are around level 7-14. Bishops and cardinals occupy the ranks 15+. 
  • It's hard for adventurers to advance in initiation grades. To unlock deeper mysteries, you need to do things like spend a year in silent contemplation, or perform great feats of bodily mutilation, or do a pilgrimage. Things that get in the way of adventuring. 
    • Large donations to the Cult sometimes fit this bill. 
  • Only the Secret Pope has achieved the greatest initiation: the twenty-first rank. He learns the secrets of this initiation directly from the last pope. 

God in One-Thousand Persons, Blessed Multiplicity
The essential gimmick of Mythrys is this: god is many and is also one. He is a contradiction. As mystai advance in ranks, they are told a different story about who or what god is. They believe these stories with utter conviction until they advance to the next rank and have to unlearn what they have learned.

The thousand-faced god is called the Monad, which means "alone." He created everything. He created orders of angelic beings to serve him and sub-create his creation. The greatest of these is a dragon named Demiurge, which means "crafter." It's commonly accepted that Demiurge did a bad job at this, and that's why there's earthquakes and locusts.

  • Each rank in the cult has a view of the Monad that corresponds to the major arcana in the Tarot. 
    • Therefore, rank 1 mystai believe that God is essentially a magician. 
    • Rank 2 mystai believe that God is unable to be worshipped, but they revere Maiden Wisdom (see below) and call her the High Priestess. 
    • Rank 3 mystai believe that Maiden Wisdom is actually God(dess), and call Her the Empress. 
    • Rank 4 mystai realize that no, God is male after all and call him the Emperor. 
    • Etc. 
  • Mystai believe different things and have essentially different worldviews as they advance in their religious orders. 
    • One might believe in reincarnation, the other in a end-of-days resurrection, and a third in the extinction of the soul upon death. They might all agree that the Apocalypse is soon at hand, whereas a more senior member of the Cult believes that the Apocalypse is a heresy. 

Hail Wisdom, Mother of Misery, Monad is With Thee /
Hail Mythrys, Servant of Monad, May You Find Peace

The human face of the Monad is the prophet Mythrys and his mother Maiden Wisdom. There are lots of stories about Mythrys and Maiden Wisdom, most of which are difficult to rationalize. They say that Mythrys was born of a maiden, but also that he was born of a stone--there are some complicated narratives that attempt to make both work. They say that he slew the animals of the zodiac and placed them in the sky. They say that Mythrys died and rose again from the dead. They say that Mythrys now feasts with the Sun in the palaces of Heaven.

It was Mythrys who first initiated men into the sacred mysteries. He had twenty disciples. He taught them each different sacred truths. When he departed from the world of flesh, the twenty-first disciple, a mere child of six, revealed that he was the Secret Pope and became the head of the Cult.

The Cult of Mythrys exists in a Grecian Mystery Cult slash Levant religiosity pastiche. The actual texts and stories used by the Cult don't matter. Players don't have to memorize stuff like that. Players should feel free to make up parables in this mode to serve their own purposes and further flesh out the religious canon of the Cult.

Take Aways
OK. Well. How does that feel? I admit, I like having this vague-yet-defined set up for religions more than quietly feeling dubious that religion in a world where clerics can Create Water would have any problem collecting followers. I like drawing an outline and letting players color in the spaces (Draw Maps, Leave Spaces, as Dungeon World says). I like this mishmash of ideas.

Stats? Still none. I have a vague idea that religions can probably be used to shove in "optional rules," but I'm leery of mechanics taking advantage over "what is cool" when it comes to faith. I sort of like worshipers of the god of chaos having to deal with the sting of critical failures and the thrill of critical successes, though. I sort of like alignment being a social construct instead of a metaphysical one. We'll see.

By the way, check out Ten Foot Polemic's Religion Writeup here and here if you want to see some religious tom-foolery that far surpasses anything that dribbles out of my mouth.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

OK this is good

I've been playing RPGs since I was 12, but I sat still and watched all twenty-four minutes of this last night:

I think this video rules. Because I've been in the hobby for >50% of my life, I forgot how many assumptions, unspoken agreements, implicit social contracts, and tactic best practices there were. I bet it is confusing to be a good new player. If and when I ever game with someone new, I am definitely going to show them this video. And as I write, even if I'm not writing for a "new" audience, I need to be aware of the things that I am not saying.

"There as many ways to play D&D as people playing it."
Too true. Too true.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Clerical Error -- Religion Etc. Etc.

