Design Journal: Elohim


And let's make them REALLY creepy...
And let’s make them REALLY creepy…

One of the many things I’ve been trying to get off the ground in the last two years, more like three, is the Gnosis RPG. It’s a new game system and campaign setting designed to be gritty, dangerous, and easy to play and set up. The campaign world is the modern world, except it’s really not. See, all those conspiracy theories about rock music being a tool of Satanic cults, or that NASA is hiding aliens in Area 51, or that big businesses are really a front for an ancient conspiracy to rule the world after they kill most of the human population, are actually true.

Yup. Every. Last. One.

Magic is real. Science is being held back. Aliens are constantly trying to invade. Religion is a front. Tin foil hats really DO protect your brain from the spy satellites. And if you try hard enough, you can become the thing the monsters fear, become a monster yourself, or start your own conspiracy.

mocking conspiracy theories by jonathanlerner13 on DeviantArt

One of the things I wanted to do with this setting, though, was to give everything a “real-world” explanation, even if it involved fringe science or a stretch of what science said was allowed. Clearly, conservation of energy, momentum, and all those silly physics laws prevent pretty much all of this from existing, but by minimizing or at least giving some semblance of explanation, even if it’s flimsy, the game seems just a little more real. Respecting established science is one of the best ways to come up with a setting that feels fantastic yet plausible.

Take, for example, the simple matter of angels and demons.

I say simple in the same way that designing the space shuttle from scratch is simple.

I wanted to bring religious horror to Gnosis, and the idea of demonic possession and even angels as alien beings far removed from the fluffy-winged images of modern society appealed to me greatly. They would form two sides of one of the major conspiracies in the game’s universe. However, how to make them semi-realistic or at least sound plausible?

Firstly, I needed to figure out what was an angel and what was a demon.

I quickly settled on the idea that both angels and demons were not so different. In fact, in many myths, demons are fallen angels. That being said, perhaps the difference between both is more philosophical than physical. In that case, I needed a new name for this new creature and settled on the Elohim and that the titles of “angels” and “demons” were just one of the many cloaks they wore when seeking worship, an act that fed them psychic energy. The name is the ancient Hebrew name of God, and I figured a race of beings that present themselves as gods and divine beings would certainly approve of.

Angel or Demon by Reilune on DeviantArt

The most common ability both angels and demons seem to have is the ability to communicate with people despite not being in the same room, so telepathy is a must. Possession is also popular, more so for demons that angels, so that needs to get rolled in there. Barring that, what’s left?

Angels are often described as warriors, but the original texts describe them as beings that would not be out of place in a Lovecraftian horror story. They are supposedly massive, alien, and powerful. To even look at an angel is to invite death and destruction. In other words, their true form might not even be possible to have in-game. Demons are also usually described as horrific, so again there is some common ground between both camps of Elohim.

Of course, maybe the shapes and wild visions of angels and demons in the old texts are not real images, but rather hallucinations and deceit. Maybe Elohim wanted to appear as huge imposing wheels of fire and titanic beasts covered in a thousand eyes. Maybe this is part of how they bring worshippers to their side, and how, as demons, they torture others. Illusions, then, would be another power to have, but just letting them have the power of illusion is too broad. Maybe they can specifically alter the mood of those who see them in order to inspire fear. In high enough doses, that fear could manifest as visions of giant monsters. Consider how someone who is arachnophobic, for example, might see a tiny spider as a beast the size of a horse. Is this power psychic? Hormonal?

Bloodwind Angel by DreadJim on DeviantArt

That brings up the next aspect. Should Elohim even have physical bodies? Making them flesh and blood makes them real, but it also makes them supremely vulnerable. It also makes things like possession more difficult. How to justify a physical being entering and overlapping with another living creature’s body and mind? That pesky mass has to go somewhere right? Making the Elohim energy or gas or something similar would then make more sense.

