Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Heart of Darkness

For quite a long time now, people have romanticized Africa as the "Continent of Adventure." The famous "Scramble for Africa" led to a literary floruit of the concept too, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, H. Rider Haggard's She and Allan Quartermain stories, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan and others.

Part of the romanticism was the genuine mystique; it was still an uncrossed and largely unknown frontier region to the Victorian Europeans. But a big part of it is that Sub-saharan Africa has the best preserved megafaunal assemblages of anywhere else on the world. Megafauna refers to the idea of large-bodied land animals, and the megafaunal assemblage is therefore the entire set of large, terrestrial animals in a given region. This meant that there were a bunch of big, dangerous, exotic, and just plain cool animals in Africa that people just didn't see anything like in other places. Lions were largely extinct everywhere else but Africa by this point. Elephants. Hippos. Crocodiles. Hyenas. Zebra. Scads of different antelopes. Leopards. Monkeys. Gorillas.

The list goes on and on.

However, what many people don't realize is that most of the world had equally impressive (and "exotic") megafaunas not that long ago, and only recently have many of those megafaunal representatives gone extinct, leaving the existing megafaunal assemblages impoverished. If we were to go back to the Pleistocene, some 10,000 years ago, the megafaunal assemblages of Europe and North America (and South America, and Australia, etc.) would look very different than they do today. And you may not even need to go back nearly that far; there's a lot of tantalizing hints that many of these animals may have survived longer than we give them credit for. And even historical records talk of lions, tigers, leopards, aurochs, wisent, and more living within the boundaries of Europe.

But I live in North America the North American Pleistocene megafauna is my favorite. Not only do you have all of the large animals that live here today (brown bear, black bear, various deer, elk and moose, pronghorns, bison, wolves, coyotes, puma, wild pigs, etc.) but you can add back in several species of horse, ass or other equine species (Scott's Horse, Yukon Wild Ass, Hagerman's horse, or Hagerman's zebra, etc.), several more species of pronghorn, another species or two of bison, wooly and Columbian mammoths, mastodons, more than one species of saber-tooth and scimitar-toothed cats, the American lion (25% larger than the largest specimens of Africa, believe it or not), the massive short-faced bear, the giant polar bear, the dire wolf, giant condors and teratorns, several species of giant ground sloths, several species of camel and llama, and even a puma relative that had a cheetah-like morphology or body plan (and presumably hunting style and top speed to match.)

I bring this up because it's typical in fantasy to want to populate the countryside with various monsters and whatnot. I don't think that's strictly necessary. I prefer my monsters to be unique creatures, more often than not. There's no "ecology" of the owlbear in my campaigns; if an owlbear shows up at all, it's an unusual and bizarre creature, not a "species." Rather, I like having a diverse and real megafauna. Besides, who said that big lions and short-faced bears can't be plenty scary on their own? The Ghost and the Darkness certainly demonstrated that convincingly. Especially for me; where I like to keep the power level and assumptions down to a more realistic level, dangerous animals remain dangerous to humans, no matter how much experience they get.

My Mezzovian Sea setting, therefore, will be assumed to have a Pleistocene North American megafauna. If you wander out into the wilderness, be prepared to worry about dangerous packs of dire wolves, prides of giant lions, and bullying short-faced bears who can casually decapitate you with one lazy swipe of a paw. Be prepared to hunt bison, horse, deer, pronghorns, or even giant camels. The civilizations in the area will have domesticated local horses, asses, maybe even have herds of semi-domesticated bison, camels, and even elephants, i.e. Columbian mammoths.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gods and Deities

Some scholars of theology believe that all the world actually only worships a single pantheon of gods; it's just the names and representations of them that differ, as well as regional importance of one god over another. Others resist that notion, calling each nation's pantheon of gods a unique set, specific to that culture, although cults may migrate from culture to culture from time to time. Be that as it may, these are the gods that have temples in the Mezzovian Sea area, with the (often foreign) names by which they're most commonly known.

Honestly, people in general are better described as "superstitious" rather than "religious." Offerings and invocations are tossed off out of habit, and people have a healthy respect for the ability of a displeased god to give you a really bad day, but they don't often otherwise pay particular respects to them.

The names given (underlined and italicized in the body of the description) are the regional names common to the nearby area; they differ slightly by dialect in other locations, or may have entirely different names in some regions. The way the pantheon works is that no god has "primacy" over another one according to myth. The various gods work in their respective sphere of influence, and their importance varies from region to region. Because I like campaigns set in very lawless, free-wheeling, decadent places, the Black Prince is an important god locally to most campaigns I run, although he's seen differently (and plays a much more minor role) in many other regions.

The Black Prince - The Black Prince was originally a god of bandits, brigands, pirates and outlaws in general. Despite the fact that most countries long ago applied a veneer of legitimacy and civilization, worship of this god is still very common. He's seen as a representation of the more romantic notion of pirates and outlaws, but nobody forgets that piracy and highway brigandry is an inherently nasty business.

He's also adopted a new aspect; most civilized lands now see him as a god representing the nobility, law, civilization itself. I'm sure it says something about society that a divine robber is what they find most representative, but worshippers give this little thought, and his pirate background is often forgotten or even actively surpressed. By superstition, he's rarely named aloud although his name is well known (Grazazat) and is instead usually called the Black Prince, or the Six-fingered Man. His image is common in small statues or icons across the land; he's tall, handsome has six fingers on each hand and has a "crown" of six small horns pushing up through his hair. His icons are always made of obsidian or basalt, or some other black stone, and other images are always painted pure black. Because his description across most of the region is very similar to that of the hamazin, they feel that they are his special children, given preference over all other peoples in the world.

The War God - The god of war is named Bel (hence the expression casus belli). He is seen as a large, powerful figure with a sword in one hand, a whip in the other, and wreathed in flames. His local temple has been the source of some scandal in the past, and a dark god named Abaddon supposedly had his priests infiltrate the temple and poison some of the high ranking priests. These were then discovered and killed; the clergy is therefore relatively young or new to the area; few of the older priests still reside here.

Goddess of Knowledge - A relatively respectable god with a lavish temple is Astaroth, the Great Librarian. It's said that in the Last Days, her library will burn, heralding the end of civilization, but in the meantime, Astaroth is quite proud of her library and encourages her clergy to seek for whatever knowledge they can find. Dark whisperings say that the more forbidden the knowledge, the more highly it's prized, and occasionally scandalous rumors come from this temple, but by and large it is seen as one of the more respectable in the area, and is justly considered a point of pride to its residents. Astaroth herself is depicted as an angelic human with large feathery wings, a serpent in one hand and a book in the other, often seated on a coiled dragon for a throne.

God of Death - Urkas is not much worshipped or revered locally, but since his temple has charge of preparing dead bodies for funerary rites, it remains important nonetheless. Ironically, the priests of Urkas are notorious for trying to escape death---urban myths of the priest of Urkas who turns to dark necromancy are common bogeymen that mothers use to frighten their children. Urkas himself is never pictured out of superstitious fear; nobody knows what he's supposed to look like---or if they do, they're not saying.

God of the Sea - One of the most respected and revered gods near any body of water is Dagon, the Lord of the Sea. Since literally everyone in coastal areas depends on the sea to some degree or another---either for food, livelihood, or at least in the hopes that it won't rise up in a tropical storm and wipe them off the map---Dagon's ceremonies are the most attended of any in those regions, and icons of him appear in almost every single building. He's usually shown as a merman with a flowing beard, but he's also occasionally pictured otherwise; one popular variant is a shark-like creature with grasping tentacles and mouth and eyes similar to that of horrible deep sea hunters.

Goddess of Magic - Abraxas is the Goddes of Magic, and few are the arcane spellcasters who don't at least give her some nominal votive offerings from time to time. Her priests are famous for selling charms that protect the faithful from minor harm and bad luck. Most people agree that they do indeed work, although some decry the practice as charlatanism.

Goddess of Travelers and Roads - Ahrimanes is the ultimate traveler. Most people about to embark on a long journey will stop by the temple district and touch the hem of the robe of her statue. Most cities have a brass statue of her in an important plaza, but temples are few. Clerics and other faithful clean and polish the brass statues daily. They do, in fact, frequently start to lose some of their detail and definition because of the constant polishing.

