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The Environment as a Player

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This is a quick sketch of an idea towards having the environment play a more active role in a game. We wanted a scenario which would satisfy the following constraints:

  • The environment is in a state of slow but steady degradation;
  • Most people are unaware of this degradation, and are quick to blame other causes;
  • There are strong selfish incentives to allow degradation to progress;
  • It is possible to stop the progression and potentially even reverse things, but it requires massive cooperation from external forces which are unlikely to cooperate;
  • A recognizable parallel with the industrial revolution, but within the fantasy-friendly realm of D&D.

At the heart of this scenario is a substance called dirtiron. More details follow. We intentionally start with a description from a player’s standpoint, and then get into the environmental concerns. Player’s are intentionally unaware of the environmental concerns at first.

Dirtiron: Dirtiron’s existence has been known since antiquity. It is a soft, lightweight, dull metal with a low melting point which often is co-located with iron deposits.  Early on, it was considered as more of a waste product of iron mining than anything else; it was too soft for weapons, and it is far too common to be a precious metal, hence the name. Attempts were made to alloy it with other metals to see if desirable properties could be brought out, but these were fruitless. As such, dirtiron was considered a useless but harmless byproduct of iron mining, and its low melting point made it easy to separate from the more valuable iron.

The lost mines of Phandelver might be the origin point of the adventure!

The situation changed when someone happened to cast a light cantrip on a chunk of dirtiron. The light from it was noticeably brighter than usual, and it lasted a full three times longer than normal. After some experimentation, it was discovered that spells that target objects would consistently be more intense when the object was made of dirtiron. From this, it was deduced that dirtiron somehow acts as a kind of amplifier for spells, though one which was poorly understood.

Dirtiron became something of a curiosity for wizards to play with, and many people conducted experiments with the metal. While most experiments ended with nothing of use, one had quite a surprising result: by writing the right sets of runes on dirtiron, one could effectively embed a spell into the metal. For our purposes, these spells are very much like programs in today’s computers. These embedded spells became known as sigils. Sigils could themselves be started and stopped with simple cantrips. Initially, the only spell that could be embedded was for the dirtiron ingot to produce light. One would cast a cantrip to start the rite, and light would be produced until the stop cantrip was uttered. While this was initially a toy, spell embedding gradually improved to the point where the light was bright enough to be useful.

From there, sigil technology rapidly improved, and more spells could be embedded as sigils. At some point, it was discovered how to make a chunk of dirtiron rotate (in a paper famously called “Embedded inverted mage hands: one step closer to free perpetual motion”). With some steady improvement, this made self-powered wagons possible, and windmills were no longer necessary. This was revolutionary. Dirtiron got a new place in the spotlight and was renamed inksilver.

Inksilver: a sigilist can embed a spell into an item, making it capable of perpetually being cast until the owner doesn’t want it any more. The original cost of inksilver devices depends greatly on the embedded spell, starting at 50 gold pieces for cantrips, and 50% more for every spell level above that (coming to around 1200 gp for level 8 spells). Embedding more than one spell, as well as adding conditions to their casting increases the price by 25% per spell or condition. The conditions and spell triggers is defined just as it would be when a player is “readying an action”. By default, the item acts on its owner’s turn except if set to another trigger by a special condition.

For every turn where an inksilver device triggers, after its action is done, make a 1d100 roll to see if the machine overloads and stops working. The difficulty class of this roll is basically cost divided by 20 (so 60% for embedded level 8 spells). If it does, the device breaks down and needs a sigilist to fix.

Around the time of this development, people started to notice certain limitations of inksilver embeddings. It seemed that active inksilver would produce a certain amount of heat with intensity proportional to the intensity of the spell. The simple light spells never were taxing enough for people to notice this, but it would become noticably warm to the touch when embedded with rotation spells. An intense enough spell would heat the ingot so much that it would start to melt, which would usually immediately (and permanently) end whatever sigil was active; once the runes were damaged, the spell would wear off. Heat was not a problem for most applications, and even then, it was just an engineering problem to overcome.

