Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Dog

In Porto Liure, there's a very unusual cult: the worship of Dog.  Dog is a "god" that's actually fairly apparent to the residents of Porto Liure.  Everyone knows about him.  He lives on the island of Gandesa, not far from the city.  He appears to be immortal--he's been there since the city was founded at the very least--and undefeatable.  In the early days of Porto Liure, soldiers and sailors tried to hunt or kill Dog, but most were killed and eaten for their efforts.

What exactly is Dog?  He's... well, he's a very big dog.  About the size of an elephant.  His shaggy fur glistens like the shadows of darkest night, and his teeth shine like polished silver.  His eyes glow a fiery red.

Mostly Dog sleeps on the island, unseen and hidden from view.  Nobody knows where his lair is, despite many efforts to find it over the years.  When Dog walks, he leaves dark footprints behind that ooze shadowy tendrils of darkness like oily black smoke, but if one tries to track Dog, the tracks always seem to end in a confusing maze, or circle back on themselves, or otherwise lead one to naught.

Nobody is exactly sure when worship of Dog started.  It became apparent that Dog needed to eat.  Three times a year, human sacrifices are left for Dog.  Usually they are convicted criminals or enemies of the state, but if none are available, occasionally a citizen will be sacrificed.  Dog prefers young maidens, but will take anyone that's not too old and stringy.  If Dog isn't satiated through sacrifice, he will slip into Porto Liure at night and eat anyone he can find in the streets, leaving nothing but bloody tatters in his wake.  In the summer of 421--almost 150 years ago now--Dog massacred no less than 43 men, women and children in a single night and was seen by many more, before slipping off again before sunrise, leading to the last attempt to hunt and kill him.  Unsuccessfully, of course--he wasn't even found after the Bloody Saturday Massacre, as it came to be called.

Another curious Liurism is that portegnos frequently swear by Dog, even if they don't belong to the admittedly small cult of Dog.  "By Dog!". "By Dog's rancid breath!" or "By the fleas of Dog's greasy pelt!" and countless other variations pepper the speech of most native portegnos.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Seal of Karga Kul

At some point last week--Wednesday night, I think, although maybe it was Thursday--I finished The Seal of Karga Kul, the second novel in the D&D "points of light" setting series, that comes between The Mark of Nerath and the Abyssal Plague trilogy.  Seal has no relationship really with Mark--it mentions Nentir Vale briefly although it takes place in a completely different part of the world--other than the standard 4e D&D tropes; it contains dragonborn, tieflings, the standard 4e pantheon of gods, etc.  It also appears to have no relationship to the upcoming Abyssal Plague series.  So actually, I probably didn't need to read it first after all.  But I'm not complaining that I did.

This book is quite a bit better than Mark was.  While it still suffered from being rather blatantly a D&D novel in it's prose (you can actually "see" mechanics happening at various points in the novel) the plot and writing were vastly improved.  The characters were a bit more wooden and disposible than I would have liked, but one or two of them actually were interesting--at least a little bit.  Like some of the better Eberron novels I read, I felt the novel suffered from the apparent mandate that it be within a few pages of 300 as printed; I wouldn't have minded seeing the characters further developed.  It races forward more on plot than on character, which always makes for a weak novel.  But not necessarily one that can't work in a limited sense, and it does indeed manage to work in a limited sense.

Where I can see folks most liking this book is where said folks are D&D players who like seeing novels that really reflect the game, and use a fair bit of esoteric game knowledge as background.  Where I see people least liking this book is where said folks are fantasy novel fans who don't play D&D and aren't very familiar with the 4e game in particular, who may find all kinds of references to things that really aren't explained or developed--because it's assumed that as a gamer you're already familiar with them.  Because I'm somewhere in the middle of that--I don't really know 4e specifically very well, but I otherwise know D&D lore fairly well--I can "get" the novel, but I can't ever really love it.  I just don't like seeing the game reflected so blatantly in the novel like that.

Despite that, it was at least good enough that it inspired me in a moment of weakness to go find the last War-Torn novel (with its Wayne Reynolds cover)--the one I never read the first time around, Blood and Honor.  Hopefully it won't take me too long to read, because I also grabbed a Garrett, P.I. omnibus of the first three novels.  Yikes.  So much for making progress on my own books.  Of course, there's a good chance that I won't even pick that up before it's due, and if that happens, mostly likely I'll just take it back and try again some other time.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Religion: setting flavor or necessary healing mechanic?

I'm calling this post a DARK•HERITAGE setting post as well as an FRPG post.  Kill two birds with one stone, and all that.

Although I've posted in the past about gods and religion in DARK•HERITAGE--including in my older Dungeoncraft series--I'm revisiting it slightly, and want to discuss the idea in light of a fantasy game that's not D&D.  In D&D (and D&D clone fantasy heartbreakers) religion is important because of the made-up archetype of the cleric.  See, the cleric isn't really a fantasy or mythological archetype (although it does bear some superficial relationships to some.)  It's a gamist construct; the cleric can heal other characters, and therefore keeps the game moving in the Dungeoneering environment without having to go up and recuperate.  It's been handy enough that a lot of computer games have "health packs" that offer instant healing too--it's the cleric archetype all over again.  If you think about books, movies, TV shows, or anything else, though, the notion of instant healing is really kind of absurd.

So, how to you overcome this dichotmy?  I think that there's two solutions, and they are not mutually exclusive; in fact, elements of both of them in play is a good thing, in my opinion.  The first is the notion that "oh, maybe it's not as bad as it looked."  This should be pretty familiar to anyone who's ever watched an action movie.  Main characters (or villains too) can appear to be seriously injured, can appear to be taking a major drubbing in a fight, and suddenly stand up again acting as good as new, just with a bit of Hollywood style blood or bruised make-up effects to show that they were injured earlier.

After the action is over, the character may wince or limp, or otherwise remind the audience that yes, he was injured, but clearly it's not an issue when stuff needs to happen!  How can this be represented in game?  There is a perfectly valid mechanical option for d20 games already: the Wound Points slash Vitality Points system that debuted in the d20 Star Wars game, and which is designed to accomodate exactly this paradigm.  But, it requires quite a few changes to things like critical hits, sneak attack, and some other stuff, so it may be more trouble than it's worth.  In d20 Modern where magical healing is not assumed to be readily available, the Heal Skill is revised to be the Treat Injury skill, which is substantially more effective at actually patching characters up.  Add to that the Surgery feat and a few other bonuses, and a doctor character can get somebody up and running nearly as easily and effectively as a cleric.  Well, kinda.

And 4e D&D had the concept of healing surges, which I adapted as an Action Point option.  This also perfectly represents what you see in action movies where characters inexplicably get "second winds" after being heavily battered earlier.  It also significantly reduces the need for "magical" healing.

The second solution is to change the paradigm of play.  Don't do dungeons.  Do other kinds of action movie paradigms.  Chases.  Spies.  Intrigue.  Standalone fights.  Etc.  If a character gets too injured for healing surges and Treat Injury to get up and at 'em immediately, then they have to stop and recuperate for a while.  Hole up in a safe house or something.  I've heard lots of D&D players express to me their skepticism that this will work, but trust me: most RPGs that aren't D&D (or D&D clones) already operate under this paradigm.  It works quite well. 

There's an interesting correllary to that, though.  Most of those games don't have dedicated faith-based classes.  If a character wants to be faithful to a particular creed or religion, that's just a matter of flavor that the player adds; there's no mechanical follow-through (unless, of course, that's part of the setting.)  There's no need for a cleric, in other words, which means that technically, there's no need for religion in your campaign setting at all.

That said, I like the idea of religion in fantasy settings.  The notion of a pantheon of mythology-like gods--like the Greek or Norse gods, or what have you--just feels right for fantasy to me.  Plus, it's a good way to establish a bit of the nature of your world.

For DARK•HERITAGE, for example, since I see it as a dark fantasy with fairly strong Lovecraftian overtones, I'm eschewing the popular "good" goods; the friendly gods of the sun, of the harvest, of civilization and commerce, etc.  Rather, I've got a number of rather  unfriendly gods that aren't so much worshipped as they are propitiated by a benighted and superstitious populace.  And, as a bit of an esoteric reference, many of the gods are characters who are familiar to D&D players or Biblical scholarship as demons or pagan gods that notoriously tempted the Israelites.  I don't have Baal (mores the pity) transparently referred to, but many of the others will be familiar.

