A System for the Running of Deathlords

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The following are rules intended to help guide play and run campaigns involving the Deathlords, in order to emphasize that the Deathlords derive power from systemic and infrastructural sources that are often external to them. It makes the Deathlords incredibly powerful, but provides tools for players to quest about destroying or breaking things that empower the Deathlords in order to weaken them.

It draws upon, and is inspired by, the Overlord rules from the game Fellowship.

The Invulnerable Aegis of the Deathlords

Deathlords have had millennia to set up their elaborate personal defenses and to delve deep into necromantic protections against almost all threats.

As the ST, define about 2-4 things that are effective on the Deathlord: Choose either specific types of damage they are able to suffer, specific gambits, or some esoteric effects (such as those that affect dreams or twist space).

They are categorically immune to everything else. They cannot suffer damage except from those types. They cannot be targeted by gambits save those. They are immune to effects that are neither gambits nor deal damage except for the ones chosen.

An appropriate Espionage, Research or Investigation Venture can uncover these weaknesses, and can also be used to locate and destroy the sources of the Deathlord’s power.

Each Deathlord has between three and four layers of defenses. Each layer often represents the work of centuries of combined enchantments, invoked powers or recruited servants.

The ST should select a number of Sources of Power (see below) equal to the layers of defenses and Bleak Powers they possess (also see below), plus one. Player characters may discover these Sources of Power using Investigation, Espionage or Research Venture with a minimum number of obstacles of four.

Once uncovered, the player-character may perform a Venture they deem appropriate (such as a Court Intrigue Venture to turn a chorus of ghostly warders against them, or a Repair Venture to restore an ancient blade that, when wielded by the appropriate monarch, saps the power of the Deathlord who stole their crown). If the Source of Power is some sort of character, personal scale social or combat scenes can also be used to disrupt, sway or destroy it (such as slaying the undead behemoth whose blood the Deathlord brews into dark alchemical elixirs of immortality).

Whenever a Source of Power linked to the defenses of the Deathlord is swayed, destroyed or otherwise neutralized- they suffer vulnerability. If they can be harmed by fire, then perhaps now they can be harmed by another terrestrial element as well, or perhaps the ghostly version of flame is painful to them. If they could be disarmed of their weapons, then perhaps they are now vulnerable to Pilfer or Unhorse gambits, which also deprive them of their panoply. If they could be attacked by dreams, then perhaps illusory phantasms are now effective on them.

Inform the players of these newly expanded weaknesses. If all layers of the Deathlord’s defenses are removed, they become vulnerable to everything. They retain any resistance or effect provided by their personal charms, but they are no longer simply immune to everything.

Players need not remove all of the layers of defense before attempting to engage the Deathlord, if they feel they have sufficiently opened up their defenses.

Bleak Powers

Sometimes, Deathlords channel their sources of power into extraordinary capacities in addition to their personal defense. This grants them Bleak Powers, which are incredibly unfair abilities that greatly change any combat scene in which they are present.

Choose, or write, 1-3 Bleak Powers for your Deathlord.

They typically grant the Deathlord a passive power that changes how they must be interacted with, or supply them with a special action they can take. Unless otherwise noted, taking an action granted by a Bleak Power does not consume the Deathlord's action for that turn. If they possess a quality that allows them to take additional actions or turns, they may only use the Bleak Power during the first or last of these each round, but only once over all.

The following are some sample Bleak Powers:
  • Countdown to Doom: Place a die down with the 8 marker up. At the beginning of each round, move the die one number down. When it reaches 1, every character other than the Deathlord and their allies is instantly incapacitated. The Deathlord may spend an action to move the die down by two steps.
  • Void Mystic: Each round, the Deathlord may cast a single spell with a Will cost less than their Essence without spending Will.
  • Shrouded in Terror: A palpable aura of unnatural death-horror cloaks the Deathlord and their servants. No character opposed to the Deathlord may voluntarily enter within Close range of them or any servants of the Deathlord in the same scene. If they, or their servants, come within Close range of a character, that character must move out of Close range at the start of their next turn.
  • Invincible Lion Mien: The Deathlord has the Furious Dragon's Ire and Living Disaster qualities. Choose a gambit. Whenever they make a decisive attack, they may roll six dice and apply the results as extra successes on that gambit as if they were performing it on the target of their attack.
  • Juggernaut Roar: As a Bleak Power action, the Deathlord may move every character in the scene up to two range bands in any direction.  Any character moved must make a difficulty 5 Fortitude + Physique roll or lose three Power (to a minimum of 0) and fall prone.
Bleak Powers may be destroyed and removed from the Deathlord in the same manner as their layers of defense. The players must identify one of the Sources of Power the Deathlord holds and perform ventures (or personal scenes) to destroy or otherwise neutralize them. When they do, they choose a Bleak Power and the Deathlord loses access to it until they can renew or recreate that Source of Power.

