Thursday, April 26, 2012

Regional summaries, part 1

Terrasan Empire
Précis: A thalassocratic “Mediterranean” region, given over to decadence and opulence in place of vigor or power.
Conspectus: ruled by Esteve Gregorio de Galdames de Rossolló, by the grace of the Gods, King of Terrasa, Alcàsser and Segrià, Duke of Razina, the Tolosas, Posada and Feronia, and Count of Iclezza, an impotent and laughable king who sits over an uneasily united dynastic and personal union. Byzantine politics and intrigue from nobles and Electors seeking power; looming succession crisis, although king is still middle-aged. Dark underbelly of seething unrest and nationalistic fracturing; revolutionaries, cultists, organized crime and others keeping streets a bloodbath in bad neighborhoods. Baroque, decadent and ornate grotesque statuary and ornamentation. Smugglers and pirates increasingly emboldened as the navy withers in power.
Analogs: The Godfather meets picaresque Crown of Aragon.

Caliphate of Qizmir
Précis: expanding power, where a ruling class of jann sit uneasily over underclass humans
Conspectus: cultures in collision; jann and their “toadies” with foreign culture have been spreading into new areas for some time, “Qizmirizing” the locals. Many conquered people, or those who fear the swords of conquerors, stir and foment rebellion, even thought the yoke of the conquerors is light. Fairly unified central government is strained dealing with internal issues. There is also a fear of the former “mother empire” of the jann coming and reincorporating Qizmir. The local rulers value their independence and autonomy, however. Clash of east vs. west. Decadent and opulent in the late Ottoman or Moghul style. Some of the spread of the culture has been haphazard and incomplete.
Analogs: Arabian Nights meets Barbary pirates.

Khaganate of Kurushat
Précis: highly militaristic country with a conquering bent and looming succession crisis
Conspectus: Harsh and disciplined, but too far away to be an immediate threat to the powers of the Three Empires region. Old khagan with numerous potential heirs vying for position. Heavily involved in slavery, which fuels their economy. Cult to their god Yinigu, sometimes believed to be an aspect of Selvans, turns them into hyena-headed raveners.
Analogs: Mongols and hobgoblins blended together

Lands of Baal Hamazi
Précis: broken remnants of a former empire; city-states struggling against barbarians
Conspectus: Several city-states, with demon-worshipping theme, struggling with race issues, and vying to be the “true” heir of the mantle of Baal Hamazi, the empire that fell some two hundred or so years ago. Each city-state controls a relatively small area; around them are the wild Untash, Haltash and Tazitta tribes, making travel difficult. Harsh surroundings, reminiscent of the Colorado Plateau—looks like ancient Egyptian architecture squatting in Monument Valley or Arches National Park. Lots of intrigue, and lots of Old West style wilderness/frontier adventure.
Analogs: tiefling mafia surrounding by warrior culture that is half Huns, half Comanche.

Tarush Noptii
Précis: benighted nation ruled by vampires; humans are chattel underneath them and live in fear
Conspectus: capital city is constantly night time due to magical curse of some kind. Demonic primogenitor vampires roam the undercity, gone insane and feral, but rarely seen. Vampire houses vie for political power. Untouchables caste promised safety from vampire feedings by acting as agents of the vampires across the nation and beyond. Vampires are not necessarily hampered by sunlight (various varieties of vampire) but frequently are. People live in fear, but justify their sacrifices as the way towards a relatively peaceful life. Many flee Tarush Noptii and become “gypsies” that wander the other countries of the Three Empires region, but sometimes bring vampire agents with them.
Analogs: Dracula meets Nazi Germany

Free City-state of Porto Liure
Précis: home base for the majority of pirates and privateers on the western half of the Mezzovian sea
Conspectus: wild and wooly “wretched hive of scum and villainy” with just a veneer of civilization. Decadent Terrasan nobles come here to debauch, and it smuggles and pirates goods all across the region. Life is short, brutal and dirty, unless you happen to have the wealth to insulate yourself from it by hiring great bodyguards and building rich palaces to live in---which many do. The poor also have folklore and warnings of all kinds of supernatural occurrences—the city is a hotbed for the occult and supernatural.
Analogs: Pirates of the Caribbean meets Lovecraft’s Arkham.

The Slave Coast and Sarabasca
Précis: semi-Middle eastern themed rival to Porto Liure
Conspectus: Barbary pirates and hub of the slave trade; loose ties to Qizmir, major player in the city’s politics is an assassin’s guild that operates throughout the Three Empires region, surrounded by Cajun-like swampies who are sullen and suspicious backwoods hicks.
Analogs: Tripoli of the Barbary Pirates era combined with the Cajun section of H. P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu story

Throne of the Crescent Moon

I just finished Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, a relatively slim new fantasy book I picked up from the library that's gotten a fair bit of good press since its release a few months ago.  If you spend a few minutes looking around, you can probably divine a few things about the book easily enough.  The title and cover art certainly suggest an "Arabian Nights" like vibe in the setting, and the author's name suggests that maybe he's not coming at it from the traditional "European guy obsessed with Orientalism" approach that the Arabian Nights vibe as we know it has been fueled by.  This movement among Europeans was especially prominent in the late 19th and early 20th century, and fueled the work of artists (like Edwin Weeks, for instance), writers like William Beckford, and many, many more.  It also, curiously, made a huge impression on pulp audiences and pulp writers, and as such, was hugely important to the development of fantasy the genre as we know it.  Robert E. Howard dabbled lots in Oriental Stories (even writing for the magazine of that name) and his creation of the Hyborian Age was largely fueled by his desire to write historical fiction without having to do all of the detailed research that actually informed his real historical fiction.  Clark Ashton Smith was a big fan, and echoes of Orientalism can easily be seen in his work; he even wrote a "fan fiction" sequel to the hugely influential novel Vathek.  H. P. Lovecraft also was a big Vathek fan, going so far as to specifically model both his story "Azathoth" and "The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath" after that seminal novel of Orientalism.