God of Strength - Bathemoth is a bull-headed god famous for his feats of strength. His temples are small shrines that are simply a roof supported by four pillars with a granite altar in the center.

God of Nature - Yinigu is often seen as a dark god; a representation of nature "red in tooth and claw." Hunters and outdoorsmen worship him, but these are hard and cynical men, usually. He is also heavily worshipped in Kurushat, where he's seen as a god of hyenas and a patron in particular to the kurushi and their allies. In other societies, this is often rejected as a false cult, and Yinigu's chosen messengers are seen as wolves. Which, honestly, doesn't make them any more welcome.

God of Penitance - Not a popular god, but one that you occasionally hear about from those who have had to spend time in prison. Azazel encourages extremely dilligent penitance and flagellations, so his followers are at least easy to spot.

God of the Sun - Moloch is the god of fire and the sun. His worship is more prevalent in tropical, open areas (unsurprisingly) where he is seen as a harsh and demanding master. In more temperate climes, he's more likely to be viewed benevolently, as a bringer of clement weather and bountiful harvests. Southerners shake their heads knowingly, and watch their own crops go sere with Moloch's displeasure.

God of Thieves - While never openly worshipped, Frezur Blue is very commonly given a quick prayer by the land's many less than upstanding citizens. Many invoke his name only to make fun of it, and ask what part of him is blue (usually with a randy joke about his sex life) which causes the priests of Astaroth no end of frustration. They simply roll their eyes, comment that "Blue" in this case is merely a mispelling of his proper name anyway, and although Frezur Blue may seem to be an easy-going god who doesn't mind a few jokes made at his expense, only the truly foolish think that it is wise to upset the god who can take away everything that they own, and even steal their very souls.

Many other gods exist, but these are the ones that are most important and that everyone will know. Many thanks to Green Ronin (Pirates Guide to Freeport and Armies of the Abyss) for many of these concepts.

The Reavers of Skaith

I finally finished the final book in the Skaith trilogy by Leigh Brackett. If you remember my previous reviews for The Ginger Star and The Hounds of Skaith, you'll not be surprised that I'm disappointed in The Reavers of Skaith as well. Particularly so, because I really wanted to like them, but I just... didn't. Of course, you could also suss that out by the fact that it took me weeks to read this book, and it was only 208 pages long. In fact, when I sat down last night to finish it, I wasn't even as far as I thought I was; I was less than 40% done. I still buckled down and read the rest of the book in about two hours even so.

The biggest problem with the books is the characters. They just never felt anything like real people. They never felt like they had motivations that made any sense. They went through the motions of the plot, but that was it. This was actually quite literally true; throughout the entire series, the inexorable grip of prophecy and fate drove the plot forward, and the characters were just along for the ride. What is supposed to be an emotional, heart-wrenching moment is just flat and boring in this book; one character goes to inevitable death, without complaining, because it was her "fate" and she had foreseen it, and blah blah blah. The other characters just kinda stood around and watched her. The audience, i.e., me, just didn't even care.

The book ends very anticlimactically as well. There are arguably two main antagonists. One is killed off screen, and his ignominous defeat barely rates a three or four line mention tacked onto the end of the book. The second, as it turns out, has already lost by the time he confronts Stark, so the confrontation is robbed of any meaning or power.

I had really hoped to enjoy Brackett's magnum opus, as the collected Book of Skaith is sometimes called. I liked her other Stark stories set on Mars and Venus, including the novellas The People of the Talisman and The Secret of Sinharat, both of which I also own. I'm a big fan of some of her screenplay work, particularly (of course) The Empire Strikes Back and Hatari! Why did Skaith fall so flat?

Well, I've already discussed why I think it didn't work, but why did she write such a poor piece of fiction late in her life is really the question I suppose I'm asking. I don't know. Maybe she just isn't suited to the novel format? I can't say.

I'll probably (at some point) give her other big novel a try, The Sword of Rhiannon, but I'm not particularly thrilled to run out and track down a copy at the moment, given my reception to the Skaith novels.

In the meantime, I pulled Amanda Downum's debut novel, The Drowning City off my bookshelf, and that'll be the next novel that I have a go with. Oh, and for a change of pace, rather than the James Ryman Paizo commissioned cover, I actually am posting an image of the Steranko cover, which is what my books have.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Wild men

I consider my taste in gaming to have migrated significantly from a High Fantasy mode as a younger kid, to a more Sword & Sorcery mode more recently, and beyond that to the undifferentiated Weird Tale. At least in many ways. As such, I don't make it a habit of raiding folklore and mythology for material to use in my gaming, but I'm hardly above doing so either. One folkloric concept that I find tantalizing is the notion of the Wild man.

There's actually quite a strong Medieval tradition about wild men, and it seems that it's been largely forgotten nowadays, although some old heraldic imagery still maintains an echo of it. Tolkien was familiar with it; both Beorn and the Drúedain draw on the idea, although in different ways, obviously. With the Drúedain, Tolkien even used a lot of the old words from Anglo-Saxon to refer to them, calling them both Woses and Púkel-men. Wood-wose is still the correct term in English to use, although it's a very old term that one doesn't hear often, obviously. And Púkel-men means literally "goblin-men" in Old English, and is the root word of the word puck or pooka, a kind of nature spirit of old English folklore.

Although not necessarily drawn from exactly the same well, several settings that I enjoy have wild men analogs. In Eberron, you've got the shifters; humans who are touched with just a bit of lycanthropic blood. In the case of Eberron, this is more a case of developing a visual image and racial powers than it is in exploring the concept of the puck or woodwose archetype, although of course there's no reason why you couldn't do that with the race. I quite like the mechanical implementation of the shifters; they're a bit fiddly and complex, but not too badly so. Plus as a confirmed ranger and other outdoorsman archetype fan, I've had a lot of fun playing shifters in the past. Once of the highest level characters I ever played was my shifter (who's name escapes me, but it was vaguely Slavic in derivation, and I think I might have given him the last name of Leshovik, in honor of the slavic version of the wild man myth). He was a shifter barbarian/ranger, who also used the Reachrunner prestige class from Races of Eberron. Fun character.

Privateer Press, as is their wont, went a little bit darker with the tharn, a race of feral humanoids who also can shapechange slightly--although not like a true werewolf--who are terrifying, violently xenophobic hunters of some of the darkest and thickest woods on the planet. They got adopted wholesale into the Circle Orboros faction when the Hordes game was released, so they work with the druids and others to fiercely worship the Devourer Worm; a kind of personification of the harsh, "red in tooth and claw" aspect of nature. But in visual and mechanical concept, the tharn aren't really much different than Eberron's shifters. It's in "fluff" concept that they're different.

I like the idea so much that I want to introduce it to my games on an ongoing basis. I've gotten rid of most of the "standard" races of D&D over time. It's rare for me to use elves, dwarves, half-elves, gnomes, or halflings. I'm often on the fence about orcs and goblinoids; making them be the same boring adversaries that we've seen for decades is lame, but making them be regular old PC-viable races is still an unusual and thus intriguing concept. But other times, I don't even want them, going for a more humano-centric theme. But even in my humano-centric theme, I accept the idea of magical or unearthly bloodlines, hence my use of the tieflings and now, a kind of dark, violent, feral, fey-like race.

I think I'll use the old English word and call them pucks, at least as a slang-term (maybe vucari as a "real" term.) Wood-wose would be great, except that Tolkien kinda spoiled it for everyone else. I don't know how easy it'd be to get past images of Ghan-buri-ghan anymore. In concept, I'm leaning more towards the tharn concept--the pucks are not friendly, and you don’t want to meet them. But some of them do trade and interact with other people; a monolithically isolationist population is hard to imagine in the real world, and equally hard to really do well (and make interesting) in a fantasy world. Mechanically, I'll use the stats for shifters, which appear in several 3.5 era D&D books, including the Eberron Campaign Setting, Races of Eberron, and Monster Manual III.

