Monday, February 28, 2011

Slight delay...

Well, there'll probably be a lot of delay in me putting stuff on the blog this week. I'll be traveling for work for a bit, and when I'm back, I'll be swamped temporarily. On top of that, driving around on the worst roads in the country in the worst winter in several years has done a number on the undercarriage of my car; my muffler basically fell off this morning. So, until we either fix it or replace that car (or both, which is a possibility) we're down to one car for both my wife and I, which means that we're both quite a bit busier than normal chasing around. So, no promises on any updates until at least the end of the week. Sorry, folks!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dark•Heritage: Calça, the "forgotten province"

Keisa Alawasmu turned to her shaggy companion with a smirk. "I don't think they like your kind here, Najat."

The young wildman growled deep in his throat like an animal, snarling at the suspicious faces all around him. His hand drifted slowly towards his gunbelt, but stopped when he saw the angry eyes of the native Calçans, who were reaching for their own weapons--hunting rifles and old swords mostly, but deadly enough. Especially when there were close to thirty of them.

"Look," Najat Chuluun said placatingly, raising his hands in a friendly gesture. "We don't want any trouble. We're just passing through."

The locals starting jeering. "Nobody comes to Calça who doesn't want trouble. Nobody else remembers that we're even here. And especially nobody crosses through the Bisbal Forest unless they come directly from one of the bandit companies. You two better start talking, and your story better be good."

Keisa looked like she'd just been slapped in the face. She put her hand to her chest and mouthed the word, "me?" stunned that she was just as suspect as her shaggy friend. But when the local spokesman cocked his rifle, she started talking fast, hoping that the story she was making up was good enough...

When the Terrasan Empire's reach was at its greatest extent, it was conquering and settling lands far to the north of the Mezzovian Sea, coming into conflict with Untash and Tazitta Tribesman, and even the Baal Hamazi empire itself. Old cities that had been capitals of earlier kingdoms, like Razina and Iclezza, were conquered and expanded, and Terrasans flooded the area bringing their language, their culture, and their architecture. However, the lands to the west of the Bisbal Forest, nestled between what was later named the d'Acs Sea and the Vajol Downs, were almost completely uninhabited. The forest opened up into green meadows and rolling hills here, and to farmers from Terrasa--or to northerners looking to leave the increasingly Terrasanized northlands, it was highly desireable land. An archduke was appointed to govern this new territory, and it was given the name of Calça. For several generations settlers moved into this land, mostly farmers, and while it was never a rich or populous land, it was fertile and easily self-sufficient, and wine and olives and other crops grown in Calça were exported throughout the Terrasan sphere of influence.

As Imperial reach was strained, however, merchants and Imperial officials became more rare. About a hundred and fifty years ago, Imperial attention was drawn to the Pirates' War, as it was called, which ended with the declaration of Porto Liure as a free city-state right smack dab in the middle of the Mezzovian Sea, on the Tolosan island of Gandesa. Resources for Calça were appropriated for the war effort. For a time, Archdukes continued to administer the province, with his personal guard serving as soldiers and constables of a sort, but when the last Archduke died mysteriously fifteen years ago, his twin heirs never seen publicly and suspected of being demons, any official government collapsed completely.

This lack of imperial attention made the shadowy Bisbal Forest an attractive destination for bandits and other outlaws. As they became increasingly more dangerous, the roads connecting Calça to the rest of the empire gradually closed and fell into disuse except by the strongest and most well-armed of caravans... which themselves had little incentive to undertake the hazardous journey. The local Calçans found that they were under seige themselves from the bandits, and organized local militias to fend them off on the eastern edges of their province. Unpaid rangers were commissioned by the local rural village and town heads, and were seen by most as heroic figures. Rangers traditionally can request food and shelter from any homestead and Calça and except in situations of extreme hardship, can expect it to be gladly granted; their service to the area is seen as invaluable.

Today, Calça remains mostly rural. Small farming communities, logging communities on the fringes of the forest, and even fishing communities on the shores of the d'Acs Sea dot the area, but there are no large cities or population centers. The Archduke's old town, Baix Colomers, is the largest in the area, but it's still only a few thousand people. Because it's so cut off, and has been for some time, Calça is sometimes called "the forgotten province" when it is, in fact, remembered at all. The locals are tight-knit and suspicous of outsiders, as in their experience very few people come to Calça for any good reasons.

That has partially started to change, however. A number of bandits, and the young descendents of bandits from the forest have tired of their hard-scrabble, violent lifestyle and have gradually trickled into Calça to settle down. For the most part, these folks pretend to be local Calçans from a far-off village or hamlet, but more and more the locals see through this. They are reluctantly welcomed after a long period of time during which they are seen as objects of extreme suspicion. Perhaps more disturbing to the locals is a trickle of refugees from the north, crossing over from the Downs into Calça. It doesn't help that these people are very foreign; they don't speak the Terrasan language, or even the balshatoi language very often, they dress funny, and many of them are clearly descended from daemons. While awareness of the wider world is not something that most Calçans can boast of, at the same time, they are one of the first groups to start to get garbled and incomplete reports of what is happening in the northlands of Baal Hamazi and the supposed rise of Hutran Kutir--but they are at a complete loss as to what's to be done about it.

Stream #4: not really a real stream at all

The last "stream" I have to discuss is probably not well described as a stream; rather it's a collection of much more loosely associated settings that borrowed liberally from each other (and from my DARK•HERITAGE and Pirates of the Mezzovian Main games too) but which didn't really evolve from one to another, exactly. The looser associations will be pretty apparent.

First off, I've made two maps for what I call informally my "Pleistocene setting." This had a strong Hyborian Age feel to it, or at least primitive sword & sorcery. I think I actually got excited about it after watching the decidely mediocre movie 10,000 B.C. and messing around with some nonsensical Graham Hancock cockamamie ideas about archeology. Because I'd done something similar with my Bloodlines setting, I also looked back at that; rather than Lake Bonneville, I used a loose correspondance to the incredible Lake Agassiz as the baseline and had the continental glacial ice sheet at the top of the map. I later did away with the Conan-esque sword & sorcery and redid the map, with a loose "golden age of the Vikings" storyline as the set-up for the setting. I'd long been fascinating by the idea that maybe the Vikings spent more time in North America than we believe, and from there went on to create loose analogs of northern Europe and North America that had Viking kingdoms all along the east coast of Canada and New England, as well as Anglo-Saxons, Irish and Scottish and more colonies, Iroquois and Algonquin natives, and more, all, again, with the Pleistocene megafauna, which by now you must assume (probably correctly) that I'm obsessed with.

Anyway, other than some sketchy maps, a bunch of tribe and kingdom names, and a high concept, this setting never went anywhere. I still have it on the backburner even today, thinking that one of these days I'll do something with it, but I'm not quite sure what.

Although it's perhaps much more disconnected than the other settings I've developed than any other, I also "borrowed" an idea from Scott Moore about a dangerous, noxious, even demonic mist that surged over the surface of a world; but which left highlands, peaks, tepuis and elsewhat as places of refuge. Flying balloon ships traveled around between these lands, conducting trade and everything. I ran this game very successfully over the course of a few months; in fact, it's one of the most successful games I've ever run, at least in some respects. But not because of the setting, which I ended up throwing together out of all kinds of weird ideas, most of which I came up with on the fly because I had little to no idea of what I was doing when I started. I borrowed a lot of ideas from my other settings (I even started the game out in Razina; the hometown of my original DARK•HERITAGE games!) But I also borrowed a lot of names from other sources, or made them up on the fly. Not just names and places, but influences got thrown into this almost haphazardly; completely unexpectedly, I had the characters as guests of La, in the City of Naked Amazon Hotties Who Ride Dinosaurs (probably called Opar, but nobody ever asked), I gave the characters a Gun o'death that was very directly inspired by The Colt from that t.v. show Supernatural. One character turned into a gorilla. One character--a notorious womanizer--became Fast Times era Phoebe Cates. At one point I was even giving in-game benefits to anyone who could quote 80s music lyrics and make them sound unforced.

One thing that Demons in the Mist did do for me, though, was highlight to me how often I was re-using certain concepts, so it was a direct lead-in for me to develop my Modular DND Setting wiki, which was originally meant to be unconnected setting "modules" that could be put into any setting. I'd already had this idea when I conceived of Tarush Noptii, the vampire kingdom, after reading a preview article from Wizards of the Coast to hype their upcoming book Open Grave. But the militaristic hobgoblin empire became the second module, and the first one that actually got enough development to be considered "done". Kinda. That kingdom (khaganate, technically) became Kurushat, and while I've taken hobgoblins and goblinoids in general completely out of DARK•HERITAGE, all that meant was reskinning Kurushat into a human kingdom and throwing it in as-is in the southwestern corner of my setting.