Sources of Power

A Source of Power is something, narratively, that is the linchpin of some power of the Deathlord. Specific Sources of Power are not strictly linked to any specific power or defense- instead, the players or the group decide on which Power or defense is appropriate to remove based on the current storyline.
 
Anything can be a Source of Power, provided it can somehow be swayed, changed or destroyed.

Here are some sample types of Sources of Power:
  • Object. An object is typically either an immobile installation that the Deathlord draws power from via ritual or enchantment, or some mystically important item they have to sequester or hide. It may also include items that they destroyed or damaged which, when repaired, are harmful to them. This is never an object which the Deathlord can simply carry or wear all the time.
  • Character. A character is simply a vassal, prisoner, monster or something similar that provides (willingly or unwillingly) power or protection for the Deathlord. This type of Source of Power is usually an individual or, at most, a battlegroup.
  • Group or Cult: This is a group of people who support the Deathlord in some practical (or mystical) way. Unlike the above example, these are groups that are either too large or too diffuse to make affecting them on a personal scale practical. The group is typically very large (such as a nation) or spread over an enormous area.
  • Place of Power: This is a mystically significant natural or artificial place, which can be disturbed, despoiled or destroyed to weaken the Deathlord. This can also be resolved by, for example, Ventures that lure the Deathlord from some place of unassailable power.
  • Oath or Compact: This is a mystically significant oath, alliance or agreement the Deathlord has formed that provides them with power. This type of source of power can be broken by finding a method that leaves the Deathlord no choice but to violate it.
Incapacitation Text

So the burning question on some of your lips will, of course be, what if my players all get killed because they underestimated a Deathlord?

The answer to that is don't do that. If someone's story is going to end, it should be because of a player's decision, not the dice.

To aid in this, Deathlords all possess an Incapacitation Text, which describes the consequences of being incapacitated by them or their direct servants. This only applies if you are left at their mercy, such as being abandoned by the other players or if everyone is incapacitated.

These are, and this is important, not punishments for losing. The player may even be given mechanical benefits, like learning necromancy because the accursed incantations of the Dowager ripped the veil from your eyes and revealed the secrets of life and death.

These Incapacitation Texts may have stages of worsening consequences, based on how many times this has happened, or remain static. They do not have to affect all characters incapacitated, if described as not. Incapacitation Texts will generally involve asking a player (or players) to volunteer to be changed by the power of a Deathlord, to be imprisoned or banished to the underworld by them, or to somehow be drawn into the schemes or plans of the Deathlord.

There are three broad kinds of consequences that can be appropriate for almost any Deathlord, and each one will have their own additional options described in their Incapacitation Text.
  • Personal Change: This can mean having a personal revelation, epiphany or suffering a trauma from the experience. It usually results in you being left for dead, and coming away from it physically or mentally changed. Things like rearranging, adding or removing intimacies is very appropriate. So is purchasing things like Necromancy, or gaining physical mutations or strange allies, like gaining an awful undead arm or attracting one of your ancestor's ghosts with your near passing.
  • Capture or Banishment: This consequence usually means being captured by the Deathlord, their servants, (occasionally) their enemies or even other undead monsters that happened to be nearby. It can also include being thrust into a dangerous situation while healing, such as a shadowland forming, because of your conflict, that drops you into the deep underworld. Being imprisoned offers chances to engage personally with dangerous people in a way that isn't usually possible. It can also offer chances to express or debate philosophies, to show off the Deathlord (or your character's convictions), or even to join them.
  • Bindings and Orders: So, sometimes, you have to do a task for them. This can be because of blackmail (especially if combined with one of the above possibilities), supernatural compulsion (such as your heart being stolen and held ransom), or because of threats to something you care for. Some Deathlords may employ more subtle means of ensuring your obedience, like bribes, gifts or clever misinformation. This option, overall, is especially useful if the group wants to have a small detour into a place they would not normally visit, or they wish to do things in an unconventional manner to show characterization that wouldn't otherwise be revealed.

