In 2014, a novel titled Ancillary Justice swept the field, bagging the Nebula, the Arthur C. Clarke, and the Hugo. I have seen little discussion of it among fantasy RPG players, however. I can think of two reasons for that:
- It’s science-fiction and thus has an shortage of drow elves, grumpy dwarves, and dragons. (By which I mean, it doesn’t have any of those things. At all.)
- A lot of the commentary on the novel, both praise and condemnation, has focused on the fact that the narrator comes from a culture with no male pronoun — it has men, but its language refers to all people as “she” and the narrator also has trouble telling gender because she isn’t human. Looking at those reviews, one can easily come away with the impression that the book won all of its attention for doing something weird with pronouns, that there must not be much else to see there, that this is a galactic emperor with no clothes.
Except … Ancillary Justice is superb.
Even if you set aside the pronoun innovation.
I finally just read the novel myself — finished it at 5 a.m. last night, having turned pages in a white heat for much longer than I’d intended. Although its two sequels are out already, I haven’t read them yet, so I won’t be talking about them here. But I have to say that this emperor is fully and lavishly clothed. It earned those awards, the hard way. Its plot moves. The action thrills. The intrigue causes nail-biting. It has interesting and nuanced things to say about culture, language, the notion of identity, and the human condition, and it never lets saying those things get in the way of telling a ripping good yarn.
As it happens, it also has a lot of fun ideas for a fantasy tabletop GM to chew on.
The Ubiquitous, Divided Emperor
A standard fantasy RPG trope is that the evil villain at the head of an empire is off in some heavily guarded sanctum, virtually unseen until the final all-or-nothing encounter. You don’t often see the evil emperor, for instance, visit your village in an early scene, all by himself, barely even armored.
That’s because there’s only one of him, naturally.
But what if he had lots of bodies, all linked telepathically?
That’s one of the ideas that Ancillary Justice plays with. The hero, Breq, wants to kill the emperor, but even after killing several versions of him* she still isn’t done and isn’t really sure whether it’s possible to kill them all. There are thousands of versions of him, spread across a large interstellar empire. He sends an old, decrepit version of himself to a village she’s in, and it doesn’t even bother with bodyguards. It’s menacing and scary because you know, if you kill it, you only piss the rest of him off — he’ll ensure everything you ever cared about is destroyed. (* Although Breq has trouble with gender and refers to everyone as “she” in her own language, she sometimes has to switch to other languages and other characters or cultures she encounters are gender aware. Because some characters refer to the emperor as male, I do, too.)
The dramatic beauty of this set-up is that PCs can talk to the villain well before the climax. Good drama requires confrontation before combat. Consider DeNiro and Pacino facing off over a table in Heat. Or Lecter and Starling challenging each other through the glass in Silence of the Lambs. We need to see both the villain and the hero, and we need to see them not getting along or exhausting all other possible courses of action before they start killing each other, or else the fight becomes uninteresting. Having many versions of the villain makes this possible without risking an early end to the campaign.
How do you set up a multi-bodied villain in D&D?
Actually, I can think of a classic Dungeon adventure that already came close: “Threshold of Evil” by Scott Bennie (issue pdf). The villain, an archmage named Azurax, figures if a job needs doing, he might as well do it himself — so most of the encounters in his mountain sanctum are with lower-level versions of him, courtesy of the spell simulacrum. As with Ancillary Justice, there’s even at least one scene in which the heroes might have to deal with multiple versions at once.
The simulacrum spell is a great option for making your singular villain more … plural.
Of course, the 1st edition version of the spell was a lot easier to take advantage of. In 5th edition, you’re only permitted to make one simulacrum at a time — if you cast the spell a second time, you destroy the first one. Hacking this is easy, though. If I can cast simulacrum, then the simulacrum I create can cast it, too, on me. I can control simulacrum 1, who then controls simulacrum 2. Simulacrum 2 casts the same spell on me, creating simulacrum 3, who is controlled by simulacrum 2. As long as I’m the original for each spell, all of the simulacra they create have half my levels. Sure, this is an expensive exercise, but hey, that’s what oppressive taxes are for.
