Monday, January 31, 2011

Not Reading ANYTHING

In a sudden and dramatic move, I cleared my docket of books to read, stopped even the books that I was in the middle of, and took everything back to the library.

See, my schedule has been surprisingly and unexpectedly hectic the last few weeks, and having a ton of stuff to read with a due date on it has been--again surprisingly--stressful. I haven't even been able to enjoy reading books that I know I would really like under other circumstances. So, I quit. What's the point if I'm not enjoying them? I'll probably try them again later, in smaller bites--the history book Iron Kingdom was quite fascinating, although I hadn't picked it up in 2-3 weeks. Brent Weeks' debut novel was quite good so far too. But, they'll have to wait until another time. I've got too many books of my own to read too, although at least for the time being, I'm not actually going to pick any of them up. I'm going to take a little breather from my "constantly having at least one, possibly two or three books I'm reading at the same time" schedule. I'll add something back in later when I'm ready.

So; no book reviews for a little while.

EDIT: Well, I'm fickle. Last night and today so far, I've read about two-thirds of the Black Library book Loathsome Ratmen. Since the snOMG! storm will most likely trap me in my house tomorrow, I anticipate that I'll rather easily finish it in short order. Heck, I might finish it tonight, at the rate I'm going. No promises on a book after that, though!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Unsung glamor of d20 Modern

As much as I've played and enjoyed d20 D&D (since it's the game that brought me back into familiar RPG territory, after wandering afield a bit with Traveller and Werewolf) I think the sadly unsung workhorse of the d20 system, the one that's terribly underutilized and underappreciated, is d20 Modern. The wide variety of uses to which this extremely flexible and modular system has been put is a testament to its broad utility. Sure; like all of the d20 rulesets, it's too prescriptive and detailed, but it's still much smaller than D&D ever was (it fit in a single book that was about the size of the PHB, for instance) and by its nature, much of those overly nitpicky rules can be ignored or handwaved aside for ease of play, as with other d20 games. The modularity and robustness ends up becoming a strength because you can pick and choose how fine or granular you want the mechanics experience to be rather than bogging down the game because you feel forced to use it all. And even if you do use it all; most of it flows from common design principles, so it's familiar and results are what you'd expect them to be.

Anyway, that's more about d20 overall; d20 Modern in particular is a nice modular building kit that can emulate almost any kind of game you'd ever want to play. In fact, I remember thinking at one point that it could be the last game I ever play, since as a d20 fan, I don't need more systems and d20 Modern is so versatile. The campaign models (mini-setting cliff's notes, really) from the main book don't really highlight this diversity all that well, since they are all too similar to each other, but when you start looking at the Polyhedron Magazine d20 mini-games, most of which were built on a d20 Modern platform, and the campaign models that were built out of the d20 Future and d20 Apocalypse (and others) supplements, this versatility becomes more clear.

It was also fun to see d20 Modern adapted to other settings from other games that were reasonably well known and well loved. In some cases, this was done via copycat campaign models; i.e., the same themes and tone as a well known property but none (or little) of the intellectual property. These adaptations included Dark•Matter, Star*Drive, Star Law (which was Star Frontiers), Bughunters (which was Aliens/Starship Troopers), The Wasteland (Mad Max), Omega World (Gamma World), Hi Jinx (Scooby Doo), Shadow Stalkers (Dracula),Deathnet (Tron), Iron Lords of Jupiter (Barsoom) and even more. The ease with which d20 Modern can be adapted to almost any genre and almost any setting is only rivaled by GURPS; but it has the added advantage of also being compatible (mostly) with D&D, so D&D players can get up to speed on the rules after about five minutes of looking at the differences, and much of your D&D material can be used (if appropriate for the setting) including monsters, spells, magic items, etc. And although there are certainly pros and cons to each, I just kinda like d20 better than GURPS anyway. Although it's interesting to me that d20 Modern is positioned... kinda... as the GURPS of the d20 system.

There are, however, a few "holes" in what d20 Modern has done. I'm not aware of any significant efforts (and none by Wizards of the Coast) to use d20 Modern for a superheroes genre, for instance (although it looks like a d20 Modern sourcebook called d20 Spectaculars was on the product schedule at one point that would have addressed this.) And oddly, with the exception of the obviously starfaring science fiction settings, all d20 Modern settings assume the actual, real planet Earth as the setting; there aren't any fantasy settings. Wizards of the Coast can certainly be excused from wanting to pursue this, as it would conflict with their flagship Dungeons & Dragons games, but it always surprised me that I never saw any evidence that anyone other than me was considering taking d20 Modern + d20 Past and applying that to a home-made fantasy setting. It also surprised and somewhat disappointed me that the Modern SRD got very little attention from publishers and customers alike, too.

However, there seems to be a reasonably active fan community for d20 Modern at who have, among other things, come up with a Pathfinder Modern SRD, house rules, and more fan-created ad-ons. So, check 'em out. In any case, my decision to return to an earlier idea and use d20 Past as the rulebase for my "preferred" method of running Dark•Heritage (mostly because there are a lot fewer houserules and exceptions that way) reminds me again of how underappreciated this rule system always seemed to be.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I just got turned on to these two clips, each almost ten minutes long, from the Kollywood movie Enthiran starring the ever-lovely Aishwarya Rai. The movie appears to be part Frankenstein, part Terminator, part Matrix, and all Bollywood. I'm not sure yet if it's the coolest thing that I've ever seen, or the stupidest, but being as I can't decide, I post it here; this compilation of clips dubbed into Russian (of course!) to make it either even cooler or even stupider.

Wealth system

Unlike in D&D, where you track your actual money, d20 Modern comes with an abstracted wealth system, where you have a wealth ranking, and you make "wealth checks" to buy stuff; or to see if you have stuff. I think I can see the motivation for doing so; in a modern game, we know very well what kind of "stuff" people tend to have. Think of your house and all the stuff that's in it, for example. Rather than having out of control equipment lists for your character, the designers decided that if you want to have something, and the GM thinks it might be reasonable for your character to own it, you make a Wealth check to find out if that's something you've managed to acquire or not. I'm not quite sure why making a check is necessary; if the GM decides that it's reasonable for your character to have, say, an iPod even though it's not written down on your character sheet, then why can't he just say, "Yeah, you've got that," when asked?

But one of the hallmarks of the d20 era was that the designers felt that if they could make a rule for something, that they should. Maybe I should say, that if they felt they could make a mechanic for something, they should. Tools, not rules, remember? You use tools when appropriate and when that's what you want and need from your game, not when you don't.

And with that said, I'm having some significant second thoughts about whether or not I want to use the wealth system as presented in d20 Modern or not.

Pros? Well, it's already written, for one thing. All of the equipment lists I'd likely refer to have cost as a wealth check DC, not in any other format. Lots of the occupations and other rules assume the wealth system and have bonuses (or penalties) associated with them. In other words, taking it out might be more trouble than it's worth, because it means that there'd be a cascading effect of houseruling that I'd ideally want to do to capture the changes. Well, maybe not too bad a cascading effect; if I could come up with a "monetary"equivalent to a +1 Wealth bonus; i.e., for each +1, grant a character 500 doubloons or something like that (I haven't actually given much thought to coinage and money in Dark•Heritage yet. I like the idea of having multiple currencies, though... not just "gold pieces." And I want evocative names too; like doubloons, guineas, guilders, pieces of eight and ducats, or something like that. Work in progress.) For prices, I can actually adopt the D&D equipment list and add a few things rather than work backwards from the d20 Modern equipment lists. Actually, it'd almost be easier; for d20 Modern I have to combine d20 Modern, Urban Arcana and d20 Past and then heavily edit the equipment list down; with a D&D baseline, I can just use as is and add a few items back in. Although I'm supposed to be in the pros section here and I'm migrating into reasons not to use the Wealth system.

Cons? It's kinda a hassle, really, in a setting where you don't want to make a lot of rolls to see, "would it be reasonable that my character would have bought this before?" Where purchases are relatively rare and focused, it's easier to just say, "here's how much money I have." I don't think my players will particularly like it. I'm not quite sure that I do, even when I consider the pros for an actual modern game (although I like it better in that setting than I do in any other.) And, it's just not very much fun compared to the alternatives. Keeping track of your pieces of eight, or your thalers or your doubloons, or whatever, is just kinda fun, as long as it doesn't devolve into too much accounting.

So I've decided; I'm going to jettison the Wealth system from my adaptation of the d20 Modern rules. Occupations and/or feats and/or class abilities that affect your wealth bonus instead give you a one-time 500 (currency TBD) bonus to your money.

One thing that I'll have to do is monitor where the characters are with money. Unless it's a feature I want to encourage, I'll make sure that the characters feel the need to actually manage their money, but not make them feel too overtly itinerant and poverty-stricken. I don't have any illusions about "wealth per level" or anything like that for my games, and lacking magical items, they probably don't have a lot of things that are really spendy that they'd want to put their money out on. And for that matter, I don't really care to track day-to-day expenses very much either; every night they stop at an inn or tavern, or every time they buy a meal, I don't have characters deduct a few pennies from their money totals. That's what I mean by devolving into accounting. To me (and my group) that doesn't contribute to the fun of the game, it distracts from it.