In terms of image, if you could take Wolverine or Sabertooth of Marvel Comics fame out of their spandex and dress them like hippy-Conan the Barbarian wannabes, you'd have just about the right image. I might throw up a few sketches if I can get to it; it's been too long since I've been able to draw like I used to like.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Realistic" maps

Because I live in a place where spring comes relatively late, I was able to put off the first lawn mowing of the season until this afternoon. Of course, it isn't a huge deal for me to mow the lawn anymore; my oldest son is 14 and this is his third season of doing the front, while I do the slightly larger and certainly more complex backyard. I think I'm going to pass the baton for that one this year too, though, and one of my son's other weekly jobs (like vacuuming all the carpets in the house) will cascade down to his younger brother, who in turn will cascade taking out the trash to his younger brother. Who doesn't have anyone left to cascade down to, but that's OK; he doesn't do a lot of work yet and is old enough to take on a new chore or two. When that happens, my role in the care of the lawn will be one of watering and supervising only. Ah, can't wait.

In the meantime, I mowed the back lawn today. I actually don't mind the work; it's kinda fun to have a relatively mindless task to do so my mind can wander. Plus, it was a cool, gray day--perfect for lawn mowing. And I'd put the job off long enough. I probably should have done it last week, or maybe even the week before. But I wanted to let it grow long enough to start sprouting some seeds so I can get some "natural" overseeding from the mulched grass tops.

It's always curious to me how our lawn grows. There was one spot in particular that I never notice until I'm mowing, because it's around the corner of the house where I rarely go. While I knew that the lawn certainly needed mowing, if I'd see this section, I definitely would have already done it. In this section, the grass was nearly a foot tall, and extremely thick. It took me nearly as long to do about 80 square feet of grass here as it did the rest of the back lawn. Plus, the lawnmower stopped on me at least ten or eleven times because the grass was so think that it binded the blades.

Oddly enough, there's a very sudden line back there in that section where suddenly the grass is thick and green... but doesn't grow very tall. Then, a little bit further around the corner, there are sections that, no matter what I do, always seem thin, short, and brown. I can fertilize, overseed and water every week for the entire season, and I just don't get good grass in a few spots. No matter what I do.

While I was mowing, my mind was drawn to these vagaries of the grass growth in my yard, and from there to the fantasy map of my setting that I've been putting together. Frankly, if I can't figure out how to get a uniform growth out of my lawn, and can't figure out why some areas are runaway rampant growth, while others are thin and difficult, I certainly can't figure out much larger and more complex systems like climate models of a continent sized region of a fantasy world.

I've heard people complain about the lack of geographical rigor on fantasy worlds before. I doubt that these same people really understand the complexities of such models (although of course I could be wrong.) I suspect that the vaguest hints of where tectonic plate boundaries are and things like rain shadows go a long way in presenting the illusion of a carefully crafted fantasy world... but ironically, I think, poorly so. In reality, the systems that create weather and climate and all that jazz are much more complex than we sometimes give them credit for.

Three examples. The first one is the Ural Mountains. My critical acquaintances would probably have a problem with the Ural Mountains if they appeared in a fantasy setting. After all, everyone knows that Eurasia is a single landmass, so why in the world would a mountain range run across the face of it right smack dab in the middle of it?

Well, the reason the Urals exist is because Eurasia isn't a single landmass. Tectonically, it's actually a number of continents all smashed together. Some of them have been traveling together for so long--hundreds of millions of years--that they behave as if they were a single landmass. But they aren't. The Urals were formed when the continents of Siberia and Baltica collided some 300 million years ago. There are other continental plates within Asia too. Khazakhstania is another plate that consists of Kazakhstan and the Junggar Basin. The Amur plate makes up most of China, and is rotating slowly in relation to the rest of Asia, which is the cause of orogeny and earthquakes in China. India is another plate. Anatolia is another.

We don't learn about all of these smaller plates when we do our geology units in school. We get taught that Europe and Asia are only called a different continent for political reasons, because actually Eurasia is a single continent. Why is this? I don't really know. But the point is, the geological picture is actually much more complex than what most people think it is. However, without understanding some of that complexity, a lot of the mountains of Asia don't make any sense. Why would we have the Urals without these smaller continents joining together to form Asia? Why would we have the Altai, and the Tien Shan, and the Zagros, and all the other mountains of Asia without them?

Well, we wouldn't. So be careful before you decide to criticize settings like, say, the Forgotten Realms for not making sense. Maybe the complexity is just as high as it is in the real world. And that would adequately explain why geological features that don't make sense at first blush could actually exist.

Example #2. 10,000 years or so ago, during the Pleistocene, the climate in North America was very different than it was today. Of course, a big part of the reason for that was because half the continent; about all of modern Canada except a strip along the west coast, was covered by a massive continental glacier. But south of the glacier, the climate was much milder and wetter than it is today. The Great Plains were actually the North American savanna, open forest. The dry canyonlands of the west were thickly forested. Iconically desertified regions, like Monument Valley, were much wetter and greener than they are today.

This climate difference doesn't have anything to do with continental placement, rain shadows or anything like that. Rather, it has to do with ocean currents and prevailing winds. As far as I know, no fantasy setting makes a big deal out of mapping in intricate detail where the jet stream is, or where warm and cool water ocean currents go. Therefore, the placement of geological features like deserts, grasslands, forests and whatnot is difficult to criticize. We don't know enough about these fantasy worlds to say that they're unrealistic most of the time. The systems are too complex for us to say that.

The third example is the Sahara. Completely unrelated to the climate changes in Pleistocene North America is the Sahara Pump Theory. About the time that southwestern America was drying out and becoming more xeric, the Sahara, which was actually much larger at that time than it is today, suddenly effectively disappeared. The Hadley Cell which causes monsoon rains in Africa became stronger, and the monsoons traveled much further north. The Sahara ceased being a desert completely, and reverted to savanna, with lakes and rivers. Rock carvings on rocks in the middle of what is today desert, show giraffes, elephants, zebra, crocodiles and hippos; all animals that obviously can't survive there today.

Another minor climatic event weakened the monsoons about 5,000 or so years ago, and the Sahara stopped getting monsoon rains, and quickly dried out again. In fact, although this is neither here nor there, some anthropologists look at these trying conditions as the area rapidly desertified, as the catalyst that caused pre-dynastic Egyptian civilization to organize and become, well, become the ancient civilization that we know about today.

There's nothing on any map of the world that I know of that would say that the Sahara and Arabian regions should be desert, or shouldn't. And yet, climate conditions can cause them to fluctuate between green and brown phases that last for thousands of years, yet which change suddenly; within the course of a single generation or less.

So be very careful when you criticize fantasy settings for not presenting "realistic" maps. In reality, the systems that cause a map of our world to look like what it does are so complex that they honestly outstrip the capability of any but the most dedicated professional to understand.

The good news for fantasy fans is that that leaves plenty of room for you to design your world much as you like, and as long as you pay attention to a few basic geographical realities, you're probably OK.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Insanity in RPGs

For many, many years, I've been fascinated with the concept of insanity in RPGs. This is indubitably most iconically represented by Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu game, where you make Sanity checks, and failures cause you to gradually lose your sanity.

However, as an admitted nut for the idea of dark fantasy, which by definition is a genre-bender category sitting somewhere between fantasy and horror, I've been fascinated for years with the idea of adapting some form of this concept into my fantasy gaming. This would, of course, give it a much darker, more horror-like feel, but I'm OK with that. In fact, I find that situation highly desireable, at least as a "sometimes" alternative.

The d20 Call of Cthulhu book was the first such attempt in the d20 system (that I know of) to model this idea, and it just grafted the d% BRP version of Sanity made famous by the original Call of Cthulhu system into d20 without any changes at all. This made for a somewhat clunky and inelegant approach, but it works. In fact, it works sufficiently well that WotC later "opened" the content officially by reproducing those rules almost word for word in their Unearthed Arcana book. Since they were opened up and UA was effectively added to the SRD, you can get them online for free easily enough, here being my favorite place to get SRD rules.