In almost every D&D game I've ever played, I don't love the religions.

I don't think this is an uncommon sentiment--at least in my own RPG echo chamber.
A lot of them are sort of the exact same. Well MY god of death is named the RAVEN QUEEN and boy howdy is SHE different. She has a SKULL as her symbol. I mean. A RAVEN. And YOURS has a skull. Boy oh boy are we different.

To digress ever so slightly, fantasy is interesting because of its similarities to the real world. I don't really care about the weirdness*, I care about how the weirdness highlights and contrasts the meaningful overlap in the real world. I don't care that the orcs are fungi with psychic power, I care that they create families torn by war. The families torn by war I can identify with--its an experience that I can empathize or sympathize with. It's why I care about fantasy. It's not worldbuilding just for its own sake.

RPG religions should be both a) interesting in their own merit (i.e., different from the ubiquitous recoloring of some Roman pantheon) and b) highlight contrasting similarities in my own personal experiences with faith.

"But Josh," you whine in a hateful nasal tone, "RPGs are FANTASY and religion is the REAL WORLD and the two shouldn't overlap because people's religious beliefs are sacred and important and blah blah blah"shut up I've stopped listening to you. I just explained that fantasy isn't interesting in its own merit--and really you don't think it is, you just haven't realized it yet. Fantastic beliefs are only meaningful in the story of your game because you can put them into a cultural context that you understand. Religion is important to a lot of people, and even if you are irreligious it's still important to you. It impacts your daily life no matter where you live in the world; it pressures your history and charges your interactions with other human beings.

The problem I have with religions in RPG experiences I have had, by and large, is that they don't impact my INC life. My buddy Cleric George is a cleric of the Life God for one level (since it gives him sweet access to a class feature and a spell that he wants for his build) and he casts Cure Light Wounds pretty good and I like him. Sometimes he role-plays about how good his god is, and my dwarf vaguely disagrees because surely the DWARF GOD (recolor as you wish) is the best one. But are we different? Does religion feel important? Are we going to have a war about it? Are we going to have a war about the fact that he portrays DWARF GOD as female and I portray him as male? Or that I think he had no wives, and he thinks he had twelve wives? Or because I think that DWARF GOD is an emanation of the ONE GOD and he thinks that there are no fewer than 15-18 gods, depending on who wins the celestial wars?

So often, clerical features are just background fluff in an ultimately unimportant and uninteresting number crunching game. Fffffuck that. I hate that.

I don't really have a great solution to this non-problem, but here is a drunken musing on the subject:

YOUR religious symbol has SIX spokes. HERETIC!

Religion is Important Because NPCs Say So
In A Song of Ice and Fire, the Spider asks this riddle:
“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”

In Varys's world, it's pretty unclear to Tyrion who would win in a popularity contest between god, country, and wealth. Of these forces, the common murder hobo would probably pull the trigger for the rich man--but why? Because gold is a commodity they understand, and they understand has a place in the scope of the world. ((Obviously, this question is meaningless in some sort of communist utopia in the clouds where nobody has anything tradable, or wealth is punishable by death, or something)) Assumably, though, the king would also confer some meaningful good to the sellsword--lands, titles, women, fame. Things that not even money could buy.

How much more for the priest?

Maybe religion is important because it is important in the in-game world. If you are a heretic, you will be burned--no ifs, ands, or buts. If you are faithful, the crowds call you a saint. They give you food, shelter, succor. The priests adore you, and are eager for your next apologetic treatise. They are eager for you to settle matters of philosophical dispute. They build you statues, churches, hymns. They send armies of paladins where you point your ring'd finger.

Maybe religion should feel important in the game world because, despite the fact that Pastor James C. Kelly down at First Presbyterian can't Cure Wounds or Raise Dead, he's still an important guy and people care what he thinks.

The Cult of Mythrys
This is the general tack I am taking with my current homebrew game. The church is called the Cult of Mythrys, and it's not important because it does miracles or has any number-crunching benefit. The Cult is important because the Cult is important. If you are a member of the Cult, you have rules and restrictions and a culture that you have to fit into; and correspondingly, it's beneficial to you because the Cult is an engine as important (or more?) than the State. The Cult is providing tangible and real goods (and evils) for the people within the world.

The Cult provides food for the poor. They provide lunatic asylums. They provide leper colonies. They provide money-changing stations at a reasonable rate. They provide food and gear for people making religious pilgrimages.

