Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dark•Heritage module

In this post a few months ago, I tossed around some possible ideas for a first session. Since that's now staring at me very soon--in two days, as a matter of fact--I thought it certainly appropriate if not actually crucial, that I revisit that brief outline, and flesh it out some. As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of leading my players along by the nose, but the fact of the matter is, they are used to playing modules, and don't mind (and in fact even prefer) having a relatively clear path in front of them to follow. My attempts to engage their characters more personally with the setting, by offering them opportunities to drive the campaign with their own characters' goals, have had a lukewarm response at best. So I'm left with thinking that I'm better off having an idea myself of where I think the campaign will go, at least in the short term. I do like to let gameplay itself shape the campaign in a major way as it goes on, but that's more of a long-term concern than a short-term one, frankly. In the short-term, I need to have a fair bit of detail around what I'm going to be doing, though.

So, in outline format, here's what I've got.

I. Catching the sabertooths:

The game will start out on the savanas as the PCs have been hired by wealthy noble rancher, the Margrave Bernardo Baltasar i Morales. There should be an interesting combat as the PCs attempt to capture, but not kill, at least one adult sabertooth. Out of a pack of 3-5 (I'll play it by ear and see how well they do; more sneaking up through the grass can always pop up if it's going too easy on them.) Sabertooth stats are already present in Frostburn, but in a pinch, I can use lion or tiger stats if I forget to have that book handy or something.

II. Caravan massacre:

In a game where magical healing doesn't really exist, there may be a need to go back to the ranch and get patched up by a medic before moving on. I'll play the details of how they move into this stage of the game by ear. If they're ready to jump right into it, they can see smoke on the horizon and go investigate, or stumble across survivors. If they need to be patched up first, the survivors can stumble into the ranch in a day or two instead. Their tale is one of the margrave's important (and rich) guests on their way to his ranch, getting involved in a detour, or making a wrong turn, and ending up north of the ranch, dangerously close to Untash tribal lands, where raids and murders are common. Not only has their richly appointed caravan been thoroughly robbed and looted, but many of it's members killed, tortured, raped or kidnapped. Some of them, at least, are alive.

III. Finding the tribesmen

I'm presuming that that's sufficient motivation to go out there and see what happened; either to rescue the kidnapped prisoners, liberate their riches, or even if it's just to loot the looters and run off with the riches themselves. This will lead to a small travel vignette where anyone with any wilderness ability of any kind can attempt to track the raiders from the caravan ambush site. Some possible encounters can happen here, depending on what I think the game would best be served with: some more dangerous wildlife (short-faced bear, deadly snakes, pack of hyenas or dire wolves, a stampede of bison, etc.) and the group could run up against some other Untash tribesmen who--possibly after some fighting or at least a tense stand-off--let the PCs know that that tribe directly north (the Gisati) is some "bad medicine." As they get closer, they find that that is definitely true; there are weird creatures attached to the tribe. Mutated dogs or something. They have to fight running battles against some of these, apparently under the control of witch docter packmasters.

IV. The sacrifice stones

In a small, shallow stream valley, heavily forested, there are a number of standing stones where the Gisati make their sacrifices. Here the PCs will come across tribal zealots and worse; the witch doctor (illustrated) and Ilark Jaasru--a combination of a D&D soulknife and a Sith Lord. They might save the captives (or not--it would be dramatically appropriate yet terribly cliche for them to arrive right as the sacrificial knives or whatever are poised to come down). The most disturbing clue that they find, though--besides the witch doctor, Sith Lord, and the ghoul escort that the Sith Lord has with him (or her) is a small contingent of Untouchables, the ruling group of Tarush Noptii; those who cannot be fed upon by the vampires by dint of their caste. It seems that an incomplete copy of The Book of the Black Prince has made its way to the tribesmen as a "gift" of sorts from the vampires, along with a consulting team to make sure that the rites they use to call the Ancient Ones are done correctly.

If desired, I could even have a minor Ancient One servitor of some kind actually already summoned that the PCs have to deal with at this point. Undecided, but probably yes. That sounds nice.

V. To Tarush Noptii

Why are the vampires, or the Untouchables at least, getting involved with Untash tribesmen and sending them very dangerous books of forbidden lore? And what's a "Sith Lord" with ghoul servitors, clearly from Cannibal Isle, doing here too? I don't know yet. This is at least three, maybe four sessions out that I need to have answers to these questions, though--well, maybe late in the second session at worst. I've got a few weeks to think about this, see what the PCs do and uncover in the meantime, and like I said, I don't want to lock myself down to a plan until I see how the PCs do handle what I've got for them prior to this. So, I think I'll stop here, for the time being, and then revisit this plan after we play our first session and I see what needs to be modified and when I need to have it. Clearly this is meant to be a major hint that sends the PCs into Tarush Noptii, which will be the end of this "module" within the greater campaign, and therefore where we'll probably hibernate it for a while, so I'll want Tarush Noptii to be suitably climactic--it'll have to be the climax for the time being.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Star Wars Rehabilitation

I should probably be focused on some other stuff right now (like my new campaign starting Friday) but since Star Wars was a very close second and almost got run instead, I have to admit that I'm definitely on a bit of a Star Wars kick right now. I've got all the Star Wars soundtracks ripped to mp3, and I've been listening to them as I commute for the last two weeks. I just recently rewatched the entire 1st and 2nd seasons of the Clone Wars cartoon series (starting off with the feature film, of course) and I just blasted through all the 3rd season episodes that I had saved up, which makes up me up date. Coincidentally, on Friday they'll air the 2-part season finale. I'm reading an Old Republic novel, by the same guy who wrote the Force Unleashed novels, and I've got the Lost Tribe of the Sith novels queued up for my Kindle for PC on my laptop. I'm also starting to jones for watching the original trilogy (decidely non special edition versions) again.