But, I became gradually more and more dissatisfied with them over time because of the clunky and inelegant design. Plus, they're actually kinda long, and way too clinical. Someone (probably Sandy Peterson, or one of the other original designers of the Cthulhu game) got a little carried away with the psychological jargon and detail. A little 11-page pdf by Ronin Arts and written by Bruce Baugh used to be available that took care of the first problem; it "nativized" the rules. But, it did it as closely as possible to the original version. So, while I find that ruleset is still a better alternative than the one linked above, it's still too clinical. Plus, I can't find that it's for sale anymore; it probably bit the bullet back when the d20 license cratered. Of course, that doesn't bother me; I've already got a copy. But I can't exactly recommend rules that aren't available, unless I'm willing to cut and paste them somewhere under the auspices of the OGL. Besides, there's a better alternative still.

I was poking through my copy of the d20 Freeport Companion (still available slightly renamed as the 3rd Era Freeport Companion from Green Ronin directly, or from RPGNow.) I needed to for my big class list post from a few days ago. After I looked over the classes, I turned around and looked at some of the rest of the rules, and I forgot that there's a condensed and simplified version of the madness rules in here. They take up exactly four pages, at least half of which is charts and a medium sized illustration. And they actually do a rather remarkable job of being faithful to the original Cthulhu rules, except without being clunky, cumbersome, overly jargonistic and technical or otherwise difficult to use in any way whatsoever.

I can't say that I'd be interested in using these rules every time I play, but sometimes I really like the idea of mechanically quantifying the horror of the game by watching the PCs struggle to maintain their sanity as well as their lives because of the choices and risks that they take. And when I do, I've got a go-to option here, completely compatible with and native to my system of choice, yet which honors and feels like the most iconic version of sanity rules ever published for the RPG medium.

NOTE: Actually, after posting this it occured to me that the d20 Call of Cthulhu rules were not the first attempt to model insanity in the d20 system that I'm aware of; the Wheel of Time game did it first. And very simply; it was just a half-page sidebar, if I remember correctly. That doesn't change my recommendation of Green Ronin's 3rd Era Freeport Companion for d20-compliant insanity rules, though. For one thing, it's a lot easier to find Green Ronin's book than the old and long out of print Wheel of Time book. For another, the Wheel rules were almost too simplistic. They had the opposite problem of the Cthulhu rules; in their effort to be playable, they were too bland. Plus, there wasn't any provision for ever really recovering from insanity. And I like the fact that Rob Schwalb's rules in Freeport actually feel faithful to the Cthulhu rules, even though they do so in a condensed and simplified fashion rather than in a technical fashion.

Basically, they're similar rules, made native to d20, but without the Psychology 101 lecture thrown in.

Listening to...

I added a new box under my "What I'm Playing" and "What I'm Reading" boxes called "Listening to..." I wanted to call it "What I'm Listening To" to match the format of the others, but it didn't fit, and was getting cut off and looked ridiculous. So, anyway.

This isn't meant to be a twitterish update where I change it every hour or so as I finish listening to one thing and then move on to another. Rather, certain bits of music will have a "faddish" heavy rotation in my schedule for a while, and when that happens, I'll put it on here.

For a few years now, I've been pretty interested in orchestral movie music soundtracks. I've always had an interest in orchestral music, but mostly I listened to classical music when I was in that kind of mood. A few notable movie scores always stood out, but we're talking about Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark here pretty exclusively. I'm not quite sure at what point I really noticed movie music soundtracks again: maybe it was when I got Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings soundtracks on CD?

It occured to me that movie music scores were great background music for when I'm reading, writing or gaming. In the last... oh, five? six? years or so, I'd gone and bought quite a few of them. I hadn't realized how many of them I had until just recently. For gaming, reading and writing all three, it was more convenient to rip the CDs to mp3 and archive them on data CD-Rs so I could fit eight or nine soundtracks on a single CD and listen to them that way. This way I could throw a single CD into any player in the house and get many, many hours of uninterrupted music without repeats. In many cases, I had done this ripping with my soundtracks. In some cases I had only done some of the tracks, not all of them. In other cases, I had subsequently lost or given away the original CD. In others, I hadn't ever ripped them, so I only had them in regular CD audio format. All in all, my music collection was very poorly organized, and it was starting to give me headaches again because my archive CDs didn't make much sense. Why, for instance, did I have Somewhere in Time and Atonement on the same CD-R archive as 10,000 B.C., Conan the Barbarian, Gladiator and Alien vs. Predator?

So, I've spent a few evenings on the PC, re-ripping all my CDs, and copying all the mp3s for which I no longer have the original soundtrack. I removed a few tracks that will actually be distracting if they ever come up. My wife was getting a bit annoyed that I'd been monopolizing the computer every evening for several nights, especially as I just bought myself a netbook and could, in theory, do most of what I wanted to anywhere in the house, not on the main PC. (This was the exception; my netbook, as all netbooks, doesn't have an optical media drive.) When I told her that I was "organizing my music" she opined that I was obsessed with music. I pshawed that notion until I had everything all ready to go and compiled into a folder called Soundtracks in my My Music folder. Each soundtrack was in a unique folder, and all of the other tracks where I only had one, two or three from a given soundtrack where tossed into the main folder.

I had about ninety complete (or nearly so) soundtracks, and bits and pieces of a good two dozen more.

Maybe she was right! I didn't realize I had gotten that carried away in buying them. I blame the internet. Buying mp3 "CDs" is addictive and you don't realize how many you've bought sometimes, because you don't have anything physical to look at and say, "holy crap, I'm starting to get a lot of these..."

So, I've been reorganizing and reburning into more sensible archive CD-Rs that I can throw into the DVD player, or anywhere else, and listen to more easily. So far I've only done a few of them, but that'll keep me busy probably well into next week too.

One thing that also occurred to me is that I had bought so many soundtracks so quickly (I've really only been on this soundtrack buying kick for five or six years) that some of them had kinda fallen through the cracks and I hadn't ever really stopped to appreciate what I had. Some of them I had only listened to all the way through a few times, and it's even possible that I had a few that I had never listened to all the way through!

Another thing that the project brought home to me is that I want to slow down and appreciate what I have a little bit more instead of jump out to buy the next hot thing. There'll be a few exceptions, of course---since I already have all the existing Harry Potter soundtracks, there's no way I'm not going to get the next two as soon as they're available, for instance.

Anyway, now that they're starting to get better organized, I'm having a look at either my most recent purchases, or those that fell through the cracks. The Wolfman is one of the former of course, being a relatively new movie. The score is by Danny Elfman. It's got a perfect baroque, dark, semi-Victorian and semi-Gothic feel to it that's right in line with the kinds of games that I like to run best. Dark fantasy. It actually has a similar sound in many ways to the soundtrack to Bram Stoker's Dracula by Wojciech Kilar except without all the romantic interludes and without the terrible Annie Lennox song. (No offense, Annie. I love your work. But this song really doesn't fit with the rest of the CD here. Great job with "Into the West" from the Return of the King soundtrack, though.) Danny Elfman is a guy who's career has fascinated me for years. I'm a big fan of his work with Oingo Boingo too, and for him to become one of the most sought after film score composers is just astounding to me, frankly. I've got quite a few of his works in this arena, and some of them are among my favorite soundtracks. Probably because he's got that same dark touch that I like; there's a reason Danny Elfman soundtracks and Tim Burton movies go hand in hand, after all. Even his Oingo Boingo work had that same vibe; have you listened to the full CD of Dead Man's Party recently? I have.

Anyway, here's a sample of Danny Elfman's work on The Wolfman:

I'm listening to The Wolfman a lot, and finding it a good match for what I'm reading and writing both. So I put it on the side of my blog here. I have a feeling Sherlock Holmes will be making an appearance soon too.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Character backgrounds

Wow, I'm really cranking stuff out at a fast and furious rate today, aren't I?

Anyway, one more mandatory house rule that I've come up with, and been extremely happy with is the character background exercise that we do as part of chargen. I can't take credit for inventing this idea (it comes from the FATE SRD, and the Spirit of the Century roleplaying game, for those interested) but, as always, I put a bit of my own spin on it.

As soon as your character is finished mechanically, write a small blurb; no more than a paragraph or so, about an adventure of some kind that happened to him in the past. Every character will do this. Make three copies; one for yourself, and two that you fold up and put in a cup or hat or other container.

Every player will draw two character's backstories out of the cup (or hat or whatever.) If you get your own character, or the same character twice, but them back until you have two other characters. Read their past adventure blurbs.