The most notable and noticeable of the pantheon are the Four Horsemen, who are frequently associated together on iconography and elsewhere.  They are:
  • Ciernavo (from Balshatoi Czernavog), also known as the Black Pharaoh, and The Conqueror.  Riding a White Horse, and firing a bow into his enemies, Ciernavo is a god associated with the spread of civilization; the wresting of new nations out of wilderness, or out of the ashes of the old, either one.  He is pictured as obsidian black, with long hair and a crown-like growth of eight four to six inch horns on his head.  The hamazin see him as their patron and father, pointing to their resemblance to the traditional depiction of him as evidence.  (Name is slightly revised from the name of the big demon lord in Disney's "Night on Bald Mountain" segment of Fantasia, which in turn comes from Slavic mythology.  He's also pictured as looking very similar to Graz'zt, the famous demon lord of D&D lore, and is also meant to subtly invoke Nyarlathotep from Lovecraftiana.)
  • Peronte (from Balshatoi Perun), the Thunderer.  Riding a red horse and swinging a sword that flashes like lightning, Peronte represents war.  He is a wild-eyed and wild-haired man, charging into battle on his horse naked except for his warpaint, and his face is obscured by constant crackling of lightning.  (Name is a Italianized version of a Slavic thunder god not unlike Thor.)
  • Culsans (from ancient Terrasan), the Taker, The Hoarder.  Riding a black horse, he's a cold god, associated with weights, measures, scales, money and civilization.  Infamous for his miserly attitude, he's also associated with famine, and when famine strikes the land, it is often believed that it is Culsans withholding his bounty because he hasn't been sufficiently propitiated.  (Name is an Etruscan god; aspect is pretty much exactly like that of the third Horseman, without being combined or blended with any other source.)
  • Caronte (from ancient Terrasan Charun); Death, The King in Yellow.  Riding a pale, sickly (or even dead and mummified) horse, Caronte is depicted as an emaciated, hunched, sinister figure wrapped in yellow rags that completely obscure his features (except sometimes a skeletal face), often with a scythe or sickle in his hand, harvesting the lives of those who's time has come.  Behind him is another figure walking slowly behind him, a leery, crawling demonic figure of uncertain and inconsistant depiction, known as Orcus or Hell.  (Combing the fourth horseman with Charon of Greek mythology (or Charun of Etruscan who had many similarities) with further aspects of the Grim Reaper and Chamber's King in Yellow seemed fun.  Caronte is all of them rolled into a single package.  Reading the Biblical verse, Death was followed by Hell--not a horseman, but apparently a flunky or assistant to Death.)
Besides the horsemen, several other gods are frequently worshipped or propitiated, or depicted in art and literature around the area.  These include (in much more brief format):
  • Istaria (uncertain origin of the name, but older versions Ishtar and Ashtarte are noted from old books), a goddess of books, libraries, and knowledge.  Also pictured as lascivious and decadent, her worship is famous for it's heirodules, or temple prostitutes.
  • Cathulo (uncertain origin of the name, but also known by the alternate name of Dagon), a god who lives under the sea, supposedly dreaming in his underwater palaces, waiting for the day he will rise and flood the land again.  His propitiation often includes the pouring of alcohol into the water, to keep him sleepy.
  • Susnacco (from ancient Terrasan Susinac), a god of travel with statues in most towns.  When in embarking on a long journey, it is often customary to kiss the statue first.
  • Selvans, a wild god of the wilderness and the hunt.  Tall and lean, with claws and fangs and a skull-like visage, adorned with great antlers, Selvans is a figure that represents the terror the civilized man feels at the wildness of untamed places.
  • Moloch (origin of name uncertain), a god of fire and the sun.  While seen as friendly in some locations, most see him as untrustworthy and dangerous, and see his hand in devastating wildfires and sere crops alike.
And a few other gods are known to the scholarly, but not to the general public--they have frequently been at the core of dangerous and seditious cults.  Worship of--and even knowledge of--these gods has been widely surpressed.
  • Demogorgon, a primal god of the earth, said to predate the other gods, and belonging to a much more wild and chthonic order of beings.
  • Huudrazai, the blind, idiot Stargod, who sleeps in the blackness of the void, lulled into restfullness by the incessant piping of strange and hidious entities.  One day, his cultists say, the piping will stop, jolting Huudrazai to wakefulness, which will initiate the End Times.  Sometimes called the Daemon-sultan.
  • Yog-Sothoth (also Yaji Ash-Shuthath, Yaji'u Ash-Shudhdhādh or Iog-Sotôt,) an ancient entity, knowledge of which came in suppressed and forbidden texts from the jann, is The Gate, the Lurker; the way to communicate directly with the gods, in a certainly suicidal and mind-blasting ritual.  However, lesser rites remain which skate the edges of sanity, but which canny sorcerers occasionally risk to increase their own power.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

NPCs of note (Bara Gairo)

Continuing my description of Bara Gairo, a small seaside town near to and associated with Porto Liure that is a good, small environment in which to start a DARK•HERITAGE game.  This post is on a handful of important local NPCs around town that the player characters might wish to interact with.  Clearly, its not meant to be exhaustive.

Alfonso Galland -- A middle-aged, sturdy fisherman.  He owns a boat that he operates with his son, Éttiene.  He's widowed and also lives with his daughter, Vittoria, who is an accomplished tracker and hunter, preferring to avoid the company of the village-folk for the solitude of the woods.  Despite his rather taciturn children, Alfonso himself is friendly and kind, and amongst the villagers, is the most likely to be convinced to help in a tough spot.  Bring danger or trouble to his children, though, and you'll see a dark, ugly side of Alfonso.

Braz Vargas -- Owner of the Lima's Spirits, the inn, tavern, and general store for Bara Gairo.  Braz is a large man, who displays a degree of wealth unusual for this small village.  His common room is nearly always full, while his rooms rarely are.  In addition to running the inn, he also is the local brewer, and most of the folks in the island drink small beer brewed by Vargas as their day to day drink.  Friendly on the surface, Vargas is also notoriously untrustworthy and cowardly.  The locals like to hang out in his common room and drink his spirits, but otherwise don't trust him with much.

Inés Peixoto -- Although she purports to be a simple assistant and serving woman at the Lima's Spirits; a distant relative of Vargas' taken in by his charity, it's a fairly open secret that Inés is actually an agent of the Castiada crime family.  Rumors are thick in town about how Vargas got saddled with her, the most popular being that he was deep into debt with the mafiosos.

Cesar Gonzalez -- An extremely skilled crafstman, Cesar claims to be able to fix anything that comes through town, and make most of what else is needed.  His skill with his tools makes him a popular person in town.  Idle talk around town occasionally refers to rumors that he honed his skills working wiht the Castiadas, and has "retired" to the country--with a head full of secrets.

Camilla Marcuçez -- The "mayor" and semi-official town leader, Camilla is a sturdy farmwife and highly religious person.  She is greatly respected, but has little patience for fools.

Evike von Rajecz -- As a Tarushan "Gypsy" Evike is one of the most exotic townsfolk.  She lives simply, long having given up her roaming days, but is famous for her fortune-telling--which is only taken half-seriously by the townsfolk.

Kemal Hajdari -- This brusque wildman is the town's primary source of non-seafood meat, furs and leathers.  In addition to hunting and slaughtering, his house doubles as a small tannery and leatherworking facility.  He's taken a liking to the similarly taciturn Vittoria Galland, calling her his "little niece."  He knows more about the islands nearby--once you're beyond the beach, anyway--than anyone else around.

Gisati Tahhi -- A middle-aged hamazin woman, who lives in a large house with a bunch of children, none of them her own.  Most of them are orphans--or presumed to be--who shipwrecked with her eleven years ago just north of the harbor.  They were brought into the town, the house made for them with the wreckage from their ship (mostly by Alfonso Galland and Cesar Gonzalez), and her services as a small orphanage were seen as good for the town.  A few more children were moved in after a bout of plague swept through the town.  Curiously, she claims no knowledge of who her charges were or what the mission of the ship was that brought them.  The captain was killed in the wreck.

Although I haven't yet committed it in writing, I'm also developing a number of secrets associated with most of these characters.  Giving campaign elements secrets is one of the best ways to keep a campaign setting feeling rich, robust and alive, as well as being a potent driving force for the campaign overall--assuming you drop enough hints that the players start getting curious enough to investigate them.  I'll either commit those in writing in another post, or in the comments section of this post, and I'll write a FRPG post about secrets sometime in the future.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Marked and Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I gave up on Marked, the first House of Night book.  Good heavens, it was terrible.  Towards the end of the second disc (of eight) it started skipping a bit, but really that was more the excuse than actually the reason.  How in the world can anyone like reading a book with a protagonist who's completely helpless, hapless, passive, has no confidence--and therefore doesn't do anything--and who is bratty, whiny and unrelentingly negative and insulting all the time to boot?