This is all a little unusual for me. I've been a Star Wars fan since I can remember, of course. I was born in early 1972, so I was almost 5½ when the first film came out. It's literally the first movie that I remember seeing in theaters. For years afterwards; at least twenty years, but maybe more like twenty five, or even thirty, I'd say that the original trilogy Star Wars movies, especially The Empire Strikes Back were my favorite movies ever. But something happened, and they slipped a bit in my estimation (curiously, Lucasfilm's other big hit, Raiders of the Lost Ark moved into first place.) What happened was, of course, the prequel trilogy.

See, Lucas used to make these movies more collaboratively. He had help with the screenplays, particularly the dialogue. He had help in the editing room. He understood his own strengths and weaknesses as a filmaker, and had folks in place who could cover for him on the areas where he wasn't as good. He was open to delegation. This was increasingly not true as he went forward. Return of the Jedi was where it started, but it was really on the prequel trilogies that it's drawn to its inevitable finish. Plodding, pretentious and just frankly really boring despite their snappy visuals, workable stories dragged down by bad pacing and worse dialogue, and Lucas' philosophy of "just make it all happen fast enough and people won't notice the flaws" was oddly both attempted and yet failed; the movies don't move very fast. Star Wars as a franchise, at least in my mind, was significantly damaged by the prequel trilogies. They gave us things like Darth Maul, but they also gave us Jar Jar Binks. I found I couldn't watch any of the prequel movies all the way through anymore. They're just too terrible to be endured without a judicious application of the fast-forward button.

But more recently, the franchise has been somewhat rehabilitated by a number of things. The first thing that really rehabilitated the franchise was the Knights of the Old Republic. That was a great video game, and was much better Star Wars than any of the three movies we got. After that, we had the Clone Wars cartoon series, which Lucas oversaw, but which he managed to delegate a lot of the details out. This show has also gradually rehabilitated the franchise; it's a good show. Heck, it even makes some of the characters that were eye-roll-worthy from the prequels likeable. In any case, although I'm not going to be running Star Wars (at least not for the time being...) I'm still excited about Star Wars--moreso than I have been at any time since the prequels starting hitting theaters, actually. And the new MMO by Biowar, Star Wars: The Old Republic may be the first MMO that will really tempt me to jump into the MMO fray.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Pathfinder + Cthulhu

Check it out!

Paizo has elder things frozen in ice, and Cthulhu attacks a coastal town. Paizo's also already given us a lot of Lovecraftian things--serpentmen and gugs in the underdark, the Plateau of Leng, hounds of Tindalos, etc. It's strongly hinted at that the ominous and strange deities Zon-Kuthon and Rovagug (the "Rough Beast") are Lovecraftian entities. But those two new pictures are a new level of Lovecraftianism in Pathfinder.

Pretty fun. Thanks, Paizo guys!

Running April 1st

Well, we are definitely going to be doing DARK•HERITAGE, starting one week from today, April 1st. I'm trying to get some player documentation ready to go by the weekend (or over the weekend, more likely) then I need to turn to fleshing out the adventure seed I posted about earlier. Star Wars is taking a back seat, although my personal interest in Star Wars remains relatively high (I'm reading an Old Republic novel, Fatal Alliance, right now, listening to the Star Wars soundtracks in my car as I commute, and got caught up on Season 2 of The Clone Wars and was able to dive into Season 3. The Old Republic MMO is due to release sometime this Spring, is the latest word (so... anytime now, I guess) and the season 3 finale is due to air on The Cartoon Network at the exact same time I'm running my game (I'll DVR it.) And I'm also going through my old pdf copy of The Secret History of Star Wars. But, from a gaming perspective, it'll be a no-show until Matt runs his game at some point down the line, which is a Star Wars game that he ran for another group at some point in the past. His wife, at least, has shown a strong desire to play Star Wars, and since it was one of my suggestions too, it looks like it's gaining traction with the group as a popular alternative. But... not yet. Patience, young padawan. Or something like that.

I'm a little lukewarm to my adventure idea, though. I may yet change my mind and do something totally different. I'm also a little intrigued by the idea of having something kinda sorta like Jedi (well, maybe more like Sith, to be perfectly honest with you) in this setting. I've gone back and forth to having assassins who use the soulknife class, from the Expanded Psionics Handbook, and I'm not thinking that if I'm doing that to get "fantasy Jedi", which I kind of am, then why not use the actual Star Wars Revised Jedi Guardian class after all, with the idea that lightsabers are soulknife blades? The Revised ruleset is the closest to D&D of the three d20 Star Warses, in most respects, and with my houserules, it would dovetail right in already.

Anyway... this won't be a class available to the PCs. At least not yet. But it might be one that I consider. The idea intrigues me.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dark•Heritage news

A brief update on my current local gaming situation, if I may. I've mentioned before that my local gaming group has been playing Rise of the Runelords, but for various reasons, and in order to avoid GM and campaign fatigue, we had discussed a rotational schedule where we play one module of Runelords, and then a module's worth of some other campaign. I also mentioned before that it looked like I was going to be the other guy running, and that naturally DARK•HERITAGE was at the top of my list of campaigns I'd like to run, assuming my players were interested. Because it's my nature, I like to give the players options, though, so I gave a one paragraph summary of DH, a Star Wars game set 1,000 years after Return of the Jedi, and an alternate history in which the Cold War started before World War I because the Great Powers discovered mystical superweapons--partly inspired by the board game Tannhäuser and partly inspired by Charlie Stross's "A Colder War." So far the votes are two for DARK•HERITAGE and one for "present". I've got three votes yet to be cast, but I think they'll range somewhere from "present" to "what the first two guys said."