Although not meant to be an evolved version of Demons in the Mist, my later Freeport game was however a follow-up to it, included many of the same players, and even some of the same characters. Freeport clearly isn't a homebrew; it's a setting developed by Green Ronin. I'd always kind of liked it, since it hit a lot of the same themes that I liked; pirates, mobsters, cults, and horror. However, Freeport isn't really a complete setting either; it was always meant to be a modular add-on; simply a city that could exist in any setting (and I've often enjoyed talking with folks about where to place it in various settings, just for fun.) However, the systemless book Pirate's Guide to Freeport, along with being one of my favorite RPG products of all time, also includes a very brief semi-setting in which to place Freeport, and refers to a few places like the Ivory Ports, Kizmir, Mazin and whatnot.

I borrowed some of these names, some other names that I stole liberally from obscure parts of Golarion (like Mzali, Sanghor, Ghol-Gan, etc.), placed them with Kurushat and a bunch of Lovecraftian DreamQuest names on a map that vaguely resembled the East Indies, Phillipines and Malaysian peninsula, and ran a follow-up game to Demons in the Mist in this cobbled together setting that was slightly less homebrewed than is my wont.

After some evolution and modification to make it much more my own, some of these concepts ended up popping up again in DARK•HERITAGE. Porto Liure is not too unlike Freeport in most respects, and my own Qizmir nation probably owes its ultimate genesis to Freeport's Kizmir, although I certainly went my own direction with both quite a ways. The correllation of Kizmir with azhar and Qizmir with the jann (both of which are essentially conceptually the exact same as fire genasi) as well as a mutilated version of the name are probably the only things that I kept.

So this last stream; settings that don't really stream together, but which are much more loosely connected via tennuous contacts, spreading areal features, and other borrowings concludes my retrospective review of the settings I've worked on since the release of Third Edition eleven years ago. There's certainly more out there that I've also tinkered with, but none of them evolved sufficiently to merit being called a setting that I did anything at all with. Also, all of the settings I've described in these four series of posts led, in one way or another, to my "final" setting, the current version of DARK•HERITAGE. Ironically, the only thing I really haven't explained is the name itself and where it came from--and it's a holdover from ideas that are now obsolete. I probably shouldn't even use the name DARK•HERITAGE anymore, truthfully, but by now it's too late; I've got it too firmly entrenched in too many forms for me to seriously think about changing it.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stream #3: making peace with D&Disms

Well, that post title is a bit misleading, as at the end of this stream, I actually end up with current state DARK•HERITAGE, which eschews most of the D&Disms specifically, both from the rules and from the setting itself. But this stream was started, and largely based on, the concept of running games that were more comfortable with some specific D&Disms, designed to run parallel to my development of Tarim Basin DARK•HERITAGE. It was successful enough that I ended up stealing the geography wholesale and making it the all new DARK•HERITAGE geography, tossing the Tarim basin idea out on its ear completely. Tarim basin was a misnomer anyway; the geography was the Tarim basin, the Junggar basin, much of Tibet, and other areas like Ferghana, the Pamirs, etc. that are to the immediate east and west as well.

Oddly enough, my first thought when creating this new geographical model was that I wanted to create a milieu not necessarily for gaming, but for fiction writing. I've always approached gaming with an almost authorial viewpoint and paradigm, and I've always harbored a not-so-secret wish that I'd become an author, and I still pretend that one of these days I'll get my glacially slowly progressing novel draft moving at a good clip again, I'll finish it, edit it, and see if I can sell it. This setting, which I struggled to name for a time (calling it at one point DarkDND--how stupid sounding is that?) was originally meant as a place where I could "practice" writing in short story format, and for whatever reason I was OK with some of the D&Disms in it this time around. Of course, when I started developing it, I did pick an eclectic mix of races and classes to focus on, and minimized standard D&D magic considerably.

My ideas for the setting never got off the ground; instead I developed the setting itself in some detail; as much as I had for DARK•HERITAGE at the time. For that matter, it outright stole a number of places and concepts from that setting as well. I figured why not; a good idea should be portable enough to be re-used, right? (This concept initially led to me archiving "modular campaign setting elements", but let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet...)

Having embraced the idea of a Mediterranean culture, I had an interior sea be a major feature of the map I sketched out, and started liberally stealing place names from lists I had of actual placenames in slightly more obscure languages like Asturian, Aragonese, Occitan and Catalan--I didn't want it to sound exactly like Spanish or Italian, but to give off a similar vibe. This fit in well with some of what I'd already done with DARK•HERITAGE where I'd come up with names like Iclezza, Razina, Bartomeu's Bluff, etc. After bulking out that list with place names like Terrasa, Calça, Sént-Haspar, and others, I had, essentially, developed the Terrasan Empire and its holdings in a format that persists to this day. The only major change that I've done to the area is to attach it to some surrounding areas, weaken the central government considerably, and completely get rid of races like orcs and hobgoblins that I had formerly had in significant numbers as foederati troops.

The next time it was my turn to run for my home group, I had concerns that they may not be in the mood for something too divergent from D&D, because we were coming off of a moderately unsuccessful attempt to have a Call of Cthulhu campaign run by one of the other guys who hadn't run before, and who'd inadvertently turned a few of the players off of the game for good. I ended up grabbing the geography from this setting, breaking the empire apart into city-states, importing a bunch of names from Lovecraft's DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath, throwing in Cryx from the Iron Kingdoms for the heckuvit, and using my hobgoblin militaristic khaganate from my newly minted modular setting elements (the only module that was done at the time anyway.) Although I would have gladly let them go, I ended up making room for elves, dwarves, gnomes, wizards, clerics, etc. I called this game Pirates of the Mezzovian Main, Mezzovian being a name I invented that was meant to sound vaguely like an Italian word that could mean "in the middle of something." Based on the Italian word slash musical term mezzo no doubt, since I don't actually speak any Italian. I ended up quite enjoying this game, as did my players, I think. It was always meant to be a shortish term campaign that ended rather than just going on indefinately, and while my ending might have been a bit anticlimactic, there were some great moments on the way there.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I decided that making the entire world of the DARK•HERITAGE setting a desert was a mistake. At first, I attempted to do this more moderately; I kept the desert setting, but added shrinking water sources like a Leigh Brackett Mars or Skaith kind of thing (Skaith was coincidentally always a really close analog to much of my DARK•HERITAGE development, but I think that's because both my setting and Brackett's both drew on space opera Mars as our main roots.) It didn't take long before I decided that this wasn't enough. Looking back to my DarkDND version of the setting, I just grabbed the entire Terrasan Empire and imported it wholesale into DARK•HERITAGE. In fact, I jettisoned almost the entire geography I'd been working with and used the DarkDND geography instead, with a bit of evolution based on my Pirates of the Mezzovian Main setting. In fact, it's fair to say that DARK•HERITAGE today bears more in common today with this stream than it does with the stream that bore it's name for three other iterations. Granted, there always was a lot of cross-pollination between my setting design streams anyway, and adopting a DARK•HERITAGE model for all the little implied setting details and tossing my lenient stance on the various D&Disms I had allowed in DarkDND and Pirates of the Mezzovian Main is a big deal that dramatically alters the tone and feel of the game. Maybe it's more accurate to say that stream #2 and stream #3 fused together to form DARK•HERITAGE as it is today rather than to say that it's at the end of either of those streams individually.

But before we're completely done, I do have one more stream and possibly a few "unstreamed" settings to toss out there in one more retrospective post, then I'll have all my thoughts out of my head and in text format on the question of "how did I get here" with regard to DARK•HERITAGE. At which point, I can simply start posting updates to it again, of course, starting with a brief discussion of the "forgotten province" of the Terrasan Empire, Calça.

Stream #2: the Anti-D&Disms

Shortly after my old Faerytale GeoCities homebrew sites went live, I started experimenting with some other campaign design ideas. At some point in 2002, I came up with Bloodlines, and put that out there on a separate GeoCities account (or maybe it was a separate folder in the same account. I don't remember anymore.) Maybe at the very latest it was in very early 2003. I don't remember very well, but I'm trying to triangulate backwards, thinking of the house we were living in at the time I came up with the idea, the release date of Attack of the Clones to DVD (one scene of which was pivotal to getting me started on this stream) and d20 Modern, which I initially targetted as the system of choice to run this game.

Regardless, some of the core ideas were slightly older than the actual crystalization of the setting. Initially intrigued by the concept of the "planetouched" races (remember that I had missed 2e entirely; so I'd never heard of tieflings, aasimar or genasi until around this time) I wondered what a setting might be like that had only humans and "planetouched" humans, and no other races at all available to it. Couple that with the Battle of Geonosis scene from Attack of the Clones, which looks like it could be taking place on Mars, including a rusty tannish sky, and I had a concept--a desert world where the only non-humans were planetouched. Heck, the fire genasi even reminded me somewhat of the red men of Barsoom, so I started digging deeper into the well of swashbuckling Edgar Rice Burroughs like stories. My first thought with that setting was to "borrow" the geography of pluvial Lake Bonneville, and that led naturally to a Pleistocene megafauna. Red warriors out in the deserts, hunting saber-tooths, Columbian mammoths, short-faced bears, vast herds of bison, etc. I also took some steps to modify d20 Modern into something that could play in a fantasy setting (this was still quite some time before the release of d20 Past), whipped up some low magic houserules that mimicked some of the dangerous psychic feedback you could get on botched rolls from Warhammer 40,000 (up to and including your spellcaster getting attacked by a demon for attempting to reach into the realm of magic and harness its power), and I imported the recently released flintlock firearms rules from Freeport into the game (technically, I took the ones from the"Firearms of Freeport" article in Dragon Magazine Annual--the d20 Special edition.)