On top of that, the book itself was actually offensive.  The "fake Christian" religion was consistently portrayed as a sham and oppressive and stupid.  It's members, if they were women, were portrayed as brainwashed and hapless (and fat, curiously), if men, they were authoritarian, controlling, and were described as "beady-eyed pedophiles."  Anyone rural was portrayed incredibly insultingly--beer-drenched and ignorant if boys or men, helpless little puppy dogs if women, anxious for any sign of affection.  The only sympathetic adult characters were hippy Cherokee grandma, and the pagan high priestess of Nyx.  Although I didn't really get into it yet, other reviews complain about the detailed and time-consuming details of the Nyxian religious ceremonies described in the book.

In other words, it was everything I hate about "romantic fantasy" that I've read in the past; wildly unsympathetic and unlikable protagonist, wildly feminist, wildly pagan, and insulting of American culture, men, and Christianity--often gratuitously, even.  Major, major let-down.

Meanwhile, I have another "YA urban fantasy" book on CD from the library.  Given my bad luck lately with skipping CDs, I've brought it in the house and am going to clean the surfaces of all the discs with Windex and a soft cloth before I even start.  Also, I've got The Seal of Karga Kul, which I haven't been reading particularly fastish and I didn't start right away when I got either (I got it before getting Mark of Nerath, but since they were published in the opposite order, I was worried that I needed to read them in order.  Vain worry--turns out there's little to no relationship between them.)  It's due at the library in two days, so I need to make some major progress--I've got about 80 pages left to read and a busy evening tonight.

Meanwhile, I've also just finished the Paizo Campaign Setting book Book of the Damned, vol. 3: Horsemen of the Apocalypse which details the "daemons" in the Golarion setting.  Demons and devils are relatively well established in D&D and its derivative games (probably because they were in the original Monster Manual but their "neutral evil" equivalents have always struggled to find a place and the same kind of iconic-ness.  Perhaps that was inevitable when the were unfortunately named "daemons" in Monster Manual 2 where they first debuted.  What exactly is the difference between a demon and a daemon anyway?  That's a bit like talking about the difference between gray and grey, or color and colour.  Absurd. Not that making a big divide between demons and devils wasn't already overly "splittist" as it was.

In the 2e days, there was an attempt to give the daemons their own identity.  While demons became tanar'ri and devils became baatezu, the daemons became yugoloths.  In the 3e era, while demons and devils regained their original name, the yugoloths did not (nor their place in supplements) ensuring their continued second class status.

Green Ronin's The Book of Fiends decided to redo the daemons envisioned as belonging to one of seven circles, each one associated with one of the seven deadly sins.  Paizo took their lead and came up with another classic Christian interpretation (although a different one) making the daemons nihilistic fiends, focused on the upcoming apocalypse, hating mortality and wanting nothing more than to completely wipe it out.  Their leaders--the equivalents of the archdevils or demon lords--are the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  The only thing retained is that Charon, the Greek ferryman of the dead and one of the original D&D "daemons" is retained as one of the horsemen, combined here with the Grim Reaper in aspect.

I liked that idea.  In fact, I liked the idea so much that I'm likely going to revise my DARK•HERITAGE pantheon to more overtly include some Lovecraftian entities and the four horsemen myself.  I'm not going to use the Paizo version (Paizo has a Horseman of pestilence, which--while traditional in contemporary depictions, frequently, is actually not one of the horsemen at all.  I guess modern writers borrowing the concept find war and conquest too similar to each other or something.)  Other than that, it follows a relatively familiar format by this point--it talks about daemons, their semi-mythical origins, some of their past history, their hierarchy, their goals it has a prestige class for daemon-worshipers (although the book also has a hard time explaining why these exist, given that the daemons hate mortals so much) and a number of monster entry for more daemons.  I didn't find many of them to be particularly inspired.  In fact, in general, I found the book to be fairly serviceable, but not inspiring.  Maybe that's the problem with continually putting the "daemons" off until last of the major fiendish "races" but they always seem to come across as also-rans by the time they get out there.  Although I do have to give the book credit for causing me to rethink my cosmology in an effort to include the Four Horsemen in one form or another.  It was at least sufficiently evocative to accomplish that.

I also just got another Paizo book, The Dragon Empires Gazetteer which I'll be reading soon as well.  However, these Paizo books are slim enough that I may not end up putting it on my "What I'm Reading" list just because it'll be over and done with so quickly.

Next up on posting, I made a goal to have two campaign setting posts per week, and I haven't done one yet, and probably won't get to it today.  That gives me a relatively short time to crank two out!  Luckily, I already know pretty much exactly what I want to do.  And as for my FRPG series, although I've already done enough to meet my "quota" I might have another of those lurking and ready to burst out before the week is over too.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sigh

I'm going to have to change my reading schedule a bit again.  Or rather, my listening to audiobooks during my commute.  Almost exactly halfway through Clive Cussler's Raise the Titanic I came across a disc that is skipping too badly to listen to.

I'm going to take it back, inform the librarians, and--maybe--get it back.  Or maybe not.  Too bad; I was actually rather liking it.  And it's the book that put Cussler on the map.

Instead, I've got a few other audiobooks on file.  Our library's collection of sci-fi and fantasy audiobooks isn't very good, but we do have a so-called House of Night series, a YA paranormal mystery/fantasy whatever.  I'll try it out.  It might be a darker, vampire themed Harry Potter, or it might be a Twilight ripoff.  I guess I don't know until I try...

The Players Wanted ad

I'm not going to run DARK•HERITAGE for my group any time soon.  Not only did my last attempt have a woeful end due to scheduling difficulties (which plague our group at the best of times as it is--and this wasn't the best of times) but we just started another campaign, which is estimated to last at least all of 2012.  For me to even suggest another game would be mutinous, not to mention rude and unfriendly at this point.  But as my excitement for DARK•HERITAGE is waxing at the moment, I might be inclined to look for another group--a "mistress" group if you will, where I could run for them on the side.  I don't know if I'll do this, of course, but considering what I had to do when I first moved into the area, and what I might have to do to find another group now, I thought it would be fun to craft a "Players Wanted" ad.  Whether I actually use it is another thing altogether.  Once crafted, aside from sitting here on my blog, where it won't get any bites, I could post reformatted versions of it on various online RPG meetup type places, and most importantly, on the bulletin board of my local gaming store (I'm lucky enough to still have one that's not very far away.)

A good Players Wanted ad needs to be brief.  Who is going to be so interested in it that they'll read a Great Wall of text?  Precious few potential players.  But it needs to be informative.  It needs to convey in brief yet clear tones what kind of game you're looking to run, so that the bites you do get will be the right kind; there's no point talking to lots of potential players to find out that all they really want to play is an elf bladesinger in a Forgotten Realms campaign.  You want it to be specific enough to act as a self-selecting filter for the kinds of players who you are likely to mesh with, but you have to be careful with that so you don't come across as a holier-than-though stick-in-the-mud elitist with finicky tastes, which would be off-putting to exactly the same players that you're hoping to attract.

And most of all, it needs to be evocative.  If in your pursuit of brevity and information-sharing, and correct tone placement you manage to come across as dry and boring, then you're not likely to get any hits that way either.

One good way to do so is to use the "Hollywood style" pitch idea.  This is a very concise comparison of your game to a few other well-known titles, characters, or elements in the hopes of drawing attention to the similarities between them.  Famously, Star Trek, the original series, was pitched to studio executives as "like Wagon Train to the stars."  You probably want to be a little more exacting than that, but not much longer.  And some kind of snappy graphic--a banner ad, or a fantasy picture that is evocative of your setting, can't hurt to help grab attention.

So, here's my ad--sorta.  Normally, I'd actually put this in Word, pdf it, and print it, but for now, I'm just doing it as web text with a banner.  It might not be perfect, but it should at least be a good enough example of what you're looking to do.


PLAYERS WANTED

Looking for 3-5 players for a fantasy roleplaying game.  d20 Modern rules and a playstyle more like Call of Cthulhu than Dungeons & Dragons.  It is not necessary to own any books or know the rules to play in this game!

"The Black Company and The Godfather meet spaghetti westerns and Pirates of the Caribbean!"

A homebrew setting and game that encourages wild swashbuckling action, gritty noir investigation, and Lovecraftian dark fantasy in equal measures.


