Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dominion

Earlier this holiday, I finished David Chandler's A Thief in the Night.  Although the final book of the Ancient Blades trilogy, Honor Among Thieves came in to me from the library, quite frankly, by the time I managed to finish book 2, I was done with the trilogy.  I might possibly return to it and finish the last volume at some point, but I doubt it.  Frankly, I just wasn't enjoying the series.  The second book had many of the flaws of the first--wooden and unlikable characters who seemed more like caricatures than characters, a weak plot supported by dubious coincidences, a ham-fisted wink and nudge towards some genre conventions, appalling attempts at comedy by using gratuitous crudity and coarseness and even more ham-fisted attempts to cram crude social metaphors into the text as well.  And to make it all worse, the setting for most of the book is a gigantic dungeon, complete with nonsensical traps, a suspicious "ecosystem" and it was--frankly--a boring setting.  It's not for nothing that it was dedicated to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, I suppose.

In any case, I enjoyed the book very little and decided to abandon the series, and return--at least for the time being--to my read-through of my newly purchased copies of the Dresden Files series.

Also, I've spent some time over the holidays playing Dominion.  We already had Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue and for Christmas this year, I also landed a copy of Dominion: Prosperity.  These are games that I think any "gamers", i.e. folks who play RPGs might like, and they've also taken the self-labeled "sophisticated" gamer crowd by storm as well, catering to folks who like the German board games and whatnot.  Dominion is itself not a boardgame, and it has frequently been compared to a CCG like Magic: The Gathering in the sense that you build a deck.  Of course, you don't buy random packs of cards; you buy the big boxed set(s) and build your decks with the cards contained therein, but the concept is still somewhat similar.  There are--basically--three kinds of cards (with two sub-kinds, if you will, included as well: action cards (including reaction and attack cards) that you play first in your round, each of which has a small and simple rule subsystem that comes into play when it is played, treasure cards which you use in the next phase of your turn to buy more cards, and victory cards which you don't use for anything and which don't do anything, but which the acquisition thereof is the entire point of the game, since they're the only ones who count towards your score when you're tallying up to see who won.

The remainder of this post will assume a passing familiarity with the Dominion rules--I'm basically going to give a quick and dirty run-down of all the cards available in each of the three sets I contain, which can be freely mixed and matched in any given game (in fact, the possibility of doing so is one of the main things that gives the game such longevity; the strategies for winning with one suite of cards may not work well with another, and the amount of permutations are, for all practical purposes, limitless.  To add to that, although the rules say that only ten kingdom cards are to be used in a game, I've played before with twelve or even more, and found that it works quite well (although the games go on a bit longer that way) so an even more varied experience can still be had.

Dominion


The original game has the most pragmatic and--dare I say it?--simplistic set of cards, but many of them are necessary to actually  play the game, and most of the rest are sufficiently useful that they are always welcome.  There are three times of treasure cards, copper, silver and gold, with increasing purchasing power.  There are five types of victory cards--three are straightforward--estates, duchies and provinces give you a set number of victory points.  Curse cards are negative victory point cards, and are used rarely, while the Gardens card is a relatively cheap card that gives you one victory point for every ten cards you have in your hand at the end of the game.  The Garden is quite a good card; I've found the normally I end in the 40s and occasionally in the 50s (although rarely in the 30s)--in the 40s, it's a bargain on victory points at four each card, in the 50s, where it's worth five, it would almost be too good.  Of course, it's hard to predict if you'll be able to get into the 50s (it happens for me rarely in a game of either three or four players) and the risk that you'll somehow end up in the high 30s and find that your Gardens were a relatively poor investment is always present.

All that said, I've found that some kingdom cards are always welcome, while others linger without being bought when we play.  Most of the trashing cards get very little play, unless there is a Witch in the deck, and frankly, the Witch isn't all that popular either (curiously, since I think it's a great card--relatively low price, good basic benefit (draw 2 cards) and giving everyone else a Curse card is nice.)  The trashing cards include Remodel, Feast, and Moneylender.  The Mine, on the other hand, is the exception, since you can only trash money cards, and you always get a better money card when you do.  The Cellar, Festival, Village, Library, Council Room, Market, Smithy, Laboratory and Woodcutter are all great cards, and actually, having several of them in your deck so that you have good chances of "mondo" turns where you keep playing actions and drawing cards, which include actions that you can play and more cards that you can draw, etc. is part of the fun of the basic Dominion cardset.

Many of the Attack cards are also sturdy, dependable and always fairly welcome.  The Bureaucrat has one of the best benefits to the player who plays it (and least onerous to everyone else) but the Militia, Spy and Thief all have their place.  Only the Thief is especially unpopular when played--for obvious reasons.  The Throne Room, which doubles any action card, is a fun addition.  The Workshop, which gives you a modest "free" card every time you play it is great for a while, although in end game, it becomes pretty superfluous.  And the Adventurer is great when you really want to get at your money further down in the deck.  And finally, the Moat is the best defense card in the three sets that I have, as well as the most useful all-round, and a fairly useful card to use even when you aren't defending and happen to have it in your hand.  The Chancellor is the only card that I really can't see the point in at all.  It, along with Remodel and Moneylender never get picked up in my  home games, and like I said, the Chapel only is useful when Curses are in play.

Dominion: Intrigue


Although playable as a standalone alternative to Dominion, I'm not sure that I recommend it exactly--Intrigue  replaces many of the sturdy, dependable cards of the original game with cards that have if/then statements on them, are more complicated to use, and often are less dependable--they can be good, but they can also be worthless time after time going through your hand.

Even at the basic level, the game is a bit different; rather than Gardens, they have Dukes, which are worth 1 victory point for every duchy that you have in your hand.  There are also three types of victory cards that are also either treasure or action cards--Harems, Great Hall and Nobles.  All of them are a bit pricey, but tend to be popular in our games, since they're useful during the scoring and also have a decent utility in play as they come up.

The Secret Chamber, in addition to sporting artwork that is an obvious homage to Harry Potter, is a lesser defense card, inferior in every way to the Moat, yet a bit more interesting in how it works.  There are a number of attack options in Intrigue (as the subtitle perhaps hints at) including the Minion, who can cause everyone to have to discard their entire hand and draw a new one, the Saboteur who can cause other players to trash a card and pick up an inferior one (an altogether nasty option), the Swindler, who can ruin your well-crafted deck by changing cards out from under you to others that are nominally worth the same, but perhaps not really what you're looking for, and the Torturer, who gives Curse cards.  There's another group of cards that allow you to voluntarily trash cards--never a very popular option unless Curse cards are flying about thick and heavy (which doesn't describe any of our games) and which mostly just become dead weight in your decks, including Masquerade, Trading Post and Upgrade, and the Steward and the Mining Village also give you that as an option that is rarely exercised.  I've also found that the Scout and the Wishing Well get very little play, and when they do, offer very little benefit.  The Courtyard's benefits also are somewhat dubious--they often don't amount to as much as you might imagine when you're stacking your deck with them.

On the other hand, the Baron, the Bridge, the Conspirator, Coppersmith, the Ironworks, the super-cheap Pawn, the Shanty Town and the Tribute cards are all quite good.  Some of them, frankly, may be a bit too good; there are cards that offer similar benefits at a more expensive price in the basic set on occasion.  The others are more solid and dependable.

One side effect of the way Intrigue is set up, though, is that I've noticed that the more unpopular cards, and those deemed to be more useless, are not often picked as options in our games.  For all intents and purposes, the Intrigue card set is more limited than the basic one, because there are more cards that we're not interested in.  Unless I mix my Intrigue kingdom cards with some other set, I really have fewer viable ones to choose from.  These means that "pure" Intrigue games tend to have less variety and play more alike.