So, I'll just keep an eye on it. If the characters find money frustrating because they never have enough, I'll see about having them find a stash, or encourage them to take the Windfall feat, or something. Or, I'll just have them manage to acquire by hook or crook what, exactly, it is that they want the money for anyway. I actually think, however, that there's a lot to be said for not always giving your PCs what your characters want them to have. I had a great run with a character playing under me who's whole goal in life; his raison d'être, was to acquire a ship. The fact that he never really did was part of what made him fun; he was always doing all kinds of things in character to try and get one, and it became a running joke and important character defining element. For that matter, I don't think the player really wanted him to get one either; he had too much fun playing up the obsession and fanatical single-mindedness into which the character started devolving.

Heck; for that matter, I'm the kind of GM who thinks it would even be fun if the characters decided that they were either so greedy or so desperate that they turned to burglary or highway robbery in order to raise more cash. I could run with that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

King Solomon's Mines, and more

A few scattershot updates on a variety of topics, none of which merit a post on their own.

First, I've been diligently updating my version of the Modern SRD with my own rewrites and edits done on top of a document that's already a merging of the regular SRD and the Arcana extended SRD. While it's not done yet (and won't be for a little while, I'd think) I did also update the wiki that has all the houserules listed. While this isn't a comprehensive document with everything included, it is one that you can refer to with the three books (or the MSRD and d20 Past) to play "correctly", i.e., the way I would like Dark•Heritage run in an ideal world. With these updates, everything is covered while I, in the meantime, keep plugging away at the standalone document that will have all of the rules in it.

Secondly, I watched the 1985 King Solomon's Mines this weekend. The one with Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone? Herbert Lom and John Rhys-Davies as a pair of villains? Yeah, I don't blame you for not remembering it. It's a rather obscure movie; although it did get a brief DVD release back in 2004 (it has subsequently gone back out of print again. I had to get the movie on interlibrary loan.) When I watched it, probably in '85 or '86 at the latest, I was a fresh young lad of 13 or 14, still excited about anything Harrison Ford was involved with (especially Indiana Jones or Han Solo-ish) and I remember thinking that it was a credible Indiana Jones rip-off. It was obviously just that; an Indiana Jones rip-off, but I was OK with that. To a lesser extent, so was 1984's Romancing the Stone, and the 1982-3 television shows Bring 'Em Back Alive and Tales of the Gold Monkey. At that time, I was certainly in the mood for more of that vibe if I could get it.

In any case, I found that my memories of the movie were a little bit gilded. Although it was obviously a Raiders rip-off, it was a rather poor one after all. The characters were cardboard, the dialogue was hoaky and unbelievable, the acting was egregious, the premise was silly, the stunts and action were poorly choreographed and filmed, and the special effects were dated and cheap, even by mid-80s standards. I found myself rolling my eyes a lot, and thinking to myself, "I've been looking for this movie for years, and this is all that it was after all?"

Although I have to give it credit for being filmed almost entirely on location in Zimbabwe. You can't fake that kind of authenticity. It's almost worth seeing just for the locations, and for the over-the-top villains chewing the scenery. Especially watched back to back with Raiders (which would also highlight all this movie's weaknesses), where you could see John Rhys-Davies play first Sallah and then Dogati might be good for a laugh.

About halfway through the movie, my two younger kids, who are big Raiders fans, came downstairs where I was watching it and watched the end with me. Both expressed an interest in seeing the movie start to finish; it scratched their itch, anyway. It didn't exactly do so to mine. Although while looking some details up about the movie after the fact, I found that there was a made for TV miniseries take on the book (on which this movie is loosely based) starring Patrick Swayze made a few years ago. If nothing else, watching this movie made me very curious to track down a copy of that and see if it's any good. There's also an Asylum Allan Quartermain film that came out in 2008, no doubt to coincide with the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (The Asylum is infamous for releasing cheap movies with a close resemblance to big blockbusters that are due at about the same time.) Although I haven't yet seen anything by Asylum Studios that I liked, including adaptations of some of my favorite source material (The Land that Time Forgot, War of the Worlds and Princess of Mars, most notably) despite everything, I'll probably eventually try to watch it. Heck, it's probably available to stream via Netflix. Most of the rest of their catalog seems to be.

I'm still feeling a bit swamped by material to read. After blasting through about 100 pages of the nearly 800 page doorstopper Iron Kingdom, a history of Prussia, I had to put it aside for a time and read some other material that was more pressing (demand for that book is probably low, so I can renew from the library a few times if necessary.) I also got the first of Brent Weeks' trilogy, The Way of Shadows and Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky (no relaton to the composer. His real name is Czajkowski and he's an Anglo-Polish writer.) In the meantime, I just got notified that the long-delayed interlibrary loan request for Brian Lumley's Necroscope just arrived too. My plan was to blast through the three novels and then turn to the historical tract, and then not check anything else out for a while so I can read some books that I own. What's happened is that my blasting has been, at best, fitful sputtering. I find that my motivation to read is not high. I've only read the first few pages of Weeks' book; not even enough to really say that I've started, and I haven't cracked open either of the other two at all.

Meanwhile, I rectified an embarrasing oversight in my book collection. Although I claim to be a big Lovecraft fan, I'd never actually owned any Lovecraft stories; I'd checked them out at the library or even read them on dagonbytes. Now, I have all of Lovecraft's work --I bought the Del Rey versions with the much better cover art than the Arkham Press versions. I also bought the older White Wolf printings of the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories--I didn't get the entire run, but I've got the first omnibus, which is what was published as three separate books (which were themselves collections of earlier published short stories, of course.) This has raised my count of "Books I Own But Haven't Yet Read" to ridiculous levels; so much so that I'm almost tempted to stop counting them if I've read them before I bought them, no matter how long ago.

I'm not sure what I'm going to read next. I'll probably power through the library books and then decide. But I'll review whatever I read here; unless I decide to re-read something I've already reviewed in the past, which is another possibility. Oof.

Finally, for some reason, I've also been drawn back into listening to my Red Dead Redemption soundtrack. I bought that as a download from Amazon a little while ago; when it was new, I guess, and I think it's kinda fun. I included a sample song from the soundtrack here. I think what drew me into it was a combination of things; working on developing the part of my setting which most closely resembles the Old West, seeing True Grit, and dusting off my old Xbox copy of Gun, itself a decent example of Revisionist Westerns (also available on Steam, I'm told.) It's got quite an impressive voice actor cast, including Thomas Jane, Kris Kristofferson, Lance Henriksen, Ron Perlman, Tom Skerrit, Brad Dourif and prolific video game voice actors Dave Wittenberg and Kath Soucie. There are rumors of a Gun sequel, which given the success of Red Dead Redemption might be more valid now than they were before (although Gun was itself a reasonably successful title.) I continue to place the Old West, including some aspects of darker revisionist westerns--especially spaghetti westerns (I'm not real keen on the Hollywood use of revisionist westerns to criticise contemporary American society, for instance), as one of the main influences on my setting, along with a similar darkening of the Golden Age of Piracy. Revisionist pirate movies? Revisionist Arabian nights?

I guess the darker, "noir" take on any genre is one that I take to well... and we're currently undergoing a wave of revisionist fantasy as well. While probably mostly subconsciously, now that I'm aware of it and can perceive it more clearly, it's obvious that I'm just one cog in a greater cultural zeitgeist amongst fantasy fans, turning to a "noir" sensibility, darker anti-heroes, and a "demythologizing" of a lot of our long-standing fantasy tropes and conventions.

Anyway, I included the Red Dead Redemption soundtrack sample below, as promised. Just for the heckuvit.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Untash tribesmen

I created a new label, Dark•Heritage, which is meant to cover all my posts that specifically contain an element of setting development for my homebrew campaign. Some of the earliest posts that I've given this label to actually didn't originally belong to this setting, but one of the things that's happened over the years is that four or five settings that I was kinda working on independently from each other all merged together into a single setting, elements that were too outre to fit into this new paradigm were jettisoned, and the new hybrid setting, or Mk. IV Dark•Heritage, is this new setting. Let me ramble just for a bit about the history of the development of the setting as it stands now, then I'll actually introduce the "real" content of this post, a brief essay on the nature of the Untash tribesmen, who will be an important part of the first adventure of the new campaign that I run here in, supposedly, a couple of months.

Dark•Heritage was first concieved while I was watching Attack of the Clones with one of my kids many years ago on DVD. That movie is mostly pretty terrible, but I think what I did was either fast-forwarded, or just left the room, for most of it, then came back in to watch the arena battle, the Jedi fighting battle droids, and then the eponymous attack of the clone troops and the Battle of Geonosis. Geonosis reminded me starkly of a space opera image of Mars; dusty red soil, crazy yet fascinating rock formations, red dusty sky, alien, insectile native life, etc. It had obvious parallels back to Barsoom from Edgar Rice Burroughs, or to Leigh Brackett's, C. L. Moore's, or Otis Adelbert Kline's Mars. At the time, I was starting to feel a little tired and bored with "standard" fantasy, so the idea of a fantasy setting that bore as much (or heck, more even) resemblance to Barsoom than it did to Middle-earth was appealing to me. This was the original genesis of Dark•Heritage. One of my early attempts at running a play-by-post (Pbp) game was set there, and it struggled with all the of the typical things that Pbp games tend to struggle with and ended soon and early.