Looking to play biweekly in Fakesville, USA in the evenings for 3-4 hour sessions.  I am a veteran roleplayer and gamemaster looking for local players who enjoy fantasy, horror, and thoughtful roleplaying.  If interested, contact me at notanemail@fake.com

Running the Game

Before I get to the more enjoyable tasks of worldbuilding, or the more practical tasks of how to actually run a fantasy roleplaying game--whether D&D or anything else, actually--it's important to take stock of a few things.  Notably; should you actually be running a game at all, and if so, do you have a group.  In other words, what are the most basic things that you need before you can even consider running a fantasy roleplaying game?

This is adapted from a Ray Winninger column on the same subject first published in Dragon Magazine #255 back in the late '90s, and is part of the Ray Winninger "Dungeoncraft" series, which you can find archived at darkshire.net on the links tab above.  But I've got some thoughts of my own to add to the question, and it's a good one to start with before I start heading off on my own direction with my own posts on my own subjects--many of which will be worldbuilding related.  Besides, by "adapted" I mean nothing more than that I took the basic outline of the article and filled it in completely with my own thoughts and text.  With that,

1. Do I have time and other resources to run a game?

If you don't, then don't make the attempt.  In my own personal gaming group, this has killed many a campaign, including, sadly, my latest attempt to run my DARK•HERITAGE game featured on this site.  This has several aspects.  The first, of course, is making sure that your schedule is available to meet every session of the game.  Depending on your group size and dynamic, there may be players who can and do occasionally miss sessions--I know in our group, it's actually very rare that we're full strength; we almost always have at least one and frequently two people out every time we game--but if the gamemaster isn't there, then there's no game at all.  If your life is too busy to commit to spending the time to be at every session, then you're better off passing the torch to someone else. 

Secondly, you need time to prepare.  A player's commitment in terms of time is fairly minimal other than time spent in the actual game session itself.  But a GM must spend quite a bit more time having the game ready to run.  Honestly, this isn't as much time as a lot of people think--Ray Winninger's own method of carefully preparing what you need and only what you need can be a bit of an eye-opener for those who have the tendency to over-prepare; but it's still significant.  Even if you're an expert at improvisational running of the game, you should probably plan on about as much time per week as your session lasts to also spend preparing for it.  And keep in mind that--to a certain extent, at least--how good your sessions will be depends on how much time you put into them ahead of time.

Thirdly, there are other resources besides time that you need to have.  I've played in many games where I don't own the rules, or at least haven't read them.  And naturally, when playing in published adventures, I never read the adventures.  The same can be true (sometimes) for published settings.  I read a statistic from WotC a number of years ago that stuck with me; they estimated that on average, the person running the game spends 4-5 times as much money on gaming material as the players do.  Now granted, D&D is perhaps more prone to that kind of thing than many other games, because it "prefers" minis and a battlemat for combat, and has lots and lots of options, adventures, settings, and other stuff for you to buy (whether you need it or not.)  Some other games have just a single rulebook, and maybe a handful of support documents or expansions.  If you're running, for example, the out of print Wheel of Time roleplaying game, then you need the rulebook and you could have the Prophecies of the Dragon campaign/module, and maybe a Dragon Magazine article or two--and that's all that was ever published for the game.  That said, the game is out of print, and you need to at a minimum have the rulebook.  If your players don't; they can borrow yours.  Make sure you have all the material you need to run the game.  Depending on your style, you might need maps, adventures (if you can get them), computer tools like NPC generators, setting information, or more.  Whatever you need, make sure you have it or can get it before you commit to running the game.

Commitment and perserverance--or rather, lack thereof--has caused many, many campaigns to run aground and founder.

Related to that, just having the rulebooks isn't sufficient; you also need to know the rules well enough to run the game without constantly referring to them.  I'll get to this in another post, but this does not mean that you need to be a walking rules encyclopedia.  But you need to know the rules enough to run a consistent game, so players can count on rulings that they can understand and predict and plan for, and they need to count on a game that doesn't bog down with frequent rule arguments or lookups.  To a certain extent, you can bluff your way through this, and you should look for players who are willing to accept GM rulings as the last word, but it also helps to have as thorough a grounding in the rules as you can.  No matter what else happens, you're going to get a lot of questions from your players that are rules related.

2. Do I have sufficient restraint to run the game?

In other words, would you really rather be playing?  Luckily, I've only rarely been plagued in my gaming career with this problem in my gamemasters, and it's also not really been an issue that I've had a tendency for.  But, and we'll talk about this in great detail in another article sometime down the line, although you are more invested in the game than any of your players, you need to remember that the game is really for them.  If you are running NPCs as if they were PCs, trying to force the players to follow your plan, or otherwise taking the focus and options away from the players that they should reasonably expect to have, then you are likely going to run a frustrating game.  The game's really about them.  You're more of a facilitator than a leader.  The PCs are the stars, and the players should always feel in control of the PCs actions.

3. Do I have a gaming group to run the game for?

If you do, congratulations.  This step is done.  Assuming, of course, that they are willing to allow you to run for them, and they are willing to give the game you want to run a try.  Sometimes players can be remarkably fickle or stubborn and opinionated.  I should know; I certainly am!  In my gaming group, for example, we tend to settle on Dungeons & Dragons so frequently not necessarily because it's our favorite, but because it is a kind of "least common denominator"--enough of us like it enough that we can all agree on it, while other games tend to be more polarizing.  One guy in the group, for instance, really doesn't grok science fiction at the table.  Don't know why.  Neither does he.  He likes science fiction.  He likes gaming.  But they just don't go together for him.  This is, of course, unfortunate for the other guy in the group who's favorite game is Shadowrun, but there you have it.  Three of us really love Call of Cthulhu (including, curiously, the no-sci-fi guy) and would step up to play it pretty much at any time.  The other three or four have played it on occasion, but have significant reservations about the theme, tone, and the whole premise of the game, and are--at best--very skeptical about it.  Sadly, our experiment to give it a try didn't really work as well as we'd hoped; we may struggle to get the non-Cthulhu half of the group convinced to ever try it again.  So, just because you have a gaming group, it's not necessarily a given that they want to play the game that you offer.  For some gaming groups, they may not have any choice.  They may not have a lot of options of people who are willing to run a game--any game--and if they want to play, they have to run the game that's offered.  For my group, we have the opposite situation; at least five of us consider ourselves to be GMs at least as much as we do players, and we pretty much always have game concepts in the backs of our minds that we'd be willing to run, assuming that our schedules allow.  So for us, consensus on what we're playing is a group effort.  Hence our "settling" so frequently on D&D.

So--if you don't have a group, or if you do but they're not buying what you're selling and you want another group on the side because you're just that interested in running the game--how do you find one?  The time-honored, and frankly still quite effective way to get a group is to post an ad in a gaming store.  I'm later going to have a post dedicated to exactly what I think a gaming ad should contain, and what it shouldn't, but for now, I'll just say that a brief posting describing what game you want to run, and what you're looking for in terms of scheduling commitment is a good way to round up some players.  I've also had pretty good luck finding people through the internet.  Places like ENWorld have a "gamers-seeking-gamers" classified ads type section.  However, it's certainly no guarantee that people near you are looking at that.  Meetup.com has gotten lots of groups together.  Going to local cons or gaming events is another way to meet folks, and if you hit it off, you can invite them to game with you.

I personally think it's important to "interview" potential gamers in a non-threatening setting.  Several of the guys now in my group meet with me at a local Chili's before we started gaming, and we talked about the hobby, what we like (and don't like) and a bit about us as people, just to make sure that we were going to hit it off fairly well before we committed to trying to game together.  While I don't have any personal horror stories to tell, I've certainly heard plenty from folks who met with a new potential group of gamers and had all kinds of bizarre things happen.  One guy I know had a guy and his girlfriend put on fake vampire teeth and attempt to bite another player.  Take it from me; as much as you want to run the game, getting the wrong people in your group is much worse than not having anyone to game with.  Take your time, and find the folks who are going to be a good fit for you.  One good rule of thumb?  If you could stand hanging out with them in a situation other than gaming, then you're probably on the right track.  Because I'm a transplant to the area in which I now live, I had to find my gaming group this way, and we've become pretty good friends; the kinds of guys who like hanging out on the weekends because we like each other.  That's how it should be; gaming is a social activity after all.