But what about a compromise? Maybe Elohim are physical beings, but their effects on this world are entirely psychic. The only way they can communicate is through telepathy, providing a conduit for their powers to present themselves as gods and demons. This would also provide a path for the power of possession. Maybe they don’t exactly “possess” a person, but rather use people as puppets, and the sheer mental power from the angel or demon mind is enough to grant the possessed some powers of their own. If they ever actually crossed over into our world, though, then the physical aspects would come into play.

So what are the Elohim like physically? What would our heroes need to fight if these beings ever actually crossed into our reality?

They need to be tough. Very tough. Rhino-hide tough. Small caliber weapons should bounce off them and nothing short of an assault rifle with armor-piercing bullets, or maybe a bundle of C4, should faze them. Humanoid? Maybe, but at least in the sense that Elohim will have legs, arms, a torso, and a head. The proportions should be suitably alien, as should the face. In keeping with the disturbing aspect to the uncanny valley, the face should be somewhat human but alien in minor aspects, certainly the eyes, but also in the placement of features. The skin would likely vary in shade between different Elohim, but that’s a detail I can’t quite place yet. I am, however, a fan of the general color scheme of the angel in the Masters of Horror episode “Cigarette Burns.”

Wings? Maybe, but not bird-like wings, or if they are bird-like, they should be large, powerful, and convey the image that this creature is a killer, a warrior, and certainly not a messenger with fluffy wings. The Elohim would need to be big, too, maybe as ten or twelve feet tall, in order to truly convey the power of an angel or demon from hell. They’re basically going to be organic tanks, super-strong, and with enough psychic power to make people fear them on sight. Most of their interactions with the world will be through their “possessed” victims, and once they actually manage to cross over… things get interesting.

Tentative image for the rulebook!

Figuring out the mechanics is another matter, but at least having a solid image is enough to get going.

Next? Ghosts!

In the meantime, enjoy the feeling of having your imagination bring you real adventure…

Randomology: The RPG

This is your soul. This is me playing with your soul. Any questions?

September 9, 2011

Anyone who’s ever gamed with me more than once knows I like to mix it up. When the players are looking for a rogue Star Destroyer, they discover it’s actually an old derelict found and mostly patched up by the Hutts. Great! The guns work just fine, though…

Oh, so you’re in the Nine Hells in search of an artifact needed to seal a planar rift in the kingdom? Awesome. And you made a deal with a devil to fight in a tournament for it? Okay… and on the opposing team is one of the player character’s mom? Uhm, okay, things just got complicated. 

It’s been a long few days, but while looking through my old files, I dug up this little “Welcome Packet” for my players in a modern horror campaign. We were using the d20 Modern system, Shadow Chasers setting, and I wrote this as an in-game packet they get upon entering service with Department-7. Basically, the heroes are pseudo-government agents tasked with finding and containing supernatural threats. Think X-Files, but with more magic and no aliens. And more shotguns. 

Anyway, I thought it would give a glimpse into why so many of my players develop an slightly stronger paranoia than the average player. Some of these are Murphy’s Rules of Combat, and the others were adapted from an old list I found in a forum many years ago. I take no credit for much of this, just putting it together. 

And if you have time, check out this little quiz I put together on Facebook a few years ago. I’m curious what you guys get. 

Call of Cthulhu: Beings of Ib by *Cryptcrawler on deviantART

From: Director Lewis Alanor

The Ten Commandments of Shadow Hunting

Shadow is a mysterious and little-understood property of the world, either a realm or a subset of our own where creatures of myth and magic reside. Throughout the ages, Shadow has come and gone like a tide. Over the last two hundred years, we seem to be in “high tide.” Agents of Department-7 should mind these commandments in order to maximize their time with the agency, as well as extend their own lives.

1) Keep It Secret

“How can we expect another to keep our secret if we cannot keep it ourselves?”

-Francois Duc de la Rochefoucauld

We hire unique individuals for Department-7 because they have shown their resilience at interacting with the supernatural and strange. Though we have other field agents knowledgeable in Shadow lore and its denizens, most people will be outright driven mad by the sights and horrors of the world beneath the one they see.

Additionally, agents for various cults and hostile organizations live everywhere, and we cannot be sure who they are until they strike. As such, keep all connections to Department-7 a secret. Do not pass along the knowledge of Shadow to the uninitiated.