I started developing the setting in earnest using the Ray Winninger Dungeoncraft methodology, mostly just because; I wasn't actually running it at that time. My own Dungeoncraft series of posts are an update of that development phase. Perhaps a bit to my surprise, I had an opportunity to run it again come up after a few months. By this time, I had migrated to Mk. II of the setting. Rather than being a habitable Mars-like world, I had gotten extremely excited about an older concept of floating islands in a vast atmospheric sea connecting by flying airships. Although my fascination with that idea was relatively short-lived, it was frozen in place for some time because I was fascinated with it when I started running the game and I couldn't exactly change it midstream because I lost interest in it. The game ended on its own a little later for other reasons, although it is still lamented and missed in my gaming group. Occasionally.

After our group consolidated with another group that was also shrinking to the point of nonviability, we played something else: Age of Worms, in fact. That was a long-lived campaign, so in the background, I started tinkering with the Mk. III Dark•Heritage; back to something that more closely resembled Mars, but also heavily influenced by the geography and political landscape of the ancient and Medieval Tarim Basin. This version of the setting got quite a bit of development done, scattered between various notebooks that I used to carry around with me to jot stuff down as I felt like it, and a wiki that I still keep archived for historical purposes, etc. I never ran Mk. III, but it was more developed than either Mk. I or Mk. II was before I stopped working on it. I did also develop a detailed novel outline for this version of the setting, and worked out almost 20,000 words of a draft before I became dissatisfied with some of the things that seemed so exciting to me at one point, but now felt just strange and difficult and awkward.

While all this was happening, I also toyed around with a few other homebrew settings. Most of them borrowed names and/or concepts, locations, and even characters from Dark•Heritage. One of them, which I called Leng Calling, first introduced the Mezzovian Sea and the Terrasan Empire, juxtaposing it with some of the cities that I had built along my "fantasy Silk Road", like Razina, Iclezza, etc. While Leng Calling was always meant to be "more D&Dish" than Dark•Heritage, it ironically became the geographic core around which Dark•Heritage Mk. IV would eventually grow. But before his, I also toyed around with my Demons in the Mist setting (again, an outre D&D setting), my Pirates of the Mezzovian Main setting (which recycled much of the Leng Calling geography again) and my homebrew Freeport setting; utilizing Green Ronin's Freeport city, but building my own little mini-setting around it, which was very loosely based geographically on the real East Indies.

For all of these, I recycled at least names, but often entire nations and bigger building blocks, which led to the creation of the Modular DND Setting wiki, where I intended to archive modular elements that could be dropped in and used without much work to create ad hoc campaign settings on the fly with existing elements. My Demons in the Mist, Freeport and Pirates of the Mezzovian Main games were fairly successful, and with all these half-formed nascent settings sitting out there, and my original Dark•Heritage languishing unused and unappreciated, it suddenly dawned on me: what I really needed to do was take the best elements from each of these and integrate it into a single, cohesive whole. Because it was also a "best of" of ideas taken from nearly half a dozen settings worked on over the course of four or five years, it was also much more unlikely to ever start to dissatisfy me; these were all ideas that had been proven out and used day in and day out in my gaming and fantasy needs for a long time.

And this became Dark•Heritage Mk. IV, which gradually took over the Modular DND Setting wiki, as they converged into becoming literally the exact same thing, except with a cohesive framework that integrated all of the "modules" together. It has elements of the Freeport setting: my nation of Qizmir is transparently borrowed from Green Ronin's Kizmir, and Porto Liure is Catalan for Free Port. Kinda. It has elements of my original Dark•Heritage setting, especially in the slightly Leigh Brackett Mars influenced cities of Kurushat and Baal Hamazi. It has big Lovecraftian regions, with infamous names like Carcosa and the Plateau of Leng integrated directly into the Forbidden Lands. It has the Terrasan Empire and some of its far flung colonies from Leng Calling as the main geographic centerpiece. And so on and so on.

And it gradually became less D&D like in some ways too, over time. While some of those component settings that I used originally had things like elves, dwarves, wizards, clerics, etc. Dark•Heritage makes no such assumptions. It's a more classically Sword & Sorcery feeling setting in many ways, especially with regards to fantasy races and fantasy professions. It's got significant tone influence from Glen Cook's The Black Company books. And it even allows me to indulge my inner paleontological nerd, by having a faunal assemblage borrowed from Pleistocene North America; with both familiar animals as well as familiar recent fossils from places like La Brea; dire wolves, sabertooths, Columbian mammoths, etc.

Whew. That was more long-winded than I intended it to be. But that is the State of the Setting as of January 2011... and I anticipate it will remain so indefinitely, with the exception of more detail and definition continuing to come out as the setting moves back out from the backwater of theory and into the trial by fire of an actual game for real people again.
So, I need to develop the Untash tribesmen a little bit, since they will play a role in the first session of my new campaign when I start it. The Untash tribesmen are to the north of the Terrasan territories, as well as northwest of Tarush Noptii, the vampire kingdom. I envisioned them when I was mapping out the former territories of Baal Hamazi, and I expect that a few centuries ago they would have been involved with that empire, at least in some fashion--probably as a source of mercenaries and slaves. Since the fall of the Empire, the Untash have grown from being a minor tribe to being a big confederation of loosely related tribes and bands that is regionally dominant, and a real headache to their more "civilized" neighbors, like the former Baal Hamazi regions of Pnakot and Shushun, the most northerly Terrasan settlements north of Iclezza and Razina, the northern marches of Tarush Noptii, and the rival Tazitta tribes. In very vague terms, I see the Untash as not unlike the Comanche of the mid 1800s, or pre-Imperial Mongols--dangerous, powerful, respected, feared; consumate raiders and light cavalry.

The Untash live in xeric grasslands interspersed with intermittant badlands, not unlike the Tabernas desert in Almería in southern Spain; a favorite location for the shooting of spaghetti Westerns. They are sometimes called colloquially the Bone People because of their habit of crafting clothing from the bones of bison and edging them with thin leaf iron. Bison and pronghorn make up the primary food source of the Untash, and some observers have noted that they appear to be the most carnivorous people in the region, eating very little fruits and vegetables and taking most of their sustenance from meat and pemmican. While most tribes follow and hunt wild bison and pronghorn herds, some do keep semi-domesticated herds as well. As well as hunting from horseback, the Untash keep dogs and red hunting cats to help them herd, corral or hunt their prey.

The Untash keep large herds of scotties (a native North American horse, for my purposes not unlike a tarpan or Heck horse--although occasionally possessing modest stripes on the rear legs) and their horse culture is one of the dominant features of life. Although an exaggeration, it is sometimes said that Untash children can ride before they can walk; certainly older children and adults are strongly associated with their scotties and rarely dismount when traveling. They are also renowned for their skill in archery; young Untash braves are known to lean over the sides of their horses and launch 5-6 arrows under the neck of their horse before the first one hits its target. Combined with their unengaging hit and run tactics, this makes the Untash very feared as raiders and bandits--Terrasans and others may be proud of their rifled muskets, but they can't compete with this rate of repeating fire.

As is typical of hunting and pastoral nomadic societies, the Untash have few permanent habitations, and live in easily disassembled and moved structures called kullaks which are not unlike yurts or teepees. At least one band of Untash, sometimes called the "Royal Untash" live out of large covered wagons.

The Untash make a point of disagreeing with most of their neighbors. The hated hamazin once had a fairly successful run at enslaving many of their people. The Tazitta are traditional rivals. The vampires of Tarush Noptii are hated and feared for obvious reasons. Whatever comes out of the Forbidden Lands is killed on sight. However, the Untash tend to be curious and even somewhat friendly to anyone else that they encounter crossing their lands, and their hospitality is also as legendary as their fierce raiding tradition.

Currently, the Untash are undergoing a cresting population boom. This is making their relationships with their neighbors even more strained, as Untash braves have increased their raiding frequency and distance substantially. However, some of the city-states of hamazin and Terrasa have seen this as an opportunity to hire them as foreign mercenaries, and many braves have accepted these offers. Untash warriors; mostly young ones, are now still a rare sight in the cities, but not as rare as they used to be.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fixing d20

A few posts ago, I outlined what I thought were three problems with D&D (3.5, and family) as written. I'll reiterate them here, then I'll post my fixes. Two of them I've had in place for quite some time, but the third I just thought of, and am keen on trying out and seeing what people think of it. Granted, that one's more of a "taste" thing rather than a problem per se... it makes the game more what I want rather than necessary better. But anyway. The problems, again, were:
  1. Armor Class (AC) doesn't keep up with Base Attack Bonus (BAB). This means you need to keep spending money on better and better armor, or magic items to increase your DEX, or your AC. As long as the money comes in as expected, this is already "solved" I guess, but it strikes me as more of a clumsy patch than a really solid, robust solution.
  2. The CR system isn't just based on level, it's also based on the expectation of a number of magical "boosts". The higher up in level you go, the more ricketty and fragile this balance seems to be.
  3. Combat is too static, and not nearly "swashbucklery" enough. D&D rewards higher level striker type characters with multiple attacks per round if they stand in place, and the opportunity cost of not doing so is too high. Therefore, playing any fighter, barbarian, ranger, etc. type character who does something different, after about 5th or 6th level, is tactically very bad and maladaptive. This is, frankly, really boring, and not in harmony with what I believe are major literary and cinematic influences and source material for the game.

With me so far? Here's my solutions. The third one is new, but depending on what you've read of my gaming, they might all three be new to you as well.