How many people should you have for your group?  While certainly an interesting game could probably be run with as few as just one good player, in general, you're going to want more than that.  I think the ideal gaming group size is 3-5 players and the GM.  This is actually a member or two smaller than my current group, but I don't want to tell any of them they can't play, and like I said, we're almost always short at least one or two anyway.  Fewer than three players usually makes the game very difficult to run, but more than about five, and you really are going to struggle to keep all of the characters (and players) equally involved.  This is a game that is character driven, and if the characters become faceless and disposible, then you're migrating back into an old-fashioned D&D paradigm again, which as I've said, is not the point of this series of articles.  If you want your game to even kinda-sorta resemble the type of ensemble cast TV shows or books that you like (and I certainly do, and it will be a feature of this column that I'll be attempting to show how to do that) then you really can't have a cast of protagonists that is much larger than that either.  3-4 is the perfect number, with maybe one more so you can still keep going if someone isn't available.  Any more than that, and it's too much to successfully juggle and get the right kind of experience out of it.

4. How often should we play?

This is best answered by the group.  If I were single, I'd probably say once a week is ideal--and heck, I'd like to run two concurrent games in the same setting.  But I'm not, and running anything twice a week; or even once a week, is not going to happen anytime soon.  However, there's a lot to be said for regularity.  One of the things that has killed a lot of campaigns with my current group is lack of regularity and predictability about the schedule.  While we're all really busy, and couldn't possibly support a once a week schedule, when we're trying to schedule each session individually, it's not unusual for it to drag out to once a month or once every six weeks between sessions.  What's worked best is to plan on once every other week on Friday nights, and a consistent location, and only deviate from that as exceptions require.  Having it be assumed that we're on, that we're at Kevin or Matt's house (or whatever) leads to consistent gaming.  When there's a flurry of emails a week or two after our last session asking when we're going to play again, and where, then it tends to drag.  This goes back to commitment and perserverance again.  Sure, it's a game, and everyone understands that sometimes things happen that are more important than gaming.  If you  miss your kid's baptism or graduation or something, or your wife's birthday or anniversary, because, sorry, it fell on gaming night, then you've got problems.  But if you can't count on every other Friday night (or whatever) being game night, then chances are you've got problems too.  Gaming isn't just a game, it's also a social activity that requires a group.  It's impolite and thoughtless--at best--to not take the other guys in your group into consideration, and make an honest effort to commit to doing this with them.  They're doing the same for you, and if you fall through, then there's no game.  It's not the end of the world if there's no game, but at the same time, you can't very well be surprised if you find that the guys end up playing with someone else if they feel they can't count on you.  If nothing else, it's poor friendship.

5. What do I need to run the game?

Of course, that depends on what you're going to run.  I'm going to suggest that what you need is fairly minimal, and you should already--mostly--have it.  Here's my list, as well as some discussion on other options.

Must haves:
  • Regular internet access.  This is pretty ubiquitous in the West these days, but it's crucial, I think.  There's a lot of stuff available online that will greatly increase the ease with which you can prepare a quality game.  And, for that matter, with internet access, you can subsitute for a lot of other material.  In my case, for example, using online SRDs means you don't even need a rulebook, really.  I also really like using this to find artwork and other support stuff that I can show my players to increase their enjoyment of the game.
  • Email.  Being able to email my players between sessions about gaming related things--including scheduling and more--has also gotten pretty crucial.  This is especially true if you have a group cobbled together from meetups or ads posted at a gaming store, or something like that, who may not otherwise know each other (or you) all that well, and may not live in necessarily very close proximity.
  • The rules.  This might be, as I mentioned earlier, as simple as having access to the online SRD or a pdf of the rules for some rulesets.  More likely, it means access to a book or books.  Depending on the system you're using, this could be a lot or not much.  My current favorite ruleset for DARK•HERITAGE has me using three books regularly, d0 Modern, d20 Past and Urban Arcana, although it also has me supporting that with numerous monster books and other occasional d20 books as well.  You could probably consider The Monsternomicon (both volumes) to be core books for me to run the game, and Green Ronin's Book of Fiends to be a close second.  But, I could also run games with just a single, slim rulebook or pdf.  I've run games using The Window and it's completely self-contained.  While it's not strictly necessary to own every single rule in play, it's usually a nice idea, which is another reason to limit them, if you're using a system that has a runaway supplement publishing schedule.
  • Dice.  Probably needless to say, but I'll say it anyway.
Nice to haves:
  • "Official" character sheets.  Because I use a d20 Past ruleset, I can get really pretty handy pdfs that are customized for d20 Past and that I can use pretty much exactly as is.  I like to have them.  I don't, however, need them.  For most of my gaming career, I played using just lined notebook paper for character sheets.  Trust me, it works just fine.  But an actual character sheet is handy, and preferred.
  • A GM screen.  This is more to have a platform for me to have charts and tables that I might use right in front of my face than it is for anything else.  It's also nice to be able to roll behind a screen, though, and spread out notes and other papers that I may not want players seeing.  And it's nice to have a platform on which I can paperclip pictures or whatever that are relevant to what's going on, so the players can look at them.  It's not necessary, but it sure is nice.
Don't needs:
  • Laptops.  While they can be handy at times, I've also found that I think setting up laptops or tablet PCs at the table can be at least as distracting as they are helpful.  I actually prefer not to use one.  And if your players tell you that they actually need one (as opposed to liking it because they're computer savvy and just like having computers around to support every aspect of their life) then you should seriously consider a less complex system of rules.
  • Adventures.  In a non-D&D environment, there often aren't any adventures to be had anyway, but even so, I do not find that having published adventures is a good thing.  I actually think it's more work to run published adventures than it is to run my own, because I need to spend a lot more time ensuring that I know and understand the adventure, whereas my own stuff is both much more flexible and since I came up with it, I know it really well.  Without a lot of GM modification, it's also more difficult to "ground" the PCs in a published adventure.  Homebrewed adventures are better in every way.  That's not to say that owning adventures isn't a good idea.  Adventures are full of locations, plots, NPCs, and other elements that are often pure gold when it comes to the imaginativeness of their authors.  I buy, read, and pilfer elements all the time out of published adventures.  I just very rarely ever run a published adventure.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Why not D&D?

So you want to run a fantasy roleplaying game?  Good for you!  It's a lot of fun; it's in fact, one of my main hobbies.  So, that means D&D, right?  What?  Why not?

Yeah, that's right.  My game is not D&D.  Even if I use the houseruled D&D rules variant (one of three acceptable variants for me!) I don't consider it to be D&D.  Too many changes, and the ones that matter the most, in my opinion, aren't the ones to the rules anyway.  For a lot of folks, D&D and fantasy roleplaying games are practically synonymous, and playing a fantasy RPG that's not D&D seems to be really quite a strange idea.  So, why is it something that I want to do?

Although not as much an issue for me currently, it has been in the past and could be for other folks (and could be for me in the future at some point too)--there's a lot of cool non-D&D fantasy RPGs out there already.  Some of them have been so-called "fantasy heartbreakers"--these are games that are pretty much the same as D&D except with a handful of often shallow topical features changed to "fix" them according to their creators.  To a greater or lesser extent, these are collections of houserules to D&D.  But the good ones are just plain good games in their own right.  Many--maybe most--of them come with a setting implicit to the game, and in many cases, that's their main attraction.  The various roleplaying games set in Middle-earth, for example (I.C.E.'s MERP or Decipher's Lord of the Rings game) are primarily focused around using the setting, and the rules are a lesser consideration--although that's not to say that they aren't optimized for the setting as it's envisioned by the authors.  The Black Company or Thieves' World games by Green Ronin are also games of this nature--heck; they primarily use modified D&D rules via the OGL!  Song of Ice and Fire, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, Dragon Age, the upcoming Iron Kingdoms game and more are all--really--more about the setting than about the rules.

Other games have their fans, though, for the system.  There's a fair bit that can be done in fantasy with systems like Savage Worlds, GURPS, BRP, True20, Unisystem, or FUDGE or any other number of systems, many of which have at least some measure of support for fantasy gaming.  If you go back a bit, of course, there used to be many other systems, and some of them still have their fans even if they're out of print (one friend of mine is a big fan of Rolemaster, for example.)