Although this was really conceived in late 2002, and fleshed out significantly in very early 2003, astute readers may notice a very strong resemblance to DARK•HERITAGE as it exists today, including the idea of a big inland sea or lake, prehistoric wildlife, vast stretches of terrain that are strongly reminiscent of the American southwest, and heck; although I've evolved them somewhat, the hamazin and jann are really conceptually little different from tieflings and fire genasi respectively. The Bloodlines setting also had my earliest iteration of a d20 Modern based ruleset; a ruleset that was a bit facilitated later by the release of d20 Past; although frankly, I think I already made almost all the obvious changes on my own, and I could live without the add-ons that d20 Past otherwise brought to the table.

I never played Bloodlines, and now, of course, it doesn't exist--along with all the other pages hosted on GeoCities. But my next setting design project built heavily on Bloodlines--the first setting to bear the DARK•HERITAGE name. And this setting was run, twice. Albeit briefly. And in drastically different format. In a wishy-washy fashion, I struggled to decide whether or not I liked d20 Modern or D&D itself as a rules "base" from which I would vary. Because by 2003 I was sporting a variety of alternate classes and magic systems from a variety of books (mostly third party at this point; it wasn't until the revised class splatbooks of 3.5 that Wizards of the Coast got serious about delving into that arena). I was also getting excited about some other influences; compared to Bloodlines, early DARK•HERITAGE focused more on the desert environment itself which was more strictly brought in line with a barely habitable version of Mars, on an almost science fictional background for the races (which instead of being planetouched were now "breeds"; a race of prehistoric slavers have bred humanity into several different breeds specialized for different functions), and some strong steampunk aesthetics. I briefly ran this version of the setting (using d20 Modern rules) as an ill-fated play-by-post game with two players. It didn't get very far before it kinda drifted apart. But I did get it up and running (the D&D version this time) for my home group, and had a more successful run there.

By the time I started that, though, I'd already spliced it with an even earlier setting design idea that I'd briefly toyed with years before that featured floating islands rather than a solid world. I actually became disenchanted with this idea again fairly quickly, but because I'd started running an actual game with it, it was "frozen" in place for some time before I could officially yank it from my setting design ideas. (I think I might have even submitted a variation on that idea to Wizards of the Coast when they did the famous Setting Search that led to the publication of Eberron. I submitted two 1-page concepts, but I can't remember what either of them are anymore.) I also had completely ditched the Pleistocene megafauna at this point, for a more science fictional idea; that if this was another world, then why wouldn't it have completely alien lifeforms, except for people and whatever they may have had with them when they arrived. I even came up with a kind of quasi-magical Noah's Ark concept, probably borrowed from Raymond Feist's secret history of Kelewan and Midkemia, with people fleeing their homeworlds across the multiverse to set up new homelands in exile.

Despite the fact that two versions of early DARK•HERITAGE were actually run as games, the setting itself was still mostly undefined. Both games also played up the horror elements; the D&D variant even used the Call of Cthulhu sanity system and magic as is, and hints of a nasty secret history of the world were dropped all over the place. About this time I also started to become more familiar with Corey's version of Barsoom that I talked about earlier; I borrowed at least one idea from his still fledgeling story hour at that point; the idea of a giant sword that could kill undead. My version of it was not pleasant to use; not only did the sword actually bite the user and suck his blood with the nasty demon faces on its hilt, but it also whispered maddening blasphemies directly into his mind (each round it was used, it caused CON damage and forced Sanity checks until the poor user was a gibbering and possibly dying mess on the ground. It was definitely a weapon of last resort.)

It was the third iteration of DARK•HERITAGE that got the most development, ironically after the game had ended and I wasn't running anymore. One of the guys in my already "barely big enough to be viable" group moved out of state, and our local gaming ground to a halt. Another player in my group, who had another group that he gamed with which had also shrunk to non-viability proposed a merger of the two groups and he'd run the Dungeon Magazine campaign arc Age of Worms for us, so we did that, and it kept us busy for--literally--years. Meanwhile, I grabbed a new geography for DARK•HERITAGE based loosely on the Tarim Basin leg of the old Silk Road, and got really busy developing. This setting was the version of the setting that I tinkered with for a long time before finally making a major change to it. I never ran any games there, but I did write somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 in an abortive attempt to craft a novel in that setting.

While the final version of DARK•HERITAGE owes much of its content to another stream altogether, a lot of content also comes from this stream too; enough so that I kept the name even. Ironically, in many ways, the most developed parts of it, and the parts that were actually used in real games are perhaps a bit more lightly borrowed from than the old Bloodlines version of the setting; it's first real iteration. The steampunk elements have been dramatically reduced, and a lot of the ideas I had for big conspiracies and secret history have been shown the door (not the concept, just the specific ideas I had at this point.) My conceit of making it more of a Weird Tale than a fantasy setting, with overt science fictional (or at least planetary romance) borrowings also was thrown out. However, a lot of the detail, including most of the specific placenames, kingdoms, cities, empires, etc. were created for early DARK•HERITAGE settings, and got later re-used. A lot of these micro-elements come from this stream and were simply lifted up as is and placed into their new homes in the current version of DARK•HERITAGE.

And of course, I also further refined my ideas of tone, of theme and of rules in this crucible; all of these also reached their final versions in this stream before migrating into the one that I'm still working with. Both my d20 Past and my D&D variations of "acceptable" rulesets to use for DARK•HERITAGE were developed in this stream, and I still remain wishy-washy about which I like better. And of course, the many anti-D&Disms that DARK•HERITAGE still retains; the races the classes, the magic, the paradigm about what adventurers do, etc. all started here and were imported as is.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stream #1: the Overt D&Disms

Seeing the little graphic I whipped up with five minutes worth of work in Word on my last post has me waxing a bit nostalgic and reminiscing about "how I got to where I am now." Plus, it was kind of fun to revisit where I was when I worked up some of these other settings, which are fallow now, and have been strip-mined of their best ideas; the many other ideas I once had for them now quietly discarded and forgotten.

While not counting several other abortive setting design attempts that really never managed to be more than a one-page or so "high concept" idea, the many one-shots I ran where no setting was significantly developed, or the handful of non-homebrewed games that I ran in settings like Eberron or Iron Kingdoms or Golarion, most of my setting design efforts over the last ten or eleven years can be binned into one of four "streams." By this I mean that one setting evolved into another that was its direct successor. Of course, a number of elements became "areal features" that spread across streams freely, and one setting (by design) really didn't have a clear-cut successor because large chunks of it were migrated in toto into more than one successor setting. But, the streams are still easily recognizable.

Also keep in mind that through most of the last couple of years of the 80s and all of the 90s I was either not playing RPGs at all, or at least studiously avoiding D&D and playing other games instead. I dropped out of D&D before 2nd edition, because it was clear to me that while I could see a lot of fun potential inherent in the idea of fantasy roleplaying games, D&D specifically catered to a gaming experience that I wasn't very interested in. Ironically, 2nd edition would probably have been more up my alley at least in some ways, because I would have appreciated the wealth of unusual settings that came out at that time, but I would also have been increasingly frustrated by the system, which I never liked and which I grew to like less and less over time. Of course, I could have played with the Rules Cyclopedia, but honestly, I'm not sure that I really understood at the time the difference between D&D and AD&D; seeing them both as somewhat interchangeable. Even now, I don't think that the differences would have been enough to tempt me from one to the other; many of the elements that frustrated me the most were common to both systems anyway.

But after a few years of being more or less completely disconnected from the hobby, I got back into it in the mid-90s playing games like MegaTraveller and Top Secret S.I. (both of which were a few years old at the time.) Then I wandered into White Wolf territory, and while Vampire wasn't quite my speed, Werewolf: The Apocalypse was. I think I was initially excited by the premise of playing a game that focused less on the gamist and arbitrary elements that so frustrated me about my old D&D games and focusing on a Narrativist approach.

Of course, after a while, I came to see White Wolf as both pretentious and hypocritical; but that's beside the point. Needless to say, I wandered away from White Wolf, having learned a few lessons about what it is that I want from a gaming experience, and most especially, having re-embraced RPGs as a hobby. This was in early 2000. Just in time for me to be hanging around online messageboards and whatnot like in time to hear all the buzz about the upcoming D&D 3e. And it occured to me that quite possibly fantasy was what I liked best after all if only I could find a system that was flexible enough to allow me to run the kinds of games I wanted without all kinds of weird arbitrariness, and without any support whatsoever in the mechanics if I wanted to "go off the rails" so to speak and ditch the whole tiresome dungeoneering experience. By happy coincidence, at about this same time, I finished grad school so my time and income were significantly "freed up"--I ended up buying a lot more D&D 3e products than I had of any other game system--in fact of all other game systems combined.