Then, write a sentence or two about how your character was involved in these other characters' adventures.

Every player shares the adventures he has with the entire group. The purpose of this is to create a web of interconnectedness, past history, and relationships between the various characters, and you've got a strong footing right off the bat to start a campaign and explain why your group is all in this together. It also gives a lot of roleplaying opportunities that have proven out as great fun in playtests.

Character classes

I don't have literally everything published for 3.5 (especially in the third party publishing realm) but I've got quite a bit of it. One of the things that really always intrigued me about the game as it developed, was the expansion classes. The game started with 11 character classes, but I never liked several of them to begin with, and many of them felt too limited as tools to use in building the characters I wanted. Now, probably the best option would have been more open-ended classes, but barring that, the second option was more classes, with finer detail, or different focuses.

I've gone through the classes I have, and have identified 46 that I particularly want to mention, either as part of a group, or individually.

There are many more classes than that; even classes that I'm aware of and own copies of, but these are the ones that are specifically needing to be mentioned either because I want to encourage you to check them out, or discourage you from using them.

In theory, I'm a "just say yes" GM, so if you came to me with a class not on this list, I'd probably have a look at it and say, "sure, that'll work." But before you do that, have a look at this rather extensive list of classes that I've already picked.

Now, granted, looking at this list, there are more alt.rangers than any other single class type, probably. I'm not quite sure why that is, except that I believe that the woodsman/hunter archetype is an extremely popular one, and nobody seems to think that any particular iteration is quite right.

That said, and without further ado, here are the list of classes encouraged for the JOSHUAWorld game.


Original Classes:

  • Barbarian
  • Bard
  • Cleric
  • Druid
  • Fighter
  • Monk
  • Paladin
  • Ranger
  • Rogue
  • Sorcerer
  • Wizard

These are the basic ones, guys. I don't really have a problem per se with any of them. I really dislike the bard, cleric and the monk, but I won't tell you can't take them. The paladin is an archetype that really doesn't have any place in the kind of game I'd ever run. Picking that class means you're a glutton for punishment.

For the ranger, you might seriously want to consider using the spell-less variant from Complete Warrior, and maybe even the alternate weapon specialties from Wildscape. Just to give you more options.


Expanded Psionics Handbook classes:

  • Psion
  • Psychic Warrior
  • Soulknife
  • Wilder

I like psionics. Many people don't think it "fits" with classic fantasy, but since I consider my tastes to run more towards the classic "weird tale" rather than fantasy per se, I think they fit right in. I'm not saying that psionics will ever be a major element of the setting, but honestly; all psionics is is another flavor of magic. I'm perfectly fine with using psionics.


Player's Handbook 2 classes:

  • Beguiler
  • Dragon Shaman
  • Duskblade
  • Knight

Player's Handbook 2 is where I believe there was a watershed in 3.5 design. Starting here, class balance trended sharply upward, and the ideas behind them strayed into more and more esoteric concepts.

That said, I've been in some games with PHB2 classes before, and I think they're workable. I don't really consider any classes that postdate the PHB2 to be on the same baseline as the rest of the classes, though. I didn't list any of them as available.


Complete series classes:

  • Ardent
  • Divine Mind
  • Erudite
  • Favored Soul
  • Hexblade
  • Lurk
  • Ninja
  • Samurai
  • Scout
  • Shugenja
  • Spellthief
  • Spirit Shaman
  • Swashbuckler
  • Warlock
  • War Mage
  • Wu Jen

A number of books, mostly predating the PHB2, came out as "class splat books" and most of them included a number of new classes. Although I'm not necessarily thrilled with the concepts of all of these classes, I also can't think of a really good reason why I should ban any of them. Any Complete series class, including the psionic ones, are allowed.


Other classes from other sources:

  • Archivist (Heroes of Horror)
  • Assassin (d20 Freeport Companion)
  • Commander (Path of the Sword)
  • Corsair (d20 Freeport Companion)
  • Defender (Midnight Campaign Setting)
  • Hunter (Path of the Sword)
  • Monster Hunter (d20 Freeport Companion)
  • Noble (d20 Freeport Companion)
  • Outdoorsman (Path of the Sword)
  • Survivor (d20 Freeport Companion)
  • Wildlander (Midnight Campaign Setting)
  • Ninja (Rokugan Campaign Setting)
  • Courtier (Rokugan Campaign Setting)

A few notes: the archivist is a better choice (from a flavor perspective) than the cleric, and fills a similar role, although less combat focused, and more knowledge and slightly less tangible benefit focused. It is the only Wizards of the Coast authored class in this mixed bag of "others." Green Ronin's d20 Freeport Companion is still available, but it's only on pdf and its been renamed the 3rd Era Freeport Companion.

Many of the rest of these classes overlap in concept with other classes, to a considerable extent. There are no fewer than 4 alt.rangers on this list, 2 alt.monks, an alt.swashbuckler and an alt.rogue. The Green Ronin classes in particular also have the peculiarity that several of them feature alt.sneak attack damage rules. I think that there's no point in modifying the sneak attack damage rules to limit them even further, so for the assassin and corsair, you can assume that they just use the regular sneak attack damage rules after all.

Also, my copy of Midnight predates the 3e to 3.5 switch. While I know that the document was updated, I never got the update, and Path of the Sword doesn't have an update to get. You'll have to do some minor updating to the skill list to make it compliant with 3.5. That shouldn't be a challenge, since every single one of these classes will also need minor updates to the skill list to be compliant with the fact that I'm using the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game skill list anyway. Other than those minor conversion notes, all of these classes can be used as is.

Character advancement

Although I've played in at least one very long campaign that went above 20th level (I think we quit at 23rd?) in general, I'm not much of a fan of higher level 3.5 edition D&D play. And by "higher level" I mean that kinda generously; 10th level is already too high for my tastes. To me, the game runs best up until 8th or 9th level tops.

In the past, I've mostly dealt with that by simply ending campaigns before they got too high into levels that I didn't want to play. This has mostly worked out very well, but occasionally, I end campaigns that I still think have some good life left in them, or that I'd want to revisit later.

Luckily, some of the fine folks who post at ENWorld came to the rescue and started talking about a top hat houserule system called E6 that governed character advancement, and is designed to keep D&D in a perpetual "sweet spot" loop, no matter how long you play.

I won't link to the actual discussion and document; I'll just summarize the gist of it, how it works and all that, but without all the theory.

Characters advance as normal up to 6th level. Once they hit 6th level, they can no longer advance in levels. For every 5,000 experience points they receive above 6th level, a character may take a feat. Every ten feats amounts to an effective level increase in terms of challenges that the PC's should be able to face, up to about 10th level, at which point the difficulties of bringing all the feats a character has to bear in any given encounter reduce their efficacy in terms of advancement.

That's it in a nutshell. But I've added a few other things to the pot as well.

Class abilities for levels above 6th level can be converted into feat chains. In every case, this requires working with the GM to make sure that it is OK, but as a general rule, each level's worth of abilities must be taken in order; i.e., before you can take a class ability that you would have received at 10th level as a feat, you must first take all the class abilities for 7th, 8th and 9th levels as feats as well. This does not apply to class abilities that are improvements on existing class abilities, i.e. you cannot convert new spell levels into feats, or increased sneak attack damage, or other such abilities.

This means, among other things, that no spells higher than 3rd level are generally available. However, the rules for Incantations (found in Unearthed Arcana or Urban Arcana) can bring higher level spells into the game as needed.

Prestige classes do not exist under this top hat houserule, but prestige classes can also be converted into class ability feat chains by working with your GM to smooth over any inconsistencies and ensure that reasonable requirements are met.

Hellkin mechanics

Well, although I said that I wasn't really very keen on the name hellkin, I'm going to go ahead and use it for the time being. The caveat being that it's never used "in game": I'll find a generic name that I can use in the next little bit. In the meantime, hellkin from Baal Hamazi are called hamazin, and those who are born unexpectedly are called changelings.