Ahmed, as you can probably guess from his name, actually is Arabic (although he was born and raised in the Arab-American community around Detroit) and therefore arguably comes at the material from a different point of view.  Many of the folks who've written about this book value that for it's own same, and lament the "lilly-white" status quo of fantasy fiction.  I actually don't; although I'm a huge fan of the Arabian Nights vibe as described by many Westerners over the years, I've often been a bit bewildered when folks writing from a different cultural point of view come up with stories that don't resonate with me (my biggest disconnect with American fandom of anime.)  In addition, I've often been disappointed with folks who make their take on the setting their only selling point.  How many reviewers and readers of Imaro, for example, can't think of anything really substantive to say about it other than it's a celebration of African culture in fantasy?  Well, that comes at a price (in Imaro's case, the price is well-developed characters and tight plotting, sacrificed in an effort for the writer to show off his anthropological know-how.)

I'm happy to report, though, that Throne of the Crescent Moon doesn't fall prey to any of these traps or flaws, although that doesn't mean that it's uniformly excellent of course.  Yes, the tone of the story is a bit different than what you'd expect if the author's name was John Smith or something like that, but at no point did the writer attempt to "show off" his cultural mileu; it's just part of the background, where it belongs.  In many ways, it's limited to snippets of dialogue and phrases, as well as spellings. For example, we get Khalif, Sultaan and ghul instead of the more usual caliph, sultan and ghoul--although that's mostly a forgiveable eccentricity.  The characters are reasonably well developed and likeable.  It is curious that there are a lot of point of view changes, however, for a novel as slim as it is (274 pages) which means that all of them are probably a bit lighter developed than they could have been.  Only one character, Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, really felt sufficiently fleshed out to be real--the other two main point of view characters felt like cardboard. 

The plot was also reasonably well done and tight, although it suffers considerably from the villain appearing a bit from left field at the end of the novel.  Sure; we've had plenty of hints at what was coming, but honestly, we knew nothing (and still know nothing) about who this person is or what they want, or what their agenda is, or anything else other than "he's really bad."  And if the main plot is already a bit on the light side, there's also a side plot that eventually works its way into being integral with the resolution of the main plot involving the Falcon Prince, a kind of revolutionary Arabian Nights like version of Robin Hood.

The novel also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.  Although it makes vague references to being part of some kind of series on the title page, so I assume that there are plans to further develop the story from here.  All in all, I found it a reasonably entertaining and breezy read, with a slightly different twist from what you might otherwise read.  Fans of old school sword and sorcery will especially find much to love here, both from setting standpoints, but also from a structural standpoint.  Saladin Ahmed made his name prior to the publication of this novel writing short stories, and in all ways, this feels like a short story that's just a bit longer than most.

A final note, one notable difference between this novel and one that would likely have been written by a Western fantasy writer, is the complete lack of a secularist undercurrent.  Western fantasy writers tend to either overemphasize religion in order to make some kind of point, or studiously avoid making much reference to religion playing any part in the lives of the characters of the setting.  Ahmed's book, however, has a strong undercurrent of religiousity--although it doesn't really have much difference on the development of the plot or the setting, little references here and there constantly remind one that it's an important part of life to the characters and all who surround them; a detail that I think modern Western fantasy skips to its detriment.

Now that it's finished, I'll be taking it back to the library--a friend in my gaming group, however, has already lent me two novels that I'm going to read before picking up any of my own again, both part of a new series by Harry Connelly.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ethnicity in Dark•Heritage, part 5

After considerable delay, here is the concluding post in the Ethnicities of DARK•HERITAGE series.  Since the previous four posts have detailed all of the human ethnicities in the setting, this final post will detail the non-human (or demihuman, if you prefer--a more accurate label here than it ever was in Dungeons & Dragons anyway) races.  DARK•HERITAGE is fundamentally a very humano-centric campaign setting (hence the 4-to-1 ratio of posts) but the "demihuman" races are in important and integral part of the setting, which give it much of its distinctive flavor.

Changeling huntresses in ritual blood feud garb.
• Known as wildmen, woses, vucari, pucks, shifters, or--most commonly--changelings, there are some in the lands of the Three Empires who trace their ancestry back to werewolves of old.  While the potency of their blood has faded and true werewolves are now considered to be a semi-mythical relic of the distant past, changelings are indeed linked to the power of beasts in a way that normal humans cannot fathom.  With darker brown skin, and a great deal of hairiness that almost--but not quite--verges on furriness on the arms, legs and torso especially, and pointed ears, changelings are immediately obvious at a glance.  They also tend to have the golden eyes of a wolf, pronounced canine teeth, and their nails are long and thick--almost clawlike on both hand and feet.  Changelings usually go barefoot and eschew riding animals, and can lope along at great speed and for great distances, which they do somewhat hunched over, occasionally putting a hand to the ground as they run, although never running on all fours, as they are occasionally caricaturized as doing.

