Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Yog-Sothothery: Prophecies of the Daemon-sultan

Although monsters are, of course, at the heart of every good Lovecraftian story, they actually don't take up much "screen time" if they're going to be effective. The hallmark of a good Lovecraftian story is the atmosphere; the tone of creeping dread, of gradually stranger and more unnatural things, until finally the story climaxes with a monstrous appearance of some kind. For that reason, you need a lot more in your toolkit than monsters, and in fact, you need more of the other things besides monsters. So for today's Yog-Sothothery, I'm going to create another eldritch text of forbidden and blasphemous lore; one of the standbys of any good Lovecraftian effort, and always one of my personal favorite Lovecraftian elements.

I need more of this than some writers would, remember. Although clearly Lovecraft's ideas (and his tone) are important to me and my creation, I can't use them exactly as is. I can't use the Necronomicon, for instance, because it was written by the mad arab Abdul Alhazred in about 700 A.D., whereas my setting is not our world, doesn't have any actual arabs, and the timing would be wrong anyway. Granted, I do have Qizmiri, who are Arab-like in many ways, but still; in order to use most Mythos elements, I'd have to modify them. Which is fine, but if I'm going to go to that much trouble, I'd like to invent a few of my own. Plus, that way I can tailor them to my setting, which possibly (not likely) you'll remember as described as equal parts sword & sorcery slash Arabian Nights, Sergio Leone western, and the Golden Age of piracy (probably more like the Pirate Round and Barbary corsairs in nature than the Spanish Main... but it was all pretty similar anyway.)

And, of course, Lovecraftian horror, borrowing more on the occult/black magic stories of Lovecraft than on the later more science fictional stories. More of Lovecraft imitating Arthur Machen and Lord Dunsany, if you will, than some of the other Lovecraftian modes. My own tastes run along those lines; I find much of Lovecraft's work to be lacking in horror. His dry, scholarly tone, and his insistence on trying to make weird things like angles, geometry, seafood delicacies and slime into things of horror lacks the visceral appeal of some more traditional horror elements. I suppose that, unlike Lovecraft, I'm not yet tired of the more traditional ghost story, the vampire tale, or other staples of supernatural horror... as long as they're well executed. So when Lovecraft hies closest to those elements, in stories such as "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" or "Haunter of the Dark" or "The Outsider" or "The Hound" is when I enjoy his writing the most. Certainly it's that grouping of related stories that I wish to borrow from for this setting.

So, today's grim book of forbidden and forgotten knowledge is Prophecies of the Daemon-sultan. By... jann author Abdullah al-Azrad, frequently mis-transliterated into Abdul Alhazred in Terrasan circles. Looking behind the curtain just a little bit, this is hopefully very transparent to Lovecraftian scholars. My Abdullah al-Azrad is a jann from across the ocean, and at least one copy of his book was brought by one of the jann that later became the ruling caste of the new nation of Qizmir. A few copies of it have since made their way throughout the Mezzovian Sea region, to the great sorrow of its inhabitants. He's clearly meant to hark back to the "mad arab" Abdul Alhazred, who wrote Al Azif, the original version of the famous Necronomicon, before it was translated into the Greek. While my own book, Prophecies of the Daemon-sultan isn't meant to be a version of the Necronomicon per se, the Daemon-sultan is a title frequently given to the Blind Idiot God, Azathoth himself.

The Prophecies don't concern the so-called Forbidden Lands, and were written across the ocean in lands with names that have no meaning to Terrasans, and have only little meaning even to the Qizmiri, who originally hailed from those regions many generations ago. Mostly, they concern themselves with places that are either long vanished, and predate humanity completely, or places that have not yet come to be and will postdate humanity by eons. Despite this, many occult scholars have remarked that some of what the Prophecies relate are too similar to accounts of places like Leng and cold Kadath, high in the mountains, and others in the Forbidden Lands to be coincidental, and theorize that whether al-Azrad knew it or not, he was referring to those places too. While the text is rambling and insane, and contradictory and stream of consciousness at times, it recounts relatively clearly one myth passed on for centuries; that of Huudrazai, the Daemon Sultan, the Blind Star-God, the Eye in the Waste, who is prevented from destroying all creation in an orgy of entropy and destruction only by the constant sound of drumming and abhorrent, sibilant flute-sounds produced by inhuman voices which keeps him somnambulant and torpid. Some day, though, "when the stars are right", the piping and drumming will stop, and Huudrazai will startle into full wakefulness, at which point he will destroy all of creation.

Successfully reading the Prophecies will gain you 1d4+1 ranks in Knowledge (Forbidden Lore) and an equal number of Madness points. It will take 4d6 weeks of near constant study, and the DC to do so is 25. The book contains 4d6 incantations.

Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi

Although the blog has been quiet for the better part of a week or so, that doesn't mean that I've disappeared by any means. I keep much of my personal life separate from this blog (on purpose, actually) but I do have a personal life and the last several days I have spent celebrating Christmas with my wife and kids and even with some of my friends, so needless to say I've been busy. Plus, in the wake of Christmas, there's always a ton of movies to see, board games to play and video games to try out.

However, the day before Christmas Eve, I finished Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi which I had been reading. It's a relatively slim book; just shy of 250 pages. It's also a prequel to the movies; in fact, it takes place mostly in 1922 when young Indy is a grad student studying in Paris along with a bunch of other American ex-pats who frequented that city following the Great War. I've always cynically wondered if part of the reason all those American expats were so fond of Paris was because an entire generation of French men their age were killed in the Great War, leaving lots of lonely French young women. Be that as it may, Indiana Jones' more libertine young compadres are mostly not French, for whatever reason.

Indiana Jones is an interesting property. At the time this was written, there were three movies, and a Young Indiana Jones TV show. I never really got into the TV show, because it found it's forced "educational" message clunky. Not to mention the fact that the show was boring as all get-out, at least for the first half dozen or so episodes. Cardinal sin for a property like Indiana Jones to bore your audience.

But there's a fair bit of back-story to the Indy, and his character is pretty well established. For that matter, the development and execution of an Indiana Jones plot is pretty well known too; it's a bit formulaic. And while I don't mind an author attempting to monkey with a successful formula, if he's going to do so, he better do so in a way that makes the story, character, or something better than the formula would have been. This is what Rob MacGregor fails to understand; making Indy a somewhat bitter, indecisive, confused, and generally clueless guy may well have been based on clues from the movies (particularly the third one, that highlights a lot of Indy's relationship with his father) and might well be reasonable given the time period in which the novel is set, but it doesn't make him very likable nor does it make him recognizably Indiana Jones.

Anyway, other than this, the novel's alright. The pacing was a bit slow, and the novel took longer to get interesting than any of the movies ever did. I didn't exactly have high expectations for this novel, so they were met, if not exceeded. To be honest, however, I'm a little unsure if I think it's worth my while to continue in the series. There's at least ten in this prequel run of novels. I'm not sure how many I can stand if they're all of this calibre before I'm done with them, though.

As a curious aside, before I actually picked up the book itself, I had misread the title. I knew that it said Delphi, which of course, is a famous location in early Greece, but my mind translated it as Delhi and I expected it to take place in India. Whoops!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Into the Darklands

I just finished Paizo's sourcebook Into the Darklands last night. The Darklands are the Paizo folks' equivalent to what Wizards of the Coast and D&D in general calls the Underdark. Frankly, I think Darklands is a better name, although that's neither here nor there. I actually quite liked this book. That may surprise some readers, since I've previously expressed a dislike and distaste for things like dungeon-crawls, and the Underdark has often been presented as the ultimate dungeoncrawl.

However, it doesn't have to be, and one of the things that Paizo's book helped to highlight is that the Underdark is a wilderness. Sure, it's an exotic wilderness, with hazards that are quite a bit different than wandering through a forest, desert, or tundra, but it clearly presented the Darklands as a relatively wild place; a wilderness, punctuated by points of civilization here and there.

Cruel, sadistic and unfriendly civilization, but civilization nonetheless.

Anyway, this approach certainly helps to make the Darklands much more palatable to me, and in fact fairly interesting. The other thing that Paizo did was acknowledge the roots of the Underdark concept and return to something more like it. In James Jacobs' Dragon Magazine article "The Shadow over D&D", he acknowledge H. P. Lovecraft's Underworld as one of (if not the singular) influence on the concept of the Underdark. This is primarly (although not exclusively) explored in two of his stories, The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath, a novel or novella set in the overt sword & sorcery fantasy realm called the Dreamlands, and "The Mound" a longish short story that Lovecraft ghost-wrote for Zealia Bishop.

Besides that, there are obvious nods to other famous underground/hollow earth stories, including Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar books, Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and even H. G. Wells The Time Machine (notably in the inclusion of the morlocks. I've included a picture of a morlock from the recentish movie, just for the heckuvit.)