Dominion: Prosperity


I'm not quite sure why Prosperity doesn't come with the cards to make it a "full" game, but for whatever reason, it's missing the basic money and victory cards.  It does, however, add newer "big money" versions of both; the platinum piece which is quite a bit better than the Gold, and the Colony, which is worth more than the Province at the end of the game.  The other notable addition is the ability to get victory points as small metal tokens that sit on a mat in front of you and don't therefore have to cycle through your hand.  This little off-line trade in victory points is a somewhat distracting side game, but then again, my wife swears by it, and she tends to win often by picking only a handful of cards and going big into them rather than having a broad base.

There are a number of other Treasure cards that have special conditions associated with them--Contraband can be used to buy things, but the person to your left excludes one card from you and makes it off limits.  Despite this limitation, it still is a fairly good deal anytime.  The Bank, Hoard, Quarry and Talisman are also great deals--the Hoard in particular is probably too good a deal; the card should cost more and should probably only give you a silver card, not a gold card, whenever  you purchase a victory point card.  The Royal Seal and the Venture cards, on the other hand, are somewhat less useful, and the Loan card is downright silly--I can't imagine ever being tempted to buy that card when anything else is available.

The Counting House, Mint and the City seem like especially weak action cards, and the Peddler is somewhat as well (although you can end up getting it for a steal if you're smart, which makes it at least not overpriced).  I've found the Vault very useful in games with Hoard, because you end up with a lot of useless green cards in your hand that you wish you could do something useful with.  Expand and Forge are fairly expensive and unpopular options in our games.  The Monument and the Bishop, for the victory point tokens, are very popular on the other hand.  The Goons card is way too good unless the Moat is in play, and I hate feeling like it's ruining all my turns when someone has quite a few of them and they get frequent play.  The Watchtower is a decent defense against attacks that deal Curses, but is completely useless otherwise--notably, against Goons.  The Mountebank and the Rabble attack cards are fairly low-key, not onerous, but sufficiently beneficial to the person playing the card to make them worthwhile nonetheless.  Only Intrigue has the really "mean" attack cards that get people frustrated with the game and the lack of good defenses other than the Moat.

The Grand Market and the Worker's Village are good, all-round cards, similar to other cards in the other sets that give you a few extras with little in the way of complication, and the King's Court is kind of like an expanded version of the Throne Room.  The Trade Route is another kind of needlessly complicated offline operation that tends to distract a bit from the game.  The jury is still out in our group as to whether or not it's a good thing.

We don't play this often enough to justify running out and buying Seaside and Alchemy anytime soon, but I do hope to eventually get them as well, just to keep things fresh in the world of what's available with Dominion.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ethnicity in Dark•Heritage, part 3

After a long delay, here's the next part of my DARK•HERITAGE ethnicity series:

• The balshatoi, or Northshoremen, are an ancient ethnic group who live, as their name suggests, mostly on the north shore of the Mezzovian sea.  They are politically subordinate to the terrasans in the empire, but many of them have been highly integrated into the fabric of society, and for the most part, the northern cities--Segrià, Iclezza, and Razina--and all the lands around them, are high in people who claim balshatoi blood.  In the hinterlands, smaller villages, and backcountry, these people live much as their ancestors many generations ago--farmers and villagers with their own customs and their own languages, owing only nominal allegiance to any of the Dukes or Kings of the area--but in the cities and surrounding areas, they are fairly thoroughly "terrasanized."  The balshatoi language is somewhat endangered; few speak it in urban locales except the elderly, and culture, music, cuisine, architecture and fashion are all more recent local developments that are more based on trends from the south than they are backwards looking into their own heritage.  Although the culture of the north shore can be considered a hybrid of sorts between ancient balshatoi and terrasan mores, it's one that owed more to the south than the locals--this is the so-called nordero culture, described in the first part of this series.

Ancient balshatoi building styles
That said, as Terrasa weakens, a nationalist and separatist sentiment has been growing amongst the northern cities.  The norderos--the hybrid northerners--more and more emphasize their links to ancient balshatoi kingdoms and peoples, like Rozovķa, Ryazan, Vuronezh, Pjarmia, and Pezhek.  There have been (some merely half-hearted) efforts to revive the use of the ancient balshatoi language in its many dialects, and architecture based on ancient Rozovķan  or Pezhekan designs are popular (and of course, some older buildings from the Rozovķan or Pezhekan periods still stand.

But mostly, the balshatoi people who remain in their rural fastnesses are somewhat skeptical of the intention of these norderos to embrace them as long-lost brothers, and are even more skeptical of getting caught up in talk of potential wars of seccession or revolution.  The balshatoi life-style today is somewhat free, and many balshatoi men--and even entire families, clans and tribes--wander the wildernesses north of the seashore trading in furs, lumber, game and other commodities.  Their settled kingdoms of the past are often referred to as a weakness and a mistake.  The modern balshatoi has a reputation as a mountain man, plains-rider, and somewhat of a barbarian, albeit one painted in sympathetic "noble savage" undertones.  The reality is that life for most balshatoi wanderers is somewhat harsh, and many of them are little more than mercenaries and outlaws.  Indeed, many of the bandit groups that have cut off Calça from the empire are primarily balshatoi in  make-up, leavened with tribesmen from even further north and other southerners.  In fact, balshatoi as an ethnicity is somewhat dubious--it's more a lifestyle than a genetic heritage in many ways, since it's always been a semi-permeable society that accepted people of any heritage who did not fit into the urban lifestyle of the south, were willing to move into the wilderness, and proved to their collegues that they had something worthwhile to offer to society.  Women in particular have long been multiethnic, many of them captured in slave-raids, but then turned into wives and mothers for the newer generations.

Modern balshatoi camp on the prairie
Most balshatoi have a deeply tanned skin from their time outside, but are naturally fair, and occasionally freckled.  Hair colors range from dark brown to blond and even red, and eye color is brown, green, blue or gray.  They often sport exotically and barbarically shaved patterns in their hair, sporting topknots or simply bald heads, and men often wear big, bushy moustaches.  Balshatoi value their livestock, and the keeping of horses particularly is a notable affectation (as it is to the plains-dwellers further north as well) and one of the most insulting things you can do to a balshatoi is to bring harm to his horse.

• Before the spread of the tolosan ethnicity and their various subsets, the north shore of the Mezzovian Sea was largely populated by balshatoi kingdoms and their peoples.  But they were not indigenous either, although their origins and where they came from are now lost in a maze of legends and half-truths.  One thing that is known for sure is others were here before them, because one such kingdom remains, an island of a largely unmixed ethnicity--insular, xenophobic, and of dark report and reputation amongst the others.  This kingdom, now shrunk from its past glories, at least somewhat, still stands strong and impenetrable eastward of the Razine peninsula, with port cities like Mnar and Mzagi but otherwise surrounded by dark and haunted forests.  It's name is Tarush Noptii, and the ethnicity that populates it are the tarushans.  Dark and sullen, tending towards gracility and shortness, the tarushans speak a language completely unlike any other in the region, and their manner of dress, their cuisine, and their customs and traditions strike the rest of the Mezzovian sea region as exotic and strange, and frankly, often somewhat disturbing or vulgar.  Few peoples of any other ethnicity have traveled in Tarush Noptii, or visited any part of it save the port cities, so the interior of Tarush Noptii is a vast unknown, and few others have any cause or opportunity to interact with tarushans either. 

Tarushan "gypsy" in the woods near Iclezza
The main exception to this is are the refugees who live in small enclaves throughout the region, or who travel Gypsy-like across the landscape.  Speaking in hushed tones about fleeing the darkness of their homeland, these refugee tarushans are even more sullen and close-mouthed than the ones in Mzagi or Mnar, and are infamous for their superstition and fear of witchcraft (which ironically, they are very often suspected of dabbling in.)  It's no secret that Tarush Noptii is ruled openly by a vampiric aristocracy, and groups of tarushans are frequently suspected of being the traveling companions of a vampire in disguise.  They're also frequently suspected of belonging to ghoul cults--grabbing the poor and unmissed from the societies amongst which they live or pass through, and feasting on their flesh in grisly rituals meant to give them the power of their rulers.  Mostly, of course, this is complete nonsense, but it has been true frequently enough that they are rarely welcomed in groups, and frequently tarushans live alone or travel frequently to avoid entanglements with suspicious strangers.