But look back up at the heading for this section. See that word “Divided”?
It’s time to address that twist, because it’s bad-ass.
See, at some point, Breq discovers that not only is she trying to kill the emperor, she is also secretly serving some versions of the emperor in a war against other versions of the same emperor. You read that right: The emperor is plotting against himself.
Leckie has a lot of fun with a weird but plausible side effect of having multiple, scheming bodies who are spread over a large space, all having different experiences. Even though they’re telepathic, they can disconnect from that web — and the signals from one mind to another only travel at light speed, so there are delays in getting information from one place to another, meaning that he can try to intercept his own thoughts before they gate from incarnations on one world to incarnations on another. And as a result of these odd dynamics, and because of some intervention by an alien enemy of his, he is now almost literally “of two minds” about how the empire should evolve. And those two minds are trying to kill each other. Because that’s pretty much how they roll.
How’s that for a twist to drop on your unsuspecting players? They think they’re working against Vecna only to learn that they’re also working for a clone of Vecna–who wants to dethrone and replace his original self. They can’t succeed against Vecna-1 without helping Vecna-2 accomplish its ambitions, but the grimmer alternative is to let both Vecnas continue. This is the kind of dilemma that drives a paladin to the confessional.
You can play with the multiple-and-dueling form concept in multiple ways:
- Clones (I leave how to mobilize them as an exercise for the creative)
- Geased, brainwashed doppelgangers who really believe they’re the evil guy controlling them
- Intelligent insect queens with telepathically linked drones — a literal hivemind
- Avatars of gods or fiends
- Old-school skeleton warriors whose controlling circlets work more like Sauron’s rings — the villain can use them as proxies and familiars, seeing and hearing what they see and hear
- Bearers of this new magic item…
Scepter of the Slujitori
Rare Item (Requires Attunement)
This rod — of which 24 are known to exist — is bound to its creator, a powerful evil entity. Attuning to it requires declaring allegiance to that entity, at which point the bearer is geased to serve the creator. While wielding the rod, the attuned bearer gains a +1 to the DCs of its spells and a +1 to its attacks with spells. The creator can, at will, see or hear anything the bearer sees or hears; the creator can also use detect thoughts at will on the bearer. Typically, bearers of the rod are sworn ministers of the creator who know why they wield it.
So that’s one pretty cool set of ideas to borrow from one novel. Are there any more? Why, yes. Yes, there are.
Ancillaries, or Corpse Soldiers
The empire in Ancillary Justice conscripts people in newly conquered territories, forcing them to serve in its armies. So far, so familiar, right? Except that it takes those people, strips them of their minds and personalities, and connects those minds to an AI. A single AI might run whole battalions of these mind-wiped soldiers. Not only that, but it also runs the ship that carries them. The AI thinks of all of those soldiers and the ship as parts of its singular self. It knows everything they know and sees everything they see. (Yes, it’s using some tech similar to that of the emperor.) If any of its soldier bodies dies, it calls up a spare body from the fridge, a doctor wires it and loads it with weapons and armor, and then it gets integrated.
The narrator of the story isn’t a person. It’s a ship called Justice of Toren — except that it has lost its ship body and all but one of its soldiers. Now it’s down to just one human body, so it’s a lot weaker and a lot more fragile than it used to be. It’s also determined to avenge itself on the emperor who destroyed it.
The empire calls these soldiers ancillaries (hence the title). The conquered people, less inclined to euphemism, call them corpse soldiers.
Now, I realize that D&D campaigns have long had evil empires kill off villagers, turn them into zombies and skeletons, and then put them to work in armies. The animate dead spell is a kind of obvious tool here, one that has already been exploited. However, the single, unifying intelligence angle has not been played much in tabletop games. Those zombies become creepier when they can think and share thoughts with each other, when you realize you’re up against an abstract intelligence that likes the idea of a chess game with your life on the line.
How might this idea take shape in a fantasy RPG?
