Tales from the Manhole Cover

Oldhammer, OSR, Tabletop Gaming

Various Horrible Cryptocurrencies

With Bitcoin now using more power than many countries, the pressure is on for cyberpunk settings to come up with cryptocurrencies which can compete in stupidity and unpleasant externalities.

Here are some ideas for currencies that might be used by outlaws trying to stay off the grid and living in blighted urban areas, with the added benefit of helping to keep those areas blighted:

Hydrocoin: Carries out transactions via a network of free-floating nanites suspended in waterways and groundwater. Externality: The nanites are mildly toxic.

Roachcoin: Processes transactions via scent signals between genetically altered roaches. Externality: Roaches.

Givingcoin: Developed by a charitable foundation to help the homeless, this crypto runs transactions on a small device worn by a homeless person. The homeless person gets a cut of each transaction fee. Externality: Gangs started rounding up and 'milking' the homeless people, forcing them to move wherever the gang wanted to extend the network and taking their fees.

Crimecoin: Software that infects numerous municipal devices, street lights etc, and stores its ledger in publicly available records of crime rates. Externality: If there isn't enough crime, it turns a bunch of lights and security alarms off until there is.

Experiences vs Experience Points

The system I'm using for my current game is based on the Black Hack, and perhaps my favourite part of it has been the experience system. In place of XP certain actions count as 'experiences' and are recorded on the character sheet. Players can check off a certain number of them to gain a level (in BH equal to their current level, though I'd suggest equal to the level you're trying to reach.)

BH requires PCs to carouse to gain a level, though in my game any downtime action can be used to level - training, research, crafting, building relationships - and will be a little more effective for it.

Experiences as Genre Rules

By default, the following qualify as experiences:

  • Defeat or foil a boss
  • Enter a new dungeon or level
  • Recover a magical artifact
  • Complete a quest
  • Overcome a deadly hazard
  • Fail spectacularly at something

In my game we use this list:

  • Fight against an important or particularly challenging foe.
  • Saving throw or malady that could lead to death.
  • Each time you return home Encumbered due to valuable treasure.
  • Quest completed on behalf of an NPC.
  • New dungeon, level or major map entered.

Both reward the kind of thing D&D characters expect to be doing - going into strange places, fighting monsters, recovering treasure. But you could easily change the whole tone and genre of the campaign by switching these around, with entries like "share a meal with a new friend" or "come to understand an enemy's motives" for a more Ghibli-style game.

Experiences as a Campaign Record

One unexpected effect of this system was that after a while, PCs end up with Experience sections that look like this:

  • Stepped through Ultan’s Door
  • Battled the White Swine – twice
  • Discovered the puppet of Afatis
  • Discovered the law of Zyan
  • Slew the White Sow
  • Defeated the Weaver of Shadows
  • Struck a deal with Azmarane
  • Entered catacombs of the Fleischguild
  • Discovered the Porcelain Abattoir of the Fleischguild
  • Defeated the Fleishgeist
  • Defeated Szadu
  • Laid the Restless Shades to Rest
  • Entered the White Jungle
  • Entered the Parapraxis
  • Battled the White Apes of the Parapraxis
  • Battled the White Ape Chief
  • Comforted Espi about the truth of her origins
  • Recovered the Parapraxis
  • Recovered great treasure from the Parapraxis
  • Attended the Chatelaine’s Private Feast
  • Stood up to Aximund
  • Defeated the Lionhead Giant
  • Travelled to the Alkaline Wastes
  • Descended into the Fallen City
  • Discovered the fate of Liishinoru
  • Reunited Liishinoru and Kasparan
  • Defeated the Liishinoru
  • Entered Liishinoru’s Heart
  • Vowed never to speak of the filtration tanks again
  • Discovered the Water Treatment Plant
  • Fulfilled Liishinoru's Promise to Repair the Water Filtration Plant
  • Recovered texts from the Archives of the Fallen City
  • Discovered the Swamp of Many Eyes
  • Discovered the skeleton of a monstrous reptile
  • Scouted Loktole
  • Fought in the Battle of Loktole
  • Defeated the Hydra
  • Rescued Stumby
  • Entered the Pass of the Ibis
  • Escaped the belly of the Froghemoth
  • Liberating the prison camp
  • Rescued Sendrie from The Stalker
  • Saved the Lone Elm
  • Explored Underleaf Forest
  • Entered the basement of Owlshadow Castle
  • Roasted the Butcher of Agnis Fen
  • Slew Aximund of House Ibis, Harbinger of the Purifying Flame
  • Faced Down the Avatar of the Purifying Flame
  • Suffered an Eye Injury While Facing the Whining Krematorium
  • Arrived is Wolsdag by Crow
  • Attended the festival of Longtide
  • Was turned into a goblin
  • Ambushed and slew Culdan
  • Drove the bloody hand from Wolsdag
  • Sailed to the Shattered Isles
  • Entered the Submerged Spire
  • Battled and Freed the Ctenophoric Maiden
  • Plundered the Tomb of Kremulos the Livid
  • Raised and redeemed Aximund
  • Battled Their Rogue's Gallery in the Hinterlands
  • Returned Aelix and Ulina, daughters of Saint Balix to Rastingdrung and presented them before the Chatelaine