Notably, under certain rare circumstances and under very intense conditions, people were known to have been killed by the immense heat generated by a spell. The general rule is that for very high-power applications, people should not be near, and the environment should be well-ventilated so as to avoid exposure to excess heat. No casualties have been reported when following these guidelines, so people generally consider inksilver safe nonetheless.

Inksilver Development In the Game

Players start in the golden age of inksilver embedding. Streets are lit with inksilver lamps. Self-powered wagons are beginning to outnumber their horse-drawn analogs.  People wear clothing embedded with fine strands of inksilver just so they can glow.

Sigil technology is rapidly improving, and the number of embeddable spells is ever increasing. At some point, utility spells are discovered which allow the physical properties of inksilver to change without altering other properties. This leads to the development of the sharpest swords ever seen, and similarly the strongest armor ever produced. Initial models of these items are hard to come by and expensive (spell embedding is a time-consuming, error-prone task), not to mention quirky (they need to be activated during combat, and can only be active for a limited time to avoid overheating). They are, however, incredibly overpowered, and make all prior weapons/armor obsolete nearly overnight. Players will want this.

To start, the players are either sent to, or choose to investigate, a village which has turned into a ghost town. It’s as if all the villagers just up and disappeared. More on this in a bit.

Going back to the use of inksilver in enclosed spaces, it wasn’t the heat that killed people. Unknown to the players (or almost anyone else) is that inksilver disperses an invisible contaminant which will spread throughout whatever physical medium the metal is in. The contaminant will be in the same phase as the medium (typically gas or liquid). In small amounts, this contaminant is harmless, but it gets progressively (and even exponentially) more dangerous as it is concentrated. The contaminant is dispersed in proportion to the intensity of the spell, much like the heat.

Enter the larger environment. While the contaminant is usually evenly dispersed and diluted in the atmosphere, natural weather patterns can cause it to spontaneously concentrate over a wide area. This area can encompass a village, and lead to poisoning of the people within. Depending on the concentration and exposure time, this can lead to a bad cough (d4), shortness of breath (d6), fatigue (d8), cyanosis (d10), shaking (d12), and eventually coma and death (d20). If concentrated enough, the contaminant can become corrosive, enough so that it will dissolve bodies given enough time. This was the fate of the village turned ghost town. It’s up to players to figure this out. The dice assigned to the contaminant serve as an estimate of how bad the state of the situation is.

You can use a heat map to keep track of these things in a simpler way. Nothing fancy, take your fantasy map and just pick six colors to mark the different symptoms. Take it easy, escalate over time.

Unrelated example heat map of an unrelated fantasy land.

To give an idea of how to express the symptoms in the story, if an environment or person has a d10 die due to the contaminant, this means that many people are noticing a problem due to cyanosis, fatigue, shortness of breath and long coughing sessions. With a d20, many are scared, as people are falling into a quiet slumber and never waking up…

To simulate the accumulation of these factors, use the contaminant dice like an inverted resource die: start with d4, and any time you roll a 1 on it, increase the die by one size (so d6, d8, etc.). You can create drama by rolling these dice any time the characters come back to a locale, and telling them that it’s noticeably worse if the die changed from last time. As you go on, introduce modifications that happened because of the environmental damage that occurred in a locale. There might be people who realized this problem was real, and are trying to help. They could have kiosks, they might be out on the street, trying to preach their message or looking for someone to champion their idea for them. These will be people who were made aware of the danger in some direct way, so be sure you have a handle on what happened to them to cause them to start this journey. Ultimately, it always leads to death, and the players should definitely be able to see that.

This is the fate that all life will eventually share if sigils continue to be used. The plot would eventually lead the players to determine the source of this contamination, and to convince everyone else to stop using it. This will be an uphill battle, and players themselves will be strongly tempted to use it themselves, as it would give everyone they face an unfair advantage.

Self-upheld antagonism

Once the players discover the truth of inksilver, the environment becomes an antagonist, in part. Until that stage, however, more traditional antagonists are needed. At earlier stages in the game, traditional antagonists ensure that players are motivated to move forward and to provide a means to progress. Traditional antagonists are there to both showcase the problem, and distract from the bigger picture.