For me personally, what turned me off from D&D wasn't so much the rules (although I've certainly got some issues with them) except where the rules informed the implicit setting of the game.  D&D just didn't represent what fantasy was to me.  There was little in D&D that looked familiar to me as a fan of the fantasy genre, once you scratched the surface and got past the shallow, superficial similarities.  I didn't like the races, which unless you're doing a Tolkien rip-off or a D&D novel, are not common in the fantasy genre really.  I didn't like the way magic worked, which stood apart from anything magical I'd ever seen before.  I didn't like the migration in D&D to really best supporting a high fantasy environment, wITH black & white good and evil, and an assumption of heroism on the part of the protagonists.  I didn't like the "zero to hero" aspect of leveling, where the game literally changed genres as your character advanced from low level to high level.  And most of all, I didn't like the very concept of dungeons, or having anything to do with them.  In other words, regardless of the rules--which I was more or less OK with except for some exceptions which were easy to deal with--it was the basic D&D experience that I wanted to change.  What the whole game was about.  The rules changes were just about supporting that change in implicit setting and implicit activities, not changes that I was so much making for their own sake.

Traditional fantasy... at its most traditional
It was really those implicit setting elements that most turned me off.  And you probably know what I mean; the implicit details of the setting are strong enough that they overwhelm a lot of what you otherwise might try to do to differentiate.  It's been said before by a lot of different people--Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms are really pretty much the same.  Yeah, a few names are different, but who really cares?  I'd add to that that even most other settings are basically the same too.  Eberron actively tries to be different, but only manages baby-steps away from the same paradigm.  Same for Iron Kingdoms too, until it abandoned D&D and went its own way (arguably, that's got a long way to go to break away from D&D too, but it's probably better to judge that after the new game comes out.  The existing D&D setting is still very much a variation on the same D&D theme.)  And the more the implicit setting changes, the more that forces some houserules to make the mechanics match the implicit setting, until you reach a point--somewhere--where you're not playing D&D anymore from either a mechanics standpoint or a play paradigm standpoint.

But the D&D rules aren't all bad, and there's a lot of benefits from using them as much as possible.  One of them is the enormous amount of source material you can draw on if you do.  Another is the familiarity with the system that your players are likely to have, making mechanics a fairly seamless issue in game.  To me, those reasons were pretty huge--and I've got a lot of d20 material out there that I really wanted to use.  So, to me, turning to Savage Worlds or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying or whatever wasn't really an option.  I wanted a game that was compatible enough with Third Edition D&D that I could use all the monster books, character options, magic and whatnot--all the rules elements that I have--just imported into a different playstyle.  I started by gradually adding houserules.  Eventually, I added a d20 Modern variant.  I've gone back and forth between these two variants in terms of what I prefer repeatedly over the years.  Currently, I'm leaning towards the d20 Modern again, and have for a long time.  But the key issue is that d20 Modern is, for the most part, completely compatible and interchangeable with D&D for a lot of rules elements.

Part of the reason for that is that despite the rules similarities, the playstyle assumptions for d20 Modern already differ from that of D&D.  I'm finding that mentally it's easier to get folks on the same page as me if the title of the game is a little different.  Also, I'm finding that houseruling d20 Modern is a much less extensive affair than houseruling D&D.  While in a few ways, the houseruled D&D might be closer to what I actually want, the cumbersomeness of the endeavor makes it much less optimal regardless.

As this series of articles progresses, I'll talk more and more about how I like to run the game, and how I like my settings to look and my play experience, and what I've done to faciliate them.

DMing Advice Online (New Tag)

As part of a New Years's Gaming Resolution, if you will, I'm going to be somewhat reorganizing and revamping how I make posts here on this blog.  I've always been a bit frustrated by my unfinished series of DungeonCraft articles--but let's be fair here; part of the reason I never finished them was because the originals are readily available online over at darkshire (see the links page) and I was starting to feel a little stifled by idea that I should rigidly follow an already developed format.  This stifled feeling became more acute as I gradually started feeling that Chris Perkins' own DMing advice (again. see links page) was at least as good, despite not following a format, and despite topics coming up maybe a bit haphazardly or even randomly as he thought of them each week.  I also found a third collection of DMing advice articles (again--links) which didn't follow that format, but which was fairly chock full of interesting ideas here and there.

Of course, all three of them--some to greater or lesser degrees--frustrate me because they are so focused specifically on D&D, and the play assumptions that are implicit in that game.  That's not necessarily surprising, since I doubt they were ever meant to be anything other than that, and their audience as D&D players was pretty much exactly who they were hoping to reach.  Plus, some of them were more concerned with giving survey type advice--i.e., here's a bunch of different ways something could be done, with only very light treatment on pros or cons for each.

For me, that's not really what I had in mind, and attempting to do that really killed my enthusiasm for my own DungeonCraft tag.  So, I'm going to jettison it completely and do something different.  I'm creating an all new tag, FRPG for Fantasy Roleplaying Games which will specifically focus on GMing advice--in terms of worldbuilding, running the game, and everything else--but not D&D.  I'm not going to focus on any particular system either--in fact if I had anything like a long-term reader or something, it'd be obvious that I use a ruleset that's largely based on an existing D&D edition, just houseruled into a different feel.  Talking about, among other things, the kinds of things that you can expect to do and have happen in a game that rejects the D&D paradigm of play and the D&D paradigm of setting design.  I'm also not going to survey different ways of doing things, except in the vaguest ways possible.  Although I've removed the tagline from my blog, I still claim to be the most opinionated guy on the Internet, after all.  Instead, I'm going to focus on how I like to do things, why I like them, and how to make them work as best as I know how.

I also hope to have some regularity and discipline around my posts.  My goal is to make two FRPG posts a week, and two DARK•HERITAGE setting related posts each week.  Not saying I won't have other posts here and there as well, on other topics (or that I might now occasionally beat my goal on some weeks) but I'm setting that up as a minimum to keep my blogging more organized and more interesting to me and (hopefully) to readers.  And that means that I need to get cracking--even if I count this introduction as an FRPG post, it's already Friday, and I'd like to start off right by getting two in this week!

Any questions?  I've got a pretty long topic list already drawn up, but on the rare occasion that anyone would consider putting in a request for discussion, I'd be more than happy to accomodate.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bara Gairo

Biella Marçalez and her small sloop, The Crimson Eel, limped slowly and painfully up to the dock of the small village.  While it was quiet, it clearly wasn't abandoned.  She had seen several fishing boats in the harbor as she limped past them, their crews stopping their work momentarily to stare at her stone-faced as she waved and smiled wanly.  A small elderly man, tough as old tree roots and nearly as sun-browned, with a sturdy short sword in a sheath at his waist stood at the dock as she pulled alongsideWithout smiling, he took the thin hawser she tossed him and wrapped it deftly through a cat hole, then stood expectantly on the dock, blocking her progress until she spoke to him.

"Uh... hi," she said, stepping off the side of her sloop and jumping lightly to the dock two feet below.  "I'm on my way to Porto Liure, but my ship is taking water and has a fairly nasty hole in the hull.  Can I get it patched up here?"  The old man nodded and grunted.

"Head to Lima's Spirits and ask for Gonzalez.  He'll set you up, if you have some coin.  But it's late; you'll probably spend a night or two in the village inn."

Biella frowned, looking at the faces of a few villagers passing through the narrow streets, who were trying to mind their own business, but were exhibiting obvious curiosity nonetheless.  She thought she saw a familiar face... then she gasped.  The face looking at her belonged to Silvio Verazzano.  And the last time she saw him, they had been trying to kill each other.  She had stumbled away from that encounter bleeding heavily, but sure that she left her mafioso opponent dead.  Silvio slowly smiled as recognition dawned on his face.  Biella turned briefly to the old man on the dock again.  "And in what village do I have the pleasure of spending a night or two?"

The old man smiled slightly and gave a half-mocking small bow.  "Welcome to Bara Gairo, milady."


Bara Gairo is a small farming town on the island of Cala Gairo, just a few miles to the northeast of Porto Liure.  There's about half a dozen such small towns located near Porto Liure, and Bara Gairo is representative, in many ways, of what all of them are like.

The inhabitants of Bara Gairo are Liurans, mostly, but they live in a kind of self-imposed exile of sorts.  While Gandesa--the island on which Porto Liure sits--is fairly large and contains a fair amount of arable land, Cala Gairo and its sister-villages provide much of the agrictulture that keeps Porto Liure fed; Gandesa by itself and the Liuran city-folk are incapable of doing so on their own.

There are about fifty homesteads on the island, and probably 350 or so people who live in Bara Gairo.  Ten of the homesteads operate small fishing boats that plough the shoals near the town for fish and shellfish.  These boats tend to be fairly old and somewhat rickety, although reasonably well maintained.  They are slow and adequate for the two day long milk runs to Porto Liure required to sell their stock, as well as prowling the local waters for fish.  At any given time, seven or eight will be in the area, while the others will be in Porto Liure or en route.  Another thirty to thirty five homesteads are farmers who grow olives, peppers, figs, grapes, and other crops, or who tend sheep and goats for wool, milk and meat.  The remaining families tend to gravitate towards other crafts--there's a blacksmith, an innkeeper, a couple carpenters, etc.  The basics required to keep a rural town operating reasonably self-sufficiently.