In other words, an extensive record of the PC's career. Without context, such a list offers only tantalising glimpses of the campaign it represents, but for any of the players every entry brings a memory vividly to mind. It's a log of the campaign created effortlessly as part of the process of play - players are eager to add to it because every entry is a token of the currency they used to grow in power.

Experiences as Currency

And there's more. Because XP now represents specific moments, effects that add or remove XP become particularly interesting. A character who sacrifices XP in some way loses an experience - and all memory of that experience.

When the PCs encountered a stranded Chronomancer seeking retrograde energy to further her journey into the past, she traded the PCs memories of their past for memories of their future. This allowed them to give up an experience to gain a new one - but the new experience could not be spent on levelling until the vision had either come to pass, or been successfully averted.

And a potion called the Blood of the Corrupted, which provided a significant amount of experience in return for certain downsides, could provide the following experiences:

  • D̛̾̎R̋̽̈́A̓̎͐N̒̾͂K͗͗̃ T̀̽͠H̓̀̒E̒̅̀ B̿̆͡L̑̇̆O̊̆̕O̊̍̊D̛̑͋ Ó̈̽F̐̏͊ T̾͋͂Ȟ̓̒E͋̑͠ C̈̐̏O͋͝͞R̃̋͡R͗̈̅U̍̑͡P̽̔͂T͌̀̾E̛͑͌D̋̚͡
  • D̛̾̎R̋̽̈́A̓̎͐N̒̾͂K͗͗̃ T̀̽͠H̓̀̒E̒̅̀ B̿̆͡L̑̇̆O̊̆̕O̊̍̊D̛̑͋ Ó̈̽F̐̏͊ T̾͋͂Ȟ̓̒E͋̑͠ C̈̐̏O͋͝͞R̃̋͡R͗̈̅U̍͡PTED
  • D̛̾̎R̋̽̈́A̓̎͐N̒̾͂K͗͗̃ T̀̽͠H̓̀̒E̒̅̀ B̿̆͡L̑̇̆O̊̆̕O̊̍̊D̛̑͋ Ó̈̽F̐̏͊ T̾͋͂Ȟ̓̒E͋̑͠ C̈̐̏O͋͝͞R̃̋͡R͗̈̅U̍̑͡P̽̔͂T͌̀̾E̛͑͌D̋̚͡

They work just like ordinary experiences, but the PC seeing that on his sheet is likely to get the message that something is very wrong.

Experiences & Magical Items

Another trick is to combine the system with Ben Laurence's system for awakening magic items. Instead of the GM having to watch out for a moment in the game which is epic enough to rouse a Splendid item into magical awakening, I put it in the hands of the players - instead of investing an experience to level up, they can invest it in an item.

This is an out-of-character decision - the player decides that it happens, but the character has no control over it, from their perspective it just happens. As DM I retain control over the specs of the resulting item, so very dramatic and emotive pairings of item and event produce the most powerful magic, while pairing an item with "entered the lair of the one-eyed scabid kobold" might produce something less impressive.