• Northlanders are a group of people that are still mostly unknown to the Mezzovian area, but they live on the outskirts of it, north of the stranzero lands, and in recent years, a few of them have started filtering into the lands of the Three Empires (referring to the lands around the Mezzovian Sea and nearby--where the dominant political groups are still Terrasans, Qizmiri and the remnants of Baal Hamazi.)  In truth, there's a vast population of these poor souls, living as far south as the whispered Cannibal Isle, amongst the Green Mountains and the shores of Tarqan Lake and Lake Hali, and on the plateau of Leng, in the Qashan jungle, and their benighted cities of Alar and Carcosa and possibly even Kadath itself.  It's unclear the extent of their lands, what their political and cultural groupings are amongst themselves, or what their culture and goals are--too few of them come to the land of the Three Empires to get a read on them, although it is certainly possible--maybe even probable--that their own polities are as powerful as any near the Mezzovian Sea.

The few individuals who come out of their Forbidden Lands seem to almost exclusively be cultists on missions of some kind--either sorcerers looking to spawn cult cells outside of their native lands, or divine assassins, pursuing mysterious agendas, but often offering their services to bidders.  While northlanders are not often recognized for what they are, even when they do appear, the reputation of Cannibal Isle, at least, as well as Carcosa, Kadath and other cities in the Forbidden Lands, is a well-known byword for horror and fear; a literal Hell on earth.

Northlanders are physically very distinctive, though.  With pale, almost white eyes, chalky whitish skin that does not tan or burn, a tendency for extreme face piercings and black tattoos, frequent baldness and white hair (although coal-black hair is also common), they look like no other ethnicity in the area, and their original provenance is completely mysterious.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Points of Light

From a Rich Baker article on the Wizards of the Coast website, describing the implicit setting assumptions for D&D 4e:
The Dungeons & Dragons game assumes many things about its setting: The world is populated by a variety of intelligent races, strange monsters lurk on other planes, ancient empires have left ruins across the face of the world, and so on. But one of the new key conceits about the D&D world is simply this: Civilized folk live in small, isolated points of light scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world.
Most of the world is monster-haunted wilderness. The centers of civilization are few and far between, and the world isn’t carved up between nation-states that jealously enforce their borders. A few difficult and dangerous roads tenuously link neighboring cities together, but if you stray from them you quickly find yourself immersed in goblin-infested forests, haunted barrowfields, desolate hills and marshes, and monster-hunted badlands. Anything could be waiting down that old overgrown dwarf-built road: a den of ogre marauders, a forgotten tower where a lamia awaits careless travelers, a troll’s cave, a lonely human village under the sway of a demonic cult, or a black wood where shadows and ghosts thirst for the blood of the living.

Given the perilous nature of the world around the small islands of civilization, many adventures revolve around venturing into the wild lands. For example:
• Roads are often closed by bandits, marauders such as goblins or gnolls, or hungry monsters such as griffons or dragons. The simple mission of driving off whomever or whatever is preying on unfortunate travelers is how many young heroes begin their careers.

• Since towns and villages do not stay in close contact, it’s easy for all sorts of evils to befall a settlement without anyone noticing for a long time. A village might be terrorized by a pack of werewolves or enslaved by an evil wizard, and no one else would know until adventurers stumbled into the situation.

• Many small settlements and strongholds are founded, flourish for a time, and then fall into darkness. The wild lands are filled with forgotten towers, abandoned towns, haunted castles, and ruined temples. Even people living only a few miles away from such places might know them only by rumor and legend.

The common folk of the world look upon the wild lands with dread. Few people are widely traveled—even the most ambitious merchant is careful to stick to better-known roads. The lands between towns or homesteads are wide and empty. It might be safe enough within a day’s ride of a city or an hour’s walk of a village, but go beyond that and you are taking your life into your hands. People are scared of what might be waiting in the old forest or beyond the barren hills at the far end of the valley, because whatever is out there is most likely hungry and hostile. Striking off into untraveled lands is something only heroes and adventurers do.

Another implication of this basic conceit of the world is that there is very little in the way of authority to deal with raiders and marauders, outbreaks of demon worship, rampaging monsters, deadly hauntings, or similar local problems. Settlements afflicted by troubles can only hope for a band of heroes to arrive and set things right. If there is a kingdom beyond the town’s walls, it’s still largely covered by unexplored forest and desolate hills where evil folk gather. The king’s soldiers might do a passable job of keeping the lands within a few miles of his castle free of monsters and bandits, but most of the realm’s outlying towns and villages are on their own.

In such a world, adventurers are aberrant. Commoners view them as brave at best, and insane at worst. But such a world is rife with the possibility for adventure, and no true hero will ever lack for a villain to vanquish or a quest to pursue.
How does the DARK•HERITAGE setting coincide, and how does it differ from this point of view?  First off, that's largely true of my setting.  The Terrasan Empire, the main force of civilization in the lands of the Mezzovian Main and surrounding areas, is a decrepit, rotted, and ineffective excuse for an empire, and honestly, calling themselves an "Empire" was perhaps more grandiose wishful thinking rather than accurate labeling in the first place.  Overland travel is increasingly dangerous, and increasingly avoided, hence the "loss" of entire provinces like Calça or Baix Pallars.  The major city-states that are the core of the empire, on the other hand, are connected only by sea.

Even that route is plagued with problems, though.  While the Mezzovian isn't known for its tempestuous nature, making it an ideal road for travel, sudden storms aren't unknown either.  More importantly, the shipping and travel lanes are more and more plagued by pirates, corsairs and raiders, and Terrasa's navy is completely unable to rise to the challenge of detering them.

Strange kingdoms, races, tribes and peoples have lived in the area.  Although the terrasans and their allied peoples are ascendent (if only just) still, they are the last in a long litany of former inhabitants.  Many of the inhabitants are, in fact, mysterious.  The most recent kingdoms, particularly the so-called balshatoi kingdoms of the North Coast are reasonably well known, and descendents of those proud ancient peoples still live throughout the area.  But before them, only the vaguest rumors, legends, ghost-stories and crumbling, mouldering ruins of often mysterious purpose still linger.

Where DARK•HERITAGE most notably differs from the D&D assumptions, as spelled out by Baker above, are in two major areas.  First, in my setting, there is no assumption that the protagonists will be heroes.  In fact, given my recent (although years long now) infatuation with darker, grimmer, "fantasy noir" tropes and conventions, it's a pretty good bet that my protagonists aren't heroes at all.  At best they're anti-heroes, although they could frequently be likeable rascals and scoundrels or even complete and utter villains entirely.  The the second way in which it differs dramatically is the incidence of monsters.  In this older post of mine from about 13 months or so ago, I mentioned my preference for tropes and characteristics of supernatural horror over that of high fantasy.  What that mostly means is that monsters are never disposible; they remain monstrous by being rare and frightening, never routine or commonplace.  That requires a more careful touch; Baker can cheerily populate his wilds with all kinds of crazy monsters.  That's what the high fantasy genre (which more and more D&D starts to resemble, despite it's sword & sorcery roots) calls for.  However, my game has slightly different genre requirements.

Den of Thieves

Just a few days ago, I finished David Chandler's Den of Thieves and I've already embarked on a read through of the sequel, A Thief in the Night since I had it from the library.  Together with the just released (or just about to be released; I haven't been paying close attention) with Honor Among Thieves, this makes up the Ancient Blades trilogy, a very old-fashioned style fantasy story (so far.)  The dedication on Den mentions Leiber, Howard and Moorcock, and the dedication on Thief is to G.G. and D.A. in the outer planes; clearly a somewhat coy reference to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson of "we created D&D" fame.  That should also give you some indication of what kind of story it is.

The books' publisher, HarperCollins, on the other hand, would have you believe that it's in the tradition of the new darker, grimmer epic fantasy; they refer pointedly to Brent Weeks, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and even make a wild claim that Chandler might have toppled George R. R. Martin from his throne as superlative grim and gritty new fantasy writing.  He was also compared to R. A. Salvatore and Raymond Feist; in my opinion, those are more reasonable (and accurate) comparisons.

