Saturday, July 7, 2018

A Corruption System for Starfall

A major theme that runs throughout Starfall is Corruption versus Purity. Within the setting lore, Corruption is represented by demons and the Maelstrom; while, Purity is represented by nature and Ananta. We have spent some time now working on mysticism and eschatology, both of which illuminate the side of purity. Today we take a break from that to investigate the other side of the coin – Corruption.


We have flirted with the idea of Corruption on several occasions thus far, but we have yet to truly nail down what it is. So I will begin by trying to explain my thoughts regarding it. Corruption is the antithesis of the natural, the pure, and the clean. But describing a thing by what it is not hardly constitutes a definition. So I’ll try again. Corruption is the disruptive force desecrating and perverting the world into something more homey for the demonic invaders from the Maelstrom.

Corruption, as a force, is slowly creating monsters of beasts and men, altering the land and the weather, subverting spirits, and poisoning Ananta. Its pestiferous miasma is choking the world and everything in it. And it wants to spread. Whether the demonic hordes are an extension of Corruption, thrive on Corruption, or are simply so tainted by it that their mere touch corrupts is unknown, but they are the Maelstrom’s primary means of spreading it throughout the world.

That said, demonic influence isn’t the only way that corruption spreads. Entities native to the world can also invite Corruption into themselves and the world around them. This primarily happens when beings partake in acts that go against the natural order of things – bestiality, cannibalism, incest, patricide, treating with demons, raising the dead, using black magic, etc. But Corruption is insidious and can infect the clean simply by its mere presence, too.

Moreover, the pernicious nature of Corruption makes it difficult to identify as a threat when it first takes hold. Rarely does Corruption turn a sane person into a raving madman overnight. Instead, it works its wiles through temptation while it slowly burrows deeper into the soul. Slowly, it twists the through patterns of its victims, turning them toward darker and more debased acts until eventually it consumes them fully. But even then, the individual feels sane and honestly believes himself a good person.

So it is that Corruption is subtle, consuming, and poisonous. It seeks only to consume everything in its path, and it uses promises of power, easy solutions, and demonic influence to spread its cloying, toxic tendrils deeper and deeper into Ananta.

The Effects of Corruption

As stated above, Corruption alters the way its victims think and behave. This is never for the better. Typically, those it has claimed for its own become less emotionally stable, more extreme in their beliefs, and find it easier and easier to justify their own actions. Many find themselves addicted to that which Corruption offers – easy access to power. But this is just the beginning.

Corruption can also cause physical mutations and extreme behavior in those thoroughly consumed by its ink-slick darkness. The least of these mutations often manifests as a rotting of the entrails and tissue. This doesn’t inhibit the tainted, but it can betray them when cut into and black ooze pours from their worm-eaten veins. In more extreme cases, the body itself can become mutated, resulting in hideous deformities, additional limbs, horns, hooves, or any number of other physical oddities. It is believed that the beast-men originated this way.

Despite the corruption of flesh and rotting of the mind, Corruption does not kill its victims. These creatures are its tools and join the demonic horde in their unfathomable mission.


So now that we have a better idea of what Corruption is, how shall we represent it and is this a good idea? Well, lucky for us, GURPS Horror already has some hints on how to do this. It suggests that each character has a Corruption tally two which points get added to by various circumstances and acts. Eventually, the GM converts these points into disadvantages.

But is this a good fit for Dungeon Fantasy? Well, old-school dungeon-crawling is a resource management game, and this tally becomes another resource that PCs can choose to manage. So in this sense, I think it really is fitting, despite the little bit of complexity it potentially adds. Moreover, it gives the GM more options to add variety to the challenges faced by the PCs, and further, it provides the players a chance to create plot hooks and drama of their own. So I have to say, I do think it fits the genre.

So what should Corruption not do? It shouldn’t provide a free way out of trouble. It shouldn’t be a go-to for PCs in a lurch. It shouldn’t be something players want their PCs to experience. Let’s try to turn those into better guiding principles: Corruption should be more harmful than beneficial in the long term, even if it provides an easy out right now, and furthermore, the effects should not attract people who want to roleplay the downfall of a character.

The former is simple enough – Corruption will offer enough power right now to help in most situations, but the effects of that corruption will be unpleasant for the PC and they won’t be easily removed. We can generally avoid the cliché of playing a PC’s fall from grace by having Corruption result in a long-term loss of agency. Ultimately, if enough Corruption is had, the PC will fall under the control of the GM, and the player will have to make a new one.

So with all of this in mind, let’s start writing the system!

Acquiring Corruption in Starfall

Every character has a Corruption Tally to which points are added as Corruption slowly gains a foothold in and eventually dominates the PC or NPC. All characters begin play with a tally of 0, but certain acts and events increase this tally, and a precious few reduce it.

Bad Places. Some locations are so tainted by evil that merely spending time in them can subvert your soul. Most vile locations add 1d-4 Corruption per week, but some increase your tally even faster. Additionally, doing anything that increases your tally while in a Bad Place adds an additional 1d Corruption.

Black Magic. Anyone with Magery can cast spells using black magic. Such castings do not cost FP or Energy Reserve, but each point of energy ignored adds 1 Corruption to your tally. This can be used to maintain spells, as well. Furthermore, any critical failures use the Black Critical Table from GURPS Magic.

Corrupt Injury. Demonic teeth and talons, vile weapons, and depraved spells cause the soul to fester and rot as well as the flesh. For every point of damage taken from monsters and weapons the GM deems Corrupt, the victim must add 1 Corruption to his tally.

Depraved Acts. Some deeds are so horrific that they indelibly taint the soul. Things like cannibalism, familicide, incest, sacrificing infants to demon overlords, or otherwise debasing your soul automatically increases your tally by 1d-2 Corruption.