For example, one of the players used Returned Aelix and Ulina, daughters of Saint Balix to Rastingdrung, a quest taken on a vow made to a martyred saint, to empower Joyeuse, the Blade of Saint Maurus, a sword made with fragments of the wheel upon which one of the other saints of the same faith had been martyred, to create:

Joyeuse, Magical Flamberge of the Martyred Libertines

  • 2H Sword +2, +4 if the wielder is bloodied.
  • Target hit by a full attack must CON save or die if they are engaged in enforcing law or religious orthodoxy.

So at this point I'm thoroughly sold on the method; as an experience system it's adequate; but the side effects of using it are what, for me, make it shine.


Friendly, Yet Bitey

Mermaid, Wilderlands

Mermaids are hypersocial carnivores. They feed exclusively on land-dwelling mammals, including humans and demihumans.

AC 6 [14], HD 6 (27hp), Att 2 x grapple (1d3), bite (1d4/3d6), THACO 14 [+5], MV 360' (120') swimming, 30' (10') crawling, SV D12 W13 P14 B15 S16 (3), ML 5, AL (CG? Chaotic? Neutral? You figure it out), XP 275, NA 0 (2d8), TT 1 in 6 chance of 1d6 pieces of jewelry.

  • Automatically attack if there is (landfolk) blood in the water.
  • Damage from grappling attacks becomes ongoing until target breaks free.
  • Once both hands have grappled bite damage is applied automatically. If they try to bite without grappling first, a hit only deals 1d4 damage.
  • Many mermaids are younger specimens with 4 or 5 HD.
  • Parties encountering mermaids for the first time who approach in a friendly manner have a +4 on the reaction roll. Once they make friends or enemies of the mermaids, further encounters will react accordingly.
  • Retreats on 3/4 hp.
  • If not using other rules for underwater combat, +4 to attack and defense while fighting land-dwelling creatures in the water.

Landfolk and mermaids are mutually delicious; mermaid sushi is a decadent delicacy among the wicked; their skin is fragrant, their kisses are sweet. Land dwellers are every bit as tasty to them. Conversely, they have little interest in eating other sea creatures and never cannibalize one another.

Mermaids have characteristics which in humans would be associated with ADHD: They are restless, playful, easily bored, struggle to focus on tasks that do not interest them, and show hyperfocus on things that do. This leads many landfolk to dismiss them as stupid, but they are highly intelligent, and specialized for their ecological niche.

Their hypersociality is both a means of organizing their community and part of their hunting strategy. Where a human might have a circle of 250 or so friends and associates, a mermaid can easily keep track of thousands. It is reasonable to assume that every mermaid you encounter knows every other mermaid, as well as numerous landfolk and denizens of the sea. All mermaids speak numerous languages, including the common tongue, their own and those of whales and dolphins.

They are extremely friendly, even flirtatious if such advances seem welcome. This is part of their strategy for luring prey into the water, but it is important to note that this is not an act on the part of the mermaid - they are genuinely gregarious and love to make friends, even if these friendships are sometimes all too brief.

A swimmer cavorting with mermaids will find them eager to play and cuddle, kissing with giddy eagerness, perhaps a nibble here, a slight nip, their teeth surprisingly sharp - oops, she's drawn blood, nothing serious, just a little ribbon of red hanging in the water.

As soon as they taste blood in the water, every mermaid nearby will draw back her lips to reveal sharp, sharp teeth, their eyes will dilate, taking on a giddy look, and as one they will fall on their prey and strip it to the bone in minutes.

If they liked the swimmer, they'll feel bad about it afterwards, though the mermaid temperament is not given to dwelling long on such morose things.

If they disliked the swimmer, they will show no remorse. Just as mermaids can easily keep track of their many friends, they never forget their enemies. They nurse grudges and kill those who make enemies of them gleefully and without mercy.