In Den of Thieves, the setting is basically a single city, the Free City of Ness, where no man is a serf or villein.  The setting is very Medieval in some ways--rather than merely being "generically" Medieval like a lot of fantasy, this one referred specifically a lot of Medieval institutions and practices, much moreso than most fantasy that I've read (it did use the word villein, after all, as one example.)  That said, it's hardly meant to be a work of thinly veiled historical fiction; the main character, Malden, is a thief with a fairly modern attitude, who finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue and sorcery somewhat by accident.  The main action of the book is two "dungeoncrawls" where he raids two separate facilities to steal the same crown.  Both have a very D&D dungeoncrawl feel to them, including magical traps, demons to overcome and more.

In fact, in all ways, I had a funny feeling that this was the kind of book Gary Gygax himself would have enjoyed, and would have seen as iconically D&D (especially keeping in mind that Gygax also liked to use more authentic Medievalisms than is popular in the game--or the fantasy genre overall--today.)

I found it a little bit less satisfying.  Much less so than, say, Douglas Hulick's recently released novel, which had a similar title and somewhat similar premise.  There were three "main" characters, Malden the thief, Sir Croy, a painfully naive knight, and Cythera, the cursed witch with whom both of those two fall in love (but who cannot touch either of them, and who is enslaved to the main antagonist, sorcerer Hazoth.)  A few minor characters round out the call sheet; Cutbill, the head of the organized crime outfit that employs Malden, the Burgrave, the leader of the Free City, Bikker, the mentor and trainer of Sir Croy, who has turned cynical and mercenary, Slag the dwarf, who makes all of Malden's fancy thief tools, and Kemper, the cursed card shark who assists Malden in his second, more dangerous, heist.

For the most part, I found all of those characters flat and unengaging--more like wooden caricatures than real characters.  This was a major turn-off, as a character like Malden really needs to be somewhat charming and likeable to work.  Sir Croy, in some ways, was the more engaging character, until during the last act of the book, he became frustrating and annoying, and seemed like a tool whereby Chandler could deliver the ham-handed message that honor and idealism is for suckers.

Although the book is reasonably well paced and the action scenes are described beautifully, I also thought the plot and motivations were pretty weak and unconvincing.  More than once, I found myself scratching my head (not literally) and wondering exactly why something had happened, only to decide that it happened because it had to happen to advance the plot, and for no other reason.  Needless to say, that kind of thing takes you out of the book's "reality" when you're reading, and breaks the fourth wall on accident; never a good thing.  One good--and interesting--bit of world building that Chandler did was the concept of the Ancient Blades, which the series is named after.  A number of magical (albeit ugly and utilitarian rather than fancy and Excalibur-like) magical swords, which are the only ways in which demons may be harmed, make up the backstory of Croy and Bikker.  Curiously, this first book doesn't advance that very far, leaves no real open ends to tie up, and leaves little indication that it's part of a trilogy of any kind; it's a very self-contained book, and the series title would seem to be not very apt based on just this book alone.

I think a lot of D&D players will like this book.  It has a very D&Dish feel; maybe even moreso, in some ways, than the official D&D novels.  However, it seems to have some of the same weaknesses that a lot of D&D fiction does; it feels too much like a D&D game and less like a novel in which organic events happen to real-seeming characters.  I'm glad I convinced my library to spring for this series for me; I would have been disappointed if I'd bought these books myself.

Meanwhile, I'm halfway through the sequel already, A Thief In the Night, which looks like it will have much of the same flaws and strengths.  Curiously, I'm still waiting for this to feel like a trilogy and not just unconnected adventures which happen to feature (some of) the same characters.  We'll see how it goes as I advance through the series; the third one is "On Order" via the library, and I'll get it as soon as they have it available and processed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gaming update

My own recent attempt to run a game of DARK•HERITAGE fell victim to time constraints, and I had to bow out and not run anymore, after kicking off a few initially successful sessions, and then devolving into mediocre sessions where I "punted" and just ran the characters through lame quick and dirty Dungeon module adaptations.  After that, we fell back into our Rise of the Runelords game.  We're about halfway thorugh that, having finished three (of six) modules, I believe.  However, we've been plagued by poor scheduling, and the "bombshell" revelation of a few days ago--the GM is feeling burnt out, feeling like other priorities in his life are suffering as a result of his dedication to always being there and always having to prepare, and--in a nutshell--he's pulling the plug on the campaign.

It looks like now that a long-anticipated (by much of the group, anyway) Star Wars game run by one of the other guys that I've never played under is our current direction.  We'll see how that goes.  Personally, I'm a bit leery of the notion of playing in a pre-written game--and when he makes comments like "rewriting the NPC monologues" and stuff like that, I further cringe, as those are usually danger signs of a major railroad and possibly oh-so-precious game by a would-be novelist. 

But that's speaking in the abstract.  As I said, I've never played under this guy, and he's been a good enough player and good enough friend that I'm certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and try his game out before writing it off as incompatible with my preferred style.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Hiking and Sightseeing 2

OK, here's my revised itinerary.  This includes a drastically reduced stay at Colorado National Monument, including eliminating most of the more serious backcountry hikes, but adds a nearly full exploration of the hiking potential of Arches National Park and Natual Bridges National Monument.  It also presents a more even mix of staying in el cheapo hotels along the way and camping, plus eating fast food on the way vs. cooking myself or packing in lunches when possible.  Part of my "sales strategy" for this trip is that it'll be cheap, after all.

Day 1: Drive from Metro Detroit area to Lexington, NE (15 hours).  Let my oldest son get in some practice on the freeway while I'm at it, although he should be (barely) officially licensed and good to go by then.

Day 2: Drive from Lexington to Scott's Bluff National Monument (about four hours) then stick around for about three hours there stretching our legs, and seeing the visitor's center briefly and what hiking there is to do.  The hiking isn't much... there's a mile and a half hike to the top of the bluff (and then a mile and a half back--but you can take a shuttle.  I'm thinking shuttle up and hike down makes sense).  Hit the road again and drive the remaining seven and a half hours to Grand Junction, CO, probably arriving a bit late.

Day 3: Sleep in, go to church in the morning, then go to the monument, sign in for a campsite and set up tent.  Do the Rimrock drive, plus four ½ hour hikes that have trailheads either at the visitor's center, the campground, or along the road, including the Window Rock Trail, the Canyon Rim Trail, the Alcove Nature Trail, and Otto's Trail.

Day 4: Sleep in a bit, and spend the entire day doing slightly more ambitious hikes, including the Coke Ovens Trail, the Devil's Kitchen Trail and the Liberty Cap Trail.

Day 5: Get up early, take down tent and drive two and a half hours across the state line to Arches National Park.  Again, go register for camping (reservations to have been made in advance); I'll spend two nights in this campground, cooking on the camp stove and eating pre-packed lunches.  There are a number of very short hikes (about half an hour or so) that are off the main drive at Arches; the plan is to do all of them (if possible) this first day, although there should be enough time in the later two days to catch one or two if they get missed.  These include Balanced Rock, Broken Arch, Courthouse Wash Rock Art Panel, the Delicate Arch Viewpoint, Double Arch, Sand Dune Arch and Skyline Arch.

Day 6: Some of the moderate length hikes within Arches, including the Park Avenue hike, Landscape Arch, The Windows Hike, Tower Arch, and Delicate Arch (the real hike, not the Viewpoint hike, which we'll do the day before.)

Day 7: Pack up the tent nice and early, and do two longer hikes, the Devil's Garden Primitive Loop, and Double O Arch.  Also, the guided Fiery Furnace hike, which can only be done with a ranger, I believe.  Spend the night in a hotel in Moab, taking showers and maybe picking up some fast food.

Day 8: Morning drive to Natural Bridges National Monument--three hours away--get campsite, and then spend the afternoon hiking all the (relatively short) trails.  Relaxed evening by the campsite, and early bedtime.