The reason I bring this up is because in our last Runelords session--this last Saturday--although we didn't quite finish the module that we were in, we did have almost a "TPK"--Total Party Kill. One character managed to cast greater invisibility on herself and made it through the encounter without any problems. Another guy was in negative hit points but was saved at the last minute. The thought was, if almost everyone was going to have to make new characters anyway, why do it for just about a session's worth of module left? So now, suddenly, we're playing my game at our next session. Luckily I've already given some thought as to what I'd like to do, though. I'm actually quite excited! Plus, I'll be able to offer play session updates as a new posting tag as soon as we start. We average one five to six hour session every two weeks.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Cannibal Isle

Off the coast in the north, somewhere where the wild, uncharted borders of "north Qizmir" start to become the southernmost Forbidden Lands, deep in the Qashan Jungle, is a large island (about 2/3 the size of Madagascar) that is known only by reputation to the rest of the world as Cannibal Island. To its natives, however, it's known as Kanem Sennar. The natives are human, it's presumed, but differ radically in appearance and habits from the rest of the peoples in the area. Those few who actually recognize them fear it is corruption from the Forbidden Lands that has caused them to become so dangerous.

Kanem Sennar is a land filled with monolithic yet abandoned architecture; massive megalithic abandoned temple complexes dot the jungles and are somewhat frequently encountered, but the natives see them as sacred and avoid them. Despite the great heat and frequent sunlight, the natives of Cannnibal Isle are pale-skinned; with an almost chalky grayish white complection that resists tanning and sunburn both. They tend to have raspy voices, occasionally exhibit complete hairlessness (with the exception of eyelashes) and file their teeth to sharklike points. Their eyes are often strikingly pale blue or green or gray, their hair is either jet black or pure white (regardless of age) and because of their strange cults, they often have black markings painted on their skin which give them the appearance of stylized human skeletons. They lack a strong state structure, being organized into clans and cults which routinely raid each other for slaves, women, goods, and heads, and they practice frequent ritual cannibalism (hence the name of the island.) In fact, the Sennarite natives have a weakness; a genetic tendency to devolve into ghoulism; a state where sentience fades, the body mutates, and they become almost feral, anthropophagic monsters, haunting the darkened ruins and jungles and dragging unwary prey off to become their next feasts.

The Sennarites are not savages, though, and mercenaries and assassins sometimes make their way into the "civilized" parts of the world. They find that their metallurgical and industrial capability, in a cottage industry type of fashion, are the equivalent to anything happening in Terrasa, Baal Hamazi, Qizmir, etc.

Sennarites are still extremely exotic, and few people have seen them, or seeing them, would recognize them as the legendary inhabitants of equally legendary Cannibal Isle, but from time to time, they can be found throughout the region. When they do, they use the rules for any other human; the differences between Sennarites and, say, Terrasans are cosmetic and cultural only.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Joanne Peh

Well, here's an interesting little oddity from the Internet. Although I hadn't ever really spent much time looking at them before, I checked out the Stats tab that Blogger offers, and found that my post on the evolution of the police station set of LEGOs is by far my most popular post. I also found that, other than the US of A, where I live, the next biggest contingent of visitors to my blog was from Singapore. Huh? That seemed like an odd thing, and certainly not one that I would have expected.

So, I dived into yet more stats. How were people finding my blog? Turns out that the single largest reference that more people were following than any other site was the personal blog of Singaporan actress Joanne Peh, who seems like a thoroughly lovely young lady, and, hey, she made a blog post extoling the virtues of LEGO's and linked directly to my police station blog post.

Funny the things you learn on the Internet, isn't it?

Razina

"The Razine underground is probably the worst around the entire Mezzovian Sea. They're brutal in a way that you can't begin to imagine. They allow no challenge to their authority, no matter how insignificant, to stand unanswered. And their answers are decisive. The citizens of Razina live in fear of their Mafia in a way that no other citizens do. The local Watch is thoroughly corrupted by them, and will take no significant steps to counter them. The leading politicians, nobles and even the newly rich merchant class will not cross them. They've even had the Duke assassinated before, without reprisals, and no one doubts that they could do so again. To cross the Razine underground is suicide."

Vanno shifted slightly in his seat, his eyes narrowing as he tried to read the hirsute wildman. "Does that mean that you won't join us, then?"

Najat chuckled. "Of course not! I'm in. Give me a day to pack my things and I'll lead your operation."

Razina is perhaps the most unusual city in the Terrasan holdings. Although Razina is the name commonly given to the entire urban center, in reality, Razina is two completely separate cities with completely separate governments, and they only get along grudgingly at best. This is due to the unusual arrangement of land grants and titles to the area, as well as the geography of the Razine peninsula and the Razine harbor in particular.

Lower Razina is a welcoming and convenient harbor that had been used by sailors for generations before Razina itself was founded. However, a few hundred yards from the sea shore there is a steep cliff that leads to a rocky tableland high above the harbor. A kind of natural grassy ramp cuts the cliff near the harbor. Because it wasn't difficult to get wagons up and down this natural ramp, another town was founded at the top of the ramp, overlooking the harbor.

When the Terrasans came to the area, the land on the peninsula was turned into the Duchy of Razina, and the Duke rules in the name of Terrasa. However, the harbor was not part of the duchy, very specifically, and a military commandant ruled the fort which guarded the ramp and the town that was slowly growing up around it. As the civilian population grew, the military rank faded in importance, but was never eliminated. The independent military now is the main link between upper and lower Razina. The Lord Mayor of Lower Razina is a Crown appointed post that is not responsible to the Duke of Razina--who's capital is, of course, Upper Razina. Traditionally the dukes have tried various political moves to control the Lord Mayors, with varying degrees of success over the years. This has often led to bitter rancor between the two bodies, which has contributed to the antagonistic attitude that exists today between the two cities.