Paizo were quite upfront about this influence, spelling it out explicitly in sidebars. Some obvious Dreamlands influences include the use of gugs, a ghoul kingdom, giant worms that resemble the bholes (although that's not what they're named here) and a lot of details of the geography in general, like gigantic underground mountain ranges (not called the Peaks of Thok, sadly.) Their Darklands ghouls even hate ghasts, contrary to most D&D implied setting stuff (but consistent with Lovecraft, where the ghasts are totally different creatures that the ghouls hate.) The concept of underground serpent people empires is also borrowed wholesale from "The Mound" (although Paizo serpentfolk don't worship Yig) and there's even a mention or two of a shoggoth.

Paizo's Darklands are divided up into roughly three "layers"; the first being the one closest to the surface, which is very much a wilderness of savages and monsters. The second is the home to various civilizations, including the drow, duergar, the ghouls and others. The third layer isn't so much a layer as it is a collection of gigantic underground "worlds" magically sustained. Some of them resemble Pellucidar overtly (including a false sun, jungles, and dinosaurs all over the place) or other interesting high concepts (the land of black blood, for instance, which oozes a freezing, tarry substance that facilitates various necromantic rituals, or the land of the undead outcast drow house, or the lands of the various worm creatures, or gigantic underground oceans, daemon-worshipping monstrous humanoids, etc.)

One curious observation; the book refers very frequently to Necromancer Games' Tome of Horrors, Revised. I've noticed before that Paizo really like this book and refer to it a lot, but in this book they really outdid themselves to the point that it's almost a required supplement to use this. Not quite, but some of the material would be pretty tricky without it, especially a lot of the random monster tables. I actually don't have that book, although I do have the original Tome of Horrors, done in 3e rules (not 3.5) so I figure I'm covered. Frankly, I'm not a huge fan; it seemed like the book's main raison d'être is to stat out monsters that were deservedly left behind by Wizards of the Coast. It's not quite that bad, as they also included a bunch of new material, but I always found the book to be superfluous at best. Clearly Paizo disagrees, but with their focus on old-school D&D flavor, that's not surprising to me.

Especially for a guy like me, who really quite enjoys seeing Lovecraftiana incorporated into fantasy gaming, but for anyone who has any interest in the concept of the Underdark at all, I can unreservedly recommend this book as a pretty fun one. It's a bit on the slim side, so most of what it details really needs further detail to be useable, and you can get some of that in places like the various Second Darkness adventure path materials (including details on drow society in volume 3, details of drow and serpentfolk cities in volume 4, and details of the land of black blood in volume 6.) But there's enough here to keep me happily exploring, if I'm so inclined, for a long time to come yet.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dungeoncraft #9: More with NPCs

Last time I made a Dungeoncraft post, I talked about four things that NPCs can and should do. Today, let's finish talking about NPCs and I'll finish detailing Gauvain and Alainna, the brother/sister duo of sinister sorcerer-patrons that initially seem friendly, but who have designs that will probably bring them into conflict with the PCs for one reason or another. Good ole Ray Winninger splits this entry, which I'm using as a template for my own post, into four additional categories; four things that make up NPCs. Only three of them are required, but the fourth is handy, especially for NPCs that look like they're going to end up being significant, recurring characters. Without further ado, let's have a look at the four things that most NPCs will end up having:

1) Game mechanics. In theory, behind every NPC is a character sheet as detailed and comprehensive as that which supports the PCs of your campaign. With few exceptions, though, this is not the practice in most game systems, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Ray introduces (somewhat belatedly, but here it's most relevant) his third rule of Dungeoncraft at this point. I'm going to state it, but then I'm also going to adapt it a bit more specifically to the system and playstyle I prefer. Keep in mind also the first rule of Dungeoncraft; don't create more than you have to. For most NPCs that the PCs encounter, they won't interact with them mechanically. If they're in court being presented to the King, do you need to know what the King's armor class is? Hopefully not! In fact, for the vast majority of NPCs that you use to people your setting, even many recurring ones, there won't be any need to create any mechanical information whatsoever. Because of the first rule of Dungeoncraft, well, then you probably shouldn't.

However, that means that you might get caught with your pants down when the PCs decide that the King is actually a doppleganger or something equally absurd, and decide to attack him. Suddenly, you need to know stats for the king, several of the other nobles in the throne room, and the guards, and ... whoops! You didn't generate any, because you never thought you'd need them! This is where the third rule of Dungeoncraft comes into its own.

Dungeoncraft Rule #3: Whenever you have no idea what the probability of success should be for a given situation, it's 50%.

Now, taking this idea to an even higher, more conceptual level, what this means is that you can go through several entire sessions in a row, including sessions that feature several combats and other mechanical interactions, without having any statblocks pregenerated at all. 50% seems pretty reasonable if you really have no idea how likely something should be, right? By the same token, if you have a vague idea; i.e., something should be unlikely or difficult (75%) or something should be fairly likely and easy (25%) you can adjust that 50% as needed on the fly. This same principle can be applied to all kinds of things in game. Many, many times I've run combats without having any stats for my NPCs.

Gamist purists probably blanche at the very thought of this. That's OK; I can dig where you're coming from. However, those same folks are frequently the ones that I hear expressing frustration with the d20 system because it stifles them under an overwhelming weight of rules and subsystems. Remember the old mantra back at the release of third edition? I do. "Tools, not rules." This fit my playstyle quite well anyway, so I didn't really need it spelled out for me in order for me to run the game that way, but it's a nice reminder. Use the rules you like or need or find useful; ignore the rest.

So, how can I convert those percentages to target numbers? Ray Winninger wrote that rule during the era of second edition D&D, when it was more useful. In a d20 environment, you're not likely to be using percentages much anyway.

Difficulty classes: A 15 is a standard DC for most tasks that are meant to be challenging to low level characters, but not really to higher level characters, or specialists who are particularly good at that skill, save or what-have you. Use 15 for default difficulty. 20 is more difficult, and only mid-level or specialist characters should attempt these tasks most of the time. 25 is beyond the capability of all but real experts. Because I don't really play very high level games and refuse to touch higher than some point below the midpoint of the level spectrum, I really don't have any use for any DCs higher than 25. Keeping in mind that 15 is relatively easy (but still challenging for non-experts) and 25 is extremely challenging even for experts, I can pick DCs for almost anything on the fly as needed. Anything easier than 15 I mostly won't bother calling for checks for, although occasionally I'll have an easier DC if for no other reason so we can laugh at PCs that fail to make their check. Failures can be as entertaining and interesting (and frequently, in fact, are moreso) than successes.

NPC bonuses: For the most part, if an NPC needs a bonus to a roll (to hit, damage, skill check, saving throw, etc.) I pick a number equal to about the average PC character level and add that to my dice roll. This tends to mean that they are relatively well scaled with the PCs themselves--close enough, anyway--to make them challenging. This can also be modified as needed; really strong characters can double the to hit and damage bonus, for example, if needed. I even use the same principle for armor class; if 10 is the default, then I can add that to 10 to get the AC. ACs tend to be higher for any character wearing any type of armor, so I can throw a few extra points on there as needed too; again, all on the fly.

Hit points: This is perhaps the most radical proposal I'm going to make in this post--you don't need to know how many hit points your PCs antagonists have. For many NPCs, especially "mook" or minion type PCs (the proverbial goblins or stormtroopers) they really should fall down as soon as they're hit most of the time (really low damage rolls excepted). For others, it's easier to keep track of how much damage they've sustained, and when it seems like it's been long enough, then they go down. This is more an art than a science; you have to be able to read your players and understand if they're finding the combat exciting and interesting, or if its starting to drag or feel frustrating. End it before you get to that point, but ideally, right before you get there; when the very first signs of "holy cow, how many times do we need to hit this guy?" start to appear.

Class abilities and spells: I don't use many magic characters (maybe because they take more preparation to use well) but if you want to have one, it's best to have a few handy go-to spells that you know quite well that you can use as needed. Similarly, I don't frequently need much in the way of class abilities, but sometimes for fun, I'll throw in a sneak attack extra damage, or rule that an NPC has evasion or something like that. Grab stuff that you're familiar with and can make the combat fun and use these types of abilities sparingly. It's usually better (or at least easier) to just factor these types of abilites into the numbers; if you want a character to be a bit more challenging, make his bonuses higher. But sometimes a spell, unusual weapon (like a blast of fire or flask of acid) or something like that goes a long way towards making an NPC memorable in combat.

Focus on environment: In my experience, combats are rarely memorable because an enemy combatant was dutifully statted out. Something that's more likely is a "standard" NPC without any special abilities per se, but one who the PCs have to fight in an unusual environment will be the combats that they really remember. What if the NPCs are jumping back and forth from rooftops and scaffolds? What if it's on a stormy, swaying deck of a ship in the rain? What if NPCs are ambushing the PCs from dark corners and hiding places at every turn?

I've used this "technique" throughout most of my d20 GMing career. Most of the time, my players don't know if I have stats for NPCs or not--it's seamless enough that combats run more or less the same whether I do, or whether I'm just making up numbers on the fly as I need them. It sure makes running the game less of a chore, and it also really facilitates the kind of PC driven types of games that I prefer.