And for a while, I was headily embracing the 3e experience, by and large. Back in those days, Dragon Magazine was operated in-house by Wizards of the Coast still, and on the WotC website, there was a section for Dragon Magazine. This section had the full text of all the DungeonCraft column by Ray Winninger posted online, and I quickly read through this material, grabbed the text from these articles and saved it on my hard drive, and decided to use the process, which was a good match for my style anyway, to flex my atrophied fantasy homebrewing muscles a bit.

This first setting, which I worked on possibly as early as late 2000 but certainly by early 2001, didn't diverge much from the standard D&D implicit setting. In fact, because I was unused to working in the D&D milieu, I actually actively used the tools available to me rather than trying to think very far out of the box at this point. Plus, quite honestly, I think I was kind of impressed with the Dungeoncraft sample setting, Aris, and I subconsciously mimicked some aspects of it. Certainly that first setting was very much in the vein of traditional, Medieval fantasy with a D&D overlay.

It wasn't long before I started taking my development online, and that's when this early DungeonCraft setting started morphing into Faerytale. Not only was I now putting setting information up on GeoCities (ah, I miss them) but I was making a more active attempt to tie setting elements and rules together, coming up with sensible ways in which races like elves and dwarves interacted with the setting, and notably I turned away from the bright and polite Medievalist fantasy approach. See, I've long been a fan of all kinds of adventure stories, not just fantasy. I've been a huge fan of swashbuckling romances as long as I can remember (Errol Flynn was my first favorite movie star when I was a kid, and I spent hour after hour up in the branches of the trees in our yard pretending like they were the masts and rigging of a pirate ship.) I'd long liked cowboys and indians drama. Flash Gordon and John Carter and Tarzan were amongst my favorite literary characters. I'd read spy thrillers like The Holcroft Covenant, The Matarese Circle, or The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. I was a fan of the conspiracy theory stylings of The X-files. And I was gradually starting to think to myself how I could incorporate elements of all these other adventure stories that I liked. So in Faerytale, the assumption was that the PCs would be agents of the government; a special task force, if you will, sent to deal with supernatural threats. Threats that most people didn't actually believe in, but which were true nonetheless. This very overt X-filesism and it's theme of near horror became an important point for me, as it continued on down to most of the settings that I've since worked with.

I never ran either the first DungeonCraft setting, nor Faerytale, yet I started to feel like I was migrating even further away from the D&D conceits after a time. Late in 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the d20 Star Wars game, and followed that up in 2001 with d20 games like The Wheel of Time and Call of Cthulhu, finally concluding their efforts to create all new d20 games with d20 Modern in 2002. This was when I first started entertaining more radical redesigns of the rules to better accomplish what I want from the game. Faerytale II went live sometime around then, utilizing a number of houserules, including alt.classes from the Wheel of Time game and alt.races, many of which I tweaked myself. And that was the tipping point; where my break with D&D really started, way back in the very early days of 3e, before 3.5 came out. From that moment on, I never really ran D&D "as written" except under duress. And that's the most lasting legacy of this first stream of homebrews; the tone, the theme, and the willingness to mangle the rules to get them to do what I wanted them to.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Setting design evolution

For fun, I'd been tinkering for a little while with archiving all the fantasy settings I'd played around with since the release of D&D Third Edition, when I got more involved with RPGs again, particularly fantasy RPGs, and, well, started developing settings for use with the game.

While this probably isn't a comprehensive list, it does include every setting that I developed at least enough that some element of it carried down to the current iteration of DARK•HERITAGE, either in terms of a houserule, a setting element, or even just a theme that's explored. And it's not 100% homebrewed either; the Freeport Homebrew is so named because at the core of the setting is Green Ronin's Freeport modular setting element. Which I then took and placed in a homebrew setting of mostly my own design, of course.

I did this in an almost flowchartish approach, with approximations (or estimates, where my memory is not sufficient) of when the setting was developed on a not-to-scale timeline on the left hand side. I've also tried to put settings into sensible "streams"--while all of them contribute in some fashion to DARK•HERITAGE Mk. IV, they also don't all do so in equal measures, and one setting sometimes evolved into another setting before being abandoned and cannibalized for what later became another setting in another stream. Although this also occludes the fact that sometimes what goes around comes around; despite the spider-web nature of the chart attached here, it's fair to say that the current version of DARK•HERITAGE resembles the old Bloodlines setting from nearly a decade ago more closely than it does almost any of the stages in between.

Dark•Heritage: Return of the King

Something big is going on far to the north, in the desert canyonlands of Baal Hamazi. On the southern shores of the large Indash Salt Sea, the port and caravanserai city of Simashki is flooded with refugees from Tahrah and Baal Hishutash, as well as the rural areas all around. And they all have the same story; the First Priest-King of the old Baal Hamazi empire has returned; either reborn or somehow returned to life, and he's not happy to find that the empire he built has crumbled into petty city-states and mini-empires, and that his capital in the Hamazi canyonlands is an abandoned ruin.

Reports are confused about what exactly has happened. One of the most commonly repeated reports is that Hutran Kutir--the semi-mythical founder of the Baal Hamazi empire, and the first hellspawn to bear the distinctive hamazin physical characteristics, and the semi-mythical ancestor of all hamazi hellspawn even today--was either reborn or rose from his ancient tomb in the ruins of Baal Hamazi, deep in the Hamazi Canyonlands. Demonstrating his royal potency and grandeur, he easily swayed the cult-like tribes that still dwelt in the canyonlands to swear their allegiance anew to him, and with that small core he marched out of the canyons, crossed the Kindattu Mountains and sacked Baal Hishutash. Gathering additional drylander warriors to his banner, he advanced on Tahrah, which surrendered without a fight.

However, the details of the rise of Hutran Kutir and if he's really at the head of this army are not consistant and believable in all reports. The only thing that is known for sure is that somebody has managed to unite many of the northern drylander tribes into a potent military force which successfully sacked Baal Hishutash and which intimidated Tahrah into surrender and that soldiers, warriors, troops, and renegades now swarm both cities and much of the land around them. And that someone is using the name of Hutran Kutir as a rallying point. And refugees have been flowing southwards for weeks, swelling golden Simashki, the Jewel of the Indash Salt Sea to capacity and beyond. Most of these refugees are the human cityfolk; the relatively prosperous. Human drylanders still see opportunities for plunder, and the hamazin see their hopes of being raised into a privileged position at the head of a new Hamazi empire renewed--although possibly in vain; historical reports from the earliest days of Kutir's reign suggest that the only reason he gave special privilege to the hamazin hellspawn was because they were his own children, not because of their racial distinction from those of the human tribes amongst which they were spawned.

Simashki is flooded with refugees, clogging her streets, filling her inns, and creating all manor of shortages and other social problems. Some of the refugees, those who are able, have started moving even further south, traveling upstream on the Palar River to Ishkur, or even beyond; from there braving the Shutrak savanas to enter the "lost provice" of the Terrasan Empire, Calça, or to come to the northern boundaries of the weakening empire at the headwaters of the Volo river in the Garriga Mountains. This significant displacement of people, and the possible ramifications of further aggression by this army gathering in the far north, are so far issues that only Simashki and possibly Ishkur have asked; the remainder of the territories are only starting to hear the first fragmentary rumors and hints of problems to come. But unless the military action sputters soon, it is likely that further upheaval is in the near future for the successor states of the Baal Hamazi empire.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dark•Heritage: Vampires in Dark•Heritage

While almost everyone in the region is familiar with the concept of a vampire, since the nation of Tarush Noptii is infamously run by vampires, very few (even within Tarush Noptii itself) have actually ever seen a vampire or understand very much about their nature.

Vampire is actually a catch-all term for all kinds of conditions that utilize cannibalistic parasitism to extend ones life by entering into a state approaching undeath, or undying. This encompasses such wide figures as the leaders of the Tarush Noptii state, who took on the curse of vampirism from the Death god who mythically fell from the sky and is buried under the capital city of Vészok to Bloody Maria, the countess of Segrià who supposedly tortured and killed hundreds of young girls, and bathed in their blood to prolong her own life. And there are supposedly even more ancient and strange vampiric beings lurking in the dark places of the earth; ancient people from the Old World who gave up their humanity, fusing their souls with predatory beings from Hell or the spaces between the stars. Some heretical texts even assert that the fallen Death god Tarush is itself one such being.

Because vampire is a catch-all term, covering a number of creatures that are more mythical rather than observable in many cases, there are a number of differences in what reports of vampires' natures are like. The one thing that is common between them is that they are all deadly predators, easily capable of dispatching a person's life. Most of them are supposed to be possessed of supernatural speed and strength and durability to make them almost impervious to the attempts of people to kill them. In fact, the legendary vampire of Old Terrasa supposedly fed once a year, and the entire military might of the nation was put out at night to stop her, unsuccessfully, for a hundred years in a row before the attacks mysteriously stopped with no warning.

