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.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Ethnicity in Dark•Heritage, Part 1

I'd been looking through my copy of Five Fingers recently, for fun.  One of the narrators of one chapter is the historian for a mercenary company called the Sons of Thuria.  In the Iron Kingdoms, Thuria is an ancient kingdom that doesn't exist anymore, and the Thurian ethnicity is straddles a major state border; they are common both in the south of Ord and the northwest of Cygna in cities like (no surprise here) Five Fingers and Ceryl.  Curiously, after reading this passage at night, before falling asleep, I had a dream in which I was eating and using Sons of Thuria barbecue sauce.  The Thurians make some tasty sauce, as I recall.

After this, I made sure I had BBQ for lunch the next day (and regretted that I now live in the Midwest instead of Texas), but I also got down my copy of some of my Iron Kingdoms source material, notably the IKCG or Iron Kingdoms Character Guide and the older Lock & Load: Iron Kingdoms Character Primer both of which discuss the various human ethnicities in the Iron Kingdoms.  In the larger IKCG, they are illustrated--a sample bust type portrait of a man and woman of each race.  In the L&L book, they are described physically.  Curiously, you need both books to get a complete picture of what a "typical" member of each ethnicity looks like.

After that, I also checked out my Pathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting, the guide to Golarion, and especially the Inner Sea region.  Both books do a pretty good job of describing human ethnicities and making them interesting choices to pick in play.  The Iron Kingdoms takes the dubious step of creating mechanical differences between them, while Pathfinder instead has "half feats"; traits that are based on either culture, country, or environment of origin, which also serve to give some cultural flavor to the various human ethnicities.

Not that other settings don't have ethnicities, but these two do a particularly good job of integrating them.  Others, like Forgotten Realms, or Eberron, for example, tend to come at us with the overly simplistic Belgariad model, where cultures and countries are 100% mappable, and individuals from each are a caricature of their cultural traits.  No, the real world is more subtle.

There are two ways to approach ethnicities in roleplaying games.  Pathfinder, for example, tends to paint with a pretty broad brush.  Their ethnicities are like Garundi, which make up the majority of the ethnic make-up of an entire continent.  In real world terms, that would also be applicable to DARK•HERITAGE, that would be sort of like making "Mediterranean" an ethnicity, and brushing together whatever differences there may be from someone from Barcelona, Nice, Venice, Sicily, Crete, Malta or Tunisia.  For my purposes, that's clearly too coarse.  But I don't want to go to the other extreme, where I'm saying that even within Greater Catalonia, for example, Valencians, Andorrans and folks from the Balearic Isles are different ethnicities.  In real life, there's actually controversy over issues like that. 

The genesis of an ethnicity is also a complicated issue.  Not every ethnicity is made up of an ancient population core that has persisted for generation after generation after generation for thousands of years (although some are.)  Sometimes ethnogenesis requires only circumstances that cause geographically proximate peoples, regardless of origin, to see each other as "their people", to begin to (if they aren't already) interbreed with each other, and to develop common culture, language and traditions.  This can actually happen fairly quickly in the right circumstances, and some ethnicities in DARK•HERITAGE are really quite young, all things considered.  Others are suitably ancient.