Moreover, the Cult of Mythrys, analogous to the Catholic Church of yesteryear, are probably the only really literate people around. The Testament is written in Vetic (Latin), and there's a religious proscription that all the faithful should learn to speak this language (like Arabic for the Koran) so that they may understand the religious texts without the fouling of translation. That means all the clerics are literate, and are the engines of literacy: they write the books, transcribe the books, illuminate the books. They write letters to your sister (and probably carry them to her, if she lives on their itinerant path). They write the contract you have with the blacksmith, and witness it.

Since they buy and sell money, the Cult is also the first bank. They're also literate with money. They understand exchange rates, economic theories, impacts of tariffs and taxes, and a dozen other things that serfs have no idea about.

How much more important could a fantasy religion be if, in addition to all the cultural goods they wield, a church could literally bring your father back from the dead? Can you even imagine that shit?

I think that I have a more meaningful role-playing experience when I take the miracles out of the religion. I think I have a more meaningful role-playing experience when the religious communities are important or powerful in the world. I think I have more meaningful role-playing experience when the deity or deities aren't a paint-by-numbers recoloring of the Greyhawk deities.

What about you? What is your table's religion(s) like? Why are they fun? What do you like about them?

* I mean, I do.

Monday, July 11, 2016

T.H. White Writes Some NPCs

"The Dark and Middle Ages! The Nineteenth Century had an impudent way with its labels." - T.H. White, The Candle in the Wind, Chapter 3

I've been rereading The Once and Future King, and boy have I been enjoying it. White sort of waxes historical in chapter 3 of The Candle in the Wind and goes into how "modern" people during (the ill-defined) "Arthur's Time" would have been. He sort of paints a sweeping picture about the entire Medieval period and entire European continent. It isn't rigorously thorough in its historicity, but it does make its point.

It's lucky, too, since I'm currently writing a megalithic city setting and need random encounters, random NPCs, and strange sights to see. It was nice of White to pull all this imagery together for me. The first law of GMing is steal, steal, steal.

(You'll notice, perhaps, that I'm using a Tarot draw not a dice roll as the random chance. You roll a d14, if you want.)

Sundry Goode Folk of Ye City
1 - Knight in armor bearing top-knot; will serve as a bodyguard while you stay in the City for modest fee
2 - Ambler clerk with tonsured hair; will copy down and deliver letters for small cost
3 - Crusader, with every piece of clothing, gear, barding, tack, bridle marked with the cross; will happily root out blasphemy
4 - White Brotherhood lay-brother, affixer of Papal seals; illiterate and unhelpful
5 - Barbarian wearing Phrygian cap and beard in defiance of proscribed religious dress; will beg you for money to pay his debts
6 - Sergeant-at-mace, royal bodyguard of the king; he is carrying illegally distilled spirits for sale
7 - Pair of papal nuncios, riding to deliver excommunication; will not be bothered by the likes of you
8 - King-at-arms, official referee of tourneys and jousts; will happily judge any trial of combat
9 - A palmer bearing various icons, including a feather of Jibrael's wing, some of the coals on which St. Laurentius was grilled, a vial of sweat from St. Mikhael from when he found a devil, a vial of Maiden Wisdom's milk, and the bones of various saints; will happily sell these to you for exorbitant rates
10 - An outlaw, bearing a holy writ giving him safe passage in exile; if he ever lowers or drops the writ, he is freely assailable by law--he is accompanied by his wife, her hair shaven, into exile
Page - A shepherd whose nose has been cut off for hunting in the kings wood, herding his flock, bearing tar (with which he tends the sheep's wounds); he will happily tell you stories, but is mildly retarded
Knight - A baron carrying a hot pie, complete with his retinue; he is wearing satin shaped like armor, but is too courtly and good to enjoy the advantages of armor; will take you into his retinue and allow you to go hunting with him
Queen - A witch, carrying a wax figure of a rival to a sacred spring in order to properly baptize the poppet; will curse a foe for a fee
King - A princeling with his nanny; the nurse has recently been given power to whip the child if he does wrong without it being considered treason; the princeling will happily sentence you to death for minor infractions, but the nurse will override him