For this reason, we demand you keep your true motives concealed from those who should not know. Of course, there may come a time when a small number of local law enforcement may need to know, though be careful. Most will think you are insane when you start talking of Shadow. Be prepared to many breathalyzer tests.

2) Stay Together

“An army is a team. It lives, sleeps, eats, and fights as a team. This individual heroic stuff is pure horse shit. The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking!”

-General George S. Patton

Put simply, trust your teammates and work as a unit. No one agent can do all the things needed to combat Shadow, but a team can bring a myriad of resources together. Some are adept at occult studies. Others are trained military personal. Still others know how to run a good con. All skills will come in handy. Make no mistake about it. You never know what you’ll need on the field.

Private Investigation by ~hewsan on deviantART


3) Act in Haste, Repent at Leisure

“Fear not for the future, weep not for the past.”

-Percy Bysshe Shelley

Before doing something irrevocable, make sure you have no other choice. Ammunition may be replenished, but life cannot. Time is limited, so act when you must. Cry over fallen comrades later.

4) Always Have a Plan

“What I plan is driven by those earlier failed.”

-Robert Burns

Even a bad plan is better than no plan at all. While a bad plan may get everyone killed or committed to a sanitarium, the lack of a plan always will. When investigating a Shadow manifestation, every member of the team should have a clear idea of what will be expected of him or her during the investigation. If possible, a backup plan should also be available. When possible, a backup backup plan should also be on the table. If one member of the team is especially important to the success of the investigation, make sure he or she is safe at all times; don’t leave them alone in the cellar, don’t take a nap while they read some awful eldritch book, and don’t let them experiment with strange talismans.

5) Scout

“I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”

-President Woodrow Wilson

Before risking an encounter, make sure someone has scouted the area. Doing a bit of research into local history can be quite effective. Careful survey of all the evidence is vital. Remember: knowledge is power. One of the surest ways to be killed by Shadow is to run in with no information about possible escapes, numbers of hostiles, and other such vital information.

While those silver bullets might be toxic to certain creatures, they’ll do next to nothing against the more ancient evils of the world.

Glock and Hissatsu by ~MrPorter on deviantART


6) Know your tactics and weapons

“Cannon to the right of them,/ Cannon to the left of them,/ Cannon in front of them,/ Volley’ed and thundered.”

-“The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Tennyson

A firearm is a useful tool, handy in opening jammed locks, an excellent way to signal a comrade, or useful in attracting the attention of local authorities. When confronted with unruly locals, nonchalant display of a firearm can often effect quick cooperation. A gun has a wide assortment of uses; no Department-7 team should be without one. Shotguns and submachine guns are available upon request. C4 and other demolition packs may be given at the Agency’s discretion.

Also be conscious of other methods of combat, such as hand-to-hand and perhaps knife-fighting.

However, keep in mind the enemy may also have firearms, and in larger calibers. They are also not shy about massive collateral damage or friendly fire. Local law enforcement also rarely enjoys firefights in the middle of town.

7) Know Your Enemy

“Theory should be study, not doctrine.”

– Carl von Clausewitz

Use all forms of media as research tools. Books, movies, and the television news can all give clues and information about the weaknesses, powers and whereabouts of the enemy. Know the sign of Shadow creatures, but do not expect that something which worked on the late show will work against real-life monsters. Folklore is filled with varying accounts of the types of creatures you can expect to find, but don’t rely on hearsay. Always keep an open mind.

“Whisperer in Darkness” by *WhiteStains on deviantART


8) Things Are Not Always as They Seem

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

-Albert Einstein

Many people and creatures of Shadow know they must stay hidden. Despite their power, they are too few in number to act freely. As such, be wary of anyone you encounter over the course of an investigation. Almost anyone could be a worshipper or agent of Shadow.

Don’t trust your own eyes. The power of illusion is rare, though not unheard of.

Never trust someone close to the case. They’re close to the case for a reason.