So for DARK•HERITAGE, I'm looking for an approach that is broad enough, yet not too broad.  An approach similar to that taken by the Iron Kingdoms, actually.  Here's the ethnicities of the setting, speaking broadly:
  • The Kurushi are a group of peoples who live in the very southwest areas that are mapped.  Their name comes from the major country in the area, Kurushat, but in reality, many of them have only recently been integrated into that polity, and some of them have more loyalty to their local traditions than to the grand, national one.  Be that as it may, the kurushans have a similar appearance, traditions, language and way of life, even if their more or less unity into a single country is a recent thing.  Fiercely militaristic, frequently even jingoistic to the point of obnoxiousness, and an active, virile and growing group of people, the kurushans are ready to take on the Mezzovian region by storm... except that, well, they're still relatively removed from the area, and have enough of their own issues going on around the shores of the much smaller inland Karkose Sea to deal with.  Fractuous and proud, they will probably always have to deal with local pride, insubordination and other issues within their khaganate, especially as the old khagan sees the end of his life approaching and the tempestuous scrabbling for his position that will no doubt follow his death among his eligible heirs apparent.  The Kurushi are fairly tall and pale-skinned except when tanned by summers of campaigning and other outdoor activity.  They value achievement and ambition, and even the wealthy and the nobility pursue scholarly, athletic, military, or even mercantile pursuits.  Success in any of these arenas brings prestige.  Because of this, many kurushans are fairly tanned; they maintain an active, outdoor lifestyle.  They have dark hair and extremely pale gray eyes, which are often almond shaped due to modest epicanthic folds.  Kurushans have only fairly recently been coming into the lands of other peoples, have been isolated on the other side of the Black Mountains and the Cavusto steppes, but when they have come into contact with isolated settlements, villages, or even full cities other other nationalities, their response has often been aggressive: raiding or even outright conquering and enslaving of thousands of people.  They now have diplomatic relationships with Terrasa and others, so much of that has been officially curtailed, but the kurushans, once they get past their local issues, have been eyeing the rich lands of the Mezzovian region and seeing themselves as the natural overlords.
  • The Calçans, or Calçinos are a young, still crystalizing ethnic group, located up in the "lost province" of Calça.  Exactly who the core population core of this region were is lost to time.  Clearly there were some autochthonous peoples here when Terrasan settlers, soldiers, colonists and conquistadores arrived, but the culture and language owe much more to Terrasa than to the origin natives.  That said, the calçinos have always viewed themselves as a people apart from the rest of the empire; more fiercely independent, more ruggedly frontiersmen-like in outlook, stubborn and free.  Of late, that has been quite literally true; the province isn't called "the Lost Province" for nothing.  Calça has essentially been abandoned by the empire.  No imperial official has been seen in over a generation, and that counts the dubious presence of the men and woman who supported the late Archduke; who himself operated independently and forgotten of the Imperial center.  On the books, Calça still belongs to the Empire, but as it's will and political capital wither, the chances that it will make an attempt to reintegrate the province get more and more slim.  Calça is as much cut off from the empire by trackless forests, snow-covered (at least in winter) dramatic mountain peaks, and faint old roads that are frequently plagued by bandits and highwaymen.  For a number of generaitons, the calçinos have developed in isolation, and have become somewhat unique and even peculiar in that time.  While friendly enough to people they know, calçans are often surly, slow to trust, and wary of outsiders.  Even folks from other villages get a wary eye when they pass through.  Hardworking and rural in economy, Calça is a province of agriculture, fishing and livestock.  There are few genuine luxuries amongst calçans, and they distrust open display of ostentatious wealth.  While lower class terrasans clearly are a major element of the mix that became calçans, in general they are physically somewhat distinct.  Calçans often have fairer and often quite freckly skin, and rather than luxurious black hair, they're more likely to have various shades of brown, and brown eyes.  The further north you go in Calça, the taller and fairer in general the Calçans become, and some folks have theorized that the original inhabitants must have been settled and agricultural relatives of the Haltash tribes.  In fact, there are a few semi-legendary old stories amongst the Haltash that they are, in fact, the descendants of the natives of Calça who refused to submit to the coming terrasans, and instead crossed the Vajol Downs to live the pastoral nomadism life of a tribesman.  Scholars from places like Simashki say this is nonsense; the Baal Hamazi empire has records of Haltash tribesmen in those lands since long before the terrasans come to the area.  Nonetheless, the possibility of a kinship of some kind between the calçinos and the Haltash tribes is a popular one on both sides of the downs.
  • The tolosans are the dominant group on the western side of the Mezzovian sea.  In addition, they've contributed to the development of various other "hybrid" ethnicities; ethnicities like the calçans, norderos, stranzeros or forasteros who crystalized when ancient tolosans came across other populations and mingled with them over time to form all new societies and cultures.  Despite recognizing a kinship to these ancient splinter groups, the tolosans are also cognizant of being their own, distinct ethnicity, and even the most anti-Terrasan Liuran pirate feels a sense of ethnic patriotism when thinking of the accomplishments of his people, the spectacular skyline of Terrasa, the spread of the Terrasan language family and the long reach of its king.  Proud and passionate, quick to anger, and quick to forgive, the fiery, mercurial temper of the tolosans is legendary (and frankly, quite exaggerated).  With usually fine, sometimes even sharp features, thick dark hair, dark brown eyes and olive skin, the tolosans tend to be a good-looking people, although their rich traditional cuisine makes many of the indolent and older population lose their svelte younger figures over time.
  • The norderos are the most populous ethnic group of the central north Mezzovian area.  They are particularly common in the Razine peninsula.  Although the norderos recognize a kinship with the tolosans, and acknowledge that some of their ancestors were tolosan settlers and colonists, those same tolosans left the Tolosan Isles region before the rise of the Terrasan polity, and the Razines have, in general, always set uneasily and unhappily with foreign rulers, ever since the Kings of Terrasa "acquired" the title to the duchy of Razina through dynastic union.  Today, the city of Razina itself has a significant tolosan population, close to half the population, and probably a plurality.  But the countryside for hundreds of leagues round about belongs to the norderos.  Because of this political unsettledness, the norderos often downplay the tolosan angle of their ancestry, and rather focus on the old kingdom of Rozovka from many centuries ago, which sat in--more or less--similar boundaries to the duchy.  Interest in the once-endangered Balshatoi language has been rekindled, and the norderos stress their relationship with their northern brethren now.  Be that as it may, they clearly as a hybrid population, and no matter the current waxing of interest in all things balshatoi, the norderos are something else entirely.  Not tall, but often fairly thick-bodied, with wide, freckled faces and brown hair, with green, blue or brown eyes, the norderos also have a fairly distinctive look to them.
Next time: more.  This post got too long and I didn't want to put everyone on it at once.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Coinage in Dark•Heritage