A shame mask

Chance Events and Fortunes had at Ye City
1 - A bankrupt serf is being whipped by a sheriff; as the sheriff whips him, he cries "Who will stay my hand with coin to pay these debts?"
2 - A crowd has gathered at the harbor to watch a sailor leaping from the mainmast tree to settle a gambling debt
3 - A woman bustles blithely in the market wearing a visard; a wooden mask designed to protect her skin from sunburn and her reputation from slander
4 - A woman walks stoically through the streets to jeers; she wears a heavy wooden shame mask and a sign around her neck reads "Adultress" (sic)
5 - You see a man "kissing" a woman's rear, as it protrudes from an open window onto the street
6 - Children are happily playing with the dead body of a corrupt sheriff, still wearing his badge of office
7 - A poor family are gathering loads of manure from the street with forks to sell to tanners; they wait near your animals to see if it will drop a load of dung
8 - The square is full of people observing a magician demonstrating a pendulum clock--the first of this sort of design
9 - A Punch and Judy puppet show vigorously and lewdly lambastes the local lord and the clergy, despite having an audience of only children
10 - Guards push a thronging crowd back as they riot for a chance to grab recently unearthed gold bars hidden in a crumbling patch of the city's walls
Page - A woman is being publically examined by a cleric after claiming to have given birth to a litter of rabbits
Knight - Forty-eight heretical templars are being roasted at the stake, to the joyous cries of the crowd
Queen - A new fountain in the shape of a silver tree entwined with serpents has just been unveiled; it was commissioned by the Secret Pope
King - A triumphal parade winds through the city, bearing treasures from a recent conquest of a distant orcish capital, including false wooden dragon idols and goblin slaves

Camp Actions and Missing Players

For my stupid little fantasy heartbreaker project, I smashed up these rules to cover activities that players could do during rest downtime. The flow of the game is separated, similar to Torchbearer or similar games, between Crawl (adventurin'), Camp (restin'), and City (money-spendin') phases. 

Camp Actions
Typically, a Camp Action is one meaningful activity that you can do while relaxing in the few hours of your watch, after you've done all your important encampment chores. This is not an exhaustive list, but a structure to handle common requests.

Hunting and Gathering
If you have missile weapons, you can spend your time at camp away from camp trying to capture or kill some game. The hunter returns with a ration's worth of food for each success he makes on a Pentacles test. The GM will tell you what sort of food is available; the player is responsible for deciding how picky he'll be about rations.
If you are adjacent to special hexes, this might trigger a camp encounter.

Forage for Components
The Underworld does have one thing going for it--alchemy seems to be just bursting out of it. If you spend your time searching for alchemical components, draw Cups. You find one component for each success.
If you are adjacent to special hexes, this might trigger a camp encounter.

If you spend some time updating your map and comparing your notes about the terrain you’ve travelled, you may expeditiously retreat back to town. If you only travel on hexes that you’ve explored, each normal hex counts as .5 for your total movement during a watch

Scout Ahead
If you scout around, you might be able to learn something interesting about the terrain. Test Swords. For each success, the GM will give you a hint about some encounters in the nearby hexes or tell you what sort of monsters frequent here. If you are adjacent to special hexes, you'll learn about them. If you achieve no successes, this might trigger a camp encounter—otherwise, you're sneaky enough to see them and return to camp.

Pick a guild mate. Engage in a role-play with them. Share a memory. Talk about their quests. Ask about their childhood; tell about yours. End the conversation meaningfully so that the table knows you're done talking. At the end of this exchange, you both charge your bonds with each other.

If one of your guild mates is willing to teach you, you can learn a Talent from them. This takes both of your Camp Actions, and they get nothing from the exchange. Invest XP into the Talent they are teaching you. You prepare as many uses of that Talent as you have XP invested.

Read a Book
Do you have a book? Spend some time reading it. Ask the GM one question related to the subject matter of the book. He will tell you what the book says about it.

Spend some time looking for and crafting shafts for your recovered arrow heads. Refill your quiver to twenty.  

Guard Patrol
It’s assumed during the Camp Phase that the guild sets up a watch. However, you may dedicate your Camp Phase to setting active watch, patrolling around your encampment, and providing assault counter-measures. If you do so, the GM will draw twice on the Camp Encounter table and take a non-combat result if available.

I wanted to emulate the things these resting adventurers were doing.

I also recently had to face the question: What do you do with players who are absent? I realized that, rather conveniently, the Camp Actions gave a worthy list of things for people to be doing when they were not on-screen.  

Players Missing the Game

If a player misses a session during a Crawl phase, here is the default procedure. The player hero is assumed to be about one hex away, trailing behind the main guild. They are slowed down by their pursuit of one of the Camp Activities. When the player returns, she will tell the table what activity they performed, receive the benefit from it, and rejoin the main group. Obviously some activities (Fellowship, Training) require another player hero to be “absent” with you; only choose activities that make sense for your circumstances.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Take me to the Dark Waters

Nostalgia is potent. It makes sitting down for an afternoon and playing a frustrating NES game into a fun experience. It lets you rewatch petty, derivative films and have a good time. 