Unnatural Vigor. Just as magi are able to tap the dark energies of the Maelstrom to cast spells, warriors – or anyone, really – can tap the same vortex of foulness to fuel uses of Extra Effort. Each use costs an amount of Corruption equal to the FP or Energy Reserve (Heroic) provided.

Vile Artifacts. Some objects are simply so mingled with Corruption that using them or even possessing them can increase your tally. Phylacteries, sacrificial knives used to kill babies, certain books of vile darkness, etc. impart 1d-2 Corruption upon any use, increasing to 1d Corruption for using supernatural abilities. The GM may also deem special artifacts more or less cursed.

Dark Lore. Learning certain lore can also harm the soul. Whenever you spend a character point on any of Hidden Lore (Demons or Undead), Thanatology, or Thaumatology (Black Magic), you gain an equal amount of Corruption. Additionally, some books and spells – especially those bound in human skin – can impart corruption just by reading them!

Demonic Fortune. Something dark watches over the world, looking for opportunities to prey on the desperate. You can gain a number of points towards uses in GURPS Power-Ups 5 – Impulse Buys for the express purposes of averting disaster – mitigating failures, buying Extra Life, etc., but never to gain an advantage like Buying Success or Serendipity. For every point gained, you also gain 25 Corruption.

The GM tracks all Corruption tallies in secret. People touched by the Maelstrom do not feel corrupt, so there is no reason for the players to know their current tally. If any directly asks for his, the GM should lie – “Don’t worry, you feel just fine.”

Effects of Corruption in Starfall

Corruption marks a person’s soul in a way that is obvious to anyone attuned to such things – mystics, certain nature guardians and divine servitors, etc. Anyone who might take issue with the corrupt react to you at -1 for every full 25 points of Corruption. Furthermore, demons will notice your growing bond to the Maelstrom and actively try to tempt you further down the well!

The primary aspect of Corruption is that it changes a person, and not for the better. Once per week if your tally is above zero, you must make a Will roll at -1 per 10 full points of Corruption in your tally. On any failure, your Corruption is converted to character points in the GM’s hands at a rate of one point per full 25 Corruption. The GM then uses these points to alter your disadvantages – “pure” disadvantages have their control numbers increased and “corrupt” ones have theirs reduced (see Appropriate Disadvantages, below, for guidance). He may also add new quirks or disadvantages as he sees fit; these do not count against campaign limits on either.

The GM should feel free to save up these points for large blowouts, if he so chooses. Similarly, he may choose to use only a couple of these points and save the rest, if it seems more fitting. The idea is to slowly and inexorably push the character toward his own destruction.

Appropriate Disadvantages

GMs looking to lower self-control rolls or add new disadvantages should generally gravitate toward those that can represent insane or reprehensible behavior or supernatural deformity: Absent-Mindedness*, Addiction (Black Magic or Corrupt Abilities)*†, Alcoholism*†, Bad Temper*†, Berserk*†, Bloodlust*†, Bully†, Callous†, Compulsive Behavior (Attention-Seeking, Giggling, or Laughing)*, Compulsive Carousing*†, Compulsive Gambling*†, Compulsive Lying*†, Compulsive Spending*†, Delusions*, Disturbing Voice‡, Fanaticism*†, Flashbacks*, Frightens Animals‡, Gluttony†, Greed†, Impulsiveness*, Indecisive*, Intolerance†, Jealousy*†, Lecherousness*†, Lifebane‡, Megalomania*†, Nightmares*, Obsession*, On the Edge*, Overconfidence*, Paranoia*, Phantom Voices*, Sadism†, Selfishness†, Short Attention Span*, Supernatural Features (Any) ‡, Suttering*, and Uncontrollable Appetite (Murder)*†. GMs should also consider quirk-versions of all of these traits when they don’t have enough points to buy them outright.

Additionally, GMs should consider using points to increase the control number on or buy off disadvantages that are generally considered Good or Pure: Charitable, Combat Paralysis, Compulsive Generosity, Honesty, Post-Combat Shakes, Selflessness, Sense of Duty, Truthfulness, and any quirks based on them.

* Suitable for a loosening grip on reality.
† Suitable for virtuous degradation.
‡ Suitable for supernatural deformity.

Cleansing Corruption

Corruption is a tenacious and insidious, so it is little wonder that it takes tremendous effort to cleanse a tainted soul of its depravity, and even then, it is likely as not to fail.

Mystic Healing. Some mystical powers can remove the demonic taint from a person’s soul directly. Unfortunately, these powers are extremely difficult to develop and very rare, making such mystics suitable objects of entire quests.

Amputation. In cases of physical corruption, it is sometimes possible to cut off the tainted body part before the infection can spread to the rest of the body. Doing this to yourself requires a Will roll at -5 to begin, and additional Will rolls, at -5 plus any shock penalties, every second thereafter until enough cumulative damage has been inflicted to sever the body part. Any failure means you stop and will not continue. Critical failure means you keep going, but the corruption has already spread and the act of self-mutilation counts as a Depraved Act (see above) worth another 1d Corruption.


I have purposely provided very few means by which to remove Corruption because it is supposed to be extremely difficult to do. This means that tally tends to rack up faster than it gets removed, if your PC is the type to take the easy path to power. This is intentional! Playing a corrupt character shouldn’t be the goal of the game, and I think with the inherent drawbacks of the system, it won’t be.

That said, I’m still on the fence about cutting penance as a means of removing Corruption. To be meaningful in a DF context, it needs to hit harder than just a couple of days not adventuring or making money – that’s far too easy. Even requiring a week off isn’t that big of a deal. That’s why I think I’ll leave it as is. After all, players can always spend character points to buy off any disadvantages they acquire through failed Corruption rolls.

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