Some vampires are supposed to be so achingly beautiful that they can charm their victims into voluntarily surrendering their lives happily, while others are said to be twisted monsters, completely inhuman and hideous of demeanor. Vampires feed on blood, on raw flesh, or even on the souls of their victims, depending on the account. Some vampires have been noted to have weaknesses relative to sunlight, to garlic, or to other forces, while others seem blissfully unconcerned with such things.

In creating this post, I don't want to give the impression that vampires are by any means commonplace in DARK•HERITAGE. Even in Tarush Noptii, there can't be more than a hundred or so at the absolute most, and that is the so-called "Kingdom of Vampires." However, I do want to stress that vampires are an unknown quantity in this setting. If a character were to come across one, making assumptions about its capabilities and weaknesses would most likely be a fatal mistake that said character would not have the opportunity to make again. Most vampires are, in fact, very ancient beings, infused with the power of ancient sorcery, who have survived as long as they have because of their obssessive-compulsive attention to detail with regards to their paranoia. The drive to seek undying life, or undeath, by stealing life parasitically from peoples around you is fundamentally based on a paranoid fear of death. Vampires are almost impossible to kill, but they are always concerned that they have missed an angle, that someone will find a way through their defenses and safeguards that prolong their life. So a degree of psychotic paranoia that would be classified as insanity by any normal person is actually almost a requirement for vampires, except for the rare exception of people who have become vampiric against their will for whatever reason.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dark•Heritage: Ancient history of the Mezzovian Area

Even going beyond reliable records and into semi-legendry, the history of the settlement of the Mezzovian region by groups who are recognizably ancestral to the current inhabitants of the region only goes back about 3,000-3,500 years. While this is not a historically insignificant amount of time many scholars at universities in Razina, Terrasa, Sènt-Haspar and other locations around the sea recognize that there are clearly signs of some kind of habitation that predates these earliest prehistoric and protohistoric nations, by peoples who are shrouded in mystery. And for that matter, the nations and peoples of the Age of Legends are often only tenuously connected to current populations anyway.

The biggest exception to this seems to be the peoples of Tarush Noptii. The vampires have ruled there for centuries; in many cases, literally the same individual vampires. And the Tarushan people seem to be autochthonous as well, with their own language, unrelated (except by borrowing and other areal features) to any other language in the area. In a way, the Tarushans are like the Basques of the Mezzovian Sea.

The Cavusti used to roam up to the southern shores of the Mezzovian Sea, or at least the Tolosa Bay, before population pressure squeezed them further south to the Cavusti highland plains. Everyone agrees that they were in the area before "modern" humans, but their impact was slight, they never came to the northern shores at all, and as wandering hunter-gatherers, they did little to impact the land. Nevertheless, someone used to live here in prehistoric times, as several isolated tell sites, megalith sites, and other hints of ancient ruins indicate. Dark rumors and myths from the Cavusti and others hint at great and terrible peoples who lived here before the Death god fell from the sky in what is now Tarush Noptii.

There are also strange inscriptions on stelae and other stone tablets, that resist being deciphered, but which appear to belong to languages unrelated to any living. Many of these even the ancient vampires of Tarush Noptii claim to be unable to decipher, and their age is uncertain and clearly very great. Some of them are believed to be outposts of mythical Sasserinna, the land that supposedly occupied the Mezzovian basin before it was flooded with water. Conversely, some other legends credit them with being undersea markers from an underwater civilization that lived in the basin when the water level was much higher.

Little concrete is known about the prehistory of the region, and scholars mourn the almost certain fact that they don't know what they don't know. In the words of Professor Vuissancia de Galdames, "The rocks and earth of our Mezzovian basin have been here for eons uncounted, and the tramp of the feet of the soldiers of numberless empires have trod our soil. Although our knowledge of most of these empires is now lost to us, who can say what ancient legacy yet lurks in the shadows of forgotten dolmens, in the tangled, primeval trees of our vast forests, and under the waves of the blue Mezzovian? And who can say what the nature of such legacy will be; whether treasure to enrich the pockets of its finders, or the state of our scholarship, or perhaps an ancient evil long buried and forgotten, slumbering until such time as it shall plague our poor land yet again?"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Barsoom Tales

I just finished reading Barsoom Tales which is a Lulu published book you can get by clicking on the title right there. It's a fascinating book; one of the most fascinating I've read in a long time (even though I've actually read it before) and for an unusual reason. See, Barsoom Tales presents itself as a novel. It's got fictional characters, in a fictional setting, has a plot, has dialogue; everything you'd expect from a novel. But it isn't really one.

It's a game report. It's an entire "season" of some guy's D&D game. That guy is actually Corey Reid, a good online friend of mine. It's been novelized, after a fashion. It was done so quite some time after the fact, when memory of the details of the game itself were a bit hazy. It's been purposefully changed and edited somewhat to make it more readable. It's got interludes and fillers where we see NPCs doing their thing, to make the story itself a bit more presentable. All features that come from novel writing--although in many ways, these don't always work as well as the stuff that came directly out of the game itself (I'm in particular thinking of the NPCs who sat around in the cafe in Chimney in the first section. I never really latched on to that part of the story, and was glad when it was over. Although it did end up becoming kinda neat as a framing device.)

But its roots as a game session are still quite clear. The dialog feels more like some guys (and gals) sitting around a table playing D&D, not carefully crafted wordsmithing. The plot doesn't really feel like a novel's plot in many ways, reflecting the way strange things can happen in games (main characters dying unexpectedly, for instance, because of a blown saving throw or just bad rolls. Or sudden turns as the players go haring off in some unexpected direction.) And for this reason, I think it's a fascinating read. Well, also because it is a pretty good story too; but I especially think D&D players will enjoy it.

A few notes. Corey's game used something he called "swash cards." He wrote these; about 100 or so cards that each had a modest benefit on them. He shuffled and dealt (some of) them at the beginning of each session, and the players could play them. One of the cards made an NPC fall madly in love with the PC. The player played this card when he was introducing (meant to be nothing more than a quick aside; a "look at this crazy character, who's going to threaten you" kind of character. Who didn't even have a name) the Demon Goddess; one of the nastiest, most potent villains that the setting was meant to have. Imagine having, out of the blue, Loki fall in love with your character. Except that instead of Loki's mischiviousness for most of the myths that he appears in, it's Loki from the end of the mythology. Loki from Ragnarok, intent on destroying the gods and all creation. Needless to say, that sent the campaign in a very unexpected direction, and Corey says he really had to scramble to keep up with that as a development. In many ways, this slice of the campaign (which actually continued long after this story ended) is the story of that NPC and her dealings with the PC party. Although she doesn't even show up until halfway through.

Secondly, Barsoom. It's not Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, it's his own creation that just borrows the name. But it feels a lot like Barsoom in many ways. The Kishak race are clearly the red men of Mars. Banths make an appearance. Domesticated dinosaurs are commonplace. And although it used D&D rules (3e), they are quite expurgated in most respects; characters could essentially belong to the rogue, fighter, or expert classes. And that was all. There wasn't supposed to be any supernatural on Barsoom. No magic. No psionics. No monsters. Etc. That turned out to be... well, not quite so true after all, but that's how it started anyway.

In fact, the supernatural on Barsoom is very strongly reminiscent of the supernatural in Glen Cook's Black Company books. There are a handful of sorcerers. But they are serious sorcerers. Compared to a D&D wizard or sorcerer, these guys are epic. They're like The Ten Who Were Taken, only more independant, and more paranoid.

When I met Corey online and he started describing his version of Barsoom to me, it was eerily similar to some of the ideas I was simultaneously working up that could fairly be called the earliest version of the DARK•HERITAGE setting. Although I was aware of the Black Company, I hadn't read them until after I read Barsoom Tales. The grim, dark fantasy of the the Black Company, as well as the terrifying reality of magic in such a setting, really clicked with me (even if I struggled with Glen Cook's voice for a while) and was an obvious direction for me to take too, given where I was to the time with my own tastes. But I saw it in Corey's Barsoom first.

And on a less dramatic note, having the heroes of the story (and many of the NPC's from the first section in particular) have a kind of Rennaissance Spanish flair to them was another big click for me; I actually speak Spanish (I lived in Argentina for a few years as a teenager) but I'd somehow never thought of using any Mediterranean influence in my fantasy until discovering Barsoom. My own Terrasan Empire clearly has some superficial similarities to Corey's Saijadan, and not coincidentally.

Anyway, I'd recommend this to anyone who's a gamer. Not because it's a great novel, because it's not. I don't even know that it really is a novel. But because it's a great write-up of an RPG campaign. It's also a great example of what fantasy RPG campaigns could aspire to, if they remember to quit trawling around aimlessly in random holes in the ground.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

GM Screen

Although I've never bought one on my own, I've come into about half a dozen GM screens designed for use with d20 games. Most of them were given to me, either as gifts, or as door prizes, or whatever. While I used to handwave away the value of a GM screen, I've come to enjoy them. However, I've also decided that my own GM screen needs are perhaps a bit esoteric; I'm not thrilled with what most commercial GM screens offer on the GM's side, and I've also found that the most useful information I've ever seen on a screen was stuff that I put there myself.