Well, the last two weeks have been absolutely crazy.  I've had in mind two updates to the DARK•HERITAGE setting through this blog, but haven't had time to type them up.  Right now, I'm making the effort to at least put one of them out there, with the hope that the second will follow later today or at least this weekend.

I've said before that for the sake of simplicity, I'd probably keep the D&D standard coinage of copper pieces (cp), silver pieces (sp)(worth 10 cp) and gold pieces (gp)(worth 10 sp), but give them more flavorful names at least.  I've now got that, plus a few "filler" coins that some mints have issued.  I've also got a slightly more complex option for those who want them; after all, is it really reasonable that all copper pieces are the exact same weight and purity, regardless of mint and country of origin?  For most, reasonableness in terms of verisimilitude takes a back seat to ease of use, and I can dig that.  I want to offer a slightly more complicated picture, for those who want it, though.

The default, and "standard" (as well as most traded and most respected in the area) coinage is that of Terrasa itself, unsurprisingly.  Terrasa uses the following set of coins, which track exactly to the D&D standard, with a few extras.
  • The pillar, or pilar is a copper coin (worth 1 cp) stamped with the image of a pillar on one side, and usually the current king in Terrasa on the other. 
  • The real is a much larger copper coin (worth 5 cp) with a larger picture of the king, with more detail, and the queen on the other side.  Because it has double heads with two royals, it was named the real (or royal).
  • The escudo, or shield, is a small silver penny (worth 1 sp) with a stylized image of the seal of Terrasa embossed on a shield.
  • The ducat is a much larger silver coin (worth 5 sp) with different faces on them.  They are minted in smaller batches, typically, and have the face of a person who is in royal favor at the time of minting.
  • The doubloon, or "double ducat" is a smaller gold coin (worth 1 gp) with a picture of Rossolló, an ancestor of the current king and folk hero to the Terrasan people.
  • Finally, the guilder is a large gold coin, the most valuable in current circulaton of the Terrasan coins, worth 5 gp.  It has a picture of a sailing ship on one side, and the palace in Terrasa on the other.
The other city-states who are part of the Terrasan empire do occasionally mint coins, usually to commemorate a special occasion.  However, past kings have passed and enforced strict laws governing the weight and purity, and so while such coins may have different images on them, they are worth the exact same; they are sorta like the various state quarters in the US currently--still quarters, but with a "collectable" face.  A few of these have their own nicknames, but mostly the differences between them are ignored, and they circulate freely like their more common cousins.