Anyway, here's the rules:

Hellkin are a race of native outsiders. Hellkin claim descent from the gods and their servitors, or from fiends. Given the pantheon presented here, there probably isn't any difference. Hellkin tend to make great spies, assassins and thieves, but just because they gravitate easily to that kind of lifestyle doesn't mean that they have to, naturally. To the unfamiliar, a hellkin looks like an exotic race of human, with skin ranging from sooty black to paler gray, and dark hair. Most hellkin have gleaming yellow eyes. Many also have thin pointed tails, or a cluster of small horns in their heads, needle-like teeth, scaled skin, or other marks that set them apart from the humans among whom they are born.

The hellkin of Baal Hamazi have a much more consistent appearance, being a true-breeding human "race" by this point. They always have a sooty black skin and dark hair, yellow, wolf-like "predator eyes", and a cluster of small horns on their heads. Many hamazin shave their heads, or otherwise cause their hair to not grow.

Hellkin Racial Traits
  • –2 Charisma. Hellkin carry with them a stigma about their heritage. Even other hellkin know better than to trust one until they know him well.
  • Medium. As Medium creatures, hellkin have no special benefits or penalties due to size.
  • Hellkin base land speed is 30 feet.
  • Hellkin gain a +2 racial bonus to all saving throws against spells and spell-like effects with the evil descriptor.
  • Darkvision: Hellkin can see in the dark out to 60 feet. Darkvision is black and white only, but is otherwise like normal sight. Hellkin can function just fine in no light at all.
  • Cunning of the Fiend: The hellkin carry the blood of fiends in their veins. All hellkin have a reserve of power from which they can draw in times of need. As an immediate action, a hellkin can call upon his gift to gain a +4 inherent bonus to his Dexterity score for a number of rounds equal to his Wisdom bonus (minimum 1 round). A hellkin must wait 1 hour between each use of this ability.
  • Gifted Rogues: Hellkin gain a +2 bonus to Sneak and Acrobatics checks.
  • Vulnerability to good. Hellkin take half again as much (+50%) damage as normal from spells and effects with the good descriptor, regardless of whether a saving throw is allowed, or if the save is a success or failure.
  • Native Outsider: As outsiders, hellkin can’t be targeted by spells or effects that specifically affect humanoids like charm person or hold person. However, as native outsiders, they may be raised, reincarnated, or resurrected as normal creatures.
  • Ages as a half-elf.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Work continues apace on my grand posterboard-sized map of my setting. I finished up the physical features of the khagante of Kurushat tonight (so far) as well as most of Qizmir. I've still got North Qizmir; the most recently settled lands north of the Shipwreck Strait, to finish before I'm done with that unit, however. The Shipwreck Strait serves a similar geographical function in my map as the Strait of Gibralter does in the real world, but I wanted it to be a dangerous place to cross; more of a natural barrier rather than a natural oceanic highway. That way the southern part of Qizmir, the Golden Peninsula, is an Iberian sized chunk of land that's mostly made up of lush savannah, crossed by caravan trails. The sea would naturally have made a better highway, but by making it more of a natural barrier (steep cliffs also round the oceanic side of the Golden peninsula, making it unsuitable for landing) I can have caravans traveling back and forth to the few natural harbors.

The main areas that still need to be detailed are the relatively smallish kingdom of Tarush Noptii, a kingdom ruled by vampires, and the fractious successor states to the faded glory of Baal Hamazi. Baal Hamazi isn't a fading empire in the sense that Terrasa is, it's an empire that's completely gone. Nothing is really left in the traditional sense; the remnant states are to Baal Hamazi as the city-states of Renaissance Italy are to the Roman Empire. Many of these successor states still claim to be the "true heirs" of Baal Hamazi, yet none of them are truly capable of understanding the grandeur that is their social ancestor, and their interpretations of what it means to be Baal Hamazi reborn differ dramatically.

In part because of this, the successor states are a highly Balkanized and politically charged area; nobody has been able to amass significant power in several generations, because the roots of conflict between the various states are too deep and too difficult to overcome.

The idea for Baal Hamazi comes from the 4th edition implied setting, actually, and the name I choose echoes that influence. Bael Turath is the 4th edition tiefling empire of history, and Baal Hamazi is the same. For whatever reason I've always liked the concept of tieflings, even before they existed under that name (Shakespeare wrote of Caliban, who is essentially a tiefling, and Merlin was said to be one as well.) I didn't want to use the name tiefling (which is too bad, because it's a good name... but I don't want such clear and obvious ties to Wizards of the Coast's intellectual property) so I've been casting about for a substitute. Cambion is actually an old Medieval word that refers to the child of a human and a succubus or incubus. Hellkin is another one I've tossed around (and gradually become more dissatisfied with) and darkling is a literal translation of what the word tiefling would be in German. The story is that around the TSR design studios, someone asked Wolfgang Baur to come up with the name, and he picked a German word that basically means darkling. But the idea of a culture of humans who has been tainted by the blood of fiends, and who proudly bear that heritage, intrigues me. It's a very Sword & Sorcery compliant idea.

Although the idea of a former tiefling empire came from 4e, the specific visualization of them does not. In my setting, there are two kinds of tieflings (well... whatever I end up naming them finally); those who are native hamazin, from Baal Hamazi, and those who are changelings, born unexpectedly amongst the other cultures and population groups of the settings. The hamazin have started breeding true, after many generations, and have settled on a common physical appearance. Obsidian black skin, yellow eyes, and dark hair are the hallmarks of the hamazin, as well as a cluster of small horns on their heads. I initially was going for a Graz'zt-like look, but it occurs to me that they also resemble Star Wars zabraks. In fact, Darth Maul, without the red stripes (and without being obligatorily bald) would be a perfect example of a hamazin. Maris Brood, from the game Star Wars Force Unleashed would also be a good one, except that of course she needs to have jet black skin. I've attached a picture, because she's a good example of almost the look I'm going for.

Now the changeling type, on the other hand, do not have a common physical appearance, and can be much more varied in their appearance. An important character I've come up with, Francesca de Sperança Domènechoz (a Terrasan, born in the rural former colony of Calça, with a twin brother who is a regular human) is a good example of one of these, and as a young woman, she has ash-gray skin, white hair, and solid milk-white eyes that look like they're caked with cataracts, but which actually see very well, even in the dark. Others may have even more disturbing physical features---forked tongues, prehensile tails, needle-like teeth, scaly skin, or worse.

Anyway, as soon as I settle on a name for my analogs of tieflings, I'll post my houseruled version of them. It is important to me that they be an LA+0 race, rather than an LA+1 race, so I do not use the rules for tieflings from D&D itself; just the concept.

Character sheets

Although I'm rather specifically not doing the Pathfinder Roleplaying game per se, it occurs to me that the changes that I borrow from there (skill list, CMB/CMD) make any character sheet derived to be compatible with the PFRPG will also be 100% compatible with my game. And, it so happens that there are at least two free character sheets available at Paizo's website. The first is available in the Community Use package, and is the same character sheet that comes packaged with the RPG. The second is a Simple Character Sheet and is available through the store... although it's a free pdf download.

Anyway, I find that handy. I wasn't really in the mood to attempt to create or modify character sheet just for my game.

The only main houserules that isn't specifically addressed is the Defense bonus to Armor class (you'll have to put that under Misc. modifier, or some other box) and the Action Points. However, my Action Point rules are based more on tokens handed out each session, so they shouldn't show up on the character sheet anyway.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Chase rules

I'm adapting Wolfgang Baur's chase rules from the Privateer Press book Five Fingers. I'm not doing them exactly as written, but pretty close.

The reason I chose these, out of the several options I own, is because they're the simplest. I can describe how to run a chase scene in only a paragraph or two. Of course, the price of that simplicity is that they are fairly rules light, and require some GM adjudication and judgement calls.

Anyway, here goes:

When exactly a withdrawal becomes a chase is up to the GM, but clearly if one character (or monster) decides to run away and another decides to pursue, then we enter a chase scene. Chase scenes are handled by making an opposed check by the pursuer and the pursued. The check is a d20 roll + the character's (or monster's) run speed divided by 10 + DEX modifier.

Whomever wins the opposed check gains his regular movement allowance of either widening the gap (if he's the pursued) or closing the gap (if he's the pursuer.)