However, I don't run entire games that way from start to finish. Having a few "generic" statblocks, either from the DMG or some other source, can be quite handy. Just make sure that they're easy to find and that you aren't scrambling, flipping through pages when what you really need is to be jumping right into combat right now with a reasonable number in hand. Having a few statblocks printed out on a single sheet of paper and paperclipped to the inside of my GM screen has come in handy more than once for me.

And for really important, dramatic battles against recurring or heavily foreshadowed NPCs, nothing beats having an actual, complete, custom statblock. As always, keep in mind the role you expect the NPC to play in the campaign. If it's just a bunch of thugs jumping the PCs while they're otherwise engaged in a bit of investigation which is dragging down the pacing of the game, then they're disposible and stats aren't important. If all the PCs need to do to interact mechanically with the NPCs is have them make a Sense Motive or Spot check, or a saving throw, then again; who cares what their other stats are as long as the relevant one is reasonable? And unless you feel pretty comfortable with the system, you may not know what reasonable means. So this technique, my "expanded rule #3", is a powerful tool, but one that you should make sure to use wisely.

2) Description. This one seems obvious, but it's one that few GMs (in my experience) remember to utilize as wisely as they should. Unless your players are extraordinary and your play schedule quite regular and frequent, players aren't going to remember your NPCs based on their name, or even necessarily on their role. But give the NPC a distinctive description, and suddenly they've got something to latch on to. Of course, they might nickname your NPC by a physical feature, but that's usually OK too. Knowing that Gauvain and Alainna are unsually pale skinned, with striking eyes so pale that they almost appear white, but with rich, dark hair, makes them stand out in a setting that's mostly settled by folks with a "Mediterranean" phsyical disposition (which is true for much of my setting.) Of course, you've got to find ways to work it in when they meet them again, and that can be cumbersome if you're not careful. "Gauvain and Alainna enter the common room, and you notice again that their skin and eyes are extremely pale, in contrast to their thick dark hair,"--yeah, don't do that. "You see two pale, disembodied faces floating in the air in the dark alley. A closer look and you can see the dark, hooded cloaks that Gauvain and Alainna are wearing blending into the shadows," works much better. And while it might not be the tone you're going for, heck, simply saying, "Gauvain and Alainna, the goth twins, are waiting for you in your room when you arrive," is at least memorable.

Pictures are great here too. See if you can start gathering a collection of digital images, scans, or whatever of characters. Old Dungeon Magazines are one of the best resources here, but they're really not hard to find and they're all over the place. If you're looking for realistic portraits, check out links like this one. Fantasy character shots can be found a places like this, on the other hand.

3) Memorable personality trait. Even moreso than a description, an unusual quirk or something that you can demonstrate will help your players latch on to your NPCs. Knowing that both Gauvain and Alainna are extremely well-dressed, even quite dandy, for example, and that Gauvain speaks stiffly and formally like Stephen Fry playing Jeeves, while Alainna speaks only in a strained, hoarse whisper and carries a flask around to wet her mouth after speaking are great ideas. If you can actually imitate that speech, even better. It doesn't matter if your players don't ever seem to notice that your Stephen Fry impersonation is, in fact, Stephen Fry, they'll still probably find it memorable and catchy anyway.

4) Secret. I've already talked about Gauvain and Alainna's secret, and about the importance of secrets in the campaign in general, but a good rule of thumb is that any NPC that the PCs are likely to encounter again, especially with any regularity, can benefit from having some kind of secret that you can start hinting at right away. Keep in mind the role the NPC will play in the campaign, from last "episode." If the character's role is to provide exposition, the NPC probably has a secret related to the setting overall, or some of the other non-NPC secrets you've developed. If the role of the NPC is to provide services or goods to the PCs, he might have a secret device, spell, or item that they can use, steal, or earn for themselves at the appropriate time.

When I come back for Dungeoncraft #10, we'll have a look at regional mapping, and extending our campaign setting out from the home base area a bit... but not too far! Remember the first rule of dungeoncraft; never create more than you need!

Blog updates

I've made some changes to the design, look and feel of the blog. I've got a new logo, a new tagline, and I've played around a bit with what tools or "gadgets" I'm using. At first, I added more gadgets, but decided in the end that I wanted a more stripped down, Spartan, and clean look; I'm no longer showing followers, popular posts, and a number of other gadgets. On the other hand, I added the famous first paragraph from Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" because it's just such a great quote; probably the best paragraph Lovecraft ever wrote, and certainly that story's greatest claim to fame (well, other than the introduction of Cthulhu himself, of course.) And I added those nifty Cthulhu runes at the very bottom of the blog too.

Why am I doing this? Part of it is to refocus the blog a bit. A while ago I split off my musing and ramblings about martial arts fighting video games, paleontology, and synthpop music, but I still feel like this blog is a bit rambly and occasionally lacking in focus. I want to refocus it more on the development of my setting, both with my long-lingering fiction endeavors (one of these days, I will finish that novel!) and as a gaming venue. I'll continue to also write book reviews of what I read (mostly gaming books and "genre" books, but occasionally some mainstream books too, if I think that there's some value to gamers in general. I'm going to not post as many "random" posts as I used to (not that I posted a lot) and will finish up my Dungeoncraft series, and otherwise focus much more on those kinds of posts, along with the new Yog-Sothothery tag; in general, I want to be creating more content and a bit less commentary. Change the balance a bit, so to speak. Today my balance is probably about 95%+ commentary and less than 5% content; I'd like to migrate that eventually to something closer to 50%/50%.

Now, although I've removed my tagline of "Most opinionated guy on the Internet" I don't think that I've become any less opinionated; it's just that that tagline is a more generic one and I want to have one that's more related to the focus of the blog, and the focus of my gaming and fantasy tastes in general.

Sword & Sorcery meets Yog-Sothothery yet again

I've already posted a link to Swords Against the Outer Dark, described by its author as "Where Sword & Sorcery Gaming Meets Cthulhiana and Yog-Sothothery." Because that's, in many ways, exactly the vibe I've been gravitating to for some time. Heck, it's been almost ten years now since I've heard Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying described as, "You start off thinking that you're playing Dungeons & Dragons, but before long you realize you're actually playing Call of Cthulhu." I found that notion completely insane in a great way, and my own gaming tastes have been at that intersection ever since (although ironically, I've only ever been passingly curious about Warhammer Fantasy roleplaying itself.)

I just discovered another blog that is also dedicated to that particular vibe, The World of Xoth: Where Cold Iron meets Non-Euclidean Geometry. There's not a lot of content there, really, but it's still encouraging to encounter someone who's working in the same medium, so to speak. In fact, the author of The World of Xoth (who posts under the handle of thulsa, but who appears to actually be named Morten Braten) even uses a d20 variant, which is cool. As an aside, he's also the host of the long-lived Hyborian Age website, which was meant to facilitate the use of d20/D&D with the old Robert E. Howard Hyborian Age setting; the setting of Conan the Barbarian, for those Philistines who didn't already know that.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Imperial Age

I love alternate histories. I'm always playing around with them. I'm not often clear on what exact purpose they serve, but I enjoy them for their own sake. I frequently like postulating them, and sometimes I even like incorporating weird or supernatural elements into them to see how things might have been different. One recent alternate history novelette by Charles Stross is "A Colder War" which postulates that Nazi Germany found R'lyeh on the bottom of the Baltic Sea and the Cold War, rather than being nuclear deterence in nature, was based around attempting to harness (or to counter) the influence of various Old Ones in the world. In practice, this is not too unlike the setting for the board game Tannhäuser in which the Union, British and American troops utilizing reverse engineered technology cribbed from crashed UFO's at Roswell fight the Kaiser's demonically summoned forces and Russia's Tesla and Slavic mysticism fueled armies in a World War I conflict that never ended.

I quite like this idea. The reason we had a Cold War throughout much of the 20th century instead of yet another World War was largely, in my opinion, because weaponry had advanced to the point that everyone was afraid to actually use it (it could also be attributed to the reduction of superpowers from about half a dozen to just two, but let's ignore that for the time being.) What if this happened earlier? What if it happened a hundred years ago in the early 1900s, before World War I was even fought? And yes, what if the nature of those weapons that everyone was too afraid to use was Lovecraftian?

Could the Empires of the early 20th century survive in a prolonged Old Ones related Cold War? Could Tsar Nicholas have fended off the Bolsheviks who overthrew his state in the midst of World War I in real life? Could the Ottoman Empire have survived? The Austro-Hungarian one? Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany? The British Empire? The American Empire? Would the Japanese Empire have continued to surge? What else would have changed between now and then if Imperialism had managed to survive for another 100 years longer than it really did? How would these nations evolve for an additional 100 years scared to death not only of their enemies but also of the very weapons that they themselves were developing?

Feel free to comment. I'm not exactly sure myself what all this would mean, but I'm thinking it through, and wondering what to do with it. Some short fiction ventures? One-shot gaming? I'm undecided. Maybe both. Possibly neither.

Dark•Heritage reading level

I saw this on another blog and thought it looked good for a laugh--apparently there's a new tool on Google advanced search; you can filter by reading level. You can also annotate the reading level of any given site. What this means is that it will tell you the percentage of the site that falls within each of three very broad categories.