Bara Gairo harbor
The population rarely grows or shrinks significantly.  While plenty of children are born to the families in Bara Gairo, only a few of them will remain to take on their family's occupations, while the others will make their way to Porto Liure to find their fortune, apprentice to a craftsman of some kind, or take to sea on the crew of a merchant or pirate ship.  Since many of the adults are retired old sea dogs, this is seen as not only acceptable, but even desireable.  This also means that at any given time, a substantial portion of the population are veterans of some kind of combat experience.  They keep themselves relatively well armed and trained, just to ensure that an eager or desperate pirate crew doesn't find them easy enough pickings to be tempting.

A number of the people in Bara Gairo can also be seen as retired or reserve members of the Castiadas crime family.  Castiadas smugglers occasionally stop through the town, and Castiadas agents who find Porto Liure getting too hot temporarily occasionally hide out in Bara Gairo, living a quiet, unassuming life until it's safe to get back into town.

So, despite the fact that Bara Gairo is fairly sleepy and quiet, it's not completely cut-off or insular.  About 20% of the time, there's a non-local boat in the harbor, usually a semi-regular visitor from Porto Liure, but sometimes other traders or sailors with different motives.  And at any given time, probably 8-10 people will be in town who do not normally live there, two or three of which will be strangers; the rest of whom will be semi-regular.  Lima's Spirits is the inn in town; the largest building, and place where the farmers, fisherfolk and strangers alike are likely to congretate in the evenings.  And there's a small but cozy stone chapel maintained by Pare Haśteu, an Easterner with a strong accent despite having lived here now for decades.

Just outside of town, amongst the farms, is a run-down old stone building which has been sealed shut for years.  Nobody lives there, but it's commonly believed to be haunted, and strange lights and sounds can occasionally be seen after dark.  Local urban myth suggests that a sorcerer, looking for isolation, came to Bara Gairo years ago and somehow managed to curse the building, or was perhaps himself cursed to haunt it in some manner.  In fact, the haunted Osini house has become locally famous, and is the subject of a number of urban myths in Porto Liure itself.


Bara Gairo is designed specifically to be the kind of relatively quiet and quaint starting place so many RPGs like to begin in, but unlike some of the other such examples of the genre, there should be a slightly sinister cast to it.  Since many of the inhabitants are former gangsters or pirates, there are still ties to both coming through regularly--although quietly and discreetly, since it's also an important supply point for Porto Liure itself, and official notice can be brought to bear qiuckly if things look bad in town.  Furtive strangers could therefore be smugglers, assassins, hiding crime bosses or cultists--or they could merely be Liurans looking to escape from the ragged urban lifestyle, if they can manage to get away.  Some of them, in fact, are former residents who left as youths, but who return later, occasionally matured to unrecognizability, to see what has become of their former homes.


Aside from the village of Bara Gairo (and neighboring farms) itself, the island is rocky and steep, and covered with thick forest.  While it's a small island, and therefore doesn't hold very much in the way of large game, but some small white tailed deer and javelinas do make their way through the brush, hunted by rare cougars and some feral dogs that have lived untamed on the island for generations.  Occasional sightings of weirder things are reported, and in general, those of the village who like wandering the woods are looked at in askance; the villagers turn their faces towards the sea and away from the forest.

Deep in the interior, nestled amongst volcanic stones and hills, are the remnants of some past mysterious inhabitants--small stone cairns and carved standing stones, with brooding, weathered features and unreadable runes.  Disquieting half-heard noises can be heard near them on occasion, and there are persistant rumors of villagers who have disappeared near these standing stones, never to be seen again.

Coming soon: More specific hooks for things to have happen in or near Bara Gairo, and some discussion on how a campaign could start there, where it could go from there, and which themes and tone elements it would best serve.

Rules of Three

Three is an interesting number, and it comes up a lot in DARK•HERITAGE.  Not necessarily by design, but by coincidence--and because it's just that kind of number.

The area mapped out more extensively is colloquially called the Land of the Three Empires, referring to the Terrasan Empire, the Qizmiri Caliphate, and the Baal Hamazi Empire.  This is a bit of a misnomer, though--Qizmir isn't really an empire, and Baal Hamazi has been broken up into feuding city-states and squabble over the remnants of once Imperial dreams.  Terrasa is also heading that same direction.  Meanwhile, the Kurushat khaganate is reasonably well detailed, and is an increasingly important political player.  However, I don't see Kurushat as really "central" to the action of the area like I do Qizmir, Terrasa and Baal Hamazi.  Those three are really the main "protagonist" nations, if you will, of the setting.

While not necessarily mapping easily to those three empires, I see DARK•HERITAGE in terms of three main setting styles.  This is in fairly crude terms, and obscures a fair amount of variation, but it still works for my purposes.  By setting, I mean, in many ways, tone and feel of the game.
  1. First, there's the mainland to the north.  This is where the northern reaches of Terrasan territory gives way to wild, "Indian country"--tribesmen who are loosely inspired by the Huns, the Mongols, the Scythians, and yes, the Comanches, Sioux, Apaches, and other plains indians.  The land is rugged, and greatly resembles much of the land that I myself love in the American west--the Red Rock territory of the Colorado plateau, the Sierra Nevada mountains, places I've hiked like Big Bend, and a bit of Great Basin plains country.  Exotic and dangerous wildlife cribbed from the North American Pleistocene wanders the area, making it a land of adventure, much like the Victorians would have seen Africa.  Dotting this feral country are the remnants of Baal Hamazi.  No longer Imperial, there are some rich and civilized city-states, but the wildness in between them is more the defining factor than the severed links that once connected them.  These are islands of relative calm; base-camps for exotic safaris, frontier fortresses besieged by savages.
  2. Secondly, there's the coastline of the Mezzovian Sea itself.  Although envisioned more as the Mediterranean than the Caribbean--in terms of climate and whatnot--the point of this setting is pirates.  Wild strongholds like Sarabasca or Porto Liure are purposefully reminiscent of real-life pirate sanctuaries like Tripoli or Tortuga.  While not as focused on exotic wildlife, this "part" of the setting is focused on dangerous people--a state of almost open warfare can exist between the merchant marines and pirates of various city-states, and the focus here is on swashbuckling action and rousing adventure.  It's not just Spanish Main type piracy, though--especially as once moves eastward, the tenor of the pirates starts more and more to resemble the Pirate Round and the Barbary pirates--more exotic, more middle-eastern; semi-Ottoman in nature, heavily influenced by Qizmir.
  3. The third main setting "type" I see for DARK•HERITAGE is the urban environments.  While I mentioned the urban locales of Baal Hamazi, I see this as more specifically a Terrasan phenomena, and almost a setting within a setting all itself, while other urban environments I see more as stopping places--elements within their setting.  Baal Hamazi, despite the fact that it has cities, I still see as "about" the wilderness which surrounds them, while Terrasan cities are about themselves.  Reminiscent of Medieval/Rennaissance Italian or Spanish city-states like Genoa, Naples, Alghero, etc. they are decadent, dark--wretched hives of scum and villainy, to be sure.  The dangers here are often political--intrigue, espionage, organized crime, dangerous underground cults, and well-hidden supernatural predators.  The feel is both baroque and noir.
There are also three themes prevalent in DARK•HERITAGE--by which, I mean the main thrust and focus of a given campaign or story in broad terms.  As with setting/tone, a campaign or story might have more than one of these, but probably not all three, at least not at the same time; although if interwoven carefully, that could be done as well.
  1. Intrigue.  Spies.  Political fortunes.  Failing empires.  Questions of dynasty.  Kingdoms waiting in the wings to snap up the leftovers of the aging Terrasans.  Zealous patriots of the idea of Baal Hamazi hoping to spark a revolutionary renaissance of her culure and political power.  Assassins.  Shadowy guilds.  Dark sorcerers or vampires who pull the strings from behind the scenes.  This theme is basically the spy-thriller in a dark fantasy setting.  Very different from the theme of a standard high fantasy, or even sword & sorcery story, this takes its cues more from John Le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum or even some of the earlier Clive Cussler.
  2. Crime.  Almost by default, all centers of urban congregation in DARK•HERITAGE become "wretched hives of scum and villainy."  Warring thieves and racketeering guilds make up the majority of the action in a campaign or story based around this theme.  It's The GodfatherThe Usual SuspectsThe Untouchables.  Characters may either be involved with mafioso crime groups, or be dedicated to attempting to bring them to something like justice.  Vigilanteism is also a great way to explore this theme.  Like the Intrigue theme, this one requires a fair investment in the urban areas of the setting, but certainly not exclusively.  Smuggling, and skullduggery on ships or caravans in the wilderness could (and should) play an important role in either of these themes.
  3. Horror.  This is, after all, fantasy.  If all I wanted was intrigue and crime, I could easily have set DARK•HERITAGE up to merely be historical fiction.  The supernatural is a strong element of this theme; in fact, the defining one.  From nihilistic Cthulhu-esque cults, daemonologists and necromancers, ghouls hidden in the sewers, and supernatural predators hidden amongst us like vampires or werewolves, there are all kinds of supernatural threats with which to ravage the lives of the characters.  It should be carefully done, however, to not be a typical D&D style action romp.  Make sure that a DARK•HERITAGE game or story is scary and that the horror elements are more strongly rooted in the horror genre than the fantasy genre--despite the obvious notion that DARK•HERITAGE is a fantasy setting.
It's completely coincidental--yet oddly so--that there are three possible "approved" rulesets for running a DARK•HERITAGE game: house-ruled Pathfinder, house-ruled D&D 3.5, and house-ruled d20 Past.  I imagine plenty of other rulesets--with or without houserules--would work well too, but I'm just not familiar enough with them at this stage to endorse them.  Savage Worlds comes to mind as a likely one.  No doubt a BRP or GURPS variant could do the trick.  But, you're on your own with anything other than those three.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Races