Nostalgia colors your perceptions and memories. It lies to you. It says "this is good," even if it’s bad. As near as I can tell, nostalgia has fueled the last decade of the entertainment industry.

Did anyone else like this garbage?

Under nostalgia's heady smoke, the other day I thought to myself "Self: Do you remember how awesome Pirates of Dark Water was? That show was great! Why don't you put on an episode and look it up on the wiki, it'll be a laugh."

Here's a real fact: that show was less good than I remembered it. But it surprised me in lots of little ways. The protagonists weren't alabaster white. It was packed with non-Tolkien fantasy. It had ships large enough to have their own ecosystem. It reminded me of LeGuin's Earthsea series. 

Because this is the future, I could find out everything I ever wanted to know about this show. I could find every episode. I could find every comic book. I could read the series bible. I even found an official-but-canceled RPG based on it. 
This might just be the deadly nostalgia talking, but playing in a setting like Pirates of Dark Water actually sounds super fun. That's why I'm jabbering about it on here, so I can harvest all the gold nuggets and separate them from the shit nuggets of 90s cartooning.

Here are some awesome quotes from the source material:

"The planet will be as wild as a writer’s imagination. Nothing is too far-fetched if it comes organically from a world where evolution has pushed out in bizarre new directions." 
Fuck yes. That is the RPG world I do like. 

"The humans of Mer are a rugged breed and may best be described as sea cowboys." I would like to be described as a sea cowboy, please. Unfortunately, the other races listed in the RPG (out of the professed hundreds) are traditional fantasy derivatives. Calling your ancient forest dwellers "Kree" doesn't make them not-elves. 

"The Maelstrom is Bloth’s massive and deadly warship. This colossal warship is the latest in Merian destructive eco-technology. It is built from the bleached carcasses of leviathans, and resembles a gargantuan floating fossil. The masts are visible as the giant creatures’ vertebrae. Massive rib cages serve as jail pens and holding cells below the immense deck. Its enormous size is a tribute to Bloth’s bloated ego and is its one drawback. Below the main deck sits a labyrinth of passageways, sewer lines, holding cells and slaves’ quarters. An entire subculture exists within the bowels of this monstrous vessel."
As you telling me that there are pirate kings, and the pirate kings have pirate ships that are large enough to have a whole dungeon inside of them? That rules. 

"THE IMBIBERS are a group of specially trained children who drink Dark Water. They becoming all knowing for a short span of time and then turn to stone to take a place of honor in their tribe’s sanctuary."
Feeding children Cthulhu's excrement so they can be omniscient but then turn to stone is something every RPG setting needs. SOLD. 

OK, so out of this 1990s word salad, what can be gameified? I don't know. Here are a few things I'd put into a game.

I remember the character Ioz saying, "By the Luck!" on the TV show sometimes. Davos Seaworth is always going on about luck, too. Luck is important for pirates and vikings; you need luck on the sea because nothing YOU do can affect its great bulk. 

Get rid of Saving Throws. You have a new attribute called Luck that you roll for all those sorts of things.

At the beginning of the game, it's a neutral (+0) stat. When roll a 20, subtract 1 from your score--your luck has begun to run out. When you roll a 1, it goes up by one point--you begin to work off your bad karma.

If your luck ever goes down lower than allowed, it rolls over to the highest rank. Same if it goes too high.

Your luck stat also goes up by 1 every time you do attempt something very swashbuckling, like riding a chandelier to the upper story of the tavern or swinging from the rigging to another ship. Incentivize being a cool pirate in a cool pirate game. "Brave deeds breed luck," as they say.

Ship Idols
Almost everybody worships anthropomorphic Luck. Some people worship ship idols, too.  

Love is what keeps her afloat.
Sorcerers are important for this. They're the ones who carve the eyes so ship idols can see. They're the ones who carve the mouths so ship idols can drink plum wine. They're the ones who bind and name them and wake them up from their sleep. 

With forests hard to come by (the planet is 98% water), ships must be made out of exotic materials--a leviathan's bones, a lion turtle's shell, a crashed meteorite--even something as exotic as wood.
These things were once living. Everything was once living. Now they're a boat.
How do they feel about that? Well, it depends on well you treat them. 