Days 9 and 10: Long drive home, stopping halfway in Omaha or Lincoln or somewhere 'round there.  It still makes for two fourteen hour days, though.

Curiously, three of the four parks are smack in the heart of "red rock country" and therefore will be offering, in many ways, very similar scenery to enjoy.  In particular, I wonder if Natural Bridges will feel somewhat underwhelming after three days at Arches.  Ah, well.  If it is, well it is.  It's not even a full day, really, and that's kind of the last, more relaxing stab at doing something fun before the grueling drive back home, so it'll be whatever it'll be, I suppose.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Sightseeing and hiking

For those who have followed my blog--that is, for me basically, and maybe my mom (hi, mom), it shouldn't be any surprise that my idea of a perfect vacation is to escape to a wilderness area somewhere in the great American west and hike around, seeing as few people as possible, and generally absorbing the wilderness ambiance that--not coincidentally--makes up an important part of the DARK•HERITAGE setting. Of course, so would be hanging around the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, France and Italy, as well as exploring Sicily, Sardinia, some of the Moorish architecture of Andalusia, and maybe hanging out in Casablanca or Marrakesh.  That's less likely to happen in the near future, but I've made a tentative plan for a late spring ten-day sojourn westward.  My wife's not completely on board yet, but I'm thinking me and the boys in my smaller car is a better bet than the whole family in the minivan anyway.  Here's the tentative itinerary, just for the curious.

Day 1: Drive from my home in the Detroit area to Lexington, NE--about 15 hours.  This is enough to keep me busy all day; that's a lot of hours to drive all by yourself.  Of course, my oldest son can take a turn behind the wheel if he comes--but he doesn't have any experience with long-distance driving yet, so I'm not going to have him log all that many hours, I don't think.

Day 2: Drive from Lexington to Grand Junction Colorado, with a small detour to Scott's Bluff National Monument, which shouldn't take more than about three hours and which will give us a nice chance to stretch our legs and get out of the car for a while.  The bluff itself is kind of a singular geographic feature, so there's not a lot of hiking to do.  Basically, you see the visitors center, spend maybe an hour or two on the few short trails, and take a bunch of pictures of the bluff, and then a bunch of pictures from the top of the bluff.  Then you get back in your car and hit the road again.

Day 3: After sleeping in a little bit, we go to Colorado National Monument, register for a campsite (because they're first come first served, although I've been told by the ranger that they rarely ever fill up) go see the visitors center, and do the Rimrock drive.  There are a number of short (about half hour or so) hikes that have trailheads along the Rimrock drive, so we'll do those on Day 1.  These include the Window Rock Trail, the Canyon Rim Trail, the Alcove Nature Trail and Otto's Trail.  Starting this day, we also eat only what we brought with us--six days of backpack lunches and dinners cooked over a camp stove in the evening.  We're also in the desert, so everyone drinks three bottles of water every day, plus as much as you want in the morning and evening.

Day 4: Three slightly longer trails, including the Coke Ovens Trail, the CCC Trail, and the Devil's Kitchen Trail.

Day 5: Now we get into more serious, backcountry trails, including Serpents Trail (called the crookedest road in the world) and the Black Ridge Trail, each of which is a good half-day of hiking.

Day 6: Two other 4-5 hour hikes: Monument Canyon Trail and Liberty Cap Trail.

Day 7: Three other backcountry trails: Ute Canyon Trail, Old Gordon Trail, and Corkscrew Trail Loop.

Day 8: The most ambitious of them all, the all-day un-maintained No Thoroughfare Canyon Trail.  As the name implies, the last few miles are basically trailless, so we'll probably be bushwhacking.  In the evening, we leave the monument, stay in a hotel, eat out, and take showers.

Days 9 and 10: Driving home in two 12 hour stretches.

When we're done, we will have completed pretty much all that those two national monuments have to offer, as well as having done some fairly ambitious hiking.  Without going on multiday backcountry hikes, which I'm not ready for, especially if I really do bring my two younger boys along, it's about as ambitious as you can get, especially the No Thoroughfare Canyon hike which is an all-day walk in the desert on a trail that ranges from poor to nonexistent.

Not only that, my budget for a trip like this is fairly small; I can do the whole trip for just a little over $1,000. Bonus.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Relapse -- and fudging in RPGs

Well, I relapsed.  After several months of staying away, I found myself drawn to ENWorld a couple of weeks ago after a Google search took me there looking for something else, and I stayed a little bit, got involved in some discussions, and made myself--at least a little bit--at home again.

Of course, it didn't take long for the banal and the pedantic and the passive aggressive trolls who are sadly too common there to make me wonder what I was doing.  Although the moderator who was the target of my disappointment last time around was a voice of reason this time around.  At least that's a plus.  This time, I got involved in a discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of fudging as a GM.

My impression, and the impression of most who were posting in the discussion, I believe, is that fudging is inevitable, but its generally considered a bit gauche to show your hand and make it obvious that you're doing so.  You may find that a combat that you expected to be challenging turns out to be a cakewalk.  Or, a combat that you expect to be routine, turns out to threaten the lives of the entire party.  A major villain with months of build-up goes down like a chump to the first spell cast in combat.  In a rather routine maneuver, a PC really blows a low DC check of some kind and falls to his death.  Etc., etc.  The endless stream of scenarios that are totally unexpected in any RPG of any kind.

Many of these need to be expected, or at least the expectation that they could happen needs to be factored into the calculations of a good GM.  A good GM, if for whatever reason, is unwilling to accept all the possible results of a die roll, then in reality, he shouldn't be calling for a die roll.  Just use your "GM fiat" ability (not an automotive joint venture, despite the sound) to move the game forward, and then save your dice for when you are willing to let chance decide.  The element of chance is an important part of the game, and if the PCs feel too "safe"; i.e., you won't actually let anything too bad happen to them, then for most players of the game, that's a detriment to its fun.  However, not all of them.

And even in a more rigorous GMing environment, it's an important GMing skill to recognize when things aren't going in a way that's likely to be fun for the players and be able to make adjustments on the fly to correct them.  Sometimes that means that, yeah, you need to fudge a damage modifer to give a character one more chance to pull their bacon out of the fire.  Sometimes it means lopping a few extra hit points off an enemy combatant so they can drop when the combat is starting to get too long and tedious rather than exciting or fun.  On occasion, it even means something more drastic.  Hopefully very much on occasion, but there you have it.

On my GM Merit Badge banner over there to the side, I picked that I roll the dice in the open.  My interpretation of this badge is in regards to my general style.  I prefer to let the dice decide things, as I think that that's more fun.  I don't literally always roll out in front of everyone, because it's not very convenient from a placing standpoint; I'd have to stand up and reach over my screen every time I rolled any dice, which I don't do.  But I'm not secretive about my dice rolls.  I think putting your fate into the hands of the dice is a way to build tension--fun tension, not the other kind--in game, so I encourage it.  That said: I reserve the right to fudge on occasion if, in my estimation, it will improve the game for everyone involved.  And no, I probably won't tell you about it either, although after the fact, I might not care too much.

Again, it's my opinion that this is very common and in fact almost all GMs do this.  Scratch that: almost all good GM's do this, because it's a tool to allow GMs to improve the game.  That's the whole point of it, after all.  If you're sacrificing something that would be fun so you can take the moral high ground of playing a "purer game" or some such nonsense, that's a poor consolation prize, in my estimation.

Needless to say, there are a number of gamers at ENWorld--or at least a few very vocal ones--who find that notion inconcievable.  Which is fine; I certainly don't need to always be agreed with, and people can reasonably disagree, especially around issues of taste.  But many of these posters did not go in for reasonable disagreement.  They were posters who, in fact, insinuated passive-aggressively that people who want rolls fudged, should find some other term for their games, since they're clearly not "true" roleplaying games.  Who said that people who want their game fudged are--apparently--not adults.  Who said that people who allow some fudging here and there should stop playing D&D, because it's not the game for them.  Who created strawman arguments that if you're going to allow a little fudging here and there, then why even bother having dice at all, since clearly the GM is just telling his story to the players without any input or willingness to deviate from his foreordained plot.