In addition to the obvious werewolf-like physical features of the changelings, they can also "shift" as a werewolf on occasion, although it tires them to do so.  This does not mean turning into a wolf, but it does mean becoming--for a few moments at a time, at least--even more bestial in appearance than they already are, their muscles bulking up, their hair growing thicker and sometimes longer, their teeth and claws growing into dangerous weapons, their hunched posture becoming more pronounced, their faces twisting into a visage of racial rage.

Urban changeling
Changelings are, as one might expect, consummate woodsmen and outdoorsmen.  They live natively in two areas, the southern Bisbal Forest, along the Erau river, where they are reasonably friendly and welcome some trade with the Terrasans, and the Shifting Forest (named for their presence) where they are fiercely territorial, xenophobic, and typically murder trespassers on sight.  Both areas are thickly grown old growth forests, which partly accounts for the complete lack of any tradition of horseback riding, as well as the ambush guerrilla war tactics for which the changelings are justifiably famous.  Despite these holdouts of changeling-dominated territory, however, there is a sizeable number of changelings that live as a minority in most Terrasan (and many Hamazi) cities in the Three Empires area as well--probably a considerably larger total number of individuals than which live in the native lands of the changelings.  For many years, they have served as scouts for the military, guards for caravans and travelers, mercenaries, and other occupations as well.  Although it's not unheard of, it's more rare for changelings to adopt to the settled, urban life of humans.  The sizeable populations of the cities is constantly in flux as individuals come and go, driven by a wanderlust that astonishes even the most transient of human groups, such as the Tarushan gypsies.

In recent years, these semi-urban changelings have also become indelibly associated with organized crime, as many individuals have become enforcers for the Cherskii mafia and other groups.  While most urban changelings are, of course, reasonably honest, regular folks, this association has brought mistrust upon them as well.

• The jann (also occasionally spelled djann, jinn or djinn) come from far across the sea to the east.  Having surpressed much of the genuine historical information of their origins, much of what is believed about where they came from has grown rather fanciful in the generations since their arrival on the shores of Qattara many generations ago.  It is reasonably certain that they did in fact come from across the sea, although to anyone's knowledge, no one has returned the other way successfully, and no one has repeated the feat.  In the legendry of the jann themselves, they come from a mighty Empire far to the east, made up entirely of jann, and they are merely a group fleeing oppression.  Or perhaps blown off course accidentally and driven, by the grace of the Gods, to establish their new empire in these fertile new lands.  Here, the jann are the minority aristocratic ruling class of the nation of Qizmir--where they are far outnumbered by their human subjects, who are of stranzero descent.  Throughout Qizmir itself, the language, customs, dress, cuisine, architecture and culture of the jann is ascendent, and many humans are simply Qizmiri by now, with little or no recollection of their stranzero past, but the nation also continues to struggle with nationalistic pride of the stranzeros, who have not gone under the yoke--however light it tends to be in most cases--of the jann quietly.

Sarabascan jann, showing multicultural influences.
Many jann also press forward into more westerly lands as dignitaries, merchants, or expatriots of various stripes.  There is a strong component of Qizmiri culture and jann in particular, in Sarabasca, and jann walk the streets of Porto Liure, Sènt-Haspar, and even Terrasa itself in sufficient numbers that seeing one isn't unusual.  They also wander as far afield as Simashki and other Hamazi lands, and occasionally are to be found even in Kurushat, although in the latter cases, seeing one certainly is a curiousity.

The jann claim to be descended in part from the ifrit from the City of Brass.  This certainly jives with their appearance--the standard jann has brick-red skin, and pale, wispy blond hair that occasionally dances around their head like an open flame.  Bright yellow eyes, and tall willowy stature complete the image.  There is also an uncommon, although not extraordinarily so variant on this appearance; sooty black or gray skin, with--again--flame-colored eyes and bright orange hair.  The appearance of this variation does not appear to be genetic, as it crops up from time to time amongst all lines of jann.  The jann in Qizmir have developed a social stigma against intermarriage with non-jann, but expatriat jann in places like Porto Liure or Sarabasca, or even on the Golden Peninsula who have married humans report that the jann bloodlines seems to be reasonably strong; better than half of all children born to such unions are themselves jann in every way, and even non-jann children can themselves give birth to jann children on occasion.

Many hamazin scholars see the jann as merely another variant on their same hellspawn race that has bred true, much as they have.  The jann find this claim offensive.  Many scholars in neutral areas, such as Terrasa, find that the claims are not necessarily unlikely after all; although the jann, probably by dint of their foreign origin compared to other hellspawn in the Three Empires region, are significantly different than other hellspawn even so.  Although when a jann (or a hellspawn) marries a human, the offspring of such a union are either jann (or hellspawn) or human, on the rare occasions when a jann and a hellspawn have married and born children, they have been known to be hybrids, with features from both parents, which is unusual, and often used as evidence by those who point to a distant unity between the two races.