Here is a sample, Deathlord-specific option:

March of Cruel Glaciers: After engaging with the Mask of Winters, your characters were partially frozen in dark ice, left for dead by the Mask. After a few weeks, the ice thawed and, thanks to their incredible Exalted constitution, everyone barely survived. However, in the time you were gone the Mask of Winters achieved some important goal that you were striving to thwart, or has somehow endangered, or captured, a place or character of great importance to all of you. Weak and healing, can you turn back the clock?
 

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Five Fathoms Fall
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My fundamental objection to this layers/powers model is that it is badly unclear if removing the layers is optional or mandatory. Which means it's going to be equally unclear to whatever players are faced with the deathlord, and that's a wonderful way to cause a lot of hurt feelings and in-group strife. So don't do that, make it explicit.

Moreover, either option needs refinement.

If removing the layers is mandatory, don't bother with the combat engine until it can actually be used. Unwinnable boss fights are hated in CRPGs for a very good reason. If the deathlord is still invincible and not subject to combat, model them as a non-combat challenge. Make it explicit and enshrined in mechanics that the objective is to run away, hide, assassinate their second-in-command, steal their hearthstone, divert their attention, whatever. And use the rules appropriate to that, instead of slapping Exalted with an unaccomplishable task.

If removing the layers is optional, step very carefully around absolutes and make sure no PC is invalidated or undermined. Remember that absolute abilities assigned to a NPC are indistinguishable from fiat. A character portrayed as brave but told they cannot even attempt to boldly charge the deathlord has their bravery stripped from them by fiat. A swordsman forbidden to enter melee with the deathlord has had their primary ability to contribute negated by fiat. So don't do those things.

The incapacitation text model is great, though.
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I think this is a pretty good prompt to get people to start thinking about how to employ them as an antagonist while I'd probably only ever use it as a guide. Most of the ideas here are pretty great but also feel like the sort of thing that you have on your notes and shift about as appropriate, there's a lot of pitfalls to me if it's taken as much more than that.

Stuff like noting down weaknesses, having your players know they're there but not what they are...but being very willing to shift what those actually are should the story suddenly take a turn or a player suggest an idea during play that's going to be more satisfying. Likewise being willing to throw them out and decide they're bullshit rumours if it becomes a rod for your back rather than something thats continuing to build tension.

Same goes for some of the powers, I love the idea of the doom countdown but when running exalted I'd always want to have 3 or 4 different 'outs' for what happens when that finishes depending on how the combat is looking when it does.

Love the idea of the incapatication texts.

Overall I actually think having broad frameworks for antagonists like this in exalted works way better than just giving them a statblock and trying to stick to it, so kudos on trying to codify that
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Five Fathoms Fall wrote: Wed Jan 12, 2022 11:31 pm Which means it's going to be equally unclear to whatever players are faced with the deathlord, and that's a wonderful way to cause a lot of hurt feelings and in-group strife. So don't do that, make it explicit.

It's a Deathlord, it's already explicit.
Five Fathoms Fall wrote: Wed Jan 12, 2022 11:31 pm Make it explicit and enshrined in mechanics that the objective is to run away, hide, assassinate their second-in-command, steal their hearthstone, divert their attention, whatever. And use the rules appropriate to that, instead of slapping Exalted with an unaccomplishable task.
It is explicit, it's a deathlord.  If you are mucking around a manse and one pops down, you hide and run.  Just like if in AD&D you just raided a cave and a dragon lands outside and starts sniffing around to consider it as a den.  If you are not at the level to threaten it (Elder Lunars and Sids have not yet threatened the Deathlords) then you hide and or run as makes sense.
Five Fathoms Fall wrote: Wed Jan 12, 2022 11:31 pm If removing the layers is optional, step very carefully around absolutes and make sure no PC is invalidated or undermined.

It is a deathlords job to undermine the PC. It is their job to invalidate tons of things, they are First Age Solars, take what you can do and then consider millennia of preparation, huge power bases/resources, insane attributes and abilities.

The way you beat a deathlord is a coalition as the Deathlord invalidates and shuts down wide swaths of what's coming at it with it's plethora of contingencies.  Something will get through if you have enough to overcome it's centuries of planning.