  1. Most other d20 games other than D&D already have solved this: d20 Modern, d20 Star Wars, d20 World of Time, etc. If the expectation is not heavy armor or magic items, then a Defense bonus that increases as you go up in level, to simulate your character's fighting prowess increasing by getting harder to hit (not just by hitting harder) makes perfect sense. Luckily for me, the Unearthed Arcana houserule collection made this an easily applicable option for D&D as well, right here. You'll probably go over your wealth per level guidelines if you don't need to keep buying armor boosting abilities, but that seques nicely into my #2 solution...
  2. I don't pay any attention to wealth/level guidelines, and PCs in my games are almost certainly impoverished compared to what the designers assume. This means that they can't afford all kinds of razzmatazz magic that's at odds with the source material that inspired the game. Of course, this also means that I need to pay closer attention to what I throw at my players than others. CR becomes much more of a handwavey guideline rather than a component of a mathematical formula who's results you can usually count on. Of course, long-time players will remember the days before we had CR, when you had to do this anyway; know your party's capabilities and pick challenges that were appropriate for them based on that knowledge, not on some number in a formula. Guess what; we're back to that again. It's a key GMing skill that never should have been lost in the first place, in my opinion.
  3. Normally, per the rules, when your BAB reaches +6, you gain an extra attack (if you take a full attack option) at -5 from your first attack. This means that you don't actually move to +6, you actually move to +6/+1. For this houserule, instead of moving to +6/+1, you merely move to +6, but you gain the benefit of the Spring Attack feat for free, even if you don't have the prerequisites to do so. Similarly, when you would gain a third attack (+11/+6/+1), you instead only move to +11/Spring Attack but you also gain the benefit of Whirlwind Attack for free, even if you do not meet the prerequisites. There is no house rule for +16--no campaign I ever run will ever get that high in levels, I don't think (if I'm ever proven wrong, I'll come up with that houserule as needed.)

These changes will migrate any d20 based game into one that more closely mimics what I consider the key source material; fast, mobile, swashbuckly fight scenes between characters that rely on skill, not tons of armor and magic, to win their fights for them. I realize that there are some indirect consequences of this, though--I mentioned one in my solution #1 (which is largely offset by my solution #2 anyway), but solution #3 has several as well. First off, the average damage dealt by a hard hitting character may go down without the multiple attacks, prolonging fights and making them more dangerous. I haven't actually done the math, but I know this is at least partially offset by the lowered BAB on those subsequent attacks; you're not as likely to hit with them anyway. I could be wrong, and some playtesting should flush this out, but I don't think that'll be a significant enough problem to warrent "solving" though; it just means that combat flow and balance will be a little bit different.

Secondly, it means that the take rate for the feats Spring Attack and Whirlwind Attack (and possibly Dodge and Mobility, which aren't that useful on their own, but are kind of like tax feats that you have to pay before you get Spring Attack and Whirlwind Attack) will plummet and maybe even disappear altogether. I'm OK with that. I don't think that's a problem so much as just a... just a thing. It'll happen, but the game isn't any the worse for wear because of it.

Anyway, what do you think?

A little more of the world

I've been reading some stuff lately about the theories on the settlement of the world by populations of early modern humans, and how their mtDNA haplogroups spread and got to where they are, mostly in the early prehistoric era--tens of thousands of years ago. Modern theories of population movement focus less on culture, language, and stuff like that, and emphasize consistency of the majority of the genetics in places for thousands and thousands of years.

Of course, we know that this isn't always true; people of European and African descent didn't get genetically swamped by the native populations of North and South America, for example. But it appears that it most frequently did. When Sanskrit and Indic culture came to India, it didn't make a huge dent in the population genetics of the area, even though it clearly made a major change in the political, cultural and linguistic map of the subcontinent. Similarly, the Mongols and the Manchus are genetically invisible across the face of most of China.

So, thinking about this, I decided to make a slightly more expanded, albeit sketchy, map of the lateral hemisphere of my fantasy world, with the more "local" Mezzovian Sea region that is really the heart of my setting shown in context with the greater continental picture around it. And, for fun, I thought I'd speak in very broad and vague patterns about the migration of humanity across the face of these continents; where they came from and how they diversified and migrated across the face of the land in ancient times, tens of thousands of years ago, long before anything like the current civilizations were a spark in anyone's eye. These broad patterns speak more to physical type than they do to culture or linguistics, clearly. Cultures and linguistics are much more recent and transient than biology.

Anyway, this'll be helpful to me when I need to come up with slightly more far-flung representatives of humanity, or when I want to describe what humanity really looks like in a given area. It occured to me that I really had no idea what the substrate population of Qizmir or Kurushat was like, even though I said that there was a healthy substrate population; in Qizmir in particular, where I said the ruling caste of jann was a minority. I can use the broad patterns established in this post to extrapolate other population groups as needed.

To me, this is important because I don't want to actually develop them in detail--but I want to suggest that they are out there; that the world is bigger, more complex, and more realistic (or verisimilitudinous, to be nitpicky) than what I can reasonably come up with on my own. Plus, sketching out this very broad, handwavy prehistory of population movement gives me something that I can use as a backbone to maintain consistency as needed as well.

The large landmass that makes up the central (and slightly to the east and south) portion of this map is about the size of Africa or North America (10 million square miles or so) although geographically very different. The developed portion of the world is centered on the area where the labels are; from the equator southwards to Kurushat, the most southerly labeled area (but not as far as the southern coast; my "regional" map shows no southern coastline.) Laterally, it also does not cover the most westerly or most easterly portions of the continent, and the other shown continents, microcontinents, and islands are not shown at all, of course. Although the inhabitants don't have a name for this continent as a whole (nor do most of them suspect the existance of this geography, frankly; the entire concept of a continent would be foreign to them) for ease of use, I'm going to call this the Mezzovian continent, named for the gigantic sea that floods most of its central portion, and which is the central feature of the detailed area of the map.

You can also see a much larger continent--a supercontinent, really, made up of several continental plates and terrenes that have been united together for millions of years--looming across the ocean. Nobody in my area of the map even suspects the existance of this continent, really. This large continent is (roughly) the size of Eurasia and Australia jammed together, so about 25 million square miles--more than twice the size of the Mezzovian continent. The supercontinent is also the homeland of humanity who came in daring mariner waves, not unlike the Polynesians or the Vikings. Subsequently, much of their technology was lost both on the supercontinent and the Mezzovian continent, as ecological disasters associated with glacial stages destroyed the existing civilizations and introduced a prolonged global dark age.

The first wave, perhaps the most daring, crossed the ocean south of the equator, stopping off to populate the islands, then moving on to land on the southern shores of what is today known as the d'Acs Sea. From there, they spread southward, eastward and northward. Initially, this group can be described as "Med1"--Mediterranean in nature; on average, shorter and more gracile than some other groups, with dark hair and eyes, and a bronzed skin coloration. As they spread, they encountered groups of Neanderthal humans still living in some areas. Today, these Neanderthals have been pushed back to the far southern limits of the continent, and to the steppes of Cavusto, while the Med1 physical type spread over much of the continent except the far north and far west, especially north of the Mezzovian itself, where the Forbidden Lands are; places that even tens of thousands of years ago were of ill-repute and were carefully avoided.

Possibly some groups of this first wave intermingled with the Neanderthals, or possibly it was just diversity starting to pop up as the initially homogenous population wave separated into smaller and more isolated groups, split by natural barriers such as mountain ranges, rivers, dense forests, deserts, and other hazards. To the north of the Mezzovian sea, the population developed paler skin and became Med2--the basis of what was later called the Balshatoi ethnic group and the Tarushans, and others. On the shores of the vast Lake Karkose a genetically isolated population (Med3) grew taller on average and their eyes turned an icy pale gray, nearly white--the antecedants of the Kurushi groups. Their skin tone remained bronze, and some of them developed narrow eyes marked by modest epicanthic folds, as well as aquiline noses. Along the southern shore of the Mezzovian, all the way to the oceanic coastline and even the Qizmiri islands beyond, the original Med1 physical type did not radically alter, however, and a physically (if not culurally and linguistically) homogenous population spread and grew, giving rise to the Qizmiri substrate, the Terrasans, and other, smaller ethnic groups that still remain in the area today.

From somewhere amongst the Med2 population sprouted the vucari or wildmen--individuals cursed with lycanthropy who fled their people to live in the wilds of the vast forest that stretched over much of the northern portion of the continent in those days. These groups grew, while the curse of lycanthropy was still potent and strong, and others fled their homes to live with other poor werewolves as well. Over generations, the curse weakened. Fewer individuals came by it, and those who did had descendents who were only lightly touched by its ravages. These became the first wildmen, and while their original homeland was deep in the Shifting Forest, in the years before the rise of Terrasa, a major diaspora and exodus from that region led to their spreading into various areas, including the population of the Erau river basin, and the minority populations throughout the Terrasan city-states.

Two other waves of humans came from the supercontinent. The first of these came from the equatorial regions of the supercontinent, went north to the microcontinents and islands (which were larger and less separated, since glacial maximums would have lowered sea levels globally). This physical type, which I call Nor1 (Nordic), were pale-skinned and flaxen haired, with blue and green eyes--not too unlike the population of modern Northern Europe in our world (despite their tropical origin). When they arrived, the earlier wave of Med1 immigrants were already fairly well esablished all around the Mezzovian sea region itself as well as the westernmost coastal regions. While there was significant admixturing and hybridization of the two waves of population, a large group of this Nor1 wave said, "Screw it" and settled northward where the land was uninhabited. They quickly covered most of this territory, spreading across the coastline until they came to the northern edges of the Forbidden Lands. Some few of them bravely attempted to colonize this area, but they were uniformly either killed or corrupted by the forces that lurked in those dark lands. This may be the origin of the cannibal inhabitants of the offshore islands, although physically there is no longer any resemblance to the Nor1 population group.