However, be wary of dreams and portents. The psychic turmoil of Shadow can touch anyone. Chicken entrails and tea leaves, however, are always unreliable.

9) Never Give Up

“One who has health has hope, and one who has hope has everything.”

-Arabic proverb

Inexperienced agents commonly give up when it appears victory is impossible. Dedicated scholars never cease action, no matter how hopeless matters seem. Never overlook the obvious, recheck your data, and do more research. If things still look bleak, try random approaches to defeating the menace. No matter how bad it seems, it can get much worse if you give up. Don’t go poking sticks into wasps’ nests unless you are prepared to finish the job. Our brothers and sisters in arms are all that stand between Earth and Shadow.

10) Be Prepared

“Once a man’s will is set, he need no longer rely on others or expect anything from the world. His vision encompasses Heaven and Earth, past and present, and the tranquility of his heart is undisturbed.”

-Yoshida Shoin

This goes much further than just bringing along extra rope or ammunition. Before starting an expedition, do research on the subject, find out any legends about the area which may give helpful clues; with access to ancient tomes, you may stumble across a vital clue. When ready to confront the menace, consider the hardware needed. Take anything which sounds even remotely useful, but does not burden or impede movement. Spare handgun magazines are lighter than carrying a gun for every scenario. Remember, you must try to blend in as well as be an efficient Department-7 Agent.

Bullets by ~AlexBridgez on deviantART

Other rules suggestions from various agents throughout the years are also important, though more specific than we would have liked for the purposes of this list. Some go a bit far and forget about the subtlety Department-7 agents are expected to show. However, learn and abide them.

  1. If the enemy is in range, so are you.
  2. Incoming fire has the right of way.
  3. Keep your affairs in order, just in case.
  4. Don’t look conspicuous: it draws fire.
  5. There is always a way.
  6. The easy way is always booby-trapped.
  7. Try to look unimportant; they may be low on ammo.
  8. Professionals are predictable; it’s the amateurs that are dangerous.
  9. The enemy only attacks on one of two occasions: when you’re ready for them, and when you’re not ready for them.
  10. The enemy diversion you have been ignoring will be the main attack.
  11. Don’t draw fire; it irritates the people around you.
  12. If it’s stupid but works, then it isn’t stupid.
  13. Never enter a dark room with anyone braver than you.
  14. Anything you do can get you shot. Including doing nothing.
  15. Make it too tough for the enemy to get in and you can’t get out.
  16. Explosives are equal opportunity weapons.
  17. A good citation on your record just proves you were smart enough to think of a plan, stupid enough to try it, and lucky enough to survive.
  18. If you’re short of everything but the enemy, you’re out in the field.
  19. The important things are always simple.
  20. The simple things are always hard.
  21. When both sides are convinced that they are about to lose, they are both right.
  22. If in doubt, empty the magazine.
  23. Overkill works.

Breaking the Nerd Hierarchy

Weekend warriors...

August 16, 2011

Welcome back, folks! I hope you like the new site design. If you haven’t read it yet, the first Weekly Muse short story, “Treats,” is up and I’m working on the second one for next week. Vote here or on Facebook, but you can only input more than one option on the main site.

And now, let’s talk about the nerd hierarchy.

Larp – group picture by ~kickfoot on deviantART

I have friends who are LARPers. I myself enjoyed a little Kanar back in college. I experimented a bit with some friends. We just messed around with it at Sigma Nu. It was fun, and I can already hear you snickering at the double entendre. Overall, though, LARP always held this aura. It was like the lowest rung on the nerd ladder. It was barely one step above furries. It’s one thing to play D&D with your buddies, but it was something else to dress up and run around a field with foam weapons. It was the kind of thing little kids played.

But something really struck me. As I talked with these guys and gals, all different ages, all out there, willingly, in the 112 degree heat of South Texas, I realized something.

Okay, they’re fraking nerds. No getting around that. We all loved Lovecraft, made Star Wars references, and could quote Monty Python.

But it’s damn hard.