• Hamazin are the former overlords of the Baal Hamazi empire, a polity which no longer exists.  Nonetheless, in the city-states that now make up that region, hamazin are still fairly common, and play an important role in the population--in many cases still enjoying a shadowy reflection of their former priviledged status.  That said, after the fall of Baal Hamazi, and in the chaos that ensued, many hamazin have fled their ancestral lands, and they are now quite common in the south, particularly in places like Porto Liure and Sarabasca, but in all of the Terrasan cities there are sizeable minorities of them.  Some still nurse dreams of reviving their ancient empire--in fact, the Cherskii mafia was founded on the principle of exploiting organized crime to develop resources and capital for just such a takeover of the fractuous city-states that still claim a portion of the mantle of Baal Hamazi.  Most, however, simply live their lives as they are, without being dazzled by dreams of the past.  Some, in fact, have specifically turned their backs on imperial dreams, and want nothing to do with such ambitions.

The hamazin are hellspawn, but one with a surprisingly uniform appearance which breeds true for hamazin to hamazin match-ups, and which can still produce hamazin heirs even when only one parent is hamazin.  With jet black to sooty gray skin, dark hair, and a "crown" of small horns adorning the heads of each hamazin, they are easily recognized.  The horn patters vary from individual to individual; the most common being six to eight horns growing in a ring around the head.  Some hamazin have traditionally shaved or removed all their hair to better show off their horns, but that style is rare today except in exceptionally conservative parts of the former Empire.  The hamazin themselves point to the iconic image of Ciernavo (Czernavog), the Black Pharoah and a chief deity of the region, saying that they are created in his image and are his special people and children.  Naturally, others dispute this, but the resemblance is certainly uncanny.

• While the hamazin are a true-breeding "race", they are also seen as a subset of the hellspawn, humans touched by the power (or seed) of some ancient god or demon.  The hamazin outnumber the other hellspawn by considerable margins, but the existance of other hellspawn is still well-known to most people in the Three Empires region.  Curiously, the birth of a hellspawn appears to be random and unpredictable, and what causes one to be born are mysterious.  Curiously, some even claim that one can be corrupted into this state from being human, although there are no such documented cases (with the possible exception of the semi-mythical Hutran Kutir, the founder of Baal Hamazi.)  Also called darklings, tieflings, teuflings, and diablings and other names besides, the hellspawn often have a difficult life, as they are often mistrusted.  This causes many of them to turn to a life of crime to support themselves--which perpetuates the cycle of mistrust.

There is no common physical appearance for non-hamazin hellspawn.  All look more or less human, but have some feature that sets them apart and serves as a sign of their infernal corruption--small horns, a thin tail, unusual skin tones, scales, a forked tongue, etc.  Hellspawn are not common in any part of the Three Empires setting, but are uncommon everywhere.  Many hamazin see them as long-lost cousins of a sort, or kindred spirits, but in reality, few hellspawn have much in common with the hamazin, having no history or link to powerful polities of the past, or thriving city-states of today.

• The Cavusto--or Kvuustu in their native language--are a Neanderthal-like race of ancient peoples who live in the far south on the high and windy Cavusto Plains.  In ancient times, they wandered as far noth as the southern shores of the Mezzovian Sea--which had a much lower sea level in the past, it is believed--but they never made their homes on the warmer northlands or the deserts.  The cavustos are slightly short, yet robustly built, with thick bones and thicker slabs of muscle.  Their faces are fairly easily recognizable, with large noses, sloping foreheads, pronounced brow ridges, weak chins and an occiptal "bun" at the base of their skull.  There are not very many cavustos relative to other peoples in the area, but some have served as mercenary units outside of their homelands for a time, returning with great wealth and prestige.

Cavusto hunter
The cavustos are amongst the most carnivorous of peoples--they don't farm at all (although they will eat plant material that is gathered) and they hunt extremely large and dangerous game on foot in the semi-wooded plains of their homeland--aurochs, musk oxen, bison, elk, moose and occasionally even mastodon or mammoth.  They claim that long ago, before "regular" humans came to the area, that it was cooler, and great sheets of ice covered the lands far to the south.  Their own lands were cold windy tundra in those days, and game included mammoths that were smaller and very hairy compared to today's nearly hairless, gray-skinned beasts.  Others find these legends of an "ice age" far in the past to be unbelievable and fanciful.  Nevertheless, it is true that the cavustos are more comfortable in cooler climates than others, and find the hot lands for to the north extremely uncomfortable.  Despite their mercenary tradition, few have served or visited in any capacity the lands north of Calça or the northern borders of Terrasan influence.  The existance of the cavusto amongst the lands of Baal Hamazi is nearly mythical.

In their own lands, they live semi-nomadic lives, hunting game in small family-oriented bands.  They don't have a proper nation, and their sense of belonging to a people beyond their small bands and their neighbors is somewhat slight, and is a recent innovation in their culture, no doubt borrowed from the vast, teeming multitudes of their neighbors.

LEGO by Traveller's Tales

Er... yeah.  Over a week since my last update, and still none of the promised regional summaries.