The final wave of settlers to the Mezzovian continent came from the far north of the supercontinent, and crossed on the northern edges of the microcontinents and islands, completely unaware of the meager population that was settling in on the southern shores. This group, called Pol1, were more robust than most other inhabitants of the Mezzovian continent, with dark hair, eyes, and brown skin. They would have appeared to us not unlike Polynesians: Maori, Hawaiians, Samoans, etc. When they arrived on the continent, young settlements of Nor1 peoples already ringed the coastal areas, and they came into immediate contact. In fact, the numbers of Nor1 settlers had grown to the point where they outnumbered the Pol1 significantly, and the hybrid cultures that grew along the northwest coast lost much of their physical appearance to both; many of them became much more lithe; tall and rangy. The paler skin, hair and eyes proved to be genetically recessive, although Pol2, the population that grew out of this admixture was sometimes lighter in most instances than the original Pol1 peoples had been. In comparing Pol2 to populations here on earth, they probably would have looked somewhat like North American Indians. Close enough, anyway.

Pol1 and especially Pol2 physical types penetrated deep into the interior of the continent, stopping only when they came to well established settlements of Med2 peoples, with which they further mixed and hybridized. The various tribes of the Hamazi-lands; Tazitta, Untash, etc., as well as the Hamazin themselves (after making a literal deal with the devil) are descended from these groups, as are other, undescribed peoples to the north.

Remember again; this is physical type only. This is meant to describe how various population clusters of folks with similar genetics and physical appearance got to be where they are, literally tens of thousands of years prior to the campaign setting as it's presented. Two individuals of, say, Pol2 physical appearance who speak completely unrelated languages and practice completely disaparate cultures might not recognize any kinship with each other at all, even though they do share some gross physical similarities that suggest that in very ancient times their ancestors came to the Mezzovian continent as part of the same wave of prehistoric settlers.

Shortly after this third wave arrived, the glaciers receded, sea levels rose, the technolgical "dark age" globally occurred, and both continents lost contact with each other (assuming that contact was even maintained in the first place.) No additional waves of migrants arrived on the shores of the Mezzovian continent until the jann did so in historic times, this time from the unknown east instead of the west--the first such migration to come from that direction. Groups mixed, mingled, and developed locally into very divergent and diverse cultures and ethnic groups. So many generations passed that there was no hope of recovering evidence of common languages anymore. Time, evolution (both culturally and physically in some cases) eliminated the evidence of the three waves of migration, leaving only the cultures that grew from those roots to become the new native cultures, societies and ethnicities of the Mezzovian world.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dark•Heritage document progress

Tonight, while listening to a Winamp playlist of the two Red Dead Redemption soundtracks (the original, plus the zombie expansion) I took all the Modern SRD files, jammed them together in OpenOffice and saved it as the new consolidated document. I'd already done some content editing of the individual files, so other than some formating (and I'll need to do more of that than I hoped; OpenOffice really screwed up the formating something fierce) and a few cut and pastes from existing rules documents of my own authorship--and a slight bit of rearranging to get the Arcana feats, classes, spells, etc. merged with the regular ones... the document is done!

That ended up being less painless than I feared, although there's still a lot to do yet to make it presentable.

Sadly, the document is also rather lengthy. Because I took the existing d20 rules and used them word for word as written in many places, they're overly verbose and detailed. This has driven the page count of my (admittedly, still unformatted) document to over 200 pages, which I find appalling, since I never wanted anything so lengthy.

Then again, I could always remove big chunks of it. I don't really need to reprint the combat rules, for instance, or some of the other rules that anyone who's ever played a d20 game of any kind would already know. And the spell list is a very large chunk of all that text. I could refer to it as an external list and cut well over fifty pages out on that section alone. Heck, between that and the combat chapter, that's almost half of the page count!

Then again, the whole point of striving for elegance of presentation was to have all the rules needed for play in one place, whether or not I actually "needed" them or not. And since it was just a cut and paste job, I'm thinking I'll leave them.

Anyway, yeah... I'm just gloating a tiny bit. It feels nice to have as much done as I do today, even though I still have some rather daunting tasks ahead of me to make it something truly playable.


I just finished Caitlin Kiernan's shortish novel Threshold, which was a very intriguing, intriguing book. I'm not sure that I can recommend it or not, or even if I liked it, but it certainly very much intrigued me.

In fact, my overall impression is uncertainty, and that's also my reaction to the novel. While not exactly a Lovecraftian story, at the same time, it's almost quintessentially Lovecraftian. It features impossible geometries, characters who's lives are broken by their encounters with "the Mythos" (including two suicides, several other suspicious deaths, a descent in alcoholism, and the book's final scene is set in an insane asylum), horrors that predate humanity by hundreds of millions of years (and seem to be chronologically associated with various trilobites; the first time I've ever heard of them being used as an icon of horror) and seem to come from elsewhere than our earth.

Yet despite all this, like Total Recall or Inception, at the end of it, you wonder if perhaps the whole thing was a hallucination of characters who's elevator don't go all the way to the top floor, if you know what I mean. There's little that's explained satisfactorily, no evidence left behind to corroborate the beliefs of the characters, and perhaps most frustrating of all, a seminal plot point that takes place in the prologue is never actually described; characters refer to it obliquely while Kiernan refuses to ever tell us what happened to them exactly; both to the frustration of some other characters and to the readers.

I've said before and probably will again, that there's a fine line between holding back information about your monsters and revealing them. Reveal them too soon and too clearly and you manage to deflate much of their ability to actually cause any fear; refrain from doing so at all, and you've managed to pull a bait and switch on your audience, who comes to supernatural horror fiction precisely because they want to be exposed to supernatural monsters, and they want to see them and understand them, and be goggling at how cool a concept they are. Lovecraft himself frequently botched this execution; he overexposed some monsters (crinoid Elder things most spectacularly), never really exposed others at all, so that we're not even really sure that they're supposed to be scary or not (whatever's at Kadath in At the Mountains of Madness) and frequently revealed creatures that were underwhelming when their big reveal actually happens (ironically, Cthulhu itself, and shoggoths, among others.) Kiernan both does and does not fall into this trap--her horrors are shown and described, but never explained, and their nature is nearly as mysterious at the end of the book as it was at the beginning. And much like with Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, I think the end suffered from rushing breathlessly through a conclusion that is vague and suggestive without actually satisfying the readers very much.

One thing I'll give Kiernan--we're never supposed to believe that Threshold is scary because she tells us that it is--she very effectively does cultivate an atmosphere of dread. Well; two things--although I'm still not sure that I even liked this book, I can't deny that it lodged itself in my brain quite well and inspired an awful lot of thinking about things; about Lovecraftian horror, how to do it correctly, about weird extradimensional creatures outside of time and space and what their relationship to humanity might or might not be, and about freaky teenaged girls that might be heroes of a secret war that most of humanity is protected from for its own good, or might be merely insane, psychotic murderers. While I don't know that any fan of Lovecraftian horror would necessarily like this book just like I didn't necessarily like it, I'm confident that any fan of Lovecraftan horror will find it fascinating nonetheless.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dark•Heritage first adventure

This last weekend it was my birthday, and as a "treat" to myself, I watched one of my favorite old movies, the light-hearted adventure romp Hatari! with John Wayne, Bruce Cabot, Elsa Martinelli, Hardy Krüger, Red Buttons, and more. I've included a youtube clip of the trailer for reference, since I don't think this movie is all that well remembered and chances are most of you two or three readers that might find this post haven't actually ever seen that movie anyway.

The movie is about Momella Game; a group of esoteric and eclectic adventerous sorts of folks who hang around in Africa at the very end of the 1950s catching animals for zoos and circuses. In particular zoos; Elsa Martinelli's character's whole reason for being in the show is that a zoo in Switzerland who is buying most of the animals that Momella will catch this season wants photographic, documentary evidence of the catching.

So, John Wayne and Co. get in some beat up old pickup trucks and army surplus jeeps and drive around the countryside of what was then Tanganyika chasing wild animals (in footage that you can't film today, due to animal rights groups worrying that the animals might get tired from running or something.) Most of the action takes place on the Serengeti between Kilimanjaro and the Ngorongoro crater, with a few brief stops in Arusha, and plenty of time spent in their ranch house headquarters. Howard Hawks directs a meandering, almost plot-less script by Leigh Brackett that's focused on providing amusing ensemble vignettes between the characters and creating comic set-ups, interspersed with wild scenes of chases on the savana, including several where the characters are in very real danger; from rhinos, from crocodiles, and more.

While the easy-going, comic tone of Hatari! is not at all what I want for my game, I was immediately struck by inspiration while watching this movie; this concept; the idea of chasing around after wild animals, quickly rose to the top of my list of "cool things I can have my characters do when I start running" and so I've decided to change the set-up of my first homebrewed "module." Rather than taking place in the urban environs of a Tarush Noptii city, surrounded by the hushed human populace of a kingdom ruled by vampires, I'm going to move a bit to the northwest (keep in mind that my setting is in the southern hemisphere, so going north gets more tropical, not less so), to the Untash tribelands, where a local margrave is housing the PCs on his fortified ranch, and wants animals captured for his menagerie which he will then show off to his more urbane collegues in the south as curiosities from the northern marches.