I have no idea what this means (if indeed it means anything at all, which I doubt) but it's kinda fun. Apparently my blog is very heavily weighted towards an Intermediate reading level, and I offer no Advanced reading material at all. My apologies! I guess I should start using more esoteric vocabulary!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Guards of Haven

I finished the second three-book omnibus of the Hawk & Fisher series. This actually concludes the series, although there's a seventh book that brings Hawk & Fisher and Simon Green's earlier Blue Moon Rising together, making the not surprising revelation that Prince Rupert and Princess Julia from the Blue Moon book actually are Hawk & Fisher, before they leave their homeland incognito. This omnibus is made up of three books; first, Wolf in the Fold in which Hawk & Fisher have to impersonate nobility while being locked in a tower, having to solve a murder (and find a spy) in a plot that's not too unlike their first book. Second, we have Guard Against Dishonor, which I liked best of all the stories, in which Hawk & Fisher are separated and assigned to separate assignments temporarily, but which (naturally, as happens coincidentally in fiction everywhere) end up being the same problem after all. Finally, Bones of Haven is one where two kings are in town to sign a peace treaty, but terrorists take over the house where they're located, and Hawk & Fisher are given the assignment to work with the SWAT team to get them out. The SWAT team here being a specialist wizardry and tactics team, including a blessed (or cursed) negotiator who can't ever pick up a weapon, but who also can't be killed (well, so he thinks), a tactical leader, a weapons specialist and yet another Guard sorcerer.

While the stories and plots were interesting enough, especially the second (and to a slightly lesser extent the third) book in the omnibus, quite frankly by the end of the run, I'm a bit tired of Hawk & Fisher. They aren't really developed much through an entire six book run. They don't grow or mature as characters, really. Even the setting remains pretty much unchanged. The formula and pattern of the books didn't change over time significantly. And for that matter, even the paragraphs that first describe the characters Hawk and Fisher are word for word the same (or at least nearly so... I didn't actually go back and compare them word for word, but after reading them six times, I'm pretty sure that they had very little to distinguish them from each other, if anything.)

This kind of static development; or lack of development, I probably should say, makes series of books start to wear thin with me after a while. In standalone books, it's not quite as bad of a problem, because it can be overlooked and overcome if the characters are themselves interesting enough, and if the plot is interesting enough.

Be that as it may, there were certainly some interesting aspects to these second three books. Guard Against Dishonor in particular had what approached being character development, as Hawk and Fisher, operating under misinformation, behaved in ways that seemed almost out of character, or at least stretched their characters for a bit, before getting them back together again, getting them all the facts about what was going on, and settling back into a familiar routine again. Green also manages to create a few genuinely creepy scenes in that book, particularly when Hawk & Fisher have to go into a tavern where there have been a spate of particularly brutal murders in broad daylight. It's not clear exactly what caused them, and that unknown quality, as well as the reveal of what it actually is, is quite effective. It's also not really Green's style, though... in Bones of Haven, he could have done that too, when H&F and the SWAT team go into the maximum security supernatural wing of the prison to quell a riot, they get a quick rundown of all of the supernatural entities on the block as well as their capabilities before we see any of them. While that's probably realistic given the situation... it's not exactly tense.

Green's rather tongue-in-cheek setting development continued apace as well, occassionally making the Hawk & Fisher series seem almost like a parody series rather than one to take at face value.

The end result of this rambling, nearly stream-of-conscious approach to book reviewing? I liked Guards of Haven well enough, I suppose, but I didn't love it. In fact, at times, I struggled to be motivated to pick it back up again, although every time that I actually did, I made pretty good progress and found the reading light, breezy and easy. Where I struggled most was with the whole unnecessariness of it all. Green did everything that needed doing with Hawk & Fisher in a lot fewer than six books. This was apparent when the first book in the second omnibus almost recreated the plot of the first novel from the first omnibus. But even with new plots, it still felt like there were one or two novels more than there really needed to be, considering that any setting development was kind of minimal (and incidental to the plots anyway) and character development was shallow and didn't advance at all from novel to novel.

I have a hard time feeling too harshly about these flaws, though, because Hawk & Fisher did so many other things that I liked. It falls a bit into the same category of better b-movies that you kinda like in spite of their flaws; sometimes even because of their flaws, which make them endearing to a certain extent.

Will I go on and read the "prequel" where Hawk and Fisher have their original names still? I doubt it; it's had decidedly mixed reviews online. But, I probably need to read that if I ever intend to go read the non-omnibused seventh Hawk & Fisher book, where Green finally takes them out of Haven, returns them to their roots in the Forest Country, and develops them more than he has in all of the six books I recently read. If anything, it's got even rockier reviews than Blue Moon Rising, but I do kind of crave a sense of closure, so although I've had enough of Hawk & Fisher for the time being, I might yet revisit this last novel at some point.

In the meantime, I'm also going to have to keep Jim Butcher's Side Jobs on the backburner while I have a look at two interlibrary loan books that I have to read before they come up due. The first of these is Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi, a prequel novel of Indy when he's a grad student in 1922, trying to decide if linguistics or archeology is what he wants to do with his life. I'm not necessarily holding out any notions that the book will be great, but I've been kind of jonesing (no pun intended. Well, OK, yeah... I did intend it) for some more of that same vibe ever since reading The Hunt for Atlantis recently, and since Indiana Jones is the prototype, I figured it was better to get it straight from the source rather than from a newer imitator.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pirates 4

Interesting. Looks like its the same writers, which I'm a bit conflicted about. While I like the vibe that they went for, it's clear that with Pirates 2 and 3, the plot got away from them and they were rolling along out of control for most of those two movies, and only with difficulty pulled it into a semi-satisfying conclusion.

Of course, they were smart enough with this next one to not mess with the Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley (or whatever their characters' names were) storyline, which was nice and finished, and went a different direction with quite a few new characters altogether. Anyway, I'm hopeful that without much of the baggage of the earlier movies, they can make something nice and fun with this again.

Stages of Lovecraftiana

While my readings of Lovecraft's work (and I certainly haven't read everything he wrote, although I've read all of the "major" works and many of his "minor" works as well) made it obvious that Lovecraft didn't necessarily write with the same theme all the time. Reading retrospectives of Lovecraft will lead you to believe that Lovecraft's cosmic nihilism was his defining theme, but that was clearly not the case. In his own lifetime, Lovecraft's stories frequently fall into three "camps" or classes, if you will--this Dream-lands fantasy stories, his cosmic horror stories, and his weird science fiction stories. Many later commentators, collectors, publishers (and gamers) blur these distinctions and don't recognize them at all, resulting in the unfortunate mix-up of science fiction elements and black magic occult elements in the same body of work when really they don't belong together very well at all.

In a way, Lovecraft enabled this somewhat, by utilizing a lot of familiar backdrop details. This is the so-called "Cthulhu Mythos." In reality, it wasn't anything like a Mythos at all; it was a bunch of evocative names that Lovecraft recycled frequently, but not in any way consistently--for example, is the dreaded Plateau of Leng in Tibet, Antarctica, or not even on this earth at all? Some have tried to reconcile these three locations via bizarre theories, but really best (and in fact only reasonable) solution is that Lovecraft didn't really care where it was; it was a recycleable element that could be wherever he needed it to be for any given story.

Later Mythos writers--at least some of them--exacerbated this problem by trying to create fixed categories, organization, and logic to the "mythos." August Derleth was the first to try this quixotic attempt, which arguably misses the whole point, and since Derleth was also the co-founder of Arkham House, the publishing arm that kept Lovecraft in print over the years, his view waxed and the point of view of other mythos writers, who gradually moved on to other things, was eclipsed. Lin Carter's additions to the Mythos via the Xothic legend cycle even further bastardized Lovecraft's original intention, creating bizarre familial relationships between Great Old Ones (Hastur and Cthulhu are brothers? What?!)

Sandy Petersen, much as I love the guy, inadvertently didn't help at all either with the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game which attempted to fit various entities that showed up in some of the mythos stories (confusingly, using anything that came along written by nearly anyone that mentioned a Great Old One or used the word blasphemous or eldritch too many times in its text, regardless of how tenuous its connection to actual Lovecraftiana sometimes was) into categories, like servitor races, Great Old Ones (which were opposed to Elder Gods, etc.)

Somewhere in this rush to categorize and systematize was lost the original vision of Lovecraft's Yog-Sothothery; that it was really just a bit of an in-joke to him; a chance to recycle and re-use names that he liked that gave his stories an air and tone that he was trying to cultivate. Not that it's necessarily lost; Stephen King certainly got it when he referred obliquely to the plateau of Leng, rats in the walls, and other bits of esoterica, Neil Gaiman and Mike Mignola certainly know how to play along in the original "Lovecraft circle" way of doing things. But for whatever reason, gamers have tended to do the opposite; to take August Derleth and Lin Carter's direction and magnify it, almost.