Let's have an example. A goblin pickpocket with a regular movement of 20 and DEX score of 14 would have a modifier of +10 (his run speed is 80, so his run modifier is 8, and his DEX modifier is +2.) If we assume he has the Run feat, his run speed would be 100, and his chase modifier would increase to +12. If this goblin attempts to pick the pocket of a human barbarian with a base movement of 40, he's in trouble if he gets caught, because the barbarian's chase modifier is +16 (we'll assume he has a DEX of 10--no modifier.)

Clear as mud?

After one minute (10 rounds) a character can no longer run without making a Constitution check. If he fails, he is fatigued, and follows all the rules for that condition.

Attempting to throw off pursuit by ducking into an alley, losing oneself in a crowd, jumping over a barrier, knocking over stacked crates of fruit, etc. is where some GM adjudication comes in, but mostly it means making the appropriate skill check (Acrobatics, Sneak, etc.) and hoping that your opponent fails his associated roll (Acrobatics, Perception, etc.) Common sense rules here; because clever players can come up with many different actions, and because I can't predict what they may be, I make no attempt to make a comprehensive ruleset, merely to point to the skill system as the best way to translate most potential actions.

If one member of a chase is mounted, obviously the mounts run speed is used, not the rider's, although he might need to make Ride checks as normal, especially if attempting anything tricky to keep up in the chase. If the chase scene takes place in unusual terrain, the GM can apply modifier as needed, or even require periodic Reflex saves or Acrobatics checks for runners to maintain their regular speed. Swimming, flying, or even burrowing chases obviously use the swim (or fly, or burrow) speed of the chase participant, but that's obvious, right?

Friday, April 16, 2010


Ah... I've missed a book that could really and truly be called a page-turner. The last several books I've read, in many ways I've struggled with them. I'm still only about halfway through Reavers of Skaith and I've been reading that for four weeks. And it's only 200 pages long! Fantasy fans (and more to the point, fantasy writers) could benefit from checking out a few mainstream suspense novels and incorporating some of their structure. There's a reason those novels are best-sellers, after all.

Jim Butcher's latest Dresden Files novel, Changes, had a very different impact on me than the books I've been struggling with recently. I got it last night at the library and was home with it again by about 9:30. Now, about 18-19 hours later, I've completely finished the 440 page novel. And I didn't even stay up all night or really miss much time from work to do it, either. It's just one of those novels that you can't put down and it just trips along so quickly that before you know it... it's over. I didn't even have time to put it on my "What I'm Reading" sidebar before it migrated into "What I've Read."

Changes is, in many ways, the novel I've been waiting for Butcher to write. All of my complaints; all of my worries about the series: he addresses 'em. He addresses 'em all. This is not one more notch in the formulaic tread of the series. This is a novel that really changes the game in profound and jaw-dropping ways. The last two novels hinted at that; the impression was certainly given that Dresden and Co. had merely scratched the surface of shadowy, dark conspiracies. But at the end of the day, they returned to (more or less) the same status quo that they were at when the book started.

Not so, this one. Dresden faces significant personal changes. Amazingly significant changes, that'll have no choice but to have a major impact on the books going forward. Murphy has major changes. The White Council faces major changes. The war with the Red Court of vampires faces major changes. Even the writing style and novel structure faces significant changes, ending on one heckuva cliffhanger. Butcher wasn't kidding when he named this novel.

It's a shame in a way that the Dresden Files novels took so long to show this kind of evolution. There's certainly a sense--a strong sense--that Butcher's writing more of these than he needs to in an attempt to stretch out the revenue stream as long as possible. That rarely leads to good results, but Butcher managed to hold it together for 11 novels with only minor hiccups along the way. By and large, they've all been very entertaining even so, the most recent ones especially.

But right when I'm at the point where I'm wondering if the series is going to continue to spin its wheels or actually finally go somewhere... man, does it go. Whew!

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I should have double-checked this before, and just added it to my existing post, but because I'm having trouble with the stupid blockquotes formating, I'm just doing a whole new post.

The Linguistics skill covers all of the uses of the 3.5 skills Forgery and Decipher Script. The Linguistics skill also covers the ground of the old Speak Language skill; you gain languages based on the amount of ranks you have in the Linguistics skill. Normally you gain one language per rank, but there are some exceptions, as listed below. The following are the languages from my setting(s).

Terrasan: This is the official language of the Terrasan Empire (surprising, I know) and as such is widely spoken in all the areas of the map shown on my campaign sites and elsewhere. In origin, it is based on the southern shores of the Mezzovian Sea, and it is there that its penetration is most thorough. That said, since no land shown on the map has failed to undergo a fairly severe "Terrasification" culturally, this is a common trade language, at least, if not native language of most people in the area.

Real life similarities: Most place and people names here come from this language. To represent this, I've used mostly Occitan and Catalan names and words, with a few that I draw or manually revise from Romanian, Spanish and various Italian and other Romance languages as well, such as Sardinian, Asturian, Aragonese, Piedmontese, Corsican, Sicilian, etc.

North Terrassan (Balshatoi): The Terrasan Empire was cobbled together over the course of many generations, and from many cultures. The northern rim of the Mezzovian Sea was originally populated by a completely different cultural group. Due to the many years that they have been part of the Empire, their language had largely faded, to be used only by lower classes (particularly, isolated rural populations) and scholars who read the ancient records of the region. As the strength of the Empire has faded in recent decades, however, North Terrassan has undergone a bit of a linguistic renaissance. More and more people of the northern cities: Razina, Iclezza and their surrounding lands, are trying to reclaim the language and bring about its greater prominence. This effort is still nascent; a person who speaks only Terrassan and not North Terrassan will get along fine in these cities, although more and more certain officials, merchants and others will view them as worthy of scorn or even resentment for attempting to "stamp out" their own native culture. Despite the name, North Terrassan is related to Terrassan only by way of geography. Linguistically the languages bear little resemblances that aren't obvious recent borrowings.

Real life similarities: Names in North Terrassan can be picked from Scandinavian and Slavic namelists, particularly Old Norse and Polish or Russian.

Common: Common in this setting is not like Common in a typical D&D setting. Common is a patois or Creole type language formed from Terrassan and various other substrate languages, and it has never achieved anything like a legitimate status. Although a few people write glosses and other short passages in various alphabets, especially Terrassan, this is merely an accomodation; Common actually has no written form at all. Speaking in Common is certainly possible over a wider audience than Terrassan, but it is limited in what it can convey; it lacks the robustness of a naturally occuring language.

Roleplaying note: Realistically, anyone roleplaying in this setting can use Common to get by (although there is no written form of it) without any penalties. For added flavor, anyone trying to conduct any social skill check (Diplomacy, Bluff, Intimidate, etc.) in Common takes a -2 penalty due to the simplistic and sparse nature of speaking in Common.

Kvuustu: Kvuustu is a language that originates in the southern portion of the map, and is most closely associated with the orc population. It's too simplistic to simply say that Kvuustu is the equivalent of the orc language, however; many humans who live in proximity to that area speak Kvuustu as their native language as well. Many scholars believe that this language was once much more widespread over this area, long before the rise of the Terrassan Empire, and that ironically it was humans from the shores of the Mezzovian Sea who first brought an ancient form of this language to the orcs... who now bring it back with their foederati army legions and settlements. Many orcs who are recently arrived in the Empire speak only this language, or at best, Kvuustu and Common. Kvuustu does have an ancient written form, but today few people can use it and most native speakers are illiterate.

Real life similarities: I actually have a word generator program, with custom parameters, that generate my Kvuustu words. It is notorious amongst Terrassans for its difficult consonent clusters and long "doubled" vowels, as well as having fewer phonemes than some other languages. In fact, the more difficult consonent clusters compensate for this lack of phonemes, so that k-, kv-, ksv-, etc. serve as different letters from each other, effectively.

Kurushi: The language of the Kurushat khaganate, this language is commonly known by its association with the hobgoblins, who speak it as a native language. Unlike Kvuustu, this language is quite cultured, and the hobgoblins themselves can claim to have a growing, vibrant, powerful state that is a legitimate rival to Terrasa and other states in the region. In any case, Kurishi has a rich literary history, at the very least, and its use, especially on the southern rim of the Mezzovian, is fairly commonplace.