I envision the Untash tribelands as being not unlike the Texas/Comancheria frontier during the Republic of Texas years; desperate treaties negotiated with the Untash last for a few months before deadly raids lead to the murder, rape, torture and abduction of southerners; mostly isolated farming and ranching families, but the Untash show clearly that they are both capable and willing of taking on fortified stockades and well-guarded caravans. This, in turn, leads to retaliation by poorly organized posses and specialized groups of bounty hunters and tribesmen hunters; not unlike a fantasy version of the fledgeling Texas rangers.

So I can start the game with tasking the group with hunting and capturing (without serious harm) a sabertooth or other large and dangerous wild animal (I like sabertooths in particular because I can follow the evidence that suggest that they were pack hunters to make them even more dangerous.) While out on the plains, they can come across the recent wreckage of a caravan, where a dying man tells them that a number of the margrave's important expected guests have been captured by Untash raiders, and that there's a sizeable reward/ransom waiting for anyone who can bring them back without harm. That should give the PCs sufficient motivation to follow after them in pursuit.

After allowing them to fight Untash patrols and other dangers, they can find the captives. They can also find that the Untash--or at least a splinter group of them--are up to much more than they bargained for, having turned to demon worship and human sacrifice and cannibalism. After this, my ideas start to get a little vague, but I'd like to have some clues that point towards Tarush Noptii, so that the PCs have sufficient incentive to go that way next. I'm, as always, reluctant to plan too far ahead, because I like the PCs themselves to start driving the game after it's been running for a session or two, rather than have me do so. But realistically, my group is mostly used to playing prewritten, published adventures, so I need to provide them at least sufficiently intriguing hooks, if not actual canned adventures, so that they can feel like they're doing "what they're supposed to be doing" in the game. So as we advance from there, I'll work on coming up with some clues that I can use to make Tarush Noptii sound interesting and important, and give them some possible leads of things to do there that they'll enjoy playing through. And in the meantime, I get to start the campaign off in an area that empasizes some of it's departures from "standard" fantasy by doing something that feels like it's more from an old fashioned Western than a fantasy set-up.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rise of the Runelords progress report 1

I haven't really given campaign reports of the game that I'm now, in part because I'm not running it, so it's not really "my" game, and in part because it's just a published adventure path from Paizo that doesn't necessarily need or benefit from a lot of "reporting" anyway. But in the wake of our last session, there's been a tremendous flurry of emails back and forth this week amongst the group, and I think some of what we're discussing is of greater interest to the gaming community at large (particularly the D&D playing community, and even more particularly those who play games derived from the third edition d20 engine).

I was mistaken a bit earlier when I said that we were going to start adventure 3 of 6 this last weekend; we still had a bit of the second adventure to close out, and it ended up taking the entire evening. We are now in the "intermodule" phase; a bit of downtime is going to pass, and we've got a lot of cash burning holes in our figurative wallets to spend on stuff to "power up" before starting adventure #3 of 6, which we'll now do on Saturday Jan 22nd, it looks like. This final section of adventure #2 included a really nasty "boss fight." Now, to give some context, not all of our group really cares much about the strategic "character building" game within the game, nor are we necessarily all that interested in trying to develop phenomenal tactical acumen within the confines of the rules of d20. So it's fair to say that we often prefer quirky and unusual characters that are fun to play for various reasons, but who aren't necessarily "optimized" in terms of how they were built and often even less so in terms of how they operate during the actual course of an adventure. My character, for example, Nestor Legison, was build around the concept that he's a half-orc who refuses to admit to anyone that he's less than 100% human. He has a feat (taken at first level) from the Pathfinder campaign setting that basically means he looks completely human and his orcish heritage is not immediately apparent. His parents were both also half-orcs (he's not the product of the cliched orc rape scenario--he came from a reasonably loving family that lived outside of orcish territory). He has the three levels of the half-orc paragon class, from Unearthed Arcana (the rest of the group thinks its pretty funny that he's a paragon of half-orcishness while simultaneously strenuously denying being anything other than human--he even keeps his darkvision secret). I, however, simply see this as a collection of mechanics and ignore the "concept" of the half-orc paragon prestige class. It gives me a +2 bonus to his already prodigious strength at 3rd level, but it only comes with a d8 hit die, and I only got OK rolls on hit points to boot. After that, I took a single level of the Barbarian class (mostly for the extra Rage and the extra movement) and then settled into the hexblade class from Complete Warrior, which was really always the concept to begin with.

All of this means that Nestor is incredible at dealing damage. He now has two attacks per round, a 22 or 23 Strength, and he can rage to increase that even more. He carries a masterwork greatsword (soon to sport some enchantments when I spend the money we're sitting on.) With his fast movement, he can charge into combat very quickly and usually give amazingly punishing two-handed attacks. He's not so hot in battles of attrition, though. His AC is only OK, and his hit points are not what you'd expect from a character that acts, basically, like a barbarian.

I mention this, because character build strategies and combat strategies have occupied much of the flurry of emails that we've had in the wake of a fairly ugly combat against a "boss" monster that was quite difficult for us to face. We were also a few group members down, just due to scheduling, so lacking a cleric or a wizard, we had a bit of a rough time with a pseudo-barbarian, a rogue, a bard and a druid who acts as much like a barbarian as I do. In the end, the GM decided to account for what would have been the influence of our missing cleric and druid with some minor deus ex machina handwaving to combat, including the bard (or the druid, I can't remember which) mysteriously finding a scroll of dispel magic in the middle of the fight so he could remove some of the things that were kicking our butts in a targeted dispel, and the druid's animal companion, Old Tom, whom we'd left at the bottom of a rickety staircase, came bounding into combat midway through and had mysteriously acquired one of those St. Bernard rescue dog brandy barrels under his neck (he's normally been described as more of an Irish wolfhound type of dog), which had the effect of a potion of cure critical wounds for Nestor to take. And then, Old Tom is a decent combatant in his own right, with his ability to make trip attempts and, if nothing else, provide flanking bonuses to the rogue so he could roll his sneak attack damage.

In any case, after this, the flurry of emails commenced. Included amongst this were a few suggestions on how to make Nestor more effective, primarily by me "letting go" of my fetish for high movement and getting some better armor, which is completely contrary to the character as I envision him. One suggestion was that I upgrade my armor, and they buy some boots of striding and springing. I think, naturally enough, that it's kind of absurd that I would take seriously the idea that I should have to spend an inordinate amount of gold to get magic items that give me back abilities that I already have now, if I can just avoid using medium armor (unless I get it made from mithral, of course. Which I might do. I'm seriously considering spending the bulk of my money on a mithral breastplate to replace my aging chain shirt).

Of course, to me, this whole conversation highlights three things that I think are "broken", or at least highly undesirable, about most editions of D&D and certainly for d20 powered versions of D&D and similar games (including, but not limited to, 3e, 3.5, and Pathfinder--and to a lesser extent, d20 Modern, and d20 Star Wars, and d20 Wheel of Time, etc.)
  1. Why does the to-hit bonus continue to increase for characters as they gain levels, but the "avoid getting hit" bonus does not? It's very bad game design to have that inequity built into the system, and they clumsily patch it with expectations of heavier and heavier armor, or magical means of defense. If you get better at fighting, it stands to reason that you don't just get better at hitting your opponent, you also become more difficult to hit yourself. Most d20 games other than D&D have elegantly fixed this problem with a class-based Defense bonus progression. There's even an option for it in D&D too, in Unearthed Arcana. But it really should have been included as a core rule from the get-go.

  2. Related to that is the need for D&D characters, if they're to stay as potent as they're "supposed to", to be kitted out in an ever increasing ensemble of magical items and equipment. Rings, pendants, armor, cloaks, weapons, helmets... we're at sixth level by now, and we're supposed to already be draped in magic. Of course, there's no requirement that you do this, but a GM needs to be aware, then, of the capabilities of his party, and not assume that they're as capable as the rules and the modules assume that they are. This just sounds like solid GMing to me, and a basic skill that has somewhat been lost over time (an inadvertent casualty of the CR system, perhaps), but even though the solution is obvious doesn't mean that this isn't a problem "hardwired" into the rules as presented.

  3. D&D rewards the tactic of going up to something, standing next to it, and hitting it over and over again. This may be unintended (or perhaps completely intentional) side effects of the combination of attacks of opportunity and the multiple attacks that come with a higher base attack bonus, but its boring, and in particular, it doesn't appeal to me. I prefer mobile, swashbuckling type fight scenes, and D&D punishes them, either overtly by making your character take more hits for trying to move around in combat, or more subtlely by giving you a high opportunity cost by giving up your second (or third, later on) attack.

And this doesn't even get into the problems I have with D&D at high levels!