The Lord Mayor of Lower Razina today is Guillén Rois de Tárrega. He is a middle-aged noble who has been in office for over a decade, and is proud of the fact that he's never set foot on any territory that belongs to the duchy. He has a good relationship with the military commandant that still guards the fort, and as such, ensures that goods for his people can still flow from the tablelands above, but also that they are all taxed and tarriffed appropriately. Simultaneously, he has cultivated a number of relationships with other seafaring powers to further reduce any reliance on the duchy. His ace in the hole is a deep cave that goes deep into the cliff behind the Lord Mayor's palace, and which leads to a deep freshwater lake and spring, keeping Lower Razina supplied with fresh water. Lower Razina under de Tárrega has become a major trading hub, and traffic from east and west in the Mezzovian frequently stops here--contributing to the city's coffers. However, his efforts to broker independence from Upper Razina and the Duchy, as well as deal with various other powers on the coast, has led to a certain negligence to internal affairs; and the city is firmly in the grip of organized crime. While this doesn't necessarily hurt the daily life of its citizens overmuch--unless they object to the corruption--the city is one that is abnormally quiet and its citizens frequently cast furtive looks over their shoulders. There is a fearful ambiance to lower Razina, as the criminal strongmen are capable of doing whatever they please and the only way anything approaching justice will catch up to them is if their higher-ups decide that their actions jeopardize the operations of the syndicate as a whole.

While the criminals have a number of hidden smuggling runs up the cliff-face; mostly carefully concealed narrow chimneys in the rocks, or long, out of the way hikes that go around the wall altogether, the main way to enter upper Razina from lower Razina is through the fort. Because this is controlled by the neutral, Crown appointed military commandant, it takes a policy of strict neutrality in the feud against the Lord Mayors and the Dukes, and ensures that at least some traffic, particularly that which travels on the Crown's business, is unmolested. Otherwise, many visitors who are on their way to upper Razina are best served by landing at another harbor entirely, such as more southerly Porto D'Albis, and traveling by land to upper Razina.

Upper Razina is a bit more rustic and rural in nature, existing primarily because it is the Duke's capital and because of the distinguished Universitat de Razina. Farmers and ranchers otherwise bring their livestock to market here (although they can't ship it abroad without paying tarriffs to lower Razina that are economically prohibitive). River traffic also stops here from inland, and from there often is loaded onto caravans that are headed to Porto D'Albis or its more northerly sister, Vega Baixa. The river used to pour over the cliff into the harbor, but a past duke diverted its course so that it now misses lower Razina entirely. The Acting Duke of Razina today is Antonio Larroca i Vives, and he is a young, charismatic man who has also taken to courting the favor of foreign powers. (The actual duke is Esteve Gregorio de Galdames de Rossolló, who is the "emperor" of Terrasa, so the administrative responsibilites go to Lord Antonio. Confusingly, he is also a duke, although he is a duke technically without a duchy; he is only acting duke in regards to the administration of the Upper Razina duchy.) Although he does not want to give any concessions to his rival de Tárrega in lower Razina, he actually is not terribly interested in the feud between the two Razinas, and is much more concerned with the separatist sentiment that has been sweeping the northern shore of the Mezzovian. Much of his foreign diplomacy has been around building a strong base so that if (or more likely, when) he decides that the Duchy of Razina is no longer subject to the Terrasan Crown, that he has the support he needs to make a go of it alone, subdue the token military that Terrasa has left behind, and then militarily conquer lower Razina if needed.

While upper Razina is not as notoriously corrupt as lower Razina, it's still a haven for organized crime as well, and a brisk smuggling business gets goods from one Razina to the other, and from there to other markets. Protection rackets are less common here than below, however, the Upper Watch is mostly honest, if a bit undermanned.

Campaigns which have action in Razina should take advantage of the local Cold War environment. The cliff face is, in many ways, not unlike the Berlin Wall, and both upper and lower Razina are hotbeds for intrigue, often of an international flavor. Also, like every city in DARK•HERITAGE, which must be some variety of "wretched hive of scum and villainy" by default, organized crime plays a major role in the workings of the city, especially in lower Razina, although smuggling is a huge operation in both. Both the Duke and the Lord Mayor turn a blind eye to some of it (if nothing else, it makes seafood a possibility up top, and red meat and other vegetables and fruits much more viable down below--and the nobles of both halves of Razina like variety in their diet). The Universitat is also a major source of potential plot hooks. If nothing else, it's got a sinister reputation as a place where forbidden knowledge can be found if one knows how to look. Historically, it was the scene of riots when the Book of the Black Prince was published by the Academy of History, a part of the Universitat, and even today desperate figures whispering to shady professors and curators is a sight that is not unusual on the Universitat's grounds.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Union of the Snake

In Sarabasca, anyone who sells anything; a good, a service, a slave--no matter what--risks the wrath of whatever applicable guild governs his actions if he doesn't first buy a membership in the guild. This often isn't much money, especially for those who want to sell fruit from a cart, or be available for temp labor, or something like that--a guilder or piece of eight or other local gold coin for a year-long membership, for example--but because the sultan gives these guilds tacit authority to police their industries, anyone who risks dodging guild membership is setting himself up for a severe beating and confiscation of his money and merchandise at best, or a permanent stint as shark food in the harbor at worst.

