True steel – part two

In part 1 of this Argothald story, I talked about the game’s first players. In this part, I want to delve into how I designed part of the fictional world of Tala, the planet of the Argothald.

One of my objections to the early Dungeons & Dragons rules was the emphasis on character alignments. The first edition placed all the characters on simple “Law vs. Chaos” morality scale. Later editions, up to the present day, have a two-axis scale: Law vs. Chaos, Good vs. Evil; e.g., one can be “Chaotic Good” or “Lawful Evil.” There are game rewards for “behaving according to your alignment” and penalties for not doing so.

This annoyed me then. It annoys me now. I feel it gets in the way of effective character development and storytelling.

In reaction to this, when I started designing Argothald in 1978 I went back to source of the “Law vs. Chaos” idea used in D&D: the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock. I didn’t want to make Law and Chaos the focus of the campaign, so I decided that Tala was a world in which the battle between Law and Chaos had been fought centuries ago, and Chaos won. [1]

The leader of the forces of Chaos was the Mekatrig. [2] I placed him far away from where the players start, most of the way around the planet. If the players chose to try to defeat him, it would be an epic journey and an epic battle.

That defined the overall conflict, but I didn’t want the players to have to slog through Chaos on a day-to-day basis, or put them in a position where their only goal was to defeat the Mekatrig. So the Mekatrig does “Chaos stuff” where he is, but only maintains loose control where the players are. The Mekatrig has local representatives, the Demon Rulers. They are reminders that the Mekatrig is there, but they aren’t as powerful or nasty as he is, and they don’t share the same goals.

Crytolos was the Demon Ruler with authority over the players. He was one of my most successful fictional creations: he became exactly what I wanted him to be, a villain the players loved to hate. He isn’t evil so much as he is terrible. His laws boil down to “Let me control you, but otherwise stay out of my way.” The players could speak with him, or plot around him, or use him as a resource, and even carefully manipulate him.

One of Crytolos’ terrible qualities was his appetite. [3] His main form of punishment is to devour criminals whole, with Crytolos acting as judge, jury, and enthusiastic executioner. Since Tala is a world where magic works, it’s possible (though expensive) to be resurrected even after Crytolos eats you; this amounts to a heavy tax as opposed to a permanent loss of life.

That’s pretty nasty, but it wasn’t quite nasty enough. I wanted to add arbitrary cruelty to his villainy. I decided that Crytolos physically ate people as a punishment, but that wasn’t his nourishment. To exist, he has to absorb souls, and from that there is no recovery. Every month Crytolos sends out a list of four or five people to report to his palace, never to be seen again.

There’s no return from Crytolos’ monthly summons, but I wanted a way to escape. I called it the Paths of the Doomed. If you are on Crytolos’ list, you can choose to walk through a magical gateway that “programs” you to travel from one dimension to another, always with Crytolos chasing you; travel too slowly and he gets you, if the dangers of that dimension don’t kill you first. [4]

There is no other way to escape. I wanted to make Crytolos powerful, but not unbeatable. The standard way to do this in a tabletop game is to give a creature large game numbers: hit points, strength values, etc. I found this tiresome; you’ve seen one 1000 hit-point creature, you’ve seen them all. I chose a different concept: Demon Rulers can travel instantly to anywhere in time or space, free of all paradox. You can’t run from Crytolos, because he can always find you; you can’t fight Crytolos, because he’ll travel back in time to warn himself. The Paths were the only delay I put into the game: Demon Rulers can’t instantly go between dimensions. [5]

There was one thing I never figured out: Where did the Paths come from? Who created them, and how? I left it as an unanswered mystery.

Crytolos had another habit, as cruel and nasty in its own way as his appetite, though not as terrible: quests. He had a list of tasks posted on his palace wall. The rewards for completing those tasks were enormous sums of money. The problem was that the tasks seemed impossible, or nearly so.

The reason why the tasks seemed impossible is that I, as the gamesmaster of the Argothald campaign, had no idea how they could be accomplished. “Bring me the heads of a three-headed dragon” seems simple, but I didn’t put any three-headed dragons in the game, and the dragons I did put into the game were intelligent and powerful creatures. [6]

Remember Damien Deimos? A year or two after Sam left the game, I decided to memorialize his character by placing his name in one of Crytolos’ quests: a large reward for Damien Deimos’ true steel sword. I had no idea where Damien Deimos was, where his sword was, nor why Crytolos would want it.

One more mystery: Demon Rulers have horns, except for Crytolos. His horns were chopped off a long time ago. [7] As a story element, I wanted to make Crytolos unique among Demon Rulers, perhaps a reason for him to be angrier and more unreasonable than Demons in other nations. Why were the horns removed? How? I had no idea.

It would be 30 years before those mysteries would be resolved. We’ll learn the answers in part 3.

[1] I could have decided that Law won, but that would effectively make the world a dystopian tyranny, and that’s not the kind of campaign I wanted to run.

[2] A slightly altered version of “Mekratrig,” an alternative title for Satan.

[3] This has nothing to do with my own food-control issues. Nothing at all. I’m surprised that you’d even make that connection. And that’s my taco; go and make your own.

[4] This looks a lot like the plot of the TV series Sliders, but I created the Paths of the Doomed 17 years before that series aired. The ideas of “constant chase” and “a new world every week” did not originate with me; e.g., see The Fugitive and Time Tunnel.

    My intent was to provide an alternate campaign environment. The players could choose the “standard” life of an adventurer: go into dungeons, slay creatures, go on quests, etc. Or they could decide they were on Crytolos’ list, go through the Paths of the Doomed, and experience a new world or two every week. No group of players ever decided to walk the Paths. They remained a part of the environment, mentioned occasionally as the plot required it (“Segovnia was forced to walk the Paths of the Doomed, and she left her fortune behind.”).

    The “Paths of the Doomed” was not the only alternate campaign I prepared for Argothald: Exile would have the players combine adventuring with forging a government among the ungovernable; the undersea kingdom of Nornla would have emphasized 3-D combat; an abandoned starship orbiting Tala combined SF and fantasy elements; even my Paranoia and Star Wars campaigns had connections to Tala. No one ever chose those alternative environments, and the connection between Argothald, Paranoia, and Star Wars went unnoticed by the players.

    There’s a lesson to be learned here… but after 30 years I still haven’t learned it.

[5] They can’t travel between planets either, though that’s not relevant to the players; I didn’t provide them with a simple way to go off-planet. This means that Crytolos can’t teleport into your bedroom on Earth. No, really. Look in your closet if you don’t believe me.

    You may find a demon in there, but it’s not Crytolos. I promise.

[6] Even worse, they are popular. Killing a dragon without a very good reason might make you a lot of enemies.

[7] I created Crytolos years before I heard of the comic-book character Hellboy.

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    1. wgseligman

      You like my geek ramblings? That’s the best birthday present ever!

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