The good news is, I actually brought my list of regions to summarize today with me.  The bad news is... I've got a really busy day ahead of me, and whether or not I can break away from stuff that needs doing to post them is iffy.

So, I'll make a quicker update on an off-topic thought.  This Easter, we got LEGO Harry Potter Years 5-7 for my kids.  They were big fans of the earlier game... and in fact, big fans of the LEGO games by Traveller's Tales overall, starting with the original LEGO Star Wars.  Of the series, the only one that we're missing so far is Pirates of the Caribbean, and that's only because the kids have (surprisingly) shown little interest in that one.  Given its relatively cheap price now that it's a bit older (you can get it on Amazon easily for less than $20... including S&H), I may end up picking it up for them anyway, just because it amuses me to have the full set... plus, I'm sure the kids would play it.

I admit I've been a little out of the loop, though, and I didn't realize a few things.  First, that there's a LEGO Batman 2 coming out in about six weeks, which includes an expanded DC Universe cast of characters.  And although I knew that there was a LEGO Lord of the Rings line coming out later, I didn't realize that there was a LEGO Marvel Universe coming out, probably to piggy-back off of the predicted success of the Avengers movie.

Now here I have no idea, but are there going to be Traveller's Tales LEGO Lord of the Rings and Avengers games?  If so, I can easily see the latter being my kids' favorite of the TT LEGO games since the Star Wars titles.  And the former may well be the first that I buy for myself...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

DHH updates

Well, I've made the changes as advertised to my DARK•HERITAGE HACK system.  I've added optional (although not exactly recommended) rules for continuing advancement beyond 5th level, I've given each class four more talents to choose from, and I made a section of General talents, which can only be taken as cross-class talents, but they are available to anyone.

All said, a relatively minor update, based on material cribbed from Fictive's excellent expansion to the original Old School Hack rule-set.

Some of the new talents are probably not play-tested all that well.  In fact, just reading through them as I was borrowing them, I thought to myself that some of them are probably a bit too good, while others probably could use a little beefing up.  However, I've never been much of a fan of power-gaming and worrying too much about game balance.  Each individual GM will have to be the arbiter of any potential issues in play; with good players (like the kinds I prefer to play with) game balance isn't really an issue, because my players don't take advantage.  Most of these talents, even the potentially unbalanced ones, can be used to create a bunch of fun with the right players.

As always, feel free to be more activist about what you allow and don't in your own games, of course.

Monday, April 16, 2012

More hacking

Well, I had supposed (since I didn't know of anything else at the time) that when I was making my own DARK•HERITAGE HACK game, modded off of Kirin Robinson's Old School Hack--that I knew all about the entire Hack "family" of games.  After all, I also had a copy of Redbox Hack, the game that Kirin initially used as a baseline to design his game, and I also had a copy of Corey's Hack version of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND.  My own "hack" game was largely a hack of the three of them together, looking to maximize faithfulness to my setting with minimal interference with the rules.

Of course, I should have guessed that I was hardly the only person besides Corey to think of further refining the OSH rules to better serve my own setting.  Check out this handy link here for a lot of Old School Hack resources, including a greatly expanded version of OSH, with lots more classes (here called templates) for use, and a number of other optional rules (including Madness rules--so I wasn't original there either.)  Naturally, I've noticed that I could run DHH using just elements from his rules.  If OSH is meant to hearken back to the Redbox D&D (which it is), then this one could--maybe--be called the Advanced OSH--given that it includes a number of new rules that add somewhat to the complexity of the game, especially if they're all used.  I don't really need the complexity, but I do like the new options.  I need to spend more time looking over them to decide if I like his version of some of the classes better than mine.  It's entirely possible that I will!

Also, there's a number of adapted settings in there--Hyrule (the setting of the Zelda games) for instance, and The World Between, the setting for Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque (featured on my shortish blogroll) is also included (for the curious, that's where the Madness rules make their debut.)

So anyway... since I just discovered it, that's my announcement of the find for those curious.  Fun stuff.  I know everyone's on pins and needles to discover if (or how) this new material will affect my own hack of the rules, DHH.  Rest assured, I won't keep that groaning burden of suspense on you for long, and any ideas that I like and want to steal will be first posted in the comments section of this post, and then gradually adopted into the wiki document itself.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Filling in the corners

I was recently reviewing some of the information I have put together for the DARK•HERITAGE setting, and decided that I've got a problem.  It's not necessarily a really important problem, but it remains one nonetheless--I've really only developed a very few areas of the setting with any degree of detail, and most of the rest of the setting is nothing more than a name on a map.  This isn't to say that I think having the equivalent of the Forgotten Realms campaign bible is what I want to have, but I would like to have a small snippet of information about the major areas put on paper (or digitally, more likely) so that I have a starting point from which to launch further development into any area that I might wish.

And, as it turns out, another fella in the blogosphere has inadvertently given me the tools to do so.  Jack, of Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque (which is a very clever name, riffing off of the short story collection of Poe's) has been giving little snapshots of areas in his fantasy setting, The World Between.  I'm going to borrow and adapt his format a bit, giving each major area a precis statement, a couple of paragraphs of conspectus, and then a few historical, legendary, or well-known popular culture references to which that little area of the setting resembles. 