Real life similarities: If the Terrassan empire is often compared loosely to Rome, then the Kurushi have to be compared loosely to the Sassanian Persians, at least in terms of role in the setting, if not actual linguistic similarity. The fact that the goblins who remain here are isolated from their motherland, and have been for a long time, does not mean that they have forgotten their heritage. Although many serve as foederati for Terrassa, their primary allegiance is to themselves. The names I've created for Kurushat are often Leigh Brackett Martian names that have been modified and malformed to scrape the serial numbers off. In addition, a pseudo-Asian vibe has been applied to some names, although this is too vague and generic to be binned to any specific Asian culture.

Sylvan: This language comes from the woods and wilderness areas on the western borders of the Empire, and is still common amongst the rural mining towns in Caurs Mountains and the woodlands of the southern Bisbal Forest especially along the banks of the Erau River. Because many Imperial citizens only know it from the shifters who live in that region, it is informally called "Shifter" or Vucari by many. Another branch of this language exists deep in the Shifting Forest, but since the inhabitants of those lands are extremely xenophobic and don't maintain relationships of any kind (other than "kill on sight") with their neighbors, this dialect has diverged from that spoken in the Caurs region significantly.

Real life similarities: Most Sylvan names are ones that I've grabbed from namelists from Georgian (the country, not the state in the southeastern United States) and Turkish. I might have grabbed a few Abhkhaz names just for fun as well.

Qizmiri: This language came from across the ocean with the jann. The version of Qizmiri today is heavily influenced by a substrate language of the humans who lived there, who spoke a language distantly related to Terrasan. That language is now extinct, and everyone from Qizmir speaks Qizmiri.

Real life similarities: Most names and words from Qizmiri are borrowed and adapted from either Farsi or Arabic, and should have a similar "feel" to those languages.

Tarushan: Tarushan is mostly a substrate language of the northern reaches of the map, distantly related to North Terrasan. It's mostly extinct except as a source of ancient inscriptions, placenames and loanwords. However, it does remain an active and vibrant language in one region: Tarush Noptii. It is speculated that it is the original native language of the Primogenitor vampires. The linguistic conservatism of effectively immortal creatures has ensured that it remains mostly as it was many generations ago, and today Tarushan is one of the most archaic and conservative languages in the region.

Real life similarities: Tarushan names are borrowed from Hungarian.

Infernal: This is the primary language spoken by those from the Realms Outside, although myriad other tongues exist amongst this diverse breed as well. In addition, this is the language of magic, so a smattering of it, at least, is known by any practitioner of the arcane arts. Perfect fluency in this language, on the other hand, is almost impossible for any mortal to achieve. Because of this, it takes two skill points to earn this language, not one.

Despite that, it was always very fashionable in Baal Hamazi, where the demonic taint of their bloodline was a source of pride to the ruling caste, to speak Infernal natively, and many noble houses took great pains to ensure that their children didn't hear any other language until they were five years of age. Some households still speak Infernal in the home, and it is still a living language of some importance in some of the successor states to Baal Hamazi, and amongst the hamazin in particular.

Dagonic: This is a bizarre pre-human language, remnants of which float around on isolated and moldy standing stones and other areas. Intriguingly, it appears to have originally been a underwater language. Few people on the surface can even make an attempt to learn it, due to the challenges of speech that an underwater language had to have overcome, and the language itself is only known from very scanty and fragmentary remains, making fluency all but impossible for even the most dedicated scholar.Roleplaying note: Because of the difficulty in learning this language, it takes three skill points rather than one to do so. Also, for all intents and purposes, it is a written language only, not a spoken language, since there are no speakers that anyone knows of at all, and how to pronounce the language is anyone's guess.

Knowledge (Skill)

Continuing my series on my houserules, here's another one adopted and adapted from the Pathfinder RPG, via that PFSRD and the OGL. Summarized and paraphrased by me for this blog post, rather than actually "published". For the full text, I refer you to the PFSRD.

The Knowledge skill in D&D 3.5 was always a little hairy. d20 Modern set out specific Knowledge skills, and Pathfinder has followed in that vein. I list them all here, with a few comments (mostly the only comments I include are along the lines of "don't use this one; it'll be worthless in my campaigns."

Knowledge (X) where X equals:

• Arcana - As in 3.5. The theory of magic, in particularly, as opposed to Spellcraft, which is about identifying practical effects. Can also be useful in identifying summoned or other extraplanar or magical creatures.
• Dungeoneering - don't take this one. You'll never use it.
• Engineering - includes also architecture, and any vaguely related field.
• Geography - self-explanatory, mostly.
• History - this one too.
• Local - as in 3.5. Great choice for a game that's set in a specific environment with no plans to travel much.
• Nature - the academic study of the natural world. As opposed to the more intuitive, pragmatic approach, which uses the Survival skill.
• Nobility - You can probably skip this one. I'll use a Local, Geography or History in a pinch.
• Planes - Don't bother. I don't plan on making this a substantially extraplanar game.
• Religion - for any check against the obvious subject matter.

Skill consolidation

While in general I'm skeptical of the change from 3e to 3.5e, one thing it did right was adopt d20 Modern's slimmed down and consolidated skill list. And one thing that Pathfinder (and the rest of the post 3.5 d20-derived systems) has done is further consolidate and strip down the skill system.

A robust skill system is important for any game system I'd like to run. I like having an obvious thing that I can ask players to throw out a check for when they describe an action. The older 1e version of making ability checks felt ad hoc and non-robust to me. I also like skill systems as a tool for character definition and differentiation. It says a surprising amount about the character Ricardo Murcielago, for example, that he has a rank or two in Craft (Needlepoint), because his lace always has to look nice, even when he's out in the middle of nowhere without access to a seamstress.

By the same token, though, skills that tread in each other's territory or otherwise feel superfluous or extraneous don't help either. After poking around with various post 3.5 skill systems, and looking at them next to each other (Trailblazer, Pathfinder, Star Wars SAGA and even 4e) I've decided to adopt Pathfinder's skill system wholesale as the easiest of the bunch to integrate into a 3.5 game without having to do much in the way of actual work to convert.

So, while one or two skills do in fact need to be relearned, mostly all you need to do is match up your 3.5 skill to the corresponding Pathfinder skill, and off you go. If you're playing a custom class that has access to Hide and Move Silently, for instance, that class would now have access to Stealth, the single skill that replaces those redundant skills.

The following little chart should highlight the correspondances. If there's no change to the skill, it will be labeled as such. Unless otherwise noted, the rules don't actually change, though. If you want to make a Hide check, you now roll against the Stealth skill, but everything else about making the check is unchanged.

The only skills that require further explanation (which I'll provide another time in a separate post) are Linguistics and Knowledge.

D&D 3.5 Skill::Pathfinder skill
• Appraise::No change
• Balance::Now use Acrobatics
• Bluff::No change
• Climb::No change
• Concentration::Now is a caster level check plus ability modifier of main spellcasting ability
• Craft::No change
• Decipher Script::Now is part of the Linguistics skill
• Diplomacy::No change
• Disable Device::No change
• Disguise::No change
• Escape Artist::No change
• Forgery::Now use the Linguistics skill; read details
• Gather Information::Now use the Diplomacy skill
• Handle Animal::No change
• Heal::No change
• Hide::Now use the Stealth skill
• Intimidate::No change
• Jump::Now use the Acrobatics skill
• Knowledge::More codified with several specific Knowledge skills instead of the vague 3.5 options
• Listen::Now use the Perception skill
• Move Silently::Now use the Stealth skill
• Open Lock::Now use the Disable Device skill
• Perform::No change
• Profession::No change
• Ride::No change
• Search::Now use the Perception skill
• Sense Motive::No change
• Sleight of Hand::No change
• Speak Languages::Now use the Linguistics skill; read details
• Spellcraft::No change
• Spot::Now use the Perception skill
• Survival::No change
• Swim::No change
• Tumble::Now use the Acrobatics skill
• Use Magic Device::No change
• Use Rope::DM will adjudicate skill check, based on situation

The other notable change to the rules from 3.5 is that no character may have skill ranks higher than his character level. HOWEVER, any skill for which a character has at least one rank, and which is a class skill for that character will recieve a +3 bonus to the check result. Note: this also means that characters do not get their skill bonus x4 at first level; they get their skill bonus... x1.