The screens that I've acquired over time include the Goodman Games D&D 3.5 screen, with its collection of old school Jeff Dee, Erol Otis (and several lookalike artists) art on the front, the 3.5 screen that came in Dragon Magazine, with the Wayne Reynolds demon-fighting art, the Unearthed Arcana screen that accompanied the Malhavoc Press book of the same name, the Green Ronin d20 Modern screen with James Ryman art, and a fan-made one that a friend of mine sent me; I don't know the actual provenance of that one, though. The friend who sent it to me believes it is the best screen he's ever used; in most respects, I'm inclined to agree.

When I ran my Pirates of the Mezzovian Main game, where a number of the elements that later became DARK•HERITAGE Mk. VI elements were prototyped (including much of the geography) I used five of the six panels of this homemade screen, printed on paper with some Wayne Reynolds Freeport art on the other side. I also created two panels of my own, setting specific information. I then went and had these seven panels laminated at Kinko's and taped them together with clear packing tape.

While in many respects I really loved this screen, in many other respects I didn't. The lamination didn't look as good as I'd hoped. The clear packing tape even less so (plus it created see-through gaps, which my players thought was kinda funny, since it arguably defeated the purpose of a GM screen, at least to some extent.) And seven panels ended up being too many. I found that I could rarely actually stretch it out all the way, so I usually had at least one panel folded in. And the fan-made screen material was too much. I was bombarded with information, most of which I didn't need most of the time. And if I did need it, it would have taken me as long to find it on the screen as it would have in the books anyway. Plus, my home-made screen was supposed to have the added advantage that it didn't cost much (I've always shied away from buying actual screens because $15 or whatever seems like an outrageous investment in something that's so ephemeral)--but the lamination set me back better than $20, making it ironically an extremely expensive option.

Honestly, the most useful material ended up being the setting specific material that I created. Heck, I still pull out the screen with its name-lists sorted by culture when I need to name an NPC., or come up with a tavern name on the fly, and I found the little mini-map of the setting an invaluable tool for the game, which ended up involving quite a bit more traveling than I originally envisioned.

That said, even my brief efforts in creating two panels of setting specific info convinced me that doing layout for something like a screen panel is much easier said than done, and it takes a brave soul to tread into that arena. Or, like me, a naïve one, ignorant of the pitfalls. Nevertheless, I'm tempted to go there again, if for no other reason than because I still don't have a screen that really gives me all that I want and not any (or at least not much) of what I don't. And the setting specific information has been a lifesaver during play numerous times; I'll never game without preparing a few shortcut panels like that again and at least paperclipping them to whatever screen I do use. And if I'm going to create DARK•HERITAGE specific panels, I might as well keep going and create an entire screen of what I want.

What I don't need are endless equipment lists. That's relatively easy to find in the books when I need it (although some equipment is nice.) I don't need a bunch of Skill check DCs, because I can make those up on the fly easily as needed. Those two items alone, especially with armor and weapon details, take up the most real estate on most screens that I have. A much more useful, but much less common section would include a condition summary, so you can tell at a glance what happens if you fail a save and become sickened, for instance. Or what the difference is between being sickened and nauseated; between shaken, frightened and panicked, etc. Because it's DARK•HERITAGE and not generic D&D, the firearms rules would be nice, as would the chase rules. Rules for all the "weird" combat maneuvers (when not using Pathfinder's simplified version) is essential. Lists of poisons and diseases would be handy. Attack and Armor Class (or Defense) modifiers for different conditions would be nice. And maybe I could fill in some gaps here and there with a few skill sections on skills that I don't use that often. Maybe.

I've also got in mind a new construction technique. This time, I'll create a screen that holds up well, looks better (hopefully) and doesn't cost me anything except the ink to print my panels. And, I'll take pictures of various stages of construction. If it all turns out well, I'll even post a step-by-step how-to of what I did and how well it worked out. If.

Cavusti tribesmen

Najat stood up in surprise. The wily outdoorsman had made no fire, traveled light and carefully, and was keeping watch. He would have sworn that he could see a prairie rat in the scrub brush and short, dry grass, if a prairie rat had attempted to approach his cold camp. But they only sign he had of anything approaching was a momentary whiff of buckskin right before three men, short and solidly built, had appeared a few yards away from him, menacing him with heavy spears and swords of foreign make.

He rose cautiously and slowly, gauging how likely he thought it would be that he could outrun the three, or outfight them. His hand very slowly inched towards his own swordbelt. That's when he heard more chattering in the uncouth language of the dark shapes in the night who had surprised him. He wheeled around to see an additional six or seven warriors had snuck up on him from the other direction. He was surrounded by a ring of spears. He slowly raised his hands above his head...

The Cavusti Tribesmen are named for the Cavusto steppes, where they live. Cavusto itself is the Terrasan rendering of the native word Kvuustu; the word the people use to describe themselves. Today, the Cavusti are nestled in the cool, dry high steppes of Cavusto, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that they once lived as far north as the southern shores of the Mezzovian Sea. They never seem to have lived on the northern shores, though, and in general, Cavusti who travel dislike the warm, tropical climate of the northlands, suffering more from heat than other peoples. Similarly, the cold windy steppes of Cavusto seem to offer much less discomfort to the Cavusto than to others; their thicker, more robust bodies seem to be better adapted to cooler temperatures in general.

The Cavusti are easily spotted from amongst the other ethnicities in the region. Uniquely, their skeletal remains are also easily recognizable, whereas a Kurushi skeleton, a Terrasan skeleton (or even a jann skeleton) is not. In addition to the thickening and greater robustness of the bones, the Cavusti have a prominent slope to the forehead, brow ridges over the eyes, weak chins, exceptionally large, strong teeth, and a marked occipital "bun" at the base of the skull. Cavusti skin is usually paler than the olive-skinned Kurushi or Terrasans, or the copper-skinned Tazitta, Untash and Haltash tribesmen; as pale as some of the Balshatoi peoples. But there the resemblance ends; the Cavusti are frequently heavily freckled and tanned, with red or auburn hair and brown eyes.

Cavusti culture is one based around their economy, which is one of nomadic hunting and gathering. Never numerous, the presence of large quantities of large game animals--elephants, bison, horse, shrub-oxen, (and pronghorn, although they're usually too fast and skittish to be prey animals to the Cavusti) and ground sloths, along with occasionally tapirs in the forest and riparian environments, make up their diet, as well as providing them with most of the raw materials from which they make their clothing, weapons and more. While they are mostly confined to the high steppelands east of the Black Mountains, they do occasionally wander as far north as the Oceja River or Claw Canyon, and a few Cavusti claim to have pressed all the way to the shores of Tolosa Bay.

The Cavusti are not particularly war-like by nature, since they tend to be organized in small family bands, and have never developed a strong sense of nation, nor a state or other large polity. Few buildings or monuments, other than shrines, standing stones, and other "ephemera" are attributed to them. However, as big-game hunters of some of the largest, most dangerous animals in the area, as well as competitors to huge predators like short-faced bears, saber-tooths, lions, dire wolves, and others, they are certainly familiar with and comfortable with violence on a smaller scale. For several generations, many of their younger and middle-aged people, sometimes upwards of 50% of the population, have organized themselves into intra-family group "platoons" and drilled in military maneuvers, then gone on to serve as mercenaries for Terrasa, Kurushat, or other nations. In this, they are highly valued as amongst the toughest, hardest infantry troops available, and troops that are also very familiar with woodcraft. Since even the meagerest of pay allows the Cavusti to buy luxuries that are undreamed of in their nomadic homeland, they've also traditionally been available at low cost--although savvy platoon leaders have managed to parlay their scarcity into higher rates due to high demand.

Lately, many of these soldiers and former soldiers have dropped their mercenary endeavors and moved to the far west in a show of solidarity and racial patriotism. The armies of Kajim Tokraas IX, khagan of Kurushat, start to expand outwards from the Sutaka Pass in an attempt to "pacify" lands that are traditionally Cavusti. In a number of bloody engagement the infantry of the Cavusti--tested and blooded in battlefields around the Mezzovian area--is clashing with the equally elite Praetorian infantry of Kurushat. The savviest of mercenary platoon leaders are trying to parlay their influence with their former customers for political and military support, but there is little aid coming; the political will of Terrasa is weak. Only Alcàsser at the delta of the Durenga River has shown much interest in protecting the status quo in the region and halting the spread of Kurushat at the Black Mountains. Perhaps they're the only ones foresighted enough to recognize that if Kurushat does break the resistance of the Cavusti, there is no longer any meaningful buffer between the aggressive kurushi and the shores of the Mezzovian Sea itself except easily traversible low hills and plains.

For the most part, this support from Alcàsser comes not in overt military aid, but in covert intrigue within Kurushat. The Alcassans believe (probably rightly) that the best chance for blunting the efforts of Kurushat to expand is to consume it in internal dissent and conflict, and with the impending death of the elderly Kajim Tokraas, the khaganate has a looming succession crisis. By worsening the rivalry between the camps, as much as possible, Alcàsser sees a very real chance to take all attention off of the Sutaka Pass and any lands to the east, in fact. Much of their effort has been spent in fomenting the spirit of rebellion and revolt in Hu, a fairly recent acquisition by Kurushat. Meanwhile, the outnumbered Cavusti maintain their desperate guerilla war in an attempt to halt the eastward expansion of the kurushi military.