When ship idols are awake and pleased, they're the best boats in the whole world. Ships of different construction like different things. Leviathan-bone ships might like it when you dump captives with cut throats and bound hands into the water. Ships of bound eldwood like it when you pull them up into river mouths and let them drink freshwater.

Whenever a successful sacrifice is made to a ship idol, the ship gains inspiration, to use a 5E parlance. Anybody on board who's a member of the crew can use the inspiration on something related to seacraft--piloting, navigation, kicking a boarding pirate back into the water, etc.

When they're mad? Well...

Magic and Balance
Sorcerers are an important member of any crew. They can sing away storms and call up winds and talk to the ship and drive away merfolk. Every ship has a sorcerer. 

LeGuin said that publishers did not want characters to appear on the covers because of the color of their skin.
Unfortunately, every time a sorcerer calls up a storm, it means that somebody else's ship is stilled. If you deflect a storm, twenty other ships suffer its ill luck. This is the Balance.

In LeGuin's Earthsea series, Sparrowhawk talked a lot about "the Balance." LeGuin's Taoist leanings crept in (more elaborated textually in The Lathe of Heaven). It is better to not cast magic than to cast magic. It was better to not act than to act.

This is something textually pleasing but extremely difficult to "simulate" in a role-playing game. If the players aren't *acting*, why sit down every Tuesday with your buds? Why not just read LeGuin from the privacy of your own home and get drunk?

Even so, magical restraint is a trope, and RPGs are all about emulating tropes. It's an important thing for rules to do.

OK, so, sorcerers can do big magical things, but it fucks up the Balance. Let's steal (steal steal steal!) West End Games' Force token rules. Here they are for a bad pirates setting.

For each sorcerer at the table, set out two coins--both facing heads up.

When a sorcerer casts a spell, flip a coin face down.

When a coin is face down, the GM can use one of his Balance Moves against the players by flipping the coin's face back up. He does this at opportune moments, or just when the players are on a flow of good luck. (It's important for stories to have both ebbs and flows.) He can do this when it makes sense narratively. He can do this whenever, as long as one of the coins tails up.

Ship-Sorcerer's Spells
Why mess with the Balance Coin in the first place? To cast spells. A Ship-Sorcerer can cast any of the following six spells if he flips the Balance Coin:

The spell of Windkey can put a steady wind into your sails, or take it away. It can send a storm you can see towards any of the eight compass directions. It can calm waters. It can call waves large enough to drown a swimming man. It can capsize smaller ships. 

The spell of Chanting recites the memories of the Pattern of Ages. The sorcerer can ask the GM any question about history and receive an answer. 

The spell of Patterns searches the memories of the Pattern of Ages and reveals the recurring elements through textual analysis. By looking at what comes before, the sorcerer guesses to what comes afterwards. He may ask the GM, "If X happens, what will happen?" The GM will answer him. 

The spell of Hand are the hundred small illusions and useful dwimmers that sorcerers use to prop up their power. They can levitate straight up into the air. They can lift objects that can fit in their hand and call them to them through the air. They can summon a magelight and have it hover near them. These are vulgar displays of power. 

The spell of Naming reveals a living creature's name to the sorcerer. This is important for Binding. 

The spell of Binding is a single command that must be obeyed by a dead creature whose living name the sorcerer knows. 

Balance Moves
Ok, so the sorcerer is casting spells willy nilly. What's happening because of that? 
  • Storm clouds gather at the horizon.
  • The Dark Water comes. 
  • The Dark Water devours the nearest island. 
  • A creature of the deeps, fleeing the Dark Water, comes to the surface. Roll on the wandering monster table. 
  • The stars are wrong. The GM turns a failure just rolled into a great failure. Instead of missing the dragon, your sword is shattered on its hide. When trying to swing across the gap, you fall and crack your head on the deck. 
You'll notice that a lot of the situations that Balance Moves might prompt a sorcerer to use more sorcery. This feeds into a vicious cycle. The Dark Water comes, so the sorcerer windkeys the ship to safety. This makes more Dark Water come. 

It might be better to do nothing...

Chimera Beasts
I'm finally ready to admit this: I really like hybrid animals. 

In an RPG, it's important that you communicate to your players what's going on and what their characters see and impart all pieces of necessary information. However, while speaking and listening, players literally can't understand your three-hundred world essay about how cool your new monster is, and all the legends that speak its name in terror, and your thorough description from tip to tail.  Our brains just aren't wired to do that sort of thing well. 

So, what. Do we only use monsters that require no immediate over-explanation? Fight another kraken? Fight another hydra? 