LARP 04 by ~k-w-a-k on deviantART

Forget trying to figure out the attack bonus of a Star Destroyer when its crew isn’t skilled. Never mind trying to figure out the intricacies of 3.5 d20 spell mechanics or whether Pass Through Metal applies to constructs or just walls.

YOU try sword fighting out in the sun without any shade, high humidity, and temperatures best suited for making a five-course meal.

LARPers, I now fully realize, are like the sports fans that wear the jerseys and drive to another state to watch the big game. It’s a level of commitment other hobbies just don’t ask for, and, much like my beloved Cortex or Dungeons and Dragons, it’s all made up. I guess the real stumbling block for me was all the effort it takes to create the scenario.

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t be trading my dice bag for foam shortswords any time soon (although I did get a couple of kills). Personally, it takes WAY too much effort to have the same amount of fun. And all they’re doing is the same stuff the rest of us forked over $40 a book or a monthly subscription for. All I’m saying is…

Deva LARP armour set by ~Mishutka on deviantART

Can’t we all just get along? Nerds, unite! From the chainmail-wearing LARPers, to the Funyun-covered D&D player, to the guy at the Star Wars premier dressed like a Sith… let’s all embrace our collective love for roleplaying. United, we are stronger. Let’s look past the petty squabbles about which Doctor Who is better. We need to put aside the debates of Trek versus Wars or at what point Anne Rice jumped the shark. We can unite into a global force that knows no bounds!

But we still don’t want the furries. Sorry, guys, but that shit’s weird.

furries by ~strangemage on deviantART

3 Things I Learned from the Apocalypse

The world ended not with a bang, but with a whimper... And then the giant alien bugs started eating everything and the survivors huddled to the remnants of civilization like children to a blanket! Ha! That wasn't in the poem, was it, Eliot?!

October 18, 2010

It’s amazing the things you learn when the world ends.

Well, not the real world. Any writers out there can back me up on this: when you write something in a genre or topic you’re unfamiliar with, research can be one of the most rewarding parts of the process. History, science, sociology, or whatever else you jump into can open new avenues of knowledge.

This isn’t really a writing project, but I’m running a post-apocalyptic RPG for some friends and I wanted to do a little research into survivalist tactics, how to rebuild society, and what to expect when aliens reduce human civilization to pre-industrial levels.

Spiny Leaf Insect 001. by ~JessKa88 on deviantART

For any fellow gamers out there, it’s partially based on the Plague World setting in the d20 Apocalypse handbook.

Nerds unite!

Anyway, I did some research to bring details into the narrative, give some color and originality to the world of 2172 CE, and otherwise make things more than just numbers on a sheet. Overall, I found out many interesting things I’d like to share.

Invasion by *Radojavor on deviantART

Are You Going to Eat That?

The first problem our heroes encountered was the lack of food in their bunker. After being frozen for 140 years, their rations, well, didn’t fare so well. One of the first things they found was a farming community in what was once South Bend, Indiana. What would these people, these survivors, grow?

It’s easy enough to find out that Indiana grows potatoes and corn, but I needed more crops that this new civilization would grow, so I looked up what kinds of food would give the most sustenance and give the most benefit in this forsaken landscape.

It turns out the French beat me to it.

A pair of French companies have put together a list for the European Space Agency on what astronauts should grow for a colony on Mars. Seeing as how this future Earth is almost barren, this made the best sense to use. So what do our humans eat and grow?

Rice, onions, tomatoes, soy, potatoes, lettuce, spinach, wheat, and spirulina. Meat would be scarce since it takes more energy and resources, and hunting’s not really an option since the wilderness is dominated by mutants. I figured with trade with other surviving cities throughout the region and the country, they could easily have a diet composed of these items.

And just what is spirulina, you may ask?

Why, it’s miracle food!

Actually, it’s an algae that contains massive amounts of protein and vitamins. It’s pretty versatile, although reports vary as to how good it tastes. I figured some alien algae brought by the invaders would make for a good substitute, and the image of getting paid in blue bread made from ground algae made for an interesting roleplaying moment. In the real world, dietary plans like this are actually starting to make more sense. With meat perhaps becoming a luxury in a few years, soy and algae-based substitutes may be a necessity.