Anyway, I'm just thinking Lovecraft lately, and am in the midst of reading (for the first time, actually) his story "The Mound" which was credited to Zealia Bishop, but ghostwritten by Lovecraft himself. This story is odd, because in many ways it uses elements of the Cthulhu mythos in unusual ways that are not always consistent with how they're otherwise presented... which is really my whole point anyway. Mythos elements were never meant to be fixed and categorized.

In any case, the section of my campaign setting called, unremarkably, the Forbidden Lands borrow a lot of names from Lovecraft; but for the most part, I'm only loosely using them as written. For instance, I have a Plateau of Leng, a Lake Hali, a Vale of Pnath, etc. in my setting, but they only vaguely resemble their Lovecraftian prototypes (well, those Lovecraftian prototypes were kinda vague themselves, anyway.) But the names are so evocative, and using them firmly establishes the tone that I'm looking for that I can't resist.

Cthulhu runes

Everyone likes props for their games, right? Especially if they're easy to construct. One tool that I've found very helpful is the font listed above and downloadable here: Cthulhu Runes. The text above actually reads Iä! Iä! Hobo fhtagn! Hobo being a common online nickname of mine. Although the font doesn't include capital letters or punctuation marks, so it literally just reads ia ia hobo fhtagn.

Naturally anything written in this font won't be readable, but it's still a nice decorative element, and it has just the right alien and primeval feel that any game looking to incorporate that "Mythos tone" could make some use out of.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Yog-Sothothery: The Book of the Black Prince

I've said before that one the hallmarks of the "Lovecraft Circle" of writers is that they invented their own Mythos elements for each story; they only referenced each other's works in the background, for the most part. Arguably, any Mythos-inspiring writer, gamemaster or other creative type should do the same for three reasons. First, it's more authentic. That's what each story did; have a new Mythos creation as it's plot device du jour. Secondly, its more creative. Why stick with the same limited subset of tomes, places and monsters or Old Ones? It's nice to see some familiar names out there so you know what you're comparing stuff to--but new works should add to the corpus, not merely re-use it. And third, its more horrible. The old familiar names of Cthulhu and The Necronomicon are, by now, quite familiar, and are like old friends to fans of the Mythos. But, The Book of the Black Prince? What's that? Who's that? I dunno. The mystery is alive again.

So, I've created a new tag, Yog-Sothothery, for posts in which I create my own Mythos elements. The first one will be The Book of the Black Prince, by Heironim Castellata or as it's known in old Terrasan (regional, and possibly incorrect, due to the non-fluency of the writer) Liber Nigeri Principis. Several translations exist to "modern" Terrasan, with slightly differing titles based on the dialect and time period of the translater, including Llibre del Príncip Negre, Il Libro del Principe Nero, and Carte de Prinţul Negru. It's also been translated into Balshatoi: Tsigni Shavi Prints'i, Kurushi: Kitabu cha Mkuu Mweusi and Tarushan: Siyah Prens Kitabi, if you're willing to brave Tarush Noptii to browse a copy.

Castellata was a Terrasan scholar from the Academy at Razina who arranged for an Untash guide and porters up north in the city of Pnakot on the dark shores of Lake Kidin, which at that time was a colonial holding of a powerful Baal Hamazi Empire. With his group he passed through the Lakama Jungle and into the Vale of Pnath, from there with an eye towards exploring and mapping the Forbidden Lands. Seven years later, he stumbled back to the shores of Lake Kidin alone, delirious and permanently broken, clutching to his chest the original of The Book of the Black Prince, written with his own hand, and often using his own blood as ink. He lived for only three months after returning to civilization, before dying under mysterious circumstances, and he had only a few moments of lucidity in those three months. What he described of his journeys in those few moments has never been recorded and the Shazada of Pnakot, the ruler in the name of the Mahe Raja of all Baal Hamazi, ordered everyone (besides himself) who heard Castellata's last words put to death to ensure that they would not survive to plague future generations.

By that point, the Book of the Black Prince itself had been smuggled out of Pnakot (along with expurgated copies of the earlier Pnakotic Manuscript in a fragmentary state; these copies are sometimes referred to as the Pnakotic Fragments because of that.) Copies and translations were circulated amongst occultists, particularly in the South. These were surpressed by the Inquisition, naturally, but some of them survive. Some translations are more "valuable" than others, naturally, but all are dangerous in the right (or wrong) hands.

Original Old Terrasan version: Liber Nigeris Principis: Successfully reading the Liber Nigeris Principis will gain you 1d4+1 ranks in Knowledge (Forbidden Lore) and an equal number of Madness points. It will take 4d6 weeks of near constant study, and the DC to do so is 25. The book contains 4d6 incantations. There are rumored to only have been three copies of this in existance, and the actual original manuscript, in Castellata's own hand, is said to have absorbed more powers still; although it has not been reported seen in over two centuries. How many still exist and where they are is a matter of conjecture to bibliophiles and occultists.

Llibre del Príncip Negre: The first "modern" translation, apparently from the actual original, is now over three hundred years old. It was completed by Dionis Cosme Salavert in Razina at the Academy. Riots accompanied its printing, and many copies were burned in the warehouse, but at least half a dozen are still believed to be in the hands of libraries and collectors from reputable reports. Reading this is easier than the old Terrasan copy, but in making the text more accessible, Salavert inadvertently bastardized some of its content. The DC to study it is 20, and it takes 4d4 weeks of near constant study. You gain 1d4 ranks in Knowledge (Forbidden Lore) and an equal number of madness points. The book contains 4d4 incantations.

Il Libro del Principe Nero: Made by Beneyto Juça from the Llibre, this copy was meant to meet quiet demand. Juça was an opportunist, if not even a con artist, and his quick and dirty copies were published in secret with the intent of being smuggled to collectors as quickly as possible. As such, the modernization of the language was sloppy and often corrupted the original meanings of key passages of text, and large chunks of the text were completely left out. Enough of the original text was preserved, though, that these copies were valuable to those who could get their hands on them. Juça himself never managed to enjoy the fruits of his enterprise, being committed to an asylum even as smugglers and shady black market dealers started bringing in profits from his effort. The text is easier to read, taking 3d4 weeks to study (DC 18) and gives 1d3 ranks in Knowledge (Forbidden Lore) and Madness points. The book contains 2d4 incantations, but at least 50% of them are flawed. Most of these flaws will simply render the incantation impotent, but there is a 10% chance that a flawed incantation will actually have a catastrophic failure. Copies of this version are illegal yet are (relatively) common in occult black markets.

Carte de Prinţul Negru: Mahomat Raffalbes made this copy in the vernacular dialect of the far east. This is sometimes called simply The Eastern Book. The original translation Raffalbes made was from Juça's copy, but suspecting that that copy was flawed, he infiltrated the Academy at Razina and managed to consult Salavert's original copy. To what extent this consultation informed his translation is uncertain, but notable scholars of the book claim it is the best version that is somewhat readily available. However, the regional idiom makes it hard to decipher (DC 25) unless of course you are fluent in that dialect (then it is DC 20). It takes 4d4 weeks of study, grants 1d4 ranks on Knowledge (Forbidden Lore) and contains 3d4 Incantations, with a 5% chance that any given incantation is flawed.

Tsigni Shavi Prints'i and Kitabu cha Mkuu Mweusi: The Balshatoi and Kurushi translations were done by unknown hands, based on Juça's flawed translation, and done even more sloppily than his. In addition, the unknown translator clearly tried to reconcile the concepts in the book to his own beliefs, so many things are changed or expurgated. It is believed that the same translator published both versions of this book, which appeared at more or less the same time and who's text is very similar in content. All of the spells have been removed, but the book still will grant 1d2 ranks in Knowledge (Forbidden Lore) and Madness points after 3d4 weeks of study (DC 18).

Siyah Prens Kitabi: The Tarushan copy is not readily available, and in fact exists in extremely limited supply in the private collections of a handful of Tarushan nobility, which clearly makes their accessibility very limited. Since most scholars do not have access to this version of the book to compare it to the others, very little is known about it. There are apocryphal stories that suggest that Castellata himself did not die mysteriously, but was kidnapped by the vampires of Tarush Noptii from his asylum in Pnakot, converted into one of their foul race, and put to work expanding, correcting, and perfecting the Book of the Black Prince. If this is really true, the Tarushan copies might be the most complete, most foul, and most damning of all the versions, but that story is apocryphal, and few scholars admit publicly to believing it.


It's not really my habit to post links to "random cool stuff" but I'll make an exception in this case, because this is just too cool.

I've always kinda laughed at the notion that driving is displaying "athleticism" and that NASCAR had a place on ESPN, but this video (which is not NASCAR at all, by the way) has to make me give that idea a second look.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Dark•Heritage map

Well, my map draft is done. I need to finish "inking" some of it, paint it, then I need to take a good hi-res picture (probably with my wife's camera; she's got the best in the house.) But, I've taken a few pictures with my son's el cheapo camera, just to try it out (and to figure out how to use his camera.) It is cheap, and poor quality, and the image quality isn't good. But, it works for me as a draft, at least.

I kinda needed the draft; I wanted to make some updates to my wiki, but without the map, I was struggling a bit to actually work on it.