Frankly, the absurdity of the discussion was quite frustrating, and reminded me again of why I left posting on RPG related messageboards in the first place, and why I shouldn't really have made a return, probably.  But I'm curious from the blogosphere: what's your position on fudging?  Do you allow it?  Frequently?  Infrequently?  Do you do it openly, or are you more discrete?

Yeah, yeah... I realize I won't get any comments.  Nobody actually reads this blog.  The only hits I have are from Google image searches.  I'm going to ask the question anyway, just in case.  And... here's an image of Selena Gomez in a bikini.  Just to keep those Google image searches coming.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

¡Viva los Estados Unidos!

Much of the English language fantasy genre is very loosely based on a northern European medieval European vibe.  This isn't surprising; the English language genre is largely derived from the mythology, folklore and medieval romances that predated fantasy per se.  I've obviously gone in some different directions--on purpose, in an attempt to create a different feel.  While the Crown of Aragon and a kind of Latin Mediterranean vibe is a huge part  of the DARK•HERITAGE setting, at least culturally, and I've got a nation that is clearly modelled somewhat transparently on some aspects of the Moorish caliphate combined with Ottoman Barbary pirates.  I also see certain aspects of my setting as specifically trying to model other historical scenarios, perhaps transparently, and perhaps not.  I've got an Old West of sorts.  I've got a Caribbean from the Golden Age of Piracy.  I've got Cajuns.  I've got South Pacific natives here and there.

I've also got stuff borrowed from fiction.  I've got plenty of Lovecraftiana.  I've got my take on Bael Turath, from the Dungeons & Dragons 4e points of light setting.

Mostly, though, the terrain, much of the setting detail, the assumed animals, the weather, and no small amount of the culture of all of the countries in the region, is most heavily influenced by my own homeland, the western half of the United States of America (notwithstanding that I actually live in the northern Midwest right now--sadly, well east of the Mississippi.)  Huge tracts of land mirror the Red Rock country of the Grand Circle and if a DARK•HERITAGE movie were ever made, it'd probably be filmed in Monument Valley or something like that.  Large parts are heavily influenced by the Comancheria.  There's even a cognate (if I can use that word in this context) to the Goodnight-Loving trail, and the Oregon trail.  I've got parts influenced by the Llano Estacado.  I've got parts influenced by Cajun country, and the scrubby forests of East Texas and Louisiana.  I've got areas heavily influenced by the various scenic parts of the Rocky Mountains--like the Tetons, Yellowstone, or Glacier National Park.  I've got parts influenced by Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada.  I've got coastline like Big Sur or the chaparral.  The animals you might see in DARK•HERITAGE are less influenced by medieval Europe and more influenced by the La Brea Tar Pits and the American west.  And on the fringe, I've even got areas that are not unlike the Ozarks, the Cumberland Gap, the Great Smoky Mountains, and other earlier western frontiers.

Why?  Because I love my homeland, that's why.  I have a kind of chauvinistic preference for the stuff that I saw or at least stuff that happened in my backyard, and which is part of my heritage.

Not that the northern European stuff isn't part of my heritage too--I just think that aspect of my heritage is already adequately covered in the modern fantasty genre, and it's past time to explore more.  I'm also part Mediterranean, via a Portuguese great-great grandfather, and of course, after many generations, I'm really much more American than I am European anyway.  America is my home.  I love it.  I want that to be reflected in my fantasy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A few quick updates

Happy Thanksgiving!  A day early (there's no way I'm logging in tomorrow to make updates.)  I finished two books, and thought I'd comment quickly on the two of them.

First, I read the third and final Conan compilation.  Some of the stories it had were ones that I haven't read in a long time (over twenty years) and I'm not 100% sure that I've even read all of them before.  Now I have; I've read every single Conan story, and much of the Conan ephemera, that Bob Howard ever wrote.  I still have two other REH compilations: the Kull and the Solomon Kane ones, but I'm not going to get to them immediately.

A few impressions of the Conan canon--despite it's place as one of the pillars of the modern fantasy genre, and the origin of a lot of the tropes and conventions that still ring clearly throughout it, I didn't find the Conan stories were necessarily all that great.  Conan as a character was very one-, or at best, two-dimensional, and the fact that he was a superman, always supremely capable, always better than anyone else he encountered, got fairly tiring after a while.  I think it's important to remember that when these were first published, nobody was reading Conan story after Conan story back to back.  Even at its fastest, you'd read them once a month as they were published.  This would actually improve them; cramming them together made their weaknesses all too apparent, and their flaws stand out in stark relief.  I often found that while reading an individual story, I moved along at a pretty good clip, I often stalled between stories, struggling to find motivation to start the next one and finish the book.

At the end of the day, that's just one of the hazards of being first, I guess.  In the ninety or so odd years since Conan was first published, the fantasy genre has come a long way.  While it hasn't necessarily always improved, there's been a lot of guys who've done a lot of really interesting things with the genre.  Guys who were, frankly, more skilled writers than Howard.  A lot of others have been mediocre, or even less skilled, but over time, the really good ones are remembered and the poorer ones tend to be forgotten.  Howard's work reads like a pioneering work; innovative, fresh, blazing new trails, but by necessity fairly rough around the edges.

Also, I found the constant theme of barbarism vs. civilization, and Howard's frankly kind of bizarre take on the inevitability of barbarism a bit hard to swallow.  Not to mention repetitive after a time.  Also, I often hear complaints about "racism" in Howard's work, and I think those complaints are vastly overstated.  Sure, there's some moments of political incorrectness.  But those who think Howard's portrayal of the black kindgoms south of Stygia, or the Hyrkanian or Turanian peoples, or whatever are insulting and offensive should take a step back and consider Howard's portrayal of the Hyborians--his equivalents to Western Europeans, basically.  Arrogant, decadent, corrupt, useless, and grossly ineffective, these are the guys who take the most abuse from Howard.  And arguably, they were his own people, to a great extent.  I think those who are offended by racial portrayals by Howard are those who are going out of their way to be offended.  I tend not to have much sympathy for that kind of entitlement and victimization mentality.

American Indians, on the other hand, I think might have a legitimate complaint.  The Picts, who are very clearly based on them (for reasons that don't make a lot of sense, since the Picts were most likely a Celtic offshoot in real life) are very frequently installed as the bad guys, and portrayed as irredeemably savage and nearly bestial.  But even then, I'd nod a bit in acknowledgement and then advise them to get over themselves.  Although frankly, at this point we're starting to wander a bit astray from talking about any merits of Howard and more into talking about my impatience with whiners and crybabies... i.e, this is more about me than him.  So time to move on to another topic.

I also read Proven Guilty, which I bought since I last read it (checked out from the library) and reviewed it here on this blog.  I still say that it's a rather sloppily constructed Dresden Files book--it leaves some open questions, you're not clear who the villain really is (still, several books later) and it feels more like a grab bag of things that needed to get done to set the books up for the remainder of the series than a tightly plotted novel in its own right.  Still, this time around, I found myself feeling more charitable towards the book and I enjoyed it more than the last time I read it.  I also read it quite a bit faster than last time; within about 36 hours (including two work days) I had finished it and refiled it on my shelf.  It was nice to knock a few books off my to-read list, and frankly, reading Proven Guilty kinda made me feel motivated to quickly get on to White Night which starts a great run of about four or five books in the series that are all just absolutely supurb.  It's actually a bit unfortunate in that I think Ghost Story kinda dropped the ball a bit and set the series back a ways.  It felt, again, like it was too strong on high concept, and too keen on advancing the status quo to something else and less like a tightly written novel in its own right.  But White Night, Small Favor, Turn Coat and Changes--and even Side Jobs there too--are all very high quality works.  Rather than feeling somewhat deflated after reading Proven Guilty I find myself further motivated.  Not bad.  I wonder if my own low expectations of the experience helped it to be better.  Could be.