Some guilds, however, are more than simply shakedown rackets; some of them have a great deal of power, influence and money even beyond Sarabasca's borders. The Union of the Snake is one such guild. Because the sultan has not deigned to outlaw or control any substance in Sarabasca, it has become the poison and drug capital of the world, and because the poison-maker's guild has decided to define drugs as long-term poisons that frequently have pleasant short-term effects but certainly poisonous long-term effects, the same guild monitors both poison and drug manufacturing and sales in Sarabasca. This wasn't always the case, but when almost all of the important guild heads of the drug producer's guild died in a single night, the poison maker's guild had made their point. Since Sarabasca is the capital for such activity throughout the Mezzovian Sea region, that makes the colorfully named Union of the Snake one of the primary movers and shakers of the Sarabascan economy, with a cash flow to make kings weep. Named for the deadly and subtle serpents that the poisonmakers aspired to be compared to, the Union of the Snake has secret agents and assets in every major urban center in the entire Mezzovian area and even beyond.
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Union members are much less casual about their affiliation than many other guilds in Sarabasca; most have a small tattoo of a poisonous asp or cobra on their wrists or ankles to identify themselves, they pay much larger dues, but in return get a great deal more support from the guild, especially in terms of contracted security for major shipments or deals. Although closely allied with the assassin's guild in Sarabasca, outside of that city, expatriate Union of the Snake members often are themselves assassins, and can command a premium in many other markets, known for their subtle use of poisons that sicken or kill their victims and make it appear like a completely natural death. Other contract killers, especially those associated with the Cherskii Mafia are more brutal and appropriate when a message wants to be clearly communicated, but the Union of the Snake is infamous for its subtlety. The following is one way in which the Union of the Snake can be brought into a DARK•HERITAGE campaign:
  • A prominant local politician dies unexpectedly of a strange sickness. His family believes that foul play was involved, and puts out subtle feelers that a reward will be offered to anyone who can prove that this was so. The local politician was a strong supporter for harsher controls on the local drug trade--with him out of way the motion to pass stricter controls will fade away quietly, as no one else was interested in seeing it come to fruition. Sufficiant investigation will point towards a foreign (Sarabascan) ship that is reasonably well known in the criminal underworld as a smuggler of large quantities of drugs and poisons. While the captain is not a major player himself, and can be brought to justice (of one kind or another) if the PCs so choose, he is a member of the Union of the Snake, and the fact that he has been subtly investigated is enough to prompt the guild into action to shut the PCs down. If they actually bring proof to the victim's family of his involvement, or worse, bring him to even harsher justice, then the PCs have simply invited even stronger reprisals.

  • Ever the subtle ones, the Union doesn't initially get directly involved, but a bounty has been put on the PCs. At first this means relatively unprofessional thugs start crossing their path, but assuming the PCs either succeed in thwarting these efforts and don't leave town to avoid trouble, the bounty goes up or more direct contracts are placed on them, and before long, professional and skilled assassins are targeting them. Assuming the PCs can survive this attention and piece together the clues that they need to get to the bottom of the attacks, they discover that a crime lord who's a local patsy to the Union is to blame for the bounty; but taking him down means taking on an entire gang of seasoned criminals.

  • By this point, the PCs have significantly disrupted the Unions operation in the city in which they live, and it's time for more direct and decisive action. The Union of the Snake, as it turns out, has more resources than the PCs may have imagined. Much of their success in the inventing, making, and marketing of dangerous substances comes through their alliances with the forces of Hell itself. It's one thing to be targeted by competent earthly assassins, but its another entirely to be targeted by a daemon. Evading this hellish assassin and minimizing collaterial damage is a major undertaking. And even if they do, the Union has more "specialists" who can only bring on more pain and suffering for the PCs back in the Sarabascan home office. How will they eventually either bring down or at least make peace with the Union after allowing the stakes to be raised so high?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

New Moon on Monday

On Monday, 15 Gener 547, at 9:14 in the evening, the full moon rose and the entire land was flooded with fear and loathing. While people had referred to a vague resemblance of the markings on the face of the moon as resembling a "man in the moon" for generations, in 547 (and every night since) it was no longer a vague resemblance; the resemblance of the moon to a grinning skull was unmistakable. "The Man in the Moon: DEAD!" headlines read in newspapers in Terrasa and other cities that were sufficiently advanced to have newspapers. Panics, riots, and all manner of social upheaval occurred that month. However, when the world didn't immediately end, as many predicted, things settled down. A few people had been murdered in the aftermath, a few governments overthrown, and the occasion was used as an excuse for both ethnic and religious pogroms throughout the area, but that was now twenty years ago. Scholars and pundits and others still have no idea what kind of omen the drastically rearranged face of the moon actually is. Some people, in fact, have recently started calling the entire thing a coincidence--the moon isn't a giant skull in the sky, it just coincidentally looks like one, and whatever changes happened to it must have happened while it was on the far side of the planet and therefore out of sight.

Most, however, still believe that there is some meaning to the omen. In faraway Baal Hamazi, it's said that the rebirth of Hutran Kutir happened that night. Qizmir retracted somewhat into its borders and has increased their military spending, seeing it as an omen of their long-ago mother nation finding them again and forcibly attempting to reintegrate them into the empire. Doomsayers in Terrasa and elsewhere in that empire predict that the architect of the Empire's unraveling was born that night. Anyone who's birthday is anytime within that entire month tends to keep that knowledge to themselves and pretend to be a few months older or younger.
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Coming next: the sinister Union of the Snake!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Freeport again

On a bit of a whim, I just re-read Green Ronin's systemless sourcebook, The Pirate's Guide to Freeport which is always an interesting endeavor. While the book is systemless, it's also very clearly designed with D&D in mind; it refers to elves, dwarves, gnomes, wizards, dungeons, adventurer heroes and a lot of even more esoteric details that are very D&D specific. Unsurprisingly, as a guy who's implied setting tastes have migrated away from a lot of the overt D&Disms--a process that was a long time coming--I find that disappointing. That said, I'm still a fan of the Freeport setting. While it's occasionally too tongue-in-cheek for my taste, in reality even the most serious of games has to have some comic relief, right?

I'm going to review a few other of my sourcebooks, including Paizo's books on Katapesh and Absalom, and then Privateer Press's book on Five Fingers, which is a good book-end along with Freeport, and the four books together really make for a long dive into fantasy wretched hives of scum and villainy. Maybe I'll even dredge up my Sharn book and re-read that too, while I'm at it.