- A zombie army in which each unit of zombies is controlled by an intelligent unit standard (the flag that the unit’s standard bearer carries). The toughest zombie in the mix is the standard bearer and the unit protects the standard aggressively.
- A unit of armored, telepathically linked constructs (e.g., warforged), optionally (for full AJ effect) controlled by an intelligent keep or castle in which they are located.
- The servitors of a brood of psychic aquatic overlords.
- Iron golems, each of which can animate and control any metal armor as a construct if the armor is unattended by a living wearer.
- An intelligent sailing warship that can dominate captured adversaries who spill blood in its on-board dungeon. As a sensory property, the warship cannot see through its own organs, but it can borrow the senses of any of its dominated crew.
- A gathering of identical treants all cloned from an original by grafting cuttings from the original to roots of other trees.
Let’s talk about one more idea, this time one that’s not based on hive-mind technologies.
Control of Information through Language
One of the things that Leckie does particularly well in the novel is that she makes her futuristic human cultures plausibly alien through a remarkably simple technique: The languages that people speak limit or enable different kinds of thinking because they limit or enable different kinds of awareness.
The obvious example from the novel is one we’ve already touched on: The narrator is a bit gender-blind and refers to everyone using female pronouns, even if they’re dudes. Not every culture is like hers, though, and she’s aware that sometimes she might offend people if she guesses wrong (which she sometimes does). Seeing her world through her eyes, we often don’t know the gender of a character (or its sexual orientation) until we hear people from other cultures speak.
This isn’t a crazy idea. If you’ve ever studied (or know) a language other than English, then you know that they often have inflections for things we don’t think about. French, for instance, has both masculine and feminine nouns. As an English speaker, I rarely think of objects as masculine or feminine, but that kind of thinking is built into the Romance languages.
One culture that Breq deals with has different forms of address for people who are expecting children, which again sounds strange, but we have different forms of address for married or unmarried women, and for level of education; England has forms of address for nobility. (I once had to figure out how to address an email recipient who was both a professor and a knight. Let me tell you, that wasn’t easy. Turned out, he preferred to be called Brian. But that was his call. Nice guy.) So it’s not at all a strange idea that you might, for a culture you’re visiting, have to guess at that kind of thing.
In short, any closed culture is going to have forms of communication and conventions that worry about distinctions or details that outsiders might find trivial. Even academic citation styles do this. APA, used by behavioral scientists, cares about the date of a research publication a lot more than it cares about the title, and its citation style reflects this emphasis. MLA, used by literature and language researchers, emphasizes titles more than dates. Again, its style reflects that emphasis.
How does this apply to our games? Well… let’s take the language known as Giant. Does it have different inflections for male or female pronouns? I don’t know. But I can easily see it having elemental inflections. My pronouns for a fire giant might be different from my pronouns for a frost giant.
And that’s really cool because it enables the GM to hide and reveal information in interesting ways. If the PCs acquire information in Undercommon, they might learn useful things from inflections (differing pronouns for creatures that require light than for those that don’t) while totally missing things they might have expected to learn or might be wondering about. Maybe the drow, like Breq’s culture, uses exclusively female pronouns. So they might think their secret contact is a female drow, when really it’s a male. So they might approach the wrong drow agent. Whoops. Even if PCs use tongues or comprehend languages, the DM might decide that they understand only what they would learn from a direct translation to Common — they might be blind to nuances and details that someone who authentically knows two languages might notice. Even then, DC 10 or DC 15 Intelligence checks might be required to notice those sorts of important linguistic clues. It isn’t always easy to pick up on inter-language nuances.
So there are three pretty nifty ideas from a single novel. There were other ideas I thought about covering, but this article is long enough already. And she has two other novels in that series, installments that I haven’t read yet. I suspect there is a lot more to tap into out there.
What books have you borrowed ideas from and how did you translate them? Let me know in the comments! †
♦ Graham Robert Scott writes regularly for Ludus Ludorum when not teaching or writing scholarly stuff. He also wrote “Thirds of Purloined Vellum,” a 1st-level city adventure that appeared ages ago in Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeon Magazine. Like the Ludus on Facebook to get a heads-up when we publish new content.