No! Let's see some gorilla rhinos. 
Has science gone too far?
In an RPG, you can have normal animals and make them do slightly different things. For example, all cats can see ghosts. All foxes travel both in the real world and the dream world. Owls speak perfect Common. Crickets are the souls of aborted babies. Whatever. But you have to tell your players that info, and make it close enough to the real world so that when you say, "A cat crosses your path," they don't have to do too much double-think to understand what it means in the game world.

But you know what a cat is. And you know what an owl is. So a catowl is both of those things. Nocturnal. Carnivore. Aloof and coy. Quiet, except for its meow-hoot. Can fly. Cute as the dickens.
Chimera animals are an easy way for a GM to infuse the game world with understandable fantasticism.

I think I've convinced myself that sometime I'd really like to run an Earthsea/Dark Waters hex crawl where the pirate PCs wander a bizarre and fantastic realm, trying to deal with the fact their world seems to be falling into black nothingness or making themselves filthy rich while everybody else dies. 

What would you want to include in this setting?

Monday, July 4, 2016

Kith-specific Equipment

Right now I'm playtesting a stupid fantasy heartbreaker with some friends who are nice to humor me. We started the playtest before I had even started writing a traditional equipment list and I just let the players choose whatever fantasy garbage they wanted, because why not right? Crowd source that shit.

Originally I had intended to have four separate equipment lists, one for each racial group. I wanted to do this because 1) I wanted a person's race to be a defining feature, not a piece of set dressing and 2) I thought it would provide good variety in equipment between players.

When I mentioned this conceit to a player, she pointed out that limiting choices in this way would limit a choices in a player's ability to define their own character concept. That is, if I gave the orcs all the sailing gear and winter clothing garb, it robs you of your cool Eskimo whale-hunter concept that you had wanted to play.

She's right, I think. Narrow bands of equipment lists are probably too limiting; equipment and inventory management is a big part of the game. But I had wanted your starting equipment list to be more than just a generic adventurer's pack. I wanted it to be flavorful. I wanted it to be fun.


To this end, I wrote up this little flavor generator today.

When you create your character, choose as many pieces of equipment from the Forge chapter as you can fit into your backpack. Then, draw randomly or choose descriptors for some of these items from this list.

Castle-forged Gear (Men)
1, …half-shattered, but in your family for generations
2. …hand-made by your mother just for you
3. …once belonged to your brother
4. …given to you as a present
5. …made by your  own hand as your journeyman’s project
6. …from a far-away land
7. …blessed by a cleric of Mythrys
8, ...marked with religious iconography
9. …marked with the insignia of your house
10. …marked with the insignia of a rival house
Jack. …plain but exceedingly well made
Knight. … once beautiful, but now tarnished
Queen. …gaudy and gilt, but with no real value
King. …ornate and princely 

Glamour-Woven Gear (Fey)
1. …slightly shimmering with prismatic colors
2. …made of obsidian blacker than night
3. …woven of eldwood vines
4. …emits a light hum when tapped
5. …seems to work itself
6. …always at the top of your backpack when you reach for it
7. …made of animal bones
8. ...grown fully made from a tree
9. …spangled with gem dust
10. …cooled in the waters of ancient Eldermere; yet cool to the touch
Jack. …carved by magic song
Knight. …primitive, but elegant
Queen. …painted with stylized animal iconography
King. …made by the hand of the Tripartite

Treasures Most Artfully and Masterfully Wrought (Underfolk)
1. …etched with a silvery script, detailing its history
2. …made of once-living crystal
3. …made of fallen star-metal
4. …banded with ancient bronze
5. …shaped in the semblance of a fantastic monster
6. …studded with crystal gems
7. …carven with runes that are only exposed by the light of the moon
8. ...covered by a delicate filigree of spun gold
9. …was never exposed to the light of the sun
10. …forged in the lava flows of the deeps; yet warm to the touch
Jack. …ancient beyond days
Knight. …reforged from an item of great history
Queen. …made by your own hand; an exemplar of your craft
King. …made by the head of your guild

Mostly Stolen Loot (Orcs)
1. …crude and jagged, but efficient
2. …carven from mammoth bones
3. …carven from dragon bones
4. …studded with glittering dragon scales
5. …wreathed in draconic iconography
6. …stolen from a temple of Mythrys
7. …stolen from the corpse of a hanged man
8. ...looted from a human crusader
9. …stolen from a halfling merchant
10. …bloodstained and dirty, but serviceable
Jack. …bears its name marked in runes
Knight. …a reward from your thegn, marked with the runes of your clan
Queen. …made by a wood-witch, blessed with her blood
King. …etched with golden runes and set with pearls 

I sort of like how it turned out. I like that humans cared more about the interpersonal relationships defined by the items than by the items' construction. I like how orcs "borrow" from other races. I like how they prompt players to think twice about dropping their starting sword for another weapon they find in the Dungeon. 