One of the things that I don't particularly remember giving much thought to about Freeport, but which I quite liked this time around, was the very last section, where it detailed some sample "campaign threads." These were some very loose, and very vague outlines for how a campaign might run. Technically, they were meant to be threads that could be interwoven with other adventures or whatever, but which detailed a possible plot or scenario that PCs could encounter and deal with over the course of a lengthy campaign. About a paragraph long, and then with 5-6 bullet points that were also--at most--a paragraph long describing possible steps in the scenario as it unfolded, these are about the level of detail that I like to prepare at most before running. And I also liked how they were themed; one was specifically focused on the crime lords, one on the cult of Hastur the Unspeakable, one on a race for a pirate treasure, one on a series of Sherlock Holmesian investigations, etc. I like the fact that it gives a sense of direction, but very loosely, and can be adapted or changed on the fly as the players surprise the GM, and do something completely unexpected. Having several threads woven together also works well because you can focus or unfocus your attention on them depending on how well the players take to the themes and ideas in each thread.

I'd like to come up with some possible campaign threads for DARK•HERITAGE over time, so I'm creating yet another new tag, campaign threads, to discuss exactly this. And I'll gradually post a few over the next few weeks while I'm at it. My threads will also be themed; themes that I see as relevent to the DARK•HERITAGE setting include political intrigue, supernatural horror, organized crime, swashbuckling action, and dealing with dangerous wilderness. Ideally, any campaign would touch somewhat on all of these, but each thread will specifically highlight one of these themes as it goes.

Bermudo II the Gouty

When a wikipedia search led me inadvertently from the band Kings of Leon to a list of the monarchs of the medieval Spanish kingdom of León instead, I was pleasantly surprised by the very colorful epithets that some of these kings had. The kings of León are a continuation of the kings of Asturia, and also end up picking up the kings of Galicia at some point as well. And, of course, as the petty kingdoms of Iberia ended up consolidating, eventually the kings of Castille and later of a united Spain were the kings of León. But as all that was happening, here's a few of the unusual characters to have held the throne:
  • Alfonso IV the Monk - abdicated for a clerical life.
  • Sancho I the Fat - had his reign interrupted by Ordoño IV the Wicked, because he was too fat and the nobility didn't like him. He went on a weight reduction program, actually, and regained his throne, but because he didn't honor his treaties with the Moors, the second half of his reign was not peaceful. Also: Ordoño the Wicked? Not a bad name either.
  • Bermudo II the Gouty - poor guy.
  • Ferdinand IV the Summoned - after a succession of kings with nicknames like "the Great," "the Emperor," "the Brave," "the Just," and "the Cruel"--y'know, the usual, we get this fella, Ferdinand the Summoned. Supposedly, he tyrannically put to death the brothers Carvajal, who "summoned" him to a certain plaza to answer for his sins. This is an apocryphal story that doesn't date from his reign, but apparently it stuck anyway. Plus; cool name. He was actually a king of Castille, but by this point Leóon was united with Castile. Technically, he held both titles, although the title of King of León was increasingly superfluous at this point as the kingdoms slowly merged.
  • Henry IV the Impotent - Wow, bad luck to this fella, one of the earlier kings from the Trastámara line. Following on the heels of the similarly unfortunately named Henry III the Infirm.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Sarabasca

The exotic jann have a powerful island and coastal state in the caliphate of al-Qazmir, but it mostly exists outside of the Mezzovian Sea region. The Golden Peninsula is more and more becoming an important part of the caliphate, and it does have at least one major Mezzovian port city in the form of Qarizaq. The island town of al-Marraq is the westernmost seafaring settlement of al-Qazmir, but it still falls well beyond the sphere of inluence of any Terrasan city, even Sènt-Haspar. Nevertheless, that wasn't always true, and Terrasan influence used to stretch all along the coastline of the Mezzovian, reaching to the Shipwreck Strait and beyond to the northern shore. The farthest east major settlement of the Terrasans was Basarabeasca.

Basarabeasca was only reachable by ship, since the vampire nation of Tarush Noptii cut it off from the mainland on the north. Because of that, it was only ever at best a fairly wild frontier region, and not heavily settled. The natives of the area spoke a language that was obviously closely related to Terrasan, but difficult if not completely impossible to understand for the Terrasans. Under the influence of Terrasan traders, soldiers, and even settlers, many of these "East Terrasan" speakers found their language gradually migrating to something more similar to standard Terrasan, as it picked up loan words and even loan structure from its relative. But by and large Sarabascan exists as a separate language, still common in the far eastern region of the Mezzovian, especially on the north shoreline. On the south shoreline, it's being rapidly replaced by Qazmiri, as the jann's kingdom expands that direction.

As the Terrasan Empire's might faded, far-flung areas that were under its influence found themselves left to their own devices. Calça is the most notorious of these areas, earning the subtitle of the Forgotten Province, but the far eastern lands were abandoned even earlier. Technically, they were never incorporated into the Empire in the first place; they were merely areas that had some Terrasan influence, trade, settlers, or perhaps they gave a nod of recognition to the Empire in Terrasa without surrendering any actual local authority. Basarabeasca was the most important and largest of these north shore cities, but several neighbors sprang up over time as well.