Depending on the design of the antagonist(s), this can add a whole layer of difficulty to the game. For example, the important parts of economy could be designed around multiple inksilver-using warring factions, and the players may even be aligned with one of the factions. Now players need to convince the factions to stop using inksilver, despite the fact that it offers an undeniable military advantage. It’s easy for the factions to say that the current time isn’t convenient, and they’ll get around to it after the war. A change like this is never convenient.

Factions will arise that take the inksilver problem higher: risky individuals who combine to form troublesome groups, who don’t see the contamination problem seriously because they either don’t care, or have too much to lose. If inksilver is used as a weapon for a gang war, there will certainly be individuals who try to go beyond: people who tattoo inksilver onto their bodies, shortening their lifespans but getting a degree of magic they never could have got previously. Imagine a rogue with a shield spell, or a firebolt ready to go. The temperature increase while in use would mean that the person would be taking damage for it, but it’s all worth it if it does the job. Alternatively, imagine inquisitors who have a zone of truth or suggestion tattoo somewhere on them and can activate it with just a twitch of their hand. Inksilver tattoos are the best way to show the problem in small.

Inksilver tattoos: For the equivalent of 20 gp, an inksilver sigilist can embed a spell tattoo onto a character’s skin. The character gets a contaminant die for the spell. This die starts at a d4 and grows to the next die size any time it lands on a 1. Whenever the character casts the embedded spell using their tattoo, they get a level of exhaustion and roll their contaminant die and take that much damage. If they would fall unconscious as a result of this roll, they die instantly instead.

One character can have multiple inksilver tattoos, but only one contaminant die. Whenever they get a new tattoo, increase the die by one size.

Probably a real-life portrait of Jason Momoa.

There are other sides to this fight, and some might have it seemingly better than others. Elemental beings have a predisposition to using inksilver devices in a way that doesn’t show the damage as much. For example, a water elemental would have advantage on the contaminant roll when using inksilver devices, because they’d use the volume of their body for cooling. The effects of the poison would be slower to them, but the damage would be increased by +2 because of the heat. Earth elementals could harness inksilver in its base form of dirtiron (as a part of their body, of course), and would be resilient to the contaminant, but would spread it whenever they use or are a target of magic. These effects might even translate to races like genasi, who would have different levels of tolerance and subtle differences in how they react to inksilver in general.

A Method to the Madness

All of these elements are the tip of the iceberg, however. Fantasy has a myriad ways to show the horror of environmental destruction in a way that realism fails to grasp: with realism, human lives and even civilizations always end in death. Fantasy allows for some extra steps to be taken. Imagine that after the coma that comes at the final stages of inksilver contamination comes something much worse than death… Imagine if they didn’t die, but came back, reinvigorated, but changed.

Let’s say the people who return from that coma form a hivemind that works from the shadows, scheming and plotting to increase the production and usage of inksilver even further because of a hidden ultimate goal only it sees but not even it understands. This would explain away human stupidity and greed in a very pointed way (in a way that’s much easier to grasp than real shortsightedness, stupidity and greed, honestly), while giving way for some great roleplay. This might be a reimagining of mind flayers, where instead of them being extra-dimensional squid-like schemers that come from the Far Realms, they’re actually created by our civilization, and thrive in our use of a poorly understood but devastatingly magical technology that spreads a field of Far Realm influence around it.

Unspeakable things whisper awful truths to those who dare listen. For mortals, knowledge of the Far Realm is a triumph of mind over the rude boundaries of matter, space, and eventually sanity.

Manual of the Planes
Star Spawn, or just a mental image of a super greedy person?
From Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.

One can think of inksilver as a natural gateway drug into the Cthulhuesque madness of the Far Realm, but from the inside: it isn’t an invasion waiting to happen, but a nursery rhyme for the awful truths that can’t wait to be revealed. We make it happen by asking how to make our world more “us”, and the environment responds in kind.

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