Green Pie by *Qzxyntop on deviantART

We’ve got Shakespeare, Beethoven, and George Romero

Okay, so you’ve decided to put some records, personnel, and equipment on deep freeze in case the aliens win. You’re going to want them to rebuild society should the worst happen, so you want them to have records to do so. Maybe you want to go all out and, if you have the resources of an entire government, back-up all the data on Earth to just start over.

How many pen drives would that take?

Turns out, a lot more than I thought.

This article lays it out, but here’re the basic conclusions.

If you want to back up the Library of Congress, movies, audio, images, and all, get ready to use at least 3,000 terabytes.

That’s right. Terabytes. As in one thousand gigabytes.

As in 1.5 million USB drives like the one I use.

That’s 4 million CDs.

Of course, the story starts in 2030, and we’re not going to be using modern computer technology. By then, we could very well be using holographic memory storage, which is what I used to describe the computers in the bunker our heroes use as their base.

Holographic storage is pretty cool. Imagine writing a book and, instead of writing lines of text on the page, you could actually write over the original text over and over again and read different pages just by altering the angle at which you hold the paper. Okay, it’s not a perfect metaphor, but you get the idea. Holographic memory allows for high-density storage, up to tens of terabytes per square centimeter of memory area, and would be ideal for an end-of-the-world bunker.

It’s also good to store lots of other information like manuals, music, and film to preserve after the end of civilization. Hey, if we save Mozart, we’re saving Buffy the Vampire Slayer too.

I Think We Have a Problem by *Sylanya on deviantART

Remember: Short, Controlled Bursts

This one isn’t a science lesson so much as an observation. This is a role-playing game, after all, and my players are very immersed in the story. It’s also hitting them that civilization’s been destroyed. The alien invaders didn’t quite win since they’ve been reduced to scavenging on Earth as well.

Our heroes have dozens of guns and thousand of rounds of ammunition, but something else is hitting them.

They’re alone. Very alone.

America is gone. Everyone they left behind has been dead for more than a hundred years. There is nothing in the world, they believe, that resembles a society beyond the few cities and towns scattered over a blighted continent. This is very much unlike every other RPG they’ve played or any other situation they’ve ever had to roleplay.

There is no support. No back-up. The weapons they have and the training they’ve accumulated are all they have.

They are alone.

For a few minutes this week, they really just stopped and asked, “What’s the point? What are we doing? What are our goals?!”

It was too big for them. Mind you, they’ve roleplayed fantasy heroes trying to save the multiverse from dark elves, demons, and whatnot, but this hit them hard. I like to think I’m pretty good at running RPGs, but the level of detail I gave them helped put their characters in the right state of mind. It’s bordering on horror in some areas.

And that’s why you research for everything from an RPG to a short story. The details, everything from blue bread to the kinds of guns these pre-Industrial humans are now using, make it real and make it that much more interesting. Nothing beats an internet connection or a trip to the library to bring your work to life.

Post Apocalyptic City by ~Amartia on deviantART

And now for some slightly less apocalyptic things. Sort of.

  • When the world ends, which city will help repopulate the world? If this study is any indication, the high sexual satisfaction in Indianapolis, Indiana may make it the future center of a rebuilt empire. Well, not really. The study just tried to find the most sexually satisfied city. Go, Indiana!
  • The Angry Video Game Nerd is a bit of an internet sensation, but here, sans Angry Nerd character, he explores the Night of the Living Dead cemetery and finds some very interesting things. It’s a must for any Romero fan!
  • Ever wanted to make money just sitting around? You can! No, really. I’m not selling pyramid schemes. If you’re willing to let drug companies test their products on you, you can actually make a killing. Of course, the downside is that you’re letting drug companies test their drugs on you… but hey, you get to sit around! Who wants to be a human lab rat? Think they give you one of those running wheels?
  • And finally, I got this from reader Jeremy Jones and had to share it. If you are against gay marriage, you’re really against gay love. Check it out. Warning: NSFW.