This way, I'll get a very bare-bones, yet complete high level summary of the setting out there in relatively short order (assuming I don't get distracted from the effort, of course.)

Other than that announcement of a series of posts which will start soon (unlikely to be today, however) here's another little tidbit:

I'm kind of a fan of linguistics.  I have been ever since first reading Lord of the Rings probably, but it is a discipline that I was already predisposed to find really fascinating.  Inspired by Tolkien's creation of artificial languages, many fantasy fans attempt to do something similar.  Of course, many fantasy fans (including myself, needless to say) lack the technical know-how to actually do this.  I've also come to believe that it isn't necessarily a good thing for audience engagement, anyway.  Names with some kind of cultural resonance with your players will be a lot easier to remember, and will also actually provide a convenient shorthand for the NPC--what culture they're from, and what it may be similar to, etc.  And frankly, other than names, what else do I really want my languages for, anyway?

So, I've mostly decided to use real world names, but with a twist.  For my Mediterranean-like culture, something that is similar to Spanish or Italian would work wonders, since that's the kind of cultural resonance I want to bring up in the minds of my players.  But actual Spanish and Italian names are almost a little bit too familiar.  So, I decided to go with names that are similar but not quite Spanish and Italian.  A lot of my names come from Catalan and Occitan namelists, actually, and when I can find name lists for other slightly more esoteric Mediterranean langages like Sardinian, Romagnol, Monagesque, Niçard, Friulian, etc.--well, I use them.  I've also got a substrate that needs to sound sufficiently foreign and "northerly" that I used Slavic and Viking names.  I've got another power in the east that Arabic or Persian in naming conventions.  And the Baal Hamazi uses ancient middle-eastern names--liberally borrowing from roll calls of the Pharoahs of ancient Egypt as well as king lists from Elam and Mitanni.

But sometimes I really do want to do something a little bit different.  While not exactly a "core" part of the setting, my nation of Kurushat was one of the earliest developed and mapped in some detail (it actually was developed independently of DARK•HERITAGE and was later imported as I decided that I was really only working on one setting after all.)  As the name might suggest, if you're reasonably well-read in pulp fiction, many of my early attempts to give it a suitable "ethnic flair" via the names attempted to sound like Leigh Brackett's Mars--the name itself was kinda sorta a combination of Sinharat and Kushat, cities visited by Eric John Starke in two of her best stories.  I quickly decided that I didn't have enough names to keep that up, and also that I didn't really have a talent for making up names on the fly without some kind of tool.

I had earlier creating a matrix where I could create names by... and all the gamers out there should appreciate this... rolling dice.  Basically, it works like this--the matrix is a 10x10 chart, so you roll 2d10 (preferrably of different colors, so one is the horizontal axis and one is the vertical axis.)  When you have your coordinates, you consult the chart, and that gives you a syllable.  You could also roll a 1d4 to find out how many syllables your name has before you start (although you probably have to manually adjust down the number of 1 and 4 results, since two and three syllable names sound better.)  Although this chart didn't exactly sound "Martian" I liked it and mixed in names from it as well.  It gives results that sound kinda a little bit Chinese, kinda a little bit Japanese and maybe kinda a little bit Algonquin.  It's a weird mix, but it works--because the names are recognizbly from the same "language" and they don't sound very  much like anything else in my setting.

I don't like to overuse this method, but it's worked very well to give me names in a kind of fringe area of the setting that makes it feel like it has a unique feel all it's own.

There's the chart itself, and here's a sample of some of the names.  Occasionally, I manually "massage" the results a little bit, if I get a name that sounds good, but not quite right, or something.  But mostly, I can just generate a dozen or so names just using the process, and get a good five or so useable ones.  The more you generate, the more you have to choose from, of course, freeing you to ignore results that just don't quite sound right.  Here's some sample names that this has generated: Sowedo, Thein, Komewan, Kumewak, Punuwan, Heiwasso, Geho, Kadu, Omei, Teiwa, Sutaka, Ha, Tuma, Nuo, Lukuwas, Keisa, Gudei, Lei, Hiwassu, Sawado, Todei, Nukassu, Alawasmu, Nawak.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Megafauna of Dark•Heritage

I've many times said that I love a good Pleistocene megafauna, and that (more or less) the North American Pleistocene megafauna is the wildlife that populates the DARK•HERITAGE setting.  This is a little bit of an unusual move for a fantasy book--where a Medieval European (with a few exceptions) megafauna is usually assumed.  It's perhaps more common in the micro-genre of anthropological fiction, which includes such books as the Gears' People of the Wolf or Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear--although I should point out that neither is really exactly what I'm doing.  (Wolf is the right time period--more or less--but too far north.  I'm doing sub-glacial North American Rancholabrean fauna.  Cave Bear is also the right time period--more or less--but wrong geography.)  However, as I said in a recent post, I've got to be careful about making that too important to the setting.  It's just a bit of color, flavor, and an opportunity for some adventure.