Despite my motivation, I won't be immediately reading any of those stories.  I've got two books--books 1 and 2 of a three book series--checked out from the library right now, and book 3 will be released within weeks... maybe even within days; I can't remember the release date, although apparently it's already available in the UK... and the library has already ordered a copy with my name on it.  So I need to keep moving on these books while I can.  The series is the Ancient Blades trilogy, a trilogy by first time fantasy author (but apparently relatively experienced horror writer under another nom de plume) David Chandler.  I've also heard from many early reviewers that the series has a strong, old skool sword & sorcery vibe to it.  About fifty pages into the first book, I'm not sure if I can confirm or deny that yet, but I do find it curious that it's yet another book of urban intrigue in a fantasy version of a wretched hive of scum and villainy with a main character who's a thief and a member of a fantasy version of the Mafia.  With titles like Den of Thieves, A Thief in the Night, and finally Honor Among Thieves, you can see how this slots nicely into my tastes as they've developed lately.  In fact, with such eerily similar titles, I'm very curious to eventually compare the series to the recently read Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick.  I may have to do just a bit of a compare and contrast exercise, like we used to do back in school.  Just for fun.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ethnicity in Dark•Heritage, part 2

After much delay, here's part 2 of the ethnicity of DARK•HERITAGE series.  I expect that I'll need a few more posts yet to finish the series.
  • The Hasparans are a coastal ethnic group found eastward of the tolosans on the southern shore of the Mezzovian.  While the hasparans recognize their kinship with the tolosans, they also emphasize their differences.  They often say that while the tolosans spread throughout the Mezzovian area, it was actually hasparan culture that they spread.  The hasparans claim to be autochthonous; that is, they claim to be a sister group to the tolosans, not descendents of them.  When the tolosans were just a tribe of fishermen on the coast and southern isles, long before they dreamed of empire or expansion, the hasparans were already on the other side of the Colomà swamp living their own lives.  Physically, the hasparans look very much like the tolosans; they are gracile and average in height, with olive skin and dark eyes, mostly.  Their dark hair is often treated with henna, which causes it to turn a dark reddish color.  They also often utilize henna tattoos as decoration.  Sént-Haspar is the urban metropolis which most strongly identifies with the hasparans, and still today, the Archduke of Sént-Haspar claims most of the area that makes up the ancient kingdom of Halasparia as his fiefdom.  Halasparia has an ancient historical and military tradition, but perhaps what it is most known for is its cuisine, architecture, art and music moreso than for anything else.  In many ways, much of this cultural heritage has been coopted by the tolosans, and across much of the Mezzovian main, hasparan food, hasparan gittern music and hasparan architecture is associated with the Terrasan empire overall.  Despite this, most hasparans do not see themselves at odds with the terrasans, but rather in symbiosis and close association.  Wile hasparans are frequently very proud of their ethnic heritage, there is very little separatist or nationalist sentiment amongst them.
  • The frequently rustic stranzeros are occasionally called Sarabascans, since the majority of them that are known outside their dark woods, swamps, and fields of the far east on the north side of the Mezzovian come from that area.  More of a region than ever a country or polity, the stranzeros mostly live in hinterlands and far-flung locations, and have managed to stay out of mainstream society in the Mezzovian Main area for the most part, with the exception of Sarabasca, the stranzero's face to the world.  Most stranzeros still live in small hamlets, tribes, villages or family groups, and recognize no authority to govern them other than their own local ones.  In this regard, the stranzeros have evolved a culture of independence and freedom that many other folk caricaturize to an extent, but who's ideas have also galvanized many of the nascent nationalist movements around the mainland.  Stranzeros are even shorter and darker of color than the tolosans and others around them, having never mixed at all with any balshatoi or tarushan population, and having remained largely isolated and insular.  However, that is not true of the population of Sarabasca itself, which is a very cosmopolitan city, and which has come under the sway of both Terrasa and Qizmir in recent years, and other prior kingdoms and principalities before that.  As folks from all over the Mezzovian have moved or passed through Sarabasca over the years, there are a number of folks who self-identify as stranzero, but who resemble people from anywhere else.  This could possibly be the source of some tension within the stranzero community... except that, frankly, there is little interaction between these cosmopolitan stranzeros and the more insular back-country ones.  People from Sarabasca do trade with the "swampies" as they are sometimes called, and Sarabasca itself is an important safety valve for those who for whatever reason fail to fit into the tight-knit back-country communities, but by and large the two "halves" of the stranzero community find themselves passing each other like ships in the night, mostly indifferent to the other's presence.  Stranzeros are also somewhat feared around the region, when they travel, due to the rumored malign practices of their shamans and priests, known as bocori, who practice a form of black magic.  In other places where stranzeros gather in numbers, they tend to form enclavces or ghettos and keep to themselves. 
  • The forasteros, or pallarans as they're sometimes called, are another far-flung ethnic group with ancient ties to the tolosans.  Making up the majority of the population to the east and south of the hasparans, the forasteros are undergoing a very different sort of nationalism, under very different conditions, than most of the rest of the ethnic groups who are associated with the Terrasan empire.  At it's greatest extent, both the kingdom of Halasparia, and later the Terrasan Empire claimed much of the territory where the forasteros live, although they generally left them alone as long as tribute continued to flow in.  When the jann landed at Qattara, founded their kingdom, and subjugated the native inhabitants of the island, it was forasteros that they enslaved.  When the jann continued to the Golden peninsula, they further subjugated more forasteros.  Today, only a small portion of the forastero ethnicity lives outside the Qizmiri yoke, and as their sense of nationalism has grown, rather than fostering independence, it's fostered a sense of kinship with the tolosans, the hasparans, and the Terrasan Empire, in the hopes that they'll return in force and roll back the jann.  This seems unlikely as the political and military strength of Terrasa wanes, and separatist and nationalist sentiments grow stronger, pulling apart the fiber of the Empire.  Many forasteros, therefore, have fled, and now live in exile in Terrasan lands.  Many others, of course, have come to terms with Qizmiri subjugation. As it turns out, few enough of the natives are actually enslaved, and if forasteros are unlikely to get far ahead in the government of the jann; well, many forget that that was true under the Terrasans as well.  They're lot is not so bad, and many forasteros have left behind much of their heritage, speaking and dressing in Qizmiri styles.  Many of them, even prosper.  But nationalist sentiments are not always logical, and many chafe under the jann.  In fact, this truculence is arguably one of the main reasons that Qizmir has not yet managed to roll further west than it already has, and knock on the doors of Terrasa itself.  There is a compelling need to deal with forastero unrest at home.  Forasteros, in physical appearance, are not unlike rustic tolosans or hasparans.  They tend to be of average height, perhaps slightly darker skin tone, with dark hair and eyes as well.  Although they do not frequently use henna in their hair, henna tattoos are not uncommon, at least for special occasions.  Their hair and beards tend to be think and very curly, almost kinky, in nature.  Men and women both often keep their hair fairly short, but men almost always grow beards.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Iron Kingdoms

Well, I'm not doing part 2 of DARK•HERITAGE ethnicities yet.  I have a head-ache, and frankly I just don't have enough energy to compose that much original material.  Rambling about something else that I don't need to think too hard about; that seems more my speed right now.

Although I'm in the middle of reading the third Conan compilation--and in fact, I only have two stories to go; one of which is the famous "Red Nails"--I've gotten kind of distracted from it by picking up The Monsternomicon by Privateer Press.  This is one of the early books from PP--long before the Warmachine or Hordes games were a glimmer in Matt Wilson's eye.  Back then, the company was Matt Staroscik, Matt Wilson and Brian Snōddy (I don't know if the line over the o is just an affectation so folks pronounce his name correctly or not, but I've seen it thus spelled online recently--at his website, no less).  Only Wilson remains today, and the company has grown tremendously--but at the same time, it's no longer what it used to be.  The Iron Kingdoms setting was, once upon a time, a roleplaying game setting; specifically a D&D setting, albeit one with a twist.  For quite a long time, that's where Privateer Press put their efforts; the Witchfire Trilogy modules (which actually also contain a 4th entry; "Fool's Errand" a small minimodule that slide in between the 1st and 2nd published module.  It had a pdf only release, until it was bundled with the other three in a reprinting of the entire trilogy.)  Then there was Monsternomicon.  Eventually there was even the Lock & Load Character Primer.  Privateer Press had a reputation back then of being high quality (especially the monster book) but very slow to put new stuff out, and any release dates they projected were taken with a truckload of salt.