New books to read...

Sigh. So, I got three books at the library. Two of them came via interlibrary loan, so I've got a limited window in which to read them. I guess some of my other reading will have to hurry and finish up and then other things will have to go on hold. I already called my friend Franz who let me borrow Side Jobs and asked him if I could keep it a bit longer.

Anyway, I got Year's Best Science Fiction 18 which has a novelette called The Colder War about Soviets and Americans (and Nazis) using Great Old Ones as Final Solutions. Sounds fun. That same author actually also wrote two novels about the same premise, and if I like this, I'll give those a try (my library has them both.) I've also got an Indiana Jones novel, which I'm getting just for the heck of it to try it out, and then lastly, I got Rusalka, the first in a fantasy trilogy by C. J. Cherryh that's loosely based on Russian folklore.

In the meantime, I still need to finish Guards of Haven, although I'm in the middle of the third (of three) short novels in the omnibus, and Into the Darklands, the RPG book I'm reading. And then, of course, the Dresden Files short story collection that my patient friend is letting me read.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

L'Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani.

The quote above is attributed to Massimo d'Azeglio, an Italian statesman, painter and writer. He was the descendent of a wealthy, and in fact noble, Piedmontese family, and lived to see most of the Italian unification, il Risorgimiento. The quote above translates to, "We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians." It's an interesting idea.

What many people in the US don't really know is that Italy (and Germany too, for that matter) are indeed ancient places with an ancient cultural legacy, but they have more than one ancient cultural legacy, and their history as a unified nation postdates the foundation of our own country. Prior to that, the map of Europe showed the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Lombardy, the Papal States, Venetia, the Grand Duchies of Tuscany, Modena, and Parma, etc. When the Kingdom of Italy finally finished annexing all of the lands that it would have prior to World War I, Italy was indeed made, but many of the people therein had no identity as Italians, they had no particular loyalty to the concept of Italy, and they didn't, in many cases, even speak Italian (even today UNESCO recognizes 31 endangered languages in Italy... and they don't even publish reports on the non-endangered languages.) Starting at this period about twenty five million Italians emigrated, creating a vast diaspora that lasted for almost 100 years and is the largest population migration of modern times. These emigrant populations grew, in many cases, in their home countries; there are almost as many Italians in Brazil and Argentina alone as there are in Italy itself. The United States is another huge destination, and even Australia was an important one.

Looking back at Italy prior to the eve of Unification, you've got even more diversity. The second map shows Italy during the Crusades, and you would barely recognize the states that existed then. Oh, sure, you recognize the cities and other landmarks, but the states themselves are completely different. The Patriarchy of St. Peter, Tuscia, Romagna, the Duchy of Spoleto, Apulia, Calabria, Saracen states, Lombard states, Norman states... it's almost a completely different world.

Of course, this still postdates the fall of the Roman empire. Prior to the rise of Rome, you had other significant "empires" on what would later become Italian soil, Magna Graecia, the Etruscans, Carthaginians and more.

Why am I talking about this? I've noticed a trend in fantasy literature and in gaming, to posit kingdoms and nations that exist essentially unchanged for thousands of years. This is not only highly unrealistic, but it's just plain boring. Even in the unusual situation where a region maintains some cultural uniformity for a long period of time (like China, or Egypt, for example) there isn't political longevity to match. China in particular would have been an interesting study; as probably the longest-lived culture in the world, seeing its geographic growth and gobbling up of neighbors, seeing it's various political boundaries, the various different states that all claimed to be heralds of Chinese culture, and even the various foreign-led dynasties that eventually became so thoroughly "China-fied" that they might as well have been domestic, after a time--it would have demonstrated my point quite well.

Feel free to make the history of your campaign settings, to the extent that you delve into history at all, more dynamic. Staid, long-lived empires that maintain their borders, culture, fashion, and way of life for generation after generation after generation after generation... what's the fun in that, anyway?

Pathfinder RPG Redux

I've already blogged about how I think that the new Pathfinder classes that were debuted as part of the Beta test were the "wrong" choices; they left untapped several more iconic archeypes than an eidolon forming summoner or a drug, potion and poison crafting alchemist, for example. Little did I know at the time that I made that post, but the new classes were only a small part of what the Paizo Advanced Player's Guide was going to introduce. For those curious, almost the entire text of the book if open content, and much of it's already appeared at the Pathfinder SRD site. Or, you can buy the pdf for only $10; at that price, it's--like the other "core" books--probably worth it for the art alone. Not only is there a very nice Wayne Reynolds cover piece (pictured here) but he also did the character studies for the six new iconic characters.

But what I'm talking about specifically are how they expanded the existing classes enormously. I've long said that I don't really like options that are too constricted for class builds. If you can't give me more open, flexible class designs, then give me more base classes, so I can get what I want. While I'm mostly settled on the latter, in theory I'd have preferred to see the former. I just didn't get to as often as I'd have liked.

Paizo's newest designs, however, give us tons of new ways to use the original classes, effectively giving us much more than just the six new base classes. To give you a quick example, the Rogue class now has twelve archetypes that serve as alternate versions of the rogue, each replacing some of the class abilities with new ones. Some of this goes into a ton of new a la carte rogue abilities; there are now sixty-four in all. But some of them don't; trapfinding and trapsense get replaced in a lot of archetypes, for example, since that's a very specific "dungeoneering" type archetype that would have that, and not every conceivable build of a rogue. The uncanny dodge tree also get's replaced in some others. These new archetypes, which might as well be the actual class name of the alt.rogue that they in fact are, include the Acrobat, Burglar, Cutpurse, Investigator, Poisoner, Rake, Scout, Sniper, Spy, Swashbuckler, Thug and Trapsmith.

Heck, I could run (and play in) half a dozen entire campaigns made up of nothing but rogue varieties here. Those variants cover several of the "missing" archetypes that I like, offer credible, and in fact fantastic updates to several of the mid-stage 3.5 classes that I liked best (almost as an afterthought, because they offer so much more as well) and in general do more to convince me that maybe I was mistaken in writing off Pathfinder as a needless change to 3.5. While I'm still not convinced that the updated races were necessary, and while I'd still have to cut a lot of classes out that really just have the wrong feel for my setting, I can actually see myself possibly dropping all of the 3.5 classes and adopting a subset of just Pathfinder classes instead as my preferred houserules.

Not saying that I'm going to do that, just that it certainly looks more and more like a good alternative. Frankly, a lot of those alternate rogue archetypes I listed above could be swapped in with a 3.5 rogue just as well too, and would work quite well, after all.

In fact, I'm reminded of Corey Reid's famous Barsoom Tales (well, they were famous within a niche crowd, at least) where the starting rule in the campaign was that characters could be human, and they could belong to the fighter, rogue or expert class. That was it. With these expanded options, that doesn't even sound restrictive in the least to me anymore.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Demon lord art by WAR

Although I certainly don't feel entitled to it exactly, I miss the days from just a couple of years ago when fairly large, decently hi-res artwork used to be readily available at places like Paizo and Wizards of the Coast. Now, you have to be a paying subscriber at Wizards of the Coast to get most of their art (and you still don't get the Wayne Reynolds covers) and Paizo's really downshifted the rate at which they post their art too. I've got quite a collection of art from those days, and although my acquisition rate has slowed, as new artwork of the kind I like is not quite as readily available as it used to be, I'm still excited to get a nice new piece and add it to my collection, and when I'm running games I like to print off nice color versions of the art and attach it to my GM screen to show the players a glimpse of what they might be seeing.

I've got enough Wayne Reynods (WAR) art that he's got an entire subfolder, and it's nearly as large as the main folder. In many ways, he's become the face of D&D, his covers gracing tons of D&D works over the last decade or so, as well as a lot of interior art. He did all the Paizo adventure path covers for the first two post Dungeon adventure paths, and he still does most of their really major showcase pieces. He's designed and illustrated all of their iconic characters. He did the covers for the new PHB, MM and DMG for 4e. He did covers for most of Green Ronin's Freeport line. And he still does quite a bit of work for card games (for Wizards of the Coast, Sabertooth, and Blizzard, for instance) and more. He's a busy guy. And I like his style. Used to be picking up WAR art was as easy to going to either the WotC site, the Paizo site, or his own site. Now, WotC doesn't have most of it, Paizo only puts up some of it, and his own site is woefully out of date, impoverished compared to the selection he could be showing, and he's downgraded all his gallery images to small, lo-res images where it's often quite difficult to make out the details at all.

In addition to collecting WAR art, I also collect demon-lord art, particularly of Demogorgon and Orcus, my two favorites. I'm not quite sure when or why I started that hobby, but to me, the demons and the demon lords in particular are much more iconic as villains in Dungeons & Dragons even than dragons, despite the title of the game. So, everytime I see a half-way decent version of one of the two of them, I grab it up lickity-split. I've got probably about two dozen versions of each that were good enough for me to keep, and I hope to still stumble across many more.