Neanderthal (Kvuustu, Cavusto)

  • +2 Strength, +2 Constitution, -2 Intelligence, -2 Charisma: Amongst the Neanderthals, brute strength and ruggedness are necessary for survival. Creativity, good looks and perfectly honed social skills are not.
  • Humanoid (Human) Despite their appearance and difference from "normal" humans, Neanderthals are also members of the genus Homo and are therefore as human as Homo sapiens. Any effect that targets humans specifically applies to Neanderthals too.
  • Medium: As Medium creatures, Neanderthals have no special benefits or penalities due to size.
  • Neanderthal base land speed is 30 feet.
  • Neanderthals recieve the Endurance and Diehard feats for free at first level.
  • All skills are treated as cross-class regardless of actual class except for the following: Climb (Str), Heal (Wis), Hide (Dex), Intimidate (Cha), Jump (Str), Knowledge (geography) (Int), Knowledge (nature) (Int), Listen (Wis), Move Silently (Dex), (Listen and Move Silently are collapsed into Spot and Hide respectively. Their use always struck me as frustratingly redundant) Ride (Dex), Search (Int), Spot (Wis), Survival (Wis), and Swim (Str).

Monday, February 14, 2011

End of (some) book reviews

I just finished reading Paizo's latest setting book, Lost Cities of Golarion. And frankly, especially right on the heels of Stormwrack, I just don't feel motivated to review it. I didn't feel motivated to review Stormwrack either, but I did anyway, out of force of habit.

Especially as I find myself mostly reading (and therefore reviewing) books that are old, often out of print, and where (especially in relation to gaming books I read) I find that my commentary starts to feel repetitive over time, I'm going to quit reviewing books for a time. I might still review something, if I get really excited about having read it--and, in fact, I fully intend on reviewing Barsoom Tales as soon as I'm done with it--but it's not going to be a given that I review everything I read anymore, and in fact, it'll be a given that I review little of what I read. That ship has sailed. It's time has come. It's played out. I'm done.

That said, I'll try to at least keep my little sidebars more or less up to date in terms of what I'm reading so anyone who cares to look can at least glance at the side and see what I'm reading. And I'll comment here and there on what I'm reading too, just for fun.

So, just for the record, I'm not actually picking up a new gaming book for the time being. I'm more than halfway done with Barsoom Tales and am rather still near the beginning of The Bloody Crown of Conan, the second (of three) trade paperback anthologies that gather all of Robert E. Howard's Conan work (this one has the longest works, so there's quite a bit fewer of them.) After that, I have some more Howard and Lovecraft compilations to work on, some Black Library stuff (including Eisenhorn) or maybe the long-deferred sequel to Prisoner of the Horned Helmet to read. I haven't yet decided. I've also recently picked up all of the Dresden Files books in paperback; at least, all of those that are available in paperback, and although I read them not too long ago, seeing them lined up on my bookshelf has been very tempting. And, my oldest son has borrowed Dragons of Autumn Twilight, which has kinda made me want to read those books again too. And the last time I read a Salvatore story, it was better than I thought, which almost makes me want to pick up the original three "Halfling Gem" stories again, for nostalgia's sake.

And after all those... well, I've still got plenty on my "bought but still haven't read yet" list. And a new Dresden Files book comes out in April. So, those are my reading plans, vague as they are.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Well, I just finished the last of the 3.5 era environment books (except for Dungeonscape which I never had any interest in reading in the first place) Stormwrack, the one devoted to "the Maelstrom" which is what the authors call every body of water from a water trap in a dungeon to a bog on the coast to, naturally, the actual ocean. This cheesy terminology isn't limited to calling any ole puddle of water "The Maelstrom;" they also helpfully label water coming over the side of a boat greenwater (for reasons that aren't exactly clear to me) and deep water from trenches or abyssal plains blackwater (for reasons that make a bit more sense.)

By this time, after having read Sandstorm, Frostburn and Cityscape already, my expectations and hopes for Stormwrack weren't exactly great, plus I had a pretty good idea of what to expect by now. Sure enough, Stormwrack continued the trend of providing a bunch of kind of generic oceany stuff, page after page of rules that I won't ever need, use, or appreciate, a few corny new races, including killer whale people and the aventi, who are basically underwater samurai with an Atlantis-like background, and a race that's a combination monkey and flying squirrel. I wish I were making that last one up.

The rules really point to a major point of departure between where the designers were headed and where I've been. Most of the "new skill uses" and several of the new feats were ones that I don't think need to be spelled out. I see the skill system as an interesting, yet ultimately completely reactive tool. By which I mean, players tell the GM what they want to do, and the GM decides which skill most closely approximates that, makes up a reasonable DC based on a bazillion samples of reasonable DCs in the rulebooks and the dramatic needs of the game. The designers clearly favor a more restrictive approach; one where what you can do is spelled out ahead of time in exacting detail. If it isn't spelled out ahead of time, well, then you can't do it. Some of the feats are also... redundant to common sense. For example, the swim-by-attack (and the fly-by-attack feat from the Monster Manual for that matter fit this profile)--it's basically just Spring Attack for swimmers. Why can't you just take Spring Attack and use it while on the ground, in the water, or (if you're capable) while flying? I dunno. No reasonable explanation that I can think of.

That said, Stormwrack did have some good stuff here and there. The monster section, as usual, has some useful stuff in it. The four locations were surprisingly interesting, given that most of the past samples of that kind of thing ended up being so generic and bland as to be nearly useless. One of them is even genuinely creepy.

I found myself more intrigued by the concept of a seafaring campaign--whether as sailors or in a Little Mermaid underwater environment--the most interesting thing about the book, though, honestly. The reality of Stormwrack itself was... meh. About the same as the rest of the environment books, I suppose. If you liked any of those, this one is excellent. If you thought those were disappointing, this one's about on the same level.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Keeping track of time in Dark•Heritage

The calendar used throughout the Mezzovian Sea region is one developed by Terrasan scholars several centuries ago. Due to its uncluttered nature, and the fact that it's not too focused on local concerns, it has become popular throughout the region, including in Baal Hamazi, Qizmir, and Kurushat. In Kvuustu, where the natives don't really mark time except by the passing of seasons, it isn't used, and the Tarushans maintain their own ancient calendar.

Carbonell Abenmenax is credited with creating the calendar, and it is sometimes called the Abenite calendar, or simply the Terrasan calendar. It divides known history into three distinct ages, while admitting that an earlier age (or ages) must have existed, it is impossible to know any dates from them with any kind of certainty at all. The first age is the Age of Legends (A.L.) Many events during the age of legends are legendary or semi-legendary, hence the name, and dating for many events is imprecise or unsure. The Age of Legends lasted for 1972 years, from the traditional date that people arrived on the shores of the Mezzovian Sea (although there are lots of good reasons to believe that date is much older than what tradition dictates) to the rise of the Balshatoi kingdoms. The following Age of the North (A.N.) refers to the hegemony that people of Balshatoi, or proto-Balshatoi ethnicity dominated the region in a succession of nations and cultures and subcultures. The Age of the North lasted 843 years. It ended when Queen Gualharda d'Coysset officially declared the independence of Terrasa from foreign domination after many years of low-grade civil war, and this time was able to make it last. From that point on, no northern power has officially controlled any land on the southern coastline.

The Age of the South (A.S.) is the current age, referring to the gradual domination culturally and politically of ethnic Terrasans and their close relatives of the Mezzovian area (although in both Kurushat and Baal Hamazi, it is believed that year 1 A.S. is also the year that their own kingdoms were founded. And the arrival of the jann in Qizmir is not precisely dated; scholars there are starting to publish as fact the idea that they arrived from far to the east in 1 A.S. too, making the current age the semi-mythical founding date of all four of those major powers.) From the humble declaration of independence of Queen d'Coysset to the rise of what has come to be called the Terrasan Empire was a long journey, and for much of the first two centuries of the of the Age of the South, it was arguably a misnomer. And pundits, philosophers, politicians, and others who wish to make a point for whatever reason question whether maybe a new age shouldn't start now, as the old Terrasan power fades. Indeed, in Porto Liure, some scholars believe that the independence of that city-state will be seen in retrospect as the beginning of a new age where local politics and forces dominate, and no regional superpower controls the entire Mezzovian Main. Some of them have even started unofficially referring to the current age as the Age of Freedom, but that terminology has not caught on broadly, and mostly those scholars are mocked for their presumptiousness. Today's date (well, that can move around from time to time, so it's give or take 5-10 years or so, of course) is 567 A.S.

