Wednesday, 30 October 2019

City of Ghosts - A New Project


This post was made in 2019, and ultimately led to the creation of Pariah volume one, available here:

...and maybe also here:

If you are looking for information about the upcoming book, Pariah 2: City of Ghosts you're in the wrong place. For now, go here:

If you're interested in a bit of DIY RPG historiography, then please read on...

While work on Keepers in the Dark continues apace [note: this projected was never completed], another project is beginning to take shape and I want to jot some ideas here and now, in full public view, because I feel a frisson of excitement and wish to share that.

This new project is called City of Ghosts (working title) and is built upon the following core themes:

  • Dawn of a fantasy Neolithic: humans transition from nomadic subsistence to sedentary settlements, all the while pillaging the ruins of a lost precursor civilisation (the titular city).
  • Troupe Play: Players control a band of outcasts, and work together to build a new community with its own customs, traditions and even language. The community building aspect was inspired by this post by Humza Kazmi
  • OSR GAME: At a tactical and exploratory level, play is very similar to OD&D or B/X, with some modifications. Significantly, it is classless and level-less, inspired in part by Spwack's Die Tryin' and Cavegirl's lateral character progressions, notably the wounded daughter and also wendigo sickness. However....
  • MULTIPLE TIERS OF PLAY: ...there are other levels to this game, which connect to the tactical level but operate with semi-independent mechanics, so in a sense they exist as their own mini-games. This includes the aforementioned community building game, but also negotiating with the spirit world, epic vision quests, and more mundane things like training a fledgling workforce (or working towards a world without work). All of this was inspired by the briefest of exchanges with Luka Rejec during a conversation about the 48 Hour Mega RPG Jam
  • One Stop Shop: Goal is to create a one-book game i.e. ruleset and sand box all together.
Disconnected Particles of Thought

What follows is a series of thoughts without a close adherence to formal structure: the emphasis is on getting ideas down onto paper on this blog. This post is a work in progress and will be updated periodically, with hyperlinks added to future developments.


+The 'Adventurers+'
  • Each and every character is a product of late palaeolithic human culture: they are intelligent, possess sophisticated language, are (mostly) physically capable, and surrounded by a  terrifying world oscillating between famine and feast.
  • They are generalists rather than specialists: some may be better at fighting, others may be more skilled at crafts, but they share a common pool of abilities. There are no classes or levels.
  • They are illiterate and superstitious. These two facts are not (as yet) related: the world truly is full of capricious spirits with whom bargains must be struck in order that they might be placated. Writing has not yet been invented, but whoever does so will have opened up a whole other world of magic.
  • As suggested above, they are animists. The gods have not yet been born but spirits are everywhere.
  • They are outcasts from their respective tribes. This is in the tradition of both the old school picaresque.
  • They are colonialist in a pre-colonial era: claiming land from an apparently dead (and once oppressive) culture: how they behave in relation to the cultural relics determines just how colonialist they are.
  • mechanically speaking, hit dice and ability scores are resources that must be managed. 
  • Characters improve by overcoming problems, stretching themselves, setting an example for their comrades and  providing for their community. 
  • Exhaustion, starvation and injury are not only possible but likely. 
  • Characters will die. Maybe someone will mourn for them, maybe not, but their achievements will live on through  the stories of their comrades.
  • I've started a character generator, you can find it here

+the Troupe or Band+
  • Collectively, the players don't manage a party, they manage a "band": this is a fledgling community not yet ready to adopt the word tribe and without the ties of blood associated with clan. Players can choose from a pool of characters, though in a standard exploration session, they usually just select one to act as their avatar in the game world.
  • The band shares their skills, knowledge and resources: the default setting is primitive communism. However, players are free to develop their own primitive hierarchies if they wish, and distribute skills, knowledge and resources accordingly.
  • Bands will attract new members as they grow in prestige and wealth. How the band responds to that affects their relationship with other communities around them.
  • Bands (and I need a better word...) consists of children, adolescents, elderly and infirm members as well as healthy adults. Some of these will be able to contribute meaningfully to community life, others will make less obvious contributions.
  • Mechanically, the band allows players to enjoy investing in their characters even though their life may be cut short: PCs can train proteges and share new skills or magic. The purpose is to provide a more rational framework for the rogue-like mechanic of new characters inheriting dead characters abilities.
  • Relationships with other bands are built up based on competition for resources, cultural exchanges (gift giving, marriage etc.) and personal history.
  • The prestige of the band boils down to how effectively it can provide for its members and protect them from the surrounding dangers of...