How so?  In three ways:

1) Nobody cares as much about this as me.  For that matter, few people know much of the details.  If I start trying to make meaningful distinctions between Bison bison, Bison antiquus and Bison latifrons, most likely that will go over any non-paleontology geek's head.  If I make a big distinction between Camelops and a dromedary camel, who will care?  If I start going on and on about the massive American lion and how different it is from other lions, chances are that nobody cares.  If I make a big deal about the differences between African elephants, Asian elephants and Columbian mammoths, I'll likely confuse everyone (after all, mammoth means woolly mammoth to most folks.)  For that matter, how exactly does anyone even imagine exactly what a stilt-legged llama is like?  By the way, check out the sketch here of Columbian mammoth (largest), African elephant (medium) and American mastodon for comparison. 
2) This isn't exactly North America anyway.  I don't have intermittent land bridges between fantasy Eurasia in the north and fantasy South America in the south, with faunal interchanges.  Combined with the "nobody cares that much" of 1), I can depart from a strict interpretation of a Rancholabrean NALMA without it being a big deal either to casual audiences, or even more strict ones.

3) It isn't unusual in fantasy series or settings to have some local flavor to real life animals.  In the Pathfinder setting, for example, there are white lions in Katapesh, and "fire panthers" in Varisia (which are really just rust-colored cougars.)  A few tweaks to the megafauna would therefore be fairly welcome.

So, what tweaks exactly am I thinking of?  First off, I'm disappointed that (other than a few New World monkeys in central America) there aren't any primates in the North American fauna.  I just went with my family to the Toledo Zoo recently and saw some François' langurs--pretty fun little monkeys, slightly larger than a house-cat, black-furred but with big white mutton chops, and a messy bit of spiked hair on its head.  Older editions of the DARK•HERITAGE setting did have cat-sized carnivorous monkeys underfoot, and I like the idea of adding several varieties of primate to the mix.  Not that DARK•HERITAGE has lots of jungle in it, but if I'm making up my own varieties of monkeys, I can assume that temperate versions of them exist.  For that matter, I also like savanna-dwelling Old World monkeys like baboons.  Packs of omnivorous red baboons, as big as mandrills (and maybe with similar facial markings) wandering the plains sounds like fun.

I also like some winged terrors.  The North American megafauna did have several varieties of condor and teratorns, but I've always really liked the carnivorous flying naked molerats from Peter Jackson's version of King Kong--they're kinda creepy and look pretty dangerous.  For that matter, although they would have been extinct by the time the Rancholabrean NALMA came around, some lingering fast-running terror birds are always cool, and one of the few scenes from the otherwise rather dull movie 10,000 BC that actually worked was the one where they had to hide in the bamboo from the terror birds.

The purpose of all this is to create an aura of excitement and danger, not to provide an ecological treatise on the fantasy setting.  If I think a small group of traveling mercenaries having to deal with thieving monkeys, hungry prides of black lions or red carnivorous baboons, or sabertooths, then awesome.  I'll do it.  I won't have to be limited to just "wolves" like I normally would in "generic" fantasy.

And that's it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Ramundet del Fraysse

Before I begin, let me make an aside--which will later be at least somewhat relevant.  Many players of D&D are big fans of metal.  I don't know how many times I've heard the assumption that D&D players are into Black Sabbath, Molly Hatchet, or more esoteric and poorly known metal bands.  I, however, am not.  When I got old enough to really pay attention to music, I became a New Wave fan.  New Wave, as we called it in the late 80s in pseudo-urban central Texas is slightly different than New Wave as the British music press used to use the label a few years earlier; for me, it mostly meant that I liked a lot of synthpop dance music.

In 1988 when the single "Chains of Love" was released, Erasure came to my attention.  You have to remember back then that there wasn't any internet to get more independent or underground acts to my attention, and since I was a teenager living in a relatively small town, I didn't really have much of any other venue (like happening night clubs, or anything) to get stuff other than word of mouth from fellow fans, or hearing a song on the radio and going and searching for the catalog of the artist.  I could occasionally get reception for more "New Wave" oriented stations out of Houson, which brought more to my attention than the Top 40 and Country (and Oldie) stations that were more local.  But "Chains of Love" was a Top 40 success, and in short order, I ran out and bought The Innocents on cassette tape.  I liked Erasure quite a bit, and got their (still fairly short, at that point) back catalog in short order--but not before picking up a CD player.  So I've always had Wonderland and The Circus on CD.  I also ended up getting The Two Ring Circus as a used CD not too long later.  And when it later came out, I got Wild!, Chorus and the next two albums beyond that on CD as well.

But that was an interesting time for me and music formats.  I also bought Crackers International when it came out, but I got that on cassette.  Sometimes I bought cassettes because I could buy them used really cheap (such is the case with Book of Love's Lullaby for instance.)  But sometimes I got them because you couldn't get everything you wanted on CD yet, and you couldn't listen to CDs just anywhere (it would be years still before I had a CD player in my car, and I had Walkmans for a long time before I had Discmans.)  Sometimes, though, I bought stuff in different formats because that's what it was available in.  I liked remixes, but  you still had to buy 12" singles in... well, on 12" vinyl.  I had actual 12" singles for "A Little Respect," and "Drama" and I had cassette maxi-singles for "Star" and "Blue Savanna."  Seeing that the future was CD, though, I managed to get "Chains of Love" on CD maxi-single, but those were fairly hard to find still in the early part of the late 80s.