I felt this was a cool write up on how to make a Deathlord a threat in line with the story while more grip-able by the standard ST.

I hate this modern idea that you are *not* collaboratively storytelling. That the ST is a prisoner meant to fluff player egos and enable their victories. That's on you and if you stay to fight something out of your league, welp bad call. If the world is a living breathing place, don't be a complacent player, analyze the situation and get the fuck outta there.
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The Gemling Prince wrote: Sat Jan 15, 2022 12:48 am It's a Deathlord, it's already explicit.
No, it's not. Because A: This is Exalted. B: What about all the folks who haven't been following the game across editions and thus don't know deathlords are Exalted's WoD-Cain NPCs? And C: What about part-way?
C's the most damning one. Consider a team of bold heroes who just snuck into The Mask of Winter's hidden research Manse and reversed the polarity thus stripping away the fourth of six layers. On the way out, they kick down a door and holy shit it's the deathlord's study and the deathlord is in it. Is this a perfect opportunity to engage the deathlord from surprise and bloody them? Or is this a tragic mishap that will salt the PCs' victory by forcing them to flee for their lives? If your players have to guess and guess wrong, the evening is about to be ruined.
The Gemling Prince wrote: Sat Jan 15, 2022 12:48 am It is explicit, it's a deathlord.  If you are mucking around a manse and one pops down, you hide and run.  Just like if in AD&D you just raided a cave and a dragon lands outside and starts sniffing around to consider it as a den.  If you are not at the level to threaten it (Elder Lunars and Sids have not yet threatened the Deathlords) then you hide and or run as makes sense.
Yeah, so put that into the rules for the scene.
The Gemling Prince wrote: Sat Jan 15, 2022 12:48 am It is a deathlords job to undermine the PC. It is their job to invalidate tons of things, they are First Age Solars, take what you can do and then consider millennia of preparation, huge power bases/resources, insane attributes and abilities.

The way you beat a deathlord is a coalition as the Deathlord invalidates and shuts down wide swaths of what's coming at it with it's plethora of contingencies.  Something will get through if you have enough to overcome it's centuries of planning.

I felt this was a cool write up on how to make a Deathlord a threat in line with the story while more grip-able by the standard ST.

I hate this modern idea that you are *not* collaboratively storytelling. That the ST is a prisoner meant to fluff player egos and enable their victories. That's on you and if you stay to fight something out of your league, welp bad call. If the world is a living breathing place, don't be a complacent player, analyze the situation and get the fuck outta there.
The hell does any of that have to do with collaborative storytelling? That's just you jacking off an NPC.
You don't have to make a mockery of glorious heroes to tell a story together, or cripple their strengths and undermine their presented traits, or unwinnable-boss-fight them. And you certainly don't have to do so with mechanics. And you definitely don't have to make the players slog through misery to get through it.
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Five Fathoms Fall wrote: Sat Jan 15, 2022 1:55 am The hell does any of that have to do with collaborative storytelling? That's just you jacking off an NPC.
You don't have to make a mockery of glorious heroes to tell a story together, or cripple their strengths and undermine their presented traits, or unwinnable-boss-fight them. And you certainly don't have to do so with mechanics. And you definitely don't have to make the players slog through misery to get through it.

Glorious heroes, pehh, there is nothing heroic about the Exalted. They are just people who have more power than others. You can have your Twilight or Eclipse Jafar as easily as anything else. Putting a label on them like 'hero' means you want them to win and that everything is leaning in their direction.

Lex Luthor Deathlord is allowed to use kryptonite on Solar Superman. Joker Deathlord is allowed to put the genius Twilight Batman into an impossible position, an impossible choice - force them into a question with no answer.

Humbling the character, forcing them to experience the full spectrum of emotions, that is a good story. What was presented is that a Deathlord is pretty much undefeatable if taken head on. They have powers that are like PC perfects and can strip capabilities. I'd say a good Deathlord fight, executed perfecting by the PCs, most of the PCs should die. Two or three countdowns go off. The PC's recruit many other heroes and they tangle up the deathknights and reinforcements. It should absolutely be a pyrrhic victory if a victory at all. The Usurpation was a pyrrhic victory, this is the ghostly retelling of that all over again, the echo and the memory repeats.
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