A few things happened to this picture in the next few years.  I don't remember exactly the order of each, but they all became pretty important game-changers for Privateer Press.
  • 3.5.  While in the middle of writing the campaign setting book, the system of the SRD changed from 3e to 3.5.  Privateer were left a little in the lurch.  Do we go back and fix everything to be updated to the new system, or carry on as is?  They ended up doing the former.  What was already a very lengthy project that we'd been waiting literally years for dragged on even more.  Not only that, the book grew to a size that defied reason.  There were 800 pages of the setting book.  It was eventually released in two massive 400 page parts; the first being mostly (but not exclusively, as is sometimes claimed) rules and setting basics, the second being almost completely systemless.
  • Warmachine got released.  At first it was a pretty modest, small skirmish game.  It sells like hotcakes.  It makes much more money (presumably) than the RPG.  Eventually, the game grows to encompass large battles with lots of miniatures, gains a few new factions, and becomes the second best selling miniatures game, after Warhammer 40k.  The "savage spin-off" hordes becomes the fourth best selling miniatures game, after Warhammer.  (For the math impaired, yet that means that 40k was 1st and Warhammer is 3rd.  Based on the most recent sales data for summer 2011, that is.)  Because of this, the RPG line suffers, getting only two more books after the setting, as well as a reprint of the original modules.  A few articles with RPG content appear in the No Quarter magazine, but after a while even these dry up, and No Quarter becomes the Iron Kingdoms version of White Dwarf.
  • The tone and feel of the setting start to change.  Whereas at first, Iron Kingdoms in the RPG line is presented as a kind of grim and gritty, pseudo-horror-like dark fantasy, struggling with a burgeoning industrial age, and peppered with a lot of independent threats and weirdness, it starts to coalesce into a setting that favors the wargame.  Independents are vaccuumed up into the factions.  There's no reason for some of the countries of the RPG setting to exist anymore, so they're invaded and incorporated into the bigger superpowers.  A state of open warfare between the countries is now presented as canonical; whereas before, it was a kind of tense cold war feel, but clearly characters could be well traveled (look at Professor Pendrake's notes in Monsternomicon for an example.)  As opportunities for the wargame were favored in the setting, opportunities for the RPG were sacrificed.
  • In addition to that major change, instead of a darker, primitive fantasy just starting to get some industrialization--very early industrial age feel--the setting is advanced to a nearly modern, or at least WWI in fantasy feel.  Suddenly firearms are nowhere nearly as rare as the RPG implies.  Warjacks of various kinds start to spill all over.  The whole feel of the setting is less grim and dark and now more "HOLY COW, WE'RE TURNED UP TO ELEVENTY OVER HERE!!!!  AREN'T WE AWESOME?!?!"  This is reflected in the art as well as... well, as well as everything else.  Heck, they even get a computer game developer to pardner up with them.

  • Finally, after years of sitting fallow, Privateer Press announces that they are going to release a house roleplaying system, the Privateer Press Roleplaying Game, to come out sometime in latish 2012 (it's not clear to me if PP has become trustworthy on release dates due to their Warmachine experience or not.  I'm crossing my fingers, but at the same time, I won't be surprised if 2012 comes and goes without this being released.)  The system is going to be at least somewhat based on the Warmachine and Hordes game in terms of rules.
See, to me, I don't know if this is a tragedy or a cool thing, or just a thing.  I don't really play, nor am I interested in playing, any more systems.  I don't actually use the Iron Kingdoms setting, although I liberally steal stuff from it, and like I said, the Monsternomicon is by far my favorite monster book(s).  So material in a new system?  What am I going to do with that?  Unless I love the game for it's own sake (unlikely) it'll just be a (hopefully) pretty book of art and fluff that I turn to occasionally to look at the pretty pictures. 

Speaking of which, Privateer Press have released this relatively lo-res sneak peak of a pretty picture, supposedly from the game.  It does look nice.  Like I said, I'd buy the book probably for the artwork alone (just like I did Warmachine: Escalation and some others) but I'd like to think I could get some more usage out of it than that, if I'm lucky.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Big scary machines

I can't continue the series on ethnicity in DARK•HERITAGE today, unfortunately, because I left my notebook and folder with the information I'd need to make the update on my dresser at home. And, I anticipate being way too busy tonight, so I'll try to get to that tomorrow. In the meantime, another thought has crossed my mind (again.) I've long been impressed by the design sensibilities of the Iron Kingdoms by Privateer Press. I've been a fan ever since their first publication, The Longest Night a 3e D&D adventure module, and part one of the so-called Witchfire Trilogy. Curiously, one of the most notorious (at least to me) cases of vaporware is the advertised Corvis Compendium; a guide to the city of Corvis where the Witchfire Trilogy mostly takes place, that was supposed to come out in late 2001, if I remember. Privateer did a number of d20 books--and I have all but one of them (including, even, the pdf only Fool's Errand, a mini-module that's meant to take place between parts 1 and 2 of the Witchfire Trilogy. I also have a number of issues of the No Quarter magazine, which also occasionally had RPG stuff in it.

Of course, now Privateer have largely abandoned the RPG market (although there are persistant rumors that they may yet revive their efforts therein) in favor of their (probably) much more profitable tabletop miniatures battlegames Warmachine and Hordes--which have been giving Games Workshop a real run for their money for a time there in that market. And hey, that's mostly OK after all. Warmachine gives us all kinds of really cool miniatures and really cool artwork, in full color, of these big scary warmachines (hence the name of the game); steampunk robots belching soot and smoke from their coal furnaces, mostly. Here's a great example of a Khadorian warcaster, Sorscha, with one of these nasty machines, coming in out of a snowy night. Scanned from my copy of Warmachine: Escalation.



Now, I don't play Warmachine (or Hordes; the more savage big monster version of the same idea) but I do occasionally buy the books for their artwork and flavor text. It's a fascinating setting, and although I could never really run someone else's setting and enjoy it the same, I've had a lot of items stolen directly from the Iron Kingdoms over the years in DARK•HERITAGE and will probably have quite a few more before it's done. I've mostly backed off of having really overt steampunklike influences; the steamjacks in particular are too specific to Iron Kingdoms to be easily portable to another setting without being obvious. I have quite enjoyed the concept of Cryx, though--a nation that combines necromancy, piracy, blasphemous dragon-worship and constructs to have a totally scary and yet cool villain aesthetic all it's own. Here's one of the big nasty constructs from Cryx, the Nightmare, a soul-burning furnace powering it's giant iron frame.


I have had nations that were direct analogs of Cryx (and sometimes were, exactly, Cryx) in various of the settings I've run in the past, including my "Pirates of the Mezzovian Main" setting, and my Freeport homebrew setting.  I don't have a direct analog in DARK•HERITAGE today, and probably won't exactly, but some aspects of Cryx will make their ways into such various nightmare realms as Tarush Noptii and the "Sith Lord" wannabes from the Cannibal Isle.  Undead have always been one of my favorite villains, and this kind of industrialized undead business, a totally steampunk version of them, is really pretty fun. 

I think mostly I just wanted an excuse to post all these images, because I like 'em, though.  Tomorrow, or as soon as I get a good chance, I'll continue the ethnicities of the setting.  For now I'll leave you with one more Cryx image; this time, some of the undead themselves, not soul-burning mechanical monstrosities.  Although it's curious how the art for Cryx has made it often difficult to tell the two apart in many ways.