And of course I was right; cassettes and vinyl became obsolete (in fact, although I still have some of both, I have no machine that will play either anymore.)  CDs that I bought nearly 25 years ago, on the other hand, still play as crisply as they did the day I walked out of the store with them.  As many people my age or thereabouts have done, I ended up having to rebuy much of my non-digital collection.  That, of course, has become easier now that you can download digital music from Amazon or iTunes (although I staunchly refuse to join the Apple cult myself.)

And the final point, other than to ramble about music that I like but which probably none of the readers of this blog do, I decided recently, after "rediscovering" some of my 80s CDs that I hadn't listened to in quite a while, that the CD format is kinda clunky after all for me.  I listen to a lot of my music these days on mp3 either through an mp3 player or through my phone.  I do, however, refuse to load entire albums on either (most of the time) and because my car (where I listen to 90% of my music nowadays) has the capability of playing back mp3s off of a data CD-R, I decided to archive my entire run of Erasure music on a single CD-R.  I couldn't have done this, of course, if I didn't make a few sacrifices.  I was able to get all of the actual album CDs ripped and archived with no problem.  I had to rebuy Crackers International as an mp3 download from Amazon.  And I cherry-picked remixes that I liked from my 12"s and maxis also as Amazon mp3 downloads.  I took off the live songs from The Two Ring Circus and left off a bunch of remixes that I didn't like and all of the b-sides (none of which particularly appealed to me, so I wasn't missing much.)  When I did this, and ripped it all at 192 kbps, I found that it almost perfectly fit on a standard 700 Mb CD-R.  I may have had room to fit 4-5 more tracks, but what tracks would I have bothered with?

The point of all this rambling is that for music fans, the last few decades have been ones of tremendous technology change that radically redefined how we listen to music, and just with my collection of one artist has me touching no less than 4-5 formats (I completely skipped 8-track tapes, though.)  Because I just made this Erasure archive on CD-R (which includes, for anyone curious, 12 folders--1) Wonderland, 2) Remixes (from the 2003 "Oh l'Amour" re-release on CD), 3) The Circus, 4) The Two Ring Circus (minus the live tracks), 5) The Innocents, 6) Remixes of "A Little Respect" and "Chains of Love", 7) Crackers International, 8) Wild!, 9) Remixes of "Drama" and "Blue Savanna", 10) Chorus, 11) I Say, I Say, I Say and 12) Erasure.  Nearly 150 songs in total.) I've been thinking about this concept a bit, and the rapid technology changes that have overcome my music collecting hobby.  And it occured to me... what if there was some innovator, a prodigy if you will, who did the same for magic in DARK•HERITAGE?

You have to remember that in DARK•HERITAGE magic isn't friendly.  There aren't any friendly wizards like Gandalf or Merlin or Belgarath or Fizban or whomever is familiar to you from high fantasy fiction you may have read.  It's also not neutral and utilitarian, like it is in most D&D settings.  Magic is fundamentally unnatural and almost Lovecraftian--anyone who uses it is already suspect to begin with, at best, and wildly dangerous and inimical to life as we know it at worst.  And like in Lovecraftian magic, advances in the art have come in fits and spurts, with devastating setbacks much more likely than advances.  And even if someone does make an advance, they are unlikely to share their work with others, so the art as a whole remains largely stagnant.  Seminal works like the Book of the Black Prince, Prophecies of the Daemon-sultan, The Pnakotic Manuscripts, The Book of Eibon, Cultes des Goules, the Eltdown Shards, The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Inexprimabiles Cultes and a few others make up the body of work on which most sorcerers today base their art.

However, there's a legendary Terrasan sorcerer, who spent time in Tarush Noptii, Simashki, and supposedly traveled into the Forbidden Lands themselves, crossing the Veil of Pnath and walked the desolate and nearly silent streets of Ib, sandwiched on the shores between Tarqan Lake and the slopes of the Plateau of Leng.  This sorcerer, Ramundet del Fraysse, did more with magic than probably anyone before or since, and is rumored to have wielded nearly god-like powers, beyond the understanding of even the most potent practitioner today.  He disappeared about eighty years ago mysteriously; supposedly having transcended his humanity entirely and passed into a higher state of being through his sorcery.

Ramundet del Fraysse
Stories are also told (and suppressed) of how del Fraysse held off and eventually annihilated an entire legion of soldiers and inquisitors sent by Count Varazze, and how the entire town of Spotorno della Cima was destroyed; every single inhabitant's soul stolen to fuel a diabolical ritual.  Even today, the location--even the very existance--of Spotorno is denied and surpressed.  Be that as it may, the memory of the common people persists, and rumors of del Fraysse and his nefarious deeds remain a popular bogey-man type story told in taverns and around camp fires throughout the Terrasan region and beyond.

Despite his stature as a figure of semi-legendry, the real story about del Fraysse is not his accomplishments is the persistant rumor that his notes and journals yet survive, sequestered in some secret location.  Not only do unscrupulous treasure seekers thus scour places he is rumored to have dwelt for a time, committing no small amount of skullduggery pursuing little more than the thinnest of rumors, but even more dangerously, those who aspire to follow in his footsteps are also seeking this secret cache of arcane riches.  If even a small portion of the rumors of the power del Fraysse was able to research are true, then that information in the wrong hands could be devastating.  And frankly, anyone who would want that information is--by definition--the wrong hands.