Abenmenax also created the divisions within each year that are widely used throughout the region. The 365 day year was divided into twelve 30-day divisions, with a 5 day holiday at the end of the year to make up for the remaining days. For reasons that are lost to the mists of time, Abenmenax decided to have the year officially end at the summer solstice (keep in mind that the Mezzovian Sea and all of the lands described here are in the southern hemisphere), so the year officially starts five days later. The month names in standard Terrasan are as follows: Gener, Febrer, Março, Abril, Majiol, Jugniol, Juliol, Agost, Setembre, Octubre, Novembre and Desembre. And last five days of the year do vary by region; each region naming them after local heroes or gods or rulers. In the Terrasan city-states, they are known, in order as el día Cherno (or simply Cherno), Peruno, Velo, Selvano, and el día Culsano.

Little Betriz

Keisa looked up and down the cramped little alleyway. Looming, leaning rooftops made the "street" seem more like a tunnel. If she reached out both of her arms at once, she could touch the buildings on either side of it. The bright sun overhead seemed to mock her; this bitter little end to Cheap Street was swathed in darkness. She turned around and leaned against the wall waiting for the signal.

Najat nodded. All clear; nobody was watching. Keisa turned and ran the last few yars to the rickity, age-silvered wooden door, darted through it, and closed it behind her quickly. She caught her breath and turned around.

"Hello!" said a cheerful voice. An eight or nine year old girl with her hair in dark pigtails was standing just a few feet away inside the house. Keisa could see her lacy white dress. It was adorable. The little girl stepped forward and smiled, a tiny crack of sunlight making its way through the overhanging roofs, through the crack above the door, to shine on her face. Keisa gasped. The girl's eyes were dead black. Shark eyes.

"You're all alone," the little girl said, frowning suddenly and looking around in confusion. "How are you going to pay?" With a flick of her wrist, the girl was suddenly armed with a glittering straight razor nearly a foot long. She stepped closer to Keisa...

At the end of a tiny, cluttered and filthy excuse for a street deep in Porto Liure's colorfully named Soddens district there's a tiny little shack that sees a lot more traffic than you would expect. This shack is the home of Little Betriz.

Be careful who you ask about Little Betriz. Sure, she's part of Porto Liure's folklore, and if all you want to do is hear titillating stories about hauntings, possessions, and the work of the devil, it's a harmless enough subject, and the locals will probably warm up to it. If you actually are trying to find Little Betriz's shack, nestled as it is in the winding maze of unmarked alleys, cramped "streets" that are barely wide enough to walk single file, dead ends and abandoned, ancient houses that even the rats seem to eschew as not suitable for them to raise their families, be prepared to come up against surly silence. Be prepared to be jumped later by those you asked, and if you're lucky coming away with the beating of a lifetime. Otherwise, be prepared to be murdered before you can do worse yourself. Even in a town as free and as morally rudderless as Porto Liure, people know better than to associate with Little Betriz, and know enough to discourage anyone else from doing so using the strongest means possible.

Nevertheless, Little Betriz manages to get a steady stream of visitors slipping in during the dead of night, usually. Little Betriz is the foremost oracle in the entire Terrasan territory and even beyond, and her readings are reputed to have saved (and toppled) entire kingdoms, recovered (or hidden) vast fortunes, and meant life or death to thousands of individuals. Little Betriz is so named because she is a little girl, with a pretty little white dress and dark curly hair in ringlets or pigtails. Despite her appearance, she is not human, however, and she's said by many to be the daughter of Chernavog himself, or some other god or devil. The oldest grandmothers and grandfathers remember hearing stories of Little Betriz, or even catching furtive glimpses of her from their own childhoods. Nobody remembers how or when she came to Porto Liure, but she's been here at least a hundred years, and hasn't aged a day. Her glittering, solid black eyes are extremely unnerving, and her habits are even moreso. Her tiny shack is barely larger than an outhouse, and there's no room for her to sleep or even lie down comfortably. All stories report that she is standing when seen.

While her oracular divinitions are reputed to be without fault, they are not without price. To make a divination, she disembowels a victim, usually a captive or slave brought by the person requesting the divination. Plunging her soft little hands into the steaming entrails of the moaning, dying victim, she reads the future until the lights in the eyes of the victim fade. She always requires that the body be left with her; some stories report that she immediately begins to devour it, and doesn't stop until every scrap is consumed, even the bones, with the exception of the skulls, which line the back wall of Betriz's shack like morbid tiling.

Other gossips will refute this, but all accounts agree that the floor and walls of Betriz's shack are covered with layer upon layer of caked and dried blood, and the place reeks of death and decay.

Occasionally someone will get it into their minds that Little Betriz is a menace, a daemon, and that she needs to be forcefully removed. Soldiers, zealots guardsmen, once even an entire squadron of witch hunters have marched into the Soddens to remove her once and for all. None have returned alive, and their skulls (presumably ) line the walls of Betriz's little shack like her other victims. What exactly Little Betriz really is, and what her purpose in telling fortunes in the glistening coils of someone's guts is completely unknown and unknowable, but nobody in Porto Liure doubts the fact that she's really there, and that she can provide as advertised, the best, most accurate, most pertinent divinations in the entire Mezzovian Sea region.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Iconic Dark•Heritage characters: Keisa Alawasmu

Keisa was born as a slave to the influential Dekewan family in Hu, a major city in Kurushat. Her family was enslaved when her mother was a small child for treason, even though they were an upstanding Kurushi family, and normally not subject to slavery. Her grandfather and grandmother were executed as part of the affair. Her own mother was a beautiful woman, and was eventually employed by Emir Dekewan as a pleasure-slave or harlot. Although it's not entirely clear, the emir is probably Keisa's father.

Keisa herself inherited her mother's good looks, but because her mother was able to use her beauty to negotiate in behalf of her daughter, she was taught to read at an early age, and by the time she was 12, she was more useful as a scribe and accountant than she ever was going to be as yet another pretty face and body for the noblemen and his guests to abuse. Keisa was possessed of an extremely keen intellect.

The emir's occult advisor, Thohilu Kowikpe, took a liking to the shy pretty young slave with her precocious intellect, and started teaching her his own trade on the side, as a "hobbyist" endeavor. Keisa excelled as well at this. Soon, her value as a new occultist, especially as enslaved occultist (a very rare thing in Kurushat) moved her from her accounting duties and into even more pampered lifestyle and more interesting tasks.

Despite her lifetime of slavery, her mother always instilled in Keisa a remembrance that their family was once free, and it was the political maneuvering of the Dekewan family that brought them low. Even as she became a privileged and even pampered member of the household, she nursed secretly a hatred of them and a longing for freedom. Her opportunity came one evening when she was still just a teenager, traveling with Kowikpe and a bodyguard of half a dozen soldiers beyond the border regions of Sutaka in the mountain passes. The occultists had been sent to investigate the falling off of production in the emir's silver mines in the region, which were rumored to be haunted. While Kowikpe was investigating the mines, Keisa stole into her master's study and removed several of his most dangerous restricted scrolls. Keisa summoned the daemon Tamaz Gaagra-Sukhumi, and promptly lost control of him. Due to sheer dumb luck, she somehow survived the encounter which killed Kowikpe, his bodyguard, and the entire camp of miners.

While not freed, there was no effective way for the Dekewan family to bring her back if she left Kurushat, so she made her way as an itinerent begger across the Cavusto steppes and into Terrasan lands, traveling with a caravan, and using her wits and magical ability to protect herself as discretely as possible. Again, in a stroke of luck, she caught the attention of an elderly caravan master, who thought she was "cute" and came to regard her with an almost patriarchal protectiveness, making her travel much more pleasant and danger-free than it otherwise would have been. She also came to nurse a relationship with some of the hunting bands of the cavusti, some of which see her to this day as an important shaman of some kind amongst the foreigners.

Her curiosity continued to lead to trouble for Keisha, however--her near disaster with the daemon Tamaz Gaagra-Sukhumi didn't discourage her from meddling more and more with the occult; rather it encouraged her to learn how to "do it right" the next time. Luck continued to be on her side as she blundered almost accidentally across more rites and incantations, and more and more occult power. Soon she had to worry about the Terrasan Inquisition and other witch-hunters, but her reputation also made her a valuable asset to the right people, and she had just enough business sense to turn her talent into a bankable skill. Always one step ahead of the witch hunters, and often leaving a disastrous mess behind her, she's made her way around much of the Mezzovian Main, always earning enough gold to stay in business (usually from shady if not outright illegal clients) and always managing to find more occult lore as she goes.

Keisa is an extremely attractive, young woman, with dark hair, pale skin, and extremely pale gray eyes; nearly white they are so light. She's cultivated an air of distraction; a scholarly girl so engrossed in her studies that her social skills have atrophied, but in reality this is partly an act on her part; a persona that she cultivates to increase her mystique amongst potential clients. She's also found that it seems to bring out the protective side of those around her, who see her as a "cute" younger sister who needs looking after. She's not blind to her charms; she just is very careful about how she doles them out in her own self-interest.

Mechanics: In d20 Past, Keisa Alawasmu is clearly a Smart Hero who multiclasses into Occultist, and her background was developed around this paradigm. However, the magic options are considerably different with each of the ruleset options; in D&D E6, she'd be a Noble or possibly a Courtier who's spent as much effort as possible learning incantations, while in Pathfinder, she'd be an Alchemist who's done the same.