Porto Liure is a city that trades in all kinds of coins, and it's not unusual to see trades happening on the street with a mixed bag of all kinds of coins from all kinds of places.  Terrasan coins are probably the most commonly traded, but Porto Liure does mint its own coins, and they see a fair bit of local circulation.  For the simple version of coinage, assume that the values are equal (i.e., 1 cp is 1 cp, regardless of whether it's a Terrasan pilar or a Liuran pistole), but in reality, the purity and weights of the Liuran coins is not as good as that of the Terrasan coins.  Typically, Liuran coins trade for 70-80% of the value of standard Terrasan coins, and for worn or suspected shaved coins, they could trade for as low as 50%.
  • The pistole, marked with the image of crossed blackpowder pistols, is a small copper penny (1 cp)
  • The ecu, marked with the image of various lords of the Port, is a larger copper piece.  While no longer minted, these do have some value as collectors items, and can sometimes fetch rather hefty prices, depending on the demand of the buyer.  In general, based on copper content alone, it's worth 3-4 cps, but many merchants will not take them.
  • The plata is the silver piece, marked with an image of the lighthouse in the Port's harbor. (1 sp)
  • The piece of eight, so named because it was originally worth eight ecus, has since been standardized to be a simple gold piece (1 gp) but the name remains nonetheless.  This coin is stamped with a stylized image of the naval battle of Gandesa, a decisive victory for the Liurans, and the battle most directly responsible for their independent status today.
  • A number of black market coins called cobs see circulation in Porto Liure amongst the criminal element.  These are usually made of melted down ore, often from items that are more difficult to fence, such as stolen silver, bullion or jewelry.  Molded into a roughly round, flat shape, and stamped or carved--sometimes--with the seal of a gang or smuggler, the weight and purity of these coins is very suspect and variable.  Anyone willing to deal with cobs better take some ranks in the Appraise skill, and even so: caveat emptor.  This is not to say that cobs are not valuable--they are made of precious metal after all, simply that without any governing force, the exact value of any particular cob could be almost anything.
When the Qizmiri came to these shores, they had no tradition--so they say--of using coins, but contact with the Terrasans soon cottoned them on to the benefits of a monetary system.  They use a system that's similar to the Terrasan model, but stripped down to simply one coin of each metal (copper, silver and gold.)  You can go the simple route and treat them as copper pieces, silver pieces and gold pieces, or recognize that they are actually somewhat larger than their Terrasan counterparts, and usually perforated.  Some are also not round.  In fact, some have protruding parts that can break off, so traders are careful to inspect Qizmiri coins and ensure that they are all in one piece--either that or weigh the total carefully.  If whole, Qizmiri coins are usually worth about 125% of a Terrasan coin, due to their larger size.
  • The drachma is the copper piece, with an image of the first sultan of the Qizmir island itself, and an old-fashioned trireme on the other side.
  • The dirham is a silver piece.  Like the Terrasan ducats, there are a number of personalities who have been minted on these coins, although they all still circulate easily enough.
  • The dinar is the gold coin, always minted with the current caliph--although older coins with former caliphs still circulate as well.
Baal Hamazi used to issue coins, and most of the successor states do as well, based on the coinage of the former empire.  In reality, there'd likely be a bewildering array of coins of various sizes and purities, but for simplicity's sake, I'm going to consolidate all Hamazin coins to a single coinage, and the details between them will just be the names and faces stamped on them.  In Baal Hamazi, they prefer to keep things at the silver level, as much as possible.  Copper coins circulate as well, as do gold, but gold coins are much more rare, and for large purchases, writs, gems or other items are preferred.  The hamazin coins are somewhat larger, worth about 110% of the Terrasan equivalent.  Unless, of course, you prefer to simply harmonize all your weights and values to a standard, for ease of use.
  • The lu is worth 1 cp.
  • The luhhan is worth 1 sp
  • The namme is worth 2½ sp, or 25 cp
  • The rashi is worth 5 sp
  • The zizi is worth 1 gp.
Trading with Kurushat is much more difficult, as they don't use a simple base 10 system, where copper and silver and gold are equivalent to 10 of the next higher denomination.  In addition, their "coins" are actually chits of mother-of-pearl cut from shells found in the Karkose Sea.  Their money sees little to no use outside of Kurushat itself, and because Kurushat is separated from Terrasa by the Black Mountains and the Cavusto steppes, direct trade is not common between the two areas anyway.  What does happen tends to be more about barter and takes place at a high level between powerful merchant brokers, nobles or caravan owners, involving entire barge loads or caravan loads of goods, if not more.  That said, here are the various mother-of-pearl standard chits and their relative value:
  • The mazad is worth 3 cp.  It is very small, and easily misplaced by the careless.
  • The ashad is worth 18 cp--often rounded up to 2 sp for convenience.  Especially if trading in the silver pieces favor.
  • The arkhad is worth 6 sp.
  • The jharad is a fairly large piece of mother of pearl, as big as a man's palm.  It is worth 2 gp.