We'll see if it actually "does" anything though.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Last Gasp Grimoire's Mystic Rules are just amazing and I can't say enough nice things about them. I love the idea of a distant god with a dim understand of human physiology trying desperately to help make the world a better place with MORE SNAKES. Also on the list of things I like are Paper and Pencil's Magic Words. I like the idea of mixing and matching words of cosmic power for both whimsy and mechanical advantage. It's just neat.

ANOTHER thing I like is having cleric types (and all spell-users, for that matter) feel notably different from each other. I wish that, as a cleric of dwarven ancestors, all of my powers revolved around dwarf shit like falling rocks and opening tunnels and reforging swords, but half the time I feel pretty compelled by the mechanical efficiency of moon beam and wall of fire or whatever. There's nobody saying I can't take those spells (prayers?), and though I try my hardest to stick to a theme I'm encouraged mechanically to use the tools at my disposal.

I had an idea this morning while I was waking up and my cat was mercilessly and relentlessly clawing me, so bear with me, this might be shit. I'm finding out as I type it.

When a cleric and a GM talk about what deity the cleric will worship, they come up with a list of canonical spells. These are the miracles that it is known that the god grants. In D&D, this might be a cleric's Domain Spells. Or maybe this list only consists of one or two spells--the GM might choose one and the player might choose one. These are spells that the cleric always has access to because it's inherently the god's shtick.

The cleric then populates a list of dX other spells, probably a d6 or a d8. These are the secret revelations. 

Each god has a one or two word theme. They also have three sub-themes.
So Thor's theme is Thunder and lightning. He also has a theme of Wrestlin', Hammerin', and Drinkin'.
Odin's theme is Wisdom. He also has a theme of Undeath, Poetry, and Frenzy.

When a cleric is in a bind and one of the canonical spells isn't appropriate, he may pray to his deity. His deity, hearing the prayer of her faithful, stretches down her divine will and manifests aid through a secret revelation.

The cleric rolls on the revelation table. If he accepts the rolled spell, he swaps out any one word in the spell's title with any of the god's themes or sub-themes. He can instead call on either of the adjacent spells on the table (one above or one below), but in that case he can only rename the spell with the god's main theme.

So, for instance, a Wall of Force on the spell list might become a Wall of Lightning, if cast by a cleric of Thor. It might become a Wall of Undeath if cast by a cleric of Odin. Similarly, a Summon Monster might be a Summon Hammer if cast by Thor, or a Summon Frenzy if cast by Odin.

The effects of a thematically changed spell ultimately lie with the GM, but they can be modeled after the spell in question. If Wall of Fire does 5d6 damage when you pass through it, Wall of Lightning probably does too, just change the damage type. But "Wall of Undeath" might be meaningfully different. Maybe it gives you a disease? Maybe it grapples you? The GM will have to adjudicate this on the fly, using the core spell as a baseline.

Here's an example spell list for the Goddess of Rats:
I imagine the goddess of rats looks like Yolandi
Goddess of Rats
Theme: Rats
Sub-Themes: Secrets, Disease, Sewers

Canonical Spells: Speak With Animals (Rats Especially), Spider Climb
Secret Revelations (d8)
1 - Animal Friendship (Rat Friendship, Disease Friendship, Animal Disease, Animal Secrets)
2 - Cure Disease (Cure Rats, Cure Secrets, Secret Disease, Sewer Disease)
3 - Animal Growth (Rat Growth, Animal Disease, Sewer Growth)
4 - Hold Animal (Hold Sewers? Hold Secrets? IDK)
5 - Rope Trick (Rat Trick, Sewer Trick, Secret Trick)
6 - Stinking Cloud (Rat Cloud, Stinking Secret, Disease Cloud)
7 - Dispel Magic (Dispel Secret, Dispel Disease, Dispel Sewer)
8 - Find Familiar (Find Rat, Find Secret, Find Sewer, Rat Familiar, Sewer Familiar)

Practically speaking, I have no idea if this would really work in play, but it sounds like it could