In any case, we have a good GM who's willing to work with us to bend the rules or houserule items, or even to let us "retcon" our character builds. I might revisit some of my feat choices to give myself Spring Attack next time I qualify for a feat (or now, if I can swing it) and maybe see if he'll let me take Pounce as another feat after that, with the prereq of Spring Attack. And although I woudn't have considered it before, I'm now thinking a mithral breastplate might be in my future. Heck, I even have an ingame reason for that change; one of the other characters is going to buy one, and I can have a good reason to be convinced in character to do the same myself!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dark Heritage d20 document

My house rule document for the d20 Modern + d20 Past document continues apace. Actually, it's pretty slow going. When I started it, I thought it would take me a couple of hours of cutting and pasting and formatting. Many hours later, I still have the biggest task yet to do. Bleagh. I'm asking myself how necessary it really is, while simultaneously feeling like I've sunk enough time into it that I'd like to just see it finished at this point.

I'm reminded of a time many years ago when my oldest son (who is now approaching 15; but he was only 4-5 at the time. Maybe even younger) used to really stress out every time someone gave him a helium balloon. Because he knew that if he let go of it while outside, it would fly away, it was actually a source of significant distress and pressure to hold on to it, to the point where he almost didn't want anyone to give him balloons.

I thought that that was ridiculous, so I talked to him about it once, and said something to the effect of, "Why don't we let it go on purpose? We can stand here and watch it float away to see how long we can still see it." At first he seemed confused by the notion. "What? We can do that?" When I assured him that he could, he somewhat reluctantly agreed, and we watched the little red balloon fly away for... I dunno. Maybe five or six minutes. Maybe ten at the most.

And from that moment on, he never stressed about balloons again.

I'm wondering if maybe creating this "comprehensize" rules document is my red balloon and I'm stressing and spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on something that I don't actually need. Although all the rules are poorly organized and clunky to use, they're pretty much all in print already.

If you have a copy of the MSRD and d20 Past and my one-page reference, you can play without me doing anything else. I just wanted something more elegant. But it's been a much more difficult and time consuming process than I expected it to be. Perhaps if I had kept it in Word instead of translating it to html, that would have been much easier too.

In fact, just the pseudo-cathartic process of writing this post has almost completely convinced me that doing this as a webpage was my problem all along. I should have done it in Word, where the formating would be a negligible task instead of a daunting issue like it is in html, and just saved the whole thing as a pdf.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dark Wisdom

I have an interesting relationship with the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Along with Glen Cook, I sometimes refer to him as the worst writer that I love to read. Lovecraft's "sins" as a writer are numerous, and mostly fairly obvious. He used an over-wrought, affected, dry style for most of his stories. He didn't show, he told. (Horror in particular doesn't work this way. I don't think something is scary just because you tell me that it is.) He often sabotaged his own works by humanizing his monsters (At the Mountains of Madness), dallying with anticlimactic or silly climaxes ("The Call of Cthulhu"), or confusing and bizarre ones (Mountains again), or sometimes failing to even provide a climax at all by refusing to let us even know what exactly happened, what the monsters were supposed to be, or what in the world was going on ("The Colour Out of Space", "The Dunwich Horror", and again, Mountains.) His supposedly awe and terror inspiring villains are bested in surprisingly banal and anticlimactic ways (Wilbur Whateley is killed by a dog, Cthulhu is sent packing after getting bumped in the head with a sluggish old fishing boat.)

I love reading Lovecraft anyway, though, because he has some great ideas and concepts "underwriting" his stories (despite the fact that a huge portion of Lovecraft's work is written in open and frank imitation of other authors: Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and others.) The idea of a secret history, monsterous threats lurking just below the surface that are beyond the ability humanity to understand, much less oppose, etc. I've said before that what I like most about Lovecraft is often the story that I can read between the lines, not the story that we actually got. Those stories, those hints of stories, are what is so intriguing. And therein, I believe, lies the longevity of the Lovecraftian style, and my own personal fascination with it as well.

Gary Myers' short story collection Dark Wisdom almost became my fourth casualty in a row; a book that once started, I found myself with little motivation to finish. Because it was so short; just over 100 pages, I forced myself to keep going and read it anyway. This little over 100 page book has twelve extremely short short stories (averaging, I think, about nine pages each, when you account for the poor yet space-occupying illustrations that pepper the book.) Myers has many of the flaws of Lovecraft, and yet few of Lovecraft's strengths.

In particular, he just tells us stuff. Even these short, short stories are littered with needlessly clunky exposition. Literally every single story is so flawed. Few, if any, of the characters is fleshed out, or even given a believable motivation; the point of view characters are transparently merely plot devices, driving on autopilot through the plot as quickly (and unbelievably) as possible. And rather than Lovecraft's antiquated and stylized prose, Myers writes with such simplicity as to almost approach a juvenile style. By the end of the collection, I was almost hoping he'd finally break out in a string of descriptive words like foetor, eldritch, maddening, blasphemous or Cyclopean.

That said, there are some pretty cool ideas nestled here and there in these stories. The idea of a Deep One being an emergency understudy on a filming of a 50s b-movie knock-off of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance. The young pregnant girl trying to run away from her fate as the mate of the leader of a cult of Shub-Nigguruth, not knowing that the unholy life within her womb was destined to end hers in the pangs of birth. The testimony of a policeman who, while investigating a serial killer, discovers a brood of ghoul puppies. The two kids who find the real Necronomicon, with working rituals, on the internet. And so on, and so on.

But, as I said, none of them were developed or executed well enough to make reading them really worth it. I got the book for free from the library, and it only took me a few hours to read it. That was already too much of an investment for what I got back from it. If I'd actually bought this book, I'd be extremely disappointed. As it is... well, frankly, my expectations weren't all that high to begin with.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cherskii Mafia

Although I never got around to writing up a sample encounter and stat block of a member, this post has otherwise been complete for a couple of weeks. I decided to go ahead and post it as is. Coming up with statblocks for NPCs is easy, after all, and it depends on the system. Since this is supposed to be viable across three related systems, coming up with stats was a bit problematic, and I hadn't quite decided which system I wanted to use.

The Cherskii Mafia is the name that outsiders give to Наший Вешъ (Nashii Vyesh), "Our Thing." The roots of the hamazin mafia go back to the fall of the grand empire of Baal Hamazi itself. When the empire fractured into several independent and quarrelsome city-states and smaller statelets, most hamazin incurred a significant loss of quality of life. Their life of indolence as the privileged overlords of human slaves was over, and they now had to work or fight for a standard of living very much below what it had been. While many hamazin shrugged and moved on, and several philosophically minded hamazin even saw the development as inevitable and to be welcomed, most harbored a lingering regret for the glory days of Baal Hamazi.

For most hamazin, this was channeled into trying to either build their more local utopias as best they could within the boundaries of their new city-states, or they fled the area entirely, foregoing their heritage as much as possible, in an attempt to make new lives for themselves in new lands, free of the violence and anarchy that gripped much of their former homelands. But some saw it as their divine mission to restore the hamazin to a place of power and prestige no less glorious than that of the past, and hopefully even much more than before. These individuals in some cases formed organizations dedicated to this mission. Most of them were little more than fanatical racist cultists, and many fell victim to infighting. One, however, became a powerhouse. Kašku Sarruma was a former military man, hard of personality and competent, not one of the more indolent civilians, and when he called the now leaderless soldiers that fought with him to his side, they answered.

These violent and pitiless men, seeing their society fall to pieces all around them still lacked the resources and manpower to impose order, stability and the type of government that they desired over the mobs, the revolting slaves, the incalcitrant natives, and others. In a bold yet desperate move, Sarruma engaged in a number of actions at once, all designed to forge the organization he needed to attempt multiple coups over the regional independent governments that were springing up all through the territory of the former Baal Hamazi. First, he needed troops. Aggressive yet very selective recruitment drives coupled with indoctrination gave him a core of elite fighters, perhaps more suited to subterfuge, assassination and other "black ops" type activities than to the more overt military action that they were used to. In addition, Sarruma kidnapped young hamazin women and girls, never too many from one location, and never any that were important enough to be aggressively missed, and enslaved them, forcing them to serve as little more than brood mares for a new generation of indoctrinated warriors. While treated as well as they could be, these poor women and girls lived a life almost constantly pregnant, in an attempt to grow an army the old-fashioned way as quickly as possible for his fledgeling organization.

But all of this distracted Nashii Vyesh's attention away from their original goals, and Sarruma had to admit that he would not be able to establish his glorious Hamazin rebirth in his lifetime, or probably even for several generations. It also required capital. For that, Sarruma picked some of his most trusted lieutenants to go into other lands, especially in the Terrasan empire, and raise money through organized crime, and funnel it back to Nashii Vyesh coffers.

Now, several generations after the fall of Baal Hamazi and the formation of Nashii Vyesh, most of its leadership has forgotten or ignored the mandate of Kašku Sarruma. The organized crime gig is simply too profitable to put it aside for empire building. The only interest Nashii Vyesh has in politics now is in corrupting politicians to turn a blind eye towards their activities, or giving them heads-up of lucrative opportunities that they can exploit. The leadership remains xenophobic hamazin, but they also don't have any qualms about hiring, exploiting, or even partnering with other gangs, as long as they remain in control. In fact, throughout much of the Terrasan cities, the Cherskii Mafia, as outsiders have started calling it--the black mob, referring to the obsidian-like skin color of the hamazin--are notoriously partnered up with the small populations of urban vucari to the point that it's almost safe to assume that half of the urban vucari that you see are gangsters affiliated with the Cherskii Mafia in some cities.