In a discussion the other day with some gamers about my setting, I mentioned the races of my campaign.  Rather than describe them in detail, I handwaved them to "human, Neanderthal, tiefling, fire genasi, shifter and shadar-kai."  Granted, this isn't exactly true.  While the hamazin are definately conceptually the same as tieflings, and the jann are conceptually the same as fire genasi, etc., the shadar-kai is just based on shallow and coincidental resemblances.  A more direct inspiration, conceptually, for them is the witches of Dathomir, from Star Wars.  And frankly, Nightcrawler (from the X-men) is as important an influence on the hamazin and their look and character as D&D tieflings anyway.

But it brings to mind the notion that there really aren't that many truly innovative and new ideas under the sun, and that execution is really more important than innovation, I think.  If you can present something in a way that makes it feel fresh and interesting, it doesn't matter that the idea is very similar to another one somewhere else out there.

It also brings to mind the notion of the "Hollywood pitch" and how great an idea it is.  While describing something new, it's often very useful to boil it down to something else that it's similar to and use that to describe it.  So, for example, while Eberron is certainly much more than this, it's helpful to describe it as "D&D meets Indiana Jones and The Maltese Falcon."

In other words, rather than making a point of highlighting how my Cannibal Isle inhabitants are different from shadar-kai--and they are, certainly, and have a completely different concept behind their initial genesis--it's often better to focus on the fact that, "hey, they really aren't all that different when it comes down to it."  When I say that my hamazin are "tieflings that are like Nightcrawler meets Darth Maul", hey, that's a handy shorthand and someone can immediately identify with and run with.

You can focus on the differences later, when you're ready to dive into the details.  First of all, though, a nice, easy to grasp capsule review--often in the form of a "Hollywood pitch" goes a long way towards describing how your setting, game, or any given element of it is supposed to be viewed, without boring any potential audience with long-winded details that they probably don't care about yet.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading List

Every once in a while, I'll get questions about this mammoth reading list that I've mentioned, but which never have posted before.  So, for the first time ever, I'm going to post the contents of the file on my PC called, Books I Own But Haven't Read.doc.  This is, of course, a point in time document.  Because I'm frequently distracted by library books, shows I'm watching or streaming, and just other things that are going on, I don't update this as frequently as I should, but about twice a month an update of some kind or another is due; either crossing a book off that I've just read, or adding a few books on that I just bought. (As an aside, I'm sitting on a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card right now and another $100 from Amazon, so I'll have a few additions soon.)

I've broken my list up into categories, which if nothing else, makes it easier for me to digest.  The first (and presently smallest) category is gaming books.  By this I don't mean gaming fiction; I mean actual gaming books.

  • Rokugan Campaign Setting
  • Complete Psionic
I expect a few soon to be made purchases of Paizo stuff will add to that list in a few weeks.  I'm holding out for another release to order everything at once and get free shipping.

Next, game or tie-in fiction.  Some of these I've picked up in odd ways; used book stores, or whatever, so there's often little rhyme or reason to what I have.
  • Predator: Big Game
  • Aliens vs. Predator: Hunter's Planet
  • Aliens: Rogue
  • Nagash the Sorcerer
  • Nagash the Unbroken
  • Nagash Immortal
  • Vampire Wars: the Von Carstein Trilogy
  • Master of Devils
  • Horus Rising
  • Doom of Kings
  • Word of Traitors
  • Tyranny of Ghosts
  • The Temple of the Yellow Skull
  • Oath of Vigilance
If you're very clued in, you'll see that I have a few incomplete series there, which means that--assuming that they're not terrible--I've got a few additions to buy to complete them.

Next, the controversial section of my list--books that I've read before, but not since I've bought the copy that I own now.  Curiously, this includes the book(s) that I've read most--the Lord of the Rings, since I retired my broken and worn old copies a couple of years ago and took possession of a "like new" set from my brother, who didn't want them anymore.
  • Transit to Scorpio
  • Fellowship of the Ring
  • The Two Towers
  • The Return of the King
  • Unfinished Tales
  • Dracula
  • Ill-Met in Lankmar
  • Small Favor
  • Turn Coat
  • Changes
  • Return of the Black Company
  • The Many Deaths of the Black Company
  • Scar Night
Next, I have books that I legitimately haven't ever read before, and which clearly belong to the science fiction (or more specifically--usually--fantasy) genre.  However, this does include my Lovecraft collections, which is a little disingenuous, since I've read most of the stories individually in other formats.  But not 100% of them, so I consider the entire book "unread" for purposes of this list.
  • Iron Angel
  • God of Clocks
  • The Stepsister Scheme
  • Lords of Destruction
  • Tooth & Claw
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora
  • Kull: Exile of Atlantis
  • Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
  • Looking Glass Wars
  • Cthulhu's Reign
  • Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos
  • Dreams of Terror and Death
  • The Road to Madness
  • The Best of H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Horror in the Museum
  • Year's Best SF 10
  • Empress
  • Way of Shadows
  • Mistborn
  • Winterbirth
You may also notice that I have the first book of a few larger series on that list.  Pending approval (i.e., I like the first book sufficiently) that list will eventually need books two and three (or whatever numbers they happen to be) added to the list.

The next small set of books are some that I got for free at work, usually from some coworker who was done with them, and which are kinda sorta genre-related; although I suspect that some of them will turn out to be more supernatural romance oriented than I hope (and if so, I may not finish them all.)
  • Search the Shadows
  • Wait For What Will Come
  • Those Who Hunt the Night
  • The Love Talker
  • Sons of the Wolf
  • Dark Tower III: Wasteland
  • Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass
I've read the first Dark Tower book (and not particularly liked it) and naturally, I won't read books III and IV without picking up II somewhere.  Those are pretty iffy; again, given that I didn't really like the first one.  But for now, I've got them, so I have to list them.

Next, I've got some non-genre books that I came across from various sources; usually given to me by someone or other.  These tend to mostly be mainstream thriller type books.
  • 1st to Die
  • Certain Prey
  • State of Fear
  • The Eye of the Tiger
  • Lost Light
  • London Bridges
And my final category are some free Kindle books that I have, which belong to the Lost Tribe of the Sith tie-in series.  Clearly, they are Star Wars themed books.  All of them have The Lost Tribe of the Sith as part of the title, but since it's repetitive, I'll omit it from the list, and just have the portion of the title that comes after the colon.  Because they are fairly short, I'll probably actually read them all, even if they're not very good.  Which, as free promotional short novels, I don't really expect them to be.
  • Precipice
  • Skyborn
  • Paragon
  • Savior
  • Purgatory
  • Sentinel
There you have it.  My list--as of right now.  Within a week or two, it'll probably change.  And frankly, it'll probably have more additions before it has any deletions, I'm somewhat sad to say.  And another comment; you may also notice that there's more than a few omnibus type collections in there, so in a way, the list is somewhat understated by at least six titles.