So, you can imagine my disappointment when two of the better pieces of art, one each of Orcus and Demogorgon, were done by WAR and are not available except in small format, obscured by titles and labels. It's a real tragedy that we can't appreciate these two images as they were meant to be appreciated, in hi-res, big, colorful glory. If I had a copy of either of them (but preferably both), the first thing I'd do is print them out on nice paper, as big as reasonably possible (11" x 17" being a minimum), get them framed and stick them on the wall of the room I play D&D in.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Guide to Korvosa

Just finished Mike McArtor's Guide to Korvosa, which is one of the earlier setting books from Paizo, way back at the start of their second adventure path, several months before the actual campaign setting book itself, for that matter. As such, it has a bit of a "primitive" feel; the Pathfinder Chronicles series developed some standard forms and templates that didn't yet exist here.

Not that that's a bad thing; in fact, in many respects, I quite like that this is a little bit freer in terms of its structure. Korvosa itself is an odd place in RPGiana for a city source book. It's a very strict, law-abiding place, with even a hint of devil-worship, which isn't too surprising seeing that Korvosa is kind of the lost puppy dog trying very hard to get Cheliax to notice it. That doesn't seem like the ideal place for setting an RPG adventure or two, and in fact, perhaps Paizo themselves thought that too, since the first thing that they do in the adventure path Curse of the Crimson Throne is to change the status quo considerably in Korvosa. It certainly does seem like the trademarked Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy™ that I'm used to.

However, as the book developed, I came to appreciate Korvosa as a place where some interesting adventures could happen, though, and I started to see the potential in the place. It's not my usual urban haunt, the more lawless, picaresque type of place. It's more of a "regular" fantasy city with some problems; some of them overt, some of them more subtle, that need to be resolved in order for the place to live happily ever after. The same thing happened in miniature with the "secrets" chapter; at first, I thought to myself, "how is this secret, and who cares?" but as the chapter started developing, some real whoppers came out, including that several key NPCs are actually monsters impersonating people. Yikes.

Korvosa didn't reach out from the pages of this book and demand to be utilized, like some of the other urban products I've read, but it does the job, and I think there's enough here to justify the cost. I think the slow starter feel of the book works against it; it gradually works its way up to being something interesting, but it isn't right from the get-go. In fact, the early first impressions are that the product and location is somewhat forgettable.

One odd thing about the book was the poster map of the city at the back. Rather than being attached with that kind of glue that they typically used, it's actually (apparently) worked into the binding, despite the fact that it's folded over. This means that I can't actually open it all the way, nor can I take it out without risking the binding. I'm tempted to get a razor blade and cut it out, but I haven't felt brave enough to make that attempt either.

I do have the map from the (free) pdf of the player's guide to the adventure path, but it's not quite the same thing, and it's a real pain that I can't take the map out. Coming up next, although I had initially said I needed to read Jim Butcher's Side Jobs and quickly, I still haven't done it, and I've been caught up in the RPG reading lately. In fact, I've turned to the next unread Paizo product I have, Into the Darklands, which describes the Golarion equivalent of the Underdark (I'm guessing Underdark must be D&D specific IP, since they renamed it. I didn't realize that.)

Friday, December 03, 2010

A personal D&D retrospective

For some reason I'm feeling retrospective today; probably because I've been reading and commenting on Grognardia more than is my wont, and probably because in doing so, I've got to see some "behind the scenes" corporate history from Rick Marshall.

My first D&D experience happened sometime between 1977 and early 1981, but I don't know for sure when (I do happen to know, for largely esoteric reasons, that it was between the releases of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back--although probably closer to the later side of that range than the earlier.) The poor guy who wanted to get a very disinterested player (me) interested in this weird talky game that he wanted to run for me, but about which he clearly knew very little, did a poor job, and my experience with what was the original version of OD&D was not a positive or memorable one.

At some point in the next few years after that, I came into possession of The Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album, which was a fascinating book altogether. Not only did it put the stereotypical Gygaxian dungeoncrawl into a semblance of prose (written by Gygax himself) but it included a mini-game in the middle that was my first real introduction to the concept of fantasy roleplaying. In addition, I stumbled across the works of Lloyd Alexander, then J. R. R. Tolkien (although only The Hobbit still at this phase) so I was finally ready to appreciate the potential of D&D when friends of mine started popping up at school with copies of the Moldvay Basic set and it's companion, the Cook Expert set.

Of course, the school year that I discovered this, I didn't actually play. I read the books. I marveled at the art. I conceptualized how I wanted the game to work. And after that school year, I got to play. But by that time, the people I knew who played did it with AD&D, so that's what I played too.

But I didn't particularly like AD&D. It didn't emulate the kinds of books that I liked reading. It was clearly designed and optimized for dungeoncrawling, and I found that paradigm more and more boring the more I looked at it... and I never liked it that much to start with.

So, sometime in the mid-80s or so, before AD&D 2e came out, I left D&D altogether for greener pastures. I kept checking books out here and there, flipping through them at the bookstore and whatnot, but I didn't play it. In fact, I got busy enough with other things that I didn't play anything at all.

Several years later, in the mid-90s, I stumbled across the White Wolf model of roleplaying games, and in my naivete, I thought that's exactly what I wanted RPGs to be. My affair with them was relatively brief, but then again, my exposure to D&D, while prolonged, wasn't really based on tons and tons of actual playtime either. Heck, I almost played more Top Secret or Star Frontiers than I did D&D back in the day. I lost interest in the Storyteller games, but not before picking up tons of Werewolf: The Apocalypse splatbooks and hanging around on the incipient internet on Usenet groups and list-serves devoted to that game. While I now look back at my White Wolf phase and kind of laugh at myself, it did accomplish something of note: it got me very interested in roleplaying again at a time when my interest in it had waned considerably.

At about that same time, I stumbled across a friend's apartment (I think I was picking him up and we were going to go do something, but I can't remember for sure) and saw that he had a copy of TSR's Top Secret S.I. I simulataneously found that another friend was also an old-time roleplayer, with an especial interest in the game Traveller. With me as the glue between us, I got these two guys together, we roped in the first friend's room-mate, and we had the first real roleplaying experience I'd had in quite some time playing spies using a fairly hand-waved interpretation of the Top Secret rules. From that point on, I've listed RPGs as one of my top hobbies continuously.

In 2000, I'd finally finished grad school and was working for real, making some real money, and actually had more free time than I had in the few years prior. Poking around on the internet at RPG discussion venues, such as rpg.net, I discovered that D&D was on the verge of releasing a brand new edition, and that it would be substantially revamped. Despite the fact that the tagline of that era was "Back to the dungeon" I convinced myself that D&D was going to be "modernized" to the extent that I could possibly enjoy it, and that largely ended up being true. Despite the "back to the dungeon" mentality, the designers wisely choose to make 3e an edition that easily supported lots of different playstyles and tastes.

While I still had to struggle for some time to overcome my distaste for lots of lingering "D&Disms", I mostly and eventually embraced this edition, and with the use of some judicious houserules (many of which were published by Wizards of the Coast themselves in the brilliant book Unearthed Arcana) I've made it into what is possibly the "last system" I'll ever play. Maybe.

Of course, that's not quite the whole story. After more or less happily settling into a 3e groove, after just a few years, WotC released 3.5 which I saw as completely unnecessary and a transparent and unwelcome money grab. It turns out that was exactly what it was: Rick Marshall's recent posts at Grognardia, which I linked to earlier, show that nobody at WotC thought releasing that was either necessary or even a good idea, but unexpectedly the management at Hasbro beat WotC into shape in the pursuit of short-term higher profits rather than long-term industry health.

Despite the fact that I was cynically disillusioned and not at all excited about the release of 3.5, I eventually made my peace with it and even came to embrace it. There are a few reasons for this:

1) Backwards compatibility with 3e was very high. If you wanted to, you could (almost) play with intermixed rules with no one being the wiser. As it was, you mostly only had to worry about the skill consolidations when converting, and that was simple and easy to do in your head; everything else could be intermixed.

2) The SRD was (and still is) online for free. To this day, the only 3.5 core book that I bought is the Monster Manual and that's just because I like monsters a lot and that's one book where the improvements were significant enough that I really appreciate them. If I need the udpated class or race rules (I don't think much changed with the races) or updates spell descriptions, I can get it online for free.

3) Although it was a close thing, I think that 3.5 was mostly an improvement on 3e. This was epsecially apparent in the books beyond the core books, though. Comparing, for example, 3e's Sword & Fist splatbook on combat melee classes with 3.5's Complete Warrior is night and day. And Complete Warrior was probably the most primitive of the 3.5 splatbooks; they only got even better from there. The Expanded Psionic's Handbook was light-years better than the original Psionic Handbook; in every regard, the splatbooks got better. And even with the core books, the designer's made an obvious effort to bulk them up with new content and not expect us to be happy to shell out $90 for just a slightly tweaked rule-system.