As Terrasa retreated westward, many of the actual Terrasans (or their descendants) remained in the area of Basarabeasca, now shortened after decades of use to Sarabasca. Independent Sarabasca saw many of its trade relationships dry up, but to encourage the further influx of money, the ruler of the city repealed a number of anti-smuggling and piracy statutes and opened the city to trade that was perhaps gathered in more ilicit ways than before. While many Sarabascans naturally did not welcome this change, most were indifferent, and the wealthy were happy to see goods and gold flowing into the city again. Jobs were available, on the crews of ships, on the docks, or working in the growing security industry--making sure life and property weren't threatened by the rougher crews. For a time, Sarabasca enjoyed a sometimes friendly rivalry with its far western spiritual brother, Porto Liure, which was also a haven for pirates, privateers and other frequently less savory traffic on the Mezzovian Sea. Many captains who's activities ranged the entire inner sea were, of course, familiar faces in both ports. But at about the time Porto Liure was undergoing its gradual transition from lawless pirate haven to legitimate and independent city-state, Sarabasca was undergoing a completely different kind of transformation.

As al-Qazmir consolidated its position on the Golden Peninsula and founded (or conquered and renamed) the cities of Qarizaq, Tayyebat and the island port of al-Marraq, only naturally they greedily looked at the shores of the northern Mezzovian sea as well. Their armies and navies, heavily supplemented by mercenaries from amongst the eastern peoples who were similar in language and customs to the Terrasans (although never part of the Terrasan empire) thus founded the province of "North al-Qazmir." However, North al-Qazmir was never as thoroughly "Qazmirized" as the Golden Peninsula and some of the eastern islands were. A political crisis, partially brought on by the strained budget of paying this conquering army, seized the Qazmiri capital of Qattara. Finally, most of the troops were recalled, and the province largely left to its own devices. However, this compromise was orchestrated by a number of Qazmiri who remained in the area, including the sultan installed at Sarabasca (called just Sarab by the Qazmiri.) For the benefit of paying a "tribute"--not a tax, which would imply a more direct and centralized relationship than exists, al-Qazmir would leave Sarab alone.

Many Qazmiri, both jann and human, migrated into the area as all this happened, and in the years since. al-Qazmir has not made a concerted attempt to bring North al-Qazmir under direct control again, and as long as token tribute comes from Sarab and some of the rest of the major settlements in the area, that status quo has not been challenged. In fact, many of the locals do not use the name North al-Qazmir for the area at all, and many of the backcountry locals have never even heard of al-Qazmir or seen a jann in their life. The coastal regions have gradually become a hybrid of Qazmiri, Terrasan and local culture, however, and most Sarabascans speak all three languages fluently just to get through their day to day routine. The sultan of Sarab is the most important figure in the area, and he plays a sometimes dangerous political game, trying to ensure his independence and safety from reprisals of both al-Qazmir and Terrasa, and to keep the rivalry with Porto Liure from boiling over into hostilities, and ensure that Tarush Noptii keeps quiet as well.

The entire area has recently acquired the nickname of the Barbary Coast, and corsairs from Sarabasca and other cities in the region range all over the Mezzovian Sea and even beyond Shipwreck Strait on occasion. These barbary pirates are more likely to indulge in the slave trade, raiding ships and even coastal regions for captives to sell in the markets of Qarizaq or Qadat, while the pirates who operate near the Tolosas are more likely to steal ships or cargo and ransom the prisoners, or even simply leave them stranded on some lonely coast to make their way as best they can back to civilization. For this reason, they are more likely to be feared by the Terrasans who are their targets. However, the Barbary corsairs are also not as likely to be as dangerous to larger ships, as they have few square-masted vessels and much lighter armaments and smaller boarding crews.

Many pirates, of course, recognize no port as their home, and travel freely from Porto Liure to Sarab, and other ports besides. In fact, there is a growing number of expatriate Terrasans who are moving to Sarab, and occasionally even from there to other ports that are even more thoroughly entrenched in Qazmiri culture. As Terrasa's power and influence wanes, al-Qazmir's waxes, at least in the far eastern shores of the Mezzovian, in many respects there are more opportunities there than in remaining in the west.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Musings on language

Although I've held back for a time, anyone who's read my blog for a while will easily realize that I've long been fascinated by linguistics. After initially focusing on my own native linguistic group, the Germanic languages (to which English belongs) as the object of my fascination, I later settled on the Romance group. Probably this is because I later learned to speak Spanish as a second language, and because I am myself ⅛ Portuguese; Grandpa Henriques (with the addition of a great or two) was from the Portuguese island of Madeira originally. I've also talked a bit about the simplistic picture I used to have of the European language situation, believing that in France they spoke French, in Italy they spoke Italian, in Spain they spoke Spanish. Naturally, right? Discovering the great diversity of Romance linguistic remnants that still linger in many of these countries; artifacts of political fortunes, in many cases, was a real eye opener to me, although it makes perfect sense. After all, when Aragon and Castille merged with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabela, it's only natural to assume that one language would rise to prominance, but it wasn't surprising to learn that in Aragon they mostly spoke Catalan, and in Castille, they spoke Castillian, which later evolved into what we know today as Spanish.

However, while all this linguistic diversity is fascinating to me, it's also frustrating. For two reasons. Firstly, I like languages, and it makes me sad, somehow, to see previously vibrant languages drop sharply off the edge on the way to extinction. It's especially frustrating to realize that this was deliberately done in most cases; Franco persecuted any language in Spain other than Spanish, and only the stubborness of the Catalonians and Valencians kept their language viable. Closely related Occitan, in southern France, was more widely spoken than French at the beginning of the 20th century; yet nowadays, it's a language in decline, and Herculanean efforts are being made to revive it. Linguistic defibrilation, as it were.

Secondly, it's frustrating to me because I like to put things into neat categories, and linguistics is a science that resists that trend. There is a lot of argument based on the fact that there is no good and universally agreed upon definition for when a dialect is called a separate language or not. And while linguists often try to divide languages along genetic lines, that also remains difficult because areal and contact features can have as big an influence as genetic features, and it's often very difficult to determine which is which, especially among languages that have been close to each other for a long time.