Lacking the elongated jaws of most predators, the mermaid attacks by grappling with both hands, her powerful grip dealing 1d3/1d3 damage. This damage is repeated every round after an attack hits unless the target breaks free, and once both hands are grasping the target she will bite for 3d6 automatic damage per round, her saliva containing enzymes that break down the flesh of land-dwelling organisms - her bite will deal only 2d6 damage to sea creatures.

Mermaids are not brave and have no interest in a fair fight; they rely on surprise, numbers, and viciousness to kill their prey quickly. A mermaid will retreat after losing a quarter of her hit points. As a result they will often seek help in taking on powerful foes they bear a grudge against.

Profitable relationships can be had between mermaids on the basis of common enemies or the regular need to dispose of fresh, tasty corpses. Animal meat will placate them but does not excite the way human flesh does.

One can frolic with mermaids in some semblance of safety by ensuring they are well fed beforehand, checking carefully for open wounds, being firm about not letting them bite, learning to recognize the loopy look of a hungry mermaid, and if all else fails, a firm bop on the nose can disrupt their feeding state. Though this risks annoying the mermaid, they will usually forgive nonlethal self-defense in the same spirit as they expect their friends to forgive the occasional devouring attempt.

Sidebar: (Since someone is going to ask) Can you fuck a mermaid?

There's a big difference between can and should.

Here's the thing: They're probably DTF, but mermaids are not sexual; they engage with the act on an affectionate and sensual level, and the reason it's sensual to her is that you taste nice. If you do this thing she will eat you.

In the event that this is your fetish I only beg that you make sure the rest of your table share your enthusiasm before indulging it.

They are excellent messengers, able to relay messages not only among their own kind but also through the intercession of whales and their long-distance songs; they know useful contacts for PCs both on land and beneath the waves. They are in theory skilled translators but lack the focus to translate long texts.

They are amoral in the sense that they do not spend time contemplating the suffering of the world in the abstract, but they are highly sympathetic and can easily be won over by a sob story.

To the naive landlubber they may seem to be just piscean dream-girls, offering a love uncomplicated by terrene concerns; to the old salt they are evil spirits, cunning, deceitful sirens luring good men to their deaths, and to merely look upon or speak with them is ill-omened.

The truth is that mermaids are sincere, friendly, and kind to a fault. But they are not human. They do not think like humans, and those who traffic with mermaids do well to remember that they are ethically, mentally, and physically alien.

Mermaids live until they are eaten, or until they lose their excitement and love of life, and ennui overtakes them, at which point they sink down to the bottom of the ocean, lay their eggs and die. There the hulking, dour, benthic mer-men bury the mermaid in a cairn of coral with sombre ceremonies, fertilize the eggs externally, and raise the hatchlings.

The males are taught the solemn, serious, and stoical ways of the mer-men, and dwell with them amid ruins on the deep ocean floor, while the females, as soon as they are strong enough to swim, surge upward eager to explore and frolic in the sun and escape the dullness of the mer-men and their lightless world.

Sidebar: But what if I don't want to frolic?

The occasional nonconforming gothy mermaid remains in the deeps, while once in a while an ebullient mer-man swims up with his sisters to dwell with them in the shallows. These variations, rare on account of the extreme sexual dimorphism of the species, are fully accepted by the group they join when they do occur - merfolk gender roles are reproduced by instinct and, as a result, not socially enforced.

Upon reaching the surface they are greeted by other mermaids, who teach them to hunt and make friends and swim and all the other skills a growing mermaid needs. The only familial relationship they know is "sister", and they are all sisters. Anyone who reminds them of a vulnerable young mermaid is likely to be regarded as a sister too (regardless of gender) and they will become very protective. They are patient swimming instructors, even for those without tails.

Other sea creatures respect mermaids, either for their sociability and usefulness as messengers, or (in the case of the Sahaugin) for their hunting prowess and ferocious appetites.

Mermaids are mythological creatures, formed of the tales, desires, and fears of lonely sailors, but it is their practice of mutual solidarity, ability to form strong out-group bonds, and terrifyingly effective (if partly unconscious) hunting strategy that has allowed them to thrive and multiply.

Reclining Mermaid by Kris Guidio Reclining Mermaid by Kris Guidio