4) Yeah, 3.5 really started releasing a lot more sourcebooks than 3e had done, but by and large they were pretty good sourcebooks that I've enjoyed having. I thought the monster focus sourcebooks were a great idea, and mostly were well implemented. I thought the environmental focus sourcebooks were a great idea and ... well, somewhat mediocre execution on those, but they're still worth having for the most part. It had the phenomenal toolkit Unearthed Arcana which may be the best D&D book ever released (in spite of its extremely dry text, I get more use out of this book than any other, besides the Player's Handbook of course.) It also had the phenomenal setting search process, which is about the best community and buy-in project I've ever seen in RPGiana. And while many people weren't necessarily thrilled with the new setting that it generated (Eberron) I am. In fact, I think it's one of the best official D&D settings we've had, if not the best.

Of course, the 3.5 lifecycle had it's ups and downs too. After the publication of Player's Handbook II, the game seemed to take on a vibe of escalation. From that point on, stuff had to be better than what preceded it (during the Complete series, they almost went the other direction; I think a lot of the Complete classes needed a bit of a boost to be equivalent to their PHB counterparts, for example.) They got more experimental, and while some ideas were pretty cool and very different from what D&D of any edition had shown us before (like the Binder class, for example, and a lot of the stuff in Monster Manual V) a lot of it was hit or miss and even the good ideas weren't necessarily implemented very well. I actually don't use much of the late stage 3.5 material at all, but I do consider the Complete series to be as "core" to me as the actual core books.

Interestingly enough, the change from 3e to 3.5 was largely paralleled by the development of the Pathfinder RPG. While, arguably, there wasn't any need to make changes at all to the game, Jason Buhlman and the rest of the Paizo crew decided that if they were going to re-release D&D 3.5 under a new title, they might as well put their stamp on it and clean up a lot of what had gone before. It had, at this point, actually been long enough since 3.5 was released that there wasn't nearly as much outrage amongst gamers generally; and in fact, Pathfinder generated a lot of goodwill by being the spiritual successor to 3.5 in an era when outrage was more focused on the impending release of 4e instead. And I think a lot of people were more open to the idea that 3.5 had a few creaky seams that needed to be patched up. And the open playtest, where two different Beta versions of the rules were released for free and Paizo solicited as much feedback as they could on them, really generated a lot of community goodwill too.

But for me personally, I thought the change had the same impact as 3.5. It wasn't necessary. And arguably, Pathfinder has more compatability issues with 3.5 than 3.5 had with 3e. If nothing else, the implicit power levels of the basic classes and races are not the same, meaning that they can't be freely mixed and matched. Other elements mesh together with less drama, and some changes are even quite welcome (further consolidation and rationalization of the skill list, for example) but although I eventually made my peace with 3.5 and embraced the change, I don't see that happening anytime soon with Paizo and Pathfinder. Rather, I've cherry-picked a handful of houserules where I think they did stuff better (skill consolidation and special combat maneuver consilidation, in particular--I also cherry-picked a few rules from the Trailblazer document which, like Pathfinder, was an attempt to patch a few holes in 3.5.)

Why am I rambling on with this retrospective? I dunno. I think it's useful to sometimes examine what you're doing and make sure that the reasons you're doing it haven't become obsolete. I still like D&D. I still like 3.5. I'm still playing it, and probably will be for quite some time (because we're only 1/3 of the way through the Rise of the Runelords adventure path and our play frequency isn't all that great. It may take us nearly to Easter to get 1/2 of the way through. And let's face it; when we're done, we'll probably start another 3.5 campaign anyway.) I still am not interesting in branching out to new systems. I've made my peace with the problems I had with 3.5, and I'm still happy with my solutions.

My personal "State of the Hobby" address concludes that all is well.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Some alternate houserules

While I'm quite fond of my houserule set, which I think neatly facilitates my stated goal of "Dungeons & Dragons rule base, Call of Cthulhu play paradigm," I admit that it's a bit stark, and even I sometimes want to feel just a little bit less limited. So, I've been noodling around with another alternative that still does some of what I want, but maybe not quite so much of it.

This alternative is basically made up of two changes. The first is the elimination of the E6 top hat, which severely limits advancement of characters (in levels) and the second is a relaxation of the rules with regards to what magic is available.

I've been convinced for quite a long time (before I actually played through, actually, although that certainly convinced me for sure) that the d20 system derivative games don't work well at high level. They become more tedious than fun, and the math works out to some wonky results anyway. I also really dislike the obvious disparity between low level characters and high level characters; they don't feel like they should exist in the same setting somehow; heck, they don't even exist in the same genre together. Hence my adoption of E6 to keep the higher levels from ever happening.

I do, however, sometimes feel like E6 is too limiting, and I'd like to think that I could go a few higher levels. The first house rule alternate doesn't limit levels; however, it does slow down the rate at which you achieve them significantly. The new XP chart is available here. For those curious as to how and why I developed it, it's quite simple; I want to really slow down leveling and I want it to be an almost logarithmic type slowdown, i.e., I want it to get much slower the higher up in level you go. So, I took the regular 3e XP table, threw it up in Excel, and added an increasing multiplier (n) at each level in a separate column. For Level 1, the multiplier was 0... you still need 0 XP to be level 1, and that doesn't change. The multiplier n always equals the previous level's n+1. So, for level 2, the n is equal to 1, so you still go from 1st to 2nd level the same as you always did. However, to get to level 3, n=2. Rather than needing 3,000 XP to advance from 2nd to 3rd level, you need 6,000. At 4th level, n=3, so instead of needing 6,000 to advance, you need 18,000. And so on and so forth. As you can see, this means that those first few levels don't change dramatically, but rather quickly there is a very marked slowdown in how high a level you will be at any given experience point level. In fact, the XP that you need to be at 20th level in regular 3e D&D is a little shy of what you need to be at only 8th level under this new chart.

Why do I like this? Because I want to prolong the "sweet spot" of D&D as long as possible, I want to discourage high level play except for those who really want to stick with a campaign for a really long time, and I want to slow down the leveling, especially at high level, enough that I don't feel like it's an incredibly jarring genre shift when characters level on average every third or fourth session.

Realistically speaking, I'll never run a game that gets up to, much less beyond, 10th level with this XP chart. At least, not unless there's some significant changes in my own life, my own tastes, and the gamers that I game with. But psychologically, there's something different about knowing that levels are available and you could possibly get there rather than there just being a glass ceiling fiat. So, I kinda like this. Plus, it rewards those rare types of groups that keep a single campaign running for an extremely long period of time. Our own campaigns have run into a year or two in length before, but our frequency of play is not enough to make that really "count"--and of course, that's what makes the higher levels pragmatically speaking completely unavailable to my group. But still; it's nice knowing that just maybe they're an option, for when we've really exhausted the lower level possibilities for a given campaign and want to very slowly and gradually start evolving into a new genre as the game progresses.

My other big problem with D&D is the ubiquity of magic. That doesn't jive with the kinds of fantasy stories I most like, which have a dark fantasy or at least sword & sorcery vibe to them. Magic is usually scary and unnatural in those types of stories. If you're using it, you're probably paying a price for it with your body and soul. My starker rules for magic include only allowing magic to be learned via incantations, i.e., you learn one spell at a time, have to undergo a complicated ritual to actually cast the spell (so it's not really "combat magic"), and have to deal with the consequences of it, which could include ability damage, or other unpleasantness.

While I quite like these limitations, I can see how they might be a bit much for some players, so here's a more open option. If you want to learn to cast spells, you can use the rules for the d20 Modern Advanced classes, the Mage and the Acolyte.

Advanced classes are much like prestige classes in that you can't take them at first level, and they are only 10 levels in total. The prerequisites tend to be fairly low, though, so you can enter them at third level if you've targeted them as something you want to do. The prereqs are modified slightly to be that you must have three ranks of the skill Knowledge (Arcana) (taken cross class) before you can enter the Mage class, and you must have three ranks of the skill Knowledge (religion) before you can enter the Acolyte class. Other than that, the only changes you need to make are to look over the skill list and consolidate to the Pathfinder skill list that I'm using; there will be a few class skills that are now obsolete.

You can find the Mage and Acolyte here, at the Wizards of the Coast Modern SRD site. Pick the link that says Advanced Classes II and it'll give you an rtf version of those two classes, plus the some psionics classes and the slightly lower magic Occultist option (which I almost used, but I figured that if I'm going to make an alternate, I should open it up just a bit more.)

Comparing the Mage in particular to the Wizard or Sorcerer from D&D, you'll see that it comes with a faster progression of class abilities and a higher hit die. However, given the scarcity of magic in the Dark•Heritage setting and the lateness with which these characters can access it compared to D&D, I don't think it's at all unbalanced. I'm not thrilled with the fact that the Acolyte can turn undead, but since at best it's like taking a cleric level at 4th level and then going on from there, the Acolyte will never be as good as it as a full D&D cleric, and in fact, it most likely won't be worth doing very often, depending on the CR of the foes that the characters are up against. I might yet swap that out with some other ability instead, though, because I still don't like the idea of turning or rebuking in the first place. Nor do I like the concept of positive and negative energy. Metaphysically, I just can't make that make any sense whatsoever.

Incantations do still exist, so you can have access to higher level spells than those classes will ever give you, and you don't need to take either of these classes to "dabble" in magic.