So, there are lots of arguments among linguists and others as to whether Occitan actually exists as a language, or if it's better classified as the closely related languedoc family, with Gascon, Provençal, Limousin, etc. as independent languages. As an example. Although less controversial, there are always also discussions about whether Catalan and Occitan should be united, since the differences between them are more political than linguistic. And although all linguists recognize this extremely close relationship between Occitan and Catalan, traditionally Occitan is grouped with the Gallo-Italian languages, while Catalan is grouped with the Gallo-Iberian languages. Probably due to political and social realities moreso than linguistic ones; certainly Catalan has had a lot of areal influence from Spanish and Occitan from French, but not nearly enough to disguise the extremely close relationship between the two of them. For that matter, is Valencian really a separate language from the Catalan spoken in Barcelona, or is that just an affectation of the Valencians? What about dialects like Ribagorçan--is that a Catalan dialect that's absorbed some features from the more distantly related Aragonese language, or is it an Aragonese dialect that's absorbed features from Catalan? (The attached picture is from a town in Ribagorça (Benabarre - Spanish, Benabarri - Aragonese, Benavarri - Catalan), by the way. If it wasn't for that crane in the foreground, it'd be a great picture of almost medieval quality.)
The situation is a bit worse in Italy, where the word dialetto doesn't really mean dialect, even though it's obviously the same word. Semantic shifts have turned the word into one where it means "regional language". In Italy, only Italian itself has official recognization at a national level, which naturally hastens the absorbtion of languages like Venetian, Piedmontese, Lombard, Sardinian, Sicilian, etc. Some of those are not particularly closely related to Italian except by geography; Venetian, Piedmontese and Lombard, for example, belong to the Gallo-italic, or Padanian group, which is more closely related to Occitan and Catalan than to Italian. Sardinian is not considered to be closely related to any other romance language, except by contact. Conversely, Corsican, on the other hand, is clearly a dialect of Tuscan, which was the basis for standard Italian (although it's been heavily attacked by French in recent decades.)

So trying to pin relationships down between languages and dialects is often fluid, and often more motivated by social or political forces than it is by linguistic ones anyway. And this is probably where linguistics can become interesting to setting designers and GMs. I doubt most gamers are as interested in linguistics for its own sake as I am, but political and social movements can almost always make an interesting backdrop for a game. I like to insert little stuff like that; even if it ends up being little more than campaign color, having a group that proudly refuses to stop speaking a dying minority language, or pushes for separatism, or something like that can also became major campaign elements. If a province erupts in social or ethnic based open revolt, for example... that could be a fascinating thing to have occur in the backdrop of your campaign.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Top Ten Raiders of the Lost Ark lines you never want to hear in bed

1. Marion, don't look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don't look at it, no matter what happens!

2. You're not the man I knew ten years ago.

3. Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.

4. Next time, it will take more than children to save you.

5. I can only say I'm sorry so many times.

6. Now, what's that supposed to be coming out of there?

7. Surely he mentioned there would be other interested parties?

8. You don't need that. I'll tell you everything!

9. I like you, Rene, very much. Perhaps we'll meet again under better circumstances.

10. They're digging in the wrong place!

GM Screen discussion

Well, the other day I broke down and actually bought my first GM screen. Granted, I only paid about five bucks for it, and four of those were for shipping and handling, but it's still a milestone. As I mentioned in a previous post, that hardly means that I don't have any GM screens; this will bring my total to over half a dozen, I think. I've just never bought one before; I've had them given to me or I inherited them as GMs I knew bought new ones themselves. I am, however, still unsure where to go on my own homemade GM screen project. I started making up some tables on my laptop, but rather quickly decided that I was spending too much work recreating something that I already had, when scanned sections of screens I already own, cut and replaced in a new layout, would be a much "smarter" way to go about the work I wanted to do.

I also came up with another plan for a lot of my campaign specific material. Rather than putting text boxes full of names, I have spreadsheets with names, columns for male, female and family names (or others, as necessary), and separate tabs for different languages. While it means a little bit more to carry around, realistically if I'm running a game, of course I'm going to have a few sheets of stuff around in a folder anyway, so it's not really "baggage" in the sense that I'm going to struggle to figure out how to deal with these lists when I need names on the quick.

This has left me wondering what, exactly, I should put on my screen for campaign specific items. That was always the most useful to me in the past, but now I have another avenue to get names on the quick without looking at the screen. I've almost decided that it doesn't really matter that much what I have on the inner surface of the screen, as long as it's at least marginally useful, and that the screen is more about having an attractive bit of artwork on the front side to give me players something to look at while we're playing. So, for that, at least, the screen I ordered, the Eberron Deluxe Dungeon Master's Screen delivers; it's got a very long "mural" style piece of artwork by Wayne Reynolds (of course) and the whole thing was worth buying for the big poster sized map of Eberron alone (although I almost never run someone else's campaign, I still love looking at a good map anyway.) I'm almost thinking of just paperclipping or blue stickying a few personalized tabs on the GM side of the screen rather than attempting to create an all new one from scratch.
Speaking of Wayne Reynolds art, I've decided that I'm interested in Paizo's Inner City World Guide book that'll be coming out in pdf form in about two or three weeks, partly just so I can nab the cover illustration. At first I was not impressed with the concept; reprinting with minor updates a setting book that I already own, just to get me from 3.5 to Pathfinder rules. But, once again, Paizo have made the pdf version of the product attractively enough priced that I'd buy it for the art alone, even if I have little interest in the text. Other than that, the upcoming Ustalav book, and the Undead Revisited title may tempt me, even though I'm otherwise cooling on my excitement about Paizo (or any other RPG product, for that matter) stuff to buy. I still love reading through some of my other setting material and thinking about how I'd steal and adapt their better ideas--and I'm always on the lookout for a good map I can adapt, especially city maps.