+The World+
  • The world is old, but humanity is young. An older culture, that of those known only as The Others, seems to have completely disappeared, leaving a of deserted cities lining a fertile river valley.
  • Humans have only just began to occupy this valley: a long established taboo precluded its occupation. A human leader, Jehemen, violated this taboo as recently as a one year before the campaign begins.
  • Prior to Jehemen's violation, humanity has wandered for centuries, drifting from oasis to oasis. Their tradition speaks of a fall from paradise and a banishment: are the cities of the Other Ones that paradise? 
  • Jehemen claims kingship over the ruined capital of the Other Ones (the eponymous City of Ghosts), but the wandering tribes of humanity are wary. Some pay tribute, some keep their distance, but the landscape is shifting: for those on the fringes of human society (i.e. the party) this represents a golden opportunity.
  • Traditional human subsistence falls somewhere between hunting/ gathering and pastoralism: they follow herds of animals across the desert, from oasis to oasis, in a seasonal cycle which dates back centuries. This is very much background fluff unimportant to the gameplay beyond providing an origin story.
  • Human culture is animistic, owing to the preponderance of (sometimes visible) spirits throughout their world. Most are capricious, many are malevolent: human survival depends on negotiating and bargaining with these entities, and the desert tribes appoint powerful shamans to assist in this negotiation...
  • This negotiation is an important aspect of play, inter-relating with magic and ritual (see below), encounters, even healing and disease.

+The City of Ghosts+
  • The desert is cruel and unforgiving, but in a sense it is predictable: the oases always run dry and humans must move on, but given time, they replenish.
  • The City of Ghosts is less predictable, but far more abundant. Herein lies its attraction to pioneering PCs.
  • The City of Ghosts earned its name because.... 
  • ...a) it is haunted by the absence of The Others: where did they go? Why did they leave? 
  • but also b) because it is full of disembodied, intelligent entities eager to gain a stronger foothold in the material world.
  • The City of Ghosts provides the PCs with the following opportunities:
    • Respite from cruelty of the desert
    • Shelter from the beasts of the valley (though they will need to negotiate protection with the spirits)
    • Technology  and resources (including magic) left by The Others
    • Knowledge (and possibly more) to help them exploit the above, courtesy of the myriad spirits lingering in the ruins.
  • The city map consists of an outer wall, other pieces of urban infrastructure (major roads and canals) and a few keyed elements. The rest will be blank, procedurally generated as the PCs explore. They will not be given a copy of the map, and will have to devise an in-game method of recording their travels (this could become a major artefact within their community).
  • The procedural generator is inspired in part by both Ynn and Styggian Library, although there will be a clear physical location for each "point" generated, so it will in a sense become a procedurally generated hex or grid crawl (undecided as to which so far, but scale will be about 120' i.e. one exploration turn)
  • Taking a cue from Ynn, when entering a previously unexplored area, the GM will roll for the location and its features. This roll will be modified by an areas weirdness, which functions something like depth in Ynn and The library but...
  • ...depth is only partially abstracted, it has a physical presence, it radiates outward from nodes representing crossover points between this world and that of the spirits.
  • This relates to a pair of older post about the weird and the magical in an previous campaign setting.
  • Players can exploit weirdness however they wish: it can be inferred based upon the encounters they experience, or detected by some sensitive characters.
  • The "weirder" the location, the more likely the characters are to encounter a powerful spirit. Spirits can be fought, but they can also be bargained with.
  • Spirits have knowledge and magic and other things useful to tribesfolk; they want a stronger foothold in this world. They might achieve this through blood, flesh...or art or music.
  • There are other weird things in the city of ghosts besides spirits... some are wild beasts, twisted by magic, others are the creations of the Others... perhaps some of The Others remain?
  • At the centre of the city, Jehemen holds court: is he a noble king, a madman, both or neither?