Joining the Cherskii Mafia. Joining the Cherskii Mafia is something that only hamazin can aspire to, but joining the greater organization as a partner, ally or subordinate is something that any competent criminal can possibly hope to accomplish. Prospective real members must be sponsored by someone already on the inside. In addition, they must show some aptitude at a useful skill that the Cherskiians can use. While the Cherskiians freely utilize loosely affiliated gangs and hirelings to manage the less glamorous roles of smuggler, pimp, extortionist and generic muscle, the real Cherskiians are the management, the shadowy leaders and the surgical scalpel called in when things need to be done more forcefully and very discretely. Many "made" Cherskiians are therefore assassins, high caliber cat burglers, strategically placed spies, or well-connected mob leaders. Potential members must be unerringly loyal to the organization and to each other and often go through an extended validation period where the mafia higher-ups evaluate the potential member's performance and loyalty. In addition, to be a "made man (or woman)" the potential inductee must have performed at least one contract killing; any murder for personal reasons do not count, only for professional ones for which the inductee was paid.

Once accepted, the potential Cherskiian is picked up at his place of residence, usually after midnight, by a coterie of his soon to be brothers, and brought to the secret induction ceremony. There, he undergoes an initiation ritual, where he swears the "Oath of Silence" that prohibits him from betraying his organization, especially to lawful authorities or rival organized crime gangs. This ritual is a magical incantation that all of the participants help with the ritual, and all of them take 1d3 points of Constitution damage for participation in the ritual, as well as gaining 1d2 (1d4 divided by 2--or flip a coin, heads is 1, tails is 2) Madness points, because the ritual summons a demon that impresses the Oath of Silence magically on the new inductee (the equivalent of a geas spell.) This is a lifelong compulsion (barring it being magically removed somehow--don't forget, remove curse isn't exactly a readily available spell in the Dark•Heritage campaign setting) and as the saying goes, "You enter [into membership in the Cherskii Mafia] alive, but the only way out is dead."

Entry Requirements:
Base Attack Bonus: +2
Skill Ranks: Stealth 3, Bluff 3
Special: see above, must be sponsored by an existing member, must take (and fulfill) a contract killing (for the Mafia, or another organization, but it must be verified by an insider), must undergo initiation ceremony.

Character Benefits. Being a member of the Cherskiians means access to deep pockets and vaults full of nearly any item you might need... at least, if you're using it on Cherskiian business. Members also have some access to this same equipment and resources (at the GM's discretion) for personal use as well. Being a member also means having access to safe houses, opportunities for work, and other basic requirements of living, although of course, you'll be expected to "work" for it, and by work, of course, I mean further the criminal enterprises of the Cherskiians. In addition, Cherskiians are sometimes nicknamed "Untouchables"--if any made man is ever killed, retribution is swift and brutal, so rival gangs and even law enforcement officials are very wary about molesting or bothering a known made man, even when justified. This deterence means a great deal of safety in any town or city in which the Mafia operates in significant enough numbers. It also means legal protection, and even political protection if necessary; the Mafia has deep pockets to retain barristers or bribe officials if needed.

These resources usually also mean access to illegal witchcraft and sorcery, drugs, and other "performance enhancers" that are rightly illegal in most civilized societies, due to their inherent risk and danger.

Roleplaying Suggestions. Cherskiians are usually proud and accept no insult without repaying it in kind. However, the hamazin elite of the organization are conniving, intelligent, and patient. Cherskiians idolize their founder, Kašku Sarruma, and his military precision and cold, rational, and strategic approach to his enterprises. Although you accept no insult, you're not necessarily in a hurry to exact your revenge either; you're perfectly capable of waiting for the perfect opportunity, when you've managed to arrange everything to your advantage. But you will exact your revenge; it is intolerable to consider not doing so. Your entire existence as a Cherskiian is based on maintaining your reputation as implacable and untouchable.

In addition, you are completely convinced of the superiority of the hamazin race and the Baal Hamazi culture (however exactly you interpret it). You could be a traditionalist, still intent on contributing to the glorious rise of the New Baal Hamazi, or you could be a pragmatist who's happy enough just living large now by taking advantage of the others in the world. In either case, you are convinced that you are above the law, and that your course of action is the right one. You are unconcerned with the concerns of anyone you might have to step on to get to your goals.

The Cherskii Mafia in the World. The Cherskii Mafia is a significant player in organized crime in all of the cities of the Terrasan Empire, Porto Liure, the cities of the hamazin lands, and are starting to spread into Qizmir as well. As of yet, they have had little success (or interest) in penetrating neighboring Tarush Noptii with its vampire overlords, but they have only recently become aware of ripe new markets to exploit in Kurushat. If only they can figure out how not to incur a martial law crackdown by the militaristic Kurushati.

In the cities where the Cherskiians are entrenched, although they tend to keep a low profile, although their influence is pervasive and entrenched. They have politicians, constables, and more in their pockets, and their protection rackets and smuggling operations impact thousands of independent merchants.

They have fierce rivalries with other organized crime families and organizations that occasionally lead to bloody mob warfare in the streets, the exception to the normally low profile. Because they tolerate no challenge or insult unanswered, this occasionally sets the organization back temporarily, but the leaders take the long-term view, that maintaining their hegemony and their reputation as an organization not to cross no matter what is worth the short-term hassle.

Instead of mob warfare, though, they are more likely to use their highly skilled and notorious internal assassins, the Black Hands to quietly (yet publicly) end their rivals.

Organization of the Cherskii Mafia. The lowest level of the Mafia are the often non-hamazin gangs that do most of the day-to-day legwork of racketeering. These gangs are not large, and because the Cherskii Mafia comes from a military background, they are sometimes referred to internally as "platoons" or "squads." Above them are the captains, who keep the gangs in line and make sure that money flows into the Cherskiian coffers. The captains are almost always hamazin, although in recent years, some vucari have been promoted to that rank in some cities. All of the gangs that report to a single captain are sometimes referred to as his "company." Above the captains are the generals, and all of the captains in a single area report to the general. The generals have a "command structure" including councilors, assassin units, sorcerers and other specialists at their disposal.

Above the generals are the leaders of the entire Cherskii Mafia, headquartered in a secret fortress near the Salt Sea in the center of the lands that used to be Baal Hamazi. Along with the leadership, there is a brigade of soldiers, entire divisions of assassins and sorcerers, training grounds and more.

NPC Reactions. As with the real Mafia in the real world, ordinary people are wary and fearful of people with known ties to the Mafia, as well as (usually) disliking them. There are frequent calls to clean up the streets of cities in which the Cherskiians operate, and anyone who dares to stand against them is frequently made a hero... at least as long as he lives. Their activities also tar honest hamazi with an ugly brush in such cities. However, there are also numerous individuals who respect and romanticize organized crime, and who are willing to help anyone associated with the Mafia in the hopes of the favor being remembered.

Typical Member. A member of the Cherskii mob... an actual member, not a gang member that is affiliated with them, is usually a high level character (relatively speaking... take into consideration the low level nature of the Dark•Heritage setting compared to many D&D settings)... a cold, calculating and callous (I like alliteration) individual. They are often urbane and charming when they want to be. They are not vulgar thugs, they are the puppet masters who control the vulgar thugs and hold their leashes. Typical classes could be fighters, rogues, ninjas, nobles, assassins, commanders, swashbucklers, soulknives or lurks. The "outdoorsy" classes are unlikely to be welcome to the Cherskii Mafia as they neither benefit them on a regular basis nor would it be a benefit to those characters. Urban ranger variants could, however, play a role as a specialist attached to a general or a division at HQ. Unarmed fighter classes, such as the survivor or the defender also would be unlikely to attract the attention of a sponsor in the first place. Keep in mind the class list for Dark•Heritage, which is unique for a D&D setting. Sorcerers are not typical members, but those that belong to the organization are highly valued and tend to wield influence and clout beyond what their mere rank would indicate.

Cherskii Mafia Lore. By making a successful Knowledge (History) or Knowledge (Local) (if applicable) check, or a successful bardic knowledge check, a character can discover more about the Cherskii Mafia. If desired, this could also be uncovered by using the Diplomacy skill to gather information.

DC 15: The Cherskii Mafia is an organized crime syndicate that originates up north in the successor statelets of Baal Hamazi, but which is most famous for operating smuggling, racketeering and other activities amongst the cities of the Terrasan Empire, among others.

DC 20: Although the Cherskii Mafia is a hamazin led syndicate, they utilize mostly local gangs for the local legwork of enforcement and other day to day activities. Recently there has been a more formalized tie of some sort between the hamazin and urban vucari.

DC 25: The original founding purpose of the Cherskii Mafia was to funnel moneys into the hands of hamazin, who were struggling to rebuild their fallen empire, but who lacked the resources to unite their fractuous brothers and sisters. Today's leadership of the Mafia shares this goal.

DC 30: Characters who achieve this level of success on their check can find out specifics about Mafia activities and individuals.

Adaptation. To use this organization in another setting, the easiest thing to do is to pick a nation that no longer exists but which might have the descendents of expatriate former citizens living abroad, who desired to rebuild their former nation, but who were distracted by the immediate gratifications of successful organized criminal operations. In Eberron, for example, Cyrans would be an obvious choice, although to be a little more exotic, the survivors of a kingdom absorbed into Riedra would be interesting. Shifters, naturally, would take the place of vucari, and a specific ethnicity of human would replace the hamazin.