+Major and Minor Spirits+
  • The more powerful a spirit, the greater its sentience: at one end of the spectrum are spells, at the other end entities we might describe as demons.
  • The term spirits encompasses creatures that might be identified as undead, fey, elemental or demonic: the distinctions are aesthetic, and evolving.
  • Spirits are usually bound to a place by its particular weirdness: PC actions might expand or contain this range.
  • Spirits confer boons, banes, curses and knowledge on those they favour or oppose. It is sometimes hard to discern one from the other.
  • Some spirits seek to be worshipped, others to be ignored. They are a driving force in the game, but it is important to understand that they exist outside of a human moral framework: they are not the baddies, they can be fought or befriended.

  • The core of the magic system is based upon the ritual, which is usually performed outside of tactical encounters, in anticipation of events not in response to them. However...
  • ..rituals might summon spells to remain on -hand until they are needed. They might also summon more powerful spirits to act at the spellcasters behest. Furthermore...
  • ...Vancian (and other) forms of magic might be granted by spirits, or stolen from ancient artefacts, or gleamed from other tribes or or or
  • There are no spellcasting classes, but some characters might become better at casting than others (this relates to their ability scores, their hit dice, and their relationship with the spirit world)
  • More to be added...

  • The best way to experience the spirit world is to take powerful hallucinogens

+Skills and Attributes+
  • Where actions are risky (either due to time constraints or a consequence of failure), ability scores are tested. The GM establishes a difficulty number (DN) based on the perceived difficulty: the player rolls a D6 and adds it to their ability score. If the sum is equal to or greater than theDN, the action succeeds. However...
  • ...a roll of one is an automatic failure. That said, if the DN is one point lower than the characters relevant ability score, it automatically succeeds. 
  • Alternatively, if a roll of one still meets the DN, the GM may decide to implement success but at cost
  • Through training or experience, a character's skill may be improved: this increases the die from a 1d6 to a 1d8, to a maximum of 1d12.
  • More to be added...

+West Marches...+
  • Acknowledging that modern gamers often lead busy, complex lives, the game is well-suited to a west marches style of play: the players schedule sessions at irregular intervals, and those present may draw from the pool of characters (perhaps having ring-fenced their favoured individuals) to embark on an expedition or foray, intended to be concluded in one session.
  • Players can arrange down time activities between sessions using platforms such as Discord

  • City of Ghosts could also be run as a straight-up urban crawl for any other party or setting.
  • The community building rules could be adapted to a post apocalyptic setting, a Blades in the Dark style urban gangland type game or any campaign where outcasts come together to build a new life for themselves.
  • Individual rules modules can be lifted, detourned and re-appropriated as the reader sees fit. Sort of goes without saying, nowadays, especially in the OSR scene (note: there will be lots of tables)
23.05.22: Added explanatory intro and link to new CoG project - Sofinho

08.01.20: Added more posts - Sofinho

19.12.19: Added more spirit blog posts -Sofinho

12.12.19:  Added blog posts -Sofinho

03.11.19: I've linked the character generator to the adventurers section -Sofinho

30.10.2019: ENTHEOGENS! I missed out the mind-bending drugs! -Sofinho 

30.10.2019: Okay, that's it for now. Let me know what you think below! A lot has been left out, and a lot is still poorly resolved, but I'm really keen to get some feedback. -Sofinho


Normal humans
Community building.
Birth of gods
Birth of literature.
1 month 1